The grisly pandemic may have upturned our lives and goals, but it has thrown up some unexpected benefits to our horses. Andrea Oakes looks on the bright side to find out what riders, vets and trainers have learnt from lockdown
While spinning on the hamster wheel of life, how many of us have yearned to press pause – to regroup and refresh, before relaunching ourselves into our busy schedules?
With the competition calendar wiped clean this spring, professional riders had the chance to do just that. Lockdown in effect stopped the clock, freeing up an unprecedented amount of time to reflect on routines and results. It was, as eventer Harry Meade put it, an opportunity for some “helicopter perspective thinking on how to train – shining a light on your system”.
So what did our equestrian experts discover? And will they decide to do things differently if shows and events return to pre-lockdown levels?
According to Andy Bathe MRCVS, of Rossdales Equine Hospital, the enforced respite has been revealing from a veterinary point of view.
“I’ve been impressed with how sound many horses have been,” he says. “In terms of basic sports science, following a regular training programme without the interruption of competition is very beneficial. Exercise is great, in moderation, but rest is essential. You gain fitness during rest, as you challenge the body through training and the body then responds.
“Without the stress of needing horses to be ‘match fit’ for competition, perhaps running them on ground that might not be so good, we’ve seen far fewer issues,” adds Andy, who has instead dealt with the odd injury due to loss of muscle tone, or following unfamiliar activity – a showjumper asked to do lateral work, for example. “Some horses are competed too hard, or too often. It can pay to take a step backwards.”
Andy acknowledges that moderation is more difficult when riders are chasing championships or seeking team selection, but believes that occasional time out to take stock can pay off.
“Lots of horses are ‘held together’ to get them through the season,” he explains. “In lockdown, we’ve been able to investigate properly and definitively treat the problems some horses have had for three or four years. Just as tack rooms have been cleared out and stables painted, these niggling health issues have been fixed.”
The same applies to training, says event rider Francis Whittington. “When you’re not having to bounce from event to event, you can spend time working on something quietly and calmly,” he says. “You can solve the problem, rather than just dealing with the symptom.
“The horses have been more receptive in both mind and body to working in the nicer weather, rather than in the wet and cold,” adds Francis of the more leisurely start this year. “They’re relaxed and chilled, but the big ‘tell’ will be at the end of the season. Should we get those three-day runs in, will horses have benefited – or will the wheels fall off?”
A quieter schedule has its pros and cons, agrees H&H showjumping columnist Graham Fletcher.
“With any injury, there’s nothing like time to put it right,” he says. “But older horses who are free of injury need to be kept up to speed; it does them no favours to miss all that competition. It is important not to over-jump, but it’s all about correct management.”
A clean slate
Showjumper William Whitaker started a clean slate in January with a team of new horses at his Huddersfield base. Lockdown allowed him the time to reassess his training methods.
“Many riders find themselves on a treadmill, trying to stay up the rankings,” he says. “With no pressure to go to shows and get results, it was a good chance for me to think about the way we produce our horses, and to talk to other people.”
William plans to take his young horses to more training shows – classes that allow riders to jump a single round for a fee, with no prize-money.
“We’ve never really had a culture of training shows in England, but they’re ideal for the green or inexperienced horse because you can circle and carry on, if necessary, or come again,” he says. “Green horses will make mistakes – they need to. This way is better for them, physically and mentally, and it’s useful because under the new rules every [competitive] round must go on a horse’s record.
“In future, I’d maybe give the horses quite a bit more experience before putting them under real competition pressure,” he adds.
Fellow showjumper Joe Stockdale will continue to inject a variety of work into his training schedule.
“It’s easy to become stuck in your ways, aiming towards this goal and that, but it is important to keep the horses interested in their work and engaged,” he says. “We gave them all a bit of a break at the start of lockdown, but before long they were bored and desperate to come in from the field to be ridden. It was good to see that they enjoy their work.”
Alongside sessions in the indoor and outdoor schools, Joe has incorporated hill work for strength and fitness.
