From A Nappy Youngster To A Dressage Star
I am going to introduce you to the fantastic elastic San Remo Hitt AKA Bear.
I first set eyes on bear when I was asked to come and help a young gentleman with his horse, I arrived at the stables to give the lesson and help the training with this new client and his lovely big black horse. Well to cut a long story short, most of the lesson was spent with bear leaping around like a bucking bronco, napping when near the gate, hollering at the other horses and generally trying to get his rider off. Bear was clearly, on the face of it anyway, a very naughty horse, rearing, bucking, fly bucking and just generally unwilling to respond to his rider.
It took five long sessions to make some headway managing to keep the horses feet on the ground, my feelings were that this horse was very talented but was incredibly tricky. The owner rider enquired if he could bring Bear to Yonder Farm on basic full livery, I was delighted to have them both where I could keep an eye on them, outside of the twice weekly lessons and progress continued. However, whenever I returned from a couple of days away competing, the progress previously made had regressed to the rearing, bucking and Bear’s favourite ploy of going into reverse and slamming his rider up against the wall..anything to avoid being ridden. Bear’s then owner/rider eventually became so disheartened and frustrated, and actually so very angry, he asked for the local Hunt contact number, the implication being, the unthinkable, and to have this beautiful horse destroyed. I did not for one minute think he meant it.
The owner attempted to sell Bear, but Bear just did what Bear did with every rider that attempted to ride him, and it became very clear to the owner his horse had become an unrideable/unsellable horse. He had meant what he had implied, and again asked for the Hunt number, which I refused. He made enquiries elsewhere, which prompted a conversation and I categorically told him I was unwilling to have a healthy beautiful young horse shot on my yard. I often still ponder on why I said what I did, but I added if he wanted the horse shot he would have to take the horse away or leave the horse with me. The owner then went to his car, and came back thrusting Bear’s passport in my hand, “There you go he is yours, keep him, I don’t want anything more to do with him”. He left and that was that, Uhmm, I remember thinking, now here is a challenge if ever there was one!
I took the view to turn him away for a couple of months, let his mind settle and give him some breathing space. I had seen him in action, so when I had the time to devote to him I would bring him back to work. My background was originally in eventing, so was confident in my ability to stay in the plate no matter what he threw at me. I lunged him first, in an attempt to get him thinking forward, no side reins, bungee or other lunging tack, just free and forward was what I was aiming for. Bear had spent so long standing on his hind legs, with a backward mindset. When I felt the time was right I quickly would jump on him with assistance, and as soon as he felt my weight on his back he took off. I kicked him forward, and was happy he was going forward at canter, well, more of a gallop! Around the arena for a couple of circuits, and then stop and make a fuss of him. After all, he had done what I wanted, and had not tried to get me off, had reacted to my leg (albeit kicking, rather than a subtedly applied leg aid of a dressage rider).
Eventually, I cannot remember how long, but it was a few weeks of him throwing in a rear, or bucking, along with his other antics, and then one glorious day I felt him look for the bit. ‘YES’ I thought, but I kept my hands very still, patience is always the best virtue in these cases, and I just let him gain trust in me. Over the next few weeks he began to become more settled and I could use my leg normally, other than when he backed off and a few kicks were necessary . Another breakthrough day was when he allowed me to take the contact he was seeking, I was over the moon, and over the next few weeks, I was able to prevent him backing off as he was now accepting my hand and leg.
With the basics in place I was now able to prevent what had been labelled ‘naughtiness’, but really was I believe learnt behaviour, when he tempted to revert, I could now push him forward and into the bridle, but these moments were becoming less and less. Finally, he showed signs of enjoying his work. I was able to begin his education, making him supple, through school movements, which he had never been taught, he was a blank canvas from that perspective.
He has a quick and active brain, and very tempting to ask for more, I resisted this temptation and made the movements easy for him, like a child, one would not expect a 5 year old to write a thesis! I took my time with him, concentrating on the basics with a calm attitude, placing the importance of getting it right and aiming to create suppleness, elasticity and activity. He began to feel great and moreover, his trust in me was becoming established, with every schooling session.
Bear was beginning to really come into his own, being a big upstanding 17.3hh horse with impeccable breeding with paces to die for, and so handsome, and with the suppleness that just accentuated the activity of the hind leg, he was fast becoming a potential force to be reckoned with. Bear has a thirst for knowledge, enjoying the lateral work and changes, which he accepted with ease. Although, he is not an easy horse and still has his tricky moments, I now had the ability to push him forward, and thus avoid a temper tantrum. We still had “little discussions” but those moments were becoming less and less.
I had toyed with thought of stepping up to a double bridle, but the integrity of collection and his ability to remain in self carriage had until this point been fuzzy, and not sufficiently established. The first day I made that transition he felt amazing and his trust in me had formed a partnership that made me feel so elated,I felt in seventh heaven! Patience and many hours of subdued training had finally paid off! With the delicacy a double bridle provides to the rider, I was able to increase the activity and improve the degree of collection. With training at this level he was now able to work more up out of the wither, and perform with lightness and freedom.
