EN Today: Aiken Training Sessions report

If you’ve noticed that HN has been looking a little sparse the past couple days, it’s because I’ve been in Aiken observing the USEF Eventing High Performance Training Sessions.

Here’s my report from yesterday morning:

Top photo: Erin Sylvester and No Boundaries get the David treatment on Day 2 of the USEF Eventing High Performance Training Sessions.

How do you build an eventing program that’s competitive on the world stage? From the ground up–which seemed Coach David’s point precisely during the two days of High Performance Training Sessions that took place in Aiken this week. In each session, it wasn’t about performing the dressage tricks or getting over the jumps. It was about building better athletes.

The theme held strong into Day 2. (If you haven’t already, check out Samantha and Kate’s intensive Day 1 write-ups here and here respectively.) I caught the morning sessions, which included Doug Payne/Crown Talisman and Erin Sylvester/No Boundaries on the flat and Will Faudree/Andromaque, Susan Beebee/Wolf and Emily Beshear/Here’s To You over fences.

Spectators took advantage of the opportunity to observe our High Performance program in action.

Did we mention that Stable View Farm is a pretty nice venue? This is the main barn.

In the dressage sessions, David repeatedly enforced the concept that we aren’t just doing movements for the sake of doing movements. Rather, he explained, the point of the work is to (1) develop communication and (2) perform the function of physical therapy, developing the horses’ flexibility and strength. “The USOC gave you yoga exercises because you’re not flexible,” he said to Erin. “For the horse, that’s shoulder-in, that’s half-pass. That’s what those exercises are for.”

He encouraged versatility within the gaits (“We don’t just work in a show frame all the time–we use lots of different frames”) to improve physicality. Developing rideability within a range, he explained, directly impacts the horse’s ability to be successful over fences.

Doug & Crown Talisman: “Strength training” was a major theme in Doug’s session, with lots of encouragement to resist the urge to carry his horse around. “Let go,” David said. “Keep putting the responsibility back on him.” They also worked quite a bit on counter-canter as Tali tended to lose his rhythm. Leg-yielding off the rail in counter-canter “so you can keep riding the inside of him” was an exercise David applied to several riders yesterday and sufficed to greatly improve the quality of Tali’s counter-canter as well. Straightness in the changes was also addressed, as was finessing Doug’s aids: “Use lower leg in the step before the change to activate the hind legs, then the seat becomes the change.”

Erin & No Boundaries: David started off Erin’s session by hopping on No Boundaries himself to help work through some straightness issues. It’s always nice to see a coach put their money where their mouth is, so to speak, and David delivered–the horse was straight, through, and sitting on its haunches by the time he dismounted. Back on her horse, David had Erin do lots of transitions with the gait–“Don’t get stuck in that collected trot–it’s just a place to half halt to”–finishing the session with some work on lead changes.

David’s emphasis on developing athleticism and the skill set to be successful continued on into the jumping. “It’s your job to give him the footwork to handle whatever puzzle is in front of him,” he explained. “Quicker in the feet, not faster” became a familiar refrain.

After warming up over a liverpool vertical and square oxer, the riders tried their hand through a gymnastic exercise that put their horses’ adjustability to the test: a wide oxer, two strides to a tall vertical, one stride to a normal square oxer. The distances between the fences were tight (31 feet for the two-stride and 22 feet for the one-stride), making imperative the ability to compress immediately after lengthening.

The first oxer in the combination was quite wide with a spread of 4 1/2 to 5 feet. A rail placed across the top ensured that the horses didn’t mistake it for a bounce.

It was a fair challenge for the horses, all of which improved with each successive try. Susan’s Wolf stood out as an especially spectacular jumping talent, wowing spectators and the coach alike. “Have you got your breastplate?” David asked Susan teasingly. “I’d hold on.”

Here’s video of the three horses jumping through the exercise:

I walked away from the Training Sessions feeling optimistic about the potential of our High Performance horses-rider combinations and excited about David’s direction. He’s clearly not a “put a band-aid on it” type of coach, and his emphasis on developing the pairs in a more fundamental way encourages our prospects of having real, solid, fully-developed team members in the future.

Go Eventing.


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