What makes horses supple, how to start training with a new horse and what makes a good rider

What makes horses supple, how to start training with a new horse and what makes a good rider


Jenni: Hello it's Jenni from Nordic Topline and our today's guest is International Grand Prix Dressage rider Sarah Sjöholm-Patience. Hello Sarah and welcome to our video series. 

Would you tell your story and a little bit about your background? 

Sarah: I am Canadian dressage rider based in the UK at the moment. Having spent a lot of time working in Europe also some time in Australia and America working there as well. I don’t think I had the moment when I chose this as a career. I think it’s always been there in the background. Horses were something I wanted to do since the beginning. All the photos from my birthday parties were pony parties as that’s what I begged for. When I was younger I borrowed all the horse books from the library. 

Then I had a long campaign for my parents to start some riding lessons and finally they cracked. Fortunately I ended up having a horse with a more natural horsemanship type of lady who basically bought this horse. And I was going to become a show jumper, the next Ian Miller who at the time was winning the World Cup with famous horse Big Ben, that was going to be my path. My mother and my trainer at the time said no to that one and my mom said it was too dangerous. 

The horse they got for me was not for jumping and that started the dressage journey. I was fortunate enough even though she was a little quarter horse she learned how to do the movements in medium level dressage. At the time in Canada; the laterals and flying changes and then I was hooked. As a young rider had a couple of different horses, always had very good trainers, really good fortunes working with a couple of Canadian Olympians also with the teacher called Dietrich von Hoppfgarten who basically trained most people in North America that are currently out and successful at least my age or above.

 At the certain point decided to have a go and become pro, so got a working student job over in Germany and working for the trainer called Leonie Bramal who was Olympian herself and had spent 18 years working for Johann Hinnemann and I mucked a lot of stables, rode a lot of horses and that evolved into helping some of the riders there and then moving on and had a little break going over and training and helping in Australia and California before deciding that I am good enough and I need to go back to do more and was lucky enough to land a job with Klaus Balkenhol. 

So I spent a couple of years working for him and when the yard was downsizing I found other work over in Switzerland and then moved over to the UK and  discovered that I really like a guy with british accent. So here I am living in the UK with a lovely daughter, and have training stables over here, I coach a bunch of different riders. I have been fortunate going out riding some international Grand Prix tests and working with horses at all short of different levels. 

Jenni: Really cool, you have a long history working with horses. What would be interesting to hear from you is what are the basic training principles you use with a horse and how do you start training with a new horse?

Sarah: I think the big thing that kind of underlines my all training is that horses have to understand what we are looking for. So it is making sure that basic communication is consistent and that we are delivering it in a way we are outlining for them what we expect. 

Most of my experience says that if we present it in a way that horses can do it and they understand what we want we will get that. And then it is just a matter of developing both their skill set and physical ability. 

I work a lot using the German training scales, for those not familiar with it is worth to google. It gives six different priority then working particularly with the lower level horses the bottom three of rhythm, suppleness and then contact. Really gives a guideline and a really good starting point to know where the horses are.

 If I get a new one in training for example then I usually like to try where exactly they are at and what they know. And obviously the way I am going to be asking may be different they are used to, how do they deal with the challenge, the most important ones can you stop and can you go somewhere, can you go faster, can you go slower, and then you want to add in can you bent, can you go ideally sideways. A combination of all of those will eventually take you up to the grand prix. So I think that’s it. Figure out where you are going and find a consistent way to explain to the horse what it is you are looking after. 

Jenni: I am sure you have a lot of clients that come to you with a difficult horse. What do you think the problems come from? 

Sarah: I mean usually horses will do what they understand or oftentimes there is pain that is involved or there is a lack of clarity or they’ve been asked to do something they are not physically ready to do yet. So the pain can come from all the shorts of different places, so it is always worth it if you can find resistance by having a vet or a professional at least check your horse. Making sure the saddle fit, making sure the farrier is right, so that horses are in good physical condition to do what you are asking. 

