- TRAINING -

Trust is key

- eventing with Andrew Daines -

Andy’s relationship with his horses is built on a foundation of trust and confidence. He gives us an insight into how he achieves this as he works with Prince, one of the younger members of his talented team.

Words and photos: Show Circuit

“We just keep it simple. I don’t really do more than five minutes at a time with him.”

As Andy walks towards the arena of his regular coach, Olympian Clarke Johnstone, in Matangi, it quickly becomes evident that his horse Prince is feeling a little tense. “He’s nervous about life in general. It means he’s sensitive, which I like, but it also means he’s scared of his own shadow,” Andy says with a grin. “I take every opportunity I can to get him out and about to look at new surroundings, arenas and jumps!”

Nearing the arena, with Prince’s eyes on stalks, Andy continues to talk about his approach with this horse. “Because of his nerves, he tends to overthink things. So, when it comes to jumping, he either rushes to a fence or jumps so big that it scares him even more.”

With that in mind, Andy explains that he keeps all the jumps small, only about 80-90cm. “He’s a naturally very talented jumper, so it would be easy to keep putting the jumps up higher and higher and ignore the small issues. But eventually, at the bigger heights, those small issues will become big issues, and they will be a lot harder to deal with.”

By keeping the jumps small, it also allows Prince to make mistakes without scaring himself. “I don’t have to worry about the jump with him. It’s all about the approach and the departure from the fence. So the height of the fence is irrelevant.”

 Andy wants all of his horses to leave the arena feeling confident and wanting to go back and do more the next day. “If I come out here, in a new arena, and jump around a course of big fences – if we get the distance a little wrong at one, or have speed issues into another, he’s going to smash through it, and it’s going to take weeks to get him back to where he is now. So I would rather leave them small. Then, if we have any mistakes, it’s not going to matter!”

Get it right on the flat first

Despite being by the Prix St Georges dressage stallion Worldly, Andy concedes that Prince isn’t overly fond of flatwork. “We just keep it simple. I don’t really do more than five minutes at a time with him.” Giving Prince a walk in between small amounts of work gives him a chance to think about everything, digest it and relax before Andy picks up the reins and carries on.

He explains that training is all about having the right tools and putting them to their best use. “I tend to do a lot of work on a circle with the young ones. When you’re on a circle, it does the job of keeping the bend, so as long as you’re not letting their shoulders bulge, half of your work is done for you.”

At this point in his training, Andy is just establishing that all the buttons are working – that Prince moves forward freely when asked, that he comes back lightly, and that he moves away from his leg aids and follows the bit without resistance.

In the beginning, Prince is fresh and quite ‘looky’, but Andy keeps a soft leg and soft hand, correcting any small issues. “The first time into a trot, he resisted a little bit, which he tends to do, so I bought him back and did it again. It’s all about building their confidence. Do it again if it’s wrong, and give big rewards if they do it right.”

Just like in the walk-trot transition, when Andy asks Prince into a canter for the first time, the horse catches the bit and rushes forward a little. “It’s important to get the small things right,” Andy explains. “If I can’t get a simple transition, we are bound to have issues as we move into the jumping.”

It would be easy to reprimand his horse for this mistake, but Andy simply brings him back to trot, rebalances him and then asks again for canter. Once he gets the transition he desires, Andy rewards Prince with a pat.

“When I asked for canter the first time, he did react to my legs by going forward, and that’s essentially what we want, but it wasn’t quite the right answer. So I brought him back and tried again, and followed it with a big reward when he got it right.”

To start with, in the canter, Andy stays out of the saddle in two-point so that Prince doesn’t get tight across his back. Prince clears his nose a couple of times, a good indication that he is relaxing along his topline, and at this point, Andy sits back into three-point position and continues his work.

While he has kept everything simple, Andy feels that Prince is now working softly with no tension and is ready to move on to the jumping exercises set up in the arena.

“If I didn’t get him to a place where I thought he was ready for jumping, I wouldn’t have bothered today. I need them to be ready to move on, or I will do more damage than good. In saying that, his flatwork has been great today, so there is no point drilling him over and over waiting for him to make a mistake. Get what you want, reward and then move on.”

“Stay out of the saddle on a young horse when you first go into canter until they relax their back.”

