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Event training with Sam Griffiths

This article has been published previously by Equestrian Life. To see what is in our latest issue, please click here.

 Through the water with ease, Sam Griffiths and PAULANK BROCKAGH are looking strong

Sam Griffiths and Paulank Brockagh.

© Nico Morgan Photography

 

By Sam Griffiths

The first event is both an exciting and nerve wracking time; however the most effective way of combating nerves is preparation. If you and your horse are well prepared then you will feel calmer and more confident.

Tack & Equipment

A good place to start your preparation is checking that you have suitable tack and equipment. Every rider has different preferences, but for me the essential tack would be a good quality jumping or general purpose saddle, a well-made leather bridle with strong rubber coated leather reins and a breastplate. All my horses go cross-country in protective boots and I have a full range of studs.

As the rider, you must make sure that your helmet and body protector are well fitted and meet current safety standards (check EA Rules). I wear a pair of non-slip gloves and always carry a whip when jumping.

Fitness

I find that a combination of consistent schooling, jumping and hacking will get a young horse sufficiently fit enough for an Intro or Pre Novice event. I avoid any fast work until Novice level.

Cross Country Schooling

For both horse and rider, confidence in the cross-country phase stems from cross-country schooling. Successful training builds essential trust between horse and rider so it is important that the first cross country experience is good; and be prepared to adjust your plans according to how the horse is feeling.

To be sufficiently prepared for your first event you and your horse need to complete at least three or four cross-country schooling sessions. There are no short cuts with horses. The slower the pace at which we train a horse, the quicker the horse will learn. Therefore, when introducing the more spooky fences such as ditches and water I will always approach at walk and I have an experienced horse on hand to give the young horse a lead. Horses are herd animals so will instinctively be keen to follow.

A large part of cross-country training is encouraging the horse to think for himself. No one will get the perfect stride all the time and the horses have to learn to cope with this. When facing a horse with any new question I allow the horse plenty of rein so that he can assess the situation for himself.

Finally, I only jump small fences when cross-country schooling to establish and develop confidence.

Warm Up

Begin each session by checking you have all the tack and equipment that you need and that it is secured correctly. Then put it out of your mind and concentrate on your riding. During the warm up make sure that your horse is listening, turning both ways and test your brakes and accelerator, in other words, vary the pace up and down to check you have control. If your horse is feeling very fresh then keep his mind occupied with lots of transitions while being subtle with your aids. If you don't feel in control then do not start jumping, as you will find that the problem is magnified.

Always try and sit in the middle of the horse with an even weight into both stirrups. Keep your focus up and your balance independent from the horse with your seat out of the saddle. Do not be tempted to use your hands to balance yourself; it will only restrict the horse. Most importantly, keep your heels down at all times – they are your seat belt for cross-country riding.

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First Jump

For the first jump choose a small rail or log and approach in either trot or canter. Even at this early stage I insist on straightness so aim at the middle of the jump and ‘tunnel' the horse between your hand and leg. Be prepared for a green jump so keep your heels down, focus up and on landing canter away from the fence in a straight line. If the horse is rushing, try slowing down the pace of approach. Rushing can also be a result of the rider being too quick to grab the reins on landing so be soft over the jump and for a few strides after the jump. Then, if you have to, bring him slowly to a standstill after the fence to slow his brain down. I never stop in front of the jump as this may lead to backing off. Repeat these exercises until you both feel confident enough to tackle a different fence.

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Steps

Steps up and down come relatively naturally to a horse but require good balance and security from the rider. At first, I approach the step down in walk and allow the horse his head to see the task. I will be firm with my leg to encourage the horse forward. As the horse begins to drop down I keep my head up, upper body back and weight pressed down into the heels. I slip my reins to allow the horse freedom of the head and neck while I stay behind the movement. On landing gather your reins quickly as you could have another fence a few strides later.

Once your horse is confident, approach at the trot and then move onto a bigger step. Remember that the steeper the drop the more you must keep your upper body back and lower leg forward – as you can see in these pictures I look like I'm jumping into the lake at Badminton but it's better to be safe than sorry!

Jumping up a bank is relatively simple. I approach the step as if it were an upright show jump. Generate a controlled, powerful canter being careful not to confuse power with speed. As the horse jumps up allow your hands forward. Do not be tempted to be over enthusiastic with your body; horses find steps up a lot easier than we think.

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Ditches

Introduce ditches at walk and if in doubt follow a lead horse. I have a loose rein but keep the horse straight so his only option is to go forwards over the ditch. Make sure your lower legs are secure in preparation for a ‘cat leap’ and allow the horse plenty of freedom in the air. Even if you lose balance it is important that you do not interfere so grab some mane or a neck strap for balance and safety.

Once you both feel confident you can increase the pace of your approach and move on to a larger ditch.

If your horse takes a big dislike to the ditch then as a last resort give your horse a couple of taps behind the saddle but do not let him turn away from the jump. Be ready to reward any forward steps quickly as we want this to remain a positive experience for the horse.

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Trakehners

More often than not trakehners are ‘rider frighteners’ but just imagine the ditch is filled in and ride it like a spread fence. Approach with an attacking canter and a committed attitude from you. Maintain a contact on the reins and look up, not at the ditch, you do not want to end up in it! If your horse has hesitated on approach then ensure you ride strongly away from the jump on landing to keep the horse thinking forward.

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Water

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As with all new questions, water must be introduced slowly so as not to frighten the horse. Do not be tempted to get carried away; the effect of the spray and the drag of the water can be alarming for a young horse. I always begin by following another horse closely and walking quietly into the water. Spend some time walking around in the water and you should find that the horse soon gets used to the feeling and realises that it's actually quite good fun. If you are experiencing any problems getting the horse into the water then, as with the ditch, be ready to tap with the whip and immediately reward any progress towards the water – however small.

The next stage is a small step into the water. Ride this in the same way as the first step down onto dry ground and be ready for over exuberance. You can then move onto approaching the water at a slow canter and then to a bigger step, all the time remembering that your lower leg is crucial to the prevention of a ducking. This combination of exercises should be plenty for the horse to think about for his first water session.

Introducing the cross-country phase into your event preparation should be a fun and rewarding time for everyone. It gives me immense pleasure to feel a young horse growing in confidence and enjoying his first cross-country experiences.

If you have allowed plenty of time for these early stages, been thorough with your preparation and kept your horse positive then you should be rewarded with a happy and confident cross country round at your first event.

 

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