A simple trotting jump exercise to boost confidence



A simple trotting jump exercise to boost confidence

Do you hate trotting fences? Me too. At least on most horses. It’s so much easier to be in sync with the horse over a fence when you canter on approach, as a jump is nothing more than an exaggerated canter stride. However, trotting fences is an important skill that should be practiced by everyone, even Advanced horses and riders.

  • For beginning riders and green horses, trotting in slows things down, allowing more time to process the obstacle and organize all body parts to negotiate the jump successfully.
  • A spooky horse may feel more confident approaching from the trot, so he can see there is nothing to fear.
  • A fearful rider will feel more in control when trotting, as there is less chance the horse will gun for the fence, or stop suddenly and catapult the rider up the neck.
  • For horses who tend to rush their fences, trotting on approach teaches them to be patient and wait.  Ditto for riders.
  • Trotting fences helps build strength, as the horse must gather himself and push off evenly from both hind legs.  At the canter, it’s easier for the horse to use his momentum  and simply lift his legs in a canter stride, rather than folding his joints and using his hindquarter muscles for power.

My go-to trotting exercise
When I was a working student for Dorothy Crowell, this exercise was our warm up for every horse, for every jump school. It’s incredibly simple: a placing rail set seven feet from a single vertical. Riders should create an energetic working trot and make a good turn to the fence, while keeping their eyes down on the placing rail. Focusing on the rail will help the horse place his feet properly and step over the pole. When the rail disappears between the horse’s ears, the rider looks up and into the distance, softly allowing her hands to move forward with the horse’s mouth and letting the horse fold her into jumping position in the air.

Always start the vertical very low, around two feet, or an 18″ cross rail for beginners. When the horse and rider have successfully jumped off each turn, raise the vertical two holes and come again. Keep going until the jump is one hole (about 3″) higher than your competition height. It builds a lot of confidence in the rider to know you can trot a jump bigger than you will see at a horse show!

Helpful tips

  • Approach with the best trot you can have: forward and in front of the leg, with a good rhythm and accepting the contact evenly in both reins. Count “one-two, one-two” to maintain that rhythm. If your horse is behind the leg, school him with some prompt trot/halt/trot transitions.
  • Don’t fuss with your hands to get his head down – you shouldn’t be doing that anyway, and it will only be a distraction to both of you. Ride from the hind end, and don’t worry where his head is.
  • Make sure your horse is straight, not popping a shoulder or swinging his haunches on the turn. A crooked horse rarely jumps well!
  • Give your horse freedom to use his head and neck as he steps over the placing rail. He will stretch down, then coil his body to jump. Be sure you don’t snatch him with your hands. Think “heels forward” toward the horse’s elbows to maintain a secure lower leg.
  • When in doubt, wait it out. Don’t get ahead of the horse with your upper body. Have “independent body parts” so that you can follow his mouth with your arms while remaining patient with your shoulders.
  • Sometimes sitting softly over the trot rail can help with your timing, if you feel consistently out-of-sorts trying to stay with your horse. Just be sure you don’t have an “electric seat” and push the horse at the fence.




If your horse trips over the placing pole, where were your eyes? Most likely, you looked up too early, so your horse lost focus on the rail. Make sure you look down at that pole until it disappears between the ears, I know it sounds wrong, but it works for this exercise! As the jump gets big, don’t “let it lie to you” – don’t let it freak you out and make you stare at it, forgetting to look at the rail. When it is sufficiently tall, it will cross your field of vision as you properly look up into the distance; keep your eyes soft and your heart rate won’t skyrocket, I promise.

Impatient horse/impatient rider. Often these two are linked: the rider throws her shoulders too forward and the horse anticipates being chased off the ground, so he rushes on approach. The rider, afraid of being left behind, jumps ahead even more.  Riders, you MUST be patient and wait with your upper body. Keep your leg under you, and let the horse close your hip angle. If the horse wants to rush or break to canter, circle away and come again. Keep circling until you feel him relax – you should be able to softly float the reins without him bolting forward. If you are tense in your elbow, most horses will lunge through it, making the problem worse. Consider halting on landing, or circling tightly and do some flatwork, remembering to be as soft in your arms as possible. Help the horse understand that speed makes the job harder, not easier. And remember to breathe – deep breathing, exhaling as you step over the placing rail, can relax you both.

Fixing the horse’s shape. Some young, green horses tend to rocket over their fences, landing a mile away with a head of steam. Add a landing rail, placed nine feet from the vertical, to help the horse put his feet down and pay attention. This helps develop a rounder shape so the horse curls around the vertical, rather than flatly “steeplechasing” over it.

Riding to the base. The seven-foot placing rail really encourages horses to get to the base of the fence, insisting that they sit on their hocks and lift their shoulders to jump it well. If your horse is big and green, you may want to roll the rail out closer to eight or nine feet until he is comfortable with the exercise. However, as he gains experience, keeping it closer to 7′ is a great gymnastic exercise.

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