Eric Smiley FBHS

Articles by Eric Smiley FBHS

In this section of my website I plan to write an article every month on something! Something that has piqued my interest. Something topical or even something that any of my readers might like an opinion on. So if you have a topic that you want clarified or my opinion on do make contact and see what turns up.

Looking Around Turns

How much fun would it be to look into the future to see what’s in store? Or maybe less so in todays troubled world! It all looks somewhat uncertain on every front. But to know what’s coming can be helpful, comforting, good preparation and can improve the outcome. So let’s take a positive look at being able to look at what’s coming.

We spend a greater part of our schooling time riding circles. It’s a pleasant shape to use. It seems fairly undemanding and requires little effort on the part of horse and rider. It is also one of the shapes required at most levels of Dressage. To ride the shape well, as one goes up the grades, the partnership will find more challenges to doing it properly.

The symmetrical curve requires a continuous input to the riding of straightness, maintenance of balance as well as remaining forward and regular. When the horse is allowed to look along the line, they are in effect looking around the curve. Don’t underestimate the value of this acquired way of going when jumping.

To make use of this skill we can begin to place a pole at three, six, nine and twelve around the circle. This will encourage the horse to look around the circle and look for poles and ultimately to look for jumps.

‘Conditioning’ a horse in this way leads on to a whole different way of jumping, both show jumping and going XC. As the horse feels the aid for a circle you will notice his ears and eyes “look”. This look allows the horse to prepare themselves for the obstacle, having been given a “heads up!”

Ridden well, the balance is maintained by a continuous input from the rider’s aids. The quality of the canter is assessed and corrected as necessary. All without any interruptions to the horses’ focus on the forthcoming pole or jump.

In the show jumping arena, this form of approach improves the ‘flow’ of the course and allows the horse to ‘know’ the course without being surprised with a turn and a straight line to a fence.

But in XC the benefits are increased. As we need to be conscious of the time element, literally “every second counts”. Every metre we can save, every turn and rebalance we can avoid, saves us time. Whilst also saving our horses energy.

The quicker the horse becomes at ‘looking’, the more time they have to assess the question being asked. By the same token the more the rider is able to tighten the curve to improve the time and shorten the distance, without any increase in speed. There is little need for more than one or two straight strides in-front of most jumps, because of the speeding up of assessment the horse learns to do.

In the early stages of training a quarter / half 20-25m circle can be challenging enough. As the horse develops their ability to maintain the balance and the quality of canter / gallop this geometry of shape can be reduced. It has become too small when the pace looses quality.Looking around corners can and should be taught. It allows the horse to become an equal partner in the game of jumping. They have more time to assess, prepare and become comfortable with the task in hand. That can only improve performance.

Acceptance and Understanding

I recently listened to a very eminent equestrian talk about the science underpinning the discussion on noseband pressure. Figures and pictures were produced to make wonderful sense of why this is such an important topic for us to get our heads around. The pressure points around the horses head being activated more by Resistance and Misunderstanding. Understanding ‘why’, allows us to understand the reasoning that governing bodies are implementing rules and methods of ensuring that good practice is adhered to.

At the end of the talk I asked him to comment on the scientific evidence of the two words Acceptance and Understanding. I had a very positive response from him. Let me explain more.

The word acceptance (the action of consenting to receive or undertake something offered) has a nice feel to it. It indicates an agreement, an accommodation between two individuals, two consenting parties. We ask a horse to accept the presence of a bit in its mouth and if we are patient they do so with astonishing willingness. If we do nothing with the bit the horse becomes quiet, still and shows signs of a mouthing ‘cream’.

Similarly we ask the horse to accept the presence of the rider and their legs. Again, if done quietly and with patience the horse does this willingly with no obvious concern. They have ‘accepted’ the presence of these foreign bodies.

The next word to grapple with is ‘understanding’. Not only the understanding (mental) of what we are talking about , but also what they physically have to try and do, to accommodate our request.

Most of the resistances that appear, to the bit, to the leg and to the rider are caused by a lack of acceptance and understanding. I believe much of this is because we go too quickly in the early stages of training. Not enough time or thought being allowed for these neurological and physical pathways to become clear.

For example. It must be confusing for the young horse to comprehend that light leg aids and rein aids at the same time means a whole body rebalance. It must seem contradictory. Without a careful introduction of the process it is very easy to get resistance to the bit and hence pressure on the noseband. It also seems reasonable for the horse to assume the legs means ‘go’ instead of come under and take more weight. All of which could bring us full circle to gadgetry and uneducated training.

When a horse accepts an aid, the process is in three stages:
Accepting of the presence of the aid - the language.
Acceptance of and an understanding of the aid- the vocabulary.
Acceptance and Understanding of the aid and what it is now asking - the topic.

It is important to be clear of the stages, as without this clarity, misunderstandings and assumptions can easily occur.

Much is written and talked about the use of bit less bridles to avoid bit pressures. It was interesting to hear that the science actually showed that they produce significantly more nose pressure than a miss-used noseband.

I believe greater time and care needs to be taken at the beginning of the journey to explain the language, the vocabulary that we want to use in any given topic, so that the horse accepts and understands what they are being asked. In doing so we will find a much more willing partner and much less “pressure” both mental and physical.

The Root Cause 

Not everyone wants to know why their horse could go better. Not everyone wants to know what they should have been doing, instead of what they were actually doing. Many years ago when I started coaching I made that mistake. I pointed out issues that could be addressed, nudged people into areas that they were uncomfortable with. Not because I could, but because going to the root of a problem is most often the way to solve not only that problem but many other issues, that get better as a result.

I quickly found out that pupils came to lessons for many different reasons. Undoubtedly many come to learn. Some come to say they had been. Many come because they were unsure of what direction to go. Some come to receive praise for where they are.

Learning about one’s pupils becomes one of the most difficult tasks a coach needs to master and also produces many surprises about people on the way.

At the beginning of each lesson I ask people what they want out of the lesson. Listening to the answers gives one a slight window into their mind. The words, expressions, priority’s and manner in which they answer is most helpful. What they don’t say can also be helpful.

Having watched them warm up and get ready to do some work is a good time to assess and relate what they have said to what they are doing. Often this assessment gives you a lesson plan, incorporating the gaps of what you see and what they have said. This is where the difficulty arrives.

How much time have you got? How deep do you venture into the issue you see? Will the pupil want to come with you? Will the horse be receptive? In a class lesson you may have many issues that are not related. It’s difficult to cover every subject in one go. It might be a one off lesson or a series of lessons that require different homework.

Don’t rock the boat, is it better to avoid issues and give a superficial but pleasing lesson? In doing so, become some pupil’s friends and in other cases become the coach that taught very little.

There is no easy answer to this coaching dilemma. Yet it has to be thought about by everyone who embarks upon the giving and receiving of a lesson.

‘Superficial’ coaching does no one any favours. Getting to the route issue of a problem and then showing a way forward has to be right, if at times painful. The skill of the coach is to bring the partnership along the new path with clarity and positivity. Failure doesn’t come into it. It is what it is, but, there is a way forward with understanding and a will.

Everyone’s mind must be open to the new way and buy in to their role in the journey.

At this time of year most people are getting their thoughts into the coming season, beginning to crank up the lesson program and identify what needs sorted. Coaches are on that same journey and want to help their pupils make progress. The first part to progress by pupil and coach, is identifying what’s not working or could be better.

This is the important part of getting to the root issue and making a plan.

Making it Happen

I’m fascinated by all sport. Just as happy watching the lower levels as the elite sport. In watching I admire the skills and the mental attitude the participants demonstrate. I think through how I might coach that sport even though I know nothing about it. What the coach prioritises and the balance between education and just being competitive. Over the last month or so I have watched a lot of the World Cup Rugby. Fondly hoping the worlds number one team, Ireland, would win the tournament. Alas, not this time.

None of the top four teams were ‘stand out’ way better than each other. The winning margins were very fine, at times just one point. The South African team that won the tournament just kept ‘finding a way’ to win.

That expression was used over and over when players were interviewed after the game, “we found a way”. It made me think, ‘do winners always find a way?’ If so, what is it in them that makes that possible? Can it be taught? Is it part of the training and education process that we coaches should know about ?

Mark Phillips in his Horse and Hound article ( 2nd Nov 2023) posed a question why there were fewer younger people in our sport winning big classes than in his day? It is an interesting question. Haven’t they ‘found a way’ yet ? If not, why not ? Is there something missing in our educational process that we should address. How can we as coaches help them?

I think there is a balance to be found in the amount of “education” and the amount of “get the job done” that we strive to achieve. Too much of either creates an imbalance that cannot produce a winning performance. Turning a job ‘well done’ into a winning performance will often require a change in mindset. The too educated rider and horse can often loose the ‘grit’ necessary to get the job done. The rider that fights too hard to get the job done at the expense of attention to detail also looses out.

This change in mindset needs to be addressed in training. Seeking a 7.5 for a piece of work at home will often allow you to achieve a 7 in competition. But making the 7.5 into an 8 at home requires a “make it happen” mindset. Getting a turn or a shape right every time, speeds up the mind and response time. Practising this mindset at home will also allow you to feel comfortable going there in competition. This is what winners do, often a notch or two higher.

As coaches we need to facilitate this process of nudging riders into a tight spot. This allows them to understand their instinctive and conditioned responses in that moment and learn how to deal with it in a better way. This is part of the process of making winners.