I decided to start his competitive career at elementary and he shone, gaining marks in the 70’s and qualified for the Nationals where we were placed. That was 2016 and we have qualified for the Nationals every year since and have always been in the ribbons. In 2018 we were Regional Medium champions, and scores in the high 70’s and been awareded just over 80% in the Advanced Medium music.
Bear is an exceptional horse with tremendous potential. In 2019 I began training him toward PSG and he now has quite an established PSG repertoire and will begin competing at this level this year, as his muscular development improves enabling a full PSG test to be ridden with confidence, that his body is not strained and his confidence remains intact.
I use the walker every day for all the horses, but in an unconventional way, inasmuch as the speed is slow we call it smooch mode, the ground is scattered with apples, carrots and pony nuts and they graze the nibbles as they smooch around. Bear enjoys a couple of hours in the field each day, and is hacked out at least once a week.
The training week begins with an easy routine in the snaffle working on gymnastic exercises lots of transitions within the gaits, making the transitions progressive to begin. Circles, changing the rein out of one into another circle, serpentines, half circles ensuring changes of flexion with every change of direction. All this work instills suppleness, and I also include some stretching within the work, and then picking him back up. I always intertwine breaks on a long rein to give the horse a breather probably 3 or 4 in a 40 minute session.
I rarely work any of the horses longer than 40 minutes, once the horse is warmed up and and I can feel the energy and tempo is good and he feels loose and elastic I will ask for a stronger rythymn, but throughout this session I will keep everything loose, with no collected work.
The following day Bear would have a smooch on the walker with maybe a proper session at walk, and then the afternoon in the field, where he has some horse time, roll, get muddy graze or kick up his heels at will, lay in the sun or just mooch around.
The second riding day would be another snaffle day with more emphasis starting with some suppling exercises, and loads of transitions progressive and direct, leg yield both ways, shoulder in and travers, letting him take the rein in his own way, flying changes, on and back in canter and trot, working him towards collection. I do not push and force my horses together it is more a conversation between me and the horse that they come to the bridle naturally. I will include towards the end of the session some half steps piaffe and a little passage. I like to ask for some half steps and if the horse responds just a few baby steps and end with a good stretch.
The third day training would again be in the double, and after warming up would ride with more intention, at each stage mindful of the scales of training. Riding up into the bridle, up out of the wither and therefore freeing the shoulder, some extensions in trot and canter.
The fourth day is a rest day, walker, and out in the field.
Fifth day would be a lunge day on the bungee or Pessoa, my personal ethos is I never tie my horses down, and do not use side reins. I like to observe the horses on the lunge, how they are moving, how elastic and supple they are the length of the stride, and generally their fluency and balance. I also am an advocate of completely free lunging on a really big circle, I believe it is about variety when training horses.
Sixth day maybe a hack out or a day off.
I generally will mix up the training dependent on how the horses are performing, my training regime is not set in stone, I call it the stair effect, after a snaffle session I may feel I need to work on straightness, horses that are not straight would not progress to a double in any event. I compete all my horses and competition days are factored into the training. I would work the horse for at least 2 days in the double prior to competing and really work on the whole horse riding in collection, in preparation for the competition where I am better placed to produce the dynamic work. All competing horses have a day off after competing locally, unless I feel the necessity to ride them, especially if they are unsettled.
The general management of the horses includes a physio who visits every 6 weeks, they have nut balls during the day in their stables, 3 hard feeds a day, ad lib haylage or hay. The are roughly groomed on a daily basis, allowed to get muddy and only before competitions are they bathed and spruced up, and they look amazing. I like to take an approach that allows the horses to be as natural as possible.
It is so important to listen to your horses, observe them constantly and note what you are feeling. Horses are not robots, they tire the same as humans, dressage horses are equine dancers, and suffer similar injuries to humans that over exert themselves. A rider must be discerning, when the horse feels tired you can feel and see it, listen and observe and act, ignore it and you and your horses peril. Over exertion spells injury. Always think quality not quantity, even just a step or two of piaffe is enough at the beginning for example. Days off to unwind and rest are as important to training days, remember the transfer of knowledge happens at rest! Not the constancy of train train train, be brave and trust your ability to pull away of training all the time everyday, it only makes for dullness and tiredness.
With a competition looming plan some days off before, if you are experiencing a problem get help, and even consider not competing, far better to overcome the problem than trying to find a quick fix. When all is well, competitions should be about playtime for you and your horse, treat him to some special haylage in the lorry, leave in plenty of time to hand graze and relax, before you need to get on to warm up. Take treats and plenty of them, apples and carrots are good I do and I have to say my horses learn to enjoy showtime, Always remember horses are not stupid but we humans often are. Horses do everything for a reason, it is about learning to listen to your horse and what he is saying, is he in pain and uncomfortable, is he frightened, or merely that he has misunderstood.
Bear and I have an understanding, and are now an amazing partnership, a partnership where he has found a trusted partner. From a practically unrideable horse to a dressage star in the making, I feel so fortunate to have this wonderful horse in my life. I would though, go as far as to say if his routine and probably his rider were to change, it would not be too long before he reverted back; suffice to say I would never sell him.
I really hope you found this interesting love Sarah and bear x