The NZ Horse & Pony Training Masterclass is in association with Equitak Excell
1. Let the jump pass easily beneath
It’s a horribly wet day at the Te Rapa Equestrian Centre and with just a 45-minute lesson slot Blyth doesn’t waste any time getting stuck in. Julie has already warmed up, so after a quick trot and canter around, it’s time for the first jump of the day, a little log. Blyth tells Julie to trot in, close the leg, pop over and canter away, before approaching the same fence a couple of times in canter. Overall he’s looking for a good preparation before the fence.
“No speeding up, no slowing down. If you stand off, we’ve got work to do. If you chip in, we’ve got work to do. If the jump passes easily beneath you, I’m happy. We’re just in our warm up, creating a nice balanced canter and establishing a rhythm. The jump should become part of your canter.”
Finn’s first attempt at the log is a little lacklustre and he falls back into trot on landing. “I specifically asked you to canter away on the other side,” says Blyth. “The log completely destroyed your impulsion and it shouldn’t, because it’s the most basic warm-up fence of the lot.”
Blyth says he would like Julie to have her horse a little rounder and more balanced. “I love the fact that he’s not resisting, but to me if you’re flopping along with loose reins then he’s lacking balance and engagement.
It’s raining and slippery; we want to have a connection with our horse. To me, this is just a little bit coasting around in neutral.”
Blyth also thinks Julie’s stirrups are a hole too long, so she puts them up. “You need to have a good angle in your knee to absorb the impact of landing. At the moment I see a bit of a ragdoll on landing,” he explains. “It seems to me when I look at photos in New Zealand magazines that people ride with long stirrups over here. So it’s a trend we have to stop! It’s important for you to remain in balance with the horse.”
2. Building confidence
The next warm-up fence is a double of logs. “This is a bit of a choice, because it’s either an extremely long stride, or a controlled two,” explains Blyth. “In our warm-up, we’re going to choose the two and you’re going to show me that you have control; that you can maintain connection and engagement and we don’t just have the horse running through the bridle. I want you to have the exact same strides before the fence and after the fence, so the jump becomes part of the canter. I don’t want you racing in and then flopping away.”
Just jumping somewhere between the flags is not good enough for Blyth either: “I want you to ride middle to middle, so that you’re straight and riding a line as well.”
Julie makes a beautiful job of the combination and Blyth is happy. “You did the preparation and created the canter, so you didn’t have to get busy in front of the fence. Well done you.”
3. Tackling a skinny
The next combination of the day is a log to a skinny. This is just the kind of question course designers like to pose, observes Blyth.
They know if you’ve got all the time in the world to get prepared for the skinny, you’re probably going to be fine. But by putting a fence before it, they’re checking to see whether you lose your balance and get a little unravelled along the way, he explains. “When we get to Advanced level, we’ll get a great wide table and fewer strides and a tighter turn to a narrower skinny…I think the course designers really just want us to have a bad day!”
First of all though, Blyth breaks the exercise down and gets Julie to ride the skinny on its own (below).
“Hopefully with this preparation you’ll be successful when you go on to ride the line. I want you to walk away thinking ‘God I’m good!’. I don’t want you to have doubts when you get to the competition. We’re building confidence today, so we’re being progressive in our training.”
The set-up to the skinny is all in the turn on to it, Blyth explains. “The turn is actually your friend. We’re going to make a nice right-angle turn. If you aren’t prepared in the turn and you have to try and get balanced at the last minute, you’re going to interfere with the rhythm and take the focus away from the horse,” he says. “Once you’ve made that balanced turn, you can ride a nice line, confident in the knowledge that you have the horse connected and balanced and you’ll be over.”
Blyth reminds Julie that her ‘nice’ but slightly unengaged canter isn’t going to cut it. “Nice doesn’t always win the prizes. I want there to be some impulsion. What’s the definition of impulsion? Contained power. If your reins are flapping, how much power are you containing? None. We want impulsion on cross country. I think your canter lacks impulsion.”
Julie jumps the skinny by itself easily, and Blyth is happy. “It was awesome!” However, when she puts the two jumps together for the first time, it’s a little less smooth – she ‘helicopters’ over the first fence and has to slip her reins to the buckle. “That’s what the course designer wants us to do; lose control and engagement. If you have more impulsion, the fence will pass easily beneath you and help your horse gain confidence. Otherwise, he’s going to stop trying for you when the fences get bigger. At some point he’s going to say ‘Mum I’m abandoned, I’m doing it on my own here.’ You need to be with him and helping make it easier for him.”
The second time through, Julie gets more active with her leg, though no faster, and the combination rides much better. “Great, you should be proud,” says Blyth. “That was appropriate for this problem. Every stride you took between the two of those fences was the same, and that’s what I wanted to see.”
4. A spooky fence
Blyth stops to discuss this slightly spooky-looking drop fence with Julie before sending her off to jump it. Julie says she tends to be a bit tentative at drop fences, so she knows she’s going to have to ride with a lot of leg on.
Blyth agrees, but warns her not to apply the leg too far out. “It’s a little bit startling and the horse might be suspicious of it, so you’ve got to give him a bit of time to read the problem. If we go fast, they’re not going to have time to do that, so we’ve got to take the pace out of it. I think you have to be fairly patient, then positive with your leg, because he might not realise there is something to land on over there – you’ve got to tell him to trust you and he’ll be fine.”
In terms of the type of stride Julie should approach on, Blyth wants to see a coiled spring, or a closed and connected stride, because he doesn’t want her to stand off the fence. “In your approach you should be unhurried, with the leg on and the spring together and you should sail over. It’s a really nicely built schooling fence – a good, safe fence to have a crack at.”
