“If You’re Going To Try To Teach Him To Read, He Needs To Learn The ABCs”—A Clinic With Will Coleman

Jun 27, 2019 - 9:13 AM

Will Coleman recently headed to Emerald Isles Eventing Center in Westborough, Massachusetts, for a two-day clinic teaching riders ranging from beginner novice through preliminary. Each lesson was carefully constructed and personalized to each horse and rider—and trust me there was a variety!

My favorite lesson ended up being a private lesson with a novice pair. Molly is getting back into eventing, and she’s leasing Wil (Will, meet Wil), an 18-year-old Oldenburg gelding who has competed novice with several different riders as well as second level dressage. The lesson became about getting the horse in front of the leg, sharper off the aids and lighter in the bridle—which I think a lot of us can relate to!

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Will Coleman meets his horsey counterpart Wil and his rider Molly. Jessica Halliday Photos

First Impressions

Coleman let the pair warm up on their own with a bit of walk, trot and canter to get some first impressions. The horse was dull to Molly’s aids and would bear down on the reins some, so needed to be energized and ridden with lighter aids. Molly said Wil can get strong jumping, and she has trouble stopping him. Coleman told her that fixing the hind end and response time would get the horse to lighten up the front end, and therefore make him less heavy and more rideable. As we all know, easier said than done.

Lateral Work Leads To Elevation

They moved on to what I’ve dubbed the “Magic Box” exercise to help improve Wil’s response time and help coordinate Molly’s aids so they were effective and clear, and therefore the horse could properly use himself.

The set up was simple: four ground poles set to form a box.

The exercise also sounded simple. You begin by standing at the edge of the box facing a pole, then leg yield across the length of the pole, keeping the horse outside of the box. At the corner, you perform a turn on the forehand until the horse is facing the next pole, before repeating the exercise on each side, finishing with a prompt trot away. This exercise was brilliant for timing and coordinating your aids.

“Lateral work gets them to elevate, and good lateral work can’t be done by just the rein,” Coleman said. Molly was having to kick her horse quite hard to get him to move over, so Coleman came over to help.

Coleman first just waved a whip towards the horse, no reaction. He then tapped the horse by Molly’s leg and released the pressure as soon as the horse moved away. Soon, Coleman only had to stand by the horse’s side for him to be ready to move over. He explained to Molly that she needed to have that same energy of “let’s do this!” and get really good at the timing of her aids.

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Will Coleman helps Molly get a reaction out of her horse during the box exercise.

They did the exercise once to the right with Coleman’s assistance, and as Molly trotted away briskly, her horse’s entire trot changed, and he instantly was more through and swinging through his back. By the time Molly changed direction Wil was a bit dull again; she had to kick more and more, and he got heavier in the bridle. So Coleman had her return to the box exercise.

“You have dead aids,” he said. “It’s like a light that’s on all the time! We have to get you to release when he reacts!”

They repeated the exercise in the opposite direction, focusing on one foot at a time, applying an aid, getting a response, and then softening it. Coleman stepped in when the reaction was dull and just his presence was enough to get the horse to move sideways. With each turn around the box, Molly’s aids became more effective and her timing improved. Once completed, the horse was instantly better with his hind end and lighter in the reins.

“Get really good at these exercises and the rest is easy,” Coleman advised.

Guess what was immediately added to my arena when I got home?

For the next exercise, Coleman had Molly ride with driving reins (when you hold the rein between your thumb and index finger, rather than your ring finger and pinky), which is a great tool to use to help prevent pulling. As Molly warmed up in canter, every time the canter got dull or heavy Coleman had her halt, do a turn on the forehand, and then ride away. Next he suggested she perform leg yields, a change of direction or a transition anytime the canter got dull. He was also a stickler on Molly’s position, telling her to stretch up and wrap her legs around the horse, keeping her energy level up so the horse could feel that.

If Molly started to nag the horse with her leg, Coleman had her immediately do a transition or lateral work and then carry on. “If he doesn’t react off your leg, go to a leg that vibrates. I want him buzzy! It’s not about getting rough; it’s about being clear!” he said.

As Molly rode through the transitions and changes of direction and lateral work, she started to stay more on top of her aids, and her horse’s responses quickened because he was always looking for what was coming next. Coleman told Molly she had to start that way so the horse understood he was working and engaged from the moment you get on. “Be clear about your expectations from the beginning,” he said.

If The Flatwork Is There, The Jumping Is Easy

Coleman started off the jumping portion by asking Molly if she counted strides. Molly responded sometimes.

“I like to count to eight. Try to count eight strides to the jump to keep the rhythm,” Will told her. Molly said she’d probably be wrong, but she’d try. We all laughed, because we all can relate. Coleman smirked and said, “That’s how you learn. It’s not about the eight; it’s about the rhythm.”

Coleman let Molly do her own thing over the first few warm-up fences so he could assess whether Wil stayed in front of her leg and how effective her position was.  After she jumped a vertical a couple of times, Coleman shouted, “I give this a C- in terms of response! If he doesn’t move off your leg vibrating, then three smacks behind your leg and up the RPMs! Squeeze; vibrate; tap, tap, tap!”

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Will Coleman reminded Molly that if she kept the canter sharp, it made the fences a lot easier.

Molly got the canter energy up and jumped a few fabulous fences, but then the horse started to bear down and pull a little bit. As the horse leaned into the bridle, Molly’s reins got longer, and her arms locked. “Don’t get in a conversation with his mouth,” Coleman said. “If he bears down while you pull back, the balance is gone. He has to be better off your leg.”

Coleman  tied Molly’s reins in a knot so she had to keep her reins short and her hands out in front of her.  Then he had her put together a course.

The course: An outside line of verticals in a forward six strides, to a single liverpool, roll back to an oxer, then down the center line to a tall crossrail five strides to an oxer.

The first time down the outside line, Molly got to a half stride. Coleman asked how many strides she got. Molly responded with, “Some sort of messy number.”

Coleman responded, “Whole numbers aren’t messy, but you got six and a halfie. Go forward for six. Hands have got to be forward. Long arms! There is no in between—he’s either going, or you need to be doing something about it. Otherwise you’re underpowered. Make him light and hot, and your only job is to stay out of the way. Count! It will help you maintain evenness!”

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Will Coleman had Molly focus on making sure her horse was reactive enough to her aids.

Coleman wrapped up the lesson by reminding Molly that getting the horse in front of her leg will take time and commitment from her. He told Molly to get good at leg yielding both directions, and, “If you put your leg on, his feet have to move.”

I loved that the lesson was primarily flatting, and the better the flatwork got, the easier the jumping was. Coleman reiterated that if Molly wanted the horse to get lighter, the horse had to get better off her leg. Coleman closed up with, “If you’re going to try to teach him to read, he needs to learn the ABCs.”

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