Masterclass: jumping balance and technique

Jumping coach Kirstin Kelly helps a rider work on improving the balance and technique with her exuberant young warmblood. Images by Kimi Knight

For this Masterclass, our trainer Kirstin Kelly is helping Auckland university student Shannon Harvey with her 16.2hh six-year-old Carbonado (‘Fletcher’), a warmblood-cross by Corlando. He hasn’t done a lot of jumping, and at the time Shannon was aiming him at 80cm classes.

  1. A better balance: lighter contact

Kirstin explains that the major focus with Fletcher over the past few months has been getting him in a better balance before he was able to start jumping. “He was super-unbalanced and just wanted to sit on the contact all the time,” she says. 

Because Fletcher has a tendency to run forward and lean on the reins, rather than sitting on his hind end, Kirstin gets Shannon to do a lot of shortening and lengthening the stride. She wants Shannon to do this purely by using her core muscles.

“As you’re trotting around, think about keeping your belly button up, rather than sitting deeper in the saddle. This helps you grow taller and keeps your chest up, which then keeps your core engaged. It also encourages you to rise up through your hips, rather than pushing your hips forward and thrusting, which creates a bit of a running trot. We want the horse to be active behind, but trotting up through the wither.”

In the downward transition from trot to walk, Kirstin tells Shannon to brace through her obliques to slow down, rather than using her reins.Then when she goes back up into trot, Fletcher stays in a nice contact. “You want him to be in self-carriage, so it feels like you’re only carrying the weight of the bit, not all his weight on your hands,” she says.

Kirstin gets Shannon to play around with the trot, opening it up softly for five or six strides. The goal is to be able to ride forward without Fletcher getting heavier and grabbing the bit. “We’d love for this trot to become bigger, but it’s got to stay up and forward through the poll,” she explains. When Shannon half-halts to bring him back again afterwards, Kirstin tells her to ‘pulse-pulse’ on the outside rein and brace through her core. It’s important to release the rein pressure again afterwards, and offer the horse a nice, light contact, she says. “Don’t just hold when he gets strong because he will grab the bit and hold forever. It’s got to be a little pulse and then lighten.”

Kirstin warns Shannon not to let Fletcher get too low and roll up behind the contact. She wants Shannon to have more of a feeling that Fletcher’s ears are pricked and he’s looking where he is going, rather than curling up. “When he gets behind the vertical, he gets heavy. Remember, if the poll goes lower than the withers, the horse is going to be on the forehand. We want him to take his head up and forward through the poll.”

The forward and back exercise is repeated in the canter. Kirstin reminds Shannon to stay soft through her elbows. “Feel like your elbows slide back and forth. That’s so important when you’re trying to teach your horse self-carriage,” she says.

When she comes back to the trot, Shannon should again ask only by bracing her core. “So he’s always listening to those aids, rather than the hand. If he goes low and heavy, give the rein a little shake, to say to him come on, lighten up, I don’t want you to sit on the contact. Sometimes there’s no pretty way to do it, you have to sacrifice a couple of strides.”

After playing with the canter, it’s time for a complete long rein break for Fletcher. “Let him blob out and get as low as he likes. It’s important to remember that although he is so much better now than he used to be, he still finds this hard work. Let him have a little rest so he can stretch and relax those muscles in between.”

2. Getting the shoulders up: a transition exercise

Shannon finds Fletcher’s canter is more difficult on the right rein. Kirstin says he is definitely stronger and faster in this direction and so she gets Shannon to ride some canter-walk and walk-canter transitions. “When you want to make the walk-canter transition, it’s that feeling of rolling your inside seatbone under and using the inside leg to pop up into canter,” explains Kirstin.

At this stage, the transitions are a bit progressive, with a few trot steps in between, but the exercise still helps Fletcher to sit more behind and lift the weight off his shoulders. After a few of these, Kirstin is pleased that the horse has a much softer look through his mouth and front feet.

“All these flatwork exercises are about trying to get him to sit on his bum and keep the front end up. Because when he canters down to the fence and gets strong his shoulders are blocked and his front legs are more dangly.”

