An Informative Cross Country Day with Phyllis Dawson

Long since converted to “that friend” who borrows a horse for the occasional weekend ride, I still enjoy the occasional chance to attend clinics with top professionals in any capacity I can, especially when it has anything to do with jumping.

Recently I came across Event Clinics, a new website that lists all the clinics in any Area with top riders.  Seriously, it reads like the Dream Team for eventing. Jimmy Wofford, Lucinda Green, David O’Connor, Phyllis Dawson, Stephen Bradley? Sigh my up!

The Event Clinics app is pretty cool – it’s mobile friendly and lets you register to ride or audit in any clinic with any top rider at any facility. (Assuming the Organizer put the clinic in the Event Clinics calendar, which takes just a couple minutes.) In a few minutes I could find all the details I needed on a slew of clinics and register to ride or audit for any of them.

I opted to audit Phyllis Dawson’s cross-country clinic on July 8. Aside from being the top placed America rider at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and having gone around Rolex more than 20 times, Phyllis is the VP of Education for USEA and an ICP IV certified instructor.

The clinic was held out at Windchase in Purcellville VA, where Phyllis has run a boarding, training, and breeding operation for more than 25 years.  Driving up the driveway was your typical Secret Garden experience: corridor of trees arching over the driveway, weeping willow trees by the lake, handsome foals in the pasture.

This Windchase foal refused to come home with me. Photo by Phyllis Dawson.

This Windchase foal refused to come home with me. Photo by Phyllis Dawson.

For this one-day clinic, riders from Starter to Preliminary were organized in small groups of 3-5 riders. I got there a few minutes early, just in time to watch the first clinic session warm up in the outdoor jump ring. They trotted out to one of the several cross country fields Phyllis has on the property.

Phyllis started each group by getting familiar with the various riders and their horses. She asked the riders to summarize their recent cross-country experience and encouraged them to ask questions as the clinic progressed.

It was fascinating to watch was how Phyllis emphasized consistent points for each group, but customized her advice to each rider. It was a treat to watch the “aha!” moments as riders figured out what Phyllis was explaining.

Phyllis first asked riders to jump a log in both directions, then a curving line of two logs. With one rider on a hot young Thoroughbred, she had her circle on a 20 meter circle jumping just one log until both the rider and horse visibly relaxed.

At the same time, she explained to another rider on a balky warmblood that an exercise that erred into tight turns could encourage balking in that particular horse. Instead, that rider was to use gradual turns and send the horse forward for each exercise. By the end of the first session the balky horse (and rider) were merrily jumping combinations away from the group as if they had done it for years.

Phyllis Dawson explains the half-halt. Photo by Erin McCormick.

Phyllis Dawson explains the half-halt. Photo by Erin McCormick.

After riders worked on turns and lines, they progressed to jumps on slight hills to give the riders practice jumping up and down hill — which turned out to be good introduction for the bank jump later on.  She reminded riders in one session, “the half halt is NOT a gait! You don’t maintain it for 20 strides!”

With each group, she reminded riders that the deliberate pace before and after the jump was critical, particularly as they advanced up the levels.  She explained that visible hesitation going into the fence and racing off afterwards needed to be resolved before it developed into a serious problem.

A consistent theme throughout each group was self-evaluation. Phyllis pointed out, “When your horse stops, you have to ask yourself: Is he in front of the leg, did he stall? Or is he scared and not trusting me?  Have I have put enough positive credit in the bank?”

Phyllis instructs a rider through a picture frame jump. Photo by Erin McCormick.

Phyllis instructs a rider through a picture frame jump. Photo by Erin McCormick.

After the riders had successfully jumped up and down hill, she had them jump a picture frame jump. I’m pretty sure for most of the riders, regardless of the session level, it was their first time through a picture frame! Phyllis explained with a chuckle that it was not uncommon for horses to flatten their ears sideways as they went through, regardless of the overhead height.

She commented that every time a rider jumps a horse off balance or crooked, it can cause the horse to lose confidence. The more times with a young horse you can “put a deposit in the bank,” the less likely you are to have a problem when the approach becomes a little more challenging, she noted.

Riders had a lot more problems with the next exercise than one might expect. They jumped a series of inviting logs, with instructions to keep the horses trotting in between.

Most of the horses really wanted to rush through, or at least canter the combinations. But with encouragement and a few repetitions all progressed nicely to listening to their riders. Again, the emphasis on deliberate speed and effective half-halts was noted.

Phyllis works with students preparing for the up and down bank. Photo by Erin McCormick.

Phyllis works with students preparing for the up and down bank. Photo by Erin McCormick.

As the riders moved over to work on ditches. Phyllis assigned lead horses to riders that looked a little nervous about the ditch, then had them go through alone once they were confident problems would not ensue.

After the ditch the groups went over to the water jump complex in another area of the property. There they finished the session with water introduction and up/down banks as appropriate. In each session, all of horses appeared quite comfortable walking into the lake, which surprised me. Usually there is at least one drama horse!

Overall, the clinic tone was fun and supportive. Riders were grinning as they ended each group. If you’re like me and appreciate the insight a clinic with a top trainer provides, you’ll find the calendar at Event Clinics to be a great resource.