Rushing and Refusing Fences – How to Help
(published in Horse Power magazine)
Take a step back and look at it from the horse’s perspective. Leave your crop back in the barn so you’re not tempted to use it—a refusal is usually a message from your horse that there is some reason they cannot jump. Recognize the communication and try to figure out what you or your environment are doing to impede your horse’s progress.
Remember that hitting your horse will just frustrate him even more, likely resulting in even more refusals, rushing the fence, or the horse trying to leave you in the dirt. There is never a good reason to whip your horse for refusing a jump.
The four most common reasons horses usually refuse and rush fences are:
- Rider error (improper balance, timing, bad line to the fence, etc)
- Lack of confidence— the fence is scary
- Lack of confidence—the fence or take off spot is challenging and the horse is unsure if he can do it successfully
- The horse is fatigued/sore and physically can not jump
If your horse refuses fences because he just doesn’t feel like jumping, and you’re absolutely sure it’s not one of the four reasons above, then give that some thought. Maybe you need to go back to the basics and build a better relationship with your horse so that he wants to work for you, or you may want to consider giving your horse a different discipline that doesn’t involve jumping.
Also remember that horses get bored with routines that never change, so changing up how and what you jump can make it more fun and interesting for your horse. Remember to only jump your horse one to two times a week. Jumping in excess will put your horse at risk for lameness.
Each of the reasons for refusal can be recognized and fixed:
Rider error: If the rider is affecting the jump you’ll know because the horse will change his behaviour based on the rider. For example, if a horse is refusing because the reins are too short, making him unable to jump, your horse will either refuse the fence and then tug on the reins, or speed to the jump and jump the fence with a hollow back. Once you loosen the reins, your horse will start jumping calmly and willingly. If the refusal comes because of a poor set up to the fence, then make sure he gets a fair approach. If the rider two points too early, causing the horse to refuse, then the horse will jump properly when the rider starts waiting for the horse.
Remember that how you ride a fence will affect the next fence, so if you yank on a horse’s mouth over one jump, then the next fence he may rush/refuse even if you correct yourself for the jump. If you do correct yourself to the jump, then it is the next jump that should be normal again. Horses who experience a lot of rider error may need more correct jumps from the rider before they trust the rider again, but it will happen with continued correct riding from the rider.
If you don’t have anyone to watch how you’re jumping and give criticism and pointers, set up a video recorder and watch yourself, or even if someone can take pictures as you approach and ride over the fence can be very helpful to look at for feedback.
- Give a fair approach—a minimum of three canter strides to the fence
- Be centered and straight to the fence—correct any leaning or misalignment before you get to the fence
- Have a spot in mind—look for the take off spot. If you recognize a distance for take off may be long or short, then prepare yourself to two point at the right moment
- Don’t choke up on the reins—give your horse room in the reins to lower his head and use his neck to help him jump smoothly.
Lack of confidence—the fence is scary: This type of refusal is easy to recognize because the horse may try and refuse, slow down, and/or run out several feet before the fence. The ears will be pricked toward the jump, the horse may snort, raise his tail, and the horse’s stride may become stiffer and shorter.
When the horse stops at a fence, it’s important to keep the horse stopped in front of the jump. Do not let him turn or go around the jump. We want to teach our horses to face what is scary and figure out that it’s not that scary after all. So give him a chance to settle, even sniff the jump (halt in front of the jump until the horse shows a sign of relaxation – breathing out, flicking an ear, etc), then turn and leave at the trot. It’s important not to leave at the walk because the horse may think you are rewarding him for stopping at the jump; by leaving at the trot you are reminding your horse he is still in work. Trot only far enough out to give yourself room to turn back around and approach the jump at a trot. If the fence is large and requires canter, then canter or have someone else lower the jump. Approach the jump with a loose enough rein to allow the horse to jump and to ensure you stay out of the horse’s way.
Repeat this step as many times as needed until the horse jumps the fence. If you have done more than five to seven tries then you should consider lowering the fence. Once the horse has cleared the fence, allow the horse to walk and reward with a gentle rub. Give the horse a few moments to recognize the reward (a few seconds to a few minutes of walking/standing), and then try the fence again or move on to something else.
