We all know of the horse who is capable of 70% dressage scores, yet imitates a giraffe in competition and is unable to concentrate. Or the one who jumps the height of the wings at home but raps half the 3ft fences in the ring.
If he has proved at other times that he is physically capable, the chances are that, for whatever reason, he’s not concentrating on what he is being asked to do. Once you’ve identified the reason, the problem can usually be corrected through training.
1. Transitions: by asking your horse to react frequently, he is less likely to get bored and more likely to start listening to your aids. Dan Greenwood, who trains dressage riders up to grand prix, says: “Do lots of transitions within each pace, controlling the tempo. For example: small walk to forward walk; small trot to big trot.”
2. Spiralling circles: ask your horse to spiral in from a 20m to a 10m circle, then leg-yield back out. “The smaller the area, the more rein and leg you need,” says British Eventing accredited trainer Sally Billing. “The act of making a 10m circle happen will focus the horse.”
3. Shapes: don’t stick to circles and straight lines. Ride squares, half circles and serpentines — anything that requires your horse to listen to your aids.
4. Relaxation technique: with many of her clients, Jill Day works on teaching the horse a certain movement that means “relax”, so that in a tense situation they can give him the cue. This was something that worked well for Sharon Hunt’s sharp ride Tankers Town, whom Jill trained in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. “The best ‘relaxation’ movement is usually shoulder-in on a circle — when you give the aids, the horse immediately recognises the cue to relax,” she says. “Most distractions are outside the arena, so you’re bending away from the issue, and you can do it in every corner if needed.”
5. Desensitisation: if your horse is only distracted at competitions, take him to lots of local shows and schooling venues until “a party” is no big deal. Hayley Lawson has nicknamed her horse “The Goldfish” because he is so distracted at his dressage and jumping competitions. “I’ve started hiring different arenas practising as if we were going to a competition,” she says. “I wear my show boots and he wears his show tack.”