Q. I’ve had my young (coming eight) Standardbred mare since she was five and a half and just barely backed. She’s progressed well, placing at almost every event and show we’ve done. She’s very sweet and willing and has taken to jumping quite nicely. But the first few times I started to take her over spooky fences (usually at shows), she’d shy and duck out–so quickly that I’d end up hitting the ground.
The problem hasn’t happened in a while, but I still worry about it–so I don’t drive her into fences for fear of her hitting the brakes at the last minute and my taking the fence without her! And I clench up–which doesn’t give her the confidence she needs.
I’ve evented for twelve years, here and abroad. I constantly tell my students to ride on, and kick if they have to, if their horses back off a fence. But I can’t seem to get myself to follow my own advice with this mare. So we’re still at “Baby” level–which doesn’t inspire people to come to me as a trainer. How do I get over this hump? I work with trainers when I can, but I’m mostly on my own. And I won’t jump when no one else is around.
A. This ducking-out problem is very common with young horses. In a few cases, the cause is a visual problem–so ask your veterinarian to check that your mare’s vision is healthy and normal. If it is, start jumping her more often at home–at least two or three times a week. There’s no better confidence-builder than experience.
You don’t need to jump a hundred fences in every session. Instead, jump fewer jumps (maybe fifteen or so per session) more frequently. For instance, pop over a small jump a few times at the end of a dressage practice.
You’re absolutely correct not to jump alone–so I suggest you find a friend or student to set jumps for you. Keep them small, 2 to 2 1/2 feet high, and approach them at the sitting trot. Not only will this help you feel the connection from your leg and seat through your hands to your horse’s mouth; it will also make your position more secure, so you’ll be less likely to fall off. And repeatedly going over small jumps at a controlled trot will teach your mare to use talent, rather than speed, to clear her fences. This, in turn, will build her–and your–confidence.
After she’s been jumping comfortably over these small fences for a few weeks, test her honesty by hanging a cooler over one of them: a 2-foot vertical or crossrail, so small that she can walk over it. Don’t make a big production about it if at first she shies at the fence. Make her stand facing it while you sit quietly in the saddle, without patting her. Then give her a little kick and a cluck and ask her to trot (or walk, if that’s the fastest she’ll go for you) over the jump. Be patient, and persevere for however long it takes to encourage her to go forward. Jump this little fence several times, always approaching it in a controlled sitting trot, until she does it comfortably.
Whether you’re at home or at a show, always think of jumping in terms of training your mare, rather than merely clearing the fences. Increased speed and aggressive “driving” aids will scare her. Instead, concentrate on staying in control and building her confidence–and don’t worry so much about jumping clean. I don’t mind if a horse stops occasionally, so long as he stops honestly: facing the fence, not wheeling and running off.
Many people make the mistake of riding faster, stronger, and harder at competitions, when they should just be reinforcing the training they’re doing at home. Treat your mare’s early competitions as schooling sessions. Take her to horse shows, instead of combined-training events, so you can give her a lot of mileage in one day. Enter several baby-green classes, and trot the first two; if she’s feeling confident and honest, quietly canter the third.
When you do attend events, don’t worry about being competitive on the cross-country course. Instead, concentrate on training your mare, using the skills you’ve developed at home to teach her to handle new challenges with confidence. Remember, Beginner Novice is just what it says: for novice horses beginning in the sport. Similarly, Training Level is for training horses. Keep those meanings in mind when competing your young mare.
A member of the 1980 US (Alternate) Olympic Team and 1995 European Championship squad, event rider and trainer Wash Bishop was short-listed for the 1996 Olympics. Many of his students have represented the US and Canada at Olympic Games, Pan Am Games and World Championships. These days, Wash is a selector for the US Equestrian Team and a member of the American Horse Shows Association Board of Directors.
From Practical Horseman magazine, 2001.