The following excerpt is from Eric Smiley’s new book, The Sport Horse Problem Solver, available from Trafalgar Square Books here.
As you will recall from the introduction, overfacing is a term that is used to describe asking a horse or a rider to do something that is beyond their capability. Although it is a word that is normally associated with presenting a jump that is too big, I think it is important to link the concept with all aspects of training, including flatwork.
Doing flatwork well is not just functionally doing it correctly; it’s much more. It comes with the confidence of knowing that each step in the education process is understood. How it works, where it fits in, why it’s done in that order, how one step leads to the next one. This confidence allows the horse and rider to feel brave in their performance—the type of confidence Valegro would show as he entered the arena with his rider Olympian Charlotte Dujardin, or when performing the extended trot.
When overfacing occurs on the flat, horses and riders demonstrate an uncertainty, a lack of confidence in execution, a physical inability to perform … a lack of self-belief.
At each stage of the journey of education, a horse should “let you in” before you ask for more. In doing so he will know that what he is learning now relates to what is coming next. This goes for jumping as well as flatwork.
Instilling the “Can-Do Attitude” When Jumping
The first jump of a young or newly acquired horse is a moment when either my imagination runs riot with excitement at what I have, or my training brain kicks in with how to make it all better.
For any horse that shows a degree of ability, the industry asks for too much of this ability to be tested and put on display with loose-jumping competitions, sale videos, and longeing over jumps. Some high-performance sales horses are jumping enormous obstacles to impress prospective customers.
I believe that by asking for too much too soon we abuse a young horse’s natural generosity and at the same time diminish his “can-do” attitude.
Most young horses give their all when jumping at the early stages. This is a fragile attitude that we need to nurture and look after. It can be easily destroyed. There is much going on in a horse’s brain at this time: How do I get to the jump? What will I meet when I get there? What does it look like? What question is it asking? How do I get to the other side, leaving it up?
And the jumps keep coming.
Very few horses take all this calmly. To add size to the jump question very often puts one too many challenges to the already busy mind of the young or untrained horse. The result is a stop, a run-out, a knock down, a speed up, a slowdown, or even a “won’t try”!
The rider is also placed in a difficult dilemma. Having presented the horse to the jump, the rider has to jump it. It’s bad practice to turn away. The rider hopes it goes well, because dealing with all of the issues of it not going well gets messy. Having a good enough canter, being able to keep it, finding a reasonable takeoff—so much is dependent on the rider’s skill making up for the horse’s inexperience. It’s a very challenging process. But that’s what Young Horse competitions tend to do.
Some horses respond to the challenge of height by over-trying. A horse that over-jumps often makes people smile. But “giving it some air” or jumping exuberantly can be misleading. To jump 3 feet over a 2-foot fence feels great. It compels us to see what a 3-foot jump feels like. Now the horse tries to jump 4 feet high, and this is when he starts questioning his limits. Once there is a doubt in the horse’s mind, it creates a marker of fear or hesitation, which is there for the future. This marker diminishes the horse’s can-do attitude and puts a limit on his jump: something that will reappear later.
“Time is so important. I think each horse has a number of jumps in their life, and if you use them all when they are young, they will not have a lot left at the end.”
—Willy Wijen, owner and breeder of Explosion W, Winner of Individual Olympic Gold in Show Jumping at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo
To avoid this, keep jumps small until all of the many things going on in the horse’s mind have become more familiar to him, until he learns the many issues that jumping throws at him, and until the arrival at the jump becomes something he willingly deals with, not just something organized by the rider. A slow start and deliberate progression will retain the can-do attitude for later, without a limiting marker being placed in the horse’s mind.
Soon enough, the horse will learn that he does not need to jump a foot higher than the jump. As he discovers that he need jump only enough to clear a fence, then the 3-foot jump becomes a 3-foot-3-inch effort—much more comfortable for the horse.
Leaving the horse with a good feeling in the mind allows him to retain the can-do attitude as all the other issues of jumping become secure. This then allows the rider to build on the good and progress with the confidence that the horse hasn’t installed any limits on his own potential. As time goes on, so the can-do attitude becomes more embedded in his mind, and his confidence in what he can do grows. No limits.
Long-term, a horse that believes in his own abilities is one that doesn’t know failure or doubt. This is how you help a horse develop a good jumping conscience, an idea I will return to again later in this chapter. Start that attitude young and keep it.
