Last weekend I rode one of my horses in the training level three-day event at the Galway Downs International Three-Day Event. It was the third time in the last four years I’ve ridden in a Galway Downs three-day event (on three different horses I’ve owned and trained), and I’m very pleased that each one has jumped faultlessly around the cross-country course and earned a ribbon.
Every competition should cause you to analyze and evaluate your training program, and that’s even truer about a three-day event, as it’s usually your seasonal or yearlong climax.
That’s especially true of my 5-year-old, homebred mare, Phoenix Amani. The Galway Downs training level three-day event has been my first big goal with her, ever since I started teaching her to jump two years ago at this time. It became a truly realistic goal a year ago, after she’d completed two of the three novice horse trials she’d do. And the successful completion of this event is a milestone in her development into a competitive, upper-level event horse.
Two things about the way Amani went were significant in her development as an event horse. The first was how much her gallop has improved in the last six months. I would say this is the result of her increased physical maturity and from the dozens of times I’ve trotted her up our hills to strengthen her back and hindquarters. Amani was a somewhat slightly built, slightly gangly filly, whose shoulders were considerably more developed than her lumbar region and her hindquarters. Our equine chiropractor, Suzanne Guyton, has concentrated on those two areas as Amani’s work has increased, and she suggested a regular program of trotting hills. Now Amani looks like quite the mature young lady, as you can see from the photo.
Here’s a sign of how much her gallop has developed: At Galway Downs, Amani finished both the steeplechase and cross-country phases about 20 seconds fast.
The second indicator of her improvement is how eagerly she looked for the jumps, especially in the combinations. I find it’s always a sign that a horse is understanding his job when he lands from one jump looking to meet the challenge of the next one, and in combinations my goal as a rider is to be able to just look to the next fence, turning them more with my eyes and legs than with my reins.
At both water jumps and at a three-jump turning question, I didn’t have to do much but look to get to the next jump. She practically did them by herself. But her most impressive effort was an oxer followed by a 90-degree turned to a nearly maximum-sized corner jump—a tough training-level question because it tested boldness, rideability and accuracy. She jumped the oxer perfectly and then turned softly to the corner before leaping it beautifully out of stride. It was those two jumps that Heather thought was the biggest sign of Amani’s developing maturity as a competitor.
When not galloping around the cross-country course, though, Amani acted younger and greener than she has in quite awhile. Perhaps it was her new fitness, or that she’d never experienced the more exciting atmosphere of this Galway Downs event before—or both. The hardest part of Saturday’s cross-country day was not getting dumped while trotting and cantering around phase A, the first roads and tracks phase, because she shadows were still deep and the weather cool when we started at 8:02 a.m. She darted from side to side spooking at bushes, flags, people and shadows.
And then, after last cross-country fence, Amani spooked at timer’s hut and the deep shadow it was throwing across the finish line as the sun rose behind it. So we galloped sideways past the finish and had to circle and come back to go through it. Fortunately we were far under the optimum time of 6:20.
As we drove home for 12 hours on Monday, Heather and I had plenty of time to ponder the differences between how and how fast different young horses learn and progress, rather like children. You definitely have to have a training program and milestones or goals with a young horse (or, really, with any horse), but that you have to be willing (and able) to bend that program to suit individual needs.
I compared Amani to Alba, who’s been competing at preliminary level for the last three years and is preparing to move up to intermediate. (Alba and Amani live together, and I call them “the queen” and “the princess” of Phoenix Farm.) I started training Alba four years ago, at age 6. She’d never done dressage or jumped, but she zoomed through beginner novice (one start), novice (one start) and training four starts) levels. She clicked in to the job at her first event, forcing me to move her up quickly so that bigger fences would hold her off.
I then compared Amani to two 4-year-olds I started more than 18 months ago, named Boogie and Ianto.
Boogie, an Oldenburg stallion, has always been physically mature for his age but mentally immature. He’s like a teenage boy, full of testosterone and challenged to concentrate, but everything is easy for him. As the first warmblood stallion I’ve trained, he’s been an educational and challenging ride. Much of my usual program doesn’t apply to him.
At this time last year Amani had just started to figure eventing out—after some early issues, she was now going confidently around novice cross-country courses, and I was planning to move her up to training level in spring. But I haven’t yet gotten Boogie around a beginner novice course without a stop or two yet, despite lots of work to overcome his initial confusion about water. He’s been doing the water jumps well, but then his attention wanders somewhere else…
Amani and Boogie have been very different animals to train, a difference largely explained by sex and by breed. Amani is 7/8s Thoroughbred, with the other 1/8 being Irish. So she’s always been mentally quick and sensitive, sometimes defiant and blatantly “mareish.” Boogie is Hanoverian and Oldenburg by pedigree, and I believe you have to go back five or six generations to find any Thoroughbred. So he’s very trainable, but since he’s a stallion, the environment distracts him in ways very different from a mare or a gelding. Boogie loves to jump and happily waits for me to tell him what to do, unless his attention gets drawn away—and he’s very strong. Amani brings a whole lot more initiative to any task and sometimes doesn’t like me to tell her what to do (or not to do).
I suspect that sometime next spring or summer the light bulb will turn on in Boogie’s head and he’ll say, “Oh, I’ve got it now,” and he’ll blossom into the competitive horse he should be. But it will be about 18 months later than that happened with Amani.
Ianto, a Thoroughbred/draft-cross, was always incredibly willing. I could almost always sense him thinking, “OK, I’ll try that.” But his 17.3-hand body lagged far behind his willingness. I constantly did a variety of exercises to develop his strength and fitness, so that he actually could do what he was willing to do.
In April, Ianto jumped clean around his first beginner novice cross-county course, and six weeks later he was going beautifully clean until third-last fence, when he suddenly saw some people (probably the jump judge and some friends) standing to the right of the jump and veered left. I circled him around, and he jumped very willingly. And about six weeks later we sold him to the huntsman of the Los Altos Hunt because he’s such a willing and clever jumper who gave him a strong sense of security.
Mentally, Ianto matured a few months earlier than Amani. But he doesn’t have the scope, speed, overall athleticism or the mental quickness that Amani has, so even if I’d kept him, I don’t think I’d be thinking of moving him up to training level now for his 5-year-old season. I don’t think he’d be physically ready.
I hope that you can see from this brief description of these four very different types of horses—an appendix Quarter Horse, a near-Thoroughbred, a warmblood and a draft-cross—how similar but varied my approach has been. You have to have a plan and teach young horses all the basics first, but then you have to listen to what they’re telling you about themselves and what they need—and hope you get it right.