Action in the USEF Horsemastership Training Series moved to the jumper ring over the weekend, with a gymnastics session Saturday led by Lauren Hough and a coursework session Sunday with Laura Kraut.
Kraut kicked off her session at Equestrian Village in Wellington, Florida, with a pep talk—and some perspective—for the 12 participating young riders just beginning their careers.
“At end of the day, very few of the best riders in the world win more than probably 2% or 3% of the time,” she noted. ”The winning at this level is not always the reward; it’s the improving on your horse or your riding that is the reward.”
Through their sessions, the two Olympians gave participants tools to do just that. Hough’s Saturday session focused on stadium exercises involving changes of bend and seven-stride lines that could be ridden in a variety of strides, as well as a bounce line that asked riders to compress and expand their horses’ stride.
Kraut’s Sunday session started with a warm-up focused on giving riders game-day strategies to prepare effectively for big classes, then moved on to a pair of 1.30-meter courses that she critiqued with each rider after their turn.
Here is some of the advice they shared:
Use your warm-up wisely.
Hough spends the first couple minutes of her flatwork with light contact with her horses, she said. This allows them to stretch through their bodies to warm up.
“I’m not super concerned with where their heads are at first,” she said. “I want them to be loose and stretch through their whole body at the trot and canter.”
Once the horses have warmed up their muscles, Hough begins to ask for more challenging movements, such as lateral work or counter-canter.
Both clinicians encouraged the young riders to warm up their horses evenly in both directions, both on the flat and over warm-up fences.
“What you do one way should be executed both ways,” Hough said. “My pet peeve is when a rider jumps the same warm-up jump off of the same lead three to four times in a row. The horses jump the course off of both leads, so they need to be warmed up on both sides evenly.”
Kraut said she aims to jump a horse eight to 10 times in its warm-up to conserve it for the class, starting with an easy vertical jumped three or four times before moving to an oxer that builds appropriately for the horse she is riding.
“You want to think about building confidence in horses who are young and warming up horses who are older,” she said.
‘Don’t Just Gallop Around’
Between warm-up jumps, Kraut encouraged the riders to use walk breaks to ask the horse for lateral movements to tune it in to their leg.
“Don’t just gallop around,” she said. “Walk in between fences: The walking in between gives your horse an opportunity to move off your leg. You can still keep your horse paying attention at the walk.”
Jumping a course is as much about what happens between the fences as it is about the jumps themselves—“There’s no such thing as a bad jump; it’s a bad approach,” she noted—and the same holds true in warm-up. A warm-up that focuses on the flatwork between the fences not only prepares the horse’s body for the course, it prepares the rider’s mind as well.
Stay with your horse’s motion.
Hough and Kraut both emphasized the importance of being able to stay with a horse’s jump to recover quickly on the back side of the fence.
“Wrap your legs down and around your horse,” Hough said repeatedly. “Don’t become rigid and tight in your position, because you won’t be able to feel what is going on underneath you.”
She encouraged riders to allow their core to follow the horse’s motion at the canter so that the horse would not become tense.
“Envision that there is a weight on top of your head that allows you to relax down into your horse and wrap your legs around them,” she told the riders.
She was also quick to remind riders they needed to stay with the horse’s motion after every jump:
“Let the horse jump up to you, staying centered over them, and step down around the horse again as you’re landing from the jump. You don’t want to waste several strides catching up in your position because that mistake will affect the next jump and the rideability of the horse.”
Kraut, too, encouraged riders to keep their eyes up and stay with the horse’s motion.
“Crouched over looking down isn’t conducive to a quick recovery on the back side of the jump,” she said.
Ride what you feel.
The best riders in the world make their course plans based on what their horses are doing underneath them, not by committing to a specific number of strides between fences.
“I’m not married to any numbers in this particular gymnastics exercise,” Hough told the group during her demonstration ride.
“It may change several times as I do this exercise. I’m making my plan based on what I feel my horse is doing on that day. You won’t find the perfect distance to every jump all the time, and that’s OK. React to what you feel, and adjust to the type of horse you’re sitting on.”
On Sunday, before the riders set out to jump the course they had walked earlier, Kraut encouraged them to ride from feeling. A combination that walked as a long one-stride could be a more comfortable distance on a horse that is going forward and has a good jump in. The riders should trust themselves to decide in the moment whether to push or allow the fence to happen, rather than be exclusively committed to the plan they had while walking the course, she said.
Eyes up and think ahead.
To avoid time penalties in a big class, it’s crucial that riders are looking—and thinking—several fences ahead, Kraut said.
“The way to [save time], first and foremost, is using your eyes early,” she said. “Because when you look where you want to go, you can get there, and you’re organized when you get there.”
Thinking one fence at a time leads to not preparing for a challenge ahead, like realizing too late that you’re approaching an inside turn and needing to yank your way around it instead of preparing your horse to turn quickly and keep its balance.
“Try to be five to six strides, in your mind, out ahead of the horse,” she said. “You should always be ahead of them, planning, organizing. … Once you’ve got [the distance to a] jump nailed in, you’re thinking about the next one. You’re relying on your feeling at the jump, but your eye is ahead of you.”
There’s always room for improvement.
A final point at the conclusion of Hough’s first gymnastics sessions was that riders should always be striving to improve their skills and learn daily.
“Take bits and pieces from as many trainers as you can,” she said. “Go watch the practice rings, and observe how the best riders warm up and what they do with their horses. Ask questions. That’s how you build your program and get better. Take the advice that helps you and the horses you have.”
Fulfillment in a career with horses has to come from more than winning; it comes from the process of improving yourself and your horses over time, Kraut said.
“It’s a lot of hours of work and dedication to get you to this 90 sec—or 76 seconds, which will be the time allowed today—in the ring,” she said. “The thing to take away from this, for me at least, as I’ve gone through this sport—and I’m on my 100th year … you’ve got to enjoy this process. You’ve got to want to be a part of what your horses are doing and how they’re feeling and their mental well-being. You’ve got to accept that they make mistakes, just like you make mistakes, and you’ve got to learn with them. When you have a less than perfect round, rather than being extremely disappointed you’ve got to come out and think, OK, how can we improve on this?”
Watch all three days of the USEF Horsemastership Training Series on demand on the USEF Network.