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Self Examination: An Excerpt from Doug Payne’s ‘The Riding Horse Repair Manual’

In this excerpt from his book The Riding Horse Repair Manual, Pan American Games Team USA gold medal winner Doug Payne tells us how to analyze where you are now so you can get where you want to go.

Photo by Amy Dragoo.

Riding is a game, and regardless of how forgiving your horse is, he will be constantly exposing weaknesses in your foundation and training system. Problems you see in your horse are a reflection of your training. Stay objective and slightly removed from the situation; any emotional response will be counterproductive. Think of all these so-called “problems” as challenges alone. Finding the solution to the puzzle presented by your horse can be addictive!

Before you embark on dealing with any horse problem, you need to take an honest look at your horse and at your own current skill set.

Evaluating the Horse

Ask Yourself:

Is your horse’s “problem” physical? I strongly recommend having your trusted veterinarian out to the farm for a basic soundness exam to rule out any physical issues or to give you a better idea of treatments that could improve the horse’s situation. Upon the conclusion of this assessment, you can expect to have an idea from your vet of any limitations your horse might have. It might seem like common sense: There is no reason to ask a horse to do something he is not physically able to perform. After you’ve ruled out any medical diagnosis, you can move on to the problem at hand and look to correct it.

Does your horse’s behavior issue have its roots in a missing component of his training foundation, or does it stem from “attitude”? First, maybe there was some sort of building block skipped or rushed (a foundation flaw) that caused the horse not to completely understanding what is being asked. Think of this like a person who doesn’t entirely comprehend a language—it just happens to be the language of the equestrian sports.

Second, when the horse has an “attitude,” the behavior can have more “malicious” roots, since the horse fully understands what is being asked and is simply ignoring you, or worse yet, actively working against you. You might ask, aren’t they related? Of course they are, but I think the real distinction is the horse’s disposition.

Evaluating the Rider

Ask Yourself:

Can you handle the horse’s problem? I want to help you develop a concrete plan about which challenges you are able to attack alone; which ones you may need help with; and which might just be better left to a professional trainer. Regardless, the way to truly improve is to be completely open and honest with yourself: Only through a thoroughly objective assessment will you be able fix the issues that could limit your success. So to begin, do your riding ability and confidence level enable you to safely address your horse’s issue?

Do you have a personal goal in mind? If not, one needs to be established. Where would you like to be with horses in two weeks, two months, or two years down the road? It is very important to set attainable goals; without them it’s very easy to flounder about without improving.

Are you mentally prepared to improve? A change in your habits or expectations may be as intimidating as riding your bucking horse or worse! In order to improve you must set up realistic goals and go after them with conviction. Don’t sell yourself short. You have the ability to improve so go out and get it!

Are you at the right barn? Sometimes barn dynamics can hinder your progression. I find a lot of people get stuck in their barn’s hierarchy of rider ability. Keep an eye on your goals, and don’t let anyone stop you. You can achieve more.

With your goal in mind and the environment ripe for improvement, is your horse truly able to reach that goal with you? When your answer is “Yes,” this is ideal! Keeping your goal in mind and using the specific skills needed to succeed, get out to the barn and start working!

When your answer is “Maybe,” it is probably because very often, like me, you will not be exactly sure how far a particular horse can go. As long as you enjoy riding him every day and you are progressing, keep working. And when progress slows to a crawl, try to figure out what’s stopping it. If it’s the horse’s talent alone, and your goals are to achieve more, then it might be worth thinking about moving on to another horse.

When your answer is “No,” it is definitely time to think about getting another horse. I’m the first to say that if you are happy where you are and just looking to ride him, great! However, even though frustrated with his limitations, many people are so attached to their horse, they give up trying to achieve their goal, and even get turned off riding, which is a great shame. There are plenty of people out there willing to give your horse a fabulous home and love him as much as you do. Allow him to move on, so you can achieve your goals with another horse.

