Chris Burton demo: clarity, simplicity, reliability

On the coldest night of the year so far, a few friends and I loaded up with rugs, Thermos flasks and chips and headed out to watch an eventing demo by Chris Burton.

The entire evening was brilliant. Chris’ sense of humour and style of teaching livened up the cold night, and despite losing the feeling in both legs, I didn’t want the session to stop. He used a brilliant mix of take-home exercises and holy-crap-did-he-just-do-that exercises, and I think every person in the room was ready to drive home and tack their horses up to put some to the test. Though the entire evening was filled with great tips and suggestions, the below are my favourites.

Easy exercises to try at home

While Chris showed off his horses’ talents (popping 13 canter strides into a five-stride set of poles, and neatly clearing 1m65 just to ‘get her in the air’), he also gave us some great exercises to try at home – regardless of the schooling level and ability of your horse.

Adjusting strides between two poles

This is a super easy one to do yourself, as it requires very little set up. Place two poles about five canter strides away from each other (although Chris pointed out that the original distance doesn’t actually matter, as you’ll be playing around with this).

First, try to get your five strides, making sure to work the horse equally on both reins. Then try popping a halt in the middle, to get the horse listening to you. Once you’ve done this, ask for a half-half, rather than a full halt.

Once you’ve established your controls, change up the strides you’re aiming for. Extend and open up the canter for four strides. Hold together and collect for six strides. The better you get, the more ambitious you can be with the number of strides you ask for (though Chris asking for three almost saw him jump out of the arena, and fitting in 20 involved the creative use of a 10m circle).

Halting and straightness

Chris used halt exercises to help generate and control power, and ensure the horse was switched on and listening. If the horse began to switch off, or ignore her rider’s aids, Chris instructed the rider to halt. This could be straight after a jump, in the middle of poles or straight from canter.

But it wasn’t just slamming on the brakes and flopping to a stop. It needs to be a square halt. Chris advised to either use mirrors or a friend/parent/spouse to spot your square halts. If it’s not square, move off and halt again – and continue to do so until it’s square. And then you can use the release as a reward. Chris recounted a story about one of his best horses. It took a while for the penny to drop about square halts, but once it did, he halted squarely everywhere – even walking into the wash bay.

Likewise, working on straightness will help improve the squareness. Using the same two poles as in the exercise above, practice your centre lines. Get a strong forwards trot going, and aim for the centre of one pole to the next. That way, when you come to do your dressage tests, you just need to visualise the poles to help you.

Floyd is a firm believer that square halts are not a ‘thing’, and I can count on approximately three fingers how many times I’ve seen him stand square (much to his physio’s despair). So, this is one exercise we’ll definitely be trying out.

Angled jumps

Now, while it’s unlikely that Floyd and I will be doing anything like the below, it’s a great exercise to practice.

With the increase of complex questions and technically challenging jumps cross-country, Chris stated it’s important to practice at home. The height isn’t an issue – it’s the technique you need to work on. Chris used two verticals on a diagonal to do this. The angle can be changed depending on level – Chris was jumping with barely a stride in between them.

However, move them further apart, and you’ve got a great exercise that will help you work on straightness, jumping angles, and answering trickier questions.

My favourite tips and suggestions

1. Pull to stop and kick to go

“So,” Chris asked, “how do you make a horse stop?”

The audience was silent. Is this a trick question? How does Charlotte stop Valegro? Quick, think back to that natural horsemanship article you read last week. With your mind? With your breathing? A few people called out “with your legs” and “with your seat”.

“Incorrect.” Chris said. “You pull on it. You use that bit of metal in its mouth.” He went on to explain that all horses – especially young horses – need the basics put in place before you can start using softer, quieter aids. Horses work on pressure/release: it’s the only way we can train them. So, if you apply pressure to the horse’s mouth, and he stops, you must release. Instantly. Over time, you can be softer with this aid.

Likewise, Chris asked “How do you make a horse go?” But by now, we were much savvier. “You kick it.”

Chris reiterated the importance of a horse that goes when you ask it, and stops when you ask it. He went on to explain that this use of leg and hand is how you can adjust your horse’s stride. By applying the leg and controlling with the hand, you can push the horse ‘up’ – giving you total freedom to play around with strides and distances. He used the example of the passage in dressage. For a horse to do passage, they need a total understanding of leg and hand. Then, they create the power to complete the movement.

