Do go forward on an open stride. You cannot create or improve balance, strength, roundness, or stride by working in reverse. You cannot teach your horse to shorten and collect if you don’t first let him go forward. And you cannot keep him relaxed if you’re always hanging on his mouth.
Once your horse is pushing from behind, you can add a bit of resistance from your hand and he will give you some flexion and/or roundness. At this point, you can harness a little bit of the strength from behind that you’ve created by letting him get some condition: With the resistance of your hand, you begin to create a round horse. If he understands what you’re doing, you won’t have to wrestle with his mouth to get him to drop his head and neck; because his back and his hindquarters are engaged, dropping his head and neck and flexing at the poll will, to some degree, be a natural consequence.
Don’t be overly concerned with head carriage, and don’t try to lock him into a frame. Both should — will — naturally improve as flatwork increases his comfort and roundness.
Keep him happy and eager to learn by making sure his lessons are small, doable, and, above all, relaxed.
Step back frequently and assess your progress. Have time and repetition relaxed him enough that you can ask more? Or is he getting a little tense because you’re going too fast?
Watch for signs that he’s ready to jump: a relaxed, balanced, steerable canter that you can smoothly lengthen and shorten; and easy lead changes.
Use terrain as a measuring stick for your conditioning work. When your horse feels as strong behind walking downhill as he does trotting uphill, you’re making progress; you can try trotting downhill for a few strides each time. (The key word is gradual; you want to develop a feel for when it’s appropriate to ask for more and when it isn’t.)
Do ask your trainer or a knowledgeable helper to watch and assist you over fences. A good groundperson can be invaluable in telling you what your horse is doing and figuring out what you need to do with your body and your aids to help him achieve the most stylish jump.
Don’t abandon flatwork when you start jumping — it should always occupy fully seventy-five percent of your training time.
This article originally appeared in the August 1998 issue of Practical Horseman.