Phoenix and Cross Country

Phoenix’s cross country education has been a bit stop-start due to one thing and another. Her first summer with me I didn’t feel she was ready to go cross country schooling and the ground was rock hard. The second summer she was bolting in canter in the spring so with cracks in our relationship and very hard grouuhnd I only got her out a couple of times over solid fences. My plan of getting her over solid fences last autumn and this spring were scuppered with storms and covid respectively.

Anyway, now hopefully we’re back to some normality, I’m hoping to further her education across country over the next three months.

So how do you plan a progressive cross country session? You don’t want to out face a green horse, but equally they need to learn new skills and build confidence. It’s a skill I’m working on from both a rider and a teaching perspective, so I can develop inexperienced riders on the cross country as well as give inexperienced horses valuable, positive training.

I use the warm up as time to play around with the gears of the trot and canter, getting the horse responsive to the aids, checking the steering, and assessing how the horse feels on the terrain. Are they confident under foot, slipping, or finding it hard to keep their balance down hill. Then I focus on any weak areas for the rest of the warm up. With a green horse I’ll ride them near the jumps, circling round them and settling them so their eyes aren’t out on stalks. Last weekend when I took Phoenix out cross country schooling she was much less “looky” at all the jumps during our warm up, settling into a rhythm immediately and being attentive to my aids.

If a horse hasn’t seen water then I won’t do this, but I usually incorporate water into the warm up; trotting and cantering through the water. This helps teach a horse that water is no big deal, and for the greener horse it reminds them of the water question.

Once warmed up I find an inviting, plain jump well within their comfort zone height wise and then jump that a few times until the horse settles into cross country mode. The first jump should be done from a showjumping perspective; upright, three point position and a balanced, controlled canter. Just in case the horse hasn’t got the memo about it being cross country, and has a stop, or thinks twice about it. Last week Phoenix hadn’t gotten the cross country memo and was very green over the first few jumps with me ending up by her ears a couple of times! With an inexperienced horse, it is best to approach in the three point position as you are more secure with any sticky moments or awkward leaps over the jump. Approaching in a steadier canter gives the horse more time to assess and process the jump, which hopefully leads to better understanding by them and they grow in confidence.

I start to string some straightforward jumps together, starting to open up into a cross country canter and two point position as the jumps become more familiar, but revert to the showjumping approach over new, fences which might cause the horse to back off. I find it best with green horses to get them started with the first fences so that they find their rhythm and then add in a couple of new fences. Each subsequent “course” uses jumps the horse has already jumped before introducing new jumps, as they’re more likely to pop straight over because they’re travelling forwards and in “the zone”.

After riding a few courses, I then do something less physically challenging for the horse, but still mentally stimulating. I’ll go and play at the steps. We walk up and down some steps, taking it steadily so that the horse has the opportunity to study and understand the question. For some reason, steps seem to puzzle Phoenix so I take it back to basics each schooling session and give her plenty of time to process the steps. Each time it’s taking her less time to work out where her legs go and how. By walking the steps you give a horse time to look at, process and understand the situation. This means that they will be confident in similar situations because they know the correct response. Whilst this takes time and patience, in the long run you’ll never be caught out with a sudden stop or hesitation.

I develop the step work so that the horse is trotting up and down them, linking it in with a course, and then cantering them when they feel bold and confident.

Next is another short course, using familiar jumps as well as posing new questions and perhaps linking in the water to remind the horse what it is. Before I find another technical challenge for them. Of course, this assumes that they horse has coped well with everything so far.

With ditches, I use the same approach of walking over them a few times, before trotting and then linking jumps in and cantering over them. The idea is to go as far as the horse is comfortable. So if walking over a ditch is enough of a drama for today then that’s fine. Jumps can be integrated, but the ditch can still be walked over.

By then I usually feel that both horse and rider are reaching the limits of their learning capacity for the session, but if I have time then I will finish with one or two courses which revise what they have learnt over the session. The jumps don’t have to be the biggest they’ve jumped all day, or new questions, but a simple course popping through the water, over the ditch and steps will mimic a cross country course and prove a horse’s understanding and confidence to finish on a very positive note.

The next time I go out with them I fully expect to have to revise the technical elements, but the plan is to give them such a positive, confidence building experience that they come out next time bolder and less looky. So we start from stage 2 rather than stage 1. And progress through the stages quicker, with only a short revision session, and then we can build on the size and technicality of the lines between fences and make that step from just cantering through water to jumping into or out of water and so on.

Working a Young Horse

I’ve been working with a young horse all summer, who has really tested the patience and determination of his owner and rider, but thankfully she’s starting to reap the benefits.

He came to her as lightly backed, but we soon discovered that he’d been missing a key element in his training: consistency.

So we took him right back to square one, and the first couple of weeks were spent with them building a relationship and him learning the routine in his new home. He’s a tense, nervous little guy, and it comes out in bolshy behaviour, so his owner had to establish ground manners and wait until he started to feel confident before starting to work him.

