Showing posts with label Practical Horseman. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Practical Horseman. Show all posts

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Fit and Fun for life

Margie Engle: Fit and Fun for Life

How a legendary grand prix rider extends her jumpers’ careers without dampening their enthusiasm for the sport.

My number-one priority is always the horse. I’m constantly seeking new ways to extend my mounts’ careers without making them mentally or physically sour. I avoid overdrilling them not just to prevent unnecessary stress on their legs but also because I want them to look forward to their work with the freshest, happiest attitudes possible. I accompany my husband, Steve Engle, DVM, to veterinary conferences to keep up to date on the latest science and strategies for strengthening and conditioning horses while also reducing their risk of injury as much as possible. I also pay attention to methods that trainers use in other disciplines. Here are some of the most important lessons I’ve learned:

1. Minimize the pounding. Over time, concussion may lead to injuries in horses’ feet, joints, tendons and ligaments. The bigger the jumps, the greater the concussion. So small jumps are best for schooling sessions.

2. Avoid excessive repetition. Just as repetitive motions can cause tendonitis in humans, they can lead to muscle fatigue in horses, which, in turn, causes physical structures to break down. This can be challenging in sports like jumping, where a certain amount of practice is necessary for both horses and riders to develop and refine their skills. If you don’t practice at all, you and your horse may not have the required strength and timing to perform to the best of your abilities without risking injuries. So it’s a fine line. Some practice is a must, but change things up before your horse gets sore or bored.

3. Target the entire body. Focusing too much on one body part eventually leads to compensation. For example, if you constantly ask your horse to land on one particular lead, his muscles on one side of his body may fatigue. To compensate, he’ll try to shift the load over to the other side of his body. This is how many lamenesses develop. The stronger your horse’s entire body is, the less risk he’ll have of getting injured. So choose exercises that work both sides of his body equally and also strengthen his stomach, back, neck, etc.

4. Use interval training and cross-training. Event riders are especially good at interval training. They know how to bring their horses’ heart rates up, maintain the intensity for several moments, then ease off to bring the rates back down again. Gradually increasing the number of these interval “sets” improves overall strength and fitness.

I also incorporate the gallop into my jumpers’ routine programs not just to improve their adjustability and get them comfortable at the gait but also to expand their lungs.

Dressage is excellent cross-training and a great way to improve rideability and responsiveness. All horses should be taught basic dressage. If you are able to progress to a more advanced level, the gradual incorporation of collection into your jumper’s routine will strengthen different muscles from the ones he is accustomed to using. When Olympic dressage rider Lisa Wilcox rides my horses, it’s like sending them to the gym: She makes them use their hind ends in brief repetitive sets, asking them to do the equine equivalent of human squats.

5. Work on different surfaces. Riding your horse on a variety of terrain—sand ring, grass ring, trails, hills and even firm surfaces—strengthens different structures in his body and gets him comfortable performing on diverse types of footing. It’s great for his mental health, too.

6. Repeat exercises in both directions whenever possible. Horses’ brains don’t work exactly like ours do. When you perform an exercise and then approach it from the reverse direction, for them it’s like seeing it for the first time. You’ll always get the most out of a lesson if you can do it both ways.

I design my schooling sessions with all of these principles in mind. Below are three of the exercises I use to keep my horses’ programs fresh and effective.

Exercise 1: Football Grid



Setup: Place four poles 3 to 3½ feet apart with a single, adjustable cavalletti support on one end of each pole, arranged so the cavalletti are angled in an alternating fashion. Start with the poles flat on the ground or at their lowest setting.

Step 1
I approach the poles in a collected trot. I normally begin this exercise at the sitting trot to have maximum control of the rhythm and pace, but I use a rising trot on Alter Ego, owned by Lea Allen, because he stays naturally animated in his hind end and is already familiar with the exercise.

Step 2
This is a good example of how the poles help to improve the connection between your leg and hand. By using too much hand and not enough leg, I’ve made it difficult for Alter to lengthen his stride. As a result, he steps into the exercise a little shallowly. His front hoof has landed close to the first pole rather than where I’d like it to be: halfway between the first and second poles.

Step 3
This time through the exercise we have the opposite problem: I’ve used too much leg and not enough hand (see the slight loop in my rein). As a result, Alter extends too much and tries to jump the cavalletti.

Step 4
Finally, we get the connection just right! He’s stepping almost perfectly between the poles, flexing his hocks and knees exceptionally well and stretching his head and neck forward and down, making good use of his back and topline muscles. I can really feel the animation and suspension in his steps here.

Step 5
When Alter feels ready, we rotate the cavalletti to the next height (8 inches), and when that goes well, we move them up to 10 inches. You can tell by the nice curve in his topline that he’s engaging his neck, back and hindquarter muscles to raise his legs higher over the poles, creating a more suspended gait.

Step 6
Finally, we rotate the cavalletti to their highest height (12 inches). Note how much he’s flexing his joints and using his topline. This is a great low-impact way to strengthen his muscles.

This exercise reminds me of the tires that football players run through to improve their agility and coordination. It strengthens a horse’s topline, engages his hind end, increases the suspension in his gaits, teaches him to regulate his pace and gives him a better awareness of where his feet are. At the same time, it improves straightness as well as the rider’s leg-to-hand connection with the horse.

To set up the grid, you can use any equipment that enables you to raise a cavalletti on just one side. I have boxes that I can roll over to create different heights (6 inches, 8 inches, 10 inches and 12 inches). Jump standards would work, too, if yours have holes that go as low as about 6 inches. Place three or four poles about 3 to 3½ feet apart—up to 4 feet apart for bigger horses—with a block or standard next to each pole.

For the first few passes through the grid, set both ends of each pole on the ground so they’re just normal trot poles. Approach them in an active, collected sitting trot. (Sitting trot is ideal because it provides the most control over your horse’s rhythm and impulsion and gives you the best feel of what he is doing underneath you. But rising trot is fine, too, if you’re not comfortable sitting the trot yet.) Wrap your legs down around your horse’s sides so you can feel his hind end and back working. Think of pushing his hind legs forward while creating more suspension in his steps, asking him to march up to the poles.

Trot straight through the center of the poles, then change direction, make a loop and ride back through them the other way. Change direction again, this time turning the opposite way after the poles (if you made the previous loop to the left, make this one to the right), so you end up riding a sort-of figure-eight pattern over them. Focus on riding a very accurate track: straight in the approach, over the poles and afterward, then making nice bending turns. Use the ends of the ring to maximize your straightness in each approach to the exercise.

If your horse is nervous or tries to rush through the poles, bring him down to the walk, remove a pole or two (from the beginning and/or end of the series so the remaining poles are still 3 to 3½ feet apart) and walk over the remaining poles very slowly and deliberately. This will teach him to step in between the poles. When he’s doing that well, go back to trot and approach the poles in a very quiet, controlled manner. After several successful repetitions, add the other pole(s) back in.

Once he is comfortable with the ground poles, raise the alternating ends of each pole so that one end rests on the ground and the other end is raised by the block or standard, set at its lowest height. For example, raise the first pole on the right side, the second on the left, and so on. Approach the grid in the same way, in your sitting trot if possible. Stay connected with your legs and hands so your horse understands he’s still supposed to step over the rails and not jump them.

Repeat this a few times in both directions, praising him each time he does it correctly and taking plenty of walk breaks. Then, if he seems really comfortable with the exercise, raise the pole ends to the next height. Don’t go above 8 inches in your first session. If he has a good first experience and is feeling confident and coordinated, you can start your next session where you left off and gradually increase the height and/or add more poles, if you like. Also, if you feel secure in the saddle, try the exercise a few times without stirrups.

