The Event Rider's Secret Weapon

(For Equestrian Now! Magazine)


Grand Prix dressage rider and trainer Sarah Cheetham (née Bigg) explains how she is helping Event riders in the South West use dressage to improve more than just that first phase of their eventing.


Dressage has now become such an important phase in eventing at all levels. At most competitions the winner is generally in the top six after dressage, and if you’re not in that first half dozen after dressage, you face a really uphill struggle to become a winner.


I continually explain to my eventing pupils that dressage training isn’t just about improving their dressage score - it can also make a huge difference to their performance on the cross country. I liken it to a car - improving the engagement, and thereby lightening the forehand, gives exactly the same feel as having power steering. A greater obedience to the half halt increases your braking power, just like having disc brakes all round. Disc brakes and power steering mean you can safely ride faster between fences! Dressage is about control. This obviously comes into play when you have to ride accurately across country, to ride arrowheads, corners and tricky combinations. As Jade Lazenby confirms “I feel that from our work together we create a way of going that I carry through all 3 phases. From an accurate test, to collecting powerfully for a combination X-country.”


Fundamentally, my approach to a training session with an event horse doesn’t change that much from that of a pure dressage horse. However, I do need to be far more flexible and have the ability to recognise that a horse may present itself in very different ways, depending on the type of work it has done in the preceding few days. A horse that has had strenuous fittening work the day before a schooling session will present itself in a very different way to one that had simply been schooled, as would be the case with most pure dressage horses.


The principles behind my training are based on the German Scales of Training that I studied whilst training in Germany myself. There are six principles in the training scale, the rough English translation being Rhythm, Suppleness, Contact, Impulsion, Straightness and Collection. The training scale is, in a sense, a progression, working from the simplest to the most demanding requirements. But this is not entirely true, since elements from further along the scale are required to achieve the aims of the earlier principles. The late Reiner Klimke considered Suppleness ‘Losgelassenheit’ before Rhythm and described it as a “horse which freely gives all its muscles to use its whole body without resistance; the horse is supple and unconstrained.” For me this is the key to training the event horses, predominately thoroughbreds, who’s degree of fitness - particularly the 3 & 4* horses - presents something resembling a tightly wound spring! Reigning National Champion, Lucy Wiegersma agrees “In eventing the judges are generally happier to reward a fluent, harmonious, tension free test, even if there is some degree of lack of engagement.” For this reason ‘Losgelassenheit’ (literally letting looseness through) is my starting point and it is this principle that gives me the flexibility I need.


Each training session has three parts, Loosening up, Work and Relaxing. The first phase is so important for the event horses as it relieves both physical and mental tension. I usually start with 5 -10 minutes walk on a loose rein which gives me the ideal opportunity to talk to the rider about the horse’s work since the previous training session and what it has done in the last 48 hrs. With this information I can plan the work phase of the session. Every horse is different and some horses, for varying reasons, benefit from some canter work before the trot. But as a general rule I use the rising trot next, encouraging the horse to stretch forwards long and low, with large circles and frequent changes of direction.


This would be followed by transitions from working trot to working canter on both reins, still maintaining what I call a softer frame. The amount of time spent in this phase varies enormously on both the age and stage of training of the horse, but most importantly with the event horses, the type of work they have received in the last 48 hours. It is this factor that is often overlooked, or a belief that loosening horses in this way is not necessary and the process makes them go onto their forehand. This for me is misguided, if a horse in unable to move freely forwards without tension it is not possible to start building up the muscles or start training the horse This is a prerequisite to developing the natural movement. In nature a horse is a moving animal, confining him to a stable, sometimes with strenuous work the previous day, will create stiffness which must be removed before work can begin. Irregular walks, tightness in the back, short tense steps, resistances through transitions and a reluctance to maintain a round consistent frame are all signs that this important phase is being either ignored or given insufficient care and attention. International Advanced event rider, DD Kingscote, a long standing pupil of Sarah’s, is familiar with such issues “Eventers are often a different temperament, not so physically or mentally equipped to do pure dressage and also have to use their muscles for 3 different disciplines. These are all complimentary, but sometimes not compatible when ridden in quick succession whilst training. The horse can be stiff or footsore after galloping or have a tender mouth after cross country and therefore not be relaxed in its work. In their dressage training they need to be given time at the beginning, they cannot be bullied, but have to be sweet talked into giving their all.”


