Nearly every rider has experienced a horse that pulls like a train – and it’s not an enjoyable feeling. Lucy Elder talks to those who have found the key to famously strong horses and how these blossomed into wonderful partnerships
MOST riders will have heard the old adage of “if you don’t pull, they won’t pull” at some point during their time in the saddle. While grounded in truth, it isn’t always so simple. But there are steps that can help, starting with understanding, training and building mutual trust.
“It’s about getting to know them and building that partnership,” says Charlotte Alexander, who retrained the likes of Denman, Earthmover and Ulck Du Lin.
“If you are taking on a former racehorse at an older age, their bodies are going to be more set in a certain way. There may be only so much you can do on the schooling front, so it is about building up that relationship.”
She adds understanding the aids and how their bodies are built from their previous career is a good place to start, as is looking at your own way of riding and taking an individual approach with each horse.
Charlotte has found Neue Schule Turtle Top bits, teamed with an appropriate noseband depending on the individual horse, particularly suit her thoroughbreds as she finds them kind and effective enough to ride with a light hand.
“Schooling certainly helped Denman with his work, but did not make him any less strong as when the adrenaline was up he was gone. He was sensible and would pull up at the end, but he loved taking the mickey!” she says, adding he “loved being centre of attention and performing in front of a crowd”.
Flatwork was the secret to success with Ulck Du Lin, who came to Charlotte as a nine-year-old that “couldn’t canter a 20m circle”. He went on to event at novice and became “the most talented” team-chasing open lead horse.
“Louise Robson helped me with his schooling and we were able to sit him back on his hocks and get him off his forehand,” she says, explaining they focused on getting him working through his back and loosening his neck, particularly at the wither.
“This made him stronger behind, therefore he did not pull so much and this, of course, helped with everything.”
She adds Earthmover was “probably the strongest” as well as the “most enthusiastic, honest, brave horse you could ride”.
“You had to adapt your riding and ride with a very light hand and leave him be in front of his fences: ‘Drop your hands and trust him’, Talland’s Brian Hutton told me,” she says, adding trust, the right bit and noseband and Brian’s help were the solution.
“So you did have to have nerves of steel as he liked to jump sets of rails at high speed, which was rather disconcerting, but we somehow managed to get to the other side. With Earthmover it was the trust we had between each other that led to the success team chasing.”
LISSA GREEN’S two CCI5* rides Malin Head Clover (Ali G) and Hollyfield were both strong in different ways.
Lissa explains both horses were already established when she got them – Ali G was 12 and Hollyfield 11 – and the main focus was building a partnership and working with what they had, rather than against it.
“They are both awesome horses, whom I absolutely love,” she says. “It was interesting with Ali G as personality-wise he is a really kind horse and has the most perfect temperament, but it was almost a balance and self-preservation issue. He is incredibly long – he’s 15.2hh, bum-high and wears a 6ft 9in rug – and I think that’s why his balance was so on the front end. He really is the most extraordinary, ordinary horse.
“I remember taking him to our first event, and I was just wanting to get the feel of him. He got stronger and stronger – he just tucked his nose into his chest and went. We came into one of the smallest fences on the course, it was a little house and the sun was slightly on it but nothing out of the ordinary, but when I went to half-halt him it had the opposite effect, he went faster and straight into it. It didn’t make sense as horses don’t want to fall.”
Lissa was airlifted to hospital with multiple fractures. Once back on board, the first thing they did was to go back to a bit they discovered had previously suited him, and then focused on training and trust.
“I knew we had to build our partnership, Mum [Lucinda Green] and Dickie Waygood were a massive help,” she says. “They helped with his balance and his mindset – previously when I touched the bit, he would run off, which was counterproductive as I needed that aid as a tool and not for him to see it as a negative.”
Lissa adds the way she rode Ali G was “unique” and is not a way she would ride anything else. They found physically breaking his rhythm, and riding him into an imaginary right-angled corner
as part of the preparation before a fence, helped to get him back on his hocks and enabled him to jump at his best.
Lissa stressed the horse’s way of going was no ill reflection on his previous riders, but rather about finding what worked best for them as a combination.
“He never became any less strong, but I learnt how to ride him so he did get easier as our partnership together grew,” she says.
