Straighten Your Horse for a Safer Ride over Fences

straighten your horse, how to ride a horse straight, horse not straight over fences, sarah bradley

With Sarah Bradley

By Jess Hallas-Kilcoyne

According to Equine Canada Level 3 Eventing Coach Sarah Bradley, “Straightness refers to how the horse positions his body, and his ability to use both sides of his body evenly, providing even propulsion from both hind legs and carrying even weight on both front legs. It's about the rider’s ability to place the horse’s body on the line the rider wishes to travel. A horse is straight when the bird’s eye view shows the horse’s spine as being directly on the line of travel. Thus, a horse on a circle is ‘straight’ when it compresses the inside of its body and lengthens the outside, so that its spine follows the circle.”

This becomes especially important in cross country jumping in terms of the safety of both the horse and the rider.

“A horse which jumps crookedly, or pushes off the ground unevenly, will often land unevenly,” Sarah says. “Taking off and landing crooked puts more stress on one leg and will often lead to acute lameness problems. Also, a crooked horse will often not get both front legs up square, putting him at increased risk of hitting the jump and possibly having a fall.”

“Riding technical lines in cross country requires that the horse hold the line or track that the rider chooses, which will be based on the rider’s decision about what is the optimal track for that horse,” she continues. One exercise that Sarah frequently uses to teach horses and riders to hold a line is the Offset Line.

Exercise #1: Offset Line

straighten your horse, how to ride a horse straight, horse not straight over fences, sarah bradley

Set up a line of three jumps with a spacing of 36 feet between each of the elements but offset the jumps in alternating directions. Ride a perfectly straight path down the line, meeting each jump at an angle.

“The most common issue is for riders to drop their eyes, then their shoulders, and ‘get ahead of the horse’s motion’ in the last strides before take-off. This will result in the horse moving off the intended line, or jumping off to one side,” says Sarah. “Riders must find a line that extends beyond the jump they are coming to and keep their eyes on a focal point well beyond the jump.”

Related: Does Your Horse Need a Lot of Leg?

Exercise #2: Angled Approach Figure-8

Angle Exercises for Horses

Another schooling exercise Sarah uses to encourage straightness in her students and their horses is the Angled Approach Figure-8.

Set a jump in the centre of the ring. Place one ground pole on each of the diagonal lines passing through the jump at a distance of nine feet from the jump. Proceed by riding across the diagonal and over the ground pole, approaching the jump on an angle (green, solid line).

“Sit a little deeper in the saddle and keep your hands low, maintaining steady contact with the horse’s mouth while keeping the neck straight,” Sarah advises. “Channel the power from the hind legs through your body, keeping the horse’s hind legs directly behind the shoulders with even use of both legs.”

You can increase the difficulty of the exercise by riding a figure-8 across the width of the arena over the jump, and making a roll-back turn off the rail to the jump (red, dotted line).

Related: Exercises to Correct Common Riding Faults

Exercise #3: “Skinny” Barrel Jumps

 Barrel Jumps Exercises for Horses

Another favourite tool of Sarah’s for encouraging straightness is the “skinny” jump. The face of a skinny jump typically measures only four to six feet across, requiring horse to really stick to the line chosen by the rider. Here’s how Sarah recommends introducing your horse to skinny jumps using large, plastic barrels.

  1. Start by laying two plastic barrels on their sides placed end to end and prop up two guide poles to form a V-shape inviting to the horse. “Guide poles are used with green horses or riders to funnel them over the barrel,” Sarah explains.
  2. Next, set up just one barrel, again with the V-rails propped up. Once you and your horse are confidently jumping this, you can move the ground poles to the ground, and eventually remove them entirely.
  3. “Once horse and rider are jumping 3’3” courses, they can progress to jumping two upright barrels,” says Sarah, cautioning that V-rails should always be used when jumping upright barrels to make the line clear to the horse and rider.
  4. Finally, you can progress to jumping one upright barrel with V-rails.

Related: Connect Your Horse with Contact

Related: Combining Flatwork + Fences: 3 Suppling Exercises for Jumping Horses

About Sarah Bradley

Sarah Bradley

Sarah Bradley is an Equine Canada Level 3 Eventing Coach, with a Master’s degree in Coaching Science. Having been short and long listed for the Canadian Eventing Team several times, Sarah has developed many horses and riders to the FEI 2** level in eventing and three of her athletes, with whom she worked for many years, have represented Canada as members of the Canadian Equestrian Team. 

Main Photo: Steven Lilley/Flickr


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