Eventer Hayden Hankey is an experienced horseman, having contested showing, showjumping and amateur National Hunt racing, in addition to his eventing. He also Field Masters for his local hunt. Hayden has produced some world-class horses for international riders, as well as his top ride ‘You’ve Got The Lux’ (Perfect Poppy), who is stepping up to 3* in 2019. However, he’s also renowned for his skills in producing young horses, and has a string contesting the lower levels this year.
An enjoyable and educational experience.
Taking your young horse to their first event can be the most incredibly rewarding experience. I love their innocence and willingness to learn, and the way they seem to ask you for help and guidance in this new, unknown environment. You therefore need to make it as enjoyable and educational an experience as possible, being both sympathetic and encouraging, as well as firm and clear in what you’re asking of them.
With young horses, you need to be soft and relaxed in your position, yet prepared for every eventuality! Steering and ‘brakes’ may still be an issue, so make sure you keep your hands wide to guide them, and keep everything slow and steady. You will probably find that the horse will feel a lot greener than they do in the safety of their own home environment, as they will be so busy looking around and taking in their environment that they may not be as attentive to you, and what you’re asking. Be patient and calm, and most importantly, be very black and white, eg. clear with what you’re asking.
Take it all as a learning experience
As nice as it would be to come out to their first competition and win, you really can’t go out with any expectations or pressure. Take it all as a learning experience, and most importantly enjoy it! There is no greater pleasure than coaxing a baby horse around their first cross country event.
To be prepared, try to get to a small dressage competition before your first event, so you’ve already met the scary white boards and flower pots. So long as the horse is obedient, stays relaxed and feels confident, then they will only get better with more ‘miles on the clock’.
Whereas some people are happy to let young horses trot into the jumps at their first events, personally I find it gives them more confidence to canter from the start. Yes, for an event horse, it is very important to train out of trot; out on the XC course, you can’t circle, so there may be a situation where you need to do a trot stride on a turn, or in front of a fence. But your homework should be done at home, not at the competition!
“Missing a stride into a fence isn’t going to teach them anything…”
Many people would also think it best to try not to dictate to the horse where and when to take off, however here at Team Hankey, we think it’s also very important to produce your horse to take off at a comfortable distance. This is more encouraging and confidence-giving to a green horse. Missing a stride into a fence isn’t going to teach them anything!
You should never be chasing young horses around their events, but equally it’s very important for them be ridden in a forward’ positive rhythm, again giving them confidence’ and teaching them to pick up their next fence.
Be slightly forward and soft in your position, so you’re prepared for them to take off, sometimes not when you expect! And remember, if you do get left behind, slip your reins. Do be conscious of using your upper body balance to help keep the balance when coming into your fences, and be very conscious of not catching the horse in the mouth or landing heavily on their backs; do consider a neck strap! Most young horses are also still very responsive to verbal aids, which is very useful. For example, using a loud ‘whoah’ instead of a rein-pull would probably be more effectiveh and better still for their mouths; plus, they tend to find some comfort and encouragement from the rider talking to them, and telling them how clever they are!
If at the end of the day, if you’ve managed to get around all three phases happily, that a success. It’s definitely more important for them to learn at this stage than to win.
What if you have a sensitive-mouthed horse?
Many sensitive horses react negatively to pressure placed on the tongue. Hence, I am a big fan of the new breed of swivel bits – I like the Bomber Blue DC Morgan, as I find that the young horses don’t tend to ‘set’ or brace themselves on the contact; it helps prevent them getting their tongue over the bit, and keeps any poll pressure stable, helping to keep them relaxed and ‘round’ in front of the fence. The is not ridged or rough, and it’s made of a soft material; so it’s not confrontational.
A sensitive-mouthed or green horse doesn’t tend to drop behind the contact with these swivel bits. The DC Morgan, also available in a sweet iron Happy Tongue, is very useful for a youngster that’s not used to poll leverage. It is also good for teaching directional aids to a young horse when jumping, as the side elements swivel, yet the bit stays still.
I have used the Bomber Blue DC Morgan on several of my horses, including Jerry, an older horse that showjumped successfully at the British Masters in 2018, who is sensitive in the mouth; Fools In Love, a green youngster; and five-year old Cartown Galaxy. Our five-year olds haven’t really got a mouth yet, and the DC Morgan allows them to place the bit where they want in the mouth.
The DC Morgan bit I use is not ‘dressage legal’, as it has extra rein loops; however Bombers also produces a fantastic version called the DC Dressage Swivel, which is allowed in affiliated contests. Both versions are available in a sweet iron Happy Tongue version, as well as in the Bomber-Blue material, and titanium. All versions are ported..
Good luck with your eventing endeavours this season!