My name is Austin Skeens, and I am a 17-year-old young rider from Christiansburg, Virginia. I train with Paul Ebersole in Bluemont, Virginia. I began riding in hunter shows when I was six years old and switched to eventing when I was 10. I finished my first FEI event in 2018 and was named to the USEF’s E18 training list. As such, I earned the opportunity to train under the guidance of 2004 individual Olympic gold medalist and the USEF’s Emerging Athlete Coach, Leslie Law in Ocala, Florida, earlier this month. My horse Rocmaster (or “Rocky”) is a 15-year-old Canadian Sport Horse with experience up through the Intermediate (or the new 3* level). He is a wonderful horse, and I’m grateful he’s helped me get to where I am.
First, I would like to thank The Florida Horse Park for letting us use their facility and Christina Vaughn of the USEF for helping to organize the sessions, to Leslie for the great coaching all week long and to all of the great lecturers for helping us become more well-rounded horse people. Now, allow me to break down some of the exercises that most resonated with me over the week.
“PUSH the wheelbarrow” – Think of using a wheelbarrow when riding. When carrying something in a wheelbarrow, pulling back with your arms makes the wheelbarrow go backwards. Since dressage riding comes from the forwardness and impulsion of the horse, pulling back with your arms (at your elbow, more specifically) can not only restrict your horse’s forward movement but frustrate them in some cases. Leslie encouraged us to be relaxed in our elbows allowing our horses to move forward and reminded us the the frame comes from the seat and leg to the hands.
Straightness comes from shoulder fore – Honestly, this is something that never occurred to me. I would ride my horse forward around the circle and almost neglect the track that the haunches took, leaving my horse’s hind end to wander about around the track. Likewise, I would ride similarly on the centerline. Leslie explained to me that he trains in shoulder fore on the centerline and on the long sides.
Warming up – Leslie explained that he would watch Grand Prix riders warm up whenever he had time while he attended shows. He noted the amount of transitions that they would do while warming up. After some quick math, we figured out that during a 5* eventing show jumping course, you are asked to jump a fence at an average interval of six seconds. Which means, as Leslie states, “you’d better be capable of performing some kind of transition within the gait or between gaits every six seconds of your warm up.” So we did. Leslie had us circle around him, going from walk, to canter, to walk, back to canter, and so forth every six seconds, or earlier sometimes. We would pick up counter canter, back to walk, and back to true canter. Anything we could do to get the horse thinking, we tried. After these exercises, Leslie had us halt, take a few steps of rein back, and continue on to get the horse listening to you 100 percent, especially if they had gotten a little excited.
Sitting still – While explaining how important our position is in between the fences, he told us to picture trying to run a race with a person on our shoulders. Imagine trying to run as fast as possible while someone is on your back, bouncing, kicking, and pulling your hair at the same time. It soon becomes difficult to focus on running, doesn’t it? Your horse cannot focus on jumping the fence they’re being presented, while it is preoccupied trying to decipher what their rider is telling it to do.
Do not make the horse work too hard – One exercise had us jumping a vertical on top of a little mound, riding down into a gulley and back up on another mound over another vertical. The first time through this exercise, I found a distance a little too close to the first vertical. When I returned to Leslie, he explained that my choice in distance caused Rocky to work too hard to get over it. He said the vertical was forgiving in this situation, and if a triple brush was at the top of that mound, that distance would no longer work because Rocky wouldn’t have enough power to get across it. Initially, I simply galloped Rocky up to the fence, imbalanced. Leslie told me that what I should have done was taken a moment to rebalance him onto his hocks so that I could ride back up to a good distance with power and impulsion. Sure enough, the next time, I made a point to sit Rocky down, balancing him before making a move at the fence. This resulted in a better, more forward distance up to the vertical in which Rocky did not have to work nearly as hard.
Do not slip your reins more than you have to – We schooled a combination early in the day that involved a bank, no more than about 2’6 in height. Going down the bank, I leaned back and slipped my reins as I had always been doing. This was fine, but as Leslie explained and I soon realized, I was riding on a longer rein than needed when coming to the final element of the combination. On the way over to the next complex (which contained a bank with a much larger drop), I had a short conversation with Leslie about how I was going ride the bank. When I came to the drop, I thought about slipping my reins until I could feel Rocky’s front feet hit the ground. This resulted in a much shorter contact, and I had an easier time navigating Rocky to the arrowhead fence six strides away.
I want to give a shout out to all of the awesome riders and new friends that I met while I was in Florida. I am very excited to ride alongside them for the rest of my career. I am really grateful for this opportunity and would also like to thank my trainer, Paul Ebersole, for coaching me to where I am today and of course to my wonderful parents for all of their support as I continue to learn and be the best rider and horseman that I can.