Do you worry about "bogey" jumps--those unusual-looking fences that you're not sure your horse has ever seen before? Do you trust him to canter confidently up to them, or do you fear he might spook? Today's hunter, equitation and jumper course designers are becoming more and more creative with colors, textures and shapes of fences--and yet the quality of horses is so impressive now, and judges' expectations are so high, that any little dodge right or left in front of a spooky jump or slight overjump will land you out of the ribbons. Even if you only go to occasional local shows or don't plan to show at all, the more accustomed your horse is to facing new scenarios, the more confident and secure you both will feel in everything you do.
Once your horse is comfortably jumping a cooler, as I explained in my article in the September 2008 issue of Practical Horseman, change the exercise slightly with one of the following variations. Ride exactly the same to each--putting your legs on early and staying centered over your horse. Allow the new question to catch his attention, and then repeat it until he relaxes and jumps it confidently.
1. Shorten the approach. Make your turn closer to the fence so he has the cooler in his sights only a few strides before takeoff.
2. Jump the fence on a slight angle, keeping your horse straight between your legs and hands. Here, All the Stars and I are jumping from right to left, still aiming for the center of the cooler. (see photo 1)
3. Hang the cooler on the right or left side of the jump, but still ask your horse to jump the center of the fence. This is particularly helpful for a horse who tends to drift one way or the other. For example, if your horse drifts left, hang the cooler on the left side of the jump.
4. Change the shape of the cooler by folding and hanging it differently.
5. Gradually raise the jump to 3 feet (or whatever height you normally jump at shows-but never any higher).
6. Hang two coolers of different colors side-by-side on the rail.
7. Build the jump into an oxer, with the cooler hanging on the front rail (see photo 2).
8. Fold the cooler in half lengthwise and lay it flat on the ground under the jump, like a liverpool, with a ground rail weighing it down on either side (see photo 3). Notice how much more alert and careful All the Stars is over this jump, compared to the opening photo on p. TK. Even after a horse jumps a cooler comfortably in one configuration, changing the exercise slightly can evoke a new reaction--which will, in turn, build more confidence over future challenges.
If, at any time, your horse becomes nervous or disobedient, go back to a simpler exercise and rebuild his confidence. After successfully navigating one or two of the above variations, call it a day. Don't risk making him sour by drilling him.
To continue building your horse's confidence--and to spice up your schooling sessions--change the color of the cooler or experiment with other materials (Astroturf, foam, plastic trash bags, etc.) every week or so depending on his personality. Remember, keep it safe, fun--and positive!
- Give your ring a Martha Stewart-like makeover with less-traditional colors (such as purple, orange or turquoise), different patterns (checkerboard or plaid), glossy/shiny materials (a rain sheet, rain jacket or tarp), and other out-of-the-ordinary obstacles (wingless jumps or fake rocks).
- To encourage an extremely cautious horse to approach a spooky jump, sprinkle a little grain on top of it. We even feed horses breakfast in the show ring sometimes (when the ring is officially open for schooling but not so busy that we'd interfere with other riders) to show them that it's safe-and even enjoyable!
- When approaching a spooky jump, be sure to close your legs on your horse's sides before you turn to the jump so you don't surprise him by putting them on right in front of it.
- Just like us, horses hold their breath when they're scared or nervous. So try to tune into your horse's breathing to judge when he's really relaxing over the jumps.
To learn more about how to introduce your horse to scary fences, see Jim's article "Spook No More!" in the September 2008 issue of Practical Horseman. Also, watch an exclusive video in which Jim discusses his theory on this topic.