David O’Connor

The fourth speaker was Canadian Eventing Team coach David O’Connor, who was AWESOME. My notes for this section are very long, so we will present it in parts. I’ve included it all and tried to quote him verbatim as much as possible, as so many of the messages were excellent and so good to take on board for good, safe xc riding.

For my complete series of articles about the IEF follow this link -> 2012 International Eventing Forum

David O’Connor: “Striking The Balance – Clear But Fast.”

Guinea Pigs: Michael Jackson on a 2* going 3* horse, Tom McEwen on a 4* horse, Laura Collett on a 4* horse, David Doel on a 2* may be going 3* horse

David, coach to the Canadian Event Team and due to take over from Captain Mark Phillips as the U.S. Team coach, began a lengthy but fascinating Introduction by talking about having gaps in your training. You will get caught out further down the line. This is a sport that will catch you over and over and over again, and it will wait until it is the most important competition of the year before it actually catches you.

So, the little mistake that you let go and you don’t pay attention to, will come and show up when you’re on television, when you’re at Badminton or Burghley, or you’re riding for a team. The little thing that you make a mistake with, that’s when suddenly you realise that you don’t have all the pieces of the puzzle. Going to compete is much like having a puzzle, you think you have a 5000 piece puzzle and you get to the end and you have 4999 pieces – it’s a little frustrating!

That’s what happens to people who go and compete at the very very top level. It’s actually a minor piece, maybe from right at the beginning, that you might have let go or you’re not paying attention to, it might be the way the horse is moving, the way you apply your line as you do things, that little thing is the thing that comes back to get you.

So, he is an absolute stickler for the basics being right, and ensuring that there are no gaps in the training.

We think about these 5 things in order:

1) Direction – can you ride down that line?

We define that as, you go around, first it’s where the horse’s hindfeet are, the placement of the hindquarters, then where their front feet are, then where their frame and their head is. (So, it isn’t just a case of steering and controlling the head and neck, that gives a false impression of control of line, as we saw later.)

2) Speed

If I’m going way too fast into a bounce into water, I’m going to have to be lucky no matter how good my balance is, and I don’t want to have to rely on luck in order to be competitive.

There are 4 different basic speeds at which we go into fences xc:

  • Firstly, slowest, to a ditch – rail, or to a coffin.
  • Second, into water.
  • Third, if there’s something about the shape of the fence (e.g. it’s an upright), or whatever’s behind it – into a combination, or on tricky terrain, or into dark, or a turn,
  • Fourth, at full speed.

Going back to the things he considers the most important:

3) The quality of the canter – Balance, Rhythm

He has a personal pet peeve: a lot of the time we tend to teach amateurs, we teach people who don’t study the sport as a living, who only ride 4 times a week or once a day, and we tend to talk over their head.

Do you have some anxiety with jumping?

“What happens with anxiety is that your brain freezes – we’ve all had that, coming down to a fence, it’s not going to quite work out right, and you go “Uuuh” (gasp), you land on the other side, and your first reaction is “I’m alive.” The second reaction is “my horse is alive… (pause) …and we’re still together…”

“Think about that in a combination. By the time you’ve gotten around all those thoughts, you’re 2 or 3 strides into something that you needed to react to.”

And so, we start to teach these responsibilities right from the beginning, and I ask people often, when they jump a fence at the beginning, did you go right or left, and you would be surprised how many people jump a fence and CAN’T tell you whether they went right or left.

If they can’t tell you, how do we actually fix it? Because they don’t know what happened at that point!

So, we start with 1) Line/Direction, we start with 2) Speed, and then we get to the more complicated parts, 3) Rhythm and 4) Balance, and finally 5) Timing (recognising what is going to happen.)

If a person doesn’t know if they’re going right or left, or if they don’t know if the horse went faster, or on 3 strides or 4, on their own, how are they ever going to know whether the horse is in balance?

It is very much about trying to get to the feeling of getting into the rider’s head and what they do notice, because in those four things (direction, speed, rhythm, balance) they have to start to notice those things before they can go ahead and fix them, because what we are trying to do is to get a rider to react INSTINCTIVELY.

We are trying to make our riding instinctual – at first, we notice something, second, we do something about it, third, did we get a reaction? The first and third part are at completely opposite ends of the spectrum, because the first part is ‘Did you notice it?’, but the third part is actually a TRAINING issue.

