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International Eventing Forum – Andrew Nicholson – Young Horses

The Andrew Nicholson session was the last one of the day and was incredibly insightful. What I took away was that this was a system honed by years of experience and a system which worked for him. Many of the exercises he made look ridiculously easy and already I am seeing people try some that he talked about, and they are not working for them as immediately or simply as they thought. This is one of the best riders in the world and we should not forget that. What it gives is an insight into is his system and how it works for him. The exercises that Andrew did throughout the session were exercises to make the rider think. Also for me they were exercises that taught the horse to think and deal with things coming up quickly which are essential in modern day eventing. Andrew is clearly a rider who rarely makes a mistake but his horses are taught over small fences to think, learn and develop for themselves in a way which is positive and never leaves them with a bad experience. It gives them the tools as they go up the grades to deal with things when they don’t go right.

10929097_780008012048329_3958934611208480424_n The first horse Andrew bought out was the stunning grey 5yo Zachariah. Zachariah was started in November but this was a horse who had everything going for him. He has clearly been started in an incredible system and he is considered by Andrew a very exciting prospect and one who has every chance of going 4*.  Bred in Spain and he is by Ramon Beca’s TB stallion and one of his first crop. This horse is no ordinary mortal!

Andrew does not compete apart from at events. He would never go to an event to get on the same wavelength as a horse and a horse’s first outing will be an affiliated one, no unaffiliated outings first.

His 4/5yos are worked for approximately 20 mins but during that time Andrew expects their full attention. When the leg goes on the horse must react. They can look at something, but they must go forwards. If they look at a jump they must still move away from the leg. All the time Andrew is riding the hind legs. Even on a loose rein the walk must be active. Andrew does not ask his horses, he tells them what he wants. As a rider he aims to be positive but not half-hearted. Andrew wants his horses to be sharp and responsive.

Andrew wants his horses to be agile and athletic. This horse floats across the ground and already the canter is balanced. While cantering around – Andrew explained that a little forwards and back in the canter are simple basic things that the horse should be able to do.

Jumping is always at the back of Andrew’s mind, and the cross country is the most important bit, hence his 4/5yos are taught on the gallops. When a horse goes up the levels it has to be willing and he does not like them to feel fat and heavy. He wants athletes. (Referring back to the fitness article youngsters go up the gallops at a far slower speed than older horses.)

‘Ride the canter, strong, strong, strong and from the back.’

Andrew does not trot into fences because ‘we compete at canter and we can get anxious about trot. ‘ Andrew reiterated throughout that just because he does not trot into jumps, this does not make it the right choice for all riders. It’s just what works for him and what he prefers.

‘Ride the rhythm.’

‘Lots of people think I take whatever stride there is. I am the opposite to this. I like to know what stride I am on. If I tip up then I have left it too late [to make a speed/balance correction before the jump]. It’s because I have pushed the boundaries or tried to make it smooth for the horse. The smoother you get to a fence the less tiring it is for the horse.’

‘I am not training show jumpers, I don’t want them ballooning fences and looking spectacular because then I know when I go cross country schooling they are going to frighten themselves. I find doing these little things they learn to pop, they don’t step, they pop and this is similar to what I want cross country, especially if it has a drop.’

Andrew started popping Zachariah over some small fences.

‘This horse has a beautiful balanced canter so he makes the stride pattern feel easy. A nice contact in each hand, 10952559_780009112048219_5999593508384445676_nquiet, quiet. That was a bit of a sloppier jump than I intended because I was a bit too quiet.’ Andrew came round and had a bit more canter the second time which produced a better jump.

Andrew had set out an exercise with 4 fences on a 20m circle effectively like the 12, 3, 6 and 9 on a clock. (See our previous article for more details on setting up this exercise)

‘The horse needs to react. The horse made mistakes so I keep riding the canter. Keep the rhythm. Then the horse gets the hang of it. Repetition is what we do.’

‘Its all very simple stuff but as a rider you have to be back in position very quick. Some of you when you ride at home try it but I can assure you it’s a lot harder than you think. You can put the poles on the floor but in my experience it does not matter if you go round 100 times, but the moment you lift them up it becomes much harder. Its just 10m from the centre to the centre of each jump but it’s from the repetitiveness of it that the horse learns rhythm, he also learns that he has to land and then pick himself up to the next one.’


‘ At home I would have two fences at higher cups but he is not quite ready for that yet. Hopefully the next horse will show you that. It’s quite a difficult exercise with two raised up of the four. It helps balance them for the dressage. Whereas jumping grids in a straight line does not really help baby novice horses like this balance. In a straight line they often start rushing whereas with turns they come very quietly.’

‘Just when they start to get tired we pop V poles on the fence [separate parallel in middle of arena]. So the horse has something to focus at the top, as the jump changes we have to make sure he does not back up too much. The jump the horse making over the fence with v poles is now back up to what we want.’


‘All the time the canter is active so we can feel we can come back or go forward. Round the corners it is the same, we play at keeping his canter active.’

