Start your horse the RIGHT way: 8 top tips from Vicki Wilson

Vicki Wilson is famous for spotting diamonds in the rough – many of her top horses over the years have been bush ponies or other people’s problems. Here she shares her top training tips and shows us what she can do with a totally green former stock pony in just one session

IMG_8786 copyVicki uses the the stationbred pony, Ping, for this story: he had arrived at the Wilsons’ property just the day before! Hairy and ungroomed, he had never been ridden in an arena or seen a coloured pole in his life. Vicki found him during a wild bull muster she took part in over some seriously challenging hill country on the East Coast.

“They called him Ping because he’ll jump every full-wire fence on the property,” says Vicki. “The plan is to turn him into a Grand Prix show jumper, but if not he’ll make a wonderful hunter and 1.10m pony.”

Approximately 14.2hh and seven years old, Ping is of unknown breeding: ‘gorse crossed with manuka scrub!’

1. Transformation time

IMG_8266 copy

When horses come to us we generally give them a makeover on the first day – we just give them some attention and they love it. Poor Ping had the shock treatment: he had a bath this morning and at first he didn’t understand what a hose was! Despite the fact everything is so new to him, he was amazing to clip. It’s important to remember that being confident when working with young horses is everything.

Normally we wouldn’t ride a new arrival in a bit until they have had their teeth done. The young horses always go in a KK trainer or a Myler comfort snaffle, so there is no nutcracker action. The action of single-jointed bits is horrible unless you’ve got really good hands; a lot of people are far too hard for them.

2. Keeping it fun

IMG_8795 copyEvery single ride on a young horse has to be an adventure, because they should think riding is fun. With our break-ins, we ride them in a halter and bareback in the yard on the first day, and the second day they go straight around the farm.

Riding bareback, hacking and hill work are a big part of what we do, because we believe horses have to enjoy their work. Our show jumpers get one or two days on the arena and the rest of the time it’s trotting and cantering around hills. We very rarely jump at home during the season – the team know what they’re doing, so it’s not about that, but about how strong they can become and how rideable they are.

If your horse enjoys its work, it will do anything for you. I’m not here to make a horse do something – they’ve got to want to work for us.

3. A crash course

IMG_8769 copyWhether I’m riding a young pony like Ping or a break-in, I always aim to do as much as I possibly can with them during the first two weeks, because that’s when they are learning the most and you can influence their balance. The babies learn how to use their bodies correctly from the start – they do flying changes from day one. Once horses are established and know they can canter around the corner on the wrong leg, it’s very hard to change that. Within two rides we can see how far the horse is going to go and how much potential it’s going to have.

Within two weeks, I expect them to walk, trot and canter around the farm; open and shut gates; go through ditches and the river; trot over trot poles and jump over little crosses and some logs. Teaching the horse to go forward into a contact is probably the biggest thing, along with teaching them that they have to jump anything. It becomes automatic for them to think, okay, if there’s something in front of me, I’ve always got to go over. 

4. Finding their balance

IMG_8685 copyTeaching the horse from the start to balance and not to run is a big thing. Some horses you hop on are naturally balanced; others like this one tend to run a little bit. I want to teach Ping to balance through his own body. Any time horses are scared, they run, and at the moment Ping is a bit unsure down this end of the arena, so he’s running. I want him to slow down and think. People always grab hold of the horse’s head to stop them running, but I don’t. I just sit really still and wait for them to come back to me – they always do.

Also right from the start, I do a lot of turning, to keep the horse thinking and so it learns to come between your hand and your leg. If you just ride a horse round and round the outside of the arena, they shut down and become bored by it – although they do everything they’re supposed to, they lose that little bit of thinking. I want something very special and smart that is thinking ahead of me.

My leg is always there, just to say ‘keep using your body’, and there is always a nice contact. Nine times out of 10 the horse will start looking for the contact. My hand is really light, so you can let it go and the horse isn’t going to run away from you.

