using oneself

I’ve always wondered what to think about horses that don’t use themselves “properly” over fences.  I’m sure this has nothing to do with having a chronic knee hanger.


All silliness aside, in jumping literature there’s a pretty consistent definition of how a horse should be jumping, and a general consensus that it is desirable for a horse to jump that way.  And I get it — biomechanics and physics all say it’s best — but what I’m really wondering is, what do you think of a horse that isn’t using himself as best he can over fences?

Ignore rider interference — if you can.  What does it make you think when you see a horse jumping a 2’6″ fence with perfect bascule and tightly tucked knees vs. hanging knees and a flat profile?  How important really is it that a horse uses his body to this level of perfection over all sizes of fence?  Are you impressed with a horse you see using with a textbook perfect bascule over 2’6″, or does it not matter to you until 3′ or higher?  Is this related to your discipline?

stitch 2Not intended to be a “bad” example, merely eye candy filler.

I’ll go first.

I will admit to not being particularly impressed with a horse who consistently busts out his best moves under 3′.  Lots of caveats exist for this, of course — young horses, green horses, tiny horses, scary fences, show environment, etc. — but in general, I don’t think it’s really necessary for horses to pull out their best moves up to 3′.  I can jump 2’6″ and I’m not cracking my back over it.  I don’t mean to say that I prefer to see sloppy jumping, but a horse that is relaxed and at ease at the lower heights, and who doesn’t look like he’s making a big effort over them suggests to me that he can jump bigger.

Even above 3′, if a horse is relaxed and easily clearing a fence, I’m not really concerned with his shape or bascule.  There doesn’t seem to be a need to reach and stretch over a 3’6″ oxer the way there is over a Grand Prix one, though I’ve obviously never ridden either level myself.  Of course, a perfect jump makes for a nicer picture, but does it really make for a nicer jumper?  I’m just not sure.

IMG_3837 IMG_3844Same horse, same jump, different shapes (same knees, though)

free jump 1Same horse, no rider, better knees, better shape?

This probably has a lot to do with eventing — so little is the George Morrisian ideal in our world, and there are lots of good examples of horses beautifully clearing big fences without perfect form.  So I’m probably much more lax regarding form than others.

Am I way off base here?  Is this totally wrong?  Is there way more nuance I am missing?  I would love to hear your thoughts — be brutally honest.  I can take it 😉

22 thoughts on “using oneself”

  1. Is there maybe a component of longevity, or preserving joints to consider? (not a jumper since my younger days, except occasionally by accident) That’s the aspect of dressage that motivates me the most – that a horse using himself correctly over time will have more comfortable, active older years.

    That first shot is excellent 😀


    1. There’s possibly something here, for sure. I’m not sure anyone’s ever looked into the long term effects of jumping properly, but height certainly has something to do with it!


  2. I think too many people focus on the front end of the horse in this country, because of our hunter market. IMO I only care what the front end is doing if the knees are pointed down, which I consider very unsafe especially for XC. Otherwise, I think it’s more important to look at the big picture, and how the horse uses it’s hind end. A lot of them are flat through the air and not particularly “knee to eyeball”, but if they have good elasticity of their body, a lot of power off the ground, and a good hind end technique, they will be good jumpers. What is ideal for a hunter is not particularly ideal for a jumper or an eventer, unless you never actually want to make time. 😉 I also think that, total knee hangers aside, a good rider and good training program can do a lot to develop a better front end technique. Good luck making one more elastic in the air or using it’s hind end better though… that’s much more difficult.


    1. Really good points! And I have also totally fallen into that trap. I wonder if there are a couple of things contributing to this: 1) Photos of a horse’s and rider’s face are much prettier than their butts, therefore are much more in the spotlight, and 2) it’s harder to evaluate this hind end power and elasticity from a still, which is the vast majority (though less and less these days) of the media we see.

