This might be quite long as I took 24 pages of notes! The overall theme of the forum was the journey to the top. The main theme throughout is how all the disciplines interlink with good flatwork being the basis of everything and how the top coaches keep it simple.
The keynote speakers were Ian Woodhead (IW) who has moved more into eventing training in the last few years from his pure dressage background. Ian is married to Heidi Woodhead who is a 4* rider and has a daughter who has been on Pony teams so does have a background in eventing. Ian trains several top riders as well as Pony, Junior and Young Riders. Ian also runs the DHI International horses which sells top horses (DHI Topper ridden by Piggy French was sold by him).
Sir Mark Todd who needs no introduction and would be discussing the ‘jumping ladder’ and the steps through the levels.
Finally David O’Connor (DOC) and Mike Etherington-Smith (MES) would be discussing the course designer’s perspective and how the coach prepares the riders for the questions. MES was the course designer for the Beijing Olympics, Rolex, WEG and has been the technical advisor for several other top class events. He is currently the chief executive for British Eventing.
First up was Ian Woodhead – he was coaching Tom How who was riding the winner of both the 5yo and 6yo classes at the British Young Horse Championships Belco HRS (by the jumping stallion Hold Up Premier and is Selle Francais). Belco HRS regularly scores over 70% in his dressage and you can see why – he is elastic moving and very well put together. According to his rider he can be quite a hot/spooky horse but was maturing with age.
The horse needs to understand the movements and understand the aids to the movement. IW sees it a lot that riders often train at home with their competition hat on and actually they need to have their training hat on, so that they can train the horse to do everything and give extra help at a competition should the horse be affected by the competition. IW says the horse should be ridden in two outlines – the competition outline and the soft outline. The soft outline is that of the horse working longer and lower and is used to relax the horse as well as start the initial work before asking for more in the competition outline which is more uphill and adding extra sparkle.
The importance of straightness, riding the corners and that the weight in the reins has to be equal. Shoulder fore is used a lot to help any issues with the above. IW mentioned that he has changed his terminology dealing with eventers and will often relate what he wants to jumping. In the transitions the rider should do as little as possible and there was constant forwards and backwards of gears within the pace in order to balance the horse and make sure that there is no tension and that the horse is listening and waiting for instruction. IW then moved the pair up to the competition outline where the horse came up in front and had more expression in the pace. Transitions within the pace were again executed.
There should be no more speed in the competition outline but there should be an increase in energy. If there is tension in the competition outline then you can drop back into the soft outline, relax the horse and ask again. The horse should be able to move into both outlines easily when asked. When an aid is given the movement should happen. IW highlighted that it is better to make a mistake and rectify it than to try and cover it up. He does not want to see cover ups and he wants to make sure that the horse understands what has been asked.
A really interesting point that was mentioned several times is that the rider should always try to show the horse off on the short side of the arena as this is where is can be seen by the judge clearly. In leg yield training IW prefers straightness and not too much of a bend as it helps to keep the hind end engaged and a bend encourages the horse to fall through the shoulder. You need energy in the horses work as this helps the horse to hold itself up in balance.
IW encouraged Tom How to bend the horse round the inside leg on the short side before going across the arena in half pass. You do not push with the seat instead you are looking for the rider to be quicker with the legs. The horse became inattentive in the free walk so IW asked Tom How to do a large walk pirouette. IW said the walk pirouette was good for teaching lateral work as it had all the same aids as the lateral work needed further up the levels like Travers etc.
When you want expression you generate it from the inside leg and ask the horse to step through into the outside rein.
In the half pass, IW feels that the front legs do not need to cross. The rider needs to position the horse correctly and this will help not to lose the quality of the trot. IW said that the rider needs to be quicker with the feel of the rein instead of slow. If you move your fingers quicker, you get a quicker reaction. When this was asked to be explained further IW got Tom How to demonstrate a slow movement on the reins which the horse reacted to stronger and resisted rather than a quicker movement where the horse barely noticed the adjustment.
There was a break where a badly presented rider came in with poorly fitting clothing, dirty boots, badly plaited horse and poorly fitted equipment. IW highlighted that first impressions are very important. The judge needs to be sold to and a professional looking horse and rider will do this. IW was insistent that riders should not wear rider numbers at FEI and that bridle numbers looked far more professional. IW hates a saddlecloth which is too far forward as thinks it hides the horses shoulder too much.
