August 31


Crest Release- Where Did It Come From?

By barbaraellinfox

August 31, 2009

base of support, crest release, ducking, George Morris, Gordon Wright, Harry Chamberlin, horse, Horsemanship, Hunter Seat Equitation, jumping, jumping ahead, jumping out of hand, laying on the horse, Practical Horseman Magazine, standing in the stirrups, Vladimir S. Littauer

How did the crest release become the standard way of using the hands during jumping in the United States? Did we always use the crest release? Where did it come from?

In 1938 when Capt. Littauer first told riders to “…support(ing) yourself with your hands laid on the horse’s neck.”, he was addressing riders who were beginning to jump.  He encouraged riders to support themselves in this way because, he says, to do other wise “requires a very athletic body and constant daily practice”.  Obviously he was speaking of the casual rider at the beginning stages of learning to jump. (For more  check out my blogs ” Evolution of the Crest Release” and “Forwards and Backwards”.)

When Gordon Wright published “Learning to Ride, Hunt, and Show” in 1950 he instructed the elementary level rider to put the weight of his upper body on his hands and on the horse’s neck.  He continued this for the intermediate rider. In addressing the advanced rider he says (pg 99) “The rider’s position in the saddle, smoothness with which his hands and upper body function, are all dependent on his security. Final and real security can not be achieved until the heels are down and the rider’s weight is actually carried in the heels. For that reason, the learner and the intermediate rider both are cautioned against trying to jump out of hand before this final security has been achieved, and the shock absorbers are able and ready to go to work for them.”

Mr. Wright continues, “But jumping out of hand is the goal toward which we are steadily and constantly working in everything we do, because jumping out of hand permits  the maximum security and control over the horse. It enables the rider to ride a course of jumps without wings with much less danger of run outs than if the hands must be brought up three strides away from the fence. It means the rider can now attempt more difficult horses, because he is able to use all of his aids in controlling his horse. It is, of course, the  only way to train or jump horses that refuse or run out.”

And Mr. Wright went on to say, ” But this ideal form of jumping is certainly something that anyone with the will and the patience to learn  and learn properly can master. It is within the realm of any rider who will resist the temptation to hurry the early work  or jump the bigger fences, before his reactions become automatic, and before he finds his hands moving forward no matter what his horse does or what sudden emergency condition he encounters before a fence.”

When George Morris published “Hunter Seat Equitation” 20 years later, I don’t think he intended to develop generations of riders who were dependent on supporting their upper body with their hands in order to jump at all levels of riding. But it happened – an unintended consequence. Today we see  ALL levels of hunter jumper riders leaning on their hands for support over all sizes of jumps.

An over dependency on the use of the crest release has created an epidemic of riders who “jump ahead of their horses”, “stand in their stirrups”, “duck” or “lay” over fences. This, in turn, undermines the riders’ base of support and has created a huge burden for the horse.

In  September 2009 issue of  Practical Horseman’s “Jumping Clinic with George Morris”, Mr Morris gives us a definition of  “jumping ahead of the horse” He says of rider # 1,  “Her nearly vertical thigh indicates that she is standing in her stirrups, ahead of her horse’s motion, instead of crouching above him in balance.”

The video “The Effects of the Crest Release” shows examples of “standing”. “jumping ahead”, “laying on the horse” and “ducking”.  You can compare these riding faults, for yourself, with pictures of riders in the video who don’t use the crest release. The video is posted at the end of this article.

How do riding faults such as “standing”, “jumping ahead”, “laying on the horse” and “ducking” effect the horse? Is there a place for the crest release in modern U.S. Horsemanship? Or is the crest release an abomination that was thrust upon American riders resulting in the ruination of good horsemanship? What’s your opinion?

Thanks for reading U.S. Horsemanship,

Barbara Ellin Fox

copyright 2009


  1. What a super video – I teach in the UK and almost ALL the kids are taught the crest release here. I am Polish and we had a very old school military rriding education when I was in my teens and if we lied down on the horses’ necks like this we would be told to get off the horses and apologise to them 😉
    The only good thing I see with the crest release is that at least people don’t hang on to the reins in a backwards pull.
    All the best,

  2. Thank you for commenting, Wiola. I agree that it’s good that the crest release keeps them from pulling. It’s a great tool for beginners because it really saves horses. So many people don’t bother to go any farther than the crest release anymore.
    Thanks for reading the blog

  3. Fascinating reading because I lived in the US for 12 years and I always thought the way most riders jumped was way ahead and wrong. However as everyone did it I began to disbelieve my own training in the classic release. Its so refreshing to see th evidence of the dangers of teaching crest release. I think it needs to be taught very very carefully and only for the very ealry stages, and even them the goal of a classic release should be explained so that no pupil thinks its the long term way ever.

