Phillip Dutton at Rolex Kentucky - photo by Jennifer Pavlinich

The science and art of watching the masters ride….

One of the reasons Dressage At Devon fills the grandstand for the Grand Prix freestyle rides is to watch the masters perform. And try and figure out what they are doing that gets the horses to look so good and go so well.

One of the ways you can start your journey to learning how the masters do it, is to take a day of your life and volunteer as a jump judge at any recognized horse trial in the western hemisphere.

Not only are you welcomed and thanked, and probably get a free sandwich and bottle of water, but you should be able to take the opportunity to watch a boatload of good (and some not so good) riders negotiate your obstacle.

For instance, yesterday a friend and I volunteered at the Fair Hill August Horse Trials, and we got to see, among others, Ryan Wood, Sally McKechnie Lofting, Nina Ligon, Sinead Halpin, and the great World Champion Bruce Davidson, among others, display their expertise on the cross country field.

Just watching Bruce gallop a young horse through the field, is a lesson in and of itself. He keeps all of his horses dead straight, every stride, between hand and leg.

They are not wasted by wandering through the field from fence to fence on crooked lines, or left to bulge out or canter sideways. He fixes it if they do. He jumps the absolute center of each fence unless he has a reason to be left or right of center. He does this on every horse, at every level at every jump on the course.

Bruce Davidson on Expensive Playmate, owned by Sophie DuPont - Photo by H. Covey

This careful and long practiced skill, just keeping a horse straight, is awesome to see. Watch riders like the above names whenever you can, and your own area professionals, and see how the horses go. Watch them insist, time after time, that the horses land on the correct lead, and they fix it if they don’t.

They make mistakes and miss distances, but if they do, they do all they can to let go of the horse’s mouth and not land on his back.

They care more about after the jump, than before the jump. They don’t make big moves, they don’t ride violently or irritate a horse. They know confidence in horses is hard to gain and easily lost with just one tug or kick.

Their horses may be green, and you can see their ears flicking, eyes rolling and looking, and occasionally they’ll do something naughty, but the top pros never let that get to them personally – at least in public.

You also learn something about stride length and jumping bascule by watching a series of cross country obstacles that ask a horse to adjust its stride or listen to the rider’s choice of fence, or jump a narrow skinny obstacle when there is a lot of room not to. The more horses you watch at training, preliminary and intermediate level, the more you learn about what a horse wants to do, and what they have to do, and how much influence a rider has.

Can’t afford a clinic? Not enough nerve for a lesson?

Then go out and jump judge and watch your favorite eventing hero negotiate obstacles on green horses. It’s the most fun, cheapest, all-day-long lesson you’ll ever have.

Watch Bruce Davidson and Expensive Playmate at the Ocala Horse Trials in February 2011

Bruce Davidson and Expensive Playmate – Part 2 Ocala Horse Trials