The next phase is the part of the session where we really start to develop the obedience of the horse to the riders aids, starting with simple exercises and building to more difficult ones. It is important to remember with the event horses, particularly the young ones, that although they may be very fit to run across country they have not yet built up the fitness and strength required for dressage. For this reason I continually give short breaks and allow the horse to stretch its neck on a long rein. The rider and trainer must listen to the horse as it is often unpleasant or even painful to work in a round frame for long periods of time. If the horse starts to feel a little heavy in the contact or raise and lower it’s head and neck these are usually signs that the horse requires a break.


For me I am far more interested in developing the horse’s natural way of going, movements are a secondary issue, they are in fact proof of the pudding! I use the Scales of Training to develop horses that are truly able to confidently work actively forward from behind over a swinging back to a soft contact. Then they are really able to develop expression in their work and carry that through to the movements. When the basics are in place and there is a firm foundation to work from the movements are easy. When I first start to work with a combination I often find the rider has not experimented with the movements not required in the FEI eventing test. I like to take them out of their comfort zones for several reasons. Firstly, canter half passes are wonderful suppling exercises, many horses, particularly event horses, who’s canter is often more balanced, find them easier. I often use them to help teach the trot half pass and in preparation for a flying change. I also remind the riders that a flying change has not always been a requirement and caught many unprepared riders out with their initial introduction. I would not be surprised to see the canter half pass introduced at some point in the future. The canter pirouette although not a requirement is also a valuable training tool. In general, as Lucy Wiegersma points out “The eventers tend to be of thoroughbred type, with a long hind leg bred to gallop, and therefore find the engagement far more difficult.” I am therefore not looking to develop the standard of pirouette expected for pure dressage but developing what we call working pirouettes is of huge value. The work developes a degree of collection in the canter necessary to produce good simple and flying changes.


Jade Lazenby, an advanced event rider who has completed her second Badminton and also trains with Sarah, highlights a common problem “The hardest part for me is coping with the added tension at an event, particularly the One Days, because there is so much else going on.” This is of course the most difficult factor event riders are faced with combined with the temperament and fitness of many event horses. To help them, I encourage that the work at home is at least one level higher than that required when they compete. Unlike pure dressage horses who’s competitive levels don’t really take huge leaps, talented jumpers can often been faced with a more demanding test in a matter of weeks. So the work at home needs be ready for such challenges. It will help enormously with the tension issue if the horse does not need to feel pressurised in anyway during the Dressage Phase. If the test is easy for him because he has learnt to work at a higher level at home there is a much greater chance he will relax during his test. Jo Lashley, also a pupil, confirms “It’s really helpful to have a trainer that knows exactly what is required at the different levels I compete at.”


From the point of view of the rider, the most important thing is that the horse must react actively and quickly to the rider's leg aid. If the horse does not and the reason is not a result of bad condition or incapability due to conformation, it will usually be found in the way the rider is riding. In most cases the rider jams his thighs, knees and calves into the horse and holds onto the horse in this way, particularly in the sitting trot. This clasping of the legs goes together with a jammed and stiffened seat and this combination of seat and legs works so much against the movement that it causes the horse to shut down. I think it’s fair to say most event riders dread “sitting trot” but it’s only because no one has taken the time to show them how to sit properly. During the winter months with the reduced pressure of competitions I like to lunge the riders and teach them how to allow their legs to hang loosely down underneath them, they should just feel the hair on the side of the horse and no more. With the legs in this position it is possible to teach the horse to respond actively and quickly to a light aid. I make lots of transitions form walk to trot simply getting the rider to use one clear leg aid, if the horse responds he is praised, if he does not the rider must tap him with the whip. This is repeated until the horse clearly understands to respond to a light aid. It is important that the horse is never allowed to ignore a leg aid, but of course equally important when we teach this amount of sensitivity that the rider’s leg remains still and quiet until an aid is required.


The last phase is cooling off and relaxation. I like the horses to stretch their necks forwards and down again, which with the correct work they should readily be willing to do. This ensures that the muscles completely relax again and the horse returns to his box without physical or mental tension. I believe with calmness, patience and consistency it is possible to refine and consolidate the horse’s natural gifts in a manner which is fun and rewarding for both horse and rider and ends each training session with them still the best of friends. For this reason I always end a training session on a good note, irrespective of whether it was an easy or difficult exercise.


© Sarah Cheetham 2007



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