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Over Facing with Dr Andrew McLean

This article is from the March 2020 Horse Deals magazine.

The basic explanation of over facing is asking for too much too soon. But of course, what is too much and what is too soon and the answer to training success is knowing how much and when. Horses like people are all different. “All horses are naturally both curious and cautious and all sit somewhere on the scale between one and the other. Curious to find a new food source and cautious of being eaten by a predator,” says Dr McLean. To perform successfully in any discipline the horse’s confidence must at least match its ability and oftentimes, confidence will give the horse ability. “Over facing is not just a matter for the horse, the rider can be over faced as well,” continues Dr McLean. “These days there seems to be a sense of super caution coming into the riding world now; a ‘be careful’ attitude. Of course, we all need to be careful and mitigate risk, but it is dangerous for a rider to be obsessively preoccupied with what can go wrong and worse still, a rider with such a cautious mindset does not transmit confidence to the horse, and if the horse is also uncertain, then things can go wrong. A confident, positive rider can have a positive effect on a cautious horse, and conversely a fearful rider on a sensitive extravagant moving fancy horse is a recipe for problems. So I think it’s important to distinguish horses that are suitable for hobby riders from those that would more likely require a professional rider. And if you are not confident, choose the coach that gives you sensible confidence.”


“How horses behave has a lot to do with genetics, and for example, with the breeding of Warmblood showjumping horses, it has been shown that the motivation to jump can be inherited. Having said that, we must remember that speed, jumping ability and movement all have low heritability scores, so a good jumper crossed with a good jumper doesn’t necessarily produce another good jumper. It requires many generations of breeding good jumpers to good jumpers to ensure more certainty that a good jumper might result. We can see that clearly in the racing industry. There are no guarantees, but your chances of success are higher. The point is though, that purpose-bred jumpers are tempting to over face because they show so much talent, but still we need to take their training step by step to ensure that they have confidence.

“A willingness and seeming foreknowledge to jump is not exclusive to Warmbloods. Thoroughbreds can have it too, even though jumping ability may not have been a selected trait in their breeding. You can be lucky and get a horse that takes to jumping readily; bold horses that seem happy to tackle anything. But you should not mistake that willingness for training, and in many cases it is these horses that are more liable to be over faced, because they seem to do it so easily. You can have one mishap and it all falls in a heap.”


“When you are teaching horses anything, you must shape it progressively; make the journey for the horse really easy and make each step obvious. Taking every horse carefully is the best way. That is why when training dressage movements you should ensure your basic responses are consolidated (down gait, slow, shorten, up gait, quicken, lengthen, turn forelegs and yield hindquarters) before you start joining these responses together to do movements. Many horses are ruined through confusion because the basics are poor and the horse was over faced with questions he cannot yet answer.”

“When training a horse you must be aware that they don’t see in vivid colour, they see in shapes and hues of black, white, blue and yellow, rather like the light at twilight. They are very influenced by shapes for which they have great memory, however they don’t readily extrapolate, so as a jumping trainer you have to learn to work around that. One of the critical principles of training is only changing one contextual element at a time; progress gradually. For instance, change the height of a cross rail, but don’t change the speed of approach at the same time. Start with poles on the ground, and once you are really comfortable with the poles and all your aids work; halt, rein back, move away from either leg etc. and the horse maintains speed and line, then start with a little cross rail. Don’t change the fence shape and the pace at the same time in the early stages of training. Test everything at each level and make sure the horse responds calmly in each step. Some horses, like some students excel. Some take longer but get it in the end, and others are not really interested in the learning process. It is the confidence gained from the basic and thorough early training that will encourage the horse to be a bold jumper, confident dressage horse or brave hack. Talent is another thing altogether, but a confident horse will be inclined to make a greater effort. Of course, there are always the freaks that just jump no matter how badly ridden, and very occasionally they can be successful, but don’t bank on it. The more careful the horse, usually the more cautious it is and confidence is the key to success.

“The Trakehner fence poses classic confidence and potential in over facing issues for eventers because it poses two problems, the ditch and the jump. Train jumping the ditch and the diagonal rail separately, and then when confident in both, add them together. Similarly with a drop into water, first make sure your horse is calm to drop off a bank (a) and (b) that he is calm to go into the water and do not try and jump off a bank into the water until he is really confident with both. Small questions are easily answered.

“Understanding how horses perceive things and taking that into account when training them is important. We can make the mistake of thinking horses see the world as we do. A case in point is a jump within the water complex. The horse does not know if the water is going to just cover its hoof or be deep enough to sink him, so his willingness to go in is due to good gradual training, and not asking too much too soon and never scaring or over facing him. However, with the jump in the water, the inexperienced horse only reads the height from the water surface to the top of the fence. The base of a 1m fence in the water may be 20cm underwater, so as far as the horse sees, he only has to jump an 80cm fence. There is no explanation needed about the problems that could arise here!

“Also you cannot set a time frame, training a horse takes as long as it takes. Consolidate at each level and try and keep the horse in a calm state of not too high arousal. You want him aroused enough to jump, but not hot and nervous. In jumping, you can always put the fence down and start again; in dressage, you can always go back to basics and make it simple for the horse, but don’t keep making the same mistakes: insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

Article: Anna Sharpley.

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