Hunter Hack Horse Training

Improve the transition from flat to fences with hunter hack.

The American Quarter Horse Journal

Well-trained rail horses often make great over-fences horse. And learning how to jump will make good rail horses even better. It makes them mellower, and it gives them something to look forward to besides going around in circles.

Train and prepare your horse for over-fences with this easy progression through hunter hack. Whether you intend to end with hack or with jumping, these exercises will keep your horse well-tuned. Even rail horses can benefit from these stride and pole exercises.

Getting Started

A good hunter hack and jumping horse needs to be a good mover with good knees who goes with a level topline, just like great rail horses. A horse should raise his head and neck on its way to the jump though, unlike cantering on the rail.

Your horse should be able to hand gallop comfortably before he starts hunter hack. Some rail horses become nervous when they’re asked to gallop, because they have gotten in trouble for galloping in the past. They need to be relaxed when they do it.

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When I work on fences, I use a different bit, usually a lesser bit, such as a rubber one. It’s a signal to the horse that for that day, it’s going to be OK to lengthen his stride.

One exercise I like to do is alternating between cantering and hand galloping. Start off by cantering a horse along at his normal pace, then get up in two-point and just ask him to stride forward a little more. Canter at a regular pace and then ask for a gallop for 10 steps and then come back to the regular pace again.

Over time, the horse will learn to rate himself and stay on the correct pace when he turns a corner and sees the jumps. Encourage your horse to maintain two different speeds, and have the control to get the one you need when you ask for it.

I also want my horse to go where I steer him. That sounds simple, but it’s crucial when riding a line of fences. To practice, set up a cone, and while cantering around on the flat, ride with purpose to that cone, a fence post or another marker that you’ve picked.

The rider has to keep the horse straight between the bridle. The horse should also be able to change leads before you introduce the jumps. Many people skip that part of the training. They may be able to get away with it because their horse naturally changes leads when he gets into a corner, but I prefer to have that on a controlled cue.

The First Jump

When I’m teaching a horse to jump, I start with a ground pole. At this point, I would strongly advise that you get some professional help. Even a few lessons can make a huge difference, and you want to be safe. It is easy to get yourself in a bind if you don’t have experience.

You’ll also need an approved safety helmet. Make sure you follow the manufacturer’s directions as to proper fit. The chin strap should fit snugly so the helmet can serve its purpose. Don’t jump at home or anywhere else without a safety helmet.

Flowers Everywhere

Next, add the flower box. A flower box is about 6-8 inches tall and about 6 feet long. It’s just a three-sided box that you can stuff flowers into. Put two 6-foot boxes together end to end, and you have a 12-foot span, which is the normal width of jumps.

Wanting to take your hunter under the next level with hack and over fences? It all starts with the right horse! Carla Wennberg and Leslie Lange show you what to look for in a hunter under saddle horse and how the event is judged in AQHA's "Selecting and Showing: Hunter Under Saddle" DVD.

Your horse needs to get used to flowers because they are everywhere in jump classes. Get some artificial flowers from a dollar store and put them everywhere until your horse is accustomed to them.

Trot your horse over the flower box and then canter over it, the same as with the ground pole. Aim for the middle of the jump with your eyes and chin up, looking ahead.

When starting a horse over fences, focus on one jump, not a line. When you do add a line, make the first jump lower than the second, so that you can trot in, jump, pick up the canter and canter over the second one.

This exercise is great, because the horse learns to trot in and canter out nice and slowly. And since it’s a little easier, you’ll notice that as your horse relaxes, his stride gets longer. Don’t try to make the longer stride at the beginning. When the horse is nervous, the movement tends to fluctuate up and down. But as he relaxes, the stride will lengthen and soften.

Again, these exercises are great for a horse, even if there is no intention to enter a fence class. Hunter hack tests a horse’s manners, movement and athleticism. It’s a terrific progression for beginners to over-fences. It’s just two jumps. You can do this.

Larri Jo Starkey is an editor at The American Quarter Horse Journal.