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The Biomechanics and Benefits: techniques and exercises you can do to Improve How Your Horse Jumps

The grace and power of a horse soaring over a jump with ease never ceases to amaze, but what exactly goes into this dynamic movement? The biomechanics of a horse jumping is a complex interplay of anatomy, physics, and training that allows these amazing athletic animals to seemingly defy gravity.


Jumping, take off, skeleton, Horses Inside Out with Gillian Higgins

Although many horses enjoy jumping, it requires training and this is partly what makes watching a horse jumping fences so fascinating. You witness them using their bodies to the extreme. The horse needs physical strength, focus and a balanced rider to jump successfully. He also needs a good technique, willingness, coordination and the ability to convert forward momentum to upward thrust. Studying a horse jump also highlights the range of movement and the biomechanical relationships within the body, which is truly fascinating.

 

In this blog we look at how your horse jumps by breaking it down in to phases to help boost your understanding. We then discuss exercises and what the rider should be focusing on to improve each phase. We also cover this topic in much greater depth in the on-demand webinar Polework and Gymnastic Jumping and in the on-demand lecture demonstration Jumping from the Anatomical Approach we look at how different advanced jumping exercises influence jump, shape and performance.


Jumping will also be a subject that is covered at our Evening Extravaganza at Hartpury Arena on 23 May 2024 with event rider Boogie Machin. Why not join us for the amazing live painted horse lecture demonstration? This eye-opening and inspirational demo will transform your approach to riding, training, and equine management, and it will bring the intricacies of equine anatomy to life right before your eyes. This is an evening you don't want to miss!



The Benefits of Jumping

Most horses enjoy jumping and it adds variety to their training, so even if it's not your main discipline, it is a good thing to do with your horse and has numerous benefits including.

  • Increase muscular strength and the speed and power of contractions

  • Encourage a fuller and more varied range of joint movement

  • Increase neurological reactions

  • Improve flexibility and suppleness

 

The Five Phases of The Jump

At the core of a horse's ability to jump is its musculoskeletal system, which comes under significant strain during this activity. Let's take a closer look at how a horse jumps.

 

1. The Approach

When a horse first sees a fence, normally he will raise his head and neck and use his binocular vision to focus on the obstacle. He then gathers power and impulsion by bringing his hind feet under his body, compressing his body like a coiled spring. To convert the forward momentum into upward thrust the horse brings his weight back and shortens the length of the last stride before take-off.


From a riders perspective, balance on the approach should be the primary focus. Improving balance on approach can significantly improve jump performance, scope and shape. And when I say balance I'm referring to 3 types: Balance of energy, so in other words, an energised but controlled canter; balance of fore-hind weight distribution so the horse isn't running onto the forehand; and also good lateral balance, in other words staying upright on the turn and so not falling out through the shoulder. Only when the horse has good lateral balance on the turn will the horse be able to jump straight and truly hold a line.


This last type of balance is commonly seen when a rider turns from the inside rein, over bending the neck to the inside, rather than concentrating on bringing the outside shoulder round the turn by using the outside aids. Exercises such as approaching in counter canter or counter neck bend or overshooting the line and leg yielding back onto it are not only illuminating, improving rider awareness of balance and canter quality, but also as a consequence significantly improving jump quality.



2. Take-Off


Take-off is not an ordinary canter stride. The forelimbs push off together first to push the forehand up and initiate the jump. In a way, this moment can be likened to a rear. Just before take-off, the horse lowers his head and sinks through the thoracic sling whilst simultaneously, the fetlocks drop. This helps to load the structures before both the thoracic sling and forelimb muscles contract, and the energy in the muscles, tendons and ligaments is released to extend the limbs and push up and lift the forehand.


Horse jumping skeleton, rider ske;leton suit, approach to jmump, Horses Inside Out with Gillian Higgins

The hindlimbs come under the body quickly together, flexing and compressing like a pogo stick before extending and powerfully pushing into the ground to ultimately determine the trajectory of the jump. Bringing the hind limbs underneath square at take off is a good technique as this gives better opportunity for creating a straight, powerful jump.


This is actually something you can hear too. Next time you watch a horse jumping listen out for the "pat - pat" sound of the take off as the forefeet then the hindfeet push into the ground together.


A horse that tends to split the placement of the hind limbs is not effectively using the hind end and is more likely to have straightness issues with the jump. Take-off poles can be a really useful way of encouraging the horse to improve hindend technique in this moment.


During this phase, the horse's limbs create forces many times its body weight. The tendons and ligaments, especially in the lower limbs, are stretched. This stretch is important for the recoil which helps to propel the horse over the fence.


3. In The Air

Horse jumping, suspension, bascule, Horses Inside Out with Gillian Higgins

This is often referred to as the suspension phase and the horse's body rotates around its centre of gravity – like a see-saw. The success of suspension is created during the approach and at take off. Once the horse is in the air there is a little the horse can do do improve the chances of clearing the fence which bascially involves flexing then extending the back.


