Category Archives: Clinic Reports

David O’Connor at the Area I (USEA) Annual Meeting: Minutes of Mr. O’Connor’s Remarks

On January 11, 2015, my colleague and I had occasion to travel to Mt. Holyoke College in South Hadley, MA, to attend the Area I Annual Meeting.  While our true purpose was to attend the annual organizer’s meeting, held just before the business meeting, an added bonus was to listen to keynote speaker and current eventing chef d’equipe David O’Connor.

As most of the sport’s enthusiasts know, O’Connor has had a long, successful career in the eventing world.  An Olympic gold medalist and Badminton winner, he also spent nearly ten years as the president of the US Equestrian Federation before stepping down in 2012.  A 3*/4* course designer, O’Connor served as the International Technical Advisor to the Canadian eventing team before “assuming the reins” as the US team coach in 2013.

O'Connor's individual gold medal winning mount, Custom Made.  Photo taken from O'Connor Eventing's website (
O’Connor’s individual gold medal winning mount, Custom Made. Photo taken from O’Connor Eventing’s website (

O’Connor’s remarks ran the gamut, from his predictions for future US team development to remembering his time training in New England with LeGoff to his hope for the creation of more “destination events” to promote the sport.  Here, I will provide a summary of some of his key points.

Thoughts on Coaching, Training, and Getting an Education

O’Connor began his speech with an anecdote regarding a cross country trip from Maryland to Oregon which he, his older brother Brian and his mother Sally all took by horseback when O’Connor was eleven.  He said that it was on this trip that he really learned how to ride, because it was when he began to understand how horses think.  O’Connor says that he feels it is critical for riders to learn about horses before they begin to compete and get specialized.  “Riders specialize too early,” said O’Connor.  “It is not a good thing.  I believe that riders benefit from a multi-discipline base.”

O’Connor says that being open to diversity in training can only enhance your skills as a rider.  “You will learn something on a reining horse that will improve your turn on the haunches,” said O’Connor. “Too many riders want to learn to compete before they learn to ride.”

O’Connor says that to be a good event rider, one has to have a balance of education and experience.  He encouraged instructors to think innovatively, and to get their riders out of the ring.  He also spoke to the fact that he believes that the educational system in the US needs to be stronger.  To this end, O’Connor promoted the US Eventing Association’s Instructor Certification Program (ICP). O’Connor feels that it is better for the industry to set its own parameters regarding what makes a good instructor, rather than having those guidelines dictated to them by an outside entity.

“I predict that at some point everyone will need to be licensed, and that this will be driven by the insurance companies,” said O’Connor.

O’Connor made some general remarks regarding the current status of the US High Performance team, who collectively had a disappointing 2014 season.  He acknowledged that ideally, the team should be riding American-bred horses, but right now we are in a gap between buying everyone else’s horses and developing our own.  He says that within the next few years, there are several exciting younger American-bred horses which should be arriving on the international stage, ready to be competitive.

In addition, O’Connor emphasized the importance of the developing rider programs to help spot and support young talent within the sport.  He specifically referenced Ariel Grald, a native Vermonter, as being a rising star.

O’Connor emphasized that in order to become competitive, the high performance squad members must continue to push out of their comfort zone, and ride and compete in new places which many not be comfortable or familiar to them.  In a related vein, he remarked that the riders must arrive thinking of themselves as real players, not just as someone who is there simply to compete.  It would seem that such advice is relevant to all riders who wish to expand their horizons, not just those interested in high performance!

Eventing, “One Sport”:  We are All Under the Same Blanket

New England, and Massachusetts in particular, was once upon a time the epicenter of American eventing.  O’Connor called the era of LeGoff, in the 1970’s and 1980’s, a time when the northeast was the “intellectual center of eventing”.  Competitions at Ledyard and nearby Groton House, Flying Horse, and others where “the” places to go in this emerging sport.

Anna jumping the ditch and wall at Ledyard.
Anna jumping the ditch and wall at Ledyard.

O’Connor referred to that era as the “philanthropic” era of eventing, because the sport was essentially bankrolled by several wealthy families who were able to turn these competitions into destinations.  Today, however, eventing has become a business; O’Connor points out that other horse sports, such as show jumping, have grown even further, from being a business to being an industry.  Such growth, while not necessarily inevitable, does contribute towards the long term viability of a particular sport.

O’Connor acknowledged that eventing has been a sport with an image problem, with those outsiders perceiving event riders to be just crazed, adrenaline seeking junkies.  The reality is that in our highly interconnected world, bad news travels fast, and global issues can suddenly hit close to home.  These remarks were made specifically in reference to several high profile catastrophic accidents which were widely broadcast in the mainstream media.  “We are all under the same blanket,” said O’Connor.  “Global issues affect us locally and vice versa.”

While he agrees that eventing is not without danger, to train/compete in the sport is to take a “calculated risk”, not dissimilar to that assumed in the sports of skiing or cycling.  “Our risk management is strong,” said O’Connor.  “And our safety record, especially at beginner novice and novice, is good.  This sport is not dangerous but it has a calculated risk that you must respect.”

The more the “business” side of the sport of eventing grows, the greater the angst related towards it, with a rift being perceived between the upper level and lower level riders.  O’Connor commented that while we all were sitting in that meeting on a chilly New England winter day, over five hundred horses were competing at an event in Florida.  Such an occurrence would have been nearly inconceivable even twenty years ago.  O’Connor went on to say that from mid-January until early April, there will be in an event in Florida or Georgia every weekend with four hundred entries each.


In spite of this growth, eventing is still a niche sport.  The USEA currently has about 14,000 members, only 9,000 of whom compete.  O’Connor says that he looks at the sport as having three levels:  high performance, who are the ambitious, almost manic riders who want to compete internationally; the professionals, who are usually under-recognized and under-utilized, but who provide coaching, training and other services to the third category, the enthusiast.  The enthusiast is the grassroots, bottom of the pyramid rider/competitor who simply enjoys the sport as a means of recreation; this is not to say that they are not serious about it, but they are not deriving their income from the sport.  Often, the professionals are grouped with the high performance riders, instead of being recognized independently for the important niche which they fill.

