train ’em up

There has been a consistent theme through all the Hawley clinic’s I’ve attended — and not just themes I’ve written about explicitly, like precision, rhythm, or strong basics.  Something a little more hard to put my finger on.

For example, one of my lesson mates biffed the approach to an oxer and hit it on an odd stride, but her horse went and even if he didn’t do it perfectly, he did it. Hawley was like good!, you did it.  When another rider said she didn’t think she could do the angle because her horse was so green, Hawley didn’t accept it (and with the right ride, the horse did the angle just fine).  When I couldn’t seem to get a rhythm or the correct lead on the circle of death, Hawley didn’t want me to break out of the exercise to fix things, but to fix them from within the circle.

WHYYY did i not train him to do this on purpose?

And to all of these small mistakes she said “there’s no other way, but to train them up”.

I didn’t hear Hawley give a long explanation for this, though I think I’ve heard her do so in the past (and stupidly didn’t write about it! wtf past Nicole?!?!).  This statement seems to be a bit of the riff on the old “if you’re not making mistakes, you are not doing anything / trying hard enough / learning / pushing yourself.”  Sure, we want to train our horses to be better, smarter, quicker, stronger, cleverer.  But if we only ever put them in situations where they will never have to  be better, smarter, quicker, stronger, or cleverer, they will never learn to how to become those things.

By extension, it means that if we aren’t giving ourselves opportunities to fail, we will never become better, smarter, quicker, stronger, or cleverer.  An interesting corollary to screwing up with confidence.

Along with this, I noticed that Hawley  has a different attitude towards horses than many of her students (clinic students?) seem to.  When we did screw up, she applauded us for committing, and frequently told us to pat our horses and make a big deal over them when they made the correct choices.  That wasn’t really new.  But when someone apologized to her and said she felt so terrible making her horse put up with her (admittedly very honest and reasonable) mistakes, HB was like “So? Give him an extra handful of grain tonight. That’s what you have him for.”


I’ve not attended a lot of clinics with big name trainers, olympians, or fancy riders, so I’m not sure if this is pervasive in the professional levels, though I imagine to some extent it must be.  And this is also not to say, in the least way, that she is not a kind, respectable, incredibly savvy horsewoman and rider.  Just that, perhaps, being all of those things on a professional level means that you cannot necessarily afford all the soft squishiness that tends to accompany amateur riders.  It’s a little less “this hairy beast is my whole heart” and a little more “we have a working relationship”.

But it’s true!  We have this giant, expensive, oversized pets to have fun and learn on.  If I’m doing those two things, what am I doing this for?  I feel far more awful when I’ve been making mistakes of hubris with Murray, like pushing him for something I thought we should be ready to achieve “just because”, than when I make an honest mistake, like riding him in a saddle that didn’t really fit for a year.  And as much as I appreciate his quirkiness and silliness and the feeling of connection we have both in the tack and out, he’s not the shoulder-to-cry-on-best-friend-through-thick-and-thin that some people profess their horses to be.

broseph just isn’t that into cuddling

I’m not trying to be more like Hawley or distance myself from my horse thinking that it makes me a better or more accomplished rider. (OKAY YOU CAUGHT ME I’M ALWAYS TRYING TO BE MORE LIKE HAWLEY!) But it is interesting to think about where, on the relationship spectrum, Murray falls in my life.  He’s no Ellie, that’s for sure, but I value him more than I do my chickens.  (A lot more, and not just because of price/size/weight.)  I will never, ever be able to sell him, but that’s not really because of our relationship… But I don’t want to, either, because I value our partnership and everything he has to teach me.

I do want to know where you fall on the spectrum — from “pony would sleep in my bed every night if I could” to “this is nothing more than a business arrangement” — and how you think it influences your riding.

hawley clinic: rhythm and pace

The Hawley clinic was, as in past years, super fantastique.  I was a little apprehensive getting started because of Murray’s Friday antics, but I shouldn’t have worried too much.  Even if Murray didn’t settle (he did), Hawley had a sunny attitude about his silliness and laughed both with us and at us.  While I appreciate the seriousness and advice of people like Yves and Chris Scarlett, I also really valued Hawley’s advice on how to get the best out of Murray in a show environment and keep riding through the antics to keep making it about learning.


