As a rider, I am extremely lucky to have grown up in the equestrian metropolis of Chester County, Pennsylvania. It’s home to half the 2016 Olympic eventing team, plus countless other top industry professionals in nearly every discipline. Though I now live in Philadelphia and board my horse in southern New Jersey, I’ve never lost sight of the ample resources I have at my disposal back home, which is just about an hour south.
Thanks to those resources, I recently had the opportunity to ride in a clinic with Jeanne McDonald. McDonald, also a resident of Chester County, is a Grand Prix dressage rider, a U.S. Dressage Federation bronze, silver and gold medalist, and a U.S. Equestrian Federation “S” and Fédération Equestre Internationale 4* judge. She was also on the committee to write the 2019 USDF dressage tests. I have audited several of her clinics and attended a few of her lectures, but this was my first opportunity to ride in front of her.
Our hour-long session was invaluable. McDonald combines expectations of greatness and rejection of mediocrity with clear and simple explanations, along with an encouraging and often funny style of communication. I was challenged, but I was set up for success every step of the way. While I could write pages and pages of what I learned, here are my five biggest takeaways from the clinic.
1. Define the gait you are working in.
As soon as I set off to work under McDonald’s observation, she asked me, “What kind of trot do you think this is? Collected? Working? Medium?” I considered for a moment before responding: “Working trot. I don’t think it’s quite collected.” She countered with her own analysis of the gait: it was neither; it was simply a slow trot. She decided we’d find a true working trot and had me add more power and energy, then had me half-halt almost to walk before sending my horse Dixie back forward to working trot. Each time we practiced the half-halt to forward trot, we shortened the stride a bit more until we found a true collected trot.
While simple, this active definition of the gait transformed the quality of work we produced. Since the clinic, I’ve added this self-check into my repertoire. Is this trot really a medium trot, or is it just big and strung out? Is this canter really a collected canter, or is it just slow? Adding these analysis checkpoints helps raise the bar for the quality of our work.
2. Do less to get more.
McDonald commented on the natural high quality of Dixie’s walk but noted that it tended to get a little lateral when I tried to collect it. “Just sit and follow,” she told me. “You’re doing too much to try to collect.”
She had me stand up in my stirrups for a split second, then sit down and notice how my horse’s walk was completely fixed when I got out of her way.
This “doing too much” is a bit of a common thread in my riding. As a textbook overthinker, I tend to run through lengthy mental checklists and sometimes fail to tune into the feel of it all. Much of the time, I don’t need the checklists; I just need to stay in the middle, follow the motion, and let my horse carry me.
3. Nothing good comes from pulling on the inside rein.
In my heart of hearts, I know this, but translating my theoretical knowledge to physical execution is difficult. Tracking left in particular, I have a habit of overbending my horse to the inside. More than once McDonald told me, “Don’t you pull on that inside rein! You don’t need it!”
Instead, McDonald had me work on the outside rein contact if I needed to supple the jaw. She also had me work on gently flexing the nose to the inside in corners and on bending lines but not allowing it to become the steering aid. A pearl of wisdom that I have committed to memory, too, was to never use the inside rein without also using the inside leg, regardless of the movement or level. Needless to say, when I get it right, the connection is much steadier, and my horse is much happier in the contact.
4. Tune in to your own body.
McDonald really liked my horse. (How could anyone not? She is just about as perfect as they come.) She said she loved how closely Dixie pays attention to me. She also noted, however, that despite Dixie being tuned in to me and my body, I am not always fully tuned in to my own body. I think this goes back to my proclivity to overthink every movement. (See my comments above about mental checklists.)
Dressage (and riding in general, really) involves remembering so many things at once, but it can’t be purely formulaic. I need to trust my instincts and muscle memory, quit thinking about every little thing so much, and allow things to just happen. It’s important to recognize the value of feel, both in your own body and in your horse’s.
5. Don’t let movements become “boring.”
Remember when I said McDonald’s commentary was often funny? Case in point: A signature of hers is to yell across the ring, “Boring!” If we were working on a medium canter and it wasn’t quite big enough, “Boring!” If our shoulder-in lost power and started to become lackluster, “Boring!” It was continually both a source of comedy and a reminder to keep the sparkle in everything I did. I found myself trying to think one step ahead of McDonald: Is this work going to warrant a “boring”?
Like tuning in to define a gait, preventing movements from becoming boring is a nice self-checkpoint to add into rides. Complacency is the enemy of the rider who wants to progress, and it is certainly is the enemy of Jeanne McDonald.
In the past few weeks post-clinic, I’ve made a real effort to incorporate all McDonald’s feedback into my rides, which has yielded noticeable improvements in both Dixie and me. She’s more rideable; I’m riding more softly and tactfully, and the harmony between is us greater. I’m so grateful to have had the experience of partaking in a clinic with as prolific a horsewoman as McDonald, and I look forward to continuing to infuse her feedback into my riding. I am confident I will see more improvements as I do.
Laura Adriaanse is an amateur equestrian and USDF bronze medalist based in Philadelphia. She started out in the hunters, rode for the University Of Mary Washington (Virginia) IHSA team, then switched to dressage after college. She is the proud owner of Dixie Rose, a Hanoverian mare, with whom she hopes to make it to the FEI levels.