The Horse’s Ideal Flight Pattern over Fences

Sometimes a horse’s form—that is, its use of its legs, back, and neck—may be attractive, but the animal commits other errors over the fence by wavering from the ideal flight pattern. The flight pattern of a horse begins as the animal leaves the ground on the near side of the obstacle and ends as the horse’s feet touch the ground on the far side. Ideally, the horse’s landing spot and its takeoff spot should be equidistant from the center of the fence. To simplify the explanation, if a horse leaves the ground 6 feet from the center of the fence, it should land on the far side 6 feet from the center of the fence.

In addition, the horse should approach the middle of a fence without wandering off of a straight line, jump the fence without drifting off that line in the air, and land on the same line. On hunter courses, a horse that deviates from this ideal path commits a flight pattern fault. The excep­tion is usually a handy hunter class, in which the placement of a previous or upcoming fence may require the horse to jump the current fence at an angle or at some place other than the middle of the fence.

This horse has a good flight pattern as it jumps across the middle of the fence.
This horse has moved away from the center of the fence in a flight-pattern fault known as "drifting."

Troubleshooting Bending Problems

Let’s suppose you’re having difficulty bending your horse to the left. First, you want to make sure that you’re not leaning inward with your upper body as you try to push the horse outward with your inside leg, for your weight will counteract the effort of your leg. You may be breaking inward at the rib cage or the entire axis of your upper body may be tilted toward the left, so that your upper body weight is cast this direction, drawing the axis of the horse’s body this direction as well. If the horse is leaning to the left, it will be virtually impossible for it to move to the right, away from your inside leg aid. First, then, make sure you are sitting squarely on your horse, rather than leaning to the left.

Secondly, you have to give the right side of the horse’s body a place to go when you ask the animal to move away from your left leg. This includes moving your outside hand forward and out a few inches, so that the animal can bend slightly at the neck and displace its right shoulder to the correct degree of bending. Your right leg must be in “behind the girth” position, about four inches farther back than normal, so that the horse’s ribcage can be displaced to the right, onto the correct degree of bending. Your inside seat bone should be slightly ahead of your outside seat bone, so that your hips match the bend of the horse; and your weight should be equally distributed on both seat bones.

If you have made all of these corrections and are still having problems, you can exaggerate the principles involved in bending by opening your outside rein about six inches to a foot so that the horse receives a leading rein effect through the turn. You can also shift some of your weight to your outside seat bone to reinforce your inside leg aid and to help shift the horse’s weight toward the outside. You can even move your upper body slightly off center to the right, so that it encourages the horse’s vertical plane to shift toward the right a little. Once the horse recognizes where you want it to go through the bend, then you can resume the normal, less exaggerated aids: an inside indirect rein, the inside leg in at-the-girth position, and the outside leg in behind-the-girth position.

The main thing to remember is to give the horse a place to go. Whenever you increase an aid, you have to make it easy for the horse to go the proper direction. For example, if you squeeze with your legs, then you must release some hand pressure in order to give the horse a place to go; and if you push with your left leg and bend the horse to the left with an indirect rein through the turn, then you must ease off of your right rein a little and make sure your right leg has relaxed enough and is in a “behind the girth” position so that the horse can shift its ribcage to the right. Always provide an “open door” that is clear to the horse, so that you don’t frustrate the animal and yourself through the inadvertent clashing of aids.

The horse is resistant as the rider tries to bend it to the left.
With her hands positioned in a left indirect rein, the rider opens her outside (right) hand to encourage the horse to displace its weight to the outside of the bend.
The horse transfers its weight and relaxes into a left bend. The rider moves her right hand back into the proper position so that the horse won’t be encouraged to drift too far to the outside of the bend.

Lateral Aids and Lateral Movements

The word, “lateral,” defined by Webster as “pertaining to the side,” has two applications in hunter seat riding. “Lateral aids” refers to the use of the rider’s aids on the same side of the horse, such as the right leg and right hand. This is opposed to “diagonal aids,” which are applied on opposite sides of the horse, such as the right leg and left hand.

“Lateral movements,” however, refers to any suppling exercises which are used to lessen the horse’s stiffness from side to side. They range from the simple circle to more difficult movements such as the modified pirouette or half-pass. Even bending a horse around the corners of a ring can be said to be a lateral exercise, for it affects the animal’s suppleness from side to side.

