Joy Gonzales is an amateur event rider, mother of two and a fifth-grade teacher who has limited time to pursue her equestrian dreams and goals. Undaunted by that, she entered Practical Horseman’s contest Training with the Stars: Win A Day with Todd Minikus last spring because of her desire to become the best rider possible “to make my horse happier.”
Her horse, Lottie, a rescued Appaloosa pony, looked happy indeed, doing everything the bold rider asked of her under Todd’s watchful eye during the clinic, sponsored in partnership with Vita Flex, in early November. Joy asked nine friends, amateurs and professionals, to share the day with the international show jumper. Her trainer, Jen Hannink, who hosted the clinic at her Hannink Training Stables in northern California’s Modesto, rode a 5-year-old Dutch Warmblood mare she imported and is bringing along as a jumper prospect. The wide range of abilities and experience in riders and horses enabled Todd, a U.S. show-jumping team rider and winner of the 2015 Zoetis $1 Million Grand Prix at HITS Saugerties, to demonstrate the depth of his training tool kit.
He had effective tips for every rider, horse and circumstance. Main points for Joy and her fellow amateurs were rider position and paying attention to details through every step of a jumping course. In the midday session with three professionals, Todd schooled two horses to show how he’d handle challenges ranging from inattentiveness and disobedience to the subtleties of creating an athletic frame in the horse’s body.
Several riders needed to work on a stronger lower leg as the foundation of their positions and as an effective aid. A weak leg aid was usually coupled with riders leaning forward with their upper bodies to cue their horses to go forward. That is the job of the lower leg, Todd emphasized, sometimes reinforced with the touch of a crop and/or spur.
Leaning before takeoff at a jump caused sequential problems: awkward chips in front of the fence, getting dislodged from the saddle in flight and landing in a heap that prevented the riders from organizing themselves and their horses after the fences.
Clinic rider Mia McPhail said she was shocked by the strength of Todd’s lower-leg pressure when he invited her to wedge her hand between his calf and the horse’s side during a break in schooling a horse. “It was hard to pull my hand out!”
Keeping the leg close to the girth, rather than letting it slip back, made a big difference for young professional Caitlin Davison. Her 7-year-old off-the-track Thoroughbred, Clyde, had a big stride and a jump that was difficult for her to stick with. By sinking her heel down, pointing her toe out slightly, applying her lower leg firmly and sitting up, she was better able to transform Clyde’s discombobulated canter—a “tranter,” Todd called it—into a more balanced, straighter canter. Being firm with a correctly placed leg is much better than nagging with the spur because the slipped-back leg is weak and ineffective, Todd noted.
Tuning the Horse into The Aids
Coming into the clinic, Caitlin sought Todd’s help to create a rounder bascule (or arc) for her horse to allow him to jump better. Todd explained that the shape of a horse’s canter is also the shape of his jump. He described Clyde’s canter as slow and in two parts. “We want him to canter at a higher rpm and with more fluidity.”
Patience, persistence and repetition were keys to Clyde’s improved canter and to just about every horse-training challenge Todd has encountered in his many years in the sport. “Somehow we always have time to do something wrong over and over again yet never take the time to do it right,” Todd noted. Especially for the amateur riders, this theme arose several times when horses ran through corners after a jumping line or in an attempt to get a lead change. The fix, most often, was to sit up and deep into the saddle then bring the horse to a trot, walk or halt, sometimes adding a few backing steps, before resuming the canter in a measured, balanced frame.
When Clyde ran through a few attempted lead changes after jumping a fence on course, Todd had Caitlin address that issue with a figure-eight pattern on the flat before resuming the jumping work. The goal was to get Clyde tuned in to her leg aids and stop him from running through the bridle. The instant Caitlin sensed that happening, Todd told her to halt and back up Clyde then resume the canter. She progressed to making simple lead changes through the walk or trot at the center of the figure eight.
“Keep your weight behind him and stay in the middle of the saddle,” Todd coached. Coordination and timing of aids were equally important. “Don’t ask to change leads and turn at the same time,” Todd said. “First get the change, then the turn.”
