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Lesley Stevenson


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The Problems in the Eventing World Today

Lesley Stevenson kindly gave EN permission to reprint this article she wrote on safety in eventing, which originally appeared on her website, My Virtual Eventing Coach. Many thanks to Lesley for writing, and be sure to weigh in with your own thoughts in the comments.

Photo credit to LazerRayPhotos Photo credit to LazerRayPhotos

We have sadly arrived at a point in time where many of us read the latest event recap with as much trepidation as curiosity. With so many horse and rider deaths happening in the sport, many are naturally calling for changes … But changes will only be effectual if we can identify the true cause of the problems!

First, I do think we need to consider that the sheer number of starters in competition compared to back in the day, along with this being the age of instant information, might be making this problem appear more pronounced than it really is. I’m not denying there is a problem … it’s just that those who bemoan the “good ole days” of the sport may not be being totally realistic.

If we compare the number of starters in an event now vs. 40 years ago, we would probably see that the ratio of falls to starters has not changed a whole lot. And back then, if a horse died on course, not many ever heard about it. I have been attending the Rolex 3 Day for almost 35 years, and I can say that it is a fact that there are almost always a number of bad falls every single year.

One only has to watch some old eventing videos to see how much carnage there was back then as well. Also, let’s not forget that due to great advances in veterinary medicine, horses are out there competing much harder and much longer than ever before.

It has always been a dangerous sport. And we will never be able to take the danger out of it completely. But of course we need to find a way to make it as safe as possible, for both horse and rider — while yet preserving the essence of the sport.

Rotational falls are obviously one of the biggest dangers, and something that we should do everything in our power to prevent. Rotational falls happen when horses get caught in a situation where they can’t get one or both front legs out of the way of the front of the obstacle on the takeoff.

There is a very obvious solution to this problem in my eyes — something that we can do that would make the sport of eventing immediately safer. And that is to do away with cross country fences that have vertical profiles. If all solid fences had a significantly rounded or rampy front profile, horses would be able to recover from a bad moment on cross country, without having a rotational fall.

I realize that the statistics the USEA just published showed that ascending oxers were actually the most likely to cause a fall. But that is probably largely due to the fact that they are the most common type of jump on cross country courses. And even ascending oxers can have an unforgiving, vertical face. Look at this ascending table:

Ascending table

Photo credit to LazerRayPhotos

Or this ascending jump:

Ascending jump

Photo credit to LazerRayPhotos

Both of these jumps show an ascending profile, yet still have a dangerous front face, that just begs a horse to catch a knee on the way up.

With the majority of jumps out there, the course designer tries to make the front profile forgiving by making the very top of the jump somewhat rounded. Here are some common examples:

cross country jump

Photo credit to LazerRayPhotos

cross country jump

Photo credit to LazerRayPhotos

cross country jump

Photo credit to LazerRayPhotos

These fences still show quite an unforgiving profile, despite the slight rounding on top. A horse that makes a mistake, or is in less than perfect balance at the takeoff, can easily catch a leg and have a fall.

Look at this very common version of a table jump:

Table jump

Photo credit to LazerRayPhotos

Technically it is ascending, as the back of the jump is higher than the front. Yet it the front face is very unforgiving. Meet this galloping fence wrong, and the risk is high. How could it be safer? Here is a more “old fashioned” table, with a rampy profile:

Rampy table

Photo credit to LazerRayPhotos

I call this an “old fashioned” type of table, because at one point in time (around the 80s and early 90s) many jumps were designed with this safety feature. Movement had been made at that time to make the more airy, flimsy, and vertical jumps of the previous decades more safe for horses to jump cleanly. Here is a jump from the 1976 Olympics at Bromont, showing what many jumps were like in that time period:

Bromont Olympics cross country

So when they decided in the early 80’s to make the jumps generally more solid, and shaped in a more forgiving manner, it was a good step in the right direction. Sure there were falls in that time period, but very few rotational falls.

I’m not sure exactly how long that time period lasted, but at some point (I am guessing around the mid to late 90s) I started hearing talk of changing back to more vertical profiles. People were claiming that these forgiving fences were inviting bad and careless cross country riding … and that we needed to do something about that. So the trend unfortunately went back to putting vertical faces on the jumps … and rotational falls and deaths began to occur with more and more frequency.

