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Sound basics

- jumping with Duncan McFarlane -

Duncan McFarlane’s credentials, earned during the many years he successfully competed and taught in the USA, are impressive. At heart though, this high achiever remains a humble Kiwi, dedicated to helping riders here develop to their highest level. While accepting no compromises from rider or horse, he delivers nuggets of wisdom with respect, humour, and a keen eye.

© Show Circuit Magazine

Words and photos: Show Circuit

“It’s really simple. There are four things a rider needs to be able to do. You have to be able to go forward, slow down, turn left, and turn right.”

Duncan says that the show jumping scene here has come a long way, but one area where he sees scope for improvement is in arena preparation.

“Over here, the surfaces range from rock hard to very good. The Americans are super-organised when it comes to arena preparation and dust control. For example, during the course walk, the warm-up arena is watered and harrowed, then while riders are warming up, the main arena is being watered and prepared. With up to 350 horses going through an arena in a day, it’s very organised and structured.

“For the longevity of our good horses, it’s important that we learn from them and that we use the expertise available here for our arena surfaces.”

On the subject of our horses, Duncan observes that we tend to lose sight of the fact that their top horses, particularly in the Hunter Jumper rings, have invariably come out of Europe, and have the basics in place from day one.

“They can go on a stride and in a rhythm, so when there’s a problem, it’s just a matter of reminding them. In comparison, our New Zealand horses can be a little uncivilised – they just don’t know, so we have to teach them.

“In addition, our Thoroughbreds will react differently to warmbloods. There’s no quick answer for that type of horse, and it’s best not to push too fast and create a lot of problems. They need to learn to go off the leg without frying the brain, so it’s all about getting the horse strong enough to canter slowly in self-carriage without falling behind the leg.”

© Show Circuit Magazine

The Warm-up


After a walk around the arena for a look and a few short trots, Emily picks up the trot on a large circle, bending Lola around her inside leg, before Duncan asks her for a ‘square’ turn. He encourages her to ride actively in a rhythm.

“It’s really simple. There are four things a rider needs to be able to do. You have to be able to go forward, slow down, turn left, and turn right. Correct basics mean being able to do these four things while maintaining a rhythm and making a distance.

 “You choose the speed and the rhythm of the trot. Slow the rhythm in the corners, ride inside leg to outside rein and soften the inside hand. In working trot rising, you want to be energetic on the long side, and shorten and collect through the corners.”

During this warm-up phase, Lola spies a ‘spooky’ sign that Duncan has deliberately placed at the side of the arena.

“Spooking often means a careful horse,” he reassures Emily. “She’s not in trouble for spooking, but you have to be able to control where the horse’s focus is. You can let the horse do what she wants, or you can get her to listen to you and focus on what you want her to do.”

He adds, “Course designers deliberately set problems for the riders to deal with. Your horse has to learn to keep her focus on the job and go where she is told. Take note when you are walking a course and make sure your horse sees anything spooky from the direction they will be travelling.

“If your horse has a look at fill during a round, maintain the leg-to-hand connection. The moment you soften your hand, you have lost her,” he says. “Don’t drop the reins in front of the fence – make sure you are in balance from the outset and keep your leg on, keeping that leg-to-hand connection.”

Sound Basics

Duncan also urges Emily to be particular about rising on the correct diagonal and says it is surprising how often he sees very competent riders not paying attention.

“You have to have a feel for what’s going on and what your horse is doing without thinking about it. It has to be automatic.”

In canter, Duncan encourages Emily to shape the turn, allowing a bigger canter on the long sides and changing direction with a simple change of lead.

“Lola has a nice way of going. I don’t like to see the horse pulled into a frame with nothing happening behind,” he tells Emily. “Just get organised, get your canter lead and focus on the rhythm. When you are jumping, you make your distances from the rhythm.”

© Show Circuit Magazine

Duncan uses a variety of exercises in the warm-up, all designed to have the horse in a calm, balanced and attentive state prior to jumping. As horse and rider loosen up, the work incorporates quarters-in on the long side, changes of rein through a small circle and walk-canter-walk transitions.


Duncan’s jumping exercises are designed to help build the horse’s strength, balance and adjustability, while at the same time encouraging riders to develop consistency in making the distance so that they can replicate their success during training in competition.

“Developing the showjumper is about building strength, adjustability and confidence. Who is in charge – you or the horse? In the show jumping arena, you have to be able to have a plan and make a distance. Is it a forward line, or a waiting line? Get good at those decisions!

“Through combinations, the striding is critical. For the rest of the course, the striding depends on your horse and your plan.”

The gymnastic exercises Duncan sets are those that are seen all over the world, teaching riders and horses how to solve problems. The jumps are quite small so that for both rider and horse, the experience is one of success.

“Failure leads to loss of confidence,” he says. “Gymnastic work is flatwork with a few small jumps thrown in. This isn’t a horse show; it’s training to strengthen and balance the horse so that it uses its hind end and becomes adjustable.

“There’s no point going on to bigger jumps and bigger courses if you can’t do the basics well. There’s no magic bullet, and it’s just hard work and perseverance. You don’t have to be the best rider in the world, but you do have to get the basics right.”

© Show Circuit Magazine

Duncan’s arena layout is relatively symmetrical, with plenty of flexible options.

Emily starts on the right rein, going around the outside of the arena and through the small combination in the corner. Two small, cavaletti height rails are set at right angles, one each side of the arena corner. These can be ridden with three, four or five strides between the two, and Duncan asks Emily to ride the combination in a specific number of strides.

He cautions Emily to make a distance for the horse to leave the ground.

“Keep her in front of the leg and keep the leg to hand connection. Use your inside leg to stop her from cutting the corner,” he tells her. “You will need to get organised before the turn, so it’s land and balance.”

The distance across the top of the arena can be ridden in four, five or six strides.

“If you get a waiting distance, it’s five strides. If you see four strides, ride four strides,” Duncan instructs.

© Show Circuit Magazine
© Show Circuit Magazine

Duncan’s wise words

“In everything you do with your horse, whether it is on the ground or ridden, you are either training the horse, or you are untraining the horse. Everything you do with your horse has a result, either good or bad. Make it a positive experience.”

•         In show jumping, the canter rhythm is everything.

•         Take your time. Don’t hurry to a mistake.

•         Manage what you do, better.

•         If you and your horse are struggling or finding an exercise difficult, break it down. Do it in pieces until you can accomplish the whole thing.

•         Break your show jumping rounds into manageable parts, then decide how to tackle each part.

•         Rider building blocks develop automatic responses, which will enable the rider to continue to ride correctly while focusing on what is coming.

•         Get good at the basics. There’s no magic bullet.

Emily then pops Lola through the corner combination and trots into the combination on the arena centreline before veering right and going over the oxer.

“The distance from the combination is an open six strides, so get organised – land, look, and balance. The combination is a waiting exercise so stay slow. Turn and have a look at the jump instead of looking at the horse’s ears. Looking at the fence reinforces the direction you want to travel in.”

Throughout the jumping work, Duncan urges Emily to make decisions on how she plans to approach each line and each jump, to control her tendency to hurry and to keep her eyes in the direction she wants to go.

© Show Circuit Magazine

Duncan’s takeaway message

During the session, Duncan identifies Emily as a very competent rider who is doing an excellent job with her attractive mare.

He also sees her as a problem solver who leans towards being a perfectionist – an analysis Emily agrees with.

“You ride well, but you have a tendency to hurry – just slow down, take your time and look where you are going. Manage your rounds by breaking them into pieces and solving each piece.

“Realise though that it won’t be perfect – it will never be perfect!”

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