The Right Start Part 4 - Pole Work And Teaching Your Horse To Jump
Welcome to our series "The Right Start", covering the major stages of the training of young horses, 'The KA Way'.
This series is based on a set of articles we wrote for The Scottish and Northern Equestrian Magazine back in 2011 and knowing that Spring tends to be the time of year people think about starting their young horses, we thought we'd do an edit and republish the articles in the hope that we can help you in your journey.
To catch up on Parts 1, 2, and 3, use the links below:
Many of our clients plan to go on and take part in a variety of activities with their horse once they're backed and working well under saddle and that often includes wanting to go out jumping in one form or another. You many have aspirations to compete in show-jumping or eventing or perhaps you'd just like to pop over a log or two while you're out hacking, but either way, our standard 8 week training plan at KA Equestrian covers teaching your young horse to jump over a few small fences and in this article, I'll explain how we do it.
Each horse we meet has his or her own set of natural talents and as far as possible we work with them - enhancing what they're good at (and as such, find enjoyable) and working to improve what they find harder. The horses I'll talk about un this article, Spook and Brodie, both had different issues when it came to their training and I'll discuss how jumping was used to overcome them.
When and how to start
When starting young horses from scratch, we'll introduce pole work from as early as week two in order to accustom them early to the idea of working over a pole rather than around it, and also to break up what can be seen as the monotony of running around in circles on the lunge. We'll quite often start by just placing poles on the ground in the arena in a random formation and lead the horse around and walk over them.
Most will do this without an issue but we have met a few who have been extremely reluctant and have been convinced that the poles must be monsters in a very odd disguise! Brodie was one such horse and the random formation wasn't going to work so instead, we placed poles end to end all the way across the arena from B to E and tempted him across them with food. Needless to say he took a massive leap over the poles and almost flattened us to the ground in the process! Note to self (and others); ALWAYS wear a hat when handling young horses even on the ground, you never know how they're going to react. From such a tentative start to working over poles, Brodie went on to do really well and really started to love jumping, always giving them plenty of height though (just incase!).
Other than in Brodie's case, the first time we ask horses to jump is normally during a loose jumping session. This is only really practical if you have an arena with high fence lines or an indoor arena, we really wouldn't recommend this if you don't have a secure area to use. By this stage in their training, the horse will be familiar with working in a circle around us on the lunge so loose schooling isn't a completely alien concept and they don't normally have any problem adapting to it. Equipment wise, all we need are a set of jump wings, four poles and a lunge whip to use as encouragement.
The horse will be bandaged or booted-up and we tend to put over-reach boots on too to avoid any unnecessary injuries. You could loose jump without any form of tack but we like to use their normal bridle minus the reins or just leave their headcollar on for easy control when it's needed at the end of the session. We'll set up the jump at the edge of the arena in the middle of the long side (at B or E), place 2 of the poles on the ground between the wings and the other 2 poles resting on either side of the wing nearest the middle of the arena in order to guide the horse into the jump from both directions and to deter them from running out.
The first time we do this we'll lead the horse over the poles in both directions to give them the idea then unclip the leadrope and start to warm them up in much then same way as we would do on the lunge - working through walk, trot, and canter on both reins but all the time, encouraging the horse to go over the poles on the ground between the wings.
By the time they've warmed up they'll have been over the poles in both directions lots of times and should be happy doing so. Some will leap over the poles and others will quietly trot and canter over them - it doesn't really matter which but be conscious that if they are leaping, they'll tire quicker. We'll then put up half a cross-pole and let them pop over it both ways then put up the other side before moving on to a straight bar.
For a first session we'll quite often just leave it there - loose jumping is high intensity so 15-20 minutes is plenty. In subsequent sessions however, we'll use spreads, introduce fillers and put up doubles and grids where there is space. Loose jumping is a great way to introduce the concept of jumping to a young horse and allows them the freedom to find their own striding and to an extent, determine the pace the naturally feel they need before we ask them to jump with us on their back.
Jumping with a rider on board
By the time we start jumping on a young horse they will have had a number of loose jumping session and understand the concept. We'll start in the same way as our first loose jumping session with the poles on the ground between a set of wings and we'll place the jump in the same place as we do for the loose jumping session. This all helps the horse with the familiarity of the exercise.
We can even use an assistant in the middle of the arena to encourage as we would for loose jumping although most of the time, this isn't needed. We'll slowly put up the cross pole, then a small upright. We're never in a hurry to put the height up, what's important at this stage is the horse is happy to go forward over the poles. If the horse knocks a pole down it's not a concern at this stage - they're learning how high they have to jump to clear the obstacle and now they have the added weight of the rider to consider - the next jump always tends to be a bit of a cat-leap!
A refusal or a run-out should also be expected at this stage while the horse is working things out and building in confidence so the rider must be prepared to give the horse every chance of coming in straight and balanced and not too hurried. We would be reprimanding the young horse for these wobbles as it's understandable that they'd be unsure. Nine times out of ten, then next time they're presented to the jump and the rider know what to expect, they'll pop it quite happily. We don't want to risk causing any unnecessary issue when it can be quietly resolved. The whole backing process is about building the young horses' confidence with these newly acquired skills - so many of them look genuinely proud of themselves for learning to jump for the first time!
How jumping can help training issues
Spook was a wonderful 4 year old 13hh pony we had in backing when we first started KA Equestrian and he had a fabulous talent for jumping. From the first loose jumping session it was clear it was his forte. However, he was nervous on the ground to begin with and tricky to back so we took things slowly and allowed him time to build up a relationship with us so he knew we were trustworthy. In a few weeks he'd started to overcome his fears and we were riding away. Now and again he'd become quite tense and seemed very unsure of being ridden. We felt we needed to build up his confidence - it was sad to see him so insecure.
Having shown so much talent for jumping when he was loose, we thought we could use what he was good at to give him a wee boost and to improve his ridden work. We set up the jump in the arena and started to ride over the poles just in walk to begin with then tried a trot. Within five minutes or so, Spook walking around the bottom of the arena, turn towards the jump and his ears would prick and he'd offer these wonderful confident trot stride into the 'jump' (poles on the ground between the wings). By the end of the session, this nervous little pony was walking and trotting confidently around the arena and if I remember correctly, he even gave us a few bold canter strides! It was an interesting lesson for us to learn - use what your horse is naturally good at to improve what they are lacking, in Spook's case, confidence.
Teaching your horse to jump is a great way to build confidence, increase their skills and to ring the changes from the other activities already in their routine. It's an important part of our training program as it helps prepare the young horses we meet for a broad ranging future. As with all activities with horses, teaching young inexperienced horses to jump can be risky so be sensible and seek help if you need it.