The exercise ‘Release to a Jump’ encourages your horse to engage physically and mentally in a free jumping challenge. Even if you don’t plan on jumping your horse, this exercise is a valuable tool that helps with good horsemanship, and which could potentially help you out of jam should you come across an obstacle on trail, for example.
Many riders tend to avoid certain situations that are uncomfortable or challenging for themselves or their horses. This can lead to missed opportunities to help your horse make educated decisions based on experience as opposed to simply reacting when faced with something new. Further, it can improve your relationship with your horse by developing trust and willingness.
This exercise is also a great way to help teach you how to ‘allow’ your horse to learn by staying out of his way and letting him make choices. A horse that is able to make quick, positive decisions will always ride better than one that is coerced into situations.
For this exercise, you will need a spot up against a safe fence or arena wall where you can place three plastic barrels to use as jumps. When you first lay out the barrels, put one on its side, perpendicular to the fence or wall, and a second one spaced about three or four feet from the first barrel, also on its side. Then, place the final barrel upright at the base of the second barrel. It will create a barrier between your horse and you, and discourage him from leaning or jumping toward you.
To begin, move away from the barrels, put your horse on a long line and send him in several circles around you until he is able to send in a circle consistently without you having to push him. (See the article on page 48 to help with lunging technique.) For most horses this will be at a trot, but some may be able to do it at a lope. Once you have established clean and consistent circles, position yourself at the third, upright, barrel and begin sending your horse through the three- to four-foot open section between the barrels.
If your horse stops at the barrels, or decides to turn and go the other way, send him off in the other direction, so that he approaches the barrels from the other side. If he continues to not want to jump the barrels, go back to the beginning and start with getting him better at sending in a circle out in the open, or make the gap between the barrels bigger.
This gap is left between the barrels in order to help encourage your horse to move confidently through the ‘jump zone.’ Once you are able to send your horse in both directions through the barrels, you can begin moving them closer together, reducing the distance by about six to 12 inches at a time.
Once your horse is moving confidently between the smaller gap, you can bring the barrels closer together again (always keeping the first barrel up against the fence). Continue this until the barrels are just close enough that your horse has to choose whether to rub up or bump against the barrels as he passes or to jump them instead.
Since the barrels are plastic, some horses do choose to bump them, but after a few trips, most will opt to jump them. Once they are jumping over the barrels, you can eliminate the gap altogether, and lay all three barrels on their side so that there is a larger area for them to jump.
Once your horse is comfortable jumping the barrels in both directions, which is primarily the physical aspect of this exercise, you can present him with the mental aspect.
For this portion of the exercise, you will stand approximately eight to 10 feet from the jump zone, slightly offset from the front of the jump (see illustration on page 26). Set a cone or other marker at this location to help you keep track of where you are and stay in the correct place. The space between you and the jump allows your horse a choice between two paths. Path option #1: choosing to avoid the jump zone, going through the ‘squeeze zone’ between you and the barrels instead, or Path option #2: choosing to continue through the jump zone and jump the barrels.
Next, reset the barrels so that they are spaced apart again. Remain standing in the same position allowing space between yourself and the barrels (the squeeze zone). This time when you send your horse around in a circle, if he chooses not to go through the jump zone, going through the squeeze zone instead, reach out with the tail of your lead rope (or with a stick and string) and lightly touch him on the shoulder or ribcage just as he passes the barrels.
The key here is giving your horse a choice. IF he goes through the jump zone, THEN you will allow him to turn and face you, and take a break. IF he avoids the jump and just continues to circle, THEN you will reach out and touch him after he makes the choice to not jump. You will continue sending him in circles, touching him on every lap when he misses the jump, until he chooses to go to the jump for the release. Thus the name of this exercise, ‘Release to a Jump.’ The touch is to help create a squeeze zone that is uncomfortable for the horse to go through. Once he tries the jump, the pressure will be relieved.
Repeat until the horse is jumping willingly in both directions.
The goal of all of these patterns I have shared this year is not just to ‘train’ your horse, but to help develop a better partnership between the two of you. A good partnership relies on both of you making good decisions. Your horse is a vital part of this team. Allowing him to search and learn will be key to your mutual success. I hope these articles have helped you to achieve a part of the very special partnership that is available between you and your horse. Until next time, enjoy the journey.