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

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Amanda Steege: Finesse Your Flat Class

At-Home practice is key to a winning performance in the under-saddle class

If you hang around horse shows long enough, you’ll hear this comment ringside: “You can’t beat that daisy-cutter. He’s going to win this flat class.” But the truth is you don’t always have to have the best mover to be competitive in the under-saddle class. Most judges are looking for the whole package: a horse who has good movement but is also obedient, alert, sound and has good manners. Does your horse look like he is a pleasure to ride? Are his ears up? Are his gaits balanced and his transitions smooth? How well you present your horse to demonstrate these details can have a tremendous impact on the judge’s ultimate decision.

Even if you’re not aiming for a blue ribbon, doing your best in the under-saddle class is growing more important. Some of our top horse shows have transitioned from four to three jumping classes in a division. This makes the flat class all the more influential. Sometimes just being able to get a fifth- or sixth-place ribbon on the flat can give you the points needed to bring home the tricolor. So even if you don’t ride the absolute best mover, learning to show off your horse on the flat is a valuable competition skill.

In this article I’ll share some exercises to practice refining your flatting skills at home. Then I’ll offer a few tips for making the most of your ride at the actual competition. Together, these critical tools can help you optimize your chances in a flat class, regardless of whether or not your horse is the best mover on the planet. They’ll help you and your horse stand out from the pack—and maybe even beat that daisy-cutter!

Stand Still!

One simple skill you can tackle at home is training your horse to stand nicely in the line. Take breaks in the middle of your rides and ask him to stand in the center of the arena. Keep some peppermints in your pocket and reward him when he stands quietly. Gradually, over many sessions, lengthen the amount of time you ask him to stand still.

Exercise 1: Mock Flat Class

Step 1

In my pretend under-saddle class, I enter the ring and immediately look for the “judge” standing outside the rail. Then I ask Loxley to head down the quarterline toward her in a nice balanced trot.  As the mock class progresses, I repeatedly look toward the judge to check where I am in her field of view. Next, I ask my judge to stand in the center of the ring, so I can fine-tune my awareness of her in that location, asking Loxley to perform his best when I sense her eyes on me. Step 1 In my pretend under-saddle class, I enter the ring and immediately look for the “judge” standing outside the rail. Then I ask Loxley to head down the quarterline toward her in a nice balanced trot.

Step 2.

As the mock class progresses, I repeatedly look toward the judge to check where I am in her field of view.

Step 3.

Next, I ask my judge to stand in the center of the ring, so I can fine-tune my awareness of her in that location, asking Loxley to perform his best when I sense her eyes on me.

Stage a Mock Flat Class

Nothing beats practice. A great way to rehearse the show-ring scenario is to stage a mock under-saddle class at home with five or six friends. This is a terrific opportunity to see how your horse will behave in company and for you to practice your hack-class technique. Designate one of your friends to be the judge, standing in a typical judge location and calling out instructions to the riders.

In under-saddle classes it is important to get seen early and often and by yourself. To do that, you must know where the judge is and where you should be in relation to him to be best seen. The most common places for a judge to stand for a hack class are in the center of the ring or just outside of the ring (usually in a judge’s box on the long side of the ring). Practice simulating both those possibilities in your mock class.

You also need to recognize the places in the ring where you can make adjustments that perhaps you’d rather the judge not see (shorten your reins, balance your horse, etc.). Practicing this in your mock class—both from the rider’s and judge’s perspective—will make a big difference.

Start with your judge standing on the side of the ring outside the rail. Give your horse a short warm-up first to make sure he is paying attention. Then start the class just as you would at a show, entering the ring through the in-gate. As you do so, tracking to the left (as all flat classes begin), practice putting your eyes on the judge. Notice where she is looking. The best place for you to be seen is usually on the quarterline—the track on the long side of the ring midway between its center and the rail—and, in competition, ideally with no other horse around you. So pick up a nice trot immediately, then ride down the quarterline with your horse in balance, setting an even, consistent pace.

After you pass the judge and enter the corner, realize that this is where she can see you the least. It’s a good place to make any necessary adjustments. Ask your judge to call out when you pass out of her normal peripheral line of sight (as if she were watching other horses on the quarterline) and again when you come back into her natural zone of attention.

Next, have your judge move to the center of the ring and repeat both steps of the exercise. Where in the ring can she see you best and least? Note that in a real class you might choose either the quarterline or the outside track, depending on the amount of horse traffic.

During this mock flat-class session, take turns playing judge. Get off your horse and stand on the side of the ring, pretending you are judging the other people riding. Take note of where you can see them well. Hold both arms out in a V shape to frame your optimal sight zone. Then identify your blind spots: Where can’t you see? Next, try this from the judging position in the center of the ring. Putting yourself in the judge’s shoes will teach you a lot about what he sees and when he sees it.

