DOC Clinic & Blogger Shenanigans

Austen, Me, Emma, and Angry Lyra learning ALL THE THINGS!

I cannot tell you how pumped I was to peace out and head down to MD on Monday evening after work. They say that purchasing real estate is one of the top most stressful events in a person's life, and dealing with stressed-out clients and working late every day for a week definitely had ME on edge! Thankfully I had Austen, Emma, and some very exciting plans waiting for me upon arrival.

About a month or so ago, Austen had learned that David O'Connor (eventing legend, Olympic gold medal winner, Team USA Chef d'Equipe AND former Team Canada Chef d'Equipe) was teaching a clinic at Waredaca - a facility within a stone's throw of her new neighborhood. We quickly decided to make it an event, and I'm SO glad we did!

I'm still frequently in awe of the amazing people I've met through this blog, and Emma and Austen are no exception. These ladies are so kind, sharp, funny, and all around wonderful to be with. We had a VERY entertaining evening out on the town on Monday night, during which Emma Natalie displayed her rapier wit and we all enjoyed some awesome food and delicious local beer. It was tough to get ourselves to bed, because really, what's better than talking ponies and giggling all night long?! It was the best grown-up slumber party ever.

Despite being a little bit cranky the next morning, we all dragged ourselves out of bed at 7am so we could get ready to head over to the clinic and soak up some learnin'.

The clinic was divided into two groups: one group of Novice/Beginner Novice level riders, and another group going Training and Prelim. David had both groups work on the same exercises, and it was interesting to see how the same concepts applied through the levels.

Mr. O'Connor preachin' it from atop the mound
The morning sessions were group show jumping lessons, and each group began with an unmounted lecture in which David outlined his philosophy and goals for the riders that day. He had a few main "rider responsibilities" that he would come back to over and over again during the clinic:

Direction - The rider is to have the horse on the line or track that they desire at all times, and this imaginary line isn't wider than the width of the horse's body.
Speed - The rider is responsible for dictating the speed, not the horse! A few riders got into trouble with this. 
Balance - This changes depending upon what we're asking the horse to do - jumping vs. dressage, opening the stride vs. collecting, but it's up to the rider to decide & produce the appropriate balance
Timing - He used this word to refer to the rider's ability to recognize how a distance is going to come up, not to go for a particular 'spot', but to see that it's going to come up short, long, or just right, and adjust accordingly.

One thing I absolutely loved about David as a teacher is his focus on getting the riders to a point of education and independence. He's not one to dictate every stride and every correction, but spends a lot of time making sure each rider understands and recognizes WHAT is happening, WHY it's happening, and HOW to fix it if things go wrong. 

Both groups worked over the same course of fences, starting with a single vertical that built slowly into a 6 or 7 stride vertical-to-oxer line, a very going 5-stride bending line, and a combination consisting of a very short 5-stride oxer-to-vertical line to a one-stride out over a vertical. While there weren't any insane turns or big fences, the exercise challenged each pair and did a great job of exposing horse and rider flaws. 

There was a huge focus on straightness, and our viewing position at the end of the 7-stride line made it really easy for us to see when a horse wavered from the path. David also didn't want the riders to actively bend their horses when jumping, because most of the time the act of bending caused the horses' haunches to drift out and made them crooked, which affected their balance and ability to get to the jump at the optimal distance. Most riders needed a lot of reminding to use their OUTSIDE aids to turn, keeping the haunches on the invisible line of the path to the fence. 

The way the exercise was set up, it required the riders to constantly be adjusting their speed and balance, collecting and then extending and then collecting back again, which brings me to one of my biggest personal takeaways from the morning jumping session: 

Collecting and Extending the Canter is THE MOST IMPORTANT thing you can be doing in your daily riding as a jumping rider. Before they even approached the first fence, David had each rider do a serious GO and WHOA, and then reach a happy medium of a balanced, forward jumping canter appropriate for the exercise and their particular horse. I don't do nearly enough of that, and the huge impact it made on how each pair was able to negotiate the jumps made a big impact on me. Each horse used at least 3 different canters throughout the course of the clinic, and I'm not sure Dino has quite that many gears at my immediate disposal! The canter must also be created in the corner, and you need to be organized in the desired canter at LEAST 3 strides out from the fence. No last second changes.

