Everything Else Training

A jumping breakthrough thanks to Murphy Himself.

A few days ago I took delivery of a copy of ‘MURPHY HIMSELF and Glenburnie’, this one, and began reading it from cover to cover, mostly for research for an article I’m writing, but also as a bit of a self-indulgent wallow, immersing myself in memories of the best event horse I have ever seen, of which more elsewhere at a later date! If you’re a fan of Ian Stark’s ‘grey boys’, it’s a must. Loads of wonderful pictures, anecdotes and insights.

A few things in there really got me thinking about my jumping problems at the moment with my mare. She’s opinionated, and thinks that the solution to a problem is to accelerate into it… and because of that I get a bit control-freaky with my reins short, which she doesn’t appreciate at all. She then locks her back and her neck a bit (or sometimes a lot) and doesn’t bascule properly. She’s leaving them all up because nothing’s bigger than 1 metre-ish until I sort this very basic problem out at home, but it doesn’t feel good enough to go much bigger at the moment. I realise she needs them bigger to make her make an effort, but if she’s accelerating to the fences too much (which she might not do if they’re bigger to back her off, I know) and runs past the distance I’ve seen and buries herself, the fences will be too big to get away with it, and I seriously want to keep her confidence! Argh, it’s so complicated!

I tried using poles on the floor, but she is one of those who just doesn’t find them helpful at all. She’s rather “I want to concentrate on the fence, get these things out of my way!” They increase the problem for her instead of laying it all out more easily. They confuse her: when I did a grid with them between the fences and and then took them away, this was the result:


Oh dear, a ‘Murphy moment’, I do like her optimistically pricked ears… we nosedived through the back bar but luckily landed fine!

Lots of people blithely say “he took a stride out” when they mean that the horse stood off an extra yard or two, but it’s pretty rare to leave a full stride out plus take-off distance, i.e. about 6 yards.

This was a perfect distance, and I’d approached the grid in a steady trot, so there was no steeplechase-stride encouragement! When we took the poles away she took one stride then launched (in a two stride distance) taking me totally by surprise. Somehow I slipped my reins fast enough to avoid socking her in the chops, but it really wasn’t a good feeling at all, I’m very lucky that she didn’t get the pole between her legs and we didn’t hit the deck…

I learnt a lesson and will never again remove poles from a grid without changing the question!

So, for now, we’re avoiding poles near fences since that overcomplicates things apparently, playing with various exercises, and working really hard on improving the canter and keeping it soft and in an even rhythm and stride pattern all the way to the fence, without going to the hand. I was lucky enough to get to watch David O’Connor coaching a few weeks ago and he kept saying “don’t go to the hand” on the way to a fence. Which, of course, is much easier on a horse who stays in a good rhythm, and doesn’t make a bid for the fence!

Anyway, back to the book. When describing how he decided it would be best to ride Murphy, after their first few exploratory events together, Ian Stark says that he thought the horse was jumping away from the rider’s hands, that he did not like being anchored. This rang a bell somewhere in my mind… Now, I am not for one moment saying that my little mare is in any possible way similar to Murphy (well, 4 hooves and a tail plus an opinionated brain probably just about covers it) but that sounds suspiciously like the same sort of issue as I’ve been having.

So new exercises were carefully set up, and we gave it a go. Warm-up over a cross-pole and an upright. A grid of three parallels with 1-stride between them, all good. A small upright on a perfect 4 stride distance to a bigger upright jumped well, so the second upright went up. Next time I got a good canter, jumped in and, determined to do NOTHING with my hands on the way to the bigger fence (however great the temptation), I just softened forward with my hands and fixed my eyes on the walnut tree beside the arena, I didn’t even look at the fence. Four strides, no interference, and she sailed it happily. This was more like it…

The back bars of the parallels in the grid went up, we popped in and I left it to her to sort out. Good. The front bars went up to put them all back to true parallels (I did it in stages as these would be the biggest parallels she’s jumped, and I didn’t want to give her a shock with 3 in a row!), and, again with no help from me once we left the ground at the first, she did a really nice job. Maybe a tiny bit quick but that might just be a residue of rushing against the hand before, and expecting me to interfere again… so many variables.

We didn’t have a single misser or dodgy moment, we didn’t have a single pole, we both finished very confident and happy and wanting them all bigger. 🙂 🙂 🙂

Thanks, Ian & Gillian. Bet you didn’t realise you’d be giving someone a lightbulb moment about a totally different horse, more than 20 years after publication!

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