I frequently get asked the question "when do I get to jump?" ...or canter, or jump bigger, etc.
I promise you that I am not trying to hold you back. It is actually quite the contrary. I can't wait for you to be able to do more!
The truth is that I keep you at a certain level until you have met a few requirements that show me you are ready to move up. These requirements keep you (and your horse) as safe as possible. These basic requirements keep your experience positive while encouraging you to stretch your knowledge.
When you start, you will probably start in a western saddle. Why? I've found that a western saddle provides extra security which allows students to progress faster. Additionally, riding with one hand teaches the student to balance in the leg instead of on the hand (consequently, not balancing on the horse's mouth). Starting western also allows students to start in groups as opposed to private lessons which is good in teaching independence and self-reliance.
Once a student can walk, trot, and canter with heels down, drop and pick up stirrups at the walk and trot, and steer at all three gaits in a circle, I will allow the student to switch to English. This switch can be quite difficult at first since the stirrups on an English saddle are less stable and steering requires coordination of both hands.
The amount of time spent on flat work before jumping depends on the rider's athleticism and work ethic. For some, these skills happen quickly and easily. Others will struggle with balance and equitation (position) for a while. It's important to know that through hard work, you can achieve your riding goals.
Before I let a student jump, I want to see a variety of things. I need to see a secure lower leg (little to no movement and in the proper position) in all three gaits with the heel consistently down. This is the basis of support and if a rider doesn't have a good lower leg, they are more likely to hurt themselves or the horse while jumping. I need to see a rider able to identify his or her diagonals and change it appropriately (posting or standing up and sitting down on the correct rhythm). I require the student be able to walk, trot, and canter comfortably in the two-point while steering in a circle and maintaining his or her balance without relying on his or her hands. I need to see a tall and flat back indicating strength and I need to see the ability to keep a proper rein length (a straight line from elbow to hand through rein to bit with light contact on the mouth). I also need to see the student trot poles comfortably in the two-point before I will let him or her progress.
Once I see all of these things on a variety of horses (bouncy or smooth, short or tall), then I'll let the student start jumping.
Jumping starts simply with a small crossrail and a placement pole. The student holds the two-point over the obstacle and learns to hold mane so as not to catch the horse in the mouth. Once the rider can maintain his or her balance, we add a pole or a jump out of the line. We trot many fences before we learn to canter fences. This keeps things slow and easy to control. Once the student can hold his or her position through a line, then we add on until we've made a small trot crossrails course.
When the student has demonstrated proficiency and safety at trot crossrail courses, then he or she learns to canter poles. Once the student can learn striding to a pole, he or she will canter two poles in a row and count strides between them. Only once a student has figured out how to count strides both to and between jumps will I allow the student to jump canter courses.
Following this milestone, courses will start to become more complicated and students will learn to jump without stirrups. Flat work becomes more technical and students begin to learn how to manipulate his or her horse's body to achieve various results (also known as basic dressage).
While the progression written down may seem simple, the act of learning how to do these things on a variety of horses can take years to accomplish. Everyone's rate of learning is different and some learn skills faster than others. It's important to remember that work ethic wins out over pure talent so keep working hard until you meet your goals! And also be candid with your instructor if you feel like you are not being challenged - communication is key to a happy trainer/student relationship.