Training Horses Is Never A Straight Line

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We have a saying here at Phoenix Farm, a theme that we think summarizes the joy and frustration of training our horses to be athletic partners: ?Training horses is never a straight line.?

What we mean is that the process of training horses means that you scale high peaks, descend into deep valleys, make wrong turns, go down dead ends and wander around a bit. But, if you keep your eyes on short-term and long-term training goals, and you keep working and listening to your horse, you usually get where you intended to go.

I'll use as an example my homebred mare Phoenix Amani, whom I competed last weekend in the Twin Rivers Horse Trials in Central California. SHe's provided me with numerous training and riding challenges, along with great joy and great frustration.

Amani is a perfect example of our saying that ?training horses is never a straight line.? We bred her to be an event horse (her sire is Formula One and her dam had a pedigree full of the best Thoroughbred jumping and stamina blood), and sHe's now 5. If you keep reading, you'll see why I think sHe's maturing into the horse we were trying to produce, but the road has to get there hasn?t felt like we were driving down I-95.

Amani?s early training under saddle was actually fairly unremarkable, somewhat surprisingly. From the very early days of her life, she?d demonstrated that she was highly opinionated and that her immediate reaction to something new was most often an explosion. So I called her (and still do) ?the Princess.? Still, she took to working well, as if it made sense to her, and she was always eager to jump?and very good at it.

I took her to her first schooling event at the very beginning of her 4-year-old year, the first time she?d left the property, other than for three or four trail rides. She handled herself calmly and went very willingly. It seemed as if we were traveling down a straight road!

But then, six weeks later, I took her to her first recognized event, thinking she seemed ready. She wasn?t ready mentally. She got distracted in the dressage ring and sort of melted down and then was even more distracted in the show jumping and wouldn?t even jump the first jump.

Wrong turn. Look at the map?figure out where to go next, because this road isn?t going where we want.

So we backed up and turned around, trying to figure out where we'd gone wrong. I took her to several small shows and schooling events, and I took her cross-country schooling twice. I tried to expose her to a bunch of things away from home, and at home I worked her at times of commotion. We also draped towels and blankets on jumps, and through it all I demanded, more insistently than usual, that she pay attention to me and my aids. I insisted that she focus her sharp brain on her job, not on whatever distraction there was.

And I aimed her for a smaller, quiet horse trial as her next recognized start, at beginner novice. She had one run-out on cross-country, at an early jump in the deep shadow of a giant oak tree, but otherwise went perfectly. Her second start, at the busy Woodside October event, was a great success, as she finished third. Now we were cruising down the interstate again.

So I moved her up to novice for her next start, two weeks later at Ram Tap in Fresno. She?d previously gone boldly and happily into and through water (in competition and at our stream here at home), so I was really shocked when she stopped suddenly at the tiny bank jump into the water. So shocked that I almost went over her head! And then she stopped a second time, before I convinced her to leap in.

Another wrong turn. Nearly a crash. Time to look at the map again and figure out where I'd gone wrong this time. Again, more work emphasizing that the answer to my aids is always to go forward, to trust and believe in me.

We returned to Ram Tap a month later, and it poured rain the night before cross-country, leaving the course deep and holding by the time Amani went. She?d jumped in a wet ring at home many times, but this footing was starting to dry out by the time we went and getting a bit like riding in a vat of chocolate. But she forged on, undisturbed by what she was jumping out of, and I schooled her through both water jumps before presenting her to them. She then jumped in boldly and confidently.

I felt that we were once again cruising down the highway, that through the year I'd succeeded in giving her a series of positive experiences in competition and that I'd developed confidence in herself and in me at home too.

Without question at this point, she was ready to move up to training level in terms of her ability and her training. But we wanted to make sure she had one more very strong competitive experience at novice level before moving her up. So in February we returned to Ram Tap, where she finished fourth, adding no penalties to her dressage score. She felt almost bored by the jumps?just what you want before moving up.

I did make one little detour, though, at the February Ram Tap. I did school her through the water jump with the bank in, just to be sure she understood the question. And then she jumped perfectly in to the water and perfectly out. A worthwhile detour, indeed.

So at Twin Rivers, exactly a year after her meltdown there, Amani made her first start at training level. She performed a very willing and professional dressage test, in the same ring she found so distracting last year, earning a 34 and tying for fifth. She even got a 9 on the entrance movement.

Amani didn't show jump until almost 5 o?clock on Saturday, and when I took her to the warm up she seemed determined to remind me that sHe's just 5. Lots of staring at sights??acting blonde,? as we call it. So I put her to work and got her focused on her job, and she felt ready to go as we entered the ring. Her eyes were still bulging as we started, but she left the ground willingly for the first two jumps. She hit the second pretty hard and knocked it down, but it seemed to bring her mind back to me, as if she said, ?Oh, maybe I should listen to John now!? And then she jumped the rest of the course absolutely perfectly.

we'd gone off on to the shoulder of the road, but straightened out before we crashed.

On Sunday, she started out similarly distracted in the warm up, then came into focus. And I had to ride the first three cross-country fences pretty hard, because she was looking at the sights and wondering why we were heading away from the stable area. She jumped the next five fences with more attention but still felt a bit green. Sort of, ?I'm going, but these look bigger!?

I schooled her through the first water complex before presenting her to the bank jump in, which she then jumped willingly if a bit awkwardly. But that jump must have got her attention or built her confidence, because I had an easy ride after that. She hopped through the double down banks (with jumps before and after) as if she?d done it a thousand times, boldly flew through the three-jump ditch complex, and then eagerly jumped in and out of the second water jump.

Amani had just proven that I had developed another event horse! I know there will be more detours and wrong turns on the road ahead, but I'm confident now that we're headed toward the goals I have for her.