O’Connor says that due to the overall small size of the sport, we do not have the luxury of being divided between upper and lower level niches.  “We are passionate,” said O’Connor.  “This [passion] encourages but also consumes.”

O’Connor emphasized that those who care about eventing are entering a critical cross roads.  “We are custodians of the sport but we also need critical thinkers,” says O’Connor.  “We are hitting the ceiling of a bubble economically.  We have to allow all of the levels to flourish.”

Goals for the Future and Olympic Fever

O’Connor closed his remarks with some of his ideas regarding the next steps which eventing must take in order to continue to thrive as a sport.  He described events as falling into one of three categories:  the local event, which primarily draws off the resident eventing community and makes up the largest percentage of events held; the ‘goal-oriented’ event, which is usually a more prestigious, demanding or upscale event that is being used as preparation for something else; and finally the ‘destination event’.  The main crux of his discussion centered on his vision for these “destination events” and what they could mean to the sport.

Essentially, a destination event as defined by O’Connor is one which is meant to be an “entertainment product” and is geared heavily towards the enjoyment of the spectators.  Ideally this event should be FEI-sanctioned so that it will draw the major players of the sport.  It should be so enticing that it can attract an audience from far away, and induce them to pay for tickets; therefore, its location must be accessible.  This revenue can then be turned into prize money for the “players”.  “A destination event has the ability to change and support the sport outside of ourselves,” said O’Connor.

In O’Connor’s vision, each area of the country would have its own destination event, enough so that they are available but not so many that they become run of the mill.  Currently, events such as Rolex, Carolina Horse Park, the fall Plantation Fields and Great Meadows (VA) all are at or are working towards ‘destination event’ status.

O’Connor challenged the audience to consider where such an event could be held in New England.  He emphasized the significance of such an event in that it would draw riders back to New England, the former center of eventing.  “It would return New England [eventing] to its roots, the destination events at Ledyard,” said O’Connor.

To make such remarks to an audience who have just heard that their local big city, Boston, has been selected for consideration for the 2024 Olympics, was well calculated, in my opinion.   The room was quickly filled with chatter about where the equestrian events could be held in conjunction with these Games, and whether such a site could be tested first by becoming a New England destination event.

Earlier in his speech, O’Connor had reflected upon his own experience as an Olympian, saying that although he won his gold in Sydney (Australia), it was really the 1996 Atlanta (GA) Games which were his “Olympic experience”, because they were held on US soil.  “The Olympic Games are the only moment that everyone believes in, when religion, beliefs, etcetera, don’t matter,” said O’Connor.  “At the end of the day, only one person gets to stand on the podium, but being part of the process stays with you forever.”

In regards to continued discussion by the International Olympic Committee concerning the long term viability of horse sports in the Olympic Games, O’Connor had this to say.  “With horses at [the Olympic level] costing over one million dollars, equestrian is not remaining as a sport which anyone can do,” said O’Connor.  “That is a real risk for continued inclusion in the Olympics.  At least the sport has historical inclusion on its side.”

For the 2012 London Games, the cross country phase of eventing was held right in Greenwich Park; O’Connor said that within two days of the competition’s conclusion, over 90% of the fences were cleaned up and the park was re-opened.  “In this way, we have shown that cross country can be portable,” said O’Connor.  “We could hold cross country in Central Park, which would be a great thing for the sport.”


Overall, O’Connor is an engaging speaker, equal parts politician and story teller.  It was clear that his passion for the sport of eventing is as strong as ever, and that he is committed to a long term vision for the sport which will allow it to have a more secure niche within the horse industry for the long term.

Blogger’s Note:  I hope to not offend the excellent photographer whose work appears in the Area I website’s banner (, which I have borrowed here for my featured image.  All of the work in the banner belongs to Joan Davis/Flatlandsfoto,  an artist who generously compiles and sells an Area I eventing calendar each year to benefit the activities of the region.  I include the images here only to promote Area I eventing and encourage all riders to support the official show photographers who dedicate so much time and passion to our sport. 

A Clinic with Nancy Guyotte

On December 15, 2014, the U of New Hampshire Equine Program hosted a jumping clinic with eventing veteran Nancy Guyotte.  Nancy, of Hill, NH, is a graduate of the UNH Animal Science program and was involved with the early years of its now well established horse trials.  Of course, Nancy also went on to great personal success of her own as an eventing rider, coach and breeder.  Our students very much enjoyed having the opportunity to work with her; I was also able to squeeze myself into one of the groups, which was great fun and a positive experience!

Getting Started: Connection and Suppleness

In my personal experience, taking a clinic with someone new can be a nerve wracking undertaking, particularly when the focus is work over fences.  I have absolutely had the experience of riding with a clinician who simply raised the fences higher and higher, assuming I guess that it is everyone’s goal to jump large obstacles, even if they do so poorly.  I like to be challenged and to learn new exercises, but I don’t want to find my horse overfaced with the questions in front of us.

I think it is hard for clinicians as well, especially when they are coming in cold and don’t totally know for sure what the expertise level will be of the riders they are working with or the caliber and training of the horses.

Therefore, I wholly appreciated that after a brief round of introductions and review of equipment, our session with Nancy began working with cavaletti and flatwork.  Nancy wanted our group to focus on suppleness, responsiveness, adjustability and connection in our flat work, which are also important qualities to bring forward into the work over fences.  In my own instruction, I try to help my students to make this association as well—because for many riders who like to jump, flatwork is just what you do to warm up, not the main focus of a ride.

Anna warming up.
Anna warming up.

