Prepared for 2008 University Seminar at Horse World Expo
I can't teach a horse to jump. I also can't make a horse jump who doesn't want to. That's one of the wonderful things about jumping horses. Jumping for a horse is something that they do by instinct. They probably learned to jump because their ancestors who couldn't jump a down tree or a ravine got eaten by dinosaurs or saber toothed tigers or something.
Given the fact that humans domesticated horses and bred them selectively for various kinds of work and pleasure, it's not surprising that some types have an easier time jumping than others. It is usually the ones with the longest strides that can clear the biggest jumps, but there are jumping freaks of many shapes and sizes. We're not here to talk about what makes a horse a good jumper. Come back Sunday to my presentation of eventing prospects for more on that subject.
So if jumping is instinctive rather than something that we teach our horses to do, our job as trainers is to nurture the horse's natural talent. A horse can learn not to jump. He can learn to go around jumps. He can learn to run at jumps. He can learn to fight his rider for freedom before he jumps. What we want is for him to jump with confidence and to jump carefully. That's also what the horse wants.
First we'll talk about what to jump, then we'll talk about what we strive for in the horse's canter, then we'll discuss rider position, and finally we'll look at some of the most common faults and why they are so common.
WHAT TO JUMP
I like to watch a young horse jump on his own, and I like to let a young horse figure out how to get over rails without the interference and weight of a rider. Here's how it works.
Keep it simple and make sure it's not optional. Build a chute. We use barrels with poles on top along the edge of our indoor arena. Our indoor is small enough that horses have a straight line, but not far to go to get around to the opening of the chute after each time through.
We use a person at one end of the arena with a longe whip to make sure the horse goes into the chute and doesn't stop. A second person stands at the other end to make sure the horse continues around after coming through the chute. That person must remain silent and still until the horse has jumped through.
After the horse has gone through without any jumps a few times and warmed up at the trot and canter, I set up a small x. Then we add a small vertical one stride from the x (18'-24', depending on the horse). We build the second jump into an ascending oxer or triple bar, but leave the x as a placing jump.
If the horse stops at the second jump and it's too big to jump from a standstill, the person at the exit sends the horse back out over the x. The trick is to know when to raise the jump and when the horse has jumped enough. The brave ones will go to 3'6” or so the first day, and the brave and talented ones will jump the top of the 5 foot standard on their second or third day. The more tentative or clumsy ones might only go to two feet. If they are eager and athletic, I find that it's important to raise the jump. That teaches them to rock back on their haunches and push, rather than to dive and get sloppy by jumping something that bores them.
Some horses need to be asked to gallop into the grid. Others get to running and are better off not pressed. And remember, the more hooting and hollering that the person behind the horse does, the less the horse will focus on the rails that he's jumping.
No horse should end up tired at the end of a free jumping session. Move things along quickly and be done in ten minutes. Remember, your job is to show the horse what he's capable of, not to show him what he can't do.
I free jump three and four year olds maybe two or three times in a year. If they don't figure it out in three sessions, they may just not be ready.
Sometimes I'll put a horse through the chute who already is an experienced jumper. It's an eye opener for a rider to see what her horse can do without her “help.” Some people learn that their horses don't rush without a rider. Some find out that their horse has loads more scope than they thought. Some decide that it's OK for the horse to go with it's head up to the jumps. It's all very useful information for a rider.
Logs on Trails
Whether you free jump or not there is no better way to introduce a young horse to jumping with a rider than logs on a trail. The jumps are round, so the horse can climb them and not get into trouble. The jumps are solid, so the horse knows he can't go through them. The jumps are on a trail, so the horse knows that going around them is either impossible or a deviation from the direction of travel.
Any green broke three year old can trot along behind his buddy and pop over 12”-24” logs on a trail. Most riders can grab mane and stay out of the way. Steering isn't much of an issue. After following, you can jump the logs without a lead. After doing logs on a trail, you can graduate to logs in a field.
Grab a chainsaw and a tractor with a chain and in two or three hours you can have yourself a whole course.
Rails in the Ring
Many an experienced foxhunter won't jump rails in a ring. It's a whole different ball game and it has to be introduced carefully and systematically to any horse, whether it's his first jumping experience or he's done the free jumping and the logs.
We always start with rails on the ground. The horse first has to get over any fear of stepping over poles and going between jump standards. They won't learn to jump well if they're afraid of what they're jumping.
Then we ask the horse to trot an x. The x gives horse and rider an incentive to stay straight and head for a defined point. Riding now becomes an issue, but we'll assume for now that the rider is perfectly balanced and the horse is on the aids and straight. We'll pick the riders apart in a few minutes.
