by Mitzi Summers

  1. It is still quite common to observe horses in a jumping class at a show that have no business being there.

They are not balanced, very insecure even on the flat, and virtually have no lateral or longitudinal flexion. They skitter around the warm-up ring with head up and back inverted, and often have innumerable pieces of artificial aids added to their tack to keep them under control for a rider who is too inexperienced or uneducated to be riding at that show.

There is a tendency, possibly because the mindset of some riders that jumping is so much fun, to let us just “get on with it” — to skip the fundamentals that every horse requires. The training scale that is a factor in dressage is also accepted by experienced jumper trainers. No horse should be schooled and prepared for jumping without these goals in mind.

These include, not necessarily in this order: rhythm, suppleness, contact, impulsion, straightness, and the ability to collect. The success of these parameters results in the balance of the horse and the responsiveness to the aids.

  1. The rider also requires a training scale of sorts. This requires:

The successful completion of an independent seat. The rider needs to have a balanced seat that can assist the horse in his jumping effort but not get in his way. This requires many hours of practice and correct instruction from a knowledgeable teacher. It includes much time on the lunge line performing exercises that enable the rider to become physically fit and have an elastic seat. If a potential student does not want to spend the time improving her riding, then she should pick another sport so that she does not cause harm to a horse.

Jumper riders also need to have the following skills:

  • Knowledge and the feeling for the use of aids and techniques
  • A working understanding of the psychology, physiology, and the natural history of the horse.
  • The ability to access the condition, mental and emotional state, developmental stages, and the natural potential of a horse. If the end goal of any trainer or rider is just to make money or stroke their ego at the expense of a sentient being, then they need to find another line of work.
  1. Unfortunately, some jumping lessons or clinics are just about one thing — to get to jump your horse a lot as this is fun and exciting. They do not include the teaching of recognizing situations that will inevitably result in problems further on.

I have observed two types of jumping clinics. I have been lucky enough to ride in and audit clinics with established trainers who have gained an international reputation. Without exception our first day was spent on the flat, improving our riding and basic holes in our horse’s education. Only when these horsemen were satisfied that basic issues were fixed did we begin the jump training.

I have also watched horses in other types of clinics careening around the ring, the riders balanced on the reins, jumping ahead of their horses, the horses rushing or refusing, and the reasons not addressed.

  1. When a horse makes a mistake in jumping it is the rider’s fault. It is not the horse’s fault. This may be an unpopular concept; it is much easier to blame someone else, but rushing, running out, knocking rails down, etc. are the result of the fault of a human. If a horse is schooled in an intelligent manner which recognizes that every horse is an individual and has to be schooled accordingly, jumping would be much more pleasant for the horse, and, ultimately, his rider.

However, punishment, bad riding, lack of preparation, and pain can cause a jumping session to become a battle of wills and an unpleasant experience for both.

There is a common misconception that a horse that rushes his fences, galloping faster and faster, is doing so because he “loves to jump”. Not so. He is frightened, unhappy, and trying to get through something as quickly as possible without form, thought or function. It is also dangerous, with a horse sometimes crashing through obstacles. If you buy a horse that does this, or your horse begins to have this tendency, reschooling is necessary.

Your horse should be in “front of our leg”, over a course, and feel as if he is going forward with impulsion, but it should always be controllable, with the horse in a position to judge his fences. If a horse is outfitted with severe bits and hackamores and martingales, there is a good chance these are needed just for control.

Hitting rails when jumping is the result of rider error in riding and setting the horse up correctly at the approach and between fences, overjumping a horse beyond his physical limitations, or often the rider throwing themselves forward at the critical takeoff moment and loading the horse’s forehand. The rider also may move too much or falls back, causing the horse’s haunches to drop. Too much movement on the part of the rider is seen far too often. The horse is busy enough gauging the jump and gathering himself for the tremendous effort jumping can take, without compensating for the change in balance of the rider.

Horses, of course, are frequently blamed for being careless over fences and the cruel, and usually useless practice of rapping a horse still goes on. People have been known for actually putting nails in the poles or shocking the horse with electricity. All of these methods should result in fines or legal repercussions for the trainer. We want our horses to jump with confidence and boldness, yet we introduce pain intentionally as the horse agrees to jump over obstacles that are challenging to him and he is going over only to please us. The horse is already over the fence in the air when he is rapped. He is already clearing the fence and yet is punished.

If you watch slow motion tapes of horses knocking down poles you need to carefully notice the position of the rider. Quite often the only way she has learned to stay with a horse over a fence is to throw herself forward in an exaggerated fashion and use a crest release that pushes DOWN on a horse’s neck. Since a horse’s neck is paramount in his balance over a fence, this result in the sudden addition of possibly 20 pounds on his forehand. He has no choice but to hit the pole.

If your horse is brought along slowly and correctly in his jumping schooling, it will result in a positive experience for both horse and rider. If it is observed that a rider punishes a horse, look to the rider and his trainer. With positive reinforcement this is hardly ever necessary.

Remember the saying that “there are only so many jumps in a horse”. Do not overjump him. He should not be sore or exhausted. The best riders work on the flat, over ground poles, and pop a few fences, usually saving difficult courses for the show ring.