As your horse gets the hang of the exercise, you should feel his energy clearly flowing from your legs into a nice connection in your hands. Each time you go through the poles, try to find a happy balance between your legs and hands. If he slows down and drops behind your leg, ask yourself if you were using too much hand. If he gets flat and fast, ask yourself if you were using too much leg and too little hand. You never want to be rough with either your hands or legs, but instead want to maintain a light connection with both, allowing for and supporting a nice steady rhythm.

You will also feel more spring in his back as he lifts his legs over the poles. This is the elevation and suspension you want to feel—and it’s just the impulsion and “spring-loading” we want for jumping. Once you have a nice connection over the poles, it’s OK to do them at the rising trot. Be sure to continue asking for collection and suspension in each repetition of the exercise.

Remember not to overdrill. Once your horse seems to understand the exercise, repeat it just a few more times before going on to something else. Then incorporate it into your flatwork, doing some lengthening and shortening of the stride, lateral work, canter transitions, etc., elsewhere in the ring in between passes over the poles.

Exercise 2: Double Bounce



Setup: Build three verticals with ground rails on both sides of each, 9 to 10 feet apart from one another.

Step 1
The first time we go through the exercise, we remove the rail from the third vertical, leaving its two ground rails side by side in place. We approach this single bounce in a collected but animated canter. As Alter locks his focus on the first fence, I wait for him to...

Step 2
… jump up to me. I stay quiet in the saddle, keeping my eyes up and my hands softly following his mouth, letting him figure out the exercise.

Step 3
In this moment, Alter is setting himself up for the next jump: His front feet have already touched down and pushed off again while his hind legs are just about to land from the first jump. By engaging his hindquarters, he compresses his body into this tight round shape.

Step 4
As he jumps the second vertical confidently, already focusing on the next ground poles, I stay out of his way, letting the jumps do the work instead of my hands.

Step 5
Now we build the third vertical. I approach the grid in the same canter and stay quiet as he bounces through the exercise. He’s starting to engage his hind end to land and push off immediately. You can tell by his expression that he’s paying attention. The curve in his neck and back and the muscle ripples along his belly show that this exercise is “gymnasticizing” his entire body.

Step 6
Now we make the grid more visually interesting by raising a cup on one side of each vertical (two holes higher than the lower side), so the jumps are angled in an alternating fashion similar to the football-grid exercise. I canter Alter to it in the same way and then leave him alone to do
his job.

Like the last exercise, this one is great for improving straightness and rhythm while rocking your horse back onto his hind end and making him quicker with his front end. It helps to center his arc correctly over the tops of the fences. It also teaches him to learn from his own mistakes and back himself up from the jumps to avoid going “past the distance” or getting too close to the jump on takeoff. Meanwhile, you can focus on your own position and balance.

Only do this exercise with an experienced horse who is already familiar with bounce jumps.

Set up three small crossrails 9 to 10 feet apart. Alternatively, you can make each jump a single rail, raised at one end and resting on the ground on the other end as you did in Exercise 1. If you and your horse are more experienced, make the jumps small verticals, no higher than 2½ feet. If he has a naturally bigger stride, increase the distances between the jumps to as much as 11 feet. Place a ground rail on each side of every jump. This will help your horse’s depth perception and prevent him from going past the distances.

Approach the bounces in a collected canter, being sure that your horse is in front of your leg. In this exercise, it’s better to be a little tight to the jumps than too forward. When you arrive at the first jump, leave him alone to focus on his job. The more you can stay out of his way, the better. Hold your two-point position throughout the exercise, allowing him to jump up and close your hip angle over each obstacle.

If he gets quick over the bounces, think of being almost a little behind the motion with your body, using your weight—not your hands—to gently slow him down.

Jump the bounces in both directions. When that’s going well, you can gradually add another jump or two.

If you have a young horse and want to trot instead of canter into the exercise, put a placement pole 7 to 8 feet from the first jump to help him arrive at a comfortable takeoff spot. Then set a second placement pole 9 to 10 feet after the last jump. With this setup, jump through the exercise in only one direction so the trot pole is at the beginning, not the end.

Exercise 3: In-and-Out



Setup: Place a vertical and square oxer 21 feet apart with ground rails on both sides of each jump. Add two perpendicular rails on the ground in between the jumps to help keep the horse straight (10 to 11 feet apart from one another initially).

Step 1
We approach the in-and-out at a working canter in the vertical-to-oxer direction first. In the air over the vertical, I follow Alter’s mouth with my hands while focusing my eyes on the oxer.

Step 2
After we land from the vertical, I close my leg and continue to use a soft following hand to encourage him to keep cantering forward. I try to stay out of his way, allowing him to focus on the jumps, not on what I’m doing. As a result, he sets himself up to …

Step 3
… produce a nice round effort over the oxer. Next, we’ll canter the oxer to the vertical.

Step 4
The distance rides tighter this direction, but without any interference from me, Alter studies the problem and sets himself up properly to create an excellent jump out over the vertical, lifting his knees well and powering off his hind end.

This final exercise will continue to emphasize straightness while helping you focus even more on body control and reminding your horse to collect and rock back onto his hindquarters on takeoff.

Set up a small vertical 21 to 22 feet from a small square oxer. Place ground rails on either side of both jumps. Add another pair of ground rails in the middle of the exercise, perpendicular to the jumps, to create a straight chute for your horse to canter through. Some horses spook at these poles when they first see them, so set them 10 to 11 feet apart initially.

Approach this in-and-out at a working canter, starting in the vertical-to-oxer direction. This should ride comfortably at this distance, although you may need to add leg after the vertical to be sure the apex of your horse’s next jumping effort is directly over the center of the oxer.

When your horse has jumped the in-and-out well in that direction, approach it from the other direction. The distance might feel a little tighter this way, so after you close your leg to help him across the oxer, stay quiet in the tack, allowing him to figure out the exercise. Let the jumps back him off. Help him more with your body control than with your hands—by opening your hip angle and sitting a little taller with your upper body.

Continue alternating directions through the exercise a few times to feel how differently you need to ride the vertical-to-oxer versus the oxer-to-vertical. Meanwhile, if your horse is having trouble staying straight, gradually roll the perpendicular ground rails closer together until they are about 8 or 9 feet apart. If he has a major drifting problem, angle these rails into a mild “V” shape, bringing the ends of the poles slightly closer together (but no closer than 3 feet) in front of the takeoff of the second jump. At this point, only jump the in-and-out in this direction—or ask a ground person to reconfigure the “V” each time so that the narrower end is always pointing toward the second jump.

If you’re a more advanced rider and this exercise is going well, practice it without stirrups and/or tie a knot in your reins and put your hands on your hips or out to the sides like airplane wings over the jumps. This will help you improve your independence from your hands and focus on your position and balance in the air.

Remember, your horse’s welfare should always come first. Keep your schooling sessions fun and interesting without ever overdoing it—so you both can look forward to next time!

About Margie Engle

Margie Engle has been one of the winningest jumper riders in the U.S. for more than three decades. As a child, she cleaned dog and cat kennels in exchange for riding lessons until she was deemed big enough to muck stalls and groom horses. She didn’t own her own horse until her late 20s. In the meantime, she learned every aspect of horsemanship, working her way to the top of the sport. To date, Margie has won more than 200 grands prix classes, six World Cup qualifiers, more than 20 Nations Cups and a record 10 American Grandprix Association Rider of the Year titles. She competed in the 2000 Olympics, won team silver at the 1999 Pan American Games, team gold and individual bronze at the 2003 Pan Am Games and team silver at the 2006 World Equestrian Games. Last year, she and 13-year-old Oldenburg stallion Royce anchored the winning team at the Nations Cup in British Columbia before topping the field in the $130,000 ATCO Nations Finale Grand Prix. Proving her ability to extend the longevity of her mounts, Margie currently has two 18-year-olds competing in FEI-level classes: Bockmanns Lazio, who has already scored multiple top-10 placings this year, and Indigo, who placed third in the $205,000 NetJets Grand Prix CSI**** at the Winter Equestrian Festival this February with double-clear rounds. Margie and her husband of 23 years, veterinarian Steve Engle, are based at Gladewinds Farm in Wellington, Florida.

