Archie Cox Q&A

Earlier this month we did a live Q&A where our Masterclass Members could ask Archie Cox anything they want and he would answer them live. 

Below is the transcript of the video and if you're a Masterclass member, you can watch the video replay here


Q: 60 years young here and learning to jump....have a bad habit of not being able to keep my hands "still", especially when shortening and lengthening the rein approaching jumps...any suggestions?

I like to practice riding with my reins bridged, where both reins are laid over one another and you are actually holding both reins in your hands. It requires the rider to keep their hands much more still and maintain one length of rein. You realize it’s a lot better when your hands are steady. If I feel like I’m getting a little sloppy, I’ll try showing that way. Just the other day, I saw a Grand Prix rider do his warm up class with his reins bridged. A bridged rein is a great, effective tool to get the rider’s leg down, to get their seat a little stronger, their balance a little better, and maintain one feel on the horse’s mouth. The horses always appreciate that. A bridged rein is a great exercise to use. While riding on the flat, a second exercise I like to use is practicing with your thumbs together. I take one thumb and put it on top of my other thumbnail. You really get a sense of keeping your hands together and keeping everything still. Any insecurities you feel that are causing you to move around, causing the rider to lean forward or lean back or be a little erratic, will begin to disappear. If you just think of keeping one thumb on top of the other, it can be pretty beneficial. Now, I say that, but at the first sign of danger, pull on the reins and pull hard if that is needed. Bridging the reins gives you something to focus on and everything else you’re doing becomes second nature. You realize everything else helps hold you on the horse and steer you. It’s not all the time, but I’ll bridge the reins or touch one thumb on top of the other if I feel like I’m getting sloppy. Horses appreciate it, trainers appreciate it, and you’ll realize, as a rider, that this is better and all going smoother. A third exercise, or means of solving a problem of rein length and moving the hands, s to make a knot in your reins, either on each rein where you hold onto it or at the buckle. If you make a knot six or eight inches away from the buckle, it forces you to keep your hands out in front of you. They can’t come back towards you since they will hit the knot, which is uncomfortable. Your hands are in the correct position if they are slightly above and in front of the withers. That’s home base, that’s where you work from. Everything close and discreet and then you work from there. So, those things are bridging the reins, crossing your thumbs, putting a knot in the reins (or vet wrap as a marker) or putting a knot at the buckle. You have four ways to help steady your hands and keep your hands more still. 

Q: What do you find causes riders to make that jerking motion on the reins? Is it confidence, nerves, habit? 

It’s all of the above. It is an insecurity. The rider could be a little anxious. It could be that the horse is non-reactive and behind the leg. You want power steering when you are riding and showing. If the horse is dull in the mouth and you have a little stronger bit, then you feel safer. We’ve all had that moment of panic where we’ve gone to that pulley rein because a non responsive horse causes an uneasy feeling in the rider. At home, try to practice all the things that take place at a horse show, like different speeds or a spook. You want to be comfortable in your knee, your calf, your whole leg, your seat. That is where you learn to find security. Oftentimes, we feel security through the hand. The horse would much rather you have it through your upper thigh, through your knee, through your calf. It happens to all of us at every level. At home, you always want to be practicing what you will be doing at a horse show. Horses are animals, they are living beings. They react, we react. The goal is to have a seamless ride. If you're in the correct position, if you practice different speed and exercises (like discussed earlier), those are all things that will help you learn to have a steadier hand. Your horse's mouth will appreciate it. We all want to ride like a top rider. I often say if George Morris or if any of the great teachers come down the driveway, I want them to say those people are doing it right. Correct position, well turned out, right arena, workmanlike. That produces a happy rider and a happy horse. 

Q: My question is, I just bought a 6 year old thoroughbred just over a week ago. Previous owner was only really working him about twice a week. He's shown 2'3" to 2'6". Please provide a suggested weekly training schedule to get in shape.

