I was fortunate enough to recently be invited to ride in a clinic that will hopefully be the first of many – the USEF Young Horse Program Benefit Clinic, hosted by David Blake and Rebecca Rigdon at Ad Astra Stables in Encinitas, CA.

Ringside tables


The Details – This lovely and intimate clinic experience was held over two days, with horse and rider pairs representing the following categories on each day – 4 year olds, 5 year olds, 6 year olds, 7 year olds, 8 year olds/PSG, Intermediare II, Grand Prix.  Presentations by USEF Sport Horse and ‘S’ Dressage judge Arlene Rigdon on conformation and biomechanics prefaced the riders, and even when multiple riders were in the arena as was the case with some age groups, clinician and National Young Horse coach Christine Traurig switched off and gave each horse and rider pair ample individual coaching.  Shopping was available with a booth set up by Horse and Rider Boutique, and there was a fundraising silent auction full of luxe prizes like a custom pair of Deniro Boots, a flight up the west coast in a private plane, a weekend getaway vacation package in Las Vegas, and much more.  The $50 auditors fee generously included seating at shaded ringside tables complete with bottles of chilled (surprisingly drinkable) Prosecco, and above average sandwiches, desserts, and other hors d’oeuvres.

Warm up day, I like to call this frame “giraffe”

Day 1, Warm up – My goal for both Isley and my first clinic was simply – to not fall off (of course I always want to learn and have a nice experience and blah blah blah – but mostly, please God don’t let me fall off in front of all these people, amen).  I trailered in with friend and fellow rider Lehua Custer, and while there was no check in (possibly due to a late evening arrival), after a little stroll around the property we easily figured things out.  I could write sonnets about the footing in every single arena on the property – The warm up arena seemed to have an additive of shredded yoga mats – even my boyfriend Heath commented on how nice it was (although I suspect he was referring to the pretty colors), while the clinic arena and the round pen contained a shredded carpeting addition that was fluffy and immaculate, and made me feel better about the prospect of falling off just by walking across it.  At one point I was lunging Isley in the round pen, and Heath and I were dead silent listening to his hooves thudding in the footing – it was that satisfying of a sound.  The arena where the clinic was to be held was already set up, and it was a lot of atmosphere.  Isley was tentative but took everything in stride with only minor “snorkeling” as I like to call it.  While he wouldn’t give me full relaxation, what we have been working on at home is starting to translate to off property work – even if only a little.  I had a long ride and schooled each gait with only one blow up at the canter which we worked through and from which we continued on immediately.  We were still having some residual shoulder control issues from hell-week at home, but for the most part we coped.  For schooling alone in an unfamiliar arena at dusk complete with ringside tables, chairs, umbrellas, and tents set up, he was fabulous. Have I mentioned that I love my baby?

Day 2, Clinic Day – The day of the clinic everything was relaxed and well organized, again without there needing to be anyone bustling around to check in on anything.  David and Rebecca were back and forth getting their various horses ready and participating in the clinic, and were so friendly and helpful in answering any errant questions.  There was a support staff of riders and grooms helping to braid and prepare horses who were capable of fulfilling any request, and my dear friend (and phenomenally talented rider) Anna Buffini was among them.  Upon realizing my bell boots were not quite as white as I could have hoped next to my new white polos, she volunteered herself in between braiding horses to go on a wild goose chase across the property to find me a pair – The girl was a godsend!

Not pictured – me trying to regain my outside stirrup frantically before Christine notices something is awry

I was riding in the first group of the day, a group that consisted of Isley and I, and Rebecca Rigdon on a stellar 4 year old named INXS who had most recently scored very well in the 4 year old young horse classes at Flintridge Dressage Show.  Isley had a mishap in the round pen (he suddenly realized his crazy mother had brought him to a very fancy shindig and attempted an escape) right before my ride time, so I entered the arena after Rebecca had already started, and warmed him up at the walk while Christine coached Rebecca.  Unfortunately it was immediately clear to me that Isley had zero gas in the tank after his long warmup the night before, and his shenanigans in the round pen.  Even getting a forward walk was proving to be difficult, I have not yet introduced him to spurs, so my whip was my only ally.  I also made a mistake at the beginning of my ride – Christine asked me how long Isley had been under saddle and I blanked and responded “about a year”.  Nina reminded me afterwards that while we started him in May of 2016, we spent about two months backing him in the round pen, and then from October 1st to January 1st he went on “winter break” and did not work, which I had completely forgotten about.  Isley did his best to execute and I did my best to not curse aloud as Christine coached us, and the principles that she presented to me (that I could hear above my muttering about spurs under my breath) were incredibly insightful and useful.  Some big takeaways for me are below – bonus points if you can pick out which ones were from Christine.

  • When you pick up the contact from the walk, the horse should feel like they are expecting to move forward, not to stop.  That is key in developing a “forward thinking” horse.
  • Age and stage appropriate contact is always the key, but no Grand Prix has been won with long reins.
  • Gina, see above.

    Reins at questionable lengths

  • If you are having to ask continually to get your horse more forward now, you will be begging for it later.
  • I’m definitely begging now so that can’t be good.
  • I’m more fit than Isley and I can barely get my groceries from the car to the house.
  • Although my horse was not nearly fit enough to present himself at 100%, I couldn’t be more proud of him for not quitting on me, and proud of myself for continuing to do the best I could to ride accurately.

At the end of my ride, Christine told me that Isley’s walk is a 9.  What a feeling to hear those words from someone as knowledgeable about young horses as Christine!  She was such a gracious clinician, and clearly is a huge benefit to the Young Horse Program.

Pretty sure my desperate panting was audible at this point

Overall – I had a wonderful first clinic experience.  My only regret was that I did not have a chance before my ride to communicate with Christine any info/history about Isley and I, what we have been working on and struggling with, and what we are working towards.  I think that I may have been the only rider/horse combo she was not familiar with, I was told afterwards that many of the riders at the clinic had just ridden the Carl Hester clinic, and she was familiar with them either from that or from previous events – so that was most likely an issue exclusive to me, but I would have loved the opportunity to give her a short summary of our past.  It was extremely rewarding to be told after my ride by an auditor that my ride was her favorite, because it’s what she learned the most from.  I am so grateful to Rebecca and Christine for inviting me to ride, and so encouraged that they are welcoming riders like myself to these events!  I’ve attended numerous clinics, and while the horse and rider pairs are often incredible to watch, the takeaway is sometimes discouraging instead of relatable and encouraging.  In my opinion – clinics are most successful when they inspire auditors to go get on their horse and conquer issues with the tools they have learned,  and that can only happen if there are issues presented that they relate to.  I love to support dressage whenever I can, and having an opportunity to ride in such a great clinic as an adult amateur helps to make educational events like clinics relatable to more riders so that the knowledge gained becomes the incentive to attend.  I’ve audited numerous “elite” clinics, and while it is incredible to watch, the takeaways when watching world class horse and rider pairs is sometimes overwhelming instead of relatable and encouraging.

I’m proud of my horse, my trainer was proud of me, and best of all – I’m kind of proud of myself?

And I didn’t fall off.