You can find information–including text, photos, and diagrams–about specific lateral movements in my latest book, the fourth edition of Judging Hunters and Hunter Seat Equitation, available at:

There are several new Equitation Tests added to the 2022 show season that are lateral movements, and all are discussed in depth in the new book.

Two Basic Leg Positions

There are two basic leg positions used in flatwork. The first, referred to as “at the girth,” is the placement of the rider’s calf against the horse’s flesh just behind the back edge of the girth. This position is used both to bend the horse and drive it forward.

"At the Girth" Position

The second leg position is referred to as “behind the girth,” which is about four inches farther back than the first. This position affects the lateral, or sideways, movement of the horse’s haunches and is also used to drive the horse forward.

"Behind the Girth" Position

The Figure Eight

The figure eight is made up of two circles of equal size, joined by a short, straight juncture. The middle of this juncture is known as the “center point” of the figure. You should initially establish the center point by approaching it at the sitting trot, then posting as your shoulder crosses it to begin the figure at the trot, or by picking up the correct lead as your shoulder crosses the center point if you are going to perform the figure eight at the canter.

The most important aspect of performing the figure eight is having a plan. Select markers throughout the ring, such as a patch of dirt or the wing of a fence, to help you establish the center point and the quarter marks of each circle. Consider where you would like to go and what might be in your way, so that you’ll end up with a plan that will allow you to have two even circles approximately 50 to 60 feet in diameter.

Once you have completed the first three-quarters of the your circle, start collecting the animal and aiming for the centerpoint you previously established, so that your horse is in a collected frame and absolutely straight from head to tail as it crosses the center point. Then, gradually bend your horse the second direction and press it forward so that it lengthens its stride to a medium step once more.

Your eyes are extremely important during this test. Look to the centerpoint when you are halfway around each circle, so that you have plenty of time to make the necessary adjustments to reach your predetermined marker. (Being deadly accurate to the center point is particularly important during competition if the judge is standing on the centerline.)

The figure eight is a wonderful suppling exercise for the horse, as well as a means or developing the rider’s leg coordination. When traveling clockwise, the horse should be bent on the circle with a right indirect rein, a right leg in at-the-girth position, and a left leg in behind-the-girth position during both the trot and canter. The aids are reversed when traveling counterclockwise: left indirect rein, left leg at-the-girth, and right leg behind the girth. The inside rein and leg bend the horse, while the outside rein and leg prevent the horse from drifting outward with its shoulder or hip. Be careful not to clash your aids by keeping too much pressure on the outside rein, for this is a common error–the rider pulling on the inside rein to ask for a bend, yet not releasing enough on the outside rein for the horse to be able to bend.

Either the walk or sitting trot is acceptable during the simple change of lead in a figure eight at the canter, but the walking steps indicate a more advanced level of training. (Of course, during the figure eight at the trot, you simply change diagonals at the center point while continuing to trot.)

Improving Your Eye for Distances

If you have difficulty finding the right take-off spots on course, you should find a vast improvement in your ability to see distances if you’ll do the following:

In your mind, divide the arena down the middle lengthwise. Pretend that at the middle of one short side of the arena, you have a letter “A” posted. Then, in your mind post a letter “B” at the middle of the other short side of the arena. When you complete your initial circle as you prepare to jump the course, your circle will end at letter “A.” At this point, you should have established a 12-foot length of stride at a hand-gallop, with your body in two-point position to free the horse’s back and allow it to easily cover the ground. As you pass your imaginary letter “a,” look to the first line of fences and DON’T TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE LINE OF JUMPS. This is essential, for anything you’ve gained by looking early for your distance will be lost if you look away. Now, extend your horse’s stride from letter “a” to the first fence, for although you’ve established a 12-foot stride on your circle, the corner preceding the first fence will cause your horse to shorten its stride and slow down a little. Keep extending the stride through the corner and beyond, so that the horse’s stride is incrementally getting longer as you approach the fence. This will guarantee enough impulsion to get you out of trouble, no matter what take-off spot you see, and will help the horse get down the first line in the number of strides prescribed by the design of the course.



If you’ll keep your eyes on each upcoming line from letters “A” and “B” and will press the horse forward through the corners on the approach to the first fence in each line, you’ll most likely find that your ability to see distances will immediately improve. Remember that safety is in the horse’s impulsion, which enables it to clear an obstacle; so, be bolder to each line and see if this works better for you.

