Showjumping riders believe it is very important that their horses never stop in front of the jumps, but learn to jump no matter what type of scary and colourful jumps the course designer has come up with. But is it enough just to get to the other side, or is it important HOW the horse jumps the fence? And could we be hindering our future wish to produce clear rounds and win prizes if we focus too much on the horse never stopping in the beginning of its jumping and show career?
A professional Showjumping rider, trainer and coach from Denmark, Susan Kjaegard competes at International top level. She has represented Denmark in Nations Cups, the European Championships, as well as competing successfully in the World Cup series. Impressively, all her best results have been achieved on horses she started herself. Susan came to Australia in July 2009 to attend the International Society for Equitation Science Symposium in Sydney, where she introduced herself as a “reformed” showjumper. She came across the science behing horse training at a clinic with Andrew McLean, and it led her to question and reappraise many of the training methods she had been using. She decided to take time off top level competition in order to develop a new system and re-train all her horses using learning theory and taking into account he horse’s learning ability, and the effort has paid off. Susan is renowned for riding with flow, feeling and harmony and aims to instill these qualities into those she teaches.
The writer of this article thinks so, and that’s why she very often allows her young horses to refuse at the jumps for the first couple of horse shows.
HORSES THAT RUN
As a spectator to showjumping competitions one often see horses that are running almost wildly through the course, and in some cases it takes more or less harsh bits to keep their speed down. A general perception is that the horse runs because it “loves to jump” and just cannot wait to be allowed to jump the fence.
This perception is not correct. The horse runs when jumping because at one point he has created an association between the jump and the flight response.
This is illustrated quite well by the type of horses that almost throw themselves forward when they see the jump, yet slam on the brakes in the last second. If the horse really threw itself forward because it could not wait to jump, why does it then refuse to leave the ground when it gets to the jump?
THE FLIGHT RESPONSE
In nature the horse depends deeply on its flight response to be able to survive. If he once experienced a situation that called for an activation of the flight response it must remember it forever. This is why this instinct is one of the biggest challenges for a rider to consider when training horses. One should try as best as possible to avoid situations that activate the horse’s flight response, since this can never be deleted from its ”hard disc”. You can apply layers of new operant conditioned behaviour on top of it, but the flight response will always be latent in the background.
What happens when a horse runs badly toward the jump is that the horse’s brain remembers the association with the flight response. When the rider turns the horse toward the jump and the jump “hits the horse’s eyes” the brain registers “danger”. It sends a message to the horse’s legs to speed up and the horse starts to run. Even though the horse runs in the direction of the jump it is still running with a lot of stress and the flight response activated. That causes the horse to stop listening to the rider’s aids AND he does not pay much attention to his own legs. This is why horses that run through the course are much more likely to hit rails than horses that canter quietly and well balanced.
THE FIRST HORSE SHOWS
When a young or inexperienced horse goes to its first show it is quite natural that it is a little overwhelmed by the whole commotion. Sometimes it is a huge project just to get it tacked up and make it around the warm up ring. The most important job for the rider I think, is to get the horse relaxed and make the whole deal a nice experience. If the horse only jumps 2 jumps in the ring is not as relevant, as long as you can make the horse feel that the ring is a pleasant place to be.
Many jump riders think that the most important thing is that the horse learns that it MUST jump all the jumps, that the horse should always see the finish line. They think that if a horse is allowed to stop in the ring it will continue doing that for ever.
This is where I disagree. Stopping is not an instinct for the horse in the same sense as the flight response is. Stopping is a behaviour that can be trained or retrained by the use of proper signals. The better the horse relaxes, the more inclined it will be to react to the riders aids and the rider will be able to retrain unwanted behaviour. This is why I don’t worry if I spend my allowed time in the ring only jumping one fence and maybe trotting around the arena the rest of the time. As long as the horse stays relaxed.
When a horse enters the show ring the first couple of times, it is again perfectly natural for it to be a bit spooked by all the colourful jumps. A horse will always respond to the strongest stimuli, and that means that if the jump seems very scary to the horse it will take a very strong aid from the rider to get the horse close to the jump. You can say that the jump and the rider have a yelling competition.