All horses must be in front of the leg to train and work correctly – and that all stems from this basic level. Stop and go.

I know that when Floyd is behind my leg, when he’s not going when I ask, that that’s when he’s most likely to spook, shoot off or be naughty. When he’s in front of my leg and carrying us forward, he’s concentrating on me and the job at hand. Likewise, when he gets strong with me, he gets a stronger aid – he gets a pull on the reins. But when we establish that stop = stop, I can use much more refined aids, such as just dropping the weight into my heels, or squeezing my bum.

2. Give your horse reliability

One of Chris’ top horses came out looking very well. He was incredibly reactive, tense and sharp, and Chris pointed out that “he thinks he’s going to the races”. So, Chris worked him in using a number of familiar exercises. At one point, you could see the horse visibly exhale and relax.

You need to be reliable for your horse. Use exercises that you know work when your horse is particularly tense or sharp. And though it’s much easier said than done, ride them the same at a show as you would at home.

The reliability also needs to come from your consistency. Stop must mean stop. And go must mean go. If you give half-hearted aids, expect a half-hearted response. Chris was very clear in this: horses like you to be clear and firm with them. It’s better to ask firmly once, rather than nag and nag and nag.

For Floyd and I, our best tension-busting exercise is a spiral circle. If he’s feeling a bit hot, his back’s up, or he’s overly reactive, I put him on a 20m circle and ask him to leg yield in and out. This gets his hocks underneath him and switches his brain on. Plus, we both know it’s our ‘relaxing’ time, so I think it really helps us mentally too.

3. Interpret the law in your own way

For the young, green or unschooled horse, a clear, firm aid is needed. However, once this has been established, you can start pairing this with other aids. Chris suggested using voice aids to supplement training. All of his horses responded to upwards and downwards commands.

Chris said to first use it with the leg or hand aid. The stronger aid is the ‘negative reinforcement’. And once the horse pairs this with the noise, you can move on to just using the noise, and dropping the other aid.

For me, this might be a life-saver. Sometimes Floyd can be a bit reactive to leg aids, so using my voice means I can get a canter transition without going airborne. Likewise, we’ve taught Floyd to transition down when he feels the weight in my heels drop. This allows for a much more seamless downwards transition, as I don’t need to use my hands.

Of course, the question around voice commands in dressage came up. Chris explained that the rules simply say “Voice aids must not be heard”. Not ‘not used’, he distinguishes, just ‘not heard’.

4. Use repetition

Everyone learns by repetition – whether you’re studying for an exam or trying to remember a dressage test. Horses are no different. Chris spent the first half of the demo teaching Nana Dalton on her gorgeous young horse, Bling. They worked on the exercise above with the two poles. But when Bling missed her strides or struggled with adjusting them, they added a halt in the middle. They practiced this on both reins – Chris was very vocal about doing everything equally on both sides. Then, Chris asked them to go through and collect, without halting. Nana could half-halt Bling without any issue, and get the number of strides she was aiming for.

The repetition of halting made Bling far more responsive to Nana’s aids, so when the more advanced exercise came around, she was ready for it.

Chris emphasised the important of repetition in training routines too. When you’ve taught a young horse something new, try to repeat the exercise the next day. This will reaffirm what you worked on the next day, and helps to solidify the lesson. Plus, it’s a great way to see how far you and your horse are progressing.

The last few things that I picked up from Chris included:

  • Don’t abuse a horse’s generosity: when it’s going well, finish there. Don’t feel tempted to keep on going.
  • Think forward with your hands: push your horse to the bridle, rather than pulling it back. Soon, the horse will seek out the contact and want to follow it – whether you’re riding in an ‘up’ way, or asking for a long, low frame. The more you do this, the more likely your horse is to ‘follow’ your hand. Chris stated that this is essential when it comes to jumping trickier combinations: with his angled fences, he sets his horse up and trusts that she will follow his hand through the question.
  • Use clear aids. Chris said that horses want to know the boundaries. Don’t treat them or ride them in different ways and expect the same result.
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