Thursday, August 29, 2019

How Do I Open Up My Horse’s Stride in Combinations?

Learn how you can help your short-strided horse make the distances when jumping combinations.


A reader asks: "My horse has a shorter-than-average stride and sometimes has trouble making the distances in big combinations. If I try to help him by going faster in the approach, he gets too flat and knocks rails down. He’s a wonderful jumper otherwise and I’d hate to give up on him. What can I do to help him with these big combinations?"

Top hunter/jumper trainer Scott Lenkart offers the answer:

This is a fairly common problem that is solvable in most cases. Horses tend to shorten their stride when they’re nervous—and they often get nervous when you ask them to speed up. So pushing your horse to go faster into big combinations is counterproductive. Instead, the key is to learn how to help him relax into his most comfortable pace. Once he’s relaxed, it’ll be easier to encourage him to stretch his stride out, bit by bit. This takes lots of practice at home.



One exercise that you might find helpful is a simple grid consisting of a small crossrail, followed by a ground pole 9 feet away, then a one-stride in-and-out four strides from the crossrail (about 55 feet). Initially, set the in-and-out at a comfortable distance—about 21½ to 22 feet—to make it feel very doable for your horse. (For horses with a slightly bigger stride, I’d open that distance up somewhat, to perhaps 23 feet.) By trotting into this exercise, you’ll remove any concern about finding the right distance to the jumps. The ground pole will encourage your horse to land cantering after the crossrail, and the set distance will bring you to a nice takeoff spot for the “A” element of the combination. This is very important, as one bad distance to the “in” of an in-and-out can make any horse worry.

Build the in-and-out as either an oxer to a vertical or a vertical to an oxer, whichever is more comfortable for you and your horse. Make both jumps fairly small at first and ramp the oxer (build the front rail lower than the back rail). Add a ground line in front of each jump to make it more inviting.

As you trot into the grid, focus your eyes beyond the “B” element of the in-and-out. Stay in a light, forward seat, with your hands in front of your body. To avoid causing your horse to knock down a rail on takeoff, wait for him to leave the ground and then follow with your hand and upper body. When you land from “A,” rock back into your two-point position to make sure your leg is underneath you and your eyes are looking ahead, then ride to “B” in the same light, forward position. If the initial distances feel too long or short, adjust them accordingly to make them as comfortable as possible for your horse.

When this is riding well, widen the oxer a little bit. Always widen the oxer before raising it—and never do both at the same time. Then gradually increase the heights of the in-and-out fences. Keep the “out” jump smaller than the “in” jump, so it’s less intimidating. As your horse’s confidence grows, gradually lengthen the distance in the four-stride line to about 60 feet and the distance in the combination to 24 feet, always keeping the jumps very inviting, so he never feels threatened. So long as he stays relaxed, he’ll begin stretching his stride automatically. When that’s going well, lower the jumps again and try the opposite configuration (for example, oxer-to-vertical if you started with vertical-to-oxer).

To transfer these new skills to competitions, be sure to minimize any stress that might make you—and, thus, your horse—nervous. Allow plenty of time to tack up and get to the ring so you’re not rushed. Warm up with lots of flatwork to loosen up, relax and stretch your horse, spending more time in whichever gait he finds most relaxing. Use ground lines to help him arrive at good distances. Build his confidence by working your way up to a slightly wider (but not higher) oxer than you might see in the ring. Then finish with a somewhat smaller vertical or rampy oxer—whichever seems to suit your horse best—with a ground line.

On course, approach combinations in a normal canter. Stay in your forward seat and ride just the way you did at home. Remember to be patient on takeoff, then follow your horse’s motion with your hand and upper body. If he feels a little sticky, encourage him with a cluck.

Keep in mind, inconsistent riding can make your horse nervous. If he knocks a rail down—either at home or at a show—don’t overreact. Just continue practicing and doing your homework. As he begins to trust you and relax, he’ll learn to stretch his stride in the combinations as needed.


Scott Lenkart and his wife, Courtney, own and operate South Haven Farm, in Bartonville, Texas. Focusing on hunters, jumpers and equitation, they coach a limited number of riders, bringing them along from the beginner level to top placings in the hunter and grand prix arenas. Scott served as the USHJA Zone 7 team’s chef d’équipe at the North American Young Rider Show Jumping Team Championships in 2015. He and Courtney also train and compete a select group of horses through the highest levels of the sport—Courtney in hunters and Scott in jumpers. To date, Scott has won more than 45 grand prix events. They also buy horses in the U.S. and overseas to develop and sell to suitable riders.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Dressage Schooling Notebook: An Exercise of Circles

Improve your horse’s straightness and contact with this dressage training exercise from Gerhard Politz.

