Learning from the Best Out West: Area VII Adult Riders Camp

Covid Chaos Campers. Photo courtesy of Erin Tomson.

For most of us in the Pacific Northwest, our Eventing season is just beginning to gear up. Just a week after our season opener at Spokane Sport Horse Farm, Area VII Adult Riders returned to the beautiful facility in Spokane, WA for camp. It was dubbed “COVID Chaos Camp” because, after a year off from most of our events and regular activities, everyone was equally excited and prepared for the unexpected! The fabulous organizers brought together 56 campers, 12 staff people (who also rode), and four top notch instructors for three days of riding, learning, comradery, and a few shenanigans.

The camp instructors this year included three very successful 5* riders: Sharon White, Rebecca Braitling, and Melissa Beardsley. Area VII legend, Liz Tukey, winner of the USEA Cornerstone Instructor Award in 2020, rounded out this amazing group of dedicated and knowledgeable instructors. They all taught long days and never missed a beat, and then still had enough energy left for a really interesting discussion on Saturday evening about the evolution of our sport from the days of long-format three-day eventing to what it is now.

Photo courtesy of Erin Tomson.

Although I wish had notes from all four instructors, my time was primarily spent with Sharon and Bec, so I have compiled their wisdom for all to benefit from. I was very excited to ride with Sharon, fresh from her most recent Kentucky run and full of experience to share. Sharon’s teaching style is energetic, enthusiastic, and encouraging while holding riders to high standards. Throughout the weekend, she reminded riders that “horses go the way they’re ridden” and that it is the rider’s responsibility to mind their position, as well as their intention, because most of the time horses do exactly what they’re asked to do. If your horse stops at a fence, it’s probably because you asked them to … either in your mind or body. Sharon wanted riders to take responsibility for their mistakes, but also take credit for riding well. She also encouraged us to take responsibility for our pace and rhythm, and to always “trek true” which is my new favorite way of reminding myself to hold the line!

Despite the level of responsibility that riders carry, our sport is unique because it’s a partnership between a human and equine athlete. Horses certainly have their strengths, weaknesses, and individual personalities, which is part of what makes eventing so exciting. One of Sharon’s catch phrases is to “water the flowers, not the weeds.” In other words, play to your horse’s strengths, rather than focusing or dwelling on their weaknesses. She also promotes repetition -– riders and horses learn from repeating jumps and exercises, and making improvements throughout the process. It was inspiring to hear Sharon say that she has made many mistakes over the years and that often it is “only through failure that you learn how to get things done.” Eventers are adrenaline junkies, and many of us are perfectionists as well.

Cyra Carlson. Photo courtesy of Erin Tomson.

Sharon’s advice was to NOT overdo things or try too hard to be perfect, but to “do less, better.” Learn from your own mistakes, move on from them, and learn from other’s mistakes as well. Sharon told one of the groups, “I just try to help people with what I didn’t know.” It was clear throughout camp that she wants to see every horse and rider succeed.

I had the pleasure of taking a stadium jumping lesson with Bec, during which she taught a fantastic balance of theory and applied skills. Her focus was on each rider finding the best competition canter for their horse and we did a progression of exercises to help us find and maintain the quality of canter. Bec made a delightful game out of challenging everyone to gallop forward to see how few strides we could get between two poles on the ground, and then come back around to compress the stride to see how many strides we could add. She explained that, as horses go up the levels, the expectation for how adjustable they need to be increases; however, maintaining the appropriate speed, line, and balance around your entire course is the goal for all horses at all levels.

Photo courtesy of Erin Tomson.

Regardless of level, we have to teach horses relaxation within the forward stride. Bec reminded us that in order to compress the stride, you have to ride forward first because you need impulsion (what Eric Smiley would call “available energy”) to maintain a good quality shorter stride. She also related this concept to making time on cross country and said “You never make time on strong horses” because they take too long to bring back, which wastes time and energy (theirs and yours). You learn to be quick by being able to go forward and come back immediately and within relaxation.

Bec argued, rightfully so, that event riders do not have nearly enough opportunities to practice our show jumping. This is especially true in Area VII where we are geographically spread out and most of us have to travel several hours to any and all horse shows. We simply do not have access and/or time to attend additional jumper shows or practice opportunities to ride full courses under pressure. That makes it really challenging to keep your calm and focus in the stadium ring at events. However, much like Sharon, Bec inspired us to focus on what we can practice at home and do it well — i.e. find and keep the quality of canter you need for the level you are riding! Work on your horse’s adjustability and responsiveness, and challenge yourself to always ride in your competition canter so that it feels normal when you do get the opportunity to go on course. I appreciated how Bec provided realistic advice for the average AA and worked with everyone to achieve the absolute best for them and their horse!

Photo courtesy of Erin Tomson.

As a USEA educational activity, Area VII Adult Riders Camp was a terrific opportunity to learn new things, practice tried and true skills, and shake off a year’s worth of pandemic dust. In addition to the four amazing riding instructors, we also have a wealth of knowledge among our members –- Heidi West led flexibility for riders classes early each morning, and Natalie Sullivan of On Course Equine Nutrition gave a really informative and interesting talk about equine nutrition (did you know you are probably reading your feed labels wrong?!). If you’re interested in learning more or inquiring about a nutrition consultation, you can check out Natalie’s website here: On Course Equine Nutrition

A big shout out to our swag sponsors, Kerrits and Gallops Saddlery! Thank you to Christel Carlson for opening her wonderful facility for our use and continuing to provide opportunities for our sport here in the Northwest. Thank you to Catie Cejka and Liza Linde for organizing, with help from veterans Maggie Rikard and Lou Leslie! Events such as these (in every area!) cannot run without countless volunteer hours by adult rider members – thank you to everyone who organizes, provides food, wine, and fun activities! Did I mention we have an annual puppy steeplechase here in Area VII?? Proceeds go to support Spokanimal, a local animal shelter. It’s hilarious, ridiculous, and an excellent way to support a good cause – think about ways to do the same in your own area. To all who enjoy our sport, remember to thank a volunteer, get out there and volunteer, support each other, appreciate your horses, and continue to make eventing the best sport of all!