Look Before You Leap

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When it comes to jumping, there is really only one goal: every takeoff ends in a secure landing. Safe jumping requires horsemanship and properly built jumps.

Safety matters. Jumping involves some degree of risk, no matter what steps you take to reduce it. Cheryl Quick, event rider and owner of Jump 4 Joy, says, “There is always risk in this sport, but you can take precautions.”

“People are getting wiser about safety issues,” says Wendy Wergeles, who instructs clinics with the U.S. Eventing Association (USEA). “It’s starting at the top, with U.S. Equestrian Federation president, David O’Connor, creating a safety task force. Safety is an overriding issue in all the equestrian disciplines.”

Jump builders continuously improve equipment, and course designers produce tests to encourage safe jumping. With these tools, riders of jumpers, eventers, and hunters can reduce the hazards of jumping.

From the Beginning

When you’re schooling, you’ll use poles on the ground and cavaletti. Stay away from the old-style wooden cavaletto, with X-shaped ends holding a pole. That design can be hazardous if the pole is bolted to the X—the cavaletto holds fast if the horse trips on the pole. Andrew Ellis, chair of the USEF Safety Committee, says, “Those X’s don’t roll over. It’s like trotting over a solid wall.”

Newer designs for these low jumps are variations on plastic blocks, used in pairs to support jump poles. Ellis recommends the Blok Training System. “The rail will roll out of the Blok. Any time a rail can give way, it’s certainly better than a fixed jump.”

The white plastic Bloks are formed so you can set pole ends at three heights: 9, 15, or 24 inches. The Stacker, a block 24 inches high, is similar; it has a series of cascading steps on which you place the pole.

Newest on the market are Polepods, from the U.K. These smaller, rounded blocks are 4 inches tall and feature built-in shallow jump cups on the tops. “They slide together, so you stack as many as two high,” says Stu Booth of Polepods, Ltd.

Moving Up

The major safety breakthrough in jumping is new jump cups—in both form and function. Besides the familiar steel cups, you now see plastic cups of either the pin or pinless styles. Their advantage is safety—molded plastic is less likely to cause lacerations than a metal cup if a rider falls on it.

Lauren Cawley of Jump PVC calls the plastic pin-and-cup combination “the American system,” as contrasted with the pinless cups that originated in Europe. She adds, “I’ve never had a [plastic] cup break in 15 years.”

Safety release cups are constructed to drop the jump rail under a certain weight pressure. If the horse comes down on the rail, the cups open and the rail falls.

“From the horse show standpoint, the safety cups are one of the biggest improvements,” says Ellis. “I used to see in a Grand Prix ring three to five rails broken on the backs of oxers, sometimes involving nasty flips. Now you see fewer rails breaking, and the safety cups working. I’ve seen fewer flips over the oxers.”

Jump cups of either the pin or pinless styles can open under pressure. A cup with pins can attach on the standard with a plastic jump pin that breaks under stress. “The pins are a less expensive alternative,” says Cawley, comparing this system to the pricier safety release cups. “I suggest buying extra pins. The pin breaks, and it saves your jumps and the horse. The pin is $1—which is a lot less than a rail or jump.”

The newer pinless cup, which fits into the keyhole track on the standards, can be used with a safety adaptor that fits in the track. Ellis explains, “It is designed to collapse straight down from the weight, and the rail drops straight down to the ground.”

In hunter, jumper and eventing competitions, USEF rules require the use of FEI-approved (Federation Equestre Internationale) safety release cups for the back rail of spread jumps. Such a cup is fitted with a safety adaptor—a mechanism designed to release the cup at 140 kilograms of pressure. “We use the breakaway cups on all our fences,” says Quick. “They do release at the [required] pressure.”

About the pinless cups, she adds, “They are easier to maneuver. It’s easy for the jump crew to set the rails.”

Cups are also made in different depths. A deeper cup, most often used for hunter fences, holds the pole if the horse barely touches it. Shallow or flat cups, and the rails fall easier.

For jumpers, USEF specifies a cup from .7 to 1.18 inches. The hunter cup can be 1.5 inches. Some cups are reversible, so you can rotate between a shallow or flat cup. To hold a plank or gate, the cup must be flatter, not deeper than .5 inches.

Look for all-weather standards and jump poles that you can leave outside. Modern jumps are manufactured of plastic, such as PVC, polyethylene, or High Density Polyethylene (HDPE).

David Delagardelle of Burlingham Sports says, “Our jumps are made with rotational molded polyethylene. They last a very long time in all kinds of weather. The material does not shatter or become brittle like other plastic jumps. In turn, that makes them safer for the horse and rider.”

