There’s more to starting a hunter than jumping fences.
This is the second in a two-part series. Need to review Part 1?
The American Quarter Horse Journal talked to AQHA Professional Horsewoman Lainie DeBoer of Forest Lake, Minnesota, about what to look for in a hunter prospect and what to do to make sure your horse is set up to excel over fences.
The Next Step
The rails are a good way to start when you’re ready to set up a jump. Put a rail on the ground. Then about 8 feet out, make a little pile of rails on the ground and then another pole 8 feet out the backside.
The single rails before and after the pile of poles put your horse in the right place, so he knows when to take off and when to land. It’s what I would call training wheels.
Let your horse trot through a couple times and get used to it and see how he handles it. Then, depending on the horse, you can build an X, and then a little bigger X or start to add a flower and see how he handles the flower.
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Then add a rail on the ground about five strides later and gradually make that a little X with a flower. Eventually, make it a little oxer so he can start to understand width.
When setting the strides, we work off a 12-foot stride, allowing 6 feet for takeoff and landing. With a green horse, it is sometimes nice to snug-in the line so it is comfortable for him and he doesn’t feel rushed. Everything is really slow. As he gets more comfortable trotting an X and cantering to an oxer, you can slowly pull out the distance to the ideal 12-foot stride.
Add a gradual halt before the corner on the backside of the line to teach your horse to balance his stride after the jump to get prepared for a lead change or a corner.
I don’t believe in rushing a horse through the process when starting him. You want to really give him confidence and put him in the best possible place. Keep it very easy and straightforward so he doesn’t get scared. Then you will be able to see what instincts he has.
The first thing you want to look for is a horse’s instinct at the jump. When he is jumping for the first couple of times, don’t panic if he stops at the first jump. You want him to study the jump with his eye, put his nose on it.
If he stops repeatedly, then you will have to let him know that is not OK. Some of my best hunters were spooky at the jumps when they first started. If you handle him the right way, you can turn that into an advantage down the road. As he jumps more and more, the jumps will get less scary. Spooky will turn into respect for the height of the jump.
When he jumps, what’s his instinct? Does he jump high or loftily and effortlessly? You don’t ever want him to feel nervous or quick, or for him to struggle to get over and across the jump. He needs to feel athletic, effortless and eventually, confident.
Before your horse can jump, he needs to know the basics. Watch as Youth World Cup exhibitors compete for top honors in hunter under saddle, a universally popular class.
Look at how he handles himself in different situations. If he jumps the jump a couple of times, does he keep his form? Does he get better or worse? Does he get bored or more interested? Or if he pulls a rail, does he get scared and shut down or come back and jump higher? How he mentally handles different situations tells you a lot about his future.
Look at the first couple of jumps, where he puts his legs. As he gets more and more confident, his form should get better. You want the horse to study the jump, that’s a really good instinct for a hunter. All of my horses that have been really good at studying the jumps tend to be a little more careful: They jump a lot better, they really crack their backs, and they tend to be more competitive.
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Final Exam: Good Form
You want your horse to have a bascule shape over the jump: He needs to be soft through his back, his neck comes down, and as the neck comes down more, the knees come up evenly. You want a horse that is athletic and jumps with a lot of scope over the jump.
Never forget the hind end. You want your hunter to have a nice push behind and follow through, not just drag his hind end. He should keep it straight and really fluid.
When he’s getting round over the jump and lifting his knees, it’s in a slow manner. You want him to be slow off the ground and really powerful from behind. That’s always my favorite.
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