Are you willing to make the best of the opportunity you have with your horse? When your answer is “Yes,” get ready to work hard! Progress will come to those who work the hardest and smartest. It’s not easy, but well worth it. When your answer is “No,” again, it might be time to look for a different partner. There are an unlimited number of horses available.

Do you know when it’s time to go to a professional trainer for lessons? Limited resources, stubbornness, or a reluctance to be critiqued may make regular lessons difficult, but the benefits are well worth the cost!

What do you need to improve before dealing with the horse’s specific problem(s)? Every horse has some particular weaknesses that will limit his progress unless you can handle the issues. Perhaps you have dealt with a similar horse in the past with success? If not, do you have the skills to tackle the job? It’s a good idea to figure out which of your skills need further refinement. Ask your instructor to whittle down your riding flaws to a “Top Five” list. At the same time, do a quick self-assessment and write down your own Top Five skills that need improvement. Combine these lists, and make it your mission to reduce this new list to zero!

Do you have the desire—and time—to dedicate to solving your horse’s issues? For some horses to succeed, a significant amount of time is required. It can mean you’ll need to ride them six or seven days a week.

Is fear limiting your potential? Both these last two questions must be answered before embarking on this journey. If either answer is not in the affirmative, maybe you should consider a different horse—one that knows the ropes a bit better so that you can enjoy your limited time in the saddle without seriously testing your confidence every time you get on.

This excerpt from The Riding Horse Repair Manual by Doug Payne is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (www.horseandriderbooks.com).

Solving Jumping Problems with Doug Payne: Rushing the Fence

EN is excited to partner with Horseware to provide training tips from their sponsored riders. Today we have Doug Payne walking us through two difference exercises that can help solve the problem of rushing at fences.

What happens: On an approach to a jump, your horse quickly accelerates when he’s just a few strides from the fence. He often lands and gallops away from the fence, and the rider feels as if she has 100 pounds in her hand, with no effect.

CAUSE ONE

Most riders deal with it by increasing the severity of the bit they are using in an attempt to hold the horse from “racing.” However, from the horse’s point of view, the rider is restricting his ability to clear the jump. Consequently, the horse feels unsure whether or not he can jump the fence without hitting it with his hind end. As a result, he speeds up at the last moment to make sure he leaves himself enough room. The more the rider tries to slow him, the more the horse rushes to compensate.

Solution: I know it is counterintuitive, but you must allow the horse to go to the fence at a slightly increased pace in order to make progress. Your job is to instill confidence that you will not restrict his ability to jump the fence well. Rather than just going for a stronger bit, you’re going to slow your horse down by altering the jump and the line.

An approach in a balanced, relaxed canter. Photo by Amy Dragoo.

Exercise

1. The best exercise for a horse like this is to jump a simple vertical on a 20-meter circle. The moment he rushes at the fence, you begin to turn him, landing on the circle after the fence. Many riders trying this exercise aren’t quite comfortable with such a short approach so they are soon riding an oval, not a circle. However, you must be very careful to keep your figure accurate because inaccuracies just exacerbate the problem: The circle allows you to keep a consistent bend and pace while jumping, but on an oval, your horse will land and immediately “pop” his shoulder.

This is an appropriate opening rein to invite a slight flexion to the inside. Photo by Amy Dragoo.

2. Use an opening inside rein to invite the horse to turn and a supportive inside leg to promote the inside bend. The key here is to actually turn in the air. It won’t take too many circles for the horse to realize that there is no advantage to going faster because it only makes life more difficult on the back side of the fence. You can also play with the height of the fence; the more careful horses slow down when presented with a larger effort—that is, within reason.

3. Once you’re able to keep a steady pace around the circle, intentionally move onto an oval with a straight approach and exit from the jump. In time, you’re looking to stretch the oval as long as his pace does not change. Soon enough you’ll be riding with a direct relationship between your inside leg and outside rein as if on a circle, but you’ll be on a straight line with your pace unchanging.

