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Saturday 30 August 2014

Golden advice from O'Connor can create the best event horses

Caitriona Murphy

Published 23/01/2013 | 06:00

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"Use your seat first and your hands second" and "Give is the most important aid" were among numerous valuable nuggets of advice offered to riders when schooling their event horses at the Horse Sport Ireland (HSI) National Coaching Conference 2012.

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Given that the advice came from Olympic gold medallist and former Badminton winner David O'Connor, the advice was immediately filed away in the memories of all the riders present in the 300-strong audience.

During his prolific career, the revered American rider collected individual gold at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 on the Irish bred horse Custom Made, as well as team bronze at Sydney and team silver at Atlanta in 1996.

Also secure in his trophy cabinet are two Pan American Games medals and two World Equestrian Games medals.

Having turned his attention to coaching, O'Connor took the Canadian eventing team to a silver team medal at the World Equestrian Games in 2010.

During a fascinating presentation at the HSI coaching conference, the current president of the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF), outlined the main areas that riders needed to focus on to produce a well-schooled and successful event horse.

For the flatwork phase, he listed six key areas: rhythm, looseness/relaxation, contact and acceptance of the aids, impulsion, straightness and finally, collection.

When working any horse, he told the audience that establishing a rhythm was to ensure that each gait was 'pure' (ie: the trot must be two-beat, the canter three-beat and so on).

Mr O'Connor also stressed the importance of looseness and relaxation in the horse.

"Looseness and relaxation are interlinked," he told the conference delegates.

"When the horse is loose and relaxed, he has the ability to step in whatever direction you want him to."

YIELDING

He advised riders to use exercises like leg yielding, shoulder in and haunches in to enhance the looseness of the horse throughout his body.

"You need to flex those joints in order to ask the horse to take weight on those joints," he said.

When discussing contact and acceptance of the aids, the former Olympic rider said too many people taught their horses to ignore their aids.

"You need still, quiet and light contact with the horse's mouth," he insisted. "And you need to teach your horse where 'neutral' is in terms of a contact."

He added that softening or giving with the hands as the most important aid when schooling a horse.

"If my horse knows what neutral is, then he learns that if I move my hands or seat, it means something," he explained.

"When giving aids, you should always use your seat first and your hands second to communicate with the horse."

This advice was carried into an afternoon practical demonstration which featured some of Ireland's top senior Olympic and underage riders, in which he stressed the difference between a galloping position and a jumping position.

Moving onto the show jumping phase, the coach stressed the importance of developing rhythm, beginning with simply trotting and cantering over poles on the ground and moving onto to similar exercises over cavaletti.

He urged riders to use a simple small vertical fence as a warm up fence every time they jumped.

"I call these 'shape' exercises," he told the audience as he placed a pole on the ground 9ft from a small vertical fence and another 10ft on the ground on the landing side.

As he developed the exercise he removed the ground poles and added a back pole to make the fence an oxer.

Next, he added a pole on the top of the fence spanning the oxer diagonally from the front pole to the back pole.

Once each horse jumped this from a good rhythmical approach and straight, he began to dramatically increase the width of the oxer to encourage the horses to stretch over it.

Finally, the coach set up a small vertical fence and a small oxer on an unrelated distance, which he used to encourage the horses to collect and lengthen their strides between the two jumps.

CANTER

During the demonstration, the riders rode between five and nine strides, although Mr O'Connor said he would expect more advanced horses to be able to fit up to 10 collected canter strides in.

When asked about core strength work for event horses, the former Olympian stressed the importance of lateral work and hill work, adding that about 70pc of his flatwork with horses at home was done in a field instead of an arena.

"It's about attention to detail rather than the environment," he insisted.

"Use trees, patches of grass, anything as a marker to make your work accurate."

Finally, he added that young horses, which he considered horses up to the age of seven to be, needed to take lots of breaks during schooling.

He suggested that horses should be worked for five to 10 minutes and given a two-minute break.

As already mentioned, Mr O'Connor was insistent that riders needed to communicate with their horses through their seat and body position.

"The galloping position is out of the saddle, with the upper body more forward, while the jumping position is also out of the saddle but with the upper body more upright," he explained to the audience.

"If you are consistent, then the minute you take a more upright position, its signals to your horse that you will be setting up for a jump."

The rider should only sit down in the saddle for a narrow fence or a tight turn, he added.

Changes of speed required for different fence types, fence width, terrain and what might be coming up after the next fence, could easily be signalled to the horse by the rider's body position changing, he told the audience.

The Olympic coach also urged riders to be prepared for a fence well before the approach.

"You should be finished fixing by five strides away," he insisted.

"After that, anything you try to do will only interfere with the horse and the rhythm."

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