Ditches appear in almost every cross-country course. They can seem very imposing when they are deep or filled with water. It is important not to make any mistakes the first time they are included in training. The inexperienced horse needs an experienced rider. If the rider is worried, this will transfer to the horse. It is by no means unusual for the horse to stop the first time he sees a ditch. He must be encouraged with determined driving aids (and follow a lead horse until he has the confidence to go alone).

The ideal ditch for the first attempt should be dry and at the most 0.8-1.0 m wide, so that the horse can jump from a standstill if necessary. Before jumping it, make sure that the edge of the ditch is safe and visible, that is, not obscured by long grass or weeds. The horse must also be able to see the far edge of the ditch. On a cross-country course the edge of the ditch is sometimes marked with a white strip to prevent the horse from getting too close.

Sound preparation is necessary before approaching ditches. So far, the horse has approached unfamiliar obstacles from walk. This is not advisable with ditches. Once the young horse has looked down into a ditch, he can become afraid. Also, if he does jump it from walk, he is likely to make a big effort that is hard for the rider to really sit ‘with’. It is better to follow a lead horse in trot at a distance of two to three lengths; if the young horse gets too close he could tread on the heels of the lead horse if he jumps too big, in the same way as at a water jump.

The inexperienced horse should be kept into the bridle, making sure that he is concentrating on the rider’s aids. The rider should sit in the saddle to make it easier to use the driving aids. It is likely that the young horse will jump erratically the first time as he has not yet worked out how to tackle the ditch. If the lead horse is already on the other side of the ditch, the young horse may suddenly leap over. In this case it is important that the rider slips the reins and holds the mane or neck strap.

What do we do if the horse hesitates? He should not immediately be punished, but just ignored! Ride forwards energetically behind the lead horse. The driving aids must be firm enough to prevent the horse from stopping. The horse should be encouraged with the voice, either by clicking with the tongue or saying ‘go on’, for example. If he does not react to the driving aids, then the whip should be used on the shoulder, or failing that, behind the leg. It is important to ride forwards again! This is the only way to prevent the horse from refusing.

Think about education and obedience. Once the horse is over the ditch, return immediately to trot or walk, praise him straight away with your voice and pat him, to reassure him. After a spell of relaxation in walk, repeat the exercise, using the lead horse until the young horse can jump the ditch without problems.

If the positioning of the ditch allows it, rather than refusing, the horse may run out to the side. In this case, before approaching again, hold the whip on the side to which he ran out. To put the horse on the aids, ride dressage exercises such as transitions from trot to halt and trot to canter, rein-back, changes of gait within the canter, etc. until he is listening again.

Most horses try to run out to the same side each time. Placing a wing on this side is useful, but it may be better to enclose the ditch on both sides. Follow the lead horse, and do not give the youngster the chance to run out!

Once the inexperienced horse has jumped the ditch confidently a few times without the lead horse, he should be ridden in walk and praised a lot. One should finish on a good note. A few days later ride in the same way over the same ditch again before attempting a new one.

2 Responses to “Cross-country training – ditches”

  • Nes says:

    My horse is great jumping dry ditches but she will not jump over water ditches!She will go through water,jump into water etc & has competed at ODE but this water ditch phobia is causing problems.We have tried having a lead etc she just won’t do it,what do you suggest we could do to get her to jump it?

  • Lucy Jackson says:

    I am at British eventing 90cm with my horse who is an ex race horse but he is terrified of ditches ! I have started with just 2 poles then took him to xc courses and started with the tiniest ditches again just 2 poles and moved up to nothing bigger than a couple of inches deep and a couple of feet wide ! The problem I have is every different ditch I arrive at whether be in competition or training he has to look in it first !!! It makes no difference what I do or how I ride it I get a refusal at the ditch !!! How do I stop this ? I have taken him to every training place in county and he always jumps it just has to be once he’s looked in it !!! I really would like to get a clear xc run so I can move to next level but until we can get a clear we are stuck please help

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