By: Abby Funk
It is important to pave your road to be successful in anything you do. In riding and jumping, smoothing your path and planning ahead are essential to progress. In order to do this, you must literally look ahead where you are going before, during and after a jump. Focal points and straightness are two concepts I am sure you have heard before. By focusing on these two components, much of our riding can be transformed. You effectively pave your road.
Many people struggle with focal points and are drawn into looking down at the jump which affects not only your balance as the rider, but also your horses’ balance before, over and after a jump. By working on straightness and focal points, we improve track, balance and overall mindful riding! Ahead are some easy ways to hone your skills and practice straightness and keep your focal points up. These teach your horse to go straighter and not always just land and turn which can lead to missed distances, refusals, rubs, rails and problems you have to fix. It teaches you to lift your eyes over the jump keeping your focus on the track ahead of you. If you are in the hunter ring, you can dress up the round and get a few extra points by having a great track and long straight lines after every jump.
Practice on the Flat
So many horses are used to the monotony of being ridden in arenas. They can see the turns coming and they think, ‘okay it’s time to turn now’. If your horse practices auto pilot turning while you flat, he or she will be unprepared when you are in a handy, equitation class or jump off and may require a discussion about coming out of auto pilot and doing what you ask. By practicing on the flat using deliberate focal points and turns we can reintroduce mindful riding that can be translated when jumping.
When you are flatting, before you start your work, look around the four corners of the ring and find something to look at outside the ring on every corner, going both directions. I do this during the fifteen minutes of walking I try to incorporate in every ride to allow the horse to properly warm up joints before work. Then, use these points while you are riding to be purposeful. Your goal is to focus on track and be deliberate with your turns. You want to avoid sticking yourself on the rail during your ride. Staying constantly on the rail creates a horse that is dependent on it to be straight! By staying about 5 to 10 feet off the rail yet parallel to it and then making deliberate corners at your focal points, you help both you and your horse’s balance. To be deliberate, that means going straight to the point you established before starting your ride, then turning, being conscious and focused on the detail of your turn throughout each step, keeping your eye up through the turn. Remember to maintain contact on the outside rein as you turn. This helps your horse’s balance as well as increasing your straightness as you exit the turn.
Practice over an Exercise
You will take the same concept of deliberate turns and riding to your focal points when jumping, but we also add another exercise. You can do this going through a grid, cavaletti or small jump.
If going through a grid, have somebody stand straight ahead at the end of it and hold up their fingers with different numbers. The rider will call out the numbers as the person standing at the end changes them. You must keep your eyes up all the way through the grid, because if you look down, the person holding fingers up will change their number and you will miss it!
Another way to have a similar effect is to jump through a small line, a grid or a single jump and just practice looking at your focal point from the time you take off to the time you land and until you are at the end of the ring and have to turn.
Side Effect: Better Lead Changes
These exercises and focuses can be crucial to establishing good straight practice for lead changes as well.
In my experience, we tend to teach lead changes by thinking of the horse as a rectangle. So, if you pull one end of the horse (or the rectangle) to the left, the other end is automatically going to go to the right. If you pull the head to the left, the hip goes right, making the lead change very difficult because the horse is not straight. When the head goes in and the hip goes out, the horse is prone to changing in front and getting stuck in the cross canter behind. So when you focus on going in a really straight line, with the outside rein I mentioned above, you keep your rectangle straight and it’s much easier for your horse to do the lead change than if their body is going in two different directions and they cannot get their legs organized.
At the Show
Here are some ways to apply what we talked about to when it’s time for you to show. Set aside time early before your class to walk to your ring and establish your focal points for your rounds. Walk around the entire outside of the arena. Look down the lines and select focal points at the end of every line and backside of every single jump. Even better if you are prepping your horse in that ring in the morning and can find your focal points mounted. Be mindful as you flat noticing what you can focus on and ride toward and what focal points will keep you straight and balanced. Imagine your barn friend at the end of the lines holding those fingers up!