‘I know a lot of you would not believe me when I say this horse has not been out before apart from the cross country schooling but I know how green he was when he arrived in November and how much he has changed but its this horse’s attitude. He feels really cool, but he studies what he needs to do. He can look at you (the crowd) and listen to me. I think he has a big, big future this horse.’

Horse 2 – 5yo bred with showjumping lines. 

‘This is another 5yo, he is Spanish and the same sort of breeding as Quimbo and Quanza that I have. He is more Showjumping lines so he will have a lot more warmblood than Zachariah. I have had him a year now and he has done a lot at home and hopefully he can jump very well. He might make some mistakes but he will hopefully show you he can jump very well. But for me when you get to the big stuff this one’s jump is very much like a showjumper, which is very powerful which can make it quite difficult when you start to go fast and need to turn quick. Not because they don’t want to turn but because the power of the jump makes it more difficult to land and turn. Nowadays on the big courses at 3 and 4* level there is a lot of jumping wide fences and then turning three strides to a narrow fence and then turning the other way so that the horses don’t have time to see them until a stride before it. These power jumps makes it a bit harder. But if they want to do it, anything is possible.’

‘This horse would take a lot more galloping than the grey one. The grey one gallops like a TB this one feels like a warmblood. They just don’t have the same size engine.’

10015166_780009285381535_5337113986384034048_n‘We half let him look at what it’s about but we also tell him to keep going, and play with the front end. The reason I am trotting round is I don’t want him to have too long to think and start getting nervous with everyone here. Just shows you that however much you do at home its not quite the same as coming out.’

‘With this horse’s canter, I would sit there thinking of riding like a cowboy, soft, supple and going with the movement of it. Every time he makes a mistake quickly correct it in a nice, no fuss way.’

‘Going over a few poles on the ground to keep him occupied with me. The other thing is I have an awful lot of horses to ride each day, especially this time of year so if its a jumping day, I either have a course of jumps and they go round that. Sometimes they might not even have a practice jump, they might just go round the course of jumps which are put up a few holes and they go round again. Or they might do exercises like the circle. It has to be something which is quick to fit into the system but that the horse is learning something.’

‘As this horse was trained to be a show jumper he switches onto the fence very quickly. He has a much shorter stride pattern than the other horse. That is the work he has done in the past year compared to the grey one.’

‘The canter goes disunited but we just keep going, keep going and pop. He has to do the jump. All we do is ride the rhythm of it and it’s up to him to do it. That is the nearest that I get to in not looking for the stride. I look for the stride for the first fence on the circle exercise and then start to ride the canter. The reason we have single poles is one, if you make a mistake you can hit it out and its not the end of the world, you can put a few poles it gets a little complicated if you make a big mistake and you can get tangled up. The second reason is if you put the poles up you can get deep to a single pole and they can snake over it. We want them to learn to do a quiet, slithery jump which is how I want them to jump coffins. So rather than go cross country schooling to a vertical like this, the horse will know what to do, they have learnt all that in this system.’


Two of the fences on the circle opposite each other were then put up so 12 and 6 were at about 1m and fences 3 and 9 were about 60cm.

‘The reason I did not put them up for Zachariah he that he would jump the bigger one very big which then makes the little one, very difficult. Its like, cross country you would often have a vertical fence even at 1* and it may be one stride to a small log into the water. The log is small, the one stride becomes one and a half because the horse has jumped the first fence and looked down to shorten the stride and when we put this one up, often the little one is the one that becomes the difficult one, because you are not on the right distance and the horse’s eye level is going down. So it teaches you how to deal with that, you are going on feeling and instinct and the horse is doing the same.’


‘Since this horse has had a jump he has got more focused. Just the same, rhythm. That’s it. See what I mean about the little one becomes the tricky one? We move him up a gear and then quiet again. Forward. Notice how the little one became the tricky one, twice he snaked over the vertical and was on that half distance he has to deal with it. There are no tricks involved. That is the beauty of the circle with verticals you can let them move in or out to create a distance. If you make crosses you have to be in the centre which is good in straight lines but for me, I always prefer verticals.’

‘See how cool and calm he is about it all. There is no rushing, it does not seem to hot them up like a lot of sorts of jumping does. I am sure half of it is because it’s a constant circle and quite hard work for them. They have to keep pushing with the hind leg. The other thing is as it’s a circle you can move them in and out to help with the distance without fiddling with them.’

Andrew then moves onto the next exercise which is two planks near the wall at about 70cm.

The planks are set 5m off the wall,  4m to the vertical off the wall, 8m to the vertical  on a straight line from the planks and 10m to the other planks. 

‘Normally at home I would have them nearer to the wall. I think here they are about 5m off the wall. We would have10639525_780009335381530_5803904455741538212_n them about 4m from the wall at home. It’s like the rest of it, it all looks very easy at this height but it’s when you put them up that it gets tricky. I think at the moment it’s quite difficult at the height they are. It’s all to teach rideability. We want the horse to learn that when we want to turn, we want to turn and that why we want to turn is because there is going to be a jump. The idea of them being little, is so that if they make a big mistake they can get over them and the other reason is that the planks seem to be more forgiving than a round pole.’


