Making the Small Stuff Fun

I’ve mentioned on multiple occasions that we don’t school Francis at heights over 3′ too often, preferring to work on our skills at a lower height. This is mainly to ensure that we’re not putting too much impact on his joints too often, but it also has the benefit of really tuning him in to my aids.

The reason for that is because left to his own devices, Frankie doesn’t care about jumps below 3’ish. He can trot those. He. Does. Not. Care. You can put him on the buckle and kick him at them and he will take a slightly-glorified canter stride over. And for lower levels of skill and fitness, this is totally fine. For a school horse this is desirable even. Let him take care of the smaller stuff so that his rider can focus on her own skills.

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Back in the first few months of owning him, sans stirrups and letting him just take the wheel so I could work on me. Not the end of the world, but we’re not really helping him develop.

But in that scenario, he’s also not really learning to use his body over the jumps and he’s not building his fitness at all. He’s just cantering. It doesn’t do much for his attention span or his muscles.

So something that we’ve worked on extensively is making him care about the small jumps. When we trot a crossrail, he must carry me to it and then away without lurching half-heartedly over it (have I mentioned lately how much I hate trot jumps??). When we canter small verticals, he must listen when I place him at the base, and he must pick his feet up. Once he’s fired up and moving, he must STILL compress when I ask so that he can jump well.

He must care about the small jumps just as much as he cares about the big jumps, or else the skills we’re working on won’t transfer as smoothly.

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The angle makes this look bigger than it was. He had a lovely bouncy canter going in, he had lovely freedom of motion over the jump, and he had a lovely forward canter away- even though this is still trot-able height for him.

This did not come naturally at first to Francis as I mentioned, and it’s still something that I have to be conscious of every ride. It requires a solid squeeze off the ground to support him and let him know that I’m still active so he must be too.

I’ve found that the benefits of this are entirely worth it. They include (but are not limited to):

  • Keeping him tuned into me at all times. There is no such thing as being left to his own devices. He learns that the answer is always ALWAYS to check in with his pilot. This majorly helps his rideability and sensitivity on the flat and over fences.
  • Building hind-end strength. At the lower heights, I will pretty much always ask him to fit the stride in to the base. This requires him to power off the ground even for lower jumps.
  • Developing the jumper chip. Much as there is a hunter gap, there is also a jumper chip that we like. Practicing that at the lower heights helps him build the muscle and the memory to aim for that spot as the fences go up. He jumps much more cleanly and carefully from that close spot, so this helps him develop the ability to carry himself powerfully from there.
  • By using his body properly, we can practice everything at a lower height in a way that translates directly to the bigger heights. Our canter, our takeoff, our landing are all the same- the only change is how much time we spend in the air. We don’t need to revisit our stride power and stride length as the jumps go up as much, since we’re already working on that. This makes it that much easier to raise the jumps since he already has the tools he needs.

This is something I only started working on with him after a year or so of getting to know each other. It’s never something that I even considered as a problem- I thought that “he just doesn’t care about the small jumps!” was a positive and never thought to address it. Now that we’ve learned toย make him care about the small jumps, I can recognize how much it’s helped us in so many aspects of our riding, while having the benefit of better preserving his joints.

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Not to mention that this careful work has helped him develop muscles in allll the right places.ย  PC- Liz Stout Photography

We’ll likely spend a good amount of time at some lower heights as we both get our sea legs back, but we’ll definitely be working hard at it!

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