You know how show jumpers sail over gigantic obstacles, like oh say…CARS?
Or set records for height, like oh say… EIGHT FEET high? Or breadth… um, that would be 28 feet wide! Hard to believe, but true.
So how do we teach a horse to jump? Genetics help with the horse’s innate talent for leaping high and wide, but every horse has to be taught to jump obstacles in the human world.
My Dutch Warmblood True has good genetics for jumping and loads of talent. But I’m gonna have to teach him how it’s done without weakening his confidence or harshing his mellow. In the future, I need to know he will canter or gallop down to a jump with a brave heart, a calm head, and a good eye for distance. If he doesn’t, both of us will be in danger of a crash, and jumping crashes can cause severe injury or death to horse and/or rider. It’s not something to play around with.
We begin by asking the baby horse to walk calmly and step over one simple pole lying on the ground. True began this preliminary work even before I bought him, but he hasn’t done it in a year and needed more practice anyway. I like to be certain a young horse has all the fundamentals down pat before asking him to do more.
Once you’ve verified that your horse passes the pre-jumping checklist, lay a pole down on good footing in your riding area. Yep, that’s it—just one single pole, which will be about three inches high. New York wasn’t built by starting with the skyscrapers, right?
The pole should be painted in a color that contrasts strongly with the background, so the horse can see it easily. How about yellow or white? (Check the section on equine color vision in Horse Brain, Human Brain for which colors to choose or avoid.)
Horses can’t see red poles on green grass…or green poles on red dirt. Sounds simple, but a LOT of people start their horses over an unpainted tan pole lying on tan sand. Then they’re disappointed when the horse thumps into it with his feet or trips over it and lands on his nose. He can’t see the pole!
The horse’s job is simply to step over that pole. True is a champ—he walks up, steps over, and walks on. I try to maintain his pace so that each step is consistent in size and speed. I relax my body to keep him calm and focus my mind to keep him attentive. I want him to learn that poles are not scary.
When he can do that, I change to a different colored pole, to generalize the lesson. This way, he learns that he is to calmly step over any pole, not just that particular one we started with.
Well, I was lucky, right? True stepped right over.
But maybe your little mudball won’t. That’s OK, stay cool. See if he’ll walk parallel to the pole, getting closer to it.
No? Then dismount and lead him to the pole, walking along next to it. Now see if he will follow you as you step over cross-wise. If this is difficult for your horse, let him sniff the pole, and try again. Most horses will step over a pole with this kind of encouragement. When they do, we praise and stroke and let the baby rest for a minute by walking around somewhere else. Then return to the pole and try again.
I’ve had a couple of horses who literally ran backwards to get away from a pole lying still and silent on the ground…but not many. If you have one of these rare mounts, I suggest backing up to an easier first step. Give the horse a different task that he knows, so that you can end his session on a note of success. Then stop for today.
Tomorrow put the pole on some grass. Lead the horse to it on a halter and allow him to graze all around, over and under, that pole. Soon he’ll be happy to step over it to get to more grass on the other side. When he gets to that point, lead him back and forth over the pole and praise his success.
Still no go? Wow. You are the owner of that one-in-a-million beast who is “Special!” Again, stay calm, stop for today, and put the horse away. Then carry the pole to his stall or paddock and lay it down near his feeding or watering area. Speak kindly to him and leave.
As soon as he gets hungry, he’s going to have to step over the pole to get to his food. Once he’s done that—discovering that the pole didn’t rear up and bite his belly—he’ll do it again and again. By tomorrow or the next day, he’ll be completely accustomed to stepping over a pole. Then work little by little each day, first on a halter, then mounted, to teach him to calmly walk over this pole in your riding area. Change to a different colored pole once he’s comfortable with the procedure.
Once the horse has mastered stepping over the pole calmly at a walk, use the same gradual step-by-step process to teach him to trot over different colored poles. For now, stick with only one pole at a time and keep it lying flat on the ground.
That’s it for the start. True North will lead the way as we work up to more.
Brain-Based Horsemanship is a weekly column that chronicles Janet Jones, PhD, and her journey with True, a Dutch Warmblood she trained from age three using neuroscience best practices. Read more about brain-based training in Jones’ award winning book Horse Brain, Human Brain.
A version of this story originally appeared on janet-jones.com. It is reprinted here with permission.