Winners ‘find a way’ they ‘make it happen’ they have practised ‘getting the job done’ so in a competition environment the correct decisions happen easier. Much of this can and should be coached as a skill in its own right. Listen to winners and managers talk after the game, the words they use can be very revealing.

Coaching

For many years I have watched with great interest as coaching has evolved. Not just in my own sport but all sport. In many ways it has reflected the change in the way society deals with working relations between people. Less of a ‘do this’ to a more ‘what do you think of this?’ or ‘what would you do?’. I have watched, listened and read about the more facilitative method of coaching and watched the way that has gone. I have also adapted my own teaching and coaching to fall in line with some of the changing views of where we should be going.

There are, however, some skills to good coaching that should never change. Let me elaborate. It is not always possible to have a plan when embarking on a lesson. There are times that seeing a pupil or pupils for the first time one needs to think very quickly in the first few minutes and make a plan. This is a skill that can be a practiced and should not take you by surprise. The first few minutes of a lesson it’s possible to move people around and talk to them at the same time. This is valuable time to listen to what they say and watch their horse, relating both subjects to where they need to improve. Part of the lesson then evolves.

I also always have a plan of where I want to take people, to find common ground and ensure we all have a solid platform from which progress can be made. More ‘watching’ time whilst making progress.

At the same time I have thought through all my subject matter and prioritised the information. What are the main heading of any subject. If I had to leave the pupils with only one message what would that be. If I could link two other thoughts to the one, what would they be? How much time do I have? Is it possible to leave them with one more piece of information? I’ve now measured out my information into pieces 1-4.

This all relates to my beginnings in coaching when I was taught a structure to every lesson. Introduction, subject matter, conclusion, wrap up. Knowing ‘words of command,’ which remained constant allowed one to think of lesson content and not worry about where people were going.

The only difference from my beginning to how I coach now is the way I facilitate and encourage pupils learning. I float a thought and do something practical to allow them to feel the difference. Then maybe ask for feedback. I have become very practised at this and it seems such a natural method.

Facilitative teaching method must not become a lesson without structure, full of chat and ‘well let’s see’, feeding off the pupils feedback. I see this happening more and more. It becomes too “fluffy”. This is not constructive or productive. Coaches must set agenda, lead lesson format, create the platform for progress, be ‘a’ source of information and at times be ‘the’ source of information. Be the inspiration and the focus of the direction pupils need to be looking for the answer. Inspire “curiosity” to find out more.

This will allow pupils to think of the lesson after you have gone home, with the lesson revolving around their mind leaving them thinking of the points you have given them and wanting more. It takes thought and planning. 

Holiday Learning

How often have we all heard this said, that horses learn out in the field! I’ve even said this myself only to question ‘how can that happen?’ Yet those in the industry will often say that, especially with young horses, they come in from a rest having thought about what they have learned and seem more mature. So how does it happen?

All I can think of to endorse this phenomenon is that most horses have a very positive disposition. They tend to think good thoughts and be influenced by positive experiences.The more good and positive experiences we can give them the more they will retain these in their minds as they have an idle moment in the field. If there is any merit in this thought process , then it is beholden on us to plan these good thoughts before they have a rest. I have always been thoughtful of how to let horses down at the end of their International season. Being very mindful of how their last few runs have gone.

Let me explain a little more.

We always want our ‘education graph’ to be going upwards. This means that our progressive education program is working, the horse improves and develops with each run, ending on a pleasing last run. Good thoughts are imbedded and the horse finishes a happy athlete. This is regardless of the level the horse is competing.

But what happens when the last run is an underachievement?  There are many reasons why this can happen:-

  • Too many runs and the horse is switching off

  • Too difficult a challenge, height / ground

  • Too ambitious for the individual

These are bad experiences to leave the horse with so it’s important to give some thought to the recovery of good thoughts before their holiday starts.

Don’t just ‘rough them off’ and turn them away. Take some time with the competition horse to go schooling and recover the confidence and enjoyment of their job so the good thoughts are recovered.

With the young horse go back two steps in the education and ‘recover the fun’. Be aware when starting again after the holiday where the two steps back took you and make progress again slowly.

I’m thinking about a rest period with my two four year old horses. One has learned so much that it would be good for him to consolidate his progress. The other needs one or two more weeks to iron out two really small issues that will be better ‘sorted’ so she can think of the positive progress made.

The length of rest periods is very dependent on the age and stage of training. My four year olds will have a week or two. A competition horse that has had a seasons work , six to eight weeks may be appropriate.

The use of rest periods needs thought and careful planning, so the time out ‘thinking’ is a positive experience.

 

FSR

It’s almost too hot to exercise the young horses, but needs must. I’m in the process of riding the two homebred four year olds. They are both at the stage when huge progress can be made. Their minds are interested and their bodies are becoming attentive to a more interesting vocabulary from my aids. It’s a fun time to be riding around the fields, they’re dry and mark free so no one gets upset with me. 

I’ve talked about the benefits of field work before, but at this stage in a young horses education it begins to produce a connection from leg to the horses hind quarters and a freedom of the rein which encourages the energy over the back. I’ve been watching the European Dressage Championships over the last two days and felt there was a somewhat tenuous connection with what I was doing around the farm! The deer, rabbits, cows and sheep watching me might not agree. But let me explain.

When the dreaded word ‘collection’ was introduced to dressage tests at Intermediate (3*) some years ago I became an insomniac! Ever since then I believe that the word and concept has done more harm to the dressage phase of horse trials. I was interested to see that those at the highest level of pure dressage have a similar problem.

In horse trials double bridles became popular in a misguided effort to manage the front end. And the result produced less forward, less activity behind and the horse not using it back, but also less understanding of what collection really is. Watching the top twenty or so horses at the European Dressage C’ships all expressed the pleasing qualities of Forward , Straight and Regular (FSR). They looked as if they enjoyed their work and knew what they were being asked to do. Many of the comments by the very informed TV commentator about the second group, kept referring to the ‘lack of intent to go forward’, ‘losing regularity’, ‘tight through the back’, ‘losing power’, ‘short steps’, ‘showing tension’, ‘tight neck’, ‘not tracking up’ and on it goes. These are all problems that have there origins in asking questions before the horses’ education is ready. Especially “collection”.  Looking flash and fancy they may be, but some of the simple things lacked correctness, possibly in an effort to show more collection, cadence, engagement, elevation, uphill tendency…… all those great dressage words!

We shouldn’t forget that progress in the education of horses happens at different speeds and in different ways. Not everything happens according to the plan. But at all stages FSR must remain otherwise the quality of the work is comprised. Tim Price showed us all how to do dressage at Burghley last weekend, as did the British, Germans and Danes over the last two days. Tomorrow I will return to my two four year olds and remind myself that I mustn’t compromise the simple correct qualities of Forward, Straight and Regular just because I’m being encouraged to be more fancy. I’ll work on the balance and at some stage in the future the judge can decide if I’m showing any collection. Off to the farm.

 

Softer but not easier

Burghley 2023 walked a softer course but certainly not an easier course. With problems spread around the course there were no ‘bogey’ fences. It was however surprising to see so many people being outwitted by the hedge 7CD at the Leaf Pit.

As the xc day went on I was constantly reminded of my three competition groupings. Every competition from Pony Club to 5* is divided into three groups. 

  • Those that are happy to get there. 

  • Those that are there to complete.

  • Those that are there to compete.

As a competitor one decides which group you feel comfortable in when you arrive. It may depend on many things, an inexperienced horse, first time at that level, problems with the preparation etc. At this level the course designer will do you no favours. However, Derek di Grazia did make the course very pleasing to walk and inviting to jump. His job is not easy. To remove those in group one without accident. To encourage those in group two get around and feel that promotion to the third group might happen in the future. And to challenge those in group three with a true test. 

I believe the weather, the going and his design allowed him to achieve his aim.

On my course walks I was asked “what makes a 5* horse?” If you were to review the first two groupings of riders you will see a number of combinations that the horses are too polite and are waiting to be asked to jump. In just about all the horses in group 3 the horses are “taking the rider”. At this level the horses need to be a relentless galloper, continually looking for jumps and galloping up hills. If at 4* level these qualities are not present then it doesn’t matter achieving the required MER ( minimal eligibility requirement ) you will remain in group 1. 

This is the definition of the word forward, ‘them taking you’. Without it,  anything at 5* is sole destroying. As riders and trainers we should be realistic of this assessment before venturing to 5*. There is no shame in admitting a limitation. 

Whilst those in group 2. might just find that the experience opens the door to group 3. That ‘softer feel’ encouraged a more attacking attitude and they found that they could become competitive at this level. There were a number of riders that promoted themselves to the top level by having a go and the horse responding to this change in attitude. It became a joy to watch. 

 

Ground Conditions

Well, the ground conditions at the European Eventing C’ships at Haras du Pin, yet again proved how our sport tests and improves the art of horsemanship.

 Whilst fully understanding the arguments for a level playing field in sport, controlling the variables and giving a fair chance to all. That’s just what the rain on Friday night did for the cross country day on Saturday. As it did for the xc at Badminton in May. 

