“WORKING ALONE SAFELY WITH HUNTERS AND JUMPERS”
BY EDEE WEIGEL
Since we live in such a sparsely populated area, a lot of us train our show horses alone. Here are some of my tips for making our show horse training safer. I start each training day with a plan in mind. I’ll keep a written record of every horse I am training, and I review my notes often as I plan out that horse’s training routine. I consider what the horse has been doing and what I have planned for this horse’s future. I always ask myself if I am putting too much pressure on a horse and if so, what can I do to take the pressure off? Some horses will train a lot slower than others. A smart horseman will always consider the horse’s personality and physical abilities as well as age, experience, fitness, and other factors to customize the training routine.
One of the first things to consider in working safely alone with a hunter/jumper is the experience level of the horse and rider. If you are a green horseman , you need to have a well trained horse to ride and work with. A young or green horse should only be handled by an experienced horseman. There are simply too many dangers for the situation to be safe. As horseman, we need to assess the safety net we install around us. I work alone quite often with horses in a fairly isolated area. My safety net is adequate, as my husband works next door and we carry cell phones. But I still tell someone when I am going to ride or work horses here by myself — and they will check on me if I do not call back to let them know I am done. I never jump alone and do not recommend it, as it is counter productive to proper training ! The risk is not worth the supposed benefit. When you do not have a ground person to set the jumps for you, it is too easy to ride poorly and take shortcuts. This will result in horses that are not properly prepared to jump softly and in rhythm. Jumping alone tends to create horses that jump flat or rush their jumps. I have friends I can pay a ‘babysitting fee’ to come and watch over me as I ride over fences and set a few jumps. But when I do not have anyone to watch over me as I jump, I lunge my horses over fences instead of my riding them over fences. I have been very happy with the results. The horse learns to jump with good form and with an idea of how to take care of me, as he develops ‘an eye’ (depth perception) for the take off distance. I get to see the horse and how he is jumping and this gives me food for thought too. When I finally do get someone here to watch over me as I ride …and set jumps for me , the horse’s are well prepared to give me a nice ride! I also have a better idea how this horse looks and how he likes to jump naturally.
When I am going to do a ‘schooling session over fences,’ I will dress for riding with cell phone, gloves, and a stick, and I’ll wear boots or chaps and an ASTM approved helmet with a harness. I always have the cell phone nearby and ‘cued up’ for an emergency number! I will ride the horse as soon as I am finished lunging over jumps. I will then lunge my horse with his tack –saddled and bridled with martingale as well as leg and bell boots, for about 10 minutes at the trot — both directions –and then over some ground poles for another 5 minutes. Then I will work him over some low 2’ jumps, just at the trot most of the time. I have some nice short 3’ standards that are perfect to lunge over— as a lunge line can get caught on the side of the jump standard. It is better to just lunge over ground rails or a rail slanted against the side of the arena, until you learn to handle your lunge line correctly. You do not want to get it tangled up or jerk on your horses mouth when he is making his best jumping effort! If you do not know how to accomplish lunging smoothly and effectively, you need to have lunging lessons from a trainer to learn how to follow your horse, as well as safety procedures. Then by lunging correctly, you can exercise your horse, as well as teach him manners. This helps also to train him to stay in rhythm, and to travel well balanced in a circle.
I plan ahead and have the ground poles and jumps set up before I bring the horse out to the arena. I set several areas to work in, so if the horse does knock something down, I can just move to the next area without stopping. I find that four 12’ poles set 9 feet apart are the best. I ‘ fan ‘ the poles slightly so that the horse can follow a curved track on the lunge line. This distance setting will be a trial and error learning experience for you as the handler, you’ll need to re-adjust the distances as you see what your individual horse is comfortable with. I set the 4 ground poles on little blocks to hold them 4” to 6” off the ground. In a 9 foot distance a horse will walk 3 steps , and trot 2 steps… so the 9 foot distance works the best for me. If they canter it will be a ‘no-stride’ called a bounce. However, I do not recommend lounging a horse over little jumps in a canter much–as they will jump too fast. One or two canter jumps for every two dozen trot jumps is enough! I walk the horse on the lunge line for a few minutes to cool down a bit after he has jumped about 5 minutes. It is good to lunge the horse at a walk over ground rails to teach them to look at the jumps and step over them calmly.
After I have established a nice relaxed rhythm at the trot and the horse is warmed up and working well over the poles, I will move to another area in the arena set with low jumps. I am sure to have well defined ground lines for these jumps. A ground line must be about 8” in front of the jump. Some times I will hang a piece of astro- turf or carpet over some of the jumps for variety. I will trot the horse over the jumps and then raise them slowly — a few inches at a time with walk breaks in between — to about 3 feet. This is usually enough, even for an experienced horse.
I pay strict attention to the horse’s rhythm, and his breathing. I will be sure not to overwork my horse or scare him. I will give the horse lots of walk breaks as this keeps him warmed up, but not too hot . I will not allow my horse to race around on the line just to work off his energy! If he is wanting to run, I will keep stopping him , and then calm him and then walk a bit, until he’ll stay in the trot at my voice command .
Trotting fences on the lunge line for 10 to 20 minutes is a very calming exercise . The horse will learn to use his body and mind quietly this way without getting fast and flat. A horse will learn to behave on the lunge line you must be patient as he learns control ! After I have had a nice lunge session over jumps, I will then ride my horse on the flat.
I will use this time to school him a little more, by doing lots of walking and bending and transitions—and practicing rhythm and straightness over the imaginary lines of an imaginary course.
I always check all of my tack before I ride. Be sure the saddle is straight on the horse and not slightly off to one side and that it has not slipped back. Check that the pad is straight and smooth. I always check that the girth is snug and that the stitching on my stirrup leathers, reins, bridle and girth billets is not frayed. I make sure my stirrup bars are in the ‘down’ position– in case I get hung up – they will come loose. I use safety stirrups when I ride alone as well. I check my stirrups for proper length before I get on and I check that they are equal in length by looking at the horse from the front as the stirrups hang down. Check the bridle, reins, and bit, to be sure it is comfortable to the horse and that the stitching looks strong. After I have checked all of my equipment I can ride for another half an hour or so.
I some times will set an entire course with ground rails and practice keeping the horse in a relaxed rhythmical canter to the ‘jumps’ as well as practice simple changes in the corners . I will walk and settle my horses quite often as I practice cantering these mini-jumps as they usually want to go more forward than we would like them to. We need to teach them to go easy and to listen to us.
I make sure to walk my horses for at least 20 minutes to cool them out. I try to ride outside of the arena, if it is a safe place to ride. I always call my neighbor friends to let them know when I trail ride, where I went, and when I will be back. As I cool my horse out, I will make mental notes as to the health and condition of this particular horse and review anything I feel I may need to work on for the next ride. Then when I go into the house, I will write down how this training day went and what I need to remember for the next session.
I make sure to have the shoeing current as well as shots, worming, and teeth floated. I check my horses legs, feet and shoes everytime before I work him. I use 7% iodine in my horses frogs once a week as this helps make a stronger, healthier hoof. If my horses get too long in the toe , I will not jump them until they are shod again as this can strain their tendons. I try to wait a few days to jump a horse after they are re-shod as their feet can still be tender and this can cause bruising, this can affect the way a horse jumps, but will not appear as a lameness. I always put pads and wide web eventer shoes on my horses front feet to jump in the summer and I never jump a barefooted horse, as it just is too much concussion.
I hope these training tips are helpful and will help get you safely to the horse shows, ready to ride and have fun. See you there!