It Starts With Straightness And A Quality Canter, Says Padraig McCarthy

Jan 29, 2019 - 10:36 AM

When I heard Padraig McCarthy was coming to Paradise Farm in Aiken, South Carolina, for a two-day clinic I jumped at the chance to audit while I’m out of riding commission. Obviously Padraig (I’m still working on how to pronounce this properly) has a star-studded résumé, including individual and team silver at the FEI World Equestrian Games (North Carolina), but you can also tell without meeting him that he is down to earth and has a sense of humor, which makes clinicing less intimidating and more delightful.

How do I know this? Well, for one, he rides a horse named Mr. Chunky, and that in itself is comical. Padraig also posted this hilarious video about “coming back down to Earth after WEG,” reminding us that horses keep us humble:

Padraig was at Paradise Farm for two days of show jumping and cross-country for novice through intermediate levels. Both riders and spectators walked away with new tools in their tool boxes. I was impressed by how he could make the same exercises and key features work out for such a variety of horses.

It Doesn’t Have To Be Complicated

Each group began the first day with a warm-up that focused on the quality of canter, a pole exercise and a related-distance exercise before moving on to coursework. I found the training level group particularly interesting because it was such a diverse group, and there were visible changes throughout the clinic. This group consisted of a flashy, rangey, but exuberant young Holsteiner mare; a talented, young Irish horse ready to move up to prelim who needed to be inspired; a recently purchased sportscar of an Irish mare; and an ex-grand prix horse now doing the 1.0-meter jumpers, whose rider made me laugh saying they were not here for cross-country!

Padraig started off by discussing how he wanted riders to approach the session.

1. Look towards your jump with a wide-angle view

I liked this idea, because it is so easy to look hard at a jump. Padraig explained that when we look hard at a fence we’re tempted to override and overreact. The more we do this, the more we end up changing, and then we accidentally change the balance of the horse. It was a great reminder not to get so fixated and to be able to see our turn and everything else without being too intense.

2. Focus on the canter

Quality, quality, quality. You should always ride a canter that has a reserve of energy, so you can adjust if needed.

3. Focus on a correct turn

You can’t get to the fence without the turn first. The turn is more important than the jump itself.

This discussion foreshadowed what was to come with the exercises and the rest of the lesson.

Riders warmed up over a simple exercise comprised of three poles. Canter a pole, turn left, canter a pole, turn right, canter a pole turn left, canter a pole turn right. I said the exercise was simple, not easy.

“Deconstruct each piece so you can complete the turn in a quality canter,” Padraig constantly reminded the group. He wanted them to focus on riding the corners, the quality of the canter, and to finish their turns.

For the exuberant horse threatening to take over, Padraig cautioned the rider to be “proactive rather than reactive.” He wanted riders to think about keeping one rhythm through the poles and to not chase the pole.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, for the less forward-thinking horse, Padraig encouraged the rider to come through the turns with a reserve of energy, so she had options in the canter. It was important that she didn’t nag him, but kept him in front of her leg by refreshing the canter every few steps and not waiting until he got dull.

Padraig stressed that poles are something we can practice all the time, and we should as we can get the same effect as jumps without the wear and tear.

Next came the related-distance exercise: a vertical, four strides to another vertical, five strides to an oxer. Then they progressed to a vertical-vertical in four strides, bending in five to another vertical. Padraig also set a pair of poles on the take-off and landing side to help riders focus on straightness. Riders did a great job executing this exercise and pretty much whatever their instruction was in the pole exercise became the same running theme throughout this exercise (imagine that, this really is all related huh!?).

heather bush SJ
Padraig McCarthy encouraged riders like Heather Bush to keep her horse straight through the entire exercise. Jess Halliday Photos

Padraig expected a balanced turn into the exercise, a straight and quality canter throughout with an allowing position, and a quality turn afterwards. When a couple riders accidentally did a four-stride to four-stride, Padraig had them halt by using their voice and body in the middle of the five-stride. Though the riders had to halt before the jump out, they were reminded to “allow, not hold over the jump.” Padraig emphasized that “stopping is not pulling back; it’s closing the door,” and they needed to ride leg to hand to accomplish this downward transition. After a couple of halts, the horse and rider managed to come through in an allowing four strides to a quiet five strides. Mission accomplished.

It was time for a course. Guess what that course involved? Lots of turns and related distances. Time to put their warm-up exercises to use. Each horse-and-rider pair ran through the course twice with dramatic improvements. I loved Padraig’s comments when a horse got deep, because he was about producing the horse rather than making it perfect. “Don’t try to help by letting her go left or right to make room,” he said. “If you’re deep she has to cope.”

I loved this because it was a reminder that the horse needs to take some responsibility, as it’s not going to be perfect every time.

Once again, the quality of the canter was paramount. If your horse tends to get long in his frame, which gets the horse a bit past the distance, you need to package the canter.