5. Keep it black and white

IMG_8660 copyIn the top photo left I’m just putting a contact on and seeing if Ping will soften from it, then rewarding when he does so, in the bottom photo. It’s just a holding contact; I never pull and when he’s soft, I’m soft. He’s just got to understand what I’m asking and work it out.

Whatever you ask, you should never change. A lot of people ask the horse to go on the bit, and if one way doesn’t work, they start see-sawing or pulling them down. My question never changes, but I expect an answer, and each time I ask that question I’m expecting a little bit of improvement.

Once they understand what I’m asking, they learn to find it IMG_8661 copyreally quickly. It’s like teaching the horse anything – the moment they understand, they remember it.

Some horses fall asleep when I’m doing this and some just hold the contact and won’t give in, but all of a sudden they wake up and they’re as soft as butter after that.

Each horse is very different; the longest I think has taken half an hour. It’s all about patience.

6. The canterIMG_8742 copy

Ping doesn’t understand how to balance behind yet. The moment I sit in the canter, I shut him down and it becomes too much work for him, so I’m staying off his back. I just want him to carry himself underneath me and balance his body.

To set up the young horse to canter on the correct lead, you have to be very balanced and keep your weight always slightly to the outside to lighten up the inside shoulder. If I drop down on the inside, the horse will quite often pop its shoulder out and go on the wrong lead. It’s very easy to teach a break-in correct leads because they are so influenced by balance, whereas something like this who is a bit more established needs a little more help.

7. First jumpIMG_8756 copy

This little cross with a placing pole is the first time Ping has jumped coloured rails. Nearly all of our jumps have a pole in front, which encourages the horse to trot all the way to the base, rock back on to their hindquarters and jump up from power, not speed. It also teaches the horse this is the correct place to jump from, and by doing this you find that the babies soon learn to look for that correct take-off spot.

When teaching horses to jump, it’s SO important that we leave their heads alone. All I want Ping to do is go forward and learn to work things out.

8. A future star?IMG_8786 copy

Ping finished his first session by jumping our boat jump, which is about 1m. He understands how to get there and jump – that’s why they called him Ping, as they haven’t ever been able to keep him in a paddock! He’s just a happy, forward-thinking pony, so it makes the job very easy. He’s barefoot at the moment, but once I can get some shoes on him I think he’ll start getting to the base and pushing with his back end better.

The priority for Ping now is getting a life certificate and having his teeth looked at. He probably won’t jump again for a week – he’ll just go hacking and have a couple of days off to fatten up a bit and chill. In about a month’s time, I’ll start taking him out to competitions, just jumping around 90cm, 1m and 1.05m, to get him confident. Then we’ll see whether he’s going to be a superstar, or just a super-kind all-rounder. I’m hoping he’ll go Grand Prix.

8645 our trainer copyVicki on…. Talent spotting

We’ve produced heaps of Grand Prix ponies, including Sweet Edition, Bruno Rossi, Showtym Image and He’s Sweet As. I look for a horse that’s a good type with a nice head and we normally pick horses that are five- to eight-year-olds; because that’s a good age to put pressure on them and they’re ready to go. We also look for a good temperament – something that is trainable. We used to get all the difficult ponies, but now we just go for really nice natured ponies and hacks. In some ways, Ping’s sort of background is the best start for a horse: they do as they are told and they are dead quiet!

Vicki on… Breaking in bareback

I do all my breaking in bareback. Watching a lot of other people break horses in, I have picked up on the fact that a lot of issues stem from the gear. With a saddle on, the horse feels the restriction and that’s often when you get the explosion, whereas bareback they will usually put their head on the ground the first time they trot and canter, but if you just sit there and let it happen, they relax under you and you don’t get the buck. I’ve broken in hundreds of horses and I’ve never had an issue this way.

  • This article was first published in the September 2012 issue of NZ Horse & Pony