After a working in phase of work in walk, trot and canter, Nancy began to focus more directly on each horse’s lateral and longitudinal suppleness as well as the overall connection from hindquarters to the bridle.  Two exercises were particularly helpful for me.  The first was using a bit of counter-flexion with a leg yield of just a few steps to the inside to get Anna more even between both reins, as opposed to overflexed in the neck without bend through the ribcage (a favorite evasion).  This mini-exercise is used as a microadjustment, a rebalancing of the aids, and it is super effective.  Another exercise that Nancy had the group work on was turn on the forehand.  I don’t school this movement frequently, though I do use other forms of leg yield and turn on the haunches.  Turn on the forehand can help improve the connection to the outside rein as well as the engagement of the inside hind.  If your horse gets stuck, you should step forward for a few strides and then return to the turn.  You can also think about riding a small circle with the hind legs, and a smaller circle with the front ones, rather than making the turn be completely “on the spot”.

As our group rode the turn on the forehand, most of us would do 180 degrees and then leave the movement.  Nancy reminded us that you can go 360 degrees around, or even just keep your horse in the movement until you are satisfied with the result.

An Eye for Detail

Once the horses had worked in, we began working over a straight row of four cavaletti poles.  If you do not have traditional cavaletti (the kind with an “x” at the end), it is important to try to use square poles which cannot roll or to brace round rails with plastic blocks or other similar tools.

Nancy set up a row of cavaletti at a distance of 4’6” on centerline; we walked through the rails first and then proceeded to the trot. At this distance, the horse should put one trot step in between each of the rails.  The advantage of using centerline is that you can reverse directions after each approach and therefore work the horse equally on both sides.  The challenge is that it then becomes harder to keep the horse straight.

Working through the cavaletti.
Working through the cavaletti.

I have usually allowed my horses to stretch and reach a bit over cavaletti rails, but Nancy pointed out that when Anna did this, she was taking advantage of the rails as an opportunity to become disconnected.  Nancy encouraged me to take a bit more time prior to coming through the rails to really get Anna through and over the back, and then reminded me to keep my lower leg on as we came over the rails.   With successive repetitions through the rails, Anna began to more consistently remain connected and increased her activity.

Next we moved on to work over a fan of three rails.  In a “fan” pattern, the rider approaches the rails with bend through the horse’s ribcage, as opposed to the straighter line taken through rails on the center line.  The inside rails of the fan are closer together, while the outside rails are spread further apart.  In this case, Nancy placed the rails such that the center to center approach was at 9 feet.  This meant that the horses could trot through the rails, taking two steps in between each, or canter through in a bounce stride.  Depending on the horse’s natural length of stride, fading to the inside of the fan or pushing towards the outside might make the exercise easier.  However, Nancy emphasized the importance of being able to create the middle canter, and to be able to maintain the bend, balance, connection and energy through the center of the rails.

Coming through the fan.
Coming through the fan.

Though this sort of exercise sounds as though it should be rather easy, the reality is that to keep each component of the horse’s gait and body position wholly under control of the rider is actually quite difficult.  The horses in our group tended to start over the first rail straight (so, perpendicular to the center of the rail) but then veered off on a tangent, rather than remaining connected, bent and engaged through the inside hind leg.  With successive repetitions, each of the horses became more consistent through the exercise.  Nancy remarked that she actually keeps an exercise like this set up in her arena most of the time, so that it can remain a regular component of her schooling.

Eventually, the center element of the fan became slightly elevated, and we began to approach the first rail in trot but then ask for the canter as we crossed the third rail.  Finding the timing for this aid was most possible when the approach into the exercise was correctly executed.

What I most appreciated during this segment of our session was Nancy’s impressive eye for detail.  It was always the most subtle things which made the biggest difference— for example, lowering the hands slightly or supporting with the lower leg more consistently. As always, the constant focus and attention on basics is essential for success.

Moving on to Jumps

These preparatory cavaletti exercises were actually quite demanding on the horses.  On the one hand, work over cavaletti can be less arduous than actual jumping and therefore represents an excellent method to work on jumping related skills without adding wear and tear on the horse.  On the flip side, these kinds of exercises require the horse to consistently and deliberately flex and then engage the hind limbs, as well as add greater elevation to the forehand and shoulder.  The stress of the exercise is cumulative.  Muscles become fatigued and then mistakes can be made, which is when injury might occur.  So it is important to find the balance.

After our preparatory cavaletti work during this session, we moved on to working over a few fences.  Essentially, we began over the fan, and then maintained the bouncy canter which the exercise had created to a modified oxer.  From there, it was an immediate bending line, then a related distance on the diagonal.

On course!
On course!

Again, few repetitions were necessary but details were important.  Nancy pointed out that though Anna has a lovely flying change, sometimes she uses it as an excuse to not remain connected, and has a tendency to try to swing the haunches.  I have a bad habit of raising my hands on the approach to a fence, which of course just ruins the canter, and Nancy reminded me to keep the hand low and allow Anna to come forward at the fences.

Take Home Thoughts

At this time of the year, when we are stuck indoors and usually are sharing our ring space with other users, it can be a real challenge to keep jumping skills tuned up or set a full course.  The use of exercises such as those which Nancy used in this clinic can be a great way to provide some relief to the monotony of the arena while also helping to polish jumping skills.  In fact, most of the exercises we practiced would be quite appropriate for any horse and rider, whether they jump or not, to help maintain fitness, improve the development of a correct connection and build strength.  I have already begun incorporating one day per week of cavaletti work into my routine and hope that through its use I can further improve Anna’s connection and swing.

Gary Rockwell and Stephen Clarke: The FEI 5* Judges’ Symposium

Gary Rockwell and Stephen Clarke:  The FEI 5* Judges’ Symposium

At The Equestrian Center at Pineland Farms, New Gloucester, ME


The state of Maine may not be thought of as an epicenter of dressage, but the staff at the Equestrian Center at Pineland Farms are working to change that.  With all-star trainers like Olympian Michael Poulin and former Young Rider champion Gwyneth McPherson heading the coaching team, and assistant trainer/organizer Jennifer Dillon pulling together equestrian A-list clinics, this facility is sure to make a positive influence on the education of dressage enthusiasts from across the northeast.

