Flying Changes on the Diagonal
Never walk around showgrounds on the buckle! If something grabs his attention—maybe the wind catches some flags or a tent flap—you want to be ready to control the situation. Take note of whatever he seems most aware of and use this information to navigate your warm-up plan.
If your sensitive horse is young and inexperienced, there’s no shame in asking a friend to attach a lead rope to his bit and lead you to the warm-up ring. I’ve done this many times on hot, easily stimulated young stallions. (I call it my “leadline class.”) With so much going on, this is often the safest approach for everyone. Have your friend lead you around the grounds while you sit quietly in the saddle, patting his neck and soothing him with your voice. Stay outside the warm-up arena until he’s calm (it’s not fair to other riders to add this extra factor to the confusion), then have her unclip the lead and step away.
Sensitive horses are easily set off by other horses—especially big, intimidating ones. I’ve found that Friesians tend to fall into the latter category. They’re usually large and their high knee action, earth-pounding gaits and long, swishy leg hair create a dramatic picture. If you’re on a timid guy, he’s going to react to more dominant-appearing horses like these just the way a sensitive kid would behave when he passes a bully in the school hallway: He’s going to freeze. Try to understand his perspective and do your best to stay on the opposite end of the arena from that horse. This is not the day to force him to accept a battle of wills against a big, black Trojan horse.
Similarly, if you notice another horse who looks worried or scared, steer clear. That timid horse might upset your timid horse.
Keep these factors in mind as you rehearse different move- ments. Say you’re on a young horse who has to perform a single flying change in his test. Avoid practicing it when he’s facing another horse heading toward him. In that situation, he’s not going to hear your aids because he has to pay attention to this oncoming horse.
Also beware of small spaces, close calls and any situation in which your horse might get sandwiched between other horses, triggering a minor panic attack. If it’s unavoidable—for example, two horses are approaching you head-on and you have no choice but to pass between them—halt where you are and sit tight, patting him for reassurance. Stay calm and hold a steady contact on both reins in case he tries to spin away from the horses. You’ll feel him tense up and hold his breath as they go by. Wait for him to take a big breath afterward before riding off.
In very busy warm-up arenas, it’s sometimes difficult to find the opportunity and space to fit in every movement you intended to practice. Keep in mind the time you’ll have outside the show ring before the judge rings the bell. If your horse is on the sensitive and/or claustrophobic side, he’ll welcome this time with relief: “Ah, my own space!” Try not to get rigor mortis in front of the judges—they will not judge you until you enter the arena. Instead, seize this opportunity to squeeze in a little last-minute training: a canter-to-halt transition, trot lengthening, walk pirouette, passage-piaffe—whatever you think will make you feel most prepared to enter the ring, even if that means not practicing the exact count, for example, for a zig-zag or tempi changes.
Regardless of our horses’ characters and confidence levels, we will all benefit as a community if we practice better arena etiquette—both at home and at shows!
Here, even though I’ve clearly committed to the diagonal, Lori cuts in front of me. This interrupts my horse’s forward momentum, causing him to lose focus, lift his head up and invert his frame. The irritated expression on his face says it all! WRONG
Before I commit to riding tempi changes on the diagonal, I check that all the other riders around me are clear of my path. With nothing in front of him to worry about, Reef stays focused, quiet and on the bit while performing the flying changes. RIGHT