Jim Wofford and Sharon White ask Cathy Henderson to walk her horse forward and then rein back while staying in two-point to simulate the half-halt in galloping position.
"First things first: Who’s got a coin?” Jim Wofford asked the small gathering of spectators. A legendary eventer and highly sought-after coach, Jim was set to begin an unconventional day of co-teaching with international four-star rider Sharon White. The chummy duo had traveled halfway across the country to teach Practical Horseman’s Win A Day Clinic, sponsored by Kent Nutrition Group in mid-August. The coin toss would determine which clinician would talk solely about the horses and who would focus on the riders. Jim and Sharon agreed to take turns, switching perspectives back and forth for each of the three sessions.
Contest winner Liza Green and her Thoroughbred, Peter Pan, get Jim’s approval while practicing turn on the forehand in the first session.
More than 400 applicants entered the contest by explaining why they thought they should win a day of coaching from the equestrian idols for themselves and nine friends, but Liza Green ultimately stood out. Though dedicated to her eventing education, Liza, like many adult amateurs, has a full plate as a mother to four energetic girls and as a full-time pediatric rehabilitation doctor. A longtime self-proclaimed “fan girl” of Jim, Liza was thrilled to have him and Sharon visit her in southeast Michigan, where there aren’t many opportunities to train with clinicians of their caliber. Liza explained that she’s read Jim’s books and columns and listened to his video commentary.
At Liza’s boarding facility, Cobblestone Farm in Dexter, Michigan, horses and riders were split into three groups based on experience level: Novice, Training and Preliminary/Intermediate. The first half of the day was spent working on the flat and then after lunch the training session moved out to the cross-country course. Every rider participated both in the morning and afternoon session. The first group had the least experienced horses, including Liza’s Peter Pan, an 8-year-old Thoroughbred gelding. Liza’s daughter, Morgan Greenberg, 15, rode her more experienced horse in the second session. Throughout the day, as the experience level increased, the difficulty in the sessions progressed but the concepts remained the same.
Cathy (front) and Caitlin Henderson establish rhythm before beginning suppling work and lateral movements.
As Jim flipped the borrowed coin into the air, Sharon yelled “heads.” It landed on tails, and Jim quickly called dibs on the horses. “This means I get to talk first because we always talk about the horses first,” Jim commented with a wry smile.
But First, Rhythm
Jim and Sharon first asked riders to move forward to create a rhythmical horse. “Balance and calmness come from rhythm, so that must be established first,” Jim explained. Sharon added, “I am looking for the rhythm from step one. Is your horse trotting regularly and evenly within the two beats of the trot?” Liza’s horse was behind the leg so Sharon instructed her to lift her hands up and closer together as well as more toward her horse’s mouth. “Ride forward and stay with your horse so he hears only driving aids right now,” Sharon called. This was particularly helpful to Liza, who admitted that her horses can get behind her leg without her noticing because they are both so “pleasantly compliant.”
“In dressage and producing a horse, we use the Training Scale,” Sharon said. “It’s what you’re judged on in the dressage ring and it’s the answer to any training questions you have.” She explained that rhythm is the foundation of the Training Scale. “Without rhythm you have nothing because rhythm creates a supple, relaxed horse,” she continued. “A rhythmical horse that is supple and relaxed will seek the contact.”
Sharon rides Kelsey Overbey’s Titan, later explaining that every time she felt him curl his neck, she shortened the reins and sent him forward.
Once the horses were moving forward in rhythm, riders started suppling exercises. Jim asked them to bend their horses to the left and right in serpentines while maintaining the rhythm and working the inside-leg to outside-rein connection. “I love serpentines because they stretch the horse’s waist, stretch the horse’s back and prepare the horse for more advanced movements,” he explained. Horses then cantered in both directions, which also helped them to loosen up.
