When it comes to jumping we tend to place a lot of emphasis on a horse’s natural ability to jump over things (regardless of whether it’s a natural obstacle or a manmade fence). Of course, that will play a role in how well a horse jumps, but there’s a lot we can do to help improve how horses jump, allowing them to jump bigger, better, and higher every time.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a novice jumper or a seasoned pro it’s important to have a good foundation to build on. Once you’ve got that not only can you return to it whenever you need to but it’ll also help you to improve your horse’s jump.
How can you improve your horse’s jump?
There’s a common misconception that if you want to improve your horse’s jump you need to jump him more. Of course, there is some logic in this but before you can start to jump more you need to go back to basics, getting your horse to enjoy jumping and improving your seat. Once you’ve done this you’ve then got the foundations to do anything. Want to jump higher, no problem once you’ve got the basics.
Ever wondered which breeds are best for jumping? Check out our guide on the top jumping breeds.
1) Build your horse’s confidence
We tend to think of horses as being naturally good at jumping but while they will leap over an obstacle in their way most wild horses (and domesticated ones too for that matter) will choose to go around an object. This, combined with the fact that horses are prey animals, means that they can often become nervous and fearful when fences are involved.
To a horse a fence is no different from a confined space, they don’t know what’s at the end of the jump so don’t know what to expect. This is can be even worse for cross-country fences where there’s no way for the horse to see through the jump, resulting in him refusing a jump or rushing it and effectively bolting as soon as he lands.
In order to help your horse overcome this fear you need to get him used to tight and narrow spaces. This might sound like an impossible task, after all, you’re trying to override his instincts, but it’s actually easier to do than you might realize and all you need is a few barrels.
To start with place the barrels so that there’s just enough space for your horse to get through but not much more. Slowly walk him through before turning him towards the barrel as soon as you reach the other side of them (this will stop him from trying to bolt but will also give him a chance to see there was nothing to be scared of) before pausing and then repeating in the opposite direction. If your horse isn’t happy going through the barrels though move them further apart until he is (reducing the gap when he is comfortable). Once your horse is happy doing this you can repeat it at a trot before moving up to a canter.
2) Teach your horse to enjoy jumping
Horses don’t know what’s the other side of a jump so it stands to reason that they can become anxious when approaching an obstacle. This can obviously make them nervous but you can use ground poles to help show them there’s nothing to be fearful of and ultimately teach them to enjoy and even embrace jumping.
Begin by placing some poles on the ground with the last one being between two fence posts and ask your horse to walk over it. As soon as he’s done that turn him to face the poles and praise him. This will show him there’s nothing to be frightened of but will also let him know that he’s done the right thing.
Once your horse is happy with this repeat it at a trot and then canter before increasing the height of the last pole until it becomes a small jump. Again repeat at both a trot and canter until your horse is comfortable with it.
In time your horse will learn that there’s nothing to fear about jumping an obstacle and will eventually enjoy it.
3) Improve your posture and jumping position
You might be trying to improve your horse’s jump but it’s not all down to your horse, you have to play your part too, and improving (and maintaining) your posture and jumping position is a big part of that. Not only will it make jumping easier for you but it’ll also improve your confidence and that of your horse.
The ideal jumping position, which is referred to as two-point (because you’ll only have two points of contact with the horse – your right leg and left leg) will help you to move with your horse as he takes off and jumps the fence but if you can’t maintain this it could unbalance your horse which is why you need to work on improving it. The best way of doing this is to practice your jumping position on the ground at a walk and then at a trot and eventually at a canter. Once you can maintain this it’s time to practice holding the position over small jumps.
Posture wise it’s pretty similar to how you ride normally but to summarise:
Head – Unless you’ve just landed and are looking for the next jump you should keep your head up and forward.
Back and shoulders – Your back should be straight while your shoulders should be back and level but relaxed.
Hips – The space between your thighs and your body should be reduced, this position is often called closing your hips.
Seat – You should be slightly out of the saddle but not in front of it, just above it. If you’re ahead of the saddle you’ll put extra weight on your horse’s forelegs which will make it harder for him to jump.
Hands – Many new jumpers don’t know where to put their hands when they jump but to start with they should be around a third of an inch up your horse’s neck with your hands resting on either side of their mane. This will give your horse enough room to stretch his neck if he needs to.
Legs – Your thighs will help you to maintain your position in the saddle but this is one of the areas that will also tire quickly which is why it’s crucial you practice on the ground first.
Knees – When jumping your knees should be in contact with the saddle (but not pinching or gripping) and should create a 90° angle with your upper legs and your seat. Shortening your stirrups by one or two holes will help you to maintain this position.
Feet – Your ankles and your heels will take the majority of your weight but they should still remain relaxed and flexible. As always your heels should be down but in a natural, unforced way. If you intentionally push your heels down you’ll end up tipping slightly forward.
Find it difficult to maintain your posture? How to improve your posture when riding.
4) Strengthen your horse’s hindquarters
It stands to reason that a horse’s ability to jump well comes from their hindquarters (after all it’s what propels them into the air) and to some extent the stronger their hindquarters are the bigger they can jump.
That said though you can’t simply ask your horse to perform a number of crunches to strengthen these muscles. The good news though is that there are a number of other exercises you can do with your horse to help tone and strengthen the muscles that allow them to jump so well.
Transitions – Quickly transitioning from a walk to a trot and back again as quickly as possible will help to get your horse to engage his hindquarters. This not only gets him thinking about what he’s doing but also helps to build muscle.
