1. Check for health issues
The first step is to make sure your horse isn’t in pain. Stopping can often be a sign of discomfort somewhere, especially if the behaviour is new and uncharacteristic for your horse.
Your horse’s teeth, back, legs, shoeing and saddle fit are the first things that should be professionally checked. It’s advisable to get a vet to give your horse a thorough once-over and try to establish whether your problem has a physical root. If all is okay, you can move along to addressing the stopping through other methods.
It could also be an issue with their shoeing - check for blisters or any pain/sensitivities in the legs.
2. Is there a pattern?
Try to consider whether there’s any pattern to your horse stopping or if there was a catalyst for this.
It might be that you had a bad fall at a fence in the past or your horse was overfaced at some point, even if it’s not immediately obvious.
A horse that was not correctly ridden on approach to a jump in the warm up might have had their confidence dented, for example. Very sensitive horses can be upset by much more minor things; even as small as being pulled in the mouth accidentally after throwing a big jump.
Very sensitive horses can be upset by minor things; even as small as being pulled in the mouth accidentally after throwing a big jump.
3. Is it just certain jumps?
Some horses will stop or run out at combinations, some at triple bars, or some at bright fillers or water trays. Could it be that it is only certain jumps that you are experiencing problems at?
The more you can isolate the problem, the easier it is to solve. If your horse only stops at the second element of a double for instance, then all of your work can be focused on tackling that and creating a positive experience at the second element of a double.
Solving the problem
Before any of these approaches can work, it’s important that your horse is light off the leg and responsive to your aids on the flat.
If you have to overuse your leg just to stay in canter or have absolutely no response to a half halt when you need to collect a bit, then it’s going to be very hard to get and maintain a good rhythm to a fence. This in itself can create confidence issues as a poor canter and bad rhythm often make for awkward jumping.
Here are 4 possible solutions…
1. Reduce the height
For horses with confidence problems, the best approach is often to reduce the height and jump small jumps more often. The idea is to always set the horse up for success, so the jumps need to be small enough that your horse can easily pop over them from a trot or even step over them from a walk initially.
2. Don’t rush
When horses stop it’s common to see riders either go too fast and rush the horse (which can create more panic and doesn’t always allow the horse time to register and assess the jump) or subconsciously ride without impulsion or commitment so that the stops are easier to sit. If you are very nervous, it’s a good idea to get an experienced rider to deal with this stage of retraining.
Approach in a steady trot so that you can control the pace and line more easily. Keep your leg on and expect your horse to jump, but if they do stop, don’t panic. This is where the fact that the jump is tiny can help you. Don’t reward the horse by turning away; simply ask them to step over it from a walk or trot – but be prepared to hang on to the martingale or mane if your horse tends to cat leap when they’re not sure. As soon as he jumps, it’s important to make sure you give with your hands and offer plenty of praise.
Jump a few times until your horse is approaching and going over calmly, then call it a day.
Doing this a few days a week can help horses who lack confidence. You can also use a lead horse initially with this approach and ask your horse to follow immediately behind the other horse. If you choose this route be sure to choose a calm and sensible horse who will jump without any questions and who won’t overjump or rocket off on the other side!
3. Practice makes perfect
A common problem is horses who stop at spooky fences and fillers; this is generally that the horse is unsure or very cautious. While it might not feel like it, this is normally a positive trait for competing as these horses are generally quite careful!
For this, the approach is similar to above. It’s important to get your horse used to jumping a variety of fillers. Again, the jumps need to be kept small enough initially that the horse can step over them.
Have your horse jump a new filler at a very small height each day and be creative – they could be tablecloths, feed sacks, buckets, stuffed toys or whatever else you can dream up.
If you have an area where you can make a loose jumping lane, this can help the horse to build self-confidence over fillers. Another way to boost confidence with jumping fillers is to place them at the jump wings and gradually bring them closer to the centre of the jump. Lead horses can also be helpful in this regard.
4. Time for a change?
If you tend to only jump and never school, hack, or do anything to break the routine then it’s also possible that your horse is getting sour. Horses often need a mental and physical break from their ‘day jobs.’
If you feel that your horse doesn’t want to go into the arena, isn’t enjoying his job and might be getting ring sour then a holiday or a change is often just the ticket.
Either let them have a few weeks off with plenty of green grazing and paddock time (a horse’s favourite medicine!) or try completely breaking the routine and spending a couple of weeks hacking, doing groundwork or boxing out to beaches or forests for some fun trail work or swimming or just generally trying something totally different.
If your horse returns to his work and is a changed personality, it’s important that you take this to heart and make sure to offer a greater variety in his workload in future.
Not only does it help to keep them mentally fresh, but working different muscles and ligaments has excellent conditioning effects too.
Words by Sophie Baker