Teaching a horse to jump: From cross-rails to stone walls & more


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One of my students recently decided that it was time for her to invest in a horse of her own. She did her research and brought home a twelve-year-old OTTB that she hoped could be a pleasure horse for herself, and an equitation horse for her daughter. Standing between 16’2 and 17 hands, Baker is a handsome boy with the potential to become exactly what they’re looking for.

While he won’t be entering the big eq. ring anytime soon, he certainly has the ability to jump, with one catch: he will only jump a solid obstacle. At first, we thought this was funny; a horse who wanted a challenge. However, we soon realized that this applied not only to smaller fences but to larger ones as well. After a near face plant for the both of us coming off of an airy vertical, I began to do some thinking about how to break this increasingly bad habit.

In the past, training methods may have included bamboo sticks or tacked boots to associate pain with knocking rails. Fortunately, times have changed and trainers come at these issues from a different, more psychological, perspective.

I wanted to share the thoughts that I came up with, and those of other trainers, in hopes of inspiring the jumping community to respond with their ideas and training methods. The owner would like to show Baker in the fall and I would love to be able to present her with a finished horse by then.

My (Initial) Thoughts

Start with a vertical fence with ground lines on either side and hay bales underneath. After jumping this in each direction, successfully, a few times, begin removing the hay bales, one at a time. As the horse continues to successfully jump the obstacle in each direction, slowly deconstruct the fence, without stopping, until you’re left with a plain, airy, vertical.

Local Trainer Opinion (has not seen the horse)

If he’s going through fences, it may be an issue of respect for the jump. Try making the jumps harder to knock down. However, be careful if you’re riding him through this exercise since there is a level of risk associated with jumping something that doesn’t come down.

Local Trainer Opinion (has not seen the horse)

Try free lunging him through a chute over a number of airy fences to see if he’ll learn to pick his feet up and jump instead of crashing through. This will minimize the risk to the rider while helping you understand the motives behind the horse’s actions.gymnastic-phases

Wilhelm Genn; German Grand Prix Jumper (source: Practical Horseman’s Magazine)

Wilhem suggests repetition and positive reinforcement. Begin by setting a 2’ vertical (including ground rails) with a bounce rail 8’-9’ in front to help set the horse up for a better takeoff. Ride with impulsion through the exercise until the horse becomes more confident and begins jumping the fence. Gradually add to the exercise with a second fence set 18’-21’ away for a one-stride or 30’ for a two-stride. Continue to trot in and canter out, eventually building the second fence into a small oxer. (How do I teach my horse to pick up his feet over fences?)

George Sanna; Australian Grand Prix Jumper

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George says that the jump is simply an extension of the canter so, if the canter quality is poor, the jump quality will be poor. Using ground lines is an excellent way to encourage a horse to jump properly. Additionally, small gymnastics or bounce exercises are beneficial as long as they are encouraging good behavior and building on the horse’s strength. (Source: The Horse Magazine)

What I Decided to Try

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My approach to many things is always team-oriented. In other words, I put a lot of weight in the saying, “two heads are better than one”. With that said, I combined ideas and came up with this action plan:

  1. Encourage the owner to work with Baker on the ground
    1. using turns to practice turn on the haunches
    2. lunging to get him more comfortable at the canter to the right as well as the left.
    3. Asking for the bend at the walk, including circles and walk-halt transitions
  2. Improve the quality of the canter and begin work on lengthening and shortening on the flat at the trot
  3. Trot 2′ vertical with ground lines on either side
  4. Build gymnastics exercise

Results 

Baker’s canter is certainly improving. Unfortunately, stamina comes with time but he’s been willing to try every exercise we’ve asked him to complete. His trot is improving in terms of adjustability, and his canter transitions are becoming smoother.

We started with simple trot poles, encouraging him to place his feet properly and begin to use his body properly. Then we added a vertical at the end of the trot pole line, including ground lines on either side.

The first few passes, Baker either knocked the jump down or treated it like a raised cavaletti. Then, he began to jump. Finally, he began to jump and land in a canter. I tried to correct his canter lead with simple transitions of he landed incorrectly, however, his gas tank soon became empty and we had to call it a day before he became sour.

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