This article was originally published in the April 2018 issue of Practical Horseman.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Finish Your Round with Flair


Liza Towell Boyd's step-by-step approach to mastering the final stages of your hunter derby course.


The Challenge: Typically, at the end of the handy course, you see the riders come back to the walk promptly after their last fence and walk directly out of the ring. But sometimes the gate is very close and your horse may be too enthusiastic to do this smoothly. Remember that you are being judged from the moment you walk into a ring to the moment you walk out of the ring. I don’t like to see riders do a rough downward transition just trying to achieve the walk in time.


Your Goal: Landing and immediately coming back to the walk is the handiest, and over time this should be your goal. But if your horse is strong and you are going to end up in an unattractive tug of war, it is more appealing to do a tight turn and then walk directly out of the gate. The trick is testing your ability in advance and knowing what you and your horse can execute smoothly.

The Exercise: Set a simple jump on an angle near the gate of your schooling ring. Or set a simple jump heading right toward that gate. Either option works, and you will encounter both set-ups in derby classes. Place a cone about three strides before the gate.

Step 1: Jump the fence quietly and practice coming back to the sitting trot as soon as you can—if it needs to be on a circle, that’s a good place to start. Once your horse gets the idea, practice jumping and then coming back to the sitting trot earlier and earlier until you can do it by or before the cone.

Step 2: Jump the fence, land and then halt and back up a few times. Try to do this earlier and earlier until you can halt quietly by the cone.

Step 3: Now jump the fence and come back to the walk at the cone and walk out of the gate. If your horse is now responsive enough to execute this, that’s your game plan. Note that if you land on the wrong lead and you are worried that you might miss the change, then why take the risk? Just go immediately to the walk.

Step 4: Keep practicing, but if your horse is too anxious to give you the walk in a reasonable time—then plan for a balanced tight turn and then walk out of the gate. Practice this to the right, then eventually move the jump so that you can also practice a tight turn to the left. Over time, your horse should be able to land, execute a nice turn that fades into a walk and exit quietly out of the gate. The beauty is that the turn will put the brake on your eager horse. Your job is to make this transition smooth and make it look like you planned it. Which you did!

This article was originally published in the July 2017 issue of Practical Horseman.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Kyle Carter: Ditch Your Ditch Troubles - Part 1

Use this Olympic eventing rider’s four-step system to train your horse—and yourself—to jump cross-country ditches successfully.

Horse jumping a ditch
When you introduce your horse to ditches patiently and systematically, he’ll learn to approach them with confidence every time. Here, our 7-year-old homebred FR’s Commarshall, nicknamed Marshall, is cantering over the ditch with the easy, positive attitude we aim for with all our horses.

Horses have a natural aversion to jumping cross-country ditches. So do riders! But that doesn’t mean teaching this skill has to be a miserable experience for everyone involved. I’ve developed a system that does it in a gentle, progressive way guaranteed to produce successful results from the very beginning. In the seven or eight years I’ve been using it, I’ve never had a horse refuse to jump the ditch in the first attempt.

Before developing this system, I spent many years retraining students’ “problem” horses who routinely stopped at or were eliminated at ditches. I got on the horses and schooled them until they were jumping ditches successfully again. It was an ugly process that I didn’t enjoy—I hated feeling that I had to dominate them. And no matter how well I got them going, the problem always crept back again, sometimes within just a month’s time.

I finally realized that the riders needed more education than the horses. No matter what level you are, you need to see yourself as your horse’s trainer, always aiming to inspire confidence in him—not to crush his will—so that he looks through that bridle happily. Instead of blaming him for his natural instinct to be cautious near ditches, you want to instill a new instinct in him: to trust and obey you. You have to create a relationship of faith, always thinking through the best ways to communicate with your horse without relying on your trainer to get on and “fix” him.

To do that with ditches, you first have to break the lesson down into easy, understandable steps. Second, you have to give your horse the exact same ride every time you approach a ditch, whether it’s a 2-foot-wide Novice ditch or a 9-foot ditch at the Kentucky Three-Day Event. The worst thing you can do is try to trick him by approaching the ditch as fast as possible with the hope that he won’t notice the ditch until it’s too late. That might work once or twice, but it won’t continue working as you progress up the levels (believe me, there’s no way to sneak up on the Kentucky Three-Day ditch). More importantly, it will destroy your horse’s trust in you.

On the other hand, your job is not to validate his feelings. If he spooks or backs away from the ditch, don’t stroke his neck and tell him that everything’s going to be OK. (As you’ll see later, my system avoids such situations altogether.) Instead, give him a consistent ride that provides all the information he needs, telling him, “There’s a ditch coming up. Be ready. I know you can do this!”

The following step-by-step system will build those critical communication skills, whether you’re introducing a green horse to ditches or retraining an experienced horse after a setback. In most cases, you can progress through all the steps in a single session. Don’t rush! If you can only accomplish some of the steps in a reasonable amount of time (20 or 30 minutes—but don’t put a clock on it), call it a day and finish the steps in your next session.

How to Find a Ditch


Don’t expect your horse to learn how to jump ditches overnight. Depending on his comfort level, it may take five or more training sessions for him to master the concept. After that, he’ll need periodic refreshers multiple times per year. As he goes up through the levels, you will modify his schooling sessions to introduce him to each new variation of ditch challenge he’ll face in competition.

If you don’t have easy access to a ditch that fits the guidelines I describe in this article, research local cross-country courses and event barns that have schooling ditches available. Even if you have to trailer a substantial distance and pay a full day’s fee to school just the ditch (and a few warm-up jumps), it will be worth it. The jump poles are essential, too, so if the venue doesn’t have any available, bring them along in your truck or trailer.

You may find that you’ll save money and time in the long run by digging your own ditch at home. I dug the one you see in these photos by hand. Just be sure that the ground on either side of the ditch is settled and stable before you use it.

Show jump poles parallel to ditch
Place two colorful 12-foot show-jump poles parallel and next to one another in the open space beside the end of the ditch.

What You’ll Need


The most important prerequisite for this training system is having a horse who comes off the leg willingly. That means he lengthens his stride obediently when you close your legs on his sides. To be truly effective, you should be able to lengthen and shorten his stride in any gait by about 30 percent.

He also needs to be comfortable walking in the open on a soft rein. If he jigs frequently or otherwise shows signs of nervousness, get to the bottom of that before tackling this system.

I don’t recommend incorporating these lessons into a long cross-country schooling session involving numerous obstacles and questions. Warming up over a few straightforward natural fences (10 to 15 efforts max) is fine—but not necessary—if it will help to get you and your horse in a forward, positive mindset. Otherwise, keep the session simple and focused on the task at hand. (I’ll have more detailed warm-up instructions below.)

The ideal ditch for this system has a defined edge on both sides—usually revetted with railroad ties or telephone poles. It cannot have wings and should be no wider than about 1½ feet. The surrounding ground should be flat with plenty of open space on one or both ends of the ditch where you can maneuver. The ditch I use is about 20 feet long. It narrows from about 2 feet wide on one end to about 6 inches on the other.

You’ll also need two colorful 12-foot show-jump poles, ideally with stripes that can help you aim for their centers, plus a traffic cone, ground pole or some other easy-to-move visual marker.

Finally, as with all jump schooling, having a ground person is crucial. He or she will not only adjust the poles but give valuable feedback on your ride.

Step 1: Walk Parallel to the Ditch


Warm up your horse far enough away from the ditch to prevent it from being a distraction. Pay special attention to his rideability, asking him to shorten and lengthen his stride in all three gaits. Be very clear with your aids and insist that he respond promptly every time.