I think this needs to be re-evaluated immediately. We already have the show jumping phase to test the horse and riders’ ability to jump vertical faced fences cleanly. And there is always going to be some bad riding out there, unfortunately. Riders are always going to make mistakes. That will never change. We can’t legislate good riding. We can try … but it will never work. Instead we have to create a situation on cross country where they will not be as severely punished for their mistakes.

The next biggest issue is course design in general. Around the same time that the vertical faces were coming back, it was decided that very skinny jumps should be added to more safely test the partnership of horse and rider on cross country. If the approach to the skinny jump was less than ideal, the result was more likely to be a runout than a fall. While this was a good idea, it may have been taken a bit too far.

Nowadays nearly every other jump on course at the upper levels is a skinny, a corner, or a sharp angle. And course designers love to further test horse and rider by constantly putting these types of fences in tight turning complexes. Which has turned the cross country into something much akin to a show jumping course out in a field.

Since the speeds have not been adjusted to allow for all these turning complexes, horses and riders have to go ALL OUT in between complexes to make the time. It is much more tiring for the horse to have to make all these constant changes of speed. And there is also a mental fatigue that takes place when horses are asked the same questions over and over on course.

To make cross country courses more “horse friendly,” each particular “question” should only be asked once or twice on any given course. One turning combination to the right, and one to the left is sufficient to test the partnership’s ability to negotiate jumps on a turn. More than that becomes punishing. One left corner and one right corner, a skinny or two, and maybe an angled line each direction would be sufficient to test the horse and riders’ skills in those areas.

Asking those same questions over and over after the horse has passed the first test is punishing, and leads to mental fatigue in the horse, which of course means slower reflexes. One only needs to sit and watch one of these complexes late on the course, to see the glazed look many horses have in their eyes at that point.

Courses should be designed with the “heart” of the horse in mind. This means that the courses should mentally build horses up, rather than tear them down. This is especially true at the middle levels of the sport, where the courses are supposed to be as much about “teaching” as they are about “testing.”

This means putting a straightforward galloping fence or two after every difficult question, to put heart back into the horse. And not putting the horse purposefully in a situation where he will be punished for making a big effort.

What do I mean by that? Take a look at this Preliminary bank complex from an event in 2011:

Prelim bank complex

Photo credit to LazerRayPhotos

You don’t see the “A” element here, which is the jump up the bank. The “B” element, being a ditch that connects the two banks, will invite a big jump. Between that and the striding to the “C” element, the horse will likely be making a big leap off of this bank. And because of that, the rider will probably then need to rip the horse’s face off to make the tight left hand turn to the “D” element.

What effect do you think that will have on the horse? Will the horse land from this complex eagerly looking for the next fence? Or will he be thinking, “Wow, I’m not sure I like this job …” at that moment?

It is much kinder to the horse to put a jump that doesn’t invite a big leap with lots of momentum before any sharp turn. That way it can be done smoothly. Which will keep the horse liking his job, and therefore feeling confident about the next fence, whatever that may be. And a confident horse that likes his job will tend to think more forward and be more clearly focused at the jumps, which ultimately makes him safer.

This bank complex, by the way, was number 4 A, B, C, D on this Prelim course. And the next 2 fences were so challenging that only a handful of horse and rider combinations out of the two divisions of Preliminary got past jump number 6 on this particular course. I am willing to bet that if being forced to make that sharp turn after the drop hadn’t put such a bad taste in the horse’s mouths, many more horses would have been able to keep going around this course.

A turn to challenge rider’s control after a drop fence is fine, but a milder turn would have been more horse friendly, especially at this early stage on a Prelim course. Every effort should be made on the course designers part to try to make horses feel like they are the best cross country horses in the world when they cross that finish line.

The next point I want to bring up is that of training in such a way to keep the horse’s natural initiative alive. The horse’s ability to think for himself must be preserved in the training process. The more riders micromanage the horse’s footwork and timing coming into jumps when training, the less the horse will be in the habit of doing any thinking about his own footwork.

What this means is when the horse is trained practically to the point of “robot,” where every footfall and takeoff spot is controlled and dictated 100 percent by the rider — the horse will be lost when his rider makes a mistake. Because his instincts to look after himself have been squelched in training, they will not be there when he needs them the most. So he is more likely to not make a good decision … or any decision at all at the takeoff — and therefore is more likely to fall.

And there is no way that training riders to be better about “finding a distance” is the answer to this problem. Because every single rider will make a mistake now and then — even the best of them. Horses have two eyes and a brain of their own, and they don’t want to fall down. They can take care of their own footwork and timing just fine … but ONLY if we nurture that ability in training.