We started, of course, with a circle of death.  Actually, we started by telling Hawley about our ponies.  I was in a group with two friends, one riding her young gelding, and the other catch riding.  I told Hawley that Murray and I have been fighting about basics lately since I’m bad at being strict about them, and therefore we slip easily.  Great! she said. Today will be all about the basics!


The circle of death was a tough one.  Much more of an ovoid-of-death, we were literally limited in our space by a fence that Hawley was sitting on.  No worries, girls, just don’t smash into the Olympian. No problem.  Murray couldn’t get it together to start with, flipping his tail and cross cantering and counter cantering and doing anything but cantering right, really.  Hawley was insistent that we stick to the track — horses learn by repetition, so you must keep repeating the correct exercises so they understand.  But I had to get off the track one time to get Murray moving forward and cantering properly.  Left was much better.

Next was an exercise of three step poles (9 ft apart) to a small vertical, three strides away, then straight down to the end of the arena before a left or right turn (alternating).  Hawley asked us what 9 ft step poles meant.  I said that it would mean pushing Murray forward, but the other girls were pretty confident they could just canter through.  Hawley reminded us: “And what is a horse’s stride length? So this will be a little bouncy for them.”  This was where Murray’s sassitude really came out.  He hadn’t quite worked out all the kinks in his back, evidently, and bucked all over the straight aways and tried to use any distracted to bubble out to the right.

hawley01working out the kinks

I kicked him pretty hard in the side to push him off of my right leg at one point.  Instead, Hawley suggested that I get off his back and focus on pushing him forward, and not pull on his face.  “So he’s feeling good,” she said. “You can still do the exercise. And then we keep doing it until that tail settles down and he can get through it steady and with rhythm.”  Steady + rhythm were very much the theme of the day.

On our third go through the poles-jump-jump exercise Murray just couldn’t contain himself and tried to buck right in front of the oxer.  The jump snuck up on him and he had to pop his feet down for a second to get us over, but he did it.  I’m so glad he knows how to get out of his own way.  I just wish he would use those powers for good a little bit more?

We built up the course to include a couple of sharply angled lines, between the center fence and the two fences of the circle of death (see above).  The angle was made challenging by the arena wall right there on the outside of the fences, and the fact that it was a mere two strides (four for extra special ponies named Murray) between the two fences.

Hawley reminded us to sit tall but not too deep on the approach to the angle, fix our sights on a point on the wall, and leg up to the fences.  She demonstrated how even a few inches of differences in shoulder position could affect the ride (though also claimed that you could fake it through Intermediate, so YAY for us leaners?), and told us to keep sitting really, really tall.  To a rider in an earlier group I heard her describe it as keeping more air between your chest and the horse’s neck, which is a great image.

Murray rode through the angle well the first time, but in the other direction saw the ground poles on the other side of the fence and objected mightily.  Hawley had me hold the line and then kick forward over the fence.  That is one amazing thing about little fences — you can walk right over them!  Murray didn’t love it, but he’s pretty familiar with the “go over this from a stand still” routine so he went.

 hawley04 hawley05
woooahhhh! oh fine then

As we moved through the courses Hawley started pushing us to get the correct striding between fences. She wanted five from vertical to oxer and down to the next vertical, and seven on the opposite line.  After a gentle tap with the crop to remind him that it was there, Murray was very responsive to my leg and moved up to the fences.  Murray got a little wiggly to one oxer and the barrels the first time around, but I kept my leg on and he went.  Hawley encouraged me to push him forward to them more.  The first time I tried this I still instinctively held for the shorter stride, but the second time I really pushed Murray into a forward but not rushed canter and the lines worked out perfectly.

All in all, another great day, and I’m very glad the lessons weren’t cancelled for rain.  Murray stepped up and worked hard after a bit of a doofy start, and I felt like I rode better and better through each course.  Though the fences were small, I think I would have felt confident moving them up, even a foot, with how well Murray was listening.

