Learn about your horse's natural jumping ability and boost his confidence with this riderless free-jumping technique.

Looking for something new and entertaining to do with your horse this winter? Try free jumping! In just a few short sessions, you can teach him to negotiate a simple combination of jumps without any input or interference from a rider. You'll learn a lot about his natural jumping ability and style, which, in turn, can help you ride him better.

For example, if your horse lowers his head dramatically on takeoff and/or landing, it may feel as if he's trying to pull the reins out of your hands. But if you see him do the same thing while free jumping, you'll realize this is just his style. On the flip side, if you constantly fight to lower your horse's head in front of the jumps, observe how he carries himself while free jumping. He may need a naturally higher head carriage to maintain his balance.

Many horses who rush their fences under saddle don't rush when free jumping. Watching your horse approach a jump without raising his head and hollowing his back in resistance to the reins may help you visualize how to communicate with him more harmoniously between fences.

Free jumping is also a great way to introduce a young horse to jumping. His first few awkward attempts to get from one side of the rails to the other can be much more positive if he doesn't have the weight of a rider on his back to worry about, too. Even some extremely talented jumpers are klutzes in the beginning. Free jumping helps them discover their natural abilities in a very short period of time.

It's also interesting to see which horses bravely attack the fences and which approach more carefully. This tells you something about a young horse's attitude but does not always predict how he will behave later in life when he understands the game.

If you're trying to sell a horse and have a good photographer or videographer, free jumping can be an excellent marketing tool. After just a few lessons, many horses feel comfortable enough to show off their natural technique and scope (ability to jump high, wide obstacles) over fairly impressive fences. I've sold several horses by posting their free-jumping videos online.

Whatever your horse's age or career path, watching him free jump is just plain fun! His cleverness may amaze you as he adjusts his own stride to arrive at the correct takeoff spots for the jumps. You may also be surprised at how high he can jump. After seeing him jump 4 feet by himself, or even 4-foot-6, if he's especially talented, 3-foot-3 won't look so scary to you from the saddle.

Basics: Where and Who

The safest way to free jump is in an enclosed space—either an indoor arena or an outdoor arena with a fence at least 4 feet high—with jumps set up within a straight “chute” along one side of the arena. The arena wall or fence serves as the outside barrier of the chute. You can build the inside barrier by resting poles on either upturned barrels or jump cups attached to regular jump standards.

I am not a fan of free jumping in a roundpen or on the longe line. Jumping repeatedly on a a circle is much harder work for a horse than jumping on a straightaway. The longe line also has the potential to snag on barrels, jump standards, etc., not to mention the added challenge of a handler to maintain a connection through the line without interfering with the horse in any way. (Having said, some experts handle a longe line so dexterously and run alongside the horse so quickly that they can create a free-jumping experience similar to the one I describe here.)

Because I keep these sessions so short—I generally send a horse over the jumps a maximum of 10 or 12 times—almost any horse can do this. Some people jump yearlings and 2 year olds once or twice for curious buyers. I usually wait until youngsters are beginning their more serious work under saddle at age 3. The only horses I would notfree jump are those who are recovering from an injury, such as a tendon strain. Because you have less control than you would have from the saddle, it’s harder to prevent sudden or overly exuberant moves that might risk injury.

To guide your horse properly into the chute, you’ll need to be quick on your feet and ready to react immediately to sudden changes in speed and direction. If you have not done any roundpen training or free longeing before, practice the warm-up methods I describe below several times before proceeding with the jumps. You may also find it useful to practice handling and “cracking” the longe whip on your own time before using it to communicate with your horse. Do this away from horses, neighbors and police officers.

A Few Rules

Before you start chasing your horse over gigantic oxers, take a moment to review these essential rules:

1. Keep it simple.The purpose of free jumping is to give your horse a fun, positive experience over jumps—not to test his limits. Keep the jumps simple and be careful not to build exercises that might trap and scare him. I stick to a one-stride in-and-out with a low crossrail as the first element. This gives a horse enough time to correct a mistake in between fences and, if he stops at the second element, it’s easy to turn him around and send him out over the crossrail in the other direction.

With free jumping, less is more. There’s no need to jump in both directions or to reach a particular goal in a single session, other than to end with confidence.

