Riding Tips

Horse Show Jumping: A Complete Beginners Guide

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Written by Shelby Dennis

Find out if this daring discipline is right for you

As one of three Olympic equestrian sports, Show Jumping is arguably one of the most mainstream of equestrian competitions. This exciting speed- and accuracy-driven sport is a lot of fun for riders and horses alike. Show jumping is an excellent spectator sport, even for non-horse people, due to the format of it being easily recognizable and quick to learn even for those completely unfamiliar with how the sport is judged. In comparison to other sports, Show Jumping is a relatively new sport with the first large competitions being run in the early 1900’s.

Show Jumping has its own terminology, rules, skills, and equipment. The basics of these topics, and more, are presented herein. Learning more about the sport will enable you to safely enter the exciting world of take off, flight, and landing.

Over the last century, this sport has only increased in popularity with show venues and training barns popping up across the world, making it one of the most accessible equestrian sports in terms of finding trainers that are able to teach it. This sport, however, does require a fair amount of base level skill, meaning that before you can get to the fun of jumping, there is a lot of foundational learning for riding horses that is done on the flat (without jumps) in order to make it safe for both you and your horse to jump.

New to the sport? Check out our 26-Page Horse Rookie’s Guide to Jumping.

Jumping in a Nutshell

A Brief History of Jumping

Show Jumping first appeared as an Olympic sport in 1900, but not in the same format we currently know it to be as it initially did not include any “faults” or marks down for hitting a rail. It wasn’t until 1912 that the Show Jumping format we now know so well became commonplace. Today’s format typically includes a 10-12 jump course to start, with 4 faults being given for every rail knocked down or any refusals.

Horses who go through the first round “clear” or without hitting or refusing any fences, then get to go on to the jump off, which is judged based upon speed and accuracy.

The horse who has the fastest time and goes clear is the one who wins the class, making the jump off an incredibly exciting aspect not only to watch, but to also participate in. There are some minor variations to the format of show jumping, one of which being “speed rounds” which are regular rounds that are marked similar to jump off in that best time without faults (or fastest time with least number of faults if every rider in the class takes a rail) wins.

show jumper

source: shelby dennis

Similarly, there are also show jumping classes where the riders will leave after their first round, coming back after all riders have gone to do their jump off. This is particularly popular for large show jumping competitions, whereas the smaller or lower level classes most commonly have the jump off take place immediately following the rider’s first clear course.

What’s to Love About Jumping?

There is something particularly exciting about show jumping in particular due to the variation in courses as well as the incredible artwork on the fences themselves.

Course designers are constantly outdoing themselves creating courses with difficult tracks and jumps designed with the purpose of being intentionally spooky, separating the bravest horses from the more fearful ones by making certain jumps in the course more likely to be refused.

horse rookie's guide to show jumping

For the Rider

The jump off itself is one of the most exciting parts of this sport, though. There is nothing more exciting than riding a clear round and then counting down to your jump off, utilizing well-planned tight turns and speed in order to shave seconds off your time, but still planning your routes to fences well enough so as to give your horse the best chance of clearing them without issue.

The jump off is exciting for riders and spectators alike and is what sets this sport apart from other equestrian sports in terms of level of interest on a worldwide scale.

show jumper

source: shelby dennis

For the Horse

Even within the same show, courses will change day to day which means you never know exactly what you’re going to be riding until the course map is posted on the day of the competition.

Similarly, the variation of the jumps themselves mean that riders may often be surprised to see especially uniquely painted and designed jumps, making the course more difficult and less predictable if they are on a horse that likes a challenge.

New to the sport? Check out our 26-Page Horse Rookie’s Guide to Jumping.

