Building confidence over fences

I dragged my four pitiful jumps around the outdoor arena this weekend and set up some fences that I thought would challenge Gina without freaking her out.

I set up a small vertical (around 2’3) for warm up using a couple of barrels, a larger vertical (around 2’9), and a Swedish oxer (which was probably only around 2’6 in the middle).

And then Gina and I proceeded to jump around these jumps like it was no big deal. 
Three years ago, I could not persuade Gina to walk over ground poles. Trotting over a crossrail without stopping several times was a huge accomplishment. My dreams of eventing her were in tatters.
I never totally lost faith in Gina, though. I am often foolishly sentimental when it comes to horses; I should have sold her as a dressage or flat horse when I discovered how many problems she had with jumping. But I persisted, because I am an idiot or something.
It’s taken a long time, but I’ve spent the last three years (or so) building up Gina’s confidence (and my own). Here are some things that have worked for us:
  • Focusing on things Gina could do successfully (and easily). For us, this meant we’ve spent a lot of time doing dressage. Gina is good at most dressage-y things, so spending some quality time on leg yields and 20-meter circles and getting praised for it made her feel confident. (And of course, dressage is helpful for many other reasons, too.)
  • Starting and staying small. Once we were able to get over ground poles, we went over ground poles for a loooooong time. We progressed to crossrails and tiny verticals. Only recently I have raised to jumps to respectable heights, because I know Gina is capable.
  • Riding other horses. I make it a point to seek out new and/or different horses to ride. It helps that I have always managed to board at places where people are happy to let me ride their horses. In recent years, there have been warmbloods, Quarter Horses, Thoroughbreds, and gaited horses. Riding different horses forces me to ride more correctly; I can get away with certain tics and habits and tricks on Gina because I’m used to her, but other horses frequently expose my flaws. Additionally, riding my old partner Moe did wonders for my confidence over fences when Gina unsettled it. I trust Moe completely; he will inevitably zoom around at a gallop, leave freakishly long, and possibly knock fences down, but he will never, ever refuse. Riding a horse like that is fun and pretty easy, and makes me feel like I could bop around Rolex tomorrow.
  • Not pushing the issue. I used to be a very firm rider; I would always insist a horse do what I was asking. If a horse refused a jump, I would reapproach until the horse got over it. I am still insistent that a horse do what I ask, but I am much more patient. If Gina (or any other horse) refuses, I evaluate what I could have done wrong. I will lower the fence all the way to a ground pole if I feel like the horse is afraid or overfaced. I focus on staying consistent with my position and my aids. Some days, Gina is absolutely hideous and refuses everything. On those days, I get her over the jump (sometimes lowered, sometimes not), praise her effusively, and dismount. I’ve learned that pushing and pushing and pushing does no one any favors.
  • Exuberant praise, and unemotional discipline. When Gina jumps something, I always scratch her withers or rub her neck and loudly tell her what a good horse she is. (Ask my barn mates; they hear a constant stream of “Good mare, clever horse, good girl!”) When Gina refuses, I give her a tap with the whip behind my leg and represent the fence without saying much and without taking it personally. It’s taken me a long time to not take bad behavior personally. I anthropomorphize my horses (don’t we all?), but the reality is that Gina isn’t refusing because she hates me. She’s refusing because I’m not riding well, she doesn’t feel good (e.g. she’s in heat or tired), or she’s afraid or confused.
  • Getting out of the ring. Show jumping has always been our problem. Gina has always eagerly jumped anything that wasn’t a collection of poles. So, for a long that, that was how I got her to jump. The hunter paces are excellent for this- she happily gallops out over coops, logs, split rails, ditches, and more. I think that instilled confidence in her.
The hard work is paying off. Gina’s jumping more consistently than ever, and I’m actually excited about the prospect of taking her to a horse trial. (You know, once we can find a ride.) Gina now approaches show jumps with the same enthusiasm she shows for cross country. I feel good in the irons, on her or any other horse. The two of us are finally gelling into a real team, which is a great reward for years of work!

Author: Stephanie

Equestrian, amateur cook, people person.

23 thoughts on “Building confidence over fences”

  1. It has been a long road for me to not taking bad horsey behaviour personally!

    Gina is a lucky mare to receive all your patience and praise, so many horses with a "difficult" label could do with a lot more of the two p's rather than harsher discipline. Kudos to you! 🙂

    1. It is hard not to take it personally- when you love your horse, you sort of expect it to love you back and manifest that love in some way! Gina and I have not always seen eye to eye, but I am very glad I have been able to get her over some of her issues. She's been a learning experience for sure.

  2. I really like how you picked apart building your (and Gina's definitely) confidence and that you don't take it personally. The definition of frustration is lack of knowledge. Sometimes what we do doesn't always work for the horse we're on and riding other horses has done wonders for that. I say Bravo! and can't wait to see you out there eventing… After the wedding… 😀

    1. It was very weird for me to realize I wasn't confident on Gina. Or rather, I wasn't confident IN Gina. I would ride hell bent for leather toward every fence, totally expecting her to refuse or blow up. When I dropped the jumps, I really focused on riding quietly and being a partner for her, which worked really, really well!

      Can I get some sort of sign for my wedding that says "I'd Rather Be Eventing"??

    1. Thank you! She is a good horse; I just had to remind her that she was!

      It was hard for me to get over the attitude of "horse is behaving badly because it HATES ME and I am a FAILURE and why does it HATE ME"! I never got overly angry, just increasingly frustrated to the point of tears. I think riding a lot of green horses helped with that. When I started Carson over fences last summer, he had some squirrely moments when he stopped or ran out. I never felt like he was being naughty- he was just unsure of what to do! I had an epiphany that Gina was probably in the same boat, but I'd attached this emotional component to her behavior because she's MY horse and had experience jumping. Once I looked at her behavior from an objective point of view, I was able to handle the situation better.

  3. You go girl!! Gina looks fantastic over that Swedish which, despite being only 2'6" in the middle definitely doesn't look like it (or ride like it!!), and so happy and confident. This is so cool to read, especially given Gina's serious lack of confidence about jumping. Seriously, so cool. 🙂

    1. Thanks! I knew it wouldn't be fast, but I didn't think it would take me YEARS. Oh well, Gina will just be the most balling 18 year old horse out there.

  4. What a great recipe for success!! I definitely need to take up a few of these ingredients, too. Congrats on all the hard work paying off!!!

    Such a cute photo, too 🙂

  5. It really irks me when someone runs into a problem and other people immediately write the horse off, or tell you to sell it. Sometimes these things take time, and they really do work out for the best in the end. I can't wait to see Gina rocking the shit out of some jumps this year!

    1. That irks me too! I understand selling a horse that isn't right for your situation (e.g. you're a beginner who has somehow acquired a 3 year old OTTB), but when a horse has a problem that you ARE equipped to deal with, I think giving the horse a fair shake is appropriate. I mean, am I thrilled it's taken 3 years to get Gina jumped semi-reliably? No, I'd rather she'd have been fine from the get-go, but I feel proud of our accomplishments and I'm glad we've improved.

      We are going to jump the shit out of some shit this year!

  6. i love this post! literally every bullet point i nodded my head thinking 'yesss' – and i think it translates well to rider confidence too. (i esp miss riding different horses bc i agree 100% that it keeps us honest as riders) kudos for having the patience to work through it with her!!

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