Exercise 2: Maximize the Quarterline

Step 1. After making a smooth turn to the quarterline, I straighten Loxley and look down the track through the center of each pair of poles.

Step 2. I maintain this straightness all the way down the chute by staying even in my seat, legs and rein contact.

Step 3. As we exit the chute, I leg-yield back to the rail by closing my inside leg and opening my outside hand a bit while keeping a slight inside bend.

Step 4. If your horse doesn’t move off your leg when you ask for leg-yield, tap him with your crop behind your leg.

Step 5. Next, I repeat the exercise at the canter, asking Loxley to move off my inside leg as we exit the chute. Having practiced this already at the walk and trot, he is happy to oblige!

Maximize the Quarterline

In a hack class, you want to maximize your time on the quarterlines of the ring, with your horse straight from his nose to his tail for as many strides as you can. To do this, you need to execute the corners correctly. Here’s a great exercise for practicing that:

Place a chute of poles on the ground along each quarterline of the ring. How many poles you use and how far apart you space them depends on the size of your ring. You may want to put one pair of poles at each end of the quarterline, then another set in the middle to create a straight chute that you can identify visually.

You can begin this exercise at the trot, but if you have difficulties, go back to the walk until both you and your horse have mastered the basics. Start by tracking right. Trot through the corner with an active, engaged pace, bending your horse slightly to the inside. As you exit the corner, make the early turn toward the chute of poles by opening your inside right rein and using your outside left leg to push your horse over. Be careful not to lean in on this turn.

Once you are on the quarterline, your goal is to have your horse as straight as possible. Use two reins and two legs evenly to drive him straight down the chute of poles. Make sure you are sitting evenly in the saddle so he can stay evenly balanced as well.

Aim to leave the quarterline and get back to the rail just before you approach the next corner. As you exit the chute, move your horse to the rail by asking him to leg-yield to the left. Use your inside (right) leg to push him left while keeping a slight inside bend with your right rein and opening your outside (left) rein a bit. This will get you back out to the rail just before you enter the corner, and that will set you on the best track to navigate the next quarterline.

If your horse doesn’t move off your leg, try using more pressure or move your leg back an inch or two to get a better reaction, still keeping your heel down. You can also use a little tap with the crop behind your leg. Keep your leg on the horse at the same time you tap. Remember: The crop backs up your leg; it doesn’t replace it.

Once you have mastered this exercise in both directions, try it at canter. Use the same aids at all gaits.

Exercise 3: Show off Your Horse’s Movement

Step 1. After making a smooth balanced turn onto the quarterline, I straighten Loxley. Then as we pass the marker, I close my legs to ask him to lengthen his stride

Step 2. I soften my rein contact and close my hip angle slightly to encourage him to move forward freely, demonstrating a beautiful balanced trot in the relaxed frame that judges love to see.

Step 3.

When we reach the marker at the end of the quarterline, I stretch my upper body tall over my hips, sit slightly deeper in the saddle and close my fingers on the reins while still squeezing my legs to ask him to collect his stride before initiating the leg-yield.

Show off Your Horse’s Movement

To show off your horse’s trot, ask him to lengthen his stride down the quarterlines, then collect and rebalance him on the corners. Practicing this at home will teach him to do this seamlessly while responding to your body position as part of the aids. Place an object—a cone, flowerpot, etc.—at the beginning of the quarterline and another at the end to mark where to make your transitions.

To practice this exercise, pick up a normal trot and ride through the corner just as you did in the quarterline exercise. Your horse should be balanced and ahead of your leg. As you track onto the quarterline, relax your biceps, thinking of your arms being elastic. Close your hip angle slightly and add some leg. You are asking for just a small step up in speed, but you want your horse to visibly extend his stride, relax his neck and lengthen his frame from nose to tail.

Your goal is to keep this frame from the moment you enter the quarterline until the moment you leave it to enter the next corner. This is your horse’s opportunity to shine!

At the end of the quarterline, stretch back up with your shoulders over your hips and return to a slightly deeper seat. Keep squeezing with your legs, close your fingers on the reins and ask your horse to slow his gait and shorten his frame. Continue posting. Once he has collected his stride, begin your leg-yield back to the rail.

Some horses get strung out or on their forehand riding the length of the ring. Practicing this collection in the corners presents an ideal opportunity to rebalance your horse. You can do it at all three gaits.

Do Your Pre-Class Prep

With all of this homework under your belt, you should feel more prepared to perform your best in the ring. Keep in mind that presentation really counts. Your horse should be well-groomed with tight braids and a clean, white, properly fitted saddle pad. Your clothes should fit well and your boots should be polished to a high sheen. You both should look like you are “in it to win it.”

