Does your horse rev up and rush fences? Does he suck back as you head into a line? Are you frustrated because you seem to pull rails in every class?
None of these problems are insurmountable if you have the right fixes. We asked veteran hunter-jumper trainer Di Langmuir of Langmuir Equestrian Services in Nobleton, ON, for her solutions to some of the most common problems.
Almost every issue can be solved without jumping a single jump, she says. It all comes down to good flatwork. It may not be as exciting as jumping, but it lays the groundwork for everything you’ll need to be successful over fences.
Here are Di’s favourite fixes, using some trot poles and two or three low jumps.
1. Rushing/Backing off
These are two separate problems. Let’s deal with rushing first. Rule out a physical issue, as some horses run from pain. Are you a green rider on a green horse? A nervous novice rider often makes a horse nervous, thus prone to rushing. Horses that rush lack confidence, so it may be wise to have a more experienced rider school your horse.
The fix is to go back to basics and do simple exercises. Rushing is usually a balance issue. Set two poles on the ground five strides apart (about 72 feet) between jump standards (exercise #1). Canter through, striving for the correct number of strides while keeping the horse in rhythm and balance.
A simple gymnastic line with low jumps is another great exercise. Set the first two jumps 18 feet apart, then allow 21 feet between the second and third jumps (exercise #2). (Isle of Man jumped two jumps in the gymnastic line, then we added a third low jump for Perfect Timing, who is more experienced). The gymnastic will encourage the horse to jump quietly. Placing a pole on the ground nine feet before the first jump and one nine feet out on the landing after the second will focus the horse and make him less prone to rushing. Keep your leg on and don’t pull as you ride through – riders tend to take their leg off and pull if a horse gets quick, when they should be getting him out in front of their leg.
As for backing off, flatwork is again key, although it could be a confidence issue as well. If the horse lacks confidence, try the same tactics as above. If the horse is generally bold over fences, it could be he is desensitized to the leg aid. The horse has to move off your leg when asked. Don’t constantly cluck, as a horse will tune you out. Ask the horse to go forward from your leg and if he doesn’t, apply your crop smartly. Don’t worry about his reaction; one good smack that gets a response and puts him in front of your leg is better than a series of half-hearted taps that aren’t effective (and that he will also tune out).
Develop strength by riding without stirrups so your leg will be more effective. I can always tell the riders who never take away their irons!
Your horse might back off at a show if he encounters something he’s never seen before. Practice at home with anything you expect to see in a show ring. For example, buy artificial flowers at a dollar store to use as fill under your hunter jumps. If you ride a jumper, simulate a liverpool. You don’t want to introduce a new element at a horse show.
2. Cutting corners and crooked approaches
Poles are a great tool for working on corners. I set a lot of tunnels and offset corners using poles. You can use poles set about three or four feet apart to set a chute or tunnel to ride through to help keep you straight. You can ride through the tunnel on your approach to an offset pole corner, then canter through the turn, trying to keep between the poles.
You can incorporate these with our five-stride line (exercise #3). Canter the ‘tunnel’ and turn a corner through the offset poles to the five-stride line between two poles. If you don’t use poles to help with your corner, I tell my students not to turn until they see the second jump line up – ‘Turn late to get straight.’
After you canter through the five-stride line, stop your horse and look back. If you are crooked, you haven’t ridden a straight line.
3. Chipping/Long spots
These problems can be attributed to lack of range in the canter and a lack of straightness. Novices might not be able to see a distance. Again, the five-stride pole exercise comes in handy to develop your eye for distance. Sit quietly and be straight in your approach.
4. Knocking rails
I love the 18- to 21-foot gymnastic for working on this. A rider may be out of balance, too quick with the body and falling back into the saddle too soon. With the gymnastic, it’s easy to see rider mistakes. Work with a trainer who understands what is happening and can help. Have someone video your schooling session and review it afterwards to assess your body position.
5. Forgetting courses
Learn to break the course into segments and think not about the fences but the ride between the jumps. For example, what type of canter do I need to the first jump or where should I plan my turn after the in-and-out? At a show, get to the ring early without your horse. Look at maps, look at where the jumps are from both sides of the ring.
Set up courses at home using poles to simulate a course you’d find at a horse show and experiment with tricks for how to remember where you’ll be going. For example, if you’re a visual learner, you may need to see the course drawn out; if you’re an auditory learner, you may need to hear the route you will have to take spoken aloud.