If you ride a particularly sharp horse, you may be disheartened at the prospect of ever getting him to jump calmly around a new course. However, it’s worth playing the long game with horses like this. As a professional rider, I prefer a sharp, spooky horse to a very bold one. A horse who’s very brave, particularly when he’s young and still learning the ropes, tends to have less respect for the fences and will be more likely to rush and be careless with his jump, resulting in knocked rails. A spooky horse, on the other hand, may require a bit more time and patience, but he’ll always respect the fences and take great care not to touch them.
When I first get on a horse, I don’t ask for too much. My top priority at the beginning of my warm-up routine is that he’s freeing up his body and working without tension – something that can be tricky for a spooky horse, particularly when in a new environment. Often, these sharper types will find it easier to focus once they’re working a bit harder or jumping around a course, but for the first five minutes of your session, incorporate lots of big, flowing figures-of-eight, asking him to trot between fences and past scary objects.
After that, start to ask for more of an outline and incorporate more advanced transitions. This is when you can introduce different stride lengths in canter and begin using steps of leg-yield to encourage your horse to move towards objects that he may be worried about. The key to a successful warm-up on a hot, sharp horse is to keep everything very calm – don’t get flustered by his sharpness or rise to it, as this will cause it to escalate. If you can keep your cool, he’ll learn to have confidence in your consistency, no matter how inconsistent his working environment may be.
Slow and steady
Patience is essential when you’re working with a spooky horse, particularly if that spookiness is paired with inexperience. Giving him lots of exposure to various sights and sounds by hiring venues is a brilliant way to build up his confidence and experience, without putting any pressure on him.
Slow and steady really does win the race when it comes to moderating sharpness. A lot of riders worry that their horse will have a look at a spooky fence, so they push them on, thinking that they’re riding positively. This means their horse doesn’t have time to take the fence in and he’s likely to end up frightening himself. You’ll have less control of his body the faster you go, so don’t be afraid to slow everything down – if you’re schooling, make the scary fence small enough that you can trot in, giving your horse time to have a good look at it. Be positive and balanced, keep control of his shoulder and make sure that he’s responsive to your leg aids, then you’ll give him the best chance of figuring out the question and giving you the correct answer.
Exercise – introducing fillers
What it does: This is a great way to introduce fillers without asking your horse to do anything difficult. Increasing the difficulty incrementally by moving the fillers in gradually and raising the fence slowly allows your horse to progress and challenge himself without being overfaced.
How to set it up: Build a cross-pole with fillers set at each side of the fence. If your horse is really inexperienced, you can place fillers around the arena for him to get used to the sight of them, too.
How to ride it: Come into the cross-pole in a steady trot, allowing your horse to look at what’s being asked of him but without taking your leg off. Once he’s jumped the fence happily in both directions, move the fillers closer together. Continue to bring them in incrementally until he’s jumping over them. Depending on how your horse reacts, this can happen in one schooling session or over the course of several. Take it slowly and don’t get frustrated, and you’ll reap the rewards.
Have a go at more of Daniel’s spook-busting exercises, only in the September issue of Horse&Rider. On sale 27 July 2017.f