I’d love to say that us humans are perfect, but oftentimes we tend to be crooked, have less control of one side than the other, oftentimes when I find that the horse is problematic going one way and it is actually the rider that is unintentionally creating the issue. Physical development, give them time to be strong enough to execute some of the movements. So sometimes just to take a step back from the level you are working at back a little bit. Moving away from the laterals so perhaps asking a simple bend and balance on a circle for example. If they can’t balance on a ten meter circle then they are not going to be better in a shoulder in. So you are carrying forward a problem rather than actually anything else. 

Jenni: Yes, so it all comes down to basics. What I see a lot is that horses don't understand what the rider really wants. So the problem with communication is often something that creates problems. 

Sarah: Yes I think it all comes down to that. I think I saw it on facebook a great analysis for it. Where it said: a beginning rider is working on intermediate movements to become medium level rider and then intermediate rider is busy training advanced movements to try to become advanced rider and the advanced rider is training the basics. 

And I think that’s really convenient. Particularly when people tell me what level they are at. “oh I have ridden medium” actually that doesn’t give full description their riding ability because one can perhaps never have ridden a horse sideways, but they have excellent communication with a horse and they will in that sense possibly be better than a rider who might not really have that communication, but have managed to push a particular horse sideways and maybe for a flying change or something like that. 

So I think the ability to communicate with horses and have that awareness and perception of our own bodies to be able to deliver that consistency is what makes a good rider. 

Jenni: Yes, that’s a really good point. What kind of exercises would you use to straighten the horse and what kind of exercises would you use to keep horses supple? 

Sarah: Suppleness is a second step on a German training scale. I like the German ‘Losgelassenheit’ that also talks about relaxation in it, because I think double check that we actually got that element in it if we want our horses to be supple. 

Then it’s defining where the challenges are as well as horses can be laterally supple so that you can bend them one side and another, but longitudinally not so much. If you can’t change and vary the space so much or change the rein length very much. So picking one where you struggle or is it all of them. 

Traditionally, kind of using curve lines, using clarity of your aiding for it, so that you are not actually just forcing the horse in the positioning. We want to try to avoid that one. In the same way as athletic development in humans. If you try to stretch something out you are not trying to just yank on it, and pull pull pull and wiggle it around and hope all of the sudden you can do the split. It’s not going to happen, you got to work on progression. 

Transitions to help with the longitudinal suppleness. Again looking at different ways of working with the horses. Some ground work is a phenomenal way of working on it, getting yields, turns of forehand depending on what level the horses are at and where the struggle point is. Rein backs, carrot stretches by themselves could be fantastic. There are so many different options for how we are doing things, that there isn’t one set of exercises that is going to answer that question. We are looking at it and approaching it in a very dynamic and comprehensive point really. 

Jenni: Yes and look at what the horse really needs. Absolutely. 

Sarah: And the straightness and suppleness of the horse, they really are tied together. So if your horse can bend well both ways the chances are there is going to be a degree of straightness. For straightness the horse needs to be going forward enough, you need a variety of different tools really. 

When they are going well, if you’ve done the portions beneath it well, you are going to run out of things that will make them crooked unless they have a physical issue or you are sitting crooked. 

Jenni: Yes, really good points. Then there is one question I hear often and that’s what kind of basic training plan do you follow; is it like you train two days and have one lounging day or something like that? 

Sarah: I think that depends a lot on a horse. The younger they are the less proper training they should have and then more cross training should be involved in it. So perhaps if it is a young horse that is recently back to training I might do a ride and then something on ground the next day or then involve a possible hack and slowly work it up. 

Then my higher level competition horses are properly training four times a week and varying that one when they are working on a international level they may have to do the test three days in a row, so you only ever train two days in a row, then you may end up with a horse who is not actually fit enough to the job, but it’s that avoiding constant wear and tear and repetitive strain portion of it. 