A: I am happy to hear you have a thoroughbred. Thoroughbred horses are easier to train because they have their own motor. They are going forward. Once a thoroughbred understand what you want, they remember it for the rest of their life. With some warmbloods, we are coming out and reinventing the wheel everyday. Thoroughbred have great memories. A six year old thoroughbred horse being ridden twice a week, maybe depending on the type of environment you have, riding four or five times a week is plenty. It is important for people and animals to be able to digest information. One day, maybe ride him out in a field. Another day, work on some flat work in an arena where you are more disciplined about what you do . Circles are a great exercise. Do a figure eight using the centerline of your arena. Do a circle to the right and a circle to the left, so you are always turning towards 12 o’clock and making a straight line when you change direction. Two circles, versus a figure eight with diagonals. A circle can do so many things. It can teach the horse how to canter a little bit better. If the horse had come off the racetrack, oftentimes those horses have two speeds: run and break. A circle helps the rider produce cadence for the horse, that they learn to canter a little bit shorter. If you are working on a circle and think you have it pretty well, stop. You have a horse’s entire career, your entire career, days, weeks, to teach a horse something. You want it to be positive. When I say that, I mean you work on something for 10-15 minutes and then leave it alone and work on something else. Ideally, when you get on your horse, you always walk for 10 or 15 minutes and see how the horse feels. You will learn so much about their alertness and self-carriage. As you are riding, feel just at the walk: does the horse naturally drop its head down? Does it raise its head up? Can you feel its right hind leg stepping up to its right front leg? The horse’s hind foot should land where their front foot was or even a little further under. When we talk about using its hind end and working, a thoroughbred horse often does that on its own. It is something you can take a mental note of and feel. Ideally, 40 minutes to an hour riding your horse is sufficient, no more than that. Less is fine, but if you walk your horse for 10-15 minutes, you work the horse for 20 minutes with walk breaks in between, and then you let the horse settle at the walk for about 10-15 minutes, you have probably given the horse a pretty good workout. It is important for horse’s muscles to come alive, just like ours when we do an exercise. At the walk, practice getting in your two-point: does the horse want to go a little more? You have the option of learning, does he like a lighter seat? Does he like a deeper seat? If you want him to go faster, go with the motion. Jockeys lean forward for a reason. They lighten their seat and they let the horse’s back rest a little bit. As a hunter/jumper rider, we have the ability to work on ourselves at the walk. Get in your two-point and practice different things. Riding four or five times a week to get the horse into the show ring, jumping probably twice a week and doing cavalettis another time, should be a good amount of work. Remember, it is always better to say, “I stopped a little early”, because the alternative is, “I just wanted to do it one more time, I just wanted to get it right, I wanted to try so hard and I blew my horse’s brains or it didn’t go well.” It is better to leave it knowing you could do it a little bit better, but leading the horse to success. Success for the horse and success for the rider. I like to leave my students wanting a little more, for them to think, “That was easy, I want to do more.” That’s what you would like to instill in your horse. With a thoroughbred who was only being ridden twice a week, you want to gradually ease into it. It should be a fun endeavour for the horse as well as the rider. In a nutshell: walk for 10-15 minutes, work for 20-30, and walk for another 10-15. You can walk with your feet out of your stirrups. There are so many exercises we can do so we feel like we are learning, just as your young thoroughbred horse is learning. Remember, stop a little bit early. You always want confidence that you know you can do it and you know the horse can do it. You may have a goal in mind of what you want to do today. When you get close to that goal, say, “I can do it tomorrow,” or “He tried this hard at 2’6”. If he tried this hard at 2’9” it might not go so well, so let’s leave him confident.” For those four or five days of riding, one is a trail ride (if you have the availability), one day is some flatwork, two days are some jumping. It could be cavalettis or poles on the ground with transitions. Do different things and do it gradually. We teach lessons to riders gradually, so horses have to have it done gradually as well. When riding horses, always keep the horse’s best interest in mind. 

Q: How do you know when a horse is ready to start jumping? As in what you like to have accomplished in the training, not age. How do you, personally like to introduce fences?

