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Training Tip from Zach Brandt: Riding Strong Horses Cross Country

EN is excited to publish training tips from upper-level rider Zach Brandt! For more information on Zach, who is relocating to Illinois to base out of Hunter Oaks Equestrian Center, visit zacharybrandteventing.com.

Zach Brandt and Vasilev at Ocala. Photo by Ali Strauss. Zach Brandt and Vasilev at Ocala. Photo by Ali Strauss.

As you sit on more and more horses, you will sit on some horses that are quiet and calm. Conversely, you will also sit on some horses that are hotter and stronger. These training tips are for helping you to ride the strong horses that can sometimes be difficult, especially as they grow in their career and become more fit.

The higher the level the horse is competing at, the more fit they must be in order to tackle that level of dressage, cross country and show jumping — all in one weekend. This, in turn, results in a hotter, stronger horse. There is no denying the importance of fitness, but how do you balance having a fit enough horse for the cross country and show jumping while having a horse that is relaxed and supple in the dressage?

It is a delicate balance of having the horse peak in its fitness just at the right time before the big event you are targeting. When planning to head to a big three-day, whatever level it may be (CCI*/2*/3*/4*), it is important you map out a detailed fitness plan for your horse that is tailored to their needs — whether that involves more galloping or supplementing some of the galloping with swimming and aqua treading, more trotting vs. heavy dressage workouts, etc.

When you get to your three-day, you are going to be handling a horse at its fitness peak. Not all horses that are at this level of fitness get strong cross country, but most do. There are several things you can do to make riding a strong horse cross country easier.

First, your body influences the horse in more ways than you realize. Use that to your advantage! Instead of adjusting your horse’s stride on cross country solely off of using your hand, make a shift in your upper body. If you want your horse to slow down, try lifting your upper body.

If you want your horse to open up in its gallop, lean forward in more of a galloping position. Your upper body gives you a tool to use when your horse is pulling on you and you can’t go to your hand. I practice going forward and coming back using just my upper body position on all of my horses during ALL gallop sets. Teach them this aid!

While every horse is different, as far as strong horses go, the less you pull on them, the less they will pull on you. It is very tempting to pull when you feel a horse getting strong and it is okay to pull, but you want to make sure you are not pulling all the time because eventually the horse will get dull to the aid and it will lose its effect.

With a strong horse, you can get a better result by making sharp half halts so it becomes more of a give and take and not such a wrestling match. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to determine that we are not physically strong enough to out-pull a 1,200-pound animal. Sharp half halt, again, gives you another tool! Use it!

Lastly, sometimes (but this should not be your first solution) you may need a stronger bit on cross country if your horse does not seem to be responding to the one you are currently using. A good rule of thumb is use as much as necessary but as little as possible. You don’t want to use a bit that’s too soft so you feel like you are constantly having to fight with your horse, but you also don’t want such a strong bit that it has a negative effect.

This sport is not an easy one and requires a lot of patience and persistence. Stick with it and enjoy the ride!