Horses eventing at any level will have to master these cross-country elements, so it’s crucial to introduce them in a thoughtful and patient way. We asked three top professionals their methods. Here’s Lauren Nicholson’s answer.
We introduce them quite early, both on the long rope from the ground and also when we’re on their back.
We do a lot of work with a long rope. I’m not a huge fan of longeing for the sake of longeing. We do a lot of groundwork, just teaching them about yielding from pressure so when you get on it transitions smoothly.
We don’t put a bit on them for quite a bit. I’ve found most of the time when you start with a bit on they don’t understand they’re supposed to yield from pressure, so you can actually make their mouth a bit tough because you’re pulling on the bit. We teach them to yield from pressure first. Our brakes are a rope halter and a string or something around their neck, and we teach them to stop off that. Once they are steering, turning and stopping, then we start using a bit, but we’ll still keep the string on their neck so we have a second tool if they are going through the bit and not yielding.
All of the homebreds we’ve produced that way, even the advanced-level ones, still go in snaffles. It makes a big difference in the softness by keeping their mouths fresh.
We’ll introduce [cross-country obstacles] as a fun part of the ride. When they’re first going out into the open, we’ll typically pony them off a more experienced horse in the beginning. While we’re doing that, we’ll walk into the water jump or walk over a ditch with the more experienced horse because then they’re just following. Right off the bat, those things become just part of their normal cycle of being ridden, so it’s not a big deal. Once you have brakes and steering under saddle, it’s safe to take the rope off the pony horse. Basically the person on the pony horse is acting as an emergency brake.
If you didn’t have the ability to do it from home on a daily basis and had to do a cross-country school, I would make sure to have a more experienced horse along, and to make it fun and easy. The biggest mistake I see people make is that they panic a little bit when the young horses balk, whether that’s walking in the water or over the ditch or wherever else, then they try to use speed or aggression to get them over. Patience is the key, and for me it just becomes about, there’s nowhere else you can go except into the water or over the ditch. I don’t make it super aggressive—if they try to turn away, nope, you go back to facing that. If they try to back up they encounter some pressure from your leg.
The other big problem I see is when a horse is backing away from something, and [people] start kicking it or whipping it, but they don’t stop with that pressure once the horse starts walking forward. In a horse’s brain, their only way of communication is to apply and release pressure, so if you don’t release the pressure when they go in the direction you want, like walking forward, then they don’t figure out that’s how to make the pressure come off.
You have to establish that communication that when they do go the direction you’re asking, the pressure is released. Sometimes it can take quite a bit of time, but if you’re super patient about it that way and unemotional about it and keeping very clear that if they go left, right or backwards, pressure comes on; if they go forward to the element or into the element, pressure comes off. From then on, it actually becomes super easy—they really won’t balk at things, and it gives you a tool that you know whatever you encounter, even if they take some time, they can work through it because you’re speaking a language they understand.
Everybody’s been trained if a horse stops, that’s bad, so they either use speed or aggression and whips to not let them, but when they’re young, they’re actually just trying to figure out what the question is. It’s not an outright disobedience. They just don’t understand what they’re supposed to do, and you just have to give them time to solve it. If you’re teaching your kid multiplication tables and ask, “What’s 7 times 7?” and they’ve never done multiplication before, you wouldn’t slap them over the head if they didn’t know how to do it! I say make it like “Sesame Street” and just keep repeating the ABCs until they understand.
[When introducing things like banks and ditches] we walk. The speed is more for us than for them. Of course it would be a nice, small ditch. With a bank, same thing—walk up it, walk off it, then add the trot in as they become confident with it.
The nicest thing about doing it this way is that we always know we can work through any situation. We know we don’t have to resort to aggression to get things done, which is a reassuring thing because we’ve all been in that situation where you don’t know how to get a horse on the trailer or know how to get them in a water jump or over a ditch when they’re refusing to do it. This way you’re going to be able to communicate with them in their language to get them to do it.
This is part of a longer article that ran in the June 15 & 29, 2020, issue of The Chronicle of the Horse in our Readers’ Choice Issue. To see the full article of tips with Nicholson, Doug Payne and Jennifer and Earl McFall, please subscribe.
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