Hi, my name is Madi Penfound - I’m writing this segment: ’10 horses - 10 programs’ because not only have I ridden up to 4 star eventing but I have ridden a variety of horses in my lifetime! I’ve been a rider/producer of young horses for multiple event yards. Through the years I’ve trained some pretty tricky horses! Almost all of the horses that I’ve produced I have started myself and the one thing that I keep learning over and over again? Exercises can and should be modified to work for different horses.
Over the next year I am going to introduce you to 10 horses that I currently have the pleasure of working with. We will cover some topics relating to their individualized programs; of course there will be problems as there always are when training a horse! I also want to talk about how I’ve brought them up through the levels, or if they’re young, how I’m going to train them correctly to reach the upper levels! I hope that you can relate to the ups and downs of producing a horse - above all I hope that I can help you explore new training ideas/concepts and let you get to know my team a bit, too!
So let’s begin with horse #1: Turtle! Yes… Turtle. His competition name is QEH Ocean Voyage. Turtle is my up-and-coming best horse (I think he’ll be a star) Turtle is MASSIVE at 18.1h, but very smart and clever! He’s an Irish gelding who has competed at 3 star. Let’s talk about Turtles training and some of his weaknesses along the way!
I bought Turtle as a 5 year old off of some amazing eventers named Mark and Tanya Kyle. Initially I struggled with his jumping - he’s got a very powerful jump but it can be super uncomfortable! With perseverance, time and (of course) training I learned to manage his massive jump! By treating Turtle as an individual and learning to ride him how he needed to be ridden, we formed a solid partnership! Turtle is a bit weak, it can be challenging with a bigger horse so I really took my time with him. My main goal was to build his strength and rideability! To strengthen him I did a lot of hill work, getting him to use his hind end to push! Hill work is a big part of my program as it builds strength without too much ‘wear & tear’ on their legs! I also lunged him over raised trot poles. This is a beneficial exercise for horse’s with weaker backs, getting them to drop their head and stretch over their back, they really have to use themselves!
At the end of the day, I just took my time and let him grow up! By “taking time” I don’t mean that you shouldn’t do anything with a horse! I just mean that I don’t believe in pushing horses up through the levels too quickly. It’s important to properly educate a horse through each stage, and not to over run them. Less competitions save their legs for the future when they’ve grown into themselves! Turtle is quite strong willed - he can’t be forced, or have too much pressure put on him at one time as he panics! When he starts to get a bit overwhelmed I just go back to a walk, getting him to soften and relax. Only then will I start over with what I was asking him. Letting a stressed or panicked horse walk and have a breather gives them time to think about what was being asked. One major movement we struggled with for years was a reinback! The main reason was that if he felt trapped he would just rear up! I learned that he was also locking up through his body while I was schooling him, so when I halted, he just grabbed the bit and locked his jaw. I learned to I ride him more through on the flat. Now what does ‘more through’ mean? We hear it A LOT in equestrian sport. For Turtle it meant that he was not working from leg to hand pushing with his hind quarters into a true contact. Basically he was faking being on the bit - Sneaky little devil was outsmarting me!
To work on Turtle’s thoroughness I started by putting him in a lower, longer frame. I did a million 10 meter circles to shoulder in, leg yields, transitions, serpentines- just getting him to work from my leg to my hand. These exercises forced me to get my leg on him rather than going to my hand.
Once Turtle mastered the lower frame and was really working into a soft contact (not locking his jaw) he was strong enough to take the next step. The time finally came to work him in an advanced outline. I certainly am not suggesting I did this everyday, or even every time I did dressage. With all horses you need to start by stretching them in the warmup. Working them long and low, so that they really swing through their back. You must achieve this BEFORE you ask for anything more difficult! You’ll know your horse is using themselves and really swinging in the trot when you try to do sitting trot and feel how soft and supple they are through their back!
Once Turtle’s warmed up I shorten my reins and use my leg to engage his hind end. I use my body to slow the tempo, not my hand. Your leg is adding the power and your body is saying no, not faster; more powerful! It’s a feeling as if you’re doing sitting trot going up a hill. You want to feel their front end come up because of your body and your leg, NOT your hands. I only do about 10 minutes of this sort of work, as Turtle’s not strong enough yet to carry us like that for any longer, he will get there eventually! If you find your horse leans on the leg a bit- I like to do 1 walk step and then trot on again. So 1 step and go! But they need to stay soft and remain in a nice contact. Make sure your using your body and leg to bring the horse back to walk, and I can’t stress this enough; this does not start with your hands! You will work the horse more uphill and in front of your leg as well as listening more to your aids as they’re expecting the next walk step.
So, enough about what I’ve been working on in Turtle’s flat work.. lets talk about the fun part: jumping! If you’ve mastered the flat work, jumping should be a piece of cake!! Have you ever watched a video of yourself riding and gone oh… I didn’t feel that!! Reviewing video can be the best thing for training yourself and your horse! I find with Turtle, because he’s so big sometimes I don’t notice that his hind end is on the other side of the world! When reviewing a video, I can see how much straightness I lost in an exercise! Of course the best thing for your training is to get quality lessons. I definitely needed eyes on the ground. I had this one amazing lesson and realized how handsy I was being with Turtle! He’s large, and powerful, making it easier for him to bait me into thinking that I needed my hand to help us turn the corners, slow down etc. Turtle was coming through his turns with a massive inside bend, and because his neck and shoulder were bent to the inside it was so easy for him to just stick him quarters out. He is a natural jumper but the difference in his jump from quarters slightly out to him straight was incredible! The amount of power and scope I was able to get from improving his straightness was amazing.
The video above is from a demo that I rode in, we used tramline poles to help with Turtles straightness while jumping an angled fence. If you look at his hind end it is still not straight. This is better than previous times I've jumped him.
When a horse is straight going into a jump, their hind end is underneath them pushing evenly (and thus more powerfully) from behind. You’ll find that if your horse is straight their front end will improve drastically as well. I’m not advocating that you should go without any hand or rein aids. For example if your horse isn’t listening to your outside leg turning them then definitely use your outside rein to bring the shoulder through the corner! One of the best exercises involving poles I’ve used to help Turtle keep his straightness is tramline poles on the ground. You can use them on a single jump, through a grid, a combination, anything really! Start by putting two poles parallel to each other (I like to do both takeoff and landing) to remind your horse to stay straight. If you have a spooky horse start with them wider so its easier, and then slowly narrow it. With young horses I’ve even done canter poles with tramline poles so that the horse remains in a nice rhythm from the canter poles with the tramline poles keeping them straight.
I’m happy I got to share a bit about my special horse Turtle. I also hope I’ve helped somebody out. I think a lot of horses struggle with straightness and working more through in the contact. The stronger your horse gets the better they’ll do dressage and the better they’ll jump! I make a major point of hacking, relaxing and letting my horses have a bit of down time. My best tip for people schooling on their own- be strict with yourself! Always use your body to regulate the horses rhythm and remember that your legs are the key to everything!!!