I wrote these recaps for USEA’s magazine this fall. They didn’t get published due to space constraints. I was waiting to post them, but since they likely won’t be published, I decided to post them here for my records. Enjoy!
Waredaca Expert Days – David O’Connor August 23 and Stephen Bradley October 5
By Lindsay Berreth
Riders from Beginner Novice through Preliminary enjoyed a beautiful afternoon clinic with Olympic gold-medalist, USEF president and future U.S. Eventing Team coach David O’Connor on August 23 at Waredaca Farm in Laytonsville, Md.
Farm owner Gretchen Butts began holding Expert Days clinics this year with top riders. So far, the likes of Leslie Law, Boyd Martin and Jimmy Wofford have brought out many riders eager to learn new cross-country and show jumping skills at Waredaca’s spacious facility. “It was an idea I came up with as an opportunity to supplement any rider’s education with some of the best in the area, our experts. Living in mecca land of eventing, riding with any of these people could be done by anyone, but to me it seemed to be an affordable way to get a sampling of what other expert opinions exist,” she said. “Each of the experts have their own unique style and way of sharing and we know that often it’s not ‘what is said, but how’ that can be an epiphany for many riders,” she said.
Gretchen, an upper level rider herself, had ridden with David earlier in her career and enjoyed his teaching style. “David is a long time part of the Waredaca family, having grown up here during his teenage years before heading off to the team. His mother Sally boarded and taught here for quite a few years in the mid 70’s. Sally, David and Brian [O’Connor, David’s brother] were Waredaca fixtures so to speak,” she said.
David taught five groups of three to four riders each in the arena. The Prelim/Training group was first to go. He began by asking about each horse and rider combination and then had them trot and canter over a single pole in jumping position. He wanted riders to focus on guiding their horses to the exact center of the pole and asked them to say out loud if they were straight, to the right or to the left. Because this group was more advanced, they were asked to regulate their horses’ tempos by posting “taller and slower”, then faster, then back to slower again. They repeated the exercise in canter over the pole, asking for more step, then less. David explained that it’s important to be able to use your leg differently to communicate clear differences, like slowing down, rebalancing or speeding up, to your horse. “Don’t settle with unclear transitions,” he said. The group progressed to cantering a vertical, seven strides to an oxer, then a one stride vertical-oxer to a six stride vertical, all while trying to keep the same tempo and balance, and jumping to the center of the fence. He recommended using the gaps in your show jumping course to make these corrections.
The last three groups were mixes of Novice and Training and Beginner Novice and Novice riders. They started out with the same pole exercise as the first group, making sure to jump the middle of it. That continued to a vertical. David pointed out that at the lower levels, you’re not testing the jumping ability of the horse. Their only responsibility is to jump the fence, so he insisted that if a horse stopped, that the rider keep them there, back up, then go forward to the fence. Particularly at the Beginner Novice level, horses can jump from a few trot steps easily, even if it’s awkward.
He explained the rider’s responsibilities are direction, speed, rhythm/balance and timing. If you have a bad fence, it’s usually because one of those went wrong, but rarely because of all of them at the same time.
- Direction – David encouraged riders to think of riding down a set of train tracks as they approach, take off and land from a jump. He said he thinks that way when he does transitions in flat work too. Always ask yourself if you took off and landed straight. If you don’t know that you did something wrong, how can you fix it? You need to notice the little things.
- Speed – Your rhythm should be the same, no matter your speed. Be done picking your speed six or seven strides away from a jump.
- Rhythm and Balance – This is not the same as speed. The canter has to have a metronome quality and evenness to it, but it’s also about the quality of the canter.
- Timing – Recognizing when the horse will take off. David doesn’t like the phrase “seeing or looking for a spot”. It’s more about knowing where to place the horse so they can take off at a good distance. He compared it to stepping off an airport walkway. You need to know where to put your feet.
In the end, David compared riding to driving a car. Even when you’re on your phone, daydreaming, changing the radio or messing with the temperature, you’re still driving the car by instinct. Ideally, you want to get your riding the same way.
Stephen Bradley –
Top rider Stephen Bradley worked on show jumping with Novice and Beginner Novice riders at the October edition of Waredaca’s Expert Days. He offered very personal instruction to groups of about four riders each, while allowing the horses to gain confidence over small gymnastics.
The groups began by trotting a cross rail without a placing pole. When some riders got left behind, Stephen encouraged them to have a softer arm in the air. He told them to focus on the tempo of the trot towards the jump. Once he added a placing rail, he asked riders to keep a slower trot so their horses could figure out their footwork. He reminded them that the takeoff is not the rider’s job.
He added a small bounce next, then an oxer one stride away. After some horses popped through quite awkwardly, he told riders to ride a straight line like they were on a balance beam and make sure to sit up sooner after the last jump. Stephen asked riders to canter through the gymnastic next. When some horses got deep, he was still happy if they stayed in the same canter rhythm. The groups carried over this concept to a four-stride line, then a course which included a skinny and a roll
back. Riders were told to recognize quickly what they needed to do after each jump (lead changes, more canter, etc.). They ended the session by cantering to the gymnastic they started with; an oxer, one stride to a bounce, then one stride to another oxer. “Your job as a rider is to keep your horse straight and balanced in the right canter,” said Stephen.