The jump yells “Stay away! I’ll eat you if you come closer!” And the rider yells “Get over there! I’ll eat you if you don’t!”
This is some dilemma for the horse who has to choose between being eaten by the tiger inside the jump, or the tiger on its back. If the horse is mounted by a rider who strongly believes that it is of most importance for the horse’s future “price-winning-show-carrier” that it understands it must ALWAYS JUMP all the jumps and that stopping is never a possibility, this scenario can quickly evolve to a situation where the rider puts a very strong level of pressure on the horse to overshadow the stimuli of the jump. This can be a combination of legs, spurs, a whip, loud voices and possibly a few well meaning people from the course crew that walk behind the horse to help get (chase) the horse over the jump. Finally the horse gives in to this massive pressure and FLEES over the jump.
After a few shows following this procedure you might have a horse that does not refuse to jump but instead is running between the jumps and is more likely to have rails, since it is running with an activated flight response and holds the association that the rider created when the horse was fleeing over the jumps the first times.
If one chooses to disregard the ethical questions regarding the handling of animals and only holds ones own selfish ambition in sight, (to make the horse jump well and clear while being responsive to information from the rider regarding pace, direction etc, to enable him to ride fast and clear in an important jump off and win prizes), this is (luckily) best achieved by distancing oneself from hysterical and violent behaviour in training.
The most important area for a show jumping horse is what I call “the approach zone” this being the last 2-3 strides in front of a fence. It almost doesn’t matter what the horse is doing elsewhere in the course as long as it’s optimal in the approach zone.
Unfortunately it is exactly in this area that many riders punish their horses for unwanted behaviour, for example a refusal. Besides it being ethically irresponsible to punish an animal for failing in a situation we have created, the whipping and kicking in front of the jump contributes to increasing the horse’s stress level in this very important approach zone. Stress or tenseness in a horse creates a kind of “background noise” that by the next approach can overshadow the rider’s aids to make the horse go forward. This can result in yet another refusal or cause the horse to flee as quickly as possible over the jump to avoid any further unpleasantness.
Then we have once again tried to solve a problem that was blocking the road to winning but by doing it wrong, we have moved ourselves and the horse even further away from this goal.
Instead, by helping the horse become relaxed and comfortable in the approach zone, the rider will have a much better chance of keeping the horse responsive to light aids and clearing the jump with calmness and balance.
WATCH THE VIDEO
I have made a video of my young horse “Solero” and on our website www.blueberryhill.dk you can follow her education as a show horse. You will find it under the NEWS section. On the first video you can see how the horse stops, but my most important purpose is to keep it relaxed in the approach zone. Hoping that when I approach the jump again there will be no background noise to overshadow my “go” aid. I stand still at first to make the horse quiet and comfortable before backing away and retrying.
Besides wanting a calm horse when approaching I also wish that the horse maintain its direction and straightness.
By backing away instead of turning around, I minimize the risk that the horse later will feel inclined to spice up the stop by spinning around.
If a horse should stop it should at least stop straight and in the middle.
As an extra bonus I get the chance to make the horse actually respond to my aids. Because technically that’s what it does not do when it refuses, even though I said go..
So I back away to avoid future spinning and at the same time teach the horse that it’s alright to be obedient to my aids even when in the scary area of the jump.
Since my main purpose is to make the horse feel relaxed and confident in the ring, I choose to canter past the double combination at the end of the course. I felt it was just too hesitant to be able to cope with that at the time. Of course I get disqualified for jumping the wrong jump, but I’m sure my horse couldn’t care less, and at the next show it will most likely be much more relaxed and able to handle a double nicely.
Video 2 shows how the horse already at the next show is less inclined to stop. She is still a little hesitant with some of the jumps but because she is more relaxed my light aids gets through to her easier.
So I allow the young and inexperienced horses to stop in order not to risk installing an association with the flight response. It is not because I don’t wish to win prizes, rather because the chance of winning better prizes in the future will be is much increased this way.