Many beginner riders are attracted to the sports of stadium jumping, cross country jumping and field hunting and hunter shows are very popular. Even western riders face the occasional jump, whether in trail classes or riding out on trails. While you might not want to make a career of riding horses over jumps, it is valuable to know how to go over a jump in a way that's safe and comfortable for you and comfortable for your horse.
Only Jump If You Want To
Having said that however, it's important for beginners to understand that you don't have to jump, even if you only plan to ride English. There are lots of disciplines that English riders can participate in that don't require jumping such as dressage, English pleasure, equitation and flat classes such as road hack, le trec, distance riding, mounted games, polo and polo-crosse. Nevertheless, for the reasons I mentioned above, it is good to know how to approach and go over a jump.
Of course, you'll want to be wearing an approved helmet, proper boots, and make sure your tack is in top notch condition. You don't want to find out that worn girth strap won't hold when you're coming down out of a jump. Many riders shorten their stirrup leathers a notch or two, but you might not feel the need to do this until you've are jumping small heights.
Even should you decide you want to learn to jump, you should never feel pressured. I've seen riders (mainly kids) who were clearly not interested, or wanted to jump but were scared, feel pressured and as a result were unhappy. Jumping adds a lot of risk to horseback riding, and safety should always be the first priority. A rider who is feeling pressured and insecure isn't a safe rider. You want to go over jumps fully committed and confident—not half-hearted and nervous. In any horse activity, you should be safe, and you should be having fun. If you're scared, you're not having fun. Whether you take three months or three years or perhaps decades to learn to go over jumps doesn't matter. Your instructor or coach should be willing to go your pace and not compare you to other riders.
Develop a Secure Seat
Your first step in learning to ride over jumps is to work with a coach or instructor to develop a secure seat at all gaits from a walk to hand gallop. You should also be able to ride these gaits securely in two point or half seat. It's common for instructors, especially those teaching kids, to hurry through the basics and get the student jumping before they're really secure. After all, jumping can be loads of fun and it’s pretty glamorous too. I think this is a mistake and ultimately leads to unsafe, unhappy riders and unhappy horses. It's difficult to say how long it will take to develop a secure seat—it varies for every rider. A really keen, athletic rider on a well schooled horse may be able to start jumping after few months of lessons. Others may take longer, either because they aren't as athletic, or are keen but apprehensive. This is where a good instructor or coach can make a big difference—someone who will know when to give the student a little motivational push, without overwhelming them.
Riding Over Poles
After you have mastered the basics, you can start riding over poles. Often instructors will start with just one pole, that will be ridden over at the walk. You will then learn to walk and then trot over a line of poles, both at a posting trot and two point seat. Once you've mastered that you'll start cantering over the line. It's important to understand the spacing between the poles so it's easy for you and your horse to accomplish this exercise safely. This is where your coach is a good resource.
From Poles to Jumps
From poles, you will move to caveletti—poles that are raised a few inches off of the ground. Again, you'll trot and canter over these as your horse moves with greater impulsion to lift itself over these tiny jumps. Once you're secure going over the caveletti the next step will be a small cross rail. This will be just high enough to encourage your horse to actually jump, rather than step over the rails. As you approach this cross rail, it's important to keep your seat securely in the saddle. Look forward beyond the jump at where you want to go after you land. It's bad habit of mine to want to look at the jump—but dropping your head to look affects the horse's balance. Your coach will help you learn to gauge where to ask your horse to take off from—roughly the same distance from the jump as it is high. As the horse lifts its forequarters over the rail, you will lift yourself up into two point and let your hands go forward up your horse's neck—a movement called the “release," so you don't inadvertently bump it's mouth or use the reins to hold yourself up with. A horse needs to stretch its neck out as it jumps to help it balance, and you don't want to interfere with this. (You will momentarily have no contact with the bit.)
As you land, sit gently down in the saddle, and bring your hands back to the normal position. Be sure not to fold your legs back or push them forward. Your leg position should not change greatly from riding on the flat.
After you have mastered a small line of cross rails, you will gradually increase the height of the jumps. As you become skilled at riding jumps in an arena or ring, you will graduate to riding different types of jumps, including oxers (jumps that are two or three rails wide), water jumps, and other more complicated and intimidating (at least for the horse) types of jumps. Jumping cross country or field hunting is even more challenging as you learn to deal with distractions and solid jumps that don't fall down if your horse hits them.
Out on Trail and Western Riders
Western and trail riders probably won't go beyond the cross rails stage. Most often, if a trail rider encounters a downed tree or other obstacle on trail, it's easy enough and safer to find a way around. In trail classes any jumps are quite small—a test of obedience, rather than jumping skills.