I’m realizing now that all the media I’m posting is us being at least a little dweeby, but it’s all about transparency, right?  I swear some of our efforts were solid.

Hawley Bennet clinic 2-25 from Nicole Sharpe on Vimeo.

Hawley Bennett clinic, day two

Day two with Hawley was just as educational as day one, and in some ways more educational for me, as Murray challenged me more, in some of the ways I have recently been struggling with, and a little bit in new ways.

helicopter tail
please enjoy Murray’s helicopter tail over the white gate

Hawley changed the course up from the day before, adding in a little ditch made with poles and a tarp, and a corner filled with a couple of tires.  There were also some scary oxers and a bounce, though I did not get to ride it.  We warmed up again over the trot and canter poles, this time with a bit less guidance from Hawley and a general expectation that we would be able to find a good pace and stick with it.  Hawley urged me to find the 18-stride canter (of the prior day’s circle exercise) as the canter with enough power and movement to get us successfully through a course.

tranter(Murray: how do I approach poles again?)

On day two our course started with canter poles to a little oxer, which Murray attacked the first time with the gusto of someone really not sure they are interested in eating the food put ahead of them.  He stuttered through the poles, downshifted to a trot, and then the good boy launched himself over the oxer anyway.  Once again straightness was an important theme – Hawley had us go to the end of the arena between the bounce before making a left turn to wrap back around to another fence.  Next up was the bending line from the oxer to the right, all the way around to the opposite vertical, and then back up the oxer line to do the same thing in the opposite direction.

tranter2Textbook tranter. Magnificent. Literally, trotting in the front, cantering in the back.

We also schooled the tarp ditch by first walking the horses past it and bending them away from the opposite direction so they could look but not LOOK at the ditch, and then trotted up and over the ditch with no problem.  We added a fence two strides after the ditch, and then jumped the two of them after the skinny natural oxer.  The first time around Murray made it in 8.5 strides, so Hawley asked us what the plan was for the next go around.  I pushed for 8, and while we did it, it was ugly, and 9 would have worked better (which we accomplished handily for the following rounds).


All of this was fine, as it was when we added in the skinny natural oxer to the left.  But when we came down one of the oxer lines to a panel we have jumped about 40 times before Murray was like NO WAI GEORGE.  I’ve watched the video in slow motion several times and managed to isolate just the moment when he stops moving his front feet but still has the momentum from behind carrying him – it’s quite entertaining really.  I have seen Hawley deal with horses stopping before, so gave Murray the opportunity to walk right up to the fence and stand there for a moment, which is exactly what Hawley directed me to do.  Only, Murray didn’t want to stand up at the fence and look into the face of the paint and wood of his shame, he was worked up and wanted to dance around and back up and go anywhere but to the fence.   Hawley made me just keep sitting there and talking to him until Murray settled enough that we could back up and then jump the fence from a trot.

stop2You expect me to WHAT?

After we got over the panel once more Hawley pointed out that Murray clearly knows he’s supposed to be going over the fences – he punished himself for not jumping the fence by getting all worked up and miserable.  So I just have to keep my cool and build his confidence a bit more, and not let him get so fast and on the forehand that he feels like a jump comes up on him before he can get a good enough view of it.  Understandably, after this reasonable and compassionate chat about my horse stopping I burst into tears because equestrian crybaby.  I’m not actually sure what set me off, but I think the emotional high of the day before to the crushing defeat of Murray refusing over such a ridiculous obstacle got to me.  Hawley kindly ignored my sniveling until it was my turn to ride again and I could get myself back together.


(Olympian points to the super easy section of fence she wants bad pony to jump.)

Our next set of fences involved the ever-terrifying tire corner, which I (thought) I gave a good go right up until Murray was like “FUCK NO LADY” once more.  I honestly anticipated that, though, given his spookiness earlier in the lesson and his general distaste for tires.  Hawley basically had to break the fence down to poles on the ground for Murray to even consider going, but after that he was pretty honest (until we changed direction).  All in all it wasn’t until we’d had about 5 refusals at the same fence that Hawley was like “okay, that was him!” when I was ready to give up and beat the boy 2-3 stops earlier.  Interestingly (or not interestingly because she doesn’t abuse her horse the way I abuse Murray?) she never told me to give him a smack with the whip (at least not for this, only to encourage him to be more forward in different circumstances), just to keep my leg on and ride.  However, once we’d gotten over the damned tires in both directions we were golden.  I later asked her if she thought that showing Murray the tires to start off with would have given a different outcome and she frankly responded “No, you just needed to sit up and put your leg on.”  After a bit of pouting about that (and some reflection thanks to adult camp weekend), I do agree.


