Dressage is usually not the favourite activity of jumping riders, however, the demands of the modern show jumping courses with the light gear and technical lines will always advantage the well-trained horse.
If dressage is training for balance, suppleness and obedience, it is obvious that dressage training will help jumping horses achieve their best. Jumping horses need to be adjustable at the canter. They need to be able to lengthen and shorten the canter fluently, and in balance, without shortening the neck. Just as with dressage horses, the action of the rein must go through to the hind leg, not be absorbed in the neck.
When you ride your jumping horse, it takes the same time (albeit with a bit more effort) to ride him and train him to be a more supple, more adjustable horse who can go straight, and so have his hind legs — which are his engine — right underneath him for maximum power over the fence, as it does just to keep him fit. So why not do both!
Think about the responses that you want on the course — these are the responses that you should train in your schooling. On the course he needs to be able to lengthen and shorten the stride and keep an uphill balance, keeping the hind leg active and underneath him. You want to be able to turn up to a fence keeping the power, not losing the power out through the shoulder as if you were doing a handbrake turn in a car and letting the wheels spin. So, you need responses to the leg to go forward and also yield sideways, as well as rein responses to slow down and turn. You can train the basic response at walk and trot first so he understands.
In fact, it is simple to improve the horse’s balance with the traditional lines of the riding school. You have to do this patiently, step by step. Each day, each week.
Circles are a very effective way to improve the horse. When you ride circles it’s relatively easy to keep the inside hind leg under the body of the horse so he carries the weight on his hind legs. Often an untrained horse on a straight line will naturally carry his hind legs a little to the inside, not carrying weight. When you turn him in a tight line, he is more likely to let the hind quarters fall out, also losing power. The horse is straight at canter when both the inside front and hind leg travel in the same line. The rider will help the horse to become straight by paying attention to riding a little bit shoulder-fore position. You can use the inside rein to move the shoulder in a little, or you can use the outside rein like a wall, with a little indirect rein, to move him across so that the inside foreleg is on the same line as the hind leg.
Start with a circle that is an easy size for the horse, maybe 20 metres diameter. Try to ride an accurate circle, not some bodgy shape where he can bulge out towards the gate without you noticing it. It’s best to ride it from a fixed point, for example a fence post along the side of the arena, or a witch’s hat. Of course, riding an accurate circle is a difficult enough thing to do, and is clearly going to help you ride the curve on your course. With all these circle exercises, start with the easy side, but remember to change the rein so that you do it all on both reins.