Jump to it

All three exercises that Andy uses on this day are designed to achieve similar results. “With a horse that likes to rush into fences or jumps too big, we want to encourage him to think about where he is placing his feet and encourage him to use his back and neck over the fence, and continue in the same canter afterwards.”

Exercise one:

Crossbar – bounce – crossbar

Andy chooses to warm up over a bounce rather than a single fence when schooling the young horses. “Using the bounce gets them thinking straight away,” he explains.

This exercise encourages the horses to look down and use their back and neck. It also encourages them to slow down, back themselves off the fence and think about where they are placing their feet.

“He is so scopey that when we first jumped him through a bounce like this, he tried to jump it as an oxer,” laughs Andy. “So everything is about him slowing down and maintaining a rhythm before and after the fence.”

Andy jumps the exercise one way, halts turns and jumps it back through the other way. He does this a few times, and with each attempt, Prince makes a better shape over the fence, lands more calmly and comes back to a halt with less resistance.

“Just like with the flatwork, I like to make things black and white. He jumped through this well, so he gets rewarded with a break and then we will move on to something else.”

Exercise two:

Placing pole – crossbar – placing pole

This exercise helps to maintain a rhythm into and away from the fence, by using the placing pole to control where the horse takes off and lands, in relation to the fence. If the pole is close on each side, the horse will need to take off nearer to the fence, encouraging them to get relatively deep and sit on their hind end, which will help with their shape over the jump. Having the placing pole on the landing side of the jump encourages the horse to look down and think about where he is placing his feet, rather than just landing and moving forward straight away.

To begin with, Andy has the pole set at a nice, easy distance for Prince, and as expected, he jumps it well both ways. He then rolls both poles in a little closer, encouraging Prince to take off and land closer to the fence and create a bascule over the jump, rather than jumping too flat. “This exercise is great for helping him not to rush at the fences, because there is something before and after for him to think about. But it’s still simple and straightforward.”

Andy then puts the jump up a few holes. “Because he’s making a great shape over the fence and he’s maintaining his rhythm before and afterwards, I feel I can put it up a bit to get him to use his body a little more and try a little harder. But as you can see, it’s still a small jump and nothing that will scare him.”

“Just because your horse can jump big, don’t keep putting the fences up higher and higher. Work on the control before and after the fence.”

Exercise three:

Crossbar – placing pole – oxer

Just like the first two exercises, this is all about rhythm, and helping the horse to make a shape over the fence without rushing. As Andy canters down the line the first time, he quickly realises that he has set it a little too long for Prince, but the horse still jumps it well. “That was a lot longer than ideal, but he didn’t panic, he listened and made an effort to clear them. And he did it well, which shows that the exercises we are doing are working. But because it was long, he jumped rather flat, so I’ll bring them in a bit and go through it again.”

With the distance shortened, Andy makes a second attempt through the line. This time Prince still canters through a bit long and flat and knocks the last rail. “That’ll wake him up a little bit,” Andy says. “He obviously didn’t look at the fences, he just assumed it was the same as last time, and I didn’t want to be pulling on him through the line to make him shorten up. I want him to work these things out for himself, so he grows in self-confidence.”

The next time through, Andy can remain soft, and Prince finds his way down the line well. He backs himself off at the base of the fences and jumps with more power and shape over the fence, precisely what Andy was hoping for.

“The goal is to have your horse leaving the arena confident and wanting to come back for more.”

Putting it to the test

Andy is pleased with how Prince is jumping. He’s soft, there is no tension, and he’s thinking for himself. So he decides to put the morning’s training into practice over a small course of new fences with fill that Prince has not yet seen.

“This will show me whether what we have been doing is working,” Andy admits. He still takes things right back to basics, putting in some circles prior to the jumps to make sure the horse is listening and supple through his body, then lets Prince find his way to the fences. He jumps a lovely round, staying in a nice rhythm and jumping each element well without Andy having to interfere.

“I am really happy about that. He felt confident moving up to the fences, even though he hadn’t jumped the fill before. He’s starting to trust me.”

Without a doubt, as the aim is for Prince to be Andy’s next eventing star, that kind of mutual trust will be crucial to their success.

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