The Riding School: ‘Jumping’ as a teaching tool

An old photograph reminds The Riding Instructor of how she learned to jump, which she then compares to her own method for introducing students to over-fences work.

From The Riding Instructor:

One of my most treasured souvenirs of my riding career is a picture that must have been taken by my father at a summer camp horse show.  I’m a pretty little peanut at this point, probably around seven years old–my legs don’t really come off the saddle–dressed for the occasion in my rubber boots, a pair of bright green sweatpants (I didn’t actually own breeches yet and the elastic cuff kept them down in my boots) and a white tank top, long braids flying in the air from under my harness-less hunt cap.

My position looks great: heels down, eyes up, back flat.  But the two things that make it remarkable to me are the size of the horse and the size of the jump.  The horse (his name was The Judge) is at least 16.2 and I’m cruising over a pair of cavelletti stacked on top of each other, so at least 2’-2’6”.  And this is at the barn day camp, before I even really started taking regular lessons.  I look back as an instructor and wonder how this ever came to be.  Did they just tell me to grab mane?  Was The Judge just a saint?

Because now, I can’t imagine having my own students do what I was so blithely encouraged to do, even though it apparently had no ill effects.  I am very conservative when it comes to work over fences.  I’m perfectly happy to start the kids out “jumping” early in their riding careers, but I’m talking crossrails so small that they are really just glorified trotting poles.  Then it takes me forever to move the kids beyond the crossrail level.  This is largely because you don’t need a real jump to learn almost everything about jumping; turns, pace, lead changes (simple and flying), position, finding a distance–all of these things are pretty much the same whether the jump is 8” or 2’6” or 3’6”.  And learning these things over the little crossrails is so much easier on the school horses, who only have so many jumps to give.  To keep my students happy with the itty bitty fences, I encourage the kids to be empathetic with the school horses, cultivating a consideration for the well-being of the horse that will serve them well as life-long horsepeople.

But I also know that no student, no matter how conscientiously taught, goes home and can’t wait to share at the dinner table (or on Facebook) that “they rode a perfect corner today.”  Kids are much more concrete than that; they want the milestones.  So while I mostly keep the jumps low, even with the most advanced students, every once in a while I’ll give them a little something more: a bigger vertical out of a gymnastic, a chance to jump “the gate” (the fanciest show jump we have), a square oxer whose width gives them the feeling of flying that they are looking for.

I document the kids’ work over fences as much as I can; the rise of camera phones and Youtube have made it possible for the students to look back at these wonderful moments. Hopefully, in the years to come, once they have noted the size of the fence, they will also notice how round the corner was, how straight the line, how graceful the landing, so they’ll look back at these rides and appreciate their firm grounding in the basics, instead of, like me, looking back and wondering how on earth they even let me near that jump.

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