Following the exercise described last week, my four-year-old warmblood True is walking and trotting smoothly from each direction over single poles scattered around the arena.
With such practice, he’s learned to judge how to approach the pole so that he usually steps over it in stride. In other words, he rarely has to take a short step or a long step before crossing the pole.
He seldom touches a pole with his toes and almost never steps on one. I’ve taught the no-touch part by rewarding with praise, strokes, and a relaxing moment away from the task whenever he happens to succeed in leaving the pole untouched as he goes over it.
When he does touch, I maintain his gait, make a large circle back, and give him another chance. Sometimes this means we have to trot the pole several times in a row without breaking gait, but as soon as he goes over it without touching, we slow to an easy walk and True soaks up his rewards. Very soon, he learns to pick up his toes.
Many trainers spend very little time on the single-pole process, moving on to raised poles and low jumps as soon as possible. But I find the single-pole foundation helps tremendously when a young or green horse begins to jump. It’s a lot easier for him to learn the basics—how to approach, how to stay centered, how to maintain pace and stride—over a simple ground pole than a low jump. He can then transfer the skill.
Prey brains are driven by fear, and I do not want True to become fearful or nervous about jumping. He will if his first mistakes occur over low jumps. The poles will smack him in the ankles or cannons, rather than the tougher hooves. They will fall from standards and make a scary noise behind him. Jump standards rattle, lean, or blow over in wind sometimes, and that would frighten him, too. To start, I want to give him some quiet positive experience with easy ground poles.
Now that True has generalized his knowledge to poles of different colors and locations, I place a jump standard on each side of some of the ground poles. True gets used to moving between tall standards as he negotiates a pole. He’s calm about all this, sensing from the trust we’ve built over the past 38 posts that I won’t ask him to do something that will scare or hurt him.
Now’s the time to raise the pole.
The easiest way to do this is to use small three-inch plastic cups that rest on the ground, available through most tack stores. They lift the pole about three inches off the ground. Doesn’t sound like much, but the horse will need to estimate and adjust. Estimating and adjusting in themselves are skills he must learn.
I trot True straight toward the center of the raised pole, exactly as we have done before, expecting him to step over. Instead, he leaves the ground two trot steps early, launches his torso into the sky, tucks his knees to his cute little chin, and sails over! Clears the three-inch pole by at least a foot!
I laugh out loud, feeling a terrible temptation to pat him soundly for such effort and attention. But rewarding him for overjumping a tiny pole won’t serve him well in the future. When Baby True grows up, I do not want to have to ride over a four foot jump at a virtual height of six feet. That’s where this little game is headed.
I maintain the trot, and give True another chance. We make a large circle and approach again, giving him plenty of time on a straight approach to judge the height of this piddly little pole. My heels are pressed down as far as they will go to prevent being jumped off like a cork if he goes for that extra foot of clearance again. You rarely know whether a green horse is going to overjump or not—it’s a surprise.
Here we go, trotting up, and WHEE!—way up in the air again over the top. Well, he does have good genetics for jumping—his sire and grand-sire are among the top Grand Prix and Olympic jumpers worldwide.
We try four or five times, and every time True overjumps. I begin to realize that repetition isn’t going to solve this problem. So I bring him back to a walk and let the reins flop. We walk over the raised pole three or four times, and he settles.
Now, when we try it at a trot again, he is calm and easy, just hopping over. I stroke his neck and let him relax at a walk for a few minutes.
But even a hop isn’t necessary for a three inch pole. I want True to step over it, just like he did when the pole was flat on the ground. He should lift each hoof slightly, but there’s no need for him to push off with his hind legs and leave the ground with all four feet like he’s launching a rocket. Somehow, this little guy thinks he needs to propel himself into the stratosphere just to prove his worth.
I bring him back to the task. Despite the calm hop a moment ago, he now leaps into the sky again. Hmm, this is going to take some work, but he’s getting mentally tired too. Tired brains and nervous brains don’t learn well, but I don’t want to reward True by stopping at this point.
So, I use one of my standard indirect training techniques as discussed in Chapter 14 of Horse Brain, Human Brain. Seamlessly, I trot on and put True into a trotting shoulder-in along the rail. There’s nothing special about the shoulder-in—it’s just a different task that True knows pretty well. We practice it in each direction, then stop for the day on a positive note.
Redirecting to a different task that is likely to be successful is a great way to end a session that isn’t going too well. Tomorrow, I will try True again on the raised pole and plan the lesson to proceed in a way that will encourage him to step rather than hop or leap.
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.