McLain Ward Clinic Day 3: Control What You Can Control

Aug 21, 2017 - 1:55 PM

The Royal Canadian Riding Academy just north of Toronto welcomed Olympic rider McLain Ward and 24 eager riders to the third day of the three-day clinic. The first day of the clinic focused primarily on warm-up, flatwork and some jumping exercises. The second day centered on gymnastic exercises and Ward emphasized their importance in a training program that would work for all horses.

The third day was game day. Riders and horses would put together all that they had learned and jump a real course. Ward declared: “Today is about competing.”

Rebecca Graham with McLain Ward. Photo by Suzanna O’Connor

Ward and his ring crew set up what he termed a “modified” course: hard enough to challenge horse and rider but nothing like a full competitive Spruce Meadows course—challenging but safe.

The first fence was an inviting oxer, then across the diagonal to the left in seven or eight strides to a simple vertical, followed by a rollback to an oxer with plenty of room to make a nice turn which would help riders gather and balance their horse before the jump. The big challenge after the rollback to the oxer was to then make a 90-degree turn to the left to the same two-stride combination that the riders had worked on in the gymnastic exercises the day before. But of course, there were no ground lines this time.

The two-stride combination was followed by a bending left-hand turn of five strides past the in-gate to an oxer right in front of the bleachers. The oxer was made more challenging by the spooky background and the difficult angle. Riders would then do a rollback to the right, which would take them very close to the spooky bleachers followed by a big vertical and seven or eight strides across the right diagonal to an oxer.

The challenge on this line was to keep the strides consistent. Finally, the horse and rider partnership would make a left hand turn to the final fence, a liverpool.

The Course Walk
Throughout the clinic, Ward emphasized the importance of controlling the things that you can control. The course walk is one of those things.

McLain Ward walking the course with some of the riders. Photo by Suzanna O’Connor

Ward walked the course with each group of riders before their session started while volunteers from the stands or the riders own supporters held the horses. Ward told us that he fights nerves all the time, particularly because he wants to do well in every class. He finds that if he is exact and looks after details, controls what he can control and puts his focus on execution, he can contain his nerves.

The themes of controlling what you can control and attention to detail were repeated throughout the entire clinic.

One of the things you can control as a rider is your course walk. This is the time to develop a game plan for the course.

Ward’s course walk tips:

  • Be on time for your course walk. Try to be the first person there. Think during your course walk. Ask yourself: “What is difficult for my horse?”
  • Pay attention to things that might spook your horse like bleachers, banners and loudspeakers. Ward recommends ear plugs for most horses in competition situations. Practice with them at home so your horse gets used to them as just another piece of equipment.
  • Another thing to pay attention to is the location of the in-gate. The in-gate can be a problem in some, not all, arenas.
    As you walk around the course, pick a place to “stop” before you start the course. This should be relatively close to where they blow the horn so that you can make a short, sweet approach to the first jump. Ward likes to ask his horse to back up a couple of strides before he starts. It helps to get the attention of your horse.
  • A lot of horses will go to the bathroom when they get into the arena out of nerves. Be aware—let them finish before you start the course or you may have the first rail down!
  • Ward likes to walk base to base of the fences to measure the striding. It is vital to know how many strides it will take your horse to do the distance. He mentioned that most time faults occur because of a lack of pace between the first two fences.
    A 90-degree turn will force you to slow down. Walk the turn for the distance and also to get the line. The key is to get to that next fence balanced and organized.
  • You have to think about the places that you and your horse might have trouble with on the course and then problem-solve about how to deal with them. Plan your round. Plan where to do your half-halts. Plan where to do your turns. Plan where you can give your horse a moment to take a breathe during the round. Find places to let the horse slow down between fences. This all part of developing a game plan for your round and controlling what you can control.

The Warm-Up
Tailor your warm-up to your horse. Ward said that the theme of the weekend was “You can have a base way of doing things but you have to tailor it to the horse and the job in hand.”

Some horses need a longer warm-up and have to be revved up before a class. “As they thaw, they get better and better,” Ward described this kind of horse.

On the flip side, blood or hot horses need to be kept under wraps. Slow things down for them. Get rid of the spurs and whip if that revs them up. Be slow with your upper body over warm-up fences. Hot horses need a shorter, less intense warm-up.

Caitlin Koesner on Sam, a 22-year-old horse, jumping in the clinic. Photo by Suzanna O’Connor

Before you start to jump your warm-up fences, the aim of your warm-up on the flat is to have a horse that is loose, stretched out, straight and supple through the bit and the body—basically relaxed and loosened up.

If your horse is a bit stiff on one side, Ward suggests taking a leaf out of a western reining rider’s book. Do small circles around the inside leg of the side he is stiff on but don’t drop the outside rein. You can take a page from other riding disciplines but adapt the ideas to fit your need. During the warm-up on the flat, lateral work and counter-canter are all useful tools. The aim is to engage the hind end.