If your horse regresses and begins to rush again, back on the circle you go! It’s also very helpful to have an educated person on the ground. Often, what feels fast to you is actually not, and your objective observer (a moderator of sorts) will make sure you are holding up your end of the deal (you are not beginning to fall into your old habits of pulling).

CAUSE TWO

Some horses rush because they are inadvertently being told to by the rider. The problem is that the rider is unaware of it. This is often the case with nervous or anxious riders who get tighter with their legs or tense in their bodies the closer they get to the jump.

Solution: While not an option for all, it might be best to take a lesson on an experienced, very quiet horse. This will allow you to concentrate solely on you rather than worrying about your horse.

You’re going to have to work very hard to try and relax. If your horse is quiet enough, jumping a grid comprising a number of fences might come in handy.

Exercise

1. Jump through the grid a few times to make sure your horse is familiar with it. From there, tie a knot in your reins so that you’re able to drop the reins entirely, extending your arms outward like “wings” as you go through the grid.

The knot should be tight enough to allow you to completely drop the reins without any slack in them. You always want to make sure there is no chance of a horse’s front end getting caught up. Photo by Amy Dragoo.

2. You can also head through the grid without stirrups. When you can leave your horse to the jumping and just concentrate on your own balance, the payoff will be great!

This excerpt from The Riding Horse Repair Manual by Doug Payne is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books.

Keyholes: What’s the Point? 

Doug Payne tackles the topic of keyholes in his latest column for EN; Buck Davidson also contributed to this column. Many thanks to both Doug and Buck for writing. What do you think about keyholes on cross country, EN? Weigh in with your thoughts in the comments below.

Laine Ashker's head makes contact with the keyhole on this year's Rolex Kentucky cross country course. Photo by Courtney Hyjek. Laine Ashker's head makes contact with the keyhole on this year's Rolex Kentucky cross country course. Photo by Courtney Hyjek.

I am not alone in my disdain for keyholes on cross country. I’ve been contemplating writing this since a keyhole was featured as the last jump on the Plantation Field CIC2* and CIC3* a few years back. I was just one of the many who had a very awkward jump there, but frankly I was lucky; there were a number of falls and refusals.

This trend has continued over the past few years with smaller cutout holes and stiffer materials causing further rider and horse injuries and falls. I think a closer look is necessary for the welfare of our horses, riders and eventing as a sport. In the wake of William Fox-Pitt’s head injury, which occurred at a keyhole on the Le Lion d’Angers course last month, changes need to be made now.

I think it’s our responsibility as riders and trainers to continually ask what is gained and what is the goal of each question we ask of our horses on cross country. As course design evolves, horse and rider welfare should be paramount. I’m afraid it’s crossed a line when it comes to keyholes; horses and riders are paying the price for a cheap trick of a jump.

Over the past few years designers have begun to push the boundaries of keyhole design. The size of the lower jump, diameter of the hole, brush material stiffness, jump placement (relative to terrain and in combination with other obstacles) in which horse and rider are expected to jump through — all have become more restrictive and dangerous. I fail to see what benefit this trend offers the sport.

I think it’s important to keep in mind the goal of the cross country test. The FEI eventing rulebook defines essence of our sport this way:

The Cross Country Test constitutes the most exciting and challenging all-round test of riding ability and horsemanship where correct principles of training and riding are rewarded. This test focuses on the ability of Athletes and Horses to adapt to different and variable conditions of the Competition (weather, terrain, obstacles, footing, etc.) showing jumping skills, harmony, mutual confidence, and in general “good pictures.”

With that in mind, the keyhole jump is one which tends to be jumped well or not, purely based on the horse’s instinct alone. I personally have one built at our place that is placed over a show jump so that it can be infinitely adjusted. Nearly from day one, we take our horses through it — the babies with just a rail on the ground and the more experienced horses a larger effort.

Some horses could care less, while a majority of the others tend to duck their head and leave their front end as an afterthought. Their technique does tend to improve if jumped a number of times in a row on the day, but a horse that naturally jumps them poorly will always do so the first time out each day, making the approach on cross country a nerve-wracking one.

