Olympic event riders Kelly Plitz and Ian Roberts and their son, Waylon Roberts, have ridden their share of ‘Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder’ horses during dressage. Here are their tips for dealing with them.
Waylon: I have exercises that I do all the time at home so my horses become so comfortable with them they know exactly what it is they are going to do with no surprises. I take that to shows and apply the same exercises, so it feels like home. I want the horses so tuned into me that the surroundings make little difference.
Exercise 1: Start by riding shallow serpentines at the walk along the long sides of the arena. This exercise is very slow and simple, yet effective.
To go left, your left leg goes forward, your right leg goes back. To go right, your right leg goes forward, the left goes back. The horse should curve back and forth in response to your leg cues. It’s not about the hand, it’s about the leg. You need to ride with a lot of leg and use your core, rather than the hands.
Next, try the trot. Work a slow, steady rhythmical trot, then start doing serpentines. It may not be as beautiful as you want for a test, but you want to establish rhythm and most of all, relaxation, because without it, you can’t teach the horse anything.
By continually asking for changes in bend, he has to tune into you. Move back and forth across the centre line, and change directions. Don’t be concerned about getting him into a frame; it will come on its own. Be more concerned about where he’s putting his feet and how he’s moving through his body and shoulder.
Maintain quality contact with no seesawing. At home, I put a strap around my horse’s neck (eg. a stirrup leather) to remind me to keep my hands forward. Hold this to keep your hands steady. See if you can do transitions, bends, halts, etc. without letting go of the strap. Use your shoulders and elbows and your body, not jerking on the bit. The only way to encourage steadiness in the horse’s head is with steady hands.
Be very consistent with how you ask for changes of bend. Move your legs forward and back just like you did when doing the walk serpentines. Now, try serpentines at the canter. The horse might find it difficult initially, but will get better as his balance and strength improves. Countercanter is a huge asset in developing balance, but it must be done in self-carriage, not with the rider holding it together. Use your legs, not your hands, to keep the horse balanced.
Exercise 2: Leg yield back and forth from the track to the quarter line, at the walk then the trot. To leg yield to the right, the left leg comes forward, the right leg goes back. You want the horse to yield from the shoulder, not the quarters. He should move gently off the leg, not run from it or suck back. If your horse is sucking back, give him a small nudge in the shoulder to remind him to move away from the leg or if he doesn’t respond, carry a little schooling whip. Tap, but not too hard. You want him to associate the tap with your leg.
These exercises help develop the horse’s self-carriage and you should be able to push the inside rein forward and he’ll stay in balance. His gaits and rhythm will also improve.
Exercise 3: Work on trot lengthening by using trot poles. Start with four to six poles spaced for a normal trot (around 4′), then widen them. Don’t rush, come in with a calm, steady rhythm; let him figure out that the best way is to go forward and lengthen his stride.
Keep work fun and a bit playful. Reward the horse when he’s done well by letting him walk, giving him a pat, or letting him go back to his stall. There always has to be an incentive to do the right thing. Don’t pester him – let him figure things out on his own.
Come into a ride with the thought of relaxation, not thinking “Am I going to have a fight today?” If the horse is having a bad day, look at yourself. Are you uptight or stressed? If you don’t think it’s you, be calm, be patient. Don’t attack a problem with strength. Horses don’t need strength to be ridden. Use your angles and your position; your horse won’t be supple and relaxed unless you’re supple and relaxed. That’s where you have to be an athlete.
LUNGE TO RELAX
Ian: One of the best ways to relax a horse is by lungeing. Many horse trials are not set up for lungeing, so you may have to seek out a place. Lungeing is a skill that you and your horse should have mastered at home, so if you don’t know how to lunge properly, have your trainer do it.
Wear a helmet, gloves and don’t wear spurs (which can trip you). I like a cotton or leather lunge with no loop. Do not put your hand in the loop or wrap the lunge line around your hand. Fold the line in your hand. Use a cavesson or attach the lunge to your bridle by running the line through the left ring of the bit (if starting on the left rein), over his poll and clipping it to the right side of the bit (and vice versa for right rein). Have a lunge whip – this acts as your leg aid.
