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In the Eventing World, it is a no-no to allow your horse to sniff the fences. You have to think of it, your horses are not allowed to see the course before the comp, the only time they get to see the Cross Country Course and the Stadium Course, is the moment they are in the ring at the comp itself.
I remember riding with Buck Davidson a few years back and when he saw riders allowing their horses to walk up to "questionable" fences to sniff them and look at them, he would say "That is not allowed"
He explained when you are approaching a fence, where you feel your horse balking under you - your ride harder and more agressively. Use your aids, and your aid extensions. Seat, legs, voice, spurs, crop. And you ride hard on approach, keeping your horse between you and strait.
I rode in a clinic, a few months ago, under a 3* Eventer and she said the same thing. Ride hard, use your aids, use your aid extensions and get aggresive about going forward, not balking.
I have a Practicle Horseman Magazine dated June 2006. Where it has a huge article on a clinic George Morris gave. This issue of a horse spooking at fences, made me remember this particular article:
Next comes a simple plank fence, and then a large log-like giant slice of redwood trunk. "I'm going to teach you how to educate your horses to a spooky jump. Remember, a bold horse is produced by a bold rider. So walk up to the log....right up to it," he tells the first rider. But as her horse sticks out his nose towards the log, "Don't let him sniff it! Just stand in front of it and give him a stick and a cluck, a stick and a cluck. How do you use your stick? A stroke behind the saddle, then right back to the rein. Remember that, when you use your stick. A horse shouldn't be afraid of it. He should respect it but not be afraid he's going to be abused. So it's a stroke of the stick and a cluck."
"Now circle, and jump the jump. If he stops, don't think why he stopped. Do something about it." She circles, her horse jumps, and the next one walks up. As each horse responds to the stick-and-a-cluck by jumping the log, George says, "THIS is how you educate a horse to a jump-not by letting him sniff it."
A small course starts to emerge: The girls jump the plank and four short strides away, the log. Then it's the plank to the log and a sweeping rollback left turn between the two jumps to a wall with big shadowy openings underneath. "Don't trust it," George says. "It's a spooky jump!" When one horse overjumps the wall and bolts upon landing, he says, "Stop and back him. School consistently. Don't finish and do nothing. Set that pulley rein. I taught you that so you'd use it."
George then picks up a longe whip, and standing next to a liverpool with a low rail over it, whip at the ready should a horse hesitate or refuse, he tells the girls to drop their stirrups and "pop this little liverpool. CLUCK!"
"Use your spur or your stick just as you take off! Don't hope he'll go by talking to him. I want you and your horse so confident about this liverpool that it's just like a crossrail to you."
Finally, George stands on the far side of another spooky jump, bursting with flowers, and raises his arm in the air. As each girl approaches the jump, he says, "Let me hear it! How many fingers am I holding up?" With each go-round, he changes fingers faster and faster, with the girls shouting "Three! Five! One! Three! Two!" Each horse clears the jump athletically and unhesitatingly, and George says with satisfaction "That's what I want. Talking Parrots!"
George has the girls come into the center of the ring and says "We covered a lot of territory today. The single plank was the next easiest jump, to instill confidence. This sport is built on confidence. Next, you educated your horse to a spooky fence-but not by letting him sniff it, but with a tick and a cluck so he leraned to associate something spooky with going forward. We put together a little course, you built confidence over a liverpool, and the last exercise was all about concentration, distraction and relaxation. By concentrating on my fingers, you were distracted, and you relaxed....and the jump took care of itself."
Hope that helps!