Why also should we encourage horses to jump lower and with inferior technique? Our goal in training should be to encourage better, safer jumping horses.

Doug Payne and Vandiver through the keyhole on this year's Dutta Corp Fair Hill CCI3* course. Photo by Julianne Pettyman.

Doug Payne and Vandiver through the keyhole on this year’s Dutta Corp Fair Hill CCI3* course. Photo by Julianne Pettyman.

Making this type of jump even more perilous, the size of the hole has continued to decrease, and in many cases the material used has become stiffer. A tremendous number of riders, myself included countless times, have had their heads make contact with the top of the cutout. As the material becomes stiffer, the consequences and risk of this have become much more significant.

Adding to the likelihood of contact is the recent trend to use a keyhole in combination with other jumping efforts, along with using terrain to make them more difficult. If the keyhole is not the last element in a combination, riders are more apt to open their hip angle to be prepared to steer to the remaining efforts. As their shoulders come back, they either end up having to duck or make contact with the brush.

Endangering the rider’s head and neck is the price paid for properly preparing their horses for the remainder of the combination.

For some context, the FEI Cross Country Course Design Guidelines on keyholes are:

Hole fences

  • The height of the hole should not be less than 1.80 m and the width not less then 1.60 m
  • Any surface that can be touched by the Horse must always be soft (not susceptible to hurt the Horse or the athlete)
  • The spread should not be more than 50% of that permitted for the level. The comment about double brushes (see above) applies.

Fences with roof

  • The roof should not be placed at less than 2.20 m from the top of the fence.
  • It is not recommended to use roods at water complex where the Horse has to jump into the roofed area (e.g. where there is a roofed bank in the water).

While these dimensions may seem acceptable, they are seldom adhered to. The most important aspect to keep in mind is that these are only guidelines rather than regulations. At the moment, any course designer can specify a hole the size of a beachball if he or she wanted.

Secondarily, the material used can make a dramatic difference when it comes to stiffness and safety. We are on borrowed time; without a change soon, we will have a rider suffer a head and neck injury while jumping through a keyhole.

At the moment, horses and riders heading out on course are being asked to jump through ever more dangerous keyhole jumps. As the hole size, material, placement and jump width become more difficult, I can’t help but highlight the hypocrisy.

The FEI guidelines read that keyholes must be made of materials “not susceptible to hurt the Horse or the Athlete,” but the FEI is failing our horses, our riders and our sport.

It’s time that keyhole jumps are greatly expanded in diameter and built with softer material upon a solid jump without width and without being an element of a combination or part of another element like a ditch or water. Safe passage for horse and rider is a must for our sport to continue to grow.

[FEI Cross Country Course Design Guidelines]

Finally, An End to the Distance Debate

EN guest writer Doug Payne successfully competes at the highest levels of eventing and show jumping, and today he's kindly sharing some of the wisdom he's learned as a student of both worlds. Follow DP Equestrian on Facebook here and check out his blog for much more from Doug.

Doug Payne and Mike Rubin's Eli. Photo by Liz Crawley Photography. Doug Payne and Mike Rubin's Eli. Photo by Liz Crawley Photography.

I am a self-confessed nerd who enjoys passing idle time thinking. Lately, I’ve been thinking about the debate on whether to look for a distance or not while approaching a jump, which has been a hot topic for sometime. As I see it, there are two major ways to divide the proponents and their respective positions.

On one side, you have the long-established riders and instructors who’ve been incredibly successful and, most often, primarily taught in the era roughly ending in 1990. They hold the “old school” view that the distance should not be “looked for,” nor should strides be counted.

On the other side, you have the more modern group that honed their skills in the years following 1990 and advocates counting strides and seeking the ideal distance.

You can also easily divide the debate between those who were brought up in the jumper world and those who weren’t. The jumpers have distance and striding drilled into their heads from day one. They are die-hard stride seekers, a quality which certainly can have its limitations, especially on cross country.

