The Hand Gallop

The hand gallop is used for jumping fences and is also one of the USEF’s Tests 1-19. It is performed at between fourteen and sixteen miles per hour, or 1232 feet to 1408 feet per minute, and should appear controlled and at a speed appropriate for the size of the arena. At the hand gallop, the horse’s footfalls strike in the same three-beat sequence as at the canter. This distinguishes the hand gallop from the faster racing gallop, which through extension of the horse’s limbs causes the feet to fall in four separate beats.

The rider's body is correctly angled about 30 degrees forward during the hand gallop on the long side of the arena.

You should be in two-point position for the hand gallop, with only your two legs making contact with the horse, and your usual third point of contact, your seat, being raised above the animal’s back. The lack of weight makes it easier for the horse to carry you at a greater speed and enables it to jump less encumbered.

The rider's upper body should be a little less inclined as the horse begins the curve on the short side of the arena. Demonstration rider, Maria Schaub, has correctly opened her upper body slightly to help balance the horse on the curve.

Your torso should be inclined forward at the hand gallop, “with the motion” of the horse. The angulation will vary somewhat as the horse’s stride is shortened or lengthened. For example, when the horse is hand-galloping down the long side of the arena, your hip angle should be closed about 30 degrees in front of the vertical to be with the motion. Just before the short side of the arena, you should open the angle to a slightly more erect position, so that your upper-body weight can aid your arms in collecting the horse to balance it for the corner. Your seat, however, should remain out of the saddle the entire time.

Longeing to Improve the Rider’s Position and Balance

Longeing is not only useful in teaching the horse rhythm, balance, bending, and obedience, but is also useful in helping the rider improve his position and balance. First, tie the reins around a clump of mane and take off your stirrups before you begin. Make sure the horse is equipped with side reins and that the person longeing you has a longe whip and is familiar with how to use it, for the ground person will be controlling the horse while you concentrate on yourself.

Try working on the longe line at the walk and trot first, until you feel really comfortable. You can practice relaxing your seat so that it follows the horse’s back at the sitting trot, or can work at the posting trot, holding your hands in the same position as if you had reins, but finding your own balance without having them in your hands. You can concentrate on feeling the center of your horse, so that you won’t be leaning to one side or the other inadvertently. Then you can add a little canter work. The entire session should not last more than 20 minutes, and the horse should be reversed every five minutes to keep your work even on each side.

When longeing without stirrups or reins, the rider can grasp the pommel of the saddle with the outside hand and the cantle with the inside hand to adjust the seat forward if it begins to slip backward in the saddle.

You can find numerous longeing exercises in my book, The Complete Guide to Hunter Seat Training, Showing, & Judging, pages 38-46 and 171-173.

Flatwork vs. Dressage

Flatwork is the adaptation of the schooling movements and principles of dressage to the needs of hunters, equitation horses, and jumpers. While dressage encompasses difficult maneuvers such as the passage and piaffe, in which the horse’s steps have a tremendous amount of suspension, these movements have no reasonable application for horses being shown in the hunter, jumper, or equitation divisions. Consequently, hunter seat riders must choose the dressage exercises which are the most beneficial and disregard those that are not helpful in achieving their goals.

Basic elements of flatwork are pace, bending, and transitions. Pace is the speed at which a horse travels in each gait. Bending refers to the horse’s body being positioned on a curve to either the left or right. Transitions are the brief periods of change between one gait and another and are categorized as either upward transitions, which are changes to a faster gait, or downward transitions, which are changes to a slower gait.

Advanced concepts of flatwork are impulsion, collection, and lengthening. Impulsion is the degree of thrust, or power, a horse has as it moves. Collection is the increased engagement of the horse’s quarters for the benefit of lightness and mobility in the forehand. Lengthening is the forward swing of the horse’s limbs in free and moderately extended steps, demonstrating impulsion from the hindquarters.

Work on the flat can be physically difficult, confusing, and frustrating to learn. This is because good flatwork requires precise coordination of your legs, hands, and weight. Once you are proficient on the flat, however, daily exercises will be enjoyable and fulfilling as your horse progresses. You will then view flatwork as a logical process which enhances the horse’s abilities and miinimizes its weaknesses, allowing your animal to be the best athlete it can be.