2. Listen to your horse.This is very important! Monitor his mood carefully. To benefit from this experience, he must be both relaxed and interested. If he seems nervous, ask yourself if you’re pressing him too hard or challenging him with too-high fences. If he appears bored, you may have repeated the exercise too many times—or it may be time to raise the jumps

Break up your sessions with many brief mental and physical “breathers.” While you adjust the jumps, let him wander freely around the arena. He may simply stand still, which is fine. If he approaches you, give him some pats and words of encouragement. Then, after a few moments, gently press him back out to the rail and proceed to the next step. Feeding your horse treats during these sessions will encourage him to turn in toward you and take his focus off the jumps. So save food rewards for later.

3. Quit when you’re ahead.Pushing your horse to the point of boredom or fatigue defeats the purpose of this exercise. Move along quickly, and limit your sessions to 10 or 15 minutes. Once your horse is familiar with the initial steps, you can progress through them more quickly in future sessions. (For example, when he’s jumping crossrails comfortably, you can skip the ground-pole step).

Avoid failure at all costs. As will any other training technique, allowing your horse to perform the exercise incorrectly will lead to bad habits. More importantly, setting him up for failure by tiring or asking him to jump something he’s not ready to jump can discourage and even hurt him.

It may take several sessions to work your way through the steps I describe below. Space them out by several days so he begins each one refreshed and ready to “play” again.

What You’ll Need

· A clutter-free arena, carefully inspected for sharp objects or protrusions that your horse might bump into. A few jumps clustered in the center of the arena are fine, so long as your horse has a clear path to travel along the entire rail. Your arena must also have good footing—not slippery, too hard or too deep.

· For the jumps: three to four sets of standards and five to six poles.

· For the chute: three or more 12-foot poles and four or more large barrels (between 3 feet and 4 feet high when upended) or jump standards. If you’re using standards instead of barrels, use ones that you can attach jump cups to on both sides.

· Galloping boots for your horse—both front and hind—for protection.

· Two longe whips

· At least one helper. If you arena is small like mine (60 feet by 120 feet) one helper is adequate. If it’s larger, you may need an additional helper to keep your horse from drifting into the center of the arena.

Some people like to free jump horses in bridles with the reins detached, as you see in breed performance tests. This makes for a prettier picture than a halter, but I find it just as attractive to show horses without a halter or bridle. As you won’t need to catch your horse until the end of the session, neither is necessary.

Note: Since free jumping is so fun to watch, you may attract an audience. It’s fine for spectators to stand out in the middle of the arena, but ask them to stay silent and still throughout the session. As temping as it may be to whoop and holler, remind them how important it is for your horse to focus on the jumps, completely free of distractions.

Setting Up

Chute Setup: Set the standards for two jumps about 18 feet apart on the long side of the arena. Build the chute’s inside barrier by placing a standard (or barrel) adjacent to each of the inside standards of the jumps. Position a barrel halfway between the two jumps in line with the two barrier standards. Rest a rail from each standard on the barrel to make the barrier perpendicular to the jumps. Add a second barrel about 10 feet from the “in” jump, several feet closer to the center of the arena. Use another rail to connect the barrel to the first barrier standard, making an angle of about 30 degrees. This widens the entrance to the chute so that it “funnels” the horse toward the jump.

Chute Setup: Set the standards for two jumps about 18 feet apart on the long side of the arena. Build the chute’s inside barrier by placing a standard (or barrel) adjacent to each of the inside standards of the jumps. Position a barrel halfway between the two jumps in line with the two barrier standards. Rest a rail from each standard on the barrel to make the barrier perpendicular to the jumps. Add a second barrel about 10 feet from the “in” jump, several feet closer to the center of the arena. Use another rail to connect the barrel to the first barrier standard, making an angle of about 30 degrees. This widens the entrance to the chute so that it “funnels” the horse toward the jump.

Build your chute midway down the long side of your arena, far enough from the corner so your horse has several straight strides before the first jump. Set two jumps about 18 feet apart, with their standards on the edge of the arena close enough to the fence or wall so your horse can’t squeeze around them. If you know your horse has a long stride and/or is already confident over jumps, start with a slightly longer distance of 20–22 feet.) Make the “in” jump a small crossrail and the “out” a small oxer. (If you like, keep a third set of standards handy to build the oxer into a triple bar later.)

Next, build the inside barrier of the chute by placing one barrel (or jump standard, if that’s what you’re using) adjacent to each of the inside standards of the jumps. Position a third barrel in line with the first two barrels, halfway between the two jumps. Rest two rails on the tops of the barrels to make the barrier perpendicular to the jumps.

