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Troubleshooting: The Automatic Release and Seeing Distances

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Submitted by member: Sarah

I am coming back to riding after a 10+ year break between my junior/college years and now, my amateur years. I was taught the crest release and was used to riding the “long and low” hunters. Now, as a weaker amateur, I find myself with some very bad habits and am trying to work on the automatic release, which is finally getting better. However, when I find myself with a not so great distance, I tend to throw my hands into the horses neck and pray, which my new horse is NOT appreciative of. I was wondering if your experts had any suggestions about how to consistently ride to the base of the fence with contact? I seem to have no problem with the auto-release if I am confident several strides away with the distance. However, when I see it late or it’s not a great distance, everything goes out the window.

Answer by Linda Allen

I appreciate your question because when I teach jumping clinics I often ask riders at the outset, “What are you finding your biggest challenge is at the moment with your riding?” Probably the single most common response is something along the lines of, “I need to be better at seeing my distances/spots!” It is amazing how often that a rider such as yourself that rode as a junior, usually quite successfully, takes a hiatus from jumping. You try hard to be perfect and feel confident if you ‘know where you are’ and can make a big mess of it on occasion when you are not sure.

“Seeing a spot/distance” (especially for adult riders) can become something like the search for the Holy Grail – the harder you search the more misadventures you encounter. After decades of coaching, I’ve come to dislike this term since it implies looking for something located on the ground in front of the jump! Searching for a distance usually creates problems because other essential elements fall apart. Every rider should first feel confident dealing with each jump as it appears—be it just right, long, or short.  A rider who can leave the final adjustments in stride and balance to their horse, while they focus on track, pace, and rhythm, will suddenly realize that they are beginning to ‘feel’ where their horse is in relation to the jump. When they don’t know for sure, they must remain relaxed enough not to panic and try to ‘do something’ at the last moment. A really ugly jump or a refusal is most likely the result of kicking or pulling on the horse in the last couple of strides. Horses trust riders who don’t give them big surprises in front of jumps. A horse is not like a bicycle, they have an interest in jumping the jump well and developing ‘an eye’ of their own. A rider who steps in at the very last second with a different idea for how to jump than what they were planning can be discouraging to say the least! Work over ground poles can be good practice for learning not to anticipate, but to remain lightly in balance and simply feel the horse’s adjustment in stride and balance without interfering.

I strongly believe that riders first need to focus entirely on the four essentials of jumping: maintaining their own balance, following the proper track all the way around the course, establishing and maintaining a suitable pace for the questions being asked, and riding the rhythm in all situations. A rider must learn to identify what lead to use when approaching a less than perfect jump. Was the rider ahead of their horse making a closer distance more difficult for the horse to stay in form? Perhaps their pace became too forward towards the end of the course? Did lack of straightness down a line lead to an extra stride? A rider does not fix bad jumps; they fix the canter going to the jump. With the correct execution of these four elements, the rider will begin to feel how they are arriving at the jump and begin to make the very small, subtle adjustments to stride and balance that can help the horse be his best when dealing with larger jumps and more complicated riding tests.

Top professional riders give the impression that they arrange for their horses to arrive at the perfect take-off spot every time. These riders’ ability to make every jump look the same is due to their skill at using only very small, invisible adjustments to assist their horses. What is just as important (that you can’t see) is their ability to feel the perfect canter/gallop and to simply stay out of their horse’s way the majority of the time. They develop and maintain skill by riding many horses, many days a week, over many years. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you can’t match it right now. First strive to make every jump ‘good enough,’ rather than ‘perfect.’ As soon you can be comfortable with any distance, the ones you like best will come more and more consistently.

As to mastering an automatic release, first you must not be dependent on knowing you have your distance—this means you are anticipating ‘doing something’ at the jump. Work on confidently dealing with deeper or longer distances, as well as perfect ones, with security, balance, and a lack of tension. You are then on your way to having an independent seat where you can relax or control parts of your body at will. When your seat is independent, it is simply a matter of assuring that your arm is relaxed as your horse leaves the ground; your horse will take the rein he needs, with your arm and hand following automatically to maintain a feather light contact over the jump. Forcing it both looks and feels awkward.

Position, balance, and feel are not things that one learns once and then forgets about. Good riders continue working to improve—and know it must feel natural before it becomes truly effective. Enjoy the journey!

Video Recommendations:

eye exercises to find a distance to a jump on your horse

An Exercise To Perfect The Automatic Release
Bernie Traurig
A great way to get off the neck for balance and move from the crest release to connection with the mouth, or the “Automatic Release.”
Running Time:  12 minutes and 7 seconds

View Video
Missy Clark’s topic “Landing the Lead for Seamless Bending Lines.”

Exercises to Develop a Better Eye: Part 1-A
Bernie Traurig
Bernie demonstrates exercises you can incorporate into your flatwork everyday that will work your eye without overworking your horse!
Running Time:  19 minutes and 1 seconds

View Video
exercises to help you see a distance to a jump on your horse

Eye Exercise Tips
Bernie Traurig
Bernie demonstrates exercises you can incorporate into your flatwork everyday that will work your eye without overworking your horse!
Running Time:  6 minutes and 41 seconds

View Video
jim hagman teaches a rider the automatic release on her horse

Teaching the Automatic Release – The Hagman Formula, Part 1
Jim Hagman
The automatic release is an essential skill in every good rider’s toolbox. The use of it promotes a soft elastic connection with the mouth that follows the horse’s neck (bascule) over a jump. Additionally, the automatic release or following arms, illustrates the independence of the rider’s seat and legs. In this topic Jim Hagman, founder and head coach of Elvenstar (one of the West Coast’s most successful show stables), presents his formula for introducing and perfecting this, the most advanced release. Joining Jim as demonstrator is his superstar student, Sydney Hutchins, whose mastery of the automatic release was evident recently during her two giant wins – the 2014 Platinum Performance/USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals West and the 2014 ASPCA Maclay Regionals West!
Running Time:  6 minutes and 37 seconds

View Video

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Linda Allen

Linda Allen (Hunter, Jumper, Course Design) - is an accomplished Olympic Course Designer, Clinician, Judge, Equestrian Facility Design Consultant and Author. For more than 45 years, Linda has been a fixture in the Equestrian Industry. Linda is an FEI Official International Course Designer, FEI Certified Steward and Course Director for Show Jumping and US Equestrian Federation "R" Course Designer for Jumpers and Hunters. She is a USEF Registered Judge for Jumpers, Hunters and Hunt Seat Equitation, Foreign Judge for FEI Events in Canada, Mexico, Sweden, Italy and Saudi Arabia and has been Member and President of the Ground Jury for multiple World Cup Finals and World Equestrian Games events. Visit her website: www.llallen.com

This Post Has 2 Comments
  1. As an amateur coming back after 14 years off, and having just gone to my first non-collegiate, big show in 26 years…and first “A” show ever…THANK YOU! As these are my struggles. Linda Allen, thank you for the reminders and the encouragement! (My mom Karen Robinson used to clinic with you in Fresno, CA, in the 80’s. She rode with Patrick Rostron.)

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