Riders who compete in Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA) and varsity equestrian shows know that they will be entering the ring for most or all of their classes on horses they've met for the first time just a few minutes earlier. There is no pre-class warmup period in which to get acquainted.
So the program of a successful coach like Lori Cramer, who was Findlay's head coach for English riding before relocating to Ohio State University in 2003, is designed to give riders the tools to make the best of a new partnership.
Equitation, Empathy, Focus
Lori's system is three-pronged.
Equitation: Developing a secure seat with effective but invisible aids.
Empathy: Tuning in to why a horse goes the way he does (for example, crooked or tight in his back) and knowing the correct aids to improve him. "Horses get better only through understanding. The key to doing well at IHSA competitions is looking at each horse and figuring out what he needs; that's the rider's job," says Lori, herself a Findlay program graduate.
A horse that pulls or builds up speed, for instance, may be out of balance. Instead of resisting him with rigid hands, she tells riders, try to help him balance himself: "Wait with your upper body--drawing your shoulders back--and put your leg on."
Focus: Blocking out show nerves to concentrate on and deal with the needs of the horse.
Communication, Not Demands
Team practice is a busy time, but heavy traffic is actually a training tool, Lori says. Ten or 15 riders in the arena learn to use their eyes, think ahead, and keep riding while planning their next move--a must in the show ring. And the actual practice exercises, designed with IHSA competition's unique challenges in mind, develop technique that works through understanding, communication and subtle rather than "noisy" aids.
Basic strength training: Effective hunter seat equitation (the judging standard for IHSA classes) begins with a secure seat and leg, the strong base that enables riders to use a soft arm and hand confidently and give a sympathetic ride to a variety of horses.
Think, feel, react: From the moment practice begins, riders field questions. "How does your horse feel in your hand? Is he balanced? You don't think so? Why? How do you fix it? What's his expression like right now and what does it tell you? He's swishing his tail; what do you think is the reason?" As well as helping riders tune in to their horses more acutely instead of just riding around, the dialogue encourages them to think and react as they're responding--all without freezing up.
Refine the aids: Flat riders in both walk-trot (Novice) and walk-trot-canter divisions (Intermediate and Open) work intensively on transitions and on changes of pace within the gait.
Tune jump schools to competition: The elements of a good jumping round, says Lori, are correct pace, a quality canter, straightness and a good track to the jumps--all achieved with quiet, almost invisible aids. "Playing" within the canter helps team riders learn to feel and establish good pace and a quality gait.
Next (a tie-in to going on course in competition after minimal warm-up), riders jump a single fence back and forth once, then jump a single fence to a line. This exercise requires tuning in to the horse's jumping style on the basis of two jumps, recognizing and establishing the pace needed to get down the line, and adjusting the canter accordingly.
Another frequent exercise is a deceptively simple gymnastic that emphasizes getting results with quiet, subtle aids. Riders trot in over the first fence, canter four strides to the second, then halt on a straight line after the jump. For a straight, quiet halt, the rider must balance the horse between fences and slow, then stop him after the second jump by bringing her shoulders back, sinking toward the saddle, and using half-halts. This exercise doesn't reward those who sit down hard and brace against the reins after the second jump. "We're teaching riders to use their aids to communicate with the horse, rather than demands," says Lori.
Under Lori's program, Findlay's IHSA Hunter Seat team won the 2001 National Championship title, finished fifth in 2002 and won the Reserve National Championship title in 2003. In 2004, Ohio State's equestrian team was the Zone 6 champion.
Adapted from the article "Coaching to 'Get On and Show'" in the December 2002 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.