When Peter Wylde teaches a clinic, his mission is simple: “I’m focused on helping the riders do whatever they want to do instead of just being up there for the ride,” he said.
Peter, the 2004 Olympic Games show-jumping team gold medalist, took that philosophy to Virginia last spring, where he taught the students who had won the training session by earning the Best Group Spirit Award at last year’s Washington International Horse Show Barn Night. The clinic was courtesy of Cavalor and held at Jenny Graham’s Cedar Creek Farm in Sterling.
Four small groups of riders took part in the riding portion with sessions ranging from pony hunters to those competing in the 3-foot-6 Junior hunters. Peter had each group work on the flat before starting over gymnastics and eventually jumping courses. With a cold rain falling that day, the clinic was moved indoors to Cedar Creek’s spacious arena, where Peter had plenty of room to set up his exercises.
Peter, a popular hunter/jumper trainer and the lead clinician for the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association’s Emerging Athletes Program National Training Session, has many years of experience in clinic settings and has developed a knack for quickly assessing the abilities of a horse and rider.
“I like to find out from them the problems they’ve been having and what they think are their strong points,” said Peter. “Then, we’ll do some simple and basic flatwork, where I just observe them and learn as much as I can in that short period of time. Then, I’ll help them improve their position and improve the horse’s way of going.”
Soft and Relaxed
For each of the four groups, composed of three or four riders, Peter had them begin on the flat, where he asked the riders to focus on forward, especially at the walk. “Even when you’re walking, keep riding the walk,” he said. “In a flat class, you want your mount bright and moving forward.”
He advised the riders to sit and connect with their horses during transitions, keeping their bodies tall in the saddle. He repeated a canter-to-sitting-trot transition with some groups to help the riders improve their connections with their horses.
As riders changed direction, Peter asked them to try to see their horses’ eyeball on the inside across the diagonal while focusing on a change in the horses’ bend. “The horses should be getting soft and relaxed,” he said. “You should be able to take more of a connection.” Canter lengthenings down the long side of the arena with a return to a normal canter on the ends also allowed the riders to better feel the differences in the size of their horses’ strides and the pace changes.
When one horse gave the rider some difficulty in forging a connection, Peter offered his own experience. “You have to work on the flat to bring her a little more together,” he said. “And that’s coming from the best hunter people who get mad at me for not riding my hunters that way. My jumpers are perfect, but my hunters go with their noses sticking out. If you regularly work on getting her more supple on the flat, she won’t be as rude to you when you ask her.”
Let The Jump Get In the Way
Each group began over-fences work by jumping a crossrail on a circle at the trot and canter. “It’s very basic, but it allows the rider and the horse to get into a rhythm,” Peter said. “They will jump and circle and jump and circle until they can do that comfortably. That leads into doing a course without having the pace change.”
Peter’s goal for each rider was to take off and land in the same rhythm. Ideally, the horse would also land on the correct canter lead, creating a smooth and effortless circle.
“Pick up the canter and let the jump get in the way,” he advised riders who had difficulty finding a comfortable distance to the crossrail. “You just want a normal canter, the same pace and energy you have on the flat. Sit still and quiet with your upper body and let the jump just happen.”
For the three pony riders, he worked on having them keep their eyes up and looking around the circle to encourage their ponies to land on the correct leads and continue on a round circle. When several had trouble remembering to look up and were cutting their corners, Peter stood where he wanted them to look, having them retain eye contact with him while they jumped the fence.
Peter advised riders to use this exercise on a regular basis. “What’s interesting is that even with an inexperienced rider, you can actually work on training the horse because a lot of the issues with pace changes are just behavioral. This is the perfect exercise to teach a horse to collect the canter and keep a rhythm—let them jump from the base and canter a nice circle.”
After each combination had cantered the crossrail circle successfully in both directions, Peter began working up to jumping a course.
He had the riders jump simple lines up and down the long side of the arena with another jump on the inside track at each end of the arena so that they could rollback toward the rail and jump the line the other direction. Peter asked some riders to add a stride in the line and then leave it out.
“This exercise allows them to practice getting comfortable going up and down a line,” he said. “It’s very simple and straight. That in itself is great training, and it’s funny how a lot of people can’t just do a simple up and down over a line like that.”
Peter acknowledged that it was more difficult for riders to tackle this exercise in the confines of an indoor arena and he noted that setting it up in a larger ring or field allows you to develop one pace and jump everything out of a perfect rhythm.
