Welcome to Part Seven of the Unharnessed Potential project, an education and awareness campaign to promote the re-training and re-homing of Standardbreds that retire from racing.
In this article series, Alistair McLean from the Australian Equine Behaviour Centre (AEBC) is documenting the re-training of ‘Ideal Guy’ (a.k.a Andy), a five-year-old Standardbred pacer that is making the journey from track-to-hack.
Last month, we saw Andy consolidating the basic responses under-saddle and beginning to learn to canter under-saddle. This month is about refining the canter response, jumping and cross-country training, which all help prepare for Andy’s future all-round career.
Refining Andy’s canter
Andy’s response to the canter aid is now consolidated and, although he starts the canter well, he is not yet able to maintain rhythm and straightness for too many strides, largely because he is still unbalanced.
I found that Andy’s balance issue stemmed from his inability to keep his shoulders straight when cantering, so teaching him to straighten his shoulders through indirect turns is helping. Maintaining straightness involves using the hindquarters to create upwards energy, which, in turn, keeps the horse ‘off the forehand’, and less likely to break and fall into a pace.
For the indirect turns to work in the canter, they must be very obedient in the walk and trot. Any learned response can deteriorate as the gait increases, so we always use the shaping scale until all the responses are consolidated in all the gaits. In many cases, to teach the horse to respond correctly in the new gait, you have to take a step or two back within the Shaping Scale.
In Andy’s case, when we moved into canter, straightness, which he found very difficult, so he had to be trained again from a ‘Basic Attempt’ level, especially on the right rein. It didn’t take long to remind him though, as the response had been trained in the lower gaits so ‘it was in there’, he just needed to find it!
Horses that break in the canter usually do so because they ‘fall out’ through the shoulder, and this causes them to become unbalanced and ‘flatten out’. The indirect turn can bring the shoulders back in line, but before it will have a chance of working in the canter, first ensure your indirect turns are well established in the trot. A good exercise for this straightness in canter is to canter down the long side of the arena and move the shoulders towards the centre line a bit at a time.
The straightness exercise in canter has helped Andy maintain balance and rhythm, and he is now cantering the length of the arena in a rhythm. Sharp turns tend to tip him off balance, as he hasn’t developed the musculature necessary to push off from his hindquarters through the turn. The more repetitions of canter he can experience, the more his coordination will develop in all areas.
Our next mission is to maintain straightness and rhythm through turns in the canter, ensuring the shoulders don’t drift in or out. Gradual turns in a large area in a hexagon shape (See the illustration on Page 36) will help him maintain straightness and balance.
A well-rounded training
Irrespective of whether you want your Standardbred to be an all-rounder or not, there is a lot to gain by teaching your horse to jump. Andy, for example, is very sensitive to his surroundings and is not naturally a very confident horse. In other words, his responses tend to deteriorate when he is out of the confines of a closed indoor arena with little distraction.
The best way to make a nervous horse confident is by repeating the learned responses in gradually more challenging situations.
When the horse is being controlled by the environment instead of our aids, we need the aids to be more motivating to him than the external environment. Once this occurs, the scary environment is overshadowed by our aids, producing a more confident horse. You might always have a horse with a tendency to be nervous, but having well-trained responses will help manage his anxiety. His reactions to the environment will reduce as he becomes focused on you – you become a predictable, safe and easy to understand guide for your horse!
At first I would suggest just doing some ordinary dressage training around the jumps before actually jumping. You want to minimise the chance of him becoming tense in that environment. I had already trained Andy over trot poles so I was happy to start teaching him over small cross rails. If you haven’t trained over poles then I would suggest doing this first at walk, then trot so the challenge isn’t too great in the beginning.
Teaching Andy to jump
The aim when teaching a horse to jump is to achieve rhythm and straightness. We don’t want our horse to surge towards the fence or draw back – we want him to stay at the same pace we set.
Our horses need to be in self-carriage, awaiting any aid we may give – that way, if we need to shorten or lengthen the stride to meet the requirements of the jump, we can do so with ease.
A horse that rushes or speeds up during the approach to a jump is often mistakenly labelled as one who ‘loves to jump’, but often the case is that they are scared and running away, which is dangerous for both the horse and rider.
A horse that maintains rhythm and straightness is a better example of a horse that is comfortable with jumping. If we notice that our horse is accelerating towards the fence, we need to correct the loss of rhythm and do it at a jump height that is safe, before increasing the challenge to a higher jump.
