By: Jessica Lefroy

Lindy Townley shares her secrets to keep horses and riders sound of body and mind during the off season.

Thumbnail for Off Season Routines to Sweeten the Sour Hunter/Jumper

Clix photo

The summer months can be a gruelling cycle of showing week-in and week-out. The struggle to keep the horse and rider sound of body and mind through the show season is always a top priority for trainers, and the struggle to do the same through the off months is of equal importance.

Lindy Townley has decades of experience preparing horse and rider pairs across North America. Named Trainer of the Year by the BC Hunter-Jumper Association in 2013, she has coached students to numerous CET Finals wins, and horses to national hunter and jumper titles. At Westwind Equestrian in Surrey, BC, Townley devotes much of her efforts in the off-season to keeping horses happy and fit while also giving them some down-time

The first signs of trouble

Preventing a sour horse involves diligent attention to any attitude changes that may indicate physical discomfort. Regular visits from veterinarians and farriers and a sound stable management program should be enough to keep the horses healthy, but sometimes a visit from the acupuncturist or massage therapist is also necessary. “I’ve not had a great deal of experience with unhappy horses,” explains Townley. “If I do, almost one hundred per cent of the time it’s something physical. If I do notice the attitude changing, I try to assess why, where, and what is causing it. It is sometimes a bit of “CSI” work to find out what the problem is, but that’s a big part of knowing the horses in your barn. It can usually be resolved with anything from massage therapy to checking out the joints and ligaments with a veterinarian. I have never had an attitude problem with a horse that has not been caused by physical issues.”

The first signs of trouble often show up in the cross-ties: pinning the ears on the way out of the stall, nipping when the girth is done up, a listless expression or dull eyes are just a few symptoms. “Sourness can be shown behaviourally or physically,” says Townley. “We notice it most often in the groom stall before it ever presents itself under saddle.”

Another key element to ensuring a horse remains happy in its work is properly matching horse and rider. “I think George Morris put it perfectly when he said that “if the trainer is correct sixty per cent of the time in mounting their clients, they are a genius.” It’s a very difficult thing to do. People are sometimes trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. If the situation is not terribly workable, that’s when the horses tend to get a bit sour. It’s like trying to make a bad marriage work.”

Down-time, not time off

Townley cautions that laying horses off for a few weeks with the intention of giving them time to decompress and relax often has the opposite effect. “I have in the past made the mistake of giving the horses a couple of months off in the winter, and every single one of them came back worse, soundness wise. It is consistent exercise that keeps their bodies together and joints and muscles healthy,” she explains.

“What I do instead is just lighten the working load. You have to change the exercise program to keep them sound physically, but then also give them a break mentally. We like to trail ride them as long as the weather holds, ride outside and work on varied terrain. We don’t over-complicate things and generally avoid “drilling” them under saddle. For the first month or two after show season we work them as little as possible and without nagging. They’re not allowed to be disobedient, but we just keep the muscles and brain going.”

There are no particular exercises on the flat that Townley suggests once the horse is back to regular work, stating that it is the job of the trainer to identify the weaknesses of each individual horse and rider and tailor a program specifically to them. “Each horse and rider is individual,”she stresses. “Some horses push the shoulder one way, so we do shoulder-in; some horses are weak on one lead, so we work specifically on that. One of the most important things that I always keep in mind, however, is that whatever you work on, it can’t be complicated, because you can’t risk that the horse just won’t “get it.”

Pick-up sticks

Townley says that instead of jumping sessions, the majority of her exercises during the winter months involve poles on the ground, simply moving their locations around the ring for variety. The skills taught through such simple exercises lead to mastery of the basics, which in turn translates to confidence and skill over fences. “We will often just throw a rail down somewhere and check in with the basics: straightness, working both sides of the horse, and the rider’s ability to be accurate, among other things.”

One of her favourite exercises involves setting four poles on each side of a large circle, creating an exercise in track, rhythm, straightness, and consistency. “It is an exercise that is complex in its simplicity. It’s very good for the horse and challenging for the rider, but it’s not easy. The circle exercise with rails forces you to focus on working both sides of the horse, landing both leads, keeping balanced, organized, and straight. There’s nothing more or less behind it. Once you have mastered cantering four rails on a circle without changes of lead, changes of rhythm, and are able to keep straightness through the rail, you can play with track and pace and adjustability and add or take out steps between the rails. The ideal setup leaves six regular steps between the rails, and allows you to come in for five or stay out for seven. It’s important that the horses aren’t landing and turning, because that isn’t the point of the exercise. With a smaller ring or with younger horses we will use two rails on the circle. (A similar canter exercise using a smaller circle is described on page 38.)

Less is more

The horses in Townley’s program jump little throughout the winter. “We don’t jump mountains. Even the jumper and equitation horses do not jump big jumps all winter, just enough to keep their muscles going. The closer we get to the horse shows, we will just add brush boxes or filler rails with flowers in the same type of exercise on a circle. Adding the spooky brush boxes without standards later in the winter helps the young spooky horses and the accuracy of the experienced horse and rider. It saves their legs, but keeps them fit.” Maintaining the track while leaving out or adding strides and keeping the horse focused and straight over spooky standard-less jumps is a real test for the rider’s ability to keep the horse between hand and leg. “The skills you develop riding the brush boxes will translate with ease to the fences.”

Townley will test a rider’s ability to maintain a consistent rhythm and keep the horse straight with one canter rail, and then two in a straight line. She recommends setting the lines three feet short of regulation distances to aid changing the striding. “Play with the adjustability of the horse and rider by adding or leaving out a step,” she says. “Then, if you put a rail on the end of the ring it becomes a bending line. Remember that the rail or brush box should just be a canter step: stay on the same rhythm from beginning to end. If you are able to maintain the rhythm and play with the adjustability in both the first line and the bending line, you then begin finding a track that will allow you to stay collected in the first line and then come forward through the bending line to leave out a stride. For example, you could do a steady six in the line and come forward on the inside track for five in the bending line, or come forward for five in the line and hold out in the bending line for six strides (see diagram). What you are doing is strengthening the horse’s canter. It’s not rocket science, but it takes a lot of patience to develop that canter.”

“Riding over poles and brush boxes is not simple, and it isn’t an exercise that should be attempted until you understand the canter, but it will save the legs of the horse and not fry the brain. Organizing the canter step can be amazingly difficult. It teaches control of the outside aids and eventually creates a horse that’s able to land on both leads. It never fails to surprise me how hard that exercise can be. It should just be a canter step – if the horses is launching itself over a pole on the ground, it isn’t ready to jump.”

“Simplicity is key. It’s what we do all winter long. There are no tricks in this business; horses are not complicated animals and we have to always remember that.”