Peter kept the fences low in the exercise—from 2 feet for the ponies to 2-foot-6 to 2-foot-9 for the horses. “You don’t need to make it complicated, either,” he said. “You want to allow them to get comfortable and feel good about doing these exercises without freaking anyone out.”
Control on Course
The courses Peter built included comfortable distances in between the fences to encourage a relaxed and even pace, and he added a bounce set on the inside track at one end of the ring. Riders approached it on a serpentine from the end of the arena, which helped them retain their focus and helped the horses keep their balance. He included a wall down a diagonal line after the bounce as the final fence, adding a straight-line transition to the walk to again emphasize balance and control.
“The exercises we do are quite simple,” he said. “I like to work on the rider and control. Sometimes in clinics the riders get quite nervous and everything becomes a blur, so I like to work with them on connecting to their horses. I want them to be able to do everything that they want to do and not feel helpless riding.”
For the pony riders who tended to lean up their mounts’ necks on course, he said: “If you practice one thing, I want you to sit up straighter. When you ride with your body forward, the distance to the fence goes away. The taller your body, the better the distance. When you get to a little bit of a deep distance and your body is forward, your pony can’t pat the ground nicely. If you sit up tall, it’s a much smoother jump.”
Peter said the exercises he builds for clinics are similar to those he does at home in Millbrook, New York, with his own horses, from young prospects to upper-level competitors, jumpers and hunters. “It’s almost like riding a hunter course, but it’s training the horse to stay in an even rhythm so it’s smooth,” he said. “The goal is for there to be no pace changes, and you can finish the course in the same control and rhythm that you started with. So, all of the exercises we do here are working toward that outcome.”
When starting a course, he advised the riders to establish their canter one notch too fast and then slow down to the first fence. This plan ensures that the horse is in front of the rider’s leg and not too lethargic to the first fence, which is often a single jump.
For one rider with a fresh mount, he had her sit as quietly as she could to the first fence with her reins short and hands low and quiet. He encouraged her to use as little upper-body motion as possible over the jump. “Stay quiet and supportive,” he told her.
When another rider kept jumping ahead of his horse, Peter provided a visual reference. “Think of ‘Hunt Printing,’” he said of the old-fashioned sporting art that depicts a rider sitting up straight over a jump. That description did the trick, and the result was a more sophisticated position as well as a horse who landed in better balance. Peter praised him, “Your last course was super. Your horses will go better and better because you are in a much better position.”
Throughout the sessions, no jump heights were more than 3 feet, allowing the riders and horses to comfortably tackle the new and different challenges without worrying about getting to the other side. “I try to help [riders] mentally in their riding so they can do the best job that they’re capable of doing,” he continued. “A lot of times I think too much information is given and it’s impossible for them to process and execute everything, so it needs to be simplified.
“Whether it’s equitation, hunter or jumper, it’s all basically good correct riding,” Peter continued. “It’s not that much different between disciplines. Sure, there are subtleties that are different when you get to the higher levels, but in the learning levels it’s basic and simple. Good riding is applicable to any discipline.”
Peter Wylde, who currently divides his time between Wellington, Florida, and Millbrook, New York, began his equestrian career with Fran and Joe Dotoli, under whose guidance he won the 1982 ASPCA Maclay National Championship at Madison Square Garden. While a student at Tufts University, Peter won the Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association’s Cacchione Cup in equitation before he turned his focus to show jumping.
Peter’s professional equestrian career has spanned multiple continents and includes impressive victories on both sides of the Atlantic. He jumped to the team gold medal at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games and earned the individual bronze at the 2002 FEI World Equestrian Games in Spain aboard Fein Cera. On Macanudo De Niro, Peter won individual and team silver medals at the 1999 Pan American Games in Winnipeg, Canada.
In addition, Peter has earned leading rider titles from some of the world’s top shows, including the Washington International Horse Show and the CSI-W Geneva in Switzerland. He’s also won grand prix and World Cup competitions around the world, including Paris, France; Mechelen, Belgium; and Dortmund and Leipzig, Germany.
Together with his partner, Eduard Mullenders, Peter runs Mullenders & Wylde Horses Inc., and trains top-level horses and riders in the hunter and jumper divisions.
Q&A with Peter Wylde
During the lunch break, riders had the chance to ask Peter Wylde questions.
Q: Is it difficult to switch your style between hunters and jumpers?
