Jock Paget is a leading New Zealand event rider, with career highlights including winning Badminton on Clifton Promise; the pair were also second at Burghley and were part of New Zealand’s bronze medal team at the London Olympics. Jock is currently preparing for the Rio Games where he hopes to compete on either Clifton Lush or Clifton Signature.
For this story, Jock rides Clifton Airtight, an 11-year-old, 16.1hh thoroughbred gelding by Justice Prevails, produced by Angela Lloyd. Jock and Airtight finished second in the CCI3* at Puhinui in 2011.
1. An effective warm-up
Once I’ve cantered around and loosened up a bit, I always like to work on riding forward and back. Everything I do, every day, is always playing with the gears, making sure that they’re easily accessible, so you can get in and get out without a fight.
2. Make technique a priority
Once the horse feels good in walk, trot and canter, I’ll start off over some poles. Then I usually go to a grid, to get the horse quick off the floor and jumping with good technique. After that, I will work on other exercises, but as soon as they lose the jump, I’ll go back to the grid. The first priority is always technique.
Sometimes I do a trotting grid, where it will be placing pole, cross, one stride, oxer. Today I have set up a bounce (vertical to cross rail), then two short strides to an oxer. We build the oxer out wider and wider, so they have to jump in, shorten up and make a nice shape to get out of the grid. If they get too long and flat they’re going to have the front rail.
It varies from horse to horse, but I normally try to make the grids a little short. The better the horse jumps through, the more leg I’ll get on and pressure them in a nice way to the front rail, daring them to have the front rail down. It makes them athletic. Horses have muscle memory, so if every time they jump a fence they have to make a shape and try really hard, then that becomes their habit.
It’s not about ramming them to the base though, it’s just letting them find themselves a little bit deep, so they have to try to get out of it.
3. Testing rideability
Once the horse is jumping in good shape over the grid, I move on to rideability exercises. Today I have five fences set up in the arena, on an S-bend, with five strides between each (below) – the distance is the same everywhere. It’s a good exercise for both horse and rider, because it teaches you to make a decision on landing.
Sometimes the horse might jump in a little bit big or stall over the first one, which means you have to land, make a decision and stick to it. Once the horse feels good coming down in five and five, I’ll do four strides and four strides everywhere, and then six and six. I don’t ride a lot of courses at home. I just set up simple rideability exercises like this, to make sure I can do whatever I want.
You can rely on adrenalin at Novice level, but once you go Intermediate or Advanced if you haven’t got a horse that can do these simple things you’re in big trouble. You can no longer get away with being too close or too far away at the fence – if you do, you’re in big trouble for the next one.
At Novice you might have one tough fence, but at three- and four-star level they will chuck a big corner or a big skinny at the end of a line and you have to be able to canter through, make decisions and get reactions from the horse.
4. Fine-tuning the aids
My aids are really tuned. When I’m cantering around, it doesn’t look like I’m doing anything because I’m not, I’m just sitting still. But if the horse got to the fence and stopped I would be really strong on him because I’m tuning the aids.
I don’t want to have to kick the horse over every jump and I don’t want to have to hold him to get him to canter on a reasonably slow canter to the fence. I just want to say this is your canter, leave him alone and he keeps it.
If they run away I say no, wait for me, this is it here and then I would expect them to keep it. If they don’t, then I go no, stop, let’s go again, show them and just keep repeating it.
But if you want to be able to sit still, you have to tune your aids; you have to be on them all the time.
5. The ready canter
When I’m cantering around, I always like to have what I call a ‘ready canter’ – ready to do anything. At any point I should be able to halt, or go forward and the horse should respond straight away. If I don’t have a ready canter, I’ll keep working to get it, playing with the gears. You want to be soft and competent; you should be able to move the horse, bend him, go forward and come back, without him freaking out.
6. Give plenty of walk breaks I like to walk between jumping exercises to diffuse the horse straight away. Especially on cross-country if they get a fright, you need to be able to get them back to neutral before the next fence. You don’t want them carrying the baggage.
If at home you can canter around, do an exercise, walk, then pick them up and go straight back into a big tough exercise, they are doing it because they are trained to do it, not because they are running on adrenalin. They need to be able to do the big stuff relaxed and on a cool head. You can’t teach horses anything when they are fired up. I like my horses to canter around like this on a loose rein – I like them to just chill.
7. Train on a cool head
If you train on a cool head, your mistakes are truly shown, because the horse isn’t running on adrenalin. If the horse gets to a fence and doesn’t understand it, it will stop. This shouldn’t happen in competitions – it happens at home if you’ve done your schooling right. If they stop or run off at home, you can train them. Then when you go fast, they will know their job, so you should be able to gallop into jumps, land and turn, angle fences, do a bounce with something on the other side, and they should understand it because they’ve done it a hundred times on a cool head.
8. Making horses careful
I think people who aren’t that brave as riders will probably make their horses braver – they like the horse to take the hand forward and take them to the fence. And people who are too brave as riders need to make their horses more careful. I like to make my horses careful. I like to be able to kick them in to the fence and have them take care of themselves. That’s what makes you fast, because you can just kick at everything, you don’t have to protect the horse, you can just go for it. Nowadays, with the courses they’re building, if you have to set the horse up so much for the jumps, it’s impossible to make the time.
9. Hot horses that run
They are probably the best ones! When people come for lessons and they’ve got a horse that’s out of control, I normally hop on, canter around and if I touch the rein and nothing happens, I’ll halt him quite abruptly, to get the point across. I want to make sure that if I just touch him, he’ll react, and I will enforce that a little bit. Then, once I’ve got that, I will just go to the fence and put him really close to the front rail. If I keep putting the horse deep, he’ll counteract me by slowing down in front of the fence, then, as he starts to slow down, I’ll make the rides a little bit nicer, and he’ll obviously relax. Once that basic concept is there, it’s really easy. The best thing for any horse is to let them keep finding themselves deep in front of the fence. To be honest you need a good eye. It’s just consistency in the rider; cantering to a fence without fighting, without kicking.
10. Training water jumps
Every horse will give you a slightly different feel into water. Clifton Razz will canter into the biggest water fence like it’s nothing, whereas with Clifton Promise it was the one fence I needed to worry about a little bit if it was early in the course, because he might bottom out – he’d make a beautiful shape, but then sometimes he’d drop his belly or back legs on the fence. With young horses, sometimes if they get to a water jump and they are not too sure about it, you kick them and they jump out, so they start to land on their back legs first. You can get away with that at Novice level, but later on they need to make a shape and land on their front legs first.
Horses usually stop at water because they don’t understand how to get into it, not because they are scared of the water itself. The easiest way to show them is to drop the reins on their neck and let them walk off the bank into the water, until they understand that they have to drop down into water, not jump out into it.
11. Don’t go fast at every competition
I don’t try to win every competition. Early in the season, the horses will canter around quietly. I remember once on Promise I had 50 time faults at Rotorua! That way you know when the day comes and you decide to go fast and try to win at a big competition you can do it on a cool head without the horse getting fired up.
I’ve seen the difference between a horse being produced properly and a horse being produced to win everything, and I’d much rather ride the horse that’s been produced properly. They’re safer, they know their job, they’re easier and they’re ready to win at the highest level. If you go fast at every competition, you might have a horse who wins everything up to two-star and then goes no further, whereas if you produce them properly they probably won’t win much at all along the way and then all of a sudden they’re out winning at the big events.
- This article was first published in the February 2012 issue of NZ Horse & Pony