Ideally: “I noticed it, I went and did something about it, right, and my horse came up with the answer.” There is something we do every day that is instinctual, and that is driving a car. If you’ve driven for years, you don’t ever think about driving the car, you’re reacting to this thing all the time, it’s instinctual and it never gets to the forefront of your brain, you just react automatically all the time. We want to try to get our riders to that point – that if they think about any of it, they’re actually too late.

We want to get our riders to an instinctual environment, whether in the dressage ring, show jumping ring, or going xc, ESPECIALLY going xc, that the horses are confident, the riders are confident, and that the riders are to the point where they are instantly reacting to the situation underneath them. If you ever think about when you first drove a car, you didn’t know what to look at, there was so much information that you struggled with it, and the only way to deal with it was practice, repetition and practice, repetition and practice, until suddenly most of your reactions became instinctual.

That is really what it means for me when we talk about rider responsibility, it’s Direction, Speed, Rhythm, Balance, and Timing (recognising what is going to happen.)

Recognising a distance, not looking for a distance but RECOGNISING A DISTANCE, (more on this vital point later), that is when you start to get your riders to the point where they notice what happens, they start with ‘What am I going to do about that’, they start to notice it (immediately) and react to it, and they get an answer, that to me is when xc riding gets to a new level.

To me as a Chef d’Equipe, a lot of times when we’re looking at selecting a rider and a horse combination, at one of their trials for Olympic Games or World Championships, that’s the moment that I’m looking for, “Is the Rider There?” (i.e. on the ball, reacting instantly.) The horse could be actually in a place where something happens, so, did the rider react to that situation, not to something that’s preconceived.

What happens a lot of the time, is that the reaction that the horse has that causes some issue – say a run out at the third part of a combination – actually happened way before the rider noticed it, and if they’d noticed it at the beginning they could have done this much (holding fingers an inch apart) and solved the problem, but they noticed it late, and by the time they noticed it late, it is this much (hands held 4’ apart), and that is too much to do.

Guinea Pigs: Michael Jackson on a 2* going 3* horse, Tom McEwen on a 4* horse, Laura Collett on a 4* horse, David Doel on a 2* may be going 3* horse

The different XC positions of the rider:

– Galloping position, the most economical way to get from point A to point B.

– To prepare for a fence.

– To jump it.

– Going away from it.

– Dropping into water.

“Taller riders will go back more than up, shorter riders will go up more than back.”

Having warmed up already, they started working the horses.

First exercise:  Warm up, trotting a large circle, and trotting over a rail.

“Is the horse: Confident? Comfortable? Straight? Does he have any anxiety?” (Because of the pole, the environment, the rider?) “Anything that will happen in cross-country, will happen to a pole on the ground.”

The horses should be able to change the footwork and cope with what’s in front of them. Does it change their balance? Does it change their speed?

Very much paying attention to the straightness over the rail, the straightness behind especially. Think “Where are the haunches?”

“You will notice that as people go around on a small circle in trot, the horse’s haunches are 90% outside of the circle. Everyone’s worried about the bend to the inside because that’s what the dressage books say, but the horses release the pressure off at the other end and you still haven’t got anything done! The bend to the inside is still very important but it is MORE important to keep making sure that you keep the haunches on the line of travel, whether in lateral work, or straight, or on a circle. Think about where the line of the haunches is.”

Next, cantering on the same circle, over the pole.

Working on the lightness of the forehand, cruise on a little bit, let a little bit of that energy out. In this aspect, I wouldn’t want to have them low, I want a longer frame, a little more forward. Let some of this tension and movement go somewhere, a little bit more forward, not with a short neck.

Back to trot again, think about where the haunches go. Do they go to the outside when you go from canter to trot? if they did, then the outside aids have to be like the boards of an arena, so as you ask for more bend and flexion he doesn’t release the pressure off the other way (by swinging haunches out).

Into Medium trot, bigger, let go, then collect again, then working trot.

He said: “I completely agree with what Chris Bartle said this morning. The upwards part of the rising trot is your momentum, it is the motivator part of the trot, the seat dictates the tempo, the lower leg is for putting energy into the tempo. So you can use your posting (rising) as part of the tempo, more forward = bigger post, you can start to use your body to communicate with the horse, and get away more and more from the hand, communicating with the horse.”