I have an interesting perspective being that I was initially never taught to count strides and wasn’t bothered by the distance I took off from the fence.  I didn’t want to be a mile off, nor underneath the jump, but anything within that middle 50 percent window was acceptable to me.

Doug Payne and Mike Rubin's Eli. Photo by Liz Crawley Photography.

Doug Payne and Mike Rubin’s Eli. Photo by Liz Crawley Photography.

I grew up concentrating on keeping a line and energy but, again, without much attention paid to the remainder of the details. I ran my first Advanced event at 18 years old without a clue or concern about distances.

In my 20s, I had the opportunity to develop a horse that in the end carried me to my first Grand Prix. With the help of Anne Kursinski, who remains one of my greatest mentors, I was shown the importance of accuracy, attention to detail and placement, and most importantly, to arrive at the appropriate distance by riding forward to it.

Frankly, my first few lessons were rough! I couldn’t get the right striding in the lines or a consistent distance to save my life. While it’s still to this day a work in progress, I’ve now had a number of horses successfully jumping up to 1.60 meter (5’3”) in Grand Prix classes.

This past week, I was schooling Eli, my current Grand Prix horse owned by Mike Rubin, and it dawned on me. Not only is it important to be accurate just because he’s jumping such height, but that accuracy is necessary when reaching the upper-most limits of any horse’s scope.

As eventing naturally becomes more technical in both cross country and show jumping — and the show jumping heights increase — riders are more likely to use a greater percentage of the horse’s available scope. Thus, accuracy becomes a more critical skill to be a successful event rider. And varying ground conditions also play in — the softer the going, the more scope I want for room to spare!

How does this apply to the lower levels? I think accuracy can play a very influential role. If you happen to be competing at the novice level (2’11”) and, at most, your horse is capable of clearing a 3’6″ fence, you have 7 inches of scope to play with — that 2’11” fence leaves 7 inches or 17 percent of his scope remaining.

In this example, a few inches too close or too far from the base probably wont affect your score; however, if your horse’s maximum effort would only clear a 3’3” jump, then that accuracy becomes much more influential — that same 2’11” jump leaves only 4 inches or 9 percent remaining scope to spare. As that window is tightened down, run outs, falls and rails become more and more likely, especially in poor conditions.

So why were so many event horses and riders of the past so successful without focusing on the take-off location when Grand Prix jumpers have been looking for a distance for years?

I think there are limitless factors, the most significant of which is that technical demands and heights were lower on both cross country (and without today’s prevalent use of stiff brush on fences, which can be as high as a small Grand Prix at 1.45 meters or 4’8″) and show jumping. Ultimately, the takeoff window needed to jump clear was larger, hence that last bit of accuracy was not needed in order to be successful.

All of this said, without focus on the quality of canter, line, balance and energy, riding accurately to a jump is impossible. It is not just the location where the feet leave the ground that’s important, but that the rider is able to get there without any drastic changes to these components within the last handful of strides.

One can very easily become obsessed with getting the correct number of strides in each line in competition. I think it’s much more important to walk the course and understand how all of the lines relate to each other — i.e., the first line is slightly short in five strides, the second is long in four strides, etc.

When riding the course, count the first line and consider how it rode compared to how you thought it might, and then factor how it relates to the remaining related distances. For example, if the slightly short five-stride line rode as if it was completely normal, then I very well might alter my plan to ride the second in a steady five rather than the four I had planned originally.

This way you have a heads-up as you ride, understanding what traps may lie ahead and how to prevent needless rails. There’s no need to be reactive when you can be proactive.

I’ve certainly made the jump from a non-counter to a counter, but I also always keep in mind that the quality of the canter, balance, line and energy are paramount! Ultimately, when you have those taken care of, the distance just seems to appear; if not, you’ve got the tools to do something about it. There’s certainly no reason not to make your horse’s job easier!