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.