If you’re new to the world of jumping or are keen to learn more about the various types of fences it can be a real minefield learning all of the different jumps and what to expect at what event. This is why I decided to write this article, to help explain all of the most common and popular jumps as well as where you can expect to find them.
Whether you’re a budding show jumping or an aspiring eventer you’ll soon become familiar with a range of different jumps but all of these fences are based on a couple of simple designs. A vertical which is all about the height, a spread (which can include multiple vertical fences or a single fence) focuses on the width, a combination that tests a horse’s versatility, and water which involves the horse either jumping over or riding through water.
Horse jumping disciplines
Regardless of the discipline you’re competing in the idea is always to get around the course as quickly as possible without hitting any fences (or knocking them in show jumping) or the horse refusing to jump. Some disciplines talk about jumps while others refer to them as fences or even obstacles but whatever you call them they’re all the same thing – an object in the horse’s way that he needs to negotiate.
Cross country jumping
Sometimes wrongly referred to as eventing (cross country is just one stage of an eventing competition), cross country jumping, as its name suggests, involves a natural course in a country setting. Despite being a natural course, many of the jumps (or fences as they’re often known as in cross country) are man-made and can be in wooded areas or in the open.
There’s a lot of similarities between show jumping fences and those found on a cross country course but they’re rarely painted and tend to be far more solid. Unlike show jumping though, the fences aren’t designed to fall easily which is why cross country is often considered dangerous and why many events won’t allow a rider to complete without some sort of body protection.
When you mention any form of horse jumping matt people will automatically think of show jumping and with good reason, show jumping is by far the most popular form of jumping competition. The jumps in a show jumping course are lightweight and are designed to fall if the horse knocks them at all. The idea is to jump the course (known as a round) as quickly as possible without knocking any fences down.
The jumps are often brightly colored so that not only can the horse easily see them but also to show the course designer’s creativity. Many of the fences will have additional decorative elements and will often look daunting to horses with the level of scariness increasing as the level gets more difficult.
Originating from the old English and Irish pastime of fox hunting, hunter jumping is designed to show how suitable a horse is for hunting. This is why many classes will either take place on a cross country course or in an indoor arena that’s been designed to resemble an outdoor natural course.
The fences on many hunter jumping classes are a combination of show jumping and cross country fences. They’re generally natural looking but not as solid as many cross country fences.
Cross country jumps
Probably one of the most popular cross country fences out there, the arrowhead (or chevron as it’s sometimes called) is a solid fence that’s shaped like a downwards triangle. A narrow fence with just one down facing triangle, it can be tricky to jump.
The fence is designed to challenge the rider’s ability to keep the horse straight between their hands. The narrowness of the fence makes it easy for the horse to run out if the rider’s pushing him forward. The arrowhead is sometimes used as part of a combination of fences to test the riders’ ability to regain control after jumping an obstacle.
The bank, which can be a natural obstacle, 100% manmade or a combination of both, is a step up or down from another level with or without a jump (or series of jumps) in the middle. A variation of this jump will have the horse jumping down off of the bank into a water obstacle.
To jump this fence well the horse needs to be ridden with impulsion instead of speed and, regardless of whether the bank is up or down the rider needs to be centered over the horse to help them keep their balance.
While primarily being a cross country fence, the bank can occasionally be seen in the show jumping ring. Normally found in derby classes at higher level competitions (such as the famous Hickstead Derby) it is normally far steeper than the cross country bank.
As the name suggests, these jumps are made from brush but they can be either solid with brush placed on top or made completely from brush. They’re normally lower than other fences so that the horse can see over them easily which means that the horse will jump through the fence (in a flat jump) rather than over it (in a rounded arc).
Similar to the fences seen in steeplechase racing, the brush fence is sometimes painted to help camouflage the brush and therefore make it harder for the horse to see from a distance.
A variation of the brush fence, the bullfinch has a large solid base that’s topped with several feet of brush, making the fence as tall as 6 ft (1.8 meters). The top of the fence is then cut to give it lower and higher parts, therefore giving the rider a choice of where to jump.
