Sinead Halpin Clinic Report: Canter, Corner, Contact … Cold!

With the help of some comically oversized Carhartt gloves, Sinead Halpin braved the icebox to teach a clinic last weekend in East Tennessee. Yours truly was among the clinic participants, and while I pawned the task of a full report off to organizer extraordinaire/straight-A clinic student Katherine McDonough, because my own fingers were still too frozen to type, I must add my own abridged testimonial that I was thoroughly dazzled by Sinead’s pedagogical poise. She was focused, thoughtful and articulate, and she approached each horse/rider combination with individualized interest. We all walked away with a replenished training toolkit and a jumpstart on the 2018 season. Come back soon, Sinead! Now passing the talking pillow to Katherine …. –LW

When I texted Sinead a screenshot of the East Tennessee weather forecast for the weekend of her two-day show jumping clinic, her response was short and appropriate: “OMG.”  Now, it’s not news that eventers are tough — we compete despite broken collarbones, persevere through tough times, and ride in all weather. But. This weekend was extra cold. Let me just say for the record right now that this bunch of riders, volunteers, auditors and clinician were as crazy tough as it gets.

Undeterred by the temps, everyone put on as many layers as they could, grabbed a quarter sheet for their steed, and gathered at Erika Adams’ Yellow Wood Farm in Lenoir City, TN, for two days of instruction from Sinead (interspersed with lots of hot chocolate and as much soup as we could eat — shoutout to Pat Sandlin and Tom and Sue Adams!).

Sinead wearing all the clothes. Photo by Katherine McDonough.


After a nice warm up watching the riders and their horses, Sinead brought them together to discuss priorities when jumping a course. “What’s the first thing you think about when you enter the ring for show jumping?” she asked. “Remembering my course,” “Fence one” and “Not falling off” were frequent replies. But the answer Sinead was looking for was “My canter.”

“There are so many things we need to be thinking about all at the same time that sometimes it becomes too much and you can just blackout and quit riding. So, instead, we’re going to channel your nerves and focus on one thing at a time — your canter, the corner, and then your connection. If you have the right quality of canter for you and your horse, you use your corner effectively, and you establish a good connection in the contact, the jump will take care of itself,” she explained.

Sinead had the riders work over cavalettis and small grids. She wanted everyone to call out “canter” when they felt like they had the quality canter they needed for the exercise, “corner” as soon as they were thinking about their corner, and “contact” as soon as they felt a solid connection in both reins once through the turn. If it felt like you didn’t have the right canter, you waited to say “canter” until you did. If you didn’t think about your corner soon enough, you wasted an opportunity for balancing. And if you never established a solid bilateral contact, you didn’t have a straight horse to the jump. Distilling all of the things we have to think about into sections of priorities helped clear the riders’ minds and focus on one thing at a time. It also pointed out that if you’re still trying to fix the canter at the point of contact, you’re too late and you’re stuck with the canter you have. So, it really highlighted the importance of getting that canter early.

The exercise proved extra tough for some the riders because of having to call out “canter, corner, contact,” and eventually, calling the lead on which they wanted to land. Some of us talk all the way around our courses, or count, or sing, or silently repeat a mantra. And others of us do what Sinead warned us against — blackout. Making us actually say the priority aloud added an extra challenge that illuminated when we blackout — which was usually when things went pear shaped. If riders kept thinking about the next priority of canter, corner, contact, they could work their way back to a quality canter and fix it, instead of feeling victimized by a bad course. (This exercise also pointed out those of us who have trouble identifying our right from our left under pressure … ahem, guilty.)

Photo by Katherine McDonough.


Though the temperatures remained cold, the sun came out for day two making it feel like we were basically in Florida (right??). The coursework built upon the exercises from the day before — get your canter, think about your corner early, and establish a contact, call your lead. Like the day before, when things started to go awry, Sinead helped us focus on one thing at a time. “Get your canter. Now you’re in the corner. Take a feel.” Breaking a long course down into small definable pieces really helped the riders focus on one thing at a time, which actually made the whole course have better flow.

Before doing a full course, Sinead had the riders work over two jumps with placement rails to solidify the aids and the three Cs. It proved to be a challenge for horses and riders for different reasons. Some horses used the turning exercise to settle while others worked on being sharp off the landing to reestablish the quality canter.

Sinead was quick to holler “I can’t hear you!” when riders would stop identifying their canter, corner and contact in an effort to be sure they weren’t in blackout mode. And she challenged them to call their lead earlier and earlier. And almost any time things weren’t quite right, it was when the rider quit calling out and, therefore, thinking about the priority. Sinead pointed out that if you say the three Cs aloud enough, eventually you will say them in your head and you won’t have to say them aloud. (I can see us Sinead clinic go-ers finding each other at shows all year as we say “canter … corner … contact” all throughout our stadium rounds!). But for now since this was new to us all, we needed to say them aloud. Now, she also said that this does not take the place of knowing your course. Saying “canter, corner, contact” does not magically help you know where fence four is. It is important to do that homework beforehand.

Here is the Cliff’s Notes version (Do kids these days even know about Cliff’s Notes?? #ImOld)

  • Your quality of canter is priority #1. Set yourself up for success.

  • Don’t underestimate the value of a corner. And if you have a long approach, try to find a way of making one.

  • Bilateral, even contact helps create a straight horse. Don’t forget to re-establish that coming out of a corner.

  • Don’t blackout. Make an effort to think about what you’re doing and what comes next.

  • Sometimes it’s better to focus on the quality of the canter than making the striding work when schooling, especially for a green or nervous horse. It’s better to get a five in the four but have a confident quality ride than make the four happen no matter what.

  • Every transition is an opportunity for training. Don’t waste them.

  • Tailor your warm-up to your horse’s needs. If you have a horse that tends to be too quick, use lots of turns in your warm-up. If you have a horse that needs to be kicked into gear, focus your warm-up on forward-thinking lines. But always remember that before a canter can be closed, or shortened, it must be opened first. Otherwise, you miss the opportunity to engage the hind end.

  • An anxious horse can’t learn. There is no way a horse can learn unless they are at a 6/10 or below on anxiety. Above that, they are just reactive and can’t be thoughtful. And to learn, they must be thoughtful.

Upon reflection, one of my friends who also rode with Sinead this weekend summarized the takeaway perfectly: Don’t dwell. “I think I figured out the point of calling out things. Don’t get stuck worrying about one thing. When the priority shifts, so should your brain. Like, don’t try to fix your canter when you’re at the point of contact, etc.,” she said. And I completely agree. You have to shift your focus as the course moves along. You can’t lope along thinking about that crappy ride to fence five. You need to think about #1 My canter. #2 The corner. #3 My connection. #4 Where am I going next. The shift in priority has to move as you move. Dwelling will only make you a victim.

Huge thank you to Sinead for sticking it out in our cold temps, to Erika for the use of her wonderful facility, to all of the riders who not only participated but helped their fellow riders out in a pickle, to the barn moms and dads who made the drive in the cold, and to all of the volunteers who helped set jumps and made soups!