As always, Hawley demanded correctness and called you on your shit without being rude, mean, or harsh.  She wasn’t going to let me get away with bad pace or not riding forward to a fence, even though I could do the rollbacks and was relatively straight, any more than she would let my group-mates get away with too-long reins or right-drifting jumps.  She was unerringly cheerful and positive, and paid absolute attention to her students.  She is liberal with praise but also free to encourage you to correct the things that need changing.  And it doesn’t hurt that in lots of my videos you can hear her saying “good job” or “great ride”.

trotIf you have the chance and the means to lesson with Hawley DO IT.  Audit if you don’t.  I learned as much as an auditor last year as I did this year as a rider, and working with her definitely changed the way I’m approaching fences.  It really added a valuable element of understanding to my riding and now I’m side-eyeing more clinics she’s holding in our area an wondering if or when my financial situation will be able to manage it.

(PS look at that insanely adorable trot I got out of Murray like four times during the clinic!)

Hawley Bennett clinic, day one

IMG_6458On March 26-27 my barn hosted Hawley Bennett for a jumping clinic, so of course I had to join in after I had such an outrageously good time auditing last year and immediately vowed to myself that I would ride with her at the next available opportunity.  It also helped that March 27th is Murray’s birthday, so what better present for the birthday boy than to ride with an Olympian? None. The answer is none.

Hawley was just as forthright, focused, and fun as I remember her being, and the fact that she said my horse was cute and should be competitive was a pretty big plus.  But let’s start at the beginning.

With all groups, Hawley started out with pole work.  Nobody was exempt from trotting poles set on a circle (two steps apart), not even the babies who may not have trotted poles in a while.  I watched the groups ahead of me and tried to soak in the advice, as I mostly put Murray over straight poles not curved poles.  The most valuable piece of advice that I heard was to keep my hips pointed in the direction I wanted to go — i.e. AROUND the circle.  Thus, when I got into the circle exercise I kept pointing my hips around the circle and Murray just turned through the trot poles like we trot poles on a circle every day of our lives.  In reality it was like attempt number one.  Cue pride.  And if you press play, you can hear Hawley layering it on too (spoiler alert: I was WILDLY proud of Murray during this clinic and Hawley did nothing to stop me from being so!).

Hawley Bennett clinic – trot poles from Nicole Sharpe on Vimeo.

We moved from there to canter the poles and Hawley expected us not only to get one stride over the poles, but to get the same number of strides around the circle each time too.  Headed left Murray demonstrated his incredible rideability and awesome steadiness by getting an easy 18 each time.  To the right I struggled a little more and got 20, 16, and then finally 18.  Much of this was the shape of the circle (I let him fall out to the left and then pushed in too far to the right), but also spoke to Murray’s weakness tracking right.  Fortunately for me since Murray got the exercises pretty quickly I had plenty of horse left for the funner stuff.

hawley courseAs last year, the course consisted of some kind of ovoid-of-death to lines across the diagonal and on the vertical, which Hawley had walked and wanted us to get pretty precise striding to.  Hawley had even pulled out some weird, scary filler which I was a bit worried about, but planned on just riding to and not making excuses for myself.

Our first task was to ride the oval at the end with six strides between each of the two fences, and a steady thirteen along the long side.  Once we had accomplished this we added in our first oxer (the pink, I know not an oxer in this image), in six but I rode it in eight at first (crooked and spooky pony), then all the way around to the three stride (four my first go around) green-blue line and back to the ovoid of death in six.  The key was to ride forward and evenly.  Despite making a big deal about the striding, Hawley said she actually didn’t mind that Murray kept wanting to add — as long as we rode forward to the add.  I wasn’t allowed to let Murray back off to add strides, I had to keep my leg on and push him forward.  Hawley likened the strategy to one she took with her former horse Bodark (not an almost-comparison I mind!), who would balance himself up and add add add in to a fence, but would go as long as she kept her leg on.

