Ask Me Anything: Ian Millar Answers Your Burning Questions About Life, Riding, and How You Can Be a Better Horseman (Part 2)

by Ian Millar /

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hen Canadian show jumping legend Ian Millar announced his retirement from international competition earlier this year, he renewed his mission to educate the next generation of horses and riders. We are honored that Ian was our very first Equestrian Masterclass instructor, teaching the foundations of success for all equestrians. But his teachings don’t stop there. Some lucky Masterclass subscribers got to ask Ian questions about himself and his horses as well as seek advice pertaining to their own riding. Today, we’re sharing his answers with you! If you missed it, check out Part 1 of Ian's Q&A at this link.

“I ride a sensitive horse and have been working with my coach to keep his mind busy so that he doesn't have time to concentrate on ‘spooky’ things. I don’t have a lot of opportunities to prepare for all of the distractions that present themselves at a show, as most of the time I ride alone when practicing. What would you suggest I do at home to prepare my horse to be confident at shows, and how would you work to calm a sensitive horse once you arrive at the show?” – Cheryl

Calming a sensitive horse usually takes work on desensitization. It is my belief that natural horsemanship techniques offer the best approach to this. I was personally introduced to this culture through longtime friends, Don and Linda Coulter. I’ve developed my own system with my children, Jonathon and Amy, based off of natural horsemanship techniques.

You’ve got to be careful when desensitizing horses, though, that you don’t take away their spirit or good instincts. But I do think that doing some of the basic natural horsemanship work on the ground can be very helpful.

Another thing that you can do to improve your chances at the shows is to every so often do your flatwork out of the arena, on trails or in a field, where there are a lot more “spooky” elements. When out of their normal environment, they will likely act very similar to how they will act at the show, and you can practice working successfully on the flat with those distractions. 

“I am currently retraining a five-year-old off-the-track Thoroughbred. She shows an aptitude for jumping — I’ve lunged her over small jumps and ridden over poles. She is very sensitive, usually in a positive way, although she can get very ‘up’ at the beginning of a ride. What are your favorite exercises for young, hot-blooded horses? Thank you!” – Victoria 

Hi, Victoria. These types of horses, especially coming off of the track, tend to naturally have so much energy at first that they find it really difficult to settle and learn. So the key here is to dissipate some of that extra energy in a very controlled manner so that the horse can get into a mindset where she can focus on learning and enjoying her new job. 

A great way to do this, especially with young or hot horses, is to practice interval training at the beginning of your ride. I often use lunging, but as a tool rather than something to simply make a horse run, so this allows you to get the energy out in a manner that’s productive and provides the horse with discipline and a learning opportunity. Lunging properly will absolutely benefit your mare as well — you can find a step-by-step tutorial in my Masterclass.

Think of your young horse as a child: a young child often can’t just go straight to the classroom and focus. They usually need to go run around the playground to burn off that excess energy, then they’re able to start learning. Make sure your mare is getting plenty of turnout and time to be a horse, then start your ride with some interval training to give her a chance to get a little tired physically without getting frustrated mentally.

Start with ten minutes of walking, then five minutes of trotting. Then do ten minutes of walking and ten minutes of trotting. Continue this for four complete cycles. Finish with an additional ten minutes of walking, then enter into your regular training session. Make sure to follow this with one to two days of recovery or very light riding.

“My horse tends to get strong and pull on the bit  — especially when jumping. Would you have a specific bit recommendation or exercises that could help him become lighter in the mouth and stop leaning on the bit during jump schools?” – Jennifer

Hi, Jennifer. First of all, I’m not much of a bit person. I like to keep my bitting simple, and prefer, instead, to really teach the horse to properly yield to pressure. If we keep upping the bit or the pressure, we’re just teaching the horse to either pull against pressure, or to avoid pressure, when what we really want them to do is willingly yield to it.

So, with your horse, we know that he doesn’t yield to pressure the way we’d like. So we’re working to override the previous training and habits that he has.

When I encounter a horse like this, I like to go back to basics and use my “ask-tell-demand” system that I discuss in my Masterclass. I’ll do a lot of transition and lateral work, asking very lightly for the downward transition. If he doesn’t respond, then I’ll go to the “tell,” which could be a circle, then asking again. If that doesn’t get a response, I’ll “demand,” which could be using the fence or a solid point in the arena and asking for a halt there.

I would then also incorporate the lateral movements; it is far more difficult for a horse to be strong against my hand when I control his barrel through lateral work. It also gives you a chance to train them to respond to your leg pressure, which will also help lighten them in your hand.

You said your horse is particularly strong during jump schools. So, what I’d do, is generally start off with just rails on the ground. That way, it makes no difference when you need to quietly halt, come to the trot, circle, do lateral movements, or use the fence or wall. Once you have the desired behavior in place with rails on the ground, it’s only a small step to do the same thing over fences.

“How would you school or train a horse that rushes the jumps and tends to fall into the leg in one direction?” – Yuval 

Today’s courses are designed to be challenging, and typically include a lot of bending lines, awkward approaches, and difficult distances. And so, in fact, to ride a horse around modern courses we must be able to control every footfall of that horse. 

Your issues go right back to the importance of dressage training for show jumpers. The place to start is with your flatwork.

When you say your horse falls into the leg in one direction, my go-to exercise for that is riding on a circle approximately 60 feet wide, and I will make the circle smaller with my outside leg and inside rein, and bigger with my inside leg and my outside rein. The ratio is going to be at least 80 percent leg to 20 percent hand, and so eventually as the horse gets really sophisticated it'll become closer to 90 percent leg and 10 percent hand. 

If you can perfect this circle exercise, it follows that you’ll be able to correct the problem on course. I’m a great believer in isolating the problem and finding the correct exercises to deal with the root of the problem.

For rushing jumps, gymnastic exercises are extremely effective. I have developed post most of my horses through gymnastic exercises, and there's such a range of gymnastic exercises available online and in books. It's simply a matter of selecting the correct one for your horse. 

I’d start with gymnastics that are just basic rails on the ground or cavaletti. Remember that fear is often the reason for rushing in horses: fear of the rider or fear of the jumps. Again, you need to go back to the foundation and find the source of this stress and then the exercises to eliminate the source and, subsequently, the behavior. You should be able to better identify this while working over rails on the ground as opposed to jumps. Then, with practice, the new discipline and learning should be able to override the fear-based response.

“I sometimes ride really confidently, but other times I overthink things and make simple mistakes like missing distances or not having enough canter. I used to jump 1.25m as a junior, and am now struggling in the 1.0m as an adult. I often worry that I’ll never be as good as I used to be. What would your advice be for rebuilding my confidence and for becoming a more consistent rider? I practice six days a week, but am still having a hard time! Thanks so much!” – Taylor

Well, Taylor, I think step one would be to take Annette Paterakis’ Masterclass on confidence. That’s a great resource for you.

Then, step two would be to embrace the concept that the better and more skilled you are at doing something, the more confident you’re going to be. That might seem simple, and it is — the more you learn, and the more you practice, the more confident you’ll feel. Don’t think about the jump height now or what you used to do. Start with the basics and practice those simple skills over and over and over. Start on the flat, then progress to rails on the ground. Don’t practice until you can do it right, practice until you can’t do it wrong. If you can become an expert at riding on the flat and riding rails on the ground — develop your eye, develop your feel, develop your horse’s skills — then you’ll be pleasantly surprised how that translates to jumping.

Read this next: Ian Millar: How to Think Like an Anchor Rider, Even If You Aren't One

Photography by Pooya Nabei for NoelleFloyd.com.

Written by Editorial Staff

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