Beth Underhill started riding at age seven at the local YMCA in her hometown of Georgetown, ON. Her competitive career started soon after that when her parents bought a farm. Although she was a talented vocalist who earned top honours from the Royal Conservatory of Music, her love of horses prevailed. She won the Ontario Jumper Championships in 1984 and 1986 and was first named to the Canadian Equestrian Team in 1990. She has ridden in more than 25 Nations’ Cup competitions and in 1993, was the first woman to win the Canadian World Cup League, a feat she repeated in 1999.
With her black New Zealand-bred gelding, Monopoly, Beth won more than $1 million in the show ring and rode in Pan American, Olympic (1992) and World Equestrian Games (1995). Monopoly and Beth won double silver medals at the 1991 Pan Am Games in Cuba.
With the immensely talented gelding, Altair, Beth won a team bronze at the 1998 World Equestrian Games in Rome and finished second in the rich du Maurier International at Spruce Meadows. This year, she and the 10-year-old Dutch warmblood gelding, Top Gun, were part of this year’s winning Nations Cup team in Florida, and were likely contenders for the Canadian Show Jumping Team for the 2010 World Equestrian Games. However, the day before the long list was announced, Beth learned that Top Gun was no longer available to her and was to be sold by owner Iron Horse Farm, so she had to withdraw from contention.
Beth operates Beth Underhill Stables at Kingsgate in King Township, a full service A-circuit show barn, where she develops young hunters and jumpers. She is also working to put together a syndicate to purchase her next grand prix mount.
There’s no doubt a horse’s speed is a factor in the jumper ring, along with boldness, scope and power, but the key to success is in being able to effectively control that speed. If you’re not able to control your horse’s pace, whether you’re jumping a combination or a single fence, chances are rails are going to fall.
An excitable horse may have a tendency to rush through jumps, while a slower horse can be just as problematic. According to veteran Canadian Equestrian Team member Beth Underhill of Schomberg, Ontario, “I find that a lot of horses tend to share elements of both issues (rushing and being lethargic).” She says a common mistake riders make, especially younger ones, is a tendency to jump a lot of courses at their home stable, when the more effective way to school is to break the courses down into a series of patterns and exercises. This is the approach she takes when she is giving a clinic or jump school. “Horses learn by repetition, which is a good thing if positively reinforced. It’s like practicing scales on the piano. You practice bits at a time, not the whole piece every time you practice,” she pointed out.
She said that too often riders go to their hands, instead of riding off the leg. “At the end of the day, you want the horse in front of your leg all the time. You want that elusive feeling of balance between hand and leg.”
She said the importance of transitions and having a horse that is well-schooled in flatwork is crucial to successfully navigating today’s jump courses, which have many more technical questions than courses in the past. The ability to adjust your horse’s stride as necessary – to lengthen or compress – will pay off if you’re facing a line that has elements like a triple bar followed by a related distance to a pair of verticals. Beth says horses that work only off a 12-foot stride lack this adjustability and therefore aren’t going to be as successful in the ring.
Following are Beth’s suggestions for developing pace control for jumpers.
Flatwork is Key
“It all starts with flatwork, and if the horse is not educated to your hand and leg, it’s not magically going to work for you when you start jumping in the show ring. Transition work is what I do every day with every single horse at home. You should do at least 30 minutes of flatwork before you begin your jump school. If you haven’t done enough flatwork, a hot horse will not be relaxed or focused, especially a young horse – and a more lethargic horse won’t be responding to aids promptly enough. From the first step when you get on the horse, you want the horse moving off the leg, reinforcing with a stick if necessary. You want to be effective without being aggressive, and that comes from reinforcing your flatwork. You want a confident horse that respects the rider.
Start at the walk. Lengthen collect, lengthen, halt, then gradually work up to trot and canter. That’s my warmup at all gaits. Do some downward transitions between gaits (eg. trot to walk, canter to halt, etc.) and introduce a little leg yielding and shoulder-in as the warmup progresses, as lateral movements are just as critical as being able to compress and lengthen. Focus on the quality of your transitions.
People tend to lengthen stride along the long side of the ring, then collect through the short end, but this teaches the horse to anticipate. Mix it up and lengthen and shorten at various points of the ring, and incorporate some circles. I like to work away from the wall or down the centre line. I do circles and serpentines, incorporating transitions and lengthening and shortening of stride.
I can’t stress transitions enough, and a lot of repetition. Transitions make an excited horse calmer and a lazy horse more reactive. With a lazy horse, you might have to be more demanding. I always carry a short stick and if the horse isn’t responding to the aid, I give him a tap right behind my leg. He has to respect the leg. A horse with blood has to learn to accept a supporting leg; if a hot horse never feels the leg, you have to educate him in the flatwork so he will learn to accept more pressure.