Supple with Lateral Work
After the horses were loosened up from the serpentines and canter, Jim and Sharon had the riders work on getting them stepping laterally underneath their bodies, starting with turn on the forehand. Along with serpentines, lateral work is used to supple the horse. “Lateral movements are so important because they are the foundation of the inside-leg to outside-rein connection and the inside leg to outside rein is the magical connection of the rider to the horse,” Jim said.
Turn on the forehand is the beginning of inside leg to outside rein and is the most basic exercise for lateral movement and hind-end lateral suppleness. “The purpose of the inside leg is impulsion. It controls the motion,” Jim said. “The outside rein controls the speed. When we have a horse from the inside leg to the outside rein, we have the accelerator and the brake. Now it’s a question of teaching them the various movements we want them to learn and perfect.”
Jim explained to riders how to get a perfect 10 on the turn on the forehand. Moving the haunches to the left, the rider’s right leg is the major aid. She should halt the horse, keep the reins straight and reach back with the right leg about 6 inches from the girth with the heel down. The horse should step forward and under with the inside hind leg. His left front foot shouldn’t move as he turns 180 degrees, remaining in the same footprint as when he started. For a turn on the forehand to the right, the rider would use opposite aids. “If [the horse] makes a mistake, they should walk forward in a small circle. They should not step back,” Jim cautioned.
In all three sessions, Jim explained that for a truly correct turn on the forehand, a rider should feel a dip or a slight swaying sensation as the horse completes the movement. “The only way the horse can produce that sensation to the rider is if the back muscles are relaxed because the back muscles will allow the horse’s pelvis to rotate slightly,” he said. “It’s easier for the horses in one direction than the other. It’s like saying you’re left-handed or right-handed, but we need to train these horses to be ambidextrous.”
Sharon cautioned riders not to use lateral aids and restraining aids at the same time because it is confusing for the horse. “You have to think about using your core and your body to sit up and stay tall and balanced so you aren’t wiggling side to side because the horse doesn’t understand where you want to go,” she said, stressing the need to be in balance on your horse, especially in lateral movements. “If someone was to cut you down the middle, at all times your body should land equally on both sides of your horse. We tend to collapse in the hip, but then the horse can’t move that hind leg.”
Make a Checklist
Both Jim and Sharon emphasized riders needed to be clear with what they were asking the horses. “Horses go the way they are ridden,” Sharon said. “It is our responsibility as riders to be very aware of our positions, that we are lifting our cores up, lifting our backs up, lifting our eyes up so our horses do the same and we can establish very forward-moving riding, which is rhythm, which is the most important thing at all times.” To develop horses correctly, riders must be correct in their position.
Sharon repeatedly insisted riders make their own checklist to continually run through, citing that the best riders in the world do this. She quickly rattled off a checklist of her own. “Are my eyes up? Are my hands together? Where is my weight? Where is my balance? Where is my eye? Am I down in my leg? Am I square? Am I loose? Am I tight? Are my hips square? Are my toes up?” Having a checklist is the only way to stay on top of body awareness. “The more you say it to yourself, the more it becomes like breathing,” she said.
Liza maintains the rhythm as she trots toward the bank.
Sharon discussed correct hand position with riders who were widening their hands and turning them over so that their palms faced down. To avoid that, she insisted on short reins with thumbs up and pinkies touching, keeping elbows at the side or slightly in front of the body to help the horses learn to be straight and to the bit. “With wide hands, your horse will wander,” she said. Expanding further, she explained the role of the hand versus the elbow. “When you ride, the hands belong to your horse, your elbows belong to you,” she added.
Throughout the clinic, Jim had several riders change their hand position on the reins into a bicycle grip or driving rein, holding the rein between the thumb and forefinger. Though this position may feel uncomfortable to riders, they will be less inclined to pull on the reins and it promotes the use of the elbows. “Success lies outside the comfort zone, so make yourself feel awkward and weird. If you want different results, try different things,” Sharon chimed in.
