Clinic Report: James Houston dressage clinic

Kelly Gage shares her experience of riding with FEI dressage trainer James Houston in a clinic held at Goose Creek Stables in Lexington, Kentucky.

From Kelly:

I love dressage. I’ve been competing and training in the sport for the last decade. When I moved south of the Mason Dixon Line, I discovered that living in Kentucky didn’t have the same benefits as say living in New Jersey.

Flash forward a few years and a few coaches, I met Jim Koford through Rhett’s owner, Shirley McQullian, and then the game really changed. After stalking spending time with him last year in Tennessee and in Florida, life was going swell. The pony and I were on fire, setting to do Fourth and PSG for this year. Then I went home, and Jim did the impossible. He qualified for the World Cup with a sophomore Grand Prix horse owned by his assistant trainer.

Happy, excited and elated that a friend achieved a life long goal, I celebrated. But after the cheers and excitement wore off, the reality set in. I wasn’t going to have regular help and I had big plans this season.

So what’s a girl to do when her go-to guy is shipping out to Europe to compete?

You either go to Europe or call in back up.

Since I don’t have a few grand hanging in my pocket, I called back up before we back peddled.

Enter one James Houston.

James got the nod from Koford long before Koford’s ambitions came to fruition, having worked alongside him for a number of years at Silver Wood Farm (y’know Art Deco?), and helping manage and ride last year. He himself competes around I1 or I2 with his horse and has a bevy of lovely young horses coming into their own (when you see him ask him about his Jazz colt, you’ll giggle too). But when the name was mentioned, it was more like James Who? instead of James Houston.

So really, it was a natural progression to call him and pester ask him for his dates.

James was really exceptionally kind to come out on short notice to do a two day clinic in Kentucky with a motley crew of horses and riders. We threw the sink at him from fox hunters and endurance horses to a tune up on a Grand Prix schoolmaster. My own is a 14.1 hand welsh cob. Where most clinicians would have taken to run back to the airport screaming, the man handled it all with typical English humor and enough grace to make him Southern.

James’ principle is simple. Improve the horse through balanced, gymnastic, stretching exercises and improve the rider through the application of bio mechanics. In short, be effective by using your body and the exercise as leverage, the rest will follow.

The first day I rode with him my mare and I were locked against each other and had been for a few rides. Like a yoga instructor he took us back to home position and schooled us down to core fundamentals. To an outsider, this was probably the most boring of sessions, but to us, it was like coming home. Both sorely needed and welcomed at the same time.

Normally, most clinicians on the first day want to ramp up and really test out what you have ability-wise. This can go spectacularly great, or it can end very badly. Most of the time, from experience, it ends badly. Often having to reschool a few times before you can go back to where you started. So, it was really refreshing to have someone hear (and see) both what the horse and rider need without going into a huge fuss about what should be done.

The goal was to open up her body and get mine to let go. By the end of it, the pony really started to come back and I was freer in my body. During our session, aside from lateral work, the most common exercise was uberstreichen (giving the reins away). This helped us re-affirm the half halt in addition to allowing more uphill balance and freedom. This was challenging since I got into the habit of being static with the aids. But by having us be flexible not only within the movement and within the application of the aid, it gave us a lot more power and natural carriage.

Day two lead us to push the envelope a bit while keeping the same soft connection that we achieved the day prior. We played with variations on the outline and worked through lateral work. Her canter was still a little weak, but even then, with small adjustment in my body she powered into a lovely collected canter. We’re still weak on the pir’s but, the half passes were great quality and the rest of the lateral work was nicely put to rest.

The thing was, my pony wasn’t the only one changing, I saw positive changes in everyone even really difficult rides. More importantly, I saw riders who felt really empowered to go out and try the things they learned.

Houston truly gets being a rider, and the challenges that go with it. His ability to communicate on multiple levels in simple, understandable language that mutually benefits both horse and rider is truly refreshing in an industry where there’s more hype about the cult of personality on the horse instead of actual training. His willingness to take on anything and anyone (I seriously considered calling the zoo for a zebra to see what would happen) gives this area access to someone with serious depth and knowledge without pretension or prima donna antics.

He’s invited back for April, this time, for three days (April 27-19) and already there’s a small line forming without anything being formally set in writing. So if you want to learn, and have a great time with a non DQ population, give a shout ([email protected]), there’s always room at the table.

Photog credit: Michelle Foley

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