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Taylor McFall

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4 Days with Laura Collett

Renowned British 5* winner and Olympic gold medalist Laura Collett recently brought her expertise to the United States for the first time to teach two clinics of 25 lucky riders each, one at Galway Downs in Southern California and one at Dragonfire Farm in Northern California.

In her first appearance stateside, Laura captivated riders with her swift and effective teaching style. I felt very lucky to have this Olympian come to Dragonfire Farm since I had become a fan of hers while watching 5* competitions over the past few years. Laura taught a four-day clinic here, during which she delivered two days of private flat lessons and two days of dynamic group jumping sessions.

Laura Collett and London 52. Photo ©FEI – Christophe Taniére.

What unfolds when an equestrian of this caliber takes the reins in your own arena?

There have been times when I have come out of a clinic not necessarily knowing what I’ve learned or if my riding has really changed. I wonder if that is a case of too much information at once, or if too much is being changed for me to understand. I’ve been riding my whole life and have taken a lot of lessons, so I think that now I have become clearer on what kind of instruction really speaks to me.

Laura was selective with her comments, but I almost prefer that, as I like really focusing in and trying to improve one thing about my ride. At times, when you’ve been through a long group lesson, the best thing is to just have a few concise words of advice to reflect on and apply to your riding.

Photo by Richard Bogach.

Day 1-2: Dressage

On the days dedicated to dressage, Laura’s precise methods brought steep improvement in her students. I noticed how systematic her approach was over the course of all the private flat lessons. By the end of every 45 minute session she would have every horse come out looking the same; in a matter of time, she had all horses moving forward and supple.

During my dressage lesson, she had my horse, Hallelujah DF, going very smoothly. She kept moving us throughout the dressage court, not staying on any exercise too long and keeping the horse’s back legs active. I liked the variety of different “drills” she had to move the horse on and not let them drag and get stuck in place.

I got the idea that she was riding the horse along with me and was just directing me to do exactly what she would have done on my horse. 10-meter circle, short diagonal, 10-meter circle, around a big circle, give the inside hand, extend down the long side — all these directions given with good timing to achieve the goal of a harmonious ride.

With a keen eye for detail, Laura’s system left me (along with the other horse and rider combinations) feeling polished and in sync by the end of the day.

Day 3: Simple Jumping + Turns and Angles

Taylor McFall and Hallelujah DF tackle a jumping exercise set by Laura Collett. Photo by Richard Bogach.

The third day of the clinic transitioned seamlessly into jump exercises. Laura Collett gives a very fast-paced lesson, yet the progress each person experienced was evident as she guided riders through challenging lines and intricate exercises.

For the riders, the focus was on perfecting the position over fences, emphasizing the importance of keeping shoulders upright and reins soft while also giving so that the horse was in total freedom to use its neck as needed, without interference.

The course for the first day of jumping featured a minimal set of jumps that you could combine into S turns, angles or jump as singles. The focus on each horse was to keep a forward attitude towards the jump, half-halting through the turn but then keeping a powerful canter on the straight approach to the fence rather than letting the stride diminish.

Most clinics tend to start with a more simple lesson on the first day of jumping, and I believe this was helpful to get everyone’s eye seeing a more forward ride to the perfect take-off distance. This would prepare us all for the challenges coming next…!

I was able to participate in jump groups with both Hallelujah DF and Overkill DF, also known as “Scarlet”. At almost 6 years old, Scarlet had a year off due to having a foal, which left her a bit behind in experience and fitness.

On the first day of jumping, Scarlet displayed both her explosive jump and her explosive attitude. Her sassiness and strong-willed personality have always been a part of her ride, but today she seemed to be fully against my input.

I had my doubts on whether or not I should be fixing everything for her. I asked Laura if I should “drop” her in front of the fences — just let her go ahead and rush as fast as she likes and see how well that goes — but together we decided this wouldn’t be helpful and only make her lose her bravery.

Laura’s advice was to set her up with my body posture and leg, taking my hand out of the equation and making it so my input wasn’t quite so strong. It was very difficult to “let go” in this way as it made the approach to the fence feel quite out of control at times, but this did soften Scarlet’s attitude and improve her choices over time.

Day 4: Complex Jump Course + Elements of Cross Country

Photo by Richard Bogach.

The second day of jumping featured a vast course with many different routes to take through its wide array of efforts. There were a mix of technical fences, narrows and a coffin combination along with bravery fences that put the horse and rider on a larger stride, such as larger oxers and triple bars.

Laura’s wealth of experience shone through as she swiftly aligned riders with her vision. The jump lessons incorporated tough and complicated lines across all levels of every group. I personally loved how you could string so many parts of the course together through angling or S turns.

During this last day of the clinic, I experienced a breakthrough in my riding posture and rein handling. My horse, Halle, in her carefree nature tends to lope around the course, and I struggle to feel her engagement toward the fences. Laura’s guidance led to a significant positive change.

