Aiken, S.C.—Feb. 26
It was a cold, windy, foggy, rainy morning in Aiken, S.C., but U.S. team eventing coach David O’Connor certainly wasn’t complaining—only once offering a chipper joke about needing an outdoor patio heater before turning back to his work—and neither were the high performance riders under his tutelage during today’s sessions of training sessions.
Today’s participants (Allison Springer on Copycat Chloe, Phillip Dutton on Fernhill Eagle and Mighty Nice, Jennie Brannigan on Cambalda, Boyd Martin on Master Frisky and Trading Aces, Emily Beshear on Here’s To You, Erin Sylvester on No Boundaries and Susan Beebee on Wolf) all rode in 45-minute private dressage lessons with O’Connor at the stunning Stable View Farm. Despite the gloomy weather, a small but tough group of auditors also turned out. O’Connor was fitted with a microphone for today’s sessions, allowing him to be easily heard by everyone.
And while the needs of individual horses differed, a few basic themes emerged throughout the lessons. All horses worked numerous transitions in trot and canter, with the goal always being versatility within the gait. O’Connor had riders collect to a much smaller trot than they’d use in the show ring, before sending them off into a bigger trot than they’d need for most of their work. In between was the middle ground, the perfectly balanced place where horses would score optimal points in their dressage tests. “That’s your trot!” or, “That’s your canter!” were common words out of the coach’s mouth.
O’Connor watched each rider begin their work before stepping in to help. He also spent a few moments chatting off microphone with each rider before the sessions. After the initial few moments, the exercises differed from horse to horse, but all the horses did some lateral work, with O’Connor reminding riders that “each movement has a purpose for the horse.”
With Jennie Brannigan’s mount, Cambalda, O’Connor suggested working some shoulder-in in the beginning, but with an exaggerated inside bend. After a few strides of that, he would tell Brannigan to half-halt on the outside rein, leading to a better balance.
“Don’t go and try to do this with your 4-year-olds,” O’Connor quipped. “They don’t get it and can't handle it, and you’ll flip them over.”
After Brannigan and Cambalda finished their warm-up work in trot, O’Connor had Brannigan bring the horse back to a walk. They worked turns on the forehand and turns on the haunches each direction. “At the walk you can become a student of motion,” said O’Connor.
When “Ping” proved more supple one direction, O’Connor said, “Half of your dressage has to be physical therapy, because one side is always going to be better than the other.”
Watch Brannigan alternate collected and extended gaits with Ping:
Martin’s second mount of the day, advanced competitor Trading Aces, also spent most of his session in his own form of physical therapy. “I’d do a lot of lateral work with this horse,” O’Connor said after watching Trading Aces go for a few minutes. “He just has to be more flexible behind.”
To help encourage Trading Aces to sit more behind, O’Connor had Martin change the way his seat functioned in the canter. “You have to move your seat a lot,” said O’Connor. “Feel like you can pick his hips up with your seat.” Both Martin and O’Connor remarked on the difference in the horse from the beginning to end of the session, with O'Connor saying, "I didn't think we'd get that far today!"
Watch Martin work on getting Trading Aces to flex his hind legs more:
Dutton and Mighty Nice, who finished 10th at last year’s Rolex Kentucky, also addressed similar issues as Martin and Trading Aces.
“What he’s avoiding is the flexion [in his hind legs]. You have to think in your mind, ‘How am I going to tell him he has accept more weight behind?’ ” said O’Connor, suggesting lateral work and transitions within the gaits as the solution to that issue.
Watch Phillip Dutton on Mighty Nice:
“Get him to flex his joints. The more flexion you get, the more power you have.”
“Make sure that you don’t stop moving when you collect. Collect and keep moving.”
“Don’t get sucked into holding too much. Let your seat dictate the tempo."
“Leg yields are like you touching your toes. It’s not a weight-carrying exercise; it’s just an exercise in flexibility."
“It doesn’t always have to be perfect in the beginning, but that he changes is a good thing.”
“It’s not about not going forward; it’s just about adding to the other side of the spectrum.”
“You’ve got to move your hands in the walk. People keep their hands still, and that stifles the walk.”
“The positioning up front is only to get him to commit behind.”
“Don’t try to do anything so much in one stride. It’s going to take you five strides.”
“Springboard his back when you go to collect him.”
For Wednesday’s sessions, also at Stable View Farm in Aiken, some riders are opting for a jump lesson while others will stick with dressage. You can find a full schedule on the USEF High Performance Eventing facebook page.
Read all about Wednesay's session in Learning New Languages In USEF High Performance Eventing Training Sessions.