Robyn Miller and I just returned from a three day clinic at the Rock Meadow Equestrian Center in Sammamish near Seattle, Washington. The clinic was organized by owner, Stephen DeRham, who has a wonderful heritage in the equestrian world. His mother, Glenna, a lifelong friend of George Morris, won the Maclay Finals and the Junior Hunter Championship at Madison Square Garden back in the day. Glenna and George grew up riding together at the Ox Ridge Hunt Club in Darien, Ct. In later years, while living on a ranch in Bozeman, Montana, Glenna hired local horseman, Buck Brannaman to start all of their young horses. This subsequently led to Glenna introducing George and Buck who became fast friends through their appreciation of quality horsemanship.
Ironically the premise of the clinics that Robyn Miller and I teach together is based upon the desire to connect the separate but intertwined worlds of horsemanship and the hunter/jumper discipline. As has been our practice for the past year, Robyn teaches the groundwork and initial flatwork to connect the identical exercises that she shares on the ground to those from the horse’s back. I then continue the work on the flat introducing poles on the ground and jumping exercises that connect the dots for people between the ground work and anything they wish to do with their horses once they are on their backs.
Prior to our clinic, the Seattle area received unprecedented rain which affected some of the riders planning to attend. They literally couldn’t ship their horses to the venue due to flooded roads. The soggy weather continued throughout the weekend but spirits and enthusiasm remained high. Robyn and I had such fun introducing riders to a concept that was completely new to many of them. Robyn demonstrates each groundwork exercise with one of the participant’s horses and then Robyn and I go around to each student to assist them in their practice and answer questions.
Through the groundwork we are able to give our horses a basic understanding of the meaning of the aids, which is the basis of communication for all riding disciplines. We try to keep the groundwork simple yet directly connected to the mounted work. Every exercise is repeated in each direction. We begin with lateral bending, then untracking of the hindquarter, backing up from in front of the horse and finally asking the horse to rock his weight back allowing him to reach with the outside front leg to continue on a united circle around the rider. As some of the horses may start off stiff and braced up, these 4 simple exercises help them begin to soften, find their balance when we are directing their feet and work equally off all 4 legs in a more relaxed and willing way. It also becomes a checklist to determine the horse’s readiness to ride before putting a foot in the stirrup!
Once the riders are mounted, they repeat the lateral bending, untracking and riding a united circle staying aware of their horse’s body and feeling for the timing required to find balance and accuracy in each exercise. We encourage riders to continuously ask (apply an aid) with quality, clarity and consistency, always releasing the pressure of the aid as soon as the horse responds. In this way the horse becomes lighter as he learns to “follow a feel” because there is always the promise of a release when his response is correct.
On the second and third days Robyn warms each group up with a short review of the groundwork and then the riders get on and repeat those exercises. They then advance to the short serpentine in a designated pattern around cones to check their horses lateral bending and suppleness on both sides moving forward. I continue the flatwork warm up combining lateral and longitudinal exercises to work on straightness, balance and adjustability. I then incorporate rails on the ground and low jumps with the circles, serpentines and straight lines.
Through all of the groundwork and flatwork , we are constantly working on the outside of the horse to get to the inside, his mind. Asking the horse to keep his mental and physical focus with us is the key to working together as one and builds the mutual confidence, trust and respect necessary for a true partnership. There will be so much to share as we go forward on our quest to help more horses by helping the people who ride and work with them. We appreciate the interest, try and desire demonstrated by our students each week and thank them for that. Our horses deserve the best we have to offer.
“The horse will teach us if we will listen.”