My apologies to those of you who dont jump, since I try to write for all disciplines. However, these techniques work for any situation where maintaining a steady pace is important so maybe you can find a use for them.
THE MAGIC SPOT
by Gincy Bucklin
There are people--fortunate souls--who always seem to be able to get to the base of a jump exactly right, or at least to make it appear that way. If you are not one of those, then this column may be for you. Over the years I have come up with some tricks that sometimes work when your distances don't.
I discovered the first one entirely by accident. I was taking a mini-clinic on position over fences, using a horse from the clinician's school string. The horse was young, large, and uncoordinated. I found it was all I could do to keep him in some semblance of a canter. At first I tried to adjust his stride to get 'good spots', but after a couple of near disasters I gave it up as hopeless. The last time I went around, he was getting strung out, so I just focussed on keeping him cantering as well as possible. That took all my concentration, so I couldn't think about the jumps at all, except as places to go. Some of the spots were longer, and some shorter, but everything seemed to go okay. To my amazement, the clinician was full of compliments about what a steady, even round we had had. So I learned a very important lesson. You don't have to jump every fence from exactly the same spot to have an even round, what counts is if the horse jumps every fence the same way, that is, if he gets off the ground in the same kind of balance, and with the right amount of impulsion so that the effort appears the same for each fence. I also learned a second important lesson. If you can get the horse to keep cantering with good balance and impulsion, the jumps will happen correctly all by themselves. The secret is not to let yourself be distracted from riding the horse by the fact that there happens to be a jump there.
Another thing that gets us in trouble is anticipation coupled with lack of confidence. You come around the corner onto the line and you start thinking, "Is this right? Maybe I should shorten? NO, lengthen! " By now the horse is so confused he can't find the spot either. The trick to this is; Don't look at the fence! Now that doesn't mean to turn and smile at the judge. What you do is to look beyond the fence and try not to focus on it. What Sally Swift calls 'soft eyes.' This seems to make it easier not to bug your horse, helps you to feel where you are in relation to the fence and if the fence happens to be one you don't like, keeps you from worrying about it. What you don't look at can't hurt you.
If you are fairly brave and you have a horse that is honest and knows his job pretty well (do you hear people whispering that the horse could have done a better round without you?) you can take this one step further. As soon as you get lined up for the fence, close your eyes, and just keep going. It works amazingly well. You can't anticipate, you have to wait for the jump to come to you. As soon as you're in the air you can open your eyes and make sure you're pointed in the right direction for the next fence. I don't know that I would try this method in a timed jumper round, but it works great in hunters. And nobody will ever know unless you tell them!
The next trick is one you use if you find yourself getting to one particular fence the same way every time, and it's never a good fence. Drastically change the way you handle the preceeding corner, that is either make it much wider or cut it quite a bit, depending on which will look the best. This will break up the pattern the horse has set for himself, and force him to work out a new spacing.
Another method is good for people who tense up and forget everything. Try thinking, not about the horse and the jumps, but about yourself. Are you breathing (it's hard to be really tense if you are taking long, slow rhythmic breaths.) Is your weight steady on the irons and is your body following the movement of the horse's canter? Counting in time with the horse's strides (not counting the number of strides, just counting one, two, three, one, two, three) helps. Just find something that helps your position without making you tense.
These are all little tricks that have worked for me, and at first glance they appear to be different, but if you analyze them, you will see that they are really nothing but variations on the same theme. What they are are ways of fooling yourself into leaving the horse alone to find his own spot.. What controlling you do is directed not toward finding a spot, but helping the horse to go in better balance and impulsion, so that the spot he finds will work.
The horse is the only one who really knows when he should leave the ground. He knows how the ground feels under his feet and how his body feels. I once watched Bill Steinkraus win a Puissance on a horse that he (as he said later) didn't think could jump that high. He pointed the horse at the wall and from about four strides away did absolutely nothing except stay out of the horse's way and let him know that if he could, he should. The horse was able to find his own perfect spot and clear the fence.
In the final analysis, the trick to getting good spots is to keep in mind that it is the horse who jumps the fence. You ride, he jumps. And if you focus on riding well, he will jump well.