The rider’s job is to create the right canter for each situation, with the right amount of speed and impulsion for the fence in question, to be accurate on the line, and to then maintain the rhythm and balance all of the way to the jump — all of this while staying out of the horse’s way enough to let him focus entirely on the jump in front of him.

There should be no doubt that a horse will jump his best when he can focus on each jump without distraction. If the rider has created the right canter, and the horse has been trained to think for himself, the horse will make good decisions when he is allowed to focus on the jump. As the old saying goes, “There is no better master of their own legs than the horse.”

The type of horse currently out there competing also plays a part in the current state of the sport. Since everyone wants to get that “edge” in the dressage ring, more and more warmblood blood is out there competing in the sport of eventing at the top levels. Now, this isn’t a problem in itself. Warmbloods are obviously very capable of doing all three phases of the sport.

But when going back to my earlier point about modern course design, the physical and mental fatigue created by today’s upper level courses takes even more of a toll on the non-Thoroughbred type horse, who is simply not bred for that kind of endurance. And it used to be that we chose our event horses based on their ability to be bold, clever, athletic cross country machines. Today the horse’s ability to win the dressage phase is much higher up on the list.

So the horses are getting fancier … but are the riders truly adapting to the difference in the type of horse they are riding when they are out on cross country? Are they really getting their warmbloods as fit for a three-star or four-star as the Thoroughbreds were in years past? Are they taking into consideration the disadvantages of the more submissive nature of the type of horse that is bred for dressage, and not bred specifically to run and jump for long distances at great speed? I’m not so sure …

And then there is the matter of over competing. In the days of the long format three-day events, riders used to follow a strict conditioning schedule leading up to and peaking at the three-day event that was at the end of each season. And after that three-day, most horses would get an extended period of rest and recuperation. They would then begin the process of gradually building back up and peaking at the next big three-day.

Ever since the death of the long format three-day event at the upper levels, horse/rider combinations are out there competing every couple of weekends all year long. Here comes that mental fatigue again. The horses may look 100 percent fit and healthy, but there is a natural tendency towards becoming less focused, or a bit too casual mentally when performing the same tasks over and over. They will most certainly not be as fresh as the horse who builds a peak fitness level for a particular event once or twice a year.

And my final point is that the training for horse and rider should be done with the whole picture of the sport of eventing in mind. Taking dressage or show jumping lessons from specialists in those disciplines must be done very carefully, to avoid losing the essence of what makes an event horse an event horse.

As long as they are well versed in working with eventers, it can work. But riders should be careful about this concept in general. The event horse’s initiative must not be disturbed. And the dressage and show jumping worlds do not generally strive to maintain that.

To sum up … the things I feel we should focus on or change immediately to make this sport safer are:

  1. Make fence profiles on cross country fences more forgiving. No more vertical faces … even on ascending oxers.
  2. Either slow the speeds for the upper levels to compensate for the twisty turny and overly technical courses, or keep the speed the same and make the courses more straightforward and galloping again — and I much prefer the latter.
  3. Ensure course design is truly striving for the goal of teaching and encouraging as much as it tests at the middle levels. The courses should build heart, instead of take it away from the horses.
  4. Even at the highest levels, the cross country courses should be able to test in such a way that they do not demean the horse’s spirit, causing them to turn from a proud cross country machine into an obedient robot.
  5. Train in such a way to nurture the horse’s natural sense of self preservation, and teach him to think confidently for himself out on cross country.

A Trainer’s Responsibility

Lesley Stevenson of My Virtual Eventing Coach was kind enough to share a recent article she’d written about the responsibility of the horse trainer. For more information on Lesley, please visit her website.

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

Horses are the most amazing creatures … from their incredible athletic abilities, to their regal spirit, to their generosity and desire to please us humans, to their fascinating powers of perception. I feel like we owe it to them to carefully consider what we do with them on a daily basis.

Anyone who is calling themselves a “Horse Trainer” has a huge responsibility to do right by every horse they work with. And even if you are not a professional, you are not off the hook! You still have that responsibility … as YOU are your horse’s trainer. Here are 10 things you MUST do to achieve that!