When he is moving off your leg well, bring him back to a quiet, comfortable walk. Then approach the ditch from a distance at the walk, preparing to ride a line parallel to it but still several feet away. Your goal is to walk as close as you can get to it without having to force the issue—even if that’s 10 feet away—while bending your horse’s head slightly away from it. He will be able to see the ditch out of the corner of his eye, but you will not be showing it to him. Instead, you’re going to prove to him that he can get gradually closer and closer to it without any traumatic negative experiences.

As you approach the ditch for the first time, be sure to have your horse’s body parallel to it before you are about two horse lengths away. Using your normal leg aids to ask him to continue walking straight forward, use a single rein to gently turn his head 5 or 6 inches in the direction away from the ditch. Don’t overthink this bending component of the exercise. Simply turn his head to the side while allowing his energy to continue going forward. Resist the urge to kick or squeeze your legs dramatically. That would make your horse feel threatened and would numb him to your aids, which is exactly what we’re trying to avoid. You should still be far enough away from the ditch that he can walk peacefully along without a struggle.

After you’ve walked past the ditch, turn your horse away from it. Then make a large circle in the other direction, giving yourself plenty of room to approach the far side of the ditch in the same manner as you did before. (See diagram, at left.) As you maneuver to that side of the ditch, be very careful to never turn your horse to face it directly. Walk past the back side of the ditch, again riding parallel to it at a comfortable distance while turning his head slightly away from it.

So, for example, if the ditch is on your left side on the first approach, turn to the right after you’re past it. Then make a large circle to the left and walk past the other side of the ditch, which will still be on your horse’s left side.

Repeat this process several times, gradually moving your parallel lines closer and closer to the ditch until you’re within 2 or 3 feet of it. As you do so, remember that it’s your job to determine the line you travel. This exercise should never get so difficult that you have to ride aggressively, but you must still make it understood that your horse needs to stay focused on you at all times.

You’ll be surprised how easily you’ll get him close to the ditch with this method. Because you do it so peacefully, he will learn that he can put his feet near the ditch safely without worrying that he’ll be bullied into doing something he doesn’t feel ready to do yet. Getting him this close to the ditch is a huge step psychologically. It shows him that the ground where he’s going to take off from when you finally ask him to jump the ditch is stable. Now you’ll have a far greater chance of getting him to the other side of the ditch than you would have had if you’d galloped head-on toward it and risked having him stop a stride and a half away.

But you’re not going to try to jump the ditch yet. Repeat the entire process in the opposite direction so your horse is passing the ditch on the other side of his body. If you started with it on his left side, as described in the example, this time start with it on his right side. When he is quietly walking along its edge in both directions, you’re ready to move on to the next step.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of our series on mastering ditches!


Photos with Step-By-Step Instructions

 

Intro to Ditches

Choose a simple ditch with enough space around it for maneuvering. Approach the ditch from a distance at the walk, preparing to ride a line parallel to it but still several feet away.

1. Start with a quiet, comfortable walk with horse’s body parallel the ditch.

2. Turn horse’s head to the right 5–6 inches.

3. Make sure horse’s body is parallel to the ditch.

4. Turn right.

5. Make a large left turn and circle back to the ditch.

6. Walk back toward the ditch with horse’s body parallel to it.

7. Turn horse’s head to the right 5–6 inches.

8. Turn right, make a large left turn and circle back to the ditch.

9. Repeat several times, gradually moving the parallel line closer to the ditch until you’re within 2 or 3 feet of it.

Step 1

Marshall already has some experience with ditches, so I can begin fairly close to the edge of this one. Many horses need to start much farther away—even 10 feet away—then gradually work their way in to this point. That’s fine—there’s no rush!

Step 2

As we approach the ditch, I close my right leg and open my right rein to ask him to bend his head and neck 5 or 6 inches to the right so he’s looking away from the ditch.

Step 3

After passing the ditch, I turn him to the right and then make a wide, looping turn left back toward it. I’ve raised my heel too high here, but I’m clearly using my legs to keep him marching forward.

 Step 4

As we approach the ditch on the other side, I bend his head and neck to the right again so he never gets a chance to look directly at the ditch. After passing the ditch, I turn him to the right and then make a wide turn left back toward it. I repeat this process several times, gradually moving my parallel line closer and closer to the ditch until I’m within 2 or 3 feet of it.

 Step 5

Notice how Marshall walks right past the ditch, maintaining a calm, peaceful attitude. This is the result of my methodical process of working incrementally closer and closer to the ditch so he trusts me and knows the ground around it is safe.

 About Kyle Carter


Canadian native Kyle Carter spent his Junior years show jumping at Spruce Meadows. He switched gears to three-day eventing when he turned 18 and spent a year training in England. Since then, Kyle has represented Canada multiple times, including the 2007 Pan American Games, in which he finished fifth individually and won the team silver medal, the 2008 Hong Kong Olympics and the 2010 World Equestrian Games, where he earned another team silver medal. Kyle also placed second in the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event CCI*** in 1999.

Well known for his teaching acumen, Kyle is a Level IV instructor through the U.S. Eventing Association’s Instructor Certification Program and a Level III coach in Canada. His students have earned numerous top awards, including the USEA Intermediate Amateur High Point award, the Preliminary Amateur High Point award and the Markham Trophy (for the highest-placed Young Rider at a CCI*** championship). He has coached the Area III North American Junior and Young Rider Championships team to many medals. Kyle has also coached both the Guatemalan and Venezuelan national event teams. He and his wife, Jennifer, own and operate Five Ring Stable in Ocala, Florida.

Kyle thanks his sponsors for their support: CWD, Purina, English Riding Supply, Romfh, One K Helmets, Veredus, Deniro Boot Co., Heritage Gloves, Omega Alpha Equine and Actistatin Equine.


Thursday, February 7, 2019

Jim Wofford: Now's Your Chance

Going into an off-season quiet time, you can plan for a fitter and happier horse next time out. 

By: Jim Wofford

Horse Walking

 Winter is the time to plan for improvement. Long walks during this time give your horse the strength and fitness to perform better in the coming year. While you are conditioning your horse, leave your headphones behind. If you disconnect yourself from the natural world, you are a menace to society and a danger to your horse. Headphones are mental “bling”—they tell me that your riding is about you, not about your partner. When told they are a defense against boredom, I ask, “How can you be bored when you are connected to the most wonderful creature in creation?” As your horse makes a long series of solitary footprints, consider what author John Moore said, “Wherever man has left his footprint in the long ascent from barbarism to civilization, we will find the hoofprint of the horse beside it.” Think about the horse’s role in society and your particular horse’s role in your life. Think about the ethics of owning an animal that depends upon you for both his livelihood and his life. Think about your horse, not yourself. © Amy K. Dragoo/AIMMEDIA

This might be my favorite time of year, when most of the big eventing competitions are over. I think of this period as “Now’s my chance.” While the horses in my program are having a much-needed rest, their riders and I are planning for future success.

By “success” I don’t necessarily mean winning, although that helps. I really should say I am looking for “improvement.” I go through this process regardless of the current level of the horse and rider. I want my riders to set goals for themselves, but they have to be realistic goals. If we are dealing with a 6-year-old Thoroughbred who ran until he was 4, it is rarely realistic to say, “Next spring I want to win a CCI*.” The Thoroughbred might have successfully completed a competition at the Preliminary level at this point, but he is not yet competitive.

