Multiple days of back-to-back Olympic competition, halfway around the world, and under the glare of the sport’s most prestigious and unforgiving spotlight would be enough to rattle any rider’s nerves. Add to that a couple of four-feet-wide open water trays at key junctions on course—and a horse that’s had any kind of issue with that particular test in the past—and you’re talking some serious butterflies.
But, you wouldn’t have known it watching U.S.-based show jumper for Israel, Ashlee Bond as she piloted Donatello 101 over the first of those great, watery expanses with ease—definitively putting any issues that might have plagued them into the rearview. “‘Donnie’ rose to the occasion,” says Bond of their 11th place Individual finish in her first-ever appearance at a Games. “He thrives in new environments, and specifically in night classes. Also, the weather being the way it is [in Tokyo], he handles the heat very well."
“I didn’t really have high expectations on placing, but I did have high expectations in the fact that he could hopefully jump some good rounds. It was nice that he did that, and that he did it so easily.”
Spooky fences (we see you, life-sized sumo wrestlers) and liberal use of the open water aside, course designer Santiago Varela (ESP)’s challenging Olympic tracks proved to be the undoing of more than one experienced pair. It’s one of many factors that made Bond’s top-12 finish so impressive. Just one year earlier, she and Donnie battled through their own winter season setback after a hiccup at the open water at Deeridge Farms—a struggle Bond chronicled in refreshingly open fashion on her Instagram.
“It was an easy fix [in the end], because Donnie really doesn’t have a water issue,” she says of the 10-year-old Westphalian. But that’s not to say that the gelding’s confidence didn’t take a temporary hit—or that restoring it wasn’t a carefully engineered process on the part of Bond, her team, and a few trusted rider-friends.
Horses being horses, there’s a good chance you might one day find yourself in a similar scenario, if you haven’t already, and how you address these challenges can have long-term ramifications on your performance in the ring. We sat down with Bond to pick her brain about overcoming jump-specific training issues: from on-the-ground homework to controlling your own mental game and determining what your specific horse needs, right now, in order to be successful (hint, hint: it may not be you).
Know Thy Horse
So you had a bobble on course at the liverpool or water jump, in the middle of combination, or with a unique jump filler your horse hadn’t seen before. Now what?
According to Bond, what’s essential in this moment is to step back and break down what exactly went wrong. Why did your horse have a problem? Was it a fence-specific issue, or a tendency in his/her personality to be spooky or resistant to unfamiliar things? “It’s different with every horse,” Bond says, “you have to look at them as individuals.”
With the typically bold Donnie, Bond reflects that her open water issue actually started because he had jumped so well over water in the past. “We trained [it at Spruce Meadows] when he was a 7-year-old, and he was a machine. He did it textbook-perfect; he just flew over it like a bird. I just didn’t train it after that, honestly, because he was so good about it.”
For mounts like Donnie, Bond prefers to work the water or other spooky fences into training situations a few times a year; enough so that the horse remembers what to do, but not so much that he or she becomes dull or learns to make an issue out of it. She follows this same method with the 9-year-old, American-bred Contefina LVF, who has always jumped the water well in the past. “She’s a horse that I probably won’t train it on unless she’s not done it for a year; then, obviously, I would. At Spruce Meadows, she jumped it like it was a 1.55m, but she was so relaxed, not stressed at all.”
On the other hand, a naturally more careful horse like her 7-year-old SBS gelding, Ionesco Sitte, benefits from more continuous practice. “I never school liverpools with ‘Essy’ in the warm-up [at shows], because it makes him suspicious, and in the ring, he doesn’t look at them,” Bond explains. In training, however, Essy regularly schools the liverpool and open water, making the most of little jumps and low-pressure settings to help build his confidence.
“I start with the liverpool folded up on its own, with [no rails and] standards next to it, and we’ll jump it five to seven times. Then, gradually, I’ll open it [until we get to full-sized].” If everything is going well, Bond works the open water into Essy’s program in the same way, though she says she rarely jumps it at full width. “I just do a lot of repetition. Especially for a horse like that who is so careful and looks at things, it’s key for his brain to just go out and realize it’s no big deal.”
From the Ground Up
Not all training work needs to be done in the saddle, and for horses trying to work through a fear issue, thoughtful groundwork can be hugely beneficial. With Donnie, Bond went back to a technique she learned from Allen Clarke of Papillon Stables. “I used to have a horse back in the day named Agro Star, who was totally spooked at the water and would stop at it really bad. I sent him to Allen, who taught him to stand in the water [on the ground],” says Bond.
“With Donnie, I actually put our really big open water [tray] out in the middle of our rented farm in Loxahatchee on this big grass field. I would go out there and make him walk around it and stand in the water.”