As you plan the rest of your hack-class strategy, think through all the details that will play a role in your success, including your warm-up. Get on at least 15 minutes before your class to warm up your horse in the schooling area, especially if it’s the first class of the day. Just do a little walk, trot, canter; loosen up his muscles and make sure he is in front of your leg.

Before you enter the ring, notice where the judge is standing and decide what you will do during the first few minutes as the class fills. You can’t control the size of the class or who you compete against. But you can control, to some extent, the picture that the judge sees. So plan your strategy ahead of time.

Connect with the Judge

Once you’re in the ring, the first thing to realize is that it’s not the judge’s job to discover you; it’s your job to present your horse to the judge. Especially in a crowded flat class, judges are looking for the winner the second you walk in the gate, long before the class has filled. So use that opportunity to get seen early and by yourself.

Try to make a few passes by the judge at your horse’s best gait to create a great first impression.

Once the class has started, look for opportunities to be seen by the judge when your horse is at his best and to minimize the view of him when you are correcting or rebalancing his gaits.

Remember that in a hunter hack class the judge is looking for light contact with your horse’s mouth. That means the tight frame used in equitation classes is not appropriate. Get your horse in a balanced gait with impulsion, then soften your hands and let him stretch his neck out a little bit. He should feel long from nose to tail and loose in his back. But be cautious not to create a really loose, loopy rein; there should still be light contact with your horse’s mouth.

In a typical flat class, you will be asked to walk, trot and canter in both directions. (The U.S. Equestrian Federation rules also permit the judge to call for a hand gallop, but that is rarely requested these days.) But this is not Simon Says—it is more important to do a nice transition than to do it immediately. You can take up to four or five steps to prepare your horse for a smooth up or down transition. And in a crowded ring, sometimes waiting those few seconds can help put more space between your horse and the one ahead of you. So take your time and plan it out.

Keep thinking! If your horse is not behaving or is not in the correct balance or pace, consider avoiding the quarterline and instead find your way to the outside track, where you might be somewhat hidden behind another horse while you correct the issue.

When the judge calls to line up, try to end up in the center of the line, once again making sure that the judge can easily find you. Sometimes the judge is scrambling to pin the class at the end. So this is another opportunity to be seen—or at least not forgotten—before he makes a final decision!

Don’t Undermine the Trot Trying too hard at the trot is a common mistake in hack classes. Sometimes you will see a rider ask the horse to lengthen the trot by using a heavy driving seat with an open hip angle. But the driving seat is counterproductive, as it can make the horse lift his head and drop his back, which creates a quick, choppy step rather than the desired long, loose step. And if the rider lands too heavily in the post, it can make the horse crabby or pin his ears.

To address this, do lots of work at home in the two-point position. This will give you the leg strength necessary to keep the right position even with a horse who is reluctant to go forward. Then, when you return to normal posting trot, use the same position for the “up” part of your post as when you were in two-point, especially when asking your horse to lengthen his stride. When he goes forward, you want him to stretch his neck out and down, reach up through his back and take a nice step through his shoulder. Being light in the saddle will allow him to do this.

When you come “down” in your post, slide your hips back in the saddle an inch or two and slightly close your hip angle. Think of landing in your thigh and heel, not letting yourself land heavily in the saddle.

About Amanda Steege

Growing up, Amanda Steege was never far from a horse. Her parents were horse professionals and owners of Red Acre Farm, in Stow, Massachusetts. At a very young age, Amanda would frequently be placed on top of one of the school horses in its stall to keep her safe while her father, Mitch, completed his barn chores.

As a Junior, Amanda campaigned her Small Junior Hunter, One In A Million (aka Spanky), to great success. Coached by her father and Bill Cooney (and still riding Spanky), Amanda won the 1991 Massachusetts Medal Finals and competed in the Medal and Maclay Finals in the following two years. She graduated magna cum laude from Boston College and started her own business, Ashmeadow Farm, in 2001.

Amanda has been the World Champion Hunter Rider for the northeast region for the last seven consecutive years. She and her clients have won numerous championships at Devon, the Hampton Classic, Middleburg Classic and the Indoor circuit. She runs her farm with her boyfriend of 14 years, Tim Delovich, splitting time between Ocala, Florida, and Califon, New Jersey.

This article was originally published in the July 2018 issue of Practical Horseman and re-published here with permission.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Sloane Coles: Balance Before the Flying Change

This top hunter/jumper rider teaches you how to set your horse up to produce reliable changes after jumps.

Imagine cantering your horse down to a diagonal fence on the left lead. He jumps the fence nicely, but instead of landing on his right lead, which would set you up perfectly for the upcoming right turn, he lands on his left lead. So you cue him to make a flying change and … nothing happens.

