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Paul Tapner XC Masterclass Lecture/Demo at Keysoe – Report

IMG_6838This is a long one, but I didn’t want to miss out anything which might be a potential ‘lightbulb moment’ for someone, so I took reams of notes. I found the evening very educational, and really enjoyed it. I hope this is almost as good as being there, but you might need a coffee or two to get through it all!
If anyone can make it, Paul is doing another Lecture/Demo on the same subject on 18 November at Hartpury, bookable through the BE website. Full details HERE.

This evening, organised by British Eventing and the Eventing Riders Association (of which Paul is Vice-President) and kindly supported by Treehouse Sporting Colours (who kitted out all the riders) and Equitility (whose snazzy slide-onto-pole jump fillers were much in evidence), was well attended, and Paul did not disappoint. He shared a huge amount of his training ethos, delivered in his trademark energetic, enthusiastic, humorous style.

He showed that his system is very progressive, repetitive (because horses learn by repetition), with questions gradually getting more difficult. The same exercises, progressing from easy to difficult, were done by all 3 groups (2 riders in each, horse experience increasing in the 2nd and 3rd groups) but with the fences higher and the questions gradually ramped up for the later riders.

He made it clear that he has different expectations of the horses at different levels, over the same questions.

Most of his XC schooling is done in the arena, not with fixed fences. The horse must be familiar with ditches, water, steps up and down, but otherwise, the tests can all be done in the arena.

First, the importance of the rider’s position and balance was stressed.
After a warm-up at all 3 paces on both reins, he had the riders cantering on a big circle, while he asked them to go from two point seat to three point and back again, and to tip their lower body far forward, and then go upright, and forward again, in 2pt and 3pt. When the upper body comes up, the bum must be kept out of the saddle, and don’t straighten the knee.
When the upper body is lowered really close to the neck, don’t look down.

Screen Shot 2015-11-13 at 13.44.42He likes to see toes out (because it is impossible to grip with the knees if the toes are out, and it puts the legs more around the horse) and dislikes elbows out (he instructed the riders who had this habit to shorten their reins significantly, and put their hands up in front of them – this brings the elbows in.)
The most important thing in this exercise is that the canter SHOULD NOT CHANGE when the rider’s upper body goes forward or back, or the seat goes from 2pt to 3pt and back. Some of the horses reacted quite strongly to the rider’s position changing. You shouldn’t lose the canter or the security when going from very forward in position to very upright.
He told one rider: “when you use your leg, put the calf muscle on before you put the spur on.”
This is a good, easy exercise to do as part of your warm up.

From the canter – to halt. He wanted the riders to keep their bums in the saddle, not be lazy and lift them during the halt.

“When things start to go wrong, put the upper body up and back, and push the lower legs far forward” – which automatically puts the bum down into the saddle, a more secure position.

With narrow horses you can have shorter stirrups, with wider horses, longer stirrups, as the horse’s barrel takes up more of the leg. Especially so for longer legged riders.
The stirrups must be short enough for the rider’s knees to be bent while in 2 point.
When you stand up in the stirrups, (demonstrated at halt), the knee should not move at all.

Three point is safer than two point. Two point is for the horse’s comfort.

If you have straight legs when galloping, there is no shock absorption.

He advocates: Gallop along in 2 point, then go to 3 point position on final few strides of the approach to a jump, to feel what the horse is thinking, to influence what the horse is doing, to be SECURE.

The horse’s training.

After every exercise, he instructed the riders to “walk and pat”, explaining that a schooling session is like a visit to the gym – do a set, rest. Work 1 set of muscles, then rest.

The horse is a creature of habit, that is how he learns. One of Tapperz’ pet mantras is “Twice nice” or “nicely, twice”. Usually he wants a horse to do an exercise really well twice, before moving on.  But if the horse does it perfectly the first time, that is enough, don’t do it again.

Exercise 1.

They jumped a simple cross pole a few times, then came to the spooky water tray on its own.

Ride forward to a water tray (or ditch) – the horse is less likely to put a foot in it if you ride forward.
Coming to a ditch the first time – sit down, lower leg FORWARD, in case anything happens.

He wanted them coming in canter, so they would jump it properly, but, once one spooked at it, he had the rider keep legs on, straighten up and keep coming slowly, NOT turn away and try again from canter. The advice as they came to it the first time was “Imagine you are riding your dressage test at Badminton and this is the centre line”. He emphasised that the canter MUST stay the same all the way to the jump.

