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Handling the Equine Athlete with David Shoobridge – Part 2: Building a Respectful Relationship with your Horse

Elite Australian dressage rider and highly sought after trainer, DAVID SHOOBRIDGE shares some top tips in the final part of this exclusive series on building a respectful relationship with your horse.

In the May/June issue, we looked at training and partnership building with horses from brood mare, through infancy, and into the early stages of preparing the horse for a competition career. In this issue we’ll look further into the training of the young horse, and how to develop our relationship moving up the grades.

Getting started

Trying to understand how the horse thinks will give us a much clearer path in our training programs.

Young horses need structure. It’s really important to develop a routine, so the expectations of both horse and rider are clear from the outset. Structure is not only what we do under saddle, it’s how we approach day-to-day training, handling, animal husbandry, and all things associated with the care of the horse. Everything from catching your horse from the paddock, leading, tying up, stabling and holding for the farrier, it all matters – it all plays a part in how you and your horse communicate.

Take leading for example: it’s important that the horse leads with forward tendency, so they walk beside you rather than behind you, or in front of you, and that you’re not dragging the horse along with the lead rope, or pulling it back.

For this, you and the horse need to be spatially aware. The horse should respect your personal space, and they also need to respect what is being asked of them.

When we’re teaching the horse to lead, a useful tip is to carry a dressage whip in your outside (left) hand, bringing it behind your back to give the horse a little tap almost where your leg rests. This action should be enough to encourage the horse to step forward, allowing you to walk at their shoulder. You would only need to do this once or twice for the horse to understand what’s expected.

The key is to repeat the same way of leading the horse every time. Horses aren’t like humans. As humans, we can move the goalposts and rationalise the differences whereas horses can’t. They need repetition, so ensure you lead the same way with the same expectations, and that will help develop a better relationship on the ground. The same goes for when you’re holding the horse for the farrier or the vet, tacking up, floating, or anything else requiring your horse’s concentration. The horse needs to stay in their own personal space and not encroach into yours.

Develop a system

As I’ve mentioned before, when starting a young horse under saddle it’s important to develop your own system. This might include lunging the horse first, or walking out, or hand walking, but whatever you chose you need a system that gives you confidence and gives clarity to your communication with the horse.

The partnership and trust between horse and rider is important both in and out of the saddle.

My team and I have developed a system that works for us. For the young horses, we lunge them for a few minutes before each ride and assess how they’re moving, feeling, reacting. We then use this information to decide on the best course of action for the day’s training program. It also means we can observe any spots of tension or soreness/stiffness from the previous day, and we can see how the horse relaxes into the contact. We tend to lunge with correctly fitting side reins, but selecting the best lunging apparatus for each combination is a very personal choice. Some people prefer not to have any side reins, others lunge with running reins – there are many different systems on the market that when used correctly give a positive outcome to the frame and the way of going for the horse.

  • It’s important to note that equipment in wrong hands, or riding with the wrong mindset can, and generally will, be extremely dangerous. We must always take absolute care when riding and lunging and respect the horses as living beings. DS.

Whatever we do on one side, we’ll always do on the other. So when we’re lunging a horse to the left in walk, trot and canter, working on the transitions, straightness and balance, we will always repeat that on the other side.

Once we’ve lunged for a few minutes, we’ll see what the horse’s frame of mind is and what we may need to work on under saddle. We will be able to see if they’re working evenly on both sides, or whether we need to focus on a particular issue.

Mount slowly, confidently and carefully, and where possible, always use a mounting block. This reduces the pull to the horse’s back. Take up the reins and walk around to feel how the horse is moving, feel the swing and the rhythm of the walk.

Connecting through the walk

It’s vital as riders that we connect our body to the horse through the walk when warming up. We can allow our body to move with the horse’s back, and allow our hands to move back and forth while maintaining contact with the mouth. Once we’ve walked around, feeling what’s happening underneath our saddle, we then start the trot. Letting the horse stretch forward and down is the perfect way to start most horses, it helps develop swing and rhythm, suppleness into the contact and allows the middle of the back to come up under the saddle. Generally, the rounder we can have the back and the neck, the better the rhythm and pace will be.

It’s important to remember that where there are rules, there are exceptions. It might not be safe to simply stretch your horse first up, so this is where you, as the horse’s rider and main person, will need to use your judgement.

We then move the horse forward and back in transitions, before working towards moving them away from our legs. Exercises such as leg yields and shoulder in are a great way to develop connection and suppleness. They also help to develop the natural paces of our horses.

