Hello EN Readers! It appears as though the craziness of the holiday season is finally beginning to die down, as people return from vacation and work projects begin again in earnest for the new year. At last I have a chance to write about a clinic that was truly one of my favorite experiences with an upper level rider (and not just because it happen to take place on my birthday!) – The Buck Davidson Clinic!
This clinic, organized by Kristy Limon of Excel Eventing, was held in Bellville, Texas at the established eventing facility, Pine Hill. Pine Hill hosts 100 acres of hilly fields and wooded areas perfect for practicing the different phases of the eventing sport. Since 1977, this facility has offered riders the opportunity to school and train, and has become one of Area Five’s most popular riding locations.
Students at the clinic were lucky enough to have Buck’s instruction just days (literally!) after he’d been awarded Preliminary Rider of the Year, Rider of the Year, Adequan USEA Gold Cup Champion, Horse of the Year (for Ballynoe Castle RM) and Mare of the Year (on Absolute Liberty) at the USEA Year End Awards ceremony. Wow! To say we were all a little in awe of him is an understatement.
But despite all the accolades and recognition, Buck arrived at Pine Hill in Bellville, Texas with the same low-key geniality and hard working attitude that he has become known for in eventing. His focus was on the horse and rider teams attending the clinic, their training needs, and finding an effective way to help them improve!
Fortunately, the students (of all levels) were ready for some serious work! We had riders in attendance from as far away as Louisiana, both at beginning levels and recognized on the “Developing Riders” list, and all were committed to getting the most from the clinic!
Buck told us that these winter months, typically a slow season for most eventers, was the perfect time to take training back to the basics. He wanted to work primarily on position and on asking the horse to respond correctly to the rider’s aids when asked to. Connection with the horse was vital, creating a situation that expected the horse to move into the connection correctly from the beginning was the goal. Buck spoke plainly about the necessity of solid riding and training basics by stating, “If you and your horse are cheating right now in training for the connection, when there is no show coming up, then what is going to happen in the middle of the show season? That’s when you’ll need your basics to be as correct and solid as possible, in case something unexpected happens.”
Through this clinic, Buck helped us all take a step back and turn a discerning eye on the foundation of our position, on whether we were preparing our horse to jump safely and accurately, and whether we were maintaining the essential connection between our bodies and our mounts. He did this by challenging the clinic students with a series of rigorous stadium jumping grids and ever-changing cross country combinations. Each days’ lessons went as follows:
Saturday – Stadium Jumping
Although Saturday’s focus was on stadium jumping, Buck began his instruction with a series of flatwork exercises meant to establish balance and connection from rider to horse. He asked the students to shorten their reins in such a way that would lift and collect their horses in the front, while also pushing the horse forward from their legs at the trot. The goal was to keep their horse “in front of their leg,” showing both impulsion and collection that would translate to a correct approach to fences. Riders were required to trot for this exercise, and Buck would not let anyone use speed to get their mounts moving forward into the connection. He insisted that riders set the expectation of connection, so that the horse could comply. “It’s a matter of you training the horse, not the horse training you,” He said.
Once he was satisfied with our trot work, we progressed to the canter, where we worked on elasticity of stride and the horses’ willingness to respond to aids. Cantering in a large circle, Buck required that we collect our horses as much as possible, then move forward on an interval. This process has us expanding and contracting the frame we had with our horses, all while never losing that earlier established connection. Each time we collected, Buck wanted us to ask for lift in the chest and shoulder, then maintain that lift even as we allowed the horse to move forward into a hand-gallop.
I’ll say something here that I’m sure every eventer knows….. Flatwork is hard work! Despite the cool morning, we were all sweating by the time Buck was ready to start jumping! But our horses were supple and responsive, primed for a good day of positive grid-work.
We began simply, cantering over ground poles that were 9 feet, 8 feet, and 7 feet apart before jumping over a vertical. The poles guided the rider’s collection upon approach to the jump, and using what we learned on the flat, most horses made the shortening distances easily.
From there, Buck began to expand on the pattern. He had students ride the poles to the vertical, then forward five strides to another set of ground poles to a short two-stride vertical combination. We then were required to ride all the way to the fence before turning around a standard. This taught us to maintain the horse’s balance all the way through the end of the line, and to not allow them to bend towards the inside on a turn. Buck didn’t want us depending on the reins to turn our horse, he wanted us to use our bodies!
After we completed the expanded combination, Buck added additional gridwork, including a line of offset verticals at four stride intervals (on a continuous bending line). This was where the rider’s use of their body rather than their hands to ask for the bending line truly paid off. If the student simply turned the horse’s face, they overshot the bend and couldn’t make the four stride requirement!
