Wellington, Fla. – Eleven young athletes had the opportunity to work with some of the country’s most accomplished equestrians at the in-person session of the 2022 USEF Horsemastership Training Series held January 7-9 in Wellington, Fla. The training session started with a flatwork demonstration and lesson with Anne Kursinski. The following day, they navigated gymnastics exercises with Lauren Hough. The training session concluded with riding a two round, Nations Cup style course under the coaching of Laura Kraut.
These three Olympic veterans have a massive depth of knowledge to share with the athletes as well as viewers who watched the sessions on USEF Network. Here are a few of the takeaways from this year’s training session.
1. Create connection from back to front.
“Flatwork is all about the connection, from back to front,” Anne Kursinski said at the start of her flatwork demonstration with a young jumper named Bernie, owned by Double C Sporthorses. “My basic position is a little light contact with the mouth, asking him to be a little round and accept the bit starting out, back to front. The reason for that is the horse’s energy is in his hind legs for jumping and everything you do.”
Throughout her ride, Kursinski guided Bernie through lateral exercises such as leg yields and shoulder-ins. She likens these strengthening exercises for horses to cross-training at the gym or doing Pilates for riders. Building that back-to-front connection will improve the horse’s self-carriage and make him a more capable athlete over fences.
“The lateral exercises develop their hind end,” she explained. “Their engine is in their hind legs. [In a leg yield] it’s inside leg to outside rein, and I can give a little after that and he wants to stretch down, connecting him from the back to the front.”
2. Develop body control.
“For riding, the first thing is self-awareness. If you can’t control your own position, good luck controlling the horse,” said Kursinski, adding that athletes need to know what their hands, legs, eyes, and weight are doing at all times while riding. Being aware of what your own body is doing will also help you understand and effectively guide your horse’s body.
“Does your horse have a big stride or a short stride? Is he weaker on one side or the other? Is he crooked or is he straight, and is that from you or is that your horse? Pay attention. You need that awareness and listening to your horse,” she said.
3. Riding is a conversation with your horse.
“What’s fun about riding is the feeling; it’s not just black and white,” said Kursinski. “When I’m riding, I’m carrying on a conversation with my horse by increasing and decreasing my aids. That’s how they know what you want and what you don’t want. I think I have a good position, so hopefully I’m not giving him mixed messages with my balance. And as soon as he answers my cue, I lighten a little.”
Being attuned to your horse’s response allows you to react quickly, and ultimately the result is that you will be able to guide your horse with subtle cues, Kursinski explained.
“We’re not pulling their heads around. All the bending comes from my seat and leg,” said Kursinski. “The top show jumpers, you don’t see them do much, and yet they’re bending and galloping and making tight turns. That’s body awareness—your body control and what you’re trying to get across to the horse.
“The horse will never, ever think like a human being,” Kursinski said. “But we can think like a horse. We have to put ourselves in the horse’s shoes. What are they thinking? What are they feeling? They’re constantly talking to us. So much of my riding when I was showing a lot was, ‘How can I be the best partner to my horse?’ A lot of that is listening to the horse.”
4. Adapt to what your horse gives you.
On day two, Lauren Hough demonstrated gymnastics exercises with Konak, a 12-year-old Belgian warmblood, owned by Chandler Meadows. Throughout the sessions Hough repeated the message that a good rider should, “react to what [they] feel.” Be ready to change your plan for an exercise or schooling ride to work with what the horse is giving that day.
“Everything is horse-particular,” she said, adding that because Konak was feeling playful that day, she made the decision to add some extra warm-up jumps before moving on to the gymnastic, and then decided how she would ride her lines accordingly. “This horse is probably going to jump the Liverpool high the first time; he’s quite brave but he’s careful. I’ll react to what I feel when he lands. If he feels sticky, I might send him forward in six. If he’s relaxed about it, I’ll do seven. If he takes off on the backside, I’ll make him do eight.
“A lot of the time, our distances aren’t perfect,” Hough said. “Reacting to what happens is what makes a real rider. The best riders in the world don’t see every distance perfectly; they react to what happens and they fight to get it done.”
5. Rigid riders make rigid horses.
Hough sees many riders who ride in a stiff, unyielding position, whether they’re doing so to maintain what they believe is correct equitation or because they’re bracing against a forward horse. She reminded the athletes that this is never the best way to ride.
“You’ll notice that I move my arms a lot. I don’t get rigid with my body,” she said. “In my canter work, my seat bone is connected to the saddle, but I’m not super stiff. You want to feel like you’ve got a weight in the top of your head, and you just relax down into the horse and wrap your legs around them. Don’t ever let [your position] be one stiff, rigid thing, because that’s exactly how your horse is going to feel.”
Part of maintaining that soft, fluid connection with the horse is starting every half-halt with the leg, Hough explained.
