Twelve lucky riders got a special insight into themselves and their horses at a clinic sponsored by Practical Horseman during the Syracuse Invitational Sporthorse Tournament that featured the National Horse Show in November 2008.
The clinic was run by Syracuse founder and jumper trainer John Madden, who joined forces with his brother, Frank, and Missy Clark--both best known as top equitation trainers, but who are also successful coaching hunter and jumper riders. All have received guidance at some point in their careers from George Morris, now the U.S. Olympic gold medal show-jumping team coach. George was originally slated as the co-clinician with John, but had to cancel at the last minute due to illness, which was when Frank and Missy stepped in.
The participants rode in two groups of six. For the first group, the emphasis was on what the rider was doing, while for the second, the horse was highlighted. Both groups started with flatwork, including lengthening and shortening, as well as shoulder-in. They also cantered on the quarterline of the ring, where they didn't have a rail to guide them. Everyone trotted cavalletti and then went on to jump fences and lines that got increasingly difficult.
John observed in looking at riders' positions throughout the clinic that the fault he saw most often was "not a good enough base of support with their legs, riders who were not diligent enough in their leg position. That creates every kind of problem under the sun, from ducking to being left behind to lacking balance. The foundation has to be good. If we had more time in the clinic, I would have started out working on that base of support with an accurate, neutral leg. That's a perfectly positioned leg, with the stirrup leather perpendicular to the ground, the ankle and knee flexed, the heel down and the grip with the inside of the knee and the calf as the leg wraps around the horse."
John offered a way to test a leg to determine how good it is: "Stand in the stirrups, bounce in your heels and establish a comfortable relaxed balance with no support from your hands."
Riders, he advised, "need to be able to stand there stationary and be very well-balanced. They should then sink into the saddle and touch their seatbones into the saddle without letting their lower leg move. That's the way every rider can test their leg many times during their ride."
His prescription for a better leg? "Give yourself a riding lesson every time you ride your horse. Note the feeling, make sure you keep it the same and then repeat it over and over until it's habitual."
One rider, a junior at nearby Cazenovia College who competes in the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association, illustrates the leg problem John was discussing in this picture. (see photo at right)
"Her leg is too far back, her heel is up, she's pinching with her knee and her upper body is just falling forward," he said.
Ducking was another problem on which the clinicians commented often.
Samantha Page demonstrated what John called an "overexaggerated release." (see photo at left) "She can learn not to do that. Her balance is too far forward and she's ducking too much for that tiny little Swedish oxer," he commented.
Samantha, 16, rides an 8-year-old off-the-track Thoroughbred, Held Accountable. She shows in the Children's Hunter and equitation.
To correct being getting ahead of a horse or ducking, Missy suggested working over a series of bounces "where she can really focus on keeping her body still" or different combinations, like short vertical/vertical two-strides or oxer/oxer duos.
Alexa Harris' horse, Papageno, a 7-year-old Brandenburg who started out as a dressage horse and is being geared for the 3-foot-6 equitation division, was very excited to be in the clinic and soon showed a froth of sweat on his neck.
"The horse is a lovely type," said Missy, and noted that while Alexa found herself in a bit of a difficult situation "she calmly dealt with it and he got better and better as we went along."
Missy suggested that if the horse got his head down, Alexa should lift him up in the half-halt and lighten her seat.
"Don't let him take over," Missy warned. Frank commented that some horses "use flexion as an escape" by coming behind the vertical.
That led to a discussion of the three types of mouths: a heavy mouth, like Alexa's horse; a stiff mouth, for which lateral work is the prescription and an aggressive mouth, which calls for a half-halt, then stopping and backing.
Discussing her clinic experience, Alexa said, "It definitely helped me. It was great to have the three instructors talk about what we were doing. It was great for my young horse to have an experience like that with Missy, John and Frank. My horse tends to get a little too round. Missy made a comment about keeping him forward and really getting up to my hand and letting him get some energy out."
Asked if she had butterflies performing before an audience in the clinic, she said, "I wasn't really nervous, I was prepared for it, but definitely in an arena like that and on a young horse, it was a little intimidating.
"He's usually very calm, but we imported him last year so he's only been doing this for a year. For him to go from dressage to jumping, he's still a little shocked by some things," said Alexa, 16, who hopes to do grand prix jumping and turn professional when she finishes her Junior career.
See the January 2009 issue of Practical Horseman to read about the second group of horses and riders in the clinic and learn nine tests that will help you judge a horse's character and athleticism when evaluating a prospect.