A: Horses have to do four things on the flat. They have to speed up, they have to slow down, they have to turn right, and they have to turn left. When you feel that, and it’s pretty basic but that is the reality of riding horses, really trying to keep it basic. Turn right, turn left, speed up, slow down. Start with a ground pole or start with a pile of three rails. If you have three rails that fit together, you could make a little pyramid. Jumping may be brand-new to the horse. You can get a sense when you are riding the horse of the horse’s confidence level. When you go by a jump, does it completely shy away or is it as relaxed as can be? I might take a single pole and just walk back and forth over it. Then try trotting it, then try introducing three poles together. That can start into a gymnastic. A gymnastic is one of the best exercises for a horse. Once the horse gets over the trot pole, have a second jump or a crossrail about seven or eight feet away from the first cavaletti. Trotting in, I like about eighteen feet to another pole on the ground, then twenty one feet to another pole on the ground. Gradually introduce it. If you have a friend with you or someone that can help you, you can start that way and as you are going, depending on how your horse is going, you can put alternate sides of the rail up so you are introducing a really small fence. The horse gets confidence and the rider gets confidence and a sense of what the horse might do. If the horse jumps super high over the first crossrail or first slant rail, you’ll probably only want one more pole on the ground. When they jump high over the jump, they often scare themselves. It’s unintentional from the rider and the trainer. They say, “oh wow, he is jumping so high, it’s so cool.” Jumping so high over a low jump means that as the jump goes higher, he may jump equally as high and then think he can’t do it. Do it very gradually, and again, with a young horse or a horse learning to jump, put lots of poles on the ground. If the horse is very spooky and you are at a facility where you can follow another horse over a jump, try that.  Horses are herd animals. Horses in the hunt field all jump because they follow one another. It is a great way to give a horse confidence. You see it when people used to ride water jumps. You would ask for a lead and follow a horse in front of you. Horses are herd animals and they will jump. It might not feel good, you might grab a little mane, they might be a little dodgy, but you keep doing it until they get comfortable. When you have your first pole on the ground, they might jump over it the first time. That’s ok, that’s what we want. Pat them to reward them and come around again until they trot over it more like a regular cavaletti. Introducing fences gradually, trotting in and cantering out, gives the horse the idea of what to do and gives the rider the most control just jogging over something. Even if they are dodging a little right or left, you are able to do it with more ease. Kim Rahuba Williams told me, “Horses don’t lie. They don’t have that ability.” If they are scared, they aren’t trying to be a jerk, they are genuinely scared. I judged with Kim a few years ago and I’ve always remembered that. Animals do not have the ability to lie like humans. When they go down to that jump and they’re dodging it, they aren’t upset with the rider. They aren’t doing it just to be goofy, they’re doing it because either they don’t understand or they are genuinely fearful of a liverpool or a yellow plank (horse often don’t like black and yellow) , but you introduce it. Take getting the lead over a water jump: I remember as a kid, I think we jumped more water jumps then, you learned to practice following if you can. You practice following someone around the ring before you try following them over a jump. It should be familiar before you introduce a jump. 

Q: Earlier, you mentioned that you want to pace what a horse is doing and stop a little bit early. With young horses, how often would you say you want to jump them each week when you are just starting off? 