Make Them Fun to Ride
In the third and most advanced group, Kelsey Overbey asked how to troubleshoot an issue with her horse, an 8-year-old off-the-track Thoroughbred gelding named Watership Downs Titan. She said he tended to curl his neck, making it hard for her to bring his hind end under. Sharon suggested riding with a very short rein to help ride the hind end to front end. “If your reins are short enough, he can’t hide behind them. Short reins are hard. That’s why they are called Olympic reins.” Riding with shorter reins requires more upper body and core strength, making it more challenging.
Sharon hopped on Titan, focusing on shoulder-in, trot lengthenings and canter work. “I tried to stay really consistent about hind end to front end and I had to work the whole time on my balance because he shifts you around,” Sharon said. “I had to work on getting him in front of the aids but not running. Straightness is huge but that comes from your position. I had to be continually monitoring where I was on him.”
After riding Titan, Sharon addressed Kelsey’s concern about his neck curling even more. Sharon explained that every time she felt Titan curl, she would shorten the reins and kick. “You need to send him forward but the reins have to be short enough so you can feel him when he connects to them and then you can balance. As soon as the reins get too long, he’s going to run around with his hind end out behind him.” Kelsey found watching Sharon school her horse helpful. “He is not a horse that truly wants to take the contact from you without getting heavy,” Kelsey said. “This is where the Olympic reins that Sharon talked about come in.”
The morning sessions were spent working on rider position to ensure clear aids were given to the horse as well as improve the horses’ way of going, following the Training Scale and constantly reassessing whether the suppling work was developing and bettering the horses. “Our job as riders is to take the work of art that is the horse and make it better, not worse, and so much of that is that rhythm and forward riding,” Sharon said. “Make them stronger, better, more beautiful, more fun to ride.”
On to Cross Country
Rhythm, suppling and improving the horse carried over to the cross-country course in the afternoon sessions, where Sharon explained that jumping is about rhythm and straightness. “A stop is a loss of rhythm. A runout is a loss of straightness,” she said. Riders must tell the horses where they want to go and go the speed they choose at all times. This applies to all jumping, Sharon reminded, the only difference in cross country is that ditches, banks and water are added.
ABOVE: Sharon coaches Caitlin through the sunken road, an example of a cross-country gymnastic exercise.
INSET: Jim asks Liza’s daughter, Morgan, to jump the down bank by bringing the points of her hips forward and slipping the reins.
Much like the flatwork sessions, the difficulty with each session increased, but all three groups worked on counting a rhythm and practicing banks and water. Jim counted a rhythm as the horses galloped between the fences. “They should approach, jump, land and depart all in the same rhythm,” he called. “When you hear the rhythm, you hear the balance, and horses jump well when they’re in balance. As you move up through the levels, you go faster but you keep the same rhythm.”
After watching Liza jump the first few warm-up fences, Jim showed her how to use a whip and bridge the reins to keep her hands quiet. As Liza bridged the reins and held the whip the width of the horse’s mouth with the reins in show-jumping length, Jim explained that the stick should remain parallel to the jump in the approach. “You should have a rectangle,” Jim said. “The long ends are the two reins and the short ends are the whip and the jump.”
Later, Liza was told to hold the neck strap, a similar concept to holding the whip. Sharon explained that to produce and see change, riders must explore different options. Even though practicing the bicycle grip, bridging the reins or holding a neck strap may feel difficult or uncomfortable, riders must be curious to see whether or not an adjustment makes a difference. “Practice using the neck strap and bridging the reins. Riders learn from repetition; horses learn from repetition. So we repeat.” Liza agreed that using the neck strap was a totally different feeling for her. “Holding the neck strap helped me keep my hands closer to his neck,” she said. “I was worried at first because it was uncomfortable, but I know I need to practice it more.”
“Good elbows” was a theme reiterated on the cross-country course. “Remember from this morning?” Jim asked. “We don’t have good hands, we have good elbows, especially in jumping.” Jim went to his bicycle-grip tool again for Caitlin Henderson, riding in the advanced group. “You’re frozen in the air,” said Jim. “He’s running against your hand with a flat back.”