A: Not really. That’s what’s interesting. We as trainers have to adapt our riding, but if you watch the best hunters being trained in the morning before they show, a lot of them are ridden in closed frames. The riders work on their suppleness and getting the horse light in both directions. Then, when they show them, they’re so nicely broke that you can ride them in a more open frame. You have to have done the proper flatwork first, so they are polite, nice in the mouth and even on both sides. That’s one thing I didn’t realize until I started doing more of the hunters the past few years. They have to land on both leads and they can’t be one-sided because every division now has a handy class, and you need to be able to turn to a jump and get the lead in the air. It’s different than the jumpers because they go in a more collected frame, but it’s a lot more similar than it is different.
Q: Who was your best horse?
A: Fein Cera [Peter’s 2004 Olympic Games gold-medal-winning mount] was the best horse I ever had, for sure. But I had another horse who was more competitive than Fein Cera. His name was Pinocchio. He was a bit crazy—Pilot was his grandsire, and that trait was in his breeding. We bought him as a 5-year-old, and when you would get on, he would rear and rear. He was difficult, but he wasn’t mean.
He was an unbelievable jumper, though. He was hot to ride, but he could do anything. I rode him until he was 7. Then we sold him to a family, and they sent him back to me at age 9. As a 5- ,6- , and 7-year-old, he was the best horse I ever rode. After I got him back, it took about eight months for us to get going again, and he started competing in the biggest international competitions in the world and getting top results. I won the World Cup class in Leipzig [Germany] with him, one of the biggest indoor World Cup classes. I took him to Aachen [Germany] and rode him in the big Grand Prix, and he had three clear rounds.
I had another horse who was actually better than both of them—Hello Sanctos. He’s now the Number 1 horse in the world with Scott Brash of Great Britain. We bought him as a 7-year-old, and I rode him until November of his 8-year-old year. I knew this horse could do anything. I rode him in five grand prix classes as an 8-year-old, and he was in the top five each time. He won the last one in Germany, and the class was televised in Germany. The Monday after he won that class, my phone was ringing off the hook. People were offering insane amounts of money. I owned him in partnership, and we just couldn’t refuse the offers.
I don’t know if I made the right choice. I still sort of regret not being able to ride him now. He’s an amazing horse. Scott’s a brilliant rider, and we’re lucky he ended up in Scott’s hands. It’s a perfect match.
Q: How do you avoid thinking too much in the show ring?
A: There are two tricks that help. I have all of my students pick someone that’s of a similar body type as that student. I say, ‘Watch that person and think about the way that person rides.’ Let’s say you want to ride like Liza Boyd. Picture her on course and try to emulate that ride. For my jumper students, I’ll pick someone of a similar body type and have them find videos of that person riding. Watching someone who’s similar to you helps a lot.
Also, before I go in the ring after I’ve done the warm-up, I take that moment and just visualize myself riding the course perfectly. I also allow my students this time before they go in the ring. I cut out any last-minute instructions. You’ve done all of the practicing at home, and, hopefully, all of those particulars you’ve already put into your repertoire. You just need to think about pace, direction, straight lines and seeing your distance. If you think about too many other things, you’ll forget about the most important. Overthinking becomes a problem, so simplify at that point.
Cedar Creek Farm
Cedar Creek Farm in Sterling, Virginia, owned and operated by Jenny and Mike Graham, is regularly among the winners in the Washington International Horse Show’s Barn Night competitions.
Located in suburban Washington, D.C., Cedar Creek draws riders from throughout the metropolitan area who are enthusiastic supporters. In addition to earning the Spirit Award in 2014, Cedar Creek has earned the Largest Barn Contest as well as the Best Barn Video Award in the past.
Most of the riders who rode in the clinic also attended Barn Night festivities, and Jenny chose not to open the clinic to those outside her barn so that it was a more intimate setting for her committed students to learn.
“I’m amazed that we were able to have [Peter Wylde] for the day, and many of the Washington International reps and sponsors came,” Jenny said. “It was our day and a great opportunity for the kids, and I can’t thank them enough.”
She was pleased that Peter spent time with her students off the horses.
“They were able to talk to him about what it was like to be an Olympian and how hard you have to work and what you have to sacrifice to get there,” she said. “They’ve never had the opportunity to talk to someone who was on a gold-medal team. I believe they’ll think about the discipline and sacrifices he made over the years and it will up their games in the future.”
This article originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of Practical Horseman.