My Case Against the Crest Release...
In addition to my series of posts on the rein aids, I thought I’d address releases over fences. While not exactly rein aids, they do affect the use of rein aids while jumping, so they are worth a little discussion. Most of us here in the US are taught variations of the crest release for jumping. And while it has its place in starting novice riders over fences, I think our lasting fascination with it is a detriment to our horses and riders at the higher levels.
We can thank George Morris for the popularity of the crest release. He is credited with “inventing” it, thereby allowing average riders everywhere the ability to ride and show over fences. Touted as one of his many indispensable “innovations” on the art of riding, the crest release is a sham. It’s a money-making scheme. Previously known only as a training tool for the greenest of beginners over fences, he re-branded and promoted this farce as a way to allow mediocre riders the opportunity to jump bigger jumps and get them to bigger competitions before they are ready to compete at that level. As a result, a lot of unbalanced, uneducated and unskilled riders were promoted through the ranks before they were prepared, without ever having to put in the time and hard work required to perfect a secure, balanced seat and the correct, but very difficult, following release. This cheat has allowed a certain trainer to appear to be a genius at coaching due to the sheer numbers of riders, however ill-equipped, he promotes through to the higher levels. Add to that the ability of many of these riders to purchase expensive, push-button horses, and riding lessons become little more than a formality. Now anyone can be a “great” rider.
The crest release has become such a mainstay of the H/J world that all equitation and hunter riders are expected to employ it, with an unofficial understanding that other forms of release are unnecessary and may even be penalized by judges who don’t know any better. I have had instructors tell me “a hunter judge wants to see you release all the way up the horse’s ears.” Pardon me but, WTF? How exactly is a rider supposed to maintain a balanced seat with their hands – and therefore upper body – up the neck? And how is the horse expected to jump in his best form this way?
Before you get angry, I am not trying to be condescending or negative: let me assure you I include myself in all of these statements. Sadly, like most of us, this is the way I first learned to ride as well, and it is a hard habit to break once it has been ingrained. And, in the past I have gotten away with it (and have the embarrassing pictures to prove it!) I did what I was taught without much thought about it because I won countless equitation classes using it. I even competed a very quick and athletic jumper with nothing but the crest release, and with great success, despite the restrictions it placed on our jumping. But I realize now that our jumping feats were more a testament to my great horses than to my great riding.
But, about 10 years ago, I started a big, powerful 17.3hh warmblood with an unbelievably ENORMOUS round jump, and I realized the crest release just wasn’t going to cut it anymore. In an effort to release his mouth over a big jump while simultaneously balancing on the neck, I would have to first slip the reins in front of the jump and then hang on for dear life as I got launched out of the saddle – where I would be lucky to land back in my stirrups and gather my reins before the next jump or turn. On more than one occasion, while reaching up the neck as far as I could, I had the wind knocked out of me by the horse’s withers as he rounded over the jump. Not a good position to be in while jumping a big course….
Now, mind you, I have a pretty strong leg and well-balanced seat, and have jumped fairly big jumps all through my riding career, so this was a very new problem for me. But I knew if I continued riding the ineffective way I had been taught, I would discourage my young horse from using himself so well over the jumps and destroy his form and confidence – not to mention inevitably landing on my head one day. So I started thinking hard about my position and jumping technique, and I realized none of my trainers had given the “following release” (or so-called “automatic” release – a term I hate) more than a cursory mention and then forgot about it. So when I asked my trainer (an international Open Jumper rider) for advice on staying with my horse better when he gave those big jumps, he rejected the idea of working on the following release and told me to get my leg down around the horse, sit up more and grab more mane – that I’d benefit more from a longer leg and the extra balance of the crest release if my horse was jumping me out of the tack.
It didn’t work. In fact, it made things worse. There seemed to be a major disconnect somewhere. I realized not even those considered “experts” always had the answers.
So, rather than continue with something that felt wrong for me and my horse, I started training myself. Being on my own and no longer working with a trainer, I finally had the freedom to experiment on my own and, after some study and practice, came to the following conclusions - which are, as you will see from the vintage photos below, nothing new:
- The crest release forces the rider to open the knee and hip angles, which weaken the base of support and distribute the rider’s weight and balance precariously between the stirrups, knees and hands on the neck. The rider’s seat comes forward and out of the saddle, and the rider’s center of gravity is raised and moves forward over the horse’s withers/shoulders, where it unbalances both horse and rider in the air.
- The crest release also requires the rider to momentarily drop all contact with the horse’s mouth in front of the jump and then abruptly reestablish contact upon landing, which compromises the rider’s ability to effectively communicate with and help balance the horse. In addition, this dropping of contact can cause a horse to lose confidence, balance and/or impulsion in front of the jump. Taking the contact back suddenly can cause the horse to resist and even throw his head up on landing.
- The following release allows the rider’s seat to come backward while closing knee and hip angles, strengthening the base of support and bringing the rider’s center of gravity lower and closer to that of the horse, while freeing the hand to follow the mouth forward and down. In such a position, with angles closed, the rider is also in a better position to absorb the shock of the horse’s jump with the ankle, knee and hip joints, rather than having to grip harder with the leg or being thrown out of the saddle.
- The following release allows the rider to maintain a light, fluid contact with the horse’s mouth before, during and after the jump, with no break in communication and no sudden “dropping” or taking of the contact upon takeoff and landing.
Kathy Kusner is one of the masters of the following release, and it shows in her horses' round, athletic jumps.
Magazines are full of glossy photos of our “top” equitation and hunter riders pivoting off the knee and draping themselves over their horse’s necks in mid-air. This, we are told, is great riding. I have to disagree.
