Eventer Dannie Lodder has produced several horses to three-star level and always has a big team on the go, which she mostly rides for owners.
The featured horse in our story is Dannie’s own young thoroughbred, Secret Trick, who at this stage is aged seven and has had a couple of Pre-Novice wins to his name, but he hasn’t been the easiest to produce.
“He’s taken a little bit of time. He can go out and score 75% in the dressage, but then he’ll have days when he’s just a reefing, strong maniac,” says Dannie. “He’s a funny horse, but he’s got a huge engine and I like him because he loves life. You get on him and he’s happy to be here.
“I know he can jump a big fence, but at the moment it’s keeping everything under wraps. He’s still got a lot of learning to do, but he’s not going to learn it over big fences, because that’s just going to scare him more.”
Find the rhythm
Often when you get horses off the track, they want to go fast and run, so I like to make sure they establish a rhythm straight away. You have to slow your rising down and dribble along, literally just thinking of them putting one foot in front of the other: this is your life now, plod, plod, plod. It’s all about repetition. If they start to get quicker, turn it into a smaller circle, or circle around a jump so they have to balance themselves. It’s easy to add more energy, but it’s hard when you are forever holding and slowing them down.
Have a plan
Every day I have a little plan and give myself a job to do. You have to ride into your corners and give yourself some structure otherwise you go to do your dressage test and fall apart. Today my focus is trialling a different bit (a rubber gag) to see if this horse is softer in it, because he gets strong and tends to run away from the jump. He’s got a good push over a fence and really uses his back end, so sometimes he frightens himself a wee bit and runs away from that. When he’s out at a competition, he’s pretty spectacular – he almost smashes his teeth and that worries him. So, we’ve just got to try to harness the exuberance. I do swap my bits around a lot. Most of my horses are in snaffles, but it’s the variety of snaffles that there are! My favourite bit on all young ones is just a Fulmer snaffle with a French link in the middle. The long cheeks help with turning – I don’t ride anything young without those.
This horse is still a real baby and has to come up in front. He’s a little bit like a supermarket trolley, pulls himself along and generally likes to go on his nose, so if he wants to be a bit higher in his frame, that’s great, because he can get quite heavy.
Dealing with an excitable thoroughbred
This horse is a great jumper but he’s quite spooky and hasn’t jumped for a while, so he’ll jump these like he’s never seen them before. He’s definitely the type of horse you’d show the jumps to when you go into the ring.
I’ve done the grids and bounces on this horse; at this point it’s just consistency. I do heaps of this, where I just canter and jump, and canter and jump. All I want him to do is keep the rhythm. If he flops over the fences, I’m happy! Sometimes I keep him guessing – he’ll come out of the corner with his little ears pricked, thinking we’re going to jump a fence, but then I’ll circle around it.
People ask me how much I jump my horses, but they’re all different. This one thrives on having a little jump every day, even if it’s just over cavaletti. He was crazy when I started: he would run or jump 100 feet in the air over them. But at least when he gets to the fence I know he can jump it – there’s a big difference between being a little crazy and not lifting your legs out of the way!
Why I love thoroughbreds
I’ve got really nice crossbreds that I ride for other people, but I still love thoroughbreds and people are starting to move back to them. Jock helped that with his wins with Clifton Promise – people think thoroughbreds can’t move, but Promise was one of the best horses in the world in the dressage phase. I personally prefer a quicker, lighter leg speed, rather than a bigger, slower type of horse. About 16hh is my ideal height. My former three-star horse Moochi was just a tiny, wiry thoroughbred, but he tried his guts out. He loves to run and jump and can still go in and do a decent test because he has the brain for it.
When the horse is fighting
I try to keep my hand a little lower, be as quiet as possible and not interfere. If he runs and gets deep to the fence, then he’s going to hit it, so the consequences are he’s going to smash his legs, but it’s not because I’ve obstructed him.
I tend to ride a bit more in two-point on my young ones – I don’t sit on them as much. I like it if they can canter around happily and jump a fence with as little interference from me as possible. As a rider you just want to be there and support them at the base of the fence. They’ve got to learn from their mistakes. If he tanks off down this line and takes the rail out, well, that’s his deal, it’s not mine. I try not to change my ride too much. You’ve to be consistent. Repeat it and repeat it and repeat it: this is the way we go.
