Sometimes it’s a small issue that is resolved at home between shows, and sometimes it’s serious enough to send the rider back to the drawing board. Eventing is particularly challenging in this respect. Sorting through an issue on the flat has to share time and energy with cross-country schooling and conditioning sessions. Robin Hahn believes the solution begins before the first event of the year, with good preparation and realistic expectations.
But even the best-prepared riders can face unexpected challenges. Robin applies a confidence-building focus to his approach, whether he’s coaching a rider before their first event, or helping a student work through a mid-season stumbling block.
An ounce of prevention
When you go to a competition, you want your horse to go as well as he does while happily schooling at home. A competition is not a place to try to do things better than you have been able to achieve at home. It is at competitions that you are most likely to be challenged by your horse, but if you use the same aids you have used at home while you were building your horse’s confidence, you can overcome the challenges that arise during competition.
The adage that a horse and rider should be schooling at home at a higher level than they are competing at is familiar to everyone, but it’s also true. I have seen it happen many times when riders are not realistic in their expectations about what level of competition their horses are ready to do. This is a major source of mid-season problems, but it’s easily avoided if the rider honestly assesses where she and her horse are in their training. It can be very difficult to tell a rider that her horse is at pre-training level when she wants to compete at preliminary. The horse might be at that level in four years; in my experience it will also take a rider that long to move up for the first time from pre-training through training to preliminary. To gain the experience for that level means mileage at the lower levels.
Attitude is everything
Regardless of where a horse and rider are in their training, the rider’s attitude is of the utmost importance. Staying as confident and relaxed as possible will bring about improvement much more quickly than allowing emotions such as anger or fear take over. There must be a balance between working on something that the horse needs to do better, and letting the horse gain confidence by not being constantly pressured. I believe that about 50% of a lesson should be spent working on improving a weak point in the horse, while the other 50% is spent letting the horse do something he does well so that he gains confidence. Of course, sometimes that proportion will change to 60/40 or even 75/25, but there must be times in every ride when the rider just lets the horse do what he can do. If that doesn’t happen, the horse will begin to resist the pressure, and that is when things start to go wrong. Riders can get frustrated when a horse doesn’t do something as quickly as they would like, but it takes time for a horse to learn to respond the way you want him to react.
Constantly evaluate where your horse’s weaknesses lie and be honest about what you should expect from him in competition. If you know you aren’t going to get the right-to-left simple change through walk – or at higher levels the flying change – then let the horse do a few trot steps and take the penalties. If you can’t get the flying change in schooling, you aren’t going to get it in competition, and if you try too hard you will more than likely blow the next movement, which might have been something the horse is very good at. Asking the horse for more than he is able to give you will undermine his confidence, and confidence is already more fragile in a competition setting.
Riders will often accuse their horses of being nervous in competition, but in my experience it’s the rider who is nervous, which results in the horse becoming anxious. A nervous rider will probably use her aids in a different manner to what the horse has become accustomed to at home. She might push harder with the driving aids, but instead of pushing into a sympathetic hand, she might drive the horse into an unyielding contact. The horse will naturally respond by becoming stronger and heavier, and will ultimately rebel – refusing to halt, or to bend, or breaking into canter in the trot work.
One very important schooling element that is often neglected is sufficient exercise before working the horse, whether at home or at a competition. The horse needs an outlet for the energy created by fitness or by having spent a lot of time in the stable, and until it is expended will not be at a mental level to work in relaxation. When a horse’s energy level is too high, he can’t become completely supple, and if he isn’t supple he is more likely to overreact to the aids.
Before schooling, the horse should have up to 30 minutes of exercise, with approximately 20 minutes of trot. I often trot for 10 minutes and walk for five, repeating that two or three times until the horse is at the level where he can be asked to work, either on the flat or over fences. By doing this at home, you are setting a pattern that will help you achieve relaxation with your horse at competitions. During this exercise period, the horse should be in as long a frame as possible while still staying under control.
The saying “familiarity breeds contempt” could be expressed in eventing as “familiarity breeds compensation”. I find that as a horse and rider get to know each other well, they get pretty good at coping with one another’s weaknesses. The rider may be fairly successful in competition, but as the competition season progresses the horse gradually gets less in front of the leg, and less on the aids in general. The solution is the same as its prevention: lots of transitions and lengthening and shortening within the gait.
One situation I run into often at clinics is younger riders who are struggling to learn how to put their horses on the bit. (I used to do this exercise at all three gaits, but nowadays I do it only at walk and trot.) I hold both reins while moving forward beside the horse. The rider still has her hands on the reins as well, but I am doing the work of the rein aids. I put the horse on the bit while the rider pushes the horse into my contact. She quickly discovers how much leg it takes to put a horse on the rein aids in a positive way.