A: You want to do some poles. Horses tell you what they want to do, that’s a big thing. You have to listen. Some horses start trotting and you trot right over the pole, no problem. Trot over the pole, trot over the crossrail, canter over the vertical, no problem. That horse will progress faster and it’s important to realize, “He is doing this pretty fast, I need to pace myself.” With a young horse, a 3/4/5 year old, only jump it once or twice a week. You want the horse to be jumping and enjoying its job ten years later. You can do two poles on the ground, which to me is not really jumping but it is introducing the idea. Trot over the first, maybe it is 60 feet or 48 feet away to the second one. Trot, then walk, then trot so the horse has the idea that between the jumps, you may be regulating what is going on and regulating the horse’s stride. You could trot the cavaletti once, make a circle to the left and a circle to the right, and go on and trot the second one. You’re always giving the horse a little something to do. On a straight line, they learn to go faster and they learn to pull harder. Racehorses go in a straight line around the track. Bending a horse and turning a horse are great ways of what we call, “putting a mouth on a horse.” Again, speed up, slow down, turn right, turn left. That’s it. We can make it more complicated but, at the end of the day, when you go in the ring, that’s all you need to do. If you can slow down and speed up seamlessly, turn right and turn left, turning your head, opening the rein and following your horse’s stride, your horse starts to follow your eyes. People say, “he follows your eyes?” He feels your balance. Peter Lombardo, who worked for me, was teaching one day. He said, “Remember, a horse can feel a fly. If a horse can feel a fly, he can feel your leg. He can feel a little shift in your body movement. If you turn your eye, they go that way.” Getting back to your question, probably once or twice a week, but you have to listen to the horse. A flighty, nervous horse might take a little bit longer. A thoroughbred horse will take a little bit longer but once they get it, you’ve got it. I grew up with a lot of thoroughbred horses. They say it takes two years to make a horse, to take a raw product and get it comfortable and winning in the show ring with a junior or amateur. I think it may be a little bit faster with a warmblood horse, but the most important thing for horses are experiences and that takes time. Jumping a young horse once or twice a week and, if you have the option, riding in different environments is so good for the horse’s mind and for the rider. When we get to a horse show, we are in a new environment and you think, “I wish I had taken my horse on a trail ride.” If you’re in an area where you have places to take the horse, even for a walk, see how they react. When they go to the show and react the same way, and it could be a negative reaction, you are more prepared. 

Q: I have an older horse, and he is very ring wise. He will be perfect at home, and in the warm up- but more often than not when we enter the show arena he pulls some obnoxious tricks. How do I correct this? Thank you. 

A: I have a pretty good visual on you walking in the ring and doing a 180. They move into your leg and pick up the wrong lead. That is just a little bit sour and a little bit spoiled. You get to the gate and suddenly the head goes up, the back goes down, the ears go back. Number one: it happens to everyone that rides. If it hasn’t happened to you yet, it will. That’s a for-sure. One thing I recommend is before you go in the ring, tap the horse with a stick. Squeeze, cluck, stick. Do that once or twice in the schooling ring so the horse associates leg/squeeze, then a cluck. When you get in the show ring, squeeze and cluck mean forward. If you’re clever with your crop, when you walk in the show ring and you have an idea where the judge is and when they are looking, you can simply wave the crop a little bit so the horse can see that and they may go forward a little bit better. Try walking in the ring and immediately trotting. If they pick up the canter, go with it and go forward until that little bit of sourness goes away. It’s a matter of staying ahead of the game on the horse. The best way to avoid a problem is to prevent it. We