Chances are this Thoroughbred’s dressage is still very much a work in progress, and although he’s obviously talented, his youthful exuberance causes him to have an occasional show-jumping knockdown. His talent shines on cross country, but most riders and trainers will not have let him run at speed yet. That will come with maturity. Many times, horses of this type will have to work their way up the levels with few top-five placings to show for their efforts until they get into the rarified atmosphere of three- and four-star competition. Despite the change in format from Classic to short, at the middle and upper levels stamina and speed are still determinative factors, and this is when Thoroughbreds start to show their talent and the results of their riders’ careful, years-long preparation.

Although I am proud that I can help horses and riders at every level, I tend to keep my eyes on the upper levels of eventing, and most of the upper-level event horses are 70 percent or more Thoroughbred. I counsel my riders that if a nice non-TB prospect comes along, they should keep the horse’s breeding in mind. Non-TB horses usually find the dressage and show jumping easy, but take a bit longer to understand the cross country and rarely have the ability to gallop at speed.

A Chance to Improve Soundness and Fitness


I mentioned earlier that my horses take a break from competing at this time of year. I am a bit old school about this. I still think in terms of a two- or three-month competition season followed by a rest period and then by another period of preparation for competition. As you start your break with your horse, get your vet to examine him. Now’s your chance to have your vet diagnose and treat any lingering physical problems he might have.

When you start conditioning for your horse’s new season, I want you to use the most powerful tool you have: the walk. That’s right, I want you to walk your horse into shape. My reasoning is simple. Both the walk and the gallop are four-beat paces. When you walk your horse, you are galloping in slow motion with little concussion and a low risk of injury.

At this juncture you may be thinking, “Walk? But Jim, what about trot sets?” The vast majority of horses who I train these days are preparing to compete in a short-format event rather than a Classic (which included roads and tracks and steeplechase). But even when I was training mostly Classic horses, I did not use trot sets as part of my conditioning system. I thought they were outmoded years ago and are even more so in modern eventing. Trot sets do not condition the galloping muscles as well as long walks and cause much more concussion on the horse’s feet and joints, especially on firm ground.


Not Just Any Walk Will Do


But wait—when I say I want you to walk your horse into shape, I need to add a few comments. To me, “walk” does not mean aimlessly ambling around on a loose rein with earphones blasting the latest top-10 hits. It is an interesting phenomenon, when you think about it: People who must make their living by sitting in a cubicle looking at a computer monitor are dreaming of being outside riding. Yet as soon as they get into the saddle, they do the one thing that will separate them from their horse by plugging in their earphones. I disapprove of this because it disconnects you from the natural world just when you want and need it the most. In addition, it is not safe to walk your horse out without being exposed to the same stimuli he is. If you are riding your horse in public with earphones, then you are a menace to society. If you can hear that noisy truck in the distance, on the other hand, you can make sure your horse sees it in plenty of time and that it does not trigger his flight reaction.

Olympic dressage rider and judge Linda Zang says that during a dressage test she wants to see a “going-home walk.” Chances are you will have to use your legs to produce this in your horse, but the effort is worthwhile. Every time your horse’s shoulder moves forward, close your opposite leg in rhythm with the walk that you want rather than the walk he might offer. For example, as his right shoulder moves forward, close your left leg at the girth and then your right leg at the girth as his left shoulder moves forward. When you get off after an hour’s vigorous walk, your legs should be more tired than your horse’s legs. Try to walk on rolling terrain, as it helps strengthen and supple your horse. Whether you are going up or down a slope, make him go straight and maintain a regular rhythm.

For the Record


While the walk is an important tool in your conditioning program, it is not the only tool. Your job is to arrive at your destination event with your horse brought to as high a degree of training as possible. This means that in addition to conditioning, you must schedule adequate dressage, show-jumping and cross-country training. To that end, I want you to keep both a schedule of plans and a work diary. The schedule makes sure that you plan for improvement in every phase from now until the event, while the diary is a record of the work you actually did on a day-to-day basis. For example, your schedule might call for “one-hour walk plus dressage work” (see below for which activity comes first) but your diary says, “shoe off, farrier tomorrow.” Use the schedule to train your horse, but don’t be afraid to change it as circumstances require.

What should a schedule look like? There are as many answers to that question as there are event trainers. My typical schedule does not use a weekly calendar, but rather is what I call a “four-day rotation.” My sample schedule looks like this:

Day 1: Walk and dressage.

Day 2: Walk and show jump.

Day 3: Walk and dressage.

Day 4: Canter (or depending on the level of competition, gallop, once I am getting close to my destination event).

Day 5: Repeat Day 1, and so on.

You can see that there is variety in my schedule, as horses like different activities. I count any cross-country schooling I do as a canter/gallop day. (I also suggest you keep your training diary, as it will be a valuable resource for you in the future. The diary will serve as a guide to the sort of work you have done with your horse in the past and can help you adjust your horse’s workload this season accordingly.)

The next question is, “How much exercise should I give my horse?” The truthful answer is that I have no idea. First you have to tell me what type of horse he is, what level he is currently competing at, what you did with him last season, whether you were happy with the results of your former schedule and so on. Experiment with the sequence of either walk first followed by dressage or dressage first followed by walk. Some horses will go much better if they have walked out first while other horses are quite businesslike and want to get the dressage out of the way and then go for a walk. There is no right or wrong about this, it is just a matter of knowing your horse.

As my training schedule gets close to the destination event, my Novice and Training horses walk for at least half an hour in addition to their technical work, Preliminary horses walk for an hour, Intermediate horses for an hour and a half and Advanced horses for two hours.

I know my conditioning schedule takes more time than others, but I am convinced it produces sounder, fitter horses by making the most of the chance to improve them.



Monday, December 10, 2018

Time for the Hourglass: Part 1

MICHAEL DOWLINGJAN 10, 2018

In the first section of our two-part series, top hunter/equitation coach Michael Dowling shares a creative jumping exercise for tuning up your position and track-riding skills.


This fun, simple-to-set-up exercise strengthens your (and your horse’s) jumping technique and improves your track-riding, striding and balancing skills.

Looking for a fun, easy way to strengthen your position and improve your jumping rounds? My hourglass exercise is simple to set up and beneficial for any riders with at least some experience cantering small courses and jumping bounces (no-stride combinations). Shaped like an hourglass, with a double bounce in the middle and bending lines to four single verticals in the corners, it will develop and strengthen your basic position and make you a more effective, reactive rider. For example, when your horse jumps into a line on a too-forward stride, you’ll be better at correcting that quickly on the back side of the jump.

The hourglass will also hone your skills for track riding, measuring stride length and balancing your horse. At the same time, it will enhance his jumping technique, tightening his front end and strengthening his hind end while improving his straightness, adjustability and rideability between the fences.

For collegiate athletes, who essentially compete at shows as catch riders, this exercise will improve your ability to build a rapport with unfamiliar horses in a short amount of time. You’ll learn how to develop the trust and confidence essential for successfully bonding with new horses.

One of the best qualities of this exercise is that it challenges riders of different levels in different ways. As I walk you through the steps, I’ll point out the questions it poses for Novice, Intermediate and Open riders (the Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association divisions for riders jumping 2-foot to 2-foot-3, 2-foot-6 to 2-foot-9, and 2-foot-9 to 3-foot, respectively).

Whatever your level, it’s critical that you approach the exercise step by step, just as you would with any other gymnastics. Instead of planning to get through the entire lesson in a single day, break it down into easy-to-accomplish steps and confirm that you’ve achieved confidence and proficiency at each before moving on to the next one.

Also keep in mind that making progress is not about jumping big fences. You can achieve much more and also reduce the pounding on your horse’s legs by practicing well-thought-out exercises over small jumps. For this hourglass exercise, I keep both the jump heights and the distances fairly conservative. This encourages horses and riders to focus on good technique rather than fall into the bad habit of galloping through the course and getting long and flat.