  1. Make sure the horse is really ready to work – This means that the horse must be sound and healthy. His feet need to be well cared for and in good condition. He must be fed an appropriate amount of food to maintain proper weight, energy and muscle, as well as a diet that is balanced with the proper nutrients to maintain overall good health. And of course, he must have access to fresh water at all times. No horse should be asked to work when these basic requirements are not met.
  2. Ensure the horse is fit for the job – The level of work being asked for must be appropriate for the horse’s fitness level. If the horse is made to work at a level higher than his current fitness level, he will be prone to soreness and injuries … possibly even catastrophic injuries. Yes, you must push a horse slightly past his current conditioning level to improve it. But only slightly, and not every day. Working a horse harder than his current fitness level more than twice a week (with lighter days in between for recovery) will break him down, rather than build him up.
  3. Make sure the horse is comfortable – A horse can still be quite sore even if he still jogs sound. It pays to take the time to develop a base line on each horse. Knowing what is “normal” for them in terms of how sensitive they are to touch or palpation in all areas of their bodies, how much filling they tend to carry in their joints and how they move when they come out of the stall. This way any subtle changes can be detected quickly, hopefully before they can become a problem. Remember that with any bilateral lameness, such as when both hocks or both front feet hurt equally at the same time, the horse may not visibly limp. And a horse can be quite sore in his back or Sacroiliac joint without showing signs of lameness. But if you are observant and really paying attention to your horse, you will usually see the signs that something is wrong. Usually the horse’s attitude, stride length, or overall performance will be on the decline. It is not okay to dismiss these signs just because the horse still jogs sound. It is also a must that all tack fits correctly with particular attention to the saddle, as a poorly fitting saddle can really make a horse sore and cause all sorts of problems. Bit and bridle fit are quite important as well.
  4. Always be working towards suppleness – Free from the paralyzing effects of tension and resistance, the truly supple horse allows the energy created by the hindquarters to move freely into the connection with the bit. This means that the horse will be moving in such a way that he can most easily and comfortably carry a rider’s weight on his back and there is the least possible amount of strain on his joints. It is of great benefit to the horse to regularly include the various lateral suppling exercise outlined in this article to help the horse develop and maintain his lateral suppleness. Stretching exercises, and exercises such as the Rubber Band Exercise, should be incorporated regularly, to improve and maintain the horse’s longitudinal suppleness. Always remember that the various movements are not an end in themselves, but rather are tools to develop the horse’s flexibility, suppleness, engagement, and self carriage.
  5. Stick with Classical Methods – There is an old adage (that’s very true), that the horse should become more beautiful and move more beautifully if the training has been correct. This is because correct dressage transforms the horse into a more supple and elastic athlete. Correct riding and training, whether we are talking about dressage or jumping, will bring out every ounce of inherent talent that each horse has to offer. If the horse’s body and movement are not becoming more attractive after a length of time in a training program, it might be time to re-think the program!
  6. Always train progressively – All horses should be on a carefully thought out, individualized and progressive training program with a particular emphasis on a strong foundation of basics. Systematic, progressive training is like stacking one building block squarely on top of another to eventually build a strong, solid building. Done this way, you are setting yourself up for success as you advance and move up the levels, as you can simply go back a step if you run into difficulties. Training in this way also helps to keep the horse’s level of confidence high, as he will have a better understanding of his job.
  7. Don’t take short cuts – No matter how “gifted” a horse may be, they shoud not be allowed to “skip grades.” It is well worth the extra time it takes to make sure there are no holes in a horse’s foundation. It is almost always faster to do it right the first time, instead of having to go back and fill in the holes. And try to stay away from all “gadgets” in your training program, as with horses, a short cut usually just gets you to the wrong place faster.
  8. Be precise and consistent with aids, expectations, and feedback – Make sure you know exactly what you need to do to ask for any given task. Be consistent with your aids and your expectations and be ready to give immediate, accurate feedback for the horse’s actions. This will give a horse confidence in you as his leader.
  9. Leave emotions out of it – There is simply no place for negative emotions when riding. If you think your horse is going to improve once you have crossed the line into anger, frustration, annoyance, impatience or irritation – think again. Horses tend to mirror their riders, both physically and mentally. If you begin to feel annoyed or irritated, your horse will often become agitated as well. But what if the horse starts it? What if the horse gets upset or anxious about some external factor in the environment, and that raises the riders anxiety level as well? The rider is still the one that needs to deflate the situation by controlling their own emotions. It is imperative that the rider can keep their cool so that they can be the calm, fair and confident “herd leader” that will help their horse regain its composure.
  10. Be adaptable – More success will be found in changing your riding to suit each individual horse versus trying to make all horses adapt to your way of riding. Look at each horse as the individual that he is and try to determine how you should adapt your training program or your riding style to get the best out of him. A good rider/trainer will always be asking themselves, “What can I do differently to improve the way this horse is going?” And don’t try to make all horses fit into the same “box.”