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Types of Jumping Disciplines

Hunters

Modern hunter classes are subjectively judged on the horse’s quality of movement and performance over a course of fences. Horses should be well-mannered and demonstrate consistency and style over jumps. These classes are scored on a scale of 0-100, with scores in the 70s considered average.

hunter horse

source: canva

Jumpers

These classes are scored based on the time to complete the course and number of faults incurred. The course will have a set time that it must be completed within. Mistakes on the course equals faults—for example, refusing a jump or knocking over a rail equals four faults. The horse with the fastest time and least number of faults wins.

jumper horse

source: canva

Cross Country

Unlike hunters or jumpers, who perform in an arena, cross-country jumping takes place outside over more natural-looking obstacles such as ditches, streams, fences, logs, and hills. A true test of endurance, as well as jumping ability, you can compete in a cross-country event by itself or as one phase of three-day eventing.

folding jumping horse

Source: Sarah Harris

Three-Day Eventing

Also referred to as horse trials or combined training, a three-day event judges a horse and rider combination in three different disciplines—Dressage, cross-country, and show jumping, (also called stadium jumping).

eventing

source: canva

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Equitation

An equitation class judges the rider’s skill and ability to navigate a course of fences with accuracy and correct form. The course is typically more similar to that of hunters than jumpers. This class is scored subjectively, on a scale of 0-100 with 70 being average

Speaking the Language

Show Jumping Terminology

Show jumping like most equestrian sports, has many terms that are utilized by those familiar with the sport that may be confusing to those who are just starting out riding or who are spectating for the first time.

show jumper

source: shelby dennis

Faults: penalty points given to horse and rider pairs after knocking down a rail or refusing a fence. Each rail or refusal is worth 4 faults.

Oxers: a type of fence where there are two jumps set parallel to each other, intended to be jumped at the same time so as to make the fence itself wider. The width of the fence increases difficulty, so width of oxers naturally increase with the difficulty of the course.

Open water: a type of fence, typically set lower than the rest of the course due to the sheer width of it. The open water fence is a large pool of water that the horse is meant to clear, without taking a rail or landing with a foot in the water. Many horses balk at these types of fences due to their poor depth perception and how water reflection can throw them off, so they’re typically only used in more advanced jumping classes.

Jump standards: are the two posts that sit on either side of the jump rails to hold the rails up, they can be height adjusted by moving the cups that the rails sit on to a different hole. Jump standards can be plain posts or they can be designed to have “wings” where they will have more extravagant artwork on them.

Vertical: any fence that is set as a standalone fence rather than a wide jump like an oxer, with poles going straight across horizontally to the jump standards. They are called verticals due to the vertical ascension of the height of the fence.

Inside turn: when riders take a tighter turn to the inside of another fence on the course in order to give themselves a more direct, quicker route to the fence they’re meant to jump next. These are most typically used in jump offs to shave seconds off the time.

Chipping: when a horse takes off too close to a jump, putting in an awkward half stride just before jumping.

Long distance: when a horse takes off too early, making the jump required to be wider. This is more risky than waiting for the ideal distance due to it increasing the overall effort from the horse, thereby making the potential for taking a rail higher.

horse rookie's guide to show jumping

What you need (equipment/tack/apparel)

For the Rider

If there’s one thing equestrians are good at, it’s stocking up on WAY more tack and apparel than they actually need.

jumping pony

source: shelby dennis

  • ASTM/SEI approved helmet, traditionally black in color (Never ride without one!)
  • Show jacket (black, navy, hunter green, scarlet, or grey are common)
  • Collared shirt (white or light colored)
  • Stock tie or choker (often built-into shirt)
  • Breeches (white or fawn are traditional)
  • Tall boot socks
  • Field boots (traditionally black)
  • Gloves (traditionally black)
  • (Optional) Safety vest (see why)
  • (Optional) Spurs
  • (Optional) Whip
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For the Horse

Basic needs for show jumping your horse are pretty minimal, though you can certainly invest in far more gear if you desire.

