Q: My horse gets very excited when I jog him for a three-day event horse inspection and is hard to handle. How do I teach him to jog?
A:Jogging at horse inspections is not as easy as it looks. The pressure can be intense and the added distractions of spectators, officials, photographers, flowers and event commotion can make your horse spooky and unpredictable. I recommend practicing lots at home to minimize the stress and maximize success at competitions.
For your practice sessions, select a safe, appropriate surface to jog on: a level, firm strip of road between about 20 and 50 meters long. Packed dirt or gravel with no big, sharp rocks or puddles is preferable. Asphalt is quite slippery and very hard so avoid it if you can. Set up a cone, upended bucket or other object at the end of the lane to turn around. In horse inspections, the turnaround point is often decorated with flowers, so if your horse is spooky, place some colorful flowers here to practice leading him past. If possible, ask your trainer and/or veterinarian to watch you a few times and offer feedback on your technique.
Jog-ups should always be done in a bridle. Choose one that your horse is used to and comfortable with. Personally, I like the bridle to be as plain as possible with a regular cavesson noseband and an FEI-legal snaffle or snaffle-like dressage bit. I use the same notched reins that I use for riding. I have tried a “jog-up chain”—a leather lead with two short chains at the end that clip onto either side of the bit—but I found that it gave me less control over my horses’ straightness and the chains made many horses fussy and distracted.
I also recommend carrying a dressage whip for horse inspections. If you practice with it enough at home, you shouldn’t need to use it during the actual jog-up. Just carry it so your horse knows you have it.
Before every jog practice—and every official horse inspection—loosen your horse up by hand-walking him at a strong march for 10 minutes. Hold both reins in your right hand about 18 inches from the bit with the slack in your left hand. Carry the whip in your left hand and ask him to maintain the same speed you do so that his shoulder is always about even with yours. Encourage more engagement and impulsion from him by clucking. At the same time, twist your wrist to move the whip behind your back and tap him lightly on his side where your leg would be if you were mounted. With enough repetition, he will learn to associate this whip tap with the cluck so you will only have to do the latter at the inspection.
After your warm-up, march your horse onto the jog strip and walk about 10 meters to a spot that you’ve designated as the ground-jury location. To simulate a realistic experience for your horse, ask your trainer, veterinarian—or just a few friends—to stand here as mock officials. Halt your horse directly in front of them and then walk around to face his head, putting one rein in each hand so that you can hold his head straight. Ask him to take a step forward or backward if necessary to square up his feet as much as possible. This will make him appear strong and comfortable in himself. Smile and say, “Good morning/afternoon,” to your mock jury. Then have them walk around him as the inspection officials would in a real competition to look for blemishes or abnormalities.
Once they’re finished, step back around to your horse’s side, taking both reins in your right hand again with your left hand holding the slack. Place your right index finger between the reins to help guide his head straight. Then cluck to him to move forward at a walk. Find a fixed point directly ahead of you to focus on, which will help to keep you straight. After three to five steps, cluck again to ask him to start trotting, following up with a tap of the whip if he doesn’t respond promptly.
As you jog down the lane, keep your focus on the fixed point and listen intently to the rhythm of your horse’s footfalls. Every horse has an ideal rhythm that makes him look his best. Ask your coach or veterinarian to watch you jog at different speeds to determine when your horse is moving most comfortably and regularly. Then learn to listen for that rhythm—without looking at your horse—so you know when you’ve got it right. Use touches of your whip if he is too sluggish or gentle tugs on your reins if he tries to charge ahead. With practice, he should learn to stay alongside you in his best rhythm while maintaining relatively loose rein contact. However, if he’s fresh and strong at the horse inspection, you may find that you need to keep a light contact with his mouth, which is fine.
At competitions, some horses back off as they approach the turnaround point at the end of the jogging lane—where the photographers usually are—because of the noise of the cameras and all the décor. If you practice the cluck/whip-tap association enough at home, you should be able to keep your horse moving forward toward this point with just a cluck.
A few strides before the turnaround point, gently bring your horse back to the walk by pulling the reins smoothly toward the middle of his chest. This will help to ensure the best possible transition—straight and not too abrupt—thus avoiding any risk of him slipping or taking uneven steps. Aim to walk to the left side of the turnaround object, so your horse is between it and you. Stay on your toes in case he spooks at the flowers. Once you’re safely turned around, straighten him out and choose a new fixed point on the other end of the lane to focus on.
After another three to five steps of walk, cluck to ask him to pick up the trot again, heading back toward the “jury.” Listen closely to his rhythm while guiding his head as necessary to keep him straight. After you pass the jury, use your reins to make another smooth, straight transition back to walk. Then march off the jogging strip.
With enough practice, you’ll learn to recognize what rhythm best suits your horse and he’ll learn what to expect and how to behave at the competitions.
Canadian eventer Selena O’Hanlon has had years of practice jogging horses at three-day event horse inspections. She credits her 1999 North American Young Riders Championships team coach, Ian Roberts, for teaching her proper jogging technique. Since then, she has represented her country in the 2008 Olympics, the 2010 World Equestrian Games and the 2011 Pan American Games, winning team silver medals in the latter two events. In 2014, she was the top-placed Canadian rider at the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event aboard John and Judy Rumble’s Canadian Sport Horse Foxwood High. Based at Balsam Hall in Kingston, Ontario, Selena and her mother, Morag, teach event and dressage riders of all levels and produce and sell talented young horses.
This article originally appeared in the January 2016 issue of Practical Horseman.