Does this sound like a lot to do? Well it is! That is why this is such a challenging sport! It is also why it is then so overwhelmingly rewarding when things go well. And the bottom line is, we owe it to our horses.

Learning from Mark Todd on the West Coast

Photo by Lesley Stevenson. Photo by Lesley Stevenson.

Having just moved to CA from the East coast, I was quite excited to learn that Mark Todd was coming to do a clinic here! Along with many others, I presume, Mark has always been one of my riding idols. He is no doubt one of the best and most classic Event riders of all time, and is definitely a master of cross country riding. So I was up before dawn to make the four hour drive to Fresno, to make sure I didn’t miss any of it! Here’s the recap:

Day 1: Show Jumping

Photo by Lesley Stevenson.

Photo by Lesley Stevenson.

Each group followed the same general progression of exercises. Riders did flatwork on their own to warm up, and there were no traditional warm up fences. The first exercise was a great one. I think it was particularly challenging since the horses and riders were sent right to it with no simple warm up jumps to ease into jumping mode.

Three jumps were set on a slight to moderate curve, like a part of about an 80 meter circle. It was vertical, oxer, vertical — each placed about 5 strides apart.

Riders were first asked to asked to canter the curved line in a rhythm, putting a nice, quiet 6 strides in between both related distances. They were instructed to use an opening inside rein to guide their horse through the line, and to encourage them to land from each fence on the inside canter lead.

Many riders found this line difficult, as the tendency to drift to the outside through the curve would obviously change the distance they were covering between the jumps. The extra thrust involved in jumping the oxer in the middle made staying accurate on the line especially challenging – causing the horses to regularly bulge to the outside. Riders at ALL levels struggled to stay exactly on the intended line, and to keep the canter stride consistent.

They repeated this exercise both directions, while gradually raising the jumps up to the height that was appropriate to each level. Then he asked the riders to ride the same line with just 5 strides between each jump. This was, of course, fairly easy for the bigger striding horses.

But it didn’t matter if you were on a little or short strided horse or not, Mark wanted you to get it done – which proved to be quite difficult for some! The upper level groups were pushed a step further… being asked to do the first part of the line in 6, and the second part in 5. All done smoothly and in a rhythm of course.

The second exercise of the day was a little gymnastic… a placing pole to a cross rail, one stride to an oxer (approached at the canter), with a bending line to the right to a pole on the ground, and then a bending line to the left to an oxer. Basically an “S” curve line.

The pole on the ground was to encourage the horse to do a lead change in the middle of the S curve, as well as to make the riders stay accurate on the S line that he wanted them to take. This steering exercise really challenged some of the lower level riders, but the upper level riders seemed to find it pretty easy.

Exercises were then added onto that one, turning it into a course. From the S curve exercise, they did a triple bar off of a turn, with a bending line to a one stride double. Then he added a tight right turn after that (about 120 degrees) to a vertical. For the upper level groups, Mark had strategically placed a row of (exceptionally brave!) spectators sitting in chairs, so that they were jumping this vertical after the in and out right into the people.

Along with being good experience for the horses, practicing jumping while being aimed right at the distraction of the crowd, this also meant that the riders had to land and immediately make a tight turn to the left.

Next they came back through the one stride combination the other way, oxer to vertical, with a slight turn to an oxer. From there, a right turn to a 3 stride line, and then into the same curved line that they started the day with. The various exercises on this course were challenging enough to make the riders have to learn what it took to get it done, and Mark was a stickler for doing each exercise exactly as he said.

A few good “one liners” that I caught from him that first day were, “Stop being a passenger, and start being a pilot,” “Have you got your drivers license?” and “Go on a circle… it’s a round thing.”

Day 2: Cross Country

Photo by Lesley Stevenson.

Photo by Lesley Stevenson.

After having riders warm up on their own over some small solid jumps in the cross country warm up area, each group moved to a neat little play area with lots of rolling hills, and plenty of different obstacles to play with.  In addition to some simple house type jumps on rolling terrain, the lower level groups were challenged with a spooky “shark’s tooth” jump with a significant downhill slope on the landing side.

