Mike Huber: Confident Cross-Country Water Jumps

Teaching your horse to tackle jumps into and out of water confidently is the next building block in the education process I discussed last month. Once you’ve built a solid foundation—your horse is walking and trotting through water in a calm, relaxed manner—you’re ready to gradually introduce additional obstacles. | Amy K. Dragoo

Last month, I talked you through the essential early steps of an event horse’s cross-country water education—walking and trotting through water in a calm, relaxed manner. I emphasized the importance of keeping his initial schooling sessions simple and positive to build his confidence. This month, I’ll explain how to introduce additional elements to the water question following another logical, step-by-step program to continue expanding his education without losing his trust in you.

Jumps Into and Out of Water

Once your horse is walking and trotting confidently through water, the next step is to add an obstacle several strides beyond the water’s exit. It should be only a foot or two high so your horse can easily clear it at the trot, if necessary. A small log or rolltop that can be jumped in both directions is ideal, but a crossrail made of show-jumping standards and poles is fine, too. Set this fence 60 to 72 feet from the water. This is far enough away from the water that you won’t have to worry about getting an exact number of strides to it as you would in a related distance.

First introduce this fence as a jump after the water. Trot into and through the water just as I explained in Part 1 last month, maintaining a steady pace and keeping your horse organized and straight, but this time focus your eyes on the center of the jump. As you exit the water, ask your horse to pick up the canter. You may need a little more aggressive leg aid than usual because of the water’s effect on his impulsion. Then ride to the fence just as you would any other cross-country jump. Practice this several times.

Once your horse is comfortable and confident with this part of the exercise, you can jump it in the opposite direction before the water. Approach the jump at the canter but with a slightly deeper seat and more upright upper body than you would if you were jumping the same fence in the middle of a field. Because your horse will see the water behind the jump as he approaches it and, unlike you, won’t know how much space he’ll have between the jump and the water, he may slow down, add a stride or even break to trot. That’s OK! Just be prepared for that and continue to support him with your legs. After the jump, if he breaks to the trot at the water’s edge, that’s fine, too.

Eventually, you can put the three elements together: jump a fence in the approach, trot through the water, then finish with another fence after that. At this stage, don’t force your horse to canter into or through the water. Cantering into water is a much more advanced skill than many riders realize. It creates a disconcerting splash and requires time and practice to achieve without losing the rhythm and even stride length. Green horses are also more susceptible to treating the water’s edge as a placing rail when they approach in the canter, using it as an excuse to leap into or scamper across the water. Some even give the impression that they’re trying to walk on water. That’s why horses aren’t expected to canter into water until they reach Training level. By then, all of the good experiences your horse has had at the walk and trot will have prepared him for that challenge.

Having said that, if your horse is so comfortable with this exercise that he volunteers to canter through the water, let him do it. Just focus on keeping his stride steady and even while asking him to stay on your planned track to the exit jump.

The next lesson is introducing a jump at the water’s edge. A log small enough to trot over is ideal. As with the previous step, jump out over the log first: Trot into the water just as you have all along, then maintain your pace and rhythm to the jump. After that’s gone well several times, approach the log from the other direction, jumping into the water. Ride to it with the same deeper seat and more upright upper body that you used for the jump before the water, prepared for him to hesitate, and add a stride in response to the sight of the water behind the jump.

Introduce a Small Jump

1. Last month, Elizabeth Bohling taught her 4-year-old Irish Sport Horse, Shannondale Suvio, to walk and trot through a simple water complex. Now she trots him into the water, planning to jump a small fence on the other side. She focuses her eye on the jump early, but asks for the same steady rhythm she asked for before. | Amy K. Dragoo
2. As they leave the water, she asks him to pick up the canter. Then she sits quietly in the saddle, closing her legs on his sides and dropping her weight into her heels to support him to the takeoff. | Amy K. Dragoo
3. As a result, Suvio jumps nicely over the fence. He has drifted slightly left and arrived at the jump a little bit long, but he still looks very comfortable and confident in this effort. After practicing this several times, she will ride the exercise in the opposite direction, cantering the jump first and then the water. | Amy K. Dragoo

Continue the Logical Progression

Once your horse is trotting comfortably through water and jumping small obstacles before and after it, he should be ready to go to clinics and lower-level competitions. Even then, if extended access to the course is allowed, consider scheduling an extra day after the clinic or event to practice the water jump one more time.