show jumper

source: shelby dennis

  • Bridle (black or brown)
  • Bit (make sure it’s legal for competition) or you can use a legal bitless bridle
  • Standing or running martingale
  • Jumping saddle
  • Stirrups (ideally safety stirrups)
  • Saddle pad
  • Boots or leg protectors – not allowed in the Hunter ring
  • Girth – stud guard is optional
  • (Optional) Ear Bonnet

Basics of Jumping a horse

How to Get Started

Before a rider can even consider jumping, they must learn to effectively ride a horse on the flat.

comfortable tall riding boots

Source: Emily Harris

This is best done by getting lessons with a qualified instructor. Some of the basics riders will learn on the flat are how to:

  • effectively use their leg to
    • command the horse and
    • support themselves as the rider,
  • how to balance themselves in the saddle so as to
    • not sit too hard on the horse or
    • fall off due to lack of balance,
  • how to have effective hands to
    • direct the horse by the reins without
    • being too harsh so as to hurt the horse’s mouth.

Riders will want to be comfortable riding at the walk, trot and canter in a balanced manner without difficulty steering and directing the horse. They should also practice half seat at the trot and canter, this seat will prepare them for the jumping position they will need to hold in order to effectively stay with the horse over the fence.

show jumper

source: shelby dennis

From there, riders can start over trot and canter poles on the ground to further practice their half seat. Trot and canter poles will assist in teaching the rider to practice their timing for two point as well as learning how to count strides and cue the horse for when to jump in order to get a correct distance.

Armed with these skills, riders can start jumping over small jumps and gradually increase difficulty as their skill level increases.

New to the sport? Check out our 26-Page Horse Rookie’s Guide to Jumping.

Choosing the right horse

When you’re starting out in a sport like jumping, you want a horse who is seasoned in the sport and can help you learn most effectively. These horses are often referred to as “schoolmasters” and are experienced in the sport.

This will make it more likely for the horse to happily pack a rider around and account for mistakes made by the rider. It’ll also help build rider confidence due to feeling safe and in control on a more experienced horse.

show jumper

source: shelby dennis

Young, smaller riders may opt for a pony, which is a smaller sized horse that stands at 14.2hh or less. Breed isn’t overly important for newer riders. The most important thing is the temperament and skill level of the horse, but as riders get more experienced, they may opt to choose a breed most sought after for jumping, such as a Thoroughbred or one of the many Warmblood breeds.

There are many more breeds, however, that can excel as jumpers that are just less commonly seen on the show circuit.

Proper Jumping position

The purpose of a good jumping position is to stay centered in the saddle, while remaining off the horse’s back and staying with the motion of their jump rather than getting left behind the motion or jumping ahead of the motion, where the rider ends up too forward on the horse’s neck.

Getting left behind or jumping ahead make it more difficult for the horse to jump correctly and can also make it more likely for the rider to lose balance and fall off.

A good jumping position should also include a strong and solid leg, ideally sitting just behind the girth, but with that said, many riders have different jumping styles where their leg may slide back more while remaining centered overall and out of the horse’s way.

paint horse jumping

Source: Sarah Harris

It can take a lot of time to develop a proper jumping position, so it is imperative that riders are not too hard on themselves while they are learning. The rider should move their hands forward on the horse’s neck to allow for a “crest release” where they give the horse more rein over the fence, so they don’t accidentally pull back on take off, or landing.

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Where should you sit when you jump a horse?

Elbows should be straight without turning out in “chicken wing” arm style and the rider should have a nice flat back, ideally. Heels can be level or slightly down. Turned up heels aren’t recommended as this makes it harder for riders to remain stable and also increases likelihood of a foot becoming caught in the stirrup.

Something riders should consider as well is their own body anatomy.

A rider with long legs and a short upper body is not going to look the same over fences as a rider with a long torso and short legs. It is imperative you learn how to jump in YOUR body rather than fixating on trying to look like someone else who is built differently than you.