With Agro Star, Bond actually took this technique one step further. In the lead-up to any events where she suspected the water would be used, she would bring her practice water inside the barn aisle or leave it at various locations around the farm. Then, she would work it into her day’s plan with the stallion, hand walking or riding him through it while giving him treats and positive reinforcement.
“Even my dad [Steve Bond], Roy [Meeus] my husband, and [my Groom/Manager] Hugo [Ramirez] were all like, ‘You’re standing and walking through the water—isn’t [that going to make these horses] not jump it?’” Bond jokes. “The thing is, when you have a horse that’s a very good water jumper, when you canter to it, and you’re on course, they’re always going to jump it. The idea is, you want to desensitize those specific horses—they’re obviously too keen.”
Once again, Bond cautions, knowing your horse and what program will suit him or her best is important. “Obviously, if you have a horse that’s really bland at the water, you wouldn’t want to do [that particular desensitization method]. But for horses that are really sharp, and you need to calm them down, walking them through it or lunging them over it is a really good option. [With] Donnie, I just had to get him to realize it wasn’t scary."
“One thing I’ve learned, over the years, is that you need to set your horse up for a win in training, and make it all very easy,” Bond continues. “If they spook at a certain filler, for example, I’ll buy that filler and set it up under a really small jump, and just incorporate that into my flatwork at home.”
Phone a Friend
When issues rear their ugly heads in the ring, it can be difficult, as a rider, to remove yourself from the equation. But sometimes, Bond says, that’s exactly what you need to do. “Controlling your own mental process is huge. The big issue with riders is that we also get nervous, because obviously, you don’t want to fall off. But the horse feels every inch of that."
“[After Deeridge in 2020], I immediately called [Alberto] Michan, my teammate, and asked if he minded jumping Donnie over the water for me,” Bond says. “We went to Andrew Bourns’s place [in Florida], because he has different-sized [waters] all set on the grass. Aby got on, and from the minute he started, there was no issue. He did a small liverpool first, and then worked up to a bigger open water. Donnie was perfect and never hesitated."
“As a rider, I also had a ‘water issue’ [of sorts], because I’ve had horses dirty stop with me, and it kind of gave me a complex. Because of that, I wanted to make sure Donnie’s next experience with it was with someone who was stronger, so just in case he did get sticky, [Aby] could get him through it."
“I think being big enough to know your limitations as a rider is super important, and I think more people need to be able to take a step back, and say, ‘You know what, this isn’t my strong suit, but my horse needs this, so I’m going to ask someone I respect or that I feel would be a good match to help me with this situation,’” Bond continues. “I’ve done that a lot through the years, especially if I feel I’m not physically strong enough.”
If you are going to be the one to ride your horse through an issue, Bond cautions, you need to have not only the mental control, but also the technical skills to get the job done. “You have to have a good eye when you’re dealing with situations like that—you can’t gallop down there and have a big [miss].”
When addressing a spooky fence in the ring or at home, Bond pays special attention to both her horse’s body language and positioning. “I try never to face a horse at the problem while addressing it; instead, I’ll move their body into it. When I ride [a careful horse like Essy] at the water, I don’t just walk straight up to it and point his face into it before we start our course,” she explains. “I’ll walk up to it sideways and push his body as close as I can to it while circling at the walk, trot, and canter.
“You’re looking for the horse’s body to start to relax, because if they’re afraid, they’ll be tense and holding their breath. When you feel them start to relax, you know, at least, that you’re starting to get through to the next stage of development. Now, you can try to jump it, but make it very small—like, a tiny vertical—and continue with that until they jump it normally.” With horses who generally don’t have an issue with jump height, Bond leaves the jumps low throughout this process. For others, she’ll raise the fence back to starting height gradually, a hole or two at a time, as the horse builds confidence.
The key point in every scenario? Making sure that you, the rider, are part of the solution, not the problem. And, if you can’t do it yourself, Bond suggests, be big enough to find someone who can. “Horses don’t know how much we pay for them,” she jokes. “You might feel like, ‘My horse should be able to do this!’ But then, something happens, and they might stumble or hit a fence, and they get scared for whatever reason. Weird things happen with horses all the time.
“I think people can get into an ego thing, but the goal is making your horse feel secure so you can get back on and do it yourself,” she continues. “It’s really about putting your horse first.”
Feature photo by Arnd Bronkhorst.
Written by Nina Fedrizzi
Nina Fedrizzi spends her days writing about horse sport, food, and travel. She began her career at Travel + Leisure and is a former editor at NF Style. When she's not tapping away on her MacBook, Nina can usually be found on a horse, sleuthing out the local pho, or refusing to unpack her carry-on. Watch her do all three on Instagram @ninafedrizzi.