The fence’s height makes it difficult for the horse to see over, this means they don’t know where they’re landing before they jump so have to trust their rider. The rider has to decide which part of the fence is easiest for the horse to jump, but while the lowest section may be the most obvious choice the highest part of the fence offers the quickest route.
Also known as rails-ditch-rails, the coffin is a combination obstacle that gets its name from the ditch (or ‘grave’) in the middle. As its alternative name suggests the fence is made up of a rail, ditch, and then a further rail but depending on the width of the fence the horse may not need to touch down between each obstacle.
The fence is designed to be jumped at a slow, impulsive canter (sometimes called a coffin canter) that gives the horse the power and agility to negotiate the fence while also giving them time to assess what they need to do. Approach it too fast and you run the risk of the horse running out or falling, whereas if you approach it too slowly the horse won’t have the pace to jump it.
Sometimes called an apex, the corner jump is a triangle (or arrow) shaped fence that’s similar to the fan in show jumping. The angle of the triangle can vary depending on the level of competition but at the most challenging it can be as large as 90°.
From a lower angle, the fence can almost appear to be straight which is why it’s considered a precision fence, meaning accuracy and good training are required to keep the horse straight and on track.
As the name suggests the ditch is a trench type jump that can be as wide as 11 ft 10 in (34 meters) in advanced competition, although at other levels it’s far smaller. While a ditch can be an obstacle on its own it’s more commonly used in combination with other jumps such as a coffin or Trakehner.
When jumping a ditch it’s important that the horse is ridden with plenty of forward motion and that the rider looks ahead rather than down. This might sound silly, but even a glance downwards can subtly alter their balance and therefore throw the horse off course.
Similar to a down bank, a drop fence is a simple log jump that has a lower level at the bottom, hence the drop. The use of these fences is kept to a minimum because the impact of the horse hitting the ground at a lower level can put a lot of strain on their legs. With this in mind, it should be jumped conservatively with just enough speed and power to clear the fence safely.
A drop fence is often used in combination with a water jump that requires the horse to trust the rider because not only does the drop mean they’re jumping into the unknown but the water, which reflects the sky, can seem bottomless to the horse.
A type of brush fence, the key hole (or owl hole as it’s sometimes known) is normally only seen in advanced level eventing. The fence is much higher than the horse but has a hole cut in the middle of the brush to allow the horse to jump through.
These fences can be very daunting for the horse to jump because the hole gives them the sense of being confined. To jump successfully the horse must have complete confidence and trust in the rider.
A combination of different obstacles, a Normandy bank consists of an up bank immediately after a ditch, with only a stride or bounce before the horse faces a solid fence at the top of the bank. The solid fence is normally a drop fence, although this isn’t always the case.
The range of obstacles in the Normandy bank makes it a very difficult fence to jump which is why it’s only seen in more advanced levels of eventing.
A log jump that’s made by cutting triangle sections out of the fence, leaving the rest of the logs pointing downwards to give the impression of sharks teeth. Personally, I always think that the teeth should be facing upwards with a rail at the top, although this is probably just the way my mind works!
The gaps in the fence give it an open feel which can make it look less solid to the horse and therefore more scary.
A general term for any cross country fence that’s narrower than the standard 12 ft (3.6 meters), most skinny fences will be somewhere between 8 ft and 5 ft 6 in (2.4 meters to 1.7 meters). While you might think that the narrowness of them makes it easier for the horse to jump, it does actually make it much harder. The reason for this is that the width means there’s little room for error and that the rider needs to be more accurate and keep the horse straight. These fences can really test the skill of the rider.
Despite its name, the stone wall fence isn’t necessarily made from stone, although it’s always a solid fence with no gaps. Regardless of what it’s made from though it will often have logs placed on top of it to give even more height. The logs can also change the whole appearance of the fence and make it difficult for horses to gauge it properly.
Like the Normandy bank, a sunken road is a combination of different jumps including rails and banks. The combination can range from a straightforward rail jump with a down bank, a lower level, and then an up bank with a rail to an extremely complicated combination depending on the level of competition.
