It’s hard to relax on the flat or over jumps if you don’t feel in control. International showjumper Matt Lanni explains how to channel a strong horse’s enthusiasm so that it doesn’t become a battle.

“If your horse pulls and you pull back you’ll get into a battle and neither of you will develop,” says Matt. “Instead, you’ve got to allow your horse to relax and go forwards, while keeping things safe and in control — upping your confidence levels in the process.”

Sounds like a win-win to us. Matt’s tried and trusted methods are easy to replicate in a school or any small fenced off area and will work whether you plan to stay on the flat, go showjumping or cross-country, or simply up your control out on a hack.

Exercise 1: Think positive

Some horses are keen to get cracking right from the word go. The key to working with this kind of horse, says Matt, is to get them on your side – and keep them there.

How to ride it

  1. Warm up on a loose rein, in walk, encouraging your horse to stretch.
  2. Pop a cone or pole at each end of your schooling area, so you can ride a 10-12m circle around it, on both reins.
  3. Ask for trot along one long side and then move onto your circle.
  4. Simply stay on this circle until you can feel your horse start to lengthen and relax.
  5. Go large and, if you feel your horse start to take a hold, repeat the circle exercise.
  6. Remember, strong, forward-going horses will simply get stronger if they feel restricted. By allowing them forwards on a small circle you’re letting the confines of the movement keep them in check, reducing the amount of contact you need.

Training know-how

Simple yet effective, riding a 10-12m circle has multiple benefits. For a start, it enables you to allow your horse forwards safely; you can ask him to lengthen his stride, secure in the knowledge that he can’t run away with you. The result? A horse who’s in a more trainable, relaxed frame of mind from the off — and a more confident you as you learn you can control the pace.

Exercise 2: Embrace the pace

A lot of very sharp horses have a tendency to sit behind the contact and then surge into action, especially once they clock a fence. So how can you learn to control a strong horse once the jumps come out? It all boils down to the same message, says Matt.

“You’ve got to find a way to allow your horse to lengthen and stretch. The more time you can spend not overpowering him the better. You’ll never encourage a horse to relax and be less strong if you’re constantly holding him tight, and if you hold tight you’ll lose the rhythm, especially in canter.”

How to ride it

  1. Set yourself up for success by making your schooling area really work for you.
  2. In this instance, the smaller and more confined the area the better; let the walls of the school do the hard work for you, slowing your horse down so you don’t get into a battle.
  3. Using poles on the ground, a small cross-pole or an upright, introduce the idea of jumping – while developing your brakes – with Matt’s simple serpentine exercise.
  4. Set three poles/jumps up on the centre line, with a ground pole one stride out.
  5. In trot, make a turn off the left rein at the A or C end and pop the first jump, using the far wall or fence to slow you down naturally.
  6. Continue in a serpentine shape, so that you jump all three fences.
  7. Make a 10-12m circle to gather your horse up if he’s getting strong, and once he’s balanced and moving forwards nicely, repeat the exercise.
  8. Vary the way you turn after a fence – random is good to keep your horse guessing and means he needs to wait and listen to you.
  9. The jumps can be tackled in any order.

Remember: Being able to give with the rein and use the edges of the school to slow you down after each pole or fence has multiple benefits. It will up your confidence, give your horse the freedom he wants, and encourage him to sit on his haunches as he approaches the edge of the arena and turns, without you having to do much.

Next week: more exercises from Matt to help you contain a strong horse’s enthusiasm 

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