David O'Connor's third and final High Performance session at the USEA Annual Convention focused heavily on theory and being technically correct in riding across all three phases, with a heavy emphasis placed on dressage. He started the session by showing several videos of different portions of dressage tests from three- and four-star events.
Entrances and Halts: "I don't believe in the end that the entrance — the first impression — is good enough," David said. "I see a lack of precision, a lack of softness and a lack of quality of the entrance. The entrance to the dressage ring is the first impression you're going to give. Even on a horse that's not a big mover, it's very possible to get an 8 there because it's in good balance, it's correct and the halt is soft."
Riders go wrong when they surprise the horse with the halt, David said. And the half halt before the halt isn't working because when riders practice entrances, they're thinking about the halt. "I want you to think about what's happening two strides before the halt," David said. "If you nail the two strides before the halt, the halt will work. It looks abrupt when the aids come too much from the hand. It's too sudden, and then the horse has to leave a leg because he's unbalanced on the strides before the halt."
David also said riders needs to rely more on their seat and less on their hands to achieve correct halts. "If you don't have an effect (from changing your seat) for that moment and you don't practice it, you'll never have the effect, David said. "Your seat dictates the tempo of the horse. If you don't change the tempo with your seat, how can you effectively half halt? When I move my seat and use my back differently, there needs to be a change. The halt doesn't come from your hands. It comes from your seat. You have to practice that over and over again."
Straightness: David also said we need to work toward achieving straightness, which he challenged the riders at Pau to practice when the afternoon sun cast a shadow of a fence board on the arena floor, creating a visual straight line. The riders practiced cantering on the line, and while there were some wiggly lines at first, everyone was able to stay straight after several attempts. "I see a lack of awareness of the straightness," David said. "You have to own the feeling of straightness. Work on it in the winter, and I want to see it in the first competitions next year."
David told the riders to create a straight line in their rings — a drag line or other visual marker — and practice until they can consistently achieve straightness. "Own this feeling of not just being straight, but when you change your seat, there's a reaction. Don't always associate it with a halt. What I'm really after is the area two to three strides before the halt."
Contact and the Walk: David said our riders need to focus on achieving better contact, the third element of the training scale. "I see a weakness not just in the acceptance of the contact, but the quality of the rider's hand so there's a connection." These weaknesses are especially notable in the free walk, when David said he sees riders with long reins and immobile hands.
"At the walk, the horse uses his head and neck. That's she way he's designed. In order for contact to be consistent, your hands have got to move at the walk," David said. "The horse will never let itself go if your hands are still with long reins. Experiment with moving your hand with the motion, and then keep your hand still. Even with no contact, the quality of the walk will change."
Another mistake David sees occurs during the transition from extended walk to collected walk, which is really more of a change in the horse's frame. "Your hands need to keep moving in the transition from extended walk to collected walk," David said. "That is consistently in the tests where the horses will jig because you've frozen. You have to keep your elbows moving. Good hands come from good elbows. It's not actually about your hands."
Body Angles: David also emphasized correct shoulder and hip angles by pausing the dressage test videos during certain key moments so the riders could see the angles on screen. "Your shoulders should always be parallel to your horse's shoulders, and your hips should be parallel to your horse's hips," David said.
Counter Canter: Just as horses should canter on a slight shoulder fore, David said they should also counter canter in shoulder fore. "Horses are built so their shoulders are narrower than their haunches," David said. "Shoulder fore is not created by pushing the haunches out. It's truly having the feeling of putting the shoulders in front of the haunches. We see people counter cantering in haunches in because your outside leg is trying to keep him from changing. And it's wrong. You have to canter and counter canter in shoulder fore."
To avoid getting into trouble with counter cantering through corners, David told the riders to practice leg yielding to the center line to engage the inside hind leg and give the horses an exercise where they "ride the outside" of the corner. Achieving a proper counter canter in shoulder fore is "a technical thing. It's not magic. It's technical," David said.
Flying Changes: David challenged the riders to practice achieving total straightness in flying changes, which he said starts with being straight through simple changes at the trot and canter. "Get that same idea you have of (being straight on) the centerline, put it on a diagonal with visual cues, and see if you can make a transition through the trot and never lose the line," David said. "Can you do that? If you can't do it, then you'll never get a straight change. You have to be that technical."
Walk Pirouette: Phillip Dutton asked about preparing for the walk pirouette in Four-Star Test B, and David said the key is to "always keep the inside hip going. "A true pirouette ends up being a lead in to piaffe. Teach it more through turn on the haunches. Don't come around and immediately start on a 180-degree turn. Teach it in quarter turns. … It's more of a turning exercise than a sideways exercise. It's a turning of the shoulders over the inside hind leg.
"People get in trouble by thinking it's a sideways exercise. The inside hind leg has to become a pivot leg. It has to move. Start by doing 90-degree turns. Then 120-degree turns. If you consistently do that well, you can go 180 degrees. Every time that you do it, always do your first one with the three-step, 90-degree turns.
Shoulder-in: Jan Byyny asked about shoulder-in down the center line coming off a corner, which also makes an appearance in Four-Star Test B. "Finish the turn, then bring the shoulders over and think about shoulder-in. Your outside knee is on the inside of your track. That's a good way to judge your angle. And you hands cannot move. Once you're onto this line and this angle, if your hands move at all laterally, you are now playing pinball, and you're going to bounce from one side to the other. Your hands and your position have got to freeze and stay there.
"Why does a horse come off the angle in shoulder-in? You solve that through the half halt, not by the lateral pushing of the shoulder. That half halt needs to work. Set up the tool and then use the tool."
Think "Next": Instead of keeping your eyes up, David said he tells riders to think "next," as in always be looking ahead to the next element on cross country. When your eyes are up, your brain is already moving on to the next thing. "It's a mindset. It can be learned," David said.
Fitness: "Our horses have to be fitter, and they need to be fitter younger. It used to be when we did all A, B, C and D phases that our horses were fitter as 6-year-olds, generally because we had steeplechase to do," David said. Now one-star isn't that different from a horse trial, and even two-stars aren't that much different. It catches them out at three-star. Get them fitter younger."
"It's not that your horse suddenly breaks at three-star because of the level. A lot of times, it's that they're not fit enough and strong enough, and that's why they break down," David said.
Making Decisions: David emphasized that he wants riders to making mistakes at the final jump before a combination, especially when the jump requires a bending line in six or seven strides to reach the combination. "This decision you're making after the first fence really needs to be made before you even get there. This reaction when you land has to be whether the horse went right or left, David said. "Six to seven strides is just long enough to panic. Practice. Believe in your rhythm. Be very determined that as you come into this thing. Know where you're going to land and what you're going to do.
"Say it out loud: 'I'm going to move up. I'm going to hold.' So there's a reaction time. Give yourself some longer distances. … Don't expect that your talent will show up on the day. Repeat it on different horses. Come in too fast and react. Come in too slow and react."