Let me start by saying this, I LOVE taking riding lessons. Ever since my parents signed me up for a weeklong horse-y day camp at a local Saddlebred stable I’ve been in love with everything about lessons.
Having someone there focusing on you and your horse and helping you to become better is so much fun for me. Being the center of attention is great, plus learning new skills and mastering old ones are important aspects of horsemanship, so lessons are the best thing ever. Were it up to me, I would never ride without a pair of expertly trained eyes pointing out everything I’m doing wrong.
Unfortunately for me (but fortunately for my checking account) this is simply not a realistic way to ride, so when I get the chance to ride with an excellent instructor I jump at the opportunity. Even if that instructor isn’t necessarily focused on my chosen discipline, I strongly believe there is something that can be learned from riding with everyone you can, be that a top tier dressage trainer, an accomplished hunter rider, or an experienced natural horseman.
So when Hawley Bennett, the veteran Canadian Olympic eventer, invited me to Copper Meadows for a flatwork lesson on her Intermediate super horse High Duty (who is for sale!), I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
Primarily I consider myself a hunter rider. I love to hang out in two-point, and there’s nothing quite as appealing to me as floating the reins to my horse and letting them poke their nose out as we canter along, so I knew I was in for a bit of a butt kicking. Hawley graciously allowed me to lesson in a hunt seat saddle so I didn’t make too big a fool of myself, but let me tell you, my abs were still awfully sore after all that sitting canter.
High Duty is an exceptionally nice horse; right from the moment I swung my leg over I could tell he was well schooled and responsive. Hawley had me begin with a forward marching walk in a long and low frame. “I can do that!” I thought, loosening my reins and swinging my hips to encourage a bigger step.
“Nope, don’t drop the contact.” I hear through my earbuds as Hawley kindly corrected me. “Long and low doesn’t mean no contact, he needs to stretch INTO the bit and stay in a frame while he marches on.” Well, fine, but that’s a whole lot harder! I corrected myself and HD responded beautifully, floating around the arena for a while before Hawley instructed me to ask for a working trot.
HD is fancy, and his ground covering stride was comfortable and allowed me to not look too terribly out of place. Hawley put us through the paces, instructing us to make several 20-meter circles and work on getting a true bend. As we warmed up she had me play with his gear shift, switching from collected sitting trots to working trot and then elevating my post to bring out his gorgeous extended step.
All through this I was told to focus on stretching tall and connecting my seat bones with the saddle instead of my using my hunter-y more closed hip angle to post. As challenging as it was to remain upright I could really feel a difference in the contact through the bridle when I was riding correctly.
As we shifted into a downward transition Hawley explained, “I can’t stand horses that pull, so I ride them off my leg and seat as much as possible. I want them to be schooled enough to go in plain snaffles as much as they can, they have to have soft mouths. So as you go to walk, sit tall and close your leg as you close your fingers on the reins, think about him marching forward into the transition.”
That picture of his hind legs swinging forward into the transition helped with other transitions as well. Lifting off into the canter I thought about the same thing, and was able to achieve clean and uphill departures, a testament to his training and natural ability. His canter was lovely to ride, forward and powerful without tossing me up into two-point (despite my desire to do that anyways).
Hawley reminded me to stay connected to the saddle and swing my hips to open his stride. While my hip flexors protested a bit (“You don’t do this enough for us to go along with this!”) once I got the feel down it made it much easier to sit the canter when I stayed flexible through my lower body.
As we cooled down Hawley took me on a ride around the Copper Meadows cross country course and we discussed some of the challenges that we both encounter as shorter riders. “When you have a shorter leg you have to find what works best for you balance wise. Sometimes that means I ride a hole shorter on one horse than another, or change my stirrup length often through a ride depending on what I’m working on. It is even more important for shorter riders to learn to sit up and back, especially on the way to a fence. When you don’t have as much leg to wrap around a horse you have to support it with your body.”
I thought back to the numerous times I’d watched hunter riders with envy as they hovered in two-point on a loose rein all the way to base of the fence, only to nearly fall off (or sometimes actually fall off) when their horse chipped the distance or decided those straw bales were just a bit much. For an event rider that moment before the fence could end much more catastrophically, and their “defensive” position is a result of that knowledge. Getting in the backseat might rub George Morris the wrong way, but at only 5’1” and with short stubby legs it makes sense for a rider like myself to use my upper body to make up for my shortcomings (get it) in my lower body.
Hawley and I also discussed what she looks for in a student. She has riders of all ages, levels and abilities, and for a top competitor it’s always refreshing to see her social media posts supporting her students whether they’ve just completed a challenging gymnastic exercise or finished running their first 4* at Kentucky. “If someone wants to learn, if they want to get better, then I want to help them. But I’m not interested in doing it for them, they need to be prepared to work hard. I’m not going to want it more for them than they do for themselves.”
While I’m probably not trading in my standing martingale and hoof polish for an air vest and leg grease any time soon it was a great experience seeing how the eventing half live and learning from one of the top riders in the sport. If you get a chance to ride with Hawley as she crisscrosses North America teaching clinics, take it!