Teach Your Horse to Pick Up His Feet Over Fences

Grand prix jumper Wilhelm Genn explains how to teach a young horse to overcome his difficulty learning to jump.

To determine what is causing a horse to have difficulty learning to jump, enlist the help of an extremely experienced horseperson. | © Dusty Perin

Q: My young horse is having difficulty learning to jump. He jumped over a few small, solid fences and did beautifully, but with normal arena jumps, he runs through the poles. He doesn’t pick up his feet or just runs through the jump. He’s a great jumper and has the scope, I just don’t know what to do. We don’t have many trainers in the area where I live so it’s difficult to seek professional help.

 Unfortunately, my first recommendation in this situation would be to seek professional help. It takes an extremely experienced horseperson to judge why a horse is running through fences. Is he uncoordinated? Not careful? Not smart? Too smart? Is he going through an awkward phase in his growth that has disrupted his balance? Even if it means traveling some distance for a one-time consultation with a trainer or clinician, it would be worth it to determine exactly what is causing your horse’s problem.

Ask the professional to evaluate your riding skills as well. To teach a young horse to jump, you must have very good balance and a good eye (ability to judge distances to jumps and determine the proper striding to them). You must be able to help him stay in balance, too. If he loses his balance in the approach to a jump or you get him to a bad distance, he probably won’t produce his best jumping effort. Even very talented horses make mistakes over jumps—or sometimes refuse to jump—when their riders get them to bad distances.

A good way to rule out your riding as a cause of the problem is to free jump your horse. Build a safe chute with inviting jumps set at comfortable distances. Then watch how he jumps on his own. (For set-up and technique tips, check out “Free-Jumping Fun.”)

Although all horses have a certain degree of jumping ability, some need more time to figure it out than others. Your horse may just need more repetition. If you’re confident that your riding is not the problem, set up an easy, inviting exercise for him. Put a bounce rail 8 to 9 feet—depending on his natural stride—in front of a 2-foot-high vertical (or smaller, if you’re a less experienced rider). Place a ground rail several inches in front of the jump.

Approach the exercise in a nice, forward, rising trot, keeping your horse straight and in balance. This will set him up for a good takeoff over the jump. As he goes over the bounce rail, close your legs on his sides as if you were asking for a canter depart. In a good canter depart, such as one you’d see in dressage, horses elevate their bodies using the same muscles that they use to take off over a jump. Applying these aids will encourage your horse to take a canter stride, or “bounce,” over the rail before jumping the vertical. At that point, your job is to stay out of his way and let the jump teach him.

If your horse runs through this jump, put a flower box on the ground slightly in front of it. This will both get his attention and help him judge the takeoff. Approach the jump with plenty of impulsion—not rushing but always feeling that your horse is in front of your leg. Don’t ride any differently—just calmly but firmly insist that he go over the jump. Keep your upper body slightly behind his motion, being sure that you don’t lean forward if he spooks at the flower box. This means he’s paying attention—which is the goal.

It’s OK if he hits the fence a few times before figuring out how to jump it properly. When he does finally get it right, give him plenty of praise and treats. Always try to make jumping a positive experience for him.

Never punish your horse for hitting a jump or making other mistakes. If you react in any way—by kicking or hitting him or shifting your weight around in the saddle—you’ll distract his focus from the jump to you. Instead, simply reapproach the exercise as straight and in balance as possible, then try not to interfere with him in the air.

Next, place a second small vertical about 18 to 21 feet away from the first to create a one-stride in-and-out, or you can place it about 30 feet away to create a two-stride in-and-out. Adjust the distance to suit his natural stride—a foot or two shorter if he has a short stride or longer if he has a big stride. Put a flower box on the ground slightly in front of this jump, too.

Trot into the exercise and let him canter from the first jump to the second. After he’s gone through this nicely a few times, build the second vertical into a small oxer.

It may take multiple sessions but, if you keep them positive and easy, your horse will eventually understand—and, hopefully, enjoy—his new job and begin picking his feet up properly.

Grand-prix jumper 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 organization began tracking lifetime earnings in 2005.

Wilhelm recently retired his winningest partner, Happy Z. The 16-year-old Dutch Warmblood mare by High Valley Z and out of Anais-Anais Z recorded 60 wins in her nine-year career. She capped them off by winning her final competition, the $40,000 CMJ Cherry Capital Classic, at the same venue where she won her first grand prix, Horse Shows by the Bay in Traverse City, Michigan.

This article originally appeared in the February 2015 issue of Practical Horseman.

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