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February 6, 2013

International Eventing Forum: Journey To The Top, Part 2

New U.S. eventing coach David O'Connor was one of the headliners at the International Eventing Forum.

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.”

Then he used a single fence on a figure of eight to ensure the horses would land on the correct canter lead, before developing this to three fences on a bending line with the requirement for a change of leg over the second and third elements. He asked the riders not to lean or move their weight but just turn their head and shoulders into the direction desired and open the inside rein a little. “Always look up and lock on to a fence as early as possible. Then you will have a better chance of seeing a stride,” he said.

He used a grid of three oxers, each seven yards apart, with no ground lines, to improve the jump and get the horses to focus on the top rail. The ground poles he used between each oxer moved easily, and it was suggested that a safer option would be to use planks instead, but all the horses began to show better technique, particularly when the riders gave them more freedom through the rein. “Don’t make your horses reliant on the hand,” he counseled.

Todd used pulled out ground lines in front of his verticals. He explained that in the old days riders tended to let horses hit a vertical and learn from this, but now it was accepted that a better way to improve the jumping of verticals was to use a ground line so that the horse had time to get the shoulders up and learn how to use the front end efficiently. It was an important point that had the audience of 600 reaching for their notebooks.

Good Riding Knows No Discipline

At the end of the day, it was wonderful to see how each presenter built upon the last.

Woodhead’s connection with Hester and his comments about him and the British team are hugely important for eventing dressage. It is my belief that bad mechanical dressage, often using too much strength and killing the spirit of the horse, has been responsible in part for making cross-country less safe.

On the other hand, I have never seen Hester do anything that I do not like. His influence therefore has the possibility of making cross-country safer, and certainly it is a style of dressage that is compatible with the jumping phases of eventing.

Equally Todd’s style of show jump training is obviously totally compatible with the demands of cross-country riding, and his incredible results speak for themselves.

I would have loved to be told more about the breeding and history of all the horses used and also to hear more feedback from the riders and audience. However, the whole day was filmed and therefore there will be a longer-term benefit from this day than many such events.

In future years the conference will probably have to evolve and offer more to attract a modern audience. Hand-outs with key points and details of exercises would be easy to do, and a more interactive approach with greater involvement of the audience would make a better learning experience. There must also be a place for the use of film and slow motion, and possibly the use of a lecture hall to facilitate this, or for example allow a motivating mental preparation presentation. However, in the meantime we can just be thankful for a superb day and a superb opportunity to learn.

Also read coverage of Day 1's activities...

 
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