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27Jul 15

Timing and competition riding

Every so often I join one of my pupils at a competition. It has happened that I am sat waiting in my car in order for the rider to arrive some time later. I'm a strong believer in the  fact that arriving too early never ruins the day, but arriving  too late does. I simply do not see the point of putting all that training time in, paying substantial entry fees, filling my lorry up with a hundred quids worth of fuel in order to end up feeling rushed. Enough nerves are involved already and (don't take me wrong, a healthy lot of nerves can up your game) do not want to be running around like an idiot, proceeding to not be able to find things, getting moody with my horse when trying to get studs in, or worse, not getting them in at all.

I am going to paint you a picture: A red faced rider is moving in a stiff trot to the ring steward to find out where to go, knowing very well that there is very little time left to warm up. The horse had already figured out, the way it was yanked of the lorry and saddle and bridle chucked on that things weren't exactly relaxed and after the stiff trot has its adrenaline running even more so.  Result: frustration is unleashed with perfect timing when the bell of the judge rings.

What a shame, not only is the day partly or completely ruined, but also the chances of the next outing as horses do not forget anything, ever.

I am lucky to have sensible pupils  but also they occasionally underestimate holiday traffic or maybe their horse is a little less willing than normal to walk on the lorry. First piece of  advice: do not pass your hurry on to your horse, but stay in control of your emotions as that gives you the best chance to save what is left. A short but relaxed warm-up is always the better option.

The first time I competed in Cornwall it was in Launceston at Andrew Reeve's yard, some 25 years ago. Being Dutch the problem already started at home. I had to drive the lorry for some 10 minutes along a steep narrow lane, mirrors in, with no passing opportunities at all. No satnav to depend on then, so direction's written out on a large piece of paper. I knew my horse well enough that, it being her first competition as well, she would be 'full of it' to say the least. When I arrived Andy wasn't even up yet and there was no one to be seen. I was on top ever so relaxed well before the rest of the competitor's started to arrive and Marie took it in her stride, literally. I got of again and gave her a hay net for half an hour before I got back on for a short warm-up and she did great.  

Another timing problem, often for event horses at the beginning of the season, is that I hear riders  say: my horse was like an idiot for the dressage but when I got back on for the show-jumping it was fine. 

Simple solution, arrive early, work your horse for a short time, put it away just as you would between dressage and show-jumping, and get back on. Nine out of ten times it works.

If all this rings a bell to you,  then set your alarm a little earlier than you used to at a competition day. I bet it pays off!


14Jul 15

Humans and school, horses and training

The first years of a human being basically exist of being cared for and an enormous amount of enthusiasm when the first step on two legs is made or the first 'mama' or 'papa' is said. One can compare this to the first few years of a young horse where all it needs to learn is following its owner on a halter and lifting its feet for the farrier.

Being backed and hacking is nursery school, learning to accept the basics of dressage, jumping and some x-country schooling primary school moving on to GCSE's or A-levels, which is followed by a specialization, which one can compare to an apprenticeship, a college, or uni. After that it's time for a proper job with a pay cheque as reward.

Why these comparisons? Because we can use it in our training as it can help us to understand how to use our rein aids.


When the horse is backed and starts hacking it needs lots of encouragement and pets in order to feel safe and remain positive in this new and strange environment, just as the child in nursery, which generally also involves little outings.

This leads to learning to accept the rider's forward aids in many different situations, even when it is not entirely happy and possibly a little scared. So a little more discipline and respect is going hand in hand with the previously built trust.

Primary school: when schooling the basics in walk trot and canter on the flat we establish what is the horse's stiffer side. Once decided we now always pet the horse with the hand on the stiffer side of the horse's neck. This combines a  'thank you' with a relaxation of the rein on the side where the muscles are stiffer and shorter, however, through this aid/pet the horse is at the same time invited to relax and stretch the stiffer side. This will gradually turn into a softer bend in the more difficult direction, which helps the horse to come on the bit softer in both directions, rather than becoming more one sided.

GCSE's or A-levels: the horse is now progressing through Novice into Elementary, Medium, and the exercises are becoming more difficult, adding counter canters and lateral work. We want to help our horse to carry itself a little higher, remaining soft. If we would now continue to pet lower on the neck, not only would we invite our horse to bring its neck lower than wanted, we also would lose too much of the connection we need for that level of work.