Every rider’s body is a good body, and the most important thing is helping the horse jump correctly by not catching them in the mouth with the bit and reins, or making their job harder by sitting unbalanced in the saddle and not effectively getting off of their back.

best cross country stirrups

Photo Source: Emily Harris

Building Your Confidence

The best way to build confidence as a rider is to work with a qualified professional that can teach you the ropes of riding and know when to push you as a rider, and when to back off. Your trainer should help bring out the best in you as a rider without making you too anxious or being too hard on you. This is imperative for developing confidence as a rider.

It’s important to be solid on the flat before jumping, since if your balance lacks on the flat, it will be even harder to remain balanced over fences.

horse riding

Source: Emily Harris

Starting Over Fences

Many riders want to get to the fun stuff of jumping as soon as possible, but the foundation on the flat is the most important part of riding, missing out on such foundation will only result in holes in your riding efficacy later in life, so don’t rush it for your own safety and wellbeing!

How should a beginner jump a horse?

Once you’re ready to jump after becoming confident on the flat and over ground poles, it is important not to up the height of the fences or difficulty of grids or courses too quickly. There is much that can be done over low cross rails before you ever need to jump larger jumps.

Gymnastic exercises where you jump a few jumps in a row in a straight line are excellent for developing and strengthening your jump position along with building confidence as these lines of fences will have set strides, making it easier for the horse to jump from the correct spot without your direction.

How do you see a stride or count strides?

Gymnastics will also assist in the rider’s ability to learn how to count strides as the set amount of strides between fences will make it easier for a new rider to count the beats of each stride without mistake. Many riders also find it helpful to verbally say “one, two” aloud with the beats of the canter.

Verbalizing this makes it easier to remember the feel of each stride and when the next stride starts. As the rider becomes more experienced, they can adjust the pace of the horse to add or take away strides.

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Common Mistakes (and how to fix them)

Some of the more common mistakes of new riders include managing the pace and straightness of the horse. Many riders, when they are learning, will not ride very confidently to fences, meaning that they may not be pushing the horse effectively with their leg and the horse may get to the fence at too slow of a pace, increasing the likelihood of taking a rail or needing to do an awkward jump from, basically, a standstill.

Without a clear and effective leg on behalf of the rider, some horses also may come to a stop before the fence.

Not managing straightness is also common as riders may inadvertently cue the horse to go around the jump or “run out” due to nerves on the approach. Jumping ahead or behind the motion is also super common for beginners which is why learning over small, easy fences first is so important for the development of a rider.

Many riders will also forget to properly release by moving their hands up the horse’s neck, meaning they may catch the horse in the mouth. Likewise, some riders will release too much and have big, slack drooping reins due to the excess movement of their elbows giving too much rein to the horse. This mistake is preferable to no release, though.

By relaxing the elbow and thinking of moving with the motion of the horse’s jump as they begin their take off, the rider can prepare for the optimal release and work on moving in cohesion with the horse, so as to avoid jumping ahead or being left behind.

Grid work or gymnastics are excellent for this, but definitely not something to introduce in the first stages of learning to jump. They can be introduced as the rider gains confidence.

horse rookie's guide to show jumping

Importance of Jumping Properly

Why is it important to learn to jump properly?

A correct jumping position is not just about aesthetics, it is also about safety and fairness to the horse. By staying off the back and moving with the horse over the fence, the rider makes it easier for the horse to jump correctly. It also avoids the back pain that is associated with a rider getting left behind or sitting too much over the fence, accidentally thumping onto the horse’s back.

Pace

Riding at a good pace is important for safety and accuracy. If the horse approaches the jump too slow, they will have to do an awkward jump from almost a standstill, making it harder for the rider to stay with them and also more difficult for the horse to clear.

Riding too fast makes for an inability to rate the speed of the horse as you get in close proximity of the fence, this can result in the horse jumping very “flat” and across the jump, increasing the potential for a crash. It could also make the horse more likely to slip around corners. It is important for riders to learn when to ask their horse to collect and to move forward, for their safety and the horse.

