F & I Annual Conference, Jumping training with Christopher Bartle FBHS

There are few things in which it is a definite pleasure to do; taking a talented horse to a training session at Addington with Christopher Bartle amongst good friends and a knowledgeable and understanding audience, is certainly one. Chris himself needs no introduction but as an event rider who has never trained with him I was anxious to hear his pearls of wisdom and there were many. It is very apparent that Chris has a clear a system that he uses for training his riders and subsequently horses. There were very clear themes that Chris imparted during both days of training sessions. All work centred around rider influence, from where the rider looked, to how they used their seat and their balance to affect how the horse jumped the fence. There was little if any focus on the horse, and it is the first time that I have witnessed a coach conduct sessions and not ask about the horse or comment directly on how the horse was going. Instead throughout both days all feedback was concentrated on the rider.

From warming up on day 1 Chris made it apparent that he wanted riders to think about incorporating the horse’s dressage training into the jumping schooling and performance. This was demonstrated through the use of pole work, counter flexion and small circles between fences or after landing, especially where the horse had been strong or resistant during the exercise. On both days’ sessions commenced with pole work. On day 1 it was poles on a circle that could be trotted over on the inside line and cantered over on the mid line. The intention was that the rider maintained the same rhythm before, over and in landing over the poles, especially when in canter. If the rhythm was not maintained, then the rider was made to circle on landing to instil better balance and less resistance in the horse. Once the horses settled cantering over the poles, the middle pole was raised without altering the distance. When the riders were going over the poles riders were asked to look at Chris who was standing in the middle of the circle. This was so riders could use their peripheral vision and feel to guide the horses over the poles. I for one found this very challenging, and was very interested how much I rely on vision. Whilst working over the poles riders were instructed to really think about how they were using their seat and particularly that their seat bones were tucked underneath them so that the riders core and abdominal muscles were engaged. The idea being that the riders seat must be controlling the horse and sending it forward or collecting it, and not the leg or hand aids. This really emphasised Chris’ robust belief that the seat must create and control the energy and the leg is for engaging the horse. When discussing seat in this context Chris was very clear that he meant the riders core muscles; I.e. engaging a riders’ abs.

Following pole work riders were asked to work in a figure of eight over an upright fence to explore Chris’ next rule: weight in the inside stirrup. Conducting this exercise did clearly show riders, how although we expect the horse to land on the correct leg, we don’t necessarily use our seat and weight aids as effectively as we should. Some riders were found to be throwing their weight over the inside to get the correct canter lead, but it was very clear that merely balancing the horse properly and then shifting the weight to the inside stirrup was merely enough to gain the desired effect.

The third take home message from day 1 was to use counter flexion, as a means to balance and engage the horse. The idea being that the rider used the outside rein and the inside leg to engage and balance the horse. Where horses were too speedy between fences, even in related distances or combinations, or where horses were too quick around turns, riders made to turn circles in counter flexion as a means to engage the horse and to counteract any resistance that was displayed. My horse can be resistant to flexion and so I was made to circle in counter flexion whilst doing the figure of eight exercise, which I found very helpful.

Riders’ vision and eye level was the next take home message. Chris insisted that even when the fences are small that riders look up as if they were jumping a 1m50 fence. This way a rider can be assured of keeping their balance and head up on approach to a fence and of not collapsing over it. Time and again over the two days Chris repeatedly asked riders when using mobile phones and iPads to bring them up to eye level and hold them out in front, rather than crouching over the screen and collapsing their core as is all to commonplace. To reiterate this message Chris asked riders to jump down a related distance of a spread to an upright. Before doing so Chris put the upright up to 1m50 height and instilled in riders that this is where they should be looking when jumping the spread.

The final message from day 1 was to use the medium canter. Whilst jumping a sequence of fences Chris insisted that riders begin in medium canter and make the turns in medium canter. He was very insistent that riders with horses working at 1m10 level or higher should be able to go from walk straight into medium canter and be able to turn a 10m circle in medium canter. He also made the point that riders should be in medium canter before the bell goes. This way the canter has enough impulsion to permit adjustment and balancing whilst leaving sufficient energy to jump the fence.

A rule of Chris’ that was mentioned on the first day but further explored on the second was; to always be inside the mid line. Thereby if the horse drifts on the turn or in the distance the rider can move out to make the distance rather than moving in shorten it. This was of particular importance for event riders and horses trying to jump combinations on turning lines particularly on the cross-country phase. Chris was very insistent that riders really focus on being on the inside line to fences thereby giving the horse the chance to see the fence at the earliest opportunity. I find it resulted in far better balance around the turns by doing this.

Whilst jumping a whole course of fences Chris also enlightened riders to two other significant rules of his: eyes level with hands, never in front and landing position. By landing position Chris means that the riders low leg position must mirror that of the horse’s front leg on landing over the fence and that the riders lower leg must always be the first part of their anatomy to lower towards the ground.

There were many take home messages from a fabulous two days training, in which it was a pleasure to both feel and watch riders and horses improving. I am so grateful to watch and experience such a master coaching and to witness the calm, consistent and quiet manner in which all sessions were conducted. The approach was clear, concise and highly systematic one which left everyone feeling motivated and inspired.

Report written by Clare Chamberlayne BHSI