Did you give the wrong aids for the flying change? Actually, that’s the wrong question to ask in this situation. Producing reliable flying changes isn’t just about giving the right aids at the right time. And it’s not about practicing flying changes over and over again. In fact, the solution doesn’t require you to practice a single flying change. It’s all about the setup. Once you’ve learned to recognize the balance your horse needs to be in to pick up the lead you want, and correct that balance when necessary, flying changes will come easily—without you even having to think about your leads.

I’ll teach you these skills with three exercises. Don’t expect them to work instantly. It takes time to develop the feel for how your horse’s weight is balanced and how you might need to shift it. You’ll also discover that each horse’s ideal balance is slightly different. So give yourself time to get to know every mount you ride. The more you focus on these basics, the better your flying changes will be on course.

Understand the Mechanics

Many people learn how to pick up the canter and initiate a flying change by first bending the horse to the inside. Although this can be effective with well-trained horses, I find it more beneficial to teach horses and riders—especially if they’re green—to pick up the correct lead from a counter bend. Young horses and ex-racehorses, who usually don’t know how to bend well to the inside yet, find these transitions and changes mechanically easier if they’re bent to the outside.

Imagine your horse has a weight hanging from each corner of his body: right front, right hind, left front and left hind. To pick up a left-lead canter, he needs to lift the weight on the left front corner. This will allow him to strike out with his left foreleg. Anything you do to interfere with that weight shift—lean your upper body to the left, pull his head to the left, etc.—will make it harder for him to pick up that lead. That’s why the more desperately you push for a lead change, the more likely you are to not get it!

If your horse has a tendency to bulge his shoulder to the left, that, too, makes it more difficult for him to shift his weight correctly. To help him get out of his own way, you need to ask him to shift that weight back toward his outside (right, in this example) hind leg. Turning his head slightly to the outside and moving him from your inside (left) leg to your outside (right) rein will “open up” his inside foreleg, allowing him to pick up the lead. Easier said than done, I know. But the exercises below will help.

Find Your Balance First

First check that you are in the proper position and balance. To avoid interfering with your horse’s balance, you must have your weight down in your heels and be in control of your upper body. Resist the temptation to slap your shoulders down over the jump, look down for the lead in the air or pull on the inside rein. Maintaining your own balance actually takes quite a lot of strength, so I recommend committing to a personal fitness program in addition to your regular riding. Instead of lifting weights, focus on exercises that improve your balance and core strength, like Pilates.

With this core strength, you should be able to relax your body and ride with a loose, following arm. Concentrate on opening your hip angle over the fences and focus on the position of your hips—rather than your shoulders—in the air.

The following exercise will help you find your power position: the position you want to be in for just about everything other than galloping. This is the position you’ll need to be in later for your flying change setup.

Exercise 1: Halt in Balance

Why do it: This exercise will help you find the position you want to be in to ensure your horse is balanced for a flying-change setup. Practice this exercise from the walk first, traveling in a straight line:

• Prepare yourself for a halt transition by sliding your legs slightly forward and pushing your weight into your heels.

• At the same time, tighten your abdominal muscles and open your hip angle, leaning your upper body back just a bit. Imagine you’re preparing to step on the brake in a car. To prevent the car’s momentum from carrying your shoulders forward, you need to sit against it slightly.

• Maintain this position while applying your rein aids to ask for the halt. Keep your weight firmly in your heels to prevent your horse from pulling you forward, especially if he is a little strong in the bridle.

Practice this several times until you start to feel like you can produce the halt with less rein aid than you needed initially. Then try the exercise from the trot. Eventually, work your way up to doing it from the canter. The goal is to practice this power position so much that you can slip into it in a split second.

Starting in a right-lead canter, I check that my weight is in my heels and slide my lower legs a little forward. Then I sit down in the saddle, tighten my abs and open my hip angle, while squeezing my fingers on the reins to ask for the halt.

I maintain this strong position throughout the transition all the way to the halt. Then I reward Sammie by softening the rein contact. You need to practice this position so much that you can slip into it in a split second from walk, trot or canter.

Exercise 2: Walk to Canter on a Slight Angle

Next, let’s review the basic canter aids to help ensure that your horse is in the correct balance to pick up the lead you want, which later will make flying changes come easily. Every horse has a good side and a bad side, so practice this exercise on your horse’s easier lead first to be sure you both understand it. Then try it on his more challenging lead.

This exercise creates a mild angle in your horse’s body with his right hind leg tracking directly behind his left front leg. This shifts his weight back toward his outside (right) hind leg. Turning his head slightly to the outside and moving him from your inside (left) leg to your outside (right) rein will “open up” his inside foreleg, allowing him to pick up the left lead.

