Indoor Cross Country Preparation with Andrew Nicholson

The 2016 International Eventing Forum was held today at Hartpury College, with Jimmy Wofford, Lucinda Green, Eric Smiley, Angela Tucker, David Kearney, Andrew Mahon and John Killingbeck all speaking. In honor of this year’s forum, William Micklem has written an all new report on Andrew Nicholson's jumping exercises demonstrated last year.

Andrew Nicholson at the 2015 International Eventing Forum. Photo courtesy of Jon Stroud Media. Andrew Nicholson at the 2015 International Eventing Forum. Photo courtesy of Jon Stroud Media.

Without doubt Andrew Nicholson is one of the greatest cross country riders of all time and any opportunity to learn how he achieves his extraordinary results should be treasured. At last year’s International Eventing Forum, Andrew began his session on jumping exercises for cross country preparation with these general thoughts:

  • “When I ride a young horse it will be only for 20 minutes, but I expect them to work hard. I like doing things that make them tired; it makes them sleep better!”
  • “As you warm up on the flat always play a little, move them around, go faster and slower — always thinking of the future, which is jumping and cross country is the most important bit.”
  • “Avoid arguments with young horses. Every negative can be turned to positive. For example, if they shy away from a fence, use the opportunity to teach them to move away from the leg.”
  • “Make everything very clear — nothing half hearted. Not ‘would you like to walk’ but ‘walk!'”
  • “They need to understand what I want as soon as possible, but you should not jump until there is this understanding.”
  • “Jump at the right height to begin — not too big, it must not be too big, which is a common mistake — and jump twice a week using these exercises to develop ‘quick thinking’ regularly.”
  • “Let the horse glide up to the jump.  The aim is an easy jump, not an exaggerated jump.”
  • “Riders often ride backwards before they go forwards, which is very time consuming and ineffective. Ride forwards and let the horse do the jumping.”
  • “With your position it is an ideal opportunity with these small schooling fences to learn to sit behind young horses, but do not hang on to the mouth or sit on the back of the saddle.”

‘Hunting’ or ‘Fifth Leg’ Exercises 

With each horse he did a series of what I would describe as “hunting” or “fifth leg” exercises, what Andrew described as “quick thinking” exercises. The sort of exercises that would substitute for the type of jumping that is often required out hunting:

  • Jumping from a very slow speed.
  • Jumping small fences without guiding the take off spot. (“Ride the canter, ride the rhythm, and let them sort it out.”)
  • Jumping using severely angled lines both on the approach and departure, and jumping fences with little room on the landing side of the fence to go straight forwards.

I was delighted to see this, as without doubt these exercises are vital in the preparation of a horses that will look after their riders across country, taking responsibility for making small adjustments and keeping themselves, and therefore also their riders, safe.

Circles of Fences

If you are as old as I am, there is a certain déjà vu about a circle of four small (60 to 80 centimeters or 1’9″ to 2’6″) fences with three, four or five strides between each fence being shown at a conference. (Distance from the centre of the circle to the middle of each fence is 10 yards or 9.15 meters.

It was something that Dick Stillwell, the British trainer who produced most of Richard Meade’s horses, used regularly in the 60s and 70s, and even Rodrigo Pessoa used with show jumping students. That does not make it any less valuable of course, and probably it is even more valuable in the modern era with an increased number of tight curving lines between fences.

What is interesting though is that Andrew prefers initially jumping off a turn with his young horses rather than going straight down a grid. He finds it easier to soften the horses off a turn or circle, and I suspect it also ensures each horse strengthens their weaker side and weaker hind leg so that when he begins to jump a grid they are straight and take off with their hind legs together as a matching pair.

Andrew just used single horizontal poles on each fence to keep it simple: “Single poles because they get into less trouble if things go wrong, avoiding too many loose poles, and it allows the horses to learn to get very close to the fence and deal with problems. The circle is good because I can move in or out. Therefore don’t use cross poles with young horses. If they go disunited just keep going.”

The key point of the exercise was to leave as much as possible to the horse. However without doubt Andrew made this exercise look easy because he consistently kept the right canter and line. When he alternated between first five and then four strides it was obvious to see the level of partnership and how Andrew’s aim of eliminating extravagant jumping had been achieved.

All the horses did this exercise very easily with the exception of Zacarias, whose size and slightly flat canter made the exercise quite testing, particularly on the right rein.

Slalom Line

After the circle exercise Andrew moved to a use of a slalom line, with continual changes of direction and a logical progression, in the same way that in dressage one might go from circles to a serpentine. All the horses coped very easily with this despite some fences being very close together and were obviously learning to look ahead and think ahead.


A balance to the “quick thinking” exercises was provided by a grid, coming out of canter, using a vertical to a cross pole to a vertical and then oxer, all on standard distances and at a slightly bigger size than with the other exercises. Andrew likes to put a small challenge in each grid, so there is added value, and tends to keep all the fences in the grid of a more similar size than is often seen.

Single Fences

Andrew jumped some larger fences on each horse, both oxers and verticals. He made the oxers square, with a ground line in line with the front pole, to encourage a better shape, but when jumping larger verticals he used a pulled out ground line, as with most modern trainers.