“I like some structure; when I’m on my horses I’m teaching them, not just riding,” he says. “But I can vary that structure. Even when hacking, I’m still asking questions and they’re still listening. I can then work through the checklist points, to make sure I’ll have all the tools I need when I go to jump a course.”
Event rider Kitty King found that horses still progressed without competition.
“Cristal Fontaine was not established in his changes prior to lockdown, but after working on them at home, he did them perfectly in the five-star test at Bicton Arena in July – which probably wouldn’t have happened otherwise,” says Kitty, whose team has returned on top form. “It was nice to do a bit more with the babies. If the weather in March is bad and I’m balloted out of a lot of events, I wouldn’t worry too much if the horses started the season a bit later.
“Of my more experienced horses, Vendredi Biats is a cheeky character and benefits from a few runs under his belt, whereas Ceylor LAN usually only runs once a month as he has a particular sort of brain and doesn’t need to do more,” she adds. “Young horses do need to go out to compete, though, however well they’re trained at home. They can be very green without, as competitions put them under different pressures and really bring them on.”
Refocus and understand
Richard Davison, whose family trains both dressage horses and showjumpers, believes that lockdown has helped more riders refocus and understand things from a horse’s viewpoint.
Winning and losing are abstract notions, he points out, with consequences that are meaningless to a horse.
“Since a horse cannot tell, or even know, what the person sitting in the judge’s box is actually doing, he has no concept of when it counts as a competition,” he explains. “Movements such as flying changes or half-passes, or rebalancing a horse between fences, are all responses that he learns best in familiar surroundings, and in turn he learns these specific movements by associating them with certain places in the school and in a certain order.
“In a competition, a horse is expected to reproduce a large number of varied responses to the optimum level, and at the first attempt – which comes back to how well embedded and reliable each horse’s responses are at home,” he adds, explaining that in competition a horse faces additional visual and auditory challenges.
“But we can address these things in steps and attend new venues with horse-specific goals in mind. For those of us who produce competition horses, our goal is often not a competitive outcome, but more a case of assessing responses in new environments.”
Embracing technology has proved revolutionary for dressage rider Anna Ross, who plans to take forward her new timetable of remote training.
“It works so well, I wonder why we didn’t do it before,” says Anna, who is teaching two or three lessons by video link before she starts riding each morning. “But then necessity is the mother of invention. Before lockdown, we didn’t really understand the technology; we weren’t pushed.”
Anna, who runs a busy competition yard in Devon, points out that remote training saves time and reduces the environmental impact of travelling. Many of her clients want top-up sessions between their face-to-face lessons each month, or even five minutes of Anna’s expertise as they warm up at a show.
“People are realising that while competitions are good, there is a huge benefit to training,” she adds. “Riding is a feeling thing, but I’ve learnt that we can be smarter and use technology to our advantage.”
“I’m taking the Jerry Maguire approach”
Earlier this year, dressage rider Nikki Barker decided to reassess her team.
“Lockdown highlighted to me the lack of time I usually have when I’m racing off to shows,” says Nikki. “After asking myself whether I was really getting the best out of every horse I had, I decided to sell three – downsizing to seven – so that I could spend more time on each individual.
“It was a real Jerry Maguire ‘less is more’ moment,” she adds, referring to the ‘quality over quantity’ epiphany of a hotshot sports agent in the 1990s big-screen blockbuster. “It’s very easy to get caught up in thinking more, more, more, as you’re searching for the next megastar.”
Nikki aims to make a better job with the horses she has left, building in time for woodland hacks and occasional beach rides as well as tailoring work to suit each character.
“With a difficult horse, there’s then time to bring him around to your way of thinking, or to do 20 minutes of walk with a quirky one,” she explains. “I’m always saying that my stallion, Durable, is such a dreamboat, but the sensible horses do seem to be pushed to the back.
“I’ll also be more selective about which shows I do, but it’s mainly about the ability to be consistent with the input.”
Ref Horse & Hound; 1 October 2020
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