Imagine you’re aboard a green horse who is cross-country schooling for the first time – a daunting experience to say the least. You trot towards the water jump, close your leg, the horse sees the water (scary, I know), and instead of happily splashing through, he hits the breaks and stops, refusing to get one step closer. What do you do?
In any equestrian discipline that involves jumping, the horse’s job is – obviously – to jump the jump. If a horse fails to do so in competition, the horse and rider combination is penalized. So, in theory, one would want to train a horse to never stop at a jump. Right? Well, get this: When working with a young horse, a green horse, or a horse with anxiety issues, Tik Maynard says he will willingly allow the horse to refuse a jump.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. How could allowing a horse to refuse fences possibly be okay? Are you training him to stop? Will he learn a bad habit? You probably have a lot of questions running through your head right now, and we did, too. Let’s hear Tik out.
"I’m not teaching a horse to go through water. I’m teaching a horse to be confident about water."
“People have a problem with this [refusals] because of the mindset and the idea that they’re allowing the horse to stop,” Tik says in response to these queries. However, he explains, if a horse is allowed to systematically process what is being asked instead of rushed into jumping something that scares him, the horse will be more confident in the long run.
“The biggest problem with making a horse jump [when they are afraid or confused] is two things. One is, if you have the wrong timing – you’ve over-faced your horse – and you ask the horse to jump and then they don’t, they’ve learned that’s one more time they can be behind your leg, which you never want them to do. Then they’ve learned they can stop when the leg is on. The second thing that happens is you use too much force and the horse jumps, but they weren’t ready for it, and now they’ve got anxiety associated with jumping.”
“What often happens is people try to go straight from fear to indifference and they don’t give the horse time to experience curiosity and play.”
You’ve probably heard of the Kübler-Ross model, more commonly known as the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. People don’t always go through these exact steps, but it’s considered a predictable way people process grief and loss. Tik assigns a similar emotional pathway to horses when encountering new things: fear, curiosity, play, and indifference.
Fear: A horse’s instinct says to run. React first, think second. In domestic settings, we want the opposite. We want our horses to become more like people. Think and then react.
Curiosity: If the fear is reinforced (e.g. the thing they are afraid of chases them), the horse will become more scared. If it is not reinforced, like a tree or ditch that stays the same, we arrive at curiosity.
Play: The horse has some kind of interaction with an object or jump. He might paw at it, put his nose on it, drink from a water crossing.
Indifference: This is where we want to be when jumping a course in competition; the horse is indifferent to the thing that once scared him or to the types of obstacles he may encounter. Now they can pay attention either to you or look ahead at whatever it is you want them to pay attention to. For example, if there is a jump in the water, they have to be indifferent to the water and focused on the jump.
“What often happens is people try to go straight from fear to indifference and they don’t give the horse time to experience curiosity and play,” Tik says. Allowing an inexperienced horse to go through each of these stages might mean it takes longer for him to initially jump the ditch or cross a creek. However, if you adjust your goals and be patient, the long-term effects may be more beneficial because he will be confident negotiating that type of obstacle.
Allow the horse to look and study the obstacle.
Let’s take a water jump, for instance. Every event horse in the world has to be to gallop through the water. As he progresses up the levels, he will go from simply crossing water to jumping an obstacle in water to dropping down into water, etc. If from the very beginning the horse can emotionally process what a water jump is, that there is no reason to fear it, and become indifferent, the rest will come easier.
“I used to teach cross-country to my horse or student and think that going through the water or over the ditch or up the bank was success or failure. Either we got the horse over it or we didn’t.” Whereas now, if Tik can get the horse past the stage of fear, even if he still cannot get the horse through water, it can be a successful day.
“This is the biggest paradigm shift in my thinking is that I’m not teaching a horse to go through water, I’m teaching a horse to be confident about water. So if it takes me two hours to build my horse’s confidence about water and that’s my goal, then I'm way more comfortable going through this process than if my goal is to get through the water.”
Let’s walk through that process, shall we? With Tik’s philosophy of emotional processing in mind (fear, curiosity, play, and indifference), imagine again that your green event horse just refused to go into the water jump. What now?
1. Take your leg off
“I try to never let a horse get behind my leg. If I have a horse stop at a jump, I don’t want to do it with my leg on. That’s not a way to build confidence. But if you let a horse come up to something and they can stop and they look at it, they can build confidence about it. So if I put my leg on, I want my horse to be in front of my leg 100 percent of the time in 100 percent of situations. If I’m approaching a jump where I think my horse might stop, I won’t even ask them to go.”
There are exceptions to this, of course. If the horse is more experienced and is fooling around or being rude and will probably go with very little effort from you (light leg or a tap of the whip), then go ahead and kick on, Tik says.
2. Allow the horse look and study
“Wherever they stop the first time, I’ll let them stop. I will compromise a lot on how far they are away from the jump.” However, the horse must be looking at the jump, not left or right or back at the rider. The horse must study the fence with his eyes and ears.
“If he’s not looking at it, I don’t compromise on that. I’ll use leg, spur, a little whip, but it’s never to ask the horse to go forward. I’d rather him go backwards and look forward than look left or right. If I use the leg or stick, as soon as the horse looks for [the jump], I stop.”
3. Get closer and repeat
After the horse has calmly studied the jump from a distance and is relaxed where he is standing, turn the horse around and approach the jump again, ideally getting closer to it the second time. If the horse stops again, he still has to study the jump. Rinse and repeat. Each time the horse stops and studies, he’s reaching the stage of indifference from that distance (we’re skipping play at this point, because there is nothing to play with yet).
4. Look from the edge and across
Eventually, the horse will get close enough to the jump that he will be at the edge of it, at which point he can play or interact with the jump. Don’t let horses dig or roll in the water (because you’d hate to wreck somebody’s water jump) but the horse can smell it, put his nose in it, paw at the surface, or step in it. Hang out here until the horse is indifferent. The next step is to go all the way through the water or over the ditch or off the bank. Approach again and give it a try.
“If I allow them to go through all these steps first, the vast majority of the time, the horse is going to jump across it themselves anyway without the whip or a lot of leg. Their own momentum will take them across. It’s much easier for a horse to jump than stop if they are not afraid. Slamming on the brakes is not fun for a horse.”
5. Now Add Height
What we’ve walked through is an exercise for fences without height – a water crossing, ditch, bank, it could even be applied to a pole on the ground – or very small jumps. Once you start dealing with height, there are many more components involved including speed, distance, and momentum. “Which means you want to go through this process when it’s small.”
Over time it becomes a habit for the horse to bypass fear and be curious about something that is new and different. Eventually the time it takes for them to go through this process gets shorter and they ideally can go through it without stopping.
Allowing a horse to look and study things he’s afraid of and learn to instead be curious and ultimately indifferent is a game you can play with any horse, of any age, unmounted. Allow them to learn to overcome fear without pressure early, and they will have more confidence as their training progresses.
What do you think about this method? How do you handle a green horse that stops at jumps?
Photos by Lauren DeLalla.
Written by Hossein Maleki
Having grown up on horseback, Leslie Threlkeld, Managing Editor at NOËLLE FLOYD, treasures her career in the equestrian industry as a writer, photographer, and eventing technical delegate. Leslie thrives on frequent travel but never tires of returning home to the serene mountains of North Carolina.