Before you even think of taking your horse out on a cross-country course, he has to be listening to you and responding to ëwhoa.í Donít take him out if he doesnít listen and runs away with you.It all starts with flatwork and thatís where you establish control and adjustability. You want to be able to move your horse up in the gallop and lengthen his stride, then bring him back to a shorter stride without losing balance or rhythm.Flatwork for adjustabilityIn the arena or outdoor ring, practice moving your horse up along the long sides of the ring, then bringing him back along the short sides. Practice this shortening and lengthening at the walk and trot first, before you move up to a canter.Think of how you use your body to speed up and slow down your horse. Rather than pulling a lot on his mouth, you want to sit taller and tighten from your core down; then to move forward, you soften your body. You donít want to sit down and drive with your seat, as that can make a horse go hollow through his back. You can use your seat to lightly push him forward, but donít sit heavily.Put two trotting poles on the ground with a five-stride distance (66 to 72 feet, depending on your horseís stride) between. Experiment with adding and subtracting strides as you ride over and between the poles. Ride the line at a canter, putting five strides between the poles, shorten the horseís stride to ride it as a quiet six-stride, then lengthen to ride it as a four-stride. This helps builds your horseís adjustability and forces him to listen.Another effective exercise for getting your horse listening, as well as improving his suppleness, is to spiral in and out of a circle. Start with a large circle ñ say 20 metres ñ and make it progressively tighter, to 10 or even 5 metres, depending on how supple your horse is, then spiral out to make the circle larger. Again, work at all three gaits. At the trot, be aware of how you are posting. If your horse is strong, sit up and slow your posting down. If heís still strong, make the circles smaller, then go larger as he starts listening and responding.Basic jumping exercisesMy horse Carter [Politically Correct] gets excited when we start jumping and tends to get strong. If this is the case with your horse, itís going to be difficult to get him to slow down if you are jumping in a straight line. Try turning, jumping, then turning again, instead of letting your horse take off in a straight line.In the exercises illustrated here (photos 7-12), Iím jumping Carter over a single fence set on a circle. Initially, I set a pole out nine feet in front of the jump which forces him to come in, slow down and jump. He used to rush before jumps, land, and rush off. Now, heís good about the approach, but weíre still working on keeping him from rushing after the fences.Iíve started with an X, then changed it to a vertical. Some horses respect the higher obstacle and will back off, while others get excited with the bigger jumping effort.Remember to sit tall, keep your shoulders back and tighten your core if your horse tries to speed up. Your voice is also an aid. Use it to remind him to ëwhoaí when heís getting strong and to praise him when he responds correctly.The great outdoorsWhen you feel you have sufficient control to move out of the confines of the arena or ring, I like to find an open field in which to work. Use a metre wheel to measure out a distance of 400 (pre-training), 450 (training level) or 520 (preliminary) metres, depending on the level you are competing at, and mark the start and finish.Wear your eventing watch and get a feel for the canter youíll need to cover the distance in a minute. Youíll have to check your watch, certainly, but you want to develop a sense for how much of a canter youíll need to have on the cross-country course for your level of competition.Keep in mind that youíll have fences to jump on course and with some like coffins, youíll have to prepare and set up for the jump by shortening your stride and bringing your horse back to a stadium jumping-type canter, then land and push him back up to the gallop. You want to have your horse stay balanced in the gallop and maintain the same rhythm, just shorten his stride.At jumps like a big table, youíll want to maintain a good gallop to the fence, but sit up, half-halt and shorten the stride without taking away from the gallop. Youíll need your horse to be very adjustable.Hardware too soft?Sometimes, despite all your work on the flat and using these exercises or others to develop adjustability and speed control, your horse gets revved up by the excitement of being at a horse trial and is going to be more difficult to control than at home. Carter is one of those! I was able to ride Amistad (my 2012 Olympic mount) in a snaffle up to the intermediate level, but at those speeds, it was tougher to control him with it, so I changed bits.If youíre having control problems you might consider changing the hardware you use in your horseís mouth. Even a snaffle bit can dull a horseís mouth if youíre constantly pulling on it. It may be better to use a different bit that you can touch only when you have to, to make him listen, and leave his mouth alone the rest of the time, rather than ripping away on him the whole time youíre on course. (I use a two-ring gag bit on Carter with a leather chin strap.)Before you change hardware, however, be sure to discuss it with your coach. Hear what his or her recommendations are for the type of bit you should use, and if thatís the answer to your control issue.
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