BEST OF WILLIAM MICKLEM – 4 – Racing towards a ‘fifth leg’ (Part Two)

'Hannoverian' Butts Leon - German Senior Team '08 & '09 - 97% Thoroughbred.

Convincing people of the need for thoroughbred blood in the event horse is should not be difficult. Ireland has been the World Breeding Federation leading country for event horses for the past 15 years with horses that are almost exclusively 3/4 to full thoroughbred, as have been the majority of the greatest event horses in history.

Although often hidden this also applies to the increasing number of Hanoverian, Holsteiner and Selle Francais horses that have been successful at CCI three * and four * level. Although many in these stud books have little thoroughbred blood, and therefore would be unsuitable for eventing, the horses that have been competitive at this level from these stud books have a majority of thoroughbred blood. This thoroughbred blood is vital. The key component and value of the TB is obviously speed……and therefore safety.


Cross-country horses must be able to gallop and jump well within their maximum speed for safety reasons. This is possible with a Thoroughbred or 3/4 bred. However if a horse has to go close to their maximum speed then the margin for error is reduced, the scope of the vertical jump reduced and they are almost certain to tire more quickly. All of which reduces the room for error and increases the risk to both riders and horses. Modern cross-country courses suit the TB, because with frequent sections requiring a show jumping speed or even slower a much faster cruising speed is needed for the rest of the course. This applies to horses at all levels and is particularly important to riders who compete predominantly at novice level and slightly above. This is a vital point as most people do not ride at an elite level.

When this is combined with the thoroughbred’s higher proportion of fast twitch muscles, and ability to function anaerobically (without the use of oxygen), I believe the thoroughbred is undoubtedly the safest option as a breed for cross country…although adding some X factor with a dash of native breed or pony blood is also probably of real benefit and helps produce a horse with a natural ‘fifth leg”.


A number of you have asked about specific ways to train your horse to develop a 'fifth leg'. Below I list 10 good ideas for improving your horse’s fith leg and reducing the risk for accidents. I also aim to make fifth leg training part of every riding session as there is nothing more important than rider safety and fifth-leg training is the best insurance policy on the market:

Allow the horse to be in self-carriage. Do not try to support through the rein contact because this only restricts the use of the head and neck and encourages the horse to take more weight forward as they try to lean on the contact. The reins should always be a communication point not an attempt at a support point.

As far as possible, even just for their holidays, turn your horse out on hillsides and in fields with varied terrain so that he gets used to going up and down hills. This is especially important for a young horse. So you should try and buy a horse who has had this experience and avoid those who have only experienced a flat arena and minimal turn out. Watching horses gallop freely and nimbly over undulating fields should also encourage riders to trust their horses to look after themselves.

When hacking, deliberately walk, trot, and canter up and down banks and over undulating ground and varied terrain. You may not live in the country or in an area suitable for hacking, but this is of such benefit to your horse that you should consider transporting him to somewhere with good hacking on a regular basis so that he learns to become more agile. In addition do your dressage training on this varied ground. It is very useful if part of your schooling area has a small incline so that you can practise maintaining controlled impulsion as you go up and down a slope. As well as the benefits for fifth-leg training, this has considerable advantages for the physical development of your horse. Riding out and about is so important for both the mind and the body of your horse.

With the help of a coach, practise loose schooling your horse – without a rider or tack – over fences. This will teach the horse to make decisions about how to respond to the exercises without relying on his rider to guide him.

During jumping training, make sure you interfere with the horse’s jump as little as possible. It is difficult to sit still and make only the smallest of changes as you ride but, if you can do this, it will greatly benefit your horse’s fifth-leg training as they are encouraged to take more responsibility for judging the take off point and the effort needed.

Put logs or sleepers in front of every stable door, between fields, and along riding tracks. In this way your horse will have to continually practise looking after himself, watching where he puts his feet and developing his coordination. This is particularly important for young horses.

Build solid, wide banks around your yard, along the side of the drive and between paddocks suitable for jumping at a slow speed on a regular basis.

During a jumping training session, start with standard jumping distances and/or distances that suit your horse, but then both slightly shorten and slightly lengthen them. A standard showjumping stride length is 3.5m, but you can gradually train your horse until he copes with a 3m or a 4.5m stride length. To do this you will also have to decrese or increase the speed but try to have no increase or decrease of weight in the rein contact. This process may take many months to achieve and will need the help of your coach but the results will be worth it.

Make all small, 50-75cm, schooling fences as solid as possible so that your horse treats them with respect and because this will be safer as there will be no falling poles to trip over. Then with the guidance of your coach jump them not only on straight lines but off turns and at all angles, gradually using varied terrain and varied distances between fences. this is all done with the minimum of interference, with the rider just choosing the right direction and speed. (Your coach can guide you about doing the same thing over slightly bigger fences, however do NOT school over big, solid fences at home for reasons of safety and maintaining the horse’s confidence). This is also excellent preparation for learning how to jump 'against the clock' in show jumping.

This is especially valuable because horses need plenty of time to develop confidence and a 'fifth leg' for water jumps. Permanently fill a natural dip in or near the yard with water (including ways for excess and dirty water to drain away) and then ride through the water on a daily basis. This might be on the route to your riding arena.

Happy Days, William

NEXT WEEK – A new blog….Dressage training and rider safety – are some of our coaches and officials blind to the evidence and a danger to our riders.

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Comment by Jo on December 22, 2009 at 8:34am
William, when your series first appeared in Horse and Hound, I had just that day been continuing with my "Pony Club" practice of asking the mare, foal, and all the others, pop a small fence between gate posts on their way out to the field. We've got a small water fence which the horses, literally, use as entertainment! It's paying off because our yearling sees an obstacle (bank, pole, ditch, water, tyre(s), sleeper(s) - drops his head and crosses it. The older horses, too, revel in their own dexterity and confidence! I love this series and will refer to it often to reinforce training objectives. Thank you!
To anyone reading this and worrying about jumping foals/youngsters, please be reassured, I mean just an extension of the canter stride. Not overdone, just a small obstacle to and from the field - it's such fun he doesn't need a lead from mum! It's as much stuff on the ground as raised obstacles - great for dropping heads and hoof-eye co-cordination. (And not with frosty/boggy ground).
Merry Christmas everyone! Lighter nights will soon appear! x
Comment by William Micklem on December 19, 2009 at 3:33am
...Geoffrey, a man who is a jump ahead....happy Christmas..W
Comment by Geoffrey Pannell on December 18, 2009 at 8:39am
hey William, I think you must be discribing my place with sleapers and banks all over the place!!! The water jump is being built next week , finally! It will be nearly a 1/8 acre of water when it's done. Hope you have a great xmas .Cheers Geoffrey

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