I spent a day last week Fence Judging at an Event. I was on my own and was given a reassuringly boring and easy fence, fence 2. In fact, it was a fascinating fence to judge. It was an ascending spread, so, technically, the easiest type of obstacle for a horse to gauge and jump. I watched, probably, a couple of hundred over it, first in the Intermediate, then the Advanced, then the smaller fence beside it for the Novice. There were a few stuttery jumps, a few hit it, but no penalties all day. Easy peasy.
Of course, most of the riders rode it really nicely. Loads of Amateurs rode it as beautifully as some of the Pros. Some of the Pros rode it as indecisively as some of the Amateurs!
Of all the riders over it, only two looked absolutely terrified. Both of them were eliminated further around the course, not surprising really. I’m not talking ‘concentrating’, or ‘momentarily concerned because the horse is a bit strong/wobbly/spooky etc’, but an expression of absolute terror. Very odd.
It’s just not that kind of sport – you might be able to fool everyone around you, but you can’t fool the living, breathing, feeling, thinking thing you’re sitting on! “Fear goes down the reins”, as they say. I really have no idea why anyone would put themselves (and their horse) through this if they don’t absolutely love it!
Among those who looked anxious, but not terrified, there was a definite pattern. As they approached, they pulled the reins, pretty hard, on every stride, all the way up to and including the take-off point (these horses didn’t look like runaways either, I can totally understand taking a few pulls if the horse is tanking into the fence with you!) When the horse obligingly slowed right down, and got there with less impetus than ideal (the Int/Adv fence was pretty wide), they then gave it a slap down the shoulder with the whip on take-off. That looked rather like punishing the horse for doing exactly what they told it to do?!
I don’t profess to be an expert, but enough trainers who are have told me that if I want a horse to go forward, to use my legs and, if that doesn’t work, to use the whip behind the leg, to drive the horse forward away from the whip. I can see the point of tapping a horse down the shoulder if it veers off its line, or if you don’t trust it to a corner, or skinny, perhaps, if it likes to run-out to one side, but I can’t see the point of hitting a horse down the shoulder as a last-second attempt to make it go forward?! None of them looked as if they had a thought of stopping, and it wasn’t a spooky fence at all. Two of the horses ridden this way hit the fence pretty hard with their back legs, not quite making it across the spread cleanly due to the hesitant approach.
“Aids”, when used like this, just hinder the horses in doing their job. They don’t ‘aid’ it at all. The horses would have jumped the fence far more easily if they’d been loose-jumping! It really made me think, and I’ll be more alert from now on, trying to make sure that I’m always at the very least just neutral, at best a helpful passenger, and hopefully never a hindrance to my horse!