Low and slow
Problems, such as rushing, only become more difficult to manage when the jumps become higher. This is the reason why we train the horse to maintain rhythm and straightness over poles and small fences before increasing the challenge.
Training the horse in walk or trot first will give you a better chance of correcting any speed and/or line variations. Horses need to be able to land and exit the jump at the same speed we approached. If we can adjust our horses before and after the jump, we will know they are not scared, because our aids are motivating them to respond more than the jump in front of them is.
We start small to minimise mistakes.
If your horse refuses at the jump, it is important not to turn them away from the jump. It is the sight of the jump that has caused them to refuse, so do not reinforce their behaviour by allowing them to turn away. At this early stage, the jumps are small enough for the horse to step over from a stand still or, if you prefer, you can rein back a step or two and give yourself more room. If you feel the jump is too big, ask the person on the ground to lower the jump down to a safe height, before asking the horse to step over it.
If your horse runs out to the right, it is important to immediately turn left, as this is the aid the horse pushed through (vice-versa if he runs out to the left). Once you have turned left, then you can face the horse up to the base of the jump and get him or her over it. Again, working from a slow pace will help you correct the run out before he goes past the jump.
If the horse manages to get past the jump, rein back and bring him back to the base of the fence where he made the mistake.
The next important part is to consolidate – repeat the jump over and over again until the horse can do it with no loss of straightness or rhythm.
A horse who has never been allowed to refuse or run out is much safer in the long run. The less options they have in front of the jump, the better they will be, as this will make the response predictable in future, which is why I never allow refusals. Repetition is a key part of training, as this is what creates habits for your horse.
Jumping for Andy isn’t a problem. His technique needs improving but, at this point in time, I am happy that he can trot into a jump maintaining rhythm and straightness. I am gradually adding in more fences until he is comfortably trotting a basic jump course at 50 cms.
Training cross-country fences
Now that Andy has good idea of what to do in a show jumping arena, his confidence and skill will improve as he learns to jump a variety of obstacles in various places. Like in show jumping, I want Andy to be relaxed, which is why the first cross-country session is always done at the walk. We do not want to associate cross-country with speed.
Everything is easier to correct in walk and, for now, there is actually no need to trot, as I will only be doing the basic cross-country obstacles, such as water, ditches, banks and small logs, and tyre jumps.
The weather at the time of writing this article iss making the ground very slippery, and I don’t want Andy to slide and lose confidence.
I start by walking Andy over all the small jumps, so he learns they are solid fences and they don’t fall over. Once I have walked him over these jumps, it is time to train some of the unique obstacles that he hasn’t seen before, such as the water jump, the bank and the ditch. These are the foundations found in nearly all cross-country courses and should be trained thoroughly before going out to compete. Again, this is all done in walk first and then, once the horse is comfortable, we can begin to trot.
We can only adjust a horse when its feet are on the ground, which is much more often in the trot and walk, and, therefore, preferable in the initial stages of training. In the same way as we have taught Andy to jump obstacles in the show jumping arena, we do so on the cross-country course.
Begin with the smallest option and correct any variations in rhythm and straightness. Repeat each jump often until the horse is comfortable. When your horse can walk over each small challenge without a problem, you can trot. To reduce the chances of injury and confidence loss, jumping from a canter should first be schooled over show jumps, just in case we have too long or short a take-off point, as the jump will fall down.
Andy was a little nervous in the water at the beginning, so I maintained leg pressure and increased it until he made an attempt to step forward and into the water. We then repeated this until there was no hesitation. The same process was followed for the bank and the ditch. The horse will often attempt to quicken as he steps over the ditch or down the bank, so we correct this by using the reins as we do for a downward transition, releasing when he reacts correctly. You can use reins aids before or after the jump, but never during. If you cannot get a slowing reaction until after the jump, use a downward transition immediately after the jump and repeat until he no longer rushes.
Later, when your horse is comfortable with both, the approach and the get away, you can test his straightness by jumping narrow fences or test his rhythm by practicing stride control between related lines. Just ensure that you set him up for success by only introducing these questions when he is consolidated over the basics.
Andy is now on his way to becoming an all-rounder and, although he is not entirely competent at all three disciplines yet, the next few months will be all about refining each of them.
In his dressage or flat work training, we have begun introducing some lateral work in trot, whilst still developing his canter. Show jumping and cross-country work will continue to be schooled once a week, refining his technique and introducing new challenges.
The next article in the re-training series will talk about training the lateral movements.
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