Q: My Adult Amateur jumper often knocks down rails with his front legs. What can I do to teach him to pick them up higher?
First, consider why this is happening. Did your horse have this many knockdowns at a lower level? If not, he may not have the scope to clear the jumps easily at this level. Does he have this many knockdowns when other people ride him? If not, you may be doing something in the saddle that throws him off balance and interferes with his technique (ducking, getting ahead of the motion, missing distances, etc.). Ask a knowledgeable trainer to help you determine if you’re dealing with either of these situations.
Once you’ve ruled those out, consider two other potential causes: poor jumping technique and lack of carefulness. Every horse is born with a certain jumping technique; we can improve it somewhat, but can never completely change it. Is your horse a little slow and unsure with his front end? Does he tend to hang his front legs or jump “over his shoulder” (fail to rotate his shoulders adequately so his knees don’t come up in front of his body)? If so, practicing at home with generous ground lines can help to improve his technique by discouraging him from getting too close to the base of the jump, which doesn’t give him time to use his front end properly on takeoff. Roll the ground lines out at least 2 feet—but no more than 3—from all verticals (keep oxer ground lines at the base). This will help to show him how to get his knees up and out in front of him.
Horses with excellent technique can still hit jumps out of carelessness or boredom, which results from jumping too often, showing too much or failing to vary the routine. All horses enjoy their jobs more and try harder when you mix up the routine and keep it fresh. In addition, I school with only standard jump cups, as flatter cups teach horses that rails fall down easily. I also use open-front galloping boots and quarter bell boots (which protect the heels from overreaches but minimize coverage in the front of the hooves) to avoid desensitizing horses to hitting rails.
Both careless horses and those with poor technique will also benefit from gymnastics. I like three exercises that utilize slightly shorter-than-normal distances to encourage horses to be quicker and more catlike with their front ends. The first is a bounce-to-bounce grid made of three verticals, spaced 11 feet apart. The second is a one-stride-to-one-stride line of three square oxers (with front and back rails of equal height), separated by 21 feet each. The third exercise, for more advanced riders only, is a vertical bounce to a vertical, set at a distance of 11½ feet, followed by a 20-foot one-stride to a square oxer, then a 21-foot one-stride to a vertical then 12 feet to another vertical, so you start and end with a bounce.
If you and your horse aren’t familiar with gymnastics, begin with just the first two elements of your chosen exercise, then build up slowly. Adjust the distances to suit his natural stride—adding 6 inches to a foot if his stride is unusually long or subtracting that much if he’s short-strided. Use ground lines for all the jumps, rolling out the ones for verticals.
For all three of these exercises, canter in at a medium pace. Start with the heights quite low, then gradually increase them, still staying below your competition height. (For example, if you’re jumping 1.10 meters, don’t raise the bounces above 1 meter.) Focus on keeping your position quiet, allowing your horse to figure out where to put his feet. As the heights increase, he’ll get snappier with his knees and tighter with his legs. If you have a hotter horse, be especially careful with the third exercise, as the distances might get too short for him if he rushes through it.
Finally, when you warm up at horse shows, start with a small square oxer, then build up to show-ring height. Finish with one or two verticals to tighten up his form. If he rubs the fence in one of these last efforts, go to the ring on that. (A rub can be helpful, but don’t try to force it.) Jump no more than 10 fences total. Save his best efforts for the show ring!
Hunter, jumper and equitation trainer Scott Lico rode with Jim Hagman as a Junior, then trained with Karen Healey, ranking in the Pacific Coast Horse Shows Association’s top 10 for Amateur Jumpers in three consecutive years before making his debut at the grand prix level. He began his professional career working for Mark Cassar at the Southern California Riding Club and serving as assistant trainer for Misti Cassar at Soprano Farms. In 2016, he relocated his business to Middle Ranch in Lake View Terrace, California. A USHJA-certified trainer, he teaches riders of all levels and ages, instilling the theories of many masters, especially George Morris, whom Scott credits for influencing him most as a rider, trainer and horseman.
This article was originally published in the June 2017 issue of Practical Horseman.