In the hunter ring, it it so important to have a sense of humour with the horses, especially the young ones. Competitors, horsemen, and owners really need to be encouraging of horses having expression – and shows need to hire judges that don’t penalize it. I think especially in the pre-green hunter divisions the horses should be able to have some expression. I’ve seen some tough judges that have been harsh and we want to get away from that. As horseman, we need to advocate for the horse and move away from putting them on the lunge line for hours so they don’t play a bit in the corner.
When horses are bucking, playing, or getting strung-out between the fences, however, it is typically a case of not having done your homework. While we don’t want expressiveness to be penalized heavily, we also don’t necessarily want to encourage the behaviour itself.
In the schooling ring, we often set a simple vertical to a rail on the ground, which simulates a line. To avoid a buck, I make sure my riders are getting control as soon after the jump as possible, and not waiting until they are on the way to the next jump. I like to see riders re-establish contact with the outside rein as they land, balance, and put the horse together again before the corner. If done well, it is very subtle and you can typically do it without the judge even noticing.
It’s important to train between the fences as well, and remember that it is not simply a case of stringing fences together. I always refer to the turns on course when I’m coaching as the first turn and the second turn; we coach our riders to get their jobs done as soon as they’ve landed and before they hit the end of the ring. With greener kids or horses that’s hard to do; it’s difficult to focus on what’s coming up and not dwell on what’s just happened.
Of course, the horses also have to be trained to do that, and the exercise of a jump to a pole in the schooling ring will really help get the horse accepting the hand and aids and remind the rider to make sure they are doing something after the jump, not just landing in the hunt seat, flying to the end of the ring and letting the corner slow them down. It’s more of a mental game than anything, as you have to believe that you’re going to get it done as soon as you land.
Playing and bucking in the jumper ring may seem like less of an issue, but it all goes back to the same point: you have to train your horse. If you watch the top end of the sport, the horses are exceptionally well-trained, the riders’ hands hardly move, and I really believe that we all have to strive for that. All too often I see people relying on a bigger bit or being rough. It’s easy doing the wrong thing, but let’s all make sure we have enough diligence to get our horses trained well and ride well ourselves. You have to be consistent in wanting to improve and do the right thing for the horse.