Sunday, Mar. 3, 2024

Ask 3: How Do You Prepare Your Riders For A Work-Off?

Equitation tests are the nemeses of many medal riders. Proper preparation is key when it’s time to demonstrate a technical work-off with trot jumps, counter-canter, hand gallop, halt and more. We asked three top equitation trainers how they get their students ready for tests.
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Georgy Maskrey-Segesman runs her training and sales business Whitethorne LLC out of Somis, California, and Aiken, South Carolina. She established the American Tradition of Excellence Equitation Challenge at Blenheim EquiSports, which includes educational components for West Coast riders in addition to com- petition. She serves as president of the Pacific Coast Horse Shows Association and sits on the USHJA Zone 10 Committee. She has produced top equitation horses as well as grand prix-winning show jumpers that have represented the United States. In addition, Maskrey-Segesman often sponsors deserving riders to help further their junior riding goals. 

Georgy Maskrey-Segesman has her students practice work-offs in 1.10-meter jumper classes. Sara Shier Photography Photo

I like to put my riders in a 1.10-meter class earlier in the week—even if they’re qualified for all of their medal finals— and run work-off patterns. [We do] whatever makes sense to the course and just give them practice in enough of a pressure situation where realistically they have one chance. We can create whatever work-off we like, and usually it’s according to the strengths and weaknesses of the kid and the horse. 

[For example, we put in] counter-canter, add a stride, walk, change leads. If the jumps are low enough, we might trot a jump. [We put in] all kinds of different things that you might see in a work-off. I usually like everything to be on each lead. So, if I do a counter-canter to the left, I’ll find a place in the course to do counter-canter to the right. 

The first thing I prioritize is having my horses really well broke and then having the riders have a fundamental understanding of what they’re asking for. Then you put the jumps into it, and it just all starts to come together. 

At home I focus very heavily on dressage. I believe that every one of the kids that rides with me should [be able to do] a third level test for dressage. That incorporates the half-pass and the shoulder-in, and you should be able to counter-canter in a dressage court. Then the rest of it just falls into place when you’re jumping, because if [the horse has] got a good mouth, and if you can let go and put your leg on, you can do any exercise you want—whether it’s landing the counter-canter, doing a flying change to the counter- canter, trot jumps, add a stride. It’s all right there. 

[For the mental element], I just think that practice really helps. If they feel like there’s nothing they haven’t seen, it’s just really very helpful. I buy and try to replicate all of the Medal/Maclay jumps for my riders, so that when they get there, you can at least eliminate that element out of the equation, thinking, “Oh my God, is my horse going to spook at this?” 

It’s the same with a work-off. It helps if they know without a shadow of a doubt in their mind that they can land the counter-canter, or they know, “My horse really prefers to land left than right, so I’m just going to go ahead and land the left lead and simple change to the counter-canter,” or, “I’ve trotted a million jumps on my horse, and he trots jumps beautifully. I’m better at the sitting trot than the posting trot.” If you’ve practiced it, and you know, then I think that alleviates the mental part of it. 

One of the work-offs that comes to mind is Skylar Wireman’s work-off from the [Dover Saddlery/USEF Hunter Seat Medal Final] last year. She landed the counter-canter and held it. She knew she could do it, so she did it. Having that kind of confidence in your horse and knowing that you can do it and execute it, that’s something that I think for the top riders that are doing equitation, they fundamentally understand how far they can push it and also stay safe. 

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I try to really inspire that—that they can believe in them- selves enough to make those decisions—and not just simply, “Well, that one did it, so I have to.” [Our work at home leads to] understanding their horse and understanding what is the best thing for their horse. 


Based out of Wellington, Florida, and Lexington, Kentucky, Emily Smith runs training and sales barn Ashland Farms with her husband, Ken Smith. Their son Spencer Smith won the 2014 Pessoa/USEF Hunter Seat Medal Final (Pennsylvania) and has represented the United States internationally in show jumping. Their riders have earned medals at the FEI North American Youth Championships as well as champion- ships at Devon (Pennsylvania) and the fall indoor horse shows. The Smiths trained Brian Moggre to the 2018 Dover Saddlery/USEF Hunter Seat Medal Final win as well as Augusta Iwasaki to 2022 victories in the Platinum Performance USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Final—East (New Jersey), Washington International Horse Show Equitation Final (Maryland) and ASPCA Maclay Final (Kentucky). 

Equitation students of various levels all ride in the same lessons at Emily Smith’s farm, with riders making up their own tests that best suit their own horse. Kimberly Loushin Photo

We do a lot of big group lessons. There are younger kids in with the older kids. We have last year, senior kids in there with the 3’3″ kids. So, that’s really a lot of pressure for all the kids to try to be the best in the class, and often we have the kids critique each other. 

Everyone’s doing the test pattern, and then I’ll just say, “So and so, what did you think about the round?” And then I say, “Everyone pay attention because everybody’s got to critique each other,” which of course is like being in high school. It’s a little awkward, but then they also are articulate enough to say what was done properly and what was done incorrectly. And it’s part of the learning process also for them. 

Constantly doing [work-offs throughout the year at horse shows], and sometimes doing it even in your own barn with kids that are older, more seasoned, more experienced helps. A kid that’s never been to the medal finals having the same lesson as the kid that’s been there four times and the kid that’s supposed to win the medal final, they’re always putting themself in a pressured situation. 