Know Your Different Seats

You have four different seat options in hunt seat equitation: full seat, half-seat, light seat and driving seat. For this exercise, you need to be very familiar with the first three:

Full Seat

This is when your entire seat (seat bones and buttocks) are in the saddle, providing maximum connection to your horse's back. It offers the most balance and control, which can be especially useful for rollback turns, lead changes, etc.


Light Seat

In this position, which is between the full seat and the half-seat, your seat bones make light contact with the saddle, but the rest of the backside is still clear of it. This is basically the same position you have during the sitting phase of the posting trot. While offering you some support, it still allows your horse to move freely forward. Much of your riding will be done in this position.


Half Seat, also known as jumping or two point position

Your weight is balanced on just the two points of contact between your legs and and the horse. We use this seat to follow the horse's motion- for example, over a jump - and to encourage him to utilize his body as freely as possible.


Now back to the Hourglass

To set up, study the diagram below. Build a double bounce out of three small crossrails in the middle of the arena on the centerline, separated from one another by about 10 feet. (You can adjust this distance to as short as 9½ feet if your horse has a very short stride or to as long as 12 feet if he has an especially long stride.) After the third crossrail, build a simple vertical 60 feet away on the diagonal to the left. Build another vertical at the same distance on the other diagonal to the right. Add ground lines on both sides of each vertical. I like to keep these verticals simple—no need to fill them with walls, flower boxes, etc.



You’ll ride only half of the hourglass pattern in this first exercise and it may take you more than one session to accomplish all the steps.

If you are a Novice rider, this is all you’ll need. If you’re an Intermediate or Open rider, build two more verticals on the approach side of the crossrails, 60 feet away on the diagonals, so that you create a mirror image of the first two verticals. Set all of the fences so that they can be jumped safely in both directions—and be sure you have plenty of room on the far sides of the verticals to make comfortable turns between them. If your arena is too small to do this, eliminate one of the crossrails, converting the double bounce to a single bounce.

If you’re a more advanced rider, you can change the crossrails to verticals. You could also build this gymnastic in an open field, lengthening the lines between the double bounces and verticals to a standard five- or six-stride distance (72 or 84 feet, respectively).

For riders of all levels, I strongly recommend having a ground person on hand, not just for safety’s sake, but also to reset poles and adjust the distances as necessary.

Warm-up

Before beginning the exercise, do a thorough warm-up on the flat, getting your horse in front of your leg (responding obediently to your leg aids). Include both longitudinal exercises—lengthening and shortening the stride in all three gaits—and lateral exercises—circles, serpentines, etc.—to supple your horse’s entire body. If you’re more advanced and familiar with leg-yield, turn on the haunches, shoulder-in and haunches-in, do a few of these in each direction.

As you warm up, review your four natural aids: legs, hands, seat and voice. Be sure to use all of them for both upward and downward transitions. (One of my favorite questions to ask students who say their horses aren’t listening to them in downward transitions is: “Were you using all four of your natural aids—or just your reins?”) Also practice the three seats you’ll use during this exercise: full seat, half-seat and light seat. (For a more detailed explanation of these, read the “Know Your Different Seats” photo gallery above). Spend a little time on each seat in each gait.

Starting Out

Step 1

Centenary University student Michael Andrade turns Norway onto the centerline in a forward, active posting trot. About 10 feet away from the first crossrail, he stops posting and settles into his light seat. With his eyes up, he’s careful not to tip his upper body forward toward the jump.


Step 2

Because he is an experienced rider, Michael uses a shorter crest release than I’d expect a Novice rider to use. Even so, he’s careful to keep his hands in place on the neck over all three crossrails so Norway can concentrate on doing his job.


Step 3

After the bounces, Michael sinks his weight into the saddle and his heels, lifts tall in his upper body and uses all four natural aids to initiate a downward transition to halt.


Step 4

Norway responds obediently, coming smoothly down to the halt in between the two verticals. They hold the halt for 4 to 6 seconds.


Novice Riders

If you are a Novice rider cantering small courses proficiently, this exercise will improve your ability to stay with your horse’s motion over fences without interfering with him in any way. You’ll also learn how to reorganize after a fence in time to approach the next one straight and in control.

You’ll ride only half of the hourglass pattern, but that will still give you plenty to do. In fact, it may take you more than one session to accomplish all the steps. That’s fine! Always progress at your own pace. This exercise requires a strong base of support (a well-positioned lower leg and deep heel) and lots of core strength (strong abs and back muscles), so if you feel yourself begin to tire at any point, end on a good note and save the rest of the exercise for another day. In the meantime, add more two-point practice into your regular schooling sessions to build up your strength.

Set the crossrails about 2 feet high and the verticals between 2-foot and 2-foot-3. If your horse is green or has trouble with straightness, turn the two verticals into crossrails. If you have never jumped a double bounce before, take the poles out of the first crossrail for the beginning of the exercise, replacing them with a single ground pole about 9 feet from the next crossrail. After you’ve done the single bounce comfortably a few times, put the first crossrail back in.

Start by turning onto the centerline and approaching the crossrails in a posting trot. About 10 feet away from the first one, assume your light seat by lifting some of your weight up out of the saddle while still maintaining light contact with your seat bones. Check that your lower leg is securely positioned at the girth with your heels directly below your hips and your weight down in your heels. Lift your eyes to a high spot in the distance—the top of a tall tree or, if you’re indoors, the top of a window or other visible object.

As your horse takes off over the first crossrail, allow his motion to close your hip angle into a half-seat. Meanwhile, smoothly follow his motion with a long crest release, pressing your hands down against his mane about halfway up his neck. No hands floating above the neck! Maintain this release through the double bounce while keeping your eye on your focal point and staying in your half-seat, letting your hip angle open and close with his motion. Concentrate on staying down in your legs and keeping your weight in your heels. This is very important. Don’t be tempted to sit up or interrupt your rein release in between the crossrails. Wait for him to land all four feet on the ground after the final crossrail before sitting up and feeling the rein contact again.

At this point, it doesn’t matter if he lands trotting or cantering. Either way, keep him straight on the centerline while you reorganize and reestablish your own balance. Then drop your weight in your heels and seat, get very tall in your upper body and use all four natural aids to ask him to come smoothly down to a halt. Ideally, the halt should be straight on the centerline, right between the two verticals, but don’t worry if you don’t get that exactly right the first time. It’s more important that you and your horse stay relaxed and positive from beginning to end.

Ask him to hold the halt for 4 to 6 seconds, just as you would for an equitation test. Then move forward again into the trot and make a wide, sweeping turn back to the centerline so that you approach the bounces in the opposite direction. Ride through them just as you did the other way, asking him to come down to a halt on the straight line again afterward.

Repeat this a few times until you feel confident over the bounces and your horse is responding obediently to your aids. It’s essential that you establish this rideability on the back side of the fences before moving on to the next step.

Now you’re ready to add one of the verticals. Approach the crossrails in the same way as before, only this time, as you ride through them, turn your focus to the left-hand vertical. After your horse lands from the final crossrail, return to your light seat, lift your upper body tall and stretch your heels downward. Then follow a gently bending track to the center of the vertical. In the show ring, this 60-foot distance would typically ride in four strides, but because the jumps are low and the bounces tend to have a compressing, buoyant effect on horses’ canters, this should ride in a quiet five strides.

Over the vertical, apply your crest release and go into and out of your half-seat slowly and smoothly—rather than jerking abruptly into and out of it. Again, allow your horse to complete his jump before sitting up. Then drop the weight into your heels and seat and use your legs, weight and voice in conjunction with your arms and hands to ask him to halt straight on the diagonal track before you get to the corner. This will reinforce the earlier lesson of halting after the double bounce, reminding him to always land and wait for your next signal. Don’t worry about what lead he lands on at this stage. Just try to maintain it until you ask for the halt—in other words, try not to let him anticipate the corner and swap leads automatically. This, too, is good prep for equitation tests.

