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Training a Horse to Jump

By: Galadriel Billington

10:26AM Apr 8, 2004

Training a horse to jump is a series of simple steps, but it can still be tricky. If you go too fast, if you present the horse with more than he can handle at once, then he can become frightened and soured on jumping. A horse who does not approach jumps calmly may be demonstrating anxiousness from having been "overfaced." If your horse already jumps but rushes before/after the jumps, you may wish to have a look at my article on Rushing Jumps.

Before you start, your horse should be fairly relaxed on the lunge and should be able to walk over ground poles without getting exited. Remember, as with any work on the lunge: circle work is stressful to the joints. The smaller the circle, the harder the work the horse is doing; try to use a large circle (at least 20 meters across, or 66 feet). Don't lunge or jump a very young horse, and don't lunge even a fully grown, fit horse for more than 20-30 minutes at a time.

Though this method looks looooooooong, it's really less than a few weeks before you get your horse started actually jumping. But if you rush, if you ask for everything at once, you may end up with nothing. Be careful; and if your horse gets hesitant or nervous, back up to something already in his comfort zone. Ask for an exercise he knows and let him relax (for example, just walking over ground poles again--something safe and easy), and then end for the day. There is always tomorrow to learn something new.

four poles To start, set out four poles about 2 (human) strides apart. This is the approximate trot stride length for most horses; adjust it if your horse has a longer or shorter stride. Try to use heavy (solid wood) poles. If they are light, then they may bounce if the horse accidentally steps on them. This sudden movement around his legs can make a horse very frightened; he can't see his legs, and movement around his legs feels threatening.

Put the poles where you usually lunge your horse; if you have a lunge ring or arena, you can do this all in there--as long as you have at least a 20 meter circle (66 feet) to work with.

First, lead him through at a walk. Get him used to them being there. It helps if you be sure he walks through the center, but treat it like it's nothing important--don't try to be precise and get all tense :) Lead him through a couple of times.

Next, lead him through once at a trot. As long as that goes well, you can stop.

The purpose of this was to show him multiple poles, and expose him to the idea of bouncing through at a trot.
four poles in a round pen

four poles in an arena
Next session, lead him through once at a walk, once at a trot. Did he do well? Great! Now I want you to lunge him through them at the walk a few times (both ways) & at the trot a few times (both ways). He should be avoiding stepping on the poles, and in fact as he trots through he should be really springy, in an "elevated" trot.

Good? Okay, stop for the day.

The purpose of this was to get him accustomed to being lunged over obstacles. If he wasn't really sure this was a good idea, you may want to repeat this session several times until he is very relaxed.

three poles and a cross rail Okay, next session, you'll be moving a bit further. Get some cinder blocks or chunks of wood or something, to prop the ends of the poles--or if you have real cavaletti (the kind which can be turned over and made higher) that's absolutely perfect.

First, repeat what you did last time; lunge him through at a walk each way, then at a trot each way. Okay, now pick a direction, and set up the LAST pole into a little jump. Either flip your cavaletti to the high setting, or use your blocks to make a teeny crossrail. You'll have 3 ground poles, then a jump.

Now send him through at a walk; he may slow down a bit when he comes to the last pole; just encourage him on--it's low enough to step over, so it should be easy for him even from a dead stop. As he comes around this time, ask for a trot before he gets to the poles. Try to have a nice energetic trot as he comes into your obstacle. He should take two nice springy trot strides, then hop over the little jump.

If he was perfect, great--stop for the day. Give him lots of carrots & kisses :)

If he was at all silly about it (jumped it 3', got wobbly on the approach, knocked it), then send him through again. The second or third time he should do it in a fairly relaxed manner; when he does, halt him and stop him for the day :) Don't forget the carrots & kisses.

What you did here was to start him on a jump. You're sending him through a familiar obstacle, but the end of it needs to be just a biiiiit higher. Most horses will probably end up just putting in a high trot stride and not actually jumping it. This is fine. We're making progress.
three poles and a cross rail

three poles and crossrail the other way
Next session, start with ground poles again; walk/trot the ground poles both ways again. Then set up the bitty jump, and ask him to go through at a trot a couple of times. Now reverse the obstacle; put the bitty jump on the other side of the poles, and ask him to go through the other way.

If that went well, that's it for today :)

This was just an extension of the last exercise to both directions.
There are two branches to take from here: making the jump higher, and removing the ground poles. Either is a good option; I don't recommend doing both at once. In alternating sessions, or alternating weeks, you should be fine. As long as you change one thing at a time and give the horse time to adapt to the change, you should be able to keep your horse comfortable with the work.

