Contributor Allison Howell recently took a clinic with WEG show jumping team gold medalist Devin Ryan, and invited Horse Nation along for the ride.
Before we get started with this whole thing, I should probably explain that I’m a pretty typical amateur: I work a full-time job, have a side hustle at a winery for show/lesson/vet bill money, and also work off some board one day a week at my barn.
I am also a bad amateur. I don’t really keep up with the rankings lists or where in the world the big jumpers are this week, so I had virtually no clue who Devin Ryan was before I saw the post for his clinic come across my Facebook feed. However, after reading his bio — he’s, you know, a WEG gold medalist for Team USA — and getting the okay from my coach (who has already fled south for the winter) I signed up for the clinic, and I am so glad that I did.
Devin (can I call you Devin? We’re friends now right?) is probably one of the top three clinicians I have ever had the pleasure to watch or ride with, and I was fortunate enough to see Karen Healey teach an EAP clinic one year. I would describe him as firm but not mean, demanding but not demeaning, excellent at conveying the concepts he was trying to get across, and he was certainly willing to acknowledge that each horse is an individual and his program might not work for every horse. He kept a near-constant commentary the entire two days, which was extremely beneficial to the auditors as well as the riders.
Side note: one of the amazing things about this clinic was the facility, Ohana Equestrian Preserve, located in Aldie, Virginia. This place is bonkers: heated viewing area, state-of-the-art sound system piped into both the viewing area AND the arena, and an indoor with footing so nice I briefly wondered if selling a kidney would be enough to finance an indoor of my own.
Back to the clinic: the schedule was formatted so the biggest height went first, and dropped with each following group, so we were able to watch the big jumpers go before we got ready. The schedule was pretty typical for a jumping clinic – flatwork and gymnastics the first day, then course work the second.
Devin watched us warm up at the walk, then called us over to chat leg position. Some memorable takeaways:
- Stirrup should sit at the ball of your ankle, and he had riders shorten two holes for jumping
- The lower leg is your “seatbelt,” and he drove home the importance of keeping your lower leg straight, not broken at the ankle (either rolled in or rolled out)
- And for me – he wanted my leg back approximately three feet, or so it felt. I have a tendency, due to either many years of riding dressage or trying to appease a hot horse, or who knows what reason, to want to put my leg too far forward. Devin had me work on keeping my leg back, and more securely under me, basically for the whole clinic.
After that, he had the riders warmed up in earnest. Takeaways:
- Devin starts with a short rein. He does not necessarily ask the horse for flexion or to be on the bit right away, but he started every session by asking the riders to “choke up on the reins” so the reins weren’t too long when you pick up the trot.
- A theme that emerged through the clinic was Devin’s focus on correct flatwork and incorporating dressage principles into his jumping. He almost immediately started asking the riders to shape their turns more and ask their horses for some flexion around the corner. Here again, I appreciated his attention to detail, as he explained a horse that is straight or counter-bent through the turn is unable to step under themselves, shortening their stride and losing power before a jump.
- He also had the riders come off the rail, explaining that in a competition you do not have the benefit of the rail for the horses to drift to, so he almost never rides his horses on the rail.
- High hands! It seems that coaches like it one way or the other, and Devin is in camp “raise ’em up!” – going so far as to say he prefers a broken line from the mouth to the elbow with the hands too high, rather than too low, as low hands create a place for the horse to lean. He also explained that this is to keep the bit on the corners of the horse’s mouth, and not the bars (a point he re-emphasized both days).
- Oh man, this guy really likes dressage – “the more you do with your hands, the more you mess with the horse’s frame” and “a shoulder-in is three tracks, not two-and-one-half, not four!”
We moved on to some cavaletti. The first exercise was three very innocuous-looking cavaletti, set to three strides between. Devin offered that in an indoor, a horse will sometimes shorten its stride, so I believe he said they were set a little short. He said he liked this kind of work for a few reasons:
- It forces you to achieve something in a certain amount of time
- It’s easy enough for horses of all levels
- It’s good for flatwork
- It develops the horse’s depth perception and the canter needed to find the distance to the jump
I will admit, it was nice to see that even riders who typically show over pee-your-pants-sized fences struggle with the “easy” stuff too. Some of the riders did not have enough canter coming into the exercise, and struggled to get the right number of strides; if they did have enough canter, it was not smooth. That was another of Devin’s big points: he wanted everything to be smooth and consistent. For the more advanced group he had them ask for three strides over the first and four strides to the second, working on rideability. For my group, he just had us work on getting absolutely smooth through the exercise.
And then here, my friends, is where he really made you think. We all, at some point in our jumping career, have probably been told to count the strides between fences. But have you ever, my dear little chickadees, been told to start counting when you’re eight strides out? And not backwards from eight — that’s cheating, because you try to make them fit, for which I was chastised not once but twice. I thought I had been doing this long enough and read enough articles and watched enough George Morris horsemanship clinics and had a million lessons to have seen most everything, but this one was new, and mindboggling.
I think we all basically just picked a distance we really, really, really, hoped was close, and then calibrated from there. He had us repeat this exercise to the fences in between the gymnastic (I’ll explain later) and then on Day Two in our courses. This exercise was extremely beneficial for me: it helps you keep your pace, works on your eye so that you can (eventually) reliably find the distances, and has the added benefit of forcing you not to hold your breath.
After everyone got their horses through the cavaletti well enough to satisfy Devin, it was time for the gymnastic. It started with trotting into a cross rail, one stride to a vertical, one stride to an oxer, and two strides to an oxer out. One point Devin made here that he stressed multiple times through the clinic was his dislike of round placement poles – he doesn’t mind square or raised poles, but had a horse step on a round pole which rolled, resulting in an injury.
The gymnastic was pretty typical, but he did have riders halt at the end of the ring for the first few trips. He explained that this was “so the horses know they can go to the end of the arena” and are not tempted to cut in on the turn. He also encouraged riders to maintain their balance in their two-point the whole way through.
Once all the riders were satisfactorily through the exercise, he had us serpentine over the verticals and bounces dispersed between the jumps in the gymnastic. Here again, he had us count when we felt that we were eight strides away, careful to maintain our pace and track so we would get a good distance. Another point he made here (and several times, sometimes in a slightly raised voice… at me…) was to NOT accelerate the last three strides towards a jump. This all came back to starting and maintaining the appropriate pace at the canter, and not throwing the horse off in the last seconds before a fence. The counting really turned into a source of amusement, as the disappointment in our voices was apparent when we got to the jump at “seven.”
I think everyone finished the day feeling like they had accomplished something, and ready to tackle courses on Day Two.
Allison’s clinic report continues with Day Two!
Allison Howell lives in Virginia with her two dogs, a tolerant fiance and Danish warmblood mare. She is a passionate advocate for OTTBs, and her 2016 Makeover horse is currently leased to a good friend. Mares are the best; don’t @ me.