Trainer Tuesday: If a horse gets weak to the first jump, how would you teach a rider to correct that?

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Welcome to Trainer Tuesday! Each week we ask trainers a question and gather their answers for you. These trainers have a range of experience, backgrounds, and focus points of their programs, so the answers have as much variation as you would expect and also probably much more similarity. 

This week’s question posed is: If a horse gets weak or backed off or even putters to a stop only to the first jump every ride or warm-up, how would you teach a rider to correct that?

Here are their answers: 

“If we are talking about a horse that is unsure of his job, learning to jump, being uncomfortable with jump materials, unpracticed at certain distances, whatever – it’s always good to break it down and let him practice going slow and getting closer to the base of the jump.

Repetition of low and simple trot jumps with a nice ground line goes a long way. I don’t look for perfection at this step, but once this is satisfactory add the step rail to show him how to get close enough and take a smooth step. Once he can trot it, aim for a smooth, controlled jump on the contact at the canter. Not loose and never chasing. Repetition of small and easy things you can do to boost the ego for a horse like this is key. They have to feel smart to act smart!

A good reminder for the rider riding this horse: when your horse is looking down at the jump, even if you are ‘holding their hand’ in front of the jump, your line of sight must always be riding the line away from the jump so your horse knows there is a part two yet to come. Look up!” -Matt Piccolo
Listen to Matt on the Plaidcast here.

“For the horse, they should go back to a smaller division for schooling to build confidence. For a rider and a horse that may be nervous, the rider needs to remember that they are the horse’s friend out there.

Horses are herd animals. I do not believe in making a horse jump out of fear of discipline. Rather they should enjoy doing their job. Either school at a lower height at shows, or get more practice at home so that both rider and horse have more confidence in themselves. Build up slowly.” -Caitlin Maloney
Read about Caitlin here.

“I would have my rider start with more canter than they think they need. If the horse starts to back off, they still have plenty to work with! Also, I would have the rider practice at home with a dressage whip and tap the horse on the way to the first jump and off the ground.” -Jodie Camberg

“Make sure the rider is confident enough to help support the horse through this hurdle so you can ensure the first jump is a confident one. If it’s a rider issue, then maybe circle back to smaller jumps to gain more confidence.

If it’s a horse confidence issue, I do my best to re-create the first jump in the warm up ring – flowers, box, tarp, etc. – to get the spook out beforehand so they can go in more confidently to the first jump.” -Melissa Iskra Collins

“I think it’s important to break that habit as quickly as possible. First make sure the rider is capable of correcting the situation. If they are, the rider needs to learn to ride assertively to jump one every single time in order to teach the horse that it needs to continue to go forward.

Establishing a more forward rhythm in the courtesy circle is key. If the horse is behind the leg or doesn’t trust the rider, then more forward is always the answer. If the rider is incapable of correcting the situation, then a more experienced rider needs to perhaps do the first round. The horse’s needs should always come first.” -Laura Reist

“I had this problem with a student last year. The first jump she would get scared at, drop her leg on the horse, and let him duck out. This taught the horse the first jump he didn’t have to do because the rider would drop her aids.

It took me a little time to retrain him again because horses learn bad habits much faster than good ones. But once I taught the rider to keep her leg on, balance, prepare, and look forward, the horse regained trust of the rider, and went over the jump.” -Pearl Running Deer
Read about Pearl here.

“In my experience, the simplest solution to this issue would be to carry a crop or a stick and whenever you feel your horse begin to balk, use your crop behind your leg along with a cluck. 

Start by just ‘resting’ your stick behind your leg with a cluck. Be proactive and make sure to use the stick and cluck when you feel the slightest hesitation. If you don’t get a reaction from just resting your crop behind your leg, tap him. Get a reaction so he respects your use of the leg, from the crop.

Always add a cluck when you use your crop so your horse will associate the cluck with the crop. That way your cluck will become more effective.” -Lyman ‘T’ Whitehead
Listen to T on The Plaidcast here.

“I think this happens for different circumstantial reasons, so I might adjust a plan depending on what I believe the cause is. To put it simply, I look at the following: straightness, rhythm, impulsion, confidence and riding across the jump instead of to the jump.

I start with a pole on the ground, then a cross-rail and build from there. Once the rider and horse are confident, I’d start with the cross-rail or a small vertical instead of a pole and build again. Sometimes stepping back to step forward is important for future success.” -Courtney Fromm
Listen to Courtney on The Plaidcast here.

