Everything You Need to Know about Show Jumping Mechanics

Show jumping mechanics studies how horses jump, and not all jump the same way. Here’s everything you need to know.

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It’s no secret that show-jumping horses are fantastic athletes. What are the qualities that make them stand out? It’s a combination of physical fitness, ability, courage, and a desire to jump. Show jumping mechanics studies how horses jump; not all jump the same way. It’s amazing how horses have their personalities and ways of doing things, and jumping isn’t an exception.

Understanding how your horse jumps will help them jump better and make the experience enjoyable for both of you. Let’s take a look at some initial concepts to help you better understand how your horse jumps.

Conformation and talent, the key to great jumping horses

Conformation is an important part of show jumping mechanics. It is one of the attributes that determine the way horses jump. It encompasses horses’ physical attributes, such as their proportions, bone structure, and musculature. Conformation defines how horses move, their soundness, and their performance.

Certain human physical attributes make them better suited for different sports or activities. Horses also have physical attributes that make them better suited for specific disciplines. Show-jumping horses with excellent conformation are more likely to succeed in this discipline. Yet, conformation is not everything. Some horses are more talented and have better coordination than others. Being tall won’t make you the ultimate basketball player, but it can help if you have other conditions. That’s why there isn’t a recipe for raising and training the ultimate jumper. It’s one of the things that makes this sport so beautiful. The most expensive foal with the “best blood” won’t guarantee that you will have the next Olympic champion. At the same time, you can find talent and conditions in a horse that comes from a more humble lineage.

Jumping biomechanics 101

Let’s suppose that horses’ bones and muscles work like a machine that turns forward momentum into lifting force. Their hindquarters’ movement makes them go forward on the flat. When the jump comes, they use them as leverage to generate the power to lift them over the obstacle.

Certain horses need more speed to jump than others, but you don’t want your horse to jump flat. That’s why scope (the ability to clear wide obstacles without much speed) is such an important quality. Scope can make the difference between a great horse and an average one. 

It’s incredible how horses compensate for their weaknesses with different strengths. Training and good riding improve their weak points and strengthen their strong ones.


Imagine a grand prix horse going over a 1.50 fence (about 5 feet). As the horse approaches the jump, it gathers energy for the effort ahead. To do this, it rounds its back and brings the hind legs closer to its body with each stride. Thus it creates more impulsion and suspension in its gait. This, in turn, helps it generate more power and momentum for the jump. In the last three or four strides, the horse shifts its balance backward, placing more weight on its hindquarters. This concentrates the power in its hind legs, which propel it over the jump. Imagine coiling a spring before releasing it. The more the horse coils its body, the more strength it will have to take off over the jump.

As the horse prepares for the jump, it shifts its weight to the hindquarters. It also brings its hind legs farther underneath its body. As the hind legs reach farther and farther, the diagonal legs separate to support more weight. This makes the collected three-beat canter turn into a four-beat pace. It is like a full gallop but much slower.

A horse doesn’t take even strides all the way to the jump. It shortens the final strides by several feet before takeoff. Say the average stride is 13 feet (about 4 meters), the last one or two strides before a jump will be about 9 feet (2.75 meters). This decelerates its body and transfers its momentum into energy for the push-off. This creates potential energy stored in its muscles, tendons, and ligaments. They stretch so much that his front fetlocks sink almost to the ground.

The hindquarters provide most of the power, but the forelegs also play a crucial role. The horse uses them like a pole-vaulter uses the pole as a pivot tool for the jump. In the last stride before the jump, the horse lowers its withers and rotates his shoulders backward to fold them under the saddle’s flap. This movement prepares the horse to use his front legs to push off the ground, creating more lifting power.

At the same time, the horse lowers his nose to have a better view of the obstacle. If its neck is rounded in a dressage-like fashion, it will raise its nose to best judge the obstacle ahead.

Approach and the rider

It’s clear that a collected canter will help horses to overcome obstacles more easily. That’s why flatwork is essential for show jumping horses and why it’s important to use the legs to encourage them to engage their hindquarters. At the same time, holding firm and intense contact is important to help the horse understand that we don’t want him to go forward but up.

If the reins are too loose, the horse won’t have enough contact, and it may clear low fences without trouble, but it will tend to jump flat. It’s important to remember that if you apply 2 pounds of force pulling the reins, you must use an equivalent force of at least double with your legs to keep your horse round without losing thrust. It’s good to watch how your horse jumps to understand his mechanics and see what you can improve to help him become a great jumper. 

We hope you learned something new from our article on show jumping mechanics. If you’d like to learn more, be sure to check out our blog for more equestrian articles and tips.

>> Read more: Course Riding Tips From a Professional Course Designer