Larissa, my partner for multiple Pan-American Games, Olympics and a World Championship, was a striking liver chestnut Trakehner mare. She was leggy, elegant, strong-willed and white-eyed, with a refined face, long ears, beautiful movement and jumping scope to spare.
She sounds like she would sell easily, but when it came to submission and listening to her rider, that was a different story. Larissa was a conundrum; I learned so much by cracking her code. Once I figured her out, she became the top U.S. mare for many years, as well as a leading mare at Badminton. And she was tops in my books, of course, especially after all the things she taught me and the experiences we shared. Following is just a glimpse of our relationship, highlighting my lessons from some of her most memorable training challenges. Hopefully my reflections inspire others to crack those more challenging horses’ encryptions.
1. Learn to use your horse’s soft side to address her stiff side.
One of my biggest challenges with Larissa was that, like many horses, she had a few physical disadvantages that affected her way of going. She had spinal scoliosis (a curved spine), in addition to temporomandibular joint dysfunction and arthritis on the right side of her jaw. These issues manifested in various ways: For example, Larissa had difficulty opening her mouth to bite an apple. It also made her very heavy on the right rein and difficult to ride on the bit.
On a flight returning from Europe, I pondered how I could better address this. I knew that using force did make her round, but I’m not a fan of that approach. Among the myriad of problems that the use of force causes, it blocks energy and stops a horse from using her body properly. This leads to poor muscle development, as blood doesn’t flow through tense muscles and robs a horse of their expressiveness. So, after careful thought and note-taking (which I’m a big advocate of!) during the flight, I developed a mantra that I still use when I teach: Do not try to use horses’ stiff sides to make them comply. Instead, find a way to use another aspect of their suppleness to positively influence their way of going.
I’ll explain how this worked in Larissa’s case: I knew that pulling on her heavy right rein would make the situation worse, so I learned to use the left rein to get her round and as soft as possible. In other words, her left rein became the key to roundness. Then I would use my right leg to straighten her body. I avoided any battles on the heavy right rein and instead developed her responsiveness to my right leg through different leg aids depending on the situation: I would bump her off the leg when she wasn’t responding, use my right seat bone to affect the rib cage, tickle her with the whip, and, lastly, use a spur, but only to support and lighten her response. Using too much spur causes the abdominal muscles to tighten and restricts the back muscles, which is, of course, what we want to avoid.
As Larissa became better at adjusting her body, bending more easily to the right, she began to develop more topline muscle, which allowed her to better carry herself, instead of leaning on the bit for balance. She offered more even contact, meaning she produced equal energy from each of her hind legs—a rider’s goal.
2. Explore Your Horse’s Flexion and Bend to Find Suppleness, Connection and Throughness
I came to learn that properly using flexion and bend were the cornerstones of developing Larissa’s suppleness and throughness. In my experience, I’ve found that when a horse isn’t supple, it’s important to identify the muscles that might be compensating and then use interventions such as massage, chiropractic work and PEMF to relax that compensating muscle to find the original source of the problem: lameness or other issues.
Once physical issues were addressed, I liked to use flexion and bend to explore Larissa’s suppleness. Keep in mind that suppleness has two major axes: lateral and longitudinal. Lateral suppleness means that you can move your horse’s body parts around equally through shoulder-in, travers, renvers and more. Longitudinal suppleness means that your horse can “sit down” in the hindquarters and lift in the withers, all while allowing a continuous flow of energy from back to front.
It was really helpful if I could get Larissa to bend only through her body and not through her neck or head. This created longitudinal balance and encouraged her not to resist the right rein.
Larissa also taught me the importance of counter flexion. Counter flexion shortens the horse’s outside side, which is the key to collection and lateral suppleness. To capitalize on the counter flexion, the inside shoulder needs to be supported (not fall in) so I advocate having the rider increase the circle size by creating movement away from the center of the circle, moving the horse’s body from the inside leg to the counter-flexion. This aligns the horse’s body and, as a result, creates better balance and lifts the horse’s back, putting weight in the outside rein, increasing the activity of the outside leg (stepping under more by shortening the distance from the left leg to the left rein = collection).
Once I was able to work around Larissa’s tension to get her moving better, I focused on developing connection with suppleness. I would specifically find areas where she had trouble submitting to what I was asking and focus on those. For example, I used renvers on the right rein, which asked her to straighten her spine by putting her haunches out. Initially, it might have been uncomfortable for her, but in the end, she could do it easily. I would equate this kind of training to yoga for horses. Some yoga poses look impossible, but with patience, practice and relaxation, it is always surprising what horse—or human—bodies can do!
People define connection in various ways, but for me, connection means the horse correctly uses her hind end to produce a light, easy feeling in your hand. If Larissa fell behind the vertical and I lost the connection from the hind end to the forehand, I sometimes had to kick her forward to get a better connection, then I could re-establish a more steady tempo.
