Improve Your Horses Form Over Jumps

How to Train a Big OTTB to Use His Body Over the Jumps and Improve His Form

Panel Experts: Jim Wofford and Linda Allen

Submitted by member: Courtney

I have a 6-year-old OTTB that I have a few months of flatwork into. He is pretty responsive, works nicely off my leg, and has a nice balanced canter. His trot work seems to be a little heavy still; a work in progress. What I would like help with is teaching him to use himself properly over fences, and to improve his form over fences. He is big and lanky (17.1 hands), but he is very willing. I took him to a little schooling show this weekend.

Answer by Jim Wofford

You and “Marquis” are on the right track. He is calm to his fences which is the main thing with OTTB’s, probably because your eye is “patient” in the approach. He is going to take longer to mature, and you have to be careful not to over-jump him or over-work him. We have to learn to be patient outside the arena as well as inside the arena. He has a nice canter, although right now I would describe him as having a “three-and-a-half-beat” canter. Counter-canter exercises will improve this as will work through small bounce gymnastics.

To improve his trot, use cavaletti instead of ground poles, and gradually increase the height of the cavaletti. This will cause him to use his hocks and stifles, and will strengthen his hind end. You can find examples and illustrations in the wonderful reprint of Ingrid and Reiner Klimke’s book, Cavalletti for Dressage and Jumping.  Finally, if you have the terrain, spend half an hour walking on a loose rein up and down hills. Do this a couple of times a week after his training is through for the day. It will be good for his body, and excellent for his mind.

Answer by Linda Allen

First, let me congratulate you on what appears to be a wonderful start with your 6-year-old OTTB.  From the video you sent in of him riding, he seems to have a great attitude and willingness to pick up an even rhythm and treat the jumps with confidence. Your ride in that class perfectly suited a horse learning about a totally new discipline.

That said, I can see that the next step in the training of this tall and leggy individual will be to improve his balance at the canter and put his attention on his jumping technique.

Most thoroughbreds come with quite a long natural stride, and will tend to simply step over lower Hunter-type jumps.  I find that various gymnastic exercises can make them more aware of exactly how they are jumping.  The advantage to this type of work is your ability to fine-tune the exercise to encourage the result you want, and then repeat it to help fix the technique for a long term result.

A series of ground poles, cross rails, or low verticals set on a fairly short bounce and/or one-stride distances will develop balance and teach your horse to center his jumping arc over each element.  This can then let you add an oxer somewhere in the middle of the line.  The oxer, by making small changes to its width and height, will teach him to be quicker with his front legs and follow through behind.

A gymnastic line should be set with distances that suit the horse and what you want them to learn.  They can begin at either the trot or the canter to the first element.  A horse that is a bit hot or that doesn’t yet have a balanced and quiet canter, with the ability to maintain it without too much hand or leg from the rider, should start with a trot entrance until they settle.  Distances will range from 8′ to 9′ from a ground pole to a small jump, and from 18′ to 19′ from a small jump to the first following jump (one stride) when trotting in (use approximately 21′ to subsequent jumps).

For your horse, I’d try a series of small ‘bounces’ using between 10′ and 11′ for cavaletti, or (1′ to 2′ tall) for small jumps.  Using shorter distances will teach your horse not to hurry but to control his balance and jump over, and not at, the fences.  It will be easy for your horse to cover normal show distances in that situation—after he learns more about technique.

When your horse is relaxed through a line of small bounces, build a bounce, followed by 20′ to 22′ to a small oxer, and then the same distance to another pair of bounces.  You can then slowly spread the oxer (bit by bit in both directions without changing the distance) and raise it so your horse feels like he’s totally focused on how he is using himself.  This is only one of many gymnastic lines you could try.  See lots of others, along with some tips on fine-tuning the distances for your particular horse, and what you want to accomplish, in my book “101 Jumping Exercises for Horse and Rider.” It’s also available as an iPhone/iPad App.

With the good job you’ve done so far, I have no doubt that this lucky horse will make a very successful transition to his new career!

For further reading, check out Bernie’s blog post: “How to Improve Your Horse’s Front End and Jumping Technique.”

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Training the OTTB Horse
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EquestrianCoach.com member, Adult Amateur Jumper rider Stacy, reached out to us to get training help from Bernie for her off the track Thoroughbred horse, Diesel. Before the training session, Bernie familiarized himself with the duo by watching a video of them on course, determining what issues needed to be addressed. It became apparent that Stacy was having trouble maintaining an even pace on course, that Diesel avoided contact and wouldn’t use his neck over the jumps and got quite hot, occasionally bucking and evading the bit, between the fences. Watch as Bernie returns to basics with this team, using the simplicity of the Forward Riding System to re-school this horse and provide valuable tips for Stacy to apply at home.
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Training the OTTB Horse – Session Two

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Training Level Eventer and EquestrianCoach.com member, Kristen Schalck, gets a free training session from Bernie with her 9 year old OTTB (Off The Track Thoroughbred), JC. Watching the show jumping round Kristen presented, Bernie got a sense of just how he could help them. Kristen had some lower leg stability issues and JC had a tendency to get a bit too aggressive at the jumps, particularly in combinations, and jump past the arc. Tapping into his reservoir of knowledge gained through many years of experience with Thoroughbred horses, Bernie introduces them to the Kusner Gymnastic. This exercise proves to successfully back up JC over the jumps, while allowing Kristen to perfect her automatic release, maintaining the contact in the air that so many Thoroughbreds appreciate.
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Jim Wofford

James C. (Jim) Wofford, 71, was born and raised on a horse farm in Milford, Kansas. He is a graduate of Culver Military Academy, and the School of Business at the University of Colorado (B.S. Bus. Admin. ’69). Wofford, a 3-time Olympian, has spent his life with horses, and is one of the best-known Eventing trainers in the world today. In 2000, Wofford was listed by the Chronicle of the Horse as one of the “50 Most Influential Horseman” of the 20th century, and in January of 2012, he was awarded the Jimmy A. Williams Trophy for Lifetime Achievement, horse sports’ highest honor. A Hall of Fame member of both the United States Eventing Association and Culver Military Academy, Wofford trains at his farm in Upperville, Va., and travels extensively, teaching and giving clinics.

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