Dealing with Overfacing
What if your horse already has a limiting marker in place? What should you do about it? Let’s look at it from the horse’s point of view.
The horse’s choices are:
- “Jump, because I’m being pressed by my rider.”
- “Jump, because I’m going too fast to stop.”
- “Look, assess, use my care and technique to prepare, and then jump.”
The scars left in the mind of the horse from the first three options cannot always be seen but they are there.
- To do something because one is told tends not to develop partnership.
- To do something because there is no other choice tends not to develop commitment.
- To doubt one’s capabilities tends not to develop a belief.
- To stop tends to demonstrate an inability to make a decision.
But these four qualities—partnership, commitment, belief, and sound decision-making—are surely everything we want in a sport horse. Without them, ability alone is not enough.
The generosity of horses will often hide their anxieties. But just because they undertake a task doesn’t mean they are comfortable with it. It’s important for us to feel, read, and be aware of the signs of anxiety. And never be afraid to move down a level to rehabilitate the confidence in a horse’s mind. It’s a wise person who makes this move. It’s a fool who doesn’t heed the signs of overfacing.
Human athletes have the ability to think about their performance and analyze what they need to do better. There can be value in a lack of achievement as it can stimulate a rethinking of strategy and a deeper self-awareness. So for us, failure can be a powerful learning experience. It can motivate us to improve, build a resolve, an inner strength, a work ethic to do better next time, if handled the right way.
However, it is very different for horses. They do not have the ability to reason in this way. In most instances of a horse falling short, the human takes over, either to chastise or to intensify input. Neither of these responses is helpful. Instead, it begins to set limits in the horse’s mind that affect how much the horse will try to help himself.
What can we do to facilitate the horse’s learning? Find a start point and go back to the principles of progressive training. Start simply:
- Only jump from a gait that the horse is comfortable in. If cantering without a jump is challenging, then cantering with a jump will be even more so. So revert to trot.
- Only introduce canter when the obstacle is small enough that mistakes don’t upset the horse. As the canter becomes more secure and adjustable, so the obstacle becomes more interesting. The horse will then focus on the jump and not worry about the canter.
- Retain the qualities of forward, straight, and regular.
- Allow some freedom of the rein to ensure the horse can use his neck when looking and jumping. (A neck strap can be helpful in allowing this freedom)
- Ride interesting lines and include ground poles.
The riding in itself will improve the partnership. When you progress to more jumping:
- Make jumps small and interesting. Don’t challenge ability but do challenge interest.
- Encourage curiosity and pleasure in achieving.
- Allow mistakes to happen, but let the horse make an effort to find a better solution.
- Keep in mind that a stop is more often from indecision than from bad behavior. So don’t change the approach but do insist that the horse make a decision at the point of takeoff. You shouldn’t mind if it is a bad decision, but no decision is unacceptable.
In jump training, we must do the same thing over and over again. The goal is to produce consistency in the approach, giving the horse the opportunity to find a comfortable method of negotiating the jump. The approach must be the same. The arrival may be slightly dif-ferent as the horse learns to take greater ownership. The jump itself may also be different as the horse learns how to manage himself over the obstacle. The end result is that the horse will always expect a consistent approach and understand that it’s his job to make the necessary adjustments to jump clean.
Avoid Scraping the Bottom of the Barrel
In the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games, I went deeper into a horse’s reserves than ever before or ever since. (He jumped clear with time faults in very hot conditions.) At the time I felt that, for the team, it was important to get home, over and above the feeling of what I was doing to my horse.
I have never felt so terrible about any equine relationship as I did after that. I had abused my horse’s generosity. He had given his all, and I had asked for more. I remember to this day looking into his eyes and saying, “I’m sorry.” To his eternal credit, he returned the look with a brightness of spirit that seemed to say, “It hurts, but it’s okay.” In an effort to make me feel better about my choice, the Irish team vet and a good friend said to me later, “He will be a better horse for it. He will understand where his limits are.”
As it turned out, it was true with this horse. His look told me that his spirit was intact; he would be there again for me another day.
Unfortunately, there have also been many occasions when I have seen horses finish a competition and thought, “That’s the last we’ll see of that horse at this level.” There is a look in the eye that reflects what’s happening in the mind.
Sometimes going deep into the soul can strengthen the resolve to do better, as in the case of my Olympic ride.