The combination is a test of balance, from both horse and rider. In order to clear the fence the rider needs to stay centered and follow the motion of the horse, rather than try and steer them through.
The cross country equivalent to a square oxer the table is a large fence in terms of width but, unlike an oxer, the jump is filled in, rather like a picnic table. The back of the fence can either be higher or have a raised piece of wood on it so that the horse can see that it has width to it rather than just height. The idea of the fence is to encourage the horse to jump right over it although on occasions horses will accidentally touch down on the top of the table, this is why the fence needs to be sturdily built.
The fence is designed to test the horse’s scope and should be jumped with plenty of forward pace and, if necessary, with a slightly longer stride.
The Trakehner takes its name from the Trakehnen region of East Prussia (now in modern-day Russia) where it was first used to drain the region’s wetlands. While the original version of the jump is now rarely used today the jump involves a ditch that has a log (or logs) suspended seemingly in mid-air above it.
The fence can appear intimidating to horses which makes it difficult for them to judge properly, this makes it a real test of their bravery. Some events will use a faux Trakehner instead which is a mobile fence that’s designed to look like the Trakehner, just without the ditch.
More common at advanced level competition the water jump is any type of fence that involves open water that the horse has to ride through. Regardless of the type of jump the water is never more than 14 inches (35 cm) deep. The water can place a lot of drag on the horse so, while the fence might not be difficult to jump the water itself can be troublesome.
Some horses are cautious of water, especially if they have to ride through it, so while the fence itself might not appear difficult a strong rider is needed to get the horse through the water.
A combination of a ditch with a wall on the other side, a Weldon’s Wall is best thought of as a triple bar oxer with the ditch acting as the first rail. While there are effectively only two bars, the distance between the ditch and the rail is similar to the triple bar.
Brush is sometimes placed on top of the fence to encourage the horse to jump through the rail rather than over it.
Show jumping jumps
Occasionally described as the show jumping equivalent of the cross country corner jump, the fan is a regular jump that has an upright on one side with three or more rails or poles, each of those rails ‘fans’ out to a separate upright on the other side. This is why the fan is sometimes, wrongly, referred to as a triple bar fan or a fan oxer. When seen from above the construction of this jump gives the impression of a fan, hence its name.
The fan is designed to trick the horse into thinking the jump is much scarier than it really is, but the key to jumping it is to take off in the middle of the fence. This will reduce the width when compared to the far end but if you jump too close the narrowest part there’s always the risk the horse will misjudge how far he needs to jump.
Sometimes thought of as a type of oxer, the hogs back is a triple bar jump where the two end rails are the same height and are also lower than the middle rail. The height of the middle rail gives the jump its characteristic ‘hog’s back’ appearance.
The hog’s back requires the horse to have plenty of height and width to his jump, he needs to jump over it in a rounded arc rather than jump through the fence.
While the joker isn’t always found in lower level competitions it’s much more common at higher levels and is deceptively difficult to jump. The joker is a very simple rustic rail jump that has just one unpainted, natural looking, pole at the top that’s set between two rustic uprights.
The simplicity of the fence is what makes it so difficult, there’s no filler or ground rail to help the horse judge the height of the fence. While the joker is only found in upper level competitions and in some hunter classes it has also been banned in other competitions.
First seen in the Grand National, a Liverpool can either be an oxer or a simple vertical but the one thing they all have in common (and what makes them a Liverpool) is that they all have a small pool of water underneath the actual fence, although sometimes the pool is dry with no water.
When jumping a Liverpool the horse will often look down at the water which is why it’s so important that the rider keeps the horse looking up and focused on the fence rather than the water.
Like the Liverpool, an open water jump has a large rectangular shaped ditch or pool that’s filled with water, but unlike the Liverpool, the water is after the jump instead of underneath it. There’s often a small brush or rail just before the actual water to let the horse know it needs to jump rather than ride through the water.
At the end of the ditch or pool, there’s a small line of plasticine that will help to determine whether or not the horse cleared it completely. If the horse puts a foot down in the water then there’ll be an obvious splash, but if the horse just misses landing in the water they’ll leave an impression in the plasticine.