Canter, over a small upright on a circle, again the straightness is very important, and the quality of the transitions. “Let them come a bit more forward, don’t try to over-control it, give them a place to go, rhythm, rhythm, even softer with the hand, let your elbow move, so that your forearm and your hand work towards the horse’s mouth. Don’t have the horses too tight in the neck, don’t get hung up on controlling them.”

Not too short, including when you collect, bringing canter up and more powerful, but still really going somewhere. It’s very important to communicate with the horses in the same way for Dressage, Show Jumping and Cross Country, it all has to connect. I don’t do anything different in the show jumping to in the dressage, the aids don’t change. The motion and the work through your body is still really important, and the lower leg is for energy.

“Can I go forward and can I come back WITHOUT THE HAND HAVING TO DOMINATE THE HORSE?”  In transitions, the first thing to move should NOT be the hands.

What is the difference between when you ask the horse to go forward and you ask the horse to collect, in the way that you use your leg and you use your body?

This is another great pet peeve of David’s: a rider is going to go across country,  in the warm-up the instructor tells the rider that ‘more leg, more leg’ is the answer. But that is NOT the answer, because the question is, “To do what?” To collect, to go sideways, to go faster? What am I using more leg for? How do I communicate with the horse to tell him that this is the canter that I want, in the way that I use my body and my legs? What is that difference, to get the canter?

And it has to be VERY clear in a rider’s mind in order to get it to the horse’s mind, to get away from “I’m slowing down because I do this (pull reins)”, because you are going to get into trouble later on, unless you have a horse that has a tonne of energy, because if I slow him down with my hand I have a tendency to stop the hindleg, and then I don’t have enough footwork, and I don’t get the answer to the question.

For XC, practice back and forth, galloping position, preparing for a fence, galloping.

He put a question to all 4 riders, “How far away from this fence (a simple sloping-front spread, with brush filler) will you start preparing for it? He got 4 different answers!

“Way back” (which he interpreted as “anywhere from the A417 to here, is okay…”), and “enough away”, and “a few strides away.” “Because they’re doing it instinctively, this is the one thing here (in the U.K.), with foxhunting, racing etc, riders are picking it up instinctively, whereas in the U.S. they don’t pick it up instinctively.”

Something he learned long ago from Luis (the previous speaker): “Around 5 strides away is where the horse realises what fence it is going to jump.” That’s when it realises ‘Oh, you want me to to do that. So, your job from there to the fence is to REACT to whatever he’s thinking of the fence – if he’s  impressed by it, if he’s not impressed by it, whatever, your job is then supporting what his concentration level is, so that means your work has to be done before that.”

So, your preparation is FINISHED by 5 horse strides away.

“Now you go back to however long it takes, (where to start setting up for the fence), because that may change. It may change on a course, and that part changes per horse, depending on whether horse gallops up in balance, or on the forehand, it will take longer to set the latter horse up.

Important point – you have to be DONE by 5 strides away.

The next exercise:  One at a time, go around the outside, and come and jump the fence, not that fast, show a difference in your galloping position, as if you’re just cruising across a field, and then balance, and come jump the fence. From 5 strides out, you are ONLY reacting to the horse, you are balanced, your work is done, you are ready to react to what he (the horse) is thinking, not to what you are thinking.

The way that we practice this at home, we have a marker (5 horse strides from the fence), we have to be done by then, then every 2 strides more, so one at 5, 7, 9 and 11 horse strides from the fence, and where do we change our balance from the galloping position to the jumping position?

Next, he changed the exercise to a bounce in same place (by separating the front and back parts of the original spread, so on approach it looked the same to the horse), so the riders had to change not only balance but speed, and still had to be DONE 5 strides away.

“If you have a difference between galloping position and preparing position,  the horses click into the system, so a clear difference in position becomes an aid to the horse.”

“Make sure you aren’t slowing down without realising it, when you balance, to a fence that doesn’t need slowing down into. If you are, that little move there is 2 seconds per fence. So, make sure you can separate the techniques, from changing balance to changing the speed of the horse. Keep the step moving, change the balance but not the step of the horse.

The fastest horse XC is NOT the one that gallops the fastest, it’s the one who can change its speed the fastest.

