School your horse for success with handy tips from star showjumper Dan Neilson. Learn how to warm-up correctly and improve your horse's paces.
1. Warm up slowly
At the beginning of a session, Dan ensures he spends sufficient time on warming up and loosening his horse's muscles.
“After a quick walk, I move the horse up into trot,” says Dan. “I’ll work him long and low, encouraging him to stretch over the topline.
“As well as warming the horse up, it gives me a chance to see how he feels on that particular day. I’ll consider whether he may be horse stiffer on one rein, forward going or a little sluggish?”
2. Keep a light seat
When Dan moves into canter, he adopts a light seat, standing up in his stirrups so he is just out of the saddle.
“A light seat allows me to get off the horse’s back, so he can move freely without my weight on it,” he explains. “This encourages him to use his back correctly and loosen his muscles rather than stiffening up and hollowing.”
Dan also uses a forward seat in the last three strides into a fence.
“It teaches the horse to shorten his canter strides and compact himself so that he can propel up into the air.”
3. Practice flying changes
“Flying changes are important when showjumping because it gives you adjustability,” says Dan. “If your horse lands on the wrong leg, you may only have a stride or two to get the correct lead before the next fence.
“Therefore your horse needs to make a flying change as soon as you ask for one.”
During his warm up routine, Dan will ask for a few flying changes when changing the rein.
“I keep them very loose and relaxed to start with, to give the horse a chance to work over his back and not get too excited,” he says.
“When we start working over fences, I’ll also incorporate some flying changes.”
4. Shorten and lengthen your horse’s stride
Being able to extend the horse’s canter, and bring it back again, also gives you flexibility to adjust his stride when riding around a course of showjumps.
“I practice lengthening and shortening the horse’s stride in flatwork sessions,” says Dan.
“First I will open the canter up by asking the horse to take longer, bigger strides and then gently and quietly I ask him to shorten his strides, so the pace is collected.
“Work on this enough and You’ll soon be able to send your horse forward, or bring him back, simply by making subtle adjustments in your body position.”
5. Include leg-yield
Once the horse is loosened up, Dan picks up the reins and asks him to work into a contact.
“I encourage the horse to come rounder into the contact,” he says. “I do this by taking up a shorter contact on the reins and riding a little bit of leg-yield down the long side of the arena.
“I find this helps to get the horse in front of the leg and switched on to my aids.
“When the horse moves away from my leg in the leg yield, he also crosses his legs over gently which helps to loosen up his back and hind end.”
6. Use big shapes
While Dan is warming up, he prefers to use the whole of the arena, ‘going large’ the majority of the time rather than asking the horse to perform lots of small shapes and turns.
“In a gentle trot, I ride all the way around the arena in large so I’m not asking too much of the joints while the horse is still warming up. I’ll still change the rein, but across the diagonal rather than via small circles. And I don’t worry too much about the horse’s outline at this point.”
7. Pop small fences
There is no need to jump big fences in practice session. Dan will use cavalleti to create beneficial ‘gymnastic’ jumping sessions.
It helps to keep the horse flexible, and you can practice shortening and lengthening, without putting extra wear and tear on the horse by working over high jumps.
“I don’t like to over-jump horses, especially when they are on a break from competing. Popping over a cavalleti keeps them ticking along,” Dan points out.
“I jump on both reins, on a circle, keeping a steady, working canter.
“It’s also a good way of practicing shortening and lengthening the stride in front of the fence.
“Because a cavaletti is so small, you can approach it from different directions, on short and long strides and at an angle, to perfect your jump-off techniques.”
8. Stretch to finish
At the end of a session, Dan goes back to trot, and stretches the horse again, to loosen off the muscles.
“Offer a long rein to ask the horse to take the bit down,” he says. “It helps encourage him to track up and stretch over the back.”
For the full article, see the December 2014 issue of Horse magazine.
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