Telling your storiesfrom the stables to the fields

10 September,2017

Fearless cross country: Mastering ditches

Ditches are daunting – there is no doubt about it. A dark, looming hole at the front or beneath a fence presents a very scary obstacle. Yet, broken down into the actual dimensions of the obstacle a ditch is really not hard to jump. If you are jumping a fence that is three foot high, your horse is going to take off at least three feet in front of the fence and land three feet away, so if the ditch were just ground line poles in front and behind of the fence neither horse or rider would have a problem. It is the actual dark space presented by the ditch that causes the problem.


To a rider the ditch represents a whole lot of danger. Most will have seen video clips, or watched live as horses and riders fall into ditches, nasty and potentially very dangerous accidents. There is no wonder, then that riding towards a ditch, especially one with a solid pole suspended above it, is a scary process.


To the horse, especially a young and inexperienced one, the ditch represents an equal amount of danger. What lurks in that dark space? He will hardly want to go near it – let alone jump it, especially if the vibes from his rider don’t fill him with confidence.


Chances are if the horse is brave enough to jump it will be done in such an awkward fashion that will dent both rider and horse’s confidence for the next time a ditch is faced. The biggest mistake is to ride a horse aggressively to a ditch so you give it a reason to be afraid. A frightened horse will stop or put in a huge jump, frightening itself.


Learning how to jump ditches with a young horse, or re-training a nervous one, is all down to well-planned and progressive training, learning step by step to trust one another and thus developing confidence in each other.


Before you even start to tackle a ditch, or other ‘nasty’ you and your horse should be hacking out together comfortably, working on hilly terrain where you can give the horse small problems to solve for himself. These could include walking down or up steep slopes, walking into hollows or dips in the ground. You don’t need to have any special facilities, most hacks will present opportunities to try these kind of adventures. It is important to progress slowly. Don’t try to get the horse to walk down into a big steep sided ditch until he can do lesser challenges confidently first. It is important to win, the horse needs to have confidence in you the rider and know that you won’t take him anywhere dangerous, but then he needs to work for you and try to attempt what you need him to, working out what he needs to do.


It is important that you don’t scare the horse by taking him into a situation where the footing is insecure. There is nothing that will scare a young or nervous horse than having the ground giving way either in the bottom of a stream, or on a slope. An older, more experienced horse will cope with this, but while building up precious confidence it is important not to give the horse any frights.


It is also important that your flat work is up to scratch too. Your horse should move forward promptly off your leg so that you can steer and guide him.


In the early stages of learning to cope with ditches, make a ‘baby’ version in the paddock, or arena. If you have access to a field cut a sod of turf away, about 18” wide by around 6 foot long, just enough that the horse has something different to walk through. You can do this just as easily in the arena by using an old horse blanket, between two poles. A darker colour is better so that it gives the daunting look of a ditch.  Once the horse accepts this challenge you can widen the ditch.


Keep walking back and forth over the ditch until both of you are feeling confident and relaxed about it. Then move up a pace and trot and canter over it. Next you can erect a small jump either over the ‘ditch’ and play with that again until your confidence builds up.


Next, find a ‘proper’ ditch and start the process again.  Ride forwards with confidence –your hands should be soft – you want the horse to see the ditch and think about how to deal with it. Keep looking up, over the fence – don’t look down. Look down and the horse will too and that is where you will end up.


Once a horse will just hop over a ditch and not be afraid, it is on its way and you can start to introduce different obstacles. Horses that end up scared of ditches usually have had gaps in their education, they were started incorrectly and their training rushed.


Written by Jacqui Broderick of Lavender and White Equestrian Publishing


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