“Keep an engine, so you can rebalance,” Padraig said. When you go to slow down, don’t over ride it. Think about having “spongy, not strong, hands.” And when your horse is on the quieter side, you need to focus on having an accordion-like canter, so you have options rather than always needing to move up to the distance.

Amber Lee
Padraig McCarthy encouraged riders to not let their horses cheat by shifting left or right to get a better distance, but to teach them that sometimes the distance won’t be perfect.

Padraig finished up by reminding them that the focus shouldn’t be about always jumping clear at home. They need to practice the rhythm, balance and turns, so they are training themselves and the horse. Do that, and clear rounds will fall into place. As someone who is a perfectionist I loved this, as it’s easy to come up with cop-outs (i.e. letting them wiggle to make room for a better distance or holding the canter too much) rather than stick to the training process, which will be worth it in the long run. Each horse and rider ended the session looking content and happy and excited about cross country (except for the rider on the ex-grand prix horse).

Same Concepts, Different Terrain

Padraig mentioned that most event riders prefer cross-country, which I think we can all agree with. Part of that is because we are more confident and let the rhythm happen, and it’s easier to find good jumps off the forward step.

For cross-country day I particularly loved the intermediate group. Not only was it packed with talented horses and riders, but these riders joked around, saying things like “the struggle is real,” and cheering each other on when things improved. The group consisted of Nilson Moreira da Silva, Booli Selmayr, Beth Perkins, and Kirsten Buffamoyer, all on super talented horses with great canters and jumps.

Padraig made ample use of Paradise Farm’s rolling hills and terrain for this group’s warm-up, and it made me immediately want to rush my horses to a hill, so I could do the same. The flat warm-up was simple—but you guessed it, not easy—utilizing the hills to ensure the horses were going to be sharp, responsive and adjustable.

First riders did trot-halt transitions going downhill, focusing on riding leg to hand and not pulling their horses down. That meant the horses had to be responsible for their hind legs and stopping underneath themselves. They followed that up with canter-halts down the hill.

Once they were getting good responses, riders rode a working canter to a collected canter and back to working canter down the hill. The terrain proved tricky, but the riders worked hard using “twice as much leg as rein.”

Beth was on an uber-talented but large and strong horse that fussed in the bridle and got crooked during these transitions. Padraig took her reins and tied them around the horse’s neck so you end up with a rein and a neck strap, and the horse ends up pulling against itself (and we as riders can’t pull as much!). I had the pleasure of being introduced to this exercise years ago on a tricky show jumping horse. I rode him like this for years, and it was a miracle fix.

Beth did the canter to halt transition a couple of times and exclaimed, “The feeling I have is that I’m more on the neck strap than the rein.”

Padraig responded, “Of course you do. That’s why I put it there!” The improvement in the horse and rideability was drastic, and riders took a mental note to keep this tool in their tool box. Beth was allowed her regular rein set-up back as they headed out to jump.

beth perkins
When Beth Perkins’ horse got strong, Padraig McCarthy told her not to take back with the rein but to allow the fences to back him off.

Riders warmed up over a couple of angled rolltops, before executing a two-stride line of rolltops. Padraig instructed riders to do figure-eights or transitions after each fence, so the horses expected a job afterwards, leading to greater rideability to the jumps.

“Keep using the fence to have [the horse] back off rather than the rein,” Padraig urged. To do this, riders must be brave and give it a try, but it made a huge improvement. When turning, he wanted riders to keep “the shoulder in front of the hindquarters” for balance.

When the horses got crooked or “two wheeled” on the backside of the fence, Padraig said, “Never let them collapse through a turn. Leg yield, leg yield, leg yield.”

Next they tackled a four-stride bending line exercise set slightly long. Those who got five strides or got the four strides but gappy were sent back to try it again with the emphasis to create the right canter beforehand, so they didn’t have to rush in the middle and to “follow, follow, follow.” The line ended landing downhill, and Padraig had the riders halt at the end. For those that got crooked on landing he reminded them to leg yield and correct the straightness.

“I don’t train skinnies often because you don’t need to if you train them to be straight,” Padraig said. Now how does he accomplish this? Lots of 3′ rails on the ground in training and being diligent about the straightness.

Booli Selmayr
Having the right canter through the turn allows you to have options.

Regardless of the questions presented—coffins, trakehners, drops or jumps into water— Padraig returned to the same principles: quality of canter and riding the line. This is where all of their hillwork in the warm-up came to play. Horses and riders were bold, confident and made light work of the questions. Everyone looked more than ready for their first event of the season!

“It was great to have Padraig come over and give such great instruction to riders at all levels,” said clinic organizer Jane McDonald. “It didn’t matter what the exercise was, he was spot on with his criticism of how they rode it. Everyone went away with a lot of good points to work on, and they were all smiling at the end, so that has to be a good sign.”

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