Trainer Tuesday: If a Rider is Inclined to Duck Over the Fences, How Would You Work With Them to Improve Their Equitation?

Welcome to Trainer Tuesday! Each week we ask trainers a question and gather their answers for you. These trainers have a range of experience, backgrounds, and focus points of their programs, so the answers have as much variation as you would expect and also probably much more similarity. 

This week’s question posed is: If a rider is inclined to duck over the fences, how would you work with them to improve their equitation?

Here are their answers:

“Position will improve if where the rider is looking over top of the jump improves. So, I would stand at the end of the ring after a jump and when they’re going over the jump, hold up what number of fingers that they have to be looking at me instead of the ground while they’re over top the jump.” – Kaitlin Campbell

“Of course, repetition will help with correcting equitation issues such as ducking. Besides equitation, the other issue at hand is that they’re losing their track away from the jump and balance to either a lead change or track and rhythm to the next jump. I would first focus on correcting the angles of body including making sure their shoulders are over the hip and lower leg in a straight line. I will also stand at the far end of the ring from the landing side of a jump and raise a hand and have the riders tell me how many fingers I am holding up so the rider focuses beyond the jump. If they are looking straight ahead over the jump at my hand and counting my fingers, they will not be ducking down and dropping their eye.” – Donna Pace of Nautilus Farm.
Read more about Nautilus Farm in The Plaid Horse Article here.

“I would work on a lot of grids and gymnastics with this rider. I would set a trot-in exercise, probably trot in to a one-stride to a two-stride to a one-stride. I would put guide rails out to help keep the horse straight and so the rider is able to focus on their equitation. As the rider goes through the grid, I would continually remind the rider to focus on their position—heels down, eyes up, shoulders back!

Depending on the level of the rider, I would have them do this exercise without stirrups. It is hard to duck over a fence if you do not have stirrups! I would gradually increase the height of the jumps in the grid and depending on the rider, tie their reins in a knot and have the rider do the grid without reins. This is a great exercise to work on balance and core strength!

Outside of the arena, this rider should be working on their core strength by doing sit ups, planks, and other ab-related activities! – Jodie Camberg
Read Jodie Camberg’s answers for a previous Trainer Tuesday here.

“I think it all stems from their eyes. Eyes look between the horses’ ears off the ground, in the air and on landing.” – Susie Hutchison
Listen to Susie Hutchison on The Plaidcast here.

“Kimberley Hill- “For riders that duck over fences I tend to have them do lots of trot fences. Working on fences at a slower gait, teaching them to slow their bodies down and to wait for the horse is pivotal in breaking the habit. Low pressing hands to keep the upper body up taller will also help. Having the rider understand that the motion of jumping needs to be met with the horse coming towards you for your release will also help those that like to dive down/duck stay taller and more patient. – Kimberley Hill

“My favorite way to correct this habit is to go back to basics and have them ride on a lunge line. I find this allows riders to focus more on their position, balance and body control. I always start by having them focus on the flat first; having them open and close their hip angle at all three gates. I then start incorporating no hands work as well to help them focus on their base of support. Lastly, I will incorporate a raised rail or cavaletti to the exercises where they can focus on position, body control and balance to and from the jump which allows them to practice without making it overly taxing or stressful for both horses and riders.” – Brooke Farr
Read more from Brooke Farr more on The Plaid Horse here.

“I feel like there are so many exercises to encourage riders to not duck across the jumps. My three go to’s are:

1. I love utilizing a good bounce or gymnastics of some sort. It requires the riders to keep their chin, chest and eye elevated across the element.

2. A fun trick to break the habit. Make the rider wear a cheap neck brace. It keeps them from looking down and keeps their head from turning for the ducking motion.

3. I am big on a good halt over a jump. Whether it be on a quarter, diagonal or straightaway. I ask the rider to find focal point across the jump. Which we hope they don’t duck if a halt is asked after said jump.” – Jay Moore.
Read more from Jay more on The Plaid Horse here.

“One of my favorite ways to help riders who duck over fences is to get them to think about holding their helmet still as they jump. I’ve found this concept to be really useful for riders and it helps them to think about slowing their upper body down in the air.

I couple this approach with grid work, starting with simple trot in grids and building up to multiple bounces in a row until the rider can hold their helmet still through a long line of 5-6 bounce fences. It is a hard habit to break but with time and consistency all riders can improve and grow out of it!” -Jessica Goldstein Holmes
Read Jessica Goldstein Holmes answers for a previous Trainer Tuesday here.

“If a rider is inclined to duck over fences, it’s generally because of anxiety about being left behind. The best fix I’ve ever come up with is to put the rider on a lunge line, have them close their eyes and lunge them over small cavaletti. Just let them develop a feel for closing their hip angle the right amount when the horse leaves the ground. It’s about not anticipating and making a big move with the upper body.” -Laurie Scott.
Read an article written by Laurie Scott on The Plaid Horse here.

“Riders who duck tend to stand up in their stirrups and stand up over the pommel. Because of this they feel unbalanced and insecure when the horse is taking off and in the air. I have invented a product to cure this problem, the Sally Batton Pommel Blocker by Correct Connect! It is a ‘block’ that attaches with straps that connect to the saddle D rings and an overgirth it’s virtually impossible for the rider to stand up in the stirrups. Instead, riders feel the resistance of the Pommel Blocker and are forced to correctly do their jumping position over the center of the saddle.” -Sally Batton.
You read about the Pommel Blocker and more about Sally in The Plaid Horse here.

