You want to be careful with young horses. If they stop the first couple of times at something they’ve never seen, it’s not the worst thing in the world. That’s different than a horse that has the attitude of ‘I don’t want to and I’m going to be stubborn.’
If you have a super-careful horse that’s a bit spooky, introduce things slowly and keep jumps low. To me, a horse that stops dead in front of a fence and wants to take a look is better than one that runs out. Then it’s less about the jump and more about the rider, who is causing the horse to feel it wants to run away by over-facing it.
If a horse has a history of dirty stops, you have to figure out why he is stopping, whether it’s a certain type of jump he doesn’t like or whether it’s the ride he is given. I never have one certain way to get horses to jumps, because every horse is different.
Recently, I gave a clinic in Costa Rica and got on a horse that I was told didn’t like ditches. I trotted him to a ditch and he didn’t even look at it. But at the canter, six strides out, he started to suck back. It wasn’t about the ditch … it was that he didn’t go forward when he was asked to. He didn’t react to a stick at all. I was able to get him over by riding him on a loose rein and keeping my leg on. Sometimes it’s a flatwork, not a jumping problem; you want the horse to be forward and straight.
Over-facing a horse can lead to a stopping issue. I have a horse that had been over-faced by a rider who had little experience training young horses. I started the horse over lower jumps, making sure not to touch her mouth, and took it slowly. If she has one ride that scares her, you have to be very careful the next 10 rides. She is schooling 3’9” fences now, but she is still green and I jump her on a loose rein. I’m not going to cut corners and bring her past behaviour back. With some horses, you are riding past baggage and have to be a bit of a psychologist to figure out what the bad behaviour is associated with so you can anticipate and avoid it.
Another common problem is that when riders get nervous, they start grabbing with their hands and take their leg off. That can lead to disaster. You want a looser rein and to keep your leg on. If you are on course and you feel the horse’s gears start to turn backwards, get your body back. You want your shoulders a little behind your hip, your legs at the girth so you can use your spur. Tip your body back, widen your hands and lengthen your reins, with your horse’s nose in the middle. Keep your seat in the saddle, because if you are out of the saddle and the horse jumps big, you will come down hard on his back and could jerk him in the mouth. Watch video of Michael Jung [three-time Olympic gold medallist] to see how it’s done correctly.
If you have a green horse, you can practice this at home. Walk, then trot your horse over a pile of a few poles. Then make half a small X, then a full X. Trot in, canter away. Telling a rider to canter away makes them think about putting their leg on over the jump. When the horse is confident doing that, you can set up a 60-foot or five-stride line with the X as the first element and another X or little vertical as the second. As the horse gains confidence, add a plank on the ground, a tarp to simulate a little liverpool, a small flower box. Always keep jumps low when introducing new things.
Don’t limit jumping to once a week, especially if you have a horse that’s nervous or green. Do some little logs, some cavalettis, some small jumps. Don’t make it strenuous.
For a horse with an ingrained habit of dirty stops, it’s not going to be easy to overcome. It may be best to pay a trainer to remedy the problem. Training may help, but keep in mind that horses’ personalities don’t change.