An early season Nor’easter didn’t keep attendees away from what was billed as the Five Star Symposium on Dec 9-10, 2014.  FEI 5* judges Gary Rockwell of the US and Stephen Clarke of the UK were invited to Pineland to help educate participants’ eyes towards the quality of performance.  Several talented riders, including Poulin and McPherson but also Jutta Lee, David Collins, Laura Noyes and Heather Blitz, demonstrated movements and performed complete tests ranging from Training level to Grand Prix, while Rockwell and Clarke provided scores and commentary.  This format meant that auditors could gain perspective as riders, trainers and judges, depending on their area of personal focus.  In addition, several USEF rated judges sat ring side and offered further comment/question to round out the experience.  As a representative of the University of New Hampshire (UNH) Equine Program, I was able to attend on day two, bringing along fourteen of our program’s students.  We are most grateful to the Equestrian Center at Pineland Farm for this amazing opportunity.

Students from the University of New Hampshire (UNH) Equine Program thoroughly enjoyed their visit to The Equestrian Center at Pineland Farms.
Students from the University of New Hampshire (UNH) Equine Program thoroughly enjoyed their visit to The Equestrian Center at Pineland Farms.

Rockwell and Clarke banter like old friends do and were remarkably “in sync” with their judging and remarks, rarely deviating more than one point from one another.  Throughout the day, their feedback combined training tips with judging perspective, as well as insight into the theory behind why correct riding is the best kind of riding.

Transitions, Tension and Test Riding

As the day began, auditors were treated to the performances of a pair of talented four year olds, ridden by Collins and Lee. One horse demonstrated the 2015 Training Level Test 3, while the other rode the FEI Four Year Old test.  The USEF tests are scored in a traditional manner, with a comment/score given for each movement, while the FEI Young Horse tests are scored with overall marks given for each of the gaits, submissiveness and overall impression.

Let me start by commenting that any one of us would likely have traded the outfit we were wearing that day and offered to sit in our undies on the bleachers in exchange for a ride on either of these lovely youngsters.  The tests that they performed were scored in the 70’s and low 80’s by Rockwell and Clarke, giving those present an excellent picture of what a high standard of performance  and correct training looks like.

At these introductory levels, much emphasis is placed on the correctness of the basic paces. No matter how good a mover the horse is, Clarke and Rockwell emphasized that in order to show a horse’s paces to their best advantage, riders must perfect the transitions.  The quality of the transition will determine how well and how clearly the horse begins the next gait.  Even horses with “average” gaits can improve in quality with correct transitions.

On a related note, tension (mental or physical) will block a horse’s throughness and ultimately impede the quality of their gaits.  The judges remarked that tension in the canter is especially common in developing horses, and it is important that horses come into the gait with suppleness and swing.

One of the most challenging movements in the lower level tests is the infamous “stretchy circle”.  Judges are usually quite critical of the performance of this movement, with common mistakes including loss of rhythm/regularity, loss of balance, and failure to reach through the topline and down to the bit.  Clarke and Rockwell emphasized that it is important for riders to remember that the stretchy circle is not meant to be just a test movement; it is a test of the horse’s balance and throughness and must be incorporated into the regular work.

David Collins riding Bojing (unattributed but taken from his website,
David Collins riding Bojing (unattributed but taken from his website,

An interesting point came up as Clarke and Rockwell discussed the performance of Collins’ mount, Bojing.  This talented youngster already moves with the confidence and poise of an experienced campaigner, but occasionally showed his youth in certain moments of the test, particularly in terms of showcasing his full power.  Clarke and Rockwell remarked that in training a horse from day to day, riders can get in the habit of doing things the same way they always have.  However, the result of good training should be a horse that changes and develops, and it is important for riders to remember that with this growth may come a need to moderate an aid—perhaps to change how it is given, or the intensity of it.

We would be treated to several additional examples of this axiom as the day progressed.

Although the demonstration horses performed fairly good halts during their test rides, Clarke and Rockwell remarked that at the lower levels, the squareness of the halt is less critical than the overall obedience, submission, steadiness and straightness as seen from “C”.  Once these qualities are maintained, it will become easier for the rider to ride the horse from back to front to achieve a square halt.

One additional discussion which emerged after watching the first few horses perform was related to the choice of bit for individual horses.  Clarke and Rockwell emphasized that horses who demonstrate “mouth” issues are usually also holding internal tension; this cause must be sought and addressed before the mouth issues will resolve.  According to the judges, riders who constantly change bits to look for a solution to mouth issues are sometimes overlooking the most common one—the rider themselves.  Asymmetry, weakness, lack of balance and lack of coordination in the rider can all manifest as mouth issues in the horse.  Therefore, if the horse has an issue in the mouth—look to the rider first.

Gait Distinctions, Soft Rein Backs and Head Tilts

2015 Third Level Test 3, 2015 Fourth Level Test 3 (and boy, is that test ramped up!) and the FEI Prix St. Georges tests were demonstrated by Poulin on a client’s horse, Blitz on the young stallion Ripline and McPherson on an older campaigner, Flair.  Again, all three horses demonstrated quality tests and allowed auditors a clear picture of what is expected at the given level.  Clarke and Rockwell began asking riders to stay a moment longer in the ring with these older horses, in order to repeat certain movements or to demonstrate particular points.  What became clear through the feedback provided by the judges is that, for these medium level horses, continued attention to the finer points allows for an increase in the quality of performance.

Rein back is a movement that appears in tests starting at the Second Level.  Horses should halt quietly, and then step backwards without visibly losing balance, dropping or raising the poll, or stepping sideways.  It is actually quite an unnatural movement for the horse and requires a great deal of submission.  Clarke and Rockwell said that if there is restriction in the reins during the rein back, the horse will brace against this and drag their feet.  Instead, the rider must learn to execute the rein back with a soft hand.