“Don’t leave it late” to prepare, though. “There are very few people in the world who can sit down from a long distance away and NOT inhibit the horse’s canter or gallop, because they move that well.”

“When you come to that preparation area 5-7 strides before the fence, don’t sit down so much, allow your shoulders to come back, stay a little bit out of the saddle, stay stay stay, rhythm rhythm rhythm.” “The slower the exercise and the tighter the turn, the closer you get to the saddle. Get closer to the saddle in the last few strides. or when the horse is going more uphill (in frame).”

“The person who has this ability in their communication is going to be much faster, working with the horse. The number 1 exercise is lengthening and shortening the canter.”

Next exercise: the spread was changed to a bounce, so the approach speed had to be changed – a skills exercise, testing the rider more than the horse.

When 1 of the 4* horses got a bit suspicious of the bounce (although he went every time, he ‘put his specs on’ a little on the last stride or so), David immediately removed the top rail from the first part to make it very easy and clear, and reassure him, so he finished that exercise on a very confident note.

I think it’s worth mentioning here that I’ve never seen a Trainer react so fast to a very tiny doubt in a(n experienced) horse’s mind. For what it’s worth, I think that many trainers I’ve worked with in the past, would have said “he’s experienced, he (or you) MUST get it right, we mustn’t change the exercise to accommodate you or him, get it right and he’ll learn…” This fascinated me, and I can see why David gets such fantastic results. It’s very easy to say ‘confidence is everything’, but his reaction to the horse’s very slight hesitation was instantaneous.

The next exercise was a little 1/2 ‘coffin’ to a choice of narrow fences, to left or right, on different (perfectly strided) distances.

“Most of the exercises now from a 1* onwards – we have to solve whatever the puzzle is, but there’s always something that you need to draw to after it (a narrow), so it comes down to your communication and your footwork.”

“I NEVER jump a narrow panel without a set of flags – anything less than 2.5m wide always always has a set of flags on it, so that the horses start to look for the flags and draw to that space, from when they are young.”

“In training always always always go and jump the last thing first, so that the horse always knows he’s got to keep looking for the thing he’s already done, he’s never surprised, he knows what he’s going to be drawn towards – if it’s a corner, or a chevron, skinny, whatever… he NEVER gets a surprise at the final element.”

He always tries to work on riders’ skills and horses’ confidence. “I actually don’t want anything to go wrong here, I don’t want to get into a place where I’m surprising them, I want them to start to hunt for where they want to go. Even with a very bold, experienced horse, I’d still go and jump the narrow panel first.”

With young horses he’d have poles on the floor first, to ‘frame’ the skinny.

Instruction to the riders: don’t wait until you’ve jumped the middle fence to think about the last fence (the skinny), get your mind onto the last fence early. The aim is that anything the horse does (jumping to the right or left, which will change the distance to the skinny), I’ve already corrected and I haven’t even thought about it, so that I’m not LATE.

Very important in all 3 phases: the ability that while you are dealing with the thing that’s happening underneath you, your head is on to the next thing – changing the speed, balance, especially line.

“With these exercises I always think that what I’m trying to do is create a set of railroad tracks, I create this railroad track so that they don’t go right or go left.” You have to start thinking about it before, it’s especially important to think of how your jump into the combination is relating to your line to go and jump the next fence.

When show jumping on bending lines, if you make a mistake early, and don’t correct it early, you will have the last one down. XC – if you have the mistake before you jump into the first one, you have a run-past at the end.

The little thing that happens over there, you pay for it here (points to the skinny), and you think the skinny’s the fault, but it isn’t.

This exercise is about getting your mind out into whatever the next thing is. He’ll often stand on the landing side to see where the riders are looking. This is a very typical exercise he uses in his training, the combination with the option to go right or left to the last (skinny) part, so that the horses are listening to the riders as they’re going through, but “I really want to see the riders’ minds and the rider’s eye, that they’re in a place that they’ve gone on to what the last thing is.”

Although Laura Collett did the exercise very neatly on her 4* horse Noble Bestman, David did not like her inside-rein-opening style, and instantly corrected her. He was an absolute stickler for both reins going towards the direction you want the horse to go, outside rein particularly, keeping the reins as a channel, not opening one hand more than the other, so that you retain control over the shoulders and it doesn’t unbalance them. (If you are steering the head and neck but the shoulders aren’t channelled, the horse can twist out with the shoulders.)

