TRUE TRAINING 94 - Use Low Hops to Fix Basic Problems

May 15, 2024 by Janet Jones

True is getting more reliable by working at a trot and canter over low hops not much more than a foot high. I hope your horse is, too. Before we proceed to jump gymnastics, related jumps, and larger jumps, now is the time to perfect the basics. At this stage, a young horse should be approaching and exiting a low hop at the same consistent pace, with no speeding up or slowing down. She should hop the center of the jump without drifting right or left. She should not be moving too fast or too slow, and she should not rub her toes on the poles or clear them with feet to spare.


True has had two problems with the basics. First, he tends to become excited when jumping. After the first few calm hops, his head comes up, his pace increases, he gets stoked. The low-hop stage is the time for me to correct that. So right now, he and I work on slowing down, calming down, keeping the task easy in his mind. When he rushes, we circle around and try again. Sometimes I stop and back him a few steps very quietly and calmly. If he really hurries, we stop and stand for two minutes, which feels like forever to a horse who wants to go. Then we proceed. When True slows and calms, I reward after the hop by letting him walk for 15 or 20 seconds on a loose rein, stroking his neck, and telling him what a good boy he is.


The second basic problem, which I described way back in Post 44, is that every now and then True jumps several feet higher than necessary. And he does this at random, so the rider can’t prepare. With time, practice, and rider improvement, that problem is lessening. I needed to approach low jumps with greater relaxation and steadiness to help True stay consistent in his jump height. When he overjumps, we continue at pace and circle back to try again. In other words, we keep working. When he hops just high enough to clear a low pole, I reward with the walk, loose rein, strokes, and praise. We always end the session on a successful note because ending is the greatest non-edible reward of all.


Every horse is different, so yours might display other problems at this stage. If you have trouble with pace, work on consistency at walk, trot, and (later) canter without using poles at all. Counting strides or steps often aids consistency because your brain can hear the difference in speed even when you can’t yet feel it. When your baby has learned to remain consistent, go back to a single ground pole and work up to low hops again as I have described in other posts. But this time, focus on consistent pace. Don’t increase the difficulty of any step until consistency there has been mastered.


If your horse is too fast, circle before or after the hop—wherever the speed tends to increase. If necessary, stop or break to a slower gait. Move away from the jump or ground pole, and establish the speed you want. Maintain it for a couple of minutes. Then, at that same speed, try to approach the pole. Stop and back up before reaching the pole if the horse speeds up. Or approach on a straight line, then circle away gently if the horse gets too fast. The key is to continue working calmly on the problem until the horse responds. When he does, reward!

"Calm" is key to all of horse training. These problems tend to be frustrating. Maybe we're short of time, annoyed at a spouse, or not feeling too well. Don't ride youngsters on those days. Come back when you can focus on the horse and remain in emotional control.


If your little guy hops too slowly, add some leg and soften your hands. Also, work on a faster pace at trot and canter in flatwork, where no poles are used. In other words, teach the horse which speed you want before you expect him to maintain it over ground poles or low hops. If your horse is super slow, or reluctant, you might need to increase speed over ground poles in a round pen or on a longe line.


For those of you whose horses tend to rub poles with their toes, continue working when they touch a pole, but walk and reward when they don’t. You can also use knowledge of equine brain science—yellow is the strongest color horses can see. Use a yellow pole, and your green bean will lift those toes over the top of it naturally. Then you can reward and go from there. You can learn more about this from Horse Brain, Human Brain—equine color vision, how horses learn, non-edible reward, and more—and you can apply it to any maneuver you wish to teach: Western or English, jumping or reining, cutting or dressage, driving or riding. It's about equine brains, not equine disciplines.


If your youngster drifts, teach her to approach the center of a ground pole. Horses aren’t born knowing this stuff! First, determine that you and your horse can trot or canter perfectly straight down an unfenced line without steering corrections. When you’ve mastered that, set a ground pole and give your horse lots of room to approach it—100 feet minimum. Look straight ahead at eye level at something in the distance—a tree, a gate, a cone—that allows you to mentally mark the center of the pole. Keep your eye on that target throughout your approach, hop, and exit. A distant target will help you to feel small diversions from center, which you can then correct. Eventually, proceed to low crosspoles. They’re excellent for correcting drift because the center is obvious for both horse and rider.


Some trainers use two angled poles to correct drift. These angle from a foot or two off the center of a raised pole and down to the ground, as if to funnel the horse toward the center of the jump. I prefer not to use these because they create too much visual confusion for young or green horses. Even one angled pole tends to mentally block the horse’s visual approach. Work on steering and straight lines in flatwork instead.


Finally, in all of these corrections, look to yourself first as the potential problem. Often—no, VERY often—we riders cause horses to drift, speed up, slow down, move at an inconsistent pace, rub poles, or jump too high. Be sure your jumping position and flatwork skills are top notch when training a young or green horse to jump. This is not the time for you to be in learning mode; you need to be the teacher. Be sure you have plenty of experience jumping all sorts of different obstacles on different horses. Your baby can’t learn the process from someone who doesn't have the riding skill for it. And when you get even a little off balance, a young horse has to compensate in odd ways that can cause mistakes, injuries, and fears.


To prepare yourself, practice on a school horse. Take more jumping lessons. Video yourself to see if you are inadvertently causing the horse to drift or hurry. Often we are not aware of these errors. Hire a trainer for help. You don’t have to hire long-term; just request a lesson or two to solve a  limited problem.


Ground poles and low hops are the perfect activities to correct basic jumping problems before they grow. Taking the time for corrections now will save you months of effort in the long run and preserve your horse’s trust in you. It’s super easy to correct a problem on a ground pole. Not so much over a five-foot oxer!