I don’t want to curb the horse’s enthusiasm, or stop him thinking that jumping is a cool thing to do. I want him to like me, so when I get it wrong on cross-country and we’re a bit off, he finds his fifth leg and helps me out. That’s kind of the partnership I want. I don’t ride horses I don’t like. I find it pointless; it’s hard to get on them, because it’s a battle every day. I’m very selective with the horses I take on for schooling.
My main fault through my career has been throwing my body forward over the fence, and my lower leg flicking back. My inner monologue is always to sit as upright as I can with my chin up in front of the fence. Once we’ve left the ground I go a little bit wild, but at least I’ve got them there as best I can.
At one point in my life I had a lot of lessons where it was all a bit ‘show huntery’, and I started riding backwards, picking and adding to fences. I didn’t like that place where I was at. I’m not good at coming through the corner and just sitting there and waiting. When I’m jumping 1.30m, I need to keep travelling, that’s just my thing. The person who actually helped me out of that rut was Andrew Scott. Everything he does is go, go, go, and you have to think quicker as well. He turned me around. I’m not good enough to be cantering around looking beautiful – I like being taken to a fence. It might not look as pretty, but it’s worked for my type of ride and it’s given me more confidence.
Keep it rolling
This horse doesn’t thrive on stopping and starting – it just winds him up. I’m better to keep him at the same speed, cantering and jumping. At a show, I won’t stand at the gate before I go into the ring; I stay in trot or canter and keep rolling, so I don’t have to pick him back up again.
I’m really big on getting the canter you need before you approach the first fence. Heaps of people have ‘first fence-itis’ – they have the first fence down because they’re not organised. I try not to be that person.
The seven-minute work-in
Because I have a big team, this horse might get a seven-minute warm-up for the dressage, because he’s mine and so he’s the last priority. I think if you set a precedent of having an hour warm-in for dressage it’s going to need an hour or more for the rest of its life. If I start off with seven minutes, anything extra is a bonus! If I don’t have much time, I get into canter quite quickly. The canter chills them out and then when you come back to the trot you’ve got a better trot. Most of my horses would ideally have a 20-minute warm-up; you can get quite a bit done in 20 minutes. I don’t walk around for 15 minutes on a long rein – when I get on, we’re going. Long and low doesn’t really work for me with my time-frame. The main thing is getting into that rhythm. I set my pace slightly slower in the trot and get them round. Penny Castle, my trainer, always says to get their eyes on the ground. My other big focus is having the head and shoulders in a straight line. When they are straight they are more balanced and your rhythm is better. If they are a little bit numb off my leg, I’m not afraid to give them a pony club kick, so I’m not nagging.
Warming up for show jumping
I never jump big at the practice fence – it’s my pet hate. It scares me a lot when I go over to warm up and they’ve built them like houses; I’m like wow, can we get rid of that quickly? I never jump them. I’d rather have a really good shot to a nice fence, so that they’re happy, and then I go in on that; not rattled and running away at a million miles an hour because they’ve crashed through a house.
I do a lot of cross-country schooling. Some people don’t, but I don’t understand why you wouldn’t train as hard for that as you do for dressage and show jumping. You need to know that you can canter down to a ditch and a coffin and your horse is perfectly happy with those fences. Or if you’re competing at Training level, make sure you’ve jumped a round at 95cm, or have jumped a couple of fences at 1m, so it’s well within your comfort zone and you don’t get out there and freeze.
Coping with nerves
I do get nervous. I get a bit more sullen and quiet when I’m at the truck, but once I’m on I talk a lot and that’s just to keep me breathing.
If you get nervous, try not to live in your head. Talk to your horse. It’s just another day and it should be enjoyable, because if it’s not, why are we doing it? The biggest thing for most of us is that we just don’t want it to go wrong. It’s not about winning, but you don’t want to have a 20 for a stupid reason.
We’ve got quite a cool team of three-star riders in New Zealand and we walk with each other when we’re warming up for cross-country. You’re talking with your mates and that’s another way to keep your nerves at bay. You see everybody walking around yawning, trying to get more oxygen in – I think you find comfort in the fact that every single one of you is in the same boat!
… My best advice
There’s only one person in this world that really backs you and that’s you. You’ve got to believe in yourself.