Exercise:

Walk or trot your horse on a 20-meter circle in the direction that he feels hollow—where he tries to avoid contact. At the centerline, ride a change of rein and do a 10-meter volte.



Benefits:


  • Straightens your horse.
  • Encourages your horse to stretch his body into the rein on his hollow side and, eventually, helps you get more equal contact on both reins.


How to Do It:


  1. You first need to determine which is your horse’s stiff side and which is his hollow side. On his hollow side, he will have a tendency to bring his haunches in and fall through his outside shoulder. Falling through the outside shoulder becomes more obvious when riding circles or lateral movements such as shoulder-in. As a result, the contact on the outside rein becomes stronger because your horse tries to avoid contact on his hollow side.
  2. Begin riding a 20-meter circle on your horse’s hollow side in an energetic walk, working trot or an impulsive collected trot, according to your horse’s capabilities and stage of training. Let’s assume your horse is hollow to the right. Ride a 20-meter circle to the right. You will feel that the contact on your inside, right rein is lighter than on the outside, left rein. The measure of difference in the contact is related to the severity of stiff-versus-hollow side
  3. When you reach the centerline, ride a 10-meter volte to the left, to the outside of the 20-meter circle. Use your inside, left rein to bend your horse quite obviously in the neck. When your horse releases the inside muscles of his neck, his neck becomes somewhat concave. When that happens, immediately lighten the contact on your inside rein and allow your horse to stretch into the outside rein. Your inside leg is at the girth and your outside leg is behind the girth to ensure the bend and to prevent your horse’s haunches from falling out. If you ride the circle in the middle of the arena, you can repeat the outside volte on the opposite side of the 20-meter circle, thus linking two voltes to the bigger circle.
  4. Repeat this exercise several times, and you will feel that your horse is increasingly ready to take contact on the outside rein in the volte. It is important, however, that you keep giving the inside rein on the volte whenever possible. Remember that this is the rein on which your horse wants to be heavy when you ride the 20-meter circle.

Tips for Success:
  • Begin at the walk to introduce and familiarize yourself with the exercise. Pay attention to the quality of the walk and the degree of “forward.” Do not allow your horse to walk “like a snail on vacation.”
  • Make sure you don’t wrench your horse with your hands around the circle and volte.
Variations:

Variations of this exercise improve the straightness and strength of your horse’s hollow side, confirming him in that rein, and make him lighter on the opposite, heavier rein. Your horse will become suppler and more flexible, his collection will be enhanced and his shoulders will become free. Because of the loosening and suppling effects, these variations also help address problems arising from a “passagey” or “hovering” trot. In addition, your riding skills will improve considerably if you strive for meticulously correct execution of the movements.

  • To increase the gymnastic value of this exercise, incorporate lateral work. For example, begin with shoulder-in right on the 20-meter circle. On the centerline, change rein to a 15-meter circle riding haunches-in left. Make sure you often release the inside, left rein on the smaller circle just as you did previously in the volte so your horse takes a better contact on the outside rein. Then at the centerline change rein again to the 20-meter circle to shoulder-in right. Over time, the degree of difficulty can be enhanced by downsizing the 15-meter circle to a 10-meter volte.
  • Vary riding shoulder-in right and renvers on the 20-meter circle. Eventually go from renvers to a 15-meter circle or smaller outside circle in haunches-in.

Before you include lateral work on circles, it is advisable that you acquire good knowledge of riding lateral work on straight lines. It is very easy to misjudge and overdo the bend and angle of lateral movements when riding them on circles. This would throw the horse onto his shoulders and be totally contrary to the purpose of lateral work. Also, make sure you don’t overdo the angles in lateral work and don’t wrench your horse around with your hands since serious drawbacks will occur, such as the horse losing regularity of the gait, impulsion and possibility of collection.

A Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI)-level competitor and trainer, Gerhard Politz emigrated to the United States from Germany in 1987. He is a Reitlehrer Fn, a British Horse Society Instructor and a U.S. Dressage Federation (USDF) gold medalist. In Germany, he studied with masters such as Egon von Neindorff and Willi Schultheis as well as Gen. Kurt Albrecht, former head of the Spanish Riding School. In 1992, Politz joined the editorial board of the USDF Instructor’s Manual. He works out of the Flintridge Riding Club in Pasadena, California.