We all know that crossing the country is a skill that all horses have to do to survive in the wild. Their natural instincts will always stand them in good stead if allowed to flourish.  As humans we are less accomplished in this, so it is beholden on us to listen to the masters and feel how they become comfortable with the ground conditions. To listen to them as they adjust their stride and speed of travel. How this affects where they want to take off and how the speed of their technique is adjusted. The time in the air can be altered by their desire not to be too flamboyant and conserve energy. Their reluctance to move out of that secure gallop even though pressed to do so by us. They become a different horse, one that we need to appreciate and alter our way of conversation with them as we negotiate and find a way around the XC obstacles.

This “soft ground horse” needs us to understand that what we ask for on “good ground” may not be available today. So be careful how and when you ask. 

Most of the riders got it pretty right and set off at a pace that was always going to incur 5-15 time faults. Less ambitious more focused on jumping the jumps and doing the best time they could. The ones that felt competitive and rode ‘good ground’ speed and responses, fell foul of classic mistakes. 

  • landing short and trying to ‘move’ for the forward stride. Only to be stuck in the going and being ‘off’ the next element producing a 20.

  • being too tight on a turn. Loosing impulsion and speed of response…..another 20

  • the horse trying to find good ground and loosing its line as a result….. another 20

  • running of of fuel three quarters the way around.  Walking home.

  • asking for early ‘good’ jumps and the horse uses up the quota for the day. Resulting in end of course bad jumps.

There are of course some horses that like tacky going and make it look relatively easy. One couldn’t help but like Ros Canter’s way of going that made it look straightforward. But she listened to the horse and adjusted her gears to a tee. 

Riding across the country has always been an art. One that requires a feel for the going, the way the horse responds to the going, conservation of energy and when and how to use it, making decisions appropriate for that day, not ‘expecting’ things to happen but supporting the horse’s endeavours to make them happen and then thanking him.

To me this is a level playing field as it returns the emphasis of the sport to crossing the country.

Slope Schooling

Two wonderful rides this morning. One on a homebred four year old the other on a thirteen year old retired racehorse.

 I chose to ride them both around the farm. The fields were dry yet had enough yield to make the going good. All the haylage had been gathered in over the last few days so no harm was likely come to the land.

I love schooling ‘En plein air’. The surroundings continually change (a fox run across infront of me carrying a rabbit), the footing is varied, the undulations challenge the balance, the horse is continually seeking information from its rider regards direction. All in all it’s a thoroughly rewarding experience.

I was introduced to its value by a certain Capt. Ben Jones. Who as a Sergeant in the Kings Troop of the Royal Horse Artillery represented GB at the Tokyo and Mexico Olympic Games. Winning Gold at the latter. He also won gold medals at the European Championships in 1967 and 1969.

I was lucky enough to come under his instruction later in his life when he became Riding Master at Melton Mowbray. 

After lessons  I would hurry to finish my chores so I could watch him ride his Army remount horse ‘Custer’.  Most of this schooling would take place behind the indoor on an open field which had a gentle slope from the bottom towards the top where it became a little sharper. 

I would watch and take notes of all the different exercises he would use. I wouldn’t disturb him but knew that he was happy to answer any questions I had at a later stage.

‘Custer’ was a quality Irish three quarter bred horse. Mainly used for showjumping but very adept at doing very acceptable dressage.

The gentle trot from the bottom to the top of the field allowed a relaxed rein to be employed. Custer would stretch his neck and seek the contact without running or going faster. This enabled Ben to encourage him ‘through’ from the leg and over the top line with very little effort on his part. 

As the direction changed to become a series of serpentine loops going downhill, one could watch Custers balance change. His hocks were encouraged to come ‘underneath’ more and the forehand came up to avoid gravity taking him downhill faster. The trot remained regular and balanced. 

From time to time transitions to walk and to halt would be introduced. These were done both uphill and downhill. It was interesting to watch the different muscle groupings being used to perform these tasks. 

Similar work was undertaken at canter. The gentle slope was used to introduce the balance. Around a twenty metre circle the horse’s balance was under a constant challenge. To remain forward , straight and regular was fascinating to watch the horse’s adjustments and the riders positional movements all to maintain ‘balance’. 

The challenges to the partnership were increased when both were asked to produce an increase and decrease of pace. 

In trot, medium was improved with an uphill route and collection was improved going downhill. In canter, similar traits happened, but it was much more visible how the partnership improved the whole way of going by a small body change and slope adjustment. 

Both physically and mentally, half an hour on the slope were demanding for horse and rider. It required a ‘feel’ for what work was appropriate, a ‘creativity’ to choose the correct work, an understanding of the bio-mechanics necessary to make it work and……. patience.

My two horses this morning, were the recipients of some of this wonderful guidance that I received many years ago from a great tutor.  


Longevity

I enjoyed my talk last Friday evening about how to increase the longevity and useful lifetime of the competition horse. Throughout my own competition life I have also endeavoured to prolong my participation in the sport. My last 5* was when I was over 55 years of age. It is good to see other “oldies” still competing and doing it well.  It is important to look after the athlete if we want longevity out of them. To do this requires planning , management and an understanding of the stresses and strains involved.  Let’s look at the subject under two headings. Physical and Mental. 

Physical:   
From 3-5 years of age the equine athlete is far from developed. The joints have yet to become accustomed to the range of movement and control required of a riding horse. The ligaments controlling the joints are still developing the elasticity and tensions required to secure the integrity of the joint. The tendons are also being ‘exercised’ into a stronger structure which is capable of work. This is helped by the increase in muscle power as the horse goes through a progressive exercise regime incorporating hills.  Work on three surfaces will help all of this. A hard surface, natural turf and an arena. All three have their place in the progress of this physical development. Periods of rest between exercise are also key to the body’s recovery. Part of the consolidation process. 

Mental:
Laying down clearly defined and logical neurological pathways are critical to the decision making processes of the future. Simple and clear takes time. Misunderstanding must be avoided where possible. Assuming an ‘intelligent’ understanding should also be avoided.

Conditioned reflexes, well practised, are our best route to an uncluttered equine mind.
We must also make every effort not to overface the mind. This does not only refer to the height of jumps but it also refers to any question that is beyond the understanding of the horse at that time. To do so leaves a ‘scar’ or ‘marker for failure’ which will haunt us in the future. 

5-7 years of age are the critical development years in both areas. Neither physically nor mentally are they an adult. Whilst showing signs of being so they have yet to become secure and predictable in the outcome of their work. Being cautious with their body and mind will pay dividends when they become eight years old. 

The eight year old that has been trained this way will have a greater chance of competing through into his teens whereas the horse that has been pushed from 3-5 will show signs of wear before ten.

The production of horses for the short term gain is not fair to the horse. The longer view point will give pleasure and usefulness for much longer. Be patient. 


Masters at Work

Two wonderful days of sport. The Friday and Saturday of the Derby meeting and the FA Cup Final. Watching and listening to four of sport’s geniuses. Aidan O’Brien, John Gosden, Pep Guardiola and Frankie Dettori.  We can learn so much about ‘athlete management’ from this group of individuals. 

Watching Frankie ride his two classic winners on Friday was a lesson in horsemanship. Neither the Coronation Cup or the Oaks went to plan coming out of the stalls, so he quickly changed to plan ‘B’. He allowed both horses to recover their composure, settled into an economical stride and tucked himself away at the back of the field. Midway through both races the horses recovered their balance and belief and he started to make a move. With the momentum of Tattenham Corner he ‘allowed’ both horses to roll past the field and pull level with the leaders. Everyone else was ‘working’,  but he let both horses recover, before going for home. The way the horses left the rest showed utter belief in themselves and their masterful jockey. Such skill. 

Listening to the other three talking about the athletes under their guidance was again a masterclass in how to get the best out of individuals. They talk about attention to detail, team effort, belief in abilities, manage what is in your control, be patient as skills develop, study the opposition, be creative and versatile with your plan. I could listen to them for hours, as I can watch what they do for hours. 

I was lucky to attend a three day dressage clinic with Enterprise given by Dr Reiner Klimke many years ago. That too was lesson in athlete management. Enterprise was not an easy horse but Dr Klimke was patient and understanding day one. Day two, the true horse began to emerge through simple exercises done well. Day three became a masterclass for me to learn from.  

Be patient, think of the end result, be flexible and versatile in how you train, understand the character you’re dealing with and how to nurture their belief, keep it simple and never give up. 

These are all characters we can learn a huge amount from in training and athlete management. 


Why Not?

“If it doesn’t do any harm and it might do some good….. why not??”

I first came across this statement when my vet was unsure of the treatment for something one of the horses had. It seemed a most practical approach. If it worked, it might help him in future treatments and analysis of similar issues with other horses. If it didn’t work, then no harm done.

I took the statement in a different direction. To tack and equipment, to training methods, even to the advice for pupils. Opinions have to be balanced, thought through and generally weighed up as to there implication, before being uttered. I try really hard to do this when giving advice. That’s why this statement is one of my favourite ones. It makes people think and then come to their own decision. In doing so they have a reason ‘why or why not’.

I’m always asked about xc tack and equipment. The use of over girths, breastplates, martingales, knotting reins, changing crops, breathing strips etc. 

I apply the same statement to all of these items and begin my internal debate. The outcome can be interesting. As I watch todays xc rider I wonder if they have also had the internal debate or are following what they have been told or following current trends!

I remember watching a Grand National where one of the leaders somehow managed to get both reins onto the right hand side of the horses neck. The Canal Turn was two fences  later ( it turns left !! ). I watched as all the riders on his right repositioned themselves to avoid the inevitable …….. he would go straight on when they all turned left. And so it happened. 