In relation to ground lines I recently read Mary King’s account of her show jumping warm up at the World Equestrian Games at The Hague in 1994. She was riding King William, who almost always produced a wonderful dressage and cross country performance but was rarely clean in the show jumping.

King William was going badly in the warm up, jumping without any confidence, but British show jumping legend David Broome was watching and jumped in to help. “He gave him a vertical with a really big ground line,” said Mary“This restored his confidence and he went in and jumped well, with just two down instead of the normal five or six fences, sufficient to win the team gold medal.” 

Comments from William Micklem

Beware! As with all exercises shown by high-level riders and trainers such as Andrew, a word of warning is advised. They are not necessarily using exercises a coach would use as safe exercises for lower level riders on comparable or less talented horses. Do not copy everything you see and hear because depending on the circumstances it might lead you astray!

I admire Andrew’s work greatly, and his training exercises are great to use with medium and advanced level riders, but the more novice rider and trainer should not seek to follow precisely in his footsteps to begin with. For example:

  1. Accelerated progression. Andrew can take a 4-year-old train them over the winter and then produce them at Novice level with just a couple of cross country schools. He can do this because he has a superb basic technique, a superb feel and eye for a stride, his horses really trust him and he only works with a horse with special ability. Yes, Andrew has worked with plenty of bad ones in the past and is always attracted by a difficult horse, “but this is a habit I have tried to wean myself off.” These days he tries to put his time into more straightforward and more talented horses.
  2. Not jumping out of trot. Andrew said that he “has always felt uncomfortable jumping from trot.” However he can substitute jumping out of trot for jumping out of canter because he has such a good feel and eye for a stride. Lesser riders can take advantage of jumping out of trot to set a horse up better for a grid or single fence, particularly with the use of a placing plank.
  3. Jumping into the boards. Coaches should beware asking their students to jump fences into the boards just 5 meters away.  With the right progression of exercises and with students with good secure positions there is little risk, but with less experienced horses and less experienced riders the chances of falling off head first into the boards are too great. If it was a hedge out hunting it would be more forgiving!
  4. Cross poles in grids. The use of a fairly high cross pole as the second fence in his grid ensures a straight line at the start, but high cross poles in lines of fences are the cause of many accidents with novice riders when the horse veers one way or the other, jumps the higher outer side and the rider falls off. As ever a gradual progression is the key and using a cross pole just for the first fence is the safer option for novice riders at the start.
  5. “Hunting” jumping exercises. The excessive use of small “hunting” fences (on any take off point and from all angles and combinations, can be an encouragement for “stepping” over the fence rather than jumping, with the hind legs apart on take off.  Andrew ensures this is not the case by continually mixing both grids and bigger single fences, which he jumps very accurately using his phenomenal eye for a stride. It would be easy to do too much of the hunting exercises.

Relive last year’s International Eventing Forum with William Micklem’s exclusive reports:

Andrew Nicholson on Song: A Rare Behind-the-Scenes Look at His Program

Fittening the Event Horse a Hot Topic at International Eventing Forum

Christoph Hess on Working with the ‘Not So Good’ Dressage Horse

Meet the Horses Andrew Rode

1. Zacarias, 5 year old, 16.3 hand grey gelding. Pre-Novice, not competed. Bred by Ramon Beca.

Andrew’s opinion: “He’s a real four-star prospect. It’s his attitude that makes him so special … very cool … never been out before apart from some cross country schools.”

Sire: Meneusekal, French Thoroughbred. He is a new Thoroughbred sire Ramon Beca bought when he retired from racing in France and is now using to cover his mares. Fantastic back pedigree for event horses, including Precipitation, Hyperion, Fair Trial, Fortino, Relic, Djebel and Big Game.

Dam: Golosa 45 by Golfi, Hannoverian. Related to Berganza, who is the mother of Nereo, Armada, Fenicio and Oplitas.

2. Yacabo BK, 5 year old, 16.2 hand black gelding. Novice, one event. Bred by Ana Beca.

Sire: Lacros, Holsteiner that jumped in Olympics and World Equestrian Games with Schröder Dirk. Sire of Quimbo, Qwanza and Sintra BK.

Dam: Mamurra 72 by Histeo, Hannoverian. Half sister to Quimbo.

3. Jet Set 8 year old, 17 hand bay gelding. Two-star level. Bred by Luis Alverez Cevera.

Andrew’s opinion: “He is my hope for Rio. Hugely talented. In a different league.”

Sire: Nordico, KWPN (56.5% Thoroughbred). Jumped in Nations Cup show jumping by Luis Alverez Cevera.

Dam: Carina, an Argentinian Thoroughbred.

4. MHS King Joules, 10 year old, 16.2 hand black gelding. Three-star level. Bred by Tom NS John Brennan (breeders of Mary King’s Imperial Cavalier.)

Andrew’s opinion: “A former Mary King ride who needs settling.”

Sire: Ghareeb, Irish Thoroughbred.

Dam Gowran Lady, Irish Sport Horse (62.5% Thoroughbred) by Cavalier Royale