Why do it: Reviewing basic canter aids will help ensure that you and your horse are in the correct balance to pick up the lead you want, which later will make flying changes come easily.

Step 1

Tracking left, I stay about 2 meters off the rail, checking that Sammie is walking in an absolutely straight line. I shift my weight just enough so I feel my outside (right) seat bone on the saddle more than my inside (left) seat bone without leaning my upper body in either direction.

Step 2

Next, I slide my right leg back a little and tap it to move her haunches slightly to the inside and I squeeze my left leg at the girth to push her shoulders to the outside while using my right rein to keep her neck straight or turned a bit to the outside.

Step 3

When she responds to these aids by shifting the weight of her shoulders away from my inside leg, I relax my aids and continue walking with this slight angle.

Step 4

Then, to ask for the canter, I simply slide my outside leg back again and press it against her side, still keeping her neck straight with my outside hand.

Here’s how to pick up the left-lead canter:

• Start by walking down the long side of the arena, at least 2 meters off the rail, with your eyes focused up and ahead.

• To set up for the transition, shift your weight just enough so that you feel your outside (right) seat bone on the saddle more than your inside seat bone, without leaning your upper body in either direction. (Practice this slight weight shift on a firm chair at home first.)

• Slide your outside (right) leg back behind the girth and ask your horse to move his haunches slightly to the inside.

• At the same time, apply your inside (left) leg at the girth to push his shoulders toward the outside.

• Keeping a straight line from your elbow to your hand to the bit, use your outside rein to straighten his neck, bringing his nose a little to the outside.

This will create a mild angle in your horse’s body with his outside (right) hind leg tracking directly behind his inside (left) front leg (see diagram to the right). Be careful to keep him straight through his body, neither bending to the inside nor the outside. Meanwhile, continue walking in a straight line parallel to the rail.

You’ll know your horse is properly set up if you can almost see his outside (right) eye. You’ll also get a sense that his weight is shifted to the outside, opening up space for his inside foreleg to strike off in the canter. Think again of the four weights hanging from his four corners. The heaviest one should be on the outside (right) hind while the lightest is on the inside (left) front. If you don’t feel this balance, push him over more with your inside leg.

The next challenge is to maintain this balance throughout the transition to canter.

• Try to stay very balanced yourself and quiet in your body as you squeeze your outside leg behind the girth to ask for the canter.

• Allow him to canter for several strides before bringing him back to walk and repeating the exercise.

If he picks up the wrong lead, he’s likely throwing his weight onto the inside front leg during the transition. To correct this, prepare him with the slight angle and weight shift to the outside at the walk again, but this time:

• Keeping your eyes up, make a transition to trot. Use a firm inside leg to push his shoulders to the outside during the transition, so he can’t throw his weight to the inside.

• Maintain this balance as you return to walk.

• Repeat these walk–trot transitions several times until you feel like you can control his angle and balance throughout.

• Then try the canter transition again.

When you feel comfortable making walk–canter transitions on your horse’s good lead, repeat the exercise on his other lead. Be aware that you may need an even stronger inside leg to set up for this lead.

Exercise 3: Diagonal Jump, Halt and Circle

In these photos, I set Sammie up to make a flying change from her left lead to her right without actually executing the flying change. Here are the steps: A. Off the left lead, jump a small fence. B. Halt and rein back a few steps. C. Walk forward a few steps. D. Circle left slightly counter bent. E. Pick up the right-lead canter (see inset).

This exercise incorporates the skills you practiced in the first two exercises and teaches you and your horse to find the correct balance for making a flying change after a jump. The halt in the exercise will slow his momentum down after the jump, rock his weight off your hands and back onto his hind end and teach him not to anticipate the lead change. All you need is a simple vertical set on a diagonal at a height you’re comfortable jumping.

Why do it: This exercise incorporates the skills you practiced in the first two exercises and teaches you and your horse to find the correct balance for making a flying change after a jump.

Step 1

After jumping Sammie over a small jump on a diagonal on the left lead, I use the aids we practiced in Exercise 1—sliding my legs slightly forward, dropping my weight in my heels and leaning my shoulders back slightly—to bring her to a halt. Then I rein back several steps to encourage her to lighten the rein contact.

Step 2

Next, I walk forward and turn left, tapping my right leg against her side at the girth to push her shoulders left, while moving both hands left. Because this mare is so advanced, she responds by leg-yielding left. Whether or not your horse leg-yields is not important, so long as his weight moves off your (in this case) right leg.

Step 3

I continue using my right leg and rein to ask Sammie to make a full, small circle, returning to the track we were on when we landed from the jump.

