One cannot fail to be impressed by Piggy French as she talks kindly about the success of her peers in her introduction, which is of course meant to be about herself. Piggy has had some outstanding achievements this year, the highlight of course being her win at Badminton. Yet she attributes her success to maintaining a system, even when it wasn’t necessarily bringing her the results she wanted. For equestrians this is just what we want to hear – that hard graft pays off, even if it takes years.
Unfortunately, over the summer Piggy had developed a bone spur, which had had to be operated on a couple of weeks prior to the event and she therefore wasn’t allowed to ride. However, having her on the ground allowed us to get a brilliant commentary whilst she had her work riders to help with the demonstration. Ian was the first rider, who had been with Piggy since September. The first horse was a stunning five-year-old grey called Cooley Goodwood, who had had just a few runs at 100 level.
Piggy commented that she always liked to work on herself in addition to having some goals in mind for the horse. Whilst she was talking to us she was watching the horse and letting us know that if she had a hot horse she would want to keep her leg on as much as possible, whereas if the horse was slightly lazy like this one she’d want less leg. Noticing the horse was slightly behind the vertical, she asked the rider to put both reins in one hand, which immediately improved the horse’s carriage. She explained that tools like this enable us to learn our impact on the horse, and figure things out. After this she took an exercise that Pippa Funnell likes and put a schooling whip through the elbows, commenting that Pippa used a stiff stick instead! Piggy explained that Ian was learning how to see strides more accurately, and that she’d been doing an exercise with him that a New Zealand showjumper had taught her, which was cantering towards a pole and counting down the strides from six to the pole, hopefully getting more accurate each time. She explained the exercise could be complicated by poles in various different places, or by having a different quality of canter.
The next rider was Suze, who came to the yard as an 18-year-old and has been there for 6 years. The horse she was riding was John The Bull (who knew?! When Piggy was introducing him at first we thought she said Jonderbull!), who was a 9 year old who did his first advanced at Blenheim, and came second to Piggy at Hartpury. The exercise set out was five straight bars with a one stride distance between each (8 yards). The heights were raised so that the jumps weren’t all the same size, with alternate ones being higher. Piggy explained that she doesn’t punish the horses for a pole down, they just made a mistake (which we love because we always say the most important thing is completing the task, and a pole in training isn’t a problem). The exercise can then be adapted a great deal, for example by taking the jumps on an angle (see video above); she said to keep it small and stay balanced. She reminded us to practice jumping from a trot, because if canter quality is lost this can be the reality. She spoke about how they regularly have ‘work’ sessions at home, where they don’t do just flatwork or jumping, but a mixture of the two. They also showed us another way to use the jumps; as something to weave between, doing a serpentine; in trot at first, then trot with a transition to walk over the centre line, then canter-trot-canter, canter-walk-canter and canter with flying changes. She said that she tries to keep things low stress, if things go wrong she looks to correct herself rather than the horse, not to get emotional; keep things calm, keep things clear. Let the horse go forward and shake themselves out. We really appreciate the ethos, as we always try to analyse our own performance before our horses.
Next ridden was an ex flat racer who’d arrived at the yard six weeks before. Piggy emphasised that each time they jumped him they started with poles on the floor, and if he was scared that was ok. He was ridden in a martingale, Piggy let us know that she wouldn’t want much more tack (for example draw reins) on him. Again, we really agreed with this, as we try to keep the tack on our own horses to a minimum. Everything was in trot at the start, he got a pat for trying, and jumped a cross pole once he was used to the poles. Piggy pointed out that Suze was always quiet and calm, but there was strength in her riding, and she could be quick to react if necessary. She had another horse in the arena at the same time to give him confidence, but they were working independently (we do this all the time, particularly with youngsters, to show working in the arena doesn’t mean they have to be alone). He moved up to straight bars, then tried a few fillers and a spread. Piggy reminded us that it's better that the jumps are too small and the horse too confident at this stage.
The last horse out was Fernhill G, who was an eight-year-old. Things hadn’t gone particularly well for him, he’d been sold and then bought back by Piggy. He has been doing some team chasing and drag hunting to encourage him to enjoy himself again. Piggy talked about an ethos of team spirit and trying not to care too much about results; about having systems and training that don’t change at a competition, and about being quick to react to a less than perfect stride. They showed us a large range of things that could be done with a small number of jumps (see diagram) and showed us how changing striding between distances can be a great exercise. Piggy also got Suze to show us how she would get the horse to stop in a straight line if a little feisty.
Piggy was asked her feelings on Burghley, and replied that she thought it caused so much trouble due to the number of first timers on course. She reminded us that Burghley is meant to be the toughest five star. The challenge she didn’t like was the gates, although she did mention that the maltings was huge.
Thanks so much to our amazing sponsors Horsemart for arranging our tickets. We are feeling so inspired, and have lots of ideas. Watch this space for some of our own horses tackling Piggy’s exercises.