We canter our young horses a lot. Once they’re in canter, we can really feel their natural balance. Those less balanced will have trouble maintaining the canter for very long and the turns will be, well … possibly a bit wild! It’s really common for young horses to fall through the short side in canter, and our natural reaction is to bring them back to balance. What if I said, rather than bringing them back, try pushing them forward more! Would you give it a go? When you’re doing this, really try to think of the shoulders turning the horse, not the head. Using your outside leg, try and make a wall that the horse can follow. Try it!

Canter is one of the most important paces to feel the horse’s natural balance.

Be accountable and make a plan

A tip for less experienced riders when deciding on a training program is to put pen to paper and write one down. Stick the paper to your tack room wall or put it in your grooming box, or anywhere you’ll see it for that matter! Read it before deciding what you’d like to achieve with your horse each day. It might list some key goals such as suppleness, straightness, or rhythm, but it’s important to focus on your own program to deliver a clear, concise message to the horse.

Writing down a plan for your day’s ride, for your week, or maybe for a month is a great tool to look back and reflect on your routine, check the goals, become accountable, and to make sure there’s balance for the horse. Write some notes on a daily or weekly basis and make sure your program includes arena/training time, lunging, riding out, training over poles or jumps, or simply hack out in your favourite location (for example the forest, beach, hills, roads). Break it up – it’s great for the horse to be worked on different surfaces and in different environments.

The young competition horse

Take time to feel the horse underneath you: how they’re using their back, their connection and their willingness. This will help you tailor your system to your horse’s needs.

Getting our horses ready for the first competition is extremely exciting. There are a lot of unknowns we need to prepare for, and by this stage in the horse’s training, we should know what our horse’s triggers are. Whether it’s noise, sights, objects, or different locations, we should have a clear understanding of how best to manage our horse’s safety and security when we’re out and about.

A great idea before your first competition is to travel to a competition venue and have a casual ride to familiarise yourself and your horse with the surroundings. Another idea could be a protocol day/training day in front of a judge. It’s a practice run that also allows you to identify parts of the test that might need a little fine tuning. I find these days extremely beneficial for the young horse in terms of their confidence, and it gives us as riders a chance to show the horse competition venues without the pressure of competing.

Routine at a competition should reflect the routine you’ve developed at home: from your personal space, controlled tacking up, to your pre-ride preparation, whether that be lunging, hand walking, or getting straight on and walking on a long rein, it should be no different at a competition.

It’s important to remember that we’re likely to put more pressure on ourselves when we’re out and about, and the horse can pick this up. They feel the energy and they’ll be in tune to changes in our riding style. So, the more focused you can be, the more clear with your aides, and the more prepared and consistent, the more effective and positive the outcome.

Before trotting down our very first centre line, we should do a lap of the arena to familiarise our horse with the judges’ box and the letters. This is a great time for the rider to do some last-minute adjustments to their partnership, making sure your horse is listening and your aids are effective. It’s common to see riders simply trotting the lap of the arena. I find it a really important time to ride some transitions, a little leg yield both ways, to ride close to the arena and then close to the judges’ box, just to give the horse that last little bit of confidence. If the horse tends to be spooky or uneasy, and a little tight in the back, let them have a stretch around the arena, and pick up the reins just before going into the test.

Your first test should be great fun. The outcome isn’t important, so long as you execute the plan as best as possible. It’s really normal for horses to be a bit spooky, or for the wheels to fall off a little in the first few tests we do, so don’t take it to heart. Instead, reflect on your test once you have your test paper and you’ve reviewed the video, and then develop your training strategy to focus on the areas that need attention based on the test.

It’s easy for us to make excuses for mishaps, or miscommunications. But at the end of the day, it’s our responsibility to the horse, and to our partnership to deliver the same message as we do in training, with the same expectation of commitment from the horse. This will only happen if our training strategy has consistency, effectiveness and is result driven and we as riders have the ability and intelligence to look at the progress and recognise those areas requiring improvement.

Partnerships come in all shapes and sizes.

Moving up the grades

When you move up the competition grades, your general strategies should be the same but more finely tuned. So, you may move from walk/trot transitions to walk/canter, or half pass, or piaffe/passage. But it’s always the same message: it’s forward, back, listen, wait, and develop that relationship so that you can connect with the horse and get the most out of both you as a rider, and the horse as an athlete.

For news of clinics, events and horses for sale, visit www.davidshoobridge.com.au

David will be recording a Q&A for our VIP area with reader questions about this article. Get your questions to us by email or DM us on social, and see if David answers you! Keep an eye out for when it’s live and view by logging in to www.equestrianhub.com.au/vip-member/

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