Next in was dressage rider Matt Frost on an established dressage horse training at PSG level. Matt Frost was going to ride through 4* A dressage test and IW would discuss his thoughts as Matt Frost worked through the test.
IW said that all horses are different (hot/cold/spooky etc) and that he gets all riders to ride through the first 4 movements of a test and then walk. He does this because psychologically it makes a rider more positive if they do not make a mistake and any mistakes that do happen will be rectified. IW used the analogy of XC saying that if you have a miss at one of the first four fences on the XC then you will be more likely to ride backwards. A good feeling over the first four fences will mean you ride positively and carry on.
Dressage tests should be ridden very positively. You should be riding for the transitions. The main difference between dressage riders and eventers is that dressage riders have one chance to get it right and show off the horse while eventers have another two phases so there is a difference mentally in riding a test.
IW said when going round before the bell starts you should show off the horse’s strongest pace – if the horse has a weak trot then you canter. This is basic ring craft and showing off to the judge for free!
On the centre line, straightness is vital. Do not think about the halt too early.
After the halt there is a direct move into trot – it should be a clear transition and then show off the horse on the short side. Shoulder In should stay forward and the 8m circle is a hard movement to keep the horse up into the bridle and balanced. Setting up for the extended trot there has to be a clear transition and lots of energy collected after the extended trot to get the horse ready for the shoulder In. The rein back should be quiet and straightness in the canter. You need to prepare for the extended canter. The counter canter should be the same quality as true canter. The canter should be set up for the flying change and straightness across the centre of the serpentine loops.
In the serpentine loops, Matts horse started sucking back in the contact so Matt woke the horse up with some forwards canter to get the horse forwards again as the flying changes need the horse to be forwards in the canter.
In order to help event riders prepare for the flying change and to get the right canter – IW tells them to imagine they are riding downhill to a solid metal gate at the bottom of the hill. This is the canter they need to produce good flying changes and to make them come off the ground. He asked Matt to wait an extra stride in the flying change as it produced a flying change which was much better quality.
Matt Frost in giving feedback about the test said that 4* A was a hard test which asks a lot.
IW highlighted that the horse needs to feel confident in a test and on a horse that is shy he would ride through the test at least twice in the practice before going in and doing the test. You have to work out the best way to prepare a horse for the test as there are no set rules.
Finally the session was finished with questions from the audience.
How do you relate flatwork to jumping? The biggest thing IW believes is that the horse has to think for itself. Horses need to learn, understand and do it for themselves like jumping. He spends a long time working on the canter as the horse cannot be too well balanced in this pace.
There is a misconception of the word collection – canter can verge on four time. He likes to see more energy without using the reins. Collection for some kills the stride and slows the horse down. Collection should be about a shortened stride but with quickness in the horse’s legs.
IW uses the word tempo a lot. He hates to see riders push the horse out of its tempo and relates tempo to the speed of the horse’s legs not the distance that is covered by the stride. He finds riders can pick up this term very quickly.
If you make a horse a better gymnast he will be more trainable. It’s all about making them supple. IW thinks every horse is trainable and though there are many roads to Rome, we all are aiming for the same result.
A lot of training is about doing opposites. If the horse carries its head too low then you get it to carry it higher than it is used to at home. If you want to see quick results then do the opposite of the problem which is presenting itself.
Has the success of Team GB in dressage helped? The success was an inspiration and Carl Hester proved you could have a horse that was light in front and creating a nice picture though there is perhaps not as much power as has sometimes been seen from some of the other methods seen. It has changed the way people think and the judges now want to see the horse perform this way. Eric Smiley pointed out that some riders tried to copy some of the top dressage riders in the past and often got into trouble but with the current style, riders could not really get into trouble as all about harmony.
There was a question about using the seat – IW said in collecting the canter riders should not drive through the seat instead, the rider should use their legs, sit lightly and take purchase through the stirrup. The rider should sit and the horse should carry you. The lower leg should be loose and when you touch with the leg it should happen. You should ride with a quick/light leg but not a strong leg. Weight in the stirrup and not clamped to the side.
How do you train the rider? The rider needs to understand what they are doing. In a training session IW would be very much on the rider’s case especially about their position. The better riders can sit and make a horse do a movement but the horse might not understand what it’s doing as the rider is making it happen. Like jumping a skinny the horse has to be able to understand what it is doing. IW does not have a problem with rising or sitting but a good sitting trot will help raise the forehand as long as the horse is in balance.
