Straightness – or a lack thereof – is the biggest culprit where knocking fences is concerned. A straight horse will approach a fence firing equally from both hindlegs, which means that he’ll leave the ground with an equal amount of energy, power and balance on each side of his body. This means that he’ll be able to jump cleanly without leaving a leg. A crooked horse, on the other hand, comes into the jump unbalanced and offset, often running through one shoulder, which means he’ll tackle the fence at an awkward angle or from an incorrect distance and, unless he’s very lucky or athletic, he’ll bring the fence down. Luckily, straightness is something that you can improve with every ride, both on the flat and over fences.
Focus on the flat
My horses do a lot of flatwork to help them to be straighter and more responsive to my aids. The main thing I aim for in these sessions is for the horse to be moving away from my leg, rather than being reliant on my hand. Incorporating simple lateral work, such as leg-yield, is a great way to fine-tune your horse’s reactions to pressure, and also teach him the difference between true straightness and bend.
Many riders go wrong because they rely too much on their inside rein. Asking for flexion with your inside rein might make it seem as though your horse is loosening up through his body, but it’s a false bend that doesn’t extend further back than his withers and causes him to drift out through his outside shoulder. Instead, bend should come from your leg aids. Ask for a turn with your outside leg, almost asking him to counter-bend – this will help him to straighten up onto his shoulder and, as a result, he’ll be connected between your hand and your leg.
When you’re in the ring, one of the most common places to lose straightness and, as a result, have a pole down is in a related distance, where there’s enough strides between two fences for you to become complacent and for your horse to start wiggling down the line. This often happens because your horse has fallen onto his forehand and is no longer sitting on his hindleg. This exercise is a simple way to fine-tune your horse’s straightness and encourage him to aim for the middle of each fence.
How to ride it: Start with the fences small – no bigger than cavaletti – and approach in a balanced, active canter. Jump down the line, allowing the V-poles to guide you to the middle of the fences. This exercise will help you to feel which side your horse is inclined to fall out to and will also help you to identify if you’re uneven in the saddle.
Once you’ve identified which side your horse falls out to, block the sideways movement of his shoulder by asking for a slight counter-bend. For example, if he bulges through his left shoulder as you turn to the fence on the right rein, straighten him with your left rein and left leg, while supporting him with your right leg. You should also carry your whip on the side that he tends to fall out to, as this will encourage him to stay straight.
If your horse has mastered the first exercise, you can up the ante and test his straightness by decreasing the width of the fences. This exercise will flag up any lingering straightness issues and teach you to be able to feel when you’re both straight, as you’ll only get a good jump over the second fence if you maintain your line throughout.
How to ride it: You need to make sure you keep your horse between your hand and leg the whole way through this exercise. If you’ve got control of his shoulders, then you’ll be able to stop him drifting out. The trick to this is to turn using your outside aids – so if you come onto the line on the right rein, for example, you should use your left leg and a supporting left rein to turn him, rather than tugging on your inside rein to turn.
To discover more of Daniel’s tips for riding a clear round every time, pick up the July issue of Horse&Rider, on sale 1 June 2017.