Add a fourth barrel about 10 feet from the “in” jump, several feet closer to the center of the arena than the other barrels, so when you place a rail connection it to the next barrel, it makes an angle of about 30 degrees. This widens the entrance to the chute so that it “funnels” your horse in toward the jumps (see photo below).

Depending on how confident you feel about guiding your horse into the chute, you can set up additional barrels and poles to extend the entrance even farther. Be sure the barrier continues at an inviting angle, while still allowing plenty of room for him to make a smooth turn in the corner before entering the chute.

Now remove all of the poles and jump cups from the jumps, leaving just the standards and chute barrier. We’ll introduce your horse to this simple setup first.

Warm-Up

You can do the warm-up on the flat without a helper. Bring your horse into the arena and remove his halter. Give him a few minutes to wander around on his own at whatever gait he chooses and sniff the jumps, chute barrier, etc. Then pick up your longe whip and begin to direct him around the ring by moving your body and whip in a clear, deliberate manner, using your voice when necessary.

To move him forward, step toward a point just behind his hindquarters, pointing the whip in the same direction. To increase his speed, raise the whip slightly and cluck to him.

To stop or turn him in the other direction, lower the whip and step in the direction of his head. Depending on how fast he’s going and where you’re positioned, you may need to run a few steps to get ahead of him. If he ends up “stuck” in a corner, approach him from the direction opposite to where you want him to go and tap his hindquarters with your whip, always standing far enough back that you’re clear of his heels in the unlikely event that he kicks out in reaction to the whip.

Ask your horse to trot three or four times around the arena, going through the chute, in the opposite direction to the way you’ll be jumping. If your jumps are set up to be approached counterclockwise, start your warm-up going clockwise. As you move him around the ring, try to regulate his pace and direction with clear signals just as if you were riding. When he slows down add “leg pressure,” stepping toward him, with added voice and whip as necessary. Take it away—step back and lower the whip—when he quickens. You’ll find you can use increasingly subtle “aids” as your timing and positioning improve.

If your horse ever appears frightened or anxious, back off the pressure and use a soothing voice to calm him. It’s essential for him to be relaxed and happy throughout these sessions. Don’t worry if he breaks into the canter now and then.

Be sure your horse enters the chute and continues through it on every approach. There is no need to rush him, but if he figures out that going through is optional, you have a problem. Once he’s settled into a nice, relaxed trot rhythm and has gone through the chute several times, press him forward with your “aids” to ask for a canter. Let him canter a few lap around the ring until he settles into a good rhythm. Then back off the “leg pressure” to allow him to slow down.

Give him a little breather before turning him around and repeating the warm-up in the other direction, asking him to trot and then canter quietly through the chute.

Altogether, this warm-up need not be more than a few minutes—just enough to get his blood pumping and familiarize him with the chute.

Build a Crossrail

Give your horse another breather while you place a rail on the ground between the standards of what will eventually be the “out” jump. This way, he will go well into the chute before encountering his first obstacle. From now on, ask him to travel only in the direction you planned for the exercise, approaching the chute via the “entrance.”

At this point, ask your helper to stand toward the middle of the arena, even with the crossrail but far enough away from it so his or her presence won’t distract your horse. Each time your horse exits the chute, it will be your helper’s job to “send” him back to the other end of the arena, by using the same body language I described in the warm-up, where you’ll be standing.

Ask your horse to trot through the chute until he’s stepping over the pole calmly. Then give him another breather while you build a small crossrail in the same place. Send him toward this at a trot. If he breaks into canter before the jump, that’s fine. After he jumps it successfully, ask your helper to send him back up to your end of the arena.

If he stops at the jump, have your helper quickly approach him from the other side, clucking and raising the whip if necessary to turn him around and send him back through the chute entrance. Don’t give him time to “grow roots” in front of the crossrail. The goal is to teach him that refusing the jump is never an option.

When he’s out of the chute, turn him around and increase your “leg pressure” to send him in with more enthusiasm. If he appears hesitant the second time, do whatever you can to press him over the jump: follow behind him more closely, clucking and cracking the whip. As soon as he jumps the crossrail, use plenty of verbal praise to assure him that he made the right choice. He’ll learn quickly that the easiest, safest option is always to go directly over the jump.

Constantly observe his facial expression, breathing and general body language so if he refuses to jump at any point in the session, you can determine whether he’s scared, confused, bored or lazy. If you have any doubt about his confidence, lower the jump (even if that means dropping one rail of the crossrail to the ground) before asking him to do it again. Then gradually build back up to a height at which he still seems comfortable and reevaluate: Is this a good point to end the session—or does he appear confident, relaxed and fresh enough to continue?

