Oliver Townend clinic report

Horse Nation’s British correspondent (aren’t we fancy?) Jessie Widner sits in on a jumping clinic with eventing superstar Oliver Townend in Gloucester over the weekend.

From Jessie:

While waking up at 5 a.m to trek from London to Gloucester, I had some doubts about whether the journey would be worth it or not. Fortunately, Oliver Townend had me captivated after the first five minutes of watching him teach. My train fares justified, I spent an enjoyable day in the beautiful English countryside at Hartpury College watching Oliver teach show jumping classes to riders of all ages and stages in the College’s huge, gorgeous indoor arena. I took as many videos as I could, sincere apologies for the terrible quality. My camera was not quite up to the task!

Firstly, I was impressed by Oliver’s style. He was kind, positive, and patient with every student while giving them personalized attention and remembering their names right away (no small feat, when teaching classes of 6 or 7 riders). He teaches in such an enthusiastic, active and personal way it was easy to get wrapped up in the lessons. Fortunately for me, the way he taught each lesson was very compartmentalized, and in fact he used the same exercises and the same course for all the groups—from 2’6 to 3’3. I’ll go through the process in a moment, first I’ll describe his overall philosophy.

The most important point Oliver made to every rider is the need to stay as still as possible and not interfere too much with their horse before the fence. He stressed the importance of coming in with a powerful canter and letting the horse do its job. If the horse makes a mistake and gets a difficult distance, that’s OK—this is how they learn. If the rider came into the fence straight, with a positive, forward canter and sat in the middle of their horse he was pleased, even if the horse took an uncomfortable distance. Oliver repeated, “It is easier for a horse to jump without a rider on its back,” emphasizing again the need to interfere with your horse as little as possible before the fence. He told all the riders to think of loose schooling their horses while they were jumping. The best riders, he mentioned more than once “don’t seem to move at all, and that’s not because they’re not doing anything.” Easier said than done. Everybody struggled to stay as still and balanced as Oliver wished them to. He also mentioned the need to make the jump “last as long as possible.” We’re not doing a steeplechase here, it’s not the last fence at Badminton. Many riders were told to keep their body farther from the fence, meaning they should sit up more and let the horse come up to meet them rather than “ducking” down to meet their horse. Throughout every class the stillness of the rider and the allowing of the horse to make mistakes and learn from them was stressed, and this achieved visible, almost instant results.

Oliver has a distinct warm-up style that he went through with each class, explaining the reasoning behind the whole thing. This warm-up routine was definitely what I took away most from the clinic. It’s not the same as what I am used to doing, but I think it will become my method from now on! With every group he had them begin by doing the exact same warm-up (there were a couple variations with the most advanced group).

  1. When you come in the ring, let your horse have 5-10 minutes to just walk, trot and canter around. During this part you should just let them be a horse, not worry about where their head is and let them get accustomed to everything in the arena. There’s nothing worse than trying to work a fresh horse, or a horse that is not relaxed, Oliver said. Giving them their time to begin helps them relax and prepares them for the work ahead. A rider in the final group came out with a stunning warmblood-type horse, and had him going beautifully from the get-go. It was too perfect for Oliver—“He looks too nice too soon.”
  2. After this it was time for the horses to start working and listening. The idea was to get them to the point where they are waiting for you to tell them what to do next. Oliver compared it to watching television. You want to be able to press a button and get the channel you want. The goal is to get to the point where you are putting in as little effort as possible. This point in the warm up was often impressive, as many of the riders were very talented and there were more than a few high-quality horses in the arena. Oliver didn’t care about where the horse’s head was, rather that they were swinging forward and listening to their rider. Oliver told each rider to “sit quietly and let the horse take you,” correcting some who he saw were carrying their horse too much rather than the other way around.
  3. The final part of the warm up on the flat was transitions within the trot. The important part here was the horses’ response to what their rider was asking. Oliver encouraged the riders to push the boundaries, preferring any reaction (ie. breaking into the canter) to no reaction at all. One horse came out looking a little stiff and tentative in the trot. Once the rider began pushing him more, he began swinging through his trot nicely. You have to give him the confidence to get that trot, Oliver told her. Not once were harsh reactions recommended. If the horse makes a mistake, like getting off balance or breaking into the canter, they should not be punished but simply asked again quietly and with 100% clarity. In the final group the riders were asked to push one hand forward at a time and see if the horse speeds up. If the horse gets off balance when one hand is pushed forward it means the rider is balancing too much with that hand. At this point, many of the horses seemed to really relax into the trot and achieve the kind of gait Oliver was looking for.
  4. Now the jumping could begin. Oliver took his students through the type of warm up he would do before show jumping. He usually starts jumping about 5 riders before his turn, he told them. It’s also really important to have a plan. Even at the highest level, he said, you see riders galloping madly about and pointing their horse at jumps without any solid plan in mind. The riders began cantering over a cross-rail that was set on the diagonal. At this point, the rider should not be worrying about the distance or the quality of the jump. The horse should feel like its being loose schooled with the rider on top, not be interfered with and be free to make mistakes. If they make a mistake the first time, it’s highly unlikely they will make it the second time! Each rider was instructed to come into the fence straight, with a powerful (strong, not necessarily fast) canter and at that point just sit in the middle of their horse and let the fence come to them. The idea was just to get the horse relaxed and enjoying their job. “Don’t over organize,” Oliver told them. Distance is not as important as we think it is. He mentioned the problems some riders have when they get stuck seeing a certain distance. There is never only one distance! The horse may see a different one than you and if get too set on one distance that’s when you jump ahead or get left behind. All the rider must do on approach is “Put the energy in, sit up and contain it.” Problems occurred only when the rider interfered too much with either their legs or their hands before the fence, didn’t have a straight approach or didn’t have a good quality canter. The latter was probably the most common error. Every student who had trouble creating a positive, forward canter to the fence managed to correct it by the end of the ride, however. After practicing this with a cross-rail, Oliver would put a vertical up and repeat the warm-up.

