Moving up a level
It can be all too easy to let your progress stagnate over the winter months, so Polly Bryan asks three top trainers to share their strategy for moving up a level as the nights draw in, whatever your discipline
We ask top trainers their best strategy for improving as the nights draw in
THE STEP-UP: BE90 TO BE100
The height and width of fences increases — the maximum cross-country height is 1m, while up to two showjumping fences can be 1.05m. The optimum speed across country increases from 450 to 475 mpm. Dressage tests feature smaller circles and more transitions.
AM I READY?
If you’ve been out and successfully completed at least three or four BE90 competitions, and you and your horse are consistently coming home confident and without cross-country faults, you are ready to think about moving up a level.
THE PROGRAMME: WEEKS 1-4
Assess which element needs the most work: dressage, cross-country or showjumping, and obtain tuition in that area. Use the first month to compete at a couple of dressage or showjumping competitions, staying in your comfort zone, as a marker of where you are.
At home, introduce novice-level dressage movements into your schooling, such as leg-yielding, either from the three-quarter line or on a circle. Even though many of these movements don’t feature in BE100 tests, it is handy to be working at a level above the one at which you are competing. Think about
‘Be pedantic about accuracy’
suppleness, and travelling forwards and practise gear changes within the pace.
Use this time to become familiar with the exact position of the movements, for example, where to ride a 20m circle in the middle of the arena. Know how many metres from the end of the arena the quarter markers are. Be aware, and pedantic, about the placement of movements as this will help improve accuracy, and that means marks.
Cross-country and showjumping courses will become more technical at BE100, so start practising related distances and curving lines. Rather than jumping your horse every day, create a short course of poles on the floor, and practise riding distances, first adding a stride between poles, then taking one away.
Riders often forget that fences will be slightly wider at BE100, as well as higher. Create a combination finishing with an oxer, which you can gradually widen. The combination will help to maintain the power and energy in the canter — essential when the fences get bigger.
Practise riding offset fences, approaching them on an angle, and then link a couple together. Try to create a skinny fence to practise — broken poles are useful for making these, and add guide poles at first. You don’t need the best equipment to practise different types of fences at home — get creative.
Try not to stress about getting the perfect stride every time, too, and practise various distances in your related lines. There will always come a time across country where you don’t meet a fence on a perfect stride, and riders at all levels need to be able to accommodate a difficult distance.
Speed becomes secondary when you are confident, but do make sure you are upping the fitness work at this stage — incorporating more canter work and getting your horse’s heart rate up for longer.
The final four weeks are all about consolidating your work and building confidence. If ever it begins to go wrong, ask yourself three questions: What do I want?
How do I go about it? Am I doing that? Keep everything simple — go back to basics.
Now is the time to get out cross-country schooling, ideally, but if the weather is bad try to make use of venues with all-weather cross-country areas, or those that run arena cross-country.
The three things people often forget to practise are ditches, steps and water — repeat, repeat, repeat until both you and your horse are happy and confident. Create “water trays” at home using pieces of plastic or tarpaulin weighed down. Reassure the horse, don’t bully — horses are creatures of habit, so make it a non-issue for them.
Create a corner fence using three upright stands and try jumping it in both directions.
Ensure you enter your event in good time — by the ballot date, not the closing date. Check your transport before setting off and make sure your horse’s vaccinations and registrations are up to date.
THE STEP-UP: NOVICE TO ELEMENTARY
Elementary involves increased collection, engagement and lateral work, with movements including leg-yielding, simple changes, rein-back and four-loop serpentines.
AM I READY?
Yes, if you are achieving novice scores in the high 60s and your horse is coping well with his environment. It helps if you are already incorporating lateral work into your schooling at home.
THE PROGRAMME: WEEKS 1-4
There is a lot you can do in walk to help your horse become more uphill. Spend 15 minutes in walk at the start of a session, practising your move-off from halt, leg-yielding, shoulder-in and turns on the forehand.
Practise leg-yielding from the centre line. Let the horse know the direction you are heading first by walking a few strides towards the track, then introduce the yield. You don’t need very much bend in the body; you are teaching the horse to move away from the leg pressure, rather than to just accelerate.
Don’t obsess over stretching — if the horse spends too long in an elongated frame, he can’t develop an uphill way of going.
Simple changes require a horse to sit and collect, so address the horse’s canter now.
