Refusals can be perfectly all right.
For show jumping riders it is very important that the horses do not stop in front of the jumps but learn to jump no matter what type of scary and colourful jumps the course designer has come up with.
But is it enough just to jump or is it important HOW the horse jumps the fence?
And are we maybe hindering our future wish to produce clear rounds and win prices if we focus too much on the horse not refusing to jump in the beginning of its jumping and show career??
The writer of this article thinks so and that’s why she very often allows the young horses to refuse at the jumps for the first couple of horse shows.
HORSES THAT RUN
As a spectator to show jumping competitions one often see horses that are running almost wildly through the course and in some cases it takes more or less harsh bits to keep their speed down. A general perception is that the horse runs because it loves to jump and just can not wait to be allowed to jump the fence.
This perception is not correct. The horse runs when jumping because at one point there has been created an association between the jump and the horse’s flight response.
This is illustrated quite well by the type of horses that almost throws themselves forward when they see the jump but yet slams on the brakes in the last second. If the horse really threw itself forward because it could not wait to jump why does it then refuse to leave the ground when it gets to the jump?
THE FLIGHT RESPONSE
In nature the horse depends deeply on its flight response to be able to survive. If it has once experienced a situation that called for an activation of the flight response it must remember it forever. This is why this instinct is one of the biggest challenges for a rider to consider during training of horses. One should as best as possible try to avoid situations that activates the horse’s flight response since this can never be deleted from its ”hard disc”. You can apply layers of new operant conditioned behaviour on top of it, but the flight response will always be latent in the background.
What happens when a horse runs badly toward the jump is that the horse’s brain remembers the association with the flight response. When the rider turns the horse toward the jump and the jump “hits the horse’s eyes” the brain registers “danger”. It sends a message to the horse’s legs to speed up and the horse starts to run. Even though the horse runs in the direction of the jump it is still running with a lot of stress and the flight response activated. That causes the horse to overhear the rider’s aids AND does not pay much attention to its legs. This is why horses that run through the course are much more likely to get rails down than horses that gallop quietly and well balanced.
THE FIRST HORSE SHOWS
When a young or inexperienced horse comes to its first show it is quite natural that it is a little overwhelmed by the whole commotion. Sometimes it is a whole big project just to get I tacked up and make it around the warm up ring. The most important job for the rider, I think is to get the horse relaxed and make the whole deal a nice experience. If the horse only jumps 2 jumps in the ring is no so relevant as long as you can make the horse feel that the ring is a pleasant place to be.
Many jumper riders think that the most important thing is that the horse learns that it MUST jump all the jumps, that the horse should always see the finish line. They think that if a horse is allowed to stop in the ring it will continue doing that for ever.
This is where I disagree. Stopping is not an instinct for the horse in the same sense as the flight response. Stopping is a behaviour that can be trained or retrained by the use of proper signals. The better the horse relaxes the more inclined it will be to react to the riders aids and the rider will be able to retrain unwanted behaviour. This is why I don’t worry if I spend my ring seconds only jumping one fence and maybe trotting around in the arena for the rest of the time. A long as the horse stays relaxed.
When a horse enters the show ring for the first couple of times, it is again perfectly natural for it to be a bit spooked by all the colourful jumps. A horse will always respond to the strongest stimuli and that means that if the jump seems very scary to the horse it takes a very strong aid from the rider to get the horse close to the jump. You can say that the jump and the rider have a yelling competition.
The jump yells “Stay away. I’ll eat you if you come closer” And the rider yells” Get over there. I’ll eat you if you don’t”.
This is some dilemma for the horse that gets to choose between being eaten by the tigers that’s inside the jump or the tiger that’s on its back. If the horse is mounted by a rider who strongly believes that it is of most importance for the horse’s future “price-winning-show-carrier” that it understands that it must ALWAYS jump all the jumps and not to stop is never a possibility, this scenario can quickly evolve to a situation where the riders puts a very high level of pressure on the horse to overshadow the stimuli of the jump. This can be a combination of legs, spurs, a whip, loud voices and possibly a few well meaning people from the course crew that walk behind the horse to help get (chase) the horse over the jump. Finally the horse gives in to this massive pressure and FLEES over the jump.
After a few shows following this procedure you might have a horse that does not refuse to jump but instead it is running between the jumps and is more likely to have rails, since it is running with an activated flight response and holds the association that the rider created when the horse was fleeing over the jumps the first times.
If one chooses to disregard the ethical question in handling animals and only holds ones own selfish ambition in sight, (to make the horse jump well and clear while being responsive to information from the rider regarding pace, direction etc and thereby be able to ride fast and clear in an important jump off and win prices) this is (luckily) best achieved by distancing oneself from hysterical and violent behaviour in training.
The most important area for a show jumping horse is what I call “The approach zone” this being the last 2-3 strides in front of a fence. It almost doesn’t matter what the horse is doing elsewhere in the course as long as it’s optimal in the approach zone.
Unfortunately it is exactly in this area that many riders punish their horses for unwanted behaviour as i.e. a refusal. Besides it being ethically irresponsibly to punish an animal for failing in a situation we created, the whipping and kicking in front of the jump contribute to the increasing of the horse’s stress level in this very important zone. Stress or tenseness in a horse creates a sort of background noise that by the next approach can overshadow the rider’s aids to make the horse go forward. This can result in yet another refusal or cause the horse to flee as quickly as possible over the jump to avoid any further unpleasantness.
Then we have once again tried to solve a problem that was blocking the road to winning but by doing it wrong, we have moved ourselves and the horse even further away from this goal.
By instead making the horse relaxed and comfortable in the approach zone the riders holds a much better chance of the horse being responsive to light aids and clearing the jump calmly and balanced.
I have made a video of a reformed runner at his first indoor show since his retraining. I could have added a lot more pressure going to the first jump and he would probably have jumped, but since he has had so much stress and tendency to run between the jumps I thought it better to add no pressure, restore straightness and come again. With this horse I have also added treats in the ring, since that keeps him very interested in me and prevents him from running away and getting too stressed out.. After jump no 5 I halt, give him a treat and walk a circle before continuing. This I do to assure that he stays focused on my aids and does not get faster and faster throughout the progression of the course. So I allow the young and inexperienced or tense horses to stop in order not to risk installing an association with the flight response. It is not because I don’t wish to win prices but because the chance of winning better prices in the future is much increased this way.
So I allow the young and inexperienced horses to stop in order not to risk installing an association with the flight response. It is not because I don’t wish to win prices but because the chance of winning better prices in the future is much increased this way.
Video of the Water jump