Overcoming Fear of Fence Height When Riding

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Fear of fence height is pretty normal. Most horses and riders who jump at all are comfortable at two feet, because most horses can almost walk over two feet.

(This starts with the assumption that the rider is fairly comfortable at the trot and canter, at least on the right, “steady” horse.)

2’3″ and 2’6″ are still in the comfort zone of most jumping riders, because those heights are low enough for the horse to get in wrong, and still usually figure out how to get from one side to the other.

2’9″ starts to weed out lots of riders, and three feet backs off many more.

Here’s why, I think…

The actual sensation of jumping a 3 foot fence, or 3’3″, or 3’6″, is almost identical to the sensation of jumping 2’6. The horse sets, thrusts, jumps and lands, so that isn’t the main problem, I don’t think.

What is the problem, as the fences get higher, is what happens when the rider gets in wrong. “Getting in wrong” or “missing the distance” or “hitting a bad distance” all mean that the stride immediately preceding the fence “ends” at a place either too far away for the horse to confidently jump, or too close to the jump.

If the fence is too far away, the horse may “launch” or he may “chip”, which means he may add another short stride. In any case, either getting too close because the horse chipped, or because that’s where he got in the first place, the problem is the same, and one of three things will now occur:

1.  The horse may quit (Refuse/stop are other terms).

2.  The horse may try to jump, and hit the fence/crash through it.

3.  The horse may clear the fence by doing an awkward “helicopter” jump, straight up, straight down.

So it’s the fear of what will happen if the horse and rider “miss the distance”, more than any other single factor, that leads to fear of jumping higher jumps, I do think.

OK, say I sort of buy that much of my jumping confidence, or lack thereof, is related to my ability to get my horse to a comfortable take off point—-Now what?

What if, as I canter toward my jump, I don’t have a clue—not one clue—about where I’m going to wind up in relation to the jump. Sure, I know all those insults like “He looks like Ray Charles/Mr. Magoo out there—ha-ha-ha”, but how does that translate, in real life, onto what to do about it?

Good question, glad you asked. Some possible remedies:

1.  Go back and be reborn with the perfect eye. (You know how some say that “You were either born with a good eye, or you weren’t” right?)

2.  Buy a “seeing eye horse”, the kind of horse who has his own radar and never gets in wrong.

3.  Stay at 2′, 2’3″, maybe 2’6″ forever.

4. Work on developing an eye of your own.

So here’s where I’m going to lose some people because this part that follows will require:

1.  Thinking

2.  Practice

3.  Time

But for those still with me, here goes…

Jack Le Goff said that the good jumping canter will contain two “opposing” or “non compatible” elements, both instantly available, impulsion and balance.

What the hang does that mean?

Well, what is impulsion? It’s the feeling that your horse is going positively FORWARD, right? That he has positive forward energy.

And what is balance? That’s the feeling that the horse is up and light, right?

However, as you ask him to go more forward, think what will probably happen…

He will go forward and down. His impulsion has made him less balanced.

So now you maybe use nip, nip nip, or a stronger bit to keep him from going down, and you ‘kill” the impulsion. In other words, the “art form” the exquisite riding skill you need is not to create impulsion, alone, or the feeling of balance, alone, but to create a canter where the impulsion doesn’t blot out the balance, nor the balance doesn’t stifle the impulsion.

Heels down, leg on, look up!

Heels down, leg on, look up!

Heed this—you have to have both at once in your canter. Both impulsion and balance, instantly available.

Why?

Because there are only three things you can do to get in right: lengthen, shorten, or stay the same.

If balance overwhelms impulsion, you can’t lengthen. If impulsion overwhelms balance, you can’t shorten. And the “link” between the two is the correct use of the half halt.

You need both in the same canter—and getting both ain’t easy, so you are, sadly, going to need to learn how to ride.

Now that you have learned how to create and recreate a canter that “combines” the somewhat “contradictory” qualities of balance and impulsion, let’s use this canter to create your sense of eye.

Bear in mind, please, that when I say “now that—”, the “now” part of the equation may be months in the future. I read an article years back about famous jumping rider Margie Engle, which stated, “Her body is a tuning fork for the right canter.”

Meaning that she, and similarly skilled riders can simply “feel” the canter and “know” what ingredients are missing, and know how to put them instantly in place. You think they get that overnight?

But say you do have the canter…

Aim at a rail on the ground, and when you think you are three strides away, say “three” “two” “one.” You will either be just right, too long or too short.

Do this 3,257,854,321 times and you will know what three strides looks like. Then do it for four strides. You will start to get rid of your Ray Charles impersonation, and be pretty accurate, not because your horse bailed you out, but because you were able to see a distance.

About the Author

Named “One of the 50 most influential horsemen of the Twentieth Century” by The Chronicle of the Horse, Denny Emerson was elected to the USEA Hall of Fame in 2005. He is the only rider to have ever won both a gold medal in eventing and a Tevis Buckle in endurance. He is the author of How Good Riders Get Good, and continues to ride and train from his Tamarack Hill Farm in Vermont and Southern Pines, NC.


The experienced equestrian staff of the TFRS has been meticulously chosen to teach and safely prepare students to learn proper horsemanship in the discipline of choice from the ground up in and around Nashville, Brentwood & Franklin.  There is a place in our program for every level of riding and we work hard to meet the needs of each individual rider.   “We teach safe horsemanship to horse-loving children in a safe, healthy environment, regardless of their economic status.”  And we hope that students will learn some of “life’s other little lessons” along the way. ”      – Trish Franks Program Founder / Head Coach