Now because he had already been introduced to tack, lunging and long reining, not a huge amount of time needed to be spent notching up the girth hole by hole as he got used to the feel of the saddle on his back, but we soon found out that he had some undesirable behaviours when being worked in hand, such as napping, twisting his body, bunny hopping, and charging at you. The same when he was ridden.

When I first met them they’d had some positive in hand sessions, but not so positive ridden sessions and his owner had realised she’d bitten off more than she could chew and needed help.

We decided to step back and focus on their long reining. They’d done some long reining around the farm tracks, which were going well, but weren’t doing any long reining in the arena, only riding, which wasn’t going so well. I completely agree that young horses should be educated outside the arena as much as possible, but this little horse didn’t have good associations with the arena. I believe this was because he was upset and confused about the ridden process and it was in a less familiar environment.

I think it stemmed from the lack of consistency in his backing process, as well as his individual personality, but as soon as the youngster was out of his comfort zone he displayed his “naughty behaviours” of napping and not going forwards. Starting to understand his personality and behaviour, we began to formulate a plan.

The horse wasn’t comfortable or confident in the indoor arena. Neither was he confident about being ridden. So putting the two together was a recipe for disaster. I sent my client home with the homework of long-reining in the indoor arena, doing basic circles, changes of reins and serpentines to build her horse’s confidence of being in that space. By doing some basic ridden movements from the ground they will become familiar, so hopefully when his owner rides him and rides these movements they will be more familiar and hopefully less stressful so he doesn’t exhibit any of his insecurity behaviours.

They continued to long rein out of the arena too, and the next lesson we began in his comfort zone with long-reining. They did ten minutes of this until he settled. Then his rider mounted, and we did exactly the same from the saddle as from the ground. So what he was being asked to do was familiar, but with the ridden part being unfamiliar. He was dipping his toe out of his comfort zone.

You can almost think of the comfort zone as an island, and the aim is for the sea to recede, so the island becomes bigger as the horse grows in confidence and experience.

Anyway, they had a positive ridden session, with him starting to relax. They didn’t need to trot until walking under saddle was within his comfort zone. The next few rides involved less long-reining and more in the saddle time, adding in short trots when the conditions were right.

They got to the point in the next few weeks that his owner could get on at the yard, enjoyed their rides round the farm, and were having positive sessions in the school. I think it was to their benefit not to increase the ridden work until the consistency was established. The horse began to relax into his work: he knew what to expect, was familiar with his surroundings and handlers, so stopped napping and responded correctly to the aids.

Once the consistency was established, we started to develop the ridden work. We introduced trots for longer and longer periods, transitions, circles and changes of rein. I was pleased that he was taking it all in his stride because he was growing in confidence.

Unfortunately, they had a blip and the youngster started napping again. Instead of persevering from the saddle, I suggested they returned to long-reining for a few days. I’m not sure what caused the blip, but the horse strikes me as a worrier, so it’s best to reaffirm his comfort zone and then start to ask the questions again, and be on the lookout for the first signs that he isn’t understanding, before his behaviour escalates.

It didn’t take long to get them back on track, and this will be the first thing we do if he has a sudden lack of confidence again.

Bearing in mind that this horse doesn’t have the best mindset to new experiences, and isn’t overly confident, we need to teach him to open his mind to new experiences. So we need to reduce the stress involved. I suggested that his owner introduced the outdoor arena by long-reining in there first, and then to ride in there after doing most of their work in the indoor until the horse relaxes in that environment. Then she can begin to work him properly in that arena. Hopefully by not throwing him in the deep end and asking him to swim, he will benefit in the long term because the relationship between him and his rider will strengthen as he gets more confident, and then we can ask him to step into deeper water more quickly and he won’t sink.

Next up is to continue establishing the basics, improving his rhythm and suppleness, adding in more school movements and getting the correct response from her aids. Being naturally tense, I want to see him starting to relax his topline and become more free in his body before we move on from each stage as that change in his body language tells us that he is more confident and understands his work.

Working a Young Horse

There’s such extreme opinions and attitudes towards working young horses; when they should be backed, first jumped etc. Racehorses are still on the track as two year olds, and some people leave a horse feral until they’re five.

Despite scientific evidence about when a horse’s skeleton is matured, there is still a lot of pressure for talented, well bred sports horses to be produced for four year old classes. Which causes all sorts of problems later in life for them. It’s a society of instantaneous gratification; in which horses who are capable of performing today do, rather than waiting until they are mature enough to in five years time.

In this sense, lesser quality horses – perhaps with less talent or with a less favourable conformation – actually fare better because they are produced at a slower rate and usually later in their lives.

Anyway, I’ve come to my own conclusion about how I feel an intelligent, talented young horse with a trainable temperament and good work ethic should be nurtured. It’s important to introduce brain work early in their lives, without doing too much physical work.