  4. Thanks for commenting, Lisa. I agree with you. Should be carefully taught and students should know the reasons and use for it. Unfortunately now I run into riders who are content to only use crest release and don’t see a need to progress beyond that stage. :>(

  5. In Margaret Cabell Self’s Jumping Simplified, (I just got it from Ebay!) I was surprised by her point (so obvious when you think about it) that the crest release breaks the direct line between elbow and bit and is therefore undesirable. Her use of the neck strap does seem to make more sense. She says “When you are perfectly at ease in the balance position at all gaits with your hands on your waist, you are ready to start jumping.” What do you think? It seems so sacrilegious to think about not teaching the crest release,or at least just teaching it as one tool and not a way of life. The standard she talks about is higher than when we start jumping today. My kids are just starting to want to jump so I can chart their course accordingly.

  6. Hi Julie,
    You bring up several really good points. The crest release was never intended to become the art form it is today, and that is one of the big problems with it. I meet people all the time who have no clue about an automatic release and are so set and happy with the crest release that they wouldn’t consider changing. But then again, those aren’t the people who are riding cross country, eventing, or hunting. ( I’ve met Pony Clubbers who were stuck at B level riding because they couldn’t move on to the automatic release and had developed issues such as getting ahead of the horse, lower leg swinging back etc. )

    Do you remember our conversation about the differences between hunter/jumper instructors vs Pony Club/balance seat instructors? The HJ instructor teaches crest release (in all its degrees) in order for students to win over fences in the show ring. The PC/balance seat instructor teaches crest release as a step in the learning process for the beginner jumper. Another huge difference is that H/J (George Morris) teaches that the base of support is the seat and thighs, while the others teach that the base of support starts at the foot and includes the knee, thigh, seat etc. The definition of a base is that it is what supports the object. George Morris’s definition of base of support isn’t physically logical. Picture the rider in 2 point… Using G. Morris’ definition they just lost half of their base of support because the seat is out of the saddle. And he has added a new component to the base of support by continuously saying that riders should support the upper body on the hands during the crest release. A third difference is the practice of counting strides. The HJ rider counts strides and rides by strides. Can you see an event rider counting strides between fences on a cross country course? So there is a major contrast between H/J (hunt seat) and PC/Balanced seat in at least 3 areas

    It’s a bit ahead of just starting to jump, but a book I read every year is “Training the Three Day Event Horse and Rider” by James Wofford. I’m going to do a review on this book sometime soon. I strongly recommend Jim’s book. He also writes a column in Practical Horseman each month.

    Margaret Cabell Self is right about the crest release breaking the straight line. And her point about the balance position at all gaits with hands on hip is a worthy goal and good exercise.There are a lot of good teaching helps in her books. I have always used neck straps in my lesson program. I use them from the first time the rider mounts up until they are able to have steady hands on the flat. Then I also use a shorter version for beginning jumping. You need to be careful with neckstraps if the children’s horses or ponies are the type that put their heads down to graze during rides. Jumping progress is also smoother if children learn to ride on horses or ponies that know how to jump at least small fences.

    And lastly, the standard. I was not thrilled when Pony Club began teaching children to jump over 18″. I’m not only from the generation that rode Medal and Maclay classes with the following hand, we also believed that anything lower than a 2 foot fence was dangerous for a horse because he’d probably trip over it rather than jump it. But ponies are obviously different. I also believe that any normal horse is capable of jumping a 3 foot course if it’s trained correctly. But the 18″ jump has proved not to be a problem.

    Unless your children are going to show in equitation classes, I would use neck straps. I’d teach the crest release as a “tool” and would make the goal to have a strong independent seat so that they could develop a following hand/automatic release. It takes a lot of work but when a rider first learns automatic release/following hand it is a monumental step in their riding career. It’s liberating and it definitely gives the rider more control over the horse. Don’t expect it to happen soon. It will take some years. That Basic Balanced Position has got to be solid first, the aids need to be independent, and the seat strong. Also, check your Pony Club manuals for their stand on crest release. And don’t be concerned about the height, 18 inches works well for starters.

    Thanks for your great comments. Check out my next video “Jumping Ahead” on I hope it gives you some more tips on the goals for your children in their jumping careers.