One could say ‘chance in a million’. BUT, apply the statement and then wear a martingale or an Irish martingale and it wouldn’t have happened. 

I have often heard it said that ‘such and such’ a course designer is unfair, to put a skinny so soon after a drop fence. I would argue that they are testing a trainable skill. That of being in balance and control after a drop. How often have we seen riders miss the skinny or have a bad jump as a result of being out of balance and control. 

Knotting or tying one’s reins reduces the risk significantly. A 20 or 60 can be avoided. 

I watch people run out at corners carrying their crops in the wrong hand and wonder what they were thinking……. obviously not enough!

The ‘starting statement’ can be applied to many situations and I would implore any readers to go through that internal debate. It might surprise you how many simple habits could end up being changed for the better, without any harm being done. 

Food for thought.


Back Then

I’m often asked “how has the sport changed since your day?” Not that “my day” was so long ago, well it certainly doesn’t seem so. Having been there at Badminton last week end it was interesting to mull over that question once again.

A little bit of rain changes things and a lot of rain changes things a lot more. But the one main thing it does is focus us all on the heart of the sport, the cross country. Gone are the easy distances, minute markers, full tanks of fuel, inside the time thoughts. It becomes a battle of attrition. I use the analogy of the three buckets, Energy, Honesty and Time. It becomes a delicate balance how much of each bucket one uses to get your horse around. Dare one think competitively and risk running out of energy? How much energy does one use to fill up the Honesty bucket by taking an easier route ? How often can one dip into the Honesty bucket knowing there are bigger challenges waiting around the course? A lot of the answers to these questions one never knows until you find out the unwelcome answer….. the bucket is empty!

On the other hand, with clever riding a good result is possible. It takes careful management of the energy at the beginning of the course. As competitive a speed to retain a competitive attitude towards the imposing jumps as is possible. Appreciate when the horse ‘digs deep’ to help one out, and try and give him a ‘nice’ couple of fences to retain the “I can” attitude. Get into a steady cruising gear as it it more economical on fuel than the speed up and slow down gears.

This was all demonstrated by the top riders and rewarded by top twenty placings. Dressage was interesting but ultimately irrelevant this weekend.

It was all about Horsemanship.  So do I think the sport has changed since my day …… No. It is all about knowing one’s horse and developing a partnership.

The course designer Eric Winter, did a great job helped by the rain, to produce a testing course which produced some great riding which demonstrated wonderful horsemanship. Even when riders  patted their horses and pulled up, it showed the feel and understanding that a lot in our sport display. 


Course Walking

On Friday this week at Badminton,  I’m doing a xc course walk for Accredited Trainers of the BHS. Course walking is something I have undertaken many times at all levels from baby stuff up to Olympic level. It is something I really enjoy, but I’m under no illusion of my responsibilities. Riding xc is something not to be taken lightly and so the walking of a course requires much thought by those who undertake the task. 

There are many different types of course walk. Each with a different aim and undertaken in a different way. 

  • The celebrity course walk

  • The trainer’s walk

  • The owners walk

  • The general public walk 

  • The riders walk

Before the delivery of a course walk it is important to know which audience you are talking to. This enables one to choose the relevant emphasis of topic , the language, the depth of subject and the manner of delivery. For those choosing to go on a course walk it is also important to have an idea of content so that it meets your needs and requirements.

Let’s look at each grouping. 

The Celebrity Walk. 

Given by people who have a ‘name’ in the sport. It can be nice to say ‘I’ve done a course walk with…….’ Tends to be quite social, with any number of ‘I remember ……’, ‘When I won this…….’, ‘In my day……’ moments.  No doubting their knowledge, but it cannot be related to each and everyone who attends. It needs to be very general and pretty light on detail. 

The Trainers Walk. 

The technicalities of the course can and are dissected in much detail and when appropriate passed on to those listening. If it is for the benefit of the rider, it is extremely important that the trainer knows the rider and horse, in order to choose words and thoughts appropriately to confirm 

positive actions.

The Owners Walk.

Done in confidence to ensure that nothing is passed on to the rider of their horse. Second hand gossip can be dangerous and must be avoided. It should be an interesting and informative walk at whatever level the owners want to hear. This level is normally set by the first few questions and answers. The deliverer gets the ‘feel’ of what people want to hear.

The General Public

Similar to the celebrity walk. Giving the aims of the course designer , the rider and horse. How each partnership train to solve the training issues. Why there are alternatives and the implications of taking them. It becomes an educated and informative walk about our wonderful sport.

The Riders Walk

Undertaken to ‘know the way around’, ‘to know the technicalities of each jump’, ‘to think how those technicalities relate to the horse being ridden’. 

Each jump is dissected into ‘the preferred way’, the ‘what if ….way’. Although all information can be interesting, the rider needs to be very careful with the amount of information taken in. Too much and a clear way forward can become foggy. Too much and a decision making process can become slow as the mind weighs up the pros and cons. Clear and positive action plans are what is required. An uncluttered mind makes for quicker and more decisive actions. This is why riders must be very careful who they walk with and the information they expose themselves to.

My walk on Friday will be a mixture of the first four, I may ask some of the trainers to imagine they are riding one of their own horses to see what thoughts they come up with. 

A lively exchange of views is guaranteed. 


Competition Prep

With Badminton Horse Trials only a matter of days away, my mind has been drifting back to those last few days of preparation before I competed at this great event. 

Excitement and anxious anticipation in equal measures always seemed to fill the last ten days. But starting long before the final canter work we used to attend to the detail of making sure the horse , rider and support team all knew what was in store and we were all prepared. To arrive at the competition feeling fully ready for the task in hand,  takes planning. 

Let’s look at some of the tasks. 

All school work for the horse and rider should be on an upward curve. The work should be progressive in demand and technicality. Always be careful of doing too much. Confirm honesty in jumping not complexity or height. The last thing the horse needs is to be mentally or physically tired as they arrive for the big day. They should feel comfortable with technical demands of the tests and physically up for the challenge. Almost feeling that the last piece of work, ten days before xc, was an easy blowout. The travel to the competition always brought them on that last little bit. 

Make sure there are no sudden last minute changes to the horses routine. If he spends time in the paddock then don’t change that just because you're trying to protect him. Don’t shoe him any closer than ten days before xc. Comfortable feet maketh the horse.

Have all your tack checked by your saddler for its serviceability and comfort. Never use new tack in competition or change what you use normally. Not even to please the sponsor! The horse and rider must have things that are familiar to their ‘normal’. 

‘Clear your desk’. By that I mean try to tidy up all loose ends before you leave to travel to the competition. You do not want to be distracted by things you forgot to do or must do when you return home. These become unnecessary thoughts floating around the mind. Only what is relevant to the task in hand should be in your mind. 

Your support team must ‘know’ you and how you work. It is not their competition, they are there to support you. You should not be asked to change the way you do anything, the support team must acknowledge this and allow you to have your idiosyncrasies. They must keep their emotions under control and be a force for positivity. 

Talk through timings and tasks to be clear who is responsible for what over the competition period. As a rider you have the main choice of tasks, so don’t feel guilty, it’s your weekend.

Be careful of taking opportunities to walk courses or be trained by people that don’t know you. It is far too easy to have your normal routine interfered with by “expert” advice, however well meaning. You have got there doing what you do, so don’t change it.

I have been to many championships and watched performances fall apart by not following these simple guidelines. 

Prepare well to enjoy the experience. 


Esperanto - The International Language

I’ve just finished an enjoyable three days clinic in Denmark at a venue I have taught at for over fifteen years. Lots of familiar faces and some new clients made for an interesting weekend. It has been awhile since I have been there, because of Covid, so other local trainers have been filling the void. Just before we started the first jumping session one of my most stimulating students asked me a question which prompted a discussion on one of my “soap box” topics. The Approach to a Jump.  

For anyone who has read any of my books or had any lessons, they will know that I choose not to teach “ride a corner, set your horse up and look for your distance”. I also choose to avoid teaching “straight lines to jumps of more than two / three strides”. 

Yet this was the topic that raised its head yet again. I say yet again, because it seems to be a way of teaching jumping that I remember when I was a young boy,  that has had little modernisation to this day. I say this because this is still how pupils are taught. Yet the courses that are designed and the riders that ride them do not ride in this rather dated fashion.  So why is it taught I ask myself?

With this outdated method,  there are three obvious interruptions to the canter before the last and possibly the most influential interruption, that of the mind’s doubt!  Corners, setting up and looking for distances.  On straight lines to jumps the mind plays awful games with riders. ‘Looking for the spot’ is one of the single most troublesome problems riders have. It causes more anxiety, loss of canter, bad jumps, refusals and general loss of confidence in ability, than anything else in riding.

When riding and teaching young and inexperienced horses and or the less experienced rider I find it so much easier for all concerned to find the best canter they can, place it on the least difficult line possible ( a nice half or part circle ) and just run down to the jump. The arrival invariably is a pleasing one for both horse and rider. The horse has almost two strides straight to visualise the jump, the rider has a continual ‘conversation’ with the aids to maintain the quality of the gait without any interruption or even thinking of the jump.  With the more experienced horse and rider ( 1.20m above ) we can add in impulsion ( the availability of energy ) and the difficulty in line. 

