With COVID-19 and surgery to repair an injured groin muscle keeping Olympic event rider Boyd Martin out of the competition ring for much of 2020, he’s been able to teach more this year than ever before.
Laura Healy, whose day job is director of meetings and event management for pharmaceutical company Novartis, worked with Martin to organize a special series of clinics at North Jersey Equestrian at Mountainview Farm in Branchville, New Jersey. They tweaked the traditional clinic format, opting for smaller groups, with more personalized access to Martin. He followed up with Zoom calls with clinic participants, so they could discuss questions that came up after the riding sessions.
On Nov. 8, Martin spent a warm, sunny day teaching the fourth session in the series. The first four groups focused on basics in the show jumping ring, while the last two headed up the hill to the cross-country course.
“Basically whenever I’m teaching, I try to sort of regurgitate exactly what I would be doing with the horses that I’m looking at from the ground and run the clinic in the system I would use to train my own horses,” said Martin. “The warm-up on the flat is similar to what I’d do with my own horses before show jumping: getting the horse supple and loose through its body, doing transitions shortening and opening the stride, and other things that might be required on a show jumping course [such as] acceleration, rideability and the turning left and right, making sure your horse is not just warming up its muscles, but warming up and practicing the way you want him to travel between fences.”
Most of the groups (except for two very green off-the-track Thoroughbreds) started over two cavaletti, set like an oxer, on a curve. Martin said this is a good exercise for training the rider’s eye. As they progressed, Martin made it wider and wider. He explained that a low, wide fence makes the horse jump across the fence, using its whole body.
Next was a simple jumping and turning exercise: a line from a vertical to an oxer, slowly increasing the height and width of the jumps. Martin had the organizers set up the jumps in the same configuration as his arena at home. There was also a gymnastic with four bounces, then four short strides to an oxer. He explained that the easiest way was to ride the bounces to the oxer. When they’d mastered that, he had participants go the other direction, approaching a bigger, wider oxer to the bounces.
He also set up a second gymnastic, consisting of four oxers in a row with a steady two strides in between each jump, with “V” poles on the ground. He explained that this exercise helped the horses open up on the approach to the jump. The “V” poles help hold the horse straight, and the shape of the oxers help get the horse up in the air and using itself over the fences.
With the younger horses, the focus was on going through the exercises in a confident way. With the more experienced horses, Martin made the jumps taller and wider so the horses had to work over the fences. When someone struggled with an element, Martin had them stop and repeat that portion of the course, whether it was getting the correct number of strides in a line or picking up a correct lead, encouraging the riders to calmly deal with problems as they arose.
Chrystal Reilly, from Long Valley, New Jersey, rode her 5-year-old off-the-track Thoroughbred gelding in a session with another OTTB. A longtime show jumper, Reilly just started eventing recently and trains with Meg Kepferle in Long Valley.
“It was good to have someone of Boyd’s level comment on my horse,” she said. “I’m always gung ho about everything. I like that he had us slow down and trot fences, and if we didn’t get something right, we’d go back and fix it right away instead of just continuing.”
On To Cross-Country
In the cross-country sessions, Martin repeated that the system he has found works best for clinics is to re-create how he would school his horses at home. In the warm-up, riders worked on getting the horses soft and supple and gently opening and then shortening their galloping stride.
“At this venue there’s some great undulating country, and I think it’s not a bad exercise, galloping up the hill a bit faster, then coming down the hill in a slightly more balanced pace,” Martin said. “I think this is a good way to train the horses not to tear off and run away down a hill, where they have to find their own balance. It was also a good way to work on the riders changing their position depending on the terrain they’re on: forward up the hill and a bit more connected in the balanced canter coming down the hill.”
While jumping in the warm-up, Martin had riders start with a single, small, straightforward fence to practice jumping out of a rhythm. Adding a few fences, the goal was trying to jump every fence without adjusting the horse too much, maintaining a slow, steady pace—not at competition speed—and trying to find each fence without interrupting the horse.
Then he put together a series of fences, asking participants to ride more as they would in a competition, thinking about how they would want the horses to gallop between fences at competition speed, and focusing on the rider being lighter and more efficient in their way of riding, posture and position.
In addition to the basics, the venue features a few more technical combinations. Martin said he generally moves on to these complexes, including a coffin, banks and a water jump, to isolate each question or combination and break it down so the riders understand how to tackle them as part of a course.
“The key with cross-country is confidence,” he said. “Schooling different elements and trying to gain the horse’s confidence and then eventually flowing through the exercises from beginning to end. Once we started getting a rhythm as a group, I put in a few galloping fences so the riders could get a feel of how it might be at a competition.”
The Opportunity For Mentorship
Amy Mulhern-Sierant, from Blairstown, New Jersey, rode her horse Johnny in all four clinics. She’s had Johnny since March, and he’d competed in the jumpers previously. “My main focus in the first clinic with Boyd was to kind of get a baseline for the horse because I wanted something to build on in the future,” she said. “Boyd’s main concern was he was really violent with his head in the beginning. We got him to quiet down and start just rolling along, and in the second session we put in a little speed and a more open stride. The fact that he’s out here jumping around and not trying to buck me off is great.”
She’s trying to syndicate her horse, so she also appreciated Martin’s mentorship on that topic. “I’ve been at this for a long time, but I’ve always ridden whatever came down the pipeline to me,” Mulhern-Sierant said. “This is the first horse I’ve had the opportunity to do this with; his partial owner is here watching, as well. Boyd has been a huge positive influence, helping wrap my head around the process. Having someone with his background and expertise is huge.”
Jen Kostiv from Warwick, New York, boards her horse at Mountainview Farm and has also participated in all four sessions. Her saddle pad had “Sit Back” written on it, as well as Martin’s autograph. She explained, laughing, that he signed it after one session where she ended up in the ditch.
“When we started we were doing beginner novice moving up to novice, and now we’re out here schooling the prelim jumps,” she said. “Each clinic, we’ve progressed.”
Martin had a little advice for instructors as well. “When you’re coaching, the most important thing—especially with horses and riders you don’t know well—is to find balance,” he said. “If you push too hard it’s easy to give the horse and rider a scare. These riders traveled some distance and paid good money to ride in this clinic, so you don’t want them just trotting logs, but it’s about finding a middle ground: giving them a challenge but not pushing the envelope so far you give people a fright.”
He added, “The great thing with cross-country schooling is, the exercises themselves train the horses; it’s my job to train the riders to ride the horses in a specific way to get the best result.”