I’ve been bitten by the clinic bug. This winter, I participated in my first clinic ever, with local hunter trainer and judge Scott DeHelian and had a wonderful experience. Some of the things I learned, I’ve been working on all winter and spring! So when our barn manager set up a clinic with one of her former college instructors, I signed up. A relatively cheap lesson with no travel required sounds like a win-win to me!
The clinic was with Armand Lacayