Is There Hope for the Dirty Stopper?

If a horse is slowly introduced to jumping, and brought along patiently with an attention to basic skills, it should turn out to be an honest, dependable mount. Sure, there may be an instance or two when it refuses a jump. Yet usually that's due to the horse being placed at an impossible take-off spot. But what about the "dirty stopper"?

Story originally posted by: Cindy Hale

What do you do with the horse that looks like it’s going to jump, and feels like it’s going to jump, but at the last moment, it puts on the brakes? Does this sound a horse you know?

To begin with, a horse doesn’t become a stopper overnight. That is a habit that has been brewing for some time. It is a symptom of some other problem. Before trying to fix it, first you must figure out why your horse is refusing jumps. The first thing to rule out is a soundness issue. Even if your horse isn’t visibly lame, has its stride shortened? Is it having trouble making the counts in the lines, so that you’re nearly diving at the last fence in a combination? Your horse’s front feet or hocks could be bothering it enough to make jumping painful. Ask your vet to examine your horse. If unsoundness isn’t the source, then next you need to look at your riding skills.

Did you know that a rider, regardless of how earnestly they try to ride correctly, could actually teach a horse to be a dirty stopper? See if this sounds like you: You canter down to the jump, holding your position. But as you get closer and closer to the jump, you realize that you cannot see a take-off spot. In fact, you can’t really tell when your horse is going to leave the ground. To ensure your horse will still jump, you grab onto his sides with your heels, spurring him on. Naturally, he bursts forward at a gallop. Now you’re truly unnerved. To steady your steed you clutch onto the reins and pull on his mouth. Is he leaving the ground yet? How about now? In a fit of self-preservation you collapse on his neck, slouch down in the saddle and roll forward on your knee, letting your leg off your horse. Your horse, sensing your loss of courage for the umpteenth time, decides that since you’re not making a decision, he will. So he stops. And nothing much happens. You don’t punish him, because you accept that it was your fault. But without good instruction, you’re doomed to repeat the mistake, and your horse will decide that stopping wasn’t such a bad idea. Now he’s going to decide when-and if-he’s going to jump each time you approach a fence.

To fix the dirty stopper requires an assault on both fronts. First you must get on a lesson horse that dutifully accepts its assignment of packing around problem riders. Whether your bad habits are the result of progressing too quickly, lacking proper instruction, or due to a loss of confidence, you still need to get off your dishonest horse and onto a more trustworthy animal. Here you can relearn how to approach a jump and find your take-off spots all over again. In the meantime, a very skilled, aggressive rider can reschool your horse and remind him of his job. Your horse must understand that there are dire repercussions for stopping at jumps. The true test will be when the experienced rider gallops your horse down to a jump and “begs him to stop”. In other words, he or she will see if your horse will agree to jump if he’s put to a good spot, but not otherwise encouraged. If he does jump, then it’s time for you to climb back aboard. Of course, now you’ll be a much more accurate, confident rider.

Yet what if your horse continues to be a dirty stopper? It can become cruel to just beat on a horse to bully it over a course. What’s the point? If your horse is that unpredictable, perhaps it’s time to find him a new job. After all, riding should be fun. And a horse that’s learned to be a dirty stopper can be terribly difficult to rehabilitate. The best advice is not to let the problem ever surface in the first place.