BY ERIN GILMORE
Great riders have a way of making what we do seem so simple. It’s how they give us confidence. After watching Olympic gold medalist Will Simpson teach a two-day clinic at Rutledge Farm in Middleburg, Virginia, I was full of confidence as I headed home. I went straight to the arena with my horse to try the opening exercise that Will had begun the clinic with on the first day.
It was so simple: walking over a single pole on the ground, in a tight figure eight pattern. The goal was to change direction over the pole, with the new inside leg stepping cleanly over the pole in each direction. Then doing the same thing at the trot. Then again at the canter, with a new change of lead over the pole.
“The biggest part of my teaching and riding career is distance and flexion,” Will said. He is based in Southern California, and has spent much of his summer season picking up grand prix wins at Summer in the Rockies, in Colorado. “This is my three step formula to creating the distance, and it works walking a rail. Picture it as riding a figure eight at the walk over the ‘jump.’ Try to do it as tight as you can – get back to it on as few steps as possible. Then trot. Then at the canter, as you switch leads over the pole, get a little bit of lift every time you switch leads.”
The three riders who kicked off the morning, Gavin Moylan, Amanda Smith and Katie Paige, handled this task with aplomb. They made their “distance” at each gait, providing a textbook illustration to Will’s narration of the exercise. Their horses stayed relaxed, got lighter in front, rounder, and careful over the pole. It was a perfect set up to the gymnastic exercises that followed on day one of the clinic. Day two also began with poles – ridden at the canter in a straight line over varied distances.
The message was clear: accuracy over fences starts with accuracy on the flat.
But as great riders (and the rest of us) also know, what looks simple is not always so. This test of accuracy is clearly one that I need to spend more time with; back at home, my horse and I overshot, and understepped the change of direction over the pole, many times. Suddenly I was asking myself, ‘I’m riding, but do I really know where my horse’s feet are?’
Will, who taught three height levels each day of his clinic, put each height section through this exercise. With a newfound appreciation for distance, each section jumped up to their height level over gymnastics on day one, and course work on day two.
“I like the horse to figure out what their job is with gymnastics, so that on course, we’re together thinking about having the rails up,” Will said.
The value of accuracy over a single pole was just one of the many things that riders—as well as us observers—took away from this clinic. Will, who famously rode the uber-sensitive, red hot stallion Karlsson vom Dach tall the way to Olympic team gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, knows a thing or two about refining the message, and working in small steps for a greater outcome.
Kate Paige’s mount was a fiery gelding who got hotter and flatter over the fences. While the pair jumped clear over their first course, the pace was uneven and Will saw room for improvement.
“This horse does what I call rambling on,” he said. “It starts good, then lights up. I love horses like that. You have to be the tranquilizing force in the mix. Quiet down with soft hands, and average it out.”
Schooling two fences with an emphasis on smoother turns, and working on softer downward transitions (“Stretch, sink, leg, close fingers down to a halt,” Will said) made for more responsiveness and ultimately, a better ride. Will’s coaching, refreshingly low key and replete with positive reinforcement, set the riders up for attainable goals without stressing the horses.
“There are only four things that we need to do to show jump,” Will said. “Go forward, slow down, turn right and turn left. And we spend our entire careers trying to perfect that.”
Back at home with my horse, I’ll be mulling that over, as I make turns over a pole in an inspired pursuit of accuracy.
Rutledge Farm, a privately owned venue that was formerly a Thoroughbred racehorse facility, recently finished a complete renovation. The facility plans to host more clinics in the near future as part of its Olympic Gold Medalists series. Mclain Ward taught a clinic there this past June, and Philip Dutton, Chris Kappler and Leslie Howard will all be teaching clinics at Rutledge this fall.