  1. Next was the oxer. To begin, Oliver set up an inviting, ascending oxer with a “kind” ground line. He mentioned that he dislikes cross-rail oxers—“It’s a false fence,” and creates the possibility of the horse hanging a leg. Just because it’s an oxer doesn’t mean more speed! After this initial fence Oliver began to get more technical. He widened and heightened the oxer in order to test the horses’ hind ends. If they are tight in the back, they will hit the oxer. Most riders and horses had little to no trouble over the one. The second variation was a different story. He set up a narrow, square oxer to test the horses’ front ends. In the third group, 4 out of 7 combinations knocked the fence, and in the final group 4 out of 6 did. Of course, as Oliver predicted, hardly any horses made the same mistake twice.

  1. After this, Oliver said he liked to end the warm up with an inviting fence so that the horse and rider have a positive last jump before going in the ring. He sent the riders over the vertical once more before jumping a course.

So that was it for the warm-up. After this the riders went through an outside line. Again, sitting quietly and not messing with the horse was emphasized. If you jump the first one well, he said, just keep thinking level between the two, distance is not as important. A rider with a very careful horse who was looky over the fences was told to be sure to give her horse enough canter so that she could afford to have the spook.

Every group jumped the same course. It wasn’t overly technical—no tight turns—but did contain a bending line and a triple combination (all one stride apart). After the warm-up, few riders had serious problems with the course. Any issues that came up were again due to lack of straightness or loss of canter. Everyone was told to relax and let the fence come to them. Here are a couple videos of the course:

(I was very impressed with this girl’s riding. Her horse came out very hot and looked difficult to ride but she did a remarkable job staying quiet and still on him.)

After everyone had done the course once Oliver finished the lesson with a single larger fence with V-Rails. Every horse and rider pair managed to negotiate this challenge well, with a few bumps along the way that were quickly corrected.

The day seemed to be a huge success! It was incredible as a spectator to see the way every pair took in what Oliver was teaching them and improved in such a short time. More importantly, every rider seemed to have a good time and every horse looked happy to be doing their job! The warm-up aimed to create a horse that is relaxed, comfortable and listening to their rider while also using their own brain. Oliver’s positive, encouraging attitude created the optimum environment for the riders to learn. Don’t worry about being perfect just because I’m here, he told them. He would rather them work through problems now then in the show ring! I came away with a tremendous amount of new knowledge and understanding. His teaching style was truly impressive, and refreshing to watch—I now MUST find a way to ride with him one day!

I managed to speak to a couple riders from the 2’9 group, and both of them were quite pleased. Kelly-Anne, who rode her gorgeous seven year old Hanoverian/Thoroughbred Yindy (the tall paint), said “It was fab,” and that what she took away most was thinking about her rhythm to the fence while not worrying so much about the ride to the fence. Ethan Fettah, who rode the adorable Pixie, a five year old of indeterminate breeding also had a “really good” time at the clinic, and learned the importance of “leaving her alone on the way to the fence.” It was both Ethan and Kelly’s first time riding with Oliver, and both currently complete in BSJA (British Show Jumping Assoc.) and plan to event in the future. It was such a pleasure to see them ride, them and their horses all had real talent.

Ethan and Pixie:

The long journey was well worth it in the end! I can’t wait to take what I’ve learned and apply it to my own riding. Thank you for the wonderful clinic, Oliver and Hartpury College!

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