It is important to note that the flatwork movements required in hunter seat equitation have increased in difficulty in recent years.  For example, the USEF Talent Search Class has always asked for the working walk, working trot sitting, working trot rising, working trot with a lengthening of stride, working canter, working canter with a lengthening of stride, and counter canter.  You’ll see in a video at, entitled “USET Finals Flat Phase 2008,” that when judging the USEF Talent Search Finals, the judges also called for a “shoulder in and shoulder out exercise,” a “half pass with a flying change of lead,” and a “haunches in and haunches out exercise.”  You can find these movements in the sample chapter of my book on this website by going to

Correcting a Horse that Rushes Fences

A horse that rushes fences is not an animal that “loves to jump,” as uneducated riders often remark, but rather is the horse that is anxious about jumping. Once a horse has learned to rush, it is difficult to break the habit. It may take many hours and much patience to develop trust between the horse and rider again. In fact, it is best to remove an inexperienced rider from a rusher and place him on a horse that is very dull, requiring little hand pressure and steady leg pressure, so that the rider can learn the correct use of his aids. Conversely, it is wise to put a well-educated, patient rider on the rusher, so that the horse can be properly retrained.

There are several exercises used to teach a horse not to rush, all of them based on the idea of denying it the chance to run to the fences—and all of them starting from the posting trot. First, you can pull up (halt) in front of the fence, not with harsh, jerking hands that get the horse even more excited, but with quiet, but firm hands that teach the horse to be obedient. Of course, your hands should soften the feel on the reins as the horse slows down, rewarding the horse for its obedience.  Secondly, you can circle on the approach to the fence until the horse becomes quieter and stays in the same rhythm. You may circle as many times as it takes for the horse to calm down. Your third option is to halt and back the horse several steps. This is effective on a quick, pulling horse; but it only works to slow down and soften the horse if you back the animal using mostly leg pressure. Pulling the horse backward with your hands only hurts its mouth and eventually will lead to a “dead mouth,” in which the nerves are so damaged that the horse no longer can feel pressure on its mouth.

Remember, it is never appropriate to incessantly hang on a horse’s mouth. This, more than anything else, causes horses to rush in fright and to stop at fences.

Straightness Affects the Distances Between Fences

By focusing down an entire line of fences, rather than from one fence to another, you encourage straightness in your horse and make it much easier for the animal to get down the line “in the numbers”that is, in the number of strides in­tended by the course designer. The straighter a horse is in a line of fences, the less footage the animal loses to sideways motion. Straightness, then, makes it possible for the horse to travel down the line in the proper striding without having exces­sive pace. In contrast, a horse that wanders off the correct line must increase its speed to lengthen its stride, so that it can make up for the footage lost in sideways motion.

In figure A, the solid line shows the proper path between the fences, while the dotted line shows a horse making the distance between the fences longer by “bowing out” down the line.  In figure B, the solid line shows the proper path, while the dotted line shows a horse “wandering” from side to side, which also increases the distance between the fences.  Bowing out or wandering frequently result in the horse adding an extra stride (or even two strides) between the fences and often leads to “chipping in” at the base of the fence–i.e., taking a short step at the last moment so that the take-off spot is too close to the fence for the horse to jump well.  The direct path is your best choice, so make every effort to take it!

Keeping a Horse Exercised and Sane During and Following Bad Weather

If you’re not blessed with an indoor arena during spells of freezing cold or wet weather, you must find sensible ways to exercise your horse.  Your animal doesn’t need to stay in hard work during these times, but it does need enough movement to avoid colic or azotoria, also known as “tying up.”  (For information on colic, see “Cold Weather and Colic” in my Blog; and for tying up, see The easiest way to deal with days in which the footing is not good enough to ride is to equip your horse with a turn-out blanket (which is a special wind-resistant, waterproof blanket that has leg straps to keep it from sliding to one side), galloping boots, and hind boots and let it get the exercise it wants in a paddock or pasture during the daylight hours.  (It’s alright to leave horses out at night in the summer, but they need shelter at night in the winter months.)   If your horse is prone to pulling shoes, you can add bellboots, which will prevent shoe loss from overreaching, or hoofboots.

Note that whenever a horse is wearing a blanket or boots, you have to monitor the situation periodically to make sure the equipment stays in place.  When turning a horse out for an hour or two, leave the boots on the entire time; but if the horse is going to be outside for a longer stretch during the day, take the boots off after the first two hours, as long the horse is just grazing or walking around in the paddock or field, having gotten rid of its energy earlier in short spurts of running and bucking.  Sustained pressure of boots can cause injury to soft tissue, so they are something to be used short-term, not for hours on end.  Leave the blanket on if the weather is still cold, but make sure to adjust it so that it is straight on the the horse’s body and not pulling hard against the shoulders from having slid back.

If your horse has had sufficient turnout time, it shouldn’t be too nutty once you get a chance to ride again.  However, a horse is usually going to be a little fresh when it’s had a day or two off, so you need to be prepared for this.  Start with loosening up the horse by going forward without trying to put the horse in a frame.  From this, you can see just how excitable your horse is.  If the animal is really cutting up, ease into a slow canter and get into two-point position (i.e., your seat out of the saddle).  Let the horse canter around the arena (not hand-gallop) two or three times.  Then, walk the horse on a long rein to let it relax, realize that it is a little tired, and get its brain in order.  If the horse is still a little edgey, you can do the same thing again—no more than three times around, followed by a break.  This should calm the horse down enough that you can get back to work at the lower gaits.

