Tim shares with us his best advice on tackling what can be the most testing fences across the country; skinnies. He says:
The first thing to remember is that all horses are different – they learnt at different rates and have different attitudes and so I always bear this in mind when introducing my horses to any new exercise. It is also important to only do as much in any one day as you feel that particular horse is able to cope with and learn from. Some horses may comfortably practice several exercises in one session, whereas, others are better suited to doing a little and often.
With young horses, any exercise focusing on skinnies would initially be done over small fences – the point is learning to look for and focus on the centre of the fence, all the while keeping the horse confident, so I would never ask too much in terms of height as it is probably unnecessary and could cause the horse to lose confidence at an early stage.
Before introducing young horses to skinny fences, I would make sure they have gained some confidence jumping a variety of fences including fillers and small angles before I start on the narrow fences. Also, I would always start this training in an arena or secure enclosed space as this gives me the ability to add guide rails, wings or whatever might be required. Training of this kind on an open cross-country course would always come much later for my horses, as I feel you don’t have options available to rectify any mistakes the horse might make.
On the day of the ‘skinny training’ I would start by giving them a pop around a few straightforward fences, and the fence I wish to make into a skinny would have a couple of fillers underneath it. When the horse is jumping confidently and in a sound rhythm, I put some guide rails up on the take-off side of the fence (propped on the fillers to start with) and jump it a couple of times, this ensures the horse is focussing on the very centre of the fence.
Then we can remove one of the fillers, and repeat the exact exercise with the guide rails. Again, once the horse is happily popping this we can ask a little more by dropping the guide rails onto the floor -they’re still there to guide the horse to the centre of the fence, but in a less obvious manner and the horse must start to think.
Once established in jumping this type of fence, the wings can be removed too – creating a real question and a little test to be sure the horse is locking on to the centre of the fence and confirm that the training so far has been successful.
With this type of training, it can often take a while for the horse to grasp the concept, and if there is an issue whereby the horse runs out or makes a mistake, always go straight back to guide rails – even if they have a silly ‘duck out’ just the once, I would always put guide rails straight back on to re-instil what was required before taking them off again and continuing as you were.
It’s all about building confidence and helping the horse learn their job, so I’d never tell a horse off for running out at a skinny when it is new to the exercise; the chances are it is a lack of understanding on their part, not naughtiness. I want to set my horses up to succeed with the exercise and fill them with as much confidence for jumping skinnies as all other fences, not something they need to be anxious about or try to avoid (by running out).
I would repeat all the above steps from both directions. Young horses tend to revert to some green-ness when the approach of a fence changes, so it’s important to jump all types of fences in both directions and (once more established), at angles/out of corners/on a turn etc.
Here, I used fillers as an example, but a filler can be anything – I tend to use barrels a lot in this sort of exercise as they’re very adaptable. Two barrels next to each other on their side is plenty enough of a ‘skinny’ for a young horse, one barrel on its side is as skinny a fence as you would find in any grass-routes cross-country course. Only once the horse is more established – two barrels stood on their end is quite a question, and one barrel on its end (especially with no wings) is easily as skinny – if not more so – than you’d find in any advanced competition on the cross-country.
One of my more advanced horses perfected a training exercise last year where he jumped a triple combination of single barrels stood on their end, with no wings to assist. This sort of straightness and focus from the horse can only be achieved through correct and thorough training from the ground up, training which is appropriate for the level of the horse at the time. As a result, this horse (at home and in competition) is constantly looking for the focal point of the fence that he needs to jump and not at where he could potentially run out. Obviously, all horses can misunderstand and make a mistake, but because this particular horse is very confident in his ability to jump skinnies, and never developed any anxieties about them – it makes my job so much easier, even over the most technically testing of cross-country tracks.
If you found this helpful and would like to hear more from Tim, you can follow him at www.downefarm.com on Facebook @TimCheffingsEventing and Twitter @TimCheffings.