A guide to help you ride in the moment – JUMPING on the right side of your brain

I'm still on my mission to have perfect equitation. But I've come a long way...

Last week, I shared a guide to help you improve your dressage by riding by feel on the right side of your brain.

By riding alone and without lessons for a few months, I have unlocked a part of my mind that I had not been utilizing for my riding. Technically, I know it is the right side of my brain. When I get there, I am one with my horse. I feel excited, but calm – exhilarated, but in control. The right side of the brain is the intuitive, subjective, relational, holistic, time-free mode. I am learning to quiet the left side of my brain and stop the chatter. The left side is designed to cultivate verbal and rational instruction. We need instruction to give us the basics of riding and understand the technical aspects. But we need to be able to access the right side to feel what we are riding and respond accordingly.

Right brain riding principles can help improve your cross-country and show jumping skills. Think of jumping as dressage with jumps in the way. The biggest difference is “riding to a good distance or stride”. The key to hitting that perfect distance… riding in the moment. If you rely too heavily on a plan you or your coach made on your course walk it can hinder your ability to react to what is happening underneath you.

For example, I used to walk my courses to figure out what all the distances were between lines. I would be dead set on getting the ‘correct’ number of strides that I had walked. This would sometimes cost me four faults. If my horse jumped massive into a five stride line it would suddenly become a four stride but I would not react to this and would try to get the five. Similarly, I have had run outs on cross-country because I was riding a plan that my coach gave me on the course walk, not what was happening underneath me.

I grew sick of being my own worst enemy. It took a lot of work to shift my focus from numbers and plans to what was happening in the moment. I spent many jumps schools on my own working to feel what was happening underneath me and react accordingly. I found it easier to ride in the moment while doing dressage because I was never hung up on a set number of strides between movements. It took time to quiet my mind and ride without my counting crutch. But eventually, I was able to access the right side of my brain when jumping.

So how can you improve your show jumping and cross-country riding by skipping a few lessons? Here are the steps to improve your jumping by being totally in the moment by riding on the right side of your brain:

1) Always produce the best canter to each fence – Riding to the perfect distance is useless if you arrive there in a poor or incorrect canter. The ideal canter will vary depending on the type of jump. A vertical needs a shorter more powerful stride than an oxer. An oxer requires a more open canter so your horse can cover the spread. On cross-country, some jumps such as tables can be jumped out of a balanced, uphill gallop but more technical questions such as a bending line of corners requires a more controlled and compact canter. Think about the jump you are approaching, feel what canter you are currently riding and make the necessary adjustments to create the perfect canter for that jump. Make sure you maintain this quality canter all the way to the base of the jump. You need to ride in the moment so you are in tune with any changes that happen in your horse’s canter and are able to make corrections accordingly.

2) Avoid making radical changes to the canter for a distance – A coach once told me that distances are comparable to guys at a bar; do not marry the first one that you see. So if you feel the urge to move up to a fence six strides out – don’t. Lengthening for more than three strides in a row to a fence will cause your horse to get there in a flat and strung out canter, making for a bad jump. The same goes for shortening the canter drastically, it will cause your horse to get there underpowered. Be patient and ride the canter, you will eventually see the correct distance that does not require any radical stride length changes to get there. Being in the moment is critical to you staying calm and focused enough to have the patience to see the correct distance. Balance is an important ingredient to produce an excellent jump, so do not throw your horse off balance in attempts to get to a certain distance.

3) RIDE your line – It is important that you ride the line that is the most suitable to approach a jump and hold this line. Do not let your horse wiggle or drift off your line. You need to be in the moment to make sure your horse is going straight at all times. If you let your mind wonder out of the moment for so much as a second, you run the risk that your horse could accidentally drift off your line. This is very critical when jumping corners, skinnies and other accuracy questions on cross-country. In show jumping, this is equally as important because if you arrive at a jump and your horse is not straight in its body it will not be able to use ideal form. Not too mention, a wiggly horse makes riding to a good distance nearly impossible.

4) Feel, do not count – Counting is a thought process that takes place on the left side of your brain. If you are counting on your way to a fence then you are not riding on the right side of your brain. Block the numbers out of your mind and focus on only what is happening underneath and the visual in front of you, be in the moment. For me this was very hard. It takes self discipline and practice. This is the most effective exercise that I have been using to train myself to stay on the right side of my brain while jumping:

Set up a course and DO NOT walk the distances: Randomly set up six or more jumps in a pattern that you can use to jump a course. Do not set up any lines that look like they are under three strides. This way if you happen to set up a line on a half-stride, there will be enough strides that you and your horse could adjust stride length to safely jump this non-traditional distance. The purpose of this exercise is not to test your horse’s scope so keep the jumps at a height you are both very comfortable with. Once your course is set, hop on your horse and start jumping. Since you never walked the distances between the jumps there is no point in trying to count strides. Without having set distances in the back of your mind you will be forced to ride in the moment.

Although you are jumping a course, make sure you treat each fence as an individual. When you are approaching a fence your only thought should be giving it the best ride that you can deliver. You should not be fretting about a difficult line coming up or kicking yourself in the pants for riding the previous jump so poorly. The only thoughts going through your mind should be about what is happening underneath you and the fence in front of you. Riding a course is simply a matter of riding numerous individual fences in a row, do not overcomplicate it.

You can do the same thing with cross-country jumps. Go school a cross-country course and play around with jumping a few mini courses of jumps that are a level or two below what you compete at. The same principles apply; tackle the jumps one at a time and stay in the moment.

Give yourself the gift of riding in the moment and have some productive holiday rides!

Scroll for more top stories on Eventing Connect