Dismantling Limits: Dispatches from the 2018 International Eventing Forum, Part I

The setting: Hartpury College in rural Gloucestershire. The horse: four-star fan favourite Ivar Gooden, ridden by Imogen Murray. The name of the game: education, improvement and elucidation on the sport of eventing. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

In the middle of the off-season, when eventers and their horses are offered the breathing room to regroup, re-evaluate and further their education, the annual International Eventing Forum occupies a hallowed niche in the centre of proceedings.

Taking place each February at Hartpury College in Gloucestershire, England, it brings together a selection of the leading luminaries in the industry, each speaking, presenting or teaching in accordance with the year’s theme. Leading riders, too, act as guinea pigs for the sessions, demonstrating the necessary education of both horse and rider, sometimes on their top horses, and sometimes on new additions. The effect is an emboldening, inspiring, occasionally visceral one — and, perhaps, the perfect antidote to an ostensibly endless off-season.

Organiser Eric Smiley — formerly a competitor on the world stage with the Irish eventing team, and now one of the sport’s foremost coaches and educators — spearheads the IEF. The theme he decided upon for this year’s forum was ‘What’s the Limit?,’ a particularly apt choice in the wake of Team GB’s success in the 2017 European Championships, and in a WEG year.

But the IEF isn’t about bolstering the interests or support of any one country — instead, it’s a universal coming together from across the industry, transcending nationalism in the interest of progress and understanding. This year’s speakers were international dressage judge and trainer Sandy Phillips, Eric Smiley himself, performance psychologist Charlie Unwin, and Swedish eventing team coach Fredrik Bergendorff.

Eric Smiley, organiser and speaker at the International Eventing Forum, asks the gathered audience: what’s the limit? Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Explaining his choice of theme, and as way of introduction to the day’s proceedings, Eric wrote:

Few would argue that eventing is a different sport than it was 20 years ago. The technical demands in the dressage have increased exponentially, as has the quality of the work between the white boards and at the top end of flatwork riding. Cross country has changed from a ‘long format’ and reduced the influence of endurance. The test is increasingly technical and challenges physical and mental agility. The technical demands of the showjumping phase now require an incredible level of precise riding, together with an extremely careful horse to be competitive on the final day.

As the sport changes and will no doubt continue to do so in years to come, we must ask ourselves, “how far can we actually push the boundaries in our sport to keep up with obvious performance improvements of both horse and rider?” And, “how do we retain the integrity of the sport?”

In a sport where amateurs compete alongside professionals, how can we continue to raise our game without alienating the enthusiastic amateur?

If it isn’t good (enough), it won’t get better: dressage with Sandy Phillips

Formerly a member of the US dressage team before switching to British nationality, Sandy Phillips is now one of the most respected authorities in dressage training. She was the British dressage team selector through the Beijing and London Olympic cycles, and judges at the FEI level in both eventing and straight dressage. At the 2016 Rio Olympics, she acted as a member of the Eventing Ground Jury. With an unrivalled eye for detail, she is sought out by some of the top riders in the industry to help eke out every last point, and her presentation kickstarted the forum with the assertion that progress can only come from practicing correctly.

What does this mean? It means that improvement very rarely happens by simply getting on and riding. As a rider, your role is to push the limits of what comes easily by asking for more expression, more cadence, more responsiveness, by not becoming complacent about accuracy and correct geometry, and by taking responsibility for sitting correctly and communicating clearly. Practice doesn’t make perfect, but perfect practice makes progress.

Sandy worked with two guinea pig riders: first, Britain’s Tom McEwen, riding a new horse in his string, and second, Gloucestershire-based Irish rider Jonty Evans, who rode crowdfunded four-star horse Cooley Rorkes Drift, to the delight of the 500-strong audience.

Sandy stressed the amount of influence the rider can have on his horse’s way of going with the most subtle of changes to his seat. In her sessions, she posited that:

  • Rather than passively following the step that the horse chooses to take, the rider must influence the step with their seat.
  • The horse’s steps can be made bigger or smaller by controlling the amount that the rider rises in the trot.
  • When moving into sitting trot, the same concept can be used by stopping the movement of the hip and then allowing it again.
  • A small step is not necessarily an inactive step unless you let it be inactive.
  • Overactive hands can dilute the channels of communication and diminish correct, forward-going movement.
  • Riders must be brave enough to ride actively into collected paces, rather than playing it safe and minimising energy and engagement.
  • Leg, not hand, is the answer to most problems — if your horse is heavy, relax the contact and ride forward. If your horse is spooky, he’s behind the leg — again, ride forward, and don’t become reliant on your inside rein to deflect the symptom: address the cause.

“Horses must move forward to the bit,” she argued. “If they come back on you and your rein, you’re giving them a fifth leg to lean on.”

For this reason, a strong core is hugely important for correct riding. A strong core means control over the seat, which allows for an effective leg, and means that the hand isn’t used for balance or to pull the horse into place. Once the core and seat are correct, they can become the primary communication point from rider to horse.

Sound complicated? It needn’t. Sandy brought Tom back to a walk to demonstrate how to rearrange these patterns of communication at the most basic level. The horse, she explained, must go forward off the leg at all times, but he must remain supple — there’s no point chasing him onto his forehand, but he must be responsive. This combination of suppleness and forward motion allows the horse to take a bigger, more engaged step with his hind end, which, in turn, lightens the forehand.

In walk and on a circle, Tom demonstrated how to set the tone for this adjustability.

“You have to give him time to lift his shoulder,” explained Sandy. “Ask, and then sit still. Leave the front end alone. Let your hips swing with his movement, and then stop that movement. Stop moving, then move again. In this way, the horse starts listening to the seat.”

The seat can be used not only to adjust the length of stride and increase engagement in the walk, but also to transition between the gaits — by using the hips and seat to bring the horse from walk to halt, a heightened degree of responsiveness can be attained in the earliest stages of the warm-up.

Once this concept is established in both horse and rider in the walk, it’s a clear progression to continue through the gaits, says Sandy. In both sitting and rising trot, the amount of movement through the seat dictates the length of the horse’s step and, in the canter, it can be used to shorten and collect without losing momentum or taking an excessive contact.

“Think about riding canter on the spot in a small step, but always letting the horse feel like he can go forward. The rider remains soft,” she explained. Varying circle sizes can be used to further develop the horse’s engagement, balance and jump in the stride. Working on the timing of the aids is vital, too — by asking for a more forward step in the first beat of the canter, when the horse steps underneath himself with his hind leg, you create a quicker tempo behind than in front. This lessens the pressure on his mouth while increasing the activity in his hind end, and by repeating this and remaining strong and stable through your upper body, you can create a high degree of collection. This is the basis not only for standalone collected work, but for transitions to walk or halt, and advanced lateral movements such as pirouettes.

Jonty Evans and Cooley Rorkes Drift (Art) are Sandy Phillips' next demo riders at the International Eventing Forum

Posted by Horse & Hound: Eventing on Monday, February 5, 2018

“You don’t need your reins to make him collect,” asserted Sandy. She encouraged her riders — and the riders in the audience — to experiment with how they sit on their horses, explaining that there is a specific spot in which you can help to put the horse in balance but, by being complacent and sitting as is their habit, they won’t find that spot. By breaking the boundaries, pushing their own limits, and being brave enough to try something new, riders — and their horses — can perform beyond their own expectations.

Stay tuned for part two, in which Eric Smiley FBHS discusses building the right foundation for your horse, and the correct progression of training over fences.