Step 4

To prepare for the right-lead canter depart, I ask for a slight angle, just as we did in Exercise 2: using my new outside (left) leg to push her haunches in a bit, my new inside (right) leg to push her shoulders out slightly and my new outside (left) rein to keep her neck straight or turned slightly to the outside.

Step 5

Finally, I apply my outside (left) leg to ask for the right-lead canter and continue cantering straight on the diagonal track to the corner.

• Canter to the jump on your left lead (for a jump set on a left-lead diagonal, as in the diagram above) concentrating on riding your horse straight on your line and keeping your eyes focused up and ahead of you. Whatever you do, don’t think about what lead you want him to land on.

• After the jump, find the power position you practiced in Exercise 1—dropping your weight into your heels and leaning your shoulders back slightly—and then bring your horse to a halt, still on the straight line of your track.

• Then praise him, walk forward and make a left turn back to the rail.

• Repeat this two or three times until you feel your horse responding well to your downward transition aids and coming to a halt closer to the landing side of the jump.

• If he’s strong in the bridle, ask for a few steps of rein back after each halt. This will encourage him to stay softer in your hands.

• Canter to the jump on your left lead (for a jump set on a left-lead diagonal, as in the diagram above)

Next, add a small walk circle to the left after the halt. How you perform this circle is very important, because it’s going to teach your horse to shift his weight correctly in preparation for the new (right) lead, in the same way you set up for the transition in Exercise 2. Because the eventual goal is to make a flying change to the right lead, your old outside (right) aids now become your new inside aids. Think of how Western riders turn their horses by neck reining as you use these new aids to ask for the small circle to the left:

• Keeping your hands together, move them both to the left so that the right rein comes against your horse’s neck without crossing it. Use your right leg at the girth to push his shoulders around the circle. Feel more weight shifted onto your left seat bone and use your right rein to keep your horse’s neck straight or slightly counter bent (with his nose to the right).

As you complete the circle and return to the straight track you were following after the jump, use the aids you did in Exercise 2 to set his balance up for the right-lead canter:

• Go to your power position first. Then shift your weight slightly onto your outside (left) seat bone, slide your new outside (left) leg back behind the girth to move his haunches to the inside, push his shoulders left with your new (right) inside leg and straighten his neck and bring his nose a little to the outside (left) with your new outside (left) rein. Remember, eyes up!

This should position his body at a mild angle to the track, with his haunches marginally to the inside (right) and his head and neck pointing slightly to the outside. Again, check in with how his balance feels. You want to feel the most weight on his new outside (left) hind leg and the least on his new inside (right) front leg. If you feel this balance, go ahead and ask for a right-lead canter. If you don’t, turn left and repeat the exercise. With enough repetition, your horse will begin to shift his weight automatically in the correct way and will be properly set up for the new lead.

When you’ve mastered this exercise in this direction, try it the other way. Set up a single fence on the other diagonal and canter to it on your right lead, then land, halt and circle right. Proceed through the steps just as you did before, using your power position in the halts, your slight counter-bending aids on the circle and your newfound feel for your horse’s balance. As with Exercise 2, you’ll probably find that you need to use stronger inside-leg-to-outside-rein aids to correct your horse’s balance in one direction than the other.

With practice, you’ll eventually learn to evaluate and correct your horse’s balance immediately after landing from the jump. Then you can simply apply the aids you used in these exercises to set him up for the flying change, without making a downward transition or circle. Add your canter aid—a squeeze of your outside leg behind the girth—to execute it.

Depending on your horse, you may find that practicing the actual flying changes at home is counterproductive. Some horses—especially green or nervous ones—get excited or anxious when working on flying changes. It’s important to know your horse and do what’s right for him. Even if you don’t rehearse the actual flying change, I promise that if you take your time and practice these exercises enough at home, you will ace your flying changes in competition.


Sloane Coles grew up trail riding and foxhunting in The Plains, Virginia, where her father is a joint-Master of Foxhounds with the Orange County Hunt and her mother foxhunts and shows hunters as an amateur. Under the tutelage of John and Beezie Madden, Johnny and Kitty Barker and the trainers at Beacon Hill Show Stables and Heritage Farm, Coles enjoyed a successful Junior career, earning top placings in all of the national equitation finals, including a win in the 2006 North American Equitation Championship. She also won the 2006 Bates USA Equitation year-end rider award before turning professional. In 2010, she was named to the U.S. Equestrian Federation Developing Rider Show Jumping tour.

While attending Drew University, Coles trained with renowned jumper rider and trainer Mark Leone. After graduating in 2011 with a degree in sociology and business, she decided to expand her horsemanship education by working in Belgium in the sales barn of 1976 Olympic bronze medalist François Mathy (who discovered McLain Ward’s great Olympic partner Sapphire). After riding at least 10 horses a day there and learning all she could about the business side of show jumping, she moved back to The Plains and established Spring Ledge LLC, a sales and training facility for hunters, jumpers, foxhunters and eventers. In 2014, she was invited to the George H. Morris Gladstone Program for international riders. Meanwhile, she continued to compete successfully in the grand prix and hunter rings at major North American competitions.