One of the widest fences on any show jumping course, an open water fence can be as wide as 16 ft (4.9 meters). This distance, especially when combined with the water, can be very daunting for the horse so it’s important that the rider drives the horse forward with plenty of confidence.
Probably the most common and well known of all show jumping fences, the oxer is a two rail jump that can have a varying height as well as width, although if a fence is over 3 ft (0.9 meters) high its width is typically 6 inches (0.15 meters) wider. There are a few different types of oxer fence:
- Ascending Oxer (or Ramped Oxer): This is the easiest of all oxers to jump and consists of a lower front rail with a higher back rail.
- Descending Oxer (or Offset Oxer): Unlike the ascending oxer, this has a higher front rail and lower back rail. The heights of the fence can cause an optical illusion for the horse which is why this fence is considered dangerous by many, with the FEI banning it at all of their events.
- Parallel: Generally the parallel is wider than both the ascending and descending versions which is why this fence can be tricky to jump sometimes. Unlike the other two oxers, both rails of the parallel are the same height.
- Square Oxer (or Box Oxer): Considered the hardest of all oxers to jump, the square oxer is basically a square parallel oxer that has an equal height and width. Square oxers are only ever seen in show jumping competitions.
- Swedish Oxer: Similar to a cross rail fence, the Swedish oxer uses two fences to create the X shape, this is done by the front rail sloping in one direction and the back rail sloping in the opposite direction.
Often referred to as an oxer, the triple bar jump consists of three upright jumps with the first fence being the lowest and each subsequent fence being higher than the previous, in a similar fashion to an ascending oxer. The addition of the third upright increases the width considerably which, along with the low height of the first fence, makes it much harder to jump than an ascending oxer.
The key to jumping (and clearing) the triple bar is to make sure you have enough pace and also to try and take off just in front of the first fence. This will give you (and your horse) enough scope to clear the whole jump.
Often used in combination with other fences, verticals are a single upright jump that can be made with rails or poles, some will even have decorative elements (such as flowers) or boards known as fillers to give the fence a more solid appearance.
As the name suggests they’re all about height rather than width which is one of the reasons while they’re also popular for training horses to jump ‘over’ the jump rather than through it.
The uprights of the fence can have ‘wings’ (decorative elements) added to them, this encourages the horse to focus on the center of the jump instead of considering running out and avoiding the fence altogether.
Said to be a real test of a horse’s jumping ability the puissance wall (to give it its full name) has a solid appearance and looks like a real brick wall. The height of it can often make the fence look very scary for a horse (especially when the fence is taller than the horse) but it’s designed to easily fall if the horse touches it.
As well as being a jump in its own right, the wall (or puissance) is also a specific type of class that’s designed to show a horse’s ability to jump big. Each rider takes it in turn to jump the fence, being eliminated immediately if they knock it down or refuse to jump. After every rider has jumped the height is increased until only one rider is left. The world record for the height of the wall currently stands at an incredible 7 ft 10.5 in (2.4 meters) and was set in June 1991 by German show jumper Franke Sloothaak riding Optiebeurs Golo.
Also known as a chicken coop the fence is made from an A-frame that’s designed to look like the chicken coops/feeders that were once a common sight thought out the British countryside. Some people liken the appearance of the coop jump to a narrow house roof that’s been left lying on the ground.
It can be used as a standalone fence or as part of a bigger combination and is designed to mimic the sort of obstacles you might find on a cross country hunt.
A natural looking fence, the pheasant feeder is a small upside-down V-shaped jump that is made with vertical logs (or half logs) with gaps between each log. It’s designed to look like the old-fashioned feeders that were used on country estates to feed the game.
Very similar to the pheasant feeder, the tiger trap is more open and has horizontal logs instead of vertical ones. It can be quite a deceptive fence to jump because the openness of it means that the fence looks like it’s easy to jump but its width means it’s harder than it first appears. The key to jumping it is to ride with plenty of impulsion rather than with speed.
