This year I`ve been lucky enough to take several clients cross country schooling, and to try out a number of different venues.
My favourite by far, is the newly opened Mini Mattingley, which is a cute course or miniature BE standard fences. Starting at 50cm they go up to 80cm and once you graduate from them you can go to the real Mattingley course, which goes up to Novice height. The joy of Mini Mattingley is that all the fences are close together, without being overcrowded, and they are all within the confines of a field.
This means that as an instructor you are confident that your inexperienced cross-country-ers are never too far from you and the horses haven`t too far to go should they bolt or dispatch their rider. So when asked to take a nervous boy and his cheeky pony on their first cross country outing, it was the obvious destination.
Once we had arrived and tacked up in the enclosed car park, I let my rider and his pony wander around the field to get their bearings, eye up any jumps, and to relax into this new environment. The other benefit of Mini Mattingley is that for a nominal fee you hire out the whole course. Which is fantastic if you have a nappy pony, or you are nervous, but it is also great to use with small groups. So my rider didn`t need to worry about other horses, or being watched by others, and could concentrate completely on his pony. I wandered into the middle of the field so that I was close enough to reassure him, yet not holding his hand and restraining him.
Once I saw him sit up (He crouches forward when nervous), I knew I could move on. The warm up consisted of him trotting easy circles around the fences, gradually getting further and further away from me and his Mum, as his confidence grew. Once they`d trotted on both reins and the pony looked fairly settled, I got him to have a good canter. I probably let him canter for a bit too long in the warm up, but I wanted to make sure his pony had gotten rid of any fizz, and that my rider was happy with the speed and knew that his pony wouldn`t actually tank off with him, even if it felt faster than normal.
There are a few very inviting logs to do, so naturally I started with the one on a slight uphill, and once they`d jumped this one out of trot a couple of times, I asked them to follow it up with the rail seven strides away. This boy`s pony loves his jumping and can get quite quick into the fences, but can also have a cheeky duck out if he doesn`t think his rider is with him. Unfortunately, the speed causes my rider to crouch forward, which makes him ineffective at riding straight towards the fences, and at correcting any wobbles. He`s getting there though, and when I should “sit up” he almost reaches vertical. The first time over the two fences, my rider forgot the sit up and steer for the next one part, but after a couple of goes he got the hang of sitting up and checking his eager pony after fences.
So we moved on to a little double of houses, which would really test them. I wanted to do this tricky combination fairly early on before my rider tired, and to give him confidence to try the harder fences. The pony got quick. as anticipated, and then ducked a shoulder at the second element so my rider fell off lightly. But I dusted him down, chucked him back on, and explained again about the importance of sitting up and checking the speed. They negotiated the double successfully this time, and then rode them again before going on to the original pair of fences.
After this I gave the pair chance to walk around, catch their breath, and digest our work so far. They were doing well; practice makes perfect, and by keeping trying different fences I hoped my rider would learn to trust his pony a little more, yet at the same time, still be determined to ride towards the fence so the pony respected his wishes.
Next we worked through the water complex. Initially, they just trotted in and out so that both were confident. Then I got them to jump a little log on the way out of the water. Then to jump it back into the water, trot through the water, and back out over a little tiger trap, This caused a few problems as the pony cheekily skirted the water so that my rider couldn`t get a very good line to the last fence. They managed it after a couple of times, so we went back to the houses, and jumped that double with a brush fence afterwards.
When teaching cross country I like to build confidence over a couple of very simple fences, and then move onto something slightly more taxing, before incorporating fences already tackled into courses, or even just to rebuild confidence if they`ve had a tough time negotiating a combination.
We did a couple more courses, with the odd new fence put in, and then when my rider began to tire we finished by trotting up and down a six inch step. Which the pony thought was at least two foot! The step was more of a cool down, and food for thought, so that next time we can do the slightly bigger one and my rider can go away to contemplate the leaning back and slipping his reins technique.
The only problem I encountered, which I hope will be better next time, is that because my rider was a bit worried, and because the pony accelerated around the fences, my rider put the handbrake on too quickly after fences so they didn`t get to jump from much of a rhythm, which will make courses seem rather stilted. And the pony got rather frustrated with this ploy and began chucking in the odd buck. Personally, I think if he had been allowed to canter a large circle after the jumps, or to even travel between fences, this wouldn`t be a problem, but given that my rider tends to be a bit worried, and the pony has the cheeky run out streak, I am willing to work on this in the arena at home and then next time we go cross country schooling I can encourage them to move away from the fences.
Today I taught this boy and his sister at home, and I feel we had a breakthrough. Jumping on a circle meant he had to plan ahead and steer towards the next jump all the time, but on the exit of the circle was a dog leg. One particular time, the pony tried to duck out of the last fence on the circle, but there was suddenly a sharp smacking sound. My rider had actually bossed his pony around! The pony leapt sideways and over the jump, before sweetly popping over the oxer on the dog leg! I think they`ll make a great partnership as soon as my rider realises that he should be firm with his pony and gain his pony`s respect. The pony is just a very cheeky character, who I think will do anything when he respects and trusts you. It doesn`t mean my rider needs to get whip-happy, he just has to be more determined in his riding, be strict with ground manners, and not be afraid to use his brain to get a step ahead of his quick-thinking pony!
Already they have come a long way, and I`m looking forwards to seeing them develop together over the winter.