By adjusting my posture and rein length, following Laura’s advice to lengthen the reins and adopt a more driving position, Halle transformed her approach. The shift from leaning with short reins to sitting back with extended reins resulted in a powerful and controlled canter toward the fences. To me, the difference was obvious and it was very satisfying to feel that this issue was easily changed by adjusting my ride.

On the second day of jumping with Scarlet, I felt up to the challenge. Perhaps the consecutive days of jumping had settled her, but Scarlet was also a lot more agreeable when I used mostly seat and leg to control her. I’ve always loved Scarlet’s brave nature, and while at times it causes her to make bad decisions in front of the jump, when I got her in sync it felt incredible to set her up for the fence and hit that perfect take-off.

Scarlet is the type of horse that will jump whatever you put her in front of, so I’m really happy that we are on track to becoming more harmonious. I was very glad to hear that Laura felt I was on the right track with my young horse. As the one who broke her out and trained her, it felt reassuring to confirm that I have a sound plan for her progression.

In Conclusion

Laura Collett’s clinic here at Dragonfire Farm went beyond the routine, offering riders like myself the chance to focus on specific improvements. Her mastery of dressage and jump exercises made for very engaging lessons. This, combined with her succinct guidance left an impact, making this clinic a standout experience in my riding journey.

I’d say that most, if not all riders, left with a more accurate eye when it came to forward distances to a jump. I am so grateful for the chance to have ridden with her and hope she comes back to the States (specifically mine!) in the future. I definitely recommend taking a lesson from her. 5 stars.

This article is brought to you in partnership with Athletux’s Young Professionals program. Click here to learn more about how Athletux can help you reach the next level.

Two Decades of Learning: 10 Valuable Lessons Learned from Riding in Clinics

Riding with British Olympian William Fox-Pitt. Photo by Jennifer McFall.

I was lucky enough to be born into an equestrian family, climbing onto saddles as soon as I could walk. My parents, Earl and Jen McFall, are both three-day eventers and trainers. They run Dragonfire Farm, which is a horse breeding and training facility founded by my grandmother Cheron. She originally started off breeding pure Morgan horses, which my mom and dad trained for competition. Eventually the entire farm changed over to the discipline of eventing, and I learned a lot from being able to experience both of these different worlds.

I’ve been eventing for the past 12 years now, and my parents have been helping me develop my skills when it comes to training horses and becoming a top level rider. While they’re both capable teachers with plenty of experience, they know the value of taking lessons from a variety of instructors, so they’ve done their best to bring top riders out to Dragonfire Farm for clinics.

We’ve hosted some of the finest riders in the world at Dragonfire, including Philip Dutton, Lucinda Green, Boyd Martin, Susie Hutchinson, Tamie Smith, Buck Davidson, Hawley Bennett-Awad and William Fox-Pitt. Each clinic has been an opportunity to learn and understand horse riding from different perspectives.

There are so many different types of instructors out there and each has their own way of explaining things. Gaining outlooks from so many different minds has given me a big pool of lessons to pull from. Having taken advantage of these opportunities to ride with some of the best riders in the world, here are the 10 most valuable lessons that will help you get the most out of the clinics you attend.

Riding with Boyd Martin at Dragonfire. Photo by Sherry Stewart.

1. Watch and Learn From the Other Riders

Clinics provide an opportunity to observe multiple lessons in one day. Attend some of the other groups and you’ll get to learn from watching other riders. Their successes and failures can help you identify ways to improve your own riding.

2. Come with an Open Mind

Embrace the opportunity to try new techniques, even if they challenge your current approach. Be adaptable and open to change, as it might lead to a breakthrough in your riding.

3. Know Your Group Size Preferences

Consider whether you thrive in a larger group setting where you can watch and learn from fellow riders or if you prefer a more one-on-one lesson. Personally, I learn best from watching how other riders approach the same task. Choose a clinic that aligns with your learning style.

4. Know Your Horse and Your Limits

Over-facing your horse and challenging him with something he isn’t ready for won’t help your growth — speak up when you’re in over your head! No matter how experienced or how accomplished your instructor is, they don’t know your horse as well as you do.

Riding with Olympic show jumper Susie Hutchinson. Photo by Jennifer McFall.

5. Widen Your Horizons

To evolve as a rider, I’ve sought lessons from a diverse range of instructors. Each clinician brings a fresh perspective and innovative techniques to the table. Riding with different trainers can provide you with the new techniques or ideas you need to continue improving. The teacher who gives you that “break through” moment might not be who you expect.

6. Take Videos for Self-Reflection

Recording your lessons can be a valuable tool for self-improvement. Reviewing the footage allows you to absorb the instructor’s guidance and assess your riding performance objectively. It always feels different than it looks, looking back at your ride and listening to the instructor’s words can help you better understand the lesson.

7. Don’t Fear “Bad Rides”

Clinics often are challenging and this might cause new or old issues between you and your horse to come to the surface. Not having a perfect ride shouldn’t be embarrassing; clinics are a great place to solve problems since you could get a fresh new solution for a problem you’ve been struggling with. Failure is a chance to learn.

