Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Rating Your Horse Over Fences

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!"



  1. I value a horse who learns a bit about rating by himself. Maybe just because the jumping phases of Eventing are so different, you need a horse who is capable of sometimes making his own decisions and not depending on the rider to control every stride (that's why I love Eventing so much, your horse is truly a partner, who will save your butt through a lot of rider error--I know other disciplines are like that too, though.)
    [Side note--I have a pet theory that many of the accidents and injuries in Eventing in recent years are because riders are training their horses to be too dependent, without enough independent decision-making, but that's another subject...]
    When I was first trying to learn rating myself, I would go around everywhere I walked, trying to judge distance--like, the stairway is ahead, so 5,4,3,2,1, up the steps. Trying to calculate how many of my own strides were between me and whatever thing I was aiming at.
    Drove my family crazy, but it helped!
    For my horse, before I ever started him, I built a jumping lane. Just a 12-foot lane between two pastures, and put poles, logs, barrels, nothing that required a big jump but a bit of "obstacle course", with no regard to correct distance. I'd stand at one end with his grain and call my horse to me from the other end-- at first, he'd fumble along and knock stuff around, but it didn't take long before he'd canter over the obstacles in stride and figure out how to lengthen and shorten to get to that grain (and lots of pets and compliments.) Then, I'd change the obstacles around. And I agree about PVC poles--he didn't respect them. They're fine as a visual for a ground-pole, though.
    It was so cute to see him figuring out all the obstacles as he came towards me--I might still have pictures, I'll look--plus, teaching him to come and put his head in the halter when I called him was quite a nice side benefit!
    Wish I'd dug a ditch in that lane, though--ditches remain his nemesis!

  2. Great story and wonderful info!! I like that, jumping lane for the horse to learn rating in a DIY sort of way! :)

  3. Thanks, the jumping lane (I described it as "12 ft", but should describe it better, it was 12' wide and about 100' long) can also be useful for riders who are experienced but tend to get ahead of the horse and need to learn to keep their upper body still over jumps (like me.) Mounting them on a packer and sending them through really helps!
    I should have mentioned, I tried to be really careful about overusing the jumping lane. I never used it except at liberty, for a couple years after my horse was started. I trained him to jump under saddle just as you described. I felt doing the jumping lane under saddle might do more harm than good (spoil his confidence, maybe teach him to rush)while he was learning to balance a rider and do little jumps in riding situations. Once he was older, had jumped a lot in shows and Events and was well on his way to becoming a "packer", I took him back to the jumping lane on occasion just for my own benefit, to improve my own jumping position.


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