Riding with Eric Smiley: A Clinic in Confidence

Eric Smiley at work. Eric Smiley at work.

The first time I heard about Eric Smiley coming to Sunset Hill at McCuan Farms in Woodbine, Maryland, three years ago, I had no idea who he was. Well, if you type his name into Google, you get more than you think. Pictures, articles, blog posts and more pictures flood the results. It becomes very clear that Eric Smiley is true eventing royalty.

Eric has a list a mile long of his accomplishments and achievements. This list includes being a member of four Olympic teams, three World Equestrian Games teams, being an FEI international judge and being a regular competitor at both Burghley and Badminton. The list goes on and on, but I believe anyone who doesn’t already know Eric’s resume gets the overall picture.

For the first-timers, riding with Eric can be intimidating based solely on the previously mentioned resume. But within the first few minutes, it becomes clear that Eric has a way with teaching. It takes only one look around to see the smiles in the arena to know a ride with Eric is going to be fun and educational.

Day one

The tag line for this clinic was “Three Days Three Ways.” The first day was all dressage. Dressage is inherently a complex, hard pain that we eventers must all suffer though, but is it? First are two questions that gets your mind going: “What are two things you like about your horse?” and “What is one thing you want to work on?”

Eric starts with warming you and your horse up, the simple basics of what makes three good gaits. Probing for answers, Eric asks very basic questions that causes most riders to over think and give overly complex answers to.

Dave and his mare Serendipity working on their dressage work with Eric

Dave and his mare Serendipity working on their dressage work with Eric.

He challenges the knowledge you think you know, and even more so he challenges the pop culture riding terms used in everyday lessons. For instance, “What is impulsion?” Seems like a simple question that you know the answer to. But Eric asks, “What is impulsion in two words?” which is normally followed by silence as riders try to take all the terms we normally associate with impulsion and make it just two words.

Samantha Bilodeau riding Rep in a dressage lesson with Eric

Samantha Bilodeau riding Rep in a dressage lesson with Eric. Photo courtesy of Lola Cake.

Eric pushes you to not just sit up on your horse and be along for the ride but to be an active participant — using your mind along with your body to hold fast to the correct ways of going. He brings into play how to improve your rides one movement at a time from the judge’s point of view. Being a competitor and judge brings two unique views to help riders develop confidence in the dressage ring.

Meghan Perry, an accomplished upper-level eventer and very regular student of Eric’s, said, “On the flat you have to feel what is right to get the best results from your ride and your horse. To feel is to do the right thing at the right time. Sometimes you learn feel by doing the wrong thing at the wrong time and not getting the desired response. And that is OK; you will learn what the right thing is.”

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Eric’s hands in use.

Eric uses every moment of your ride to help you improve, whether your doing it right or you are learning from doing it wrong. He helps you understand the “feel” so you can reproduce the correct results again and again. There are times when he will demonstrate what the correct feel is by taking your reins and being your hands.

The statement was made that someone just needed Eric’s hands attached to their arms, to which he replied, “My hands are available at Costco!” Who knew — Costco would make a killing if this were true.

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Getting ready to jump.

Day two

At the beginning, after you have had a chance to warm up, Eric often asked the rider what their goal was for the lesson or what had been a sticking point in their jump rounds. Most of the jump lessons are small groups, and I for one am not a fan of group lessons. I love being the only one that the instructor is focused on, which makes me feel like I get more out of the lesson. But this was not the case with Eric at the helm.

When you are riding in a group with Eric, he uses each rider as part of the lesson — asking the idle riders about what they have witnessed and what could have been done better differently and why. I have never ridden with someone who was able to teach three individual lessons at the same time.

No rider was left behind or felt that they were beyond the group. In a group that had riders or horses that span the Training level (one just thinking about going Training, one had competed Training and one that was starting to think Prelim), Eric made it work and work well.

He is one of the only clinicians I’ve seen that can teach riders of any level. No one is beneath him nor is anyone walking away wishing they had done more. Eric has a way of breaking things down to a super simplistic way that helps anyone, even the auditor, understand how to improve their riding.

Meghan Perry in her jump lesson with Eric

Meghan Perry on Elton in her jump lesson with Eric.

He helps riders reduce the micro management most of us get carried away with. The rider also learns to pass certain responsibilities back to the horse. It is ingrained into your way of thinking that your horse has a job in this partnership in the jump ring and to not take away from what your horse is responsible for.

The one thing I heard over and over again from riders in the stadium ring was, “I could not believe I jumped that!” Eric has an uncanny ability to instill an ultimate confidence in each rider with their horse. He give riders the gentle push to go a little farther than their comfort level may have allowed when the lesson begun.

Day three

The third day was by far the most fun. We were lucky enough to be invited to Waredaca and allowed to school with Eric on their cross country course. Even with all the portable jumps still in storage, Waredaca had more then enough to challenge any rider and horse that participated in the third day of the clinic.

Eric passionately discussing the next exercise

Eric passionately discussing the next exercise

The lessons all started with warming your horse up, getting them forward and ready. Starting over small logs, Eric would quickly increase the challenge by working on accuracy — using small targets placed on the top of the jump, having the participants aim for those spots, and then asking each rider if they believed they were accurate and how they would improve their next go.

It is with this active mental questioning that each rider didn’t just jump random cross country jumps but learned how to improve with each jump. A lot of the same thinking from the stadium course would play into these lessons. As the schooling progressed through out the course, there was a different lesson to be learned at each obstacle.

Liz Schroeder in her cross country lesson at Waredaca Eric

Liz Schroeder in her cross country lesson at Waredaca as Eric looks on.

Riding with Eric on the cross country course showed the miles upon miles of cross country Eric has ridden over the years. Between stories of Burghley and lessons he taught the week prior to riding with his mentors, Eric is an encyclopedia of eventing knowledge. But this knowledge is delivered in such a simplistic manor that no rider has questions of what he meant.

What’s next

There is no a single eventer I know that would not benefit from a lesson with Eric. I believe Eric is an untapped resource in the eventing world. He has a way of teaching that shows two individuals how to work together for one common goal, and that’s the way to really look at this. We are partners with our horses; we can’t go it alone, nor can they.

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Eric in his element.

Eric has become a staple in my riding and training regimen. He has been the catalyst for Meghan Perry’s entire eventing career. He is a regular contributor to many three- and four-star professionals as well as amateurs at the lower levels. Eric finds a way to improve the way every horse goes and how each rider rides no matter their level of expertise.

After a ride with Eric, you will believe in yourself, your horse and your riding. His passion for spreading his knowledge is only bolstered by the confidence and happiness each rider exudes after their ride.

Eric will be visiting us again at Sunset Hill at McCuan Farms in Woodbine, Maryland, on June 19-21. I encourage all of you that are in Area II or those willing to travel to contact Beth Sokohl at [email protected] for a spot in the clinic. You will not be disappointed and, like me, you will become a regular in his clinics in the future.

One other piece of great news is that Eric is going to be the head clinician at Waredaca’s Novice/Training three day in October. This is also a great opportunity to dip your toes into the vast pool of knowledge that is Eric Smiley.

I also want to thank Nancy Seybold, Chris Arthur, Meghan Perry and Beth Sokohl for your input in writing this blog.

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