Turn on the haunches and walk pirouettes also appear at these levels, which led to a bit of friendly US-UK terminology debate. Clarke explained that the term “turn on the haunches” is an old military movement that has nothing to do with maintaining the rhythm or regularity of the gait, two qualities which are “must have’s” when performing this movement in the modern arena.  Therefore, Clarke insists that a more correct description for a “turn on the haunches” is really “large walk pirouette”, which is actually a classical dressage movement.  Rockwell simply shrugged his shoulders and sipped his coffee at this. No matter what you call them, the horse must maintain a clear four beat rhythm and the rider must be especially careful to not allow the horse to “stick” behind.

The three talented horses which demonstrated the middle level tests were also able to present auditors with three different levels of proficiency with the medium and extended gaits.  Often, riders “push” for so much in their medium gaits that there is not a clear difference between it and the extended gait.  However, Clarke and Rockwell admitted that judges must also partially take the blame for this, because they sometimes too harshly score a “normal” medium trot.  So of course, this led to a discussion of what exactly is being expected in each of these paces.

Clarke and Rockwell explained that in the medium gaits, there is a soft, quiet opening of the steps with no loss of roundness or throughness.  Extended gaits, by contrast, are the “utmost”, and need to be more than the medium.  For those of us who ride horses with limited natural gaits, it is best to really go for it in the medium gaits, and to accept the comment of “not much difference” in the extended movements.

Blitz and Ripline had to execute a challenging movement in the new USEF Fourth Level Test 3—the shoulder in on the center line.  From “C”, the judge commented that the horse was not correctly bent and the movement was not clear.  From where we sat on the side, the movement had seemed okay.  This was a great example of how a judge can only assess what they can actually see (review the “Judge’s Notebook” section below).  Rockwell had Blitz repeat the movement, this time being certain to keep Ripline’s hind legs on the center line, with the forehand only to the side of the line.  Once the letter “A” could clearly be seen between the horse’s hind legs, the angle and bend of the movement became more correct and the score was adjusted accordingly.

Occasionally during their tests, each of these horses had demonstrated a slight head tilt which negatively impacted the score for that movement.  This led to an interesting discussion of where in the horse’s body submission to the bend begins.  In a horse that is accepting the aids correctly, the ribcage gives to the rider’s inside leg and the horse steps to the connection of the outside rein, allowing the rider to then be “free and easy” with the inside rein.  When the horse doesn’t move off the leg appropriately (and therefore lacks true submission to the bend), the rider will use the inside rein more than they ought to, which begins the head tilt.

The Elite Levels:  “It’s from another planet”

Auditors were in for a real treat after the lunch break, when Lee returned with Glorious Feeling to demonstrate Intermediate A, and Laura Noyes rode her own Galveston in the Intermediate B.  However, the finale was not to be missed, and 2012 London Olympics alternate team members Blitz and her own Paragon elicited multiple “10’s” from the judges and the now infamous comment, “It’s from another planet” (in reference to Paragon’s extended trot).  I must admit that my note-taking fell off the page a bit during these last few rides as I was so mesmerized by the horses’ performances.

Clarke and Rockwell discussed the meaning of a horse “being on the outside rein” as the effect of how much control and influence a rider has with the outside rein, versus the amount of weight the rider feels in the outside rein.  This sense of connection to the outside rein is a must have requirement in order to execute the rapid changes of bend, balance and pace required in these elite level tests.

Jutta Lee and Glorious Feeling listen to the comments from Rockwell and Clarke.
Jutta Lee and Glorious Feeling listen to the comments from Rockwell and Clarke.

Less experienced riders tend to focus on the head and neck of the horse, and as riders gain experience, they learn to look through the whole body to see the lift through the topline and engagement of the supporting muscles, which then allows the poll to come to be the highest point with the nose just in front of vertical.  These confirmed FEI horses demonstrated this correct balance clearly and showed how this much power can still be soft.

Earlier, Clarke and Rockwell had emphasized the importance of constantly checking in with how the rider is using her aids as the horse grows and develops.  With Galveston, Noyes delivered an accurate and fluid test that had many good (“8”) and very good (“9”) movements.  However, the judges felt that the horse still had more to offer and that Noyes was not quite asking enough.  By changing the balance between her forward leg aid and restraining seat and rein aids, as well as modifying the timing of the two, Galveston began to produce an extended trot which elicited a collective gasp from the audience.  Surely Noyes knew this trot was in there, but now she has new tools to play with in order to develop it further.

In these tests, Clarke and Rockwell discussed the critical importance of preparation for movements and the use of transitions and corners to aid in building up the required power and correct balance.  For example, in the sequence changes (the four, three, two and one tempi’s), the rider must come onto the diagonal and create an uphill balance in the horse and then release into the first change, as opposed to trying to push into them.  The medium and extended trots are also a release of stored energy that has been built up in advance; if the rider has failed to build the energy, she cannot magically create the power required for these paces at the letter itself.

Blitz and Paragon were truly inspirational to watch.  At 18 hands, the chestnut gelding would command attention no matter what, but the incredible sitting in his piaffe/passage, the ease of his tempi changes and of course the unbelievable power and control demonstrated in his extended trot were simply magical.  I think everyone there knew we were watching a special partnership.

Clarke and Rockwell of course have seen (and judged) this team before, and both remarked on the tremendous growth in the horse’s confidence.  “Whatever you are doing in your training program—keep doing it,” commented Clarke.  The judges said that for so many horses, no matter what, the muscular growth acquired through consistent training will help them develop the confidence to do the movements.  For a Grand Prix horse, learning the movements themselves is only a beginning.  Clarke and Rockwell said that if you are lucky, it takes five years to develop a horse to Grand Prix, and then another two years to put it all together in the arena. So much of this development comes down to the strength of the horse in being able to correctly do the movements.

