A couple years ago, I decided to incorporate jumping as a cross training exercise. I was hoping to give my horse an exciting alternative to dressage or trail rides. I also wanted him to learn to lift his shoulders and think while in the canter. To my knowledge, Harley had never jumped before so I started with the very basics: a tiny crossrail with a straight approach at the trot.
Harley was cooperative, but clearly had no idea how to jump with a rider on his back. He obediently trotted over the crossrail, kicking it down about fifty percent of the time. After the tenth or so attempt, I started to wonder if maybe he was just physically unable or unmotivated by the tiny obstacle. Finally, I changed my strategy and asked him to nearly halt right at the base of the crossrail, then I encouraged him forward. In slow motion, he lifted up his frontend and smoothly hopped over the crossrail. I praised him like crazy and from then on he understood what I wanted him to do. Our attempts, especially the early ones, were far from consistent and we had our share of graceless takeoffs, but we were having fun. Slowly, Harley's canter began to improve in cadence and rhythm. I tried to do my best to let the jump teach him to meter his strides. My job was to keep him straight and stay out of his way. It had been many years since I had done any serious jumping, so I tried my best to keep my learning curve from interfering with his. He was very forgiving of my mistakes in the saddle. I learned to "sit chilly" and go with flow, especially if he jumped too early or too late. We had some very interesting takeoff points, but with each success our confidence in each other grew.
I used groundwork to compliment the under-saddle jumping. I wanted him to have some opportunities to just worry about himself and not packing me around. He jumped on a long lead or lunge line without too much trouble. Eventually, I tried setting up a single jump in the small riding ring. Harley found this a delight and went over the poles with little encouragement. To sweeten the deal, I started giving him carrots as a reward for a nice jump. Not only did this reinforce the work in a way that Harley truly appreciated, he began self-regulating his energy levels much more effectively. He was less likely to rip around the ring full throttle, because he knew what the objective was and when he had achieved it. Do horses understand objectives? Maybe not like we do, but he definitely understood when he figured out what I wanted and would repeat it with almost as little as a nod in the direction of the small jump. Now we were genuinely having mutual fun and I gained valuable insight regarding how my horse learns.
Here is a video example of Harley demonstrating free jumping on the right lead. He is very confident in this direction and originally hopped over the jump from a walk. His first approach was stunning. I do believe that he was showing off, but unfortunately the camera was not ready. His second approach is much more low key, but shows that he clearly understands his task and how to accomplish it. I am standing behind the camera man, one of my barn owners. Thank you for filming!
Next, Harley approached the same jump from the left. He jumped a crossrail from this direction several times before I put up the two-foot vertical. I know that he is less balanced on this lead and has more difficulty shifting his weight to his hindend, but I did not realize that he would balk at the jump. Thankfully, the camera man was very patient as we repeated our approach several times.
Harley tried to solve the problem in a number of ways. He tried going around the jump and taking it from the other side. He tried speeding up. He tried speeding up more. He tried galloping down the opposite long side and leaping into the air to show his frustration. I have to be very careful in this sort of training situation with him. If his energy level becomes too high, he stops thinking about the task and begins thinking about leaving. If I stop asking him to complete the task, he learns that my requests are optional or that a tantrum is a viable option for a tough problem. I did not reprimand him for going around the jump or even for his aerials after a failed attempt. The gentlest form of punishment is repetition. So although I did not tell him "Good Boy" or "No", I did calmly ask him to approach the fence from the left again, with judicious use of the whip and my body language.
Finally, he self-regulated his energy level (Go Harley!) and stopped in the corner facing the jump. He was ready to think now and looks to me for direction. He chose to approach the jump at the trot, which was very wise. The task was to jump from the left, he did not have to canter. He could have walked up to the jump and stepped over it and I would have rewarded him. In the final approach he almost second guesses his options, but finally takes the plunge when I kiss to him. I love the end of the video, because his demeanor is completely relaxed as he waits for the carrot. My camera man could not resist some commentary. It was very fitting!
I plan to return to this question on the line, and with a smaller obstacle until his confidence improves. For a first jumping activity in 2011, I was very happy with his enthusiasm and springiness. He really launched himself into the air a few times and those shoulders were lifting! It is so wonderful to watch my horse reveling in his own motion and power.