Use side reins. I like them at the same length on both sides. Start with them loose and gradually tighten them. You don’t want them so tight as to force the horse’s head down or so that he feels restricted, or so loose you can’t push him into the contact.
The point is not to tire the horse out, but to relax him, getting him reaching into the contact. When he’s quiet, working through his back and in rhythm, you can stop. With some horses, you can achieve this in 20 minutes; others might take longer.
Waylon: Even the walk on the lunge line is important, especially with ex-racehorses. They often lack the ability to have a nice four-beat walk.
Stand up straight with your shoulders back, your elbows bent at your sides, hands out front, holding the lunge line as if you were holding the reins. Look to establish a forward pace without rushing.
At home, use several low cavalettis set around a corner to encourage a horse to focus, to stretch down, relax, and establish a rhythm.
Ian: In the warm-up ring, if your horse is getting excited by the other horses, go for hack, as you want him to relax. (Find where the legal areas to hack are.)
One of the biggest problems is rider stress, which translates to horse stress. Many riders have unrealistic expectations or put a lot of unnecessary pressure on themselves. A successful technique I have for nervous riders is multiple rides. Tack up and go for a ride, get off, untack, take a short break. Do this several times, even if the rides are only 10 minutes long. I’ve had riders do this as many as eight times. Obviously, if you’re riding at 8 a.m. and shipping in to a one-day show, this might not be possible, but the repetition is beneficial for riders and it’s non-confrontational with the horse. Confrontation leads to stress.
Being in the ring is like performing. A rider who doesn’t enjoy being in the dressage ring will never have a good test. There are some who are not great riders, but have good ring craft and will do well, while there may be great riders who don’t have good ring craft and won’t do well. If the test is going badly, suck it up and move on.
Kelly: Don’t get unnerved by one or two bad movements – remember that each part of the test is marked individually. Sometimes, it feels worse than it actually is.
Ian: Take a critical look at your horse. Is he suitable for the job? That’s one of the most common problems. Some horses just aren’t suited for dressage and that causes stress if you’re forcing him to do something he’s not comfortable with. Or the horse may not be suitable for you.
When I was young, I had an Arab that was not suitable for what I wanted to do, so I sold him as an endurance horse and he was very good at that. Every horse usually has a job he’s good at, but it might not be eventing or dressage and you might have to come to that realization.
Just because a horse will go cross-country doesn’t mean he’s going to do well in eventing. Unless you can put in a good dressage test, you are not going to be competitive. I cringe when someone makes excuses by saying, “well, he loves to jump” or “I want a challenge.”
Waylon: I find people get a dressage saddle and immediately start riding sitting trot. With a young horse or off-the-track Thoroughbred, I may not ride sitting trot for a year. They need time to strengthen the muscles in their back. If they haven’t and you’re sitting the trot, that causes anxiety. You don’t need to ride sitting trot until you are required to do higher movements.
Ian: Go to a regular dressage show. You can ride multiple tests and give your horse the experience of a show without the stimulation of galloping horses. Or go to a horse trial and ride around without the pressure of competing. Contact the show organizer first and ask if this is allowed or if there is a non-competing fee involved.
Kelly: Stay at the level of dressage that fits your horse, even if he can jump at a higher level. Forcing him to perform at a level higher than he’s ready for will put him continually out of his comfort zone. You want your dressage to be relaxed and accurate before moving up.
Do your homework. Simulate the dressage ring at home with rails and buckets (serving as letters). Work on different exercises or parts of your test and on your accuracy. So many riders just trot around and don’t halt, walk or work on transitions.
Practice all parts of the tests; do them out of sequence. You want to be so familiar with the test that when you get to the ring you can concentrate on what’s happening underneath you, not wondering what comes next.
Olympians Ian Robert and Kelly Plitz operate Dreamcrest Farm in Port Perry, ON. Waylon Roberts, 2007 Pan Am team silver medalist and five-time Royal Winter Fair indoor eventing champion, coaches out of Greenbrier Farm in Uxbridge, ON.