Jim explained that riders needed to be able to half-halt while in the galloping position. At the halt he had riders stand in the two-point and then walk forward five or six steps, staying in two-point and keeping the horse straight. Then he had them stop and rein back while remaining in two-point. “Close leg, close fingers, you don’t move your body,” he said. The point was not only to find balance but to ensure the riders had the tools to send the horse forward and bring him back without moving the upper body.
Banks and the Sunken Road
In the first group, the primary focus was to introduce the horses to banks. Sharon told the riders they needed to give the horses a chance to learn how to jump a bank—it is a different motion than jumping a show jump because the ground meets them before they think it is going to. “Start small, be relaxed, maintain the rhythm,” Sharon said. “Going up the bank you must stay with them as they jump up. The first stride of landing will be shorter so you must encourage them to keep moving their feet and give them impulsion to make it easy.” Jim added that riders should find the stride to a bank as they would a vertical—looking at the top of the fence. In addition, “when you land you must land in a two-point,” he said.
When jumping down a bank, Sharon and Jim cautioned riders not to let the horse launch off of it. “I want to see no contact, nice and quiet, Western pleasure down the drop,” Sharon said. “Once they know the footwork, then you can add more speed.” Jim explained that the riders should not lean back but bring the points of their hips forward and slip the reins, simply letting the horse jump out from underneath them. “I don’t land and topple over, I don’t sit on the cantle and fall back. I just land in the spring of my knees and ankles.”
Kelsey and Titan are currently competing at Preliminary level. Kelsey hopes he will be a suitable Young Riders’ horse for her daughter in the future.
Jim and Sharon started the Novice group off by trotting them up the bank and then back down, then added difficulty with a two stride to a log after the up bank and before the down bank. “If you make a mistake going downhill, you should be a little behind. If you make a mistake going uphill you should be a little ahead,“ Jim said.
With the more advanced group, Jim and Sharon coached the riders on a sunken road, a down bank to an up bank with one stride in between. To increase difficulty, riders also jumped a sunken-road combination, in which they jumped a vertical to the sunken road. Finally, they rode a drop combination jumping down the sunken road on a slight angle to a vertical. Jim explained that the sunken-road exercises were good examples of cross-country gymnastics. He instructed them to land from level to level in the sunken road in a show-jumping canter. “You go a little soft with your leg and underride the horse to the sunken road.” If the horse comes in with too much pace, he will launch off the drop with his head in the air, making it difficult to jump up and out on the other side. Jim encouraged riders not to care whether the distance was long, medium or short, but to mirror the horse with their own bodies. “If it’s long, you’re going to kick and bend over. If it’s regular you’re going to make sure you maintain rhythm. If it’s short you’re going to sit and wait and let the horse pop up.”
“Cross country should not be fear-inducing. It should be something that you and your horse know how to do from the ground up with confidence,” Sharon explained. “You must teach your horse how to balance on terrain, how to do the footwork of ditches, banks and water.”
As the last cross-country session of the day came to a close, Jim and Sharon chatted with Liza and her daughter, Morgan, before rushing off to catch their flights. Earlier in the day, Sharon remarked on teaching in an area she doesn’t visit often. “This was a great opportunity to be in Michigan and meet different riders and share some knowledge,” said Sharon, who is used to developing future upper-level eventers as the Area VIII Young Rider team coach. “By switching back and forth from the horse to the rider, I kept getting a new perspective,” added Jim as he reflected on the day.
The last riders of the day hurriedly walked the horses back to the barn to find shelter as the storm that had been threatening all afternoon began to let loose. It was an exciting day for everyone, but Morgan’s enthusiam went unmatched. “This is the best day ever!” exclaimed the star-struck teenager, grinning from ear to ear. Liza admitted it was helpful to have Jim and Sharon out to Michigan to teach, but seeing how ecstatic Morgan was, made it that much better.
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