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Bristers Brief: Show jumping with a young horse

Charlie developing a very promising partnership with his 5-y-o mare Bonita (Image by GeoSnapShot).

Show jumping with a young horse

The first competition for a young horse can be quite stressful, for both you and your stead. Fortunately, CHARLIE BRISTER has some sound advice.

Ideally, you should set a horse up for the rest of their career with a stellar maiden performance. Now put your hand up if your carefully laid plans haven’t played out the way you expected. Yeah, thought there might be a few of you!  

Everything with horses is dependent upon the individual horse and rider. So, take the information in this article as a rough guideline: there’s plenty of scope to adjust it and no hard and fast rules. Sometimes a horse might excel in one area and be behind in another. That’s ok. This usually balances out as their schooling progresses.  

Charlie developing a very promising partnership with his 5-y-o mare Bonita (Image by GeoSnapShot).
Charlie developing a very promising partnership with his 5-y-o mare Bonita
(Image by GeoSnapShot).

It’s in the timing 

There are many opinions on social media these days. Various people will tell you what age to start horses under saddle and at competitions. But remember, each horse is an individual, not to mention the variation in development between breeds. While it’s good not to pressure an immature horse, their education should be progressive.  

Start small and make it easy. You may start by lunging a three-year-old over a pole on the ground, which can progress to a cross or small vertical. This gives the horse an understanding of how to jump without the rider’s weight on their back. All you need is a couple of good repetitions, then leave it at that and maybe in your next session, ask for a couple more good repetitions.  

Back to the keyboard warriors. They say you shouldn’t be jumping your horse until it’s fully grown. To compare, the male brain is fully developed at 25 and the body at around 18. Imagine if André Agassi never picked up a tennis racket until he was 18, or if Anthony Albanese never started school until he was 25. Would these people still make it to the top of their respective careers? Possible but improbable. Similarly, starting horses later in life can be problematic, as by then they’ve cemented in bad behaviour and movement patterns. So start young but be gradual and progressive in their training, prioritising building confidence and making it a good experience. 

Flatwork basics 

By the time they’re four, you can take most horses out to their first show. But what basic flatwork do you need in place? Walk, trot, canter each way and a 20m circle would be nice. A preliminary level dressage test (similar to the requirements of going around a small show jump course) will give you an idea of the rideability needed. You don’t need to have the horse in a dressage frame. You do need to be able to turn in both directions, speed up and slow down. Crazy, right! And responding to the cluck and woah is also very helpful!  

Jumping exercises 

While grids are helpful for technique, use courses to get a young horse travelling. Remembering there will be several changes of direction in a show jumping course, which may include up to 12 fences. Most riders jump two or three fences in training and then stop. Make sure you condition your horses to be fit enough for 12 fences in a row. You’d be surprised how many people don’t train their horse for stamina. And make sure you do some combinations, which are easy to avoid on a young horse, especially if you dont have a big arena. Use cross rails, cross oxers and guide rails. They will help your straightness in combinations.  

Handy exercises to work on at home.
Handy exercises to work on at home.

The canter-trot-cluck routine 

Increasing the energy from a slow speed if vital for all horses. We’ll call this next exercise the canter-trot-cluck routine. Canter your horse forward through the turn heading towards a jump, and roughly four strides out come back to trot. Then about five meters in front of the fence sit tall, cluck, and close your leg. You want the horse to increase their energy on takeoff. If they pick up canter right in front that’s fine. This exercise tests your horse’s rebalance and then impulsion when jumping.  

Youngsters usually go one of two ways when you start taking them out. Either a bit hot and rushing, or backed off and behind the leg. Learning which way they’re likely to go is helpful. Their behaviour at a show can be totally different to their behaviour at home, so taking them out to your coach’s place is a good start. Your coach will help by giving you some practical jumping exercises to do while your horse experiences a new environment. They’ll also notice if you ride differently when your young horse is somewhere different.  

Handy exercises to work on at home.
Handy exercises to work on at home.

Rider nerves play a big part in this equation. Why do you have them and what can you do about them? Well, riding is a fairly dangerous sport, so that plays in the back of our minds. The more we worry about falling off the worse we ride generally. We also place too much pressure on ourselves and our horses. Set your expectations very low for your first couple of outings. For example, your goal may be just to go to the show and ride around the warm-up. Make the bar low and it’s easier to jump over. Stop caring too much about what other people think. Just take a deep breath and ride them forward!  

Was it progress? 

You go for a jump lesson and it goes really well. Go again in case it was a fluke! It wasn’t? Then with your coach’s help, choose some appropriate outings. Ideally, find a jump club training day. These are unofficial days with a low-key atmosphere where there’s no pressure (ok, maybe a little bit) to get around within an optimum time. You can circle and quite often jump a fence again if you make a mistake at it. Young horses quite often come ahead in leaps and bounds by going to days like these. In the first round you might find them spooky, but do the same height again five minutes later and things usually improve. If you are jumping 80 at home, do 70 on the training day. Make things physically easier for the horse, because you’re making things mentally more difficult with the change in environment. 

The day before  

You might be busy or tired, but make sure they get a good ride before their first show! Not to wear them out but to make sure they’re listening and won’t be full of beans the next day. Again, train the cluck to help the leg aid when in front of a spooky jump. If your horse is extra spooky or lacks confidence, you may want to pop over some fences the day before. Keep them small, encourage the horse forward, and finish on a good note! 

Kaden Weaver steering KPH Celeste around a jump club training day course (Image by GeoSnapShot).
Kaden Weaver steering KPH Celeste around a jump club training day course (Image by GeoSnapShot).

Easing nerves 

No, tequila is not the answer. Be prepared. Simple things like making sure you have all the gear packed and know how to get there. Taking care of these little things will help lower your stress levels. And for your stead, many riders are using Hidez hoods or ear bonnets, which can help horses who get distracted or are noise-sensitive. The aim is for the horse to pay more attention to you and less to all the other horses at the show.  

The big day out 

Arrive on time. While caffeinating may help wake you up, it might also accelerate your anxiety. Give yourself enough time for a light lunge and ride them forward in the warm-up. Its preferable they go a little quicker and get over than too slow and stop. Dont forget to give them a scratch when they do the right thing. Having a jump whip is a good idea too (better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it) but make sure they understand it beforehand. 

In the ring 

Ride them forward as soon as you go in the gate. The draw back to the gate and the warm-up area is strong. Think leg on when heading away from the gate. Conversely, you may need to rebalance when heading back to the gate. Try and keep the rhythm consistent. If you need to trot that’s fine. Keep your leg on in front of the jump and support them on takeoff. Eyes up, leg on! Play it safe – and relax, you’re not trying to win a jump-off. 

Loving Charlie’s advice? Then follow him on Instagram.