Riding Tips

25 Tips to Take Your Show Jumping from Average to Awesome

show jumping tips
Written by Shelby Dennis

No matter where you start, this advice will take you higher.

The key to developing as a successful jumper involves much more than just getting over the fences. While this sport is about speed and accuracy, developing those involves a lot of less exciting, slower foundational work to perfect your, and your horse’s, ability over fences.

Repetitive jumping is not something that is good for you or your horse due to the impact of jumping on both of your joints. So, jump schools should be limited to no more than three times a week. The rest of the week can be spent developing important skills that will help fine tune your ability over fences, without the same physical stresses as jumping actual jumps.

horse rookie's guide to show jumping

Tip #1: Practice over ground poles

Ground poles can be used to allow riders to help develop their ability to see distances to fences. You can set them up similarly to how you would any gymnastic grid or jump course and practice adding and taking strides out as well as developing better straightness and rhythm.

The complexity of pole setups can be increased to help strengthen the horse’s accuracy by asking it to focus on where they put their feet as they work through sets of trot or canter poles.

horse ground poles

Riders also can help to strengthen their two point position by riding in a half seat and practicing holding a two point form around the arena and over the poles.

Tip #2: Don’t underestimate the importance of dressage

Many riders find flatwork boring. This is an indication that you need to spice up your understanding of what is involved in a flat work ride as there are about a million different things you can work on!

Most of show jumping is the work between the fences rather than the obstacles themselves.

dressage practice

Strengthening as a rider on the flat will allow you to more effectively ride your horse, thereby improving their ride ability around a course. Developing relaxation for yourself and the horse is also best done on the flat as jumping involves a lot of adrenaline and excitement due to the higher physical output.

Learn to love your flat rides and you will become a better jumper because of it!

Tip #3: Utilize gymnastic exercises

Gymnastic grids allow for both you and your horse to develop your accuracy, form and overall fitness over fences. The set number of strides between each aspect of the grid allows for the rider to develop their eye through an exercise that makes distances much more rideable. The horse also can figure out their role without too much interference from the rider.

Grid work is also a great way for the rider to get a feel of where their body should be over fences and how to stay out of the horse’s way, not only over the fence, but also on landing and takeoff.

horse gridwork

Grids are also a great way to build confidence over larger fences as riders prepare to move up the levels of jumping once they’re ready. They’re excellent for developing confidence for the horse as well.

Tip #4: Work on strengthening your leg

A stable leg over fences can be hard to achieve and even frustrating, when the rider tries their best but can’t seem to anchor their leg where they’d like it to be. The aforementioned grid work is great for this, but exercise outside of riding can also help you improve leg strength.

Getting stronger thereby improves your overall ability to remain static and strong over fences, more quickly than you may be able to solely from riding.

There are a number of different means of exercising, be it going for runs, going up stairs or hills, or doing strength training exercises with or without weights. A strong leg is a stable leg!

Tip #5: Learn when to let go

Getting a feel for how to let your reins slip through your fingers when you get a less than ideal distance (or something happens on course and you want to avoid catching your horse in the mouth) is important for keeping your equine partner happy.

You don’t want to accidentally damaging his confidence or trust in you by accidentally giving conflicting signals in times of unbalance.

slip reins

Even if you are thrown out of balance, by learning when you soften your grip and loosen your reins, you can more effectively stay out of your horse’s way and thereby recover quickly from any blips.

online horse courses

Tip #6: Look ahead

Eyes up! Look where you’re going. This is the easiest way to help plan clean routes to fences and maintain straightness.

Looking down changes body posture and makes it easier for both you and the horse to be thrown off balance.

Try to keep your eyes looking where you’re going.

eyes up

Tip #7: Be patient

It can take a lot of time to build confidence over fences and develop to the point of meeting whatever your ambitious jumping goals may be. Don’t get discouraged.

Celebrate small victories and be careful not to compare yourself to other riders!

horse jump confidence

Tip #8: Find an understanding coach

Find a good coach that knows when to push you outside your comfort zone, but is also understanding enough not to push so far so as to blow your confidence.

If you struggle with anxiety while riding, it’s important to find a supportive trainer who can be sensitive to how comfortable you are with pushing on to new or scary things.

show jumping anxiety

Tip #9: Learn to trust your horse

Develop a good relationship with the horse you ride. Learn their likes and dislikes.

