On December 15, 2014, the U of New Hampshire Equine Program hosted a jumping clinic with eventing veteran Nancy Guyotte. Nancy, of Hill, NH, is a graduate of the UNH Animal Science program and was involved with the early years of its now well established horse trials. Of course, Nancy also went on to great personal success of her own as an eventing rider, coach and breeder. Our students very much enjoyed having the opportunity to work with her; I was also able to squeeze myself into one of the groups, which was great fun and a positive experience!
Getting Started: Connection and Suppleness
In my personal experience, taking a clinic with someone new can be a nerve wracking undertaking, particularly when the focus is work over fences. I have absolutely had the experience of riding with a clinician who simply raised the fences higher and higher, assuming I guess that it is everyone’s goal to jump large obstacles, even if they do so poorly. I like to be challenged and to learn new exercises, but I don’t want to find my horse overfaced with the questions in front of us.
I think it is hard for clinicians as well, especially when they are coming in cold and don’t totally know for sure what the expertise level will be of the riders they are working with or the caliber and training of the horses.
Therefore, I wholly appreciated that after a brief round of introductions and review of equipment, our session with Nancy began working with cavaletti and flatwork. Nancy wanted our group to focus on suppleness, responsiveness, adjustability and connection in our flat work, which are also important qualities to bring forward into the work over fences. In my own instruction, I try to help my students to make this association as well—because for many riders who like to jump, flatwork is just what you do to warm up, not the main focus of a ride.
After a working in phase of work in walk, trot and canter, Nancy began to focus more directly on each horse’s lateral and longitudinal suppleness as well as the overall connection from hindquarters to the bridle. Two exercises were particularly helpful for me. The first was using a bit of counter-flexion with a leg yield of just a few steps to the inside to get Anna more even between both reins, as opposed to overflexed in the neck without bend through the ribcage (a favorite evasion). This mini-exercise is used as a microadjustment, a rebalancing of the aids, and it is super effective. Another exercise that Nancy had the group work on was turn on the forehand. I don’t school this movement frequently, though I do use other forms of leg yield and turn on the haunches. Turn on the forehand can help improve the connection to the outside rein as well as the engagement of the inside hind. If your horse gets stuck, you should step forward for a few strides and then return to the turn. You can also think about riding a small circle with the hind legs, and a smaller circle with the front ones, rather than making the turn be completely “on the spot”.
As our group rode the turn on the forehand, most of us would do 180 degrees and then leave the movement. Nancy reminded us that you can go 360 degrees around, or even just keep your horse in the movement until you are satisfied with the result.
An Eye for Detail
Once the horses had worked in, we began working over a straight row of four cavaletti poles. If you do not have traditional cavaletti (the kind with an “x” at the end), it is important to try to use square poles which cannot roll or to brace round rails with plastic blocks or other similar tools.
Nancy set up a row of cavaletti at a distance of 4’6” on centerline; we walked through the rails first and then proceeded to the trot. At this distance, the horse should put one trot step in between each of the rails. The advantage of using centerline is that you can reverse directions after each approach and therefore work the horse equally on both sides. The challenge is that it then becomes harder to keep the horse straight.
I have usually allowed my horses to stretch and reach a bit over cavaletti rails, but Nancy pointed out that when Anna did this, she was taking advantage of the rails as an opportunity to become disconnected. Nancy encouraged me to take a bit more time prior to coming through the rails to really get Anna through and over the back, and then reminded me to keep my lower leg on as we came over the rails. With successive repetitions through the rails, Anna began to more consistently remain connected and increased her activity.
Next we moved on to work over a fan of three rails. In a “fan” pattern, the rider approaches the rails with bend through the horse’s ribcage, as opposed to the straighter line taken through rails on the center line. The inside rails of the fan are closer together, while the outside rails are spread further apart. In this case, Nancy placed the rails such that the center to center approach was at 9 feet. This meant that the horses could trot through the rails, taking two steps in between each, or canter through in a bounce stride. Depending on the horse’s natural length of stride, fading to the inside of the fan or pushing towards the outside might make the exercise easier. However, Nancy emphasized the importance of being able to create the middle canter, and to be able to maintain the bend, balance, connection and energy through the center of the rails.
Though this sort of exercise sounds as though it should be rather easy, the reality is that to keep each component of the horse’s gait and body position wholly under control of the rider is actually quite difficult. The horses in our group tended to start over the first rail straight (so, perpendicular to the center of the rail) but then veered off on a tangent, rather than remaining connected, bent and engaged through the inside hind leg. With successive repetitions, each of the horses became more consistent through the exercise. Nancy remarked that she actually keeps an exercise like this set up in her arena most of the time, so that it can remain a regular component of her schooling.
Eventually, the center element of the fan became slightly elevated, and we began to approach the first rail in trot but then ask for the canter as we crossed the third rail. Finding the timing for this aid was most possible when the approach into the exercise was correctly executed.
What I most appreciated during this segment of our session was Nancy’s impressive eye for detail. It was always the most subtle things which made the biggest difference— for example, lowering the hands slightly or supporting with the lower leg more consistently. As always, the constant focus and attention on basics is essential for success.
Moving on to Jumps
These preparatory cavaletti exercises were actually quite demanding on the horses. On the one hand, work over cavaletti can be less arduous than actual jumping and therefore represents an excellent method to work on jumping related skills without adding wear and tear on the horse. On the flip side, these kinds of exercises require the horse to consistently and deliberately flex and then engage the hind limbs, as well as add greater elevation to the forehand and shoulder. The stress of the exercise is cumulative. Muscles become fatigued and then mistakes can be made, which is when injury might occur. So it is important to find the balance.
After our preparatory cavaletti work during this session, we moved on to working over a few fences. Essentially, we began over the fan, and then maintained the bouncy canter which the exercise had created to a modified oxer. From there, it was an immediate bending line, then a related distance on the diagonal.
Again, few repetitions were necessary but details were important. Nancy pointed out that though Anna has a lovely flying change, sometimes she uses it as an excuse to not remain connected, and has a tendency to try to swing the haunches. I have a bad habit of raising my hands on the approach to a fence, which of course just ruins the canter, and Nancy reminded me to keep the hand low and allow Anna to come forward at the fences.
Take Home Thoughts
At this time of the year, when we are stuck indoors and usually are sharing our ring space with other users, it can be a real challenge to keep jumping skills tuned up or set a full course. The use of exercises such as those which Nancy used in this clinic can be a great way to provide some relief to the monotony of the arena while also helping to polish jumping skills. In fact, most of the exercises we practiced would be quite appropriate for any horse and rider, whether they jump or not, to help maintain fitness, improve the development of a correct connection and build strength. I have already begun incorporating one day per week of cavaletti work into my routine and hope that through its use I can further improve Anna’s connection and swing.