And once they were jumping that confidently by itself, they were asked to make a 90 degree turn to a roll top at the bottom of the hill (seen in the forefront of the above picture). In order to get this done, the riders learned how quickly they had to look at the next jump, and how important that it was to sit up and really ride the turn after the first jump!

The groups at Training and up were further challenged with a “log on a lump” — a big log sitting at the top of a mound, with a moderate uphill approach, and an equivalent downhill on the landing:

Photo by Lesley Stevenson.

Photo by Lesley Stevenson.

At the bottom of this hill and on a slight curve there was a skinny fence, which had guide rails on either side for the Training and Prelim groups.

Photo by Lesley Stevenson.

Photo by Lesley Stevenson.

Riders learned that they had to really be positive when riding this complex. As weak or indecisive riding caused some of the horses to lose confidence. Next riders were asked to approach this same mound combination after jumping the previous shark’s tooth.

This turned this exercise into something similar to what the riders had worked on the day before in the show jumping — staying accurate on a curved line over 3 jumps, but this time including a skinny and some serious terrain questions! It is always a good sign when instructors use exercises which build off one another this way, as this means that the riders have been given the foundation that will set them up for success.

Again building on the same skills the riders just used, Mark next had riders at Training level and up jump a bigger downhill vertical, with a bending line to a narrow chevron at the bottom of the hill. All groups began this exercise with guide rails on the chevron, and the upper level groups were then tested without them.

Photo by Lesley Stevenson.

Photo by Lesley Stevenson.

This exercise proved to be quite challenging to many riders! Many of whom had runouts to the left – as the bending line to the right encouraged the horses to lean towards their left shoulder:

Photo by Lesley Stevenson.

Photo by Lesley Stevenson.

But everyone figured it out, and all were successful in the end! The upper level group added an even more challenging version which included a big corner after a downhill vertical.<

Photo by Lesley Stevenson.

Photo by Lesley Stevenson.

From there, all groups moved to the main water complex at the Fresno Horse Park, which offered lots of different options for the riders. They started with a fence before the water, through the long stretch of water, and house out of the water. Then came back over that same house into the water with a bending line to a bigger rolltop out of the water.

The upper level groups jumped from water to water over a “snake” fence, which was positioned right in the middle of the whole water complex. They also went on to jump some bigger logs into the water, and came out over another chevron… again with guide rails on it.

Photo by Lesley Stevenson.

Photo by Lesley Stevenson.

As they jumped their little courses around this water complex, groups at Training level and up also included a line of angled tables that proved to be quite difficult, especially for the Training level group. Since the second table was skinny as well as being at a sharp angle, quite a few horses tried an “exit stage left” maneuver. But again, all were successful in the end!

Photo by Lesley Stevenson.

Photo by Lesley Stevenson.

The upper level groups then went on up the long hill to the area where there were several ditch combinations – an open ditch, a log to a ditch, and a log to a ditch to a chevron. They also schooled some big galloping jumps, like a trakehner at the top of a hill, and a ditch and wall. And finally, they finished with going through 2 other water complexes. The first was a log on a mound, down into the water, with a straight line to a fish in the water (as opposed to a fish out of water… har, har), and a coop into the water to a corner out.

Photo by Lesley Stevenson.

Photo by Lesley Stevenson.

Here is a fun video of a great horse and rider team tackling the exercises in the first little play area. And it gives you a better idea of the terrain that was involved with all of these questions:

Mark sat on a couple of horses over the course of the two days, and it was obvious which type of horse he was really drawn to. With one breedy TB he rode, he was visibly having so much fun he just kept jumping and jumping!

And he was also reunited with his lovely former Advanced mount, the TB stallion Aberjack (owned by Teresa Groesbeck), who from the looks of it, hasn’t lost any of his spirit at age 25!

While there were plenty of issues out there on cross country day, all riders finished safe, happy, and hopefully enlightened.  I really liked the way Mark always gave riders little courses to do, so that before they were asked a more difficult question they were in the groove and galloping and jumping in a rhythm. There is nothing worse when schooling cross country than coming into a tricky combination “cold.”

Mark seemed to have a goal of really showing each rider how to ride FORWARD in technical lines and combinations, as he would often ask the riders to do a line in one less stride after they had successfully negotiated it the first time. In other words, now that you have successfully jumped this question in a canter, now jump it in a bit of a gallop — giving us an insight into his level of competitiveness as well.