‘Just when he thinks we are going left, we go right. You would be amazed as a rider, how quick you have to react on the landing.’

‘Just when they know which way they are turning, you turn the opposite. I know already with this one that he likes to turn left. At home he is very even but here under a bit of pressure with all the people watching he is very quick to go left after the jump. That will be with him forever and is obviously what he likes, he is quicker turning left.’

‘Now we are going to come off the wall, over the plank, over the vertical and back over the plank which might be hard to do!’

‘We don’t know how many strides we are doing it on, but we just pop and deal with whatever distance there is.’

‘It’s the same, teaching them to respond to the distance, teaching me to get my balance as soon as I land. Get behind them but still allow them to go forward and then allow him to deal with the distance at the plank. It’s not an exercise to make them jump higher and more spectacular, they are nearly opposite. They are to get him jumping economically and efficiently. They must also be rideable in their mouth.’

‘Ideally, I would want their head up but he is young and will be getting tired so we let him put himself in a comfortable place, then we pick him up, we pop, we pop this, we turn round at that and we let him go down again.’

‘Riding the rhythm, quietly, quietly, quietly. So you see how, one it makes him tired, which is good as I always like to do things which make them tired. They sleep better. They are also better to ride the next day and you are giving them a purpose of what you want to do. When I say turn left, I mean turn left because a jump is coming. It teaches them to start looking for a fence, to carry their canter when they land. It can look very easy, for sure on my older horses they go round this exercise like its nothing for them, but for these it makes them very easy to ride on a level stride when you put the fences up.’

‘This one is quite clever at doing enough, yet when he needs to he can jump round quite an impressive set of jumps for a baby, very powerfully and much like he is a professional at it. But when I have taken him cross country schooling he has been very economical, which is what we want. People watching love to see them jump high and powerfully but at the end of the day it makes them very tired and its hard work for them. If they can learn when they are very young that they lift the front legs up and then the back legs up that is all we want them to do. The quicker they are from A to B, the easier it is on them. It’s easier for them to come out the next day for the showjumping and be careful.’

‘What I have a habit of doing is riding too sloppy to fences. I am always in my mind trying to make it easy, half the art of being able to ride fast is to let the horse glide up to the fence so I know exactly how many strides to get up to the jump but I am letting the horse get a very easy jump. With the showjumping what you would want, is to sit them down and then ride forward and ride the distance up to the jump, which a lot of riders on the cross country do. They go backwards before they go forwards. That makes a nice jump but it’s very time consuming.’

‘It’s not the same smoothness up to the jump. Now we can finish with the oxer.’

Any Questions?

How do you start them jumping? – ‘When they are first broken, I would have the jumps just around the arena like maybe a course of jumps that I have just been jumping or exercises like this. Once I get them cantering, they would canter to a little vertical and jump. Then I might only jump 4/5 jumps but I would not stop. Every time you stop the horse has time to think and often if they are a good jumper they will come and jump greener and think it’s not so easy after all, whereas if you jump 4/5 jumps and stop. You come out the next day and I might just work them around the jump which stops them bucking which is why I ride them in a jump saddle and there is something to go round instead of thinking about where they are going to dump me, they get used to looking at them.’

‘It’s normally about the third or fourth time that they start getting suspicious of it all. It’s always from canter and it’s very simple and they have to do it. If they come in looking, looking, looking, then I will just keep my legs on and tell them to keep going and they can bunny hop as long as they get to the other side.’

‘I never teach them from trot, because I am not good at it and they come to it and start drying up. Whereas with canter I can sit behind them and tell them to keep going.’

Economical Jump? – ‘If you have a horse with an economical jump I would still do the exercises because if they have an economical jump it does not mean they are careless and you still need rideability. When they are young, they need to learn to turn left/right, pull your legs in and as a rider you need it. Too many riders I see, they only have one horse and they are going off to 1* level, no way can they learn what I can have learnt with their one horse, there is not enough time and experience for them but I have found with these sort of exercises you have to be reading the way very quick and it’s very important to keep your balance. It’s worth trying it, just to maintain the canter is one thing let alone adding the rest.’

How Often? – ‘I may go through a stage of doing this exercise two times in a week and then I may venture into doing something else two times. The circle exercise would be the warm up and then I would jump six fences like a course but first I have gone two times round the circle each way, put them up and go again and then go round the course of jumps. There might only be six jumps but there will be a double, vertical and oxer, just simple things. Once they start competing they might not do it again unless they have a problem.’

‘It’s not speed coming into the fence, I am not yahooing into it, there is just more ground cover and I am sitting behind them so you know if you have a horse which is a bit spooky. The moment you change the fence you ride it a gear stronger, than you did the time before. It’s thinking ahead of what is happening.’


About the author


An amateur rider who produces all her own horses. I have competed at novice level and sadly never got further due to bad luck with horses but I am still ambitious to achieve a lot more. I have a riding qualification in UKCC2 and a diploma in NLP. Sports science and particularly the mental game fascinates me. For a day job I work for a large multinational brand.