Notice that I haven’t mentioned banks. Jumping banks into and—especially—out of water is quite difficult for horses and can be dangerous if attempted without all of the skills I’ve described in this article. Teaching your horse to jump banks and the wide variety of other water-related questions that he’ll face through the levels is best done in a progressive, step-by-step manner, always building on positive experiences and reinforcing them with repeated follow-up sessions. Give your horse plenty of time to master each new challenge. These stages in his education should span years, not weeks or months.

If at any point in your horse’s career, he shows signs of being overly impressed with a water question—for example, by making a bigger-than-necessary leap down a drop bank into the water—always be prepared to take a step back in his training to remind him that water is easy and fun. Make time to review the fundamental lessons I described earlier. No matter what the financial or logistical costs, it will be well worth the investment.

Jump to Water to Jump

1. After riding the exercise in both directions, Elizabeth puts together a simple series of obstacles. She approaches the first jump in a balanced, rhythmic canter. | Amy K. Dragoo
2. In the air over the fence, she’s already looking ahead to the track that will take her through the water and over the final jump. | Amy K. Dragoo
3. At this stage in Suvio’s training, we wouldn’t force him to canter through the water. But since he’s volunteered to do so and is maintaining a nice rhythm and balance, Elizabeth allows him to continue cantering. | Amy K. Dragoo
4. As they exit the water, she brings her shoulders back, sinks her weight into the saddle and drops her heels lower, keeping her eyes focused on the jump. Her quiet, steady approach helps Suvio to focus on the fence as well, which sets him up for … | Amy K. Dragoo
5. … a nice jump out. Notice how relaxed both horse and rider are. This is the happy result of a logical, step-by-step introduction to water. | Amy K. Dragoo

The Water’s Edge: Trot In, Jump Out

1. The next progressive challenge is to tackle jumps at the water’s edge. I’m riding a slightly more experienced horse here, my wife’s 8-year-old homebred Dutch Warmblood, Barnabus. He trots through the water in a nice, balanced rhythm, so it’s easy for me to get his eye on the out jump. | Amy K. Dragoo
2. Here he is demonstrating why we don’t ask less-experienced horses to jump fences at the water’s edge. Even though he’s very comfortable in the water, jumping out of it is a big step for him. Thinking he’ll need a lot of power to pull himself out of the water and over this log, he makes a much bigger-than-necessary effort. I’m careful to stay with his motion so I don’t interfere with his balance. The next time we jump this little log, he’ll understand that. that it’s really no big deal and will make a much smaller effort. | Amy K. Dragoo
3. Once Barnabus is comfortably trotting into the water and popping out over the small log, I approach it at the canter. As we reach the takeoff point, I support him by dropping my weight into the saddle and closing my legs against his sides. | Amy K. Dragoo
4. By now, he’s figured out the concept and makes a much less dramatic effort over the log. Even so, I’m careful to stay with his motion. The last thing I want to do is fall backward and pull on his mouth, which would destroy his newfound confidence over water jumps. | Amy K. Dragoo

The Water’s Edge: Jump In

1. Next, I jump Barnabus over the same log in the opposite direction. I approach it in trot in a very strong, secure position with my heels down and shoulders back so I’m prepared for any surprise moves he might make. | Amy K. Dragoo
2. He doesn’t exaggerate his jumping effort this time, which is a sign that he’s really confident about the water. | Amy K. Dragoo
3. Because that went so well, I approach the log in a canter next, still sitting in a very secure, ready position. | Amy K. Dragoo
4. Once again, he pops neatly into the water, his relaxed, happy expression confirming that he “gets it.” We will continue to build on this great foundation as he moves up through the levels. | Amy K. Dragoo

Veteran eventer Mike Huber represented the U.S. in three World Championships and one Olympic Games. At the 1987 Pan American Games, he and Quartermaster won both the individual and team gold medals. A past president of the U.S. Eventing Association, former chairman of the U.S. Equestrian Federation Eventing High Performance Committee and longstanding member of the USEF Eventing Technical Committee, Mike also served as an Olympic selector from 1996 to 2000 and from 2009 to 2012. He owns and operates Gold Chip Stables—named for the little mare he competed in the 1980 Alternate Olympics—in Bartonville, Texas. A USEA-certified Level IV instructor, he gives many clinics nationwide. The USEA formally inducted him into its Eventing Hall of Fame in 2015.

This article originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of Practical Horseman.

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