“To improve a rider that is inclined to Duck over the fences, I add grid work to their training sessions.” –Missy Jo Hollingsworth.
Read more from Missy Jo Hollingsworth here.

“My favorite exercise to have folks maintain square position and let horse jump up to them is to have a person stand in front of the jump 5 strides or so away. Hold up fingers which change as rider approaches, jumps and lands from jump. Rider then states how many fingers are being held up. As the rider approaches jumps in jumping position, and typically by keeping eyes up and focus beyond jump, the position improves!  The finger holder can stand on opposite side that the rider ducks to help stop ducking. It is also extremely important that rider realizes that jumping requires a backwards push of bum (squat position) not a forward move with body—it’s a little like sitting down on toilet!” – Angela Moore.
Read Angela Moore’s answers for a previous Trainer Tuesday here.

“Assuming the tack is well fitting and balanced, and other health or behavior concerns have been ruled out, a rider who ducks can improve their equitation over the jumps by increasing the challenge that rider must handle on the backside of the fence. This can be in the form of gymnastics, gymnastics, gymnastics or, to save the horse’s legs, exercises over low fences or poles that require extreme precision. One of my favorites is to canter a crossrail into a line (at least 4 strides long) and make a deliberate and accurate circle before cantering the out of the line. Another would be cantering skinny low walls without standards. Most horses aren’t going to allow a rider to duck over the jump more than once or twice before they begin to skirt around the fence. But any kind of exercise that requires precision in the track to and from a fence will help the rider find the middle of the horse over the jump. Make sure to do the exercises evenly on both leads! I would do lots of two point at the walk and trot so the rider can really feel being even in both feet. And finally, I would recommend a rider watch some of the top notable competitions on usef network or clipmyhorse. I watched some of the Gladstone Cup on Wednesday and then some Junior Hunters at JHF East yesterday. Watching the top of the top can really show the mechanics that the upper echelon trainers have taught their students.” – Shaun Clark.
Read Shaun Clark’s answers for a previous Trainer Tuesday here.

“I like to have them look up and ahead, keeping them focused on the end of the ring.” – Adrian Ford.

“I repeat this multiple times a day: the horse comes up to you—you do not go down to the horse. That along with too much body movement is like the person who throws gas on a burn pile. Woosh! So, I start with smaller jumps and tell them to sit still and do nothing. Gymnastics are also good. Bounces, 1 stride, and constantly telling them barely move—it’s hard to do less!” – Jennifer Pigue.
Read about Jennifer’s students winning the Horsemanship Quiz Challenge stable challenge here.

“It depends on the root cause (physical, habit, situation, etc.) as well as what seems to work best for the rider. Experimenting and trying different things is always important, as it is never one-size-fits-all for riding solutions. At the end of the day, many times leaning/ducking is an established habit that needs to be untrained, so it takes diligence, repetition, and consistency. Oftentimes, just setting jumps to a smaller height that they are way more than comfortable with (and therefore don’t have to think/worry as much) and then telling them to only worry about their upper body position the entire way. And the instructor could also be reminding them each time as they approach and take off to keep their upper body open, if necessary. But taking away the challenge of maxing out their height will allow them to focus more on position. You could also set up a grid and have them go through it with no reins (on a trustworthy horse), as oftentimes if someone is ducking too much, their center of balance is incorrect, and they end up leaning on the horse’s neck. But if you have them hold their arms out to the side, they can’t lean on the neck. (Be sure to knot the reins so they don’t hang too low and get caught up)

Another potential reason and solution is that the rider is riding with far too long of stirrups. I honestly can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen someone jumping where their position flaws are almost always traced to having too long of stirrups. If your stirrups are too long, you end up pinching with the knee as well as leaning forward to get your butt out of the saddle (rather than being able to push up higher out of the stirrups to gain clearance to avoid slamming on your horse’s back). When you pinch with the knee, your entire center of gravity shifts upward and forward. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve shortened someone’s stirrups when they come to me for a lesson. More times than not. And every single time, they will see and feel vast improvement in multiple aspects of their riding. 

Another potential solution, especially as an eventer, is to have them jump down a bank. If you are too lean-y going down a bank, gravity and physics will win, every time. Short of a bank, for people who are non-eventers, you can even have them walk, trot, and canter down a decently sloped hill. And I mean a decently sloped one. Enough to force them to change their body angle. Not a tiny little decline. Again, this will end up forcing them to open their hip angle and sit taller and/or lean backwards to counteract the slope. Sometimes a ducking rider will also not be looking ahead, so you could also have them focus on training their eye to look at something up and further away. This will automatically open up their body, at least a little bit. Although I find that this isn’t the sole reason for ducking, nor the sole solution. But it can help a little bit. Even without the ducking, you should still be looking forward to plan for your next several strides and turn and fence.

Separately, related to leaning, if you get hunched in your position, my favorite new way to think about your torso position came from my long-term instructor, Bruce Mandeville. Instead of just thinking shoulders back, you should think ‘maximize the space in between each of your individual ribs in the front of your chest.’ I think this provokes the rider to be more conscious and thoughtful and gives a different viewpoint and instruction that they may end up being able to utilize. This helps to fix shoulder hunching as well as collapsing of not just the ribcage, but also the core, which is extremely important in all of riding, but especially in being strong enough to hold the correct position over a fence.” – Michael Willham, Equine Academy
Read Michael Willham’s answer for last week’s Trainer Tuesday here.

Read last week’s Trainer Tuesday Article here.