Hot horses can make some of the best, most competitive show jumping mounts. Just ask Ireland’s Kevin McCarthy.
In the six weeks of the 2019 Vermont Summer Festival in East Dorset, Vermont, Kevin won two welcome stakes, topped the ranks of two grands prix, and earned the World Equestrian Center Leading Open Jumper Award all aboard a nine-year-old Swedish Warmblood mare he describes as a “little firecracker” — Catch A Star HSS.
While hot horses are often known to be quick and careful, they also come with their fair share of challenges, and it takes the right kind of rider to create a successful partnership. Kevin’s winning record in Vermont is a testament to his ability to bring out the best in Catch A Star HSS, known as Casey in the barn, and shares a few pointers on working with hot horses.
Don’t Be Hands (or Legs!) Off
We’ve all felt it — when your hot horse is a ball of spooky tension and feels like if you touch their sides or mouth, they’ll explode. While it might be tempting to use a light leg and loose reins with a hot horse in an effort to soothe them, it’s actually better to keep your legs on and have a contact. It’s the equivalent of holding their hand, especially through tense moments.
“I find the closer I can get to Casey when I ride her, the more she relaxes,” Kevin says. “Also, I can feel where she is under me. I try to sit into her with my legs wrapped around her at all times. This way I feel if she is off the bridle. It may seem strange, but just because they look feisty doesn’t mean they are always taking the bridle. If something catches her eye and she spooks or drops off the bridle, I increase my leg pressure and take a bit more contact. It helps give her security and encouragement.”
As with everything, there may be an adjustment period while training the horse with this approach. “At first, when you are training them to accept the leg and sitting in the saddle, they may try and run off or kick at your leg, but — without getting into a battle, stick to your plan. Once they accept it, you will find improvement.”
Pick Your Battles
When riding a hot horse in the show jumping ring, you want to channel the horse’s natural energy toward the job at hand. It’s easy for them to become distracted by fighting with you or using that energy to create extra tension. With that being the case, a vast majority of hot horses tend to prefer and perform better with a quiet rider, which holds true for Casey.
Kevin McCarthy and Catch A Star HSS. Photo by Jump Media.
“You’ve got to treat her like a lady and work around it,” Kevin says of Casey. He’s always making sure that that the mare is listening to his aids and avoids picking a fight with her over minor disobediences or missteps. “If she’s doing something just a bit funky, I don’t fall out with her. I let it pass. I don’t make an issue of it because then it turns into a big issue.”
Once Casey is on course in the show ring, Kevin maintains a particularly soft seat and hands to allow the mare to do her job.
“She’s almost like a roller coaster; you just sit there and enjoy the ride!” Kevin says.
Another key to Kevin’s success with the quick, hot, and agile Casey is allowing her to think that she is the boss — while never actually allowing her to take charge.
“You have to have control, but you have to let them think that they’re in control,” Kevin explains. “You can’t over-dominate them, but they also can’t be the boss. She thinks she’s in control, but I know, deep down, that I’m the boss.”
There’s a fine line between asserting control and letting a hot horse think it’s not being controlled. Focus on keeping the horse’s mind occupied and its energy channeled in a positive direction.
For instance, if the horse wants to go forward, press forward in circles and through turns while keeping the horse’s mind engaged with what you are asking. In doing so, you’re allowing the horse to have some sense of control while ultimately still being the boss of the situation. If the horse is like many hot horses and reacts strongly to having leg applied, incorporate leg-yielding and shoulder-ins to encourage them to move laterally, rather than strictly moving strongly forward. This still allows the horse to react, but in a way that helps them begin to accept the leg.
At home, Kevin focuses solely on flatwork and fitness with Casey, foregoing jumping in favor of exercises that keep the mare interested in the task at hand and in top shape.
Find the Right Job
When focused on a role that they enjoy, hot horses can truly excel, as evident when watching Casey nimbly slice turns and speed around first-round tracks as though they were a jump-off. Hot horses thrive in jobs they enjoy, so make sure your hot horse is doing a job he or she relishes.
“Once the bell goes, she’s all business,” Kevin says of Casey, his partner for the last year-and-a-half. “While she’s waiting between rounds or when she walks in the ring, she knows what’s coming. She gets very excited, but as soon as we jump fence one, and we get into the groove and the rhythm, we’re away.”
Once a rider is able to find the proper finesse and focus for a hot horse, the possibilities are endless. Just ask Kevin.
“She’s a dream come true for me to ride,” Kevin says. “I’ve been doing this for a long time and I’ve never had a horse with this much heart that wants to do the job this much. I love her. She’s an amazing horse. I was always told that she was going to be the winner. You know, everyone says that, but she really is. I’ve never ridden a horse that is as consistent as this, and it’s fun.”
Written by Emily Riden for Jump Media.
Feature photo by Leslie Threlkeld for NoelleFloyd.com.