The best thing about loose jumping, according to breeder and producer Dugald Low-Mitchell, is that horses love it.
At his Fife base, Dugald and his daughter Sandra, who rides their show jumpers, loose school on an all-weather surface surrounded bya 10ft fence.
They begin with a pole on the ground, working up – over a series of sessions – to a lane of four or five fences.
“You really need four people, one at each corner to guide the horse. Never chase him round. You all carry whips,but these should be used only at arm’s length,” says Dugald.
The Low-Mitchells occasionally loose jump their foals “over very wee fences”, and have been doing more with their three-year-olds since the introduction of a free jumping championship at the Royal Highland show.
“We should really do the yearlings and two-year-olds as well, but it’s a question of time,” confesses Dugald. “Even as foals, the ones who look good loose always stay good.”
This unhurried approach to the exercisegives youngsters a chance to think about learning to jump.
“They find their own way to a fence, so it teaches them to find a stride. As long as you don’t overdo it, they love it – and really want to jump.”
Dugald reckons that loose jumpingis good for people too. “The more you watch, the more your eyes get tuned to horses’ shapes over a fence.”
Translating to riding
Stressing that there is no golden rule that talented loose jumpers turn out to be brilliant under saddle, Sandra Low-Mitchell finds previously free schooled four-year-olds are “streets ahead” when it comes to early ridden jumping.
“Apparently, at Paul Schockem”hle’s they assess everything by their loose jump, keeping notes and videos at various ages. We’re not quite that organised, but one who has loose jumped is much smarter and ready to go round a little course that bit sooner.”
Sandra, who likes to loose jump horses occasionally while they are being broken-in, finds youngsters remember a session – and what to do – for months afterwards. But, she says, “sharp horses benefit more than those who need a bit of leg”.
She advises using varied jumps with plenty of fillers, grids and even bounce strides, but nothing too high.
“Two or 3ft is plenty big enough. If something goes wrong, go back a step to a really tiny fence,” she says, transmitting the feeling that she does not entirely approve of the flashy free jumping sometimes seen in sale advertisements.
Horse & Hound columnist Graham Fletcher has a knack of buying untried horses and producing them to grade A, but is loose jumping a useful way of assessing one for purchase?”It can be misleading. For instance, I’ve bought a just backed four-year-old this afternoon. Although the horse is very green, we popped it over a couple of 2ft fences, which gave me a much better picture than seeing it loose over 5ft.”With unbroken horses, loose jumping is useful to tell you whether they are capable of actually leaving the ground. But many look spectacular, only to be a total disappointment when they get tack on.”With older horses, says Graham, loose work can be an ideal “freshener” or change of routine.
The Royal Highland show¨s three-year-old loose jumping for which there are five Scottish and one English qualifying rounds, was instigated by Dugald Low-Mitchell following a discussion with Thomas Duggan, at whose Irish Millstreet centre “free” classes are long established.
The three-year-olds are first judged in-hand for conformation and movement. Then, confined by a wire cage, they jump two fences ¨ one always remaining at 2ft 6ins, the other increasing from a small upright to an oxer and finishing as a 4ft 3ins vertical. Each horse jumps the two obstacles half a dozen times.
“It doesn’t matter too much if they hit a fence,” explains Dugald, whose youngster, Modetia, won the 1996 championship.”The judges are looking at their technique, scope and ability to sort themselves out. It’s when the second fence gets to 3ft 9ins or 4ft that some can’t cope and the talented ones come through.”
Assessing from the ground
Despite his countrymen’s traditional liking for loose jumping, Cork-based Irish international show jumper Robert Splaine insists that it should be done”very, very carefully”.
A solid groundline is a must, while a placing pole helps produce an even, good stride, he explains.
As a rider, loose schooling gives Robert the chance to see a horse from the ground.
“I’m looking at his type of jump so that I can work on it later,” he says. “Clever horsemen can assess a horse over a small fence. There’s no need to loop the loop with them.”
Horses with a history of bad riding always benefit: “If his shape has been spoilt, loose jumping can rebuild his confidence and shape in a natural way. Horses are often running away from the rider, not the fence.”
Robert likes to trot a horse round his indoor school, asking for canter on the last two or three strides.
“There’s nothing to be gained from galloping at fences and watching them launch themselves. That sets them up in the wrong way. Then, when the rider gets on, they won’ttake the discipline of waiting.”Too many people are keen to get behind the horse with the whip, he adds.
“Horses need time to look, learn and think, and judge the fence for themselves with the rider off their backs. I like to see a calm mind, good technique and a sensible approach.”
But he warns that the person on the ground needs to be in close enough contact should the horse “change his mind”. Diplomatic encouragement is the key.
Although he loose schools indoors, Robert believes that any well-railed enclosed area with good going is suitable.
“I do a bit at three years old, but wouldn’t hurry to do much any earlier as the horses are still growing and their joints are soft. Remember that damage can be done at any age by over-jumping on bad footing.”
- Work in an enclosed area on good going with a solid perimeter fence at least 8ft high.
- Use protective boots all round.
- Use show jumps, not fixed fences.
- Allow the horse timeto warm up before jumping.
- Start by walking the horse over a pole on the ground, progressing to a small cross-pole.
- Gradually introduce spooky fillers and grids.
- Construct a jumping lane, but make sure horses can be let out to start again if they get into a muddle.
- Chase a horse round with cracking whips; quietly guide him.
- Loose jump too often: once a week is plenty.
- Work on slippery, deep or hard going; unshod horses in particular soon lose confidence.
- Let the horse go too fast; give him time to look and think.
- Chastise a horse if he stops; lower the fence and let him try again.
- Overdo the jumping in terms of number or size of fences.