Julie approaches the fence with less commitment than Blyth would like to see, and despite his instruction of ‘more leg, more leg, more leg…’ Finn slithers to a stop in front of the fence.
“If we weren’t being reported on here, I would have said you rode that like a complete girl!” jokes Blyth.
The second time through, Julie has her leg on much more strongly and Finn doesn’t hesitate (below).
“If you had ridden it like that the first time, you would have been thinking you are awesome,” says Blyth. “The first time you were just a bit wishy-washy, and the horse said, you’re not committed mum. Bless his little cotton socks he was with you the second time but it could have happened the first time. So you have to be committed, you have to be positive.”
5. Going places: jumping a trakehner
Blyth describes the next fence, a trakehner, as a fence that fits into the ‘going places’ category. It’s a test of scope, confidence and impulsion and should be approached very differently to the previous drop fence.
“With this fence, we need to be creating the engine early and lengthening the stride. The highest point is at the back of the fence, so we still want to be going up at that point. We need to meet it on a positive, forward, opening stride. Not going 100 miles, slowing down, shortening, running out of petrol and a helicopter crunch!” says Blyth. “I’m making it sound difficult, but really you’ve just got to be building in your approach – I want you to feel like you could go on lengthening after the fence. It’s not correct to arrive on a lengthened stride; in other words discombobulated and lacking engagement.”
Blyth points out that if he took a piece of wood and hammered it on the front, turning the jump into a ramp, riders wouldn’t hesitate to ride this fence with confidence. The trakehner is essentially the same ride as the ramp, says Blyth – Julie doesn’t have to look down into the ditch and neither does her horse. “This is a good schooling fence because it’s not actually a deep ditch. It’s a great one to give it a go and see if you can get this technique and confidence.”
Blyth sends Julie off to jump a few easy jumps to get her horse rolling forward and in front of her leg again, because to come in cold to a trakehner is quite a test.
The first time Julie jumps it beautifully (below), but when she has a second attempt for our photographer, Blyth isn’t as happy. “You went for those spurs on the elbows that don’t exist!” he teases.
Blyth also tells Julie that one of the worse things she could do with this horse is float on in and then start grabbing him at the last minute and trying to put him together. When she does this, he resists her hand and brings his head up, which takes his focus away from the fence.
“Try to have him a bit rounder earlier on and then allow him to see the fence. Don’t interrupt him and get in the way. You’ve got to do the preparation, but if you’re doing it in the last couple of strides that’s way too late.”
6. A coffin canter
With the rain teaming down so hard it drowned our poor photographer’s camera, the final challenge of the day for Julie is a coffin, which consists of a vertical, downhill to a ditch, then uphill to another vertical. “We can’t just sit there like a lemon,” says Blyth. “We have to help the horse but we have to keep an overall flow and each element has its relevance to the other elements.”
Blyth warns Julie not to ride too fast at the first element and to keep her shoulders up. He wants to see ‘a coffin canter’, with the spring neatly coiled. It’s a fence that requires impulsion, but not pace. On landing, she needs to think about continuing to generate impulsion and lengthening the stride to jump well out over the ditch. Finally she’ll need to keep the engine running up the fairly steep hill to the final element, a log out into space.
“It’s a great fence and it should ride well. But we can’t afford to get unravelled. It’s your job to maintain the flow, the rhythm and the engine all the way.”
Blyth says some riders he taught earlier in the day rode up and out over the log on two strides and others on three; neither is wrong, it simply depends on how forward the horse is travelling. However, when Julie tackles this combination for the first time, she gets four strides. “Nobody else has done that today!” says Blyth. “It lacked impulsion. There was a lack of preparation.”
The next time through, Julie adds more leg and gets the three strides and Blyth is pleased. “I love second-time Julie. Second-time Julie oozes class!” he says.
“You created a canter that gave you the perfect take-off stride. This was the engagement that was missing at the beginning. The jump was nice and clean and he was responsive to your leg afterwards because you had that spring coiled. Really good.”
If I was Julie I’d be thrilled to bits at this level. There is a lot to like about it. Her rhythm is very consistent and her horse is nice and soft. Basically they’re a good partnership, but the roundness and the impulsion are going to give her the tools to go to the next level. Each jump should just pass easily beneath you. At the moment, I think Julie half of the time she’d be fine at the next level, but the other half she might be found wanting a bit. She’s just got to continue to improve those basics, keeping her confidence, having success, and then she’ll be ready to move up.
I was really happy with Finn – he was feeling good. He tries so hard, even when I make a mess of things. I can rely on him to try his best to help me out in a sticky situation.
I love Blyth as a trainer. He tells you exactly what you are doing wrong and what you need to do to improve. He doesn’t sugar-coat things and just say ‘good, good, good’ like some trainers do. He tells you when you are getting it right too, which is a big help when you need a confidence boost.
I found the advice he gave me on building my canter and preparing way back extremely helpful. Instead of deciding what to do a few strides out, I should be preparing well before the jump and that’s the way I plan to ride from now on. I learned that by having Finn moving forward and preparing him well before, he jumps so much better.
About our trainer
Legendary eventer Blyth Tait has competed at four Olympics and won four Olympic medals, including individual gold in 1996 in Atlanta. He also won team and individual golds at the World Equestrian Games in both 1990 and 1998.
Blyth retired from the sport in 2004 and returned to New Zealand to breed racehorses. However, the lure of international eventing proved too strong for Blyth to stay away for long, and he returned to competition in 2011. Blyth is now based back in the UK with a strong team of horses.
- This article was first published in the March 2016 issue of NZ Horse & Pony