Interestingly, she found both Ali G and Hollyfield (pictured top) required more leg than any of her others, to get the hind-end engaged so they could lighten the front. But Hollyfield needed sussing out in a different way. While he was strong, he also had a stop in him, and Lissa found his key was balance.
“He was very weak behind when we got him so he had no choice but to use his front end as a motor,” she says.
Hill work, polework and breaking down every course into no more than two or three fences, after which Lissa would halt, then continue, were the answer.
“Our first event back the next season was Aldon and I did the same there [in the showjumping] – two fences and woah – and it worked! When I bought him, he was having seven or eight down, so for him to jump clear that day was unbelievable,” she remembers.
KIRSTY SHORT went back to basics with her CCI5* bold jumping grey Cossan Lad (Bouncer). She had been able to manage his strength until they reached advanced, where his keenness meant they were finding striding in combinations tricky.
Kirsty sought out advice along her journey with Bouncer, which all helped for a time, but the underlying problem was still there.
“He got stronger and stronger, I was changing bits frequently and it reached the point where I thought, ‘What do I do? I can’t change bits all the time. I need to fix this or we are going to get hurt.’ It is too dangerous a sport to be out of control,” she says, adding Blair CIC3* (now CCI4*-S) 2014 was the moment she realised things had to change.
“I got to the hill and I had nothing – he ran off with me and I managed to stop at the bottom, so I put my hand up and said, ‘Thank you very much, I’m going home.’ I knew I needed to spend the winter fixing this.”
Selling him had crossed her mind, but she didn’t want to and felt sure the problem could be solved. So she sat down with her team and made a plan.
The pair were qualified for Burghley and the late Matthew Wright rode him that year, before Kirsty spent the off-season working on the root of the issue with Polly Jackson Griffin.
They stripped everything back to basics, using a fat Sprenger KK snaffle and loose cavesson noseband, and replaced fences with canter poles and 1ft courses.
“We taught him to come back to trot using my voice and the neckstrap, and stopped after each fence until he felt balanced enough to be able to canter round in a nice rhythm. Until he could do that, we weren’t going to jump any bigger,” she says, adding they applied the same techniques cross-country schooling.
Their first affiliated event back was at Lincolnshire, where Kirsty rode him in a snaffle. Each time Bouncer went to take hold, she brought him back to a trot, then allowed him to go on. They finished with 52 time penalties, but she had cracked it.
“It all comes down to the stages of training. He was advanced at eight and I was only 21, so looking back now, I can see what he missed and why going back and fixing his balance and rhythm solved the problem,” she says.
“It was a year-long process and we went through it when he was turning 11. It is never too late to change something. There’s always time to learn and find that extra bond in your partnership.”
ARENA UK WINSTON (pictured) and long-term rider Ellen Whitaker have a phenomenal partnership with international successes and multiple Nations Cup team appearances. While Ellen has previously said Norman Oley’s 17.2hh stallion is now “very easy to ride”, there were times in the past she felt “over-horsed”.
After the pair’s third place in the 2019 Bolesworth CSI4* grand prix, Ellen explained she had been focusing on building her own strength and fitness, and learning how to use that to best effect in the saddle. The result? One of British showjumping’s leading combinations.
MURPHY HIMSELF was notoriously strong, memorably launching himself and Ginny Elliot (then Leng) into space over Badminton’s ski jump fence in 1988. While they had success together, winning Burghley 1986, the decision was made that he may be more of a man’s ride. Ian Stark took over the reins in 1988 and the popular grey went on to continue his terrific success, adding more Badmintons to his CV, plus team and individual silver at the 1990 World Equestrian Games.
NICOLA WILSON got inside the mind of her superstar medal-winner Bulana to understand exactly what was causing her to be strong, and found it came down to the mare’s desire to please. Although not an “out-and-out puller”, Bulana would stick her nose onto her chest and go. Nicola worked to get the mare listening to her body language through surprise transitions, both within and between each pace, working up and down hills, and giving and retaking the reins, so she could lighten her hand while keeping the mare with her.
“It all comes back to that confidence, trust and relationship between horse and rider,” she says.
This exclusive feature is also available to read in this Thursday’s H&H magazine (1 April, 2021)
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