Confidence on cross-country
Back in the days of full-phase three-day events, riders had the roads and tracks and steeplechase to warm the horse up. Today we don’t have steeplechase, but we still have energetic horses. I don’t believe horses need to jump a lot as part of the crosscountry warm-up, but just like in dressage, I believe the rider must give the horse a long period of exercise. Without that, the horse may set out on course with too much energy and the rider will find herself having to interfere with the contact to keep him under control. If you are interfering with the horse with your hands as you come to a jump, you are taking the horse’s focus off the fence. The less the horse is hassled by the rider, the more he can focus on his job, and the more easily he will respond to the aids when they are applied.
It is worth mentioning the importance of having the correct bit on cross-country. I see an equal number of problems that arise from over- and under-bitting the horse. Young riders in particular are encouraged to ride in a snaffle when sometimes their horses might need something stronger. Conversely, older riders can tend to have too much bit. Find out what bit is best by using it at home; competition is not the place to experiment. Over the years I have found horses that want to be a bit strong go well in a rubber gag. A steel gag and a Pelham are stronger options. It’s the right bit when the rider applies the aids, the horse accepts the bit, feels confident and responds appropriately.
Speed is often to blame for problems that arise – both too much and too little. In both cases the horse doesn’t have a feeling of balance and rhythm and therefore can’t find a distance to the jump. Typically, good riders find their distance “forward”; riders that lack confidence find their distance by bringing the horse back – too much, and the horse will not have enough pace to jump the fence and will wisely stop.
An exercise I often use with riders who struggle with confidence is to have them jump smaller fences at a trot without taking back as they approach. They need to learn to leave the horse alone and trust him, and this is more quickly achieved by bringing the pace down to something that will give the rider confidence. If the horse breaks the rider’s trust and takes over as he approaches the fence, he must be corrected with a turn and a downward transition. I have found that just pulling a horse up on the straight after a jump is not the best way to make a correction without increasing his anxiety. Horses, as prey animals, have a strong flight instinct. If a horse feels prevented from moving away from a source of anxiety, he will become even more anxious. Turning the horse and quietly doing a downward transition is a much kinder way to make a correction.
Once the rider has learned to leave the horse alone at the trot, I then progress to canter and gallop. I try to teach my riders how light their contact can actually be in the gallop while still being in control of the pace.
Lungeing over cross-country fences
Obstacles such as water and ditches are sources of many cross-country problems. While many riders are experienced enough to work through it in schooling, some are often so lacking in confidence that they are unable to make their horses negotiate the obstacle. If I have a rider who cannot get her horse to go into water or over a ditch, I take her off the horse and put him on the lunge. It is much more difficult for a horse to fight someone who is lungeing him than to fight the rider. Another advantage of lungeing is that I am not forcing the horse to negotiate the ditch or water, I’m simply preventing him from not going over or through.
When you lunge over an obstacle, it must be small enough that the horse can easily walk toward it, take a couple of trot steps and then jump. Any kind of obstacle – logs, skinnies, banks – can be schooled this way as long as they are small enough. Depending on the horse’s level of training and the particular situation I may use either a lunge line or a set of long lines. I also sometimes have a person with a second lunge line on the other side of the horse. This is especially useful if the horse is not that experienced with lungeing, because I am not having to work on straightness at the same time that I am putting the horse over the jump.
I begin by quietly bringing the horse to the fence, water or ditch. I patiently and gently nag the horse; within a minute he usually goes over. Once the horse has gone over the obstacle a few times, I usually find that he will go on his own quite willingly, voluntarily picking up a trot and hopping over it. When the horse goes over the ditch or into the water, stop, let him settle and give him a pat. You might also give him a small treat, depending on your attitude toward giving treats by hand.
If I have had a second person lungeing the horse, this is the point at which I disconnect the second lunge line and have the horse go over the jump a few more times. The next step is to reintroduce the rider (with a lunge line – never long-lines), but in a passive way so that the horse takes the rider to the jump and not the other way around. I tell the rider to leave the horse alone as I lunge them over the jump. When that is happening with ease, I remove the lunge line and have the rider go over the obstacle on her own. Unless there is something dramatically wrong with the mind of the horse or the rider, this can all be achieved within one ride. By letting the horse go to the frightening obstacle on his own with no pressure from the rider, he gains confidence. It’s a tremendously important tool.
There are times when I will advise a rider that she should come down a level or stop competing and focus on resolving a problem. For instance, if a horse is eliminated with three refusals at a competition and we attempt to correct it by schooling, but the horse quits out again at the next competition, then it’s time to reassess. If he has three stops at three different fences, it might just be the result of greenness. But if the horse has developed an issue with one kind of obstacle, it has to be dealt with at home, and in a confidence-building manner, as opposed to a disciplining manner.
It is very important to be sure the problem has not been caused by a nervous rider who is not using her legs or is not consistent with her aids. In an ideal world, you would take that rider and put her on an experienced horse, and put an experienced rider on her horse to restore confidence. But in most cases people are stuck with the horses they have.
It’s up to the coaches to make sure they identify issues with rider nerves and put students in a competitive level that will give them confidence. Our responsibility is as much to the rider’s psychological state as the technical skills. As coaches we must make every effort to make sure the rider is deriving enjoyment from this wonderful sport, no matter what the level.