8. Find the Best Teachers

When looking for a new instructor to learn from, make sure you look beyond someone’s achievement in competition. While there are many great riders who are also great teachers, being good at something doesn’t always mean you’re effective at teaching. Look for the best teachers out there — someone who can connect with you and has the right outlook for learning goals.

How it started: an early clinic with Hawley Bennett-Awad. Photo by Jennifer McFall.

9. Be Appreciative

Show gratitude to the clinician for their time and expertise. Fully engage in the lesson, avoid distractions, and make the most out of the opportunity to learn.

10. Find One Key Take Away

When going to clinics and learning from different instructors you’re going to get a lot of different advice, and you won’t be able to apply all of it. Take one bit of advice from each lesson or each clinic you take and really implement it into your riding. It’s up to you to decide which advice is the most effective for you and your horse.

Clinics are a great opportunity to challenge yourself and learn so much in a short amount of time. I find opportunities to apply what I’ve learned from clinics in competition and in my lesson program.

As I continue to work alongside my parents in our family business, Dragonfire Farm, I remain committed to evolving as both a horse trainer and an instructor. I am immensely proud to be the third generation involved in this equestrian venture, and I owe my growth and success to the dedication of my parents and grandparents. Their support has allowed me to explore the broader equestrian world and I’m thankful for the investment they’ve put into my learning.

This column is brought to you in collaboration with Athletux, one of the longest running equestrian marketing agencies in the business working exclusively with equestrian brands, athletes like Taylor, and events. Click here to learn more about how Athletux can help you!

My Amazing Trip to England

Taylor McFall, 12, had the trip of a lifetime when she traveled to England to both tour the country and watch her mom, Jen, compete with High Times at the Blenheim Palace International Horse Trials. Taylor documents her adventures in England, including meeting her idol Pippa Funnell, in this blog powered by Athletux.

Taylor, Jen and Earl McFall on their trip to England. Photo courtesy of Dragonfire Farm. Taylor, Jen and Earl McFall on their trip to England. Photo courtesy of Dragonfire Farm.

My mom competed at the event at Blenheim Palace, and this was my first trip to England. I saw and experienced some incredible places, foods and met some amazing people.

One of the first places we visited (and my most favorite) was the Tower of London. The tower has so much history in such a small place, there was almost too much to see! The first thing that we saw was The Tower of Torture.

Inside they showed a few of the ways that they tortured people (actually I think that the beds in our hotel should be in this exhibit). But, anyway, they had models of the different tools that they used and what kind of criminals were unfortunate enough to have those tools used on them.

Then we saw the guard tower and some of the other things like jail cells and the Crown Jewels! They were just so beautiful! I saw at least two diamonds the size of a tennis ball. All the golden crowns, jewel-encrusted swords, and the glittering gowns and dresses were like candy for the eyes.

Something that also caught my attention was the Royal Armory. I saw the armor of the many kings and princes that rode into battle. What I thought was cool was that they would have models of the king’s horse and the king with their actual armor on it! They all had such elaborate patterns on them, and I just thought that they were so cool (and quite heavy).

Taylor walks the cross country course at Blenheim. Photo courtesy of Dragonfire Farm.

Taylor walks the cross country course at Blenheim. Photo courtesy of Dragonfire Farm.

But besides the Tower of London, we saw the Salisbury Cathedral, Stonehenge (which was built 4,000 years ago!) and explored some of the many adorable towns of England.

I also went to the event at Blenheim Palace. I saw some of the many amazing horses stabled there and watched them be ridden by their incredibly talented riders. I also walked the (extremely long) cross country course. I was not allowed on the track, just on the side lines.

Most of the jumps were rather simple looking (not much decoration, but I’m sure that they are hard), but I saw a few that caught my eye, Like the “Leap of Faith” which is a stone wall with a wide ditch underneath it. There was also one that looked like it was made out of trash cans. I’m assuming that they have a very good reason for making a jump out of trash cans. There were also some birds, dragons and some really big stone “skinnys.”

Taylor McFall meets Pippa Funnell at Blenheim. Photo courtesy of Hawley Bennett.

Taylor McFall meets Pippa Funnell and Billy the Biz at Blenheim. Photo courtesy of Hawley Bennett.

Last, but not least, I also met an extremely accomplished (and also really nice) rider by the name of Pippa Funnell! I was introduced to her by Hawley Bennett, and when I realized it was Pippa, I was at a loss for words. It was amazing. I was talking to the only person ever to win the Grand Slam, a great rider and a great person (and a good writer — I own a couple of her books).

Pippa was so nice. She asked me questions about my ponies, and we talked for awhile before she had to go (she was on one of her horses and the horse did not appreciate standing still for a long time), but I think that her just taking the time to talk to a little girl like me may have been the highlight of my amazing trip to England.