Big Takeaways
  1. Quite a few riders that struggled considerably with the many show jumping exercises on day 1 performed much more solidly out on the cross country — showing how much harder it can be for some to really ride forward in the show jumping… especially when faced with technical courses. And proves once again that riding forward will cure most problems. Forward energy helps to create straightness and boosts the horses confidence levels.
  2. The west coast certainly has no lack of very good riders and high quality horses!

For more educational articles from Lesley, please visit

Focus is the Key Ingredient to Success

Lesley Stevenson of My Virtual Eventing Coach was kind enough to share a recent article she’d written with advice in regard to focus. For more information on Lesley, please visit her website

Lynn Symansky and Donner. Photo by Jenni Autry.

Lynn Symansky and Donner. Photo by Jenni Autry.

Every sport that requires accuracy requires the ability to focus. In our sport, this means several things:

Being accurate with the focus of your eyes, to help your horse know where to focus, and so that you will be able to more effortlessly go exactly where you are looking.

Watch top show jumping riders during their jump-offs, and you will see that as soon as their horse takes off from one jump, their eyes turn to focus on the next. And they maintain that laser beam-like focus all of the way to the next jump, not wavering for one single second. And because of that, their horses have absolutely no doubt….not for a second…..about where they are going next. Which helps the horse to be more focused as well.

The ability to concentrate clearly on the task at hand, without being distracted by unexpected events, or things that are happening around you, is highly important if you are going to be successful under the pressure of competition. If your horse spooks at an inopportune moment, or you pick up the wrong lead, are you able to make the best of the situation and move on in such a way to ensure that things do not unravel?

And if you are approaching a jump, and someone starts yelling and screaming about something nearby, are you able to continue to focus on maintaining the quality of the canter to your jump? Or do you get distracted and lose your ability to concentrate?

If this sounds like you, you need to give yourself a few clear key points to keep your mind on, so that you can more easily stay on track when distractions arise. In the above case of the distraction while you are jumping, you might say to yourself, “12 foot stride”, “keep the rhytym”, and “leg on”. Come up with just a few key points or cue wordsthat you know you need to focus on for each phase ahead of time, so that you can easily access them when needed.

Being able to feel precisely what is happening underneath you every moment. If you become frazzled under the pressure of competition to the point that you don’t notice things you have learned to feel at home, your performance will suffer.

If this sounds like you, you need to learn how to relax and breathe when under pressure! It may also help you to temporarily widen your focus – to try to notice things in your peripheral vision, to become more aware of what is happening around you, and to be more aware of what your horse is doing underneath you.

This can help you to begin to relax and feel more clearly again. It may sound strange, but what worked for me to relax what was a sometimes too narrowly intense focus in Dressage was to glance down and notice the details of the footing I was competing in. For some reason it seemed to relax me and bring me back into the present moment. I would suddenly be able to notice things like whether my hands were uneven, or if my horse was truly straight.

And being able to think clearly about what you need to do next to improve or maintain the way your horse is going. This is sort of a combination of the two points listed above. You need to be able to both feel the quality of the work you are producing (to the best of your ability), and also need to be calm and clear headed enough to be able to instantly formulate a plan.

If you are jumping a show jumping course, and you can feel that the quality of your canter is falling apart — your horse is getting longer and more strung out with each jump — your plan might be to use that sharp turn coming up to assist you with some major half halts.

Or if you are in the middle of your dressage test and your horse is starting to get low in front and heavy in your hands, you must be able to realize what is happening, and have a quick plan for fixing it — likely some extra half halts through a turn or before a transition, and to remind yourself that you may need to check for self carriage more often for the rest of the test to prevent him from becoming heavy again.

And if you are on cross country, and your horse looks at a fence, sucks back, and jumps weakly… instead of thinking, “Oh no! Why is he suddenly doing that?” and not having a constructive response, you need to have an immediate reaction to send your horse sharply forward when you land, getting him sharply back in front of your leg, so that he tackles the next fence with more enthusiasm!

The mental strength required to stay clearly focused for long periods of time comes easy for some people, but some have to work at it! To improve yours, think of training your focus as if it were a muscle: work at building it up gradually, by pushing yourself to stay clearly focused for increasing lengths of time.

Aim to keep your head clear enough to be acutely aware of what is happening underneath you at each moment, while still having access to the side of your brain that allows you to be able to quickly formulate a plan of action. And leave all emotions out of it for the ultimate success.