Unless there is a physical problem with horse or rider, at least a modicum of correct jumping is positive for most horses.
Unless it is obvious that the horse’s conformation severely limits his ability, occasionally jumping at least 2′ 6″ gives a horse another interesting job to do, encourages forwardness, and can help strengthen the horse physically.
It is important not to start too early. I usually wait until they are at least four years old to jump them under saddle. There is a tendency for some people to start riding and jumping horses too early, which contributes to the high incidence of horses breaking down before they are even 15 years old. However, gymnastic work over ground poles, and some jumping while being longed, prepares the horse for jumping and is beneficial physically and mentally is done properly.
Leading youngsters over ground poles, spacing them at first to match their stride and later on changing the spacing so that the horses learn to judge and shorten or lengthen is beneficial. Also placing them at differing heights will cause the youngster to learn to lift their legs higher. The “Star” exercise is useful. In this you can use just a bale of hay and put one end of the poles in a circular pattern around the bale. Horses can then be led at different heights and curve their bodies in a circle, thus starting suppling and flexibility work.
I often long line horses and do work in hand before longeing them as this can be done at an earlier age. At first have someone at the youngster’s head leading him to give him confidence. Start with just one pole as you will when you begin longeing. When increasing to two poles and then three at first double the distance so that the horse has a stride in between and can make mistakes without hitting himself. Later you can adjust the distance so that they need to step over the poles at each stride. Put leg protection on your horses for this work.
Once your horse is old enough to be longed calmly, you can start to occasionally longe him over ground poles. There are many variations to adapt once this work has begun. Start with one pole as with long lining, and then double the distance for each pole added. Eventually you will set the distance to approximately 4-4’6” depending on the size and conformation and length of the horse’s stride. At this point you do not want to start lengthening it on purpose to get him to start stretching — you just want to make it comfortable for the horse within his normal stride.
Make certain that you PRACTICE your part in this. It takes much time to develop the skill to move correctly to place the horse to his best advantage and to go with him on the approach through the poles and landing. Learn this skill from a trainer who has done it correctly a hundred times. Do all of these exercises with a flat halter.
When you start longeing over a fence, start this way. Line up the poles beside the ring’s perimeter fence so the horse has a border on one side. Start first with putting up standards or blocks where the jump will be placed. If they are standards, you need to put up a slanted pole so that the longe line can run up the side and not get caught or pull on the horse. You can begin with three or four poles approximately 4’6″ apart. You will have to move parallel with him so that he does not feel constrained. Then when it is time to jump, take the last pole out so that the distance from the last pole to the cross rail is about 9 feet. Do not have him trotting over more than two poles before the jump. Cross rails generally do not require a ground line, but I like to have one on these first cross rails because they are low. I want the horse to see enough to encourage him to make a small jump and not just stumble over the fence. Once he is successful about three times, quit for the day as a reward. The next time go a few times in the same direction, then jump him over a few going the other way.
This exercise can be increased in difficulty so that he is jumping over an in and out, a small vertical, etc. As he gets more mature, even after you are riding him over fences, you can increase the heights and difficulty but never overface him. The best hunter-jumper trainers only do a limited amount of jumping. There is a saying that each horse has only so many jumps in him. Much of their work should be “flat” work, or dressage, including suppling and strengthening exercises.
The rider’s responsibility
Riders need to go through even more preparation and training to jump a horse correctly than a horse does. A rider should be able to use their seat independently and not rely on her hands for balance. Work should include many exercises without stirrups, and the motion of a rider over a fence should first be learned on a horse that is already experienced. School horses should be used so that the rider can jump without stirrups and without reins. Jumping chutes are very useful for this. Timing is of utmost importance when jumping, i.e. finding the correct takeoff spot. This can take years of practice. As a judge, I have all too often seen a horse refuse to jump because the rider asked him to jump from the wrong spot. Instead of punishing the horse for refusing, they should kiss him on the nose for preventing a serious accident!
Probably the worst fault that I see in jumping is the rider balancing from the reins and not releasing her hands forward over the fence so that the horse has free use of his head and neck.
Be careful as a rider that you learn how to fold into jumping position.
Learn to raise and lower your stirrups in the accepted way of keeping your foot in the stirrup and accomplishing it by feel. It is safer and much faster.
If your horse has been jumping willingly and well and all of a sudden starts running out or stopping, look first for physical causes BEFORE punishing. Negative reinforcement rarely works.
It is indeed so much fun to ride a willing, sound, eager horse over fences. Just be certain that you are being guided in the right direction, so that your horse is a positive partner.