Leading grand prix jumper rider Callan Solem runs through the following checklist every day she rides with every horse she rides:
- Check your tack.
- Check your position.
- Check your aids.
- Check your attitude and emotions.
She shared this list with 18 clinic riders and described how each element relates to safe and correct riding and horsemanship. The riders, from Serene Acres Riding Center in Bluemont, Virginia, had earned the day’s worth of lessons from Callan after winning the 2016 Washington International Horse Show’s Barn Night Group Spirit Contest.
Now based in Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, Callan brought a wealth of experience to the clinic: She has competed on the U.S. Nations Cup Team in Rio de Janeiro, Rotterdam, Lummen, Falsterbo and Rome. She and VDL Wizard were the top-placing Americans at the 2016 Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping Final in Gothenburg, Sweden, finishing seventh, and she was on the short list of top-10 riders considered for the 2016 Olympics.
At the WIHS clinic, the smallest of pony riders to adult amateurs braved Mother Nature on a cool and rainy spring day. Callan, however, created a warm atmosphere and a structure in each lesson that reminded riders of the importance of the basics no matter the level of riding—and to boot, she made them forget about the weather.
As each group began their rides, Callan evaluated the level of riding and the horses’ tack. She made small adjustments to the latter to refine the fit and improve comfort: She put the keepers of one horse’s bridle back in place, loosened another horse’s snug breastplate and tucked away the extra length of stirrup leathers so they would not flap as the horses moved. She stressed the importance of addressing these seemingly minor details. “It keeps them from becoming extra stimuli that could distract the horse from his job.”
As riders continued to warm up, Callan asked them to check their positions, focusing on keeping
- the upper body aligned over the hip
- a mobile elbow that is not locked into a straight position or held too strongly at a right angle—allowing the freedom to move both forward and backward and
- a deep heel.
“When your horse is comfy with your position, he can carry you easily,” Callan said. Then she asked, “Why do we concentrate on the basics?” One rider answered, “To have a quiet leg,” and another said, “So our horse can understand.” Callan expounded on these answers, saying that to do their jobs well, horses don’t need to try to sift through distractions. A solid position keeps distractions to a minimum and the aids clear. To strengthen the riders’ leg positions, Callan introduced a simple exercise in the rising trot: The riders stayed “up for two steps, sit down for one.” As riders improved, so did their horses’ way of traveling. Many also found that their aids were easier to use at this point.
Regarding aids, Callan said that quieting the leg keeps communication simple, quieting the hand directs the horse and quieting the body permits the rider to sink around the horse so the impact of the aids is clearer.
The final element addressed in the warm-up was rider emotion and attitude. As is always the case, some horses were quiet, some more excitable and others easily distracted. Callan encouraged riders on quiet horses to bump up their own energy level by using their aids quickly, lightly and repeatedly—rather than more strongly—while those riding more excitable and distracted horses needed to take their emotions down to a calmer level by breathing deeply, becoming quieter with their aids and sitting closer to their horses—“Keep calm and slow in your head.” Making sure the energy between horse and rider was appropriate and positive created a better working session.
Once riders warmed up their horses and completed the checklist, the exercises began. Building on the more stable positions from the warm-up, Callan tasked riders with improving transitions. She created patterns that involved multiple changes of gaits. One pattern consisted of:
- Trot down the long side of the arena and pick up the canter.
- On the short side, ride a circle.
- A few strides after completing the circle, ride a transition to trot.
- About 12 feet farther on, ride a transition to the walk, followed immediately by a transition back to canter.
In the upward transitions, riders needed to focus on staying back with the shoulders while using as little leg as possible to get their horses going. To make the downward transitions, they needed to stay deep in the leg while using a give and take “with the fingers” on the reins even if the transitions took longer to happen. “You are far better off making many, many smooth transitions than just going on or getting hard in your horse’s mouth,” Callan said. She reminded them that, “keeping our positions quiet and stable allows our horses to hear us.”
One or two riders struggled to find a canter that their horses could maintain and return to in these exercises. Callan told them that the horses’ best canter is the one they do in the field and encouraged riders to ride for that ideal, whether they needed to ride more forward or just “keep a little lid on it.” As soon as the transitions were smooth and the horses and riders relaxed in the work, trot poles and small fences were added into the mix.
Callan first had riders trot four ground poles set just off centerline. (For an average-strided horse, the poles would be set about 4 feet, 3 inches apart, but they need to be moved in or out depending on a horse’s or pony’s stride.) To build awareness of the horse, she had riders call out loud which foreleg led over the first pole. This was a challenge for some of the younger riders, but they had fun trying to figure it out.
Next, one stride after the trot poles (about 9 feet), Callan built a crossrail (or small vertical for more advanced riders) and two strides (22 feet) to a small oxer. Riders trotted the four poles, trotted the crossrail and then cantered the oxer. Once riders were comfortable, she had them ride it again and then canter a right circle over a cavalletti placed perpendicular to the trot-pole line. After that, she added more obstacles for a course of six to eight fences.
As the riders took turns over the course, several themes emerged:
- Focus on position. Callan told riders that after landing from a jump, the very first order of business was to check and correct their positions: “Eyes up, shoulders back, legs down”—that “your joints feel oiled.”
- Keep the rhythm of the canter steady to the fences. Callan addressed the canter rhythm on the approach to the fences by having the riders count out loud “one–two, one–two … .” This exercise fixed issues with steadiness of the canter in the approach.
- Plan and make good choices while riding the course. The lessons learned in the earlier work on transitions and patterns became critical for riders to make planned rides. As the pairs jumped, Callan reminded them to look where they were going, to count one–two in the canter and to ride a planned pattern.
The confidence of horses and riders grew and soon everyone was arriving at the next fence on course how they wanted. Thanks to the planning the riders were doing, the question was not whether or not they would ride the course well, but how they would ride the course. They were taking wide or sharp turns, moving up to long distances or coming back to short ones, riding with more pace or less pace as they chose.
At the end of the busy day, the riders were tired, happy and excited that their stable spirit at the Washington International Horse Show had paid dividends with a great clinic with Callan. When asked what the biggest takeaway of the day was, rider James Dougherty, with a hearty assent from the rest of the group, said, “She explained WHY we need to do these simple things, not just that we should,” a true testimony to the benefit of a day in the basics.
This article was originally published in the October 2017 issue of Practical Horseman.