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HelmetEars Lecture/Demo with Sarah Stretton at Vale View on 16 November 2013


Sarah Stretton

Sarah was a very positive and encouraging instructor throughout. Our own Eventing Vet was one of the demo riders in the 2nd session over bigger fences.

Vale View was a super venue for this: there was a great variety of fences, the surface is fantastic and there’s lots of room, and, as you can see from the photos, it was as bright as daylight, so the horses were jumping confidently.

Huge thanks to Clare Stringer of BSF Eventing for organising the demo and allowing me to go along and do this report, and HelmetEars for supporting it.

Sarah stressed: Rhythm, riding forward, is the answer.

For 1 of the demo horses, a tizzy ex-racer, she advocated always using leg (the horse wanted the leg taken off), and getting it to settle in canter when it was being silly in walk and trot. This horse settled very quickly in canter.

She wanted: “the neck to relax more, and always ask more. More push to the canter. Then sitting more, then push on again”… “work a bit harder as a rider to get it.”

“Put the leg on and be sure to get a reaction.”

The initial grid was pole, bounce over X pole, 1 stride to pole, 1 stride to pole.

She reminded us that when you put a X pole up, always bring the wings in rather than just putting the cups higher!

“Guide and relax, guide and relax to the fence.” (particularly on the ex-racer)

Soften the hands if the horse is flighty/rushy.

“Use OUTSIDE aids and almost neck rein off the outside track to get straight to the grid” (which was across the diagonal).
“If the horse is not straight off the corner, all the power you’ve created to go forward/up goes out of the side door!”

“Push more if the horse is not looking for the next fence on landing” (in the grid, in this case).


The infamous Fugly on the left, with The Eventing Vet.

When the ex-racer got rushy, Sarah was quick to say “Don’t grab, don’t grab… let her go forward and learn.” In fact this paid off perfectly: the mare rushed, and tripped over the X pole, but picked herself up immediately and jumped through the grid fine… she made the mistake and she learnt from it, with no rider intervention. She became progressively more rideable through the session with this non-interfering way of being ridden.

“Relaxed arms, don’t take too much contact” (to the fence.)

With a big horse, the issue was control, and she wanted the rider using more outside leg.

If the horse raises its head (on the approach to a fence), allow with the hands, but don’t let the reins get too long.

“Ignore the head, come on, forward, guiding, guiding, guiding” after the horse rushed.

She was very keen to ride the horse forward in a good rhythm and NOT to micromanage the canter or the outline at all.

On an idle horse she advocated “Imagine him pulling you and you saying ‘no, wait a minute’.

“Don’t worry about his head, just push the leg into the hands, guide, nurse him round corners.”

At the slightest panic/pull from the rider, the head comes up, the horse inverts etc.

She liked the horses making mistakes here and there and learning.

“Open the rein, guide the shoulder round, then stay straighter. Open the hand in the air to indicate which leg to land on” and “As you land over a fence, use the left leg to turn left on the correct leg.”

She often asked riders to GUIDE rather than steer round corners, especially with a horse with a very sensitive mouth.

They played through the grid, then gradually raised the grid and added fences to the course. All horses grew in confidence as the session went on.

In the second, more experienced group, once they’d warmed up and jumped through the grid and over a few fences, she put up a row of three very small fillers as skinnies. They were only about 40cm high (so, small enough to hop from walk or a standstill) but also no more than about 50cm wide, on a 1 stride distance between them. They had no flags on and no poles down as tramlines, and there was quite a short turn to them, from the gallery end. All the horses were rather befuddled by this exercise, and it caused a lot of stops and run-outs, but they all got the idea eventually. She didn’t seem to mind the stops and run-outs, as long as the horses kept thinking forwards and eventually got the idea and jumped.

She was very hot, throughout, on the horse dropping its head and really LOOKING at the fences. She wants them to think, be quick on their feet and sort out where their feet are.

With the format, four horses going one at a time, the others standing still out of the way until their turn, it did show that “young horses switch off very easily”, something to beware of, make sure you have woken your horse up enough before commencing jumping again, in this sort of situation.

“When they’re really going forwards, you can adjust with the hand. If they’re going backwards, the hand is too shocking.”

It was very interesting to see a different way of training. I must admit that I personally prefer David O’Connor’s “Never surprise the horse, always always make it easy and clear for the horse” type of approach (I cannot imagine him ever building an exercise like that, which invites horses to stop and run out, even though the fences are tiny), but I can see the use of this sort of approach too.

All the horses grew in confidence and were jumping really well at the end. The format of doing the same course, slightly more difficult and longer each time, worked very well. I thought some horses might rush more because of the format but in fact they settled very well.

Huge thanks to Sarah for such an enjoyable and educational demo.








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  • Sarah sounds like a very modern and forward thinking trainer.

    I’m a great fan of building training fences that educate. I’m sure thats why the UK have so many superb 4* horses and riders. If youre going to have run outs and stops, best have them in the training arena. No point plastering over the cracks. Modern day events will find you out at all levels.

    Infact I’m actually suprised David O’Connor doesnt teach people to suprise their horses from time to time. I would say its a generational thing but having been to several of Lucinda Greens clinics, maybe not.

    Certainly food for thought. Well done Sarah and the team !

  • Good on Sarah for stepping away from the ‘lets pamper these riders egos’ by making it to easy for them and there horses .. All to easy to not push people in public .. I am sure these riders came away feeling they have learnt something about there horses and how they would have coped in the real world! I know at events they are not worried about giving you a nice long perfect approach to skinnys on the XC!!!!!
    It’s all to easy to say I can’t believe ‘they’ would have built that etc but to be fair to Sarah she is a top class and very current 4* event rider who know what it takes to get horses to the highest level and now a days horses have to be PREPARED to jump the un jumpable … My view is she was giving people a insight in what you have to do practice wise at home to prepare horses to jump fences that are ‘on’ a line … Good on her … It’s those sort of excises I do with my 4 years so they learn from day one to jump what’s in front of them and not question it .
    Phoebe Buckley

  • Hi, firstly thank you guys for your lovely comments about the demo. I really enjoyed it and hope everybody learnt something. What people must understand with the Xc lesson is that we only had a limited amount of time to cover a huge amount. I also wanted to show people how to cope/what to do if it goes wrong. There’s no point showing everybody the good side. On the Xc course or schooling at home in a huge field we are on our own and our reactions have to be lighting quick to counter act the horses first instinct. Also on this occasion it’s not always the horses fault. Many of the riders approach and speed, which wasn’t right so it was also a shock tatic to show them that they aren’t perfect or reacted in the right way or react quick enough. Plus to the other comments I was not out there to top up the riders egos!! It’s very easy to blame the horse every time.

    All instructers are never gospel or know everything. It’s up to every pupil/student etc to work out which or what process works for the horse there sat on. Every horse is a mystery and we have to work out what makes them tick. When you do the rosettes and prizes come flowing!!

    Thanks again everyone for coming and helping with the evening

    Sarah Stretton

  • Fantastic exicises shown there , that’s excatly how I would handle the situation if any of my horses behaved in the same way