As you may have seen from the preview on Sunday, this weekend I was lucky enough to attend a Hawley Bennett clinic hosted at my barn. I was also dying of jealousy, as I decided quite a while ago not to ride in the clinic (because cash and credit cards are different things and car registration and insurance and thanks a lot adulthood), and as soon as I saw the course and saw the first group to go I knew that I wanted to ride with Hawley. Luckily for us, I will get to ride with Hawley, as she comes back up to this area every month or so.
Saturday dawned a bit drizzly and cloudy, but not too bad, unfortunately it was California’s first rainy weekend since Christmas. Hawley started out all the groups with one of her favourite exercises: 4 jumps equidistant on a circle. The course we had been sent the night before consisted of this circle (with a 20-stride circumference) at one end of the arena, a 6-stride to 2-stride combo down one long side and a 4-stride to 2-stride down the other, and a criss-crossing 4-stride and one-stride in the middle. I’ve never seen so many standards in the arena. I knew some of my friends would be pooping their pants, but I wanted to jump it sooooooooooo bad.
The key to the first exercise was to ride a consistent canter. Consistently, when horses made six strides in one quarter of the circle, the rider pushed and only made four in the next quadrant. Instead, Hawley said, if you continue to hold and manage the quality of the canter, you can get five all around. The striding on the circle wasn’t perfect, but Hawley just made one small adjustment and demanded that the riders “make it happen” for the rest of the imperfections.
Hawley always discussed with riders how they would ride into a line, what type of canter they would be trying to achieve, or how they would half-halt their horses. Even though some people struggled to put into words something they more intuitively understood, I thought this was a fantastic strategy. As you have probably guessed, words are important to me, and I think that being able to verbalize what you can just do with your body gives you a better understanding of it. Maybe I’m wrong, who knows.
As riders moved out to the other lines, Hawley always had them start and end their course on the circle exercise. She put the jumps up from 6” verticals to 12” or 18” depending on the group’s experience level, to keep things easy but the horses thinking. The really cool thing about this exercise was that it really forced riders to think about their pace before and after the course, and make adjustments immediately. Hawley demanded precision from every rider, no matter what their group. You couldn’t just ride the lines any old way, you had to do it Hawley’s way: straight, in the right number of strides, with good transitions and good turns. If your horse came out of the circle a little collected and you were going to make seven in the six stride line, Hawley wanted you to feel that immediately and adjust accordingly.
One thing I noticed is that Hawley didn’t pick on anybody’s equitation unless it was really impeding their riding, and her main comments remained the same from rider to rider: sit tall, shoulders back, follow your horse. She didn’t want people going to their hands to half halt, she wanted everybody to be able to half halt with just their seat and legs, and she insisted that people keep leg on during the half halts, so as not to lose impulsion. On both the circle exercise and the lines, it became clear that when riders dropped their legs off their horse’s sides, they were more likely to get some kind of weird spot or striding, which was kindof duh but caught a lot of riders out. So when you need to add, keep your leg on so you’re committed, and if you need a bigger stride, also keep that leg on.
One group was populated with riders who were struggling in some way with their horses, either through lack of confidence on behalf of the horse or rider, or simply inexperience. The way Hawley handled them really proved her value and skill as an instructor. She didn’t let them get away with anything, but upped the support and encouragement, and insisted that these riders get the technical aspects of the course (albeit lowered) done as well. Hawley also spent time troubleshooting specifics of these riders problems, be it stopping, running out, rushing, or refusing to move forward, but all of these solutions came back to riding correct basics. Instead of barreling down to a problem fence, Hawley had riders take a calm, collected canter or collected trot to the obstacle. The horses could even stop if they wanted, what they couldn’t do was turn away, and in turn every horse jumped over any jump that was a problem. If they chose to trot, it had to be a collected trot, not a disorganized, leg-flinging, rider-disobeying trot. To help their horses out, Hawley made sure that the riders were following with soft, quiet hands, keeping their upper body in a position that didn’t block the shoulders or the back, and stayed with their horses.
Go baby, go!
Hawley also helped a rider whose horse was far, far too excited about getting to jump and insisted on doing things his way. She had the rider flex and counter-flex her mount at the trot and canter until he relaxed, and only then could he head to the jumps. The circle exercise was especially useful for this feisty guy, because he really couldn’t just bolt with those poles in the way, and was forced to regulate himself a bit more.
Nobody was exempt from Hawley’s precision and cutting commentary — even my trainer was challenged to ride better. And the second day just got more exciting! Look for day two in another post, as this one’s quite long already, but here are all my Hawley snippets from day one.
Hawley was convinced this horse was a 4* horse in his former life
Would that transition be good enough in dressage?
Keep your legs on and your reins short
Don’t barrel down to the last fences, you are so excited and think you’re doing well, but don’t forget 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 the legs to get the deep spot
Land, put your legs on, rock them back
Don’t let your reins get long and your elbows behind you
The worse the footing is the more leg and connection you need
It’s good practice riding a tired horse
If your horse drifts left, put more left leg on, not just your lower leg but also you though. Drop your left hip bone and push him over
Don’t run your horse of his feet
Keep looking to the next
Take your time, you can’t fix it by running at it. Create the canter that’s forward but blazoned. If you run him to a dead distance he will slam on the brakes.
Bringing your hips in is especially important on these racehorses. If you swing your butt out your not going to get your lead.
Think of this as warm up, make him soft and round
Counter bend for softness