Judge’s Notebook

As a (2007) graduate of the United States Dressage Federation’s “L” judge’s training program, I can assure you that the view from C is one that comes only after years of dedication, effort and growth in terms of developing one’s eye, skill, vocabulary and clarity.  While I am lucky to be invited to judge at local schooling horse trials and dressage shows, I am not sure that I will ever feel fully qualified or up to the commitment of pursuing the dressage judge’s license.  Completing the “L” program has helped me to interpret judge’s comments on my own tests with better clarity and also to know that most judges truly want to help the competitors to be better. I have an immense amount of respect for the challenge that judges face in their role.

Clarke and Rockwell represent the pinnacle of judging, and I was completely impressed with how they came within one point of each other on nearly every movement, with similar comments.  As adhering to the training pyramid will lead to a horse with correct basics, these gentlemen show that the progress judges make through their own training helps to refine the eye and to create cohesion and consistency in a subjective discipline.

Throughout the day, Clarke and Rockwell offered insight into the role and mind of a judge, both by actually scoring/commenting on the tests being performed and also through their discussion of each performance.  In addition, they fielded questions from the audience.

Here are a few of the “judging notes” I picked up throughout the day.

  • Judges must actually use the entire scale to reflect what they are really seeing. During the course of the day’s rides, we heard Clarke and Rockwell say everything from 3 to 10.  I must admit, I find it hard to get out of “six-ville” when judging, so it was exciting to see the quality of performance which elicits higher marks, as well as the fact that these elite judges will forgive minor mistakes (like a small stumble).
  • One of the main purposes of the Young Horse classes is to educate the public; this is especially true in Europe, where such classes will draw a large crowd. In the YH tests, judges want to see a relaxed, confident horse which is being shown in a natural balance.  Horses may have three super gaits naturally but the training must still be correct, and the young horse must not move artificially.  The Four Year Old test is roughly equivalent to the USEF Training/First Level; the Five Year Old test is roughly equivalent to the USEF Second/Third Level and the 6 Year Old test is roughly equivalent to USEF Third/Fourth Level.
  • When a horse is actively teeth grinding or tail swishing during their work, it is important to look at the overall picture and to not immediately interpret this as a symptom of resistance; judges should not automatically deduct points. Frequently if there is tension in the horse there will be additional cues.  Not every horse that grinds their teeth or swings their tail is being resistant.
  • The collective marks are meant to be a summary of the overall test. Therefore, a test whose movements are full of 5’s and 6’s should not have collective marks that are 7’s and 8’s.  Errors in the test should not affect the rider scores in the collective marks.
  • You can only judge what you can really see, not what you think or assume is happening. This was especially clear when the judge at “C” and the judge at the side had different marks or conflicting comments.
  • To arrive at a score, the judge must consider all of the qualities that they like (positive) versus those things that were negative. The judge must ask, “where is your eye drawn to?” and start there.  Beware the generic comment (“needs more impulsion”).  If it needs to be said, try to be specific (“needs more impulsion at ‘K’”).
  • The rider is responsible for the submission score and the overall performance of the horse that day; therefore, a rider may receive a different mark for “rider” from the same judge on the same day for different performances or different horses.
  • If someone comes into the ring, takes a risk and pulls it off (for example, they really went for a big medium trot), give them the points. Otherwise, why would riders ever bother to take risks, and the result is boring dressage.

    A dressage judge's job is never easy....
    A dressage judge’s job is never easy….

Hilary Clayton: It’s All About the Forelimb

Dr. Hilary Clayton: “It’s All About the Forelimb”

Presented at the USDF Convention 2014: Cambridge, MA

On December 5, 2014, I had the opportunity to attend my first ever USDF Convention, held in Cambridge, MA; my primary motivation for taking on the Friday AM commuter traffic to Boston was to hear a lecture being presented by Dr. Hilary Clayton.  Clayton (BVMS, PhD, Dipl ACVSMR, MRCVS) is truly a pioneer in the field of equine biomechanics and I have heard over and over that her lectures are not to be missed; it seemed silly to allow an opportunity to finally attend one to slip away.

Dr. Hilary Clayton   Photo taken from her promotional poster.
Dr. Hilary Clayton Photo taken from her promotional poster.

Clayton has written several books and is a frequent contributor to the USDF Connection; I enjoy reading her articles but I have always felt that some of her concepts go over my head.  Hearing her articulate and clarify her research was incredibly enlightening.  Here, I will attempt to summarize her remarks presented at the convention this year.  The section headings here mimic those of her talk; why reinvent them when her own words do such a good job?

The Limbs In General Terms

Clayton began her talk by explaining that the limbs of any species are made up of a series of rigid bones which articulate at moveable joints; these joints are stabilized and moved by muscles.  The length of the bones, combined with the angles of the joints, affect each limb’s ability to support body weight and/or provide propulsion to its owner.

If you think about a heavy species, such as an elephant, and you look at the skeletal structure of the limbs, you will see that they are strong, straight and vertical.  This design is excellent for bearing weight, but not so good for athletic endeavors.  Due to this structure, Clayton says that elephants are actually not capable of a moment of suspension and can’t jump, which is why a small moat will contain them at a zoo.  This is an example of a “limb as a supporting pillar”, according to Clayton.

Elephant limbs are post like and good for bearing weight, but not so good at creating propulsive force.
Elephant limbs are post like and good for bearing weight, but not so good at creating propulsive force.

Species with small body weight, such as the cat, tend to have limbs with bones that are highly angled and joints which are compressed.  This allows a great deal of athleticism but sacrifices the ability to bear weight.  By opening up the angles of these compressed joints, these species are able to produce large amounts of propulsive force.  In addition, the spines of these species are usually more flexible, allowing two moments of suspension per stride in the gallop—once in flexion, and once in extension.  Clayton calls this anatomy “limbs as a propulsive lever”.

