Softly, slowly: producing youngsters with Donna Edwards-Smith

Leading NZ event rider Donna Edwards-Smith explains why she takes her time when it comes to producing young horses • Images: Trish Dunell

7828-donna-smith-training-oct13hp-copyDonna Edwards-Smith, of Te Kauwhata, is one of New Zealand’s most consistent eventing riders and trainers, and has produced a number of top horses to Advanced, including Balmoral Sensation and DSE Tangolooma. She is well known for her success with green throughbreds off the track, and for this article, rides an eight-year-old who at this stage had just a handful of 80cm eventing starts after his racing career finished.

Take your time7636-donna-smith-training-oct13hp-copy

This horse is eight but he’s still very green, so we spend a lot of time at home on the flat just working on the transitions and getting him to stay soft. Tangolooma did about seven or eight Pre-Training ODEs and flew under the radar for so long, everybody wondered where he had come from! I used to be in more of a hurry to take them out, but now I know that they should be ready before they go out and compete. It’s an expensive sport, so every entry fee has to count, whether it be a mileage fee or a competitive entry fee. To go ride a horse around Training when it’s not ready is not worth it, as you just give them frights unnecessarily. We have them developed quite a long way at home – when they go out we want them to be going confidently at Pre-Novice level.

Trot poles7813-donna-smith-training-oct13hp-copy

These trot poles are set at about three feet, but there are no set rules. We just put poles down and tell the horse to figure it out. I want him to stay balanced and soft over the poles and use his feet. It doesn’t really matter if he lengthens or shortens, as long as he makes a decision not to step on the pole.

Find your footwork7855-donna-smith-training-oct13hp-copy

This was a normal one-stride double, just shy of 24’, but the distances don’t really matter – it’s all about footwork. I just let him keep coming and allow him to work it out for himself. As long as you are soft with your hands, you’re teaching them to be smart. The first few times through here, he jumped it in two strides and left a leg behind, all that sort of stuff. This is the first time he’s jumped since he came back in a week ago – he’s naturally a very careful horse.

If I don’t teach him to think for himself, and tell him to canter down there in one stride, one day when I get it wrong, he won’t be able to help me. We’re trying to make sure they have as much knowledge as we have. I don’t care if he flicks five poles out and snaps them in half – I’d rather he fell over them here, than in three years’ time.

Everything is about footwork. When I go cross-country, I want to know the horse has fast footwork. Tangolooma will jump down a bank, carry a front leg, skip and go again – that’s the instinct we try and train the horses to have. Some horses naturally have it better than others, but every horse can learn it to an extent.

Walk jumping8022-donna-smith-training-oct13hp-copy

On fine days in winter we take the horses out and walk them across ditches, through all the creeks and up and down the big hills. We don’t even trot – it’s all done in walk. We always think walking fences makes them much more confident. We don’t want to use too much driving power on the young ones, hooning around big fences and scaring them – if you do that, you’ve gone backwards. It’s better to go slowly and give them time to understand the question. Then the horse starts to take us to the fence.

Time faults don’t matter

I’ve competed this horse at Pre-Training level and he was adorable – I think I was passed by about five kids on their little ponies and had about 98 time faults! I spend most of the cross-country in trot at this level, as it’s all about schooling and teaching them to stay soft through the combinations, so they learn to canter with no contact. Being an ex-racehorse, this one obviously had quite a strong gallop, but he’s not strong to hold, and we don’t want him to be. We teach all of our young horses to jump out of a rhythm and give them nice jumps over everything.

Little and often7885-donna-smith-training-oct13hp-copy

These young horses are only worked for 20 to 30 minutes if they are good. Obviously, if we have a problem, we keep working through it, but with the young ones it’s generally better to make it short and sweet, and keep them happy so they like their work. We jump them over little fences once or twice a week ideally.

The first dressage test7616-donna-smith-training-oct13hp-copy

We try to make sure the horses are quite tired before they go in to do their dressage test at their first few shows, so it’s always a calm experience for them. They learn the arena is a relaxing place.

We often put the young horses on the lunge first. And when we ride them at a show, if it’s young and naughty, we canter – don’t walk or trot, just keep them on a small circle in canter, and then trot small circles. I don’t worry too much about the frame on a young horse and they don’t have to go on the bit in the ring. Obviously it’s ideal if they do! But you don’t have to win it, and they don’t have to be beautiful; they just have to walk in their free walk and trot and canter where they are supposed to.

Stopping and running out

Going past the jump is not an option. Stopping is a bit different. Usually a green horse will stop because you’ve gone too fast and it hasn’t had enough time to read the question. If I canter to a combination and the horse stops all of a sudden, I’ve just given it a bad experience. If the horse trots to the fence with its nose out, it might leave a leg, but the fences are only 85cm high, and you’ve just taught it footwork.

When horses stop higher up the grades and people say ‘it’s never stopped before’, well, it’s probably never gone slow to a fence before. A horse has to understand the question.

Slow the show jumping

I will always trot the Pre-Training show jumping. It’s not like we’re riding a show jumper, who is usually a nice big warmblood type; we often deal with thoroughbreds, who have a different type of brain. If you teach them to go really slow in the show jumping from the start, then you can keep them slow.

The horse will break into canter when it’s ready – it all goes back to footwork. If I have six fences down in the Pre-Training show jumping, it doesn’t worry me. I know this horse is a very good jumper – he just has to work out where to put his feet.

It’s the same if there’s a little jump with a ditch: I’ll trot in on a loose rein, so they learn to use their body and it’s never a tense thing.

Keep your cool8055-donna-smith-training-oct13hp-copy

Here the horse didn’t want to sit on his right hind – he’s strong to the left, but not very strong to the right. I just quietly sat there and kept going after it. It’s like an annoying person saying, ‘Clean your room, clean your room, clean your room’…eventually you’re going to clean it! He could jump off the left lead all day long and look powerful and amazing, but the quality of the jump this way wasn’t great because he had to push off his weaker leg. He had a tantrum, then he sat on his right hind and jumped it a couple of times. I stopped him after that because he’s only just come back into work and it’s all strengthening.8088-donna-smith-training-oct13hp-copy

Always show the horse a way out. Their mind can shut off, but their mind will also switch back on as soon as they understand and can find a way out.

Land and turn7934-donna-smith-training-oct13hp-copy

I teach the horse to turn off my body weight and outside thigh. I think of pushing their shoulders to the inside with my outside thigh. I also always use a low, soft hand. I think it makes you faster cross-country if you have a low, soft hand to any combination, as opposed to one that you sit up with, because the minute you sit up, you take a second off the stride. When you’ve got a low, soft hand, you can keep travelling forward.

Introducing fill8009-donna-smith-training-oct13hp-copy

With the horses we have for breaking in at the moment, we are jumping them over fill on the long line, just walking them up to it. It’s never too early to introduce fill.

When you jump fill with a young horse, approach in trot – we never canter into fill the first time. You want the horse to think fast, but they’ve got to think from a slow speed first. Teach them to read the question in trot.

  • This article was first published in the October 2013 issue of NZ Horse & Pony