The first day of the McLain Ward clinic, Aug. 18, focused on the importance of attention to detail and the need for a disciplined approach to every aspect of riding.
Ward emphasized with all three groups of riders that talent and hard work alone are not enough for building a successful career with horses. A rider must also pay attention to every detail, be organized and disciplined in his or her approach to all aspects of the ride.
Twenty-four riders participated in three different sessions with Olympic gold medalist Ward on the first day of the clinic, held at the Royal Canadian Riding Academy just north of Toronto, Ontario.
Given Ward’s emphasis on attention to detail, the beginning of each session focused on tack and turnout. Attention to detail is important, Ward emphasized. Look after the small things and the big things will fall into perspective. Stay on top of your equipment: check it, clean it. Then there no surprises by breaks in the ring. Even if you are lucky enough to have grooms or other staff, it’s ultimately your responsibility as the rider to check everything.
Ward’s plan for the three-day clinic is to work on a correct approach to the warm-up on the first day, moving to gymnastic exercises on the second day, and finally working on refining and polishing the riding of complete courses on the third day.
On this first day Ward had many suggestions for the riders in the 1.10-meter group focusing on warming up their horses before jumping over three low fences. He said that the art is knowing when to push a horse and when to ease off. You need to teach a horse the fundamentals. Start with flat work then move into more gymnastic work.
Ward emphasized the importance of consistent riding. Riders must be disciplined. Every time you ride, you must be consistent in your approach and work toward soft, supple, engaged and straight. Aim for roundness on the flat. You don’t need to be tough but ask for what you want every time.
Ward had suggestions for the riders on how to achieve the softness, suppleness, engagement and straightness they should be working toward. Ask the horse to collect by raising the hands and asking for a half-halt and then soften. Don’t push for speed. Use small circles and make them come around your inside leg. Not too much repetition: change speed, change direction, back up once or twice, then move on again. Asking for forward and back will help to keep them lighter. The horse has a short attention span, so variety will keep both the horse’s body and his mind engaged. The aims are the same for all horses but “feel” means your ability to sense what is needed from you in the moment to support your horse.
Some horses in the group had a tendency to be on their front end. Ward’s suggestion to remedy this was ask the horse to collect by raising your hands and asking for a half-halt and then soften. If the horse gets on its front end lift your hands, half-halt then soften and repeat this as needed. He paid tribute to the Canadian rider Ian Millar who Ward said was a master at this technique.
Ward emphasized how important position is with all three groups. “Keep your body from being thrown around by the horse,” he said. “Stay in the middle of the horse.”
The session moved on to jumping over some small fences so that riders could practice their attention to detail and the discipline of consistent riding. Ward insisted: “Everything a rider does on the flat and over small jumps is part of the bigger picture. From the very first fence, it leads to the final product you want to achieve.” You want every fence to feel “easy and safe.”
On a safety note, Ward said that he always uses ground lines in training at all levels for all his horses.
Ward had the group start by jumping a 14” cross rail and then asking the horse to halt a few strides later. He said that you must think “the jump is coming to you. Not you are going to the jump.” Be patient. Look. Plan. Let the fence come to you. Balance in the turn. Make sure the hind end is engaged. Keep straight. By asking the horse to stop after the fence, Ward was emphasizing to the riders that they should ride conservatively, with control and discipline. Especially for “blood” horses, it is important to control the adrenaline of both horse and rider. Teach the horse to wait particularly over smaller fences. “Keep it toned down,” he said.
Ward also suggested that in training it was helpful to do a lot of simple changes to keep the horse light. Keep the flying changes for the show ring. Use a supportive leg before the jumps. A circle is a great way to make a horse find his own balance (and slow down).
The session progressed to an exercise in which riders jumped the 14” cross rail and then a low vertical to a very low oxer. There were no related distances and riders were encouraged to take their time and make each jump consistent and disciplined.
Ward wants to leave riders with a thinking process. Believe in yourself and your skills and your horse. Believe in your own eye to get the distance. Ride with discipline and consistency: don’t let things slip or allow what you don’t want. Being “disciplined” means paying attention to details and doing everything correctly every time.
Tammy Crisafi, a rider in the first group, when asked for her take on the session stated the Ward was: “Very positive. He is an excellent clinician, very clear in his directions and explanation.”
A fellow rider, Samantha King, agreed. “It was so cool to hear him say that I had a natural feel. I almost teared up.” King was very gratified to hear the compliment since she and her current horse Baringer, “Bear,” a Czech Warmblood, have only been working together for a year. “He is a big switch from my Thoroughbred mare” she joked. “I had to go to the gym to build the strength to ride him!”
The emphasis again was on attention to detail and discipline. He complimented everyone on their turnout. Ward is adept at giving a rider a compliment before he gives them advice about how they can improve their own riding or their horses’ way of going.
He had advice for a rider riding a mare with blood. “Keep your own energy under wraps.” Don’t shorten your reins too much before you ask for a canter. Wait a few strides before shortening.
Again he emphasized keeping your hands up. “Raise the hand to raise the carriage to help the horse to carry himself.”
Ward commented that there is an epidemic in the sport right now of “more bit, more spur. Perhaps we should do less bit, less spur.” Work on getting the horse to carry you. When you drive all the time with your seat you can make a horse too hot. Slow everything down to calm things down. When your horse gets hot, you must get calmer with your aids.
Again with this more experienced group of riders, he emphasized attention to detail and patience on the part of the rider. The training exercise of jumping a low crossrail and then asking for a stop was to teach the horse skills that they will take forward to bigger fences so that they will learn to jump and collect, not jump and scoot off forward.
“When a horse is spooky, control helps,” he said. Stay connected between your hand and leg so they don’t have a place to deviate. Turn their heads away from the source of the spook and use your leg to push their body toward it.
The object of Day 1, Ward said, is to set the horses up for later in the clinic. One day leads to the next to set them up to do as well as possible.
The third group of the day consisted of a group of more experienced riders and horses. Many of them are consistent winners of their classes and are considered by many to be among the next generation of jumping stars. Ward said that he would be working with them to maximize their opportunities.
“The sport is more sophisticated these days,” he said. “You need to develop your game plan. It’s how you present yourself, organize and plan. Hard work and talent are not enough anymore.”
Ward’s approach was different with this group. “Warm-up as you would before a typical class,” he said.
As they did so, he made general observations about turnout. If you want to be a professional it starts with how you organize your stable and arena; they should be clean, neat and organized. No clutter. No broken poles lying around. Tidy. Businesslike. People coming to your stable will judge you and your sales prospects on how workmanlike everything is.
Don’t miss the live-streaming of this McLain Ward clinic, which includes exclusive interviews with McLain and some riders and two weeks of on-demand viewing. Click on http://dmfpro.com/mclainwardclinic.html and scroll to the bottom.