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30Dec 16

Flora scared of a few jumping poles? Never...

The first time I met Jen on Flora, I could not help but think: this is the weirdest canter I've ever seen. I can't even describe it as a four-time beat or a rabbit-hop; it was unlike any other 'wrong canter'; she held herself completely rigid. Flora looked grumpy and lazy, something that Jen was very aware of. To add to the problems, Flora would more often than not strike off on the wrong lead on both reins.

The other issue was that Flora would shy every single time she went along the long side where the jumping poles were stacked. 

I see it time and again: when a horse is on the rein of its stiffer side, it resents the correct lead in canter and it picks on things outside the arena that are not scary on the other rein. Both problems will miraculously disappear when the horse accepts the bend around that particular leg. Flora, however was rigid in both directions.

Before Jen started her lessons with me, she got the vet to fully investigate for any potential lameness/spinal issues and even had her scoped for ulcers. As these all came back clear (and with feedback from her breeder who she is in contact with- very helpful!) it was looked at as a trust/training (and probably lack of strength too) issue rather than any medical cause.

I strongly believe there is not ever the one and only way of training to solve problems such as these. Yes, there is the golden rule which works for strong professional riders with the perfect seat and perfectly quiet legs combined with maximum impact, but that level of riding is not even possible for the best rider who has only got the one horse to ride and a full-time job.

Most of my riders have not got the leg power to break through that initial moment which makes the horse accept and respect the leg to the extend that is light ever after. I have learned from experience that spurs do not solve this until the rider has learned to maintain his or her leg still and sufficiently forward. Sadly, many riders seem to suffer from sitting too far forward with their shoulders and calves too far back (possibly related to training often in bad weather and heavy wheel barrows?), with the bald spot too far back on the rib case as a silent witness. 

Back to Jen and Flora. Although Flora was backward she did not strike me as a 'rearer' so I gave Jen a short jumping crop with which she was going to tap Flora's inside shoulder (the shoulder of the inside front leg that needs to lift higher for the correct canter) one stride before she wanted to make the transition into the right canter. This would give Jen the chance to sit stiller and straighter whereas the whip merely pointed out to Flora to lift that leg higher, This would hopefully create an instinctive response. It did, Flora obviously understood this aid immediately and after two correct transitions, the crop was not needed any more. This was only a small and temporary bridging measure (particularly chosen for this horse with a very weak shoulder) to get to the next part: now that we had two correct leads we could start to ride more forward. 

Oh, wait, no, I forgot the shying business! Instead of over-focusing on this I asked Jen to ride Flora on the inside track instead of fighting her on the track and always losing out. Experience has taught me that the ghost, in this case some innocent jumping poles, does not exist. It is the fear of the horse to be told off or yanked in the mouth wrongly (not because the rider wants to but is simply not aware of it). Now we were in business! I asked Jen to canter as fast as she could around the arena, not worrying about balance or corners and still ignoring that one long side by staying on the inside track. At times Jen had to sit forward in order to follow the slightly out of control movement and she did not look happy, but... she did it and it worked! When she came back to the trot Flora was off her leg and propelling herself forward with great vigour and a very different attitude. That was the beginning and in the next lessons we gradually built on this new groove, always finishing on a high and never being too greedy.

Jen could not believe how well Flora started to work. Because I did not know Flora and she had quite a wary eye, I opted to not ever chase her with a lunging whip; something I have done with lazy horses, just so that the rider can enjoy a quiet seat for a while and learn not to nag. Also, although Jen had to work on her leg position she is a very determined rider, so she was able with this new concept to build on Flora's respect for, and trust in, her.

And look now! We have introduced the leg yield from the inside track to the track where the poles are and also shoulder fore is now possible along that track. This gives Jen the chance to keep her from breaking through her inside leg; yet again a way to help Jen to keep a still leg in the correct position and a means to the next phase of overcoming the entire issue. Unfortunately Flora still tilts her head slightly (bit of stiffness in the pol which is already getting less)  on that one rein for the shoulder fore, but, hey, she has just overcome a years' worth of shying along that side. We do enough inside track work on being straight and forward (where she does not tilt) in order for this to not become a habitual issue.

For Jen the increased tempo initially felt like she was flying and out of balance, but that was only the beginning of a new chapter, where both of them had to regain a new balance. We are gradually able to ride with more lift on a horse that didn't even have an outline but now wants to go deeper by choice. We need that lift for the shoulder to have some more freedom to move higher in order to allow that strong hind leg to work with the activity it now so wants to show off. 

Both canters are now also solid and balanced in the counter canter and the medium trots are starting to become exciting.

Last week judge Mary Mcginley marked Flora and Jen with a 73 and a near 75 %, with 7.5's for her medium trots and, more important to me as the trainer, some great comments about the basics.

The point I am trying to make here is that shying generally has nothing to do with the fear for what the rider thinks it is. It is a result of the rider misinterpreting the situation and consequently the horse fearing that area because of how the rider deals with it. And there are different recipes for different riders, weaker or stronger, and of course also our horses. 

Flora never shies at competitions so why over-focus at home on something which will overshadow every other aspect of a potentially great training session?

Thanks Jen, for letting me use you and Flora as an example!


Top picture: Tom Unwin made this picture during our last lesson. I call it my triangle: the trust between horse, rider and trainer.

Bottom: Mary Mcginley's comments made my day.



Fabulous piece, Liz! I remember you doing similar moves on my Miro 2 decades ago. I have one question, referring to this statement in your article, "...Because I did not know Flora and she had quite a weary eye, I opted to not ever chase with a lunging whip; something I have done with lazy horses....". Did you actually mean to use the word weary, or did Flora have a WARY Eye, shying at the poles? (Just wondering if "weary" was an 'autocorrect Miscorrection'). I'm just hanging on to your every word, and wasn't sure how weary fit the explanation of that moment. All my best to Jen and Flora, continued growth in the partnership, and enjoying each other.
Diana Barnes , 4th January 2017

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.