Alright, I have several topics I really want to cover, however I'm pulling an older article (again) because someone specifically asked me for it. This one is about circa 1993.
"Anyone who’s ever thrilled at watching show jumping on television, perhaps catching the Olympics or World Cup competition, has wondered from time to time, “How DO they do that?!”. Most novice horse owners or young equestrian enthusiasts are riveted by the sheer power and dexterity exhibited by both rider and horse alike, even if the closest they’ll ever come to that type of riding is making an obstacle out of a tree fallen across one of the nearby trails.
For the local level horse show exhibitor there can be a wide variety of over fences events you can enter, just as most circuits and breed shows offer such classes, too. One of the more popular and widely held is called Hunter Hack, which combines standard pleasure class rail work with executing two fences in a combination. Most smaller shows offer a Hunter Hack class even if there are no other jumping events on the premium.
The higher you climb up the ladder of competing, the more variety you’ll encounter as class schedules go. For those who relish a challenge, jumping can be the perfect outlet...and just about any horse is capable on some level. While the big rated shows require expensive, world-class mounts, my focus here will remain the ‘regular guy’ on his all around steed, and I’ll be more concerned about your getting results in the show ring than winning awards for style.
When you’re embarking on a different endeavor and going to teach your horse anything new, you start from the beginning. In the case of turning him into a successful hunter (or jumper, depending on his skills, abilities and potential), that means ground poles. My personal preference is a minimum of six wooden poles, eight to ten feet in length, and I recommend avoiding PVC entirely. For one thing with PVC poles, being lightweight makes them far too easy to displace when struck by a lazy hoof. Unless you’d rather spend more time putting your poles back in the correct place than riding, don’t use them. Also, they are hollow and thus prone to being crushed, cracked or broken when a horse lands on them. And sooner or later, that will happen. When wood becomes old, weather-worn and more brittle, this can be an issue, however, that generally takes years of use before becoming a real worry.
You want to begin with a horse trained well enough in rail manners so you won’t be fighting him about his headset, frame or canter leads, for instance, so make sure you’ve done your homework and that you don’t try to start with too green of a baby.
So now you’re out in the arena, and your horse has been properly warmed up on the longe line and done at least a little bit of bending, flexing and relaxed trotting under saddle. Your first concern should be making sure your horse is willing to walk over the poles, of course. Then you can set them up to trot over, according to your horse’s stride. As a general rule, I like a good four feet minimum between poles for trotting, and the more you can stretch them the better, without ruining the horse’s rhythm. The idea here is to teach the horse how to get into that rhythm, and to be able to remain cadenced throughout a set of obstacles. Ordinarily I’ll work on ground poles along with my rail work for quite some time until I’m sure the horse has a grasp of what I’m asking and doesn’t scatter the poles with every try. If he smacks one every once in a while, it’s no big deal, but it’s not going to be any boost to his confidence if he’s clumsy.
After you’ve got him moving over the poles in a a steady, quiet yet authoritative manner, you can begin setting up cavaletti’s and other low gymnastics. My cavaletti’s are no higher than one foot, depending on the horse’s height and scope of stride. At first I want to only trot over them, no more than two during the earliest lessons, and not allow him to break into a canter. But instead of reprimanding him too severely for breaking, I’m only going to calmly bring him back down to a trot and not make a big deal out of it before asking him to navigate them again. After he is going forward in a bright, happy fashion you can add a number of cavaletti’s to make a nice gymnastic row.
Once he’s comfortable with the concept, and this may take several weeks or longer, depending on the horse, I’ll go back to ground poles briefly before asking more -- but this time I want him to begin learning to stretch (lengthen) his stride,which means we have to spread them out farther, then we’ll realign again and start cantering over them. Here’s where it can get tricky. We don’t want the horse to “jump” the ground poles, yet we’re not going to let him get lazy going over a fence. He has to know the difference. What I prefer is to have one set of poles that are closer together and one set where he’ll have to lengthen stride. Remember: The concept is to teach him to adjust his stride when asked, and then it should be quick, automatic and seemingly effortless. It’s up to the rider to ascertain when the horse should be shortening or lengthening stride and to ask accordingly. When these training sessions are complete, it may look automatic, but there must be a cue behind what the horse is doing. These are important steps to take before he’ll be ready to graduate to actually jumping any fences.
When it’s time to begin cantering a line of gymnastic obstacles, keep in mind the same rules you’ve followed going over ground poles. The horse must, a) be under control at all times, b) not rush any obstacle, c) shorten or lengthen stride depending on what his rider asks of him and d) keep moving in a straight line over each obstacle, maintaining the same speed, neither slowing or speeding up. Remember not to make any big deal out of any issue you encounter, and to approach each session as a learning experience for both of you. When the horse runs out, refuses, knocks a pole or any other disobedience, bring him down to a walk, go back and start the line over again without a fuss. The more you make an issue of something bad he’s done, the more he’ll do the same to get a reaction out of you. Just as in other aspects of life -- any attention is good attention. Now, if you haven’t been able to accomplish this, you’ll need to take a step or two backwards to reinforce your foundation.
Once you [and your horse] have advanced enough and are ready to take a real fence, there are a few guidelines and certain protocol I generally follow. I’m going to want a ground pole in front of the fence to help give the horse an idea of a “takeoff point”, there should be a guide pole at least one stride (preferably two) before the fence and I may choose to have side guides to help prevent running out.
An important note: If your horse tends to refuse, this is an issue which must be addressed immediately and resolved. Once horses think they can get away with refusing, many of them will continuously try. That’s not to say even the best horses in the world don’t occasionally refuse or act out disobediently every once in a while, but you don’t want that to be a habit.
Don’t begin the session with asking for a jump, make sure your horse is plenty warmed up first, as always. Do a little bit of flat work, then trot a few lines of ground poles. After that go ahead and put him into a canter and head for your first real fence. A few things to keep in mind -- First, use your seat! 99% of the time if you have a horse who becomes prone to refusing, it’s because his rider was too far forward and up on the horse’s neck, rather than sitting and driving him forward with the legs and seat. This is also a really good (or bad, depending on your perspective!) way to find yourself flying over your horse’s head when he stops...and you don’t. Second, remember your good equitation posture, and this includes where your hands should be and where your legs need to be. Having correct position is essential to aiding your horse in what he needs to do. Third, keep track of your fence long before you turn toward the line to jump it, and this goes for each fence. Looking down at your horse when you’ve got a fence coming up in six, five, four, three strides and then not being prepared for the takeoff will do far more damage than the good you’ve created by following all the steps I’ve outlined up until now.
What does “rating” mean, anyhow? Simply put, it’s judging where your horse needs to be as you approach each fence on a course. Now that you have the tools necessary to do so, and you’ve taken the time to train your horse to understand what his job is, you’ll have a much easier time of it in the show ring. Keeping all the above points in mind, you’re bound to excel out there in the spotlight!"