“You’ll get caught when that is suddenly a 90 degree corner, instead of this simple exercise.” So you have to make sure when you are doing these exercises, that it’s absolutely correct and straight… it’s the little thing that actually makes the difference. Because if there’s a tiny problem, it will get augmented (in a competition) by something that is 6’6” wide, and then that little mistake in a line catches you.

He wanted to see an open direct rein, outside bearing rein, instead of an indirect rein. “You want to feel that your outside rein is pushing, you’ve got them between both hands, two reins, to a corner (or skinny).

Like the earlier Trainers, he was very hot on the arms staying soft and allowing the horse to use his head and neck: “be elastic so that the horse can follow through a bit more.”“Soften the body, the arms, the seat. Keep movement in the hips, NOT driving, follow the horse’s back.” “DON’T turn by pulling on one rein, use BOTH (as a channel), control the shoulders.”

Next exercise – towards the corner of the arena (so only able to turn left on landing), a decent sized rustic corner was set up deliberately as a right hand corner rather than a left hand corner.

Jumping that on its own first, then a rolltop and a curving line of 5 then 4 strides to the same corner.

The first time over the corner, David O’Connor  asked each rider afterwards if they were straight. The reply ‘Ish’ was not good enough, and he picked up on it – they were either straight, or not. If not, they had to say whether the horse had landed to the right or the left.
“Draw a circle in the sand to land in after a skinny, to make sure the horse LANDS straight too.”

He’s looking at the rider’s eye – when are you thinking about coming to the corner, and what is your instinct of how your horse deals with the roll-top, this is where your instincts have to come in.

David was generous with praise when the riders got it right, lots of single word summations: “good”, “perfect”, “excellent.”

Pulling on the way to the fence – the hard part about that, is that when you start pulling with one rein and then the other, the more you take the attention of the horse off of the fence. “You react to retinising your distance, you get lazy because you rely on your eye.”

You want to make sure that your hands stay in the place, that they become very centralised, they don’t move off the sides of the neck, so that you frame the horse going down the rein, (frame doesn’t just mean rein), containment from the leg up into the rein, to the elbow, so that they stay on line.

To one rider – the instinct of what you were trying to do was very good, it’s the technique you want to work on, from one rein to the other.

Next time through, the order was “keep your hands, keep ‘em, keep ‘em, keep ‘em” all the way to the fence – then “did everybody see that, see what the difference is.” The hands stayed still, and the horse did the exercise far better.

“It doesn’t matter whether you have longer reins or shorter reins out on XC through a combination, but it has got to be the same kind of deal, otherwise they take their eye off it, and then suddenly you have a problem, partly because of your technique.”

The next exercise was to change the line and the speed, rolltop to corner again, but to do it on 4 strides not 5. Commands to riders on the way down: “keep both reins”, “keep it”, “not so deep and round” – “We want to make sure that the horse looks out to the end of his reins.”

To 1 rider: “Dressage work, SJ work, leads to the XC, you want to get a lot more of that communication, you’re a little bit too much just on your reins.” Collection becomes just a change of action, instead of a change of control.

To the rider whose horse was being stressy and a bit too lit up: “It’s more how YOU as the rider deal with something, than what the horse is doing. Be more elastic, don’t use your strength, use your technique.” He stressed the importance of “those types of thought processes and theories, about how to do something in a very very simple way, of getting your technique and your communication, because it’s all about communication with your horses. Try to get that and work on those techniques and those details, because then when you’re out in competition you want it to be instinctive, you’re not thinking about the details at that point, you’re thinking about just really instinctually reacting to how the horses are thinking of the fence.”

“You’ve got to go back in the ring and go through those techniques, just like any other sport, whether you’re a football player or a cricket player or a rugby player you’ve got to come back and work on those individual techniques over and over and over again.”

He said that Laura Collett has an amazing natural position, and all 3 boys, “are fantastically instinctual riders, but they have to be technically good too. They are strong in the body,  they’re using their strength, too much of their communication is then off of the rein.”

Q&A

How would you cope with a rider who uses the hand too much, someone very very tight in one hand when they ride, who finds it hard to give it, how would you teach them?

