EN Today: Technical training with David O’Connor

John is on the scene at the USEA Annual Meeting & Convention in Colorado Springs. Here, he brings us notes from the incoming U.S. coach’s lunchtime lecture on technical riding concepts.

From John:

David O’Connor’s open seminars to the US high performance program continued at the Broadmoor on Thursday at lunch time.  In contrast to the morning session, which focused on higher level concepts of program development theory, David’s lunch session focused on technical riding concepts.  David has the most developed architecture of riding technique theory of any coach I have ever worked with and it showed today.  The lunch session featured a few open discussions, and even the use of a marker on a large piece of paper for David to draw diagrams.  David is perhaps most comfortable as a coach when communicating about technical theory and it really showed today.  My notes from the open forum below.  As always, these are meant to capture the key points rather than being comprehensive.

At the end, expert eventing dressage “O” judge Marilyn Payne stood up and said that this is the best lecture she has ever heard on dressage in all of her years listening to dressage lectures.


Three pars of the body — From below the knee to the foot: That’s the gas pedal, that provides the energy.  Above the knee to below the rib cage: This whole part is your seat because you can’t move any one part of this system without moving another part of this system.  Shoulders up: This part is about turning and the use of weight

Use of hands — The most important part of riding is “the give.”  A person who is tense with the hands makes a horse with a tough mouth and uses the ability to give and reward the horse.


Pressure and the release of pressure.  David explained that good communication is simple communication, especially with young horses.  Ask a horse to do something with pressure then reward them with the release of pressure.  It’s so simple yet so important.

The Training Scale:

Editor’s note: If you ever take a lesson from or have a clinic with David, know this scale.  There’s a decent chance he will put you on the spot and ask you about the training scale.

1) Rhythm: Clear definition of the gaits.  The two easiest gaits to lost the rhythm are the walk and canter.  David noted that we should stay away from horses with a natural “four beats or more” to the canter–it’s really hard to fix.  Trying to collect too early in a horse’s development can lead to four beats.  David did not address my favorite gait for approaching fences–the tranter.  I swear you can’t miss a spot in the tranter.

2) Looseness/suppleness: The head and neck is a natural counterbalance for the horse.  David asked “if you put a horse loose in a roundpen and have them canter around the neck goes to the outside.”  When you can change the way a developing horse uses its feet, then and only then can you change the bend.  This proper progression lets the horse stay loose and supple.

3) Contact/acceptance of aids: David said that quality of contact is a big issue in the US right now.  We get nailed on bad contact when we go to Europe right now.

4) Implusion: The desire to go forward over the back of the horse.  David said that the expression “my horse is not in front of leg” is very overused.  He pointed out that impulsion is 4th on the pyramid and lack of impulsion is often caused by holes in the development.

5) Straightness: Horses need to be able to push evenly and straightly behind.  It’s a progressive scale that leads up to straightness and beyond…

6) Collection: David stressed that collection is last and only comes when all 5 previous levels have been mastered.


Stretching: dressage gymnastics, long and low frame.  Dressage gymnastics is about stretching the neck of the horse from the wither, not over-flexing the poll.  David is a big believer in stretching and dressage gymnastics because it builds the strength of the horse’s back.  David said that one of the most athletic things a horse can do is collecting and lengthening while stretching.  If dressage gymnastics is not done correctly then it causes problems.  The easiest test if you are doing dressage gymnastics wrong is if you put your hands forward and the horse doesn’t stretch into it.

David said that you have to be careful with a show frame because show frames can be false.  He said a good show frame involves great communication because the biggest competitions involve big challenges to communication (such as a large crowd).

Definition of throughness: “Throughness bridges training scale.”  Throughness has to do with quality of contact, impulsion, and straightness.  David stressed that “throughness” should not be a dressage-only term.

The Half-Halt:

The beginning of the half-halt is to change the length of the stride.  Then it becomes a rebalance.  Then it is to increase cadence.  David says the half-halt aid is in the seat, which is why he teaches half-halt at the rising trot–this instills the idea of changing cadence by lifting the seat (even in sitting trot).

Lateral Work:

The difference between leg yield and shoulder-in is the bend.  A leg yield has four tracks because the hind legs and front legs cross.  In the shoulder-in the hind legs don’t cross.  The key to shoulder-in is that the horse’s hips stay in line.  Leg yield is a stretching exercise, it increases engagement (the ability to take a big step), it is not a a weight-bearing exercise.  Shoulder-in puts the hind leg under the stomach, that is a weight-bearing exercise.  Other lateral work movements: shoulder-fore, pirouette in walk, working pirouette (in canter).  David stressed starting the pirouette with just 90 degrees, then walk out–don’t let the horse get stuck, almost extend the step out to keep them moving.

Changing the Lead:

Simple change through the trot (change canter leads).  David said that many upper level horses lose the ability to do simple changes through the trot.  For simple changes through the walk, David stressed that the key to a good movement is having a good canter before asking.  Then David moved onto discussing flying changes.  He said that changes are about controlling the hip–as soon as you lose the hip you will get late changes behind.  Teaching proper control of the hip starts with the simplest changes early in development of the young horse.


As a rider you have to make sure that your horse is comfortable at the halt.  If they get nervous, walk forward, “give them a place,” and then do it again.

David stressed that you should always practice above your level of showing.


David said that in the US people try to ride their corners too fast and too hurried, getting their horses off balance and requiring a stride of recovery on the exit.  He teaches the five step corner and said that one of the biggest things to work on with a top horse is making the horse come out of the corner coiled and ready for the next movement.  When you go into a corner at the trot the horse has a tendency to release out to the outside in the deep part of the corner, and then you come out trying to recover.  David said that sometimes with younger horses he will ride a more shallow corner to keep them with the outside aids and not the rail.  I’ve never heard the importance of corners described so well as in this seminar.

Definition of Cadence: Lift, an element of suspension.  You have to get the horse where he/she carries himself more, then you have cadence.

The three jumping positions: two point, half seat, full seat.  David said that beginning riders can do a lot more two point because it builds strength and balance.

David explained that top eventers tend to use more hands than top show jumpers because top show jumpers have huge strength in their backs.  He stressed the importance of keeping still hands and using the back so the horse learns how to pay attention to the rein aid.

What do you need to jump a fence?  Direction, speed, rhythm, quality of canter (impulsion), balance, and timing.  Timing is the ability to recognize the distance relative to the length of stride of the canter.

David said that 6 or 7 strides is a tough line because 6-7 strides is just enough time to panic.

David ended the talk by saying “You can do this, it’s achievable, but to achieve this you have to study.  You have to be a student.”  This is going to be a fun next four years, folks.

Much more from Colorado soon.  Go eventing.

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