Some of Coles' recent winning partners include Autumn Rhythm, with whom she won all three 2014 First-Year Green Hunter Stake classes at Indoors, 2017 $50,000 Grand Prix of Michigan winner Esprit and CSI**** veteran MTF Saint Simeon. She and the latest addition to her grand prix string, Chippendale’s Boy DZ, placed second in the $50,000 Flintfields Farm Grand Prix CSI** at the 2018 Great Lakes Equestrian Festival.

This article was originally published in the Spring 2019 issue of Practical Horseman and republished here with permission.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

How To Teach Your Horse to Bend

Trainer Jordan Linstedt offers advice on how you can make your horse more supple.

Q: My new horse has a lot of potential, but I’m having trouble teaching him to bend around corners and be more flexible. Any hints?


A: To bend well and be flexible, your horse must develop a great deal of strength in his back and hindquarters— in fact, in his entire body. To travel correctly around a turn or circle, your horse must bend his body through his rib cage, rather than simply turn his nose to the inside. It takes time to develop the balance and strength necessary to do this well, so be patient with your horse. Here are some tips to get you headed in the right direction:

Start by evaluating your rein contact. A good bend comes from your legs, not the reins. Ideally, you should use twice as much leg aid as you do hand. From the very beginning, you want to have a light, elastic connection to your horse’s mouth. As he grows stronger and uses his back and body more, he should trust your hands enough to move forward into a more solid contact, but it should never become heavy. I aim to feel no more than 1 to 2 pounds of pressure in each hand.

Your contact with a young and/ or learning horse also needs to be equal on both reins. Before you can ask him to bend properly, he must travel straight. And he can’t be straight if your contact is uneven. So concentrate on riding him forward into an even connection in both reins.

Also check that your position is centered and balanced, with your weight distributed evenly down through both legs. The better balanced you are, the better balanced and straight your horse will be. If your position tips too much to one side or the other, you’ll feel the opposite foot get lighter in the stirrup. To correct this, step down firmly into that stirrup iron.

When your balance and contact feel reliably consistent, try this spiral exercise:

Begin at the trot on a 20-meter circle. Shift your weight slightly onto your inside seat bone, still keeping the rest of your weight equally distributed through both legs and maintaining your even contact in both reins. With your inside leg at the girth and your outside leg just behind the girth, think of using your legs—more than your reins—to ride your horse’s rib cage to the outside of the circle.

Now gradually spiral in, taking several rotations to shrink the circle to a diameter of 10 to 15 meters, depending on what your horse can do comfortably. (Don’t reduce the size of the circle to a point where he loses momentum or seems to be struggling in any way.) As the circle gets smaller, your horse naturally will have to bend more. Be careful not to over-flex his nose to the inside—remember, the bend should be as much in his rib cage as in his neck. Also be sure to stay connected to him with your outside rein and outside leg.

When you reach the smaller circle, slowly spiral out again. Repeat this once or twice and then do the same thing in the other direction. If you continue to practice this exercise over time, you’ll begin to feel his body bend around your inside leg, with your outside rein and leg controlling the shape and size of the circle.

As your horse’s strength develops, use your diagonal aids to introduce a slight counter bend. Trotting again on a 20-meter circle, reverse your leg positions, moving your inside leg just behind the girth and your outside leg on the girth, and ask your horse to bend his body slightly to the outside for a few strides while staying on track on the circle. You can play with changing back and forth between the true bend and counter bend on diagonals, serpentines and along the rail. This will gradually improve his suppleness.

When your horse begins to produce a good bend and counter bend, if you know the aids for performing a leg-yield, use that as another suppling tool. As you trot across a diagonal, several strides before you reach the far corner turn slightly toward the new direction (for example, if you’re about to turn to the right, apply your right-bending aids) and ask for a few steps of leg-yield into the corner (in this example, moving away from your right leg). This will help to get your horse deeper into the corners while improving his balance and bend.

Throughout this training process, whether you’re a beginner or advanced- level rider, you’ll progress most quickly if you have an eye on the ground—a trainer or other experienced horse-person watching your work to confirm that you’re doing it correctly. With this support—and a great deal of patience—you can teach any horse to bend.

Rising eventing star Jordan Linstedt, 24, began riding at age 2, when her mother ponied her on trails. As a teenager, with guidance from Olympic eventer Todd Trewin, she brought several off-the-track racehorses up through the levels. 