Much of what I did with Larissa was through lateral work, increasing the push from behind. I always aimed to feel her inside hip lower and take weight. Another exercise that helped me achieve this was using transitions to ask her to sit down. For example, I would ride a trot–walk transition and feel her haunches sink down. Simultaneously, I would move her body sideways (sometimes asking her to cross her hind legs) to activate her hocks and ask her to remain light on the forehand. This kind of sideways movement helps to create lighter transitions. As that exercise became easier, I would decrease the sideways movement. As many German instructors say, forward sideways is the answer!
3. Train your horse to respond to light aids.
Another challenge I faced with Larissa was that she wasn’t very reactive to my leg—but I had to be careful about how I created that reactivity. I’ve found that with mares especially, the rider has to be flexible and find a way that encourages the horse to do what they want without forcing them. Alpha mares like Larissa, in particular, hate being forced. Instead, I had to get Larissa to move forward from my leg in a way that she accepted; in a way that kept her happy and her ears forward.
Canadian eventing team dressage coach Jane Savoie really helped me tackle this issue. The solution was fairly simple: At the walk, I would take my leg off and when Larissa stopped moving forward, I would send her on in a gallop. In essence, this exercise transferred the responsibility of going forward onto the horse. This helped tremendously.
To my dismay, I still hear many trainers say “more leg” when teaching. I think we should reconsider our use of that phrase and should instead say “make your horse more reactive off your aids.” When I’m teaching, I often remind my students that horses can feel a fly land on them—so train your horse to react to light aids.
Think about what happens when a rider uses loud aids with a lot of muscle: The more muscle the rider uses, the tighter the rider gets. The horse, as a prey animal, will respond to this by feeling worried and tightening her own muscles.
Remember that the anatomy of the horse involves an interconnection of muscles from the dock to the poll. Any disturbance of those muscles interacting with each other causes a problem. To allow a horse to correctly use all her muscles, those muscles need to interact with each other in harmonious motion. A tight rider with gripping legs will stop that flow of energy. I am an overachiever, so I tend to use too much muscle when I am riding. However, Canadian-based German dressage trainer Dietrich Von Hopffgarten used to tell me that riding is like playing the violin. I finally understood what he meant after 20 years of pondering, even though the message was simple: more muscle in the violin makes a terrible noise.
4. Correct rushing to fences by establishing half halts and good balance.
I had a difficult time jumping Larissa when I first got her as a Preliminary horse. She would make a bid at fences, which always made me uncomfortable because when the horse completely takes over in the approach to a jump, it reduces the rider’s options. I took a few different approaches to fix this, but first and foremost, patience was key.
Fine-tune reactions. First, I took six months off of jumping to focus on Larissa’s reaction to my body and leg. I used a few different exercises to fine-tune this response. For example, I used an exercise that I find particularly helpful for getting young horses to use their backs: long and low canter work, with collection. I would ask Larissa to shorten her stride but keep the jump in the canter. This exercise requires muscle effort from the rider, pulling the horse’s back up in the moment of suspension, but then the rider must immediately relax. From there, I worked to develop collection by riding soft canter–walk–canter transitions that eventually evolved into half-halts. Riding these transitions well was a key component of the exercise, so to develop soft walk–canters, I would begin at the walk, ride a quarter of a pirouette and then go immediately into canter, aiming to make the first canter stride large and expressive. This exercise works because the walk pirouette, when ridden correctly, collects the walk and helps the horse more easily lift her back to go into the canter.
Use circles. When I began to reintroduce jumping, I used a lot of work on circles near fences, focusing on canter quality and balance. For example, I would ride a circle on the front side of a fence so that the circle ended close to the middle of the fence. I liked to leg-yield into the center of the fence to improve balance, engagement and the horse’s overall outline. This exercise was even better if I could incorporate a little counter-bend and flexion within that movement (described above). From there, if everything felt positive, I would jump the fence—but only when I had achieved her best canter and balance.
When I first did this exercise, the jump was a simple crossrail. As Larissa improved, I turned the jump into a vertical, then a vertical with placing poles and finally, an oxer. After six months, she didn’t rush anymore; I could collect her to a 7-foot stride. Fortunately, going forward was never a problem—an 18-plus-foot stride was easy for her long lanky legs!
Horses are amazing creatures. They surprise me every day of the 55 years I have worked around them. Taking time to reflect on our relationships with horses is time well spent. Some people have said to me that I might have had a shot at the Olympic podium if I had a faster horse. But for me, my journey with Larissa was worth more than any medal.
Bruce Mandeville is an international-level event rider, trainer and coach. He represented his home country of Canada at two Olympics, two World Championships and two Pan-American Games. In addition to his extensive equestrian background, he is a former competitive skier and holds separate academic degrees in finance/economics, law and the French language. He is currently an equine science professor at Otterbein University in Columbus, Ohio, where he continues to ride and teach lessons.
This excerpt from 9 Lessons from the “Iron Lady” of International Eventing originally appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of Practical Horseman.