Repeat this a few times until you can maintain a steady rhythm from the bounces to the vertical with five strides of approximately the same length. If you have trouble fitting in the five strides, stay more on the outside track (ride a wider curve between the bounces and vertical) to make more room.

If you’re still not managing the five, remove all of the poles from the crossrails and vertical. Then place one ground pole between the standards of the vertical and one between the standards of the third crossrail. Practice cantering over these poles, riding as curved a bending line as necessary to produce five—or even six—strides. When that’s going well, replace the jumps and ride the line again. Don’t be afraid to circle whenever you feel your horse rushing. He must be rideable before continuing.

Once you are competently navigating the bounces, vertical and halt, prepare to ride the same exercise without the halt, continuing through the turn instead. To reorganize and balance your horse properly for the turn, sink back into your full seat after the vertical. If your horse landed on the left lead and is properly balanced and educated, he should do a flying change. If he’s not balanced or is green, do a simple change of lead through the trot. Take your time to organize and do it well. Slow down to trot, take a deep breath, then ask him to go forward on the right lead. In the intercollegiate world, simple changes are perfectly acceptable—so long as you do them correctly.

Keep the rhythm consistent around the turn, using plenty of space to ride a nice smooth track. If your horse feels balanced coming out of the turn, go to your light seat and aim for the center of the other vertical. If he doesn’t feel balanced or starts to rush at any point in the exercise, make a circle. Remember, the goal is to do each part of the exercise in balance and control.

After the second vertical, if your horse doesn’t feel rideable enough to continue on to the bounces, drop into your full seat and make a left-hand rollback turn to the rail. Repeat this a few times to teach him not to anticipate the next part of the exercise.

When you feel comfortable and in control after the second vertical, continue cantering on a bending line back to the bounces. As you did before, sit up tall in your light seat and ask for five steady strides. At this point, your horse, having figured out the exercise, might make a beeline for the bounces, trying to get to them in four strides. Be ready for this. Drop your weight in your heels and think of leaning a little away from the bounces. You might even need to ride a wider shape to fit in the five strides comfortably. This is a great lesson in effective equitation. It takes a lot of core strength and balance to create the right outcome.

After riding through the bounces, ask for another straight halt on the centerline before you reach the end of the arena. Then give your horse—and yourself—a pat for a job well done.


Monday, November 12, 2018

Ryan Wood: Build Confidence Over Corners - Part 1

JENNI AUTRYJAN 18, 2018



This top eventer shares his four-step plan to safely and successfully introduce this cross-country obstacle to your horse.

When introducing corners, the key to remember is that jumping corners is all about progression. First you need to establish the correct canter on the flat and then work over a simulated corner in the arena before heading out to jump a corner on a cross-country course. Only then will your horse jump it as confidently as Sarah Hughes’ Alcatraz, a 12-year-old Hanoverian gelding, is jumping it here.

Corner fences are a common element seen on nearly every cross-country course in America. Starting at Training level, horses and riders need to be prepared to answer the corner. When introducing riders and young horses to corners, I use the same approach each time, starting by building a simulated corner in the arena to introduce the concept and then move to jumping an actual corner on a cross-country course.

Whether you are training for dressage, show jumping or cross country, there is always a progression. You start with the basics and gradually work your way up, and it is no different when jumping corners. First, you need to have the correct seat, leg and hand aids in place, which I describe in the next section. Then you build confidence by jumping a simulated corner in the arena using a barrel and two standards, which will set you up for success when you leave the comfort zone of the arena and jump a corner on the cross-country course.

Jumping corners confidently starts with having the right canter. A corner is an accuracy test, and for these types of questions I like to tone down the between-the-fences gallop to a slower speed in the approach. You still want a forward, positive canter, but approaching at a slower pace gives your horse more time to see the fence and understand the question. Before working on the corner in the arena, practice this canter, focusing on your aids. The combination of seat, leg and hand aids you use approaching the corner will give your horse every opportunity to confidently jump it

Develop the Correct Canter

Step 1:

You can practice developing the correct canter in the arena or wherever you do your gallops. I start by working in the between-the-fences pace I use while going cross country—galloping forward at a faster speed. You will be in two-point with your seat out of the saddle and your knee at a 110-degree angle. Be sure to shorten your stirrup leathers enough so you can keep your backside off the saddle in your two-point.

Step 2:

Now I start to bring my upper body back and slow Alcatraz from the gallop to a positive, forward canter. This is the canter I establish before a corner. To practice, pick a marker in your gallop field, like a tree or jump. Practice slowing from your gallop to your desired canter by the time you pass the marker. Depending on how quickly you are able to slow and balance your horse, you might need to start well back from the marker. The more you practice, the easier it will be to make that transition.

Step 3:

Then I sit firmly in the saddle in a defensive seat, bringing my upper body back so it is upright. My legs are in a steady, driving contact with Alcatraz’s sides—think Phillip Dutton and his vise-grip legs—which makes it clear to Alcatraz that I want him to go forward confidently. This is the position I use four to five strides in front of the corner.

Step 4:

As I bring my seat closer to the saddle, I move both of my hands several inches wider apart to create a channel for Alcatraz’s shoulders. This is the hand position I use in the approach to the corner to encourage him to hold his line. This hand position and driving leg aid will send him forward and make it very clear that you want him to jump
the corner.

This article was originally published in the December 2017 issue of Practical Horseman

Monday, October 15, 2018

Gymnastic Exercise from Kent Farrington at the George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session

Olympian Kent Farrington instructed riders over a gymnastics course on the second day of the 12th annual USEF George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session.

Current World No. 1-ranked jumper Kent Farrington gave a gymnastics demonstration before teaching two sessions on the subject during the second day of the George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session. After horses and riders warmed up, they worked on different gymnastic exercises, progressively adding an additional exercise each time until the riders were jumping a gymnastics course.
Kent stressed the importance of jumping the least amount possible—just enough to ensure the horse learned the lesson. “I don’t want to jump extra jumps for fun, you’re just beating up on the horse for no reason,” he explained. “The least amount of jumping I can do to accomplish the lesson, that’s my goal.

One of Kent’s exercises was two oxers set side by side on the end of the short side of the ring. A ground pole was placed 18 feet in front of each oxer. Riders cantered in on the right lead over the first ground pole and oxer, circled to the left and approached the other ground pole and oxer on the left lead. Riders then executed a rollback turn to the right after the fence, turning in the opposite direction the horse would anticipate. The theme of rollback turns toward the rail carried over from the warm up and earlier gymnastic exercises.
“The horse sees the corner of the ring he thinks he knows what’s coming next,” said Kent of the landing after the second oxer. “That’s why you want to train him there and circle to the right.”

In every exercise and throughout both sessions, Kent encouraged the participants to take an individualized approach to training their horses. “Use each opportunity you can to make your horse better … you can break apart the exercise any way you like,” he said.
Decisions were left up to the riders—whether to circle and get a more forward canter before the jump; whether to do a downward transition on the landing side of the fence; whether to execute a flying or simple change—the focus was always to work on the weaknesses and to make ensure the horse was not anticipating, but listening to the rider. 

Friday, September 14, 2018

Sharpen Your Course-Riding Skills: Part 1 - Tune Up Your Eye

In Part 1, top trainers Traci and Carleton Brooks will teach you how to tune up your eye.

Getting your horse to produce his best jumping effort over every jump is all about finding the right canter for the approach and using your eyes. Lexi Wedemeyer is demonstrating this perfectly here. She and her horse are both in excellent balance and focused on the jump. She’s already found her distance to the takeoff spot and is just about to raise her eyes to a focal point in the distance.