It is important that you do not smack a horse that refuses because he is scared. Smacking a scared/anxious horse will only make him more scared and more anxious. This is because instead of only being afraid of the jump, he’ll now be afraid of you too. An anxious state of mind is not a safe one—a nervous horse turns to fight or flight mode and may rear, buck or bolt.
Being patient with your horse will teach him you’re a respectful leader that he can trust. When you have a horse that trusts you, he’ll be more willing to jump next time. By having patience and repeating this approach as many times as required, the horse will learn the pattern and will understand that you will not rush him, but also that you’ll be persistent until you get what you want. The next time the horse refuses a fence it shouldn’t take as many tries to get over the jump, and soon the horse will refuse less and less until he never refuses. This is because of increased confidence in your relationship and leadership.
Lack of confidence—too challenging: The horse will take you to the base of the fence and may even make an effort to go over the jump by raising a foot, reaching over with his head, or by jumping the first part of a combination. The difference between lack of confidence too challenging and lack of confidence too scary is that with lack of confidence too challenging the horse will still stay in a calm thinking mode, the head stays relaxed, the body relaxed, the ears will flick forward and backward paying attention (instead of mainly being pricked forward at the jump), the horse will not snort or raise its’ tail in warning, and the movement of the horse will stay relaxed.
When the horse refuses, make sure you keep him facing the jump. Then assess if what you are asking is reasonable and fair based on your ability, your horse’s ability, the environment (footing, weather, set up, etc), and your horse’s current condition (is your horse ill, fatigued, sore, or dehydrated?).
If what you are asking is reasonable and fair, then continue with the steps listed above for refusing due to lack of confidence—scary fence. Approach the fence, and then if you get a refusal, wait, retreat and re- approach until your horse offers to go over the fence. If the horse has refused a part of a combination, start from the beginning of the combination. If you have tried more than seven times, consider lowering the fence(s) to build up your horse’s confidence. You should also be considering your position and how you may be affecting your horse. Are you jumping before your horse (two pointing too soon)? Are you too tight on the reins? Are you throwing yourself at the fence (doing a dramatic two point)?
Your horse is physically unable to jump what you ask: You can recognize this because your horse may be panting or sweating which shows he’s tired, he may be limping, feel stiff, or appear off, and/or the environment may not be suitable that day (muddy, slippery, too deep of footing, etc). The horse will remain in a calm state of mind.
You need to ask yourself—is the weather too hot? Does your horse have a thick winter coat that’s causing him to overheat? Is he dehydrated and in need of a drink? Is he low on energy and in need of a supplement, or time off? Is he stiff or sore (stepping short and not using the full range of motion of his limbs? Is he limping or head bobbing)? You may be able to recognize whats wrong when you ask yourself these questions:
- Is the footing okay (too muddy, too hard or too deep)?
- Is the tack affecting him (is he tossing his head and swishing his tail into and at the canter suggesting a poor saddle fit? Is a martingale too tight?
- Are bandages/ boots secured?
- Does the horse move ‘sound’ (evenly with his strides with no limp or stiffness)?
- Does the horse look and feel healthy (breathing/heart rate is normal, hydrated, energy is good, etc)?
If the horse is physically unable to jump then no matter how much you ask him to jump he’ll keep refusing, even at low heights. If by any chance he does jump, he’ll likely knock the fence and might hurt himself. If you ask yourself the above questions you can likely pinpoint the problem and recognize the situation. If you ask a fatigued or injured horse to jump, you run the risk of crashing through the fence, falling, or causing further injury. It is dangerous.
Often I see horses swishing their tail after jumps or even bucking or rushing after jumps. This is usually from one of two things: 1) the rider comes out of two point too soon, and 2) the saddle is too far forward putting extra pressure on the horse’s shoulder. Make sure you hold your two point long enough and make sure to keep the saddle off the horse’s shoulder.
Remembering a frightened or anxious horse will resort to running or bucking will help you to recognize what your horse may be feeling. Recognizing and reading your horse’s behaviour is the first step to identifying the problem. Your horse is often telling you the problem, but are you listening to him?
For a jumping clinic with Lindsey at your facility, check out our clinics page