“First, be sure the rider understands how to lengthen and shorten their horse’s stride. If the rider is confident in this, add a pole on the ground and have the rider ride over the pole on different stride lengths. The length of the stride should be created through the turn and maintained with steady leg to the pole. When the rider can maintain the pace and canter up to the pole, make it a small jump and repeat.

Usually the stop happens from not understanding how to create a pace to the first jump. The rider is counting on the the horse and the horse is unprepared for the jump. If the horse is slowing down to the pole, it becomes very clear what is needed.” -Robin Greenwood
Listen to Robin on The Plaidcast here.

“Consistent habits need consistency. If I have a horse that may be spooky at either carpet or flowers, or has a hard time finding rhythm to the first jump, I think it’s important to create a scenario that can be replicated at home and at the show.

If one of my horses needs to jump the carpet or flowers, they are set up on my field at home. That same carpet or flowers – yes the same one, doesn’t matter if it looks the same – also comes with us to the show. I like to use a pole 1-4 strides to the jump. Less strides have less margin for error so I usually start at 4 and work my way down when, and if necessary. I let them canter that until they get comfortable, and then move on with the warm up.

The carpet and flowers are on the first jump and the last jump; horses don’t like surprises! This same exercise is how they start to school at home as well.” -Colin Savaria
Read about Colin here.

“For horses who back off the jump the first time, I usually attribute it to two things:

1. A lack of horse or rider confidence, or both
2. A horse who is behind the rider’s leg

Generally, in these circumstances, I like to break things down and simplify them. I will set trot poles and have them come through those a few times each way, then once they are forward thinking through the poles I will set a small trot jump with a placing pole. Then repeat the exercise the same way they did the trot poles. From there we slowly build up to height.

I’ve used this approach with horses who confidently jump 1.30m but were overly careful and needed to be built up slowly, and plenty of young riders over the years who just need a little kick start to get rolling and then can cruise around with confidence. It works great!

Sometimes horses will learn they can putter out on the approach with particular riders, which is a slightly different situation. For example, they don’t do it with the trainer but they do with their kid. I still use the same process to get their feet moving but I will also have a rider school transitions in their warmup to get the horse in front of the leg and then we may use a lead horse, or guide poles, or something creative like that to help encourage the horse forward without getting into a fight with the rider.

I try to avoid the use of the stick as much as possible – I think it creates anxiety at the base of the jump which is the opposite of what we are trying to accomplish – although there are certain circumstances in which it may be warranted to use on the hindquarters as a quick correction to encourage forward thinking movement from the horse. I generally ask riders to do this away from the jump rather than right before it, unless it’s absolutely necessary.

If this is a chronic issue that is not being fixed by breaking things down then I will go back to basics and use single poles for a while until the horse and riders have smoothed things out.” -Jessica Goldstein Holmes

“If the horse performs the way you want it after acting that way to the first fence in the warmup, I wouldn’t make too much of a big deal about it especially if the horse does it every single time and then is fine. You could start with a pole on the ground instead of a fence so the horse isn’t surprised when it starts jumping.” -Kaitlin Campbell
Listen to Kaitlin on The Plaidcast here.

“Losing steam to jump one is often due to lack of confidence and focus on the part of the horse. I’d help a horse and rider through this by:

  • Letting the horse know we’ve transitioned from flatwork to the over fences part of our day. This helps unfocused horses prepare for the next chapter of the work. I punctuate warm up flatwork with a walk break, then I bring them back to work with a halt and an exhale with working rein length, then ask the rider to strike off at a nice, bright trot or canter can help indicate to the horse that they need to focus through the bridle and look ahead for what comes next. Using a relaxing punctuation for the transition between flatwork and an over fences exercise, you can eliminate the anxiety of a surprise at the first jump.
  • Start with something small and friendly. I often start with a small crossrail as a trot jump or a friendly vertical that can be trotted, if necessary.
  • Be mindful of directionality and placement of jump one. I set up a positive first jump by having a horse and rider jump “towards home” or in a visually productive direction, with fewer distractions, visual questions, or the worry of leaving others.

When horses are communicated with clearly, feel prepared and confident, and mindfully set up to succeed, the trepidation of jump one often dissipates quickly!” -Claire Gordon-Neff
Read about Claire here.