With the canter remaining constant the horse has every chance to look at the jump and begin their own preparation for what is to come. How much better is this than the horse being interfered with on the approach as the rider changes their mind. Often getting it wrong and blaming the horse!

There are many other benefits which carry over to xc riding. Another topic.

With this Esperanto / common language of teaching how much more enjoyment could be had by one and all? 

Then we could add on the light seat position of going to a fence to the Esperanto coaching language! Less of the sit down and drive the horse!!  Much nicer for the horse as it allows the horse’s back to work and the rider becomes less of a burden and source of imbalance. 

Good riders and many coaches often don’t understand why those of lesser ability can’t do what they can. Good coaches do understand the simplification of subjects and the language necessary to impart that subject.


Rote Learning

Spring time always seems to be busy. Coming out of the long winter with the excitement of a competition season about to begin can always do with a little help from the coach. I find it a stimulating time and at other times one of a missed opportunity. To watch and coach pupils that have used their winter well is always exciting, as this bodes well for the coming season. In contrast are the pupils that have not planned the four months and either carried on with last years mistakes or made no plan at all and are only beginning to think of things now. 

But this flurry of teaching also reminds me of some of my important coaching skills. When meeting new pupils, as one does in a clinic situation, I ask a lot of questions. Partly to find out where they are in their understanding and partly to find out what they want from me. It’s also nice to hear riders talk about their own horse. As the words they use can be very helpful for coaches to assess the level of understanding. 

I’m very aware of the pupils that give the answer that they think you want / or should receive. It may well be a correct answer but at the same time it often reveals a lack of understanding. It always prompts me to probe further, much to the irritation of the pupil. 

This time it has made me wonder just how often the correct answer has been given, with no understanding, and been accepted by the teacher on face value. The lesson moves on with that topic covered.  

This was reinforced by one of the coaches listening.  “We have to teach the syllabus knowing that they are unlikely to understand, but if they learn the answer they should pass the test”. 

That can’t be right , surely??  Does that not also question the validity of the syllabus??

Out of curiosity I asked my teaching guru what she finds in the classroom. 

“The problem with rote learning/ recalling what you know the teacher wants to hear will only get the learner so far. It’s all in the questioning and the types of questioning to unlock whether the learner actually understands. Sometimes teachers can be put into a false conscious of whether the student actually understands as a result of this and limits both teacher and student. 

For example asking a student whether a statement is true or false could be a complete lucky guess- but asking a student to explain why the answer was false will let you know whether they understand or not. This is always a really useful on the spot tool to check understanding. 

I think the best teachers won’t settle for simple recall (as you say what they think you want to hear)- instead they will probe, re word the question, put the question into a different context etc, ask the student to explain the answer etc. And that begs the question of how well they have been taught the content if when asking these questions/ probing they still don’t understand. So then it’s all about reteaching- which can feel annoying but is the sign of an outstanding teacher who won’t move on until the step before has been cracked.”

As we strive to be outstanding teachers we must make the subjects we teach simple enough to understand and ensure the lesson is learnt before moving on. 



Winter Homework

Just about now we will beginning to plan the forthcoming competition season. If the truth be known most of the upper level riders began that process at the end of last season! Their planning began with an assessment of where their season ended. Did the last few competitions end with the performance graph going up or down? This ‘performance graph’ is key to planning good winter homework. It begins with an honest assessment of horse and rider performances. Did the season end with the horse’s performance getting better? Finishing on a confident run, being comfortable with themselves and having good thoughts to begin their rest time. Or was it a ‘thank goodnesses it’s over’ last run! Where there is some rehabilitation to be done before the rest period. This will all have an influence on the type of winter homework that is to be planned.

But now with the festive season over it is time to think just where you and your horse are in that winter plan.

Our homework should be aimed at progressively improving the horses skills and the understanding of how they employ those skills. We as riders must do the same. Where we are not good enough at aspects of our riding we should make a plan to improve. Otherwise we will begin this season with last seasons shortcomings. There is still time to work on it 🥴.

I used to make end goals for each season. From now until June, then reassess and plan through until October. For the Championship horses, they would have a plan from now until the date of departure for the Championship.

I would have targets in mind for each phase of each competition. In the dressage phase I would have hoped to have turned last years sevens into eights this year. Jumping clear in the show jumping is always the aim but it is how it is done was important to me. Much the same thought for the xc. Clear rounds were the aim, but it was how well these were executed was the important thought for me.

The detail is often where marks and skills can be improved. Transitions into and out of a simple movement can often cost a half mark. Improve both and it’s a mark gained. The shape and accuracy of test movements can also gain half marks. A circle at C followed by a corner will impress the judge for ‘good use of the arena’, yet its not often shown. Little things like these have not required a better pace but just an attention to the detail of how to ride them. Then add on a little more impulsion ( available energy ) and another half mark might be available.

In the jumping phases it’s about finding better lines with a better and a more variable canter that improves the arrival at the jump. This improvement will have its affect on the time. Less hurry yet better on the clock. And a calmer horse in control of more skills, using less energy and improving longevity. Win win.

Each competition would be seen as a step towards an end goal.

Don’t expect the start of the season to be your best work. It is important to see the competitions as a continuation of the winter homework. We all want to show off what we have been doing in the quiet months, but, it’s better to let it evolve as the partnership settle into the routine of being out again.

There is enough pressure at the start of a new season without loading more on with expectations.

Avoid these any way possible. Talk yourself out of first outing wins, if they happen, all well and good. But if not, did I feel my homework was working. Those that do win first time out, seldom keep it up throughout the season! The performance graph should be an improving one, not flat or downwards.

These are a few thoughts on winter training while there is still time gather them into order.

It can be a very rewarding time of year.



New Year Resolution!

Ever since I started my professional life with horses I would set myself New Year Targets. These were on top of the resolutions I would make myself one minute past midnight on NewYears Eve. They would have been in the making from the end of the season before and would reflect the goals for each horse. Since I have stopped competing I have kept the practise going by having plans for each of the young horses and and transferring my competition urge and interest towards my pupils. Their goals and ambitions have become mine. Their desire to be the best they can has become my interest to facilitate its happening.

I was about to say “this year has been no different”, but it has. I started this year by taking a home bred four year old mare called Surprise to two days instruction at the F & I Annual Course. An interesting two days where BHS Coaches get the chance to mix with each other, receive instruction and reinvigorate their inner sole.

I have not taken part in such instruction for a very long time. But I knew that Caroline Moore would be sympathetic yet demanding at the same time as being understanding of my young horses needs. And so it proved.

It is a cliché to say that one can learn something from all instruction. Indeed I have been critical of people who Coach Hop and in the process pick up “sound bites” but miss the important things. Going to coaches on a one off clinic scenario requires great attention to what they say and do, where they are trying to take you and how they achieve it.

It is also a good time to reassess and refresh one’s own exercises and the language used to achieve one’s aims. It can be enormously supportive to find similarities in what you hear and what you have been doing. A meeting of good thought processes.

‘Surprise’ grew in understanding and confidence over the two days as she was encouraged to develop her belief in herself. How she solved the jump problems, how she reassessed “forward” without speed, how she was able to concentrate on the rider input without loss of focus on the jump. All became even more comfortable in her quiet mind, nothing seemed to upset the process. At the same time I was challenged to listen to new words and sentences. Encouraging me to think ‘on the hoof’ of the meaning and execution. Did it conflict with my own words and views? Would I have to do it anyway!

Lots to think about as I rode and as I listened to my class mates receive their guidance.

After each lesson as I was tending to my horse I had time to think about what I had taken from the experience. Since then I have thought even more about my new year experience.

Words are the tools of a coaches trade. I am, as a coach, very disciplined with my use of words. I have thought about this over the years and am comfortable with the meaning and interpretation of the words my pupils hear. It is however good for us all to listen to other ‘wordsmiths’. To hear how they describe the same thoughts in a different way, how a different verb highlights a more positive way of doing that skill. How emphasising a word, seldom used, brings meaning to a sentence.

So my resolution for this year is to reassess my vocabulary. To think through the words and actions that I teach to encourage both pupil and horse to understand and enjoy their lesson better. To stimulate a better way of facilitating learning for both. And to continue with renewed vigour to have happy horses, like Surprise, who perform with a pleasing picture. Come and join me with the process.


Teaching Contradictions!

The more I work with young horses the more I become aware how difficult it must be for them to understand us. By the same token, how difficult it is for us to be clear and consistent with a message that isn’t wrapped up in contradictions.

I’m very methodical in my training plan for my horses, I also try to make progress slowly. Allowing plenty of time for each message to be understood and assimilated. Making sure that it relates to the other messages received at the time so the horse begins to be familiar with the jigsaw of connections that make up ‘understanding’.

Then all of a sudden the horse looks at me and says, “But, you said …….!!” And I’m then aware of the contradiction.

Let me give you some examples:

In broad brush terms to the young horse the leg aids mean “go”. (Later the aid becomes more refined.)

1. So as I try to canter the horse to a jump and I feel trot about to happen, I apply some leg aid to maintain the canter, he immediately goes faster. Now he thinks that I asked him to go faster to the jump. Nothing could have been further from my mind, but that’s what I got and now have to deal with.

2. Applying the leg aid and the rein aid to produce a form of rebalance, is also a contradiction to the young mind trying to make sense of the messages. Yet that is what we ultimately want him to take on board.

3. One minute we teach them to take a contact and the next minute we ask them to become lighter to the contact.

4. Teaching a horse to “mouth” when introducing a bit and then telling them to keep still.

So how do we solve this confusing conundrum?