Ward’s warm-up tips:

  • Know your horse. You can practice lead changes with some horses. Other horses can “get batty” about doing lead changes in training but seem to be able to find the correct lead when on course. If you force them to do flying changes too much in training you just make them mad. Do simple changes instead.
  • Sometimes you have to save energy on a hot day for both you and your horse.
  • Jump a few jumps in warm-up. Make sure you come off both leads. Ideally, if the ring allows this, jump the first fence and halt nicely a few strides afterward. Turn and jump, halt in the other direction.
  • Concentrate on rhythm, balance and your upper body position as you warm up. You are trying to get your horse’s shape in the warm-up.
  • Control your anxiety by focusing on execution, not the results on the scoreboard. “Results will come if you focus on execution,” Ward declared.

Maya Polson rode her mare Fuegobanta in the clinic. She said, “McLain Ward is phenomenal. His emphasis on discipline and paying attention to every stride is inspiring. His insistence on attention to detail is a mindset I want to carry forward.”

Riding The Course
Ward likes to canter into the ring in big classes and he advises that riders have a plan for your entrance. “Your entrance needs to be crisp and prompt so you can get to see what you need to see and get to where you need to start,” he said. Find the place you need to be when the horn blows so you can have an organized approach to the first fence.

Slow yourself down and think through the steps of the course if you are intimidated by anything. If the overall test is intimidating, break it down into smaller steps.

Maya Polson on Fuegobanta negotiating the course under McLain Ward’s watchful eye. Photo by Suzanna O’Connor

“Keep it smooth” was the mantra of the day. “It’s like swimming. You have to breathe,” Ward said.

Ward noted that the horse’s stride is often shorter at the beginning of a course. He advised that a line that walked in seven strides to the second fence may turn into eight and that riders should prepare for that. It is common for people to land off a fence and then balance, but sometimes that means they lose the distance. If you look to the next fence over the one before, you’ll get there easier.

Ward reminded riders that mistakes happen—how you recover from them is key.

And when riders are on course, when your horse is in good rhythm and balance, don’t try to do more. Just chill. Find places to let the horse slow down and settle between fences.

The Jump-Off
The 1.60-meter group finished the clinic with a jump-off. Ward suggested that riders practice jump-offs occasionally at home. If you don’t practice them, you are at a disadvantage in the ring.

Ward’s jump-off tips:

  • Practice: neat and efficient. Practice: the shortest line. Practice: the most efficient line. Ward noted that typically the fastest ride is the most efficient ride.
  • Ward wanted the riders to look through the turn; he noted that efficiency comes from the eye getting to the next fence. Smooth is fast.
  • Be moving on when you go through the timers. Jump-offs are often lost by a slower pace between the timer and the first fence.
  • Be tactically smart. Ride low-risk but knowing when to take the risk.
  • Try to be aware of when it’s “your day,” but be a smart horseman. Know when you are “on” and have the right horse for the job and know when it is hopeless.

The Clinic In A Nutshell
Ward said that what he hopes people get out of this clinic is a way of training your horse, preparing your horse and preparing yourself for competition.

He hopes riders have learn to establish a baseline training plan with which you can approach training every horse, but be flexible. Tailor the training to the individual horse’s needs and weaknesses.

A few of Ward’s words of wisdom:

  • It’s not about the size of the jump, it’s about the approach. When you train you need to jump what you can jump well and consistently. You don’t need to jump grand prix size at home.

    For example, if you are preparing for a 1.30-meter class, you don’t need to school that at home. Do the height you can do well and consistently. Train the approach.

  • Gymnastics teach a horse in a nice positive way how to deal with questions you will deal with on a course. Gymnastics are the backbone of McLain Ward’s system of training.
  • Ward is well known for his focus on even the smallest of details. “Control the things you can control,” he said. “You can control your execution. You can control your planning.”
  • With an older horse who is set in his ways, we have to think: “What can I do to make this easier.” Sometimes we have to meet a horse in the middle rather than insist that they do it our way. We have to be open-minded when we deal with horses.
  • You don’t need a lot of arm to ride. A lot of leg—yes. But with soft hands and soft arms. A supple relaxed arm is essential so that when you get to the jump you can feel the mouth and give an anxious, hot horse security.
  • The term “sit against him,” means sitting in a light (two-point) seat into contact. Bend the elbows to slow the horse. Don’t lean back or sit too deep: that is driving the horse and will only speed him up when what you wanted was to slow things down.
  • Sometimes a rider who has ridden a problematic horse or one who stops has trouble on a better horse that doesn’t stop because they have a hard time trusting the horse. You have to re-learn to trust your horse.
  • Don’t put pressure on the horse with a driving seat. Give him a chance to be good.

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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