Free jumping can be a fun and beneficial way to enhance your horse’s training and development.
Free jumping, if done correctly, provides fantastic benefits to horses of all ages. It is a means of evaluating a young horse’s jumping potential, and assessing his attitude and natural ability over a fence. Free jumping is also valuable for developing a horse’s confidence and balance, and for teaching him to adjust his own stride without the interference of a rider.
Before You Get Started
Before free jumping your horse, there are a couple of things to keep in mind to ensure a safe and successful training session.
1 Is the horse mentally and physically able to do what is being asked of him? I will introduce a chute to my horses when they are as young as two years; however, fences are kept under two feet high, and sessions are short and not strenuous. The youngsters will run and jump and buck in the field, which is more physically strenuous than anything I will ask of them in an arena. As three- and four-year-olds, you can begin to ask a little more of your horse as long as you have laid the groundwork and built up slowly, in confidence and fitness.
2 Consider safety. I like front boots and back boots on my horses to protect their legs while learning to jump. If they are shod, I use bell boots on the fronts as well. Good footing is very important. Traction is imperative for a confident jumping horse, and the footing should not be too deep or too shallow – either can cause injuries. Build the complexity of your fences very slowly, making sure the horse is confident and going through the chute smoothly before adjusting them. Keep sessions short and positive. You want your horse to have fun and to progress and look forward to the sessions over fences.
Building a chute is easy. Keep it simple, and make sure it’s not optional. You will need eight standards, eight poles, and a roll of yellow caution/attention tape.
• Set a line of two fences 18 to 24 feet apart (depending on your horse’s stride) along one side of your arena walls. There should be three poles at the first fence, three at the second, and two spares.
• The second fence will have the option of being an oxer, so place four standards there.
• The remaining two standards will be used to build a lead-in and a landing chute. Place one about 20 feet before the first jump, and the second about 20 feet after the second jump.
• Use caution tape to rope off the inside of the chute, starting at the lead-in standard, wrapping around the standards of the first and second jumps, and ending at the landing chute standard. Sometimes two lines of tape will be needed for a bolder visual barrier. I prefer building a barrier with caution tape as it is quicker, easier and safer than building the side of the chute with more standards and rails.
Laying the Groundwork
Begin the exercise by hand walking your horse through the chute. To start, the jumps should be set as just poles on the ground. You can have your horse wear either a halter or a bridle with the reins removed. Make sure he has proper protective leg gear. Let your horse step over each grouping of poles, and understand that he is to travel through the chute without stopping. Once he has walked through and is calm and stepping over the poles correctly, let him loose and start him trotting and cantering through the chute, over the poles on the ground.
Ideally, you will need two or three people helping you. You want to teach the horse to travel around the outside of the arena with a steady rhythm, not rushing but not being too lazy. Once he has trotted and cantered through the chute, you can start to build some fences. I like to start by building an X on the second fence. Send your horse through the chute, ideally trotting over the first jump (poles on ground), then cantering one stride and popping over the X. Sometimes this will take four or five goes to become nice and smooth. If your horse is a youngster that has never jumped before, stop the session here and call it a day. It is very important to praise him when he gets it right and does well, as it helps build confidence and lets him know he’s on track!
If you are working with an older horse, or a youngster that is more experienced in a chute, you can continue to build and add a jump at the first fence. Again, start with an X. Encourage the horse to trot in to the first fence, canter one stride between, and canter the second. Once this is flowing, you can build up the height on the second fence, add jump fillers, and possibly create an oxer. The first fence will be your placing jump and should remain an X.
If you will be doing a free jumping competition with your horse, it is important to prepare him for a chute with three jumps. You’ll need a placing pole nine feet from your first jump, an X, then 21 feet to your second jump, a vertical, then an oxer placed 24 feet from the second jump. Again, build up slowly as your horse develops and understands the exercise.
If your horse ever stops in the line, it is very important that he does not run back out of the chute. He needs to learn that he has to try and go through the chute no matter what. Sometimes you will need to lower the second jump, so he can just step over it and exit the chute properly and safely. Never let him stop, turn and run back out of the chute. Build the exercise slowly, and really make sure your horse is confident and keen before proceeding with more technical jumps.
If you ever see that he’s nervous or worried, take a step back. If you have a horse that rushes his fences, lead him in by hand instead of letting him work loose in the arena. Using landing poles can help a horse shorten or lengthen his stride accordingly. It is important to adjust the chute to your horse’s stride while building his confidence in free jumping; then you can proceed to setting the fences at show ring distances so he learns to adjust his stride and lengthen or compress if need be.
As with most training exercises, if you are inexperienced or doing something new, it is best to seek the help of a professional. For a happy, confident, successful horse, it is imperative that new lessons are taught correctly and finish on a positive note. Happy free jumping!
Claire Hunter is a trainer who specializes in backing and starting young horses. For a period of time Claire worked for other equine establishments and soon recognized there was a need for a service to bridge the gap between breeders and the show ring. From there, Braecrest Stables was created. Claire has started and retrained many horses which have gone on to become successful hunters, jumpers, dressage horses and field hunters. Claire also has a breeding program and has prepared and shown many young horses successfully on the line and under saddle for both herself and her many clients. She has also written a chapter for Nanette Levin’s new book, Turning Challenging Horses into Willing Partners. braecreststables.com