The International Eventing Forum has definitely become increasingly popular, this year it was packed out with all tickets sold out. It did not disappoint either, Hartpury proves to be a fantastic venue, the demonstrations and discussions where very stimulating and I for one left feeling inspired for the season ahead.
The morning started with Christopher Hess, FEI Dressage and Eventing judge . His enthusiasm for a happy horse during correct training, together with his pure love of dressage shone throughout his demonstration, as Eric Smiley said if you could bottle his positivity you would produce a drink to rival Guinness!
The first session, titled the ‘Not so Good Dressage Horse’ showed two professionals Sam Griffiths and Nicky Roncoroni both bringing in experienced horses who have not quite reached their full potential in the dressage phase.
Sam’s horse, Rufus who has competed at 2 star, has a tendency to tense up and look back to his rider for reassurance when in a competition atmosphere. Chris praised Sam’s lovely quite start with the horse who did look very apprehensive on seeing the large crowd, but remained obedient and rhythmical as he trotted around the arena with Sam very secure and still in his seat and hands.
Immediately Chris picked up on what was the overriding message in his demonstration, the importance to open up the horse over the neck and use the driving aids to create more swing in the back and bring the hind leg under. He used shoulder- in on the long sides to do this with the inside leg creating the energy into the outside rein, then asking Sam to give the inside rein to open the neck further. In the canter the horse initially needed more jump, length of stride and a more definite 3 time beat. Firstly Chris asked Sam to ride a bigger canter in a forward 2 point seat and then he built up to an exercise of 15 m circles in each corner followed by shoulder in down the long side and then introducing medium canter as well. The canter clearly improved with Rufus looking much more relaxed, happy with more swing and expression. Sam was praised for his lovely quiet communication and balance.
Next Nicky bought in Stonedge, an experienced 3 star horse with consistently good results who is looking to go to the Europeans at Blair this year. An impressive horse with 3 good paces. Chris immediately picked up that he was not always truly in front of the leg, and that she needed to use more leg rather than spur to improve this, in turn this encouraged the neck to stretch out with a giving hand. In downward transitions, he stressed the need to give with the hands and preferred that Stonedge’s head came momentarily above the bit than curled back at all to keep in front of the driving aids and he encouraged her to lengthen his frame in the paces to create more power and swing. While it was obvious that Nicki felt a little out of her comfort zone at times, a definite light bulb moment occurred when in the canter Chris asked her to take the reins in the outside hand. This gave Stonedge a stiller contact and he became much more open over the throat, Chris commented gleefully on what a lovely, happy picture it produced. March 2015 sees the introduction of new FEI tests designed by Chris Bartle, These encourage correct training.
Christoper next went through the changes with Sam riding his lovely horse Happy Times who was clearly enjoining showing off to the crowds. He slipped in cheeky changes whilst being ridden through the one star test.
The changes have increased the level of difficulty for both 1 and 2 star, with 1 star horses now having to tackling counter canter ½ circles and shallow serpentines down the centre line, whilst the 2 star horses now have a long shallow half pass.
Sam also ran through the new 3 star test, although inadvertently incorporated some of the new 4 star test where the horses will be asked to do a flying change from medium canter, although this isn’t to be introduced to 2016.
The afternoon bought the eagerly anticipated session with Andrew Nicolson, having been eventing at top level for many years and he is suitably nicknamed Mr Stickabilty, for his incredible balance cross country even when things don’t go to plan. First and foremost a rider, Andrew does not generally train other riders and very rarely does any lectures or demos, I think everyone was very interested to see his formula for producing countless horses to the top of the sport.
Andrew used 4 of his own horses riding them himself, all at various levels of training and competition to illustrate jumping methods he uses to produce the 4 star cross country horse which usually starts with the 4-5 year olds.
Andrew is well known for not competing any of his youngsters below novice level and he further surprised us that they also do not do any unaffiliated dressage or jumping competitions to prepare before the first event, so apart from cross country schooling the preparation is largely at home and on the gallops.
In contrast to many other pro event riders he gallops his horses from 4 years old, with this age group going roughly once a week with two trips up at 400m/minute which is enough to get them quite tired and teach them to keep breathing and going, helping development of their lungs, he also finds that they come out fresher, more supple the next day and more eager to learn.
