Over the weekend of Feb 7-8, I had the great joy of auditing a Hawley Bennett clinic at my barn. I chose not to ride in the clinic for financial reasons, but I knew I’d be auditing and checking out all the action for the two days regardless. And I have to tell you, I am dying with jealousy and am definitely riding with Hawley the next time she comes to visit, because she is an amazing clinician and I cannot wait to benefit even more from her knowledge.
The first thing that got me feeling a little jealous was the course Hawley sent us for Saturday. It consisted of a large 20-stride circle with 4 jumps placed equidistant around it. Coming off either side of the circle along the long sides of the arena were a 6-stride to 2-stride combination and a 4-stride to 2-stride combination. Arranged in the middle were a 4-stride and 1-stride combo perpendicular to one another. As we set the course on Friday we really struggled to squeeze all the jumps into our indoor, which is just a little longer and wider than a long dressage court, but we made it happen! With the judicious use of some of our shorter jump poles.
Hawley schooled groups of 3-4 riders from elementary all the way up to training level, and there was a lot to learn for each group. From the beginning, Hawley asked for precision from the riders. On the circle everyone was expected to warm up over very low jumps (6-12” off the ground) getting a steady five strides around the circle. As the first horse moved through the exercise we noticed that one side of the circle seemed longer than the other, but after adjusting one set of standards by about three feet Hawley declared that for any other problems the riders “will have to figure it out.” Nobody was excepted from the 5-strides exercise, from the smallest to the largest horses, and Hawley focused on the minor, but crucial, adjustments that helped each rider get the striding right.
For example, if someone got six strides on one side, Hawley called out for them to hold for the five – instead of giving in to their instinct to kick their horse foreward and therefore get four in the next set. Instead, if you hold steady and keep your line and a quality canter, you’re more likely to make five. She also encouraged riders to really think of sitting up to half halt with the seat without touching the reins, and absolutely abhorred clucking. “Cluck at your horse without your leg or your hand and show me what he actually does,” she challenged the riders, “Use your legs, and use your whip.”
Another very useful gem from this exercise came when several horses struggled to get their leads in this seemingly-repetitive exercise. Hawley asked those riders to think really carefully about their hip placement and bring their hips in on the circle. I struggled to understand what Hawley meant the first few times she explained this, but after carefully scrutinizing her from behind as she demonstrated from the ground, I finally got it. If you swing your butt to the outside, with both your hips off-center, then your horse’s outside leg will be weighted, and it’s not possible for him to get his lead. Instead, bring your hips back under you and weight that inside seat bone. This too went for asking your horse to yield off your inside leg. As riders moved out off the circle, the challenge became getting the right number of strides in the combos. Each course started with at least three jumps on the circle, and then riders generally had to extend the canter to make the striding on the combinations. As they came back from the course and finished on the circle once again, riders had to collect their horses back up and make the five strides – a major challenge. One of the big benefits of this, Hawley said, is teaching you to ride your whole course. How many of us see the last fence in sight, barrel down to it, and have suffered a rail, refusal, or other disaster there? It’s lost Rolex for a few riders! Instead, collect to that last fence, and don’t sacrifice those points!
In this exercise, as in everything, Hawley demanded straightness (no drifting!) and precision – she didn’t want riders throwing their horses at fences to make distances, she wanted tight, accurate riding, with clean corners and crisp transitions. This was a hallmark of her instructions – just making the course wouldn’t do, you had to do it Hawley’s way. “You won’t always have to ride like this in competition,” she pointed out, about the strong emphasis on collection and riding the whole arena, “but it’s good to have it in your pocket if you need it.”
The second day of the clinic dawned on a new course, which Hawley set before we started. She got creative with a faux-coffin made out of a tarp and a few poles, lots of step poles into a combination, and several bending lines. One again, Hawley forced riders to focus on their canter into, out of, and through the jumps. “BOUNCY!” she called time and time again. “Make the canter bouncy!”
Hawley also taught us her method of introducing or re-introducing horses to skinny fences: instead of just running them at the fence, she had riders trot up to a skinny flower box, then collectedly walk and halt in front of it. After patting their horse and letting them sniff the obstacle, they had to reinback at least five steps, halt again, and then make a very sharp turn at the walk away from the obstacle. “When you ride a skinny, you want to be collected and up, like in your halt position,” Hawley told each group, “so ideally, your body is in the right position when you come up to it, and your horse knows you’re going over it. I’ve always been taught, a run out is the rider’s fault. A stop is the horse’s fault.” Hawley also encouraged riders not to turn their horses away from obstacles immediately after a runout, as it doesn’t teach the horse anything. Instead, she wanted them to re-present the obstacle, halt, pat, and then reinback. If the obstacle was small, the horses then jumped it from a trot 1-2 canter strides away, proving to themselves and their riders that they were neither incompetent nor fearful!
This course once again asked horses to get more and fewer strides in the same lines, depending on the turns they had to make afterwards. Each group had at least one bending line where they were expected to jump the skinny and make a 90 degree turn in 3 strides to the coffin! And you know what? Everybody made it! Because they had the canter they needed to be handy around that turn.
As an auditor, I learned a ton from this clinic with Hawley, and am very glad that my instructor has left the course up so I’ll have a chance to ride it this week in my lesson. It was a fantastic reminder for jumping as we get back into things for the year, that adjustability, accuracy, and solid riding basics are key, and that forcing ourselves to be extra on top of these things at home will make for better show rides. If you have the opportunity to ride with Hawley sometime in the future I highly recommend it!