Hey all! Today I would like to give you all some tips on how to improve your jump courses on a high strung horse. Anyone who has ever competed in Hunters, Jumpers or Eventing has either seen a fence rusher or ridden one. The thrill of the sport seems to affect certain horses more than others, with the horses exhibiting their over excitement in anticipating fences and rushing the coming strides to the fence. This kind of ride can be gut wrenching due to the fact that when even the best jumping horse rushes his fences, form is thrown out the window and safety becomes a big concern. Sometimes it is fear in place of excitement that fuels a fence rusher. Maybe that horse, or rider, has had an accident in the past and in their apprehension overcompensate in their jumping effort. This problem in less experienced riders can be especially alarming because the more anticipation for the fence the rider has, the more the horse will anticipate and rush at the fence.
Dealing with a fence rushing horse can be a lengthy process and how you handle the problem depends on how it was rooted in the first place. First you need to determine if the rider is at the proper jumping level and is confident riding the horse that they are on. If a rider is nervous about making it over the fence, the horse will display it as apprehension. Same goes for the mental well-being of the horse. The rider might be totally comfortable jumping preliminary but the horse might be a fresh five year old that needs more experience to build it’s own confidence. This shows the need for a good awareness as a rider of your horse’s attitude towards his work. Important things to consider are the horse’s past including how he was trained, any past accidents and what his current training level is. Consider these things for the rider as well. Going back to basic fundamentals of jumping is always a safe bet. Ground poles, no stirrup/no hands work, gymnastics and combinations can be very helpful for both horse and rider confidence.
Specifically my problem as a developing eventer was the wrong horse-rider combination. My trainer deemed me as having “an electric butt,” able to amp up any horse for the jumping ring. Meanwhile, I was on a Morgan mare that was extremely Type A personality. She was so willing to succeed in her job she would just about burst with excitement when we got near the jump ring. Let me tell you, dressage was always a struggle. This mare also happened to be an extremely apt jumper with great form, clean tight knees and correct leads throughout her courses. Speed courses were a blast but at the end of the day, riding became exhausting for both of us and it all came down to loving jumping just a little too much.
My trainer loved to test our skills as a horse-rider team so she would come up with the most technical jump schemes she could. Gymnastics with 2 strides, 1 stride and even bounce fences and corners were used to slow us down and test our concentration. Besides good old gymnastics, I benefited greatly from flat exercises known as spirals. We would start on a 20m circle (we all love those right?) and gradually leg yield into smaller and smaller circles until we reached about a 6m circle. This whole time keeping her in balance with the correct bend and not allowing her shoulders or haunches to fall in or out of line. After one 6m circle we would gradually start to leg yield back out to the larger circle. We would do our spirals at the walk and trot, sometimes throwing a jump in the middle but always going back to the spirals. This didn’t give her time to anticipate and as expected, she jumped beautifully at the right spot. Another favorite was figure eights with a 2 fence bounce gymnastic in the middle. Anything to keep her attention so she couldn’t get the time to think about rushing.
This process of warming up for work over fences became our daily routine and gradually I could work up to more demanding training without her losing her focus. With a fence rusher like this mare, it really all just came down to consistency. If she started to go back into her old habits, right back into spirals or figure eights. Over time it became less than minutes and she would immediately calm back down enough to reattempt whatever we happened to be working on. After learning to work together, riding became pleasant again. It was not a constant battle of trying to contain a rushing horse but instead a peaceful understanding that she was a very sensitive horse that would react to the slightest stimulus. I hope this gives you all a better insight into this very common jumper issue. Cheers!