Training the young horse – with Mathew Dickey

Top rider Mathew Dickey explains why slow and steady is the way to go when training the young show jumper. Images: Libby Law

Young Taranaki rider Mathew Dickey is admired for his quiet, stylish technique, which has made him just as successful in the show hunter ring as he is at show jumping.

Mathew is a former Pony of the Year and Pony Show Hunter of the Year winner, and in 2011 was Young Rider of the Year aboard Kiwi Guard, who he produced himself. For this story Mathew rides Kiwi Rock, a 16.2hh six-year-old gelding bred by Graeme Hart.

“I’ve had him since he was a three-year-old and he was the first horse I broke in myself,” says Mathew. “I’ve got three Kiwi horses and they’re all reasonably-priced, sound horses and they jump well.

“Rocky can jump the height, but he’s still pretty green getting around the jumps and is a bit unsure where to put his feet. He’s probably a little bit behind for a six-year-old, because I haven’t put a lot of work into him, but that’s not a bad thing in some ways – I think people often over-jump their young horses.

1. Don’t overface them

It takes a lot of work to produce a show jumper, and if you push them too hard you can undo all that work and you have to start from step one all over again. I always take my horses nice and slowly. I think it’s good for a young horse to hack out, as it strengthens them. I also like to go for a lot of beach rides, to let them just be a horse – there are heaps of benefits in going in a straight line rather than circles all the time, and having fun. These horses become almost professional athletes in a way, and everyone needs a blow-out once in a while. I walk my horses in the sea, give them a little swim if I can, and if it’s a low tide give them a canter along the beach and walk back on a loose rein.

Kiwi Rock is at the age now where I’m starting to do more in the arena, but he’s quite a big horse compared to my others and just getting him together, especially at the canter, has taken quite a bit more time than I thought.



2. Flatwork basics 

I try to have regular dressage lessons with Vanessa Way. Even when I’m jumping, it’s based on flatwork – flatwork is where your balance comes from. I need to improve myself a lot on the flat and most days I’m doing flatwork over poles and small jumps rather than just jumping the whole time.

Most days I train I will have poles or small crosses on the ground and will pop over those, and then once a week I’ll put the horses over some jumps.

3. Warm-up over poles

I warm up over poles in walk and trot with all my horses. Rocky can be quite clumsy with his feet, so I like to start out over poles to get him to think about where he’s stepping. Today I’m just going to circle over these poles at walk and trot, trying to get him nice and relaxed in the walk for a start, and then in sitting trot. He doesn’t use his shoulder a lot, so I want him to pick up and use himself over the pole, instead of putting in a little step in front. Sometimes he puts his ears back and jig-jogs over the pole; I don’t want him to do that, so I’ll keep him nice and slow so he can chill out. He’s also got a bit too much muscle under his neck so I’m trying to get him to drop his head – where it is now is quite good.

Changing direction over the pole prepares you for turning over the jump. Other pole exercises I like to do are placing three rails on a serpentine, or in a fan shape – you can ride these in walk and trot, and if you get really good, you can canter them. Pole work definitely helps horses develop their eye for a stride and relaxes them into jumping. Sometimes when you go straight from flatwork into jumping they get really hyped up.


4. Vertical with no ground line

With Rocky, the name of the game is to make him more careful: he’s bold and straight-forward, but he can also have a rail and not worry about it too much. There’s no ground line here, which encourages him to really think about where he’s putting his feet. The spacing poles are set at 2.2m which is a little bit shorter than you might usually use, again to try and make him more careful. I just trot in and think about keeping them nice and relaxed. You don’t have to worry about strides – they can just do their own thing. I also like to ride away and halt in a straight line after the jump, which trains them to go straight on landing. I do this exercise on my more experienced horses too and put it up to 1.20m, but I would put a ground rail in and move the spacing poles out a bit.

5. Developing the canter

This is a four-stride line of canter poles, which I like to practise coming down in five strides, and then four. You’ve got to have more than one gear. Rocky doesn’t like the right lead so much, and will often keep swapping canter leads. Because he’s still green and not as strong in his muscles on that side, that’s just his way of saying, I want to go the other way. You can make them more worried if you make a big deal out if it, so I tend to just keep riding forward which is the main thing.

If your young horse is weak or unbalanced in the canter, the first thing is to get them moving forward, rather than coming behind the bridle and sucking back. Once they are moving forward into your hands, you’ve got something to work with. Then you can start to collect a little bit more, and try this little stride exercise – putting in the extra stride is good for them. We haven’t quite achieved this completely with Rocky, because he’ll jack up, especially on the right lead, so I just try and do a bit more each day, so he will get stronger and more comfortable in it.

6. Gridwork 

Rocky has a big stride and finds it tough to shorten up and get through combinations. In the beginning, he would often end up taking out the second element of the double. With a grid, I’m teaching him to back off and look at the jump, think about it. Gridwork has really helped him and now when he gets to a double he’s pretty good.

I set up a ground pole, 2.2m to a small vertical with no ground line, then 3m to a bounce fence, then a short one stride (6m) to another vertical, 3m to another bounce fence, then the ground pole to finish, again set 2.2m out. It’s symmetrical and short distances all the way through, as he will be quite backward because of the bounce fence. I put a pole on the right-hand side of the jump because he tends to jump to the right-hand side. I’m trying to use my right leg as well, but that just helps him to think about jumping straighter. 

7. The correct bend

Rocky tends to look to the outside of the arena, so here I’m just doing a couple of circles before I go down the grid to try and get him bending and listening to my inside leg. Ideally, you want them flexed correctly so you can just see the inside of the horse’s eye, exactly the same as in dressage. When you watch a top rider, like Daniel Meech, you see him changing the flexion, getting the horse to bend to the inside, then the outside – he’s basically doing dressage between the jumps. We’ll get there with this guy, but I’ve got to get the basics first, before we can move on to more complex stuff.

8. Improving technique

I’ve set up this jump with the V-poles poking out past the jump a bit to help Rocky be more careful. It should make him straighter and encourage him to pick up his front legs. He has to be a bit cleaner, or he’s going to get a good hit.

Mathew Dickie Interview with NZ Horse & Pony Magazine

9. One big jump to finish 

To finish my training session, I put this wall up to about 1.30m. I find with a young horse it is good to put them over just one big fence, which is a tip I picked up from Jeff McVean. Whether they jump it nicely or really muck it up, I’ll generally just leave it at that and jump a couple of smaller ones to end on a confident note.

10. Stay relaxed 

Rocky can get quite stressed, especially in the canter, so I always try to be as relaxed as I can be. Losing your temper with horses gets you nowhere. It all comes down to repetition – getting the horse to put their head down and relax in themselves, which will come from you being relaxed.

  • This article first appeared in the April 2012 issue of
  •  magazine