I wear spurs on most horses to use as an aid, but spurs are for fairly advanced riders. Carry a short bat; ask, and if the horse doesn’t react, tap him. For a really lazy horse, I might carry a dressage whip and tap lightly behind the leg. Work on lots of transitions, forward and laterally.
If you watch a good, educated rider, their leg appears to be still. It’s the foundation of your position. Aggressive riders often have weak legs and that can be an irritant to the horse. To check the placement of your leg, one exercise you can do is to stand up in the stirrups with your heels down and see if you can hold your balance without sitting down.
You might also consider schooling a hot horse in flatwork twice a day. That works wonders. At a show, I’ll flat a horse for half an hour, two to three hours before a class, so I can mentally relax him and have him prepared to deal with the pressure of the show ring. And at home when I’m schooling, I use a snaffle bridle on most horses. If you find you are using more and more bit at home, you need to backtrack.
Start with trot poles
Once you’ve warmed up properly and your horse is responding well to the aids and is relaxed, you can move on to these exercises.
Start with trot poles and incorporate them into your flatwork. If your horse is not used to them, you might want to start with one or two and build up to three or four. Set them about four feet apart, depending on your horse’s stride.
You can also use canter poles to help develop your eye. Start by setting the poles with nine or 10 strides in between. With a hot horse, you might want to do a transition in between. Start with a good 11-foot canter stride, and ride through the poles. Experiment with lengthening and compressing to add or subtract strides. This will improve the rider’s eye and the horse’s ridability.
Next, incorporate cavalettis. I use cavalettis a lot, as they can be really useful, but you have to be careful because a horse can trip over them. You can put a ground pole in front of the cavaletti or set up a small vertical instead.
Set a cavaletti or small vertical, then six or seven strides beyond that, set a series of trot poles. You might start with two, then add one or two more. Set a second cavaletti or small vertical six or seven strides beyond the trot poles. You might want to use a landing pole after the second vertical (set nine feet out). Canter to the small jump, bring your horse back to a trot to go through the poles, then canter to the second jump.
With a horse that’s really quick, the trot poles teach him to settle and not get fussed by the jump coming up. If your horse is not understanding the exercise, bring him back to the walk before the trot poles. When you repeat the line, the quick horse will learn to be patient. With a lazy horse, insist on crisp transitions to encourage a more active jump.
As their skills develop and they are doing the line calmly and smoothly, you can decrease the distance between the cavalettis and poles. You want them to come in calmly and lower their head and neck before they jump.
Once you’ve mastered that, you can replace the trot poles with a small bounce (two or three small jumps or cavalettis) set about 11-12 feet apart in the middle of the line. Progress to cantering the grid. You can mix it up and put the bounces at each end of the line and the small vertical in the middle. For a quicker horse that rushes, a slightly shorter grid helps them back off naturally; the rider should keep their shoulders back and leg supporting. Grids like this can imitate elements of course design which, when broken into pieces, will help prepare your horse much more than riding around a complete course at home.
You can also work between canter poles or two small verticals by trotting in, jumping, turning, reining back. You want all elements to be executed on the patient side. The reason a horse gets quick is anticipation; by incorporating some transitions or bending, you are reiterating that the horse must listen to you. You are in control of the pace, track, and distance.
I jump my horses two or three times a week – the younger horses more than the older ones – and I rarely jump the height of jumps that are in the show ring. The majority of your schooling should be about the quality of the jump, not the height. We change our courses around two or three times a week so the horses won’t learn to anticipate what’s coming next.
At shows, if I have a young horse, I’ll do half an hour of flatwork in the morning to calm his nerves. With a grand prix horse that’s stronger and fitter, I’ll flat for 45 minutes in the morning and when it’s time to jump, I get on when we’re ten horses away and start jumping when we’re four horses away, then be prepared to be on my way to the in-gate when I’m on deck.
In the warm-up, I won’t jump a hot horse too much, as it often gets their blood up. When they are two horses away from going, I might get off their back, stand under a tree and let them relax, then get on, go in and pick up a quiet canter in the ring.
It’s also important to keep your horse fit to expect the best from him in the show ring. Monopoly had a fair amount of blood and even though he was a Thoroughbred type, he’d run out of gas. I had to keep him super fit; I rode him twice a day to keep his fitness up, and he got lots of vitamins. If he wasn’t strong and fit, he was not confident. I knew if I didn’t keep him fit, he’d be lethargic.
Altair, on the other hand, was almost too large for me and had a lot of self-confidence. He’d get way too strong and fresh if I didn’t keep him focused on the job. I did a lot of the same things with both of them, for different reasons. Jumpers are athletes and they have to be absolutely fit to do the job we expect them to do.”