Mental stimulation can involve introducing a young horse to different environments, showing them poles, fillers, tarpaulins etc, in hand work to establish good manners, taking them to in hand shows, leading them out along quiet lanes, and meeting cars and bicycles. This sort of enrichment builds a bond with their handler, which should make the backing process less stressful for the horse, and builds the horse’s confidence when out and about.

I’ve got a new client, with her new four year old. The mare was produced in Ireland before being sold at a sales, and has a very clever mind as well as talent to boot. Whilst she needs to mature and increase condition, she also needs work to keep her busy brain occupied so that she stops jumping out her field or box walking.

They had their first lesson this week. The mare is fussy to mount, quite anxious and tense. This behaviour stems from anxiety so we have formulated a plan to overcome this. As it’s not rudeness, I don’t think the mare will benefit from a confrontational approach, but we do need to encourage her to stand more quietly to mount. It’s a long term approach, of mounting and allowing the horse to walk until she relaxes slightly and then asking her to halt momentarily. Hopefully each time she’s mounted the walk period gets shorter and halt gets longer. Time can also be spent standing by the mounting block with nothing further happening. We don’t want to add to the tension, but we need to introduce the concept of better mounting manners. Hopefully within two months she is less anxious about the mounting procedure and only needs walk a couple of steps before halting for as long as her rider needs her to. Racehorses have a similar problem with mounting because they’re used to being legged up and hurried into work.

The mare, as with all youngsters, walked into the arena and immediately started calling and looking for her friends, drifting back towards the gate. She’d left her brain in the stable. Add this to her tense, quick walk, and there’s nothing to work with. So we began the lesson by my rider just walking around the arena, circling around every jump she passed. I told her not to worry about the quality of the walk, or the bend. We just wanted to use the circles to draw the mare’s focus to her rider, forgetting about her friends in the stable. My rider could start to think about her aids and assess the mare’s understanding and response, but we didn’t want to start changing the mare until her brain was on side and she had begun to relax. It took a good few minutes of walking for the mare to take her mind off the gate and stables, and to relax into a longer striding walk. You could see she was starting to concentrate on what was going on in the arena.

Now that the mare was starting to relax we could introduce halt transitions. Reluctant to stop, she opens her mouth and tries to barge through the hand. She’s in a Micklem bridle, with a Neue schule eggbutt snaffle with bit stabilisers, which means she isn’t fussing as much with her tongue or gaping her mouth as wide as she did when viewed, so I’m hoping this habit reduces more when she settles fully into her new home. Anyway, I asked my rider to vibrate the rein as the mare set against her hand so that we diffused the tug of war situation. After a couple of halts, the vibrations were less because the mare was starting to understand the question and responded to my riders’ initial aids.

With this starting to fall into place, and the mare focused on her work, we could then take a five minute break. They halted and stood still for almost five minutes, taking in the scenery, and most importantly, relaxing. This halt is the type I’d like them to get upon mounting, so it’s good to see the concept is there. We repeated the halt frequently throughout the rest of the lesson to give the mare time to assimilate each exercise.

Staying in walk, as I now wanted to ask the mare a couple of questions to see how trainable she is, we began to introduce the idea of straightness. Now I know it’s halfway up the Scales of Training, but the mare was showing preference for left bend and unless we iron out her banana-ness, we won’t be able to start at the bottom of the Scale.

On the right rein, the one which the mare bent outwards, we started riding a square. Again, we weren’t making a huge change to the mare’s way of going, but rather showing her that there was a different way of moving. Riding straight lines emcourages the mare to straighten out of her left bend, and start to think about bending to the right. Her rider could also check she was sitting straight and giving even aids.

As with all youngsters, the mare wobbled along the sides of our square, so we made sure the reins and hands were channeling the mare straight without being claustrophobic, and the legs hung round her barrel to guide her between the reins. Just with a little more support from her rider and the mare started to move straighter, stride out and relax.

We repeated the square on the left rein to show the mare that she didn’t have to curl up to the left. Then we did some more circles around jumps and my rider felt the mare was better balanced and she had more influence over their direction. I was pleased with the improvement in the mare’s walk. As she relaxed she was exhaling in big snorts, lengthening her stride, lowering her neck and generally looking happier.

We finished by trotting a gentle square on both reins, aiming for a consistent rhythm and the mare relaxing into trot, stretching herself into a longer frame as she and her rider found their balance together.

Despite spending most of the lesson in walk the mare was mentally drained. She stood with her head low, ears floppy. You could see that she was tired. Her working routine will be two schooling sessions a week; one a lesson similar to this one and the other a shorter revision session with her owner. The rest of the week will be spent either in hand walks, some in hand work, such as pole mazes, or short ridden hacks. She’s a very clever horse so we need to keep her brain ticking over in order for her to be more manageable in the field and stable, but we do need to be careful not to stress her body physically, but I think this arrangement should benefit her best.