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Training with correctness

- Jen Hamilton -

Words and Images: Show Circuit

Jen Hamilton is one of the most widely respected coaches in North America and has been a regular visitor to New Zealand over many years. Her compelling, no-nonsense teaching delivers a range of strategies that riders can take away and apply to their ongoing training at home. She enjoys teaching intelligent, self-motivated riders, and then encourages them to train with correctness to form a strong base of good habits. “Every time you ride, you are forming habits – good or bad. Why not form good habits?”

© Show Circuit Magazine

Jen has observed that New Zealanders are very fortunate because due to the frequency and relatively low cost of shows, riders can take advantage of show facilities to enhance their training. As a result, many competitive riders do not have a training facility of their own, as they train almost exclusively at shows.


The negative for North America is that the shows are incredibly expensive. Therefore, riders train at home, and then they test the training programme at the shows. These different philosophies both seem to work to a certain level.


She would like New Zealand riders to learn from the mistakes made in the US jumper scene. “We took the cowboy out of the rider – we should have just tamed the cowboy.”

© Show Circuit Magazine

The lesson

Jen Hamilton is forthright and direct. From the outset, it’s clear that she is dedicated to making whatever corrections are necessary for riders to train their horses to be the best athletes they can be. Her business card says it all – “I didn’t get up this morning to watch you fall off, stop, cry or whine!”


The session starts with work on a large circle to assess Hypo’s state of training and rideability. Jen says that the hardest part of jumping a course is getting to the jumps, and this requires very good and correct flatwork.


“Correct training makes the horse rideable,” Jen explains. “It gives the rider options, and the more options you have, the safer you are.”


Hypo is typical of a young Thoroughbred off the track – he is keen and forward, and also quite sensitive. Jen encourages Emma to maintain a consistent leg position to foster relaxation and to maintain control, from front to back and from side to side.


To start with, Emma rides the circle in trot, asking for transitions within the pace – from a bigger trot to a shorter trot, using half circles to the inside to change direction. Jen emphasises the importance of riding with purpose and direction on a definite track and riding from the inside leg to the outside hand.


To encourage accuracy, Jen then asks Emma to alternate between trot and canter on the circle – ten strides trotting and ten strides cantering, looking for neat and accurate transitions both upwards and downwards.

© Show Circuit Magazine

Poles and grids

Jen is a big fan of using placing poles in her training courses, saying that poles and grids are gymnastic work for the horse, helping to develop strength and balance and promote confidence in both horse and rider. These exercises also help the rider to feel and interpret the horse’s stride length to get better distances.


Ideally, she prefers planks on the ground to poles, as there is less danger of the horse injuring himself – if he steps on a pole it may roll, whereas a plank is more likely to stay in place.


For the first exercise, Jen has three poles on the ground on the long side of the arena, spaced at 13.5 metres (or 45 feet). She asks Emma to ride the line in canter, with either three strides or four strides between each element. She stresses that whether Emma chooses three strides or four strides, she must be consistent – if she rides three strides between the first and second elements, she must ride three strides between the second and third elements. Once she has completed the first ride through, she will ride through the line in the opposite direction, using the alternate striding.


Jen explains that the distance from the centre line of the arena to the first pole is Emma’s ‘set-up’

time, during which she can make any necessary corrections to steady the pace or lengthen the stride, and the distance from the last pole to the centre line of the arena is her ‘recovery’ time.


“Every time you make a turn, make it the best turn of your life. When riding a line, set it up, ride it and make corrections.”


Emma and Hypo have no difficulties when they progress to cantering through a small grid – a crossed rail, an upright, and another crossed rail. This helps keep Hypo straight, and once he understands the exercise, the small jumps can be raised. For variety, Emma also jumps each of the first and last elements of the grid on an angle.

© Show Circuit Magazine

Placing poles

Jen explains that when used in conjunction with a jump, a pole in front of the fence teaches the horse to rock back and curl over the jump. It also helps to promote strength, flexibility and jumping technique.


In front of the oxer, Jen uses a placing pole 9m out. This distance demands two connected strides to the oxer.


“The horse has to go into the base and then open up,” she says. “Riders are tempted to see the long-distance rather than maintain a consistent stride. The pole encourages impulsion versus speed.


“A pole after the fence teaches the horse to keep the correct arch. Over a vertical, the highest point of the horse’s arch should be directly over the jump. A lot of horses like to overshoot the arch – that’s caused by a lack of strength to rock back and sit.”


Hypo jumps confidently off a good, well-controlled stride, so Jen is able to increase the complexity of the questions. A short course of related fences requires Emma to adjust the canter for accurate striding, the line requiring four strides, then three, then five strides to a placing pole and a further five strides to the final jump.


Jen cautions Emma to maximise her time on the short side of the arena to organise her lines, and to finish up neatly with a correct halt.


“Think about your turns and lines the whole time,” she reminds Emma.


For the final part of the lesson, Jen incorporates both oxers and verticals into a course.


“Jumping from an oxer to a vertical is a harder challenge than jumping a vertical to an oxer. You need to keep control after the oxer and not let him get long and flat after the oxer to the vertical. Use your outside rein and position to rebalance the horse.”

"Every time you ride, you are forming habits - good habits or bad habits. Train with correctness to form good habits so that you can be a star at competitions."

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