Fine-Tune Ride­abil­ity

World-class jumper Richard Spooner taught rid­ing and horse­man­ship at USHJA’S Emerg­ing Jumper Rider Gold Star Clinic West.

Practical Horseman - - Special Dressage Issue - Story and Pho­tos by Kim F. Miller

In­ter­na­tional show jumper Richard Spooner fo­cused on im­prov­ing re­lax­ation, sup­ple­ness and re­spon­sive­ness dur­ing the four-day USHJA Emerg­ing Jumper Rider Gold Star clinic.

In­ter­na­tional rider Richard Spooner likened a jump­ing round to a pearl neck­lace. “If it’s a cheap neck­lace, all the pearls spill out if you break the string. If it’s a good one, there are knots be­tween the pearls so that doesn’t hap­pen.” Ride­abil­ity, he said, is the knots be­tween the pearls, which are the jumps. Dressed to ride in breeches and boots, Richard de­liv­ered a mas­ter class, mostly from the ground, with his trade­mark wit and wis­dom. His sys­tem for gain­ing ride­abil­ity was the fo­cus of the U.S. Hunter Jumper As­so­ci­a­tion’s Emerg­ing Jumper Rider Gold Star clinic, held ear­lier this year in Ther­mal, Cal­i­for­nia. Over four days, three groups of mostly young rid­ers pro­gressed from flat­work to gym­nas­tics to a fi­nale of ap­ply­ing their new ride­abil­ity tools—re­lax­ation, sup­ple­ness and re­spon­sive­ness—over a course. Will­ing­ness to “do the work” was a re­cur­ring theme.

At the end of each rid­ing ses­sion, he told them to “go home and ob­sess about your horse. At the end of a show day, I try to step out­side of my­self and look ob­jec­tively at what­ever prob­lem I had that day and think of what flat­work I can do to fix it.” He ac­knowl­edged that horses, horse­man­ship and show jump­ing can be vex­ing, so this “ob­sess­ing” has to be done with­out emo­tion. He framed mis­takes, by horses or rid­ers, as in­stances to be dwelt on only long enough to learn from, then let go.

Sup­ple­ness and Re­lax­ation

Most of the rid­ers and horses started Day 1’s flat ses­sion tense in their bod­ies and minds. Richard com­pared this sce­nario to the first day of a com­pe­ti­tion, when the main goal is ac­cli­mat­ing your­self and your horse to the new sur­round­ings while cre­at­ing a re­laxed and re­spon­sive frame of body and mind in the horse—in essence, sup­ple-

ness. His main com­ment was that he wasn’t see­ing rid­ers do much to soften up their tense horses. “The whole point of flat­work is a sup­ple and re­laxed horse,” he said.

“If you have a course of 15 jumps and a time al­lowed of 75 sec­onds, that’s five sec­onds be­tween each jump. If you are do­ing flat­work and not ask­ing for some form of a tran­si­tion, in­clud­ing cir­cles and lateral ex­er­cises, ev­ery five sec­onds then you are not pre­par­ing your­self to show. Don’t just did­dle around. Do the work that you are go­ing to use when you start jump­ing.”

Rid­ing proac­tively, in­stead of wait­ing for the horse to do some­thing and re­act­ing, was im­por­tant for ev­ery­one, es­pe­cially those on hot horses. For the tense and spooky horses, Richard told rid­ers to start on a large cir­cle in the mid­dle of the big arena. Be­ing fo­cused on the rider dis­tracts the horse from what­ever is go­ing on around him and en­ables pro­duc­tive flat­work. “Mi­cro­tran­si­tions” test­ing the horse’s re­sponses to for­ward, back and lateral aids were the or­der of the day.

Cre­at­ing a “C” shape in the horse’s body, with him bent around the in­side leg and his poll roughly level with the withers, is the key to sup­ple­ness and re­spon­sive­ness. Along with a tucked tummy, lifted back and low­ered croup, this is the shape of an en­gaged topline that max­i­mizes the hindquar­ters’ power.

The “C” shape is most eas­ily at­tained on a cir­cle, but Richard ad­vised rid­ing a slight bend even on straight­aways. Bend equals con­trol, he said. Us­ing an in­vis­i­ble mi­crobend on a straight ap­proach to a jump helps to main­tain the con­trol and frame. “A straight horse is a strong horse”—hence the com­mon ad­vice to turn a bolt­ing horse.