Keeping the horse’s front and hind ends aligned, even in turns, came up on the figure-eight exercise and was another recurring theme. “As pony riders, if the pony ran off, we were always told to turn the pony’s head,” Todd explained. It slows the pony down because it disconnects his front and hind ends, disengaging the hindquarter power source. Todd told Caitlin to keep Clyde on a straight line coming through the middle of the figure eight, being careful not to overbend his neck and allow his hindquarters to drift to the outside.
The exercises led to Clyde forming a shorter, rounder canter stride and then a rounder jump that Todd described as “shorter from back to front.” Todd later elaborated on characteristics of a desired frame for all gaits: an elevated belly and a break in the horse’s neck that’s closer to the withers than the poll. That’s true at every speed, even flat-out. “Seabiscuit didn’t run with his head up,” Todd said. In his view, “The whole point of dressage is to get the belly up and tuck the butt under.”
As the contest winner, Joy and two fellow amateurs rode in the last of the day’s three groups, Todd challenged them to be riders “who make it happen,” as opposed to those “who wait to see what happens” or “those who have no idea what’s happening.”
For Joy on her willing but short-strided mare, being a rider who made it happen meant using solid aids. She met the challenge of riding through a gymnastic exercise and various lines without a chipped-in extra stride with a strong leg and seat and an upright body.
It was the effective position, too, when Todd tasked Joy and her clinic-mates to ride under pressure. “I often have to ride under pressure,” he explained. “I have to earn money, make my owners happy, buy shoes for my kids—whatever. Today, you have to ride under pressure, Joy. You have to jump that sponsor’s jump and do it clear and with all these people watching!” Galloping to the wall draped in a Vita Flex banner with a firm leg and seat and erect posture, Joy guided Lottie to soar over it, throwing down the gauntlet to her fellow amateurs.
Dressage-oriented Heather Marchman was reluctant to try the wall on her warmblood, whose big jump had dislodged her position over earlier fences. “He jumps high and hard,” Todd acknowledged.
Heather and her horse looked much more in control after she took Todd’s advice to grab the mane or neck strap two or three strides in front of each fence. That helped her stay with her horse, keeping out of his way rather than falling back, restricting his effort and landing in an unbalanced position that made it tough to prepare for the next jump or turn. To her relief and delight, Heather sailed over the wall, too.
Heather was one of several riders coached to halt their horses after the warm-up gymnastic or after a line on course. All horses must have “stop, go, right and left,” but halting, Todd emphasized, is the most important thing for an amateur horse.
At the beginning level, a quick response to the halt aid means having control. At higher levels, “If your horse doesn’t halt on the flat, he’s not going to do a half-halt well.” At Todd’s level, this means the horse is not going to come back quickly and maintain his frame in that critical instant in a tight jumping line. He encouraged all riders to include frequent halts and backing steps in their everyday flatwork and noted that too few riders do that. “If it’s not there on the flat, it’s not going to be there when you need it in a jump-off.”
Todd said he rarely went eight strides between half-halts when schooling his own horses, and he had all clinic riders incorporate halts and half-halts into their warm-up. It was part of his mantra that in their flatwork, riders practice everything required on course and in jumps-offs: stride lengthening and shortening, quick accelerations and decelerations and turns at whatever sharpness they would need to win a jump-off at their level. Practice galloping at time-allowed speeds, too, he urged. “Don’t be afraid to ask for all of these things in rapid succession but one at a time.”
Do As I Do
Todd used all those elements while riding Jen Hannink’s 5-year-old to work on quicker responses. After about 20 minutes, he called attention to where the mare was sweating. “If they are sweating behind the saddle and on the rump more than around the shoulder, you know you are getting the horse to use the right muscle group.” The maneuvers train more responsiveness to the aids and build muscle and stamina at the same time.
Firmness, persistence and lack of emotion were Todd’s emphasis in schooling another professional’s horse, in this case a 9-year-old Dutch Warmblood who had competed up to the 1.35-meter ranks. The horse was ignoring and acting out in response to his rider’s aids and initially continued to do so with Todd. “You may have to put your leg on him even if he’s mad,” Todd said, using a strong leg at the girth to get lateral movement and forward responses when the horse evaded by balking and rearing slightly.