      Now that you’ve made me think about it, a few of the big, scopey horses I know hang their hind ends, and that is a total bane to their owners because those back rails are hard to predict/avoid. Very interesting thoughts, thanks!


  3. One of my old bosses had a picture of him jumping a horse, I believe it was at the WEG (not sure what year), on his wall. The horse had the most horrible form in the world, legs dangling, hollow back, head high, etc. What was amazing was that this horse was clearing an already ridiculously huge fence by at least two feet. I rember it even more because the jump standards were huge giraffes and the horse looked like a giraffe jumping. He also looked like he could have cleared the backs of those giraffes had they been the jump. Anyway, he said that this horse was one of the best he’d ever ridden and he had gone to the Olympics twice on two other mounts. While I believe that form is very important, some horses just don’t hit fences no matter how ugly they look getting over them. I would hate to see a careful horse get disregarded just because it’s form isn’t perfect. I also don’t want to see one that has ugly form and isn’t careful either. They need to be at least one or the other. Both is a bonus 🙂


  4. This is coming from eventing land. Every trainer I have ever ridden with has emphasized that a horse should have the same amount of respect for a fence whether it is 2′ or 5′. A friend I used to ride with all the time had a warmblood that just had a sloppy front end and she would never tuck her knees. My friend liked to say “Oh it’s just not high enough for her to care that much” when we would be schooling 3’3″ (which, yes, 3’3″ isn’t that high). The horse literally looked like an antelope over fences, no bascule, no tucked knees. One day she said that to a trainer and the trainer said that she would never take a horse with a front end like hers out on xc because that is a huge risk for them to just leave their front end flopping in the air, and it’s asking for them to hang a knee. She then went on to explain that you can hang a knee and have a bad fall even over a 3′ xc fence so my friend better start giving a shit. And by giving a shit she meant start working through gymnastics. Just because the horse doesn’t naturally have a nice front end doesn’t mean you can’t help improve it and gymnastics are the best way. They have to think quick and use themselves properly to get through things like bounces and one strides.

    I completely understand that logic. I mean sure, it’s not that impressive to see perfect form over small fences, but it is nice when you think of it from a safety mindset. Luckily Klein has this freakishly amazing front end that no one would ever expect from her.


    1. Stacey, did you mean your opinion is coming from eventer land or not caring about form over fences is coming from eventer land? Just wanted to clarify.

      I definitely agree that there’s a safety issue here, but there’s also a difference between a super tight front end (knees high and tight, ankles tucked up beneath them), a loose but safe front end (knees up, forelegs relaxed below the knee), and an unsafe front end (knees pointed down). I’m not a hundred percent sure, but I just don’t think there’s enough mass below the knee to cause a rotational fall if a horse catches their cannon, though now that I think about it you can still stumble and fall pretty badly if you get caught. I agree with you that gymnastics are a great exercise for thinking about the front end, but I’ve seen horses be quick but also loose.

      Another thing I think about in this regard is watching young horses learn to jump — I often see them using better form when they are less experienced or confident, and as they get more relaxed and stronger they relax their front end as well. Soooo how does that add to things?

      Anyway, all just thoughts to add to the discussion.


  5. I think correct form is very much at times a safety issue–hanging or downward pointing knees can end badly, and the horse is expending way more energy getting it’s body out of the way enough to compensate for bad form in front. That being said, perfect form is definitely not a necessity for me and I had a horse that was inconsistent with his knees but the rest of his form coupled with his athleticism meant he was completely fine and competitive in the jumper ring.


    1. Yeah, the illogical pony choice of overjumping instead of just hiking their knees up a bit will always baffle me. Murray does this frequently, but he so ably gets his body out of the way that I can’t complain.


  6. Moe is a hideous looking jumper- his knees are usually doing something weird and ugly. He respects fences, though, and I’ve never thought his ugly knees were unsafe. I’ve never been sure if they’re a function of conformation, lack of training, or what.