Richard re­peat­edly coached rid­ers to push, rather than pull, their horses into the in­side bend. Us­ing an out­side rein to turn re­sults in “in­stant stiffi­ca­tion,” usu­ally ac­com­pa­nied by the horse stick­ing his head up in the air. He said this cre­ates the worst pos­si­ble frame for a jumper: head up, legs down.

Work­ing the horse one side at a time is also a coun­ter­punch to horses who are heavy in the hand. He en­cour­aged “play” through bends to each side—not rough see-saw­ing, but light rein pres­sure paired with a strong in­side leg. Horses be­come numb to con­stant pulling, he said, and a stiff rider pro­duces a stiff horse.

Get Into the Ma­chine

“Get into the ma­chine” was one of Richard’s re­frains through­out the clinic. “There’s no way to learn about horses un­til you re­ally get into them. It’s like try­ing to fix a car while the en­gine is run­ning.” This ex­pres­sion trans­lated to rid­ers sit­ting down and wrap­ping their legs around their horses’ bod­ies af­ter each fence to main­tain con­trol. “When the horse gets stiff through the body, he locks you out of the ma­chine,” he ex­plained. “The only way back in is through soft­en­ing to the in­side.”

Two other use­ful tools for get­ting into the ma­chine are us­ing ac­cel­er­a­tion and de­cel­er­a­tion aids to pro­duce ex­ten­sions and col­lec­tion within the trot and can­ter. The rider’s first step for slow­ing the pace and rhythm is to ex­hale: sim­ply let your breath out. Next, he said, “find the tack and sit down”—heav­ily but not abruptly—and ap­ply knee and thigh pres­sure while set­ting the rhythm with your body, vi­su­al­iz­ing your­self as ice cream melt­ing down around the horse or as a para­chute de­ployed be­hind a drag-rac­ing car.

Lower leg pres­sure and a soft­en­ing hand mov­ing away from the body are the main go-for­ward cues.

At their sub­tlest, these aids are the take-and-give cues needed to let the horse know what you want and in­stantly re­ward the right re­sponse with an ease of pres­sure. “It’s not when you de­mand, it’s when you com­pli­ment.” Most horses learn hap­pily from fre­quent “Ich liebe dich” (“I love you” in Ger­man) ges­tures in the form of quick re­leases of pres­sure. Richard stressed that “it’s bet­ter to ask a mil­lion times for one sec­ond than one time for a mil­lion sec­onds.”

Ap­plied more em­phat­i­cally, these same aids are used to race across the fin­ish line in a timed jump-off or re­bal­ance and de­cel­er­ate for a tight turn. If you prac­tice them fre­quently enough at home, the changes in your body po­si­tion for “go for­ward” and “come back” should be clear to your horse right away.

All horses need to ac­cept and un­der­stand the rider’s leg, es­pe­cially hot and/ or cranky horses. These types are of­ten rid­den with a timid leg for fear of set­ting them off. “Then, when you do ap­ply your leg, the horse feels it as a splash of cold wa­ter,” Richard said. If your horse balks, spurts away or oth­er­wise re­sists the leg pres­sure, keep it on for con­tin­ued for­ward mo­tion, us­ing the bend to main­tain con­trol. “The hot­ter the horse, the more I squeeze,” he ex­plained. “Get your leg to feel like warm wa­ter to the horse.”

In con­trast, he said, overuse of the hand is a symp­tom of an “ill­ness” plagu­ing the sport at the lower lev­els: lack of con­trol. The

cure is learn­ing to use ev­ery­thing ex­cept a heavy or sharp hand to main­tain con­trol. “It’s coun­ter­in­tu­itive,” he ac­knowl­edged. “You feel the sen­sa­tion in your hands, so your brain says, ‘Fix it with your hands!’ But you have to re­train your brain to train your horse with your legs. Push, not pull.” Briefly rid­ing two horses dur­ing the clinic, Richard walked his talk, putting both through tran­si­tion­packed paces with very light rein con­tact.