Riding the jaw dropping gorgeous grey Zachariah on his first trip out, Andrew was quickly to put him straight into trot, emphasising that the best way to keep a young horse’s attention in a new and potentially frightening environment was to keep him forward with his attention on the rider and to use the same quick warm up routine he has at home. Andrew used the jumps in the arena to flex and leg yield Zachariah to soften him through the neck and activate the hind leg. Then he did the same in canter where the young horse produced such a balanced picture, looking relaxed yet responsive on what was his first trip out from home, it is easy to see why Andrew is obviously excited about this chap.
Andrew then introduced the first jump exercise which was one he would use on all his horses which where 4 uprights on a circle, spaced 10 metres apart, although he did admit in the Q and A session after that at home he is not as exact on the distances and the horses jump what is there. He uses just single poles as there is less to get tangled up in if the horse does make as mistake. He wants the horse to focus just on the pole with no distraction.
With the fences around 60 cm the aim of this exercise is to ride the canter and the rhythm and let the horse make the mistakes and learn from them and the repetition of several circles is the way to achieve this. The need to continually turn to the next fence, means the horse has to keep focused and listening to his rider and although this exercise was quite hard and tiring it is very good for youngsters who might have the tendency to get over excited by the prospect of jumping. For the rider the exercise is very good as you need to get back into position quickly in order to keep the flow around the circle.
Zachariah then finished with a couple of jumps over slightly bigger fences including an upright and parallel with v poles to get his jump up in the air which looked effortless.
The next horse also a 5 year old was more experienced, with more blood and was a natural power jumper, but because of this he may struggle at higher levels to be economical enough in his jump for the difficult turning questions that are now asked. Andrew demonstrated the next stage of the exercise and raised two of the poles on opposite sides of the circle to around 1m. As a talented jumper it was not the larger fences that then produced any issues but rather the smaller ones after, the horse jumped too big over the larger fence which put off his stride for the smaller fence. This exercise taught him to be athletic, yet economical over the bigger fence, in essence to sliver over from a relatively deep spot and quickly land back in the same canter in balance, exactly what is needed when jumping into a coffin and more generally for turning questions at speed where a power jumper can sometimes over jump and then make the question much more difficult than it need be. Staying with small fences and using planks as he finds them more forgiving.
Andrew demonstrated how he uses an exercise with 2 fences parallel to the arena wall and just 4 to 5 metres away. He then proceeded to jump the fences both away and towards the wall turning either way after with the aim of making his horses obedient and quick to react to the riders aids whilst teaching them at all times to look for the fence. Interestingly Andrew never jumps his horses from trot, primarily because its less effective than from a canter. However on a young horse in early cross country schooling who is nervous he will approach from walk and pop to gain confidence.
With his older horse Jet Set who is at 2 star level Andrew showed how he would use a grid to shorten and make more round the stride and jump in between events, especially as cross country can lengthened and flattened the jump. Contrary to some he prefers a canter pole to a reasonable upright and then a bounce to a cross rather than building up the height through the grid. He followed this with a short stride, first to an upright and then an oxer, which is considerably harder as the horse then has to stretch out having shortened his stride.
Finally Andrew rode King Joules, a horse he was given the ride on from Mary King after she suffered a nasty fall through lack of control at Bramham last year. King Joules has the habit of dropping the contact whilst his body accelerates to the fence making him very difficult to ride cross country especially for turning questions. King Joules was useless at the circle jumping at first, but Andrew has worked on creating a more consistent contact making him more rideable.
King Joules demonstrated his lovely technique and scope throughout this exercise, he then rode a larger circle incorporating an oxer and bounce as well as verticals with the emphasis at all times on keeping the rhythm and turning. To finish he rode some single fences with a long approach keeping the rhythm and pace as he would cross country and whilst King Joules jumped the vertical beautifully, he ran through his hand first time to the oxer, but he learnt from this and jumped well the second time.
Still a work in progress Andrew explained how on a cross country course he needs the horse to use his own judgement at each fence, he can then let him run down with minimal interference to keep the flow needed and when he needs to can take control to ensure a safe jump. T
he title for this year’s Eventing Forum was ‘Focused’ a word most people would agree aptly describes Andrew Nicholson.
However by his own admission he was very nervous doing the demonstration, but his honest appraisal, the clear and detailed insight he gave into his methods, makes myself and many others hope that he overcomes these nerves to do many more in the future.
REPORT BY ISOBEL HUDSON