Building Blocks to a Great Position: Part 4 of 4

By Bernie Trauig

June 18, 2012

A strong, tight, correct position over jumps is every riders goal no matter if they are just starting out or been in the saddle for years. Here in the states we’ve even developed an entire division and industry based on achieving the perfect position. Equitation, however goes beyond looking correct or riding in a specific style, it’s rooted in functionality and tests a riders effectiveness which is why the USEF Medal, Maclay and Talent Search Finals have become increasingly more demanding over the years and are the pinnacle of the equitation rider’s career.
In an attempt to share my beliefs/teachings on correct, effective position I have created a progressive training system, “Building Blocks to a Great Position” to teach riders how to develop a solid position on the flat and over fences. In parts 1, 2, and 3 I concentrate on fine-tuning the correct heel, leg and upper body position and then in part 4, the jumping phase, I turn my focus to the arm and hand.

A great position is all about being in balance with your horse on the approach to the jump, over the fence and on the landing, while maintaining contact with the horse’s mouth both on the flat and over fences. A large part of that connection is maintained through the arm and hand, which is why it is so important to have elastic arms and an independent seat—this way your upper body is supported by your security in the tack and balance in the stirrups, not the neck—allowing you to do anything you want with your arms, hand and upper body.

The goal is to master all releases. Maintaining contact or a connection with the horse’s mouth over fences in a straight line from elbow to mouth, in it’s most advanced form is known as the automatic release, jumping out of hand or simply being able to follow the horse’s neck and head in the air over the fence (the following arm).

Step 1: Connect at the walk.
Contact, like most things in riding begins at the walk. To develop a following arm in this gait we first we need to think about the position of our arms and hands. In general, we try to keep a straight line between the horse’s mouth or bit and the rider’s elbow, with our hands at about a 25-35 degree angle or the slope of the shoulder. I like to ride with the rein between my pinky and ring finger with a little bit of an open hand as this enables me to close and open my fingers. In this way, I develop feeling with my fingers and arm.

To develop elastic arms that follow the horse’s neck it’s important to have a loose relaxed arm that moves from your shoulder joint. Establish contact at the walk by encouraging your horse with your leg into a forward rhythmical walk, then focus on following the motion of the horse’s neck, which is his balancing mechanism, at the walk and canter, with your arm as he swings his neck in motion with his gait.

Step 2: Maintain contact at the canter.
Once you’re comfortable with a following contact at the walk, practice it in the canter. Your goal is to be part of the motion of the horse’s neck, which ultimately we’d like to follow in the air over fences.
It is also important to pay attention to the width of your hands. If your hand carriage is too narrow your hands will interfere with the automatic release in the air, by bumping into the neck. Therefore, the wrists should be separated wide enough that they can easily move forward on either side of the neck in an automatic release. This wider hand position also gives the rider more control of the horse. (I like to think of the thumbs separated at least “bit width”).

Step 3: Master the automatic release.
You want to have contact and control to the jump, over the jump and away from the jump. The automatic release, or following arm, is connection in the air. I actually think of the automatic release as a connected release more than a ‘release’ as the word implies.

However the automatic release is the most advanced release. Riders are first taught the long crest release – where the hands are pressed half way up and on top of the horse’s neck and the fingers hold the mane. As a rider becomes tighter in the tack they learn to do the long crest release without grabbing mane. The hands and arms should reach as far forward and the pressure and balance on the neck can be on the top or slightly below, but not above the crest. The next release taught is the short crest release. Much the same as the long crest release it allows the horse complete freedom of their head and neck. It differs slightly in that the hands don’t go forward all the way to the halfway point of the neck, instead forward just a few inches and along side the crest.
As soon as a rider is secure with their position in the air, and can move their arm independently from the seat, I like to focus on developing the automatic release. It is key to have hands that are wide enough apart that they do not bump into the neck as this will inadvertently encourage the rider to rest on the neck supporting their upper body with the neck instead of with their base of support. With that being said even the best of riders rely on the neck for support from time to time and certainly a wisp of mane can come in handy when needed.

To practice the automatic release, set a small vertical and canter it from both directions. Follow the motion in the air by letting the horse take your hand, maintaining the feel on the landing. Remember it is a soft, subtle feel that does not interfere with the horse’s bascule at all.

While we’ve always used the mane and neck as a teaching tool, since the early 70s riders in this country seem to rely on the neck for balance way beyond the intermediate level. Loss of contact or connection in the air has become the norm, especially in the hunter ring where it seems to be quite acceptable and even fashionable. Advanced equitation and jumper riders are required to show a greater degree of proficiency in their release, therefore advanced riders should strive to master all releases and use them at their discretion.

Step 4: Work from an independent seat.
Having an independent seat from arms is especially important in classes that require a turn in the air or asking for a lead in the air. If you’re going to rely on the neck for balance at that stage, it’s near impossible to get the turn without stiffing the horse in the mouth and neck. You’re also probably not that soft with the arms if you’re up on the neck and you’re likely to be late with an opening rein aid if your hands are anchored by your upper body weight to the neck.

Step 5: Stay with the motion.
While some horses require a deeper seat with more leg. Most horses on most courses today are ridden in a forward seat (half seat) or a light seat closer to the saddle. We have variations in our hip angle—closed or open, rising up or sinking in—and we use different seats on course for different circumstances.
The key part is to be with the motion of the horse, at all times, and especially at the moment of take off. This has to be done softly and tactfully so you are not throwing yourself at the horse or getting behind the motion at take off.

To view the video topic “Building Blocks to a Great Position: Part 4-Jumping Phase” where 2009 ASPCA MaClay Finals winner Zazou Hoffman helps demonstrate the points of this article go to

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