  7. great video – kind of makes it hard to ignore the evidence that the crest release is bad… as you know from my post on the subject (
    i have the same criticisms and concerns about the near universal use of the crest release these days, especially at the higher levels.

    i am intrigued by the discussion about using a neck strap in place of crest release for beginners. i have never used one for jumping, but i wonder if a loosely fitted breast plate or martingale (which wouldn’t be able to go over the head) might work as well?

    i’m thinking about the mechanics of jumping and the mistakes a beginning rider might make, and the biggest sin in jumping is grabbing the horse in the mouth, right? falling back and balancing on the reins seems worse than falling forward and balancing on the neck. so we are taught the lesser of 2 evils.

    maybe the failure to make the transition from crest release to auto release is rooted in the way riders learn to cope with the balance challenges of jumping from an early stage, not just because balancing on the neck is easier than releasing out of hand, but because it also trains the rider to think in terms of jumping technique as being about resisting forward/downward motion (in the case of the crest release, with the hand) when perhaps the real challenge of jumping balance is to resist the backward/upward forces of the horse’s jump, which are ideally absorbed in the closing of angles and anchored by a firm leg. pushing on the neck doesn’t help with this unless the rider has already thrown his/her body weight forward and down to counter the initial upward/backward effect…. is the crest release rider anticipating and overreacting to the initial up and back thrust by lurching forward into a position that leaves no other choice but to balance on the hand?

    using a neck strap instead of a crest release might actually just ingrain a completly different sense of balance and positioning right from the start, making the transition to auto release that much more natural… the rider would be able to approach in a balanced position and wait for the horse to jump up to them without fear of being thrown out of the saddle or the need to overcompensate with a forward/down position. the rider would almost be forced to learn to stay back over the horse’s center of gravity and absorb the force of the jump by closing the angles and anchoring the leg, but will also be protected from falling backward and grabbing the mouth. from there, it would be easier to develop a more secure seat and free up the hand.

    anyway, i’m probably not making much sense in my rambling, but it’s something i might experiment with after winter when i get the horses back into some semblance of work…. thanks for the good discussion – you’ve got my brain churning 😉

  8. How outstanding was Kathy Kusner, surely the ultimate stylist riding a Thoroughbred in just a snaffle! Wish we could see more of it these days but has that way of riding disappeared along with the TB jumper?

  9. That’s a good question. As I study the crest release in photos and videos, I see more severe bits. It looks like relinquishing contact, even in the air, makes the rider lose just that much control and then they require a stronger bit to regain it. The crest release invites the snatch and grab routine and most horses react to that violently. There seems to be a lot of fighting the hand in Grand Prix jumping these days. I think if I were a horse I’d do worse than that! The following hand, automatic release doesn’t give away the contact and control and eliminates the need for snatch and grab. Some of the bits we see today are horribly powerful and so frequently you see leverage bits combined with figure 8’s and flashes. That’s something you would not have seen in Kathy Kusner’s day. Sometimes she rode Aberili in a hackamore. Thanks for your comment, Jane

  10. We ride what we are taught. And we teach what we know. the cycle started maybe with George’s book in the late 70’s and has spiraled into 30 years of hand dependent jumping. In fact a HUGE industry is “laying on the necks of the horses”.
    Ludgar Bearbaum often rides super independently and is a solid modern example.

  11. Hi Jean,
    You’re so right. I think the time has come to get back to some good basics. Crest release has become a way of life and as you mention, a huge industry has been built on it. I still remember the first time I was strong, balanced and independent enough to use a following hand over the jumps. It was a really liberating feeling. That was right about the time that a young fellow named George Morris began bringing his students to Long Island shows. Little did I know…..

    Thanks for you comments and thank you for reading

  12. @barbarawellinfox Don’t blame George Morris for this abuse of the crest release. If you know anything at all about George or have attended his clinics for 20+ years as I have you would know he is strongly and I mean very strongly opposed to this release being over used by advanced riders. In every clinic I have seen his advanced class being taught how to “jump out of hand” as well as with no hands. The Crest Release is only for beginners and some intermediates to save a poor horses’s mouth from being ripped on by an unbalanced rider. George Morris often rants that he is disappointed that the crest release is being kept beyond it’s original purpose. So don’t blame something on George if you don’t know what he really is teaching. It is the fault of the person’s own advanced instructor not to take them beyond that release. And when you see most of today’s top trainers riding a simple hunter course using a long beginner style crest release, laying elbows on and ducking past the horse’s necks themselves you see where the release style is coming from.

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