“First establish a pace and a straight line, then work with the rider on selecting an exit track. It is easy to get riding to the jump versus through the jump. Especially at the first fence. Keep your eye moving, find the backside, and be very clear about your landing and exit.” -Denise Tilley

“Often, this problem stems from riders who are accustomed to riding more experienced ‘packer’ horses and lack the awareness of adjusting their speed appropriately for the first jump. To address this, we focus on foundational flatwork exercises, utilizing tools like a metronome app with a speaker set at various tempos. This helps riders develop the ability to match and maintain a consistent tempo, essential for approaching jumps confidently.

We emphasize the concept of ‘jump in like you want to jump out,’ encouraging riders to approach the first fence with purpose and energy. For more timid riders, we may even use the directive to ‘GALLOP’ to the first fence, instilling a sense of forwardness and assertiveness.

As riders mature and gain a deeper understanding of pace and rhythm, we progress to refining these skills in the courtesy circle. By incorporating the metronome app and practicing different-sized circles at various points in the arena, riders learn to establish and maintain the desired pace consistently.

Remember, building a strong foundation in pace and rhythm through structured flatwork exercises is key to overcoming challenges at the first jump and beyond.” -Mary Paige Kowalski

“To answer how I would deal with this common issue, it would start at home. More then likely the rider is anxious about being perfect to the first fence and the horse sensing the apprehension, waits to see if they have a pilot. My fix for this starts at home making sure the rider is asking with the right aids to go forward, then we work off both directions to a single jump maintaining a good pace from a big circle.

Sometimes I have my riders verbally tell me out loud what they are doing to and after the jump to break the freeze factor. If the horse is sulking I might ask for a little more pace making sure the horse stays up in front of my leg and up in the bridle. A little touch of the spur or a little cluck a few strides out mostly does the trick. Remember, over fences classes need a good rhythm with appropriate pace to the jumps.

Always think of riding forward to the ends of the ring or line you are jumping. As a side note, always exhale when you get to end of the ring so you take in and have fresh, good oxygen to work with for each line. Good luck!” -David Kendrick

“If a horse gets weaker or avoids the first jump consistently, my favorite thing to ask my riders when met with a challenge is ‘what happened before and what happened after?’

The first thing we should check is if you are cantering through the corner and to the jump with impulsion. Are you someone that starts with a weak canter and your horse doesn’t have enough energy to even try to get over the first jump without tremendous strain and effort on their part? The issue would lead me to believe this is the problem, and that your horse doesn’t trust you to that first fence anymore.

You need to start with first addressing your canter and really practice having the correct balance and impulsion before ever pointing at a jump. The point of the opening circle or opening track is literally to develop the canter you need for the first jump. Try working with a single pole set like a first jump on the quarter line or even center line of the ring.

Canter that pole on repeat working on turning the corner to it already with enough canter to meet it on stride so it’s easy for your horse. Do this on both leads until you can honestly get it 5-10 times in a row, correctly. This is an exercise I use on a regular basis with all my riders from the crossrail kids to the Grand Prix riders. Most of the issues we have come from the canter not being correct. Fix the canter, then the jumps get much easier!” -Denise Finch

“For horses that loose a little heart, we always start with a pole on the ground and work up in the warm up, regardless of how big they are jumping. We also don’t waste any of the jumps on the warm up, it’s a warm up to help them get loose and brave so we minimize the number of fences but make them useful and encouraging.

If a horse is just a bit behind the leg naturally, we work more at home on energy and rider recognition of pace. We transfer that to the show ring with one or two quiet transitions to a big canter and then slower and big canter again before the first fences to establish that pace.” -Brittany Massey
Read Brittanty’s answers to The Plaid Horse Questionnaire here.

“I would encourage the rider to carry a little more pace to the first jump, making sure they’re on pace and keeping a strong leg of encouragement forward. Eyes up and shoulders back, more in a seated position to encourage the horse to continue going forward for that first jump and then soften up thereafter if the horse is only doing that to the first jump.” -Taylor Avann

“I tell my students to ride up hill, leg to hand, for ones that tend to suck back or peek at a jump. The leg to hand ride is like a security blanket for ones that tend to spook at jumps or are young and need confidence. Riding up hill provides more power over the hind end where the engine pushes off. Keep your upper body tall, your hand quiet, and keep your leg on, as if to say to your horse ‘I’m here, and you are going to be okay.’ Be patient to build their confidence.” -Margaret Kruse

“We refer to it as the ‘first jump blues’ when a horse develops a pattern in response to a rider’s dormant aids, poor quality canter, and/or fear. To address these issues, we take the time to teach our riders to identify a powerful and balanced canter using transitions. Once this is accomplished, we address the fact that horses are creatures of habit and often require stronger natural aids to break the habit, you can the reinforce with the use of the crop behind the leg, ideally when the horse slips behind or at the base of takeoff.” -Cassandra Keith

“When horses slow down to the first jump either at home, the warm up ring, or to the first jump on course, I usually find that the horse doesn’t listen to or respect the riders leg aid. So we address the problem by making sure the horse “jumps” of the leg and moves forward on the flat. This can be back up by the use of a crop or whip and a cluck.