Poles – Ground poles can help with so many different things and strengthening your horse’s rear end is just one of those things. Practicing trotting (and then cantering) over poles will force your horse to lift his legs to avoid hitting them. This in turn will strengthen his hindquarters (and his shoulders too).
Rein backs – While the benefit of asking your horse to walk backward is often overlooked it will actually teach him to shift his weight to his hindquarters. This will improve the condition of his rear end but will also help him to get more power in his takeoff.
Does your horse’s topline need improving too? How to strengthen your horse’s back.
5) Develop a good rhythm
When it comes to jumping a good, flexible canter is always helpful but a rhythmic pace is far more important. It will help your horse to get a good takeoff but will also allow you to control your horse’s speed without having to fight against his enthusiasm.
Once again ground poles are the answer here! Placing them on the ground far enough apart to enable your horse to canter over them will help to keep his rhythm but adjusting the spacing between them will help him to alter his stride without changing his rhythm.
When your horse has got the hang of this you can practice adjusting his stride as you get nearer to the poles and again after them.
6) Understanding your distances (and takeoff points)
As a general rule, the optimum takeoff point for a horse is roughly the same height as the jump (for example, for a four-foot fence the horse will takeoff approximately four feet before the obstacle) but horses don’t always meet this point in the best way which is where you come in. You need to understand how far away your horse is from a jump and how quickly they’ll get to that point, adjusting their stride when necessary.
If your horse’s stride is wrong they’ll almost definitely get the jump wrong too, they’ll either stop in front of it, run out or even try and jump it from a standstill. This can unbalance you which will have a knock-on effect of causing your horse to lose confidence in you, knocking your confidence too.
Get your distances right though and your horse’s confidence will improve which means they’ll jump better.
7) Approach jumps straight on
It might sound like a daft thing to say but when approaching a jump you need to keep your horse moving forward toward the fence. If they start weaving or curving as they approach it they won’t have the right angle for takeoff. This means they won’t have enough time to see the fence and will therefore be more likely to be nervous or fearful of the fence.
You can easily help your horse approach the fence straight on by placing ground poles on either side of the jump. This will show your horse where he needs to go but will also help you to keep him straight.
8) Allow your horse to jump
If your horse starts to slow down as he approaches the jump it can be tempting to ‘help’ him over by using more leg or a crop but this can often have the opposite effect in the long run. Instead, understand why he’s slowing and tackle that rather than his speed (or lack of it).
Not sure if you should ride with a crop? The pros and cons of using a crop.
If your horse is slowing before takeoff then more often than not it’s because he’s nervous or frightened which is exactly why forcing him over the jump won’t work. Work with him to build his confidence and he’ll stop slowing pretty quickly.
Likewise holding your horse back can also have the same effect, especially if they’re full of adrenaline and are nervous. Again building their confidence and being able to adjust their stride will help to calm your horse down and stop them from rushing the fences.
9) Build your horse slowly and gradually
Lastly, but to some extent most importantly, you need to take your time with your horse, building them up slowly. Don’t make it too difficult for them otherwise they’ll become frustrated and will be less likely to learn. The less your horse feels pressured the more they’ll enjoy it and the quicker they’ll learn.
Even if you only improve one notch at a time it’s better than not doing so at all. It’s a far better way for both you and your horse to learn.
I hope you found this article helpful. If you did I’d be grateful if you could share it please as it would really help me.
Over the years I have tried hundreds of different horsey products, from various blankets and halters to different treats. Some I’ve loved, others I’ve hated but I thought I’d share with you my top all-time favorite products, the ones I never leave the yard without. I’ve included links to the products (which are in no particular order) that I really think are great.
- Mane ’n Tail Detangler – Even if you never show your horse you’ll need to detangle his tail from time to time (and possibly his mane too) which is always a challenging chore! I’ve found that if I run a little bit of detangler through my horse’s tails every few days it stops them from getting matted up and makes combing them easy, even if they’re coated in mud. I don’t know if I should admit to this or not but it also works wonders on my hair.
- TAKEKIT Pro clippers – Over the years I’ve tried a lot of different clippers and while some were obviously better than others I found these to be by far the best. They are heavier than a lot of other clippers but for me, that’s a good thing, it makes them feel more sturdy and hardwearing. On top of that they have a range of speeds so are just as good for clipping your horse’s back as they are his face. I also like the fact that they come in a handy carry case but that’s not for everybody. The company that makes them is super good and incredibly helpful too, a real bonus these days. The only thing I wasn’t keen on was the fact that it doesn’t come with any oil, but that’s not a major problem as it’s not difficult to buy lubricant.
- Shire’s ball feeder – There are so many boredom buster toys out there but I like to use these every day, regardless of whether or not my horses are bored. I find that it helps to encourage my horses to problem solve by rewarding them with treats (or pieces of fruit) but it also mimics their natural grazing behavior which helps to keep them calm and de-stressed.
- Horse safe mirror – This is a strange one that many people are surprised about but I like to put horse safe mirrors in the trailers as well as in the quarantine stalls. It helps to prevent the feeling of isolation by giving the impression of other horses being around. Being herd animals horses can get extremely stressed when they feel that they’re on their own but with these stick-on mirrors, they believe that at least one other horse is with them.
- Rectal thermometer – I know this isn’t glamourous at all but it’s vital for your horse’s well-being to be able to check their temperature and a rectal thermometer is the easiest way of doing this which is why I’ve added it to the list.
I’ve also put together a few shopping lists of essential items that I’ve found helpful over the years. I’ve broken the lists down into different categories rather than put everything in one massive list 😉