The first few weeks of training a pony to jump are the most important In his jumping career. If things go wrong now and he gets hurt, frightened or confused, he will find it very difficult to jump with confidence later on in life.
For this reason, you should let somebody experienced take your pony through the basic stages, unless you are already competent.
It is vital that the rider remains in good balance, without interfering either with the pony’s mouth or his back, even if he gives a very awkward jump. The pony must feel that he will keep out of trouble, so long as he does his best although he may make mistakes despite being in capable hands.
Each pony is different and must be brought on at the speed which suits him best. Rush him and he may start refusing. A good pony could then be branded as a ‘stopper’, when all he needed was a little more time to learn. If possible, work with your trainer. You can help by moving poles and altering distances and heights. This way you learn how to position the jumps correctly when you take over the ride. You also get to know what your pony’s strengths and weaknesses are so you can get the best out of him yourself.
Jumping lessons can start when the pony is four years old. Walk, trot and canter should be well established so that he is neither rushing or refusing to go forward freely.
The equipment you need at this stage is very basic: three poles (more if you can get them) and something to raise the poles off the ground by several centimetres. Plastic Bloks are ideal; milk crates, small oil drums or rubber tyres make good substitutes. You don’t need to paint everything in bright colours, although this is helpful when you are preparing for your first competition.
The first phase is often better done on the lunge. Without the interference of a weight on his back, the pony moves more freely. He only needs a lunge cavesson and rein and protective boots.
Begin by walking the pony over a single pole on the ground until he is completely confident and relaxed. If he refuses, lead him over or let him follow another pony but do not have a battle or he will associate poles with fighting!
Go on to place two and then three poles in the lunge circle, so that he steps over them each time he goes round. The distance between the poles should give him room to take a few steps in between. Don’t worry about precise distance: just leave enough room for the pony to work out for himself how to adjust his stride as he meets the poles.
Give him every chance and don’t place two poles very close together. If you do, the pony will probably try to jump them in one go and this won’t help him to think about his stride pattern without guidance from his rider.
If the pony lowers his head to look at the poles this is good. He is already learning to round his back properly. But if he rushes and gets over-excited, move so the pole or poles are outside the lunge circle. Once he is walking calmly on the lunge again, move the circle to take him over the poles.
You may need to do several lessons in the walk – lasting not more than 15 minutes three or four times a week. Once the pony understands that he must pick his feet up to clear the poles, the trot phase should create few problems. Lunge him in the same way, with one pole at first until he keeps to a steady trot rhythm. From one pole, go to three, carefully placed trotting poles. The distance between them varies from pony to pony but should match his natural stride. This makes trotting poles easy for him and builds his confidence. Get him used to approaching straight, calmly and with impulsion; working on the lunge encourages a round outline. Go from three to four or even five poles in a line and work from both reins. You may need to wedge the poles so they can’t roll and get under the pony’s feet.
The first jump
You can place the first jump on its own or at the end of a line of trotting poles. Using the poles first is ideal if you have enough equipment. Put the last two poles together to make a low cross-pole. The line should consist of three trotting poles, a ‘missing’ pole, followed by the cross-pole itself.
As the pony is already used to approaching a line of poles in a good trot, he will then learn to jump without rushing or losing impulsion. Don’t be surprised if he knocks the jump down the first time this is a new experience for him and he must learn to pick himself up.
If you are not using trotting poles in front of the jump, make sure the pony is going calmly when you put him at the cross-pole for the first time. Don’t move your lunge circle to include the jump until he is working correctly. Always remember to work on both reins during each session.
One pole in front of the fence is always helpful in placing the pony for a correct take off, particularly as you start to vary the look of the fence. This is not a ground line but a placing pole and lies between 1.8-2.7m (6-9ft) in front of the fence. The pony should take off between the pole and the jump. The distance will need altering as the pony gains in confidence and strength.