Notes from the David O'Connor clinic, day one: Dressage
On a lovely, breezy day in Benton, LA, a crowd of eventing enthusiasts gathered at Holly Hill Farm to learn at the feet of one of the kings of the sport: David O'Connor. Alas, due to a tragic accident, Karen O'Connor couldn't be with us today, but I can't imagine getting any more out of a day's lessons than I did watching David.
First, I would like to thank Tracy and Bob Hewlett not only for hosting this incredible clinic, but also for letting us audit for no charge. I can say without a doubt that it was worth the 10 hour drive from Lubbock.
David began all the lessons with a chat: who are you? Who is your horse? What would you like to work on? And so forth. Then he allowed the participants (two per lesson, which means everyone got a LOT of attention) to warm up as they would normally. Watching the riders closely, David worked out for himself how well the strengths and weaknesses meshed with what the riders had articulated.
Once he'd observed the warm up, he again called the riders over to him, and this time he engaged the riders in a theoretical discussion, one that resonated with the level of rider yet covered similar territory. What is the purpose of dressage? What is the purpose of collection? Why bend? What do hands and feet do? What are the responsibilities of the rider? And so forth. Most of these questions were met with halting responses from the riders, but eventually David answered his questions (or elaborated on a participant's answer), and then set out to illustrate, either right there, or by beginning the lesson.
The main goal for the dressage lesson today seemed to center around lengthening and collecting using the rider's seat. These transitions within the gait were impressive with the upper level riders. David encouraged all riders to “make it obvious”--it can become subtle later on. I was impressed at how the upper level riders took his advice to heart; they weren't afraid (or perhaps they were simply balanced enough to try) to exaggerate their position, to “make it obvious” by really working their hips up and down to get the collection, and to swing them long and low to get the lengthening. One of the suggestions that David made again and again was to “place your weight in the pads of the stirrup—press up and down against the stirrup pads” as means of aiding collection, a concrete example that almost everyone understood. Other bits of advice: “Use the saddle like a springboard” and “think of it like a trampoline”. In an attempt to get the participants to USE their bodies—particularly their seat, which David noted spanned from the rider's knee to her upper rib cage—he encouraged riders to think of the reins ONLY AFTER using their seat. He reminded riders over and over NOT to collect using reins first.
One of the surprising edicts I heard over and over again was “no bending!” Particularly the inside bend: David was adamant about the fact that riders should NOT be bending the inside before they established balance and rhythm and straightness. He even encouraged several riders to counterbend their horses, and others to strive for straightness rather than an inside bend, because the horse needed to learn balance and straightness first before learning to bend. “How does a horse in the pasture run?” he asked participants. “Do they bend to the inside?” Most riders answered that no, they tend to look up or outside. “If that's natural, then let's use that, rather than starting with step three before we've mastered one and two.” I know I'll be changing the way I ride a circle for a while.
“The rider's responsibilities” David maintained “are first direction (telling the horse where to go) and speed (telling the horse how fast to go). The rider must choose these two, then make sure she gives the horse consistent aids." He continued: “When you drive a car or ride a bike, do you think about going straight? No! You look ahead, THINK ahead, and go. Do the same with your horse.” Pressure, he noted, is the means by which we get reactions/give directions. We put pressure on, and when we get a reaction, we take the pressure off.
At every level, the riders concentrated on the direction they were given. The rare “There you go!” was a well-earned reward from David for a job well done.
Whenever a rider collected the horse, David would encourage: “Think Piaffe! Think Passage! Whenever you collect, be thinking at that level. Try for that level.”
David warned that the lessons learned today would come back to haunt them every day during the next four days. "During stadium and cross country, we will be coming back to these basic concepts of collection and lengthening, of going faster and slower within gaits."
Participants in the clinic needed to be in good shape (as did their horses)....riders worked consistently in the trot and canter, lengthening and collecting within the gaits for nearly an hour with few breaks. Many of the riders looked exhausted, but no one complained; they were too busy learning, and the expectations were high. David challenged the riders to “explode” in their lengthenings, and to come back to their collection with energy. He encouraged riders to work on faster, smoother transitions. It might have taken fifteen steps to “get” the transition during the clinic; they should work at home on getting it in three. “Learn to move with your horse; they are more responsive when you move with them” David intoned.
In an attempt to illustrate for some of the lower level riders what he meant by “be obvious,” David mounted one of the participant's horses and illustrated a leg yield and shoulder in with exaggerated side-to-side hip movement (so much so that he got a few catcalls and applause from the auditors). Always a good sport, David laughed and continued with a verbal illustration: “when a horse is young, you need to turn it by pulling the rein. Later, you're able to apply a more subtle aid like sponging.”
One of the more memorable quotes: “I learn more by copying other riders I admire than almost anything else”. In my line, that would be the Greek concept of imitatio/mimesis.
“The purpose of dressage,” David said, “is twofold: First, we need to learn to communicate with our horses. Second, we want to establish better coordination/develop a better athlete.” That pretty much sums up what this first day of the clinic was all about.