Growing up on Long Island in the 1960s was a lucky break for an aspiring horseman. The quality of competition, even at the lowest levels, was keen with local riders vying for National honors every year. With the level of competition so high, the riding instruction had to reflect that quality. While there were many good people to learn from, and I took advantage of many of those opportunities, one teacher will always stand out. He was Captain Vladimir Littauer. Captain Littauer was well into semi-retirement when I met him in the mid ‘60s. He was content to do a few clinics and work on revisions of his many successful riding books. His theories and adaptations of Italian cavalry methods had proven very successful and were the model for how all children learned to ride at the time.
By a happy bit of luck he and his wife were friends of my mother and so I would see them quite often in social situations. Having had me as a student in several clinics, the Captain would always ask how my riding was coming along. He was always interested in my development as a rider and often he would suggest a book or technique. As I got older my questions got deeper into the “whys” and away from the “hows.” Encouraged by my developing thought process we had many a lively conversation. He encouraged me to teach saying it would make me a better rider and it did. The Captain also encouraged me to write because he thought it would make me a better teacher. It did and of all the many and varied things I learned from this knowledgeable and generous man, the thing I keep going back to is: “Thinking Like a Rider.”
During the 90 seconds a rider will spend doing a round over jumps in a horse show, that rider will make hundreds of decisions. Most, maybe 90% of them will be tiny and these must be subconscious. These tiny decisions; how much leg to use to maintain the canter, how much and how long to hold the indirect rein to achieve a proper bend, etc have to be practiced at home until they are second nature and require no conscious thought at all. A few of those words bear repeating; practice at home, second nature and no conscious thought at all.
The rider has to be practiced to the point where he knows these little decisions will be made correctly and in a timely manner and be confident of that fact. The rider’s mind has to be focused on the other 10% of the decisions. For if I am correct in saying there are hundreds of decisions to make, then even 10% of them is a lot to think about. Of course the best prepared riders think things through again and again before they enter the ring. They have studied the course and have a very clear idea of where they are going and what they want to do. They are aware of striding and know how much pace to carry and where to smooth it out if necessary. On course, they are thinking of where they are and where they want to go. The 90% of the rider’s decisions, the bulk of the iceberg below the waterline, you don’t see and they don’t consider. Their confidence in the ring reflects their confidence that these decisions will be made correctly.
Practice those details at home until they are second nature and require no conscious thought. You’ll be surprised how much time you have to think in the show ring.
It is well known that a prejudice exists in the showjumping world against mares and it is not without some cause. Mares can be harder to ride, more highly strung and sensitive, and much more likely to accept suggestions rather than demands from a rider. While it is true that mares do not suit all riders, and few beginners, riders aiming at higher levels should not overlook them. That renowned sensitivity for which mares are famous can be channeled into carefulness with training and trust. With a rider who is equally sensitive and can form a true working partnership with a mare the results can be nothing short of amazing.
A quick glance at the record book confirms this at once. America’s two-time Olympic Gold Medalist, “Sapphire,” is a good case in point. Ridden by Mclain Ward she is a study in consistency, winning all over the world including last year’s Pfizer Million, the richest Grand Prix in the US. “Touch of Class” and rider Joe Fargis achieved the ultimate showjumping success winning both team and individual gold medals at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. “Kitty” as she was known to her fans had three strikes against her: she was a mare, she was small and she was hot. Yet, in the hands of Fargis, a master of American forward riding, she took on the world and made it look easy. At the 1992 Games in Barcelona the Dutch team were Gold medalists and four years later in Atlanta the Germans were victorious. What these teams had in common was a bay mare named “Ratina Z” who has the unique record of being an Olympic Gold Medalist with two riders, Piet Raymakers and Ludger Beerbaum.
Of course, no conversation about mares could be complete without mention of “Halla” who was the longtime mount of Hans Gunter Winkler. She is, to date, the only three-time Olympic Gold Medalist. She was quite sensitive, high strung and “marish” in every way. She was also, in the minds of many knowledgeable showjumping aficionados, the best horse in history!
Riding jumpers as opposed to the hunters and equitation can and should be a lot of fun. For a person with one horse to ride and show the constantly changing courses and showing conditions can be intellectually stimulating while the absence of subjectivity and of politics in judging can be liberating. However, the one thing aspiring showjumping riders must be aware of is to be competitive they have to be prepared to go” against the clock”. This is no minor undertaking because it has to be understood that nothing has the potential to ruin a horse faster and more completely then bad riding at speed. It is vital before you set out to win that big speed class you have a clear idea what you are trying to achieve.
There are two distinct sides of riding for time. One is taking the shortest route and the other is simply to go faster. To win in good company will almost always require you do both.
Let’s look at the two sides separately than see how we put them together.
Taking the shortest route requires control. While studying the course diagram and during the course walk you search for the “inside track.” Which will get you to the jumps in the least amount of strides. To be able to ride on this “inside track” you will have to be prepared to jump across a jump on an angle and be prepared to start a jump on a turn. These two skills should be learned and practiced at home in your everyday training until you and your horse are quite comfortable doing either one. Yet we all too often have seen riders who obviously are trying these techniques out for the first time in the show ring. It’s never pretty and rarely successful. If short turning and angling fences are combined with extra pace not having been practiced, the results usually run from dangerous to disastrous.
Learning to ride for speed should be, if you will excuse the pun, a slow process. Mastering the individual techniques of angling jumps, short turning, carrying extra pace should be done at home away from the tensions of competition. Once the different skills are mastered only then should you consider attempting them in competition.
I have always found the best way to start young showjumpers and young showjumping riders is to give them a few classes without considering time at all except of course the time allowed.
Just jumping a clear round or even better two clear rounds is enough of an accomplishment. Above all eels you want your horse and rider to develop the habit of jumping clears. All habit side hard and I cannot think of a better one than this. Once jumping clears has become second nature we start working on the jump off technique. One strategy I use is to break the jump off course into three roughly equal sections normally while carrying a slightly faster jump off pace during the second or center phase. This keeps our young jumper from assuming he must dash at the sound of the bell, gives him some experience at jump off pace and returns him to a more controlled ride at the finish. There are few things less productive than a horse who “builds” in the jump off. With a rider ceding or losing control just as the course designer reveals his sternest tests.
As your young jumper develops his jump off skills you can flip flop this approach and do the first and third sections of the jump off (or speed class) at jump off pace and use the second phase to reestablish control. The point being to keep the horse coming back to the rider for guidance.
When you think you are ready you can put it all together and you will be ready to be competitive.
There are a few other things to consider when riding for time. When angling, short turning or ding at jump off pace you are more likely to ride up to an awkward distance. The reason we practice these techniques is to acquaint the horse with these mystery distance jumps and to make sure the rider’s position on an awkward jump doesn’t hinder the horse’s jumping effort. Always be aware of where your start and finish markers are so you will know how to take the shortest line toward them. Always watch for low risk places to save time, during your course walk and while watching other competitor’s rides. Ho you move away from the jumps is as important as how you get to them. This is the fun part of riding jumpers every course, a different challenge, be safe, go fast and have fun!