When we have a horse that isn’t going forward, or one that’s a little backed off at the jumps and hangs up a little too high in the air, we use an exercise that teaches him to go forward in response to a cluck.
All you need for the exercise is a long straightaway-at least two hundred feet long-and a stick. At the top of the straightaway, close your leg on your horse. If nothing happens, transfer your reins to one hand, cluck to him, and immediately use your stick, right behind your leg (two or three times if you need to), to make him gallop off. How forcefully you use the stick depends on his personality and his background: If he’s a sensitive ex-racehorse who’s likely to overreact, you want to be much less sharp than with a phlegmatic warmblood. Let him gallop at least 10 or 15 strides, until you’re near the end of the straightaway. Then quietly take him back; you don’t want to jerk him in the mouth, which he could think was punishing him for going forward.
What you’re doing is habituating your horse to the stick coming right after the cluck, so that he comes to associate the two. Do the exercise at least twice the first couple of times you try it. The next day, do it again-and, if you’ve gotten a positive reaction, go on to try with leg followed by the cluck alone.
After your horse is habituated to the cluck, doing the exercise once a week or so may be enough to keep the association. (If you’re showing and you think he needs a reminder, don’t do it in your warm-up, when he might be excited already. Do it early in the morning instead.)
Once your horse understands the cluck, it can be your best tool, especially if he’s young or green. When he’s responding to it dependably, everything becomes easier for him. You’ll have been tough with him for a few moments to teach him-but after that, everything is nicer: He won’t stop and he won’t have crashes because he knows to go forward when you cluck.
Grand prix rider Beezie Madden and her husband and trainer, John Madden, are based in Cazenovia, New York.
Norman dello Joio:
When I catch myself starting to use my hands to lift a horse off the ground, trying to make sure we jump a clear round, I go back to a very simple exercise: I put a rail on the ground nine feet in front of the base of the fence. Then, approaching in a normal collected canter, I focus on just jumping the rail on the ground, releasing, and following my horse off the ground into the air. The rail on the ground is easier to jump than the fence; having set the distance with the rail, I can just ease off the ground and through the air. Having it there gets me past the natural human tendency to think that I’ve got to do everything I possibly can to make the round successful and reminds me to let the horse and my muscle memory do some of the work.
Jumper specialist Norman dello Joio, who rides the highly regarded Glasgow, teaches and trains out of his barn in Wellington, Florida.
Here’s an exercise that’s helpful if your horse likes to cut his turns in the show ring-and that can also help you reorganize more quickly after fences. You can do it over low jumps (two feet is fine; three is tops) or even over rails on the ground.
Set two fences or rails in a normal five-stride line (typically 72 feet)-but, for the sake of keeping the pace a little more controllable, aim to ride it in six. Canter in and ride the six; when you land from the line, keep riding straight to the end of the ring. To halt your horse, look up and sink into your full seat (so he can’t root you out of the saddle) as you take an even feel of his mouth, increasing the pressure as much as you need to stop him smoothly on a straight line. Be strong, not rough; you don’t want him afraid of your hands. You may need to be quite strong, though, if he’s developed a habit of cutting his turns.
When you get your horse stopped, leg-yield him two or three steps to the outside: Put your inside leg on him, just where it normally lies, and push him over. At the same time, move both hands toward your outside hip. At this point it’s fine if your inside hand (using an indirect rein) crosses over his neck as you open your outside hand toward the rail, using a direct rein to reinforce your leg-yield.
After those two or three steps of leg-yield, pause a minute to let your horse absorb the lesson. Then quietly pick up the canter and repeat. With repetition, you will become more conscious of keeping him straight, and he’ll learn not to cut in.
The next time you jump a course, continue to focus on riding your horse straight to the end of the ring. He should be more balanced, not leaning in or dragging you. You should be more upright after your fences and in better control through your turns.
Top hunter trainer Russell Frey and his wife, grand prix jumper Kim Frey, are based at their Virginia farm, Snowbrook.
This article first appeared in the April, 1999 issue of Practical Horseman, magazine.