He notes that they are molded in one piece. “The only assembly basically is putting the feet of the standards on, which is done with one bolt.”

Similarly Jump 4 Joy’s molded polymer jumps have “no screws, so they don’t fall apart. The bases are also plastic, and they are weighted so they don’t go over as easily,” says Quick. She adds, “With the safety cups, these jumps are safer than plastic or wood jumps I’ve had before.”

For jump rails, wood poles still offer advantages of weight and safety. Ellis says, “I personally use wooden rails. PVC rails bounce up a bit more, and I do not believe the safety cups work as well with PVC poles.The weight of a wooden pole in a safety bracket helps it drop straight down to the ground.”For long-lasting wooden poles, buy pressure-treated wood. You can also encase poles with fabric sleeves or coat them with polypropylene.

Plastic jump poles offer durability, but materials vary. Wergeles says, “The Jump 4 Joy poles are of a bendable plastic. Unlike PVC, they won’t break if a horse steps on it, or have a sharp edge.”

For cross-country fences, two safety improvements are the frangible (breakable) jump pins and using plastic stakes to hold direction flags. Developed in the U.K., the pins can help prevent a rotating fall, where the horse rotates over the jump.

Course builder Greg Schlappi says, “Frangible pins are effective in some situations. On a fence that’s built with rails, we will use frangible pins. We can make the first rail drop with frangible pins.”

As for the stakes holding the red and white direction flags on fences, flexible plastic stakes, held upright in brackets positioned on each side of the fence, are safer. There have been instances when horses hit metal stakes and get hurt. he notes, adding, “In England now, they require that course builders not use wooden stakes, because they splinter.”

Construction and Setup

Making each jump “forgiving” or “technical” depends on how it’s built and positioned. The USEF Rule Book outlines course specifications for height and width for each discipline. These rules, written to promote safety, are useful guidelines for schooling. They help you avoid an unsafe setup, such as the Swedish Oxer, using double cross rails for a spread fence.

The highest part of a jump should be a rail that can roll off the cups—forward and down. Horses are going to hit your fences. Most of the time, a hoof will bump the top element, and that’s where attention needs to be paid.

You also want to help the horse negotiate every fence. Fillers in a fence, like more rails, a gate, or flower box, help avoid the difficult “airy” jump. Adding a ground line, or a pole on the ground under a post-and-rail fence, helps the horse calculate takeoff. Place the ground line underneath or in front of the jump.

The spread fence is usually easier for the horse, except for the square oxer, where both top rails are the same height. For safety’s sake, raise the back rail slightly higher.

Help the horse with proper footing for jumping. Wergeles advises, “Make sure you have a nice approach and landing. In the arena, rake in toward the track the horse is jumping on. Bring the dirt back.”

In your arena, reduce risk by storing unused jump equipment out of the way. “Don’t have empty cups on the standards,” says Wergeles. “Put them under the jump, out of the way, or in the middle of the ring. Also, put poles you’re not using well to the side or outside the arena.”

Calculate how the distance between jumps works out in strides between jumps. Quick says, “You can have the best jumps, but if you don’t design properly for the strides, you’re putting yourself and your horse at risk.”

Remember the average stride, especially in a line of fences. When setting a combination, such as an in and out (one stride), set fences about 24 feet apart.

The sport of eventing attracts riders who enjoy the ultimate challenges of galloping cross-country. They seek the thrills of jumps like “The Coffin” or “The Elephant Trap.” The quirks of each obstacle demand that the rider carefully plans the approach.

When building an outside course, consider how jumps fit the terrain. Schlappi says, “There are many factors—terrain, type of jump, succession of jumps, changes in line, turn to a jump—a lot of things that make a difference.”

Fences should not overface rider or horse. Recent accidents at competitions highlight the importance of training and conditioning the horse for this effort. “We look at how people ride to a jump—their pace and their balance,” says Schlappi. “We try to set up the course, not to where jumps are ‘gimmees,’ but to set up a line to prevent a serious mistake.”

Ellis summarizes how riders can ultimately play their part: “No safety product should be an excuse for bad horsemanship. It is a high-risk activity. Safety products are one part of the whole picture.”

For More Information

These companies sell the latest designs of safe jump equipment.

1) Burlingham Sports — www.burlinghamsports.com

2) Jump 4 Joy — www.jump4joyus.com

3) Jump PVC, Inc. — www.jumpvc.com

4) L.J. Enterprises — www.ljjumps.com

5) Polepods — www.polepods.co.uk

6) Jumps West — www.jumpswest.com

7) Equine Systems — www.equine-systems.com