Do we adapt the exercise for the rider or the rider for the exercise?
Because I run several group show jumping lessons each week, as well as many private lessons, I tend to build a new set of exercises in the jumping arena each Wednesday morning. This gives me an opportunity to teach nearly all of my riders the concepts that the exercise is designed to demonstrate.
But not all riders are of the same level or have the same ability. Do I adapt the exercise or the rider? Here are my thoughts.
If the rider does not have a secure and effective seat, or the horse is young and inexperienced I will always adapt the exercise. There are many ways to do this. Obviously you will adjust the height of the fence to where both the horse and rider are confident. You can adjust the distances to factor in the height or length of stride of the horse, the riders ability to produce the canter needed for the distance, the difficulty of the line, or the number of fences involved in the exercise. You can adapt the line so a turn is bigger and allows more preparation time to rebalance.
I believe we need to ensure both the horse and rider are able to ride the exercise balanced, in rhythm and with confidence before I increase the difficulty to where we need to adapt the horse and/or rider to the exercise. Before asking the combination to ride an exercise that requires a greater amount of skill I always ensure the rider is able to demonstrate the required action on the flat before asking them to do so in a jumping exercise.
Examples of this may be adjusting the canter in a related line, so I am ensuring the rider can adjust the canter on the flat. Creating a jump that asks the horse to round his back better over the fence allowing the shoulders to fully lift and extend. I ensure the rider can create a canter that is rounder over the back and have more jump. Asking the horse to do a flying change over the fence, I first make sure the rider is able to fully feel when the horse is correctly bending from the inside leg into the outside rein and is able to use their aids correctly before asking for the change. Anything that I am asking from the combination in an exercise we school it on the flat or over small poles on the ground first.
Once the horse and rider are able to produce what is required to complete the exercise I then allow them to ride the exercise that is encouraging the combination to produce a better quality jump via an exercise that challenges them.
Intuition plays a big part here, and I believe it is important we put pressure on and then take pressure of when schooling fences. The fences do not need to be ‘big’ to improve the overall performance, as whenever we are trying something new we often get it wrong. That is normal so I keep the fences smaller until both the horse and rider understand the question.
If I build a bigger more challenging fence/exercise, and the horse has put in a big effort to successfully negotiate that, I will then move to a smaller and easier exercise where the horse needs to put less effort in to solve the question. That way we are rewarding the effort, which in turn is helping to keep the horse stay confident, interested and promote a good work ethic.
If we spend the time getting the quality and concepts happening over smaller fences it is then easier to pop them up to a more challenging height as both the horse and rider have the skills and strength necessary to produce the bigger jump. If we hurry to a bigger height before doing the basic skills it only comes back to bite us later when the horse starts stopping or running through fences because the rider isn’t yet able to create the canter and balance required for the higher heights. Re-educating a frightened or unconfident horse and rider takes many times longer to fix then the time it would have taken to teach the basic concepts in the first place.
So in a nutshell, I adapt the exercise for the rider first and then when the combination is ready I create the exercise to adapt the horse and rider to be able to successfully complete it improving overall ability and performance.