Jumper Riders Focus on Dressage Fundamentals with Laura Graves

Unique clinic format paired Team Kama Godek with the Olympic dressage star

Photo: Erin Gilmore

By pointing out the common threads in every discipline of riding, Olympic medalist and dressage star Laura Graves was right at home amidst a barn full of show jumpers on Tuesday, August 14, 2018 outside of Washington, DC.

“This is my first all-jumper clinic, but it ‘s really interesting to see whether you’re jumpers, or eventers, or just dressage people, everyone is struggling with all of the same things,” Graves said. “Getting the horses in front of the leg, getting the horses straight.”

Fresh off her successful tour at CHIO Aachen in July, Graves traveled to grand prix show jumper Kama Godek’s barn at the Ohana Equestrian Preserve in Aldie, VA to teach a unique clinic titled “Dressage for Jumping,” presented by the Washington International Horse Show and sponsored by Barn Manager. Participants earned the clinic as a prize for their winning Barn Night video at the 2017 WIHS.

Photo: Erin Gilmore

Eight jumper riders had the opportunity to receive one-on-one instruction from Graves in 30-minute, mini-sessions. With the detail that has helped her rise to international fame aboard Verdades, the horse that she trained herself from a foal, Graves honed in on the finer points of each horse and rider and immediately put them to work.

“There’s no time wasted when I’m in the saddle,” Graves said. “There’s learning happening one way or the other. I like to say ‘as much as necessary, as little as possible’.”

Photo: Erin Gilmore

Graves asked junior rider Maya Aryal to work on preparing her turns with her big bay gelding Ra, by asking him to move off the outside leg for better balance. Aryal rides and competed in the equitation and jumpers, and has owned the 11-year-old gelding for about a year.

“It’s only when he is moving off the right leg [going left] that we start to ask for things like shoulder fore. Before you turn, you’re going to make sure you have him off the right leg. You feel how he would rather speed up, than actually stand up,” Graves explained. “He’s a big horse, and he’s telling you it’s really hard for him. He’s not kidding.”

By asking Aryal to feel the small differences in her horse’s balance around the corners, she was able to then move him off her inside leg, and achieve a straighter canter that was easier for Ra to maintain into and through the corners and then around the arena.

Photo: Erin Gilmore

Graves challenged the riders to embrace their mistakes. Recognizing that the horse leaned to the inside provided an opportunity to correct the mistake and learn from it. Amateur rider Casey Osborne and her OTTB gelding Heir Apparent have a background in eventing and the jumpers and a close partnership built over a decade together.

Still, in their session Graves pointed out the subtle tendency of Osborne to ride slightly overbent to the inside, and worked with her on correcting it for better straightness before they moved on to lateral work.

“Every time you get to talk to him about something, it’s an opportunity for him to learn,” Graves detailed. “If you don’t let the mistake happen, he doesn’t even know if he’s doing the right thing or the wrong thing because your leg is always on.

“The main reason I find that holds people back is that we’re so afraid of mistakes. Nobody is more afraid of mistakes than dressage people. We’re so uptight about it–like, oh, did the horse halt with all his legs in a perfect square? And not only did he do the flying change clean but how much ground did he cover and how high did he jump and where was the poll?” Graves described. “We’re so picky on it that it’s easy to try to cover things up. But if we don’t spend the time in really teaching these horses to learn, then it’s never as pretty as it could be.”

Photo: Erin Gilmore

Graves had a multitude of visualization techniques to offer the riders and the crowd of over 100 auditors who learned about the event through EventClinics.com. The clinic was Graves’ first appearance in the greater Washington, D.C. area, and she attracted horse people who varied from thrilled Pony Clubbers to curious hunter/jumpers and local dressage riders. In addition to Graves’ autograph and Barn Manager swag, attendees left the clinic with a wealth of knowledge to apply to their own riding pursuits, no matter the discipline.

The entire clinic can be viewed On-Demand courtesy of USEF Network at this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1&v=EbgEMcXSAk4

Author Erin Gilmore also took part in the clinic with her own horse, Sirocco. Photo by Christina Parker

While equestrian journalists and photographers have many opportunities to interact with the best athletes in equestrian sport, we do so from the rail, on the sidelines of all the action. So when I was given the opportunity to participate in the Laura Graves Dressage for Jumpers Clinic with my horse, it was a once-in-a-lifetime, bucket list moment for me. When I covered Laura’s bronze medal-winning ride at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games for Practical Horseman, I never would have dreamed that I would one day be able to ride in front of her.

Thanks to Kama Godek, I lived that dream as a participant in the clinic and got to experience one-on-one why Laura is so successful at what she does. Right off the bat, she identified my and my horse’s weakness (responsiveness), and put us to work to improve our partnership. Once I swallowed my nerves I was able to focus on her simple, effective directives and absorb the points she made, i.e. “your horse should react to the air in the gap that’s closing between your leg and his side.”

Covering the stars of the sport in competitions and events is what I do for a living. Tacking up and riding into the arena as a participant in one of those events is something I’ll never forget.

Stay tuned for the full re-cap of the clinic in an upcoming issue of Practical Horseman. 

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