Having been privileged to be presented with the opportunity to work with some of the best riders we’ve seen, I’ve gained a valuable insight into the training and planning they put in that allows them to ride with confidence. It is important that everyone understands that confidence is built with repetition over time, drilling the basics so that you and your horse are completely on the same wavelength. Confidence in a horse is knowing what you’ll get when you ask it to do something, and knowing that you’ll be able to answer questions together in a connected way.
Let’s use an example, such as “seeing a stride”. Firstly, there is nothing in the human brain that makes some people better at assessing a distance from a fence and adjusting the horse’s path to it to get to the optimum take off point. The complex systems within our sight and the visual cortex that interprets the data and helps us make a decision are simply trained to the scenario of looking at a fence and making adjustments to get to the right spot. So what does this mean in laymen’s terms? Simple really, our systems need repetition, trial and error and a clear understanding of how to make an adjustment so that the horse is clear on what is needed.
But the trouble is, we don’t spend enough time doing this. We’re in a hurry to get up the grades, and do so when the horse is “ready” to. There is a difference between qualifying to go up a grade and being ready to go up a grade. And the trouble is, you will only become aware of this when the technical question that you and your horse are trying to answer becomes too much for the horse to cope with should you get it wrong. That’s a big problem: there aren’t many people willing to tell you you’re not ready, even if the horse is.
There is a reason why in this sport riders reach their prime in their late 30’s or early 40’s unlike most other sports. This is because the best build up huge banks of trial and error and experience, riding many horses a day and getting that repetition that allows their skill to hone. The visual and physical skills of assessing distance and adjusting the horse are repeated over and over, fine tuning these skills.
Ok, but most eventers out there aren’t in this luxury position. I understand that. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done. You need to assess your ability to do the basics well, and be prepared to work at YOUR skill with your horse rather than just training your horse. I hope that makes sense?!?!
Let’s start with my favourite question: how do you ride a half halt? You know HOW to ride a half halt, and you could do it on your horse, but describe to me what you physically do to get the horse to half halt? Grow taller? Tighten your abs? Brace against the horse? This is an example of what I mean. The chances are (and I’ve asked this question a lot) you’ve taken between 20-30 seconds to think about it, and then a bit more time to articulate it. And that’s my point. How conscious are you of what YOU physically do – how strong is your skill, and how accurately can you repeat it? If you can’t tell me quickly and precisely, it’s not a strong and reliable skill under pressure. For a skill to happen subconsciously, “in the zone” or automatically, it needs to firstly be quite consciously drilled. It can’t just happen, it needs hours of practice before it will become automatic.
An elite rider has the ability to precisely and accurately use their body to provide an aid or instruction to their horse quickly. This communication is honed to a high level of expertise. Whilst you can’t ride the same volume, ask yourself whether you have the same connection and precision with your horse? How do you adjust a horses canter (you often hear of gears of canter) and can you do it effectively?
The key to this, and to confidence, is to accept that these basics need some work, and then consciously train them. This can be done simply with canter poles, for instance, riding a distance using different numbers of stride over the same distance. Can you and your horse adjust the stride quickly and accurately? And then, the golden rule is to test this over a technical question where there is minimal risk (cross pole) until you’re happy that you can get the stride you’re looking for 10 times out of 10. Challenge yourself to be good at it, then raise the bar a little. But don’t raise it so much that the pressure on the skill becomes too much that you cant execute it well.
Cross country is where the risk is, we all know that. But it also the bit that we practice the least. This is
coupled with the fact that speed is a crucial element. My advice is to have the patience to assess your rounds on your ability to answer the technical questions well first. When you can do that, then you can start to speed up how you do it. Without the technical basics in place, you’re only increasing the risk potential. When you walk a course spend some time thinking about the canter you want and where you want it, think too about how you’re going to get it. Thinking more consciously about what YOU do is the