competitive rider show jumping

A Guide to Show Jumping for Beginner Equestrians

Show jumping is a fun sport to watch and compete in (we would know). Horses are amazing creatures and jumping shows off their strength and agility. Show jumping is one of three equestrian sports in the Olympics. Well-trained jumpers that compete at this level make clearing each obstacle look easy, but clean jumps require a skilled rider and an athletic and courageous horse. Show jumping requires a lot of training, but tackling jumps is exciting and rewarding. If you’re new to show jumping or interested in trying it, this beginner jumper’s guide gives all the show jumping essentials you need to know before you jump in 😉. 

What is show jumping?

Show jumping is an equestrian sport that exhibits a horse’s jumping ability in a timed competition where a horse must cross different jumps cleanly at a canter. Each obstacle comes with unique challenges, and a horse able to clear intimidating jumps with ease is said to have “scope.” Jumps vary in width, height, color, and complexity, and the horse must face them boldly. A horse scores “faults” or penalties if it refuses to jump an obstacle. The rider has the opportunity to present the fence to the horse again, but if the horse refuses a second time, the pair will be eliminated. 

Show jumpers are given a ‘time allowed” or an “optimum time” to complete the course. The horse is expected to complete all of the obstacles within the time allowed without lowering the height of the fence by knocking a rail or a brick from a wall, and without touching the water in an open water obstacle. Show jumping displays a horse’s courage, agility, and strength and the rider’s control and precision in guiding the horse. 

The goal of show jumping is to complete the course cleanly with as few faults as possible in the fastest time. To accomplish this goal, your horse must be responsive to your aids, and you must know how to position a horse in the right place at the right time for a strong takeoff and clean jump. The height and width of jumps are the main challenges for a show jumper and horse. But they must also jump with impulsion, stay collected and balanced on the course, and maintain a steady rhythm in a canter. Not every horse who tackles each hurdle is a winner–they must also complete each obstacle under a certain time limit. 

What happens at a show jumping competition? 

On the day of a show jumping competition, riders first walk the course to memorize the jumps and count the number of strides between each so they can guide their horses accurately. Jumps are set at a certain stride, but each horse has a different stride length. Walking the course helps the rider know where to make adjustments in stride during the event. Venturing off-course is penalized with elimination, so memorizing the course is critical. During the event, all the riders must focus all of their attention on helping horses conquer each jump at a fast pace during the event. At advanced levels, course designers make the jumps and the layout technically challenging. Some riders walk the course three times or more until they know it confidently. 

At the beginning and end of a show jumping course, a rider must cross the timer to start and stop the clock. The show jumping arena has 12–15 obstacles, and each jump is numbered in order. Jumps don’t exceed 5.25 feet and are usually placed within 40 feet of each other. When it’s a horse and rider’s turn to compete, the rider guides her horse to the center of each with precision and good timing so her horse can cross each obstacle without any faults. A horse scores a fault if it knocks down a rail or a pole holding the jump in place, goes too slow, refuses to complete a jump, or steps in the water. A horse is disqualified if he refuses to jump more than once, falls or knocks off his rider, or jumps the wrong obstacle. The poles and walls are lightweight and easy to knock down, so a clean jump is not always easy. 

At the end of the competition, the horse and rider with the lowest number of faults scored and the fastest time wins. If the competition ends in a tie, the riders and their horses enter a “jump-off” with a shorter set of larger fences to determine a winner. 

Types of show jumping competitions

In the US show jumping on a national level is governed by the United States Hunter Jumper Association (USHJA), a recognized affiliate of the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF). Show jumpers register for a competition at a certain level depending on how experienced they and their horses are. Show jumping levels range from 0–9. The levels determine how high and complex the jumps are and the required speed necessary to complete the test on time. Fences start at 2’6” at level 0 and reach 5’ by level 9. Horses are required to jump over water at level 4, and the water deepens as the levels advance.  

Only elite show jumpers make it to international levels, governed by the International Equestrian Federation. International teams of four riders have the chance to win the Nations Cup and the President’s Cup based on the results of the Nations Cup. International show jumping offers many different events. The Grand Prix is the highest level of show jumping. It includes the Olympics and the World Equestrian games, among other events. Riders and horses receive years of training before they are capable of jumping a Grand Prix course with tight turns and obstacles over 5 feet tall and 6 feet wide. 