Once the horse is moving off the leg on the flat then I would incorporate a pole and have the rider go forward to a pole or cavelettie. I would increase this to small jumps and eventually to the show ring. Anytime a problem arises it is best to dial everything back and get to the root of the problem. Make sure to keep the horse and rider to a level that they are comfortable at and able to ride forward.” -Troy Hendricks
Listen to Troy on The Plaidcast here.

“I would start on the flat by incorporating poles, flower boxes, etc to help teach the horse and rider that whatever they are pointed at they need to get to the other side. A horse noticing and studying is okay, but they have to learn to trust that the rider will never ask them to do anything they can’t do. Sometimes a horse is surprised when they first start jumping so it gets them thinking about putting their eye on what’s in front of them and going to the other side.” -Lauren Kissel

“A weak first jump could be a result of a horse and rider lacking confidence, pace or both. First I would rule out any pain in the horse that might be causing the desire to back off. Then I would address the rhythm of the canter approaching the jump. To build confidence and establish a good canter, I like to put a pole three strides in front of the jump. If I am at home, or we have time in the schooling area at a horse show, I leave the second element as a pile of poles on the ground.

I have riders canter the line of poles a few times to ensure they’re on the correct canter and can give the horse a confident and safe take off distance at what will be the jump. Then I build the second element to whatever height needed. Once the horse and rider are confident we can take away the pole. Then, hopefully the rider has identified how to properly put the horse in front of their leg to establish a good rhythm and then smoothly pick a safe or jumpable place to ask the horse to leave the ground.” -Brett Shear-Heyman

“I would first rule out that any physical weakness or soreness is affecting the horse’s willingness to jump. I remind my riders to go a little ‘past the canter’ at the beginning of the course, i.e. have more than you think you need. This way you can adjust as needed on the way to jump one without taking away your rhythm. Sometimes a tap off the ground in the schooling ring serves as a good reminder to get to the other side.” -Sarah Guidice

“With horses that aren’t confident all the time at jumps, I like to start slow with a pole on the ground with myself and their riders to make sure we are not adding stress to their lives. From there we usually walk around and look at all the jumps that we have on our course for that day and always plan on a steady ride versus the winning one!” -Catie Beth Varian

“A good correction for this is to teach a rider to use a crop behind their leg. The crop should be the last aid used. The rider should first use a cluck, followed by leg, and then the crop. This should happen just as the horse begins to slow down or falter and eventually the rider will have the horse going with just the cluck and the leg.” -Heath Gunnison

“First I would make sure the horse wasn’t trying to tell you something physically, such as sore feet, back, over-bitted, etc. I would then go back to my flat work and re-establish the leg to hand connection. I would also make sure my body wasn’t getting ahead of the vertical.

A cluck combined with a softened hand goes a long way. Sometimes I will get that type jumping around in a halter so they don’t resent the contact and enjoy some riding time out of the arena!” -Anna Pavlov

“Riding weakly to the first fence is a very common problem. It’s why you often see a bad distance to it in the show ring. The rider starts off the round with too slow of a canter, and no impulsion.

You want a rhythmic canter, but you need plenty of impulsion so you have the option to either shorten or lengthen. If you’re too slow, you lose your lengthening option. If the right distance doesn’t come up, you are left with sitting in an ugly chip or worse, getting a stop.

There’s a really simple solution to this, which is pick up your canter early in your opening circle and then just before you come out of the circle, send your horse forward to the canter again. This means reapplying your exact canter aids as you come around and start toward the first jump.

It automatically makes the horse think to canter and they tend to lift up and get ready to canter, even though they’re already cantering. It works like a charm.

Because you have a feel of their mouth, they’re not running forward, instead you’re putting your outside leg on which is getting them to move over onto their lead a little and it keeps the horse from swapping leads which could happen if you go kicking down the quarter line.” -Laurie Scott
Read Laurie’s articles here.