Ride plenty of transitions both between and within the paces to practise asking for shorter, neater, crisper strides, rather than slowing the rhythm — collection should provide sharper responses.
The rein-back is introduced at elementary for a reason, as it indicates whether the horse is supple in his back.
Start working on it in the stable, using a voice command and your hand to push the horse backwards gently. Progress to doing it while on board, with somebody on the ground to use their hand or a stick on the horse’s chest or shoulder. Apply a restriction with the rein, but not a pull, otherwise you risk the horse rushing backwards and going crooked. There is not a specific number of rein-back steps at elementary — concentrate on the quality and obedience of the steps.
Don’t worry if your horse doesn’t have a big medium trot at this stage — be clever enough to show a transition and a clear change. The judge wants to see the horse growing in front of them, not running.
Practise medium trot on a large circle where there is no beginning or end. On the long diagonal or long side, so many people tend to go like hell at the start, then lose energy or balance, and flounder. Stick to short bursts: ride five or six strides forward, then bring the horse back, building up slowly. Progress to short straight lines of medium trot, concentrating on balance and rhythm.
The centre line is often overlooked but it’s during your last halt that the judges are starting to summarise their collective marks. The most common mistake is coming in too fast and people slamming on the brakes, making the horse swing his quarters to the side. Maintain the balance, rhythm and engagement into the halt — it doesn’t matter if you incorporate a stride of walk at this level to keep it soft.
Ensure your horse is used to halting squarely out of habit — they should be used to standing square all the time, not just in a test. Use mirrors, or a person on the ground at home to check and improve this.
Now is a good time to incorporate polework, to further develop the horse’s elasticity and elevation. Riding over poles encourages them to lower the neck and use their back, as well as keeping the work interesting.
Set poles out on a circle, riding on the inside line to encourage the horse to pick his legs up and shorten his stride, then use the outside line to help him stretch and reach for the longer distances (see diagram, below left).
THE STEP-UP: DISCOVERY TO NEWCOMERS
Whereas the maximum height at discovery is 1m (up to 1.10m in second rounds), newcomers classes will feature fences of 1.10m, and 1.25m in second rounds. You should also be prepared for more combinations and related distances.
AM I READY?
You don’t necessarily need to be jumping clear every time at discovery, but you should be feeling comfortable at the level, and jumping consistently before thinking about moving up.
THE PROGRAMME: WEEKS 1-4
When the jumps get bigger, you need a better quality canter. So many people get drawn into just cantering around in circles looking pretty, but riding a showjumping course is all about altering the canter and stride length. The horse must go forward from your leg straight away so, when schooling on the flat, practise pushing on and bringing them back.
Use poles or flat planks on the ground to work on adjusting the canter, by aiming for different numbers of strides in the distance.
If you have a naturally short-striding horse, set up a line of canter poles at a distance that encourages them to stretch and lengthen. If your horse has a large stride, use shorter distances to help him learn to shorten and bounce down the line of poles.
Progress to jumping combinations with a canter pole in front of the first fence, to ensure you meet it on the correct stride, therefore building confidence. This also enables you to keep riding forward — essential when the fences get bigger.
Create a related distance, with a canter pole in front of each fence. The final stride before a fence is the one that counts, and this pole helps the horse really sit up and bounce off the floor.
Introduce spookier fences, beginning with just a small filler, and using canter poles to help you see a stride and maintain confidence.
Don’t build a 1.10m course at home right away — start increasing the height slowly with a single fence, preferably with a canter pole to help you meet it on the right stride.
Many riders get nervous on long runs between fences — that is where so many people lose impulsion in the canter and can’t regain it before the fence. You must be able to alternate pace and shorter, jumping strides, so practise upping the pace around a corner, and then shortening the horse up in front of a fence.
Bounce grids can be useful, though practise these with somebody helping you from the ground. Bounces help make horses more reactive and quicker off the floor — important for more technical courses.
At the competition, ensure you jump in a discovery class beforehand, and only jump in the newcomers if it has gone well and you are feeling confident. Make sure you keep to your own individual warm-up routine, too. Don’t get carried away warming up with lots of people jumping much bigger fences — jump as many small fences as you need to.
Ensure your horse is of appropriate fitness before and during these training programmes
Practise different types of fences and distances at home, so you will be ready for BE100 courses
Elementary level requires horses to show higher levels of engagement and elevation
Geoff Luckett, pictured here on Brickfield Boy, emphasises the importance of building and maintaining confidence when moving through the levels