I would teach him how to slow a horse down without using his hands. The “Oh My God” lesson, because that’s what everyone says. The reason I call it the ‘oh my god’ lesson is because they change the trot, the horse slows down, they go “Oh My God”, that’s exactly what happens… but the concept is that the horse has changed.

Think about ‘passage at the rising trot.’  How would you do that?

You’d have to post very tall, you’d have to stay out of the saddle longer, and you’d have to go slower because the horse has more cadence and it spends more time off the ground, and you’d be surprised because if you just do that, the horses will slow down.

“This rising trot, this goes back to the theory that your seat dictates the tempo – if I change my seat, the horse will react, and if your seat dictates the tempo, if I stretch that as a concept in the canter, in the walk, in the xc,  that idea that I can get him to communicate, that I can slow him down just here (a few strides from the fence) that’s second (using the hands, if you must!) this has got to be first (using the body). Even in two-point, in galloping position, it’s not about having your seat in the saddle… and so it would be a longer education, about trying to get horses to slow down and come back to you off the way that you use your seat and your legs and your body, not just off your hands.”

“So, EVERY horse that is too round, behind the bit, the person is using too much hand.”

Back to answering the question: “If the horse is running off with him, he can’t let it go unless he teaches another way to be able to slow down, and that’s got to be in the communication with the rider.”

I asked a question, what does he think of the two different schools of thought in training, to ‘look for a stride’ or the theory that ‘if the canter is right, the stride will always be there.’

“It becomes more and more important the higher up the levels you go. It’s very very important that we teach it from a point that a person must RECOGNISE the distance, recognise what is going to happen, not LOOK for a distance, because as soon as somebody looks for a distance, they do it with their HANDS. We saw that a little bit today, a bit ‘got it’, then they jump on the stride… it’s important that within that balance and rhythm, that those are good, and I’m an adamant believer that you should recognise what is going to happen, because otherwise you are just blindly going into something where your job is, whether going XC or SJ, to give the horse the ability to see it, to give him the footwork to be able to deal with it, and your job is then to make the situation happen easier.

You might actually be making it harder for the horse, and if you just go blindly down (to a fence) without looking for anything, or even having the ability to see that it’s your responsibility to recognise what is going to happen, you could be doing something totally different than what the situation demands.

So, recognising a distance is very important and there is not one top rider in the world who does not, ever.Sometimes when you recognise it you might not like it, but you at least recognise it!

Where people start to LOOK for the distance – you can’t do that, as soon as you go looking for a distance you take away the quality of the canter and then you’re stuffed. People end up talking about feel as if it is an unattainable aspect, but I really believe that so much of this is about communicating with the horse.

How do we communicate with them on the flat, in dressage? How do we communicate with them in the show-jumping? How do we communicate with them on the cross country?

There has to be a similarity in communication, because we’re not only dealing with another brain, so the communication has to be very consistent all the way through, though the frames and the way that the horses move can be quite different, comparing the flatwork with how we go XC, going more back towards how we move within their movement, instead of creating our own.

One of the big things is that qualification does NOT equal competency.  That’s a huge issue. Qualifications are only really put in as a major worldwide organisation trying to legislate common sense, which as we all know is completely impossible.

And so it is still up to the rider, and it is the riders’ responsibility to be able to understand the questions put and believe that their horse understands the questions so that when Mr Course Designer goes up there and asks something, that it’s within the capabilities of your communication to be able to handle it.

I’m a huge believer in communication and a lot of this is about what are we saying, because I think that a lot of people don’t understand what they’re saying, and one more step is that i think that a lot of people, in the way that they say things, teach the horses to ignore them, and then that’s when you get the big problem.”

To finish, Eric Smiley summarised that all 4 of the presenters today are great communicators, they used very similar language, the words that they used were the same, simple and clear to understand for rider and horse, you could see as each session developed the horses growing in confidence and understanding, that has been the message through each session.
For me, the most important central tenets of the day, across all the Trainers, were:

  • Teach the rider and the horse to use the body and seat to control the pace, not the hands.
  • Seat is for tempo, lower leg is for energy.
  • The Rider needs to stay relaxed in hips, arms and hands and ride forward in good balance and rhythm

Many thanks to Kerry Weisselberg  and horsejunkiesunited.com for such a great article.