McLain Ward Clinic Day 2: Gymnastics For Mind And Body

Aug 20, 2017 - 11:10 AM

The Royal Canadian Riding Academy just north of Toronto, Ontario, was the setting for Day 2 of the McLain Ward clinic on Aug. 19. The cloudy and cool day proved to be ideal conditions for the hard-working horses and riders in the clinic.

Most of the 24 riders in the clinic were able to get to the sand ring early in the day for a meeting with Ward before the riding portion of the clinic started for a walk through of the gymnastic exercises that were set up in the ring.

Ward explained that at his facility he has two rings, one of which has the gymnastic exercises set up all the time. In his experience, this works better than having to put up and take down gymnastics all the time because then people are inclined to skimp on the gym set-up. If you don’t have to set up a gymnastic daily, the gymnastics will be more correct. In addition, you can employ them a little in your flat work. Ward suggested that in Canada you could set up a permanent gymnastic course in your indoor arena during the summer.

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McLain Ward discussed the day’s exercises with the riders. Photo by Suzanna O’Connor.

Gymnastic work is the foundation of McLain Ward’s training program, and some of his horses “live in gymnastics.” The gymnastic exercises for the clinic were set up for most horses, but Ward emphasized that you have to be flexible and change things to work on a particular horse’s weakness.

As a trainer, Ward believes in the concept of a baseline program for all horses but that you have to tailor it to the individual horse. With young horses, do gymnastics often but make it short and sweet. Do it a couple of times correctly, and that‘s enough. Don‘t overdo it or you‘ll do more harm than good. “It’s not complicated,” he stated.

Ward was adamant about the use of ground poles placed 9 feet in front and 9 feet behind the introductory crossrail. He explained that these canter rails are necessary because the rider has to pay attention to the rail. If the rider doesn’t pay attention to the rail, they will miss the fence. He also places the 9’ canter rail on the ground in front of the cross rail, then 9’ behind it followed by 9’ to a small oxer with a 9’ rail behind it before a vertical set about 30’ from the oxer. Ward explained that this exercise is ideal for a horse with a tendency to rush their fences. The ground pole 9’ from the oxer makes the horse shorten his stride on landing, enabling the rider to keep the energy more coiled and ride to the vertical with softer hands.

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Sarah Bellamy cleared an oxer on Day 2 of the McLain Ward clinic in Ontario. Photo by Suzanna O’Connor.

Look. Organize. Plan.

Part of the warm-up for all three groups on this second day of the clinic included trotting and cantering without stirrups.

Ward explained to all three groups that he drops his stirrups in sitting trot several times a week. He does not think posting at the trot is a good idea because it creates a tendency to pinch with the thigh and knee causing the lower leg to come off the horse. But sitting trot without stirrups improves the seat and leg. Ward suggested that riders choose a day when the horse is doing light work and that it should be incorporated into your program at least twice a week. He emphasized that no-stirrup work is like going to the gym. You have to be disciplined about going regularly and often, otherwise it does no good.

Ward had several general comments for riders during their warm up. “Have good hands but don’t hide ‘em.” In other words, be soft and supple with your hands and don’t keep them down. Raise your hands to lighten the horse. “Raise the hands, raise the bit in his mouth, and he will rise to it—or at the very least he’ll find his balance,” Ward said.

Ward’s advice to all riders in the clinic and to the spectators as well: Change it up from day to day. Don’t pound on the horse for an hour a day as if you were punching a time clock. If you achieve your goals for the day in 15 or 20 minutes, then that’s enough for that day.

The first jumping exercise for all groups was over a single cross rail set about 14” high initially but raised in later exercises. The cross rail had 9’ canter rails on the ground both before and after the fence. The riders repeated the exercise from Day 1 in which they jumped over the crossrail and then asked the horse to halt.

The second exercise started with the single crossrail and then incorporated the bounce fences. For all groups, the bounce fences were kept low. Even for the 1.60-meter class, the bounces were no more than 2’ with the first jump of the three bounces kept low and inviting. Ward explained that even with his grand prix horses, he would keep the bounces low.

As the session went on, the gymnastic line of three jumps: vertical, one stride to an oxer, two strides to a vertical with the 9’ canter poles before and after the first two fences was added to the exercise.