Another option is longeing the horse, but this is not as good of an option if the footing is still a little slick.  The tighter the turn, the more likely the horse is to interfere (hitting one leg with the hoof of the other leg) or slide down.  Also, people tend to work their horses too long on a longe line, and this is a huge mistake if the horse has been out of work a couple of days.  All you’re trying to do is get the horse to calm down and concentrate a little, not to wear it out at the risk of causing physical problems.

Rather than longeing, you could hack your horse in a field or on trails if the footing is good enough, for this is a non-confrontational way to get your horse back to work.  When your horse has once again accepted your hands, seat, and legs, it is easy to get back into more specific work routines.  I hope this is helpful to those of you enduring the tough winter weather!

Pace As It Relates to Finding the Right Take-off Spot

In recently posting a video of the 2009 Medal Finals, I mentioned that a long approach to a single fence often encouraged riders to find a longer than desirable take-off spot to a fence. I’d like to elaborate on this. The pace for a hunter or equitation course is based on getting a horse to consistently take 12-foot strides, for courses in the United States are based on this as the median length of stride for horses. A short-strided horse might naturally cover the ground in 11-foot strides, while a long-strided horse might take 13-foot strides. To be as fair as possible to all, the 12-foot stride was adopted. The short-strided horse could pick up the pace to make the distances between the fences, and the long-strided horse could ease the pace back a little.

When the short-strided horse increases pace, not only will the distances between the fences be covered more easily, but the take-off and landing spots will also naturally increase. The extra momentum of increased pace will encourage the horse to be bolder to the fences, so that it will take-off farther from each fence. The natural flight pattern, which is to leave and land the same distance from the center of the fence, coupled with the increased momentum will cause the horse to also land farther from the fence. Additionally, the horse’s momentum, longer stride, and bolder mindset will encourage the rider to look for a take-off spot that is farther than normal from the fence. This is called “lengthening the rider’s eye,” and that is precisely what happens when a rider makes a long approach to a single fence. The horse has lots of room to increase its pace and, particularly when the fence is being jumped toward the in-gate, the horse and rider tend to seek a long take-off spot—sometimes way too long!

Conversely, when a horse decreases pace, the momentum drops, the stride shortens, and neither the horse nor rider are as likely to look for a long spot. In fact, they are both likely to seek a take-off spot that is too short. Once you know this, you can use it to your advantage, dropping the pace to help you find a medium to slightly-short take-off spot before a tight turn or a test such as halting after a fence, or increasing the pace when you know the upcoming line of fences is set for longer than normal strides. Even for horses that normally have a 12-foot stride, there can be challenges on courses, particularly in equitation and jumper classes where the strides are changed throughout the course. Some distances between fences may be based on an 11-foot stride, while others are based on a 13-foot stride. These challenges test the skills of the riders and abilities of the horses.

When approaching a tight line, by decreasing the pace a little—or, in the case of an advanced rider, by collecting the horse into shorter strides on the approach—the rider can help himself find a slightly shorter take-off spot, making the landing a little shorter and the following strides a little shorter, so that everything fits perfectly in the line. When approaching a long line, by increasing the pace—or, in the case of the advanced rider, by lengthening the strides on the approach—the rider can help himself find a slightly longer take-off spot, making the landing a little longer and the following strides longer, too, so that everything fits well in the line.

To make the most beautiful performance, the changes in the length of stride need to happen incrementally over the course of many strides so that the changes are barely perceptible. There is a lengthy discussion of riding distances in my book,  The Complete Guide to Hunter Seat Training, Showing, and Judging, for those of you who are interested. At the highest level of competition, success depends upon having a detailed plan and riding through it well. If you don’t understand exactly what the test is in the various elements on course, it is nearly impossible to be competitively successful, so it is very important to have a good education on this subject.

The “Crest Release” and “Jumping Out of Hand”

Crest Release

The photo above shows an example of a good “crest release,” in which the rider places the hands on the crest of the horse’s neck (i.e., on the muscle just below the mane) and presses down.  This type of release provides the rider with some upper-body stability and allows the horse to extend its neck as far as possible so that the weight of the neck can successfully be used as a counterbalance to the weight of the horse’s haunches.  It is extremely important for the rider not to interfere with this counterbalancing process, known as the “bascule,” which enables the horse to keep its balance in the air.  If the horse feels restricted by the rider’s hands in the air, the animal will begin to add an extra step at the base of the fence at take-off, known as “chipping,” or will begin to stop at the fences.  Restriction of the neck in the air causes the horse to be anxious and even fearful if the rider holds the horse tight, rather than offering a generous release.

