Using Natural Horsemanship in Hunter/Jumper training

Question: Can you integrate Natural Horsemanship into jumper training? I read your dressage article on blending them, but I have an 8 yr old hunter – Dutch Warmblood – thoroughbred cross mare who continues to spook at fences at shows. She’s not what you would call hot, but has lots of get-up-and-go. What Natural Horsemanship exercises or training can I start on to get my mare less spooky with more even tempo? I have tried all the traditional methods with little to no success. She also tends to walk over me too when I lead her. Thank you April.

Answer from April Reeves: Of course you can integrate NH into your program! In fact, hunter/jumper is one area of traditional training that really gets a boost and solid foundation from NH. All my H/J students go through this basic foundation before advancing into fence work. There is no technique or method in particular that works with hunter/jumpers better than dressage horses: the methods are universal to all disciplines.

I’m not surprised that your mare walks on you. NH uses the term ‘in your space’, meaning the horse takes the dominant role by moving you and telling (not asking) you to get out of the way first. This goes hand in hand with her spooking away from home. You need to change this relationship.

Let’s look at some of the ways you can integrate NH and traditional schooling.

Why NH Groundwork for the spooky fences?

NH is all about groundwork as the beginning to your foundation. However, groundwork can be used and should be used all through your life with your horse. It provides the horse with the leadership training needed to get you through rough spots, such as spooking on fences, panicking to enter a ‘busy’ arena, and acceptance of new surroundings.

I have heard of professionals and trainers putting food on a fence, and slowly integrating spooky objects (flower baskets, blankets) into the jump in order to try and get their horse from shying away from unusual obstacles. While this may work at home, it does not address the basic underlying problem of the horse not having confidence in the rider to put his safety first. Thus, the horse is always going to be apprehensive outside of his comfort zone (his barn). This is where NH really pays off. NH sets up your horse to have enough confidence in you that he will go places (jump over things, walk through things) that you ask him to, even though he may not have done it on his own.


NH is not just about getting horses to jump plastic tarps or play games. It goes much deeper than that. It desensitizes a horse to where he accepts new and unusual experiences outside of his usual environment. It establishes leadership between horse and human, enabling a connection of trust. It’s this trust level that must be achieved between horse and rider to accomplish great things.

Some horses are not as sensitive or spooky, and can work with their rider with ease, but not all hunter/jumpers are. NH gives them the confidence to work through the issues the horse will face on the course. It is sad to see a big beautiful horse filled with promise, only to be sold cheap because the owner could not get the horse beyond his fears.

What is the difference?

How many times have you heard a person say that their horse is usually pretty good about stuff, but there is the odd time that he flips out or won’t do something? This is a horse with good solid work behind him; enough to get the rider by in most areas of endeavor, but it still leaves open the possibility for failure and problems.

NH takes it a step further. Horses that have gone through a program with a quality Natural Horseman (such as Clinton Anderson, Jay O’Jay, Josh Nichol) are safer. They look but they know not to react. If they do panic on the ground they will not jump on top of you. When you ask them a question, they will work at figuring it out instead of getting emotional. Their entire demeanor will change. They will like their job again.

In short, they go from an emotional brain to a thinking brain.

But one of the most important things to know – if you take your own horse through the learning process, as opposed to handing him over to someone, your own demeanor and presence changes too, and you begin to see where you have created the horse you own. In most cases of ‘bad’ horses, poor behavior is brought on by the owner. Unintentionally, but most owners do not realize that their own heart beats and breathing, and their actions and movements cause the responses in their horses. The point is to understand the process and maintain it.

Another thing to consider, aside from NH (but in my opinion, a big part of it), is to assess your horse’s desire to live. Is he happy in a stall every night or would he rather be outdoors all year? Is he too anxious during feed times or would he prefer to eat when he wants (free feed). Whenever a horse becomes anxious or nervous about how he is handled, look beyond all the handling and assess his way of life on a daily basis. I know with my horse, I went through agony trying to use NH to rehab him. All 3 trainers I learned from were brilliant at teaching me the techniques, but all 3 failed to recognize these simple truths. When he didn’t have to come into a dark cave every night, and didn’t feel his blood sugars charge up and down from erratic feed schedules, he became the horse I always knew was in there. The NH training and the way he was ‘kept’ went hand in hand.

When a hunter/jumper has gone through their groundwork training properly, they will carry this training with them forever. There is so much valuable time wasted trying to get horses accustomed to unusual fences the traditional way. It is so much easier to put the desensitizing foundation on first, and refine later.

While basic groundwork stays with your horse forever, desensitizing your horse is something you will do for the rest of his life. While the majority of the work is done up front, it may be necessary to ‘tweak’ your horse from time to time, just to remind him and get the partnership back on board, especially if the horse transfers riders. Using NH techniques, this can be done quickly and easily.

Taking responsibility for gaits – even tempo

One thing I teach my students and their horses is never to ‘nag’ at them (with their legs) to keep them in gait and cadence/rhythm. NH has exercises (see Basic groundwork and saddle work for the herd bound horse) done in the walk, trot and canter that set the horse up to take responsibility for his speed, cadence and stay (where the horse does not change until asked).

This sets the horse up to maintain even pace through course work, without the constant leg pressure or too much hand to keep the horse from getting ahead.

The ‘Bad Boys’ – taking the ‘edge’ off

NH can take the edge off of those really hot horses. While you will never get a truly hot horse submissive and quiet full time, you will be able to get a horse (that could be dangerous if not handled properly) into a horse that shows respect and obedience. In the jumper arena, you need a horse that has that ‘something extra’ to reach the performance levels required. Many of the hotter horses are brushed aside, fearing they will be too much work. While it is smarter to find a horse that has the mental and physical in one package, you may come across a truly amazing athlete one day that just needs that additional groundwork to gain the relationship you need to perform really well.

Additional Advantages

NH groundwork gives the horse ground manners that transfer into your everyday schedule:

  • It makes trailering easier
  • It makes clipping and grooming easier
  • It makes vetting easier
  • It turns a hot horse into a safer partner

In fact, it just makes life easier for both horse and human. NH uses progressive exercises that build on each other. It takes the horse from grade one to grade 12 in 12 steps, not 2. It teaches the rider/handler ‘why’ you are doing something. With NH, if it’s complicated, it’s not correct.

The trick is to find someone who can deliver the knowledge. Way too many “trainers’ have come out of the woodwork to hang their NH shingle, but very few deliver the goods. I can give you a list of quality people to watch and learn from, and it is up to you to gain this new knowledge and use it consistently every day. Here is my list of the great NH trainers:

Clinton Anderson

John and Josh Lyons

Jay O’Jay

Josh Nicols

Adiva Murphy

I have a few articles on NH basics on this blog. Just click on the Natural Horsemanship category and start searching. They should help you get started and maybe clear a few ‘ghosts’ from the closet with your mare. Keep an eye on any clinics that the above horsemen may be promoting and get your mare into one. You won’t be disappointed.

One response to “Using Natural Horsemanship in Hunter/Jumper training

  1. The reason for that is because lead ropes don’t lead horses or control horses. You’re in trouble right from the start if you expect a little bitty rope or even a rope with some kind of chain at the business end, to control a horse. You have to lead a communication system that clearly tells the horse you are the lead mare he can trust and that clearly tells him the speed, the direction, and the shape you want the horse to move.

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