You are cantering towards the jump... 3... 2... 1... But instead of the 'Jump' that should have followed the 1; it seems like your usually trusty horse decided to test both of you by inserting a little 'half stride' in there before take off! The result is you doing a great Thelwell impression and your horse doing his best helicopter move, straight up and straight down... Not a good feeling for either of you.
Riding a horse that chips in or adds an extra half stride in before a jump is not enjoyable for anyone; the rider, the person watching or the horse. Of course, it can happen to anyone so every often if the stride which the fence was approached on was wrong, but for many horses it becomes a habit that seems like it is impossible to break.
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This habit is uncomfortable and does little for building confidence to clear a course of fences safely. However before we look at how to begin working with a horse who adds a little stride here and there, it is important to firstly realise what this is and why it might be happening.
When a horse chips in before a fence, he has literally fitted an extra stride into a space that there really was not enough room for that stride
He decided that rather than taking off where he initially met the base of the fence, he would add a quick little half stride in there and then take off. It often results in a 'cat jump' which is all four legs really taking off and touching down at the same time, due to the loss of impulsion or energy. It can also result in a 'helicopter jump', which is a jumping effort, but with an extremely steep up followed by an extremely steep down, with just the width of the fence in the middle!
In both these situations the horse is not using his back or body to the best of his abilities and it feels really uncomfortable for the rider. Because of the loss of 'flow' in the stride, the rider very often ends up either too far ahead of the movement or left behind, with both scenarios resulting in both horse and rider not being correctly prepared for the next, upcoming jump.
There are lots of reasons your horse chips in before a jump or fence. It is also worth remembering that most horses will do this at some point in their training, however we are dealing today with a 'chip in addict', or a horse that does it more times than not. In order to identify why, we must first look at the horses approach to the fence..
Is it rushed? Is he leaning or pulling on the reins and being heavy on the forehand? Is he moving forward, or are you literally scrubbing and kicking every stride just to get to the base of the fence? With regards to the rushing or leaning, this may be due to a lack of training and, therefore, a lack of confidence in your horse. He may be off the mindset that he must 'just get it done' as quickly as physically possible. Unfortunately when this happens, the riders reaction and how they deal with it plays a big part in not only the result for that particular fence, but also long-term as well.
Retracing some basic steps in his training is very often the way to begin overcoming this challenge
If your horse is on the other side of this coin, he is not taking you to the fence at all, this can also be a training issue. However, it may also show signs of lack of confidence in his abilities. Again, taking things back to basics is the key to building on this and allowing your horse to develop a knowing that he can indeed successfully make it from A to B over a fence.
Sometimes, a horse that chips in is doing so because of how he is being ridden by the rider... A nervous rider often tends to throw themselves into their jumping position a little early, which will encourage the horse to 'chip in' before the fence. This is often a vicious cycle to break; the rider is nervous because the horse is rushing, the horse begins to chip and rush even more because the rider collapses before the fence and 'drops him', both emotionally and physically, which causes the horse to rush even more. And so it goes on and on...
So, once we have discovered why your horse chips in before a fence, we can then look at how to begin working through it so we can get a good take off point and reach each fence in the best possible way.
A good place to start working with your horse on the flat and improving his general responsiveness and understanding of your aids in the saddle. Does he listen when you half halt? Or do you find yourself pulling and hauling to get him to 'steady' a little?
Does he move forward when asked to do so from your leg? Or do you have to kick and click like a crazy person to get any sort of movement happening?! These are basic training issues and need to be addressed before we even think of turning our hoof to jumping. It sounds repetitive, but this is because it is true... You have to have the basics mastered before you can move on to more 'exciting' things in the saddle!
Your ability to balance things with a half halt while keeping your horse moving forwarding is vital to being able to approach any fence successfully. Keep in mind that a horse who chips in every now and then is a horse who is not so confident in jumping. He needs a rider who can allow him to build his confidence in a controlled, systematic and patient environment
So, once you have the basics working, I suggest beginning to allowing your horse to figure things out on his own, without a rider, in a controlled environment. This can either be lunging or loose schooling, but the word controlled is the important one in the previous sentence! Loose schooling or lunging a horse over fences does not mean chasing them into a frenzy around the arena at dizzying speeds. It is simply creating a situation that is conductive to an optimum jumping effort, either one or two fences. Then allowing your horse to approach and work things out himself.
The benefit of loose schooling is that you can have two jumping efforts, 2 measured and correct stride lengths apart from each other. The first jump, a cross pole, is to set your horse up correctly for the second fence, which can also be a cross pole or an upright or parallel. Due to consistently meeting the second fence at the correct distance, your horse will begin to figure things out his himself.
It is also important to remember that the 'correct distance' is what is correct for him, not trying to force him into a standard jumping distance. Rather allow him to first build his confidence in his own abilities using a distance that suits his current way of going or current stride.
Once he is able to begin 'picking' a correct take off point, without any anxiety, you can then slowly begin working over adjusted distances
Also, don't see the loose schooling or lunging as a once off occurrence. Rather, try to incorporate them into his training for as long as necessary. Very often with horses, it is a lack of balance that causes them to be unsure of the jump, leading to a chip in here and there. The rider will definitely affect this balance, or lack of, so allow him time and space to work it out alone before then adding a rider into the equation.
As well as the above, you can begin working over ground poles in the saddle with your horse. Laying out a single ground pole and cantering over it can be a helpful exercise for both horse and rider. With regards to the horse, we are looking for a balanced and rhythmic approach and also, a canter that is taking you to the fence, rather than you having to ask and push for every stride. Try to keep the rhythm as consistent as possible, and the hind quarters underneath the horse.
You can also use this to begin training yourself to see a better stride before the fence. Simply counting backwards from where you think there will be three strides before take off is a fantastic exercise to get you in rhythm with your horse and begin seeing the stride. Only when you can actually see the stride can you then look at adjusting the stride. Before that it is just the luck of the draw - never a good idea when there are jumps involved!
As you canter in on your 'approach' to the fence start 3... 2... 1... Jump. If you get in wrong the first few times, don't worry. Just keep trying to gauge that point where you are three strides away. Later you can make things a little more difficult for yourself with 5... 4... 3... 2... 1... Jump. You will find that the more you 'tune' your eye into the approach, the further out you will be able to see if the take off point is a good one or is a little too far away or close. This will give you time to adjust the strides in between which will in turn, allow you to arrive at the jump in a better position to clear it comfortably.
From here you can add more poles on the ground at 'related distances' to each other. Work at maintaining the forwardness of the canter while keeping the rhythm and balance all the way through. Also work on your timing of the jumping position. As I mentioned earlier, it is tempting to get into it a little early if your horse is rushing, but this will only make the problem worse.
Try to use your 3... 2... 1... to steady yourself and only allowing your body to follow your horse at the 'Jump' part
Once both you and your horse are more comfortable and have stopped any added strides or half strides before the pole, you can begin to build some small fences where the poles are. Remember that if you horse chips in, a lot of the time it is a confidence issue, so don't be tempted to push him further than he is comfortable. Just because he is 'able' does not mean he is comfortable doing it!
Your horse's ability to see a stride takes time to establish, just like yours. Give him that time and it will pay dividends later when you are out on the track. Count yourself down to the base of each fence, 3... 2... 1... at all times initially (in your head when in company if you want!), but use it as a way to balance both of you on the approach to the fence.