Keep Work Fun for Your Jumper

Top trainer Frank Madden shares his routine for preserving a horse's confidence and his job satisfaction from one jumper show to the next by jumping natural obstacles.

The moments a horse spends showing are moments when we’re calling on him to go above and beyond the normal call of duty. In between those moments, I think it’s really important to monitor how he’s feeling about his job physically, mentally, and emotionally. To do well, horses–like people–need to feel they can succeed at what they’re being asked to do, and to enjoy their work.

That’s what we work toward making happen for our horses–and it all starts with scheduling. For a normally accomplished horse and rider, I think a reasonable showing schedule may be two shows a month, with the horse doing two to three classes.

On the Saturday between shows, we might do a school over natural obstacles–we’ve got some logs, some stone walls and a bank. They’re a way to give the horse and rider something different from what they’re used to in the ring–and a way to make coping with the new and different fairly routine, which has great benefits.

Natural jumps are good for the rider, too. For some reason, when people get into an antiseptic-feeling show ring, they start wanting to go so carefully that they end up riding backwards. But when they look at natural obstacles, they figure, “OK, these can tolerate a little override; I can make a little mistake and still be all right.”

Of course, with natural jumps, just as with conventional jumps, you don’t stat a horse over a 3-foot-6 oxer. You start him easy, over a small vertical or a crossrail, because overfacing a horse is one of the quickest ways to make him not like natural jumps. Over these fences, I want the horse ending up the same way over all of them: taking a little bit, so that the rider feels him saying, “I understand this; I’m happy to go there with you.

So most of our Saturday work is schooling over natural jumps. Then we’ll finish by going into the ring to school just a little more.

Photo 1. The outdoor environment is a great mental refresher. Here, Maria Schaub’s riding Cloud Nine forward in an open stride. She’s not letting him gallop on uneven terrain on too loose a contact, She’s off his back giving it a rest from the collected work that jumpers can get too much of in the ring.

Photos ? Practical Horseman

Photo 2. As they start their school over a low stone wall, Cloud Nine has such a nice interested expression; he’s not being taxed physically but he’s gaining a lot emotionally. Just as with regular jumps, don’t introduce your horse to natural jumps that are too difficult for him; make sure whatever you ask him to do is inviting and simple.

Photo 3. Maria and her horse are confident, so she’s making things a little more interesting with a slightly bigger wall, and Cloud Nine looks attentive and bright. I like Maria’s position: out of her saddle, but not ahead of the motion. Jumping a natural jump, it’s good to have a slightly more upright seat like this in case the horse needs a little push…

Photo 4. …which Cloud Nine doesn’t. He’s clearly overjumping this 3-foot fence, his very expressive jump telling me he’s feeling physically good–able to give this nice effort over this somewhat novel fence, using all of his parts, because he is enjoying himself.

Photo 5. Here we see the outside course helping the riding as well. Maria seems to have asked Cloud Nine to leave the ground from quite a distance back so he’s stretching across this little jump. Her position gives me a nice sense that she is comfortable riding him forward and he’s comfortable being ridden that way. Taking away some of the exactness of the show ring makes the ride a little more refreshing, more “back to fundamentals”: Is he going forward? Will he stretch for me if he has to?

For Frank’s account of how he coached his equitation student Brianne Goutal to win the 2005 Maclay Finals, see “One Moment That Won the Maclay” in the November 2006 issue of Practical Horseman.

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