I highly recommend working with a qualified instructor or, at the very least, having an experienced rider to help you get started teaching a horse to jump. You’ll need to have:
- A safe, flat arena or field with good footing to work in
- 12-foot wood or PVC poles
- Safe jump standards or cavaletti blocks
- A well-fitting English saddle
Your horse needs to be mentally and physically mature and fit before introducing jumping. He needs to be working off his hindquarters and able to collect and lengthen his stride in all three gaits.
Take your time, allowing your horse to go at a pace that’s comfortable for him. Avoid forcing him to go over any obstacles if he is anxious, as this will damage his confidence in the long run. Praise and positive reinforcement will build his confidence and enjoyment of jumping.
While he is learning, be prepared that he may take an overly large leap and leave you behind. Use the mildest bit you can (or go bitless) to avoid injuring his mouth if you get surprised and jerk on the reins. This kind of inadvertent punishment can make a horse avoid jumping in the future.
Follow these steps to introduce your horse to jumping. Each step may take several sessions. Only move to the next step when your horse is completely confident and competent with the previous one.
Step 1: Ground Poles
If your horse has never jumped, start with a single ground pole. Introduce him to it by leading him over it at the walk until he has no hesitation going over it from both directions.
Place single poles randomly around your riding area and ride over them at walk, trot and canter. Make sure your horse is comfortable at the lower gait before riding over the poles at the higher gait.
Step 2: Trotting Poles
Start with two or three poles. (See next page for correct spacing of ground poles). You may need to adjust the spacing depending on your horse’s stride.
This step requires the ability to ride your horse forward and steer from your leg aids at the rising trot. You also need to be able to perform quiet half halts to make slight adjustments to your horse’s length of stride and speed as you approach the poles.
Ride your horse on a straight line over the centre of each pole. Set the best rhythm and stride length so that he floats through the poles without hitting them with his feet.
When your horse is comfortably negotiating the trot poles while keeping a consistent rhythm and picking up his feet well, add more poles (four to six).
Step 3: Add a Jump
Set a small cross rail or cavaletti about six feet away from the last of three trot poles. It may help to walk your horse through the poles and over the cross rail the first time, allowing him to inspect it.
Ride this exercise the same as the trot poles. Go into your two-point jumping position and grab a handful of mane (or use a neck rope) at the cross rail. Some horses will take a big leap, over-jumping the first few times. Be prepared.
When your horse is comfortable trotting a single jump, encourage him to canter away by using more leg on the take-off of the jump. Setting your jump in the centre of your arena allows you to either go straight, turn left or right, or halt after the jump. This way, your horse won’t anticipate which direction he’s going after the jump.
Step 4: Add More Jumps
When your horse is comfortable riding the single jump, put one cross rail on one long side of the arena and a second one on the opposite long side. Trot around the arena from one cross rail to the next, focusing on your line of approach and rhythm. If your horse becomes unbalanced or rushes, bring him down to walk or ride a circle at trot until he settles.
Add a third cross rail in the centre of your riding area on a diagonal. So that you can ride a figure-eight pattern from a jump on one long side across the jump on the diagonal and finish over the other jump on the opposite long side.
Keep the jumps as 18” to 24” cross rails or verticals at this stage of training. When cantering to fences, green horses may rush and jump long and flat instead of in the desired round arc that is powered from the hindquarters. Only progress to cantering jumps when your horse is steady and consistent at the trot.
Take your time and work through these exercises slowly and carefully. Some horses can take up to a year to learn how to jump correctly. Rushing your horse’s education will damage his confidence and competence. It’s easier to train correctly the first time than it is to correct problems learned from poor training. It’s never wrong to go slowly and patiently for both your and your horse’s sakes.
As a clinician, riding coach, horse trainer and certified professional coach and author, Anne Gage focuses on the mental and physical aspects of both horse and rider so you can be calm, confident and connected – together. Learn more at confidenthorsemanship.com.