Add an Oxer

After your horse has jumped the crossrail well once or twice, place a ground pole between the standards of the other jump. Send him through the chute again, this time encouraging him to approach at the canter. If he breaks to trot, don’t make a big deal over it. Just apply a little more “leg” next time. Watch how the distance works for him. If he visibly shortens his stride between the pole and crossrail, move them apart by two feet. If he adds a half stride before the crossrail or has to reach for the takeoff, shorten the distance by two feet.

Continue monitoring the distance throughout each session. You may need to adjust it slightly (usually by 2-foot increments, up to a maximum of 24 feet) as you raise the “out” jump and as your horse’s confidence increases. The goal is always to encourage him to jump in his natural stride. This is not the place for teaching him to shorten and lengthen his stride.

When the distance between the pole and crossrail looks comfortable, build the pole into another small crossrail. Send your horse through this combination a time or two until he looks relaxed. (Remember, we’re not aiming for perfection. No drilling!) Then add a back rail to the “out” jump to make it into a small oxer, keeping the front rail a crossrail. Position the standards close together at first so there’s very little width to the jump.

Note:Most horses appear to truly enjoy free jumping. If your horse shows little interest in this activity and jumps sluggishly despite your encouragement, don’t press him to continue. He may be suffering from physical pain or discomfort.—or jumping may just not be his calling.

Send your horse through this combination in a nice, forward canter. By this point, he knows what you expect him to do so you shouldn’t need to pressure him all the way to each jump. Unless you notice a last-minute hesitation—in which case a well-timed crack of the whip can prevent a refusal—stay quiet during the final strides of his approach so he can focus on maintaining his balance and finding his takeoff spot.

Build Up Gradually

In each session, let your horse tell you how far he’s comfortable going. If he continues to jump with ease and enthusiasm and is showing no signs of tiring, raise the back rail of the oxer one hole at a time. Now and then raise the crossrail part of the oxer, too, so you don’t create a large gap in the middle of the jump. When the back rail reached about 3 feet, you can change the crossrail part to a parallel rail, keeping it a hole or two lower than the back rail so the shape is still ascending. This will allow your horse to get close to the jump on takeoff without punishing him for getting too close.

You can also widen the oxer as you raise it. For heights below about 3 feet, limit the width to 2 to 3 feet. For heights up to 4 feet or so, limit the width to 4 feet. To encourage your horse to respect the jump and rock back on his haunches a bit more before takeoff, you can place plastic blocks or any other type of filler under the front rail of the oxer.

Meanwhile, keep the “in” jump small. Its purpose is simply to set up your horse for the correct distance to the oxer. If he refuses the oxer, your helper can send him quickly and safely back over the crossrail in the other direction. Never force a horse to jump an oxer from a standstill. He may land on one back rail, which can be both discouraging and dangerous.

If your horse begins to lose respect for the crossrail, treating it more like a speed bump—racing over it in sloppy form—raise it slightly (but no higher than about 2-foot-6). You can also place some sort of filler, such as a plastic block, underneath it to get his attention. Keep this jump a crossrail, though, to help center him as he enters the in-and-out.

As the oxer gets bigger, keep your horse “in the game” by encouraging him to approach the chute with more pace, particularly if he’s on the lazy side. So long as he’s maintaining his balance well on the turns, push for a good gallop. After he lands from the oxer, have your helper push him faster down the long side of the arena with some clucks and even a crack of the whip. Allow him to shorten his stride to maintain his balance around your end of the arena, and then send him forward again out of the corner.

It may take several sessions to reach the point where he seems ready to tackle sizeable oxers. Most horses are capable of jumping at least 3 feet. If yours continues to go through the combination effortlessly and enthusiastically, don’t be afraid to raise the oxer to 3-foot-6 or so. Jumping much higher than that requires a great deal of athleticism and talent, so only proceed if he’s obviously clearing the jump with ease.

When your horse seems extremely confident over the oxer, use the third set of standards to add another parallel pole slightly higher than the existing back rail and create a triple bar. This is a fun way to invite him to show off his scope.

Remember to keep your sessions short. Achieve as much as you can within 10 or 15 minutes and then call it a day. In subsequent sessions, you may be able to move along faster through the steps and tackle higher jumps. Try to make each experience positive and fun—and most important, keep listening to your horse!

This article originally appeared in the January 2012 issue of Practical Horseman.

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