TRUE TRAINING 95 - Avoid Drills

Jun 15, 2024 by Janet Jones

True and I have been working on low hops over the past few posts. Soon we’ll raise them and get to some two-foot obstacles—still quite low, but a little bit more demanding. We’ll also work on jumping gymnastics and related jumps.


But today I want to address a practice I see often in teaching young or green horses to jump: drilling. By this I mean working the horse back and forth over the same jump again and again, with no other activities in between. Or working to fix one problem all in one training session and in one location of the arena… usually over the one same tired jump.


Neuroscience shows us that drilling doesn’t work well on humans or animals. Right now, True and I warm up for 15 minutes, then work ground and raised poles into our full training session. In other words, while we are doing flatwork we also trot or canter over an occasional pole at some random location in the arena. Each training session combines flatwork with hopping, rather than doing all the flatwork first then all the jumping.


After True does especially well with a pole or low hop and gets his brief rest walk as a reward, then we might go back to practicing simple lead changes, or shortening and lengthening the trot, or leg yields for a few minutes. We still have jumps to complete, but not all at the same time. At the end of a session, we might have hopped a raised pole at a canter 20 times during 45 minutes of work… but not 20 times in a row.


This practice provides variety for True’s mind and good cross-training to reduce injuries. It  keeps the horse’s mind from anticipating what’s next. It also teaches that hopping over a pole—or later, a 3’ coop or a 4’ oxer—is not a big deal or a special achievement. It’s just another part of the day’s work. Nothing to get nervous about.


Drilling creates boredom, demands too much of most horses’ minds, and tends to yield injuries because the same strain is placed on the same tendon over and over again. Unfortunately, it’s pretty common even among trainers who might not realize they’re doing it. Try to avoid hopping a horse back and forth with short approaches and exits over the same jump repeatedly. Try to prevent a big distinction between flatwork and jumping during a lesson.


When there’s a problem, address it in many different locations and manners rather than just over the top of the same jump. The jump itself is not the problem! Instead, address the problem mounted and unmounted; on a longe line or free; in the arena or outside of it; with other horses or in isolation; some today and some tomorrow or next week.


The period during which we are teaching a horse to canter low hops is perfect for adding variety. Use poles of different colors or different patterns, switch between 2’ standards and 5’ standards, toss a jacket or horse blanket over a low top rail. Seek materials that will produce novel appearances—barrels, tires, cones, tree branches, sandbags. Cover sturdy cardboard with “brick wall” wallpaper and lean it against a jump. Be creative!


My suggestion to avoid drilling and offer variety goes for horses in all disciplines, not just the ones learning to jump. The reining horse should not do a quick walk-trot-lope warmup and then practice spins for the next 45 minutes. Dressage horses should not be following the same old competition pattern day in and day out. And please, stop loping those cutting horses for two hours straight, in the same tiny circle, before a cow appears. It’s bad for their legs, and worse for their minds.


True and I cross-train for versatility all the time. In a typical week, he will learn or practice dressage maneuvers, low jumping, trail gates and bridges, easy long-distance hacks, walking through water puddles, hindquarter pivots, and galloping in sand. The key is to provide lots of task variety, while also offering consistency in the way you ride and approach each task.