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February 4, 2014

The Small Things Become The Big Things

Donner and Lynn Symansky jumped in the early morning fog at the USEF Eventing High Performance Training Session in Ocala, Fla., on Feb. 4.

The second day of the U.S. Equestrian Federation Eventing High Performance Training Sessions focused on jumping, but there was a strong continuity with the priorities of dressage day. Each rider had a private jump lesson, and there were two main exercises that were utilized depending on the needs of the horse.

Throughout the day, coach David O’Connor revisited the requirements of correct contact and discussed how it is imperative to the horse’s shape over fences.

Don’t Just Jump

The first exercise O’Connor used was two raised poles set in a line. The riders were asked to canter the poles with the quality of canter achieved the day before. For every rider, O’Connor requested more roundness. He demanded that the horses be on the aids to the best of their ability, and he did not accept jump day as a reason to become lackadaisical about connection.

The two poles could be ridden with two or three strides in between them. Just as during the flat session, O’Connor expected the riders to execute a half-halt to get the three collected strides with a clear result of the horse lifting its back and rebalancing.

Many horses showed tension given the jumping environment, and the half-halt attempts resulted in tightened backs, inversion, and some running past their balance. Often the horses would have the desired canter on the approach, but then hollow slightly one stride before the pole.

Even when these evasions occurred in a minor way, O’Connor found it unacceptable. As was repeatedly seen, the tiniest moment of tension in the poles became a moment of evasion in combinations. He stated, “You must focus on the small things because they become the big things when the jumps go up.”

Meghan O’Donoghue rode her own Pirate in one of the early sessions, and O’Connor encouraged her to use roundness over the poles to help Pirate step through with his hind leg. He reminded her that work over the poles is really flatwork; the poles merely help the horses quicken their footwork. O’Connor encouraged O’Donoghue to incorporate poles into her dressage rides as a way to improve cadence.

When O’Donoghue’s session progressed to jumping, O’Connor stressed the importance of shape in a horse’s jump. “Shape and accuracy are the rider’s responsibility,” he said. He worked with O’Donoghue to solidify the different shapes needed for the verticals and the oxers.

“Since you don’t have many horses to jump,” O’Connor said, “you have to really focus on the shape and accuracy of every fence. Don’t just jump.”

Sharon White’s Wundermaske struggled to stay connected in the final stride before the poles, and the issue continued as they progressed to work over fences. O’Connor made her revisit the half-halt on the outside rein and wanted to see a horse that consistently reached for the bit on the stride before take-off. “That,” he insisted, “creates options and a bascule.”

Wundermaske is aimed at the Rolex Kentucky CCI**** this year and showed incredible athleticism over fences. With the increased rideability achieved in her lesson, this is a very promising horse for White.

Ride The Gaps

The second exercise O’Connor used with many horses was a low, wide oxer. He progressively widened the oxer, with a rail across the top to clearly allow the horse to see it as one fence. When discussing shape, O’Connor differentiated between horses that were simply tidy with their front legs and horses that actually learn to lift the whole front end by opening the chest and releasing across the back.

Buck Davidson rode the incredibly scopey Park Trader. O’Connor made the low, wide oxer a staple of their lesson, telling Davidson that horses cannot use just their scope to jump high, but rather they must learn to get to the base, open their chest and back, and push. By the third day of a big championship many horses will have lost some of their scope, so they need technique to utilize.

Ellen Doughty’s horse, Sir Oberon, jumped impressively over the low and wide oxer, but O’Connor did not let the tremendous scope excuse weaknesses in the canter. He pressed Doughty to make Sir Oberon’s footwork quicker, and not to allow it to slow in collection.

(Who's Ellen Doughty? Check out the Chronicle's article on her from the 2013 Fair Hill CCI***.)

After the low, wide oxer, the horses began coursework consisting of a vertical with a bending six strides right or left to oxers. Another line was set as a large square oxer, eight strides to a liverpool, and three forward strides to a vertical.

O’Connor told riders to view a course as a collection of exercises with gaps in between. During each gap, the riders were to adjust the canter to the one required for the next exercise so that they can achieve the correct shape over the following fences.

Sinead Halpin’s Manoir de Carneville was keen to the fences, but O’Connor pressed Halpin to achieve more before the turn to the fence. He instructed Halpin to use the gap approaching a turn to establish impulsion and balance so that the final approach to the fence can allow the horse to focus on the task at hand. “Changes of speed can create impulsion,” O’Connor explained, “but speed is not impulsion.”

O’Connor wanted the horses to be in balance so that they could hold themselves off the fences, the riders could maintain a true connection through the rein, and the horses could utilize their technique to have a quality bascule.

In response to many horses coming out of the turns and evading contact, he warned, “Being deep is about making sure they are holding themselves to the fence, and you can press against it. You can’t push on something that is committed to the fence or they hollow.”

He connected this idea to the flat lessons: “This is the same concept as how to ride a corner in the dressage ring. You train the horse to consistently hold and balance themselves so that you can press against it.”

Being Better

The riders have all shown a large amount of camaraderie and support during the sessions, and each takes the time to watch the others. O’Connor has made it obvious that international achievement takes consistency within a system. His teaching presents his system in a clear, logical way. It is often said that jumping is just dressage over fences, but rarely does the instruction from a trainer so definitively relate across the two phases.

Perhaps the highlight of the sessions has been how humble all the riders are, how receptive they are to instruction, and how clearly they have embraced O’Connor’s system.

I asked Halpin what her goal was for the training sessions, and she said, “The point is to figure out where we are. In Florida, time management is always an issue between dressage shows, [showing at] HITS, lessons with David, events, etc. These sessions are telling me what the priorities are moving forward, and consequently, how to spend my time.”

I asked Davidson what he hoped to get out of his lessons, and he laughed and said, “To get better! I don’t really care how—I just want to get better. While here I want to make sure everything is checking out how it should and that the horses and I are improving.”

He then thought a moment and concluded, “Any lesson that I get, I don’t come with preconceived notions of what I want to do. I just want to get better.”

Read coverage of the first day's flat session in "Make Your 80 Percent Better Than Everyone Else's."

 
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