IMG_6530This picture tickles me

We rode different combinations of the lines, always starting or ending with the ovoid of death.  Hawley increased the difficulty based on the weaknesses of the horses in the group — so for right drifters, she added in a hard left turn from the pink “oxer” to the three stride line in the back, and then 90 degree left turn to the four stride line.  Murray is not a right drifter, but my lack of planning and excitement at getting through combinations occasionally bit me in the ass as I did not prepare for the next line. So instead of getting excited about jumps I’ve already completed I need to remember to keep my mind on the task at hand — i.e. the jumps I still have left!

IMG_6766Look at us jump 2′ oxers! wheeeeeeeeeee kings of the world!

I was really proud of Murray’s rideability during the whole clinic — we could take pretty much any corner, and he responded to me putting my leg on either side with great reasonability, even if he didn’t get all the way over when I needed him to.  The only thing I was a little disappointed by was the jump size — Murray’s and my problems increase as the jumps go up, so I would really have liked to problem solve over bigger fences.  But in all honesty, it was probably good the jumps were small because it meant that I could easily kick Murray up to anything even remotely scary, and when I pushed for a long spot it wasn’t an issue.  And honestly, if I couldn’t perform the exercises accurately over 2′-2’3″, I’m not sure that trying anything higher would have been productive.

IMG_6712At least we can still jump!

I also worked pretty hard on my own position during the clinic, and am proud to report that I didn’t let my reins get too long or get picked on by Hawley for my reins, or my leg, or my upper body.  Not bad for seven rides all March prior to the clinic!

Hawley Bennett Clinic: Day 2

Unrelated foreword: I am experiencing my first mystery pony health issue.  Murray walked off the trailer yesterday (he spent the weekend at my trainer’s house to make space for some horses sleeping over for the clinic, and ideally to do hills but then it poured for three days) with a puffy left knee.  It’s not hot, it’s not painful, and he’s not lame, it’s just…. bigger and squishier than it should be.  There’s no puncture wound or kick mark or bruise even (no painful spots, that is), so our best guess is that he just bumped it on and now it’s swollen and stocking up thanks to being stuck without turnout for the last two nights.  So I’ve been hand walking and lunging to get the blood moving and try to help the swelling go down, but avoided riding in case he trips.  Tomorrow I’ll ice it, but I refuse to cold hose in a drought.  If you happen to have any suggestions on this front, let me know!

IMG_2700Hawley teaching in the rainy rain rain

Saturday night we went out to dinner with Hawley where she revealed to us how much she loves eating (a lot) and how she got into eventing (because her dad said she’d never make the Olympics with horses!).  Hawley also told us about Hank (Livingstone), her first advanced horse, who ran advanced for 11 years, and some of the practices she used to keep him sound for all that time.  One thing she suggested was ice and bute after every jump school, just to help keep things cool and tight in the tendons.  She also talked about presentation at her barn.  Hawley believes that everyone should be turned out well at all times, and pointed out that even though she didn’t always have the nicest tack or horses or outfits, sponsorship companies have approached her for a long time because of the way she presents herself.  As someone who is moving from dressing pretty slap-dash for riding to trying to be a bit neater and more presentable on the every-day, this was definitely good for me to hear.  And she was just as lovely, funny, and friendly at dinner as she had been in lessons!

2-8 hbSunday dawned with pouring rain and a new course in the indoor, but Hawley was chipper as ever despite the change from her usual southern California climes.  Instead of the circle exercise, Hawley had set bending lines crossing the arena, which walked out to 4 or 7 strides.  One of these lines started with a one-stride grid dead-center in the arena, which meant a tight 12-meter circle to approach it properly.  There was also a faux-ditch and coffin complex set just three strides and a 90 degree right turn from one of the skinnies.  Hawley added placement poles before and through the grid to get riders keeping that consistent canter, because evidently horses (and riders!) tend to want to rush through grids.  We pulled out some of the lookier jumps and filler to give horses and riders a bit more of a challenge and there were way more refusals Sunday!

