“Positive, confident experiences are key — and not overdoing it is huge. I don’t make a big deal out of jumping; just a few fences at the end or middle of a flat ride as they build up strength and awareness of the ask.”
Welcome to the next installment of Thoroughbred Logic. In this weekly series, Anthropologist and trainer Aubrey Graham, of Kivu Sport Horses, offers insight and training experience when it comes to working with Thoroughbreds (although much will apply to all breeds). This week ride along as Aubrey shares her logic on teaching her horses to jump.
It is that time of year — the Dec. 1 deadline has come and gone and folks training up their horses for the Retired Racehorse Project’s 2024 Thoroughbred Makeover have been set free to pass the 15-ride limit and train to their heart’s (and hopefully, horse’s) delight. I love this time of year for the enthusiasm this program brings to the off season and to the winter cold. And whether I’m heading into this stage with a horse now or anytime during the year, the process of “teaching them to jump” is one of my favorites.
Of course all horses can jump and they don’t need me to teach them that. But from the ground and their back, I can certainly work to improve the process. And while this article will be a bit of a “how-to,” I’ll put this front and center: Jumping well is a process. Some horses have perfect natural instincts and ability, but those kids are rare. Most Thoroughbreds, or any horse for that matter, need to develop an understanding of the ask, the footwork, and their strength to put their body in the right shape through the air. So don’t dismay if your kid trips over cross-rails or just barely clears that 2′ barrel with low knees. They improve — often markedly.
Here’s how we start:
I’m not one for perfection — never have been. So, I don’t often wait until all the flat pieces are perfect to start jumping very low and very basic things. I do wait until all the flat pieces are pretty decent though. I want to have decent brakes through half halts (so I don’t have to be too present with the reins), and I want to make sure I have quiet, rhythmic trot and canter gaits. No, they don’t need to be over their back yet — so just know that if you’re jumping a horse who moves like a llama, their jump will look llama-ish as well. However, that, too, will improve as they figure out how to let go of their back and wither and use their neck for balance in the air.
Sometimes to start, I’ll walk them over rails and small cross-bars in hand. Sometimes, I’ll walk them over them in the saddle. Either way, I want to make sure that they understand that the tiny “x” or simple poles are not a wall they cannot pass through or over. Usually, they hem and haw for a second and then step over. I reward it, and off we go to do it a few more times on a loose rein before picking up a trot.
Uno (Hold ‘Em Paul) definitely wins for my favorite horse at this stage. Back about six-months ago when we started over baby fences, he got creative. He understood how to walk and trot over poles well. So when he approached an 18″ cross-rail, he paused and then strategically used his front legs to push the poles down into a pile, then stepped easily over. He did this a few more times despite my leg and laughter, so I threw in the arena-towel and took him out to learn to jump on the cross country course over things he could not push down.
Once they know that small jumps are things they can pass over top of, I let them trot cross-rails a few times aiming for them to stay quiet and eventually land in a quiet canter. Positive, confident experiences are key — and not overdoing it is huge. I don’t make a big deal out of jumping; just a few fences at the end or middle of a flat ride as they build up strength and awareness of the ask. Then I’ll add a pole about 9-feet on the take-off side of the “x”. This helps with footwork and teaching them how to get all their limbs in the right place to take off.
The biggest thing about these early fences (from a rider perspective) is that I’ll aim to stay as still with my body as possible. I’ll hop in a half seat at the trot on the approach, grab mane and stay entirely out of their way while they figure out what to do. If they trip over it, fine. If they leap like a deer, fine. If they jump perfectly, fine. I reward each quiet landing verbally and pat them when they return to a walk.
On the front side of the fence, I aim for quiet rhythm and to not touch the reins or micromanage their footwork — I let the poles help with that and let them work towards developing awareness and instinct. On the backside of the fence, I aim to stay in my half seat for a few strides regardless of their gait or speed. The biggest thing is this: do. not. pull.
Thoroughbreds have so much flight response — hell, they’re literally bred to run — that getting them to learn that there will not be pressure on the back side allows them to put an ear on you, accept a body-based half-halt and come back to a walk without getting hauled up. This is certainly easier said than done when zipping around on a nervous horse. Recommendation in that case: put them on an ever decreasing circle and have patience while continuing to use voice and body based half halts. Once they walk, reward heavily. It will take time and may try your last nerve, but I promise this works to create a quieter jumper.
Once I have a horse happily popping over the x with a 9′ pole, I might add an additional 9′ landing pole to keep them aware of their feet on landing. I might otherwise move to a small trot-in grid. There are a ton of variations of grids that you can set up, but I like this one for simplicity sake and you can make things more difficult from there:
Pole – 9′ – X – – 18′ — X (or small vertical or small oxer)
Importantly, as with any grid, I build the grid with the horse. I don’t expect them to hop through it all set up immediately. So, I lay it all down into a pile of poles and trot through. Then I move to the pole and x and have the second fence as just a pole on the ground. Once they know what to expect and are staying straight, I’ll raise that second fence to a cross-rail. If that goes well, we can go to a small vertical for the second fence and so on. Again, half seat the whole time, try not to micromanage, grab mane and just stay out of their way. The less a rider does besides providing supportive leg and keeping them straight, the better.
Some horses at this point will be like, “Wahoo – I get it! I CAN JUMP!” Good on ya if that’s your horse. Others, like two-thirds of mine, need a little more help. They will trot through the grid, slightly tripping over the cross-rails and just picking their feet up enough to get over the asks, or they’ll over jump like Rikki (above). That is fine. They’re learning. But at that point if they’re not being careful or still seem unsure of what to do with their body, I’ll do one of two things: introduce barrels or get them out on cross country and hop over logs, building up to small rolltops and coops.
The solid nature and roundness of these obstacles helps the horse understand the shape of their jump. Rails can be tricky to understand, but a round log or a small barrel? Nah, that’s easy. So I’ll do the same thing — get them straight, hop in my half-seat, grab mane and let them figure it out, coming back to a walk on the backside after each. It is a slow process, but the learning tends to happen quickly, and you can actually see and feel them figure it out from start to finish of the day in the field. That literally never gets old.
To end, here’s a video of Tetris learning to jump on cross-country from last month. Again, I don’t wait for perfection to get them out. He had walked over a couple of cross-rails at home before heading out to Ashland to school, so these were his first “real” fences. You can see him learn through the length of the video. AND, in fabulous form, he brought that knowledge home and now is jumping around well and making footwork and jump-shape progress each ride (see barrel pic above).
So go ride, folks. Go pop over all the little stuff and enjoy all the progress and joy the off-season has to offer.