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24Sep 14

Riders meet: relaxation and timing is everything

On Sunday I organized a little gathering for a few of my pupils who for various reasons have not been able to compete regularly.

They each had to pick a test which was bordering their comfort-zone. It had to include all the movements they have trained with their horse so far which would be a tad higher than their competition level of the moment.

They were each given one and a half hours. One hour to warm up, if needed; a set time to do the test; a little time for comments from the trainer and fellow riders and for the horse to have a break; finally, if needed some more time to work on some of the issues and another try for the test. 

The first horse, a big stalwart event horse at novice level with the potential to do an intermediate one day, has had a back injury, is now fit again and came in like a tank. Often event horses are a `bit full of themselves' at their first outing and he certainly was. In a situation like that it is virtually impossible to plan a warm-up: when the horse starts to settle it will then immediately feel tired. Also, it is a fine line between trying to get rid of some of the surplus energy with some canterwork and winding up the horse even more. Starting in a trot and picking the right moment for some canterwork generally is the best option, occasionally checking whether the horse is ready to settle in the walk. as soon as he is ready for that it is important to not over-practice the movements as the energy level will now drop fast. Instead, save the energy, trust your homework and during the test help your horse rather than the horse having to help you.

The chosen test included shoulder-in, counter canter and simple changes. When his official time was up the bay gelding was still `chomping one the bit' and therefore everything looked hurried and unfinished, although it got better as the test went on, the canterwork in particular. A sign of a mature and thoughtful rider as she herself did not get flustered and so was giving a calming signal through her seat bones to the horse. Nevertheless, she was disappointed. After a little brake she worked on more relaxation and did the test again. He was a little too tired to do a perfect one but the regularity of the trot and the canter had improved, the shoulder-ins looked more finished, the simple changes were more accurate and the mediums in canter were surprisingly spot-on. The rider had hoped for more but gave the horse a good foundation for the next competition, which was the whole purpose of this day in the first place.

The next horse arrived in similar fashion if not even more excited. The rider wisely decided to lunge him first. I know this horse has a `funny button' and although getting better,can buck and occasionally rear. It took only minutes for him to literally go as quiet as a lam and the rider showed a beautiful warm-up. Especially the trotwork looked soft and was beautifully balanced. The problem was the horse was threatening to peak before its time. so the rider added some breaks which helped to slow the process down.

The horse is still young and has only just started to compete, however, the rider bravely choose a novice test. Apart from the odd toss with its head, the horse did a very acceptable test. The upward toss the trainer blamed on the fact that the horse only recently started to go on the bit correctly and does not have a strong poll. It is an effort to carry your own head around when it lives a foot or two in front of the rest of your body at the best of times.  Give this horse a few months with the right exercises and he will have outgrown this problem. 

After the short break we worked on the walk, which was too sluggish, also the free walk on a long rein. By using the whip a little more assertively the rider was able to sit stiller and not use too much leg. The horse looked more focused and energetic in its free walk. Also this horse was a little tired during the next test but the walk certainly had improved and yet another settled horse with a good experience under its belt left the arena.

Also the horse of our host started on the lunge. This striking skewbald gelding can be sharp and a little nappy at the beginning of a session at times, particularly when he has had an easy week. Strange, as once he gets going he seems to love his work. This horse has a travel issue but fortunately its rider loves her training and, although she hopes to compete again, does not allow herself to have any sleepless nights over it. In the meantime they have become very comfortable with the lateral work and also the counter canter and simple changes are part of his `vocabulary'.

The rider added some shoulder-ins to an otherwise suitable elementary test and she really did herself proud. Although she got lost at the very beginning she recovered and rode a test which was not quite consistent but had some glorious work in it. Trainer and rider were pleased the horse did not bolt when a spontaneous little applause came from the side.Trainer and riders all felt this horse did not have to do the test again. After having shown their half-passes rider and horse went back to their stable both looking satisfied.

During lunch we discussed the morning and all agreed on the fact that, during the warm-up, there is no point trying to ride some of the movements of your test until the horse feels relaxed in its environment. Once competing at a regular basis a pattern will establish itself which the rider can then start to depend on.

Timing is everything. Also leaving home in time! I always add an extra hour in order to leave with plenty of time for a relaxed drive rather than be late and get stressed. Your horse will respond accordingly.

When the horse takes too long to relax at a competition, try lunging before you leave. 

Finally, some horses need longer to warm-up than others. Listen to your horse in order to give it what it needs, as only then it will be able to give back what you want so very much.



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.