When schooling your own horse, it’s easy to get caught up in the idea that top riders are able to produce their horses without any major problems. This simply isn’t the case. Charlotte Dujardin and I have the same problems as anyone else with our young horses, it just happens at home where the cameras are off and people don’t see it! Equally, the ways we work to resolve them are achievable, no matter what level you’re riding at. Young horses grow, change, learn and develop at different rates, and you have to constantly re-evaluate how you approach their training as a result. The horse world is rife with conflicting opinions about how best to start a young horse’s formal education and, for the average rider, this can be overwhelming.
I work to identify my horses’ strengths and weaknesses early on so that I can structure schooling sessions around making the difficult things easier for them and developing the things they find naturally easy, all in a pressure-free learning environment. I’m a firm believer in short, sweet sessions – incorporating lots of transitions and gently introducing new concepts in a half-hour slot, before the horse gets tired and starts to shut down.
Walk the line
Walk is the most neglected gait, but it’s important to start developing it early on s that you can identify your horse’s natural tendency within the gait, then begin to improve it. If he’s prone to tension, for example, he may begin the session with a short, upright walk with minimal overtrack. Meanwhile, a more relaxed type may step out quite happily, but take more gathering up later on.
The type of walk that you’re working with gives you an indicator of what your horse may find easier or more difficult later on in his training. A big walk with a huge overtrack will score very well in free walk and extensions, but because this indicates a naturally slow rhythm, the horse will usually struggle to shorten into a clean, crisp rhythm required for piaffe and passage. On the other hand, one of my top horses would average an 80% through the first half of a Grand Prix test because he found collection so easy but, because his extended walk never earned more than a six, that average would drop down to 76% across the diagonal. That’s a very costly walk.
The key is to train for adjustability within the pace. Your horse needs to learn to push his nose out in front of the vertical and stride freely forward, and you need to learn to feel more comfortable with a longer length neck. Most riders will use too much leg at this stage to try to encourage their horse forward, but this results in a shorter, quicker stride and what I call a rising walk. Rather, use your rein aids to push your horse’s head and neck away from his body, as through you’re rowing. Once his nose is in front of the vertical, he can start to use the whole of his neck and back and walk with purpose, and you can introduce transitions both within the walk and into and out of it.
The idea of incorporating frequent transitions into a schooling session is one that every rider has heard over and over again throughout their career. Transitions, when ridden correctly, rebalance your horse, help him to develop self-carriage, prevent anticipation and encourage active, expressive movement. What many riders may not realise is how many they need to ride. Within a session, 150–200 transitions is about right and, while this figure may sound astronomical, it includes transitions within the gaits and half-halts, as well as transitions between gaits. Any adjustment of your horse’s balance qualifies as a transition.
When riding them you should keep your hand still so that your horse can learn to rest – but not lean – on the contact. So much of the transition aid is communicated through your upper body. In an upward transition, lighten your upper body, take your leg off, then reapply it. In a downward transition, bring your upper body back, keeping your horse in front of you and working towards your forward hand. At the age of five, your horse’s transitions will feel like an aeroplane coming in to land. By 10, they should feel like an aeroplane taking off.
Pick up the May issue of Horse&Rider to discover more of Carl’s invaluable advice for preparing your horse for dressage success. In shops 6 April 2017.