have a horse and when you walk in the ring and put your leg on it, it reaches up with its back leg and wants to hit your spur. When they do that, you’ve lost. What we did was try to get the horse a little in front of the leg, a little excited. Remember, it is subtle. In the schooling area, before you walk in the ring, apply more leg than you think you’ll need and then walk in and either go right to the trot or right to the canter. Walking in with a little bit of a bend in the horse’s neck so they are softer can help that. You can also walk in the ring and do a warm up round and say, “The moment he does it I’m going to hit him. I know it is a 50 on the judge’s card, but I am tired of him doing this all the time.” It’s just being ring sour, it is not personal. Take all the emotion out of riding. He is just a little bit sour and walks in the ring and says, “Ugh, I have to do this again.” Well, you know what? You do. Get after the horse a little bit in the schooling ring. Squeeze, cluck, stick. You say, “It may get a little worse before it gets better.” If you walk in the ring and he bolts off, he’s not kicking out or turning around, so it is a different problem. Trying to find the best way around the problem is to avoid it. If that’s walk in and canter, if that’s walk in and trot, or before you go in the ring make a little leg yield. Again, apply more aid than you will in the ring so if you think it, he is ready to do it. Before you go in the ring, if you put the right leg on him as if you wanted the left lead canter and he moves into it, relax your aids. If you keep squeezing, he is going to keep moving. Relax your aids, add a little cluck, and try again so that at the walk, the horse is marching forward. They have to be going forward at the walk to be in front of your leg. The horse should be thinking forward. It’s infuriating to the rider and it’s annoying to the judges. As a judge, I can tell you I want good rounds. As a judge I can also tell you if I see it, I have to remember it. I can’t ignore it. It will annoy me to no end that the horse walked in the ring and kicked out or got sassy and then has a pretty good round. I just want to reach up smack him. It’s annoying. It’s a lot of pressure and a lot of nerves. What can you do before you go in the ring to solve that problem? Squeeze, cluck, stick and carry a crop. People say, “My horse doesn’t like the crop.” It’s not really his choice. As a rider, you can learn how to hold the stick more still, be discreet with it and, when necessary, wave that crop around. About 13 years ago, I rode a very famous horse. It came with a giant record and a giant reputation for doing something wrong. Before every jump, I waved my stick around. It was very subtle, it just looked like it was bopping along in my hand. That horse jumped every single jump I ever asked it to jump. He saw that little crop waving around. It looked like it was dangling around or I wasn’t very good at holding the crop. I never hit him, but it would flop along and all that horse thought was forward. That’s what you want, the horse thinking forward. Again, it’s turn right, turn left, speed up, slow down. They have to do that without question. That’s probably one of the most important things. The only answer is yes. If a horse balks, kicks out, raises up, that’s answering the aids in the negative. That is unacceptable. We do things with horses in routine. Squeeze, cluck, stick. When you feed a horse: water, hay, grain. We do those things because it is a system and a proven program with horses. You gradually apply your aids: squeeze, cluck, stick. You ask nicely the first time, you ask a little stronger the next time, and then you require it. This is a requirement to go forward. It goes back to the question about the long reins. If the horse isn’t going forward, you end up moving and doing a whole lot. That ends up annoying the horse more. What’s beneficial for the horse is the correct position and gradually applying the aids. Remember, a horse can feel a fly. They can feel your leg. Squeeze, cluck, stick. Most people who take care of horses in their life will tell you it goes: water, hay, grain. You aren’t going to give your horse a heaping amount of grain on an empty stomach. Water, hay, grain. It’s how I’ve always done it. It’s a proven system that works. 