What effect exactly, does weighting the horse’s neck in mid-air have on the horse? Well, obviously, the horse makes an arc with his body over the jump, using the head and neck forward and down as a balancing rod and counterweight to the hind end. So the added struggle of supporting the rider’s upper body weight on the neck logically has a detrimental effect on the horse’s ability to take off, clear the jump, and regain his balance on landing.
More specifically, weighting the neck/front end will cause the horse to gain momentum through the air and on the landing side. This will generally manifest itself in two ways over fences:
- The horse will “cut down” on his arc, so that he will land closer to the back of the jump than he took off at the front of the jump or, conversely, he will flatten the landing side of the arc and land farther from the jump. The horse’s arc should be even throughout and always find its apex over the jump, with a roughly equal distance on the takeoff and landing sides. This does not happen when the neck is weighted.
- Another consequence is that, landing with greater momentum causes the horse to struggle to regain his speed and balance after the jump. He will usually become strung out and/or rush after the jump for at least a stride or two until the rider can put him back together again. Or the opposite can happen: cutting down at the back of the jump can cause the horse to hit the ground in a heap and stall, which means a loss of momentum and difficulty getting the horse’s impulsion and stride length back up in time for the next jump. It also increases the concussion of the front legs.
The “American Jumping Style” can now be described as “sticking your ass out and lying on the neck.”
In order to give a crest release, the hand must move from a position over the withers to a position about 6” to 1’ higher up the neck. This lifting of the hand unbalances the rider and, during the horse’s arc over the fence, can actually interfere more with the mouth. Unless the reins are unnaturally long, the crest release does not automatically lighten the contact with the mouth sufficiently for jumping, and this becomes increasingly apparent the bigger the jumps get. It fixes the hand against the neck and presents the horse with an immovable solid object for its mouth to slam into as he begins to reach forward with his head and neck at the apex of the jump and on the landing side.
So, what’s the alternative?
Looking at photos of different techniques, it is clear that simply changing the positioning of the hand gives a better release to the horse without disturbing his balance and while allowing the rider to maintain a more secure, balanced position.
Common wisdom dictates that in order to give a release the hand must move forward. In the case of the crest release, the hand moves forward and UP. However, the horse ideally should use the head and neck in a forward and down balancing gesture; I submit to you that, for the most efficient and effective release, the hand should move forward and downward, following the slope of the shoulder, so long as the hand does not go any lower than the horse’s mouth.
If this rider had chosen a crest release, she would have had to stand in her stirrups, open all of her angles and lie down on the horse’s neck in order to get her hands to a place where the horse would be allowed to stretch his head and neck this far (with this rein length, her hand would need to reach about the third or fourth braid from the poll.) Obviously, this would not be possible, and instead the horse would have had to curl his head and neck under and shorten his jump to accommodate the rider’s fixed hand position in crest release. By letting her hand forward and down, she is able to give the horse freedom to use his head and neck without having to alter her rein length or disrupt her own position and balance
Two beautiful examples of well-balanced, strong jumping positions and the correct use of following/low releases – notice the riders have shortened leathers; they keep their angles closed; their seats shift backward while staying close to the saddle; their upper bodies are lowered toward the withers; and they are not balancing on the hand. That they both manage to maintain soft reins, even while riding cross-country with a full bridle, as in the second photo, is impressive! And the horses look positive, relaxed and confident.
A crest release is perfectly fine for novices to use if they are only jumping up to a 2’-2’6 jump, or perhaps at the maximum a 3’ jump on an athletic horse if reins are sufficiently long. But anything higher than that and the crest release could disturb the horse’s natural bascule and risks interfering with the horse’s balance. However, small jumps are also the best place to practice the following release, and it is well worth the time and effort to use these small jumps to perfect balance and the following release.
A good intermediate step in learning to use the following release is to keep the hands below the crest and balance on the neck in front of the shoulders in what I like to call a "low release." In the photo above the horse has not jumped well, but the rider remains secure and balanced, ensuring she will not hinder her horse’s recovery from a bad jump by adding weight to his head and neck, which he needs to regain his balance. Her hand position, though not ideal, allows the horse to use his head more downward than a crest release would have, and so he is able to rebalance himself without the added obstacles of a restrictive rein and the rider’s weight on his neck.
Prevailing theory is a little more lax; it claims that a rider should always use a crest release, and only attempt to use a following release on fences 4’ and up. The exception, they say, is if the rider does not have good balance – then, a crest release is perfectly acceptable over a 4’ fence or bigger….
Excuse me, what?!?
Why would a person who doesn’t have good balance EVER be jumping 4’ or more? Or 3’ even? These riders should stick to smaller jumps and perfect their balance, not just grab a fistful of mane and go for the big jumps! Where are the trainers who are willing to take some responsibility and instill this in their students?
The philosophy today seems to be: why should anyone learn how to ride, when you can just get a nice horse and perch on top? And why train with someone who makes you work hard when there are plenty of trainers happy to take your money, tell you you’re wonderful, sell you a fancy horse and let you compete at whatever level you want? Why work hard at good horsemanship when you can change the standards of judging for an entire sport so you don’t have to make the effort to do it properly? This is the world created in part by George Morris and trainers like him, who are more interested in making a name for themselves and making money by taking clients to shows and selling them expensive horses, than they are in teaching people how to really ride correctly. Or, perhaps, becoming better riders themselves….
George Morris and his contribution to riding: the crest release. An interesting choice of release for such big jumps; notice the lack of bascule in both horses' jumping forms. The horses' backs are hollow, their jumps flat at the apex, and the arcs are being cut down by the restrictive hand. The second horse is clearly inverted as he prepares to land... on the back rail of the oxer! In the first photo, the horse’s nose is pulled in as he is prevented by Morris’ fixed hand from using his head and neck down and forward for balance – his ears kind of say it all…. The “master” and his method in action. You may judge for yourselves.