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.
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.
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.