Q: I would love to hear Archie’s thoughts on fitness level for Hunters. I was told once that it was important to not get Hunters overly fit from an aerobic perspective, and rather build their fitness in an anaerobic fashion. Does this make sense and Is it part of the programs at top Hunter barns? (Ie. Getting them fit, but not too fit)

A: My horses are very fit. I learned something from John French about four years ago. I’m very lucky to have an exceptional horse in my barn right now, Laura Wasserman’s Boss. Boss has won everything you can ask a horse to win. As a pre-green horse, he was quite strong, or heavy and pulling. I said to John, “I’m sorry he’s not quiet enough.” He said, “You’re wrong. He’s not fit enough and he’s not strong enough. He’s pulling and leaning because he’s too tired.” I was dumbfounded. I said, “He’s pulling and leaning because he is too tired?” John said, “He’s too tired to hold himself up.” I like horses quite fit. Having hunters unfit was more something with thoroughbreds. You generally have to work a thoroughbred down a little bit more. Warmblood horses have a quieter demeanor. They’re easier to just get on, but you still want your horse fit. You want your horse fit enough that he can do the job, even if he may have to be worked down some to be quiet enough to show, but strong enough to do the intended job. Our horses are probably ridden five to six days a week. They might not be ridden hard, but there is something about being worked or being walked with a rider that is so important. Simply taking a horse out and walking them for 30 or 40 minutes under saddle is beneficial. Leaving horses “fat and happy”, there are very few sports where athletes are “fat and happy”. They are generally fit and conditioned for their intended jobs. You can gauge how hard a horse is breathing. I’ll use Boss as an example. As a top horse, he doesn’t practice a lot at home but his fitness is very important. What I’ll do is I’ll jump a small cavaletti, they are about 18 inches at most, and I’ll make him jump it eight or ten times using most of the ring. This makes sure he is fit enough and conditioned so that when we ask him to go in the show ring and work, he is able to do that with ease. Everyone does things differently. That horse is so important to me and I want to do him justice. Once John said that, “He pulls because he’s tired,” I’ve always tried to make sure he is fit enough. Going around and jumping the cavaletti multiple times, maybe doing a figure eight, that’s the amount of endurance he has to have to do a course. That’s a good exercise. His intended job is as a hunter, so he jumps approximately eight to ten fences. I want a great looking topline with a great, cresty neck. I want muscle down his back, through his hindquarters, so that he is able to carry himself. Hills are such a great asset to any horse and any rider. If you can simply walk your horse up and down some hills, that balance and that coming back on the hind end and holding themselves up on their own is so important and such an asset. That’s a great way of improving a horse’s conditioning. Trot up and down hills, again using your judgement. If there is wet grass, you might do something different. Practice in your two-point.You get fitter and you get more comfortable as the horse maintains or increases his fitness level. The fitness might be a little different for an adult hunter or a children’s hunter than a top junior hunter, but their jobs are different. That’s important to understand in training and riding horses. It’s so important to know the horse’s intended job. A horse that shows with a professional is different than a junior or amateur or children’s horse. That’s something that, as a horseman, is important to identify and respect. You have to always respect the horse. Think, “We don’t usually do this with the horse, so of course he may be a little bit tired or it may be a little bit harder.” Regarding fitness, a fit horse is generally a sounder, happier horse. When you show and ask them to compete and try a little bit harder, you should have done that at home and know there is always a little extra in the tank. You’re always asking them to do a little less than their maximum. That’s important. If you say, “My horse can jump 4’ but not 4’1”,” then maybe jump your horse 3’6” so he always knows he can do more and the horse will be happy to keep doing it. Occasionally, you throw in a big fence or you throw in something new and the horse believes it can do it because you’ve given him confidence by going consistently under the radar, under the maximum. You want a comfortable, confident horse. Fitness is so important for horse and rider. 

Q: Fitness for a semi-retired horse: would that be the same, would you still want to keep them in shape, even if they are not showing as much but they want to keep riding their horse? What fitness would you keep them at? 

A: A semi-retired horse obviously has a little less fitness. You’re going to be asking the horse to do less, but most horses like having a job and having interaction with people. Maybe ride a horse three days a week and the other days he gets turned out. Being thrown out for retirement, many horses prefer to be working some. They often tell us and we have to listen to the horses. When we listen, we generally do a little better. 

Q: My horse has always required to be lunged at the horse show to get her quiet enough to show. We can't "ride it out of her" as she will get even more wild. What are some good ways to try and get her quiet without killing her on the lunge line?

A: One of the most important things is turnout. If turnout is an option, it is a great way to let a horse settle down. Often, horses are turned out for the night. If they have a big green grass pasture and they have water, whether it’s water buckets or a stream, they will be ok. Horses were not designed to live in stalls. We have done that with them. Horses were born to be outside, constantly moving around. Turnout is so important. Depending on your horse and your situation, I also like to use some ear cotton or some little rubber balls. A horse will always be able to hear, but it can lessen the effects of noise. If your horse might be a little bit flighty, since horse shows have loudspeakers and a bunch of different things, practice at home with a little cotton in their ears. We actually dye our cotton black so that it is a little more discreet than having your bay horse with these big white balls in its ears. You’re really just trying to produce the best result. When you take the horse from its barn at home to a horse show, a new environment with loudspeakers, try and make it as inviting as possible. That’s why riding the horse in the ring, outside the ring, on the trails, in a field, all of those things help acclimate a horse. Some horses need no acclimating. Others need more. I had a horse, I swear every day it came out of the stall, it was like you took off the blindfold. He looked around and that same tack trunk he walked by everyday was always interesting. That’s just their personalities. Ear cotton can help, lunging a horse before it goes to a horse show can help. Lunge them at home so when they get to the show, they are the most relaxed they can be. Schooling shows are a great avenue to see how your horse will behave before you take it to a show and actually participate.