His young horses jump a water tray in the school before ever seeing a ditch.

Re: jumping from one direction, then coming the other way to the same question. He explained that a horse’s brain and eye are not very well connected Left to Right, being a grazing animal from the plains, so when you come to the same water tray from the other direction, it’s as if the horse has never seen it before.

Having jumped the water tray well on its own a few times, both ways, he added an upright 1 normal horse stride away (7 yards in this case – allow only 1 yard for landing or taking off at the tray, as it has no height. At all other fences, the take off and landing should be one and a half times the height of the fence – 6′ ish).

They jumped the water tray to upright, then the upright to water tray.

Safety.
Stereotype: on the XC, horses tend to concentrate on the ditch (or water tray in this case) and jump the fence before it badly, lay all over it, back off, etc. (It was noticeable that even the experienced horses’ jump style suffered slightly at the upright before the water tray.)
Therefore it’s good to have practiced this over show-jumps, so that the first time they see and have to cope with this question, the fences aren’t fixed!

Then he added another upright on another 1 horse stride distance, so upright, water tray, upright. (Gradually building up the difficulty.)

The Rider – Reward, Reactions.

In training, he wants to keep it all Softly, Softly, Gently, Gently, the horse doing it for you because you want it to.

He was very keen on patting the horse. “A pat costs you nothing.” He pats them often on the XC.
What he calls the “English Horse Disease – patting horses only when bringing them back to walk/halt, so if you pat them, they halt!”

Three seconds of association – the quicker your reaction to something as a rider, the faster the association in the horse’s mind.

There must be NO anger. NO emotion in the saddle. “This is the most difficult thing about being a horse trainer.”

He is very quick to say “DON’T DO THAT TO ME EVER AGAIN” and then 1 second later “YES, HORSE, EXACTLY THAT!”

Black/white. Rider must react immediately according to what happens.
In a sing-song voice, he chanted

“You are the nicest softest sweetest person who ever sat on its back”
to
A stern “NO
to
“You are the nicest softest sweetest person who ever sat on its back” again, to show how quickly one needs to react to make it clear to the horse that what it is doing is right or wrong.

Training
Inonothing, who he won Badminton 2010 on, was “probably the least brave horse I have ever sat on. We had to teach him bravery.”

“If you build it up gradually, the horse gets into the habit of saying ‘Yes, Yes I can, Yes I will try, Yes this is fun, Yes I will do it’. Then you test it in the competition. Then, next time at home, you make it easy, build up the trust again.” He said that this is a stage that some people leave out.

Screen Shot 2015-11-13 at 13.44.52

This clearly shows the 3 angled fences on the centre line. They can be jumped straight on 3 stride distances, or on curving lines of 4 or 5 strides.

Exercise 2.
The ‘three angled uprights on the centre line’ exercise. Straight down the middle, they walked 3 perfect horse strides. Or, they could be done 4, 4 with a bending line between, or 5, 5 with a bigger bending line. You must concentrate on going centre to centre at every fence, whether on 3, 4 or 5 strides. He wants it polished, straight in the middle of every fence, in rhythm.

Very hot on the fact that the horse must go STRAIGHT for at least 2 strides after landing over a jump, to teach straightness. Don’t let the horse drift/turn in the air.

When a horse jumped a fence with a lot of height, he said it was underconfident, and to definitely repeat that fence, don’t go higher or ask another question yet.

One rider turned away from the exercise when applause from the gallery for the previous rider pushed her horse off their approach line. Paul was very quick to point out that he doesn’t like to see that. “This is the sport of a million and one variables, so I never want you to turn away like that again” and “You have to deal with the distractions.”

Don’t wrestle with the horse, go ‘1/2 halt, soft’ on every canter stride, keep repeating this.

If he was doing the same 3-angled-fences exercise on a 4* horse, he would want to be able to do it on say 3, 5, to mix it up. The same exercise can be made much more difficult.
On the curving line, have a bigger canter on the more outside line to give confidence and have a better jump.

Sometimes you need to repeat an exercise for the rider’s benefit, sometimes for the horse’s benefit. It depends who made the mistake the first time.

Sports Psychology.

When he set the demo riders a course to jump, he did a jokey quick-talking commentary, as if they were going round Burghley, to put them under pressure and get them used to dealing with it.

Visualisation – it’s the first, most basic Sports Psychology technique. Rider needs to be able to visualise the whole course in detail. Recite which rein you will be on, the colour of the fences, what you need to remember etc.
If you have difficulty with visualisation go to the CrossCountry App and use that. You can upload photos of the fences etc and do instant run-throughs.

