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Create a thinking horse

- with eventing legend Andrew Nicholson -

Words: Kelly McCarthy-Maine  l  Photos: Jon Stroud

Eventing legend Andrew Nicholson became ‘Mr Consistency’ in 2014 by winning Burghley for an incredible third time in a row on his charismatic grey gelding, Avebury.

A veteran of six Olympic Games, he is based in Wiltshire in the United Kingdom. Andrew overcame the odds following a crashing fall on the cross-country at Gatcombe last year that almost left him paralysed, and is now back in the saddle.

In this clinic, Andrew rode three young up-and-coming stars: five-year-old Zachari, five-year-old Ricardo, and Jet Set IV, an eight-year-old gelding competing at Advanced level.


Andrew Nicholson is legendary for his smooth, elegant cross-country rounds. But how does he train his horses to achieve them? Here he shares some of his favourite exercises with us.

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No matter where I am, at home or a competition, I go through the same warm-up routine with my horses. And I get started straight away so neither one of us has the chance to get nervous and my horse doesn’t have time to gawp at the flags or a crowd or get scared of the atmosphere. Here’s the basic plan.


Walk for a minute, usually just to get where we are going. I don’t think horses warm-up in the walk. I believe they like to know what is going to happen next. When you establish a routine, you take away some of the surprises. The horse starts to relax into the routine and to trust his rider.

Trot. Straightaway I ask the horse to listen to me and to work with me. I ask him to go forward and come back to me, always asking for little changes as I work around the arena – in this case, around the jumps. There may be scary corners or areas, so he needs to learn to look while still paying attention and listening to his rider.

Canter. It’s the same principle as the trot. I move the horse forward and back, around the arena and away from my leg. The canter needs to be active with the hind leg punching up off the ground. Take time to play in canter, allowing it to change and each time finding the new balance, then changing the canter again.

The tractor will come into harrow the arena, and the jumps will get moved around, but I’m not hung up on clearing them away. I find having jumps to workaround helps teach the young horses to move away from my leg and gives them something to think about rather than trying to buck me off. When I ask my horses to move sideways to get around a physical object like a jump, they seem to catch on to the theory of leg-yielding naturally.

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First things first

Setting up the arena

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As a rider, discipline is essential. If you set the boundaries from the start, your horse will be much happier and more settled. When he knows what you want, he’ll find it easy to come and work for you.

Be positive and clear with what you want him to do. If you don’t insist on crisp transitions, he won’t learn how to do crisp transitions. It’s up to you to teach him. You’ve got to be disciplined. It’s not “Dear horse, would you like to walk?” It’s “Walk”. Clear. Simple.

Rider discipline

Top tip

Keep the jumps small and allow the learning to happen safely.

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Exercise One: Slither, don’t balloon

The idea behind jumping small uprights and oxers is to teach your horse to measure up what is in front of him and pop over the jumps. If your horse learns when he is young to jump by picking up his front legs, then picking up his back legs and gliding over the jumps, you will have a much safer and easier time teaching him to jump cross-country fences. But this exercise still works for older horses.

Keep the same, steady canter rhythm as you approach the fence. It is natural that your horse may look, so be prepared to support him with your leg.

Turning, jumping and changing direction over little fences will not create big, flashy, powerful jumping efforts, but it will teach your horse safe cross-country technique.

These little jumps teach your horse to pop the fence and measure up what is in front of him. Young horses and those with lots of natural ability can balloon over fences on the cross-country course. You might think it looks great, but if they jump way up in the air, it makes it a very long way down to the ground – especially if there’s a drop on landing. And it can take you too far into a combination on a related distance or make you overshoot a turn. Horses who over-jump can easily give themselves a fright coming down a drop or into water.

When you walk a cross-country course and spot one fence that’s smaller than the others, the chances are it’s small because there is water or a drop on the other side. You’ve got to teach your horse to scale the size of his jump to the question in front of him, no matter how much natural ability or enthusiasm he has for the job.

© Show Circuit Magazine

Exercise Two: Clock face

Set up four upright fences on a large circle. Use single poles with no ground line.

I don’t walk or measure the distances between the uprights for this exercise. The most important thing is to maintain a positive, steady canter rhythm. This exercise helps your horse to learn to sort the stride out for himself, but that results in some awkward moments, at least at the beginning. The most important thing is to stay committed and keep riding around the circle – don’t stop and start. Keep the jumps small and allow the learning to happen safely. It’s up to you to stay in balance and focus on the rhythm.

The amazing thing is that, with a good rhythm, the stride to each upright becomes easy. This exercise is great to help your horse focus and think for himself.

Top tip

It’s always easier to turn closer to a fence than it is to ride to a fence in a straight line from a long way away. The turn helps you maintain a good quality canter.

In detail:

  • If your horse picks up the wrong canter lead or becomes disunited, don’t stop and correct him. Just stay focused on the rhythm and keep riding to the next fence. Cantering on the wrong leg or disunited is hard work for him, but so long as you keep the rhythm, he’ll want to correct himself and will have learned from the experience.

  • Cross-poles are more punishing because if you aren’t central, the sloping sides can catch him out. With just one pole there’s less to get tangled up in if you knock it and it’s quicker for your helper to put back up.

  • You can begin this exercise by using poles on the floor – it’s easier that way. But don’t get too confident – as soon as you make them uprights, the test is lots harder! You don’t need to make the fences very big – 70cm is plenty to have an effect.

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Seeing a stride

I like to know precisely what stride I’ll be on from at least seven strides out from the jump. That’s when you should make your decision or changes to the rhythm. The rest of the strides leading up to the fence more or less belong to your horse.

That might sound impossible, but it’s all about creating a smooth approach. The smoother the approach to the fence, the less chance there is for error. And the more you practise riding in a rhythm, the better you will become at creating the right distance. There’s no substitute for putting in the homework!

Exercise Three:

Changing rein

Changing rein over a small fence is hard work for your horse because he has to keep pushing and adjusting with his hind legs.

© Show Circuit Magazine
© Show Circuit Magazine

Exercise Four:

Upright with guiding V-poles

Now that your horse is jumping out of good rhythm, it’s nice to finish with a slightly larger fence to remind him of his good technique. Your focus is on maintaining the excellent canter rhythm that you have created.


Top tip

Exercises that tire the horses out mentally as well as physically. They sleep better and are much easier to ride the next day!

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Exercise Five:

Where to next?

I like to test my horse’s ability to tune in, listen and look for the next fence. To do this, I set up two upright planks about 80cm high, parallel to the arena wall and about five metres in from the wall.

When I ask my horse to turn, he needs to turn straight away, as there may be a jump or a change of direction coming up. This exercise teaches him to think on his feet.

Exercise Six:


Many people build grids with the fences getting progressively bigger. I find this can teach horses to rush, so I like the second fence in a grid to be easy and the first distance to be quite short. This helps your horse to condense and organise himself.

I use grids to teach quite a specific skill – in this case, condensing and waiting – so don’t labour the point. It shouldn’t take more than four or five trips through the grid for your horse to absorb it.

© Show Circuit Magazine
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