April 2019 - Dressage for Jumpers
Written by by Scott Lico • photos: Kristin Lee Photography
Friday, 29 March 2019 01:58
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Perfect pirouettes may not be in the cards, but greatly improved control on course is!

by Scott Lico • photos: Kristin Lee Photography

Show jumping courses have become so technical these days that without perfect control of your horse, you have almost no chance of jumping a clean round. Course designers make use of long distances, short distances, difficult turns, and tight time allows, all testing the rider’s overall control of their horse. Though certainly training must be done over fences, most of this very much needed control is developed through proper flatwork, what I like to call “dressage for jumpers.”

When we talk about dressage for jumpers, I divide it into two categories, longitudinal work and lateral work. Longitudinal work is anything that requires the horse to go forward and come back. Simply put, this work is used to teach the horse to be in front of the rider’s legs, and to listen to their hands. Lateral work is anything where the horse is required to turn, bend, or move sideways from a rider’s leg or hand. These movements help to supple your horse and improve their ability to turn.

Let’s go into more detail on the essential training movements and how they benefit the show jumper.

If you could only do one exercise with your horse, transitions should be your top pick. They develop the rider’s ability to control their horse’s pace and stride. This is extremely important for the show jumper as course designers today love to set long distances and short distances and we must be able to make the adjustments while keeping the horse in balance. All transitions are good, and a few of my favorites are trot walk, trot halt, walk canter, and lengthening and shortening of the trot and canter.

When it comes to lateral work, I like to start with the real basics. Circles of different diameters, figure eights, half turns, half turn in reverses, serpentines, and broken lines.

These movements serve the show jumper well as they improve the horse’s lateral suppleness and obedience to the steering aids. School these basic training movements in the walk, trot, and canter, as they are so important in laying down a strong foundation in your horses training.

Leg yielding and turn on the forehands help to supple your horse’s hindquarters as well as make the horse more obedient to the rider’s displacing leg aid. These movements also start to nicely put your horse from your inside leg onto your outside rein. Practice leg yielding in the walk and sitting trot, and turn on the forehands in the halt and walk.

Haunches-In / Haunches-Out

Once your horse learns to accept these movements, you will have much more control over their feet.

The shoulder-in is the king of all lateral movements. Though it is not the most difficult to perform, it will certainly achieve the most. To start, it will make your horse straight.

You will also find that your horse’s overall balance and collection will improve as it learns to engage its hind end better. A better balanced show jumper that’s able to collect will certainly jump more clean rounds than the horse that’s out of balance and on its forehand. For horses that can be a bit strong in the mouth, I prefer shoulder-out initially so I can use the rail as a tool to help my hands hold the horse together. Practice shoulder-in in the walk, trot, and canter.

Haunches In & Out

Haunches-in, haunches out, turn on the haunches, and half pass are all excellent exercises to use to improve your horse’s obedience to the rider’s aids. These movements help to mobilize your horse’s hindquarters, further supple them through their body, and come under behind. After schooling these movements, horses tend to turn much better and also become rounder and lighter. Only when a horse is light, soft and in self carriage can your rounds feel and look effortless. Practice haunches in and haunches out as well as half pass in the walk and trot and turn on the haunches in the walk.

Counter canter is used to collect and to straighten our horses, as well as improve their ability to do lead changes. It also teaches the horse to accept leg-to-hand contact.


Roughly half the canter work we do should be counter canter. Though some jumpers do not have the right temperament to tolerate this movement, most do.

One particular exercise you may not have heard of is what I call a spiral-in. This movement is similar to teaching a horse the pirouette but not done with the exact perfection a dressage rider would be looking to have. In this movement the rider puts their horse on a big circle and gradually spirals in towards the center until they are making almost a pirouette. At this point the rider gallops away from the spiral in and repeats the movement. This exercise will help tremendously with tight jump off turns. In order to do this movement well, horses must be light and in balance. Practice the spiral in occasionally at home and when warming up for a jump off or speed class.

Lastly, it’s important to always finish a ride with some long and low trot work. This is excellent for your horses, as it stretches out their entire topline and feels good to them.

It helps to relax their mind and prevent stiffness in their body. Horses that worked properly on the flat, will want to stretch at the end of a ride. If you find they are a little reluctant, incorporate some different turns to encourage them to stretch. Long and low work can also help to teach a horse to jump with a rounder bascule.

Long and Low

A Daily Plan

When planning your daily ride with your jumper, start with five to 10 minutes of free walk. This allows your horse to slowly warm up and can prevent a lot of injuries.

Following the free walk, spend some time schooling different transitions in your trot work while incorporating a couple basic movements such as circles and serpentines. Once your horse feels like they are loosening up and finding their rhythm, you are ready to work the more advanced lateral movements. Don’t try to do them all in one ride. Pick two or three, such as shoulder-in and haunches-in, and spend five to 10 minutes working them, making sure to mix in some straight forward work often. This gives their muscles and mind a break from the collection required.

In the canter work, go back to the basics once again and school a few more transitions and basic movements. Follow that up with a little counter canter, and gallop work. A few laps of long and low trot work and 10 minutes free walk finish off the training session.


A typical ride should last around 45 minutes, half of which is walk. On days you will be jumping, cut your trot and canter work in half as the horse will be working hard over fences.  Remember Rome was not built in a day. Ask for a lot from your horse, be happy with a little and reward often.

To put it quite simple, a show jumper must go forward, come back, turn left and turn right, and they must do this without any resistance. Only then can we expect to have any success in the competition ring. Use these different schooling movements in your day to day training and I promise you that you will achieve just that.

Author Scott Lico operates a hunter, jumper and equitation training barn at Hacienda Del Valle in the Los Angeles area’s Lake View Terrace. He plans to compete himself in the Grand Prix ring  this year aboard Jana Van’t Kiezelhof, a 10 year old Belgian Warmblood he recently purchased from a former student. Visit www.scottlicostables.com for more information.