Path

The path you take to the jump is also important, this is why straightness training on the flat will help you tons as you get into the world of jumping.

If your horse is veering side to side, heading to the jump in an S shape rather than a vertical straight line, they’re more likely to refuse or run out or potentially take an awkward and dangerous jump due to their inability to properly approach and assess the fence. Straightness is important, you don’t want your horse wiggling down the line to the fence.

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Position

A good jumping position will set the tone for the rider to be better able to ride clear courses and direct their horse effectively so as to make for clear initial rounds and fast jump offs. Becoming a strong rider over fences takes a lot of time, due to the increasing difficulty with fence height and more complex courses, so riders must be dedicated to self improvement and understanding that this is a sport where you are constantly learning.

You will likely have to adjust your position as you move up the levels, as the bigger the jump, the greater the physical effort of the rider so it is imperative to work on leg and core strength in order to help you stay with the horse.

What makes a good jumping horse?

What breeds make the best jumping horses?

Jumping sports demand athleticism and accuracy from both horse and rider, with difficulty rising with the fence height and course complexity. There are a number of horse breeds that are especially well suited to this sport.

  • Thoroughbred
  • Trakehner
  • Hanoverian
  • Irish Sport Horse
  • Anglo-Arabian
  • Dutch Warmblood
  • Connemara
  • Oldenburg
  • Quarter Horse
  • Morgan
  • Draft Crosses

Learn about these breeds in our blog on the best jumping horses!

What makes a good show jumper?

Good jumpers are agile and athletic, able to easily propel themselves off the ground, land safely and continue on, alert and ready for the next fence. This means it is usually beneficial to have a horse who is built level or slightly uphill, so breeds suited to this would be sport horse type breeds such as Thoroughbreds or types of Warmbloods.

There are also a great variety of pony breeds that make incredible jumpers. You’ll want your jumper to have clean, straight legs so as to lower the risk of injury from jumping, this is where conformation is important, for injury prevention.

How do you begin teaching a horse to jump properly?

To help horses develop their talents as jumpers, setting them up for success with a good flat foundation is important. A horse that cannot control its rhythm on the flat should not be jumping.

Once the foundation is there, it is good to introduce the horse to ground poles and small raised poles to help them become more careful and aware of their feet.

From there, small fences can be introduced, gradually working your way to building more simple gymnastic exercises and then increasing difficulty as the horse learns. Gymnastics are one of the best ways to develop the horse’s form over fences.

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What traits do good dressage and jumping horse share?

Dressage horses

often make good jumpers due to the emphasis on their flat foundation. Their gaits are adjustable, they are soft in the bridle and obedient to the rider’s aids. All of these things are what make a horse a good jumper.

Dressage horses are also typically built level or uphill so have similar conformation to what makes a successful jumper. The body strength it takes to develop a dressage horse is an asset in a jumper as it’ll only finetune their ability to make tight turns and be more adjustable.

Safety Gear for Horse Jumping

Why focus on safety?

When jumping, it is incredibly important to wear a helmet. Head injuries are the most common injury to result in hospitalization in equestrian sport. Jumping increases this risk due to being a higher speed sport involving obstacles. A fall over a fence would be catastrophic without a helmet.

Why are safety helmets required for horse jumping?

Helmets are required in competition for jumping sports, so there is no reason not to wear one during schooling too.

Why wear a safety vest for horse riding?

Body protectors

are also a good idea, especially for riders as they are learning, as they will make the impact of any fall less extreme and thereby decrease risk of back injury. Body protectors could be the difference between a rider permanently damaging their spine or avoiding such injury.

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What kinds of safety gear are needed for horse jumping?

Basic Horseback Riding Safety Equipment Includes:

  • SEI-Certified helmet
  • Boots with heels
  • Safety stirrups
  • Body protector
  • Inflatable air vest
  • Medical ID bracelet

Learn more about safety equipment in this blog.