I like to trot this and trot that all around the ring. Some like to step over rather than jump. Often a gate or flower box will solve the problem. So will a small ascending oxer.
Once you're OK trotting the individual jumps it's time to set up your first little grid. Start like the free jump, with an x to a rail that becomes an ascending oxer as you build it up. It's a great way to get the horse jumping something with a bit of size before you really have the balance and steering to canter up to a 3 foot fence.
Lots of them will zigzag through the grid at first, especially if the rider gets ahead at the jumps and doesn't steer. Wide hands are helpful. Leaning on the neck is not.
A third jump and a lot of variety in the line is great, but be very careful in placing the jumps. A canter stride is 12 feet at a horse show, but often closer to ten on a green horse in a grid. A horse will take off six feet from a 3'6” jump at 400 meters per minute, but a green horse in a grid should take off closer to 3 feet from the stuff we are jumping. So the one stride distance is closer to 18 feet than 24. The two stride distance is closer to 30 feet than 36. Even less is OK if that's what makes the horse comfortable. Your goal is to help the horse learn how easy jumping is if you stay in a straight line and go forward, not how hard it is to fix a bad take-off spot.
So can we canter some course now, please? Well we did the easy part, which is systematically introducing the horse to jumping over rails in a ring. Did we also do the hard work? That would be teaching the horse, or helping the horse, to canter with a rider in balance and rhythm? Can the rider communicate with the horse at the canter enough to shorten or lengthen the stride at a moment's notice? Or does the young horse lean into the rider's hands and canter like a train going down a hill?
A bad canter, whether it's caused by bad riding or bad breeding, can quickly unravel the jump training we've done so far. Since the breeding part has already happened, let's see what the rider can do to develop a canter that allows our jumping to progress.
Dressage people talk a lot about the training pyramid, or the training scale. We train our horses keeping in mind that nothing at the top of the pyramid is possible without a solid foundation under it. The progression is as follows: rhythm, looseness, contact, impulsion, straightness, collection. So when we can't seem to keep our horse straight or correctly bent we must check in to see whether the problem stems from a lack or rhythm, or whether the horse isn't accepting the bit.
So the canter that we want for jumping is one from which the horse can coil himself like a spring and leap up into the air. We want him light in front and sitting a little behind. We want his back to come up with every stride so that his hind legs can come under his body. Stiff-backed horses don't usually jump well. We want a connection through the reins, but we don't want him braced or leaning.
I used to think that that best thing to do on green horses was to let them pick their way around the course and figure it out. I went to Bruce Davidson's in Florida and only brought one horse, which meant that I rode for Bruce the rest of the day. He had two cavaletti set about 50 feet apart. He told me to canter the gangly four year old I was on over them both and put in 6 strides. I did it very nicely in four and got barked at quite severely. Collection? You want collection from a four year old?
Yes, he did. And when I finally made the six strides happen I suddenly knew that I could jump that horse around a course of jumps.
The next year Bruce had a line of six posts lying on the ground, each one 8” high and set seven feet apart. He was making everyone canter through it, and then putting a jump at the end. I couldn't believe how much leg it took to get my horses through. But then I couldn't believe how round and bouncy and balanced my canter felt. It was a huge breakthrough in my riding. I told Bruce when I went home that after twenty years of eventing I had finally learned how to canter.
Well we're not all going to get our four year olds into the balanced canter that makes jumping so easy, but we all need to keep working our way up that pyramid. The closer you get to the top the more easily your horse will learn to jump correctly.
Even if the canter is a ten all the way down to the jump, it's possible to lose it as soon as the horse takes off. It's all about balance. Not just sideways balance, but also forward and backward balance.
American riders love to jump ahead of their horses. If you can't jump without your hands pressing down on your horse's neck you have a balance problem. Our saddles put us in the middle of our horses. Our stirrup bars are where we put our weight when we get our butts out of our saddles. Horses love it when we stand in our stirrups and use our ankles, knees, and hips as shock absorbers. We all learn to canter around that way. The best riders can maintain their balance with their bodies over their stirrups all the time. No falling back into the saddle at the canter, and no falling forward onto the neck over jumps. The body folds like an accordion, and that allows the arms to follow the horse's mouth and to maintain contact. Throwing the upper body up the horse's neck is what some people still teach for the hunter ring. It's a crest release that was designed to keep beginners from falling off. Most people who jump up the neck also let their lower legs slip way back at the same time. It's a style that has no place on a cross country course or in show jumping, and thanks to the creation of the National Hunter Jumper Foundation that industry will soon have an instructor certification program to educate trainers and finally put an end to a bad habit that became a style.