Jumping Out of Hand

The second photo shows a rider “jumping out of hand,” with a light feel on the reins that enables the rider to maintain contact with the horse’s mouth.  This type of release should only be used by advanced riders who are totally secure in their position.  The rider should let the horse take all of the rein it needs to fully extend its neck, then keep a very light feel that will enable the rider to be ready for tight turns, tests of precision, or whatever else may be called for in the show ring.  If a rider tries to jump out of hand before he is ready, he will do more harm than good in his performances.  Heavy rein contact that restricts the stretching of the neck or an unsteady hand in which the rider uses the reins to keep his own balance will result in the horse chipping or stopping.

One of the main mistakes riders make when approaching a fence is to keep heavy contact on the reins, then quickly fling the hands forward at the moment of take-off.  As you approach a fence, you need to gradually ease the tension on the reins by following the horse’s neck as it extends a couple of strides in front of the fence.   The head and neck will naturally go down and out as the horse crouches to jump, and if the animal feels trapped by the hands the last couple of strides, it will often “lose heart” and chip or stop.  When you’re first beginning to jump, you should grab a little mane in one hand and press down on the neck with both hands so that you make sure you won’t “hit the horse in the mouth” and cause it to want to stop or chip.

With, Behind, and Ahead of the Motion of the Horse

The photo below shows a rider who is “with the motion of the horse.”  She has a very secure position because her upper body is balanced over her legs.

The rider is correctly positioned in the sitting phase of the posting trot.

In the photo below, the rider’s upper body is “behind the motion” of the horse.  Her legs are so far forward that they cannot support her upper-body weight.  Instead, she uses the reins as a means of support.  This type of prolonged “hanging on the mouth” will deaden the nerves in the horse’s mouth and make the animal ever harder to control.

The rider is "behind the motion" in the sitting phase of the posting trot.

The rider below is “ahead of the motion” in her upper body.  The horse is in a medium frame, but the rider’s upper body is inclined so far forward that she looks as though she would be hacking a horse in the woods on a long frame.  Her leg has slipped back, making it difficult for her to stay balanced in her upper body.  Consequently, she is leaning on her hands to support her upper-body weight.  Also, notice how far back in the saddle her seat is.  She is landing on the cantle of the saddle, rather than posting right behind the pommel.

The rider is "ahead of the motion" in the sitting phase of the posting trot and is on the incorrect diagonal.

A rider can be “behind the motion” or “ahead of the motion” in the upper body without the leg being out of position.  However, when the leg slips forward, the upper body usually falls back; and when the leg is too far back, the upper body usually falls forward.

Correct Position at the Posting Trot

The USEF Rule Book states that the “position in motion” at the “posting trot, inclined forward; galloping and jumping, same inclination as the posting trot.” When the horse is travelling in a medium frame, the rider’s upper-body inclination is about 20 degrees in front of the vertical.  This is achieved at the posting trot by the rider closing the hip angle and posting with more weight on the crotch than the buttocks in the sitting phase.

Carolyn Curcio demonstrates the proper upper-body angulation during the sitting phase of the posting trot. A rider’s upper body should be about 20 degrees in front of the vertical when the horse is collected into a medium frame, as shown.

The angle of the upper body depends upon the degree of collection of the horse.  For example, if a horse looks its best being shown in a long frame in an under-saddle class, then the rider’s upper body would be inclined slightly more than 20 degrees to match the flatter carriage of the horse.  On the other end of the spectrum, if a rider is asked to perform a “working trot with a lengthening of stride” in a USEF Talent Search Class, then the upper body would become slightly more erect so that the rider’s weight could subtly help the legs as a driving aid.

In George Morris’ famous book, Hunter Seat Equitation, he says that “the correct use of the back is a very subtle thing both to learn and to teach, much more so than, for instance, the rider’s leg.  The weight of the rider’s trunk coordinates and clarifies all of the aids.  Therefore it is of major consequence that one has the best possible back position in order to function.”

The idea of “form to function” is relevant in many sports, with the emphasis being on how a particular position makes an activity easier to do and prevents performance errors and injuries.  Whether it is how a tennis player holds the racket and follows through with the swing, or how a springboard diver gets enough height in the air and enters the water with no splash, the degree of accomplishment depends upon the quality of the athlete’s form.  Our sport is just the same, with form being important for the success of the rider, not only in an equitation class in which rider form is judged, but also in hunter classes in which the rider’s good or bad form affects the horse’s performance.