You may never aspire to make the Canadian team or tackle Rolex’s formidable four-star course. But whether you gallop around entry level at local horse trials or compete at the higher levels, knowing how to minimize refusals long before you get to an event is a must-have skill if you want to be successful.
When Jessica Phoenix acquired an eight-year-old off-the-track bay Thoroughbred gelding called Tucker as an eventing prospect in 2005, there were some issues. During their first training session, it took her two hours to convince the horse to walk over a single pole on the ground.
Just a few short years later, the horse – now with the show name Exponential – is “an inbelievably careful and brave jumper” successfully completing some of the biggest courses in the world without faults. With Exponential, Jessica finished seventh at the 2011 Rolex CCI4* and was the top-placed Canadian (22nd) at the 2012 Olympic Games in London, England.
Here is the system Canadian Elite Eventing Squad member Jessica uses to train her horses to develop their confidence, and why she seldom has to deal with refusals in competition.
The Key is Straightness
The biggest thing in our training system is to start from the ground up. Flatwork is the foundation for jumping and through flatwork, you develop straightness, rideability, and the ability to choose whatever line you want the horse to follow.
Probably the biggest philosophy I use is that the horse is never allowed to come right or left off a line. He can go forward or back, but is never allowed to go sideways. That becomes the foundation and you transfer that from flatwork to fences.
A green horse needs a very clear approach, and a lot of time to see what line you want to jump, to understand the question. Start with a single pole. Sit back, keep your legs close to the horse’s side and spread your hands to keep the reins wide. You want him to come on a perfectly straight line with no deviation. If he tries to go sideways, move him back to the line. He is only allowed to go forward and back. If he comes to a dead stop before the pole and you can’t encourage him to step forward, back up a few steps and ask him to go forward again.
Start at the walk, then trot, then progress to canter. As the horse gains confidence and willingly goes over the pole, you can add more poles (about 4-4½ feet apart for trot poles, 9′ for canter poles, but adjust them to suit your horse’s stride). Again, you want the horse to come through as straight as possible.
Next, introduce a cavaletti in between two trot poles and when your horse is confident and straight through that exercise, you can introduce a series of cavaletti bounces, in a line or on a curve. From there, you can introduce small jumps.
Don’t move on from an exercise until the horse understands it and is staying true to the line you want him to take.
In The Field
When it comes to introducing cross-country fences, I’ll often use guide rails to reinforce the line they are to take. Start at the trot. Sometimes I see people making their horses run crazily at fences and that creates more fear than understanding the process. A horse needs to be relaxed to understand the skills you’ve instilled with flatwork.
When you introduce new fences and terrain, start as simply as you can. If it’s water, look for a nice flat area for him to step in and out. The same thing goes with ditches and small banks. Remember that they are to go only forward or back, not sideways. Be patient. You want to give the horse an education about these new obstacles.
Homework, and Work Away From Home
New surroundings can be distracting for a horse and make a two-foot fence feel like a four-foot fence. Try to take your horse to as many different situations as you can for schooling opportunities until he’s relaxed with what he’s doing.
The good news is that if you’ve done your homework, you’ve already trained your horse to understand what’s required from your position. When you sit back and put your legs on, he should come into balance and hold the line as straight as he can. When he understands that position, he can take a breath and adapt to what’s in front of him.
The worst thing you can do is to run a horse at the fence. You want to sit there and give him the most confidence you can. It’s always exciting when a horse understands and is confident enough to start to take you to the fences.
I’ve never ridden a horse that’s done everything perfectly and in every horse’s career you’ll face a setback. That’s when you go back to doing these trust-building exercises you started with at the beginning and repeat over and over, until that light bulb moment occurs.
CAN YOU HAVE A MENTAL REFUSAL?
In short, yes you can! When a rider’s mind is preoccupied with worry about a stop, it can result in negative anticipation that actually produces the real thing. Riders need to remember they are leaders in this team; their thoughts are what drive the application of aids, which culminates in a set of directions to their equine partner. You have the responsibility to check yourself before you blame your horse.
Whether you are consumed with “what if he stops, what if he ducks out, what if he doesn’t like the look of that jump?” or simply an uncertainty of whether your horse will go – you are communicating, and the message you are sending is confusing. Your partner may feel a shift in your aids which make him think “hmm, danger?” or decide there is an option coming up – to go, or not to go, so to speak.
So how can you combat the “mental refusal”?
Get clear: Why are you having these thoughts? Fear? Uncertainty of how to ride to a particular obstacle? A build-up distaste of a particular type of jump? In order to take the next step and get your thoughts in order, you first must understand why they are going astray in the first place. Talk to your coach and deal head-on with the root of the problem.
Plan your thoughts: The more your thoughts direct you to the other side in a confident way, the more likely you are to get there. Try condensing your directions down to key words that instruct your ride: ‘forward, rhythm’ or ‘close leg, support, go.’ In essence, you want to anchor your mind where you want to go so you can keep it occupied and away from worry.
Rehearse: Use visualization to see yourself successfully navigating challenging obstacles. Focus on the type of ride it takes to get the job done. Do as many extra ‘reps’ on jumps that are particularly worrisome to you until they become a little boring. You really can change your perception through persistence and repetition. ~ April Clay