Show jumper running away while ridden

by Mitzi Summers

I was called to give an evaluation lesson to a woman, Ann, who was having problems with her Thoroughbred horse, Symphony, who she wanted to show in Open and Speed Competition Jumping. The horse was a nine year old, formerly on the track when he was younger, and had recently been in training with an instructor who only had the rider jump grids with him once a week. The owner was concerned that the horse was extremely nervous, and in the last few lessons had actually been running through the fences. When she had approached the trainer she had been told that he was rushing his fences because he loved jumping. The owner was dissatisfied with this explanation and was referred to me by other riders.

When I arrived at the stables Symphony was already in cross ties. He was a bit tense, but it was obvious from the start that he and his owner did have a bond. I always “ask” a new horse that I have not met to be invited into their space. I do not know their history, and I have had horses that are afraid of new people approaching them. After he accepted me, I did a brief exploratory body check and found that his back and hamstrings were a bit sore. He also was not muscled correctly for jumping or, indeed, any involved work under saddle. He reminded me of a rangy young horse that one may see at an auction or that had been laid up for a while and had lost muscle tone.

The stable had adequate pastures, but the drainage was very bad. When it was the rainy season the horses sometimes did not get out for days and days at a time. Ann would come and look after her horse every day and ride him at least five days a week, but this routine was obviously not developing a physically and mentally fit horse.

Even though Ann had a type of gel pad for the saddle it was only increasing the psi pressure on Symphony’s withers and back. I carry with me different types of pads until the owner can get a saddle that fits well, and one of these allowed the saddle to fit quite adequately. Ann’s trainer had a fairly severe leverage bit with a running martingale on Symphony, so obviously the “control” was coming more from the rider’s hands.

I asked Ann if she longed her horse and she replied that he did not longe — that he just ran around in circles. I showed Ann the first steps in longeing her horse correctly so that it quieted and relaxed him and helped him build the correct muscling. I used a leather halter. I always longe from a longeing cavesson or regular halter, never from the bit and never from a knotted rope halter. Symphony did indeed think that his job on a longe line was to dash about. It was so nice to see him relax and his eye grow soft as he realized it was not going to be a negative experience.

I allowed Ann to ride Symphony for a few minutes so that I could see how they normally worked together.

Ann was a secure rider, but was unbalanced. She had developed into a defensive rider because of her nervous and inconsistent horse. I worked on her leg position a bit and explained the basics of needing to change Symphony’s emotional state and erase his apprehensions, while also developing him physically. He needed to develop a “circle of impulsion and balance” which would enable him to travel correctly. Jumping at this point was the last thing he needed. Just a pole on the ground would cause him to rush and almost panic.

Since Symphony was very defensive and worried about being pulled in the mouth I changed him temporarily to a Bitless Bridle. It would take Ann a while to develop a soft and giving hand, and if she made a mistake and pulled on him, at least it would not cause him pain. Symphony was not able mentally or physically to respond to half halts consistently, and Ann had to learn how to use her seat first. In the first lesson she was even afraid to allow her leg to touch him; she said he would always take off. As a result both were relying mainly on just rein aids.

In subsequent lessons, certain breakthroughs marked the improvement of horse and rider:

  1. Instead of being apprehensive right from the beginning, he started to “enjoy” the work.

The lessons started to have a continuity. The first lesson, Ann told me that it was always a fight just to mount her horse. By taking our time and the judicious use of treats, he was soon standing quietly and waiting for her to mount.

  1. Ann learned to lower her energy and to move in a quiet manner around her horse; to go slowly and to be consistent. She learned the feeling of allowing Symphony to slow down and to find his balance. Then he was able to tentatively stretch forward into contact. Because of the Bitless, both Ann and her horse gained the ability to feel when he naturally started to round.
  2. The correct longeing and in-hand work began to develop and strengthen the correct muscles and improve his conformation. They graduated into lateral work, and Symphony more and more accepted and waited for his rider’s leg to give him direction.
  3. Ann needed to feel and determine how to correct and help with the rhythm and tempo of Symphony’s gaits. He stopped pacing at the walk, slowed at the trot, and eventually developed a three beat, round canter. Ann wished to return to bitted work, and after about two months that was fine. Now Symphony trusted Ann’s hands, and if he did increase she was able to always use her seat first.

Symphony graduated into a successful hunter and also low level dressage horse. Ann decided and I approved that jumping at speed was too much to ask of Symphony, at least for a few years. Once he gained trust in Ann, and as long as he was given time, he progressed from trotting over one pole to ground pole exercises and gradually a cross rail, etc., just as if he were a beginning jumping horse.

The Ann-Symphony scenario is just more proof that each horse is an individual and the training has to correspond. Before Ann, Symphony was considered a commodity, “use him up, get some money, and throw him away.” That point of view should never be used by anyone privileged enough to be able to work with horses. We as responsible and empathetic horse owners need to fit into the horse’s program. That is what it is all about.