With any of the following sessions, you will be asking your horse for "real" work. Be sure you have let him warm up with walking and trotting *before* asking him to take the combinations you have set out for him. When you are asking him to canter in the session, be sure to walk, trot, and canter beforehand. (You can do this under saddle if you like, to minimize the amount of time spent doing circlework.)
yet another stunning three poles and a crossrail

three poles and a vertical

two sets of three poles and a crossrail
When you want to make the jumps higher, you can simply continue on as you have been, but stop and raise the jump every so often. That is, begin the lunge session with a couple of circuits of poles, then of the crossrail, then raise the crossrail a few inches and ask him to go over this. If he seems comfortable with the new height, lunge him over it the other way and let him be done.

The next time, start with the crossrails, then with the slightly raised jump, then raise it a few more inches, and so on. I would raise the jump maybe 3-4" a session (always start on the step where you ended the last session, or even a few steps before that).

At some point he will begin to really jump the jump, and this is when he will really start to learn to balance himself. It will be more strenuous, so give him several weeks of finding his balance before you make the sessions more difficult or raise the jumps again.

Also, when he begins to want to canter, instead of to trot, you should space the ground poles for canter. Instead of approximately two human strides for the trot poles, you'll want approximately four human strides for canter poles. Always arrange your poles for your individual horse, not based on a general approximation. If he keeps knocking the poles, then the spacing needs to be changed.

You may wish to warm him up over crossrails with trot poles then re-size the whole thing for cantering higher jumps. Alternatively, you could set up two different obstacle sets in two different places--be sure he's lunged through them both with a combination he recognizes, before you begin to alter them.

I wouldn't recommend going above 2' until the horse is doing very well. When he seems comfortable and balanced jumping 2' on his own, you can probably start to ride over crossrails. At first, he will need to learn to balance without a person on his back. Once he is comfortable jumping on his own he will be ready for a balanced rider.
crossrail one pole

In comparison, you can start with the poles, then the crossrails, then take away the ground poles leading up to the jump. The ground poles are his "warning" that a jump is coming, and they guide his striding into the jump; now he needs to learn to prepare himself because a jump is coming up. He needs to find his own stride into the jump, not have it arranged for him with poles.

I would first take away the outermost poles; let him have the pole next to the jump for a little while. Give him a few sessions with one pole, then the jump. Then in the next few sessions, warm him up with one pole, then take the pole away completely.

Since he is learning a different skill (finding his stride) I don't recommend raising the jump in combination with taking away the ground poles. If you are raising the jump *with* the ground poles, in separate sessions, then you can pick a height he has already become comfortable with.

Give him sufficient opportunity to approach the jump in varying ways (trot, canter, left, right, walk to within a few strides, then ask for trot or canter). This will help him to learn to position himself well on the approach. Hopefully when jumping with a rider, the rider will be able to help him find his stride, but he should be able to contribute his half.

As with any lesson, when he seems to understand and can take it calmly (if not, yet, with perfection), let him be done for the day. As with jumping higher, this is something that takes a great deal of effort and will come with experience--not immediately. Give him time to work out what he is doing with his body. You didn't learn to ride a bike instantly; he will need some practice to figure this out.
crossrail on circle

crossrail on pole

two crossrails
Moving along: Once he seems pretty comfortable with a low, single jump, with no ground poles, you can add a zinger: a second jump. Now his combinations can involve not just poles and a jump, but a second jump also. As usual, warm up with combinations he already knows; jump a single jump, then while you have him jumping a single jump, put a single pole on the opposite side of the circle. Once he is warmed up, raise the pole to a small jump.

In other sessions, you can place the jump varying distances. Recall that one canter stride is about four human strides, and you can use that fact to make three-stride combinations, then two-stride, then one-stride, and even bounces. Measure one (human) stride out from the jump to account for landing, then count out 3 (human) strides per canter stride, then one more (human) stride for takeoff. So for a one-stride combination, walk 5 (human) strides between jumps.

As usual, when he takes the combination with relaxation, if not with perfect grace and beauty ;) let him be done.
Well, look! You now have a horse who can find his stride to a jump, who can jump varying heights, and who can jump combinations. Well done ;) Now all he needs is a well-balanced rider to help him translate all of this knowledge to ridden work. After he is comfortable jumping with a rider, you should be able to introduce new concepts under saddle: things like oxers, or ditches, or banks.
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2004 Galadriel Billington. All rights reserved.