Preparing for success – putting the winter to work
Off-season for eventers can seem to last a lifetime but then all of a sudden, the first event is upon us and we find ourselves wondering what we really achieved over the winter months.
For me, it’s important that I plan my winter training like I would plan my events for each horse during the year. Firstly I look at what stages each of the horses are at. I have horses at every level so I tend to set goals for them so that I have something to work towards and don’t let myself get behind.
I have two three year olds to be broken. I tend to do very little with them as four year olds so it’s important that the time is taken to make sure they are submissive yet confident and respectful yet trusting. It is a long process and patience is required to educate a young horse, from basic training to a more specialised discipline.
My aim is for my young horses to find their natural balance in all three gaits. They must be comfortable in their surroundings and I’m lucky to have all the facilities to make sure there is a systematic method to their training to create a solid foundation. Impulsion is extremely important so riding behind another horse is a good way to get them going forward.
Over the next few months they will be ridden and lunged in the school and in the fields, they will also do lots of hacking with other horses. They will be introduced to some small fences both on a surface and on the grass arenas and they will also be introduced to banks and ditches.
I start them off on the lunge, which generally starts with either myself or my mum been dragged across a field or surviving a near death experience! This exercise, however, encourages them to find their ‘fifth leg’ which is extremely important for eventers.
When I feel they are working well and confidently they are turned back out again for a month or two. I find this helps them mature and develop in their brain, so they can go out and let everything sink in. I find it also helps their muscles and physique strengthen up so they come back stronger and ready for more work.
I have five 5 year olds so my aim for them is to start producing work at a level above the work required. They are rising six in January so the aim in their flatwork is to introduce movements such as shoulder-ins, counter canter, shallow half-passes and walk to canter/ canter to walk transitions. I try not to drill them on the flat with these more advanced movements, so they are integrated into all their work such as hacking, showjumping and even cross country schooling.
They are jumping comfortably at 1.10 at the moment and over the winter I’d like to feel like they can pop around a 1.20 with their eyes closed. I do a lot of training with Ian Fearon (the picture above is taken with Ian at a team training session) with my young horses in this phase and we change it up all the time. Lots of different exercises are used to make sure they are using themselves correctly, staying soft and supple, but are still careful enough to keep the poles up! I generally tend to have cavaletti poles and small exercises scattered everywhere in my arena and they are consistently encouraged to work in the right direction.
Cross country schooling in the winter months can be difficult due to weather conditions but I am extremely lucky to live only 15 minutes away from The Field Equestrian Centre – an all-weather cross-country schooling facility on about 40 acres of land. It has tracks to suit all levels of horses and boasts 6 different water complexes. At this stage of their career all of them are popping around pre-novice and novice quite easily so I start introducing them to more technical lines and skinny fences. I make sure that they are aware that there may be a third/fourth element to look out for.
I never school over big cross country fences – firstly, it’s hard without the adrenalin that comes with a cross country course and secondly, this is a phase in which they need to be confident in their own ability and not over-faced too early in their career.
With the 1* horses they too will be introduced to more advanced work on the flat. They are also strong enough now to start developing a more elevated trot and canter. It’s not enough to just produce a nice, accurate test these days! My aim is to do some dressage shows regularly at a level higher than that they will be competing at next season, so that the work required for their tests next year is effortless. They too will go and jump at some of the indoor shows over the winter and start to get them used to competing in a big atmosphere and busy environment.
My 2* horses will spend December and January working on their flying changes and hopefully have them nailed so that I can back off again by February, so they aren’t anticipating them in their 2* tests next Spring. They learn to do them as 4/5 year olds in their jumping phases but producing a change to deserve a 10 in a dressage test is another matter altogether!!
They too will jump in more shows at about 1.30 metres and their cross- country training will consist of technical lines, skinnies and working on undulating ground conditions so that they are prepared to cope with challenges that our course designers present us with. They have to be able to stay on their lines on uneven cambers and on various distances.
The 3* and 4* horses will work on fine tuning the smaller details. At this stage I am happy with the test movements but it’s a case of keeping the body in the best shape possible. Eventing can be very demanding on their bodies, especially with the older horses, so it’s important they are kept supple. I try to incorporate lots of strength and conditioning exercises into their work which helps those muscles stay in peak condition and they are physically able to cope with intense training.
When it comes to showjumping I try to get them in a big atmosphere environment over the winter. At our national one-day events there is not a lot of atmosphere so when competing in the bigger internationals it’s easy for them to get a bit buzzed up so jumping regularly in the bigger shows keeps them used to concentrating on the job at hand!
Depending at how they are cross country, they tend to do a bit less than the younger horses. I’m lucky to have a massive outdoor so I’ll build a course of skinnies, corners and acute lines just to keep the brain ticking.
I’m booked in to spend a week with German coach Chris Bartle – who is renowned for his cross country tuition – where I will take a couple of the advanced horses and a couple of the younger horses. This should set us up nicely before the season starts and then the older horses will do a couple of intermediate runs before their internationals begin. I also do a lot of dressage training with my coach Ian Woodhead on all of the horses regularly over the winter so that I am continually challenging myself and the horses and not allow bad habits to creep in over those long winter months!
So as the days are getting shorter and the weather is getting worse, for the first time I’m actually looking forward to getting stuck into the training again as all the horses are back in work and we have a fantastic new indoor arena!
Until next time
Camilla is available to coach and train riders of all levels and across all the eventing disciplines – dressage, showjumping and cross-country. She has a wonderful teaching style and brings flair and fun to everything she does. If you would like to contact Camilla for training you can email her or call her on 087 7597579
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