You need a balanced canter!
Before you even leave the ground it's important to ensure that you have cracked one particular aspect of your horse's way of going - his canter! The key to good jumping is a balanced canter so make sure you work on this aspect on the flat.
You are aiming to have a horse who is well balanced in canter, can lengthen and shorten his stride easily, can be ridden in circles and loops easily, without losing his balance or destroying the rhythm of the pace. Aim to be able to make direct transitions ie from walk to canter. Being skilled in these areas will make it much easier for your horse to tackle the fences - for his suppleness, balance and engagement will all improve through your work.
Warm up properly!
Jumping requires your horse to use lots of different muscles and he must be properly warmed up before jumping or you'll risk damaging him. As part of your warming up you can work on lengthening and shortening the canter - but make sure you warm him up in walk and trot first, stretching the muscles, before moving on to canter work. Remember to use the correct length of stirrup - your cross country stirrup length is probably shorter than your normal showjumping length, so adjust for the type of session you are undertaking.
Have a plan
It's much safer if you only jump when there are other people around - obviously they will then be able to help if you have a mishap. However, they are just as useful when things go well as they can build (or re-build!) fences for you, alter distances, give you feedback on your riding and so on. You should certainly not go cross country jumping alone!
Ensure you have a plan to work to so you make the best use of your time. However, if your horse isn't jumping too well you'll probably need to change the exercise or go back to a simpler exercise to help your horse. If you are working through grids it's relatively easy to back track a little if things do not go to plan.
It is important that any jumping exercise you do builds your horse's confidence and his trust in you - so do not try anything which worries you. If you are concerned, your horse will be too. Do not overdo things - if your horse jumps well there's no point going over the same fence time and time again just because you can!
Ensure you work through grids and jump courses as well - as ultimately competitions are about jumping courses, not grids! Gridwork is really useful but you must ensure you have experience of course jumping as well - a competition arena is not the ideal place to learn about approaches to fences, getting your line correct for related fences and so on.
Jumping is tiring for your horse - especially if he is not particularly fit - so be sensible and finish on a good note, before tiredness overcomes him and his performance deteriorates.
Tackle different fences
It's important to remember to jump different types of fences - as you will see all kinds of combinations when you are out jumping in competitions. Ensure your horse is confident over the simpler, more straight forward fences before tackling anything more difficult.
Cool down properly
Once you have finished your session it's vital to cool your horse down properly. This is also a good time to think back over the session, review your progress and identify areas which need more work. If possible, have your jumping sessions recorded on video - so you can look back, perhaps with your instructor, to pinpoint any areas for improvement.
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