Vicki Wilson is one of New Zealand’s top show jumpers and competes at World Cup level. She has won the Nationwide Cup (for the most points) at Horse of the Year seven times, more than any other rider in history. Vicki runs a busy show jumping yard in Northland, where she is always in demand for breaking in and schooling horses, but is perhaps best known for her work taming wild horses. Vicki places a huge emphasis on producing happy horses that love their work, and she has also gained a reputation for succeeding with sore or difficult horses where others have failed.
1. Time to learn, time to play
The arena is the horse’s classroom, so when they are in the arena they have to learn something new or improve in some way. But when they go out on the farm or the beach, that’s their playground – they get ridden on the buckle and it’s their time to have fun. We make sure we have a good mix of both.
Nothing is structured here; one day we might wake up in the morning and decide to take a truck-load of horses to the beach, but we still get everything worked and everything is done. Every two weeks we take the horses to Whananaki for a beach ride and they’re allowed to do a full gallop and we’ll swim them in the ocean if it’s warm enough. Our job is incredibly hard work and sometimes we do 15-hour days, so we have to have fun, or we wouldn’t still be doing it! And if we’re having fun, our horse is having fun – if I’m bored, my horse is 100 times more bored.
Our horses go on ‘the impossible trek’ once a year, which is a three-hour ride through scrub and bush, where they literally come away with clay on the top of their rumps because they are sitting down the hills so much and you’re holding on to the trees on the side to stop them sliding. We look after our horses, but we don’t baby them – they love their adventures.
I don’t think my horses would like to just be in an arena for the rest of their life or be ridden in draw reins. They love their life and they’ve all got a lot of personality – too much personality almost, because we haven’t shut it out of them. A lot of people want to dominate their horses and shut them down, but you need a horse that will think for itself.
2. Suggest, ask, tell
I have a philosophy with my horses that I ‘suggest’ they do something. So, I might open my rein and suggest the horse goes somewhere. If he doesn’t understand my cue, I will ask nicely: I’ll click to him with a little bit of leg on and give him some direction. Finally, if he doesn’t go, he’ll get the reins slapped over his neck and a kick. The horse very quickly works out that there’s a process: suggest, ask, tell and they start looking for the suggestion. Communicating with horses is really easy if you speak their language.
I believe that when we ask our horses a question, they have to answer in some way, but they don’t have to give the perfect answer. The first few times I ask, I’m just looking for a try. Once they understand the try, I start asking more from that question, so they give a better answer. As soon as your horse understands the question, they start to give you the right answer all the time.
3. Naked breaking in
We usually break in our horses bareback in a halter, so we’re not scaring them with gear. When most horses get a fright, they react and jump and all of a sudden they hit the girth and forget we are there. Without the gear, if they react, I can very quickly jump off, stand beside them, give them a pat and get back on. I create a situation that I can win from, so the horse wins too. With no gear, you can feel what they’re going to do before they do it. I’m always reading their ears too. Of course, everybody needs a way of breaking in that feels safe for them – I wouldn’t recommend how I do it for everybody!
Once the horse has been for a canter on the farm, which for a sport horse, often happens the first day we ride them, they go in a saddle. Once their teeth are done they get a bridle. We do mouth our horses, but never in side-reins, because that forces the head into a position. We teach every single horse to follow an open rein, so we can transition them easily from a halter to a bridle.
Most horse, when they canter the first time with a saddle, will be like a gentle rollercoaster with their head on the ground. If we leave them with long reins and just sit quietly and keep our leg on, they very quickly learn to go forward again. But if you grab on to their heads and tell them off, that’s when you’ll get a reaction.
I don’t want to force my horse go on the bit. Especially with previous injuries to my shoulders I can’t afford to hang on to a horse’s head. I want to be able to close my legs, soften my hand and for the horse to go down and seek the contact. I want my horses soft and light and using their bodies correctly.
If I ask a question, I expect my horses to answer me. It has to be very black and white, but I don’t accept heavy in any way. We’ve got some horses here from one stud and they are the slowest horses in the world to lead. I’m always in a hurry, so it’s a real pain! My horses walk fast, and they’re light. If I walk fast, they walk fast, because they are so in tune. What we accept is what they’re going to give us.
5. Make every ride an adventure
When you take a kid to the zoo for the first time, they’re so excited, and that’s how we want to make every ride for the young horse – an adventure, a trip to the park or a trip to the zoo.
