Phyllis Dawson Clinic Report: So Many Jumps, So Little Time

Photo by Ian Bowman Photo by Ian Bowman

The cross country course at Phyllis Dawson’s Windchase Farm is extensive. I haven’t actually counted, but there must be hundreds of jumps spread out over the five different schooling fields. After 30s years of course development, Phyllis is literally running out of names for the jumps. Some of the names are quite specific, so navigation can be tricky. Directions at a Windchase schooling session may reference the species of the tree used to build the fence or the live tree standing next to it, so it helps to know the difference between a locust and a maple.

I’ve been fortunate enough to take many lessons from her and was thrilled to hear she was starting a short back-to-school clinic series. I immediately signed up with my OTTB, who’s about to run his first recognized Training.

Phyllis makes her expectations clear from the start. “Too often I see horses in cross country warm up running around on the forehand,” she said. She stressed the importance of establishing calm compliance to the aids and balance in the warm up. She recommended fieldwork, light flatwork practiced in the field with a jump saddle, as a method to achieve that. Due to several days of rain and unseasonably good footin,g I had spent most of the past week on fieldwork, so my guy warmed up like a handy hunter. Bonus!

The first jumping exercise gave us all a chance to practice our transition to coffin canter. Phyllis placed two sets of flags in front of a small jump at 12 and six strides out. We were to canter up the field in a forward tempo, make a sweeping turn, and complete our transition back to a coffin canter before the first set of flags. In this case we were aiming for an energetic nine-foot stride. We would know we were successful if it took six strides to get from the first flags to the second, and six strides again from the second set of flags to the jump.

Next she had us repeat the exercise starting from a gallop appropriate for each horse’s level and temperament. That was about 475-500 meters per minute for my horse, and our transition back to the shorter stride took slightly longer than the first time. Phyllis explained that the right canter for a given cross country jump varied depending on the nature of the fence and where the horse is in his training.

She added that shifting from cruising gallop to the jumping canter is the hardest part of cross country riding, and that the transition needed to be completed by the time we were six strides from takeoff. It was helpful to have the flags as a visual deadline for the half halt. Phyllis recycled her invisible fence dog training flags for the exercise, so the concept of buried electric wires added a definite sense of urgency.

Photo by Ian Bowman

Photo by Ian Bowman

The second warm up exercise used a row of five logs set at perpendicular angles to be jumped straight on an angle or as turning questions. Either way they look like an endless sea of lumber.

We were given the option of taking the angle or turning. If a horse rushed, Phyllis had the pair repeat the exercise on a variable cloverleaf pattern to discourage anticipation. It’s effective, but I’m always happy to finish the gymnastics and get on with the running and jumping. If I were a horse I would probably be jumping the cloverleaf pattern on a bi-weekly basis.

Finally we were allowed to jump all the things. Phyllis gave us courses to jump, but invited everyone to adapt difficulty up or down based on individual needs. We had opportunities to practice technical questions with a scaffolding approach where the difficulty increased gradually.

For example, we jumped a log uphill, rolled back and jumped it downhill, circled left and jumped a coop. Next we jumped the log downhill on a bending line right to the already familiar coop. If the horse was confident, we could jump the log down on an angle to the coop on an angle. Our day included bounces, combinations, a coffin, turning questions, a trakhener, a picture frame and lots of angles. We even angled the picture frame. I didn’t know that was a thing.

Photo by Ian Bowman

Photo by Ian Bowman

We had a super time with our new and improved gallop transitions. It’s such a fun light-bulb moment when a horse learns that gallop to half halt means it’s time to play Find the Jump. Having so many jumps in convenient proximity gives Phyllis an endless supply of turning combinations and angled related distances. One of the riders in a different session traveled three hours for the experience, and she was not disappointed. I know I wasn’t, and we’re looking forward to the next one.

Anyone who wants to join us can register at