Showjumping is the horse riding discipline most non-riders think of during Olympic equestrian events. Dressage mystifies and confuses the non-horsey-folks, as Eddie Izzard has famously explained. But then they wonder about all this talk of verticals. Why are horse jumps called verticals?
Horse jumps are often called verticals as it is the most common obstacle in equestrian sport. Its roots are in one of two jumps in the first judged jumping competitions. These days, verticals are but one of many different types of jumps.
Horse jumps have a lot going on; there can be flowers, water, walls, V-shapes, and numerous jumps in a row. How did this start? Why are verticals such a common term? To begin to understand current horse jumps, you need to dive into the history.
Verticals: One of the First Competitive Jumps
Verticals are one of the most common jumps in competitive riding partly due to being one of the first jumps. But the vertical jump didn’t start as a competition, but for practical reasons.
How Jumping Became Common in Horse Riding
Horse riders have had to jump over obstacles pretty much since people began climbing on the backs of horses. But jumping didn’t become a regular occurrence until the Enclosure Acts (1700-1801) that were being passed by parliament in the United Kingdom began to impact land in the countryside.
With landowners in the country putting up fences, riders now had two choices: finding a gate or jumping the fence. If you are on a hunt, chasing game, there is no time to waste in opening and shutting a gate, never mind tracking it down.
But hunters were far from the only riders having to jump regularly. Cavalries, by the very nature of war, had to navigate treacherous landscapes littered with obstacles. In their downtime and training, the members of cavalries had a tendency to get competitive, as young people do. Thus, by 1788 “show jumping” appeared in a French cavalry manual.
Between 1866 and 1883, jumping exhibitions and shows were performed in Rome, Paris, Islington, and Madison Square Garden. Most taking part were primarily in the military. They had two main jumps: the “high leap” or “long” and the “wide leap” or “wide.”
Where Vertical Jumping Got its Name
The problem with early show jumping was that everyone had their own rules and regulations. By 1917 The American Horse Show Association was formed and tried to create some uniformity. In 1921, the FEI attempted to do the same thing in Europe.
Meanwhile, Federico Caprillio introduced the forward seat in 1920, which was a revelation for jumping. Now riders could tackle new and more complex obstacles. Terminology and regulations continued to be incredibly varied, and each Olympics would be required to hammer down the rules of show jumping.
It is difficult to establish when certain fences were named and by which association or federation. However, Dudley Allen Sargent, in 1921, introduced his newly invented Sargent Jump Test, aka vertical jump test.
The Sargent Jump Test is now more comely called the Vertical Jump Test. It tests how high a person can jump. It is assumed that many militaries adopted this into their training practice. Meanwhile, as we discussed above, most show jumper athletes were in the military. Therefore, it is easy to assume that this is how the “long jump” obtained its new name as the “vertical jump.”
What is a Modern Vertical Jump?
The modern vertical jump is a fence that is high but not wide. They are generally made of standards that hold the poles, bars, or boards at various heights. The jump is the simplest looking out of all the jumps, but not the easiest, as the horse has difficulty judging them and is prone to knocking a pole.
These can also be made to look “scarier” by painting the poles with colors, including stripes. There may also be flowers below the poles or two the sides, which horses sometimes find distracting or “spooky.”
Here is a good YouTube video on how to construct a vertical Jump:
8 Other Horse Jumps
While the vertical is the most common horse jump, it is by far the only one. A lot has happened in the riding world since the days of the long and the wide. So here are eight more jumps you will see in the equestrian world.
Oxers, also sometimes called spreads, require some air. The basic oxer is made of two vertices to create one big, fat jump that must be done in one go.
Here is a British show jumping video with Joe Clayton YouTube video on how to jump an oxer:
Triple bars are made up of three verticals, so it’s an oxer that made a friend. Many show jumpers like vertices because the width makes it easier for the horse to assess it correctly.
Here is a YouTube video on setting up a basic triple:
A combination is pretty much all in the definition: it is a combination of obstacles that riders go over in a series. For example, you could have a vertical and two oxers all in a row, allowing no more than one or two strides between each jump.
Here is a YouTube video of Bernie Traurig talking about using a triple combination in training with demonstrations by Mandy Porter:
The “skinny” is a narrow jump, often looking not much wider than the horse. These are challenging as the rider must line up the horse exactly right, or the jump will be missed.
Here is a YouTube video with Kirstin Kelly on how to get your horse to focus while jumping a skinny:
Open Water Jumps
An open water jump is exactly what it says: it involves a tray or pond of open water that the horse must jump across. The challenge isn’t always about height or width. Horses can sometimes find water “scary,” which can require a lot of training and patience to get them to leap over it comfortably.
Here is a Noëlle Floyd YouTube video with Missy Clark on training for water jumps:
Liverpools are a specific type of water jump combining water with a fence. Like the addition of flowers under a fence, the idea of the water is to be “spooky.” Horses must be trained to have confidence for them to navigate such a jump reliably.
Here is a YouTube video on how to construct your own basic Liverpool:
A drop fence is a more common feature of cross country competitions. The jump begins with an obstacle requiring an upwards incline, such as a fence or a log. On the other side of the obstacle, unlike most jumps, the area you land on is lower than where you began. It’s a “drop,” and the other side sometimes contains water.
Here is a British Eventing YouTube video on various drop fences:
Walls are jumps that are “solid.” Although they often are painted to look like bricks in show jumping, they are actually made of lightweight material which can be knocked over easily, reducing the chance of injury to the horse or rider. A wall in cross country, however, is sturdier and is often made from logs.
Here is a YouTube clip showing a successful wall jump and one that goes a bit wrong (horse and rider are fine):
Horse jumping has a long history with roots in hunting and the military. Jumping is interesting to watch not only because of how high the horse and rider can go but the variety of obstacles. Because of the plethora of variations, jumping isn’t just about clearing height but the confidence of both the rider and the horse. After all, it isn’t just toddlers at bath time that get spooked by water; horses do too.