How should I start my young horse over fences?

Grand-prix rider Wilhelm Genn explains how to give a young horse a positive start over fences.
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Grand-prix rider Wilhelm Genn explains how to give a young horse a positive start over fences.

Q: I am bringing along my first horse, a 3-year-old, 16.2-hand Holsteiner filly. I want to train her to be a jumper/hunter and show her in some of the 4-year-old jumper classes if you recommend it. I am 5-foot-2 and weigh 110 pounds. How long can I ride for, how many times a week and how high would you recommend jumping? I do not want to rush her and damage her joints.

When you begin jumping your young horse, use inviting fences like cavalletti and crossrails and keep the height age-appropriate. © Amy K. Dragoo

When you begin jumping your young horse, use inviting fences like cavalletti and crossrails and keep the height age-appropriate. © Amy K. Dragoo


A: How old your horse is when you start her over fences is a matter of personal preference. Some trainers do it at age 3; others wait until age 4 or even later. Since most horses continue to grow until about age 7, doing too much too soon can cause injuries. However, incorporating a judicial amount of jumping into a carefully planned and monitored training program can be perfectly safe at any age. That’s where good horsemanship and judgment come in.

Because horses’ bodies develop in uneven spurts—growing taller in the croup, then the withers, then the croup—their balance is constantly shifting. At some stages, your mare may be able to maintain a reasonably balanced working canter for several minutes. A few months later, she may struggle to canter at all. Knowing how her balance is changing during each phase of her growth is important to making good decisions about her training. In general, your earliest lessons should emphasize quality correct flatwork, which will teach her to balance her body while bearing your weight. Horses carry about 65 percent of their own weight on their front ends, so one goal of all flatwork is to help them learn to shift more of their weight onto their hindquarters. This will facilitate better balance and coordination over fences.

Another critical factor is fitness. Muscle and tendon fatigue leads to injuries, so never jump a tired or unfit horse. (Some riders try to wear out their young horses in an effort to make them calm before jumping. This is backward thinking!) Follow a logical conditioning program to build up your mare’s strength and endurance. Riding her frequently—several times a week—will be more effective than condensing your training into long weekend sessions. Instead of worrying about the duration of each ride, focus on the intensity. A very aggressive 30-minute session can cause more mental and physical damage than a leisurely half-hour trail ride.

Before starting your mare over fences, ask yourself, “Can she trot comfortably for 10 minutes? Can she maintain a balanced working canter for five minutes? Is her basic flatwork solid?” Also evaluate your own riding honestly. If you’re not sure of your jumping skills, consider free jumping her first. Ask an experienced horseperson to help you build a safe chute with inviting jumps set at comfortable distances. Also consider hiring a professional to ride your horse through her initial jumping lessons to ensure she gets a positive start.

When you do begin jumping her under saddle, incorporate small individual fences into her regular flatwork sessions. Walk, trot, canter, hop over a fence, do a little more flatwork, hop over another fence, and so on. Keep the rides fun and positive, rewarding good behavior with plenty of praise and treats.

At the same time, though, protect the essential balance between trust and discipline. You cannot have one without the other. That means insisting that she jump every fence you ask her to jump. Do not allow any other options—refusing, running out, etc.

Jumping 10 to 15 fences several times a week is safer and more effective than jumping more jumps less frequently. Keep the fences inviting (cavalletti and crossrails) and at a height that is fitness- and age-appropriate (1 to 2 feet high for a 3-year-old unless an expert horseperson evaluates her and says she’s ready to jump slightly higher). Whenever you raise the height you ask your mare to jump, shorten her warm-up that day and monitor her fitness even more carefully. As soon as she shows signs of tiring (even better, before she does), stop jumping.

At some point in your mare’s training, she will go through a phase of resistance. Like human teenagers who suddenly realize that waking up at 6 a.m. to go to school isn’t really fun, all horses discover eventually that training is work. Their forms of resistance vary widely, from refusing to go into the ring the day after a difficult session to avoiding being mounted or stopping at jumps. Some horses pass through this phase more quickly than others. The best way to help them do so is to stay positive yet firm. Unfortunately, this is when many riders make mistakes, by being either too easy or too rough on their horses. If you have any concerns about how to handle this phase with your mare, seek expert assistance.

When you begin showing your mare over fences is also a matter of personal preference. I don’t even start my young horses under saddle until they are 4-year-olds. I usually introduce them to jumps after a few months of flatwork. Toward the end of that year, I take them to a couple of shows. At that point, my main goal is simply to familiarize them with the training routine and show environment. I also use those late-season shows as an assessment tool, telling me what we need to work on over the winter before the next, more serious, year of showing.

Whether you follow a similar program or start showing your mare over fences earlier, base all of your decisions and goals on her individual progress. If you allow her to learn at her own pace, you’ll maintain her confidence and bring out her best performances in the long run.

Grand-prix rider Wilhelm Genn honed his fundamental training skills in his native Germany before moving to Lebanon, Ohio, in the late 1980s. A three-time German Young Riders Championships competitor, he won his first grand prix at the age of 21 on a horse bred and trained by his family. Since then, he has produced more than 50 grand prix jumpers and won more than 100 grands prix in Europe and the U.S. He was also the first U.S. Hunter Jumper Association rider to pass the $1 million mark since the USHJA began tracking lifetime earnings in 2005.

Carrying on the family tradition of great horsemanship that he learned from his father and brothers, Wilhelm has instilled his knowledge in his sons, Theo and Ryan. Both boys now often compete against their father in grand-prix classes. Based at their own Rheinland Farm, Wilhelm, his wife, Patty, a former hunter rider, and their sons also import and sell young hunter, jumper and dressage prospects from Germany.

This article originally appeared in the July 2014 issue of Practical Horseman.