Once we get our break-ins to the point where we can lie on them and they can lunge a little basic circle (and before we can stop or turn them), we’ll go out for a ride around the farm in a group. When you get to a shed or a tractor or something scary they’ll stop, but the other horses keep walking through, so they’ll just keep going.
Our horses are allowed to go and explore every letterbox – they are never allowed to run away from anything they are scared of; they always have to face it. They don’t necessarily have to walk up to it, but they’re not allowed to leave it. I find when I go out on the farm that 90% of the break-ins will stop and talk to something scary like a sack. People tend to stifle their curiosity and shut them down through riding.
6. Child’s play
A horse is like a child. When you’re starting with a three-year-old, it’s simple stuff, like one-plus-one. Obviously the World Cup horses are intellectually able to take on more. It’s just getting inside their head. Each horse is completely different, so we don’t start each horse the same way.
Within a couple of weeks from breaking in, our horses can walk, trot and canter on the bit, pop a couple of jumps and open and shut a gate on the farm. You influence balance as a baby: all our babies learn to flying change, leg-yield and turn on the forehand, and they pick it up very quickly. If you can teach the tools they’re going to use for the rest of their life, they’re going to be so far ahead.
We don’t treat our break-ins like break-ins; they’re just a horse to us. But we might occasionally spend a little bit longer with a horse if it’s really worried. We have one at the moment who was unfortunately roped and lassoed and it took six months before we could touch her happily. We’ve done it in her time and in a way she’s understood. There is no need to tie up horses’ legs or throw them; you just damage their bodies and ruin them.
7. Cross-training for strength
We compete our horses on the weekend then on Monday they go out in the paddock. Tuesday we go around the farm and trot and canter around the hills – what they normally would do on the arena, they do up and down the hills. The day our horse can canter downhill, sitting and with no contact, is the day we’ve got our horse strong enough, because when they are weak they run downhill or sit on your hand.
On Wednesday they might do 25 minutes of flatwork, which is like an intense body pump class, with heaps of transitions so we’re engaging their brain and their body. Or they might get a lunge which will be seven minutes each way of the same sort of thing: normal trot, extended trot, 10m canter circle then out on a larger circle again.
We also swim our horses. The girls make their own fun and sing and stand on the horses’ backs and sit backwards. The horses love the water too – mentally it’s really good for them because it’s time out. Sometimes they might do 30 laps of the river, which is close to a mile. The first few weeks they just do 10 laps and we slowly build it up. Any horse who is unsound or isn’t strong enough will twist in the water at first when you trot them, but after a couple of weeks’ of swimming they start to trot straight. We had one very well-bred horse who came here and couldn’t do a flying change at all – he’d had an injury at some point and had never evened up. He was very weak and disunited and couldn’t hold his canter together, so we swam him. We only had him for nine weeks all together and he got all his flying changes, and developed big beautiful movement.
8. Happy horses
Horse welfare is huge for us – your horse should be healthy and happy. Every single horse that’s turned out here is fat and shiny and looks a million dollars. When you go to a lot of other competition stables at the start of the season, the horses are dull and light in condition and that’s really sad to see.
So many people cut feed out, just so they can actually manage the horses and ride them, whereas we feed every single break-in that comes here through the roof, so when they go home the rider isn’t going to have a problem.
9. Keeping horses careful
The Grand Prix horses already know how to jump and I want them to fight for me in the ring, so we don’t actually do a huge amount with them. It’s just a case of making sure that they’re strong enough in their bodies. When you’re jumping them every weekend, you want to keep them happy and sane and loving it.
The babies will do a lot more at home, so we jump them every two weeks, but they don’t do many shows. Just the same as with the flatwork we want to give them tools they’re going to use for the rest of their life, so we have an exercise that teaches them how to use their body correctly and how to find the right take-off spot. It’s just a trot pole in front of the fence, and we do a lot of it, so all our babies learn to jump that way. They’ll do little exercises and we won’t jump them big very often.
Every horse has a different programme. Levado is my hardest horse and I don’t do warm-up jumps on him at the shows normally, because then he’s not rideable in the ring. But if I go in with no warm-up at all, he’s relaxed and he tries hard. He’s just a bad boy! Premier is a horse we don’t school at home, because he gets very worried about it. He’s absolutely gorgeous and tries so hard, but he gets a bit stressed about flatwork. He gets lunged, he goes around the hills, goes to the beach and he swims.
I used to be all about winning ribbons, but now I don’t care! I enjoy producing horses and I’m quite happy to take my time. Every one of my horses has helped me become the rider I am today and they’re my friends; I know them so well.
- This story was first published in the September 2016 issue of NZ Horse & Pony