My jumping pony needs to be calmer: how can I do this?

Question: I have an 8 year old jumping pony. She is 14.2 hands. She seems to be picky on her jumps. She has the one plank that is red and white and she refuses it all the time. When I mount her she may sometimes take off or start rearing with me. After a jump she may sometimes take off but after that she calms down a little. She is scared at almost everything. Once at a show a man started fanning himself with his hat and she whipped around and then continued the next jump. She needs to learn to be a lot calmer but how? Help me.

Answer from April Reeves: This is such an important question and if you read my past posts you will see I say the same thing over and over again. Let’s review this, as we keep coming back to it, time and time again.

Why do horses lose their nerves? Why do they get edgy and do things we don’t want them to do? I want you to really think about this question, because if you can’t answer it, you can’t train or ride your horse past where you are now, and it’s likely you will get worse. The question poses a problem, and within every problem lies the answer. Now – start thinking…

What did you come up with? See if it matches anything I’m about to say.

It’s very simple, yet we cannot seem to wrap our “human” brains around this. It all comes back to “Foundation Training”. Every bit of it. When you hit a brick wall with your horse, it’s because of these things:

1. Your horse is missing something in his foundation work (flat work) that he needs to get him through what you are asking him. Horses need “tools” that we humans must provide in order for the horse to have the confidence to go places, do things and perform what we ask from them. As simple as this sounds, we never see this, so we continue to press the horse to perform the very thing he has no tools for, and then blows up. And we are left wondering why we bought such a stupid horse, when all along, it was us that was lacking the skills to help the horse move through his “job requirements”.

We get on our horses every day and ride them in the future. We think we should be jumping, when really, the horse, and always of course, the rider, does not have the skills it takes to get the horse there. The rider misses all the important work, and rides the horse as if it should perform the way top horses do – but the work it takes to get there is vast and difficult.

We need to learn to ride in the “here and now”. If our horse cannot handle a certain fence or cannot go quietly beside a man fanning himself, then we are riding that horse “in the future”, when we should be concentrating, at home, on the basics.

2. CONSISTENCY: I cannot stress this enough. Riders that lack the discipline it takes to ride well and ride correctly (equitation) will always be having problems they can’t fix. We buy the horse and we buy the feed, but we stop there and think we can learn this stuff on our own, but in reality, it’s so incredibly important to get the training to learn how to ride, sit, use your seat and legs, get soft hands and do it all, every day, with consistency. You can watch all the video in the world on flat work, but if you are not consistent with a quality ride from you, the human, everything else goes out the window.

Your pony and you need to go back to the beginning and start over. If you can, get really good lessons from someone with a track record of getting people to the top. I have two English/Jumping coaches: one was a Canadian Olympic rider and the other is a short list for the Canadian team. This is what it takes. My western trainers have always been at the top of their game in the show ring and training world. Not that you can’t learn from coaches and instructors that don’t have this: but it does matter that you get the discipline and equitation first.

3. Ride a finished horse. I can’t stress this enough. If you don’t know what your end result is, how can you possibly get there?

If your pony is not consistent and steady in the jumping ring, you need to go back to flat work and get it perfected. I won’t go through the work on this post, but there are many articles here on getting rhythm, balance and obedience.

You will find that once you start establishing the basic tools, your pony will not spook or run out, because he has the confidence to go where you lead him. We often try to fix problems, when really we need to replace the bad habits with good ones.

We spend too much time “correcting” problems like spooking and rearing, when it all comes down to basic work done well, consistently, until the horse knows it intrinsically. Horses have to know their jobs, but most of them have no clue what that looks or feels like. In fact, 95% of the horses out there have no idea what to do and what is expected from them. Most of them blindly go along, packing their human around and hopefully never encountering a problem so big that they need to run or bolt or rear.

Ride in the ‘here and now’. When you encounter a problem, go back to basics. Ask yourself what tool your horse is missing. Always ask yourself if you are riding consistently and correctly. Do the work it takes to improve every day. Read, absorb and go to every clinic you can, even if it’s just to audit. Study the great teachers and ride a finished horse. Grow.

On your basic question of your pony refusing – when a horse refuses a fence, drop it to the ground and have her trot over it until it means nothing to her. If she tries to go to either side to avoid it, put up guard poles to keep her centered. This helps her understand what you are asking her to do. Always set your horse up to win.

There are three things to check for before jumping: 1: Do you have enough impulsion for the horse to get over the fence? 2. Do you have an even consistent rhythm? Is your canter smooth and even in pace/tempo, or are you always going faster and slower? 3. Is your line to the fence straight? Are you in the middle of the fence? Three things need to be in place for a good jump: Impulsion, Rhythm, Line.

For you, the rider, make sure he moves off your legs. Keep your legs on her in a consistent fashion that she stays straight. Keep your eyes ahead: don’t look down. Horses follow your eyes. If you look down, that’s asking her to stay right there in that spot. Look where you are going. You ride the horse, not her face. Don’t lean forward: you overbalance your weight on the horse’s front end when you do that, and the result is a horse that stops. Sit back. Drive the hind end forward. Use your legs to steer, not the reins. Reins, hands: those are aids you use as a last resort. Your legs, seat, voice and weight always come first.

Set all the poles on the ground and trot over them until your pony is so accustomed to it that it means nothing to her as she has the confidence to know they won’t hurt her, bite him or scare her. Then, slowly, one by one, raise them an inch. Do the same thing over again, trotting over the poles about 2 inches off the ground. Move up very slowly over time: baby steps.

We don’t jump all the time. We often jump twice a week for 2 weeks, then go back to flat work for a month, get more consistent, and go back to cavaletti and small fences again. You won’t get a good jumper by jumping all the time. You get a good jumper by doing it correctly, and having great flat work.

Once your pony is consistent with small fences, add some unusual elements, like a small tarp, or colors and flowers or things that smell different. Get her so use to new smells and visuals that nothing is new to her anymore.

Get off the rail. Quit riding your horse on the rail. This is what inexperienced riders do, but how can you test if your horse is straight if you need the rail to always prop you up? Get off the rail and ride about 3-6 feet on the inside. Go across the diagonal a lot. Go up and down the inside of the ring at all gaits. Only a truly straight horse can jump well.

These tips should give you a head start to solving your problems. I urge you though to seek competent instruction. Even if it’s just 3 or 4 lessons to get you back in shape, please think about it. It will be the best money you ever spend.

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