If you are a young horse learning to jump wouldn't it be nice if the rider stayed in the middle of you? Wouldn't it be great if the legs that you've been taught to listen to stayed put? Wouldn't it be nice if the bit that you have learned to trust and communicate through were held gently rather than dropped and then picked back up? Isn't it a little scary when your rider's hands come shooting toward your ears?
The worst is in a grid. The rider jumps ahead at the first jump, so the horse lands with that extra weight up on his neck but has to get his front end back up a stride later. I love making people like this jump through bounces. They learn quickly to stay balanced over their feet!
Young horses often need to be ridden with wide hands to help with straightness. Forcing riders to keep their hands wide and not touch the horse's neck is another way to force them to get their feet under their bodies and find a secure base of support.
WHEN THINGS GO WRONG
Yes, it's always the rider's fault. But more specifically…
There are lots of reasons for stops. Some horses stop when they get to a jump on a bad stride. They either think they can't solve the problem or don't think they have to. It's part of their naturally lazy nature to decline to make the extra effort to either go long or put in a short stride.
Some horses seem to be afraid of everything they've never jumped. They think it's their right to check it out, sniff it, and stop once at it.
Sometimes it's a combination of the bad take-off spot and concern about the actual jump. Either way horses need to know that jumping is not optional. At times we need to present an alternative to jumping that is more threatening than the jump. Many horses at a certain point in their training need to find out that the person on their back not only is there to help them jump, but also will attack them if they don't. I'm not talking about any kind of prolonged abuse, and certainly not any conflicting aids, like pulling and kicking at the same time. If I'm on a horse who I know is not truly afraid and has the skills and the training to easily do the job I will get him in front of my leg with a good thump or two of a whip on his butt and then re-approach the jump sitting up with a deep driving (not pumping, but set) seat and my spurs dug into his sides. The key is to do all of this without pulling on the bit, but still steering. If he stops I might keep my spurs in him and make him wish he'd jumped. When they stop and the rider takes his legs off the horse gets the ultimate reward – no pressure and no work. So keep the pressure and then turn away and double the work. Gallop off, rebalance, take a breath and give him another chance.
For the most part, horses jump because they want to, but questioning is dangerous. Many a fall has resulted because the horse or rider or both were not committed when they took off at a fence. Being strict about never ever stopping pays off down the road. You want your horse to know that when you put your leg on it's a warning. You'll back it up with more if you have to.
Running out is another way for a horse to get out of work. As a training issue it is no different than a horse drifting left or right as you come down the center line to begin your dressage test. The horse runs out because he believes that he can. Too often you see a horse run out and the rider continues on as though it was her idea, makes a circle and comes right back to the jump on the same approach, usually to run out again. Oh, and the real pros prop a little first to get the rider up onto their necks where they can't steer.
So first of all if you never learned to sit up and keep a wide contact all the way to take-off it's a matter of time before your horse learns to run out at jumps. I always tell people in clinics that if anyone's horse gets as far as the side of the jump, pull up…rather harshly. Make her think she's hit an imaginary brick wall. There is no way around these jumps. Pull up and turn back toward the jump and make her face it with your legs squeezing. As in the stop, make her wish they she'd jumped. Then turn around and approach the jump, vigilantly working to catch any drift in the direction of your last runout.
Runouts are tough to deal with on a green horse. As the horse leans in the direction that he wants to drift the bit must help to straighten him but its use also takes away some of his desire to go forward. That's why sideways pressure is better than pulling backwards.
Riders cause rushing. Free jumping horses don't run at their jumps in the frantic way that ridden horses do. Knowing that isn't very helpful though, is it?
We cause the rushing in a lot of very subtle ways. Sometimes it's because we lock our arms due to anxiety, or expectation of pulling. We become water skiers and the horses feel that the only way to get to the other side of the fence is to rev up the engine and drag us. Some of us pull back rhythmically. As our upper bodies pull back, our hips slide forward. Our hips are actually driving the horse faster as we pull. Some of us worry about seeing our distances too much. We hold until we see it and then we pump and flap in ecstasy when we do. Our horses simply respond by waiting and then accelerating.
I try to get people to change the way they ride the canter, often by getting their butts off the saddle, and thereby break the cycle of communication that's going on. It's fascinating to watch how some horses will rush with one rider and not another. Sometimes it's the rookie that they settle down for.
Horses need to learn that scope does not come from speed, but they learn that rather quickly in most cases. That can be done with grids and course design. Riders are the ones whose habits die the hardest.
