I love learning how people train their young horses. I was recently in Germany and went to a training barn where they breed 1,000 horses a year. They send hundreds of these horses through a training program to learn both flatwork and jumping skills. I had the good fortune to see how they train their 3 and 4 year old warmbloods how to jump.
The first step in teaching a horse to jump is to send it through a free jump exercise. Typically, it is a pole on the ground, 6 feet in distance, then a low jump (cross-rail), then one-stride (18 to 20 feet) to an oxer. The pole sets the horse up for the low jump and the low jump sets it up for the oxer. As the horse gets more familiar with the exercise, they raise the oxer. There are several goals with free jumping. First, it teaches the horse how to jump without putting a rider on its back. Second, it creates a positive experience for the horse as there is not any real chance for error. Third, it gives people an idea if the horse has talent to be a jumper.
Setting up the free jump exercise has to be done on the long side of an arena. You have to be able to send the horse down the jumping “chute” without them figuring a way out. This is done by having the arena wall on one side, and then creating a fence with standards and poles on the other side. You need to be able to move the horse through the chute and also give them enough room before the pole on the ground to establish the pace you want.
Before setting any jumps, the horse needs to go through the exercise several times with all the poles on the ground. Allow them to get comfortable with moving over the poles and get use to what you are asking. After they have gotten comfortable with that, put up the cross-rail and leave the oxer down. Then, make a vertical out of the oxer, don’t start with an oxer. Do this once or twice and then add the oxer pole to the back of the vertical. If 18 feet gets too short for one-stride, lengthen the space out to 20 feet. You want to make sure the horse is doing it comfortably.
When free jumping, you need to make sure you do not allow the horse to rush the exercise. They should come into the exercise at no more than a trot. The goal is to trot over the pole to the cross-rail, then canter one stride to the oxer. The horse needs to learn to not be nervous and to enjoy the jump. This exercise needs to be relaxed… if you horse gets frazzled, then stop and do something different. If you horse is doing well, you can raise the height of the oxer as you see fit.
I would not do this exercise more than 10 to 12 times in one session. Also, when you are finished, lower everything back to just poles on the ground and have the horse do it one more time. This will guarantee you end on a positive experience.
Remember, when training a horse to jump, everything you do needs to be positive and fun for the horse. If the horse gets scared, or knocks a jump down, just lower that jump and do it again. Besides teaching a horse to jump, this exercise builds confidence. When a horse can jump without the weight of a rider on its back, it learns its own form and will continue what it has learned when a rider does jump with the horse .
Stop the Drama Going Through the Free Jump Exercise.