My horse willingly jumps verticals, but doesn’t like to jump oxers and usually refuses them. When she does jump oxers, she jumps over them as if they’re filled with alligators. What do you think is wrong and what should I do?
Performance Editor John Strassburger responds:
The first thing I’d do, especially if the horse shows other spooky behaviors, is to have your veterinarian examine her eyes. If her eyes seem fine, a soundness evaluation wouldn’t be a bad idea, to confirm she doesn’t have a physical reason for not wanting to jump width, like on an oxer.
Assuming there isn’t a soundness reason for her distrust of oxers versus other types of jumps, the solution is to break down the question, take time and repeat. Most often, horses with an oxer issue are just struggling to understand the question they’re struggling to read the dimensions of the fence and to understand how they’re supposed to clear it.
Start with two poles on the ground, rolled flush together. Trot and canter back and forth over them. When the horse is doing that easily, start rolling the rails slightly farther apart (to a max of about 18 inches). Continue trotting and cantering back and forth over them, closing your legs to urge the horse to leave the ground, encouraging the horse to jump up and across the width.
Once that exercise is going easily, build a small oxer, no higher than 12 to 18 inches. Be sure to make the front rail and back rail different and contrasting colors so the dimensions of the obstacle are clear to the horse.
Start with the front rail placed in the cups on one end but on the ground on the other end (like half of a crossrail). You can set the back rail normally, in both cups.
Trot positively to the oxer, keeping the horse straight and in the middle of the jump with your legs and reins. You want a bold, forward – but not fast – gait; keep your horse at a controlled pace and allow her to focus on the jump, not on you. You don’t want the horse running at the fence, as speed will not help. You want the horse to understand the question, not blast over it without looking.
It’s this moment where having a rider with experience over fences is often important. You want the horse to understand that giving up is not an option; you want her to sort out the question. That means you need someone with experience to keep positive pressure on the horse and to be able to ride it out as she sorts out jumping over the fence the first few times. (Your horse may continue to jump it like a scalded cat at first.) You also need to have the experience to know when to back off and when to keep pressing. If this doesn’t define your abilities, a few sessions with an experienced trainer would be your best bet.
Keep trotting over the oxer with the lowered half-rail until the horse is jumping it easily. Then put the front rail up on both sets of cups to create a true parallel oxer. But set the front rail two holes lower than the back rail, again to help the horse see the dimensions of the obstacle.
Once the horse is doing the tiny oxer well, you’ll need to assess the best way forward. If your horse still seems anxious about the oxer, then I would leave a tiny one set up in your ring and jump it once or twice daily for a while. Sometimes consistent repetition is your best training tool. If the horse seems relatively comfortable quickly, then you should add size to the oxer over the course of several jump schools.
You can also change the oxer from offset to square, and add them in combinations. Always start with a relatively easy oxer, and keep it available throughout the school in case you need to backtrack and re-establish confidence.
Time and repetition of educational oxer exercises should help your horse overcome her oxer phobia.