And finally the horses were asked to jump a course included all the gymnastic exercises and a vertical and an oxer on unrelated distances including a roll-back to the single vertical. Jumps were kept quite low for the 1.10-meter and raised for the 1.20-meter and the 1.60-meter but were kept well below anything that would be a challenging height for any of the horses. In the 1.60-meter group, the greener horses went first in the final exercise before the jumps were raised in height to challenge the more experienced horses so as not to shake their confidence.

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Anthony Blurton-Jones and his mare Dutch Lyric smiled during Day 2 of the McLain Ward clinic. Photo by Suzanna O’Connor.

Ward insisted that riders not accept the first distance they saw. He wanted then to wait for the jump. “Look at the pole, forget that the jump is there,” he said. To get the distance, take-off should be between the 9’ pole and the jump. “Horse gets tense, you stay soft. Horse gets strong, you stay soft. When the engine is there, you have to lighten, lighten and sit against it,” he said.

Dealing With a Rushing Or Strong Horse

All three groups had horses that rushed or were very strong coming to the fence. Ward insisted that the riders should adopt a defensive ride instead of an aggressive ride. Keep the horse in front of you. Stay behind but encourage him to go forward. Don’t grip the mouth. Just ask nicely and consistently for the horse to come back. If he doesn’t come back, ask again. Control the upper body. Don’t be quick with your upper body. “When the body gets quick, the horse hits the jump,” Ward said.

Slow the upper body down. Wait with the upper body. Feel the horse come to you. Let the withers rise up to your chest bone. Don’t let your shoulders get ahead of your hands in the release. Keep your shoulders back but follow the mouth with your hands. Keep straight yourself, and keep your horse straight to the fence. Your hips and shoulders should be in alignment with the horse’s hips and shoulders. If your horse gets anxious, you have to stay cool then they will relax more. Stay balanced and allow your hands to follow the corners of the horse’s mouth.

The Mental Game

Mental planning is important, Ward insisted. The people who win are the people who plan and think about what they are doing and why they are doing it. “Everything you do builds for tomorrow and the next day, the next year,” he said. “Every day we try to do things a little better.”

You have to think about your horse’s strength and weaknesses and figure out how to help him be better. Riding is problem solving.

In a competition situation, Ward advised that it was important to be aware. Watch what others do, not just to learn, but to help you plan your round.

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Photo by Suzanna O’Connor.

He told us all that if he has a couple of rounds where he has the last rail down, when he walks the next few courses, he walks another fence after the last fence on course, and that gets him back on track.

Ward emphasized that a top competitor must pay attention to detail and control everything that can be controlled. “Don’t leave a stone unturned that you can control,” he said. A course walk, for example, is something you can control, so be meticulous in your course walks and pay attention to detail.

“Look. Organize. Plan” was a theme for all groups but was especially emphasized to the less experienced rider and horse combinations. “Look early,” said Ward. “Organize before the turn. Eyes are like radar. You got to get them on the jump and keep them there.” Just turn your head to look, not your body, or you’ll risk throwing your horse off balance. Keep your eyes up: Look at the top of the fence, not the bottom.

Ward had some general advice for all of the riders. For those riding a green horse, he urged them to stay supportive of the horse with the leg and ride defensively with your upper body; keep them in front of you and worry about being stylish later. He urged all riders to keep up the discipline. Don’t get sloppy and cut corners for instance. Ride leg to hand. Be consistent. Don’t just hope that they do it. Create the distance you want. Be disciplined about it.

Ward said that anybody can learn to find a distance but position is the most important thing in producing positive results all the time. Be in the middle of the horse, over the center of gravity, not ahead or behind. All the great riders have the ability to stay over the center of gravity over the fence.

Ward was very positive and complimentary with all the riders in the clinic. He told them to believe and trust in themselves, their abilities and their horses’ abilities.

Anthony Blurton-Jones, riding his green mare Dutch Lyric, had this to say about Ward: “Fantastic instructor. His humility and tact on seeing where you are weak doesn’t make you feel less of a rider but helps you to fix your weaknesses.”

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 and scroll to the bottom.


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