A horse with a good jumping technique, in the first part of suspension, will lower the head which can help to round the back and elevate the centre of mass by a small amount. (Sometimes just 1cm can be the difference between a clear and a rail down) This rounded shape is called a bascule and is the moment everyone wants in their photos!


Sometimes people focus on flexion of the knees (carpus), when assessing jump quality, and how much the lower limb is "tucked up". But what we really want to see is good shoulder and elbow flexion. This enables the horse to get the knees high which is important for a safe, clear jump. As the 2 are linked, the neck and back flexion in this first part of suspension is key to facilitating good flexion of the shoulder and elbow which is what is needed to have good forelimb action.


Horse jumping, skeleton, suspension, latter stage, Horses Inside Out with Gillian Higgins

During the latter part of suspension the horse "uncurls" by raising the head and neck, extending the back and lumbosacral junction, flicking the back end away and preparing for landing. In someways this moment can be likened to a buck!


The position and balance of the rider can greatly influence the horse's ability to use his head, neck and back in suspension and therefore the quality and success of the jump.


In the early part of suspension the rider needs to allow the rounding bascule to happen:-

  • It is important not to fold too early or overfold as this can put more weight onto the forehand.

  • Giving with the hand at this point is important to make sure the horse has enough rein to lower the head to create the bascule.


In the latter part of the suspension the rider needs to get the timing of sitting up just right.

  • Too early and it can limit the action of the hind end risking a rail down behind.

  • Too late and it puts more weight onto the forehand making landing and getaway much harder for the horse and increasing the risk of the horse pecking on landing.

4. Landing The suspension phase ends as the front feet reach the ground but one could argue that landing begins before this moment. Success of landing is determined at take off and preparation for it begins in the suspension phase.


The front limbs bear the brunt of the impact, often absorbing multiple times the horse's body weight. A horse jumping a 1m showjump will absorb 2 and half times his body weight through the trailing front limb. Make the fence bigger, add the weight of the rider, increase the speed and a drop cross country, and these forces will be higher.


Gillian Higgins, jumping, eventing, cross country

Interestingly, it's the trailing forelimb which lands first, is more perpendicular to the leading limb, and absorbs most of the force. The trailing limb is the left forelimb when the horse is in right canter as illustrated by Freddie in the above photograph. This is useful to appreciate when trying to work out why horses prefer a specific landing lead. It also illustrates the importance of practising landing evenly on each lead in training.


As the horse lands, the fetlocks and carpus often hyperextend. The suspensory ligament and the deep digital flexor tendon are stretched significantly to absorb the force. The thoracic sling muscles, including the pectorals, play a vital role in cushioning this impact, protecting both the musculoskeletal system and the vital organs encased within the ribcage.


It is interesting to note with the head and neck up at impact of the forelimbs, the extreme extension at the base of the neck and in the back at this moment. This can upset a horse with problems in these areas.


Horse jumping skeleton, rider skeleton suit, landing phase, Horses Inside Out with Gillian Higgins

The hindlimbs reach as far forward as possible and together when it's a big fence. Technically, the hindlimbs hitting the ground ends the landing phase but in this moment the horse is still going downhill and it is the role of the hindlimbs to push down hard into the ground to help elevate the forehand similar to when rearing. This rebalancing action takes a huge amount of effort and is multiplied when landing and take off are combined, for example, when jumping a bounce.

5. Get Away As the horse’s front feet touch the ground they push the body into the next canter stride and the hind legs step under the body. During the first stride after landing the horse needs to rebalance and regain his canter rhythm.


Horse and rider skeleton, skeleton suits jumping, get away phase

This final phase of the jump is also often the approach phase to the next fence so when riding it is important to bear this in mind. When riding a combination it is the line and quality of the last fence that you should have in mind when approaching the first. So we have come full circle and the rider's focus needs to be on canter quality and balance once again.


"Ride the D element rather than the A element!"

 

Understanding the biomechanics of how the horse jumps helps us to improve our training and management to minimise the risk of injury. By taking time to study the biomechanics of jumping you will learn to assess and recognise what a good jump is. This then gives you the ability to pick the best exercises to ride on your own horse to improve his performance and jump.

 

Discover more...

If you would like to learn more about how your horse jumps, and exercises that improve you and your horse's performance, we have lots of resources to help:-


Posture and Performance This fascinating and easy to understand book covers how the horse jumps, and looks at gymnastic jumping in detail.



Anatomy in Action looks at the different types of jumps including uprights and spread fences. It also looks at how the horse jumps up and down steps.



Jumping from the Anatomical Approach This on-demand recorded lecture demonstration looks at the anatomy and more specifically how the horse uses his body when jumping.


Gillian explains how the horse uses his neck in jumping, studies how the forelimbs contribute to elevating the forehand at take off and absorbing forces at landing. It also looks at how the hind limbs create upward and forward power to create the trajectory, and the connections between the hind limb, and the back.


Polework and Gymnastic Jumping This on-demand recorded webinar studies the biomechanics of how the horse jumps to help you assess your horse. It also suggests many different exercises that you can do with your own horse.





 

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