Hawley also presented the horses to a skinny fence (a 4-foot flower box and one of our broken poles atop it) and had all the riders do the same thing for the first presentation.  Riders trotted down to the box, walked, and halted all with good contact.  Then they had to reinback a few steps, halt again, and turn sharply away.  Hawley said that this does several things: it gives your horse a chance to look at the jump if they need to, puts you in the upright, halt position you need to jump a skinny, and doesn’t show your horses the runout option because you don’t turn them away from the fence.


Once again, everyone really had to focus on striding and pace in the exercise, and Hawley insisted on good turns and full use of the arena.  The riders started out with easier exercises, riding the easy four from the grid to the skinny or the seven from the skinny to the oxer.  Then things got interesting – Hawley had riders make eight strides from the oxer to the skinny specifically so they could turn right into the coffin in just three strides.  Out of the coffin they had to rollback left, and pick up the pace to make seven strides back from the skinny to the oxer.  Hawley could tell immediately if a horse’s canter was too big or too small to make the striding she wanted, and encouraged riders to make changes early, in particular adding energy to the canter so that they had something to package later.  The last, and most challenging exercise, was a twisty course from the blue oxer, three strides to the skinny, three strides to the coffin, then a left rollback and back from the skinny to the oxer.  Once again, Hawley insisted people “make it happen!”

IMG_3167Hawley and her favourite horse of the weekend!

While these exercises weren’t necessarily ones you will have to deal with in stadium or cross country (at least not at the lower levels!), Hawley pointed out that it’s extremely valuable to have the options open to you.  You should be able to add or leave out strides if you need to, ride a good corner or cut it and stay balanced, and make tight turns when you need to.  You need to know when to balance the canter up or stretch it out, and how to approach different types of obstacles.  In one of Hawley’s early training sessions with Buck Davidson, Buck had all the riders ride entire courses in counter-canter instead of asking for the changes.  It forced all the riders to stay really still as the upper-level horses would change immediately upon feeling a shift of weight, and fascinatingly, none of them had rails.  Because the change encourages the horses to lengthen the canter, it was more likely that the horses would jump flat after a change, on the counter canter they could regulate their pace better.


Day 2 Hawley Wisdom

To refresh horses on skinnies trot, walk, halt in front of the jump, rein back, then trot to the jump. Don’t turn her away in front of the jump because that shows them the runout.

Runouts  are your fault, stops are your horses fault.

If you need to compress give yourself some energy to package first. If you package too early and run out of energy then you’re going to think oh crap and push at the end.

Make the canter bouncy!

Oh, and my favourite Hawley tidbit?  If your horse can buck, he can jump.  If he can get his feet five feet up in the air, you know he can jump that high.

Thanks so much for an amazing weekend, HB!

Hawley Bennet Clinic Preview

My barn is hosting Hawley Bennett for a clinic this weekend, and after a full day with her, can I just say that I love this woman!!!!!!

Hawley is precise, positive, discerning, cheerful, creative, and understanding.  She cut to the quick of a bunch of different riders’ and horses’ issues within minutes of seeing them ride, and always had a way to help them through them.  I will post a full clinic report next week, but here’s some quotes and gems from the first day.


Would that transition be good enough in dressage?

Keep your legs on and your reins short!

Don’t let yourself barrel down to the last fence!  You get so excited that you’re done with a course that you just gallop down to that last fence and have a rail or a run out.  Ride the last fence.


If she can buck, she’s behind your leg.

Bring your hip in over the jumps to help him get his lead.

To collect, sit up, don’t go to your hands.


Close your legs to get the deep spot.

Land, put your legs on, and rock them back.

Don’t let your reins get long and your elbows get behind you.


Bad footing isn’t an excuse. If you want perfect footing, go to the hunter ring.  The worse the footing is, the more connection and leg you need.

Don’t run your horse off his feet.

Keep looking to the next!


Bringing your hips in is especially important on racehorses. If you swing your butt out, you’re not going to get your lead.