When she was a senior in college, Jordan’s parents purchased a 17.3-hand imported Irish sport horse gelding, Tullibards Hawkwind, or Jack. Six years later, after working with several top trainers, including British Olympic gold medalist Leslie Law, Jordan and Jack completed their first four-star event at the 2012 Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event with a steady, clear cross-country round. 

Jordan currently trains and teaches at her mother’s Saddle Rock Stables in Redmond, Washington. She also takes online classes at the University of Washington, where she is studying society, ethics and human behavior.

This article originally appeared in the June 2013 issue of Practical Horseman.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

5 Show-Ring Tips to Help You Ace Your Hunter Rounds

Are you gearing up for show season? Here are a few tips from some of our favorite experts to help you and your horse perform your best hunter rounds.

Tom Brennan and Buttoned Up looking confident and focused during their hunter round at the Upperville Horse Show. 
1. First Impressions Count

Judges look at the whole picture, says USEF 'R' judge Patrick Rhodes. “Is your horse turned out well? Are your boots polished? Does your coat fit? If the overall look and appearance is happy and balanced and the horse has a certain presence, I get excited to watch your round.”

What you do next sets the tone for the judge. Patrick likes to see a rider start the round efficiently and confidently with an “I got this!” attitude. “Pick up a nice gallop in a rhythm and pace that suits your horse, then go straight to the first jump,” advises Patrick. “Don’t tour the whole ring.”

2. Wow the Judge Right Away

When deciding how to pin hunter classes, judges ask themselves, “Which of these horses would I most like to ride?” With rounds lasting only 90 to 120 seconds, says hunter rider, trainer and 'R' judge Tom Brennan, there’s not much time to demonstrate that your horse is the answer to that question. From the moment you enter the ring to the moment you leave, your performance must exude ease and confidence. Communication between you and your horse should be nearly invisible. Nothing should distract the judge’s attention from his round. In fact, the best riders seem to melt into the scenery—all you notice is the horse. Exceptional hunter riders allow the horse’s expression to come through so every obstacle he meets is simple, forward and enjoyable to watch.

3. Ride Preventatively

Before you ride any course, try to anticipate potential trouble spots for your particular horse, says top hunter rider Keri Kampsen. If he’s the type who loses momentum, bulges out and drifts toward the in-gate, plan how you will ride past it. If it’s on the end of the ring or in a corner, make your lead change early, then shave a little off the turn. Carry your whip in your outside hand and raise it slightly so he can see it out of the corner of his eye. Turn his head away from the in-gate and give a cluck to encourage him to keep cantering past it.

A lot of mistakes occur because of poor track riding: cutting corners, overshooting turns, etc. The best remedy is to stay focused and ignore things that distract your horse. Once your eye is on a jump, don’t look away. If you keep riding to it with determination, he will eventually catch up to you.

As she passes the in-gate, Keri Kampsen keeps a slight inside bend and closes her outside leg to keep her horse, Autumn, focused and looking ahead to the next jump on course. 

4. Maintain Rhythm to Ace the Long Approach

It’s most hunter riders’ nightmare: the long approach to a single fence, says top hunter/jumper rider Nick Haness. This question can be found at the beginning, middle or, most often, at the end of hunter courses at every level. For the horse, the long approach can be tricky if it’s going into or away from the in-gate, encouraging him to rush toward home or be sluggish going away. But this course element is mostly a rider challenge. With so much time to think about how things are going, what you should be doing or not doing and how you will find the distance to the fence, it’s hard to resist the temptation to do something.

Most often, riders interfere with the horse too much. They change the rhythm, move forward or come back because they have a doubt about the distance. Or they over- or under-steer. All of these tendencies circulate back to the mental aspect of the game: It’s hard to sit tight when you have so much time to think. In most cases, giving in to such temptations backfires on you. An example is seeing a distance on approach, then changing your mind and moving up unnecessarily. This causes your horse to take that fast, extra step—a chip—which likely wouldn’t have happened if you had maintained the same canter even if the distance was a little bit off.

5. Control Your Pace

Having an inconsistent pace not only destroys the nice flow the judge is looking for, but it also interferes with your ability to find the distances to the jumps, says top hunter rider Kristy Herrera. If you approach each fence in a reliable working canter—the canter that hunter courses are generally set for—you’ll have three options for meeting the correct takeoff spot: maintaining your current pace, moving up or waiting. If you approach the jump either too slowly or too quickly, that narrows your options. For example, if you’re going too fast, you’ll arrive at the jump at the end of your horse’s stride—the biggest stride he can make comfortably—which means you’ll have only two options: Either you’ll arrive at the fence on a very long, flat distance or you’ll be forced to shorten his stride at the last minute and get to a too-deep takeoff spot.

Re-published with permission from Practical Horseman.

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.

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.