The days are starting to draw out – there is a light at the end of the tunnel and we start to think about galloping across those green fields in perfect harmony with our horse rising to the cross country course builders challenges! Then we realise over the winter both us and our horses have got a bit rusty!!! If you’ve been hunting your ability to gallop and jump in all types of going will have been honed, but you may have lost a bit of steering in the process!! If you have had a winter of good basic training then you may need to get your brave pants out again! Either way it is a good idea to plan some technique training into your pre event plan. It a good idea to start in the arena with simulated problems to hone your skills and to be able to adapt exercises to suit individual needs. You should then progress onto a training course when they are ready and they are open!! Arena eventing is really popular now and it a good way of testing horses skills, but some horses find it all a bit full on as everything comes thick and fast and they have no time to think between fences like they would on a real cross country course. Bear this in mind as it may not suit every horse.
When working over simulated exercises in the arena there are three main topics:
You can then start to link them and bring in the other challenges of:
• Curving lines / tricky distances
• Fake ‘coffins’ (not sure what they are supposed to be called now!!)
• Combinations of fences – i.e. corner to skinny on a curving line, jumping skinnies on the angle etc. For all these challenges you need to have your horse warmed up well, concentrating on the feel of the connection between leg and hand, this must be in this order as the horse needs to be in front of the aids and going forward into an even contact. Any corrections that you make on the way to a technical fence only with your hand is bound to end in disaster. If the horse throws its head up in reaction to a rein aid, it is much easier for them to run out through the shoulder, and also makes it hard for them to see and judge the fence. Jump normal width fences to warm up, then when you introduce skinnies to young horses, and even for the older ones at the start of the season you want to use guide rails and this teaches the horse that there is no way out. It is much better to teach them the right way to do things straight away rather than dealing with problems and teaching evasions. You can start with just getting horses to go through a narrow gap using wings / flags. When you build the fence, start with a wider skinny. We have 4 different widths for teaching so we can gradually make them narrower – from 8ft wide down to 3ft. Think about chase me charlie wide that you played on ponies as a child! When the horse has the idea and is focusing on the fence well, you can lay the guide rails on the floor – still in a V to help them into the middle of the fence. Then the next progression is to take them away totally. Bear in mind when you change the rein and come the other way to start again with the rails on the fence as the horses brain hasn’t got the same logic as us!! When you progress on in later sessions, you can make the skinny as spread, as course builders love narrow and wide fences to make us commit!
You can also start to build combinations, so start with skinny to normal width fence, then normal to skinny as that is harder, then skinny to skinny on a straight line, then a curving line. If you hit any problems, be quick to put the guide rail back up and nip it in the bud. You don’t want horses that look for escape routes!! If you are using wings they act as flags, if you are using short wings, barrels or blocks, use flags too as part of the training is to teaching the horses to focus on the flags and go between them. For teaching corners, think of building one with good ground lines to start as this will help the horse judge the fence. Start with it not too wide and aim to jump in the middle to start so they are less likely to duck out. Again use a guide rail on the run out side initially. The best way to start is to jump with the front rail parallel to you then gradually increase the angle so you are eventually jumping an imaginary rail suspended over the centre of the fence. Take the jump further towards the point of the corner too, but again, if you hit a problem put the guide rail back on. Further sessions can progress to wider corners, with a narrower profile.
The plastic corners are good for training as they can be height adjusted. You can then also progress to putting flower pots on the top as this is a favourite trick of builders! Be sure to train over left and right handed corners equally, and to start small again when you change the rein if you have not been changing between every jump. Angled fences are again trained progressively. It is important again to have the horse between leg and hand and straight in its frame. You can use rails on the ground on take off and landing to make a tunnel. This helps the horse and rider concentrate on approach and getaway. We use fencing rails painted white so there is less risk of injury than with a round pole should the horse land on it. Start with a single fence and jump on a slight angle on both reins, then gradually increase the angle. Always be aware of where the run out option is and try to be positive on your striding as horses need to be committed to this type of fence or they may skip to the side. Then build up to combinations of fences on related distances. You can also build to changing the angles to keep them on their toes!! To really test yourself you could also angle skinny fences, remember to tuck your toes in!!
When you first take your young horse out to a training course, the ideal scenario is to have a sensible lead horse to prevent problems. Warm the horse up playing with the gears in the canter to make sure that you have control and steering. Start over smaller plain fences, establishing a good rhythm. For very green horses, you may trot to your first few fences. Aim to get up to canter if they are balanced enough. Be sure to sit up on approach and not be too
casual, as its important they learn to go first time. When you do your first water and ditches give the young horse a lead. That is better than allowing them to have a problem and get frightened. Allow the lead for a few times as often horses jump the ditch the first time and only see it in the air, then refuse the second time! Remember as a rider to look up, never look in the ditch as you will make the horse look and put it on the forehand. With water, walk through first and if the jump is an enclosed water with steps around it, walk near the edge as often young horses spook at the water forming waves and hitting the wall. Keep walking about, we do allow them to stick their noses in and splash about, but be sure they don’t roll!! When the horse is relaxed in walk, then trot through and keep doing it until they don’t leap the edge of the water. Then canter through, but aim to be in a fairly collected canter and sit up. If the horse is really happy you can slowly pop a small step in and out. If they were worried or over reacted, I would leave it to just getting feet wet. If you choose to do any skinny work on a very green horse do the same that you would do in the manage if the equipment allows – use guide poles to make sure that the horse understands the question.
Above all when training youngsters, always remember there is always another day to build on the schooling. Set your goals for that session and be prepared to adapt for the individual. Don’t get over excited if you feel they are doing well and push it too far. You would much rather they went home feeling full of confidence about their training and looking forward to the next outing rather than confused and worried.