First, let me compliment Greenwood Farm (and Christie Tull and her crew): the facilities are simply fantastic. The first day of the Area V Adult rider clinic was a perfect central Texas day. Though it was summer, the heat wasn’t too bad and a breeze blew most of the day, helping out horses, riders, and spectators alike.
In spite of participants ranging from Beginner Novice to Advanced, most of the lessons boiled down to the essence of dressage: making sure that the riders engaged the hind end first via half-halts (while still encouraging them not to “park” with the inside leg), then using that impulsion to help the horse go forward in self-carriage, without leaning on the rider’s hands.
Seeing how much the horses changed their way of going once the riders used the half-halt and inside leg/outside rein effectively was pretty amazing.
Leslie quizzed us on the training scale for dressage — at the bottom is rhythm. The horse needs to be balanced to find a good rhythm, and this is partly our job, to help the horse find his balance. Next comes relaxation — if the horse is tense, it can’t be balanced and swinging in its rhythm.
Leslie began each session watching the participants warm up, then calling out suggestions to help them with their seat and to put their horses in balance. “Riding is about partnership — connection — with your horse. Make sure you’re aware of the connection!”
In explaining the “mechanics” of the cross country seat, Leslie noted that the best riders were extremely strong in their core and their back. Yes, your leg needs to be strong, but if you don’t have an independent seat and you’re not able to help/stay in balance with your horse, you won’t have a strong partnership. “If you have good core strength, you can have your horse in front of your leg and not be as intimidated,” Leslie said.
He began each session with some straightforward fences appropriate for the level, encouraging riders to find a good quality rhythm. Leslie mused, “As a kid in England, I worked for a steeplechase trainer. They all had steeplechase fences in a line up a hill. We would pick up a gallop and see how balanced you could stay.”
Because there was some room for error over steeplechase fences, you could practice until you could jump out of stride — and most Brits will have ridden with a steeplechase trainer at one time or another. Sounds like one good reason that British might be ahead of us!
He suggested we might try tire jumps up a hill because they have some “give.” As a visual learner, Leslie noted that he still watches steeplechasing to help him think about body position/mechanics.
A lot of emphasis was put on keeping the horse in balance, but you can train horses to find a balance. While dressage can help, we don’t really gallop in dressage, so horses need to learn to gallop early. Let the horse try to find his own balance, but help him keep his forehand “up” with half-halts. Practice, and the horses will eventually “get” the balance.
All the riders were encouraged to steady their bodies before a fence — preparation begins about eight strides out, and by two or three strides out, the rider should soften his or her hands.
He noticed that some riders took their leg off during the jump. “At Wellington, you can bet those riders have their leg on all through the water jump — otherwise, they’d get wet!”
He encouraged those riders to give more with their hands, “When you come off your hand, your leg comes on.” Leslie noted it can be harder for older riders to “get off their hands” because we have less nerve and more of a tendency towards self-preservation. “I don’t have the nerve I had when I was in my twenties, but now I have an education to fall back on,” Leslie quipped.
Riders practiced at the water jump, first by going through water to a jump, then by jumping and going through water. Some riders jumped off the bank into water, and the horses who were wary were introduced slowly. Groups moved to steps and ditches and coffins.
Riders had to judge how much impulsion they might lose in the water or because of terrain and adjust accordingly. “You always have to adjust your stride on cross country,” Leslie said. “Think of it as a watch — if it loses time, I have to adjust it. If it gains time, I have to adjust it. If your horse comes off a jump strong, you adjust. If he comes off slow, you adjust.”
“Remember,” Leslie said. “this is a partnership. You can’t control the horse, but you can work with him by being strong in your core and light in your hands.”
He likes the leg on, and the toe “pointing to 5 till 1” rather than “a quarter to three” because then the horse gets more spur/less leg. The spur is a tool, and not one to be overused.
There is a “box” between most breast plates and the saddle, and the rider’s hands should be just above, “in the box,” with the little finger hovering above the withers. A straight line from the rider’s elbow to the bit helps with balance.
Riders practiced two-point, sinking their heels down, legs on, then the “light seat” (Jimmy Wofford calls this a “three point” seat). He believes that, with the increase of “blood” in most eventers, that we as a whole are moving to a lighter seat in eventing.
“The hotter the horse, the lighter my seat,” he said. The rider should be in two point between jumps, but five strides out, riders need to get into the “light seat” and stay there before, during, and after the jump.
“If I land in a light seat, I’ll be more organized for the next jump,” Leslie noted. “If I land on my seat, or leaning forward, I’ll have to re-organize.” Too many people lean forward, then are told to “sit back” where they have to slip the reins. “The only things that should cause me slip the reins are the ‘oh, crap!’ jump or terrain.”
A couple of the riders rode with a bit of a “defensive seat,” and Leslie recognized that there are times when such a seat is vital — but if a rider is always riding defensively before certain jumps (say, a liverpool), then the horse will learn that when the rider sits or pulls, he will want to pull, and you’ve just taught the horse to pull.
It seems very counter-intuitive, but when a horse wants to rush, the rider needs to lighten his hands/seat, and be very still, trying to relax the horse.
Even the Preliminary riders needed to be reminded quiet their upper bodies. “If you have a bag on your shoulder, you can still do most things. Put some monkeys in that bag, and as they move around, you’ll find it much harder to get things done.”
One rider was asked to drop his stirrups so that he could feel how much his upper body influenced the horse. He had the rider practice transitions using just his body. “Imagine you have someone riding on your shoulders,” Leslie asked. “How much would their body influence your way of going? Think slow, steady upper body to help your horse. When you transition, simply slow/stop your upper body.”
You can read more detail on Leslie’s clinic here.