Q&A: Reluctant to jump

An expert rider gives advice when a young, healthy horse suddenly loses interest in jumping.

jumpingQ: I started doing some in-hand jumping with a couple of 2-year-olds. They are brothers, and both were enthusiastic during their first two training sessions. They each would just walk up to a jump and sail over it. During their third training session, something changed. They both started out as enthusiastically as ever, but while David continues to jump higher and higher, Harry just stopped. He shows no resistance or aggression; he just walks through jumps like they are not even there. He won’t even go over the itty-bitty rails that he used to clear with feet to spare. He seems in perfect health. What might be wrong?

A: One of the most interesting things about training horses is that each one is different, and so they react differently to the questions we ask them. Your two brothers are a good example of that. It sounds to me that while David enjoys the challenge of clearing the obstacles, Harry has become either nervous or complacent about it.

First, I want to caution you against doing much jumping with a 2-year-old. Take care to avoid putting too much stress on young joints, even when limited to jumping in hand. However, if you are jumping them only occasionally on good footing, and the obstacles are small and not repeated too many times, it is probably no more stress on their legs than when they play and buck in the pasture. Personally, I wait until my horses are 3-year-olds to introduce them to jumping cross rails and small logs, and I get more serious with their jumping education at 4.

I start working the young horse over poles on the ground, usually with a lead horse, and gradually build the jumps higher as the horse shows confidence. If Harry is showing any signs of nervousness or apprehension about the jumps, then go back and start again from the beginning, preferably letting him follow another horse, until he regains his confidence. It is not unusual for a horse to jump bravely the first few times and then become nervous about it after several schooling sessions. Patient and gradual work will usually quickly overcome any such reluctance the horse has about jumping.

It’s also possible that the problem might stem not from apprehension but from overconfidence. Many naturally bold horses jump enthusiastically when they are first introduced to it, but after the novelty wears off, they become bored and jump with minimal effort or just step over (or through) the jumps. For horses who knock rails down carelessly, schooling over (small) solid logs can instill more respect for the fences. Often the bolder, scopier horses, especially long-legged rangy individuals, will not show impressive jumping form over small fences because it is so easy for them that they do not have to try very hard. This does not mean you should raise the jumps or over-face these horses; you simply have to give them time to develop, and wait until their age and level of training indicate they are ready to progress to larger fences. Often these are the horses who show the most talent later on. Hopefully, that will be the case with Harry.

Phyllis Dawson, Eventing trainer and rider, Hillsboro, Virginia

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #442.