Sir Mark Todd (MT)
The riders for MT were Kitty King a 4* rider on a 6yo horse, David Doel a medallist in juniors on Koyuna Sun Magic who has competed at 4* with Wendy Schaeffer and Louise Harwood a 4* rider on an advanced horse.
There are two areas that gymnastic jumping will improve
Technique, balance and strength
MT says when it comes to jumping do not throw the flatwork out of the window. The canter should be controlled and balanced so that you can reach the fence in a balanced way. MT likes riders to think about strides. He sets up poles with no set distance to get riders to play with speed, stride length.
The first exercise that was placed out was:
2/3 strides between 6/7/8 Strides
MT would do this exercise on both reins and in both directions; he also likes horses to land on the correct leads.
The follow on from the above exercise was a simple cross pole which the riders had to jump in a figure of 8. In order to encourage the correct lead the rider should be looking to the direction they are going, open the hand in the direction they are going without pulling on the rein and twist the body very slightly.
Do not lean to the direction you are going over the fence and make sure you are balanced in the centre. Kitty King looked down over the horses shoulder when going over the fence and the horse did not change.
To make the exercise harder you decrease the size of the circles. The circle helps to balance the horse. The horse will eventually learn that when you open the rein when jumping courses which lead you want it to land on. This means you do not have to make a change when you have landed. When doing this exercise also make sure you go for the waiting stride as the fence is small and if you are going too long it will encourage the horse to get flat. Make sure you keep the rhythm. As a rider you should start looking at the fence as soon as you are parallel.
One of the things MT commented on was that novice riders will only keep glancing at a fence. You should always look ahead and the sooner you can do that the better chance you have of seeing a decent stride.
The next exercise was set out as below.
The idea of the exercise is for the horse to change over the middle canter pole. You build the exercise up with leaving out the oxer until you are satisfied with the quality of the canter over the canter pole before you add the oxer on a curve.
When the riders and the horses were doing this successfully with the 4 strides and the change happening over the canter pole an additional gymnastic line of fences was added which looked like below.
MT will keep putting them up and making them wider so the horse really has to use its body. He would never get much bigger than 1.20m in height as this would be tiring for the horse. For a young horse he would be careful as you are shortening the distance when widening the oxers so making the exercise hard for them.
The video below shows the riders completing the exercises together.
Kitty King’s horse being the youngest drifted down the line in order to make room for himself. In order to make him straighter and work correctly, poles were added to stop the drift.
The riders then moved onto just doing the grid line and followed by a turn to an oxer.
After doing this exercise the course was introduced. With verticals MT likes to have a ground line especially if they are slow in front. It is more modern thinking that the horse should be kept off the fence to help make a better shape than in the past being encouraged to bash the pole out.
Kitty King on the first time round the course after all the exercises were about shortening the canter did not take this into the course and it all looked a bit stilted. When made to go again opening up the canter all the distances came up better.
Kitty 2nd time – notice how she gets 6 this time between the triple bar to the double of uprights.
The riders were encouraged to get 6 strides from the triple bar (2nd fence) to the double of uprights and though Louise made it look easy attacking the triple bar to easily get the 6, David struggled on a horse that was very adjustable. MT said that though Louise perhaps over attacked to get the 6 with a question like that you are better to have a positive 2/3 strides after the triple bar so you can sit and wait for the double of uprights. This is better than ending up chasing them. You should think land and move up a gear as a rider.
Louise making it look easy especially on the 6 strides.
With any course after 5 strides you are dependent on the horse and how easily it can be adjusted. The horse should be able to lengthen and shorten immediately to give you options. The more options you have the better to jump a clear round.
Questions were then asked.
With green horses do you not pull out the 21ft on the grid work exercise? If the horse starts to struggle then you have gone too far. MT never goes above 1.20m/1.25m for more experienced horses. It’s a good exercise for strengthening. MT did say the hardest thing was being disciplined to set it up in the arena!
Why do you not use ground lines on grids but do on verticals? Ground lines on grids are set distances. You are aiming not to help them in a grid so that they have to think for themselves. Ground poles on fences help them to stay off the fence and to use the shoulder in a better way. It makes horses slow/back off. Jumping inverted does not teach them anything so it’s better to teach them in a good way.
Jeanette Brakewell asked about stirrup length jumping – MT said everyone rides differently but still train in the same way. As long as the rider is balanced and has influence over their body in a positive way then it’s not a problem. The horse needs to be off the leg and obedient. MT said he did not get a chance to work on riders positions much as limited in time but this would normally be a consideration.