Take notice of things that they shy away from under saddle, and what situations they’re confident in.

horse rider ground poles

This will help you be more in tune with your horse, thereby better able to read them whilst you ride. This makes riding safer by helping you be more prepared, but also helps develop a mutual trust between you and your horse

Tip #10: Set realistic goals

Don’t try to rush things or set goals with the intent to compete with other riders’ goals.

Stay on your own path and watch for your improvement by writing down things you hope to accomplish in the coming months and years of riding.

show jumping vertical

Reflect back on them, once achieved, so you can see where you started out and really have an appreciation for your growth as a rider, no matter how small or large!

online horse courses

Tip #11: Take a deep breath

If you’re having especially frustrating rides, don’t beat yourself up.

Everyone has bad rides!

bad horse ride

Sometimes we are just off and can’t focus. That’s okay. No one is perfect and a bad ride isn’t going to halt your overall journey as an equestrian. Take a deep breath, accept any mistakes you’ve made, and just keep working!

Tip #12: Ride different horses

When given the opportunity, ride different horses to learn how to adapt accordingly, as every horse is different. It’s important, however, to be realistic about your abilities and not get on a horse that is dangerous or too difficult for your skill level.

Safety comes first.

ride different horses

Be adventurous in learning to ride new horses, but don’t put yourself in danger, or risk future confidence, by biting off more than you can chew.

Tip #13: Watch other riders

Watching other riders, over fences or on the flat, can help to clarify any concepts you struggle to understand in lessons.

Such passive learning can give you new insights by listening to the lessons of other students and seeing answers to different types of problems that may arise for horse or rider.

watch horse

Learning by observing is an excellent way to continue your development as a rider without needing to be in the saddle. You can watch in person or even online via YouTube videos. There are many free options that are incredibly educational.

Tip #14: Learn equine behaviour basics

Learning how to notice your horse’s behaviours will allow you to better support them as a rider by being more conscious of when they’re insecure or frustrated.

horse behavior

This will allow you to ride better courses in the long term by being more aware of jumps or objects your horse may spook at or when they aren’t feeling on their ‘A’ game.

Tip #15: Attend clinics

Whenever you get the chance, taking clinics or lessons with different trainers, even if you’re just auditing, can provide you with alternative outlooks and problem solving that you may not have thought of in your previous lessons.

This will allow you to become a more well-rounded rider, whether you use the things you learn or not.

horse riding clinic

online horse courses

Tip #16: Don’t feel pressured to compete

Some riders love to go to horse shows and have goals very much catering towards moving up the levels of competition.

Some riders prefer to ride for pleasure and don’t have a desire to compete.

show jumping competition

You can absolutely learn and develop as an equestrian without competing, so make sure you don’t follow a path that you don’t love out of pressure from what you think you ought to do, rather than what you want to do!

Tip #17: Practice, practice, practice

Lessons are a key part of your growth as an equestrian. Whether you own or lease your horse or ride lesson horses, try to soak up the information you’re told within lessons.

If you have chances to ride outside of lessons, think of small things you can work on that were weaknesses in prior lessons.

practice horse jump

Practice makes perfect and, in a sport as difficult as horseback riding, it can take a lot to consistently hone the skills you’re being taught.

Tip #18: Give yourself and your horse time to get fit

Certain things may be incredibly difficult or impossible to accomplish the right way when you and/or your horse have not yet established the physical strength, balance, or flexibility to do so.

Small incremental sessions will help you to slowly build the ability to make tasks you once struggled with, feel easy!

horse fitness

Tip #19: Be a well-rounded rider

Don’t be afraid to try new things! You don’t have to only practice the discipline you’re wanting to focus in. You can go out and try new riding disciplines or try different things on the horse you already ride, and still learn valuable skills that could help you in your continued pursuits as a jumping rider.

Trying new things helps avoid boredom or frustration if there are things you’re struggling with currently in lessons.

bridleless

Going out and doing something completely different can be a refreshing way to get a bit of a reprieve from the harder things.

Tip #20: Slow and steady wins the race

This applies in more than one way. Foremost in training. Trying to rush to meet a goal quicker more often than not creates holes in your and/or your horse’s training that will later make it more difficult to continue improving and developing at the rate you can when the foundation is correctly set.

Taking your time to focus on the small things, even if they seem tedious and boring, will help you learn faster over time. Shortcuts tend to have repercussions, things that you have to let go in order to speed up, and these things can come back to bite you.

banksy groundlines

Slow and steady also can refer to how you ride your courses. Despite common belief, show jumping is not just about careening around the arena quickly. It’s about accuracy, which can in turn create speed through good turns and an accurate, good rhythm that allows both you and the horse to stay focused and plan the best path on course.