    Gina is a very pretty jumper who often hikes her knees up and looks nice. I’ve never noticed a functional difference riding the two of them- then again, I’m not jumping anything over 3′ with either of them any more!


  7. I meant my opinion was coming from eventer land, sorry.

    The young horse thing, I honestly don’t know. Maybe because the young ones aren’t quite sure what jumping is all about and they want to make sure they clear the jump before it attacks their front legs. I haven’t really seen any do what you’re talking about, but my experience watching young horses grow up is pretty limited!! Klein has been the same throughout her life, and she really is the only horse I have had from such a young age and watched closely as she grew up.


    1. Got it, thanks for clarifying!

      With young/green horses I’ve seen several of them keep their knees high and tight in the beginning, and then start to relax over smaller things. Murray did this, he was an inveterate tucker (to the point where I nearly had to get him a stud girth) in the beginning, but once he became comfortable at a height would start to relax his front end. I’ve seen it with a few others too.

      Klein is seriously pretty dreamy. 😉


  8. Ok. I do dressage. Only. So won’t get into lengthy writing about a discipline I’ve only competed in a few things as a teenager.

    I think there’s much to be said for the longevity of the horse. Each jump is a strain and with less than perfect form there Must be More wear and tear.
    Less power means less control of the limbs, more sloppiness, more tendos, ligaments, and muscles being tweaked. If just a little.
    It all adds up when the horse is past 12. And perhaps by then is just starting to benefit from years of time consuming training.


    1. I DO agree with you that using oneself properly will influence wear and tear. But I just don’t see how form in the air — where there’s no forces on the body other than the rider — can influence wear and tear. Now, takeoff and landing form, that I perfectly understand. I want my horse landing in stride and not stumbling, and I want him taking off evenly from both feet (though I know I can’t always control that at the fences, I strive to strengthen both legs equally so he does so). But you are correct, this is all part of the equation!


  9. I don’t want a horse to crack his back over little stuff, but to me tidy knees are a necessity at any height. A lot of that is discipline based from the hunters but it’s important to me that my horse jumps cute at 2’6″. I wouldn’t feel comfortable jumping much more than 3′ with a knee hanger and would decide not to purchase a horse if it had really bad form over fences.


    1. When you say “tidy” do you mean knees up, or knees up and ankles tightly tucked up too? There’s just so much variation in tidy, I guess.

      But I think I tend to agree with you, and I do want cuteness at lower heights. I just can’t get it! 😉


  10. My mare typically jumps everything the same, 18″ or 2’9″‘. She’s always had a lot of respect for jumps and therefore displays a tightly tucked up front and back end…even over the littler stuff (2’6″). In hunters, this is considered a bonus, so it works for us. I like to know she’s picking up her toes when she needs to. I hope that her form continues to stay nice as we move up the levels.


  11. My girl is an extremely careful jumper- she gets round and picks her feet up to her chin even over crossrails. It certainly makes the bigger jumps less intimidating; she jumps them the same no matter the height! I know in hunter/jumper land the rails aren’t solid, but I do feel safer knowing that my horse is actively trying not to touch the rails. Having “proper” form is one way to do that, but I’ve seen GP jumpers with hideous form. As long as they clear it safely and carefully, that’s what matters to me!


  12. my mare cracks her back over cavaletti haha… and it took me a long time to actually stay with her over the fence… part of that is her short arab back, but part of it is just her natural way of going – there’s a little extra flair in everything.

    i don’t know much about the safety implications, or the wear and tear from non ‘ideal’ form – except that i cringe a little bit every time i see a horse jump way over it’s shoulder, or with really sloppy knees…

    i generally think that form follows function, so if the horse is getting the job done despite a non-conventional style it’s probably all good… but since rotational falls are a very real thing, it’s in the rider’s best interest to address form – and i LOVE the idea of gymnastics that someone else mentioned (tho they’re also my favorites for other reasons too haha)


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