I would say that I learned (or was reminded of) three elements in the training of horses, primarily for eventing, when I rode my two mares Firebolt and Phoenix Amani at the Galway Downs International Horse Trials in Southern California last weekend. (Firebolt competed at open intermediate and jumped a faultless and relatively fast cross-country round, and Phoenix Amani did the same thing in open preliminary.)
First, their performances reminded of the value of taking your time to teach your horse how to do his job correctly. The trick is that, like children, what seems like an accelerated program for one horse is slow for another, and vice versa. The key, I think, is to truly let the horse tell you what's right for him, not to insist on the horse following your own time schedule.
Firebolt, for instance, zipped through the beginner novice, novice and training levels in six events, all between March and August 2009, primarily because the jumps weren?t slowing her down. Six months later, she made her first preliminary start and finished with no cross-country jumping faults. But Heather and I believed then that preliminary would be the level at which she?d truly learn the game.
We were right. Firebolt spent three years at preliminary level, starting 18 events and jumping faultlessly on cross-country in 14 of them. This spring We've done what I never would have imagined four years ago?We've moved up to intermediate and have now jumped faultlessly around cross-country in both events.
The most noteworthy thing about moving Firebolt up to the sport?s second-highest level is that it hasn?t felt much different to her. She understands how to answer the questions?water, ditches, banks, drops, corners, skinnies?so she doesn't find it daunting that the jumps are bigger and the combinations have fewer strides. And, despite her relatively small size (sHe's a 15.2-hand Appendix Quarter Horse), the jumps don't feel much bigger.
What this tells me is that sHe's confident in her ability to answer a course?s challenges, and that I've developed in her the strength and suppleness to use her body to jump bigger than I ever would have imagined she could.
Taking time is a lesson I'm working hard to keep in mind with Phoenix Amani, who's 6 and has now completed her second preliminary start with a second clear cross-country round. Amani moved through beginner novice and novice as a 4-year-old, and as a 5-year-old she completed all seven of her training level starts without cross-country jumping faults. Amani is a considerably more athletically gifted horse than Firebolt, but with her experience in mind, I'm planning on keeping Amani at preliminary for at least two years.
The second thing Galway Downs reminded me is how important a horse's temperament is; how important ?try,? ?heart? or courage is.
I've never doubted those attributes in Firebolt, whose basic outlook on life is ?damn the torpedoes?full speed ahead!? She always gives me 150 percent, even though 100 percent would usually be just fine. I often wish she?d be a bit less eager to do the job, but not when we're on an intermediate cross-country course. At Galway Downs, she never hesitated, and she landed from every single fence looking eagerly for the next one.
Early in Amani?s career, she caused us to worry that she was all ability and no try, but sHe's now dispelled that concern. At Galway Downs, I'd say she hesitated twice as she worked to figure out two questions?a narrow fence five forward strides from a drop fence, and a corner with a narrow fence six strides away and on angle?but she flew through the bravery questions, especially the two water jumps.
The third thing that I learned at Galway Downs is an ability that my horses and I need to improve on, though: Being truly forward and truly on the aids. This is especially true in dressage, and, to a lesser extent, in the show jumping.
Watching U.S. coach David O?Connor teach part of a training session at Galway Downs illustrated for me what Heather has been telling me about the shortcoming in my training of my horses on the flat. Yes, my horses go forward and respond willingly to my aids, but I don't expect (or demand) enough from them (or myself) to make my half-halts completely effective. As a result, none of my horses are truly ?through,? meaning that they don't use their backs and hindquarters to push as well as they should and are, thus, not steady enough in their heads.
I've spent my life being happy with smooth and soft and willing, and that's not enough to get the scores you need to be competitive. Nor is it really ?dressage.? it's just nice ?flatwork.? So that's what we're working on next.