Ok so this is a question I've been playing with and I'd love to hear a few others opinions on it.
How much of a horse's jump is natural talent/power/scope vs how much is learned, developed and taught? Do you think a horse that shows limited scope when free jumping as a young horse (with little or no training) is able to develop that jump with a good trainer, or is what you see pretty close to what you get? I'm not talking form, I'm talking ability to handle tall and wide jumps.
I'm a runner. I run a LOT. I train, I follow schedules and I'm sure I'm faster than most people. In my area that doesn't even put me at the top half of my age group. I think there's a median line that just about everyone can do running and horses, say 2'6" I can probably teach almost any horse to jump that just fine. Anything over that, probably not. Just like I can pretty much guarantee you if you give me enough time and effort I can get you to run a 10 min/mile 1/2 marathon (though I can't guarantee you'll like me).
Jumping skill can definitely be improved...but only up to the horse's natural limitations. With some horses, their first jumping impressions are a good indication of "what they will be," for others, not so much.
Example 1a: As a green horse, my Advanced mare jumped novice level fences like they were 4'6", with knees to her eyeballs and hocks snapped up over my head. Her talent was readily apparent and her "improvement" was not so much style/shape/scope, but rather strength/balance/rideability and education.
Example 1b: my former 1* horse free-jumped 4' willingly, but you could tell it was in his upper range. He was not going to be a 2* horse, but he was a fun, successful prelim horse for many years. He was eager when learning to jump, and showed good technique despite a lack of strength/balance early on.
Example 2a: A beefy, lazy, stock-type QH thought jumping was for the birds, thankyouverymuch, and if horses were meant to fly they'd have wings. I didn't get the chance to free-jump him, but I'm sure it would not have been a success. His first impressions were not good. It took several "strong rides" (using a stick liberally) to get him over a tiny cross-rail, but on the second day the lightbulb went off and he eventually enjoyed it. A few months later, he packed kids over 2' and the occasional novice fence. Perhaps teaching him to jump wasn't such a good idea, as he then took to jumping out of his field (up over a 3'6" log-drop bank) whenever he wanted. From his gaits/conformation, 3' is his safe limit...but from his first-ever jumping attempt, you'd never think 2' was possible!
Example 2b: OTTB oozing with athleticism wasn't sure he likes the idea of going over things. Reluctant in his first free-jumping attempts, and a bit disorganized going over cross-rails, his beginnings did not seem very promising. He also had a tendency to rush and jump over his shoulder, not too pretty. However, after months of developing better balance, strength, and work over canter poles/gymnastics, horse was greatly improved. Better response, better understanding of the aids, and greater relaxation allowed him to access his natural scope and style. His first impression over fences did not match his inherent talent, though from his natural canter you could believe it was there. Thankfully his ability was "unlocked" and he gives you the feeling there's no jump too big for him!
In my experience, I've had more horses fit into Category 1 than Category 2; first impressions give a good general outline of the horse's ability and willingness. However, Category 2 does exist with some frequency, so don't give up on a "failure" until at least a few months or so of taking it slow and giving him a chance (and tools) to figure it out.
“A clever person solves a problem. A wise person avoids it.”
? Albert Einstein
I agree that a lot can be improved. The horse's fitness, balance, strength, the ride the rider gives, etc., can all help (or hinder), and definitely can make a difference. I do think that horses do have a natural physical limit as well as an attitude towards work/jumping that can limit their scope and jump. An old lease of mine was plenty athletic enough enough to get over 3'+, but really did not have the patience or attitude for jumping. My TB, on the other hand, will happily leap all day over whatever you put in front of him.
I also think that it's not just the size of the fences, but the striding in between, that can limit horses. My Morgan is pretty athletic and a great jumper when it came to jumping singles, we could go up to 4'3 and have room to spare. I knew I had to move up from him, however, when he couldn't get down the lines at a comfortable pace. He had short legs (and a big Morgan body) and he really couldn't land from one jump and have enough strides to get him over the next one without really moving out.
I've definitely seen both. My retired advanced horse, who raced until he was 6, and started eventing as an early 7 yr old, was quite baffled by show jumps at first. He is 16.1hh, extremely well put together, and very balanced. I announced after my first jump lesson that I didn't think he was cut out for the job. He jumped from under the fences, no matter what, and always jumped over he shoulder. Didn't dangle legs, but dropped knees a bit. At our first training level event, he ran through several fences, just couldn't figure it out. We went back to work at home, and worked with all the typical exercises (a v set of rails set on the jump, placing rails, etc). Slowly, and as the fences got bigger, his form and understanding of jumping improved. By the time he retired, due to pasture injury at 12, he was running advanced and could be easily counted on for either a clean round, or 1 rail. At that point in his career, he was jumping with his knees to his eyeballs, no longer jumping over his shoulders, and dropping knees. I should post a timeline of photos, which make the difference in form an scope pretty apparent. The biggest thing with him, was that he wanted to try for his rider. This was a horse that after our first lesson I said we should sell him, as he obviously wasn't going to jump well enough to go at the upper levels. He ended up my heart horse, and the best event horse ever if you ask my opinion.
My first horse, a 15.1hh (on a tall day) QH gelding who is long backed and down hill built, but ran prelim with me, shouldn't have the scope to do novice just by looking at him. When we bought him, he was 4, and had never jumped. I remember trying him, (I was 12) and we just kept putting the fence up. He kept jumping....we stopped at 3'6 I think. He had stellar form (although flat) from day one. Knees to eye balls, every time. He did lots of 3'9 jumpers with me as a kid, and eventually we did prelim somewhat successfully (the jumping ability was not the issue....he was just an occasional punk XC). That little horse can still jump his eye balls out at 22, straight out of the field, and out of shape. He is a rockstar! No one thought he'd go training or prelim, but he ate it up!
I've had those in between, as well. The ones that have the ability but hate it, and the ones that love it and try, but can't get out of there own way. I think form can offer be worked on and majorly improved, so long as they have the desire to do it, and scope can improve, but often not quite as much.
"Animals can sometimes take us to a place that we cannot reach ourself"
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Agree with AJ. While I don't think you're going to create massive scope when there's none inherent in the horse, you can often tighten up some technique, particularly in the front end.
When I see a young horse jump or free-jump, the things I look for are whether it instinctively uses its body and hind well. I don't mind if it's a bit drapey below the knee in front, so long as it wants to pull its forearms at least to the horizontal (I'm not looking for a champion show hunter), but I want it to be very correct behind. An athletic horse often won't show much interest or effort over a very small jump (if they jump perfectly over this, either consider selling them as a hunter, or ask if they're maxed out), but lunging or free jumping over something a bit bigger or looky should give you an idea of how they are going to jump.
As youngsters develop, I do find that increasing their strength and footwork will improve their front end and their jump overall (hence why my young ones do gymnastics), but go in knowing you're not going to create a 4' jumper from one who is hauling himself over a 2'9" vertical.
I think the answer is both.
The talented "natural" jumper is actually a pretty hard horse to ride. That's the one you see in the scroll pictures on the COTH Hunter Classics reports on the right......with the infinite bascule, tight high forearm and tucked hooves. They have "developed" that pretty jumping form with a variety of techniques designed to encourage the horse to have THAT form. some involve not really jumping very much at all, or NOT teaching the horse to be comfortable and familiar with things, so that they get that alert bascule. While that form is beautiful, for the event horse, it's not all that we need.
When you take a "careful" jumper, and add some knowledge, and condition for power and speed, you've got a show ring jumper. They do school and learn much like our event horses without the added athleticism we need for the distance and terrain.
If you take a "natural" jumper and just go spinning down the trail or across the field at logs and coops you can pretty easily ruin that good form by allowing the horse to learn to hurry over a jump to please you. I've seen good horses ruined by really poor riding while they were young, and I've had to fix a few really nice horses that would otherwise have been long snapped up by an ULR, but for someone in a rush, or with bad hands or horrible habits.
A scopey horse seems to be able to jump themselves out of whatever trouble you can get them in on cross country. I think MOST horses have a "jump" of some kind. If by "natural" you mean "scope", then yes, I think it can be developed and improved to a point. (Well, you can't make a Shetland pony into a grand prix jumper...)
I've had a lot of horses that jumped their first cross rails and made one want to run and hide behind the barn, yet turned out to be champions. I think an average jumping horse can be improved, and a good jumping horse can be improved, (especially if they are Thoroughbred) but an excellent jumping horse can always be better with good riding.
I don't think free jumping shows you much beyond the horse's natural willingness (or not) and the talent (or lack thereof) of the handler. I always cringe when I go to look at a horse and the seller wants to free jump it for me.
I do believe that you can improve technique, but you can't teach the horse scope. Just like the person (me) who will get hit in the face with the Frisbee over and over and over. They are born athletic, or they aren't.