Horse Activities: Jumping

Jumping is one of the signature activities in English style riding, whether it is for foxhunting or competition. Though the horse is not as natural a jumper as, for example, the impala or the tiger, most horses are capable of jumping and will do so out of necessity in the wild. Riding horses can be trained to clear obstacles of varying heights and descriptions either cross-country or in the show ring under the guidance of a knowledgeable rider.

In the past, horses were schooled to jump in order to clear livestock barriers and property boundaries while following hounds on cross-country hunts. Depending on the country and the territory, these barriers ranged from hedges, stone walls and banks with ditches to post-and-rail fences and chicken coops. Modern-day “field hunters”—horses that are used in foxhunting—must still possess the ability to gallop and jump natural obstacles over varied terrain and footing.

Out of this tradition grew Hunt Seat riding and the hunter sport, which is theoretically a show-ring test of a horse’s suitability for the hunt field (see English Riding under “Riding Types”). In Hunt Seat competition, there are divisions such as Green Hunter, Working Hunter and Conformation Hunter (where a horse’s build is judged, as well). Obstacles in hunter classes are generally of moderate height and width―most often in the 2 to 4 foot range, depending on the level and the class. A show-ring hunter outfitted in traditional English tack typically negotiates a preset course of 8-10 obstacles designed to mimic those in the hunt field at a rhythmic canter. The obstacles are usually set a certain number of 12-foot strides from each other to encourage a moderate, even pace and must be taken in a prescribed order.

In hunter classes, the horse is judged on his manners, way of going and style of jumping. The preferred jumping form includes a straight approach to the fence, as well as a smooth arc or “bascule” over it, with a rounded back and good extension of the head and neck. At the height of each leap, the horse’s forearms should be parallel to or higher than the ground. His knees should have a high, level “snap” to almost nose level, and his lower legs should be tucked up evenly, with plenty of bend at the fetlock. Refusal to take a fence, knocking a pole down, switching leads in inappropriate spots or breaking stride are among the possible faults. Three refusals, going off course or fall of horse and/or rider are grounds for elimination.

Thoroughbred horses, Thoroughbred types and warmbloods are most commonly seen in Hunt Seat riding.

A related English sport known as Show Jumping or Stadium Jumping takes jumping to greater heights and requires more strategic riding over more technical courses. It is judged not on the horse’s way of going, manners or jumping form, but simply on his ability to clear a course of large, colorful and challenging obstacles in the fastest time without incurring faults.

In contrast to a hunter course, a typical jumper course might contain 12-16 obstacles. These are usually a combination of vertical obstacles, spread jumps (which are wide) and double or triple combinations with gaily striped poles and exotic features. Just as with the hunters, there are different levels and divisions within the sport. Depending on the level, jump heights can range from 2 feet, 6 inches (with spreads up to 3 feet, 9 inches) all the way up to heights of 5 feet, 3 inches (with spreads up to 6 feet, 7 inches).

The highest jumps of all are reserved for the specialized Puissance classes, where the final wall can reach over 7 feet tall.

In a regular jumper class, all the obstacles are jumped in a prescribed order, with tight turns between fences, changes of direction and sometimes irregular distances. Four faults are incurred for each pole knocked down and for each refusal. A fault is also incurred for every second over the maximum time allowed to negotiate the course. Those with clear or “clean” first rounds usually move on to a jump-off round over an abbreviated course with the fences often set higher than in the previous round. Put simply, the horse with the fewest faults and the fastest time wins.

To be a jumper, a horse must be not only athletic, but bold, courageous, accurate and fast. Thoroughbred horses, Thoroughbred types and warmbloods excel in this exciting discipline, but even ponies have been competitive jumpers on occasion.

Jumpers are generally ridden with forward-cut English jumping saddles and a wide variety of English tack. They usually wear protective boots or wraps on their legs.

Show jumping is one of the equestrian sports contested in the Olympic Games. It is also the traditional final phase in three-day eventing or horse trials, where it tests the accuracy and fitness of the horses after the dressage and cross-country phases (jumping is required in the cross-country phase of eventing, as well. For more information, see Eventing).