Separate the requests, teach them and the responses in isolation before linking them together. Know what the likely good and bad outcomes look like and only link requests when good outcomes outdo the unwanted ones.

Example 1. I take away the jump and replace it with a pole. Now the horse isn’t distracted by the jump when I ask him to listen to a canter input. Once he copes with keeping the same canter with the help of the riders input and looking at a pole, then the pole becomes a small jump.

Example 2. Begin in walk applying the two aids. Ensure the walk maintains a positivity of ‘purpose’, but also feel the rein aid produces something of a slow down. A numb response to the application of the leg aids is not acceptable, neither is a resistance to the rein aid acceptable. Be quietly persistent over a period of time and the horse will begin to understand to ‘keep going’ into a slower gait/pace.

Example 3. The horse must be encouraged to ‘take’ the Contact at all times. But the ‘feel’ of the contact can vary. Much like a conversation where the voice rises and then lowers. So to there will be times the contact becomes stronger than other times. We must link the differences to the times of ‘being there’ for consistency and the times of being lighter in ‘self carriage’.

Example 4. Don’t use a mouthing bit and don’t ask the horse to become busy in the mouth. Allow the horse to take time to become comfortable with the presence of a bit first before one asks anything of the bit.

Unless we are constantly aware of the many occasions contradictory information happens and what the signs are, we will miss the opportunity to correct it.

A collection of uncertainties becomes a very foggy conversation and leads to much guesswork !! Better still is to avoid the incorrect response being learned in the first place, but that takes much thought and skill. As this leaves the horse with clarity and no uncertainty of what is being asked of them. Happy days.



Re-Training

I’m fascinated when watching programmes on lost and undiscovered art. I’m intrigued by the modern day techniques of paint analysis, canvas materials, X-raying and carbon dating. All to verify the authenticity of a painting. I’m also amazed how many pictures reveal a previous life. Something which has been painted over by the artist. There can be many reasons why this is done, not least the reuse of the canvas. How easy it must be to simply paint over a subject and start again. Nothing remains of the information until science uncovers it many years down the road. How wonderful it would be if we were able to repaint the canvas of the mind in a similar way.
Unfortunately the re-education of the mind doesn’t work that way.

Everything that is absorbed by the mind remains. For better or worse, the good and the bad, it remains. When presented with a young horse at the beginning of its career we think we have a blank canvas on which we can write or paint what we wish. When presented with the re-training of a mind it is not possible to ‘paint’ over what is there hoping to produce a blank canvas just to start again.

Mind mapping is an interesting and all absorbing subject that occupies all the trainers attention. Trying to implant good practice at the beginning of the training process requires a clear and methodical process from the trainer. Step by repetitive step the horse is asked to learn where we are taking them. If each lesson has a logic and follows on from what comes before the mind begins the process of linking subjects. The connections between subjects become secure and become part of the overall picture, with the ability to retrieve information also clear because of the link to the previous topic. A ‘map’ becomes clear with main topics leading to more detailed addresses as the horse copes with the training.

Wrong turns may be taken, but, if correction is possible and done immediately the wrong route is not learned.

With the re-training of mind/map that goes to destinations that are not required and are unlikely to be required ever again the process becomes more complicated. Not only do we have to encourage a new thought process but we have to erase the habit of the previous process. This becomes difficult on a number of levels. It can be difficult to convince the horse that something that was previously taught by a human and accepted, is now no longer what is required. It can be difficult to differentiate between two or more topics, some we want to keep and others we want to disregard. It’s hard to explain when the language used is open to so much misunderstanding. No videos , books or demonstrations are available to us!!

The repetition that produced the first “conditioned reflex” is likely to take many repetitions of the new topic before it becomes the obvious way forward. And the old route may appear more often than we want when the horse lapses into old habits. This often happens when there are pressure moments, tension, uncertainty or we are simply not clear enough with our request.

Horse will be unable to ‘reason’ old training versus new training. It is often easier to change black to white than to discuss shades of grey. A clearly defined route that the mind can follow in the new way of going will be easier for the horse to follow than an uncertain old way.

So, when we as trainers begin the process of re-training , whether it be a horse or a pupil, we must be aware that it is not possible to simply paint over what was there before and begin again. We have to carefully dismantle what was there before, being conscious that the pupil may be reluctant to give up what was previously learned. Our ‘new way’ must seem better and more clear and when adopted much praise needs to be given to confirm the change was worth the pupils effort. The new way needs constant repetition to blot out the old route and confirm the new, so the pupils mind map doesn’t take any wrong turns when it is trying to retrieve information or take you to a destination.

Re-training as is training, can be a very rewarding process when undertaken in a thoughtful and methodical way. Understanding the difficulties that the pupil has as well as thinking about the methods to be adopted by the trainer. That could be you!


Coach Hopping

I said ‘yes’ even though I knew I was only the next in line to get the phone call. She had already sounded me out at the previous weekend’s competition so I was sort of prepared. My response then was fairly noncommittal but I left the door open. I did so because I’m an optimist. I have the belief that once someone has had a lesson with me they will want to come back.

I am of course very aware of the coach hopping pupils (chp) that do the rounds.

It is after all their choice to go where they please for there lessons. Who am I to say what they should or shouldn’t do. There are lots of very good instructors out there plying their trade, seeking a better lot for horse and rider. I happen to have been largely lucky not to have had too many (chp) on clinics or at home.

As part of my teacher training I was always taught that in an hours lesson pupils will only remember one fact. So as coaches we should make sure that pupils remember the one thing you want them to remember. I plan my lessons accordingly and make sure that all the other valuable pieces of information are linked in some way so they can be retrieved later. On the way home or as they ride the next day. There are word triggers that prompt another thought so that more of the lesson can be retrieved.

The coach hopping pupil has other thoughts about each lesson. To begin with they tend to try and impress you by listing all the lessons they have had from other instructors. Extolling there virtues. “It was such an enjoyable lesson.” “I learned so much.” “She is so knowledgeable.”

They don’t seem to follow the lesson thought process, random words and thoughts seem to be remembered. Sometimes totally irrelevant subjects appear and gain a life all of there own. When they don’t hear what they want or expect, all interest disappears. It’s almost as if they get upset that you're not singing their praises. Maybe that’s part of their need, to find a coach that pampers to their inner frailties. “Truth hurts but flattery doesn’t.”

Some don’t have any thoughts at all about the lesson. They only want to say they have had a lesson from… X, Y or Z.

Maybe that’s being too harsh. Maybe they just learn in a different way. Maybe they need a lot of differing information to assess before making up their own minds on the best way to do things. Maybe by hearing the same information in a different format and in different words it has a stimulating affect on their own brains that retains the message better.

They do say “You can learn something from everyone”, although others might say “too many views become confusing”.

Anyway, my lesson started as I have said, but, seemed to go quite well thereafter. I did feel that there was an interest and a genuine desire to understand a better way of going. I also felt the horse went better and that with a few more lessons real progress could be made. So all in all I was quite pleased with myself.

As we walked back to the lorry exchanging pleasantries my positivity was brought to an abrupt end when she said “I’m having a lesson with a trainer friend of yours next week, it will be interesting what he says about me and my horse. I’ll send him your best wishes, shall I ?”



Cooked Brains

There are many ways people set about cooking brains. Books are written on the subject with colour pictures and wonderfully detailed explanations. It’s not just left to the experts but everyone in their own way seems to have a go.

Cooking begins in the early stages is by asking questions beyond a brains capability. In the struggle to find an answer and please the individual asking the question many emotions flash through the brain, “did I fully understand the question”, “what if the answer is wrong” , “I don’t think we have learnt that yet.” But somehow an answer must be produced for better or worse. How that answer is received is critically important to the long term future of how subsequent questions are answered. Right or wrong, credit must be given for producing an answer in the first place. That credit can be graded into “well done, right answer” or “ well tried, have another go”. A positive response produces a willingness to make an effort to respond. Unlike many of my efforts at school, when I was told “stupid boy!” It hardly opens the mind to try and find the right answer.

This is exactly the same with the education of the equine brain.

For decisions to be made in a clear and decisive way there must be a clear and obvious neurological pathway. It must be uncluttered with debris (previous mistakes), alternative choices ( time wasted thinking), uncertain responsibilities ( uncertain rider input ) and a lack of confidence which comes from a lack of support. In order to produce this clarity of thought and immediacy of action the training process must always have a logical pattern.

Some brains are naturally quick others take time and a methodical training approach to produce ‘quick’.

Along that methodical route we must be careful not to scar the process with mistakes that leave markers of doubt. We must also be careful that we don’t offer too many choices of answer, which takes cognitive time instead of instinctive response. Each good response builds on itself to produce yet more good responses. When the moment of truth presents itself, in competition, the answers must be “sure, no problem”. Even when mistakes do occur the partnership must dust itself down and go again with the self belief of a winner.

There was some displays of brilliant horsemanship at the recent World Eventing Championships at Pratoni. There were some results, not always classical but nonetheless results. There were also some horses and riders that looked ‘over cooked’. It is such a fine line producing a Championship course that tests the best without over challenging the weakest. The test was again about line and pace. Horses will jump with the confidence of training in these qualities and the support of their riders. Over thinking the issues and over training will tend to produce a cooked brain.



5* - Maybe!!