The most valuable part of the clinic for me, however, was the afternoon cross country session. Since I've had exactly one cross country lesson with a professional ever in my life, I was really eager to see what David had to say on the subject, and how I could apply it to my own riding. Unfortunately we were only able to watch the lower level group since I had to get back on the road, but I gained SO much from auditing the XC lesson!

Everyone warmed up together riding in a big circle on a hillside, practicing their galloping position (up out of the saddle, short stirrups, face closer to the horse's neck than to the vertical) and their "preparation" position (more upright upper body, sitting closer to the saddle). Once everyone was confidently switching between both positions and easily extending and shortening the canter, they started jumping a small ramp. 

David had everyone get into the preparation position and create their optimal canter by the time they were about 6 strides out from the fence - a technique I had started to figure out on my own but never saw so clearly demonstrated before. The riders who were able to do this just had to sit chilly and maintain the canter up to the jump, while the ones who were unable to prepare soon enough really struggled with their distances. All of the horses jumped better from a 'prepared' canter. 

The BEST part of the lesson for my purposes was when David had everyone riding up and down the mound in the photos, ad nauseum. I took a TON of video of all of the riders doing this, and am looking forward to sitting down to analyze it later. It was so valuable for me to get to watch a bunch of different horse and rider combinations negotiate the super-steep mound, and to carefully watch the riders' position in particular. David had everyone get in a very forward galloping position to go up, and on the way back down everyone brought their shoulders back, BUT as a product of allowing their hips to go forward and follow the motion of the horse's back as their body changed shape to go downhill - not just by throwing their upper body backwards. 

He let each pair canter up, and then negotiate the downside at whatever speed the horse felt comfortable the first time. some cantered, some trotted, and some walked. In each case, the riders' hips went forward and they loosened the contact on the reins to allow the horses to balance. Eventually, all the horses cantered down both sides of the mound, and David added a small log jump at the top, instructing them to land with their hips in the downward/forward following position and reins long. It looked so smooth and easy, and made total sense to me.

The session ended with some work through the water complex, working the horses up to jumping a down bank, then taking 2 strides to a small vertical (stadium fence) into the water. This question really separated the green horses from the schoolmasters, and David was so tactful with the greenies. He let them stop and look down the bank, stick their noses in the water, and watch the more experienced horses go through so that they could understand and gain confidence about what they were being asked to do. I appreciated how he gradually built up each challenge, and by the end of the lesson EVERY horse was doing EVERY exercise confidently and successfully. That's good training. 

So, what are my big takeaways from the clinic? I need to start doing lots more work on finding different gears in the canter, really focus on my "preparation zone" on xc, push my hips forward going downhill, and be active in making decisions in the moment in my riding. It was a great learning experience, and so wonderful to spend time with Emma and Austen as well! 


  1. the six stride 'preparation zone' is definitely on my 'needs work' list now too haha. my eye is getting pretty reliable at about four strides out.... but i guess i should push for more. and i also really appreciated how well he broke down the techniques for jumping/cantering down such steep hills. it's not exactly my favorite thing to do (izzy luvs it tho) but he made it seem like nbd.

    anyways i had so much fun with you guys!!!!! (and that crazy natalie chick - geez, who invited her anyway??? lol)

  2. A really fun exercise for this is setting up two canter poles a measured distance apart and seeing if you can get 4, 5 and 6 stride in between:)

    I'm so glad you had fun!

  3. Sounds awesome! That mound looks super steep so that's quite a challenging exercise.


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