The pet on the neck still on the slightly stiffer side turns into a gentle stroke forward and back on top of the mane.

Next step, college: The gentle stroke on top of the mane turns into the lift. Still the same hand and rein go up and forward at the same time, creating a diagonal movement toward the horse's ear. This helps the horse to free up on it's stiffer side at the same time as it is invited to collect more in a higher frame. As it is learning to be happy in a higher frame we have to adjust our rein length and ride with both hands higher than we were used to, in order to support the horse in its newly found frame.

At every level in the school system for human beings there are breaks during the day in order to not become overwhelmed with information. Of course at all stages we also give our horse regular breaks in walk on a long rein during the training sessions in order to relax both the muscular system and its brain . This is the time when we can thank our horse for it's achievements and pet it every way we feel like.

A job with a pay cheque: we will feel that the horse is understanding its job and hopefully, because we have done a good job, does its job full of enthusiasm. A small lift here or there is sufficient for the horse to feel happy and appreciated. We are more or less equals now, feel the partnership, feel as one. We have grown up together and the pay cheque is within sight: our first 60% or more at Advanced or Prix St. George with hopefully even more to come! 





01Jul 15

Aids are to help and submission is not slavery

When some years ago I was chosen to be part of a clinic with Conrad Schumacher, together with my Prix St George horse Marie, I jumped sky high for excitement as he was my guru. I had already been to some of his clinics as a spectator and was totally smitten by his training technique.

What really caught my attention was when he questioned the term 'submission'. He said he didn't like that word as it sounded as if the horse was your slave instead of rider and horse being a partnership. I loved that. 'Submission' stands for the German term 'durchlassigkeit' which is not easily translated. It means the aids are fully accepted and digested by the horse which subsequently turns it into self carriage and suppleness.

Now the term 'aids'. We have a bit in the horse's mouth, and a leg on each side. We can add to that a whip and spurs. Now we have the ability to yank, kick and whack as much as we like in order to create submission. If we don't achieve quickly what we want we try fiercer bits and sharper spurs. Great, now we have turned our horse into our slave.

The dictionary explains 'aid' as 'help' and that is how I look at the equine term 'aids'. Instead of looking at it as pressuring the horse to perform, look at it as helping the horse to achieve what you want it to do. 

Yet again I have helped a rider to turn her horse from a lazy, angry horse with dangerous explosions into a horse which shows every potential to compete at least at Medium level if not Advanced. He is still slightly awkward at times, but only because he gets frustrated when he wants to please but can't quite get his head around it, which his rider has learnt to understand. That is when we let him of the hook and do something easy which he knows and understands. Only last year you could not canter him without a chance of a rodeo. On outings he was a liability. A couple of weeks ago he went to his first x-country schooling session and behaved all the way. Why? Because he is happy that he feels understood and it makes him feel safe.

Turns out he's super sensitive, saw the leg as a threat and backed up on it. This was misunderstood by the rider who pushed more and more to the point of no return. We spent time on the lunge desensitizing him by teaching him the lunging whip can touch him without being a threat. This we could use on top as he now responded more positive to the whip which would be used educational; rather pointing at the place of the part of the body that needed to put in a little  more effort. Voice aids are important to him for active transitions: walk to canter is now a piece of cake, extended trot is showing incredible promise. Rider and horse can now finally have the love affair they so badly wanted. And...he can now be ridden from the leg without taking offence. The whips are more often than not retired to the cupboard!





Dressage Training

Dressage training needs variety, including pole work

Dressage Training

Dressage training needs variety, including pole work

About Liz Barclay

Her love for horses together with her dedication made her into the trainer and dressage rider she is, today. She is versatile and inventive and likes a challenge; whether it is a technical training question, a confidence issue or a problem involving the management of the horse or pony.


My book 'THE FARMER, THE COAL MERCHANT, THE BAKER...' with the subtitle 'A Personal Impression of the Development of the Gelderland Horse World' has been received with more enthusiasm than I possibly could have hoped for. Click here to contact me and I will send you a copy. £7.50 + postage, or click here to order from Amazon.