1. First and foremost, invite your horse to be your partner. You do not want to be on top of a totally submissive machine awaiting instructions while you are galloping along undulating ground facing solid obstacles in uncertain footing. You want to be on a horse who is alive in the moment and thinking toward the same goal you have: to have fun solving these puzzles and be safe while doing so. I cannot tell you the number of times I have been saved by my horse making independent split-second decisions. 2. Give yourself and your horse the gift of trust training. This does not mean de-sensitizing. It means investing the time it takes to teach her that she can rely on you to give her valuable input when she is faced with something she has never seen before or does not immediately understand how to handle. There are lots of exercises online…start easy and build. Trust your instincts about what is right for your horse.
3. Whether your horse is young in age or in experience, get him out and about. Trail ride, hack on the roads if they are safe in your area, go to shows and do not compete. If your horse is stimulated by all the noise and chaos, do not even ask him to do anything other than lead quietly and focus on you. If all he can do to calm down is graze, then just do that. In subsequent trips, when he is quieter, then you can longe or do some In Hand work. Eventually ride around. Only when calmness is a norm is it time to compete. And if you have the opportunity, take him hunting. 4. Figure out the way to navigate hills with balance, starting on your own two feet—up the hill, down the hill, and across the slope of the hill. Most people, like horses, balance in their shoulders and chests rather than lower down in their centers. They pull up the hill with their legs instead of pushing. They fall from step to step down the hill instead of sitting. Across the hill they teeter, tending to tip to one side. On your own two feet, experiment with lifting your knees higher, put your weight more toward the back of your spine and lower down your torso. Find the plumb line of your spinal cord. Then go up, down, and across. When you find balance at the walk, take yourself into trot and canter. Once you’ve experienced this in your own body, take that awareness and teach it to your horse. It’s best to start teaching it to him on the ground by leading first, then mounted. Only trot when the walk is mastered, only canter when trot is easy.

5. Each type of footing requires its own skill set. Hard ground, slick ground, deep mud, sand, leaf covered, fallow cropland, snow…you just never know what will be presented, so it’s best to prepare for any eventuality. A horse’s natural instinct is to go faster when presented with deep or slippery footing. They want to get out of it as soon as possible. They need to be educated that the opposite is required…to slow down, be mindful of each footfall, soften their muscles instead of tensing, rock the weight back instead of throwing it forward. I start this training from the ground. I teach them to take one step forward, stop. Repeat. One step back, stop. Repeat. One step to the side with one hind foot, stop, etc. I follow this with doing the same progression over poles. Once they understand the concept on the ground, then I do the same mounted. This simple exercise can reap huge benefits. There are lots of variations and applications. Be creative. I also teach them a word, “Careful!” I use it whenever we are entering a footing situation where caution, shifting the weight back, and being mindful are required.

6. Teach your horse to follow your eye. The best exercise I’ve found to train this is to put ground poles out willy-nilly all over an area and go from random pole to random pole. At first you have to help with steering, but with practice, the horse soon starts to pick up your focus and follow it. Once he has that down, start aiming for specific spots on the poles. Again, this is first done at walk, building the gaits only as each previous one is mastered.

7. In today’s Eventing world especially, teaching your horse to jump a very narrow object is vital. It’s also important in general training because it can save your life when you are out and about. Sometimes the landing is only good in one tiny place, and if your horse should waver disaster can follow. Start wide and gradually narrow till you are eventually jumping a single oil drum, chair, or upright jump block—both straight on and angled.

8. Find a dressage instructor who understands straightness/alignment training. A horse who falls on his inside shoulder in the turns is at risk on imperfect footing. There’s been many a fall on turns between obstacles. Not to mention pulled rails resulting from such a turn in show jumping.

9. Learn the science of using studs. Some horses need them to feel confident even at the lower levels.

10. Learn, follow, and be disciplined about a proper conditioning schedule. Ride your horse six days a week. Eventing is not a casual sport—those Cross Country fences are unyielding, and if a horse is tired or unbalanced, tripping over an 18” log can cause a fall or injury every bit as much as an obstacle at 3’6”.

11. So far we have been discussing the horse, but as the rider you are equally important. Eventing requires mutual respect, or catastrophe can result. Find exercises which result in a personal increase of aerobic, core, and muscle fitness. Walk daily…on hills if possible. People often don’t understand how much walking is involved in checking out the Cross Country course, or how much a difference walking can make in your overall fitness.

12. Walk both the Cross Country and the Stadium courses THREE times. The first is to find your way, get a general impression, and see the course from your horse’s eyes.

The second is to strategize. Examine the ground leading to the fence, in the takeoff zone, and the landing. If a specific angle or line is required, where are your markers–taking into consideration that your eyes will be at mounted height. What will the light be like at the time of your go? If rain is involved, determine if there is a spot off the general path that still works and might be less chewed up when it is your turn. I always brought a notebook with me and wrote down my observations and plans.

The third walk is to put all the parts together. Really feel like you are riding when you do this last walk. Do this walk alone. No distractions. Get in a rhythm with your walking stride as if you were on course.

After that last walk, I used to go back and tell the whole course to my horse out loud. It made a big difference. They understand more than people give them credit for.

13. For your horse’s sake, find an instructor who can teach you a proper balanced jump and gallop position. One that does not have you leaning on the horse’s neck (or worse, reins) coming to the fence. No knee gripping, leg swinging, standing up in the stirrups, or posting to the canter. Your horse has enough to do balancing herself without you being a swinging pendulum on her back and creating wind drag.

14. Introduce your horse to water, ditches, drops, and banks with kindness and empathy. No forcing. Put him on a longe line and show him on your own two feet what is needed. Walk into the water or ditch and stand there. Walk down the baby drop yourself. Hop up the baby bank. Over and over…as many times as is necessary for your horse’s curiosity to kick in and replace any fear/anxiety. When he is showing interest in following you, stand where you can be safe from any wild leaps and allow him to figure it out. The dividends earned from starting horses this way are enormous. 15. Throughout everything, remember the reason we do this is FUN. Listen to your horse as they educate you in how best to teach them, allow them partnership in your day to day work, and above all, enjoy the process!