I’ve been in exactly the same position as many competitors were when they set out on the Burghley XC, having the conversation with myself “is my horse up to the task?” I’m always being asked ‘How do you know if the horse / rider is up to the task?’ It’s a fair question and not worthy of an answer ‘You’ll soon find out’, as one leaves the start box. But in many cases that is the only time one does find out just how good the combination actually is.

Every time a horse is moved up in level there is always a question in the mind of the rider and of the trainer whether it’s the right time to make the move. Much thought and training and of course achieving the necessary Minimum Eligibility Requirements ( MER ) goes into the preparation. But you just don’t know until you try. But as riders, the big question we need to have thought through is ‘what are the signs that the horse or rider is not up to the job and what do we do about it’, before it is too late and the decision is made for us. Whatever that means!!

Our competitors heart tells us to ‘get it sorted’, ‘don’t give up yet’, ‘it’ll get better once he warms to the task’. Our trainers brain is telling us ‘get a better canter’, ‘find a better line’ or ‘sit up and push, don’t check’. However it all comes upon us very quickly, probably between fence 5 and 8.

In my case the signs were at fence 4 at Burghley. That confident fluid careful jump became a very airy lofty hesitant jump and it didn’t get better by fence 8. He kept trying but the signs were not good. The distances became long, the jumps became wider, the confidence ebbed away and the jumps just kept coming. I retired, gave him a big pat and we walked home.

Some might have wished they had done that last Saturday at Burghley. They might have been having that inward discussion but left it too late to make the right decision. There is no disgrace in making that call. The horses that rise to the 5* challenge are the ones that have an inner steel to keep trying, fence after fence they answer ‘yes’ not ‘maybe’. When they make a mistake they dust themselves down and quickly recover their composure. They keep galloping up to the top of every hill and look for the next one. They have the instinct of a top racehorse, to keep trying.

When these characteristics are missing, pat your horse and go home. You will both be better for it and there will be another day, maybe not at 5* but certainly at 4*. True 5* horses are special, as was demonstrated by the quick clears. When you have one, cherish and nurture it. Just look at some of the top ten, stars and stars in the making.


Whips - An Aid

Whilst out riding my four year old I stopped to chat to a neighbour. He had his eight year old granddaughter with him. One of the many questions she asked me was about my long whip. ‘What’s that for?’, ‘Do you hit the horse?’ ‘Why is it so long?’ Good questions for someone so young and knows nothing about horses. For the rest of my ride I had time to think of the difficult legacy the word “whip” has left us.

The dictionary defines whip as “a strip of leather or length of cord fastened to a handle used for flogging or beating a person or for urging on an animal”. Horrifying. And the act of using a whip is ‘whipping’. Even more horrifying when it conjures up all those historical connotations. Yet to those that know nothing about horses, that is the understanding.

For those of us who have spent our life trying to understand the art and skill of communicating with horses this definition sends shivers down one’s spine.

When I was in the Pony Club I was always told to carry a crop (definition - a short type of whip without a lash used in horse riding) even if I didn’t need it. So the carrying of ‘something’ has become second nature to me throughout my riding career.

The use of that ‘aid’, ‘the extra’ ‘the help’ has been as much an education to me as any of the natural aids.

Corporal punishment used at school did nothing for me other than to understand that it’s use was a ‘demonstration of failure’ of the teacher to engage their pupils in the curiosity of learning.

From that time on throughout my riding life I have been conscious of how best to stimulate the education of the horse. So where does the use of the whip / crop fit in?

For a harmonious culture to exist, there is a need for an understanding of boundaries and a mutual respect between individuals. That’s why I love watching our old brood mare educating her foals. She is always very clear and consistent with the foal about what she means and wants from the child. She is very measured in how she provides that boundary.

The word boundary should also be understood. To ride a straight line, one of the most basic skills required of the riding horse, requires a boundary on both sides to avoid the partnership looking drunk and wobbling from side to side. The dressage whip is a helpful aid to support the use of the leg. By ‘tickling’ ‘touching’ or a quick ‘flick’ the horse can be activated to respond to the leg aid. Being able to touch parts of the horse that are difficult or impossible for the rider, the dressage whip can help the horse understand the question being asked by the rider.

The jump crop can have similar benefits when used in an educated way. Better and safer jumping happens when horses understand what is being asked of them and are quick to respond. Not as a result of being told to jump, by their rider. The speed of response on take off can be improved with a tap on the shoulder. The ‘tap’ should produce a slapping noise. It’s the noise that will improve the response. This does not require a crop longer than 20” / 51cm. Currently most crops are 27” / 68 cm. The shorter length is easier to hold, manage and less likely to be used inappropriately.

The use of a crop as a steering aid is not thought of nearly enough. As yet there is no research into the benefits. When going xc an open right rein and a tap on the left shoulder will produce a quicker turn. It will also improve the ability to focus horses when jumping a line at corners and skinny jumps. This is an aid I have taught and used for ever. Yet it is seldom used by xc riders, except for the most successful rider of the last twenty years Michael Jung. He can be seen changing his crop some 10-15 times throughout a course. There must be merit in the practise.

I believe the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) could have done more to help educate the public in the use of the whip. As the current rules are, it remains unsightly and of questionable value.

When horses are trying, I have yet to feel that they could try harder merely for the use of a crop. Throughout my time Eventing the crop has been used to speed up a response when jumping or to straighten a line, not to encourage faster. I believe the BHA could have reduced the length of whips to 20” / 51cm as well as the way of holding it and the number of times it was used.

I think there is also merit in this suggestion for the Eventing and Show Jumping authorities.

We have an obligation to do better in explaining the use and subtitles of this valuable aid.

Taking it away is not the answer but legislating it’s use helps. There would be less, if any unsightly pictures. The ultimate answer is for those who train or ride horses to do so with respect and education for this wonderful animal.


Bits and Communication

Most people that have opinions also have a ‘soap box’ in their back pocket. Readily available at any opportunity, to pull out and become the stage for one of those talks! For me bits and biting is ‘one of those talks’.

I have for years had an interest in the evolution of what people put in their horses mouths and the reasons why they have chosen those bits. It has intrigued me from many views points.

The article in Horse and Hound, 23 June 2022, Bit by Bit prompted me to get back on my soap box.

Whilst finding it most interesting on the fitting and choice of bit, I was disappointed that nothing was said about the response the horse should produce to the bit.

I understand the importance of correctly fitting tack to the comfort of the horse. But of equal importance is what the horse is being taught to do with this tack, in this case, the bit. Without an understanding of the correct response required, bits become a method of control rather than a means of communication. ( Mette Uldahl mentioned this by using the expression “ particular learnt commands…”)

At a recent clinic I was presented with a collection of three ring bits, a number of snaffles, one pelham and a combination bit. I have no doubt that each rider was well intentioned when choosing the bit for their horse. But it was interesting to listen to their reasoning.

The word “control” appeared often. As did “it’s the only bit she/he goes well in, he/she’s very sensitive”.

It then becomes my job to translate what is being meant by the explanations. The word control tends to be when the horse doesn’t really understand what ‘acceptance and understanding’ of the bit means. Sensitive often is the misunderstanding of the word contact.

When ‘making a mouth’ all too often this process is hurried. With the result that horses become confused with what they are being asked. It should be divided into two headings;

  • acceptance of the presence of the bit in the mouth.

  • understanding of what it means.

At all times, especially in a dressage test, we want the mind to be calm and to hold the bit quietly in its mouth. This can take much time and patience but is worth it in the end.

Only then can we introduce the next element that of ‘understanding’.

The understanding aspect is linked to a chain reaction. Legs, quarters, back, poll, jaw, bit, hand. What you ask from the leg you receive in the hand. Providing there is no resistance to each link.

We want the quarters to become ‘alive and ready’ when the leg is applied and the poll and lower jaw to soften. This will produce a lighter contact to the hand. Also the beginning of a rebalance. If this doesn’t happen willingly and isn’t understood by the horse many aspects of ‘the riding horse’ become unavailable. It begins to lead us down the cul de sac of bits becoming the solution!!

Time needs to be spent achieving this one response with a simple snaffle at walk, which lays a solid foundation for what is to come. Without it, all training is compromised.

Fads, fashion and trends then come in to play. Through the 1980’s every horse had to have a bit less bridle, thanks to Eddie Macken and Boomerang. Every horse suddenly became too sensitive for bits to be used! Through the ‘90s it become the gag bit in all its forms. Then came the three ring bubble bit through the 2000’s and then the dreaded ‘combination bits’ in all their variation.

As you will see, that for the last forty years there has been a trend towards some sort of a gag / lever action bit and away from a true softening of the frame. “Brakes” rather than “understanding”. Short cuts rather than correctness.

The result of this manifold. As a subject it is too large for this article. But I will highlight some of the issues.

• Lever action mainly acts on the lips. The lips are stretchable so the response becomes inconsistent and often delayed.

• Lever action has a similar delay to steering.

• Lever action will tend to invert the top line and hollow the back. This can result in many jumping issues. Could this and the word ‘collection’ be related in any way to the veterinary issue of the decade ….. kissing spines? I don’t know!!

• Lever action can produce a response without any engagement of the quarters, thus fooling the rider into believing a rebalance has happened.

• Lever action transfers the priority of aid from the leg to the hand.

It is difficult to release a lever action. Therefore it tends to be ‘on’ most of the time. As we know brakes that are on most of the time wear out or fail. This also happens with horses.