Going too fast leaves more room for mistakes and errors that you wouldn’t have otherwise made. There’s a time and place for speed, but you can also never go wrong with simply trying to ride accurately even if you’re a bit slower. Don’t feel like you need to rush to keep up with what other riders are doing, do your own thing.

online horse courses

Tip #21: Be kind to your horse

Sometimes lessons and rides will be frustrating. Sometimes you and your horse may not feel like you’re on the same level, you may feel disconnected and like nothing is going right. Everyone has bad days, even your horse.

It’s important to remember that even if it seems that way, your horse isn’t purposefully trying to sabotage your ability to continue improving in your riding, they’re just being a horse.

horse hug

So, it’s important to never treat them like they’re intentionally trying to be ‘bad’ for the sake of being bad.

Accept the fact that, just like you, your horse can have off days. On those days, simply try to be more understanding of them and change how you ask things. Or change your expectations completely for that ride so you can avoid frustration and start fresh for next time.

Tip #22: Don’t fixate on jump height

A lot of people make the height they’re jumping the ‘be all and end all.’ The clearest depiction of skill. This is not true. Jumping well at the lower levels is much more impressive than jumping high in an out-of-control or dangerous manner.

Trying to move up too quickly puts you at risk of ruining your confidence by putting yourself in danger.

small horse jump

It can also ruin your horse’s confidence if you’re not yet at the place in your riding to give them a good ride to bigger fences. Some riders progress quicker than others, don’t compare yourself to them or use what other people are doing as an indicator of what you should be doing.

Jump height does not matter. The more you lay down a good foundation over smaller fences, the better prepared you will be to eventually do the big ones!

Tip #23: School off property

Especially if you’re hoping to show, schooling off property at different riding venues can be an excellent way to practice jumping different jumps and exposing your horse to new things.

Even if you’re not looking to show, a change of scenery is always fun and it allows you to try out different course set ups and different jump styles since every barn is different. If your comfort zone has predominantly been within your home barn, taking yourself slightly outside of that to practice off property can be a good way to continue your development as a rider.

cross country school

It is a great way to perfect your ability to ride courses on different footings, different arena setups, over different jumps and with different types of distractions that you may not have learned to tune out in the same way you can at home when riding around the same things all the time.

Schooling off property is a great way to get the ‘feeling’ of being at a show without actually showing. So whether your goal is to show or not, it gives you a similar experience and allows you to have access to riding in different areas, without paying show fees.

Tip #24: Know when to give yourself a pat on the back

Giving yourself credit for the things you’ve learned and done right is important. You definitely need to allow yourself to recognize where you’ve improved as a rider. And it isn’t self absorbed to do so. Be proud of yourself!

horse jumping high

Watch for areas of improvement and recognize them, no matter how small. We all often will beat ourselves up for our mistakes, we also need to give ourselves space to appreciate the mistakes we have fixed or things that we’ve learned, rather than just fixating on the negatives. Allow yourself to be positive about where you’ve improved as a rider!

Tip #25: Have fun!

This is one of the most important tips. Riding is supposed to be fun! Make sure you’re enjoying yourself as you learn and grow. Riding horses is hard, but you should never be miserable, terrified, and stressed all of the time. If you are, that is an indicator that something needs to change.

Put on a smile and enjoy yourself, or if you’re stressed, be honest with your trainer so you can have a break to go back to some lower stress activity and gain back your enjoyment.

milo shelby jump

Burnout is a very real thing and you can avoid it by simply learning to enjoy yourself and learning when to take a step back when you need to.

Parting Thoughts

Horseback riding is an incredibly tedious and difficult sport, even without adding obstacles in. With the addition of jumps, there is even more to learn as now you’re having to learn how to pilot a horse through the air, rather than just on the ground. It’s an incredibly exhilarating sport, but one that takes time to learn.

Take your time and enjoy the ride.

horse ride beach

Horses are truly special animals and have so much to teach you whether you’re in the saddle or not. Focus on your love for the animal and try not to buy into any of the negatives of comparing yourself to other riders. If you do that, you’ll find that you continue to grow as a rider and increase your love for the sport.

You all have amazing things coming to you, don’t be afraid to seek them out!

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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.