Correcting a Leg that Slips Back in the Air

The rider’s upper body is ahead of the motion and her lower leg has slipped back in the air.

There are two issues to deal with concerning a leg that slips back in the air. First, you must practice exercises on the flat to strengthen and stabilize your leg position so that it never moves out of place. Riding without stirrups, particularly at the posting trot while keeping the leg in the same position that would be correct with stirrups, is a very important exercise.  Trotting while maintaining two-point position, with the leg firmly in place, and practicing the sitting trot with or without stirrups are other useful exercises to strengthen and steady the rider’s legs.  Also, working on maintaining the correct position while being longed is helpful. 

Secondly, you need to think about the way you use your upper body over a fence–that is, let the horse jump up to you so that you only close your upper body as necessary to be in balance over your leg in the air, rather than leaning forward at take-off in anticipation of the jump, which will encourage your leg to slip backward. You can practice controlling your upper body by jumping gymnastic exercises, making sure that you don’t close your upper body any more than is necessary for you to keep your balance in the air.

Set four cavaletti poles on the ground with 4’6-4’9″ between them, according to the length of your horse’s stride. Then leave between 9′ and 9’6″ between the last pole and a little X jump, with the center of the X set about one foot off the ground. The next fence should be an oxer set at about 2 1/2 to 3 feet and about 2 1/2 to 3 feet wide. If you like, you can add two more oxers to the line, set at approximately the same height. The measurements between the three oxers (when approached from the X) should be about 18′, then 19′, and finally 20′. If you horse is short-strided, decrease these three distances by one foot each; and if your horse is very long-strided, increase these three distances by one foot each. (You can find detailed information and diagrams concerning gymnastic exercises in my book, The Complete Guide to Hunter Seat Training, Showing, and Judging, as well as in Bertalan de Nemethy’s book, The de Nemethy Method, which is currently out of print, but can be acquired as a used copy at numerous places online.)

In order to work on your upper body, approach the exercise in two-point position, so that the angulation of your upper body will keep you in balance above the angle of your lower leg. Don’t move your upper body forward as the horse nears the take-off spot to the first oxer, but allow the animal to jump up to you, so that its withers rise to close the space in front of you.

The rider’s upper body is perfectly balanced over her lower leg as she looks at the upcoming fence on a tight turn.

All you need to do is stay balanced over your own legs, for there is nothing you can do to aid your horse in jumping and much you can do to distract the attention and disturb the balance of the horse by moving your upper body forward in the air.  By controlling the desire to throw your upper body forward at take-off, you’ll help yourself keep your leg in the proper position, adding more downward weight to the stirrup so that your lower leg won’t slide back so easily.

Preventing a Horse from Cutting Corners

Several problems are created when a horse cuts the corners of the ring on course. First, the horse’s weight is distributed too heavily toward the inside of the turn, so that the animal is unbalanced on its approach to the upcoming line. Second, this habit is usually accompanied by the horse being bent in the wrong direction, so that its vision is jeopardized. Third, by cutting corners, the horse leaves the rider with fewer strides in which to make adjustments following and leading into the lines of fences.

The horse is bent the wrong direction and leaning inward as it cuts the turn.

The main thing to remember in solving this problem is to push the horse to the rail with an inside leg and an inside indirect rein, rather than pulling it to the rail with an outside hand. In practice sessions, wherever the horse starts to cut the turn, do a downward transition to the walk and push the horse toward the rail using the aids given above. In competition, if the horse tries to cut the turn, shift your upper-body weight slightly toward the outside of the turn while using the aids given above. This will help adjust the vertical plane of the horse’s body back to center, making it more difficult for the horse to cut in.

The horse is properly bent on the corner. Notice how the rider and horse are aligned on the same plane.

When to Use Two-Point, Three-Point, and Modified Three-Point Position

There are three basic positions that a rider can use: two-point position, in which the rider’s two legs are against the horse, while the seat is out of the saddle; three-point position, in which the rider’s two legs and seat are in contact with the horse; and modified three-point position, in which the rider’s two legs and only his crotch are in contact with the horse.

