Does your normally relaxed, sane and rhythmic horse turn into his version of a racehorse each time he rounds a corner and spots anything that resembles a jump when you are riding? Your quiet calm ride turns into a flat out gallop, resembling the rush for the finish post on the final furlong of Aintree... (minus the cheering crowds!)
Unfortunately horses rushing or racing over fences is a common problem for riders and one that, once all pain or discomfort has been ruled out as the cause, only patience, time and consistent correct schooling can help remedy and slow down your jumping experience.
The audio version of this blog post is available HERE
Rushing over jumps may begin to become a habit because lots of varied triggers for different horses and riders. One of the more common ways is due to a lot of riders becoming anxious over fences and the horses, picking up on this anxiety, become a little more tense themselves. This feeds the riders anxiety, which in turn feeds the horses and a vicious cycle is created between horse and rider every time a fence appears on the horizon
Alternatively, a lot of horses when jumping, it takes practice to maintain the same speed around a course of fences. Most horses enjoy jumping and become naturally more excited and 'goey' as they progress through the course.
The down side to this is that instead of getting their back end underneath them, the horse flattens out and is pulling forward with the front end as the energy literally falls out through the front door. When the horse reaches the fence, he cannot get the sufficient height with his heavy front end, or use his back correctly over the fence which can lead to knocking rails or worse.
Rushing fences also leads to even more anxiety in the rider, who will generally do one of two things..
Firstly, they lean back, behind the movement and haul on the reins with all their might. While the horse will usually lift its head, it will also hollow its back, making it again impossible to use its back correctly. Also, when they do get to the fence, the rider is so focused on slowing the horse, that they usually end up being left behind over the fence, which causes discomfort and a loss of balance for both horse and rider.
The other way I see riders react to a horse that runs at fences is to lean forward, hamster style, and just hold on. They become completely ineffective as a rider, they are no longer supporting or carrying themselves and while the horse is getting faster and faster, heavier and heavier on the forehand, the rider fails to do anything! This particular situation generally ends in two ways, the horse runs out of the fence with the rider coming off over the dropped shoulder, or the rider stays on for the jump, but hits the deck at the inevitable next turn after the fence.
As I mentioned before, in order for your horse to correctly use himself over the fence, the power must come from his hind quarters. If you can just imagine a cat preparing to jump up onto a windowsill... He first 'rocks' back onto his 'hocks', placing his back legs squarely underneath his body and then, from that position, springs up by pushing off with his back legs, up onto the windowsill. Now, I do realize that a horse is built a bit differently to a cat, but the same principles apply. His hocks must come more underneath his body in order to propel him cleanly over the fence.
Not only that, if the rider has collapsed their upper body, or gone into their jumping position too early which often happens with nervous and anxious riders, all their weight is now sitting squarely on the horses front end, making it even more difficult to lift the and shoulders and front legs out of the way of the fence. This is often why the horse will run out... It just becomes physically impossible for them to safely get from A to B over the fence.
All of these scenarios only lead to further issues for both horse and rider and I believe when teaching a seasoned rusher to slow down over the fences, the training has to first begin with the riders mindset and control of their body and aids, and only once this is right, then the horse can be worked on.
A secure and correct jumping position is vital when working over bigger fences, but it is also necessary when working with a horse that rushes their jumps. Being able to direct the horse, while keeping out of his way over the actual fence is an essential element to riding clear rounds.
One of the most important habits we can cultivate as a rider is to be able to ride through and focus on the end goal, regardless of what distractions or invitations crop up while getting there.
What I mean by this, is keep the focus on your aids and that you are correctly asking for what you are desiring your horse to do, at all times. Don't allow your body to shut down, and just become a passenger. It is your responsibility as a rider to keep your sights set firmly on whatever goal you have set for you and your horse.
However, often the goal is simply just too big, so rather break it down; instead of looking to ride a course of fences, see the course as a series of individual lines that are merely joined together. Rather ride each individual line, stride for stride, and when you have successfully completed one, then move onto the next line, again stride for stride.
This is easier said than done, but in order to slow things down physically, you must condition yourself to slow them down mentally first.
Begin with riding a straight line, on the quarter line of your arena, over a single pole in canter. Focus on riding that line, as straight as you possibly can and halting while still on the line before the corner or bend. Notice how, when you are thinking about halting before that corner, you are preparing for that all along... Not only focusing on the pole anymore. In fact, the pole is merely an obstacle to overcome before you get to what you are truly doing, which is the halt.
It is important to note here that the line must be straight. In order to successfully navigate a course of connected fences, you horse must be able to jump on a straight line. This is not only essential to getting over a single fences, but also related distances, lead changes, and riding correctly through the corners as well. You will often see that many horses that rush fences, will tend to drift to one side or the other and this becomes more noticeable through combinations. Of course, straightness is also the key to preventing run outs. Work on establishing straightness as the rule early in your horses training, so as to minimize problems later as the fences get higher.
Once you and your horse are comfortable able to this on both reins, build a small fence where the pole is. SMALL... 18 inches or so. I want the fence to be so inconsequential that, again, it is merely a small obstacle between you and that lovely straight halt.
If you find that, once the fence has been added to the exercise, your horse is beginning to rush, I want you to take things back again... Are you riding each stride with purpose or are you simply reacting to your horses rushing and riding defensively or not at all?
If indeed your horse is rushing, place a ground pole about 9' either side of the fence. Again, try to ride the fence with the same controlled, rhythmic canter that you achieved when there was only a pole there and aim for that straight halt afterwards.
The audio version of this is available on SoundCloud HERE
This may take weeks to achieve; horses develop habits, just like us and unfortunately rushing is a habit that will take time to reprogram in your horses head. All the while as you are working through the exercise, continuously check that you are indeed riding the actual line and not just reacting to the situation.
Stride for stride... Keeping straight all the way through and asking your horse to follow your lead and do the same.
As you and your horse learn to wait for the fence to arrive, I would then suggest moving the two ground poles further away from the fence, however this depends on the length of your arena. If possible, moving them 5 strides either side of the fence and then, working through the same exercise, balanced, rhythmic strides to the fence and away from the fence resulting in a straight halt before the corner or line.