Win the Jump-Off: Leslie Burr Howard Teaches Us How to Master 'Faster'

Win the Jump-Off: Leslie Burr Howard Teaches Us How to Master 'Faster'

Whether you're an amateur or professional, show jumper or eventer, in the meter ring or the grand prix field, a few quick seconds can mean the difference between a winning round and going home empty-handed. While speed may seem straightforward, it's a lot more than just wishful thinking and stepping on the gas. There's an art to executing the perfect lightning fast ride – just watch the world's top riders. Just like anything done on a horse, going fast is so much more than meets the eye: it's a layered, subtle, and intricate process that combines impulsion, balance, timing, and athleticism to beat the clock.

American Olympic medalist and downright legend, Leslie Burr Howard, is well-known for her guts, speed, and accuracy when on course. Those abilities don’t have to come naturally; in Leslie's opinion, becoming the king or queen of the speed round or jump-off comes from experience, intentional practice, and plain old time in the saddle.

Let's face it: speed is an indispensable tool that belongs in the toolbelt of every competitive show jumper or event rider, and developing that tool comes a lot more easily under the tutelage of one of the USA's winningest riders. We caught up with Leslie for a private lesson on just how to master the art of the fastest ride.

Photo by Sportfot.

NF.insder: How would you break down the dynamics of riding with speed?
Leslie Howard: There’s a psychological part — you have to be comfortable riding with pace. For me, that was just the way I was brought up. At the age of four, I was galloping on my pony in a Western saddle, going as fast as I could. I was familiar with it from a very young age; it never scared me to go that fast.

Then there’s the actual analysis of the course; knowing where you can pick up that little added edge either through a turn or an angle. You pick up these tricks of the trade as you get more experienced. It’s also the ability, over time, to really keep thinking as you’re going fast and reacting to the situation; not going as fast as you can just for the sake of speed.

Photo by Sportfot.

NF.insider: What goes through your mind when walking a course for a competition against the clock?
LH: You obviously want to take the shortest distance from A to B. A lot of times you have to jump a fence on an angle to get to the next fence on the shortest distance. But, sometimes you also have to realize that going fast isn’t the answer.

If you have a very tight rollback after a long gallop, you don’t want to meet that jump at a flat-out gallop. You have to make that distance on the short, slow stride and that frankly takes time and practice over the years.

Photo by Shannon Brinkman.

NF.insider: How do you acclimate a young horse to the speed required in the jumper ring?
LH: With a young horse, the key is to not go too fast too quick. Obviously, every young horse, like every young rider, has its own rate of progress. Some horses are timid so those are the ones you want to stay slow on for quite a few years. Others are naturally brave, careful, and clever, so those are the ones you can push along in their progress. It’s just going from grade one to grade eight at their own pace.

Photo by Tori Repole.

NF.insider: What advice would you give to a young rider who lacks confidence in the jump-off?
LH: If you’re lacking confidence, the first thing you need is a really good horse. You have to have a horse that will give you that confidence. There’s nothing worse for a young rider who is a little bit shy or lacking the confidence to have a horse that doesn’t take over a bit and that isn’t generous.

If there’s that moment of “Gee, this is a really bad distance at a really bad angle,” the horse’s thought process needs to be, “Well, I’m going to jump this no matter what.” That’s paramount for a young rider to have a generous and forgiving, honest horse.

Photo by Sportfot.

NF.insider: And for overthinkers?
LH: The key is having the experience and knowledge to be able to process those thoughts it in a positive way. In other words, not to clutter your mind but to be able to process and have one thought in front of the other as the course is unraveling in front of you.

Interview by Tori Repole.

Feature photo by Dani Maczynski.