Cats are athletic and agile due to the angled nature of their limbs; however, their bodies could not support great weight.  By Les Chatfield from Brighton, England (Cat Skeleton  Uploaded by snowmanradio) [CC BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Cats are athletic and agile due to the angled nature of their limbs; however, their bodies could not support great weight. By Les Chatfield from Brighton, England (Cat Skeleton Uploaded by snowmanradio) [CC BY-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
The anatomy of the horse actually combines these two extremes:  the forelimb is more elephant- like and straight, while the hind limb is more cat-like and angled.

 In this skeleton of an Arabian, it is clear that the horse's front limbs are pillar-like while the  hind limbs are angled for propulsion.
In this skeleton of an Arabian, it is clear that the horse’s front limbs are pillar-like while the hind limbs are angled for propulsion.

In dressage and jumping training, the focus is correctly very much on the action and use of the horse’s hind limb, which ultimately controls the horse’s ability to leave the ground.  However, Clayton points out that “a fabulous hind leg is no good without an equally fabulous front limb.”  This is because the less angled joints and more upright posture of the horse’s front limbs allow them to act as struts for the horse; the forelimbs ultimately control the position of the forehand and most importantly, control the horse’s speeding and turning ability.

Ground Reaction Force

One of the coolest aspects of Clayton’s presentation was reviewing computerized footage of actual horses moving over the force plates at her former research facility at Michigan State University (Clayton became “emeritus” in April of 2014).   These videos showed how and where the force of movement translated itself through the horse’s body, and also how those vectors moved throughout the course of a stride.

Clayton explained the concept of Ground Reaction Force (GRF) as being the force which actually makes the horse move.  When the horse’s hoof is on the ground, it is automatically pushing against the ground; the GRF is the reaction of the ground pushing back against the hoof.  Because the front limbs bear more weight, the GRF is always higher on them.

The relative sizes and directions of the GRF’s of the forelimbs and hind limbs affect the horse’s balance.  Basically, it is the job of the hind limb to create propulsion, while the forelimb stops the horse’s balance from going wholly onto the forehand.  By changing the angle of the GRF, the horse controls his speed and direction.

To help us to understand the relationship between the GRF and the roles of the front and hind limb, Clayton used a video of a horse jumping a fence.  At take-off, the hindlimb forces cause the jumping horse to rotate forward, towards their center of balance.  The forward rotation is necessary for the horse to be able to take off from the hind limb and land on the fore limb.  At landing, the GRF of the forelimb causes a reversal in the direction of rotation, allowing the horse to shift back towards their center and land the hind limbs.

Finding the Balance

So basically, the horse’s body in movement is a set of opposing forces—one set from the hind limb which propels the horse forward, and one set from the fore limbs which prevent that force from pushing the horse down.  The conundrum is that the harder the hind limbs push and the longer they stay on the ground (so, increased engagement), the greater the tendency is for this force to rotate the horse onto the forehand.  When the hind limbs trail behind the horse, the force pushes the horse onto the forehand.  The role of the forelimbs becomes to maintain an uphill balance and counteract the tendency to fall forward.

Clayton reminded us that horses as a species have adapted to be “cursorial” (aka runners).  Cursorial species have limbs with certain qualities; in particular, the weight of the limb is concentrated in the upper section, with heavy muscles around the hips and shoulders to control their movement.  Cursorial species have lightweight tendons in the lower limb, which is supported on a single digit (toe).  The length of a horse’slimbs is extended by being “unguligrade”, which simply means that they stand on their tip toes, as opposed to their flat toes (or digits, hence digitgrade, like cats and dogs) or plantigrade, like humans.  Our heel is roughly equivalent to the horse’s hock; therefore, we humans walk on the equivalent of the back of the cannon bone.

Cursorial species have long limbs and stand on tip toe for maximum speed.  "2014 Preakness Stakes stretch" by Maryland GovPics - Flickr: 139th Preakness Stakes. Licensed under CC BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
Cursorial species have long limbs and stand on tip toe for maximum speed. “2014 Preakness Stakes stretch” by Maryland GovPics – Flickr: 139th Preakness Stakes. Licensed under CC BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

Finally, cursorial animals have limbs which are “long in stance”, meaning that the body moves further forward over the grounded hoof, while also being “short in swing”, creating less inertia and making it easier to swing the leg forward.

The Forelimb Attachment and Support

As horses do not have a clavicle, there is no bony connection between their forelimbs and trunk.  Instead, the limbs are attached and supported by a network of muscles, tendons and ligaments.  In addition, the horse’s scapula is highly mobile and can rotate and move up, down, forward and backwards across the rib cage.

Extrinstic muscles attach the limbs to the body and move them relative to the body; the extrinsic muscles move the limbs forwards, backwards and sideways.

Intrinsic muscles provide attachments between limb bones and help to bend the joints.

The thoracic (sling) muscles suspend the ribcage between the forelimbs.  These muscles attach behind the scapula as well as to the cervical vertebrae and to the ribcage.  The Serratus ventralis thoracis muscle is the most important sling muscle; its contraction raises the ribcage.  When the sling muscles are engaged, the horse’s withers lift.  When they are relaxed, the withers are low and the horse rolls onto his forehand.  Therefore, to develop uphill balance, a rider must work to develop the ability of these muscles to engage and lift.

Image taken from:
Image taken from:

It is the equal activity of the left and right sling muscles which holds the ribcage centrally between the forelimbs.  However, horses must also learn to use these muscles unilaterally to raise and stabilize the rib cage when one of the front limbs is lifted.  In most horses, the sling muscles are weaker or less active on one side.

Riders will experience the effects of this asymmetry under saddle in particular when turning.  Horses tend to prefer to collapse their weight onto the inside shoulder and to push off of that limb, rather than taking the weight onto the outside forelimb, particularly on their weaker/less developed side.  Therefore, they actually have to learn to use the outer forelimb to support and lift the inner forelimb when turning.  This is opposite of their natural tendency when moving without a rider.