Working on different exercises and having a training focus reached the days and making sure you are mixing and matching it, that you are taking them out for hacks, working maybe some pole work, working a bit in hand and lounging is also great if you are doing it in a non long duration type of time that it’s lameness prevention so there is all shorts of different ways of approaching the athletic training of a horse. 

There was one horse that I was working with, if you weren’t doing something ridden everyday the performance would slip dramatically and then the other one could have three days googling around on a hack and would be ready to do the test the next day. So it is working with the horses individually as well. 

Jenni: Then one thing we know very well: you always need a good team around you if you want to succeed in something. But I would like to hear from you so what is really needed if you want to succeed in riding, what would be your tips to riders and our listeners today? 

Sarah: In terms of team or in terms of other tips? 

Jenni: You can give all the tips you have in your mind because I know there is going to be a lot. 

Sarah:  In terms of team I think that if everyones working to a degree to be complementary you can’t even have a big enough team. Working kind of lower competition level you wanna have deasant relationship with your farrier, who ever is managing the stable if you don’t have them at home, you need to have at least A coach, because none of us can do this on our own and you may actually have additional coach that is brought in for either particular portions or as a different set of eyes so that you are getting different viewpoints on it. 

You are going to need a transport and some help at the competitions, then you probably wanna add in complementary to the vet, some body treatments for the horses and also for yourself, want to make sure you are doing some physical training at the lower levels it’s probably perfect either working videos or by youtube or just general all purpose training regime, you will need a saddle fitter in some point as well because the fitter the saddle it will impact the horse and then the higher the performance level you might want to start looking at the sports psychologist involved, nutritionist both for yourself and for the horse, you definitely wanna have a body workers for both your horse and for yourself regularly. Ideally having them also corresponding with a farrier and the saddle fitter so that they are working together as a team. 

And then you want your coaching to be more involved. As a sport we have a bit of a tendency to go to this one session model where we go and have a session then we go home and we work on it on our own until the next training session. 

When really as you start to get more advanced you should have someone to bounce some ideas of send a video to and say hey look I am struggling with this one, what do you think of this one, am I on a right track, is invaluable and the top top level the difference between the percentages are so small that they are working under the eye of somebody almost all the time. That doesn’t necessarily mean in the instructured session, but just that there is always that extra set of eyes to say hey you can ask a little more or that’s too much or you need more ankle, so that definement comes really into the whole picture. 

And in terms of general tips, the biggest tip I can give is to look at systems and processes and develop a pattern of what it is that works for you. Find it interesting what works for you and what works for your horse rather than focusing on results or levels or anything like that because if you keep the focus on how it’s all working and what you can maybe do to improve things are always going to be both on a positive and also having a measure of success that’s on your own control. 

Jenni: There’s a lot of tips and I think like you said it’s good to have someone to be able to see how you are improving and how you are riding and I think that the modern times when you can record every session and you can always ask someone to check if things are going in to right direction. And that's a really good thing. Then one thing I want the listeners to know is that where can they find you and if they want to train with you what can they do? 

Sarah: I have a few different options for finding me. I have a website  www.sarahsjoholmpatience.com which is half impossible to spell, but possibly not as bad up Nord as in here. So follow the links. I am also in socialmedia @sjoholmpatience in instagram, facebook and twitter. I also have a youtube channel and have some videos posted on it. 

If people are looking to train with me I do clinics. At the moment with the covid situation much less and restricted to working in UK so I do clinics across the UK and then usually or before covid I was doing regular clinics over in Finland and also in Germany so contact me telling I would be interested in setting up a clinic and training that way or as you mention with new technology I am on Ridesum, that offers the ability to digital lesson. So plenty of different options. 

Jenni: Really nice. Thank you so much for coming to an interview. It’s been a pleasure to have a chat with you. I hope our listeners got a lot from the interview. So thank you very much. 

Sarah: It’s been an absolute pleasure. Thank you. 

Back to blog