Dressage Clinic with David O'Connor
Cedar Valley, ON, Canada
by Amber Heintzberger
The clinic began with a lecture presentation on the fundamentals of riding, focusing on what O'Connor termed, "Rider Responsibilities". These include the following:
1. Direction: "You define straightness by the placement of the hind feet, the front feet and the horse's head - not by the position of the spine, which has little movement. If you can't go straight on the flat then you cannot jump narrow fences and corners on cross-country. You must be able to adjust the horse by making it faster, slower, and with the front end and back end off the straight line and the head remaining still."
2. Speed: "This is something that even amateur riders should be able to control. Without speed and direction you cannot go on to rhythm and balance. You can be balanced but if you're too fast or not straight to a fence, you're in trouble."
3a. Rhythm:"This is not just the evenness of the tempo but the purity of the gait. In canter and walk especially you should have the right number of beats to each stride."
3b. Balance: "A horse's natural balance does not change, but the exercises that you ask the horse to perform change, and its balance has to match the exercise."
4. Sense of Timing: "This relates to the rider's ability to see a distance to a jump. The exercises are complicated now - a sense of timing is very important. If a person cannot see a distance, usually something else is wrong.
Following the lecture and discussion were individual practical training sessions for riders competing at the one and two-star levels. The riders included the following, in the order of their training sessions: Michelle Mueller on Amistad; Erika Koczi on Dare to Compare; Denise Lukacs on Apollo; Robyn Miller on T'Jean; Megan Baillie on Mata Riki; Daelin Verkindt on Simply Ben; Kendall Lehari on Understudy; and Brandon McMchan on Ryder's Juliette. Around 45 auditors also attended the clinic.
A common theme in the mounted lessons was creating forward energy and then containing that energy by the rider slowing the seat and posting taller, in essence telling the horse to 'trot in place', then sending the horse forward again. Working through these transitions within the gait encouraged the horse to be more responsive to the rider's seat and encouraged the riders to keep changes their seat and aids rather than getting stuck in a rut and going around and around in the same trot.
Transitions on the circle from walk to a few steps of trot and back to walk again made the horse more responsive to the rider's seat in preparation for asking for canter. Lateral bend at the canter was addressed, focusing on keeping the horse's body straight rather than letting the haunches drift in and out, and counter bend corrected horses dropping their hindquarters to the inside.
Then the leg yield was introduced across the diagonal, in both trot and canter, increasing to medium and coming back to a more collected gait to make the horse more adjustable.
Rather than hammering away at the riders to change their hand, leg or seat, O'Connor used the exercises such as transitions and leg-yield to encourage horse and rider to use their bodies correctly, making adjustments as necessary but then moving on to the movements rather than staying on a circle and focusing on keeping the leg in the correct position. In some cases he had the rider exaggerate an aid to get a feel for it, such as the side-to-side motion of the seat in leg-yield. He commented, "She needs to overdo it until she gets the feel - in time the aids can become more subtle."
From green horses to more seasoned campaigners the same essentials applied, and O'Connor did not hesitate to take riders back to the basics to focus on issues with their position in the saddle or difficulties in the horse's basics that would make more advanced work difficult.
As far as rider position, the lessons generally focused on keeping the seat relaxed but active and the hand steady so that the rider supports rather than inhibits the horse's movement.
Friday the clinic resumes with another lecture in the morning and show jumping lessons in the afternoon.
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