Gradually, the feisty, opinionated horse became more responsive and shifted from a clearly agitated attitude and inverted frame to a more focused mindset and a rounder, more relaxed body carriage. Todd acknowledged that it’s easy to get frustrated and emotional over the talented, athletic horse’s antics. Calmness, consistency and perseverance are the keys to addressing this kind of training challenge.
Turns were another big point of emphasis. Todd’s pet peeves included not looking ahead toward the next jump on course and sloppy turns. In many cases during the clinic, riders got down a line or through a combination brilliantly then let their horse cut corners and lapse into a strung-out canter at the end of the arena. “Pay attention to your turns!” he shouted a few times. Todd told one rider that her inability to get the right striding in a five-stride track had nothing to do with how she rode the line but everything to do with how she’d ridden the corner coming into the line.
At shows, well-ridden turns start with the course walk, where Todd too often sees riders fixated on striding in lines but not bothering to walk the full track through the corners they plan to ride.
In a session with the professional riders, maintaining the horse’s body alignment and, hence, his power, through turns was a focus. A small vertical to be jumped on an eight-stride square—“Yes, I do mean square, not circle”—demonstrated Todd’s emphasis on keeping the horse’s front and hind ends aligned. He coached an opening rein—moving your hand directly out to the side without pulling back—and a neck rein—moving your hand toward the neck but not crossing over the withers—to get riders to move their horses’ shoulders through a turn rather than overbend their necks, which allows the hindquarters to swing off the track. This disengages the hind end and causes the horse to lose impulsion, often when he needs it most at the take-off point of a jump.
At Todd’s level of competition, keeping that alignment enables him to shave winning seconds off the track with the horse still having the hindquarter engagement to propel himself clear over the fence even at a steep angle.
The rider’s body alignment is equally critical in turns. A strong lower leg was crucial to staying out of the horse’s way over the fence and helping him stay balanced through sharp turns. Todd coached a thumb-up hand position as allowing more flexibility through the elbow and a forward-facing torso with the arms moving independently of the torso when turning.
“This was the best prize Practical Horseman could give,” Joy enthused after the clinic. She rescued Lottie in 2012 and was thrilled when Todd complimented the mare’s “great brain” and bold nature. Having Todd’s help to give Lottie a better rider was a gift in itself and the ability to share it with friends was icing on the cake. Joy described her eventing and hunter/jumper friends as part of a community “that is so generous and has shared so much with me and been so supportive of each other. It’s been so great to give something back.”
Aids and Equipment
Clear communication with the horse is Todd’s priority in choosing any artificial aid. “I’m a big fan of explaining to the horse what you want and using whatever tool or aid you need to be understood.” The key to success with an artificial aid is all about how it’s used. “It’s not the scalpel that does the damage, it’s the surgeon,” Todd noted. “Any aid can be good or bad depending on how you use it.”
Draw reins are one of his favorite tools, although he acknowledged that they can be dangerous if used incorrectly. At his home stable in Florida, “Any tool that can be used to explain to the horse what you want—instantly, correctly, kindly and softly—is a good tool. It makes a lot more sense to me to use draw reins to show the horse exactly what I want than to be wrestling and fighting with him and making him have to guess what I want.”
The key to effectiveness with draw reins and any other aid is instant reward—release of the pressure—when the horse responds correctly.
Spurs: Despite the wide variety of spurs available, Todd said their effectiveness is all about their application, not the type. Noting that most horses are sensitive enough to flinch at a light pinch of their skin, he encouraged participants to gauge how much pressure was needed in any given situation: “Hair deep, skin deep, tissue deep and bone deep.”
Crop: He carries one on all horses. “Since I quit smoking, [World Cup champion] Rodrigo [Pessoa] calls it my pacifier.”
Belly guards: Todd uses them on all his horses. “Even without studs, I find marks all over them.”
This article was originally published in the March 2018 issue of Practical Horseman.