After Peter Menet’s fascinating talk about saddlery came Nicola Wilson who is an Amerigo ambassador. Nicola had two riders to go through exercises that she would typically do with her horses in an arena over the winter to improve cross country skills and keep horses sharp.
The first exercise was two uprights on a large circle. Both fences were not very big and were at 3 o clock and 9 o clock on the circle from each other. This exercise was a simple one but it improved the rider’s eye, the horse’s eye and rhythm.
The first rider set off on the exercise and the recurring theme which came from Nicola was do not take your eye off the fence. Too many riders look too late at the fence and they should be looking at the next fence before they have landed from the one they are jumping. By keeping your eyes on the fence the horse will know where they are going. Nicola also picked up that the horse should be into the outside rein and that the rhythm should remain the same all the way round. As well as looking for the next fence and keeping the rhythm, you should be jumping straight and in the centre of the fence. Being straight over the fence will encourage the horse to land on the correct lead.
Nicola talked a bit about using your peripheral vision as a rider while you are focusing on your next fence. This is the soft vision which is not directly focused on the task ahead but it will stop you from crashing into anything while you are on your route to the next fence. It is this skill that a lot of riders could do with improving and coming from a rugby background is a skill I have been coached in a lot but is never mentioned in riding. Its a pretty useful skill riding in the warm up and one that can be practiced to be improved. Riders need to tell the horse where they are going with body language and sight.
Nicola picked up that first rider that his hands need to be soft closer to a fence. This allows the horse to judge his distance.
‘As riders we should be strict with the rule book, but quick to reward.’
With the second rider, Nicola picked that the riders reins became longer as they went round. ‘You want the rein to be in front of you without getting longer.’
Moving onto typical fences anyone might have at home, Nicola uses two blocks a lot. When starting off she will want horses to trot into the fence, take the neck out and look. The horse has to learn to think for himself. Thinking for themselves was a key theme which came throughout the demo and one which has helped Nicola have the amazing cross country horses that she has had.
‘As riders we make mistakes so horses need to be reactive and working it out.’
Watching one of the riders Nicola commented ‘open your hands a little bit, the nose of the horse should be forward.’ The horse jumped to the left even with guide poles on the blocks. ‘Next time jump, halt and then turn round and come again. The process does not need to be quick.’ When the horse got it right Nicola told the rider to make a fuss of the horse. Nicola said you should always start with guide rails so that what you are asking is not a trick. Educate and give confidence.
‘That is what we want, the horse clever with his feet and the nose forward.’
The second riders horse drew back a little in himself while jumping the fence. Nicola told the rider that a little more leg would have stopped the horse sucking back so much in the neck.
‘At home you are not testing but developing. You are increasing the intensity of the questions but in a fair way.’
The second rider was told to lighten their seat as going round. ‘Just because you are in an arena it does not mean you need to have the horse compact and ride off your seat. Prepare for the fence by having a preparation point to organise.’
‘Your hands must be out in front. If the hands are too high and you draw them back to your body it acts as a handbrake on the horse.’
The riders were then asked to jump a corner. ‘Stare at the corner, balance, right gear for the fence and focus. Horses need think time. Its important to turn them onto the line before you ride them forward and commit in order to give them this time to work out the question.’ Trotting fences was highlighted as key skill for horses to learn so that they can be reactive and use their brains.
From this the riders moved onto angled rails question. Nicola pointed out to the rider that his horse rattled the poles in one direction as it was slightly more pressurised this direction and the horse was not given enough time to work out the question.
‘It is equally as important to practice the transition (gear change) as it is the fences themselves.’
‘As a rider, don’t tip forwards it upsets the horses balance.’
Another top tip that Nicola gave was about walking courses and making sure that you are always thinking about what happens next. It makes things easier for the horse and your rounds smoother.
Jump stands are used within fences like corners and angled rails to make the question harder and shorten the gaps.
The audience was asked if they had any questions for Nicola.
How often do you jump your horses? ‘Difficult to say as its all very individual. I use cavalletti style exercises a lot as there is more focus on fun. I would add and remove strides for practice on advanced horses who did not need to jump but needed to stay tuned up. ‘
How would you cope with a forward going horse which struggles to stay in a rhythm? ‘I would use the exercise I showed tonight on the circle. It gets the horse into a rhythm. The fences are not high so you can keep going. The more we pull, the more the horse pulls. So use a good half halt in the outside rein if you need it and then use your body to re-balance and then soften so the horse learns to keep a good rhythm. Bulana (winning 3* horse who is fiesty and strong) would be a horse like this. When I first had her she used to go round looking at her feet. It has taken a long time with poles and cavalletti so she could breathe and go its ok. I have been very focused on teaching her to keep her poll up and her nose out. It has been a process of patience and continuity. I do not need big fences to teach all these things.’
How do you warm up before jumping? ‘This varies from horse to horse. An easy one will have about 40 minutes before cross country at a three day. Bulana would be the type who is ridden hours before and then have a reduced warm up before the test.’
How soon do you take young horses cross country? ‘As soon as possible. I would get them a lead from an experienced horse to make them confident and to make it fun. The sooner they are out and about on different surfaces the better. I would normally want them confident over show jumps before going.’