This past weekend saw the latest installment of the West Coast USEF High Performance Training Sessions. In attendance was World Class pair Kristi Nunnink and R-Star in addition to Eventing 25/Developing Riders Marc Grandia, Avery Klunick, Jordan Lindstedt, Zach Brandt, and myself. We missed seeing Teresa Harcourt and Mackenna Shea this weekend, but we are sure they were at home working hard!
First of all, I want to start off by reminding everyone how incredibly fortunate we are as riders and auditors to have access to these training sessions. I was able to bring a second horse to school with David, and many others came from around the area to ride with him as well and benefit from his seemingly unlimited source of insight and experience. The fact that these Training Sessions are not only free to audit but also open to outside riders is something we should all be grateful for when we consider the fact that almost every other US Olympic team severely restricts access to their training sessions and coaches. We are all blessed to get a sneak peek into the inner workings of what David has in store for Team USA.
But this sense of community and public involvement is a major talking point for David. On Friday night “we” — riders, coaches, spectators, parents, boyfriends, girlfriends, and everyone else possibly involved with the sport – were invited to a wonderful dinner hosted by Victoria Klein. David spoke to us about his beginnings with the USET and how it takes a group of supporters and believers, how it takes a COUNTRY to get a rider to a podium. He inspired many of us with the question, “Four riders in this country will go to the Olympics. How many will be from this room?” He also spoke about his goal to improve the standard of riding in this country and making sure that riders are studying the craft of their sport; he feels that if we are focused on becoming great riders we can then produce great horses. And as a rider our jobs are to make average horses good, good horses great, and great horses superstars. David definitely electrified the room with his passion and emotion.
David’s passion and commitment is also evident in his teaching. Those of us riding and watching and setting fences throughout the weekend would have been hard pressed to overlook the intensity of his desire to see us improve, learn, and grow as riders; it was also rewarding to see him grin and nod his head every time he thought we “got it” or every time he recognized an improvement since the beginning of our training in January. I can’t tell you how great it is to hear him say “Perfect!” or give you his simple thumbs up as he turns his head to the next rider in line. You really feel like you have accomplished something, to get approval from DOC!
The lessons this weekend focused on fine-tuning our riding as many of us prepare to set out for Rebecca Farms, but David has a way of always bringing it back to the fundamentals, even as we polish our techniques. On Thursday we all worked on our dressage, but I don’t think a single one of us did any lateral work or practiced any test movements. We didn’t even have a dressage court ring set up. Instead we worked on the “tools” that we will need in the show ring, the subtle aids and lines of communication that will be necessary parts of every movement. With my horse –and many others – we worked on the transitions between working and collected and super-collected gaits and also the transitions between gaits; David is adamant about looking for a change in the horse’s body or footsteps, and we are each striving to get our horses dialed in to the point that we can get a big change with little work from us. It should be as seamless as possible and the horse should be waiting for the most subtle cues. Most of us also worked on straightness and getting the horse to take weight evenly on the hind end. It is common that horses will let their hips fall to the outside of the direction of travel, so we worked on moving the shoulders over so as to be farther outside than the haunches, and in this way encouraging the horse to take more weight more evenly behind. It was subtle to feel as a rider, but very clear to see when I watched other riders execute the same exercise.
Many of the Developing Riders were wary of David’s plans for us as we set up the fences for Day 2. One exercise included four verticals set down the long side of the ring, side-by-side, 24 feet between each. As he introduced the exercise Friday morning, he said that we would eventually be jumping each, weaving down the line in four strides or less. My eyes were probably bulging when he said that. But as we progressed from jumping and turning over the first and third to jumping on a very open loop from one to the next to closing down the angle and jumping on a shallow serpentine over all four fences, it started to not only be possible but fun! The horses started to hunt for the next fence and we started riding thinking about “next;” we had to not only think about the pace we needed to successfully execute each fence, but also the angle of the line and where we needed to be LANDING in order to negotiate all the fences. By the end of the ride, many of us were able to ride from vertical to vertical in THREE strides and the horses were eating it up. I will also say that this exercise improved the form of one of my horses as he had to make a separate effort both front end and back to not clip the fence on such a drastic angle and be precise about his landing gear. He was very supple and careful by the conclusion of the exercise.
The precision of our landing/line and encouraging the horse to hunt the next fence was the theme that carried over to Day 3, when we worked on cross country exercises. Some of us schooled on the cross country course at the HorsePark and some of us stayed in the ring but, regardless, David was adamant that we think about landing in a specific spot – a circle on the back side of the fence about 1 meter in diameter. As we started to focus on that precision, we also became more aware of the things happening underneath of us – such as drifting left or drifting right – and only when we are aware of the problem can we fix it! It was an eye-opening reminder to be in-the-moment and aware, not just going from one fence to the next.
I personally feel that the most incredible part of participating in the Training Sessions has been watching the friendships develop between the riders and David and watching everyone give back as much as they are taking away. The barn aisle is full of shenanigans and jokes as we each tend to our horses and there is plenty of teasing to go around as we all try with varying success to negotiate the exercises David sets for us. We are all also pretty comfortable teasing David about his Diet Coke addiction at this point. But beyond that, we are all also sharing in each other’s successes and stand behind each other 100%. And for every minute we spend getting instruction, we spend twice that long in the ring setting fences, raking the arena, and watching the other riders and horses go through the same series of struggles and victories as we all strive to improve and become better horsemen.
I know I speak on behalf of the Eventing 25/Developing Riders as well as World Class rider Kristi Nunnink when I say that we are ceaselessly appreciative of the opportunity we have been given to work with David at incredible facilities such as the HorsePark at Woodside, and we appreciate all of the hard work that goes into putting on these training sessions. David O’Connor and Joanie Morris put in looooooong days to see that we all improve and learn. We also owe a big thank you to the United States Equestrian Federation and all of its members for investing money in us as we pursue our dreams of excellence.