Another good exercise that they have used a lot with Fletcher is halt-trot transitions, says Kirstin.

“When you ride from halt to trot, you have to lift through your centre and think uphill, which creates elevation in the first two steps,” she explains. “It’s the same with walk to canter. You get the feeling that the horse is propelling up, not forward, which is what this horse struggled with. So those halt-trot, canter-walk and walk-canter transitions really make the horse anticipate that he’s going to sit and remind him to stay up through the shoulders.”

3. A favourite exercise: Trotting the vertical

Kirstin has set up one of her favourite exercises to start, which consists of trotting to a fence with a placing pole set 2.5m away. She begins with a small cross, but gradually builds the fence into a decent-sized vertical.

Kirstin says Fletcher’s weakness is that he gets a bit dangly with his front legs when he jumps. She explains that although this exercise doesn’t really teach him to be snappier with his front legs, it does take all the speed away by approaching in trot and encourages him to sit behind and pull his shoulders up. Once the horse has the weight off the shoulders, then Shannon can work on making the front legs sharper and tighter, says Kirstin.

“This is really the only jumping exercise I do from the trot. Generally I like to do everything in the canter, but I start with this because there is no speed, which keeps the horse calm and methodical in his thoughts, and it really gets the weight off the shoulders.”

The first time through, Fletcher grabs the bit and tries to run off on landing. Kirstin gets Shannon to ride away in a straight line and halt, before releasing the pressure and giving him her horse a pat. “It’s just reminding him that when he jumps the fence, he comes back to you, you lighten the hand and continue.”

The next time Fletcher pops in a stride of canter on the approach and Kirstin notes that he looks a little explosive today. She tells Shannon to count to him: ‘1, 2, 1, 2’ on the approach, to help him keep the rhythm. However, she should only count every second beat – either every time she rises, or just when she sits – which will discourage Fletcher from getting too quick.

After repeating this exercise a few times, Kirstin is happy that Fletcher is staying in a more rhythmical trot and starting to pull his shoulders up.

“You can see he’s still not sharp enough with his front legs, but at least now we’ve got a feeling that the wither is coming up,” she notes.

“It’s tricky, because when horses are green and young, you want them in a soft frame and don’t usually ride them up. But because this horse was so on the forehand and very strong, he would be quite quick to the fence all the time. It’s not mental for him – it’s physical. He finds it very hard to stay off the forehand, so if he does get a bit overexcited, he becomes a bit heavy.”

4. The tune-up double

Kirstin has set up another of her favourite exercises for Shannon and Fletcher, which she calls ‘the tune-up’ double. The distance is 6.5m, which is a short one-stride. The first element always stays small, while the second fence is built up large with a nice chunky ground pole to help the horse. “This really sits the horse on their bum, as they have to get in there and shorten the stride and rock the weight back,” she explains. 

The double is approached in canter, and Kirstin wants Shannon to count out loud six strides from the fence. This will help her keep the rhythm, and it also trains the rider’s eye for a distance. “If you’re trying to guess when you’re six strides away from the fence, it gets you a bit more on the ball mentally and helps get your eye warmed up for when you have to start cantering to some other fences,” she says. 

Fletcher is quite fiery on the landing side today and Kirstin knows from experience that the horse usually settles more quickly if Shannon keeps cantering in a circle, rather than halting on the landing side.

Kirstin notices that Shannon is sliding off the side of Fletcher’s neck and tells her to put her hand to the crest. Shannon confesses that her mum has covered Fletcher in ShowSheen, which is causing her to slip!

“We’ve all done that,” laughs Kirstin. “And you know, it’s better to find out today than at a show – never put ShowSheen on the neck and mane. I think I did it once at a big show; I remember I was terrified!”

5. Spotlight on position 

Kirstin says that because Fletcher has a tendency to pull, sometimes Shannon grips with her knee. “I want her to soften her knee and allow her hip to stay open, so she can hug him around his belly a little more,” she observes. 

