Merlin Was Afraid of Life—and Jumping

But we convinced him that he was a jumping star.
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But we convinced him that he was a jumping star.

Nearly 20 years ago, a steeplechase trainer who is a good friend gave me a three-year-old Thoroughbred gelding, a horse with whom I would develop an unforgettably rewarding relationship, despite the many challenges that he presented. 

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We would enjoy Master Merlin’s company for 13 years, from foxhunting through eventing at the CCI2* level, winning numerous events at training, preliminary and intermediate levels. But it was far from an easy start.

Self-Confidence Issues.Merlin, at 17.2 hands, was a big-moving horse, blessed with physical gifts that should have made him feel all-powerful. Instead, he had self-confidence issues that affected just about everything he did.

Merlin never did race. Probably just as well, because I suspect that the sights, sounds and commotion of a racetrack would have completely unnerved him. As a young horse his mind had a hard time focusing on his rider’s aids with the world buzzing all around him.

And he could really spook and wheel—it wasn’t quick, but you couldn’t stop him. If you tried to restrain him with the opposite rein, he’d just rear higher in panic.

We became convinced that the vision in Merlin’s right eye was somehow compromised. He always spun to the left, away from his right eye. He was most wary when walking, and the only way to get him past a worrisome object or location was to gallop him past it.

With most horses, your correction would be to turn into the direction they’ve spun away from. But not with Merlin—couldn’t be done. All I could do was push him in a tight circle in the direction he was spinning (to the left) to get him facing the right direction again as we came out of the circle, preferably at the canter or gallop. 

Galloping was the key to Merlin—when he was galloping, with his immense, powerful strides, he thought he was king of the earth. It was a trait that suited him perfectly as an event horse.

Not Alone! A lack of confidence meant Merlin never liked being alone. If he didn’t have a friend close by while in the stall or a field, he would scream and stall-walk like a giant whirling dervish. But riding him alone was never a problem— I think he learned to embrace it on the cross-country course. This dichotomy often made me wish you could psychoanalyze horses. 

Fear—basically claustrophobia—made Merlin a difficult loader and shipper. He always wore front shipping boots and a tail wrap, because he often grabbed himself or pulled a shoe and because he basically sat on the ramp, I guess for balance. After we’d had him for about three years, we bought a new trailer, and our priority was a light-colored interior and in extra-high and extra-wide dimensions, just for him. 

But, over a period of years, Merlin did largely overcome his anxiety about buddies and trailers. How? By getting in the trailer and going places, often. From about age 6 to about age 12, rarely did a week go by when he didn’t take a trip in a trailer, sometimes twice a week, often in the dark. He’d go hunting, go for a lesson, go for trail rides, go to schooling shows, go to an event; for about two years of that time we even had to ship him to the farrier. He got used to getting in the trailer to go do something; in fact, I think he came to eagerly anticipate it, because for the last four or five years, he’d just hop right on board.

Scope To Burn. Merlin had exceptional jumping scope. I can only think of only four other horses I’ve ever ridden who might have had this scope, including Tabor (see sidebar) and two young horses I have in training right now. 

Merlin’s uncertainty about jumping shouldn’t have been caused by lack of ability. I knew from the first time I jumped him that he could jump anything I’d ever point him to with one leg tied behind his back. It was clear that my job was to instill the necessary confidence in him, to convince him that he was marvelous. 

Instilling confidence in Merlin about life was actually much harder than instilling confidence about jumping. That’s largely because he was only 3 and hadn’t really had any discouraging experiences while jumping. Although he was obviously green, I remember being in awe of his raw strength and his body awareness the first time I jumped him. So I just rode him boldly to the jumps, concentrating on giving him the necessary impulsion and courage, while not “fiddling” with him. I was letting him take responsibility for actually jumping the jumps, hoping that he’d feel a sense of accomplishment from doing it, a feeling that would give him the self-confidence he lacked. 

Across The Countryside. Many of the things I tried to help Merlin to develop his confidence aren’t an option for everyone, including me right now.

One of the best things I did was to take him foxhunting, a lot, with several different packs as I then lived in the U.S. foxhunting capital, Middleburg, Va. I probably took Merlin hunting 40 times from the time he was three until he was nine, when he began winning at preliminary level. I strongly believe that foxhunting is a great learning ground for event horses, or for any kind of jumping horse.

Meeting a wide variety of obstacles neither of us had seen before, over the course of three to five hours, built Merlin’s confidence in himself and me. He loved to foxhunt, and I often promised him that when he could no longer event, he’d return to it, but by then we’d moved to Northern California, and foxhunting was no longer convenient.

I also took Merlin hacking across the countryside as often as possible. I always looked for little challenges to present to him: cross little streams, go through puddles, hop over a little ditch or up or down embankments, or go into dark places. I still do the same with all our young horses. These little exercises build their trust in me and their trust in themselves, and it encourages them to figure things out, not just to exclaim, “I’m afraid. I can’t do it!” 

In the ring, I did exercises on the flat with an eye to developing Merlin’s understanding of and confidence in my aids. I was trying to teach him to react positively to, especially, the driving aids of my leg, seat and voice (and sometimes whip). My goal was to convince him that the answer to uncertainty was to “go forward, attack your fears,” not just turn and run the other way. 

Lateral work of any kind—shoulder-in, leg-yield, haunches-in, spiraling circles—is good to establish and cement communication between your aids and your horse’s brain. Medium canter on a circle and counter-canter are good exercises to accomplish this too. Working in inclement conditions, like rain, mud, snow or wind, also forces you and your horse to communicate and to work together, and I rode Merlin in all but the most untenable conditions.

I’d also estimate that I jumped him over gymnastic combinations 70 to 75 percent of the time I jumped him without an instructor. My goal was always to give him reasons to feel proud and confident, to believe in the natural ability I knew he had.

A Merlin Fan. All those years of patient work prepared Merlin for the next stage of his career, which was training with four-star event rider Sharon White. She was an instant Merlin fan, and she would guide us through the preliminary and intermediate levels.

Since Sharon’s jumping exercises always emphasized “go forward,” footwork and the horse being responsible for himself, we were a perfect fit. During the winter, we schooled over an endless array of gymnastic grids or a series of jumps that emphasized balance, focus and cleverness. During the summer, she’d set courses all around her expansive jumping field, forcing us to work with or to counteract terrain to correctly “to find the jumps.” 

The biggest challenge we had was when making the difficult transition from training level to preliminary level. I naturally started trying to “package” Merlin to the bigger, more gymnastic combinations. With most horses, when approaching a rail-ditch-rail combination or a bank combination, you shorten their stride and frame, making sure you don’t reach the first fence too fast, too strung out or on the forehand. I tried that, and Merlin would stop, acting uncertain. 

After four or five events with one or more refusals at combinations, I decided to ride him like I used to and send him at the jumps, letting him sort it out. He never stopped again in another 13 or 14 preliminary events, and we’d win two preliminary horse trials and two intermediate horse trials, placing in the top 10 in two CCI1* events. 

Article by Performance Editor John Strassburger.