The pattern continued to expand as the students successfully completed each portion. The next line challenged the students’ ability to remain precise in their steering and striding. It began with a vertical, a short two stride over a narrow brush box (minus the standards), then a forward moving three-stride over an oxer.
Students throughout the day completed the above elements in multiple combinations and at varying heights. I can safely say that everyone felt their position improving as the gridwork (and Buck’s constant reminder to “Keep your horse in front of your leg! Sit up!”) guided them into a better seat with more effective aids. Horses and riders alike ended the day energized with their accomplishments during the stadium lessons!
But the day didn’t end after the lessons were done. That night Buck gathered with the clinic attendees at Martin Farms for a delicious homecooked meal and a Q&A session that discussed his recent year-end awards, his success with Team USA at the Pan American Games, and his outlook on obtaining personal and professional goals in the sport. Buck stressed the importance of riding as part of a team, of placing independent aspirations second to supporting fellow team members and riders. He reminded us all that not only do successful riders need to have ironclad work ethic to produce results in eventing, they also need to commit themselves to learning from their colleagues and sharing the accountability in training for competition. Buck was obviously proud and thankful to have been a part of the amazing US team, including Michael Pollard, Hannah Burnett, Shannon Lilly, and Lynn Symansky. He heaped praise upon them for their accomplishments, while downplaying his own success. Every student in attendance that night left with a greater appreciation for the sportsmanship and camaraderie of the eventing discipline, thanks to Buck Davidson.
Sunday – Cross Country
Though Sunday was dedicated to practicing the cross country course, it quickly became clear that the lessons of the previous day were not to be forgotten. Like Saturday, riders were expected to begin their warm up by setting an expectation for proper connection with the horse. We revisited expanding and contracting the horses’ frames in the canter, as well as practicing moving from a cross country gallop to a coffin canter and back again within a restricted amount of strides. Buck wanted the students to be able to feel and identify the gallop, the stadium canter, and the coffin canter, so they could deliberately ask for the correct rhythm at the right moment. He told us, “It’s not a matter of speed, but of balance. Your horse can go as fast as you want, as long as they stay balanced and connected.”
Buck discussed the ideal position when on a cross country course, telling riders to stay in the middle of the horse, sitting up with shoulders back. Proper position allows the rider to be prepared for the unexpected. He told us, “I want you to be able to look at the distance to a jump and choose the pace, so that you don’t have to take the first distance you see, but could take the second or the third.”
Buck then applied this exercise to a sprawling course of seven to eight cross country jumps, requiring that we approach certain fences at a gallop and others at a coffin canter. Focus was put upon the ability to change the length and balance of the horse’s stride at any point on course, whether right before a jump or during a long gallop stretch.
While exercising the water combination, Buck incorporated multiple turns that necessitated proper balancing of the horse through the water. He had students begin over two gallop-speed fences in the field, then slow the rhythm to a coffin canter on the approach to a two stride log jump to a bank down into the water . Once in the water, the rider then immediately turned left to canter out and over a roll-top on an ascending line.
The same concept of balance and connection were applied once again on hilly terrain. Buck had riders jump stacked logs at the peak of a hill, ride in a controlled manner down the decline, turn to ride back up the hill and down again over a descending four stride combination, then turn again and ride another jump at the peak of the hill. All the while, the horse and rider were expected to maintain impulsion that put the horse in front of the rider’s leg, but remained in balance and controlled.
The theme continued throughout the day, over bank steps and trakehners. But no matter what we were jumping, Buck would always remind us of those vital points: Keep moving forward, maintain a connection, and seek the proper balance. Certainly words to live by, both in this sport and out!
Conclusion – Tired but Happy
This clinic is approximately the fifth time I’ve ridden with Buck in the past two years, and once again I believe I walked away with both a sense of accomplishment and a great deal to work on before he sees me again. Buck’s explanation of the most fundamental elements of riding are precise and technique driven, with continual reference to the consistency required to train both yourself and the horse. He never over-explains, but will verbally lay the groundwork and then let his jumping exercises speak for themselves. He is honest and kind in his critiques, and gives positive feedback whenever a rider does something correctly, which makes riding with him extremely rewarding. Even if Buck never won Rider of the Year, or helped USA clean up at the Pan America games, I would still consider him one of the most valuable assets to the eventing sport today. Not just for his extensive talent, but also for the core values he promotes within our sport: Teammwork, Dedication, and Consistancy.
Buck Davidson will be returning to Area Five again in February, and I have already sent in my deposit for my spot. Prophet and I have begun planning our training regime over the winter so we can show Buck our improvements. There is just nothing better on this earth than getting the “thumbs up” from Buck Davidson!