Jumping Competitions

Common Class Types

Speed RoundWhat it is:

Setup like a typical jumper course and judged on speed
What matters most: The winner is judged without a jump off based upon the speed of their round and the accuracy, or lack of faults.

Clear Round Jump Off

What it is: Setup like a typical jumper course and judged on clear rounds
What matters most: In this format, all clear rounds are scored equally, meaning each rider will receive a ribbon for their course if their horse is to go clear without faults.

Jump Off

What it is: 10-12 fence course followed by a second speed round
What matters most: The most traditional form of jumping, where the rider will ride a regular course of 10-12 fences and then, if they go clear and within the time allowed, they will do a second, shorter course that is judged on speed and accuracy.

How is horse jumping scored

A show jumping course consists of a series of obstacles (10 minimum) in an arena. There will be a start and finish line to establish the time it takes a horse/rider team to finish the course. The team is judged on how fast they complete the course and how accurate they are. Mistakes on the course incur faults, or penalties.

“Retired” means the rider voluntarily decided not to complete the rest of the course. “Eliminated” means the rider broke a rule and was eliminated from the competition (e.g. fell off the horse).

If more than one horse completes the course clean (within the allotted time with no faults), the jumps are reordered into a shortened jump-off course that determines the winner. Obstacles may be altered, and a minimum of six jumping efforts are required.

Walking the course

Prior to the jumping competitions, each class will allow riders to walk the course that they will ride. This allows riders to count the strides between fences and start to plan routes for their regular rounds as well as the jump off rounds.

It’ll also give them a better chance to assess which fences may be more of a problem for the horse they ride, thereby emphasizing the importance of getting a good track to these fences.

online horse courses

Dressing the Part

Show jumping has a pretty relaxed dress code. For bigger competitions, a show coat is the respectful option and in some cases, required. For many other shows, a collared show shirt or sun shirt is accepted. Riders often ride in long sleeves but short sleeves are also accepted.

Helmets are required, as are boots with a heel. Show jumping allows for more self expression and bright colours are not frowned upon in the same manner they may be in the hunter ring.

Etiquette and Sportsmanship

Part of being a good sport is being kind to your horse. If a horse refuses a fence, even if you are frustrated, you should refrain from punishing or whipping the horse. Doing so gives you license to take out said frustration on the horse and this is not only unfair to the horse, but it also makes you look like you lack control. Be kind to your horse, pat them for their mistakes, and know that they tried anyways.

Show up early to your class to write your name down for the order of go. You can count the number of riders ahead of you and get a better approximation for your ride time, but you’ll still want to be there earlier than you think you need to be in case the class runs quicker.

Allow for ample time for warm up to be fair to your horse, this also gives you more of a chance to diffuse any pre-show nerves. Congratulate your fellow competitors and be a friendly face around the arena. Tensions may be high when you’re competing against people, but this is never an excuse to be rude.

Parting Thoughts

Show jumping is an incredible sport for riders looking for an exciting, yet accuracy-driven sport. It requires skill from both horse and rider and shows off some of the best athleticism in the horse community.

It is also more removed from tradition than other sports, making it more welcoming due to lack of rules surrounding the dress code as well as the judging being solely based on performance without bias, meaning that the rider will never meet discrimination due to personal bias from the judge.

This makes it one of the most clear and upfront sports, since you see your score immediately after your class, and the timer decides who wins. If you’re looking for a sport you can have fun in, and also find shows in great quantities across the world, this might be the sport for you!

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About the author

Shelby Dennis

Shelby Dennis is a well known YouTube equestrian vlogger and horse trainer. She has over 17 years of experience with horses. From the Arabian circuit to hunter/jumper and exercising race horses, Shelby’s experience with different kinds of horses makes her a well-rounded horsewoman. Shelby attributes her history with horses to shaping the hardworking, patient and driven individual she is today.

Learn more at milestoneequestrian.com.