Amy K. Dragoo



Have you noticed that as you ride around a course, it tends to get harder, rather than easier? That’s because you have a constant stream of variables to tackle, including the questions posed by the course’s turns, jumps and striding options as well as the many aspects of your and your horse’s performance, which can change from one second to the next. Maybe he lands off a jump with too little pace and threatens to break to trot or perhaps your balance tips forward onto your hands. If you don’t address each variable immediately, you won’t be ready to face the next challenge in time, so things can unravel quickly.

Instead of schooling courses over and over again at home, the best way to prepare yourself for these high-pressure situations is by practicing specific exercises that zero in on the most fundamental skills you need on course. We’ll share three of our favorites in this article. Whether you’re a beginner just learning to ride courses or a more seasoned competitor heading to Indoors, these exercises will improve your balance, accuracy, feel and eye (ability to judge the distance to a fence) while improving your horse’s obedience, adjustability, responsiveness, focus, balance, rhythm and straightness.

When you set up these exercises, we recommend using as many solid obstacles as possible—walls, logs, barrels, etc. These give you an actual barrier to jump, which helps you focus and encourages your horse to jump around the fence in a nice round shape. There is no need to make any of them big (even with advanced horses, we don’t go above 3 feet). The purpose of all of these exercises is precision, not jumping high. Beginners can replace any of the fences with small crossrails, cavalletti or ground poles.

We always advocate using both reins to steer so that you’re influencing the largest part of your horse: his shoulders and belly. In general, control your turns by balancing and steadying with the outside rein and leg and guiding with the inside rein and leg. Sometimes you may need to use one rein more than the other, but always keep contact with both.

We’re also big proponents of visualization. Before you begin each exercise, study the diagrams, then ride through it in your mind. This will make your sessions more productive.

Exercise 1 Diagram



Start by picking up the canter on your horse’s better lead and establish a good rhythm, making sure he is between your leg and hand. You should feel him “filling in the reins”—offering equal pressure in each hand—so you know that he’s ready to respond to your aids. Ask yourself, “Does this feel like the right canter? Could I open or compress the stride if I need to?” Then start counting out loud in rhythm with his stride—“One, two, one, two.” As you approach the jump, raise your eyes to a chosen focal point in the distance, parallel to or just above your eye level, while keeping the jump and track to it in your peripheral vision.

Step 1



As you enter the marked lane four to six horse lengths away from the jump, try to judge whether you’re going to arrive too close (deep), too far away (long) or just right. Here, you can see Lexi has entered the lane in a nice medium canter—not so forward that she’s at the end of her horse’s stride, but not short and choppy either. He’s traveling in a good balance and “filling in the reins”—you can see the contact is neither slack nor too tight. Lexi has recognized that she needs to move up to a forward distance, so she’s lightened her seat. However, she’s gotten slightly ahead of the motion. We’d like to see her weight shift back closer to the middle of the saddle, which would open the angle in her elbows more. Lifting her eye and chin would help to accomplish this.

Step 2



In Lexi’s next approach to the jump, the distance to the takeoff spot is a little long, so she opens her inside rein to bring her horse in on the curve slightly. At the same time, she maintains contact with her outside rein and supports him with her outside leg. This controls his belly and shoulders (so he doesn’t bulge his shoulder out), as well as his head, so the shape of his body mirrors the shape of the curve. With this slight adjustment, they’ll jump the fence where you see the white circle. Notice, too, that she’s starting to close her hip angle to be ready to go with the motion when he leaves the ground.

Step 3



This time, Lexi’s distance to the takeoff spot is deep, so she adds pressure with her inside leg and takes both hands to the left to encourage him to fade toward the outside of the lane, aiming to jump the fence where you see the white circle. Again, she’s doing a good job of making the shape of his body mirror the shape of the track (rather than pulling his head to the outside, so his body curves away from the track). Notice how square her shoulders are to the fence. This is easier to achieve if you think of your outside shoulder being the last part of your body to come around the turn. Doing this also helps you to maintain contact on the outside rein and keep your outside leg against the horse’s side to provide support.

Exercise 1: Tune Up Your Eye

Your eyes are the most dominant part of your ride. Where you focus them not only determines where your track will be but also significantly affects your balance, which, in turn, influences your horse’s balance. Keeping your eyes level helps you maintain your balance and stay anchored and safe on the horse. A common issue we see is being ahead of the motion, which can be resolved by raising your eyes.

Choose focal points that are at or above your eye level. If your eyes are 10 feet above the ground, that means your focal point should be 12 to 16 feet high (depending on how far away it is). We all naturally tend to drop our eyes, so it’s always important to raise them slightly higher than the intended focal point before letting them settle down to it. For example, if you’ve chosen a tree outside the arena to focus on, look first at the very top of it—don’t start down at the trunk. This technique is especially useful over fences. Use it to get the idea of “up and over” in your mind and body. That way you won’t be tempted to lead with your shoulders, which tips your balance too far forward, but rather with your chest and the tops of your hips. The idea is to let your horse jump up to you and then you follow, allowing his jump to close your angle.

As you warm up on the flat, choose a focal point outside the ring and practice riding around a bend or half circle that ends on a line heading toward the focal point. As you trot or canter around the bend, raise your eyes above the focal point, then let them settle down to it.

When you get the hang of this sensation, identify more focal points around the ring and do the same with them. This is a great technique to incorporate into your warm-up at shows, too.

Now set a small vertical on one end of the arena, far enough off the long side so you can jump it on a curve from either direction and then end up traveling perpendicular to that small vertical after landing. Jump this a few times on each lead to warm up.

Next, use agricultural lime (available at garden and hardware stores), spray paint, polo wraps or foam poles (or pool noodles—be creative!)—anything a horse can step on safely—to mark the edges of a curved lane starting at the base of the jump and extending several strides away from it in both directions (so you can jump it on both leads). Make sure your horse can travel straight for one or two horse lengths before and after the fence. The result will be a large half-circle interrupted midway through by the jump. Make the width of the lane 9 to 10 feet if you’re a beginner and slightly narrower if you’re more experienced—but no narrower than about 6 feet. Widen the lane by 2 or 3 feet at the base of the jump on both sides. Do not use solid poles for this purpose, as they could injure your horse if he steps on them.

Starting on your horse’s better lead, canter a few circles to establish a good rhythm. Then start counting out loud in rhythm with his stride—“One, two, one, two”—as you enter the lane to the jump. Meanwhile, raise your eyes to a chosen focal point in the distance, keeping the jump and the track to it in your peripheral vision.

Initially aim for the center of the vertical. After your horse lands, keep straight for one or two horse lengths, then make your turn in the next corner slightly more square (closer to a 90-degree angle) while asking him to regather himself for the next straightaway. Then circle across the arena to jump the fence again. After doing this six or seven times, change direction and do the same on the other lead.

Next, approach the vertical with a new plan: When you’re four to six horse lengths away from it, try to judge whether you’re going to arrive too close (deep) or too far away (long). Adjust your track accordingly: If you’re going to be deep, open your outside rein slightly and use some inside leg to encourage your horse to fade toward the outside of the lane. If you’re going to be long, open your inside rein and use some outside leg to bring him in a little.

When you’re jumping on a curve like this, changing your track by as little as 4 inches to the left or right can add or subtract as much as a foot to or from the distance your horse has to travel to the takeoff point, so keep these adjustments very small. Be mindful about his entire body, not just his head and neck, asking him to be perpendicular to the fence one to two horse lengths before and after it.

After doing this six or seven times, change direction and do the same on the other lead.

Developing a good eye takes time, so be patient with yourself. Instead of concentrating on the jump, think of it as just another canter stride. Try to keep the same pace and rhythm throughout the approach, jump and recovery. If you have trouble judging whether you need to fade to the outside or inside in the approach, ask an experienced rider to stand about six lengths in front of the jump (and a few feet to one side, so you don’t risk running him or her over) and give you input as you ride by.

This story was originally published in the August 2017 issue of Practical Horseman.