When you’re looking for a new car, do you examine the crash test ratings? How about the handling information? Would you buy a car with a reputation for hitting the ditch in situations where the average Volvo would barely swerve?
Obviously not everyone considers such statistics of vital importance – hence the popularity of vintage sports cars! But if you were buying a car for a novice driver (or you’re just the sort of person who didn’t want to end up in a ditch) you’d likely steer clear of an unnecessary risk.
Which is why I think jumping form should be a major consideration when buying an event horse, far more so than for a showjumper, and why riders concerned about their horses’ form should do what they can to improve the situation.
The scariest falls, we all seem to agree, are rotational ones. They almost always happen because the horse hits the fence with its forearm or chest, leaving the knee(s) on the take off side while the body continues on . . .*shudder*. So getting the knees over the fence safely would seem to be one of the most important factors in getting the whole works over, still standing up and going forwards.
The most important aspect of jumping form, as it relates to xc safety is how the horse uses its front end. Ideally the forearm should come consistently above the horizontal, with the cannons folded neatly. It’s not necessary to have a freakishly tight jumper for xc and in fact horses that jump like that out of an extreme desire to jump clean may not be cut out for a job that occasionally involves a little “jumping by braille” and a more lassiez faire attitude to a knock now and then. A horse that’s a little loose below the knee, especially over smaller fences, will likely tighten up over something larger and even if it doesn’t, the cannon bone might sustain a knock but will likely swing up and back, absorbing much of the force without stopping the front end cold. Also, horses that are “quick with their front ends” are obviously at an advantage if they get a little too close, or slip or otherwise have to make a last minute correction. The leg is also in a much better position in the air to go “down and out” easily, providing a stable emergency landing if necessary.
Horses that jump with their knees consistently pointing down/forearms below the horizontal would seem, just judging from basic physics, to run a greater risk of “leaving a leg” if they get too close to the fence and don’t have time to get their knees up or, for whatever reason, don’t get quite high enough in their trajectory. It would also take that little bit more time for the leg to extend fully forwards towards the landing. Admittedly, we’re talking milliseconds but riding at speed can be a game of inches sometimes.
Of course, with smaller jumps and slower speeds, the risk is lessened. If the horse is jumping consistently within its scope, with enough time to sort itself out in front of the fence, odds are nothing catastrophic will happen. At the lower levels for an average sized horse, if it gets off the ground at all the top of the fence will be lower than its knees, even if they’re pointing straight down.
But eventually the margins get smaller, the speeds get faster and the horse’s scope will be tested. It’s in the “emergency” situations – the sorts of conditions where a fall is imminent – where the horse’s ability to keep its feet underneath it becomes a much more valuable commodity.
I suspect this might also tie into conversations about the growing importance and competition in the other two phases. We used to see quite a few “upside down” types that skipped along the ground and snatched their knees up so fast they seemed to skim through the questions. We see fewer of them now because they often didn’t do the most stylish tests and their tendency to jump like arrows wasn’t always the most successful when the rails fell down. Fair enough, times change.
But if you look at a lot of modern sport horses bred specifically to showjump and/or do dressage there are definitely a fair number of families that jump with a lower forearm – and very successfully, I might add! They are scopey and ultra careful and make a lovely shape over a fence, making them top class showjumpers. It’s not a “fault” it’s a “style”. And it often seems to go hand in hand with the sort of conformation that also produces lovely, floating movers, particularly in trot, which makes them easier to produce and more competitive in the dressage arena.
Of course there are horses of this type that do very, very well in eventing. It’s not that they are more likely to get into trouble, especially if they’re athletic and scopey and well ridden. It’s more that when they get in to the particular sort of trouble that can crop up cross country, I’m not convinced it’s so easy for them to get out of it.
So what does this mean for the average rider? Buying a horse is always a compromise and a horse with good front end form and sufficient scope but a million other problems is obviously not a good prospect. But when the horse is for a less experienced rider who is more likely to make the sort of mistakes that can get a horse in trouble or if the ultimate goal is to reach the sort of heights where tough questions crop up, it would seem an important consideration.
But what do you do if you already have a horse and it doesn’t jump with the best possible form? First port of call might be to check it out physically, especially if it consistently jumps with one knee too low or its form has got worse over time. Also, saddle fit can affect jumping style so it might be worth some attention in that area. A good check can be to loose jump the horse (correctly, of course) and see what its best possible form is with no interference. A session with another rider may also be useful, to see if the form improves under more experienced guidance.
Then on to training. Gridwork is the old standby for improving form but not every exercise helps every horse so it’s worth investing in some experienced help on the ground. At the same time, the rider’s contribution can be assessed – weight too far forward, a restrictive hand, fondness for a particular type of approach to the jumps, can all make a horse jump worse in front. It’s also important that the horse is free in the shoulders, neck and back so it can use itself most effectively. This doesn’t mean drilling the horse in a particular shape, it means gymnasticizing the horse with a variety of suppling and strengthening exercises – in other words, good flat work or, if you prefer, correct dressage training. Fitness also plays a role as a tired horse is more likely to “lose” its form. So, in other words, good basic training with specific attention to the areas in which the horse is weak.
Choose a horse for the job, teach it to do the job well. Cross country is risky enough – let your thrills come from testing yourself, your horse and your training, not from getting away with something.
Drive safely. 🙂