Training the Young Event Horse, Part Two

In Part One of our training journey, top event trainer Paul Ebersole discussed the basic skills needed by the young event horse in order to begin competing. In Part Two Ebersole will continue to discuss the basics, and we'll introduce the basics of cross-country. Without question, cross-country is the heart of the sport of eventing. However, in a practical training sense it is only one the phases a horse must master. We've already mastered our flatwork, ...In Part One of our training journey, top event trainer Paul Ebersole discussed the basic skills needed by the young event horse in order to begin competing. In Part Two Ebersole will continue to discuss the basics, and we'll introduce the basics of cross-country. Without question, cross-country is the heart of the sport of eventing. However, in a practical training sense it is only one the phases a horse must master. We've already mastered our flatwork, ...

Story originally posted by: Heather Bailey

In part one of our training journey, top event trainer Paul Ebersole discussed the basic skills needed by the young event horse in order to begin competing. In Part Two Ebersole will continue to discuss the basics, and we’ll introduce the basics of cross-country.

Without question, cross-country is the heart of the sport of eventing. However, in a practical training sense it is only one the phases a horse must master. We’ve already mastered our flatwork, and introduced small gymnastic jumping exercises. Now we’re ready to work on our next skill set-show jumping courses.

"Basically, a horse [in competition] must negotiate a stadium course of related distances, with airy rails and colored fences," said Ebersole. "Both can present problems, so you need to recreate this for the horse, and practice so they are comfortable."

Ebersole suggests changing your own jumps frequently, moving them around, or dressing them up with tarps, paint, flowers, or whatever you have. You can also trailer your horse over to a friend’s or a trainer’s and ride different fences. However, Ebersole stresses that these actions are only valuable for schooling if you "ride like you’re at a show.

"Set two warm-up fences off to the side, jump them, and then do the course you’ve laid out," he said. "Don’t warm-up over all the fences, let [the horse] see the jumps in a course setting."

In this manner, says Ebersole, you can truly evaluate your horses comfort level and readiness with the idea of competing.

So, now we’re ready to start tackling the cross-country. It is nearly the last skill to start schooling, because successfully negotiating cross-country is directly based on correct mastery of flat work and show jumping skills. Before you jump a single fence, make sure you are comfortable riding outside-go on trail rides, and walk, trot and canter over varying terrain. If you and your horse don’t feel completely comfortable, do some dressage schools out in a field. Undulating and uneven terrain may not create the prettiest dressage work, but it will help focus your horse’s attention and make both of you comfortable with the idea of working in any surroundings.

As with everything in training, Ebersole stresses taking it slow and starting small

"Introduction to water, ditches, banks, etcetera, should take place at a very small level, and in a schooling setting. It isn’t fair to the horse to ask these things for the first time in the competition setting.

"The best way to introduce things is slowly, quietly, and with a more experienced horse on hand to act as a lead and show them its OK," he continued.

If you don’t have access to a friend or trainer with a more experienced horse to act as lead, you need to be sure you are breaking each question down to it’s basic components, and giving the horse every opportunity to understand and succeed.

Some questions, like ditches, water, and banks can be introduced in hand, but Ebersole stresses that the handler and horse should be familiar and experienced with in-hand work on the flat before attempting it with cross-country obstacles.

"Since most people spend 90% of their time on the horse’s back, they should spend 90% of their time introducing things from their back, where they are more skilled," he said.

Pace is a big key to successful introduction, but despite cross-country’s reputation as a gallop-fest, Ebersole stresses this is not how to start your training.

"You want to come at a walk or slow trot," said Ebersole. "Pace, which is often incorrectly considered to be only speed, isn’t as important as coming at a pace which allows the horse to think. You want them to understand and negotiate the question comfortably, so they aren’t scared or rushed."

The key is to start the schooling with fences or obstacles so small, that the horse can easily walk over, through, up, or down them-so if they want to look, sniff, whatever, they can be kept in front of the fence, and be funneled forwards from the leg. In this way, the horse learns to go forward and tackle the obstacle bravely and by thinking it through.

If you don’t have access to a schooling course, most basic questions can be found out on a trail ride. Road or streambeds can replicate a bank, small puddles or creeks can be your water, drainage ditches your ditch, and a fallen tree your log.

So, we’ve trained the flat work, we’ve trained the show jumping, and we’ve schooled the cross-country. We’re ready to go-right? Not quite yet, as there is one final step or skill that Ebersole says he is always amazed to see it get skipped.

"Your horse should load and unload from the trailer easily, and be able to handle new environments. There is no point getting to the show and having the horse flip his lid and having them be unridable, and then trying to ask them to do something.

"A lot of times this means going to a show and not competing. Because of the money and time involved this can be a difficult decision to make, but you’ll save yourself a lot of backwards steps if you spend your time hand walking or hacking around the grounds and letting the horse see everything without asking them to perform," concluded Ebersole.

The cheapest and easiest way to introduce the show atmosphere can often be attending local dressage and hunter/jumper schooling shows, though you should still be prepared to spend your first event not competing, as the sight of those larger numbers of horses galloping over here, jumping over there, and doing dressage over there can still be unnerving.

So, get out there-have fun entering the wonderful world of eventing.

To see slide shows illustrating some of the training suggestions laid out in this story, click here … Slide Show One … Slide Show Two.

To read Part One of this article, click here.