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Eric Smiley


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Eric Smiley: Don’t Be an ‘Arena Rider’

In this excerpt from his book Two Brains, One Aim, FEI judge and popular clinician Eric Smiley reminds us why riding “outside the box” is a necessary component of every horse’s training—and of particular importance when preparing a horse to compete over a cross-country course.

Photo by Irina Kuzmina, courtesy of Trafalgar Square Press.

In the last 20 years or so, more and more people have become “arena riders,” opting to work their horse in the relative “safety” of an enclosed ring rather than venturing out into open spaces and riding over varied terrain and footing. I am very well aware of the reasons for this; not least the rider’s uncertainty of letting go and trusting her horse when they do get out into the country.

But horses that spend the majority of their time in arenas need to refresh their natural instincts in order to feel comfortable in the great outdoors. From a coach’s perspective this means that when I start thinking about cross-country training I must first look at encouraging riders to allow their horses to be horses and teaching them what they should expect by doing this. Only then can you have a meaningful training session; otherwise too much “school” riding goes with you into the country—to the detriment of good cross-country riding.

This is not a contradiction to my feeling that the fundamental skills of all three disciplines—dressage, show jumping, and eventing—are the same no matter what the discipline. I am merely making the point that cross-country includes many skills not tested in the arena. Some of these skills lie dormant in the horse and may never have been learned by the rider. To truly make the most of the cross-country experience, it is important to rekindle these instincts in the horse and develop the rider’s awareness of them.

Cross-country has its dangers and it is the coach and rider’s responsibility to mitigate these risks. To show jump in the country and look for a perfect takeoff spot does not always make it safer, nor should riders be overburdened looking for good distances. Some might say otherwise. I would argue that it shows fundamental flaws in the concept of cross-country riding and the training that goes into it. Many of the skills are complementary, but many are unique to riding over solid fences outdoors.

Crossing the country is not a refined science; to do it well requires two minds and their instincts. Horses have a wonderful awareness of where they are and what they need to do—if they are allowed!

Cross-country riding is about being in a trusting partnership: two individuals, each fully understanding their role, working for a common cause. It is not fair to ask a horse to jump something that he has not been taught in training. He must be allowed to develop the skills he will be asked to demonstrate when competing.

By the same token, riders need to do their bit. Many skills require practice: the change in balance, the variation in speed, judgment of speed, and how to ride the terrain. The ability to change the whip from hand to hand as required, being able to shorten the reins after a drop before a narrow jump, and moving the horse onto a chosen line. It is irresponsible of riders not to have honed these skills and have ingrained them as second nature.

  • Having the stick in the wrong hand and running out at a corner jump is irresponsible!
  • Traveling downhill to a narrow jump while grappling with long, unknotted reins and running out is irresponsible!

In training, horses need to know they are being asked to take an interest and not just do what the rider instructs. Once involved, it is possible to run to a fence without needing to arrive perfectly, as the horse that makes a decision will always be “right enough.” This is a win-win situation: two minds, solving problems, and being able to beat the clock because of the seamless join between galloping and jumping. This is cross-country.

This excerpt from Two Brains, One Aim by Eric Smiley with Ellie Hughes is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (

Related Subjects in Training: How ‘Insignificant’ Now Can Be ‘Major’ Later

In this excerpt from his book Two Brains, One Aim, international eventer Eric Smiley explains how working on something that may seem insignificant now can have a major impact on your performance later.

Photo by Orla Murphy-LaScola.

All sorts of subjects are related when training horses—movements and stages that follow directly on from what has been achieved before. So often, though, this relationship is not picked up by either the coach or the rider. This inhibits progress and can cause the horse confusion. Knowing these relationships exist allows rider and coach to layer subject upon subject and follow the training through in a progressive manner that is clear to all parties.

Let us look at some of the more common relationships and crucial links.

Relaxation…and…a Good Free Walk on a Long Rein

The crucial link: I am often asked to help people with their horse’s free walk. “My horse won’t stretch down,” they say. “Why should he?” I ask. “Why do you want him to stretch down?” There is a common belief that horses must stretch and relax before doing any work, but why should the horse know this?

If you always work the horse through and encourage him to look for and seek the contact, connecting him from the hind legs to the contact in front, this will become the norm for him. Encourage a state of mind of forwardness and then work him. Once the horse has worked, offer him a little longer rein. If he has been working well, he will want to relax and rest his muscles, so he will seek the contact and take the rein. This is proof of good work—this is what the free walk on a long rein movement in a dressage test is examining.

Straightness…and…Riding a Centerline

The crucial link: If a horse wobbles on the centerline, the question coaches and riders should ask is: “Why do you ride a centerline?” The answer is, “To see if I can.”

The centerline is the test—it is what riders are being examined on. If you have proved the horse is forward and accepting your aids, then you can hold a line. This relationship goes much further than dressage. When the horse is straight, you can also ride the lines the show jumping course designer asks, and the narrow or the corner fence on the cross-country.

Trotting Poles…and…Jumping

The crucial link: Trotting poles encourage the horse to be more active, so if the rider applies her leg aids at the same time, the horse will associate this with lifting his legs. This can be used on takeoff.

Apply a light leg aid—the same as if you are negotiating a pole—and the horse is likely to respond with a better jump. This is because from the horse’s perspective the neurological pathways are very similar.

The Turn-on-the-Haunches…and…Half-Pass in Walk

The crucial link: The turn-on-the-haunches and the half-pass require the same aid from you and the same shape from the horse. The only difference is that in the turn-on-the-haunches your outside rein aid restricts forward movement and the horse moves around the hindquarters, while in the half-pass, the outside rein allows the forward movement in the desired direction.

Riding Circles…and…Riding Show Jumping and Cross-Country Courses

The crucial link: All course designers use circles and half-circles as a basis for the approach and for the positioning of fences, so being able to ride accurate circles and half-circles of all shapes and sizes means you are reproducing the skills used in one discipline and transferring them directly to another.

How Much Should We Ask?

As we relate subjects we must be careful not to hurry the link. A period of consolidation should always follow the introduction of something new. Allow time for the horse and rider to become secure in the understanding before asking for the next piece of the jigsaw puzzle in question. You must be aware of asking too much, too soon, and accepting an incorrect response simply because everyone wants to move on. This will often be difficult to correct and have repercussions later.

This excerpt from Two Brains, One Aim by Eric Smiley is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (