Improving Your Horse’s Technique

In this excerpt from Stride Control by Jen Marsden Hamilton, Jen describes some key factors to improve your horse’s shape over the jumps.

Once the horse can jump individual jumps, gymnastics can improve the horse’s technique. Gymnastic exercises are an essential part of both the rider’s and horse’s education. They are also the most effective way to incorporate collection into jumping. 

By definition, a gymnastic exercise is a series of ground poles or jumps set up in a row. The type and the height of the jumps, as well as the distances between the jumps, vary according to the skill being taught or refreshed. Gymnastics allow new skills to be taught more easily because of continued repetition of the same exercise. 

The highest point of the horse’s bascule (arc) should be over the highest point of the jump. In theory, the horse’s body should form a perfect arc over the jump. Unfortunately, not all horses know the theory nor do they conform to our ideal. But fortunately, with planned and progressive training on the flat and over jumps, we can improve and develop the horse’s jumping technique.


In theory, the horse’s body should form a perfect arc over the jump. The highest point of the horse’s arc should be directly over the highest point of the jump. 


The horse’s shape (how he uses his body) over the jump is the direct result of three things: 
• The type of jump (vertical, oxer, triple bar). 
• The ride to the jump (balance, rhythm, straightness, and pace). 
• The rider’s position

Benefits of Gymnastic Exercises 

Gymnastic exercises are good for both riders and horses. Once the horse understands the gymnastic exercise, he will find the correct distance (takeoff point), as long as it is an appropriate exercise and it is measured correctly. The related distances allow the rider to focus on position. And the horse and rider can jump bigger jumps without fear of having to get the striding correct. 

Gymnastic Exercises Promote: 

• A forward, calm, and straight canter. 
• Confidence in both rider and horse. 
• Correctness of the rider’s position and horse’s technique over the jump. 
• The horse’s agility, straightness, and strength. 

The gymnastic I use the most is what I call the “Cookbook Gymnastic.” It is simple to build, doesn’t require much equipment, and is non-threatening to both rider and horse. Build gymnastics progressively. 

The Cookbook Gymnastic 

For horses, place three trotting poles at a comfortable distance for the horse’s stride (approximately 4½ feet apart). At a distance of 9 feet from the last trot pole, build a cross-rail, then set up a vertical 18 feet from the cross-rail. The last jump is an oxer built between 19 and 21 feet from the vertical. The gymnastic should be set at a height so both the rider and horse feel comfortable and non-threatened. 

For ponies, remove the trotting poles and canter into the gymnastic. 


Trot forward and straight, maintaining a calm rhythm over the ground poles. Beginner or less confident riders should ride the poles in a two-point position. More experienced riders can ride the poles in a rising trot. The eyes should always be looking forward and straight—with conviction! 

Once in the gymnastic, the horse will jump the cross-rail, take one stride to the vertical, and then one stride to the oxer. Maintain your position and a soft release, following the motion and allowing the horse to use his body over the jumps. 

When both rider and horse are relaxed, the Cookbook Gymnastic is an excellent exercise to work on: 

• Establishing rider confidence. 
• Promoting correct rider position. 
• Teaching “eye control.” 
• Practicing the jumping releases (mane, crest, and automatic) 
• Improving the horse’s canter by establishing a rhythm. 
• Helping to promote trust between horse and rider. 
• Teaching the horse jumping technique. 
• Teaching the horse that the jump takes over from the rider’s hand (the horse learns to balance 


• When setting gymnastics use a tape measure to ensure the distances are correct. Being off by a little bit can make a big difference. 

• Practice new skills and refine old skills with gymnastics. They can also help salvage horses or riders who have lost confidence. 

• The rider’s leg gets the horse to the jump. The rider’s hand, softening, allows the horse to jump. 

• It is a good idea to place guide poles on either end of the jump rails to encourage your horse to stay straight and to jump in the middle. If your horse insists on drifting off the line through the gymnastic, move one of the guide poles closer to the center, and use an open rein to guide him back to the track. 

• When your horse is getting quick or doesn’t begin to collect (shorten) his stride, place ground poles in the middle of the 18-foot and 21-foot distances. These poles will teach the horse to slow down and start to collect. 

• As explained in previous chapters, you must ride forward and straight away from the last jump. Ride your recovery time correctly every time, and complete the exercise with a straight and correct downward transition. 

JEN MARSDEN HAMILTON is an internationally renowned equestrian coach. Based in Canada, she travels throughout Canada, the USA, New Zealand, Australia and Kenya training horses and riders. For over 45 years Jen has combined her Bachelor of Education (Acadia University) with the most current coaching and equestrian training to nurture the next generation of star athletes. Jen developed and wrote the National Coaching Certification Program’s (NCCP) Canada, Level III — Jumper. As a rider, Jen gained valuable experience that informs her coaching today. She placed fourth in both, the American Horse Show Association’s Medal Finals and the Alfred B. Maclay Hunter Seat Equitation Finals at Madison Square Garden. Riding Wee Geordie she reached new heights in puissance classes, jumping six feet and higher. She also holds the distinction of being George H. Morris’ first student when he started his career as a professional horseman in 1963. In 1975 Jen was the Martini and Rossi Canadian Horsewoman of the Year. As a coach, Jen has been recognized for her dedication with the Canadian Coaching Association’s “Year of the Coach” Coaching Award in 1988, the 3M Coaching Canada Award for Coaching Excellence in 1996. She has also represented her country as a coach to young Canadian riders at international team competitions throughout North and South America. 

This excerpt from Stride Control by Jen Marsden Hamilton is reprinted with permission from  Trafalgar Square Books 

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