Looking for something new and entertaining to do with your horse this winter? Try free jumping! In just a few short sessions, you can teach him to negotiate a simple combination of jumps without any input—or interference—from a rider. You'll learn a lot about his natural jumping ability and style, which, in turn, can help you ride him better.
For example, if your horse lowers his head dramatically on takeoff and/or landing, it may feel as if he's trying to pull the reins out of your hands. But if you see him do the same thing while free jumping, you'll realize this is just his style. On the flip side, if you constantly fight to lower your horse's head in front of the jumps, observe how he carries himself while free jumping. He may need a naturally higher head carriage to maintain his balance.
Many horses who rush their fences under saddle don't rush when free jumping. Watching your horse approach a jump without raising his head and hollowing his back in resistance to the reins may help you visualize how to communicate with him more harmoniously between fences.
Free jumping is also a great way to introduce a young horse to jumping. His first few awkward attempts to get from one side of the rails to the other can be much more positive if he doesn't have the weight of a rider on his back to worry about, too. Even some extremely talented jumpers are klutzes in the beginning. Free jumping helps them discover their natural abilities in a very short period of time.
It's also interesting to see which horses bravely attack the fences and which approach more carefully. This tells you something about a young horse's attitude but does not always predict how he will behave later in life when he understands the game.
If you're trying to sell a horse and have a good photographer or videographer, free jumping can be an excellent marketing tool. After just a few lessons, many horses feel comfortable enough to show off their natural technique and scope (ability to jump high, wide obstacles) over fairly impressive fences. I've sold several horses by posting their free-jumping videos online.
Whatever your horse's age or career path, watching him free jump is just plain fun! His cleverness may amaze you as he adjusts his own stride to arrive at the correct takeoff spots for the jumps. You may also be surprised at how high he can jump. After seeing him jump 4 feet by himself—or even 4-foot-6, if he's especially talented—3-foot-3 won't look so scary to you from the saddle.
Video and editing by Amy Katherine Dragoo
Read more about how to safely teach your horse to free jump in the January 2012 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.