Found in all types of jumping competition from eventing to hunter (although they’re not so common in show jumping), they’re actually the most common type of fencing. Varying in height and width they include oxers, verticals and can even be straightforward log piles.
Made from fallen trees, solid logs, or logs that have been cut in half, log fences, unlike many other jumps don’t have removable poles so can’t be knocked down. One advantage of logs fences though (and one of the reasons why they’re so popular in cross country and hunter competitions) is that they’re natural looking so horses tend to jump them well. That said though, they can result in serious injury to either horse or rider (or both) if not jumped properly.
Some fences will place rolltops under the rails or poles to make the fence slightly wider but also to make it look more solid, although they’re more common in cross country and show jumping competitions. These rounded half-barrel fillers are often hollow in structure, making it safer for the horse to knock without injury.
Also called a no-stride jump, the bounce is a combination of two fences that are close enough together so that the horse can’t make a full stride between each jump but not so close that the horse can easily jump both in one go. For ponies the gap is between 7 ft and 8 ft (2.1 meters to 2.4 meters), for horses it can be anything from 9 ft 5 in to 11 ft (2.9 meters to 3.3 meters), while anything in between (ie large ponies or small horses) its approximately 9 ft (2.7 meters). The name bounce comes from the fact that the horse lands his hind legs immediately before he takes off with his front legs, giving the impression he’s bouncing instead of jumping.
The bounce is very popular as a ‘training aid’ because it can be used to teach balance and good jumping techniques as well as help to slow a speedy horse down. The fence encourages horses to push off with their hind legs while folding their front end properly. If it’s taken too quickly then there’s every possibility the horse will knock the fence down which is why it’s used to slow horses down.
Meaning little horse, a cavaletti is a small adjustable jump that’s often used for training young horses or novice riders. It’s made by fixing a rail or pole between two X-shaped ends, this means that the jump’s height can be adjusted quickly when needed.
While many cavalettis are still made from wood you can now buy molded plastic uprights (such as the ones I found on Amazon that can often be stacked to increase the height further. One of the disadvantages of fixed wooden cavalettis though is that if the horse knocks then the pole won’t fall so it can injury the horse.
As the name suggests the cross rail is a single fence that’s made up of two poles (or rails) crossing over each other to form an X. Often found in beginner classes it’s also used as a training jump to help build both the horse and rider’s confidence. It’s also great for new riders to learn how to ride a horse over a fence.
More common in cross country events, a combination is any obstacle that consists of at least two elements such as banks, logs, water, or ditches. Each element is typically placed within 1 to 3 strides of the next and is designed to be jumped as a series in a predetermined order. Combinations can be seen in show jumping classes but are very rarely seen at hunter jumping competitions.
Double and triple combinations are the most common but as a rule the more elements the harder the combination is, although there are a number of things a course designer can do to influence the combinations difficulty, for example:
- Distance: The distance between each element will change the number of strides (as well as the length of the stride) a horse needs to make, sometimes the horse will only have time for half a stride.
- Order: The order the elements need to be jumped is used to test the horse even further because, like the distance, it forces the horse to adjust its stride but the horse also needs to reassess its approach each time.
- Height: The taller the fence the less there’s room for error which makes the combination even harder. It will also determine the horse’s take off distance although this only really comes into play if the fence is taller than 4 ft 6 in (1.4 meters).
- Terrain: Especially important for cross country, the landscape itself will help to play a part in the difficulty of the combination because the course designer will use the terrain to increase the difficulty of the combination. This is most evident in combinations that include banks.
What’s the highest a horse has jumped?
The official FEI record for the highest ever jump was recorded in 1949 by Capt. Alberto Larraguibel Morales of Chile who jumped an incredible 8 ft 1.25 in (2.47meters) with Huaso ex-Faithful, his sixteen year old Thoroughbred.
Is jumping natural for horses?
While we train horses to jumper higher and further we are in fact only bringing out their natural ability after all without any training horses can easily jump 3 feet. A horse’s physical makeup has evolved over millennia to allow them to evade predators by being able to jump over obstacles that their pursuers couldn’t.
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