My very green hackney pony is learning to jump – and he is really talented! Has a great eye and picks up his little knees great! When working on the flat, he’s calm and focused, however, our problem is this: when jumping, he is a maniac! He is so full of spunk and pep that he wont slow down to the fences. He always finds a nice spot, but then he races through the corners and puts his head down, shaking it and trying to buck! I can usually kick him forward to prevent the bucking, but that just increases his speed! How do I slow him down in the lines and around the corners?
Do you have exercises or tips to help me?
First, you want to make sure there are not health or pain issues, such as a sore back, ill-fitting tack, or sore hocks. Next, you want to make sure his flat work is quite good and he understands rein aids, leg aids, seat aids and weight aids. Spending time on flat work is often the solution, as sometimes the green horse is still unclear or confused about some of the aids. Next, make sure you are not anticipating the jump (and subsequent misbehavior) by tightening up your body (ie, reins and legs and stiffening through the spine) and tilting forward onto the pubic bone and “perching.” Both of these things will cause your horse, especially the green horse, to spurt forward and subsequently lose balance on the other side of the jump, causing anxiety and loss of confidence.
That being said, for the purposes of this question, we will assume you have attended to the above concerns and still need help, as indicated by your question. If you have not, you will want to get a good instructor to evaluate what you may be doing to inadvertently create some of this behavior.
Very often when this situation occurs, the horse is feeling a bit unsure or nervous or excited. Whether it is anxiety or excitement, the fix is often the same. One thing to try is to set up three ground poles both before and after a small crossrail jump. Trot the ground poles on the approach side, go over the jump, then trot the ground poles on the landing side. Set up the ground poles so that the horse crosses a pole on every stride, leaving one “free” trot stride directly before and directly after the jump. When this is going well, then gradually remove one pole at a time (starting with the pole the farthest away) in front of the jump till they are all gone. If the horse continues to jump quietly, then gradually remove the poles one stride at a time (again starting with the pole the farthest away) that are after the jump. If the horse starts rushing again, the put the poles back. When the horse is trotting the jumps calmly and quietly without any poles, then set up two ground poles at canter stride distances both before and after the jump, again leaving one “blank” stride both before and after the jump. Use the same process of removal as when trotting the poles. One other thing I will often do at frequent intervals with both the trotting and the canter phases is to firmly ask the horse to come to a complete stop as soon as possible after the last pole. Not every time, but frequently.
As the horse gets more experience jumping and is ready to move on, I suggest setting up some small crossrails on a bending line. A favorite of mine for this type of situation is to work up to three jumps on a circle, and to ride the pattern two times (jumping all three jumps twice) before stopping. Determine a large circle in your arena and set one jump on the circle. Before and after the jump, work very specifically on the flatwork of the circle, being quite picky about rhythm, balance, roundness and bend. In other words, place more importance on the circle, and less on the small obstacle that happens to also be on that circle. Once that is going well, add another small crossrail directly opposite of the first one. Eventually, add a third jump in between the first two jumps, also on the circle. In other words, set the first jump, then one quarter of a circle away, set another jump, then one quarter away set a third jump. One half of your circle will, in effect, have three jumps, while the other half of the circle will have no jumps. In order to be able to jump correctly, with rhythm and arriving at the correct take-off spot for each jump, the horse must stay on the exact path of the circle and it must also maintain a steady rhythm, not only between the jumps, but also on the side of the circle without jumps. The two halves of the circle must be exactly the same for the horse to arrive correctly for the “first” jump when coming around for the second time. Most horses that are simply jumping too enthusiastically also like to jump well. This exercise must be performed in a very exact manner, and if the horse isn’t paying attention to the rider’s directions, the jumps will be very awkward. Jumping on a bending line is going to, by necessity, make the horse slow down in order to keep it’s balance. Jumping on a circle does not allow a horse to get up a head of steam like it can when it is straight. When the horse can do the crossrails on a circle consistently well, then raise them up and/or vary the heights of each jump a little.
Another exercise I like is setting up a gymnastic line, keeping the jumps as crossrails or verticals of no more than 2’3″. One gymnastic line that I like for this situation is to have the first two elements set as a bounce, using crossrails, then the third element one stride later as a small vertical, then the fourth element two rather short strides, with one stride to the last element. The last jump should be the highest jump of the line. You can vary the height of the jumps (though you should keep the bounce as crossrails), as the horse gets proficient, and you can decorate the jumps, or begin to alter the striding in between the jumps.
With particularly cocky or overly-enthusiastic horses, I’ve even combined the two exercises. I will start with a gymnastic line as described above down the long side of the arena, having the last element just one stride before the corner, bend through the corner, over a jump set in the center of the short side, bend through the corner, to a final jump set one stride after the corner. Using a series of jumps this way forces a horse to slow down and think and forces a horse to concentrate to stay balanced, all of which teaches the horse to wait for and listen to the rider’s instructions. The point you want to keep in mind is that the horse needs to use his mind and be attentive to the aids to make the jumps comfortable.
When doing these types of exercises, it’s always a good idea to keep the jumps low. Remember, the objective is to show the horse that he needs to slow down and pay attention, not to cause a crash or wreck it’s confidence.