Francis Whittington Puts Principles Into Practice on Cross Country

Kelly Vaughan Hanby riding Leon (left) and Holly Ratcliff riding Eddie with Francis Whittington during their cross-country lesson at Gibbes Farm. Photo by Leslie Threlkeld Kelly Vaughan Hanby riding Leon (left) and Holly Ratcliff riding Eddie with Francis Whittington during their cross-country lesson at Gibbes Farm. Photo by Leslie Threlkeld

For the cross-country portion of the Francis Whittington eventing clinic, a large group trailer-pooled down to St. Matthews, South Carolina, to Gibbes Farm, a cross-country paradise with more than 150 jumps of all types and sizes.

In part I, we reviewed Francis’s three key principles for riding: balance, rhythm and control. Using these tools, Francis helped riders identify problems and how to fix them. On cross country, the riders consolidated what they had learned and put it into practice so they could carry that homework forward.

“We addressed the principles in the confines of an arena. Now we put it into practice out on the cross-country course where there are many other variables that are there to upset your rhythm and balance,” Francis said.

“If we can get the principles right here in training and make sure the riders understand it, then after the clinic they can go home and replicate and continue their own education through their own understanding of the principles we’ve been trying to address.”

Ride courses to practice rhythm

Francis had each group of riders warm-up by cantering around a wooded area with jumps and told everyone to take a look around, see what jumps appealed to them and how multiple fences might connect with one another. They each then jumped a series of small logs before heading to a bank complex and working up and down a step for several minutes.

When schooling, Francis said he will take “buzzy” horses to the steps first thing and go up and down them repeatedly so the horse starts “taking ownership” of its footwork. Only once they are relaxed and thinking about the question will he move on.

Leon thinking very hard about stepping off the bank. Photo by Leslie Threlkeld

Leon thinking very hard about stepping off the bank. Photo by Leslie Threlkeld

After a warm up over small logs and steps, Francis started putting together courses. After each successful round, he would add on more fences until students were jumping practically a full cross-country round.

“I think we’re better off cross-country schooling over a selection of fences so you can develop and feel the rhythm and repeat it over and over,” he said. “The only fences I repeat individually are warm-up jumps, steps, the coffin and water.”

Right from the beginning, Francis made sure his students were riding forward and keeping the engagement and rhythm to the fences because “balance and rhythm gives you control.”

He was also keen on building confidence in the horses and riders and wasn’t concerned if someone went around a fence they weren’t feeling good about or added in a fence that “got in the way.” Just like the previous days, the atmosphere was pleasant and relaxed. Thankfully the weather was better, too.

Several riders surprised themselves with what they accomplished. Those with some confidence problems and others who had not cross country schooled in years finished the day absolutely beaming. Everyone went home with useful tools to apply to their continued education and help them build on their relationships with their horses.

Commit to what’s ahead

As it goes in eventing, the outing was not without unscheduled dismounts. Thankfully, no one was injured. They got back on and carried on better than before, in fact.

Safety is an ever evolving topic of conversation, and the sport’s governing bodies are constantly working to make the sport as safe as possible for horse and rider. However, Francis told the group, falling off isn’t bad, and we shouldn’t let the fear of falling impact our riding.

Julia Whirley and Phaye conquer a big stack of logs that gave them trouble on the first attempt. Photo by Leslie Threlkeld

Julia Whirley and Phaye conquer a big stack of logs that gave them trouble on the first attempt. Photo by Leslie Threlkeld

“There’s a fear of falling off as a result of the fear of being hurt,” Francis said. “As I say to my 5-year-old son when I’m picking him up off the floor: ‘Why do we fall off, Max?’ And he looks up and says, ‘So we can get back on board, daddy.’ And then I say to him, ‘Why’s it good to hurt, Max?’ And he’s learned to say, ‘So we know we are alive, daddy.’”

As adorable as that is, Francis does it so his little boy will not be afraid of falling of his pony. “If you’re not afraid to fall, then you’re able to commit to what’s ahead of you.”

“So if a horse stops or somebody falls off, these aren’t bad things,” he explained. “These are just another way of showing us what we need to do to improve what it is we’re trying to achieve. If you can conquer that fear of what might be, then you’ll be fine to carry on.”

Here are a few more Whittington wisdoms to carry with you:

  • Sit up and balance through your turns to relaxed lines.
  • Rhythm, balance and control. It doesn’t matter which two you have, you can always get the third (e.g. rhythm through the turn with engagement for balance gives you control).
  • Do not look down to put your foot in the stirrup. EVER.
  • Horses will chip in if they are not put into some form of contact. Step into the contact.
  • Ponies tend to be unstable over poles, but it’s important for kids to be happy going forward through them. Francis’s 5-year-old boy canters ground poles.
  • Keep the contact to keep control.
  • Look at your next fence early and don’t stop looking.
  • Start developing the canter for your next fence the moment you land.
  • When you’re working on getting the contact, the worst thing you can do is let go of the reins to pat the horse. Use your voice.
  • Confidence is trusting and doing nothing in front of a fence.

We hope you learned some things that will help you in your own riding! We’d like to thank Kelsey Briggs for hosting a truly great clinic, and thank you, Francis Whittington, for sharing your knowledge with us. If you missed part I of the clinic report, click here to check it out.

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