Forwardness is not an Option

gaited horse over fences

By Jennifer Klitzke

North Run Farm’s heated indoor arena made for a comfortable respite on a brisk Minnesota winter morning. Makana enjoyed digging into the unfrozen footing. The quality of her flatwalk, running walk, and canter have noticeably improved through the jumping exercises we’ve been practicing.

square haltHowever, it was a typical Minnesota winter day and Makana’s first encounter with the heater’s song and dance. Her forward flatwalk came to a screeching halt each time she neared the humming heater. It wasn’t the jumping lesson I had in mind, but it was the lesson we needed. Len coached me through a course of distractions and Makana’s willful choices not to go forward. No doubt schooling through episodes like these will prepare us for future shows when we ride by clapping crowds, flapping banners, exuberant children, and the announcer’s booth.

Below are three take-a-ways from my January lesson at North Run Farm.

Lesson Tip #1: Working through distractions. Each time Makana would stop, stare, and blow back at the heater, Len suggested that I keep Makana’s shoulders, head and neck straight with a slight inside bend, and inside leg on. Then direct her into a small circle, gradually enlarging the circle until she willingly moved past the spooky object.

My previous approach to riding through Makana’s spooks has been to make her face the object, but this allows her to stop, and that rewards her for spooking. When it comes to jumping, stopping and fences do not mix. “Forwardness,”  Len said, “is not an option.”

After a few circles, Makana settled enough to proceed with jumping. Len set up a ground rail spaced nine feet before an “x.”  The ground rail was meant to minimize her choices as she learns how to jump—choices like becoming airborne six feet ahead of the jump, rushing, and jumping flat.

flatwalkAs I approached the line, Makana was still reluctant to move forward over the ground rail and “x” toward the heater. Len observed that my grandma-leg cues were not getting the desired response, so he popped a lunge whip behind Makana as she approached the line. Thankfully, Makana began to change her mind about jumping toward the heater.

Lesson Tip #2: Rider’s position on a green horse. Len noticed that Makana became distracted each time I tweaked my aids through the line. He encouraged me to circle into a forward canter, set my aids as I approached the line, and remain quiet through the line so that Makana could focus on learning. With calves clamped on and hands low with a light contact, I made it through the line without changing my position, my contact, and my legs. I felt the HUGE difference this made!

Lesson Tip #3: Break down confrontations into small bits. Confrontations are part of life and training horses is no exception. When things go wrong, Len encouraged me to simplify instead of trying to fix multiple issues at once. First focus on forwardness, then add forwardness and straightness, then forwardness, straightness and frame, then forwardness, straightness, frame and the fence. Most important, don’t proceed to jumping until the horse is forward. Remember, forwardness is not an option.

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