As I’ve mentioned in a few previous blog posts, I bought Paddy from a showjumping home – he had successfully jumped affiliated up to 1m, and had been schooling at 1.10m at home. For an Eventer, this still leaves two disciplines to master before you can start competing! Although with showjumping typically being my weakest phase, I bought Paddy knowing we at least (hopefully) had that phase ticked off – so far, so good. His flatwork was well established and he had done a couple of dressage training shows, so at the very least he had seen the white boards of terror – but his XC experience essentially equated to nothing.
I was fine with – and in fact even a little excited about – the prospect of schooling an entire discipline from scratch. There is something really satisfying about being able to say that you’ve done something by yourself (*cough* with a lot of lessons and more experienced people showing you how to do it) – you can take full credit for the horse’s success and mould him into what you want. However on the flip side (and if your thought processes are remotely similar to mine), there is something equally terrifying about the prospect of teaching a horse the wrong things and taking all the credit forhis complete lack of success in said discipline. So, no pressure right?
Cross-country is my favourite discipline. You can’t knock fences (yay!), no one is judging your riding (potato rider is very thankful) and because I had a wonderful horse who I could point and she would jump anything, I always enjoyed myself (who needs drugs when you have the buzz of flying across the finish line after going clear?!).
Mounting Paddy at Quarrylands Cross Country (lovely circular track with a nice variety of fences for the babies) for his first XC schooling session was the first time in a long time I’ve felt nervous going XC. I firmly believe this is why the first fifteen minutes were not as successful as they could have been had I at the very least ACTED confident. He wasn’t confident (why would he be, it was his first time XC?!) And I wasnt confident enough to tell him it was OK – so what happened? He stopped at a few fences. He refused to take the lead, even for a canter up the field. He had no confidence in me in this unknown territory! It was at this point I realised I would have to a) stop making excuses for both of us, and b) actually ride.
So, I RODE. I organised myself:
- Which fence/combination am I tackling?
- Am I going solo/lead file or taking a lead?
- Trot or canter?
- What am I doing after – next fence or pulling up?
… And stuck to that plan.
This did wonders for both of our confidence. He learned that the only way was over. I had no choice but to act confident and so I became confident. I challenged him to try some easy ones by himself (little logs and other natural fences) – he took a look and even stopped at some but he was able to either jump from standing or I could represent a couple of strides back so he learned over was the only way. For some bigger or trickier asks, I took a lead and did it a second time on our own.
By the middle of our session he was ears pricked, taking me to fences, and even when he was genuinely worried he wanted to give things a go. In return I didn’t over face or push him, gave him as much time as he needed to figure things out, and gave lots of praise and pats when he did what I asked. I was so impressed with his attitude , he was so willing to give everything a go, seemed to truly enjoy himself, and even went into the water first when our lead horse got stage fright (this was a real proud Mummy moment)!
My advice to anyone taking a young horse XC would be as follows:
- Pick a venue that has a variety of fences – different sizes, questions and types. A circular track at a new venue in my opinion works really well for the first trip as it avoids any silliness about going home and encourages forward thinking.
- Ensure you bring a ‘babysitter’ – a safe and solid lead horse that will be consistent enough to show your youngster the ropes over any fence, but quiet enough to wait while you give things a go first or experience any resistance.
- Make sure both you and the person riding the babysitter have lots of patience – you need to give the horse time to figure things out for himself, rushing does no good for his brain.
- But be careful to balance kindness and softness with firmness – the horse must learn that the only way is over the fence, and forward. It’s OK to have a look and back off a bit but he must go over. This comes from your confidence (feigned if necessary) and therefore his confidence in your ability to keep him safe.