“She also needs to keep her belly button up, so she doesn’t get pulled forward onto the forehand. Sometimes this horse jumps high rather than snapping his forelegs up, which rocks Shannon around a lot. It’s really important that she keeps her chin up and her core engaged so she has strength mid-flight and doesn’t get bucketed around.

“And finally, it’s about trying to get that feeling with the contact where she is having a conversation with him, rather than just giving him a platform to lean on.”

6. Rocking back off the fence: The high-armed cross

Because Fletcher hasn’t jumped in a few weeks, he’s a little over-exuberant and charging at the fences today, notes Kirstin. She has an exercise up her sleeve to help, and builds the second fence of the double into a high-armed cross. 

“If you have a horse that is barrelling into the fences or you just want to sharpen it up a little bit, this is a nice way to do it,” she explains.

Fletcher has done this exercise before, so she is able to make the cross quite big and steep. However, if your horse hasn’t seen this, you would want to build the arms up quite slowly. A fence like this should also have a nice soft ground pole, to help the horse, says Kirstin.

The cross fence immediately has the desired effect and Fletcher jumps straight up in the air, rather than propelling forward.

Kirstin then adds a couple more fences in after the double, getting Shannon to make a left-hand turn to an oxer, then a right-hand turn to a vertical. Fletcher is still playing around between the fences, so Kirstin turns all the fences into high-armed crosses.

“This is to teach him that he needs to respect the fence, because I don’t want Shannon having to come in and use her hand. If you’ve got a horse like him that is on the forehand and gets a bit charge-y at the beginning of the season when they first come into work, this is an ideal way to have all your fences set up. The horse will come to every fence and naturally rock back, rather than you having to pull him back to the distance,” she says.

With the fences set up like this, Shannon starts to have a much easier ride. Although Fletcher still gets the odd awkward jump, he’s no longer dragging her down to the fences, points out Kirstin. “It’s a step in the right direction – now we’ve got something that’s sorting it. The good thing about this horse is he’s really arrogant, so he always thinks he’s right! And even when he gets you into trouble, he says, ‘I can fix that’.”

Overall, Kirstin is pleased with how Fletcher is jumping at the end of the lesson, considering he hasn’t jumped for three weeks. “We know that when he hasn’t jumped for a while he is tank-y and excitable. I think his mind was pretty good today, but he just wanted to be a bit of a thug. When we put all of the exercises up, Shannon could be softer and he really let go behind and jumped up in the air. He will probably come out in two days’ time and jump perfectly.”

Kirstin on…finding the right exercise 

Sometimes a very good rider will be able to get on a horse and just fix it, but for most people it’s easier to use an exercise to sort out a problem. For example, with this horse, when he started to get on his face in the canter, we went walk-canter-walk and that made it very clear-cut to him that we wanted him to rock back. If we had just kept cantering around, the canter wouldn’t have gotten any better and both horse and rider would be frustrated. You’ve got to think laterally how to fix a problem.

I’ve had such a variety of horses, which has given me a big toolbox of solutions.There are hundreds of exercises you can do on a horse, and they are all for a reason. You shouldn’t get on a horse and just ride circles; think about shortening and lengthening the stride, flexing and riding different shapes to get the result you want. 

I like to keep riders inspired with lots of things they can do to keep their horse interested, rather than just thinking that they have to ride better, because there is always an exercise to help. That was the idea behind my YouTube channel, Kirstin Kelly Equestrian. There are about 60 videos on there, which gives riders much more knowledge at their disposal in between lessons. If you’re sitting on your horse and it’s pulling like a train, you can quickly go on YouTube and find a solution.

This horse is a little unorthodox, but it doesn’t mean he isn’t going to be a good horse. He tries really hard to be clean and you can train up the front end. It’s just constantly working on exercises to encourage him to be in self-carriage, so he doesn’t brace and get too low. 

At least now we’ve got some tricks so that when he does get tank-y and his legs are all akimbo, we can do something to get him in the air. We can put up the tune-up double and the high-armed Xs and have a session where he is not allowed to barrel through the distance all the time. Then Shannon can roll around the corner and ride to the fence without him being too strong, and he naturally rocks back. 

  • This article was first published in the October 2019 issue of NZ Horse & Pony