Ride the Horse, Not the Dis­tance

Richard de­scribed Day 2 as an­other flat day, even though the arena was filled with small jumps: two “cart­wheel” triple bounces (three ver­ti­cals set on a curve, with the in­side stan­dards 6 feet apart, and the out­side stan­dards 12 to 14 feet apart), a straight triple bounce and an oxer, none more than 2 feet high. This setup was sim­i­lar to what Richard has in his home arena for “flat days when a wooden ob­sta­cle just hap­pens to come up now and then.” The jumps were placed in the mid­dle of the ring so they could be rid­den on a ser­pen­tine track in vary­ing se­quences and the ex­er­cises em­pha­sized push­ing the horse out through each turn and hav­ing rid­ers “par­tic­i­pate” in all phases of the jump through sus­tained con­tact. The cart­wheel bounces showed the horse “he can bend and stay soft in the body while jump­ing.”

Although all the rid­ers re­turned on Day 2 with more ac­tive warm-ups, Richard warned them to avoid aban­don­ing that progress the minute they headed to­ward a jump. In­stead of fix­at­ing on find­ing a dis­tance, he en­cour­aged them to try to man­u­fac­ture a good dis­tance. “It’s not an Easter egg hunt where you’re say­ing, ‘Oh, there it is!’ and go get it.” That men­tal­ity de­stroys the soft, sup­ple frame that leads to a good take­off point aris­ing on its own with the horse in the best frame to make a good jump­ing ef­fort. “Ride the horse, not the dis­tance,” he said of­ten.

One rider made the com­mon mis­take of “let­ting ev­ery­thing go in search of the dis­tance,” he noted. She then strug­gled to re­gain con­trol on land­ing and through the turn to the next jump. A hard tug on the out­side rein stiff­ened the horse’s frame, pre­vent­ing him from sight­ing the next jump early. That can be a grave mis­take at the higher lev­els, Richard said. As a horse ap­proaches a jump, he does a “math­e­mat­i­cal equa­tion” of its height, width, an­gle, etc., to cal­cu­late how high he has to jump. The more time he has to do that, the bet­ter.

In an­other case, Richard turned his at­ten­tion away from a rider be­fore he fin­ished rid­ing the track. “Once I see that he is push­ing his horse off the in­side leg through the turns and has his horse in the right shape, I can sign off on the project be­cause I know the jumps are go­ing to be right.”

Con­trol Your Body to Con­trol Your Horse

Lean­ing for­ward be­fore the jump was a com­mon bad habit Richard sought to cor­rect. “Think of your horse as an ex­ten­sion

Syd­ney Luz­icka put the skills she learned to the test dur­ing the Na­tions Cup on the fi­nal day of the clinic. of your legs,” he said. “You want to get to the jump with your legs, rather than try­ing to get there with your head first by lean­ing for­ward.” When ap­pro­pri­ate, he added, the soft­en­ing cue just be­fore the jump is ex­hal­ing and drop­ping your weight into the sad­dle— just as it is on the flat—not lean­ing for­ward.

The next gym­nas­tic ques­tion tested con­trol and ride­abil­ity. Richard first as­signed the easy task of jump­ing a very short one-stride triple—three fences in a row set apart at one-stride distances of 18 feet. The rid­ers then were asked to gal­lop to and through a very long one-stride triple (set at 30 feet), then re­turn to the 18-foot triple through a right turn. “You have to let the ge­nie out of the bot­tle, then find out how much ride­abil­ity you have. It’s hard to have con­trol at speed and that’s of­ten when the wheels come off.”

This ex­er­cise also ad­dressed the com­mon prob­lems of not hav­ing the horse in front of the leg and not mov­ing with enough pace to the first jump on course. Rid­ers had to greatly ex­ag­ger­ate both skills to get through the long one-stride suc­cess­fully. Af­ter that, the key was tak­ing full ad­van­tage of the sweep­ing right turn to re­gain con­trol be­fore the short one-stride triple. “Take ad­van­tage of that gift on course,” said Richard of big turns or

Be­fore be­gin­ning ev­ery ses­sion, Richard care­fully checked each horse’s tack.

On the clinic’s fi­nal day, rid­ers, in­clud­ing Mag­gie Kehring, ap­plied the pre­vi­ous three days’ flat and gym­nas­tic work to a mod­i­fied two-round Na­tions Cup.

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