A lot of times we make them do: “OK, here are your jumps; you’ve done your round, now this is your test: Devise a course that’s best suited to your horse and is going to make you shine.” Then everybody in the lesson has to do that, and then each person can try to do a course that’s best suited to their horse. 

So, say there are six kids in there, each one gets to pick their own pattern that they’re doing as a mock test. But they should be smart enough or just be thinking enough that, [say] your horse lands right more than left, you try to do what makes you and your horse shine. But then that’s not going to work for everybody because everybody has to do each other’s pattern. 

[This crunch time] usually starts around the [Platinum Performance USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Final], before we’re going to Capital Challenge [Maryland]. We show a lot, so we’re not always back at the farm. But there’s that minute that we get to be back here for a while, and we have time to do that. The course gets changed every week, but sometimes during that time we change it twice that week. And I think because we have not only a show barn—we have sales horses—the kids get to ride a lot of different horses. 

We’ll do one big flat phase especially getting ready for USET. It’s all flat lessons for everybody that day. We’ll do another day with gymnastics, to get ready not just for the USET but for everything—horses jumping well, position. A lot of the kids come here because it’s not quite school time, or they get out of school. They’ll do a couple days of no stirrups and jumping with no stirrups. [Fellow Ashland Farms trainer] Ken [Smith] loves his courses, so he has a lot of pieces of beautiful jumps from different finals that we have made. We [work on] track and pace—the patterns, the patterns, the patterns—and also transitions and just a lot of testing. 

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Karen Healey opened her Karen Healey Stables in California in 1981. Over the decades she trained legions of students to top equitation final finishes, including the 1990 ASCPA Maclay champion Lauren Kay and 13 USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Final winners. She trained three-time FEI World Cup Final winner Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum as a junior, as well as Hannah Selleck and Kilian McGrath, who earned individual FEI North American Young Rider gold medals. She served as chair of the USHJA Equitation Task Force for many years and was named the Chronicle’s Show Hunter/Equitation Horseman of the Year in 2007. She closed her stables at the end of 2015, and the Simi Valley resident currently freelances as well as travels the country as a clinician and USEF ‘R’ judge. 

“I try to teach them that there’s nothing that they can see in the ring that they haven’t done at home,” said Karen Healey.

My answer would be the same as when people ask me, “How do I prepare my riders for finals?” And my answer is that I prepare every day. Every day, every week, everything was geared towards being able to perform in the finals when asked—how to answer the questions and be comfortable with the questions. It’s the same thing with the work-off.

I try to teach them that there’s nothing that they can see in the ring that they haven’t done at home. I try to make sure that they do every configuration of tests, of courses, of patterns, until it just works for them, until they can do it in their sleep. That’s the same thing with my teaching, and my teaching is I always felt that you school hard to be able to make the show ring easy. You don’t want to overface them, but by the same token, once they get to a certain level of competency, you need to challenge them. 

Usually, every lesson I’ll add a trot jump. We counter-canter always on the flat. I like to counter-canter with cavalettis. All of that stuff, I practice; every time I give a lesson, we do something. 

If we were home for week, on the weekend I would probably set a very challenging course and work backwards from that. So probably on Tuesday we’d do flat work; I love raised cavalettis, [so I’d] mixed those in with it. Obviously, they don’t jump every day. Wednesday they would do a jumping lesson, maybe with a little part of the course. Then maybe flat again Thursday. Friday, do another jumping lesson with another part of the course. 

And on the weekend, what I love to try to do is give them a course, with a warm-up like it was a horse show. And then they go out and do the course. I was lucky enough when I had all those good kids, the competition was built into the lesson. I didn’t have to say anything. I never tried to pit one against the other, but the competition was inherent. That’s why I like those lessons, and I like kids riding in groups. I don’t think the private thing is a good thing. Then we would do the course, and I’d then give a work-off. They go in, they do the work-off, and then I’d have a winner: “You were the winner today, and this is what you need to do better.” 

[For the mental piece] I try to make them know that there’s nothing that they haven’t done before. You’ve done this; you can do it. I worked very closely with Ken Ravizza, who was a top sports psychologist out here, and I love Tonya Johnston. I have kids that work with them. I say learning to ride is not that hard; learning to win is not that hard; learning to deal with being a winner is really hard. 

[As far as being in the work-off, my No. 1 advice] is: Don’t be a sheep. Make sure you clearly know the test. If you can’t hear it, raise your hand and ask. Don’t go out there just thinking that you know it. If you know it, and the first few go out there and do it the wrong way, you’ve got to believe what you believe. Don’t follow them because they’ve done it wrong. You’ve got to have the courage to know that you know what the test is, and what you need to do, and believe that. 


This article originally appeared in the Nov. 27-Dec. 11, 2023, issue of The Chronicle of the Horse. You can subscribe and get online access to a digital version and then enjoy a year of The Chronicle of the Horse and our lifestyle publication, Untacked. If you’re just following COTH online, you’re missing so much great unique content. Each print issue of the Chronicle is full of in-depth competition news, fascinating features, probing looks at issues within the sports of hunter/jumper, eventing and dressage, and stunning photography.

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