The list can go on.

Some fifteen years ago I voiced this concern to the FEI. Saying that a record of type of bit -v- xc falls should be maintained as I believe this could be relevant. It is interesting to note that the French Government has stipulated that gags will not be allowed for the Paris Olympic Games Eventing xc in 2024.

So whilst the evolution of bits and bitting becomes more focused on making sure the “horrors” are well fitted and made of nice materials, they are still items of control not communication.

The diminished attention to the even more important aspect of teaching riders and horses the true ‘understanding’ of leg to hand, contact and what acceptance feels like, becomes the looser.

Time and care must be taken to produce the correct response from the mildest bit possible through understanding. This will ultimately produce a nicer riding horse in all disciplines and continue to look after horse welfare.


Long and Low

This topic has been in debate ever since I started ‘doing horses’ many years ago. It is something that one meets at competitions, on clinics, in lectures and is written about with many differing opinions. I too have been part of this debate in some of the forums mentioned above.

Much depends on a horse’s conformation and the stage of training, but, there are some principles that should be adhered to in order to make sense of the topic.

What is being sought is the horse working over the back and top line, seeking the contact and becoming longitudinally accepting.

There is a popular belief that all horses from the beginning of their riding life should be ‘taught’ to go long and low. That it is a part of their training process, necessary to go through in order to be correctly trained. And so begins a process of education to encourage horses to lower their necks in the belief that good things will happen as a result.

How it fits in to the progressive training process. How it is taught so the horse understands why it is being asked to lower its outline are all part of this progressive training.

Horses are very willing learners and can be taught the strangest and most bizarre things. What is often missing is that they have little concept of why they are being taught. They are often left guessing at what we want or merely comply in an effort to please.

There are many other factors that influence this correct way of going. So much depends on when and how the horse has been asked to lower the neck. So in our training process we must be very methodical and plan each step so that it makes sense to the horse and how it fits into the progressive plan.

Let’s divide the subject into two headings :

  1. As part of the training process.

  2. As part of the gymnastic exercise process.

The Training Process

Each step of a green horses training must have points of security where it is able to know it has achieved something that is desired. A response from the hindquarters to a use of the leg aid. A quiet hand that is reciprocated with a contact to the bit. It doesn’t have to be ‘on the bit’, but the understanding that it is ok to take a contact. These are early building blocks that will be important for the long term future. They need to be established and secure.

This is the beginning of being between leg and hand and allows us to develop an understanding with the horse of what the next stages are.

A softening at the poll and lower jaw without loss of contact is next. This will allow us to ‘position’ the young horse frame with the nose in-front of the vertical and the horse remaining between leg and hand. This positioning is not ‘formal’ but rather is dependent on the confirmation and balance the individual horse can carry itself in. As it works ‘through’ the top line it will become tired and seek to lower its frame. It should be allowed to do this by offering a little more rein and encouraging the horse to seek to retake the contact further down and out. It allows for relaxation. The horse should not drop the contact or go behind the vertical.

This is as much of a correct gait / pace as any other so don’t loose forward , straight or regular.

Only drop the contact and reward when you are making it clear to the horse that work is over for the moment.

The exercise of ‘stretching’ as required in a Dressage test is designed to see if the horse is taking a contact, being ridden from leg to hand and that the frame is adjustable. Proof of correct training in all gaits.

Young horses become confused when they are asked conflicting questions. To go down without having worked through the top line, when they are asked to drop the contact one minute only to be asked to take it up a moment later, when they go down because they have been asked and then a moment later are told to come up. All these instructions can become conflicting and confusing.

The Gymnastic Exercise Process

With “longitudinal acceptance” (top line acceptance), understanding can be developed. What it means to work truly between leg and hand as well as over the back. Now “lateral acceptance” can be asked for. This is the ability to produce bend in the horses body to conform with the line you are asking the horse to ride on. ( Straight, circle or corner )

Acceptance and understanding allows for the removal of resistance. Resistance is perceived as being ‘stiffness’, which it is not.

With contact, throughness and the the horse between leg and hand, the horse can now be exercised gymnastically. This means that the top line and frame can be adjusted from a long and low one to a more formal one and back again. The nose should go no lower than a line from the elbow that is parallel to the ground.

The left and right flexibility can be tested to improve physical coordination and balance. At all times a contact and the feeling of being between the aids should be retained.

It should be remembered that stretching is not a trick to be taught. It demonstrates correct education and a way to release tension and show relaxation. It must be introduced in the correct way to be understood by the horse and to be of benefit.

    "The Veterinary Student"

    “I’m a third year Vet student and wondered if I could do two weeks work experience with you during the summer holidays?”
    Over the years this has not been an uncommon request. I don’t always say ‘Yes’, but in this instance I did. He duly arrived and seemed a personable young man. He had limited riding experience so I had warned him that he might not get any riding. But I already had a plan of what to do with him to give him ‘value time’. Over the years I have watched vet students accompany my own vet and have been struck by their difficulty in making a connection with the horse. They needed to pay more attention to who they were with. My vet was a master of understanding the horse and it’s characteristics.

    This thought lead me to the formulation of my plan. On the first morning I instructed Mark in his three tasks.

    • watch and learn each horse’s stable mannerisms

    • get to know each horse’s legs better than he knew his own

    • keep a record of each horse’s temperature twice a day

    I watched as he diligently set about his tasks. I was always there if he needed to ask questions and any of the other people on the yard would help if he needed it. He seemed very content and was able to watch the horses work in between tasks.

    At the end of the first week I sat him down and asked him what he had found out. As he enthusiastically relayed the mannerisms of each horse I asked was there a pattern of what was normal? Was it possible to predict moods and times when horse’s behaved in a certain way.

    What had he found out about the horse’s legs? Were they the same every day? Young and old horses, before exercise and after, before and after being out in the field?

    What about the horse’s temperature? Was there a pattern to that? Was it the same morning and evening, before and after exercise, every day?

    I received what I expected, a factually accurate account, but , without any relationship to the individual horse. I explained.

    Every morning I fed early, of the ten horses I would always only see nine heads. If I saw the tenth head over the stable door, something was wrong with that horse. So I would make a bee line to look at him closer. The same would be so of the horse that always looked over the door and one morning he wasn’t. It’s time to inspect. Box 3 always kicks the door, when he doesn’t , it’s time to inspect.

    Of the legs. Heat, swelling and tenderness are the immediate signs of something. To know what’s normal is to know what’s abnormal! Knowing the legs intimately one is able to catch changes to how they feel, early. Improving the speed of detection can improve the outcome.

    Knowing the daily temperature of the horse allows us to build up a picture of normality.

    In Mark’s second week the gathering of information took on a completely different tone. The picture of each horse took on a much more personable tone. He began to know the horses. The legs of older horses that were a little larger after exercise. The splint that suddenly appeared on the four year old. The bog spavin that was bigger than normal. The facial expressions of the three horses that did canter work, one looked tired the others didn’t. And on it goes.

    Mark left after two weeks being able to ‘ghost’ into each horses stable and find out loads of valuable information. To watch from outside the stable and turnout paddock and notice the difference on a daily basis. To be able to relate all this information to the work each horse was doing and how that helped me with the training of each horse. (He became a very good vet a few years later. )

    Most of this becomes second nature, with the experience of time. But it needs pointing out at the beginning of peoples journey with horses. They are not the same each day, there is no ‘normal’ according to the book, they are individuals.

    This principle applies in every point of contact with the horse, from riding to care.

    Know the species and know the individual.

      "Baggage"

      Wouldn’t it be interesting to understand where some of the issues that you having with your horse have their origins? How some of the ‘baggage’ that goes with the horse on its journey through life, really wasn’t their fault. It was actually something they picked up along the way. Or that many of those little problems that occupy much of our time now, were there all along and were never identified or resolved when being started as a young horse. Or maybe to know that sometimes we create our own problems, that go with us from horse to horse.

      However the problems materialise, we have to deal with them. We have to solve the puzzle that hinders us from achieving what we want with our partner. It will occupy much time and thought, much frustration, many hours of help and endless hours of happiness. It may never be totally resolved but the journey will ultimately make us better horsemen ( gender neutral ).

      When teaching, people seldom say to me, “I have a lovely trot can you help me make it better”! The focus is normally on their problems.

      However, by focusing on what does work, we can often diminish what isn’t working.

      By knowing what things should be like and how something has been taught, can also be very helpful. It can be a good start point to finding a way to fix the part that might not be working as well as we want.

      There are many stages to this process. Firstly we must look at how to identify what isn’t working, by looking at how it should work. Then how we dismantle and reassemble some of the most common problems. Drawing together differing views, finding a common theme, which then links to a logical way forward.

      So this is a bit like how I approach taking a clinic.

      As every new generation learns a subject in the way ‘of the time’ they are brought up in. They too must learn that the wheel is round and not just accept that fact because they are told by an older generation. This process of finding out is part of the intrigue, part of the fascination of learning for oneself how the wheel works. Every generation learns this for themselves. We can help to facilitate this learning, but we should not teach it too much.

      Nothing much changes in the horse world, but everything is new to the newcomer.

      I never mind covering the same ground year in year out and watching as this journey of discovery happens. The moments along the way called “light bulb moments” are the ignition process for the inner glow of curiosity to become a burning ambition for more.

      Fun for the coach and the pupil.