Middleburg, Va.—Aug. 7
For professional, junior and amateur riders alike, sometimes the hardest thing to do is nothing at all. As the jump nears, the human brain starts going through its checklist: Do I see a distance? Am I straight? Is the horse’s shoulder up? Maybe I need to move my shoulders back to give him more room? Maybe I should give him an extra nudge to make sure he’s paying attention? But for the first day of Will Simpson’s clinic at Rutledge Farm, he wanted to focus on the other brain in this sport.
With three riders in his 3’6″ session, Gavin Moylan, Amanda Smith and Kate Paige, Simpson started by watching them warm-up on the flat, getting to know the horses before getting down to business.
“There are really two kinds of flatwork that I like to do,” said Simpson. “One where we just observe what kind of rideability we have. The other kind of flatwork is the adjustability of the ride. We try to get the horse so it will lengthen its stride, shorten its stride, and [move] right and left. Basically there are only four things we have to do to show jump. Go forward, slow down, turn right and turn left.”
Simpson asked the riders to break down those four movements and incorporate them into their warm-up at all gaits. And then he took the warm-up a step further by adding poles. He started off by making a short four-stride line with two poles, having the riders change their stride number each time. But then he added a third rail and asked the riders to come back to the walk.
“For me a big part of my teaching, a big part of my riding career is distance selection,” said Simpson. “I’ve got a little exercise here that we do at the walk. I like to do a lot of my training at the walk. It has to do with three steps about how to create the distance. I don’t really think riders see distances. I think we create them. I have a three-step formula to create the distance. And it actually works walking a rail on the ground. Then it applies to cantering.”
Demonstrating on the ground, Simpson walked a short turn towards the pole, stepping over it at a severe angle. He then “changed rein” on another short turn and walked back over the pole at an angle, making a tight figure-eight.
“What we’ll do is walk past the rail like this, and at one point, we’ll look at the rail for the first time. So that’s the eye,” said Simpson. “And then after that the next stride is the turn to the rail, so we’ll open the rein and change the direction of the feet. So as you’re looking at the rail, we’ll come around and step over the rail with the inside front left. Then the same thing back. You look, over to the release, and create that inside front leg walking around. So we’re always going with the inside front leg.”
With the three steps—eye, oversteer and release, and influencing the horse’s inside front leg—Simpson explained that it helps create a distance while simulating a jump-off turn at the walk.
“That influence of the horse is what creates the distance,” said Simpson. “It’s a great way to learn your horse’s stride, learn your horse’s adjustability and work on what I call the distance selection process. Eyes, oversteer and release and fine tune. I do that to every single jump that I jump. I have to do it. I’m not good enough to just canter jumps out of sync without using some kind of method to make sure I get to the right take-off spot.”
Once the riders mastered the exercise at the walk, he asked them to try at the trot. And with more awkward steps popping up at the trot, Simpson explained how exercises are easier to do when the horse’s feet are moving at a slower pace.
“Sometimes it’s nice when you’re having trouble with a horse, having trouble working something out, to slow their feet down,” said Simpson. “Do it at the walk or do it at the trot or do it at a slower pace. And then you can let it sink in.”
Following the same pattern, Moylan, Smith and Paige moved to the canter. But at the canter, Simpson told them to leave their horses at a longer distance and ask for a change of leads over the top of the pole.
“See if they can jump higher each time, so you actually tune the horse up with a pole on the ground,” said Simpson. “By switching your legs, the horse’s body, the right side and the left side, you leave them a little bit long, they have to push off the ground and switch with the new outside leg and see if they can jump up in the air, higher and higher each time.”
Simpson explained that the awkwardness of the distance and the changing of leg forces them to put more effort into the ground line and inspires more carefulness and attentiveness.
Continuing on to honing the horse’s mind, Simpson moved to an exercise with four verticals set one stride apart with a pole in between each fence.
“Your job is just to stay straight,” Simpson explained. “The horse should figure out where the rhythm is—it should be tight for each of these horses—so that we can teach the horse how to change forward motion up and down. So the little bit of work [from] the rider is the best. Teach the horse how to jump up over these jumps.”
Once all the horses went through the exercise well, Simpson asked the riders to purposefully jump into the line from a short distance. With the rider just supporting with the leg, the horse had to take the impulsion and use it in a vertical direction inside of going faster and flatter.
“For all three horses, the jumps were a little bit in the way,” said Simpson. “And the horse had to say, ‘Hey I better watch and be careful here.’ So to me all three horses are really turned on by coming in with a little bit more leg, a little less hand, and they really all made great moves all the way through on all four of the jumps.
“That’s a little bit of the way I like to do gymnastics is let the horse figure out what their job is,” continued Simpson. “So that when you get on course, you have both minds thinking about keeping the rails up. Rather than if we babysit them and bring them in nice and perfect. Then they think, ‘Oh I can just be casual here and listen to the rider,’ and you come down and have the first jump down on course. Because the horse isn’t really participating.”
For his final exercise, he asked the riders to trot over a pole into a bounce to a one-stride and finish with a two-stride. In between the one-stride and the two-stride, Simpson set up a landing rail. When Moylan’s horse seemed a shade sluggish into the combination, Simpson explained that with the landing rail, the riders could put more leg pressure on the horse and test how their brain reacts.
“This distance in here, it holds the horse because they’re not going to leave a stride out. So you can really experiment with using a little too much leg and see how the horse reacts to it,” said Simpson. “It’s a great time when you’re doing gymnastics to use extra leg and less hand. Teach the horse how to balance themselves.”
And with Moylan’s final time through, you could hear Balous Diamond click his hind heels together.
“That’s what you love to hear, the hind heels clicking together!” said Simpson. “Most horses key up a little bit when they go on course. So that’s a different horse than we had at home and when they’re relaxed. So you might as well try to create the horse that you’re going to have in the show ring and then teach the horse how to set themselves, how to balance themselves because of the jumps. Then you go on course, and you’ll maybe help them a little bit here, sit back, keep the shoulder up, and all the things that we do to participate in keeping the rails up, and yet the horse is already in tune to keeping the rails up. That’s really what my idea of gymnastics is.”
Check back tomorrow for the the Chronicle’s second day of coverage of Will Simpson’s clinic at Rutledge Farm.