PLAN OF ATTACK—Take the Terror Out of Trot Jumps

Horror. Nightmare. Terror. Hate. Nothing in the show ring could cause riders to freak out enough to use such strong language, right? Oh, how you’re wrong! Trotting a jump as part of an over fences class, either hunter or equitation, can bring together troves of riders in their distaste for the maneuver. Sit the trot or post? Turn sharply or sweeping turn? Look for the distance or pray and see what happens? We trotted along with some top trainers and riders to learn how to tamp down the fear and ramp up the results.

PREPARE AT HOME

As is the way with so many things equine, the best way to take down the trot jump terrors is to practice at home. And even the top professionals aren’t always so hot to trot. “I’m right there with them; I hate trot jumps,” says Annie Dotoli, head trainer at Tibri in Chepachet, RI, who says that practice—a lot of it—can help. “As a junior, when it was getting to be near crunch time for finals, I would trot jumps on every horse we had in the barn because on each one, the timing is a little bit different.”

While it might be tempting to drill in a few trot jumps in the warm-up at a show, Dotoli rarely find this helpful. “I think that the practice comes at home,” she says. “At home, you know what you’ve got—whether it’s a horse that rushes or one that shifts or one that overjumps. If you wait until you’re at the show, that’s a little bit too late.” Incorporating small trot jumps into everyday flatwork is one trainer-approved way to make them less scary for horse and rider. “I’ll just have a small cavaletti or a small jump somewhere in the ring and I incorporate them into the flatwork so that it’s not such a big deal for everybody,” notes Amanda Steege, a top hunter rider and head trainer at Ashmeadow Farm in Califon, NJ, and Ocala, FL.

TUNE IN TO YOUR HORSE

Would your horse’s cowboy name be The Drifter? Could he be best friends with Speedy Gonzales? No horse is perfect, but that doesn’t mean trot jumps are a guaranteed disaster. “Know the horse you’re sitting on,” Dotoli says. “What are their tendencies? One of our amateur hunters, his thing is that he’ll trot [the jump] and then just trot away. With another equitation horse, if you’re coming from the left, he trots it beautifully, but if you’re coming from the right, he’ll canter every time. You have to know the horse.”

A big part of knowing your horse is making sure you have enough impulsion to jump the jump. “Make sure that you have enough of a trot,” Steege reiterates. “Allow your horse to trot along, and even squeeze them a little, depending on your horse. On a sensitive horse, you can just kind of relax your fingers a little to have enough trot, whereas on a more ‘go’ horse, you might actually have to put your leg on in order to have enough trot.” If a horse’s trot is lacking, there is nothing to balance as a rider approaches the jump. “Some people try to go so slow, but then the only choice for the horse is to speed up or canter a step at the end because it just doesn’t have enough impulsion for jumping,” Steege adds.

POST OR SIT—THE BIG QUESTION

We all know the old joke that talks about how with three horse people in a room, there will always be four opinions; that’s no different when it comes to trot jumps. So, should a rider post or sit on the approach?

Posting the trot can help a horse fall into a nice rhythm, and assure them that they should, in fact, be trotting. “With a sitting trot, the horse thinks he’s being helpful by picking up a canter,” Dotoli says.

Dotoli adds that very few people sit the trot better than they post. “The posting is really key to a horse to say, ‘I want to be trotting here,’ where as with a bouncing sitting trot, the horse is saying, ‘well, now what the heck am I supposed to do?’”

Both Steege and Dotoli emphasize that it’s vital for riders to keep their hip angle more closed, even at the posting trot. “Some people get their hip angle almost a little too open, where they’re behind the motion a little bit, so even if the horse leaves from a nice place at the trot jump, they get stuck a little behind,” Steege says. “We talk about sliding your hips back a little in the saddle so you can just slightly close your hip angle—even if you’re going to post, your hip is angle is just a little bit closed.” This makes it easier to stay with the horse’s motion over the jump, instead of having to scramble from behind at the last second.

Even if a rider posts to the jump, it can be helpful to sit the last few strides. “You don’t want to be caught in the ‘up’ phase of posting—you want to be down,” Dotoli says. “Very few people know exactly when the horse is leaving the ground at a trot jump the way they do with a canter stride.”

TURN, TURN, TURN

As a part of an equitation test or a handy hunter round, the trot jump is designed to challenge horse and rider. It’s a great place to show finesse with tight turns, but can become the breaking point for a round if the rider complicates things too much. “Oftentimes the trot jump will be on the end of the ring and you can sort of roll back to the [jump]” Steege says. “I always tell [my riders] to get the trot and then roll back to the jump.” If a horse has its sights set on a jump already, it might be less willing to come back down to a trot. “If you’re able to get a trot that you like and then turn the horse to the jump, I personally think that works better for most [horses and riders],” Steege adds.

In the same vein, be mindful of where you perform your transition from canter to trot. “People tend to try and be too slick and wait until the last moment to get to the trot, which is only slick if you then have a really good trot jump,” Dotoli says. “Give yourself time to establish a nice trot rhythm, let the horse’s brain settle, and then they can sort of think about the next step. But if you’re just getting to the trot and dealing with jumping the jump, that’s a lot.”

SIT BACK AND RELAX

Unless there’s a legitimate monster hiding between rails (in which case we stand corrected), there’s no reason to be terrified approaching the trot jump. In fact, the more patient and relaxed a rider is, the better the jump will be. “Try to breathe and exhale and make sure that you’re relaxed and in the center with your horse,” Steege advises.

Don’t forget the basics, either—let the horse jump up to you. “A lot of people do all the other parts right—they’re looking where they’re going, they have a good pace, they’re being patient—but right at the base of the jump, where they should be down in the saddle and wrapped around the horse, the rider gets a little anxious and wants to push ahead with their shoulders, which throws the horse off balance a lot,” Steege says.

Steege also adds a great mantra to think about when approaching the jump. “As [my riders] approach the trot jump, we talk about being patient and making the last three steps in front of the trot jump ‘slow, slower, slowest,’ so that they’re gently feeling the reins and staying down in the tack.” This, in turn, helps the horse stay relaxed and, more importantly, patient. So take a deep breath—with the right tools, you and your horse will turn the trot jump from barely placing into a blue ribbon.

Jane Carlton is the News Editor at Equine Journal, and is mastering trot jumps one awkward, ugly distance at a time.

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