Is loose jumping detrimental to young horses, or does it give them the chance to learn for themselves without rider interference? Penny Richardson investigates
It’s a bit like Marmite, but – love it or hate it – loose jumping is an important part of the production process for many owners, breeders and riders.
So what exactly is loose jumping? Essentially, it’s sending a horse down a lane – enclosed or open – to jump a single fence or grid without tack or a rider. It’s used worldwide for studbook gradings and to assess horses’ potential, teach them to think for themselves when jumping and, best of all, give them some fun.
“I think it’s great to loose jump horses, but with common sense,” says breeder and producer Shirley Light, who owns Brendon Stud in West Sussex. “My yearlings get jumped in our indoor school after their first winter in the barn. It gets rid of some of their pent-up energy and stops them going crazy and slipping over when they’re first turned out.
“I also like them to have some idea of how to jump in case they decide to make a bid for freedom when they’re in the field. I don’t want them to escape, but I’d much rather they know how to jump fencing than get caught up in it.
“We loose jump two or three yearlings at a time over a maximum height of 40cm and use hollow plastic poles to reduce the risk of injury. My two- and three-year-olds are also loose schooled a couple of times a year over a double. I can then gauge attitude, step and to a certain extent talent, but again, they don’t jump big fences.”
Shirley saves the slightly more serious stuff for the following year. “When they’re coming up to four, the youngsters do a bit more loose jumping. It teaches them to look at what they’re doing and how to find a fifth leg when they get it wrong. And trust me they do get it wrong,” she explains. “We always use ground lines and I don’t include planks or fillers, as these can make horses spook and overjump.”
Shirley is a fan of letting her older competition horses and stallions play in her indoor school.
“If there’s a jumping lane up, the cocky ones will sometimes get over-excited and gallop down it of their own accord,” says Shirley. “That’s exactly what a 15.2hh colt with ‘little man syndrome’ did recently. He thought he knew everything and got it totally wrong. We always use safety cups for loose schooling and if they hadn’t been on the fence, he’d have taken a purler.”
A disappointment without a rider
However, true potential isn’t always easy to gauge through watching a horse jump loose.
When breeder Gerda Weston and her daughter Anna Beck of Weston Warmbloods bought a filly called C Serendipity, she proved a huge disappointment without a rider.
“The earliest we loose jump our horses is at three and when we tried her, she was absolutely horrific,” admits Gerda. “By contrast, another youngster made our jaws drop loose jumping, but didn’t have the temperament to succeed when ridden.”
Under saddle, C Serendipity was a different prospect. With Anna, she was a top performer in young horse classes in Britain, won at the World Breeding Jumping Championships as a six-year-old and was sold to Canadian rider Kara Chad in 2015. Gerda and Anna have retained her son by Big Star as a stallion.
A three-year-old loose performance class is one of the highlights of Dublin show. The competition attracts a huge audience and is divided into sections for colts/geldings and fillies, each with a prize-fund of €8,750 (around £7,700).
Equally important for Irish breeders is the Young Irelander three-year-old loose jumping series. Now divided into classes for small horses, ponies and bigger horses, the finals take place annually in the main arena at Millstreet’s August international show.
Among the horses placed in the 2014 final was KBS High Quality, a son of OBOS Quality who, since coming to Britain, was a 2018 Foxhunter finalist and won the grand prix at South View’s Winter Classic last February with Derek Morton.
As well as jumping and showing working hunters at top level, Derek is a well-known breeder and a stallion grader for the Breeders Elite Studbook.
“I’m looking for good overall technique and attitude at gradings. The horses need to be happy to jump and be light off the floor and when they land,” he says. “I’m not looking for the perfect bascule, but they do need natural scope. As long as the way they jump stays the same every time and they want to clear the fence, that’s fine.”
For the past five years, Derek has organised a loose jumping competition for two- and three-year-olds at his Beech House Stud in Staffordshire.
“We’ve had between 20 and 25 entries every time and people have brought horses from all over the north of England,” he says. “To avoid any perceived conflict of interest, we don’t have judges. Instead, every spectator is given a sheet to mark down their top three and we find the winner that way.”
Last year, Derek tried to make this a national competition, with a £3,000-to-the-winner final at Bolesworth International.
“In mainland Europe you can probably find a loose jumping competition once a week. I don’t know if we chose the wrong time of year or whether British people just aren’t that interested, but we didn’t have more than four entries at any of the five qualifiers and had to abandon the idea,” he says.
Helping the horse focus
It’s not just members of the showjumping world who use loose jumping as a training aid. Aynslie Carnan breeds event horses and loose jumps them all.
“The youngsters do a handful of small jumps on each rein, but only occasionally. I don’t see loose jumping young horses as a potential problem, as the surface and amount of exercise can be controlled, which you can’t do when they’re galloping about and playing in the field,” she says.
“I use loose jumping to help the horse focus on his body, stride, balance, rhythm and confidence. It helps me evaluate how quickly each horse thinks, learns and adapts and how careful they are. I can then use that information in their ridden career.”
Katy Holder-Vale’s home-bred horses may be destined for the dressage arena, but she also incorporates loose jumping in their exercise regime.
“We do it regularly because the horses all love it. It’s also a useful tool to have in their locker because in the Hanoverian mare performance test they have to loose jump,” she says.
Breeders and producers also agree that the infamous videos posted on social media of horses loose jumping over huge fences and clearing them by nearly impossible distances make uncomfortable viewing.
“It cannot possibly be natural because if it was no rider in the world would be able to sit on the horse over a jump,” says Derek. “Dealers can buy young horses cheaply and no longer have to spend money getting them going. Instead, they can chase them over a big fence until they get one good photo or video and they know someone will then buy them.
“I don’t blame people for buying unbroken horses from videos. Even if they don’t turn out as talented as they appear from the video, for the average rider that won’t matter because there are so many classes below 1m these days. I bought Zlatan Z, last year’s British five-year-old champion, as a two-year-old from a video, but he certainly wasn’t jumping anything like those social media ‘stars’.”
Shirley Light goes further and says that this type of video must include some form of “horse abuse”.
“Those videos are made by unscrupulous dealers who just want to make a quick buck. The techniques they must have used to make horses jump like that don’t even bear thinking about,” she says.
Some people believe loose jumping in any form is bad for horses before they are fully mature, but American vet Anthony Harrison, who specialises in sport horse injuries and has been involved in loose jumping studies, disagrees.
“As long as it’s carried out carefully, there’s no scientific evidence that loose jumping has any detrimental effect on the skeletal development of young horses,” he says. “Of course I’m not in favour of loose jumping every day, and you must keep the fences small and any grids simple. Little and not too often is the key.”
Loose jumping: what does the research say?
Several scientific studies have been carried out on loose jumping. At Ireland’s University of Limerick, the take-off point of 16 untrained young horses was studied over a 1m by 50cm oxer and it was discovered that the horses that approached a fence faster and those that took off further away were less likely to show a careful jump.
An American study of 31 horses, aged between three and five, loose jumping over a similar-sized fence, discovered that although the take-off point was crucial, the suspension period (the time in mid-air) and landing were also important. The horses that made the process look easy usually took off and cleared the fence slowly and landed more steeply.
However, both studies agreed that this data alone could not be used to identify future elite performers, as only a handful of horses tested went on to reproduce what they showed loose when they were ridden.
Ref Horse & Hound; 23 April 2020