Learning the Following Release Over Fences

Many of us agree that the ideal way to help our horses jump their best is to use the following--or automatic--release.  But this is obviously easier said than done.  So, what are some ways to practice and perfect this method?  Here are a few I’ve found helpful in my own riding and when helping students to wean themselves off the crest release:



1) Flat work:
Probably most important is to practice a secure and balanced half-seat and two-point/jumping position at all gaits for at least some portion of your ride every day. 

  • Once your legs, hips, abs and back are strong enough, practice this while concentrating on keeping a fluid, mobile arm; shoulders, elbows, wrists and fingers should all remain relaxed, independent and capable of following the horse's head at all times. 
  • Once you're able to maintain a secure position while keeping a soft following hand in jumping position, practice this without stirrups.


2) Hill work:
Chances are there is someplace on your farm or a nearby trail where you can find hills or inclines that you can ride in and out of, even if it's just at a walk. Practice holding a half-seat or a full jumping position without relying on your hands (neither resting on the neck nor balancing on the mouth) while riding up and down inclines at all gaits. They can be low hills and shallow depressions in a field, paddock or trail, or they can be steeper hills and banks. Start small and work your way up. 

  • Know your horse - walking a low hill should be fine for everyone, but cantering down a steep hill may be out of your safety zone for now. That’s okay; do what's comfortable, balanced and safe for you and your horse. The last thing you want is for your horse to get strong, unbalanced or out of control during practice like this, so use your best judgment.
  • Once you're comfortable with whatever level of hill work you've chosen, you can try it without stirrups.
  • Hill work will force you to hold the necessary position for longer than the space of a jump as your horse ascends and descends in an extended arc similar to his changes of position over a jump. this will help strengthen your position (think yoga, pilates, etc.) while following more complex movement of the horse.
  • It will give you time to slowly adjust your seat and arm/hand positions back and forth as the horse both climbs and descends the hill, sort of like jumping in slow motion. Here you can work on your coordination and adaptability to those movements and position changes in the horse, which are like a long, slow-motion jump. 
  • This will be a huge help in building even more strength, as well as improving your control over your position and balance for longer periods. it also means you can practice "jumping" without the jumps! 


3) The "low release":
This is a great intermediary step in progressing from the crest release to the following release. With this method, rather than perching and resting your hands on top of the neck as in a crest release, you approach the jump (or pole, flower box, etc., if you prefer to start small) as you would one of the hills in the previous exercise; as the horse prepares to leave the ground*, slide our hands DOWN the neck a bit, following the slope of the shoulder, and press your hands into the sides of the neck. 

  • Doing this repeatedly helps to secure the correct low and balanced position over the fence, and gradually you'll find you need the neck less and less for support. 
  • When you feel secure enough, make the same motion forward and down with the hand, but don't press into the neck. It will still be there if you lose your balance and need to catch yourself, but getting in the habit of lowering your hand in the direction of the horse's head and neck movement will help this new position become more natural.
  • At this stage it isn't necessary to maintain contact with the mouth - a loose rein in mid-air is okay, and probably even a good thing in the early stages in case you accidentally lose your position a little and so you're not tempted to balance on your hand.
*remember, a secure, balanced jumping position means allowing the horse to jump UP TO YOU, absorbing the upward thrust of the jump by CLOSING ALL ANGLES from ankle (a deep heel,) to knee (make sure stirrups are short enough,) to hip (folding the upper body down toward the wither while sliding the seat back toward the cantle.)

Following these progressive steps will give a good foundation for finally taking that last step of not only maintaining a balanced, independent seat and hand over the jump, but actually being able to maintain a soft, following contact with the horse's mouth from take-off to landing, which is the ultimate goal. It won't happen all at once, but knowing how the get there and which steps to prioritize along the way will help in establishing a strong foundation to build on and will eventually make the following release second nature. Like anything else worthwhile in riding, it will take some work, but I think you'll find it's well worth the effort.

Other posts on the subject can be found here:

The Crest Release... and how it Ruined American Jumping

Glenshee's First Online Riding Clinic, Part I

Hope that helps!

16 comments:

  1. Thanks for a great informative post with easy exercises to practice. In my opinion the following or automatic release should always be used while jumping.

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  2. Very nice - I think your ideas are very good, although I no longer jump. I think the perched, "mannered" equitation style that is favored today is pretty poor riding in terms of its effectiveness.

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  3. Thank you so much for putting this together! I'll start working on it right away. Hopefully some of my fellow riders at the barn will follow suit!

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  4. hi kate - thanks! yeah, i have to agree...

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  5. hi eva,

    sure! i hope it helps! good luck and let us know how it goes :-)

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  6. Thank you! I love the recommendation about hill work, I'm going to give that a try.

    My current trainer has been busy confusing me about these. She calls what you would say is a following release a crest release, and the crest release grabbing mane.

    I like what you said about allowing the horse to jump up to you. When I was first taught to jump it was with the bad crest release method and I used to lay on the horse's neck. It took a few horses that wouldn't stand for that to break the habit (and eating some dirt).

