My riding friends and I often wistfully talk about how nice it would be to do only horses, and not work and horses, and envy the professional riders who get to spend all day on horseback. I know that when you do spend a lot of time riding, especially green competition horses, you not only become a terrific rider but you also learn how horses learn. But it’s a rare rider that can translate what they feel on the back of a horse to their brain, and then can translate education yet again with clarity and understanding to an amateur rider struggling to find balance, skill, and the right canter with a green horse, and do that all within a 45-minute session. Sometimes you have to ask someone if they would like to teach you and see what happens, and I think all the participants who worked recently with four-star eventer and professional rider Caitlin Silliman in my horse ‘hood were crazy about how well she does this.
Recently I organized my annual winter eventer’s clinics in my area where myself and friends enjoy some excellent instruction from a visiting upper level rider or instructor. This year we chose Caitlin Silliman, a top young horse rider for Boyd Martin. Her days are filled with “making” most of the young horses for Windurra, USA. On her own four-star mare, the incredible Catch A Star, she has competed at Rolex twice and recently finished fourth in the Fair Hill International CCI*** Three Day Event. Her vast experience over the past several years with some of the nation’s best event horses and prospects has left her with a huge knowledge bank, and those of us riding your horses got a chance to feel and see just a little bit of what she knows.
Things I learned:
Keeping fences low but the questions coming helps your horse, and you focus on the task. Starting with two simple trotting poles or cantering cavalleti exercises on a circle quickly showed us which side our horses were stiffest, and about keeping our legs on and keeping the bend consistent. Such a quiet little exercise with such important lessons about balance and bend.
In our first indoor clinic we set three sets of bounces, all offset to one another and worked first at the center, straight one, then progressively added the offset bounces at either end of the ring. For all the horses and riders from the more experienced on novice horses to the greener riders the exercises worked. Caitlin never hesitated to lower fences, drop the rails, return a vertical to an “x” for anyone in difficulty and even got on a reluctant horse for the rider. What was good? Her patience, confidence in what she was teaching, and the ingenuity of the exercises that could be built up for any of the more experienced jumpers. The horses began stiff, wiggly and reluctant and to a horse finished soft, listening and forward. That’s a lot to ask of a green horse in one hour but it worked!
In our second clinic, we worked in a lovely narrow indoor arena and had to work on tight turns and landing and finding a way to the jumps in the center. There was a lot of changes of direction requiring the horses to fix their leads multiple times in the session and again, great practice, good for learning balance and great for the young horses. Over and over, balance and power go hand in hand. While we weren’t setting the world on fire with our eyes for distances, our horses got a lot of practice going forward and finding distances for us, which is what we need as amateur riders.
Turns and planning for turns into jumps means you have to ride! Staying slightly back, keeping the horse in front of your leg, and letting them find the way to the distance works best. When Lucky dwelled a bit in the air, and landed a bit behind the leg, clucking to him and sending him on when he landed smoothed out the jumps and kept the energy. Keep him going forward when landing,I learned – makes the next question easier when he’s ready for it.
More things I learned: When a horse flips his head, keep your hands wide and don’t pull back; rather try to stay steady and side to side. They will stop eventually if you don’t pull on them; When you turn from one way to the other, open your rein on the side you want to go. You will train your horse to follow the open hand; fix the lead often and quickly, as soon as you can; and judging by how many times I was out of breath in a one-hour group session I need to work on my fitness!
I think we all learned that what a good professional knows can help us if we come with our horses ready to work and listen carefully. Then review what we learned, keep working on it, and by all means, try to have her come back to teach us again. If you would like to work with Caitlin you can contact her at Silliman Eventing.