How can I regain control of my eventing horse when he zones out on cross country?

A reader asks how to keep her eventing horse focused on cross country.
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Circling while on course may cost you some time penalties, but those will be worth teaching your horse to land and pay attention. | © Dusty Perin

Circling while on course may cost you some time penalties, but those will be worth teaching your horse to land and pay attention. | © Dusty Perin

Q: I just started eventing my Percheron/Andalusian-cross. He has a big head and wears a 6-inch eggbutt Happy Mouth bit. It comes in his size and he responds well to it in the arena, but I have had multiple people tell me to “bit up” for cross country and other open-field activities. He usually listens pretty well, but as his confidence grows on the cross-country course, his attention lessens. Slowly I am starting to notice him zone out between fences and it’s difficult to catch his attention after long gallops. I have tried full-cheeks and other similar bits, but with his large mouth they don’t seem to fit right on the exterior. What bit should I use and what can I do as a rider to keep his attention without nagging every stride?

KATHERINE RIZZO

A: It sounds like your horse likes his job, which is wonderful. I wouldn’t want to do anything that would take away his joy and confidence. Having said that, though, being able to communicate with him on cross country is essential, particularly as you move up the levels and face more complicated questions. Communication problems can lead to dangerous mistakes.

Issues like yours can result from problems with rein contact, a horse’s lack of understanding of or disregard for the aids or from a combination of these things. To determine the source in your case, ask your trainer or another experienced horseperson to help assess your riding skills in the open. Are your reins too long? Are you riding too much with your hands and not enough with your legs and body? You may be able to solve the problem simply by sitting up more with your upper body and making stronger half-halts—momentarily closing your hands on the reins while applying leg pressure at the same time. To make your half-halts effective, always rely on your legs as much or even more than your reins.

How much rein pressure does it take to slow your horse down in the open? Do you have to pull extremely hard on the reins? Or do you have to make many small circles to bring him to a halt? If so, you may need to tune up his responsiveness to your aids.

A great way to do that is with point-to-point exercises. Start by picking several landmarks around your arena and plan to make a transition at each one. For example, trot from point A to point B, then slow canter from B to C and come back to trot at C. As you make each transition, focus on using your entire body to communicate with your horse. Use as little rein pressure as possible and be fair with your requests. Asking him to slam on the brakes and pull up suddenly from a gallop to a halt will discourage his enthusiasm.

When this exercise feels comfortable, try it in a flat, open field. Then progressively increase the difficulty level of the terrain. Work on your balance riding diagonally across hills before going straight up and down them. Practice gradual inclines—first working on going uphill, then going downhill—and slowly build up to steeper hills.

With consistency and repetition, your horse’s responsiveness to your aids should gradually improve. When it does, incorporate jumps into your point-to-point work. For example, trot to fences A and B, then canter to fence C.

Use transitions and large circles during competitions, too. When you walk cross-country courses, identify places where you have room to make a transition or circle in between fences—especially areas where you have long gallops. This is legal, so long as you do it well away from each jump’s takeoff zone. (Please note, however, that there is a “willful delay” rule that applies to the part of the course between the last jump and the finish line. Be sure to read the U.S. Equestrian Federation Rule Book for details.) Transitions and circles may cost you some time penalties, but those will be well worth the important lessons you’re teaching your horse. Instead of zoning out, he’ll start landing after each jump asking, “What do you want to do next?”

If none of these techniques work, you may need to change his bit. Always do this as a last resort—and never switch to a more severe bit if you have a habit of riding with too much hand. This can create even more serious problems. Bit options may be more limited for your horse’s size, but you should be able to find something that suits him. Since he likes the Happy Mouth bit, look for one with the same mouthpiece and a little more leverage, such as an elevator or Pessoa bit.

Whatever solution works for you, be sure you are absolutely confident in your ability to communicate with your horse before moving up the levels. The longer you spend solidifying these important basics at the lower levels, the safer and more successful you’ll be in the long run.

Eventer, foxhunter and timber-race jockey Katherine Rizzo started riding as a 9-year-old at Waredaca, a 220-acre teaching and training facility in Laytonsville, Maryland, where she is now an instructor. She rode on the St. Mary’s College of Maryland Intercollegiate Horse Show Association hunt-seat team, then coached the University of California, Santa Cruz’s Intercollegiate Dressage Association team and assisted coaching its IHSA hunt-seat team while completing her graduate degree in scientific illustration. After that, she returned to Maryland to coach the Academy of the Holy Cross’ hunt-seat team for 11 years. Katherine is now the managing editor and art director of The Equiery magazine and the center administrator for the Waredaca Pony Club. She is a Certified Horsemanship Association Level 4 English and Level 2 Western instructor, a U.S. Eventing Association Level 1 certified instructor and a USEA/USEF-certified course designer through Training Level.

No Brakes?
If your horse runs away with you—you feel absolutely powerless to slow him down—don’t panic. I know that’s easier said than done, but keeping calm can really help. Look up and try to find a safe, open area big enough to make a large circle (at least 40 or 50 meters in diameter). Turn him onto the circle and gradually make it smaller until you start to feel in control again. Avoid making extremely small circles or sharp turns, which might cause him to slip or even fall.

If there isn’t room to make a circle where you’re riding, perform a “pulley rein.” Press one hand down against your horse’s neck and pull the other hand straight up in the air. At the same time, lift your upper body upward. This will give you the leverage necessary to slow your horse without having to turn. —Katherine Rizzo

This article originally appeared in the March 2015 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.

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