“When I go to shorten [the horse’s stride], the first thing I put on is my leg,” she said. “So when you shorten, you’ve got an engine behind you, not that you shorten and the horse gets stiff and heavy in your hand.”
Hough was able to put this into practice when Konak got a little quick and playful after a jump. “The first thing I did when I landed from the vertical was, I sank down, wrapped my legs around him, and did a half-halt with both arms. Don’t just be rigid with a straight arm back to the withers. That gets you nowhere.”
6. Don’t overdo your warmup.
For Nations Cup course jumping on day three, Laura Kraut reminded the athletes that they had two rounds ahead of them on the final day of the training session, and they needed to keep that in mind when deciding what to do in the warmup.
“Some of you probably have a horse this morning that could be really fresh because it’s a little bit cooler, the wind is up, and they’re feeling good,” said Kraut. “That doesn’t give you the right to jump too many fences in the schooling area. What you want to do is jump as few fences as possible to feel like you’re prepared and your horse is prepared to go in the ring.”
Kraut said that she tries to limit her warmup to no more than eight to 10 jumps, although she will always be ready to add an additional jump if she feels it’s necessary. She also advocated for taking walk breaks between schooling jumps.
“I see people in the schooling ring just galloping around and around; that’s not conserving energy,” she said. “Walking in between gives you an opportunity to ask your horse to move off your leg, back up, shoulder-in, haunches-in. Do something to get them to listen. You can still keep your horse paying attention at the walk. You don’t have to just keep galloping.”
7. Think ahead on course.
“A time fault is a pain. We do not want a time fault,” said Kraut, adding that they’re especially irksome in a Nations Cup competition. “I want you thinking and really concentrating as you go around the course, where can you save a little bit of time? The way to do that is using your eyes early, because when you look where you want to go, you can get there, and you’re organized when you get there. Try to be five or six strides in your mind ahead of the horse, planning, organizing. Once you’ve got the jump nailed in, even if you’re four strides away, you’re thinking about the next one. You’re relying on your feeling at the jump, but your mind is ahead of you.”
8. Never pull up.
“Do whatever you can to jump that jump,” Kraut said. In the vast majority of situations, Kraut said, there’s no reason to bail out on a jump, even if it’s not pretty.
“In a clinic years ago, I was quoted as saying, ‘Never pull up,’ and it’ll come back up again. Try not to ever pull up unless it’s going to be really bad. You have enough faith in your horse; you know he can jump it. As Anne [Kursinski] points out, in a Nations Cup, we’d rather have four faults than four plus all the time faults you’ve accumulated.”
9. Enjoy the process.
Throughout the training session, athletes had an in-depth experience that encompassed many aspects of horsemanship in the barn as well as in the ring. This included sessions on hoof care, veterinary care, athlete and horse fitness, and stable management. At the start of the final day of the training session, Kraut addressed the value of learning every facet of equestrianism.
“It’s a lot of hours of work and dedication to get you to this 76 seconds in the ring,” said Kraut. “The thing you’ve got to take away from this is, you’ve got to enjoy the process. You’ve got to want to be a part of what your horses are doing and how they’re feeling and their mental well-being. You’ve got to accept that they make mistakes, just like you make mistakes, and you’ve got to be willing to learn with them. When you go in and you have a less-than-perfect round, rather than being extremely disappointed, you’ve got to come out and think, “How can we improve on this?”, and take away the positives from it.
“Very few of the best riders in the world win more than probably two or three percent of the time that they go in the ring,” Kraut continued. “The winning at this level is not always the reward. It’s the improving on your horse or improving on your riding that is the reward. You’ve got to love your horses. I think that will make all the work that you do in the background well worth it.”
Final Thoughts from the Clinicians
Kraut said her goal was for the athletes to “learn a great deal about the overall horsemanship required in order to achieve a positive result in the 70-80 seconds in the ring.”
“This training session is an excellent opportunity for the students to learn not just from experienced riders, but also from top [equine professionals],” said Kraut. “My main hope is that they realize it’s not just great riding that results in a top performance. It’s the care of the horse as well as the skills needed to have a successful business and career. They must have strong communication skills, not only with their horses, but with the team around them including their vets, farrier, owners, students, parents of students, other professionals, show stewards, USEF staff, and sponsors, to name a few.”
“All of us who have taught at this clinic, we always say how lucky these kids are because when we were growing up, we didn’t have such a thing!” said Hough. “From the athletes I’ve talked to afterward, they’re all incredibly grateful for the opportunity, and I think they take a lot from it. Besides the riding that we were actually teaching, Laura, Anne, and I tried to give them some pointers about surviving in this business. My thing is perseverance; you really, really have to care for the horses, and it’s a long road to get to the top, but you’ve got to keep with it.”