About a month ago now scarily enough I was lucky enough to be a rider for a Captain Mark Phillips clinic run by the TTT Trust. The clinic was concentrating on showjumping and producing predominately eventers for this phase as they move through the ranks.
The first session featured riders competing at 80/90 level including both young horses and more established combinations. From the start it was apparent the basics had to be correct, no matter the time this required to instil them. Captain Phillips wanted horses to be forward and straight into the contact. Forward and off the leg was essential, and he spent a long time with the group working to ensure the horses were responsive before progressing forwards, this included working on walk halt walk transitions on circles. Only once he was happy that the basic fundamentals were right did the group progress to jumping exercises. Starting with a simple cross pole and then to a related distance to a parallel. Over the cross pole he was keen that riders had a secure lower leg and did not over fold with their body. He joked that it was ok to love your horse and give it a hug but over a fence was not the place to do so! Working over the related distance he worked the riders to ensure they had a positive forward canter all the way into the first fence so the horse could move easily forward through the distance. This mean that the horses had to be moving forward through the corner and not just pushed forward in the last few strides in to the fence as this would cause the horses to rush and more likely to knock the fence.
The second session was combinations working at 1m and included myself! Again the session started with the basics. He wanted to see riders being slightly forward with the shoulders in the canter. One rider had a very upright (but not behind the vertical) position which most would consider correct, but Captain Phillips wanted her more forward with her upper body as it then allowed the horse to move more freely from behind. Another rider was a bit busy with their hands, and reliant on them as a stopping aid, so time was spent better utilising leg, seat and weight aids and only using the outside rein as a guiding turning aid. There was a quick notable change with the horse improving its balance and hollowing significantly less in its transitions within only a few minutes.
We started with the same exercises as the first session working on the cross then to the parallel. The quality of the canter was vital. My horse Bea is quite hot so I have gotten into a habit of sitting very quietly to attempt to keep a quiet canter but often interfering to get a stride in the final 5 strides. This left her underpowered and in what was termed a ‘Sunday Stroll canter’ that lacked adjustability, so instead Captain Phillips encouraged me to drive the canter at all times, never taking my leg off, whilst raising my hands to allow her to come up off her forehand but without sitting up. I also had to avoid interfering with her in the last few strides, which took a couple of attempts, so to allow her to take that same rhythmic balanced canter into the fence. There should be no short, then long (or vice versa) in to a fence the canter should be kept the same and then the fence will come to you. In Captain Phillips’ words, showjumping is the art of doing nothing, or more the art of looking like you are doing nothing! If you can get the canter the fences will come to you.
We next progressed to a related distance of a water tray (liverpool) on a dog leg related distance to a double. This was to highlight the need for a strong balanced canter in to the first fence. On my first attempt I didn’t maintain the drive round the corner, I then concentrated too much on the first fence instead of concentrating on the canter and looking to the next, and thus found myself without the necessary time or balance to make the turn to the double. On second attempt this time driving forward the canter through the corner and looking ahead it became a very easy exercise. Such a small change made a huge difference to the question and highlighted the importance of the canter at all times.
During the end of session questions the reasoning behind the rider who was asked to ride with her shoulders more forward was questioned further. Captain Phillips explained by having your shoulders forward showjumping you free the horse through its back and shoulder making it far less likely to touch a pole especially behind. He asked the rider if the horse normally jumped clear, to which she answered, no! Normally it hit fences behind, and this session was the cleanest it had jumped in some time. To prove the point Captain Phillips put up the oxer significantly higher and square and asked her to come down the related distance again in the forward seat, which the horse jumped perfectly, never in danger of hitting either rail.
There was further explanation of the canter, it must be forward and balanced with the horse’s head up. The rider sitting forward, driving forward and putting on more revs accelerating through a turn will allow the canter to have the necessary power and balance.
The final session involved more advanced riders competing at novice and above. The same themes from the earlier sessions were echoed with straightness, and forwardness key, but the group progressed quicker through the previous exercises and then moved on to more accuracy questions including moving from a spread to a corner on a turn.
One exercise used with this group was a wide oxer to encourage the horses to stretch through their backs. A pole was placed on the floor in the centre to stop the horses reading it as a bounce.
There was an emphasis on the need for adjustability of the canter. If starting in a near enough medium canter, you then have the ability to both shorten and extend from that canter instead of being stuck with limited options in a collected canter. When talking further about related distances Captain Phillips stated you must be able to react as soon as you land, not a stride afterwards. If you don’t then the distance will then become even harder as your first stride or two will not be in proportion to the rest. If you do go for the holding option you must still keep your leg on in order to maintain the horse’s balance.
At the end of the clinic there were further questions and one asked was what you would do with a careless showjumper. Reiterating the need to have a balanced and forward canter, and giving the horse the freedom to jump through it’s back, it would then depend on where the horse was hitting poles. If hitting below the coronet (so the hoof wall) then it was unlikely to be something that could be improved but if above it is something that could be worked on in various manners.
Lastly a question that related to spooky horses and managing them. Captain Phillips perhaps surprisingly loves a spooky horse, he said 99% times they are spooky as they are behind leg. When infront of the leg you have potential for a great horse as their brains are always switched on so can make ideal eventers.
To summarise the day the key themes were have your basics right, the horse must be straight and responsive off the leg, and the rider should be quiet with their hands and in a slight forward seat. There is no doubt there is a definite American feel to the style he was after but nothing wrong with that and if it works it works.
Since the clinic I have been channelling my inner Captain Mark Phillips and must say I am seeing a notable improvement in Bea’s way of going showjumping, still a lot of work to do but definite progress. There is another clinic planned in September and if I can I will be there riding again.