“Two-point position” is used during the hand-gallop and for riding hunter, equitation, and jumper courses, beginning in the initial circle and ending as the horse performs a downward transition at the end of the round.

Two-Point Position---The rider's legs are on the sides of the horse, the seat is out of the saddle, and the upper body is inclined about 20 degrees in front of the vertical.

“Three-point position” is used at the walk, sitting trot, and canter, and on course only in extreme situations—such as when the rider needs the seat as a driving aid when a horse tries to refuse an obstacle, or when there is such an acute turn during a jumper course that the rider must fully sit in order to execute it.

Three-Point Position---The rider's legs are on the sides of the horse, the rider's seat bones are on the saddle, and the upper body is inclined only 2 to 3 degrees in front of the vertical, which is the same position as for the walk and sitting trot.

“Modified three-point position” is used occasionally during an equitation or jumper course, when the rider needs to drop his center of gravity and brace himself a little more at the thighs in order to execute a sharp turn or ride a distance set on short strides.

Modified Three-Point Position---The rider's legs are on the sides of the horse, the crotch is lowered into the saddle, and the upper-body is at the same 20-degree inclination as in two-point position.

A major error is the use of three-point position as the “status quo” during any type of course over fences. In hunter classes, three-point position is unnecessary and makes the performance look stiff, rather than flowing; in equitation classes it is theoretically wrong, since the proper use of two-point has been established to free the horse’s back of the rider’s weight and to put the rider in a stationary position that allows the horse to maintain its balance at take-off, in the air, and on landing; and in jumper competition, three-point position slows the speed of the horse, which can be a critical fault in classes in which time counts.

The inappropriate use of three-point position indicates that the rider is using his seat to supplement an ineffective leg aid and/or the rider is lacking in knowledge of the basics of hunter seat riding.

Correcting a Refusal or Runout

Whether the horse tries to run out at the fence or simple stops directly in front of it, the issue is the animal’s lack of obedience in going forward from the rider’s leg. For this reason, once you have the horse standing squarely in front of the fence, punish its source of forward momentum, which is the rear part of its body, with your stick in the area just behind your calf–on the horse’s ribcage. If the horse stopped straight, you can punish it on either side; but if it veered when stopping, apply the stick on the side to which the animal tried to escape.

When a horse has a refusal or runout at a fence, correct the disobedience by making the horse face the obstacle, then applying the stick on its barrel. The stick should never be applied anywhere in front of the saddle.

By being prompt with your correction, you won’t have to exert a tremendous amount of physical force. You are not trying to inflict pain, but rather just enough discomfort so that the horse would rather jump the obstacle on the next approach than be punished again with the stick. Remember, only do what it takes to get what you want from the horse–any more than that is abusive.

You should always carry a stick when jumping, so that it can be used immediately. If you have to hunt for one when a problem arises, the horse may have forgotten what it did wrong by the time you apply it, so that the punishment is seemingly unrelated to the initial problem.

Riders will sometimes say, “I don’t carry a stick becuase my horse is scared of it.” The solution is to always carry a stick in practice, so that the animal learns to regard it as standard equipment. Carry it on the flat, as well as over fences, until the horse is comfortable with its presence. Any horse that convinces you that you shouldn’t carry a stick is controlling you. Remember, you are the brains, the horse is the brawn. Any other relationship is dangerous. (Note: You should always carry a stick over fences, even in competition; but generally riders do not carry a stick on the flat in competition.)

Always remember to ease off the mouth when the horse leaves the ground to jump, for if your hands are hard and restricting, you will encourage it to refuse fences. Especially when it has stopped and you are approaching the obstacle for the second time, emphasize your driving aids–legs and seat, too, if necessary–and relax your hands as much as possible, keeping just enough tension on the reins to steer the horse. Your objective is to make going forward much easier than stopping.

You may not be able to keep a very light hand on a horse that wants to run out. In fact, you may have to use a great deal of hand pressure to hold it into the fence panel as it tries to veer in one direction. If this the case, be sure to release the horse’s mouth as it leaves the ground, offering more than enough slack in the reins over the fence so that it will realize that forward is the most comfortable direction.

If you ride the horse accurately to take-off spots, but it tries to refuse fences, ask a veterinarian to check for unsoundness. Lameness in a leg or foot, sore back muscles, or a spinal problem are typical unsoundnesses that will cause a horse to stop.