You canter along, the jump firmly in your sights, getting ready for your horse to take off... When all of a sudden he begins to 'veer' a little off course and before you know it, the jump flies past you, to one side, as your horse once again proves he is the master of running out at a fence!
Frustrating, right? Particularly when it seems to happen regardless of what you do and how you do it. In fact for many riders, it feels like they spend more time running out at fences than actually jumping any at all! The unfortunate side of this is that the more confident your horse becomes with being able to sidestep a jump, the more often he will do it - and the better he becomes at dropping that shoulder and ducking to the side.
You can listen to this episode of the Daily Strides Podcast HERE >>
Running out is a common problem many riders face when they begin jumping more demanding fences. Now, more demanding can mean 50cm to one person and 1m to another; horses who have learned to employ the running out technique rarely discriminate on fence heights and types! However, what is important to note is that it generally happens when there is an actual jumping effort required.
For the rest of this blog post we are going to assume that you have eliminated all the obvious reasons that your horse might not want to jump; teeth, back, tack, soreness, sickness, being overfaced, tiredness etc. This blog post is about horses who have learned to use running out as an easier alternative to jumping the actual fence.
Many riders confuse running out with refusals; perhaps because they are penalised similarly. However it is good to remember that running out and refusing a jump are two very different things. When your horse refuses, he generally stops in front of the fence - think of a grinding, sliding halt. Refusals can have many causes and reasons; many of which are to do with a horse not feeling confident or comfortable jumping the fence.
Running out, on the other hand, is when your horse maintains his forward momentum, however he changes course in front of the fence and simply canters or trots past the fence to one side. It can sometimes also be caused by overfacing the horse, however I have found that most horses who become skilled at running out, do so because the rider is allowing it to happen...
What, you say?!! I do not 'allow' him to run out, he just does it himself and there is nothing I can do to stop him!!
And that there is probably the biggest stumbling block most riders meet when trying to reform a horse who has mastered the art of running out; they try to fix it by working over fences or jumps
Almost all cases of running out can actually find their roots way back in the basic flatwork schooling, or lack of, in the horse. What generally tends to happen is the horse has been jumping quite happily, popping fences without question, but some day, for whatever reason, he takes a chance and dives out the side door... The mere fact he was able to change course like that, usually without repercussions, is enough to plant a seed that perhaps - if the right opportunity presents itself - he can do it again!
Sounds devious, but don't worry, I am not suggesting your horse has some evil or mischievous tendencies; he has just found the path of least resistance and has decided to take it!
The downside to having a horse who has a talent for running out is that reforming him is often a long journey, particularly if the rider he runs out with is the one accompanying him on this journey. Again, this is because very often it is the rider's lack of 'riding' that has given him the opportunity to take the side door to begin with. But, it can be done. It will just take a lot of consistency, time, firmness and pure concentration from the rider to get there.
So, as mentioned earlier, the rider makes all the difference when dealing with a horse who has developed a knack for spotting a side door and running out. It may be because the rider is getting into their jumping position too early, essentially dropping the contact. When the contact is dropped, your horse is left to his own devices - again if so inclined, he will take the path of least resistance or the easiest route!
Running out may also be caused by the rider not using their legs, seat and hands to correctly 'channel' the horse's energy and direct it where they want. Just like if the banks of a river are weak and the water runs out, so too will your horse if your legs are not being used to shut down those tendencies and keep him moving forward to where you want him to go
The third most common reason I see horses running out is due to their riders taking a less than straight approach to the fence or jump. There is no 'line' to the fence, connecting the approach to the getaway, and the horse usually meets the fence at an odd angle, allowing him to simply canter on past.
The final reason I want to mention, before we begin talking about solutions is that the horse is allowed to become too fast to the fence. Due to the speed of the approach, the rider has no control over the horse, all the energy is running out the front like a freight train, and just like that freight train; once it begins turning - a whole army would find it difficult to get it back on track.
So, now that we have placed the cause of the running out squarely in the riders court, we can begin working on how to re-school and reform the horse, so he goes over rather than around. When we ride, we often hear the term between leg and hand. Put simply this means that the energy you are creating with your legs, is being directed to where and how you want it used with your hand. Now, obviously things are a little more complicated that that, however, the basic principle is true when riding.
When you're dealing with a horse who likes to take the side door, the connection between your leg and hand is not a very strong one. Simply put, there are holes there that your horse, if so inclined, can take advantage of. Begin by practicing how you channel this forwardness and movement in your horse.
Focus on straightness throughout his body when being ridden, and on the level of responsiveness to your aids
Your horse should remain straight and true when being worked on the flat, and if you find him becoming crooked or 'veering' when working (working on the centre or quarter lines is a good test of this), he should then be responsive enough to your aids, particularly your leg in this situation, to correct himself when asked.
From here, you can also begin working on implementing better half halts. This will help you to 'steady' things a little when you approach the fence. As I mentioned above, sometimes the approach to the fence is just too long, fast and strung out for you to keep the connection between leg and hand. The energy is all running out the front, and it allows your horse to take advantage of this lack of direction. Becoming better at applying the half halt, while continuing to move forward where you want to go, will help prevent this from happening.
You may find that as you begin closing those 'side exits' that once existed for your horse and his energy, there is a lot more energy there underneath you which needs to be directed. This is another reason why working on perfecting your half halts is vitally important, otherwise your horse may begin to run...
Another thing you can begin practicing, again before you attempt jumping again, is working over ground poles. This is good for both you and your horse. You get to learn how to 'wait' for your horse to go over the pole, before following him over.
Your horse has the opportunity to become familiar with the concept of working over the centre of the pole, with a perfectly straight line on the approach, over the jump and continuing on with the getaway on landing
Because you are channelling him between your leg and hand, all side exits have been shut and the only way forward is the one which you present by riding him straight to where you want him to go.
Running out is a frustrating and often costly habit where penalties are concerned. However, before you lay the blame at your horse's door, it is one of those challenges that very often has its roots in the rider's own tendencies. This may be a bitter pill to swallow, however knowing that you may just be the reason also means that you are the key to banishing those pesky side dives and running out into the past; for good!