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Nicole Eads Caruso


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Pearls of Wisdom from Mary King

Photo courtesy of Valerie Durbon. Photo courtesy of Valerie Durbon.

As the lucky winner of the auditing passes to the Mary King clinic, I bundled up this past Thursday and Friday and headed over to Morven Park in Leesburg, Va. I was eager to learn from one of my eventing idols.

Day one, Mary had riders work on the flat and over poles. She started all the groups the same way: by focusing on rider position as the horses were allowed to warm up in a long and low outline.

As the horses were picked up, riders were asked to perform transitions between and within gaits to test the rider’s effectiveness and the horse’s responsiveness.  She had riders work over single poles and then four poles on a circle.

She wanted the riders to maintain a quality canter, develop their eye, and show their horse’s ability to adjust the canter stride.  When some pairs struggled with the exercise, Mary was quick to offer corrections and encouragement.

In addition to the auditing passes, I was also awarded an invitation to the dinner for Mary King at the Governor’s Mansion at Morven Park after the clinic on Thursday. It was a lovely setting to host the guest of honor.
Photo courtesy of Valerie Durbon.

Photo courtesy of Valerie Durbon.

Before dinner started, I got a chance to talk with Mary for several minutes (my heart was racing!).  She was so warm and friendly! We talked about her daughter-also a professional event rider-and the challenges and rewards of their unique relationship. It was such an unexpected privilege to get to speak with Mary King like a “real person”. Definitely a memory I will never forget!
Day two, Mary had the riders warm up over a single fence with a placing pole. From the start, she wanted to see a forward, flowing, energetic canter. Next, Mary used the first and third elements of a triple combination to have riders practice jumping on an angle.
They then progressed to connecting the two on a bending line, which really emphasized the importance of the flowing, forward canter. A skinny was created using a barrel between two standards. Horses were first introduced to it with the help of wings, but worked up to jumping the barrel standing on end between the standards.
Finally, riders jumped a small course consisting of a bounce, 5 bending strides to a big, airy corner, around the end of the arena to the skinny barrel, five bending strides back to the bounce.  Each pair ended the day looking confident and established on that flowing, forward canter.
Allison Springer and Mr Sydney Rocks. Photo courtesy of Valerie Durbon.

Allison Springer and Mr Sydney Rocks. Photo courtesy of Valerie Durbon.

Throughout the two days, Mary was witty and quick to illustrate a point with a story from her illustrious riding career.  She was very willing to answer questions from the auditors and touched on such topics as how the sport has changed over the years, tack and bitting choices, her fitness and conditioning programs for both herself and her horses, and how to decide when to move up a level.  She has great enthusiasm for the sport and seems to prioritize that her horses are happy doing their job.
Pearls of wisdom from Mary King

Day 1: Flatwork and pole work

  • At the start of every ride, work to improve yourself and your position.
  • Emulate good riders: for example, Mary likes to picture Carl Hester for her flatwork as he gives her the image of being still, balanced and effective.
  • Make the front of your body longer in order to obtain a more effective back and seat.
  • Relaxed/supple elbows will create more independent hands that don’t move up and down as you post.
  • Lower leg should be still yet effective with feet parallel to the horse. Keep weight in heel consistently in order to prevent wobbly feet that nag with every stride or a heel that comes up against the horse’s side with your post.
  • Keep the back of your bottom in the saddle, tuck your tail under you so there is no air between your bottom and the saddle.
Warm up:
  • If your horse is fresh, let them enjoy themselves a little as long as they aren’t trying to buck you off.
  • Start off down and round to get them moving over their backs and also to help them relax.
  • Once you pick them up/put them in an outline, it’s time to work.
  • Should be prompt and responsive to a small amount of leg pressure and the outline should be maintained through the transition.
  • Teach your horse what is right/wrong clearly. Let them know what is not acceptable — i.e. when head pops up in transition, come back down to walk and ask again.
  • Be definite, not wishy-washy.
  • Be calm yet strict-only allow correct transitions.
  • Be strict with yourself and your horse will learn quickly.
  • Set yourself little challenge, i.e. walk four strides then trot four, to ensure that you are being effective and your horse is responsive.
  • Go forward into the downward transition.  You want to keep the hind leg active so the horse doesn’t pull/lean on the rein into the downward transition.
  • Ride the shoulder around the corner like a train on a track.   Don’t use too much inside rein/bend.
  • To keep the hind leg active in the canter, practice lots of transitions within the canter.  Also, spiral in from 20m circle to 10m circle and back out.
  • Your horse isn’t a bicycle: you shouldn’t have to keep pedaling in order to keep going.  He or she should stay in the gait without you nagging.
  • You are the horse’s physiotherapist-get their bodies as supple and strong as possible by pushing for more expressiveness. Stretch their boundaries.
Day 2: More pearls
  • You want an energetic canter.  It should be like bouncing a rubber ball-stronger, not faster or slower.
  • If the horse is strong/forward, you can’t always be pulling back.  It makes them feel restricted and want to fight. You want a steady, forward, smooth canter.
  • Keep shoulders back, don’t fold forward over the jumps.  You never know when your horse might stumble on landing and you are inhibiting your horse’s jump.
  • You as the rider should always be striving to improve how your horse uses its body.
  • In more technical combinations, you don’t want to go slower.  Instead, you want to condense the stride while keeping the energy coming forward.
  • ALWAYS carry a whip!  You never know when you might need it.