Forwardness.
When a rider was too quiet, had the canter insufficiently forward, he would tell them to “gallop down the long side” or “gallop across the diagonal”. He was very hot on the canter staying FORWARD.

“Make it easy for the horse.”

“Boring is good.
Boring means confident.
Repeat until boring.”

“When it is boring it is 100% on the aids and 100% confident.”

If the horse is making it look and feel really easy, ask another question.

Repeat until boring, then test them a bit more.

Just by repeating the exercise, the horse learns from his mistake.

If it was a big mistake, Paul might go back a step or two.

If it gets a bit ugly at a competition, go back a step, fill in the gaps in training, rebuild the confidence.

Train whatever the horse finds more difficult. If the horse finds it easy to lengthen, do the opposite.
“Don’t shy away from training what the horse is not good at.”
“School the weakness.”
But – be aware, don’t wind the horse up.
Visit a problem area often but don’t drill it!

“This is Horsemanship. Is the horse getting better from repeating, or is it getting worse from repeating?!”

With a busy, onward bound horse, he would do jump exercises, then go for a gallop, then come straight back and do the same exercises.

Do exercises which help the rider with their own weaknesses.

Give yourself the ability to win the argument, to solve the problem, such as good resources, allowing enough time, and so on. (He admits he is notorious for being late, and this is because he will always ride for as long as it takes. It might be 20 minutes, it might be 3 hours.) He arms himself with the facilities, with another horse to give a lead if necessary, or a person on foot. Another thing people could bear in mind is the possibility of putting a stronger rider on board.

“You cannot change the horse you have, you can only work to improve what you’ve got.”

He has his expectations of how a horse will go, but then reacts to what it does. Reactions are everything.

“You need to be able to create the canter the horse is not offering to you.”

“It needs to be FORWARD but not fast.”

When a horse is spooky at, say, a triangle skinny, ride more forward to give it more confidence the next time. The horses must get used to the skinny triangles, as there are so many of them now.

Striding – 2 strides to the height of the fence (top rail) not the base of the fence, at the triangular skinny.

After all the exercises, he strung it together to make a course. Make it FUN – let horses run and jump over a course, to test what the exercises have achieved.

Questions from the gallery.
What would he do with a horse with a water problem?
Take it to school through water as much as possible. He’d go XC schooling and spend a whole hour at the water, gradually building it up. Take it to a water jump the day before competition. Even take it somewhere en route to the event, to get its feet wet. (“You’re getting up early anyway…”)
If a horse had a ditch problem – they would jump ditches every day.

What to do about a horse which boggles at things when galloping between fences on the XC?
He wants them loose and relaxed, galloping in self carriage. The demise of the Long Format 3 Day with Roads and Tracks and Steeplechase has affected riders learning how to switch a horse off at the gallop, there is Lost Horsemanship.
Headcams are very useful because they show where the horse is looking as it gallops between fences. Inonothing liked gawping about as he galloped.

He has a reputation for being grumpy at competitions, but his concentrating face is grumpy. He is totally focussed on the job and will literally not hear someone talking to him.

Asked about horses which people have with various problems, he admitted that he teaches an enormous amount of people on horses and thinks “why are you even bothering with this horse? It’s hideous. Sell it, get a nice one.”

His regime at home.
His horses do something different every day. Different horses, different things. They all have 1 day off a week, and 1 day of hacking a week. Then they might swim, flat, jump school, xc school, etc.
He described hacking as “long boring rides” and leaves those to the other riders on the yard.

It’s important that the Vet is willing to work with Physio and Chiro.
Farrier needs to work with Vets.

Does he still have lessons?
Yes. He has about 4 lessons a week during the season. He has a Dr trainer, a SJ trainer, no XC trainer but they use a lot of video analysis. He also has a Personal physical trainer, and does a lot of work with Jon Pitts on a balance ball, for core strength.

Paul has a lovely way of teaching – humorous, enthusiastic, encouraging, relaxed, chatty, and yet precise and particular in what he wants, and why. This was a Lecture/Demo with a lot of great information in it, good exercises to go home and try, and lots of food for thought.

Big thanks to the guinea-pig riders, who all did a great job, and to Keysoe (the food was great, and the heaters hanging from the ceiling and aimed at the gallery are a really welcome touch!), the sponsors, BE, and most of all, Paul Tapner, for a very good and educational evening.

About the author

Kerry