It’s January, which means goal setting and resolutions are in full swing. With the U.S. outdoor show season kicking off in a big way – namely, the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, Florida and HITS Coachella in Thermal, California – riders are looking to start the year off right by taking a few cues from the greatest names in equestrian sport.
With big clinics taking place on both coasts, plus the opportunity for amateurs, juniors, and professionals alike to soak up a little knowledge from the big guns from watching them compete, this month is buzzing with our favorite eight letter word: learning.
With so many nuggets of wisdom floating around from clinics, classes, and beyond, we've boiled it down to ten NF.insider tips to make you a better rider, right now – straight from the brains of three of the most legendary American riders there are: Anne Kursinski, Kent Farrington, and McLain Ward.
1. It’s okay to look down at your horse on the flat.
Though advice on this topic has always been mixed (some trainers advise you to keep your eyes up and ahead, no exceptions), Anne Kursinski has officially given permission to look down on occasion. According to Anne, looking at what’s happening in front of you (or under you) is a great way to stay connected to your horse and your flatwork, and to see how your horse is responding to you.
2. Remember turn on the forehand/turn on the haunch from your equitation days? Yeah. Keep practicing them.
During Anne's coaching sessions she routinely tells her riders to change direction with a turn on the forehand or a turn on the haunch. Working on these turns more regularly will not only help to gauge your horse’s progress and responsiveness to the leg (and let you know if they have a tricky side) but also help to improve it over time.
3. Sorry kids—dropping your stirrups isn’t just for No-Stirrup November.
Many of us try to ride without stirrups at least once a week, since we think we should. But, like Dry January and other laudable resolutions, slip-ups happen. Watching Anne's lessons and clinics help to illustrate how riding without stirrups makes you better, not just in terms of fitness and stickiness in the tack, but also by improving the effectiveness of your position. In fact, Anne has commented how some riders in her sessions actually lost their position and base support when their stirrups were given back. Kind of makes you think, doesn’t it?
4. Get off the track.
Kent Farrington repeatedly reminds riders to ride at least 10-feet off the track of the ring at all times so they don't use the rail as a crutch. Most of us know this as a 'best practices' type of thing, but when it comes from the mouth of Kent, it becomes something much more important.
5. Jump the minimum.
He may make 1.60m courses look like a cakewalk, but it turns out, Kent spends a lot of his time thinking about how to minimize jump schools with his horses. He likes to keep the gymnastics low, advising riders to skip the actual jumps in favor of cavalettis whenever possible when working to correct a specific issue. In his own program, Kent says he only jumps one course a week with his horses, flatting or going out on trails the rest of the time, and using another day of gymnastics and cavaletti to address the specific issues he expects to deal with on his course-jumping day. The bottom line? You can always be more methodical in your schedule and training program.
6. Follow the “10 percent” rule.
Yes, jumper riders, we can train ourselves to ride better at speed, and for Kent, that starts with his '10 percent' rule. After mastering certain elements of a gymnastics course, or when riding particularly well-schooled horses, Kent advises to repeat the exercise but to do it at 10 percent more pace, therefore more closely resembling the ride we're looking for in the show ring. It’s easy to get caught up in perfecting an exercise and sometimes we lose sight of the fact that in the show ring, there are no points for style (for the jumpers), and the jumps are going to come up a lot faster. Though it’s hard to recreate some show ring variables at home, this is an easy way to get more comfortable at your competition pace and to smooth out the major kinks.
7. Bring your spurs (and whip) to a water jump fight.
Want to know how to irritate McLain Ward? Show up to a spooky indoor jumping course without the tools necessary for success. If you have spurs, put them above the spur rest. If you have a stick, and your horse is hanging back, use it – thoughtfully, and with purpose and control. Although McLain advises that he isn’t one of those pros who thinks every horse needs to go with a stick and spurs at all times, for a difficult or spooky course, showing up without some sort of plan B, or at least the aids to help you accomplish plan A, should things get hairy, is irresponsible.
8. Pull yourself together.
We’ve all seen McLain’s steely competition mask, which goes on at about the same time that he mounts up, and doesn’t come off until he’s chasing around his fellow podium-finishers with a bottle of champagne. The interesting thing, though, is just how much McLain preaches what he practices. When he's coaching, McLain seems to value the rider's composure and mental state as much as he does their ability to actually jump clear or ride smoothly. But it’s not just about looking the part – McLain explains how a lack of mental composure can cause some riders to begin their course prematurely, rush their horse, or pick a poor approach to an important fence. Composure is easier said than done, of course, depending on the circumstance, but at the very least, it’s a good reminder to take an extra moment to breathe and organize before starting every course you attempt, or recompose when things don't go your way.
9. Oh, heyyyy lower leg, I see you.
For many riders, once our equitation days are over, that whole lower leg obsession goes out the window. Turns out, a good lower leg position isn’t just about picking the best horse show photo to share on Instagram or winning a medal class. McLain is all about proper position, and can be seen commenting on the lower legs of riders in his clinics and coaching sessions. He's even been heard telling one it would determine how far she was able to go in the sport, and even once chided McKayla Langmeier for some (very minor) lower-leg slippage during a clinic round. Most of us, on our best day, don't have a lower leg position within striking distance of McKayala Langmeier’s on her worst, but we all have to have goals, right? If the lower leg is a deal breaker for McLain, it’s now officially a dealbreaker for all.
10. Had a stop in the show ring? Here’s how to cope.
There was a clinic a few years past that had a number of really rough go's. The chief culprit was a spooky open water fence that McLain himself said was very difficult, and a majority of the participating horses stopped, thought hard about stopping, crashed through it, or offered some combination of the above. Huge props to McLain, who stayed to work with the riders who were struggling with this fence, and who had some important pointers for how to deal with the inevitable spooky fence or unexpected stop on course (which happens to us all).
One: Whatever you do, don't let your horse run by or around the fence. Over, under, or through is best. Stopping straight is the only other option.
Two: Don't lose your stirrups if at all possible – especially if you know a spook or required correction is coming. Losing a stirrup will compromise your position, your ability to make a timely correction, and it may cause you to fall off. Worse still: somewhere in the world, McLain Ward will know you’ve lost your stirrup and will be looking down on you for it.
Three: End on a high note. If you get excused, and you can, jump another fence on your way out (something similar in type to the problem fence, if possible) and then take it out to the schooling ring. Find people who can help you and don't freak out. This is show jumping, and stops, falls, and crashes happen to everyone. What matters is how composed you’re able to stay when it’s happening to you.
Adapted by NF Editorial Staff from an article by Nina Fedrizzi.
Feature photo by Erin Gilmore. Story photos by Sportfot.