Oh, and the horse and rider who have that perfect canter that we talked about will never rush a jump. They'll also never miss a distance.
Hanging Front Legs
Some horses are very tidy in front by nature. Some very scopey jumpers, even a few Olympic show jumpers, are not very good with their knees. But a lot of the bad form that we see in front comes from horses leaning on the rider's hands at take-off.
A skilled rider can soften the reins just before take-off without shifting her body weight and convince even some chronic knee hangers that they have the freedom to use their head and neck as the counterweight that nature intended. Lots of horses, especially those who canter on their forehands, have always leaned on their riders and possibly rushed their jumps. Because they are pulling with their heads they jump as though they are diving head first over the jump. The front legs are an afterthought, and they hang.
Of course it helps to have a take-off spot that isn't too close while learning to get the knees up.
Horses who lean and rush have all the problems. They smack down rails with their hanging front legs and they also hit them on the way down.
Horses jump clean behind when they jump around the fences and land with their heads down. Horses that are fighting the bit to the fence and in the air keep their heads up and their backs flat rather than round as they jump. There is very little rotation in that flat jump, so the hind legs come down on the rails.
That same skilled rider who can soften enough on take-off to convince that leaning or pulling horse that she has freedom of her head and neck to use her front end correctly can also help get the hind end around the jump. If the horse will reach down for the ground with her head on landing the hind legs will clear the rails.
If, however, the not-so-skilled rider is water-skiing over the jump he will hold the horse's head as he lands, and may even slip to the back of the saddle, pressing the hind end of the horse down even sooner.
Rushing away from jumps
Some horses seem to use the moment of freedom, when all four feet are off the ground, to turn on the turbo jets and accelerate. It makes turns and related distances hell.
It usually looks a lot like the horse who pulls rails behind. They land with head up off a flat jump, and then they go.
The horse with the greatest rotation, where it almost looks like he's going to flip over, where he lands with his head on the ground and his heels in the air; that horse is the one who may canter off even slower than he approached the jump. He has to wait so long for those hind legs to land after the front legs land that the world slows down. His rhythm slows down.
The horse who jumps flat is lowing his engine as quickly as possible after his front legs land and using it. It's how steeplechase horses jump, but also why they brush through the fences.
Part of the solution has to be the same as for the other faults: allow the horse to use his neck when he jumps. Create a canter before the jump from which you can let go of the reins for a stride or two without the horse speeding up or falling down.
You can also set up exercises to help, including grids with bounces, placing rails on the landing side of any jump, and courses with tight turns on landing, But remember, the source of the problem is in the balance of the canter and the horse's relationship to the rider's weight and hands.
THE PACE OF PROGRESS
In my experience a three year old can start to jump little stuff up to 2'6” with a rider, a four year old can be doing 3'3” regularly, and a five year old can do whatever he's physically and mentally ready for. If they're not ready they tell you. I have yet to hear of a case where a young horse became lame or sore from jumping at these ages if they were well conditioned, well trained, and ridden on good footing.
To compete in Young Event Horse Tests or the International Jumper Futurity the horses have to be jumping as 4 and 5 year olds. They don't have to be perfect, but they have to show some scope.
In reality, however, every single horse tells you what he's ready for every single day. Youngsters are fickle. One day they'll jump like a packer and a week later they're going sideways or bucking. Karen O'Connor says that the difference between a green horse and an older broke horse is the time it takes them to respond to your aids. That means that young horses tend not to be very adjustable when cantering down to a fence. Some think quickly and get themselves out of trouble while others feel so A.D.D. that they won't focus on the jump until it's at their chest.
My philosophy is that you make the flat work as good as you can, but you present the young horse with enough challenges in its jumping that it stays interested and it learns. You jump what you can jump well to build confidence. But we humans also have this self-preservation instinct that can get in the way of training. It's good to have an instructor from time to time to tell you that it's OK and it's necessary to move on to more difficult jumps, even when it's a little scary. Horses progress very quickly and we have to remember to ride the horse that he is becoming, not the horse that he has been.
I truly believe that horses love to jump for the same reason people love to jump. Take a look some time at the expressions that you see, either in photos or in real life, on the faces of horses when they're airborne. Most of them have a soft eye and ears in a neutral position. I see a lot of horses who look sour before the jump and sour after it, but have an expression of bliss when they're in the air. Riders are the same way. I like to think of it as a moment when we drift back in time to when life was simpler. We escape the burdensome realities of life on earth and we approach the heavens. We do it on the back of a creature believed by wiser cultures than our own to be the animal that carries us to heaven. Maybe teaching horses to jump is good practice for the after-life.