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  7. This one snuck past me! Uncanny, b/c just this Monday afternoon I was watching my daughter in her jumping lesson, where she is now taking the big guy over higher jumps and over in/out bounces.

    Remember when I emailed you asking about position and the whole crest release debacle? Well, the new instructor has not addressed hand position over jumps so much as she has them, every single day, doing walk/trot/canter in two-point, with and w/o stirrups, and they also go out in the big (huge) field which has many gradations to do more of the same.

    Daughter has had to get used to a big horse vs the pony, where all her angles were w/in a much tinier space, if that makes sense, but now that she is used to the big guy, and knows she can trust him to take the jump safely NO MATTER WHAT, she has been able to really relax and focus on the things you describe so well - letting him jump up to her, the gentle folding motion that happens with a secure, balanced position, etc.

    It has been really fun to watch, and pretty amazing to me to see this happen w/o a focus from the instructor on the hands She doesn't tell them to put their hands in a specific place - they are all naturally following b/c of the strength they've developed in their legs/seats. She focuses the girls on setting up the approach properly so they and the horses go in on the very best "note."

    I'm so glad you posted this now, because it helps me make sense of what I am seeing with daughter.

    And it makes me want to jump again! I am having a severe case of foxhunting envy each time daughter goes out with the hounds. I am thinking surely I still have it in me to hilltop if nothing else!

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  8. hi smazourek - that is a little confusing!

    i've been there too - i used to ride a horse who would set up for a jump like he was about to leave the ground, i'd go into crest release mode, and he'd jam on the brakes and put his head down. i'd body surf down his neck face-first into the jump :-\ cured me of relying on my hand for balance, that's for sure!

    hope the hill work helps out!

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  9. hi billie - i've been late in getting to these comments - sorry!

    your daughter is very lucky to have such a good, thoughtful trainer. sounds like she'd getting exactly the kind of foundation work she'll need for the bigger, more challenging jumps.

    i'm jealous too! i haven't been out hunting in a while, but i'd love to get back into it myself, even as a hilltopper or for some nice hunter paces. and i'm getting all my old show jumps painted up because now that most of the herd is feeling better, i plan on getting back into jumping this year. it's been too long :-)

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  10. So... today she got to ride a different horse - another girl rides the big Perch/TB on Thursdays so daughter is riding another big, but very long and lean, BTDT foxhunter who is very very forward.

    She had to learn to half halt him right up to the jump, then release - it took her about three jumps to get sorted and then they did well together. Until he clipped a front shoe going through a water element and the shoe clip wedged into his sole. :/ Freak accident, but she hopped off instantly and held him until they could get the shoe off/out of his hoof.

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  11. mellon was always like that to jump, and he was tricky because is you released too soon he'd quit and spin on you so fast in front of the jump! (i ate a lot of dirt that way...)

    glad she was able to get it sorted - it's great to ride the forward ones when they are confident about their jobs and you know you're going to get to the other side, but it can be a little intimidating when you don't feel like you have much of a say in things!

    i've had lots of horses step on a clip. usually it just goes up into the white line, but i've had a few puncture a sole. it's ugly, but it usually heals pretty fast, and won't abscess if it's soaked and/or poulticed. if it's deep, soft-rides and old macs are great for the rehab. but i'm sure they have it under control :-)

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  12. I think that quit and spin is what she is worried about - the pony had all sorts of things he would do to avoid jumping and some of them were really hard to sit!

    Instructor said this horse will jump no matter what - that daughter just needs to learn how to "package" the jump for him so he takes it nicely.

    I loved what the instructor was saying as she approached the jumps: soft, soft, talk to him, soft, release!"

    They were poulticing when we left. It's been so long since I had to deal with a shoe issue - I have heard nasty things about those clips but never had anything happen.

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  13. i love the image of 'packaging' the jump for the horse - that's a much better term for what i always just call 'setting the horse up' to give him the best possible chance to jump well. i will have to remember that one!

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  14. These are really great tips :)

    I have a few questions though, as I've surpassed the balance-building stage and employ the auto-release (or what I think it is) over fences already. I haven't been taught auto-release by my instructor, and I'm mainly teaching myself, so there a few things I'm sticky about. Would you be able to help me with any of these?

    -I used to keep my shoulders back (along with most of my torso) no matter what back in the age of the crest release, but now I curl up slightly when I go forward. Is this due to the release, and if so, do you have any tips to fix it without interfering with my release?

    -I'm not fully sure about how much contact I'm meant to feel over the fence. I sometimes feel like I'm giving away too much rein, though longer reins suit my horse. How should the contact feel?

    -Is it a sin for my leg to be further forward than my hip? I try to "crouch" like the cross country riders in your original post on the automatic release, but it's hard to close my angles while maintaining the line between hip and heel. How do they work in unison?

    Sorry for bombarding you with questions! Great post :D

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  15. sorry aoife! haven't gotten around to my e-mals in a few days. those are all great questions! do you mind if i take a day or two and answer in a separate post? i'm really busy with work, but they are important questions and i'd like to be able to answer them fully rather than in a short quick comment here!

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  16. That's no problem at all :) Sounds good, I'm excited to see it!

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