How Do I Get There?

AQHA Professional Horsewoman Debbie Owen explains the transition from flat work to over fences.

From The American Quarter Horse Journal

“There are three things that I think are really important in a flat horse before you even start them over jumps,” AQHA Professional Horsewoman Debbie Owen says.

The horsewoman based in Bisbee, Arizona, might like to linger over a cup of coffee in the morning, but it’s always after her horse chores are done. She knows the importance of getting the work done first, and having a horse prepared on the flat before approaching a jump is just that.

“They need to go straight; that is first and foremost,” she continues. “They need to move connected between your hand and leg so that their bodies can track straight.

“They need to go forward. If you put your leg on them, they need to know what that means.

“And they need to do it with a good heart, in a relaxed frame of mind.

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“If you don’t have those things in place before you start over jumps, then you run into trouble,” she adds. “You’ll end up with a horse that doesn’t do his turns well, or he’s going to balk at things.”

Once those basics are there, Debbie has a progression of simple exercises she takes a horse through to make the transition from flat work into fence work.

“People don’t always work every day with a trainer, but you can do some of these things on your own, even if you have a small arena,” she says. “If you’re just starting over jumps, and you have a good leg and feel for your horse, you can do these at home.”

Check out Debbie’s exercises even if you’re not interested in going over jumps: Many of them are useful for improving any kind of riding.

No. 1: Round Pen
Work your horse over two trot poles (spaced 4 feet, 6 inches apart) in a round pen.
This exercise gets your horse used to going around and over poles. Debbie often uses this exercise to start preparing horses for jumping even when she’s starting them under saddle. You have to be careful to space the poles far enough apart when they’re young, so they don’t get tangled.

No. 2: Single Poles
Walk and trot over single poles randomly placed in the arena. It’s good to let horses walk and trot randomly over poles on the ground while you work them. It encourages them to watch their feet and gets them used to going over things.

No. 3: Chute
Trot through two poles, or poles with cones, made into a “chute.” Working through a chute gets your horse used to things that come up on his sides. It also encourages him to work straight. You can use the chute to help make your circles symmetrical and to make sure that your horse is round and using himself properly. Trot through the poles, working a figure 8, with the poles in the middle of the 8. Periodically halt between the poles. This exercise encourages straightness and ensures that the horse is working off the leg equally in both directions.

No. 4: “Flower Box” Poles
Walk, trot and canter over properly spaced poles with something new added to them. Trot poles give horses cadence and regulate their pace. Start with one single pole, getting them used to that. Then Debbie adds something new, like flowers. That way, when horses see something new, they don’t think, “Whoa! What is that?” and back off from things. They learn to go over it. Then she puts two “flower box” poles in increments of 12 feet apart, and walks, trots and canters through them. (Remember, the average horse stride is 12 feet.)

When you start cantering through the poles, make sure your horse is adjustable. For example, if the poles are placed 72 feet apart, the horse can canter them in six normal strides. Try cantering through in five extended strides, or seven collected strides.

This gets the horse used to rating his stride and working over odd things.

No. 5: Gymnastic
Work through a simple gymnastic between two jump standards, progressing from trot poles to a simple cross rail line of jumps. Debbie begins by working over trot poles placed between two jump standards. Then she adds a simple cross-rail jump (18 to 20 inches high at the center) as the last element in the line.

When the horse is going over these successfully, she adds two more cross-rail jumps. You can also make the cross rails into simple verticals.

The object in this exercise is to let the horse find his own way. You want the horse to learn to jump on his own, using himself and maintaining forward motion.

If you set up the distances in the gymnastic exactly right, you don’t have to do anything. You can be a passenger as long as you use your legs to encourage the horse forward and steer him straight.

The horse then learns, “This is where I go; this is where I take off, where I land, and how I get to the next jump.” That way they don’t end up being dependent on the rider.

Riders, especially beginners or beginners over fences, often do not have a well-developed eye. They might not see exactly where they need to take off, so they’ll start fussing with the horse as they go into the jump and will get the horse worried.

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Then you end up with a horse that wants to rush at jumps and bolt. It’s all because the horse never learned how to do it on his own.

No. 6: Single Cross Rail
Trot and canter a single cross-rail jump with ground poles or ground lines. Try this once your horse has mastered the gymnastic. If you’ve done your flat work over poles and through a chute, your horse should travel straight.

When you’re ready, you can change it to a vertical single pole jump. (Set jumps 18 to 20 inches high.)

Set your single fences randomly at first, and then set them in lines with the proper distances (12-foot increments) in between.

No. 7: Different Jumps
Add different jumps to your horse’s repertoire.

Debbie adds different things: an oxer, a gate, a brush box, etc. Keep the jumps from 2 feet to 2 feet, 3 inches high, and take them in both directions.

Again, set them up first as single jumps, then in lines.

Take Your Time
This all takes time. Some horses are naturals; others need extra time and attention; and some just don’t like to jump and need to do something else. Try to listen to your horse.

They’re just like people: Sometimes they’re just not ready. Even though they’re broke and you’ve shown them a lot on the flat, they might just not be ready to jump.

Sometimes a little more confidence-building flat work with the poles or gymnastic makes it all come together. Give them time, and you’ll be amazed what’ll happen if you let them think about it for a while.