In the Olympics, teams of riders perform several rounds of jumping for multiple days before the winner is announced. Just like on the national level, a jump-off will be held if teams are tied. Olympic show jumping also includes the pentathlon, where show jumping is combined with fencing, swimming, running, and pistol shooting in one event. 

Check out our list of 11 Top Equestrian Centers and Elite Training Centers

Types of horse jumps 

Show jumping courses include a variety of jumps that vary in difficulty depending on their height and width, the angle at which they’re placed, and how far apart they are from other jumps. The obstacles are made from colorfully painted poles, planks, fences, and walls. They look sturdy but are surprisingly lightweight and easy for a horse to knock over. Here are the most common jumps you’ll encounter in the show jumping arena. 

1. Vertical: a jump made of poles or planks stacked directly on top of each other 

2. Oxer: one wide jump consisting of one vertical lined closely behind another vertical

3. Crossrail: an x-shaped jump reserved for entry-level riders so the horse can easily find the center point 

4. Liverpool: a jump with a pool of water underneath 

5. Triple bar: a distance jump with three poles of different heights lined in ascending order so the jump progressively gets taller

6. Hogsback: a wide jump with three fences spread part with the tallest fence in the middle, creating a pyramid structure 

7. Wall: a jump that looks like a solid wall but is light enough to be knocked over if it’s not cleared in a single jump

8. Water: a wide pool of water that increases in depth as levels advance. Open water jumps are only seen at top-level competitions.  

As a horse and rider advance in show jumping levels, they’ll encounter jumps stacked closely in a “combination.” In a combination, two or three jumps are placed one right after the other and the horse must jump with only one or two strides in between each. The horse must complete each jump in a combination successfully, or he’ll have to repeat the entire combination. 
Course designers can get creative with using oxers and vertices within combinations, which is technically challenging for the horse. For example, a course designer could place a triple combination with 18 feet from an oxer at Jump A to a vertical at Jump B, with 21 feet from Jump B to another oxer at Jump C. The rider must guide the horse strategically to clear this combination. The rider would need to ride deep to the oxer at A in order to give the horse enough room to compress to clear the vertical at B but also have enough impulsion (or power) to stretch across the long distance to C and clear the final oxer.

How to get into show jumping

Learning to jump with your horse requires careful training, so finding an expert show jumping instructor is the first place to start. The elements learned in dressage training are foundational to show jumping. You can learn about dressage in our Beginner’s Guide to Dressage. So if you’re a new equestrian, you may benefit from dressage lessons before or alongside your show jumping training. You and your horse must learn to jump confidently and securely because you could hurt yourself or your horse if you approach a jump with hesitation.

Your instructor will first teach you how to develop a secure seat or a confident and relaxed position in the saddle. Before learning to jump over obstacles, your horse will be trained to walk and then trot and then canter over poles on the ground to get used to the strides and pacing. As you progress, your instructor will begin training with poles raised off the ground as your horse learns to leap over them with greater impulsion. You will learn proper positioning in the saddle and on the reins so you move with your horse as he stretches out his neck to jump.  

Learn more: 4 Ground Pole Exercises That Will Help You Win In The Show Ring

What equipment do you need to start show jumping?

Rules for equipment and apparel exist to keep you and your horse safe and looking sharp. A close-contact saddle (also known as a jumping saddle) provides a greater range of mobility and makes it easier to use your legs to give aids to your horse. A half pad helps absorb the shock when landing a jump, a safety helmet protects your head from impact should you fall, and an optional air vest will protect you from injury if you fall. Wearing gloves looks classy, but it also protects your hands on the reins. 

Show jumping has the most relaxed rules on what you can or cannot wear. As long as your show shirt has a white collar, you can have fun with the patterns and color. If you choose not to wear a jacket, make sure your shirt has sleeves. Here’s a list of everything you’ll need for your first show jumping competition.

Show jumping tack for your horse 

Learn more: Show Jumping Tack: The Complete Tack List

Show jumping apparel for you 

For tips on the best equipment and apparel for horse shows, read our guide on finding the perfect horse show coat and fit, or choose from our list of 8 of the best English jumping saddles

There’s a lot to learn before your first show jumping competition. These show season tips will help prep you and your horse for the big day.

As always our team of experienced riders are here to help. If you have any questions on what you need for your next horse show, give us a call on 864-457-3357.

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