The International Eventing Forum team is led by two great supporters of good training, Jean Mitchell and Eric Smiley. The redoubtable Jean is an Olympic eventing dressage judge and advisor to the Irish senior event team, while Eric rode for Ireland at two Olympic Games and three World Equestrian Games and is a top coach and judge. The list of top trainers they’ve attracted to the IEF each year is a testament to the respect in which they’re held on the international stage.
The two trainers who joined David O’Connor this year on Feb. 4 at Hartpury College in Great Britain were no exception. However, although everyone will have heard of Sir Mark Todd, relatively few may know Ian Woodhead.
Woodhead was one of the national trainers for Team GB’s under-21 dressage team for 18 years, during which time the team won 10 medals. He was also home trainer to the Bechtolsheimers, where Carl Hester used to work. In 2004 he moved away from pure dressage and now mainly trains event riders. He has an extensive list of clients including Oliver Townend, Piggy French and London Olympics team member Nicola Wilson with the irrepressible Opposition Buzz.
Given his connection with the Bechtolscheimers and Carl Hester, it was particularly valuable to hear Woodhead talk about the great London gold medal triumph of the British dressage team and individual gold medalist Charlotte Dujardin. “Carl Hester has had a great influence on both riders and coaches,” said Woodhead. “He has shown that you can have success at the highest level without any questionable methods and without rollkur. Without doubt he has also influenced dressage judges in what they are looking for. Maybe his horses have a little less power, but his horses are happy, light in the hand, standing on their own legs.”
Eric Smiley gave weight to this by relating what FEI five-star judge Stephen Clarke said recently about Hester. Clarke was President of the Ground Jury in London and has recently been elected as FEI Dressage Judge General. “Many riders get into trouble copying other top riders,” said Clarke, “but no rider is going to get into trouble copying Carl, Charlotte and Laura (Bechtolscheimer).
Hester’s philosophy was echoed by Woodhead when he said, “I want the horses to think for themselves. The less I have to do to help them the better. You ride with a light leg and a quick leg but not a strong leg. I don’t want to dominate them because then they keep their ‘fifth leg’ that is so vital for jumping.”
He went on to say, “There has to be the ‘feel-good’ factor when practicing as with jumping. The training has to be positive.”
Woodhead worked with Matt Frost, a professional dressage rider, with a pure dressage horse doing a four-star test. He suggested that in training the best approach was not always to ride the whole test but to ride three or four movements together, then have a rest and reassessment before repeating these movements. He also wanted Frost to avoid trying to cover up mistakes but instead just try to correct it on the second attempt.
He amused the audience when getting Frost to improve the balance before the flying changes. “Just think about riding downhill and suddenly finding a big gate in front of you.” And it worked! It was typical of his practical clearly explained approach.
Probably the most valuable point the audience took home was the thought that instead of trying to hold a horse straight when crooked they should do the opposite. For example, if the quarters were in they should ride with the quarters in the opposite direction, if necessary changing the rein to do this, before returning to the original exercise.
He Needs No Introduction
Unfortunately, the audience was in no mood to ask Woodhead questions as there was great excitement building in anticipation of Mark Todd’s show jumping presentation. Seeing Todd in this type of situation is a rare event, and his relaxed but assertive approach is always one to be treasured.
He introduced his session by saying that he focused on two main areas, gymnastics and rideability. “You do the dressage for the jumping; it is not a different beast,” he said in reference to the rideability. “You need your horse to be responsive, in particular for the lengthening and shortening.”
Last year at the eventing forum, Luis Alvarez Cervera and Laurent Bousquet worked particularly at the balance of the rider, both demanding a light seat throughout the majority of the work.
This time Todd worked almost exclusively on the horses. He began by working with poles on the ground. First doing transitions of pace between the poles and then cantering down lines, initially in standard stride patterns and then adding and reducing the number of strides to make the horses obedient. The emphasis was on shortening more than lengthening and allowing the horses to work out for themselves what to do with their feet.
He progressed to doing a short three strides followed by a long six strides then got them to go two long followed by a short seven or eight strides over the same poles, before repeating the exercise in reverse.
“The more adjustable your horse, the more options you have,” he explained, “although in training if you have the option of a forward or a waiting stride then take the waiting option.”