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. 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 horse’s balance. By working on straightness and focal points, we improve track, balance and overall mindful riding. These skills encourage your horse to go straighter and not always just land and turn, which can lead to missed distances, refusals, rubs, rails and other problems you have to fix. 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.
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 15 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; instead, practice staying about 5-10 feet off the rail, yet parallel to it. Staying constantly on the rail creates a horse that is dependent on it to be straight! Remember to maintain contact on the outside rein as you turn.
Practice Over an Exercise
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 someone stand at its end 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 can also be helpful in teaching and improving lead changes.
In my experience, we tend to teach lead changes by thinking of the horse as a rectangle. If you pull the horse’s head to the left, the hip goes right, making the lead change very difficult. Instead, the horse is prone to changing in front and getting stuck in the cross canter behind.
At the Show
At the show, set aside time 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—even better if you are prepping your horse in that ring in the morning and can find your focal points mounted. Imagine someone at the end of the ring holding their fingers up. Ultimately, practicing these skills will ensure that the road you pave is straight—with a myriad of benefits for you and your horse.
Abbygale Funk is a professional rider at Ashwood Farm. At the age of four Abby began showing and continued throughout her junior career- showing more than 200 different horses and ponies as a junior. Now she not only rides, but helps her mother Mary Ann Thomas run the farm and show program at Ashwood Farm. Abby and her mom contribute regularly to The Plaid Horse Blog regarding mindful training, riding and horsemanship. For more information on Ashwood Farm, click here.
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