Joe Fargis Clinic Exercise 1: Chute Exercise

If you are privileged enough to ride in a clinic, any clinic, treat it as though you are riding in front of Queen Elizabeth II on royal parade. Clean every part of your tack, your equipment and your horse’s equipment until it shines. It’s a sign of respect for yourself, your horse, and the individual who teaching you.

If you are auditing a clinic, please be considerate of your fellow auditors by turning off your cell phone and foregoing chatter. If you must say something, whisper. If you need to take a call, leave the auditing area. People have paid to hear the clinician, not you.

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to audit sections of a clinic given by Joe Fargis, winner of the individual Olympic Gold medal in show jumping at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

The clinic was held at stunning Knightsbridge Farm, a hunter/jumper/equitation facility operated by Mary Babick in Middletown, NJ. Many thanks to Sarah Doehler, owner of First Edition Farm in Whitehouse Station, NJ, and trainer of one of the students in the clinic, for inviting me.

On Saturday I caught the last session, for riders who regularly jumped at 3’6” or higher. Joe asked them to warm the horses up on a loose rein, and by loose, he meant on the buckle. It was chilly, and quite a few of the horses were frisky. Joe told the riders not to interfere or to fight, rather to just let the horses be fresh and get the excess energy out. “Don’t panic when they’re fresh, just be loose. Let them be. It takes two to fight, two to pull. They’re just being horses.”

As everyone warmed up Joe assessed the riders’ positions. Nothing escaped his notice, from position faults to unused saddle pad straps (“Cut them off if you don’t use them!”  Joe considers them like a stone in your shoe and feels they can irritate a horse’s back.)  Riders were told to sit up without stiffening and to “Put your shoulder blades in your back pocket.” He asked them to imagine they were like the African tribeswomen who carried laundry in baskets on their head; the women had to stand upright in order for their load to stay balanced. He also cautioned the riders with quick horses that leaning forward could exacerbate the problem, “If you lean forward the horse rushes to catch up.” One rider had a habit of leaning forward and looking down, and he cautioned her, saying, “Imagine you’re driving – you need to look where you’re going!”

Riders were reminded regularly to raise their ands, to make certain they had a straight line from elbow through the hand to the bit for maximum leverage, elasticity, and sympathetic connection with the horse’s mouth. “Imagine you’re connected to the bit with a rubber band,” he said. The idea was to get the horse to reach out to take the bit from you, not for the rider to pull the horse into a false frame.

Joe asked the riders to drop their stirrups to work on getting their legs long and wrapped around the horse. He then had all the riders come in on a circle around him, nose to tail with a horse’s body length in between, which forced them to work to regulate their horse’s gaits. As if that wasn’t challenging enough, Joe then asked the riders to leg yield in on the circle, and then leg yield out. Many riders had difficulty getting their horses to offer a true leg yield with the legs crossing over. Joe pushed the riders to work harder, and use their leg aids more effectively, stressing that every detail matters when training horses, and “unless you practice it exactly you’ll never it will never be exact.”

The next exercise concentrated on controlling the shoulders. Joe asked the riders to follow each other down the long side and when the first rider was almost to the end of the long side and the last rider had just started down he asked them all to do a small circle. Let’s just say tat the first couple tries did not exactly look like a drill of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Once he was satisfied with the circles, Joe had them all trot down the long side, prepare the horse for the left turn, turn and cross the ring, turn right at the wall and trot up the opposite long side. At each turn Joe would caution the riders “Don’t lose the outside shoulder. Keep the outside rein contact steady, don’t let the outside rein contact break.” Again, at first it wasn’t the RCMP, but definite progress happened once the riders were able to discern the difference between left and right.

The next exercise consisted of 3 chutes of parallel poles lined up on the center line. Initially the riders practiced walking and maintaining straightness through the chutes, then trot to walk to trot transitions, with each transition occurring within the chute. Then the riders were asked to canter in, transition to a trot in the middle chute, and then pick up a canter on the opposite lead. The final part of this exercise was to canter in, do a simple change of lead through the trot in the first chute, canter to the next chute and do a simple change through the trot in that chute, canter to the final chute, do another simple change, and then canter. Easier read than done, right?

Excercise 2: Day 1 Gymnastic

The final exercise of the day was a gymnastic with a tight turn (again, controlling the shoulders) to 2 trot poles set in

Joe Fargis Clinic: Gymnastic Exercise

front of a pile of poles and then two strides to another pile of poles and another two strides to a third pile of poles and then a chute. Some of the riders were so busy concentrating on the poles and the striding that they forgot the initial portion of the exercise and lost control of the shoulders on the turn, resulting in a bit of awkwardness. Some of the horses and riders wanted to rush the poles, and Joe urged the riders “Don’t let the jump be a big event. Sigh. Just sigh and gently ask the horse to gear down, he’ll come back.”

I see where the sighing thing comes from. I hold my breath, which causes tension and transmits to the horse, but really, when a horse is making a serious bid and dragging you to a fence, it can be difficult to sigh. However, if you’ve ever watched the great Ludger Beerbaum ride, you can see him letting out great gusts of air between pursed lips. I’ve often wondered if this is a purposeful relaxation technique, or just something he happens to do.

After a couple trips, Joe raised the pile of poles after the trot poles to a small vertical. Again, those that cut the turn or let the shoulders budge had problems with the trot poles and the vertical, and had a bit of work to do in order to recover for the 2 sets of poles set on the two strides.

Joe then set the second set of poles as a second vertical, and the riders went through that. When some had difficulty, Joe told them they needed to worry less about the jump itself and more about control before and after the jump. “You need to recover more quickly and balance the horse up!” He then tested the group’s ability to do exactly that even further by setting the final poles as an oxer.

Even as the riders were negotiating the exercise, Joe was on them to correct flaws in their position as well as their execution. It’s very clear to anyone watching him that function very much follows form in his mind, which, if you watched McLain Ward’s session at the recent George Morris Horsemastership Training Session, you know is a big theme for McLain as well.

Joe ended the session by pressing the easy button for both horse and rider. After the group had finished to full run through, he tested their learning by taking the oxer away, then the second vertical, and then he asked the riders to simply trot over the trot poles and vertical and gently transition the horse to the walk and then a halt while keeping the straightness. You could hear several of the riders and horses sigh in relief as they were able to end on a relaxing and successful note.

It’s amazing when you have the opportunity to listen to the great ones teach. You almost walk in expecting miraculous revelations to spew like gospel from their lips, when really, what they say are variations on the same theme. It may just be how they say it that makes more sense to you. For example, when I rode with Eric Horgan, he encouraged us to think of what we were doing with the horse as a dialogue, not a series of orders. We were to think of ourselves as engaged in daily training, or a series of conversations with our partner (eg. a dialogue).

Again, if you watched the recent George Morris Horsemastership Training Sessions on the USEF Network, you’d have seen Kent Farrington stress the same thing in his session. Kent said over and over again how you needed to work as a partner with your horse, as a team, which is another way of saying you need to have a dialogue. McLain Ward called it being sympathetic. In this clinic, Joe encouraged riders to do things “gently.” He would ask them to “gently” transition to another gait, or “gently” gear down, or ask them to “prepare” their horses for a movement.

I would say that this is another way of making sure your riding is all about the details, with the most important detail being your communication with your partner, the horse.

More to come from Day 2 later…