These polo ponies show how much a horse will naturally lean onto the inside forelimb and shoulder when turning. "Polo3-1-" by Ems (Emanuel Sanchez de la Cerda) - 18:50, 16. Mär. 2006 .. Ems .. 800×520 (292.111 Bytes) (* Bildbeschreibung: Sal. Oppenheim Cup Finale 2005 * Fotograf/Zeichner: Emanuel Sanchez de la Cerda (~~~) * Datum: 26.06.2005 18:00). Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0de via Wikimedia Commons -
These polo ponies show how much a horse will naturally lean onto the inside forelimb and shoulder when turning.
“Polo3-1-” by Ems (Emanuel Sanchez de la Cerda) – 18:50, 16. Mär. 2006 .. Ems .. 800×520 (292.111 Bytes) (* Bildbeschreibung: Sal. Oppenheim Cup Finale 2005 * Fotograf/Zeichner: Emanuel Sanchez de la Cerda (~~~) * Datum: 26.06.2005 18:00). Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0de via Wikimedia Commons –

The Forelimb in Motion

As was mentioned earlier, the horse’s scapula is highly mobile due to a lack of a clavicle.  When it slides upwards, the withers are down; when the scapula slides downwards, the withers are raised, and when it slides backwards, the shoulder is tucked in.  To see the full range of the scapula was truly impressive, and for me it drove home the importance of ensuring that the horse’s saddle is not impeding this movement.

The entire forelimb rotates around the upper scapula, at the insertion point of the S. ventralis thoracis muscle.  As the limb rotates forward, the point of shoulder moves up and the scapula rotates backwards.  The elbow muscles drive the movements of the distal limb in the swing phase of the stride.

When seen from the side, you can observe the degree of protraction, or how much the leg swings forward, and retraction, how much it swings back.  From the front, you can observe adduction, how much the horse’s limb swings towards and across the midline, and abduction, how much the limb moves away from the midline.

This Trakhener is showing both the protraction of the right forelimb and the retraction of the left.  Note that the horse's trunk is being pulled forward over the retracted limb.   "Trakhener - Dressur Erstes 2". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
This Trakhener is showing both the protraction of the right forelimb and the retraction of the left. Note that the horse’s trunk is being pulled forward over the retracted limb.
“Trakhener – Dressur Erstes 2”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

Throughout the stance phase of the stride, the horse’s forelimb is retracted.  The trunk is pulled forward over the grounded hoof.  In the swing phase of the stride, the forelimb is protracted, then retracted; the retraction during the swing phase helps to reduce the forces of concussion on the limb.

As the degree of collection increases, the legs move through a smaller range of motion and become more vertical at contact and lift off, which facilitates the elevation of the horse’s forehand. The trapezius, pectoral muscles and the bones of the shoulder and forelimb work together to help turn the horse, as well as to execute lateral movements like leg yield or half pass.

Horses naturally lean into their turns and use their forelimbs to push outward to generate a turning force.   This is why horses will feel as though they are leaning in on their stiffer side.  Through training, dressage horses are taught to maintain a vertical position while turning.

No wonder lateral movements take so much practice—think of the coordination involved and also how much the horse must resist his natural tendency to lean in!

More on the Sling Muscles

The sling muscles which support the horse’s shoulders and forelimb must be developed in the equine athlete.  Bilateral activity of these muscles contributes to good posture in the horse, and allows him to elevate his withers.  Unilateral activity develops the strength required to create straightness.

Due to the importance of the sling muscles, Clayton actually co-wrote a book with colleague Narelle Stubbs, which is full of exercises aimed at increasing the strength and coordination of this area, called Activate Your Horse’s Core: Unmounted Exercises for Dynamic Mobility, Strength and Balance, published in 2008 by Sport Horse Publications.

Clayton referred specific questions about exercises to this book, but mentioned that downhill slope training was a great way to increase the strength of a horse’s sling.  She says that walking, halting, and performing exercises like rein back up hill, half steps and lateral movements, on a downhill slope, all while preventing the horse from leaning on the bit, will help to activate the critical muscles.

Additional categories of helpful exercise include those which challenge coordination and balance; those which elevate the point of the shoulder, and those which increase the loading of the forehand.  Two specific examples Clayton provided were jumping and teaching the Spanish walk.

An Andalusian performing the Spanish walk.   "Spanish walk" by Photos and animation by User:Waugsberg - Own photographs - eigene Aufnahmen. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
An Andalusian performing the Spanish walk.
“Spanish walk” by Photos and animation by User:Waugsberg – Own photographs – eigene Aufnahmen. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

A Few Words on Asymmetry

Clayton concluded her lecture with some interesting comments on forelimb strength asymmetry, and how it reveals itself to the rider.

One of her first comments was that unequal strength between the right/left forelimbs can manifest itself as a head nod, especially in highly collected movements.  The head and neck of the horse will be raised as the weaker limb pushes off, due to the horse using the strength of their neck to lift the limb up.  This is the same mechanism a horse uses in the case of lameness, so it takes a careful eye to distinguish the difference.  This weakness is most obvious in piaffe and pirouettes.

Another way that this asymmetry is detectable is through uneven rein tension.  Most horses take an uneven contact on the left versus the right rein, but the position of the head/neck, as well as small amounts of bending or twisting at the poll, can further affect the difference in rein tension.    This is particularly notable when the horse’s shoulders are not straight, as when they fail to lift the inside shoulder when turning.  Typically the rider will feel the heavier weight on the weaker side.


Clayton wrapped her talk with a brief summary of some ideal conformation points of the shoulder and humerus, specifically relating these body components to how the conformation will affect the mechanics of the forelimb. She also discussed what her research has shown regarding diagonal dissociation—basically, it is more common that we thought, and not a bad thing in most cases—and entertained a question and answer session for the audience.

Shoulder Angle

All in all, quite an enlightening lecture.  Understanding a bit more about the biomechanics of the forelimb really helps to highlight the critical significance of correct conformation as well as the constant stresses placed upon these important structures.