Horse Conditioning - A Look at the Show Jumper

Show jumper - Superb athlete

Show jumper - Superb athlete

The show jumper must be a superb and brave athlete. Explosive power and endurance require systematic conditioning.New window.

Jumpers, open jumping, stadium jumping, and show jumping all refer to equestrian English riding events that include hunters, dressage, equitation, and eventing. Most commonly, jumping classes can be seen at various horse shows all over the world.

Depending on the show, they may be limited to jumpers only. Sometimes, they can be one division of large breeds who are varied in their disciplines and sometimes the jumper classes are conjoined with various other English horse jumping events.

Various sanctioning organizations govern national horse shows. Horse jumping is not only a great sport and Olympic event; it’s a fun recreational activity for people of all ages.

Show Jumping History

This equestrian sport is relatively new. During the 18th century, Inclosure Acts were enforced in England, and up till then there was no real need for the equestrians to jump a fence. When this Parliament came, new challenges for fox hound followers came as well. This Inclosure act brought along boundaries and fencing to various areas in the country and it was common among the wealthy landowners. Anyone wishing to pursue the sport of following fox hounds needed a horse that could jump the fencing obstacles.

First in the series

This is the first in a series of articles that discusses a specific equine sport, and conditioning methods used by participants.

A brief introduction is provided about the sport, and great references for continued learning are located in the Dig deeper section.

England held the very first major jumping event in 1907 at Olympia. The competitors consisted mainly of military members. It was clear that this competition the competitions after that there was no consistency of rules for the show jumping sport.

A meeting in 1923 eventually led to the BSJA forming by 1925. The United States had a similar need and in 1917 the American Horse Shows Association, or United States Equestrian Federation as it is now called, was formed. Show jumping was added to the 1900 Olympic Games but the current format, which first appeared in 1912, has been thriving ever since. The sport has now been adapted well enough to be viewed on television.

Jumpers vs. Hunters

Jumper classes and hunter classes may be hard to differentiate for those who are unfamiliar with the sport. The judging of hunters is done subjectively and it is based on how they meet the standard of style, manners, and direction.

The judging of jumpers is done more objectively and based on numerical scores which are determined by if the horse makes an attempt at the obstacle, if the horse clears the jump, and if the horse finishes the obstacle course in a certain amount of time. The courses for jumpers tend to be colorful and creatively designed. They are more technical and complex than the courses for hunters. This is because horses and their riders are not judged on their style. Equitation classes judge the rider’s ability. Fence styles, clothing, and equipment used in this class resemble that of hunter classes but technical difficulty of the obstacle course resembles that of jumping events.

Show Jumping Courses

Shows that are rated as "A" in United States competitions present more complex and technical courses. The width and height of the obstacle is increased for greater challenge and there is also an increase in technical difficulty that has unusual and shorter distances from fence to fence as well as tighter turns. There may be times a horse is required to jump at an angle instead of head on.

Show hunter classes reward style and calmness but jumper classes reward accuracy, scope, boldness, control, and speed. The jumper has to be accurate and careful in order to avoid knocking down any obstacle. They must also have the ability to be ridden and balanced to turn and rate accurately. Riders must find the balance between speed, turning tight enough to make the jump, and the ability of the horse to jump clean with a good scope. Obstacle courses include triple and double combinations, verticals, and spreads, which typically have various direction changes and turns.

Show Jumping Rules

The main intent of show jumping is to make it through a set course by jumping cleanly in a given time frame. If a jumper exceeds the allotted amount of time, there is an assessment made of the time faults. Blatent disobedience and knock-downs are considered jumping faults. The horses have a limited amount of refusals before they are disqualified from the competition. The horse refusing to make jumps could lead to the rider exceeding the time limit. The number of faults accumulated and the lowest points are how the placing is determined. Those who did not accumulate penalty points or jumping faults are considered as scoring a clear round. Any ties are settled with jump-offs with a shortened and raised course. The one with the fastest time wins.

The rules for show jumping have evolved and various national federations have varying rules and classes. Time penalties and jumping penalties remain the most common penalties. Jumping penalties are knockdowns and refusals and they are imposed when knockdowns have changed the width or height of the jump. Refusals penalize four faults. If a refusal results in destroying the integrity of the jump does not receive faults for knockdowns but they receive four faults for refusing as well as additional penalties.

Show Jumping Tack

The competitors in show jumping use English saddles that are designed for close contact. This has a cantle, seat, and forward flap that are not as thick as regular saddles. International level competitors use saddle pads which allow the displaying of breeding affiliation, national flag or sponsorship. Girths are contoured to make room for the equestrian’s elbows and belly guards are often used as a way to protect the horse’s belly from shoe studs while the legs are folded under tightly. Bridles can be used with various types of cavesson nosebands and there are few rules in regards to this equipment. The same goes for bits. Almost all show jumping horses wear wraps and boots because their legs could be injured easily upon landing or tight turns. Martingales provide the freedom needed for horses to get over the fences.

Types of Competitions

The Grand Prix is show jumping’s highest level. The course can have from 10 up to 16 obstacles and the heights can be up to five foot three inches and the spreads can be up to six and one-half feet. The Grand Prix consists of internationally ranked show jumping events such as World Equestrian Games and the Olympics. Other show jumping competitions include the Speed Derby, the Gambler’s Choice, Calcutta, Match Race, and limited competitions. The limited competitions are limited to horses that have won less than once or less than three or six times.

Types of Jumps

The fences in show jumping are colorful as well as artistic and elaborate in design, especially in higher competition levels. Jumps include vertical, oxer, cross rail, wall, triple bar, hogsback, combination, filler, Liverpool, fan and open water. Each jump varies in difficulty depending on the competition level or type of competition. For instance, the cross rail jump consists of two poles being crossed with ends being on the ground. The lowest point of this jump is in the center and it is not typically used in sanctioned horse jumping shows. The combination jump consists of a few jumps in a row with a small amount of strides in between the jumps.

Conditioning the Jumper Horse

Jumping horses must have a good mix of explosive power, and endurance. Show jumpers perform the course at canter and gallop gaits, and maintain a heart rate of 150-180 beats per minute (bpm). In conditioning a jumper, a balance of aerobic and anaerobic exercises should be performed over a fairly long time period.

Hilary Clayton, a professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Michigan State University recommends starting a jumper with long, slow distance work to develop its aerobic capabilities. For a young horse, this phase takes up 6 to 12 months initially to build up to a level ready for anaerobic conditioning. For older horses, this period is shortened depending on the off-season conditioning of the horse.

During this initial period, the horse is worked at lower speeds, over increasing distances. In general, the heart rate is maintained below 150 bpm, and the focus is on building the horse's lung capacity and improving oxygen utilization. Hilary recommends maintaining a 1:2 ratio of work to rest. Work is general performed at the working trot and canter while rest may be walking or trotting. 

After this initial aerobic conditioning, the horse begins anaerobic interval training. This training moves the heart rate to above 150 bpm at faster speeds for shorter periods. Speed play is also incorporated with periods of acceleration and decceleration to move the heart rate above 160 bpm for short periods.

For highly tuned horses competing at high level, additional conditioning exercises are implemented gynastic jumping, gradients, strength training and both active and passive stretching.

Dig deeperTM

The following links will provide more information for equestrian lovers of all experience levels.

  • United States Equestrian Federation – This is the national governing body for equestrian sports and here you can learn about upcoming competitions, view competition standings and points, and learn about recognized breeds for competition.
  • Intercollegiate Horse Show Association – The association provides riders at every level with opportunities to compete in group competitions as well as individual competitions.
  • EquiSearch – EquiSearch provides various articles that offer tips, trick, and advice on everything regarding horses.
  • Campus Equestrian – With this website you can find results for IHSA shows.
  • The Chronicle of the Horse – This is a magazine for horse lovers. Readers can read the latest horse related news, learn how to care for horses, and learn about the various aspects of horse shows.
  • Show Jumping Hall of Fame – The show jumping hall of fame is located in Kentucky and it was organized as a way to promote the sport as well as preserve those who have made memorable contributions.
  • Horse Show Glossary – This is a glossary of terms frequently heard in horse shows and competitions.
  • EquiFacts – This provides information on how to find and purchase the perfect horse.
  • Pasture Management – This is a guide for horse owners that provides horse facts, animal waste rules, soil erosion, and manure management.
  • Arabian Horse Association – This website provides a vast amount of information on Arabian horses including classes, jumping, and dressing.
  • Over Fences Guidelines – This is a set of guidelines created for 4-H horse show committees to offer the correct and safest ways to construct fences for obstacle courses.
  • Destined for Greatness – This is an article on international horse jumping star, Alumna Stephens.
  • Horse Track Edge – This is a website for beginners and they can learn the basics of caring for a horse, horse jumping, supplies and equipment.
  • Buying Your First Horse – This is a great article providing in-depth tips on buying your first horse. It covers cost, stabling, where to purchase, and how to evaluate prospects.
  • Horse and Rider – This article discusses the equipment used prior to the modern era.
  • Horse Ownership – Here you can learn about the various responsibilities for horse owners.
  • History Snapshots – This is a great link which shows images of U.S. Calvary equipment from 1910 to 1920.
  • Showing, Riding, and Driving Horses – This link is to a book that discusses the fundamentals of showmanship. It also shows images of horses, attire, and equipment.
  • Fences for Horses – Here you can learn the purpose of fencing for horses, how to select the right fence, and what materials to use.
  • Preparing Horses for Competition – This article discusses how to prepare horses for transportation and competition including vaccinations and health certificates needed.

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Dr. Claytons book, Conditioning Sport Horses is currently out of print, but can be picked up in new or used conditions from online resellers. This book takes an academic approach and does not cover basic training details and techniques.

If you are looking for a rider oriented book that will help you learn how to condition your own horse, we recommend Equine Fitness: A Program of Exercises and Routines for Your Horse. This book is wonderfully illustrated and will help you build your own conditioning program based on the needs of you and your horse.

About the author

Mark is the founder of EquiMed.  Prior to EquiMed, Mark was the CEO and founder of Pacific Crest Corporation, a maker of wireless communication devices and now a subsidiary of Trimble Navigation.

Mark trains and shows reining horses, and is a member of the West Coast Reining Horse Association, the NRHA affiliate in Northern California.  Mark also breeds and exhibits Mediterranean Donkeys.

Mark has a strong interest in equine health.  This website is the result of Mark's and numerous other contributor's efforts to make equine health information accessible to the horse owner.

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