Those who have moved around in the showjumping world are familiar with the particular language that is spoken there. At least they have heard it, even if they do not fully understand it.
“Find your line!”
“Don’t leave out a stride!”
“That horse jumped flat, no bascule whatsoever.”
“She’s a scopey little mare, I liked her round a lot.”
Of all the ambiguous words mentioned above, scope is the most difficult to define, and the one that is the biggest hill to challenge for a jumper rider.
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What Is Scope, and How Do I Recognize If My Horse Has It?
There is a saying in the equestrian world that if you ask five experts a question, you will get six different answers. This is most definitely true about scope as well, especially when it comes to classifying what horses have it, and how much of it a given horse has. The best short answer to the question “what is scope?” by harmonizing all the answers and opinions of the experts may be as follows: Scope is the athletic ability of a horse to jump well. While short and sweet, this definition is also vague, but it may be clarified further.
A horse’s jump is categorized into five phases: approach, takeoff, suspension (the airborne phase), touchdown, and departure (the exit phase, galloping away from the jump). Each phase requires a different athletic skill from the horse. In the approach, the horse must maintain a balanced gait with an even tempo, elevating its head and gathering its hind legs under it in preparation for takeoff. In takeoff, the horse shifts its weight onto its hind end, the rear leg joints and bones bearing the weight of horse (and rider, if he is jumping under saddle), the muscles propelling this weight into the air. While airborne, the horse must have enough control of all its limbs that it smoothly clears the obstacle to touch down on the other side. In touchdown, the horse’s front legs now bear the whole weight of the horse and rider, and it gathers its rear legs back underneath itself, clearing the obstacle. In departure, the horse must shift its weight into better balance over all four legs, and send itself back into a stable trot or canter away from the jump. Each of these phases of jumping requires a different set of athletic skills, and the sum total of the horse’s athletic skill in jumping is his scope.
It may be somewhat hard to recognize what exactly is “scope.” Some people look at a horse’s knees over jumps, whether or not they lift them up or let them dangle down low over the fences. Other people also look at the horse’s takeoff points before the fences, whether they leave the ground at a good distance from the fence or not. Still others look at how high the horses jump over fences, and whether they “overjump” the fences by a lot (such horses are often called “careful,” or lightheartedly, “allergic to wood”). Each of these factors has something to do with scope, but none of them are the whole definition of scope. A horse can snap his knees up over a fence, but not be engaging his back muscles to use his whole body over a fence. A horse can jump a fence from a very close takeoff point because he is out of balance on his approach, clearing the obstacle because of sheer luck and not because of any athletic ability. A horse may be very careful because he is young and inexperienced, scared of hitting the rails, not because of any special power or athletic prowess.
Again, it is important to have a trained eye to recognize true scope. A spectator watching a horse jump must look at the horse through all phases of the jump, asking the following questions:
Is my horse balanced on his approach? Is the tempo of his gait even and steady?
Is my horse collecting his body well in front of the jump to launch himself over the fence? Is his neck being used as a balancing rod and is he lifting his back, stepping under himself with his hind legs?
Is my horse using his whole body, especially his back and core muscles, to maintain his form over the fence?
Is he lifting all his legs evenly to be able to clear the jump and land softly? Or is he letting his legs hang, knocking rails down?
After he lands, does he recollect his balance easily and maintain his tempo that he had before the jump? Or does he rush off, nose in the air, legs all over the place like a racing camel?
The answers to these questions can help determine how much scope your horse has. It’s best to determine your horse’s natural scope watching him free jump without a rider or tack in an arena.
How Can I Improve My Horse’s Scope?
Much of your horse’s natural scope is determined by his conformation, which you can read more about in Sport Horse Conformation or The Horse Conformation Handbook. Beyond that, the main way to improve your horse’s scope is by improving his athletic ability. Two wonderful ways to do that are through cavalletti training under saddle and on the longe line.
One of the world’s leading experts on cavalletti training is Ingrid Klimke, whose book Cavalletti for Dressage and Jumping , co-written with her late father Reiner Klimke, may be considered the bible for training on the subject. Further information on training over cavalletti and improving equine fitness are the books Equine Fitness, and 55 Corrective Exercises for Horse and Rider by Jec Aristotle Ballou and 101 Jumping Exercises for Horse and Rider by Linda Allen. Cavalletti can be purchased as part of the Blok training system or soft ground poles.
For a manual on groundwork, Cherry Hill’s 101 Longeing and Long Lining Exercises has no equal. When longeing in a single or double-longe is part of a horse’s regular program, to build back strength and encourage the horse to work from its back end, there are different theories on equipment. Using side reins should be done under the supervision of a trainer or experienced rider who knows how to use them, as great harm can be done if they are improperly adjusted. However, longeing a horse in a surcingle and neck stretcher encourages them to drop their head and lift their back, and helps them to develop the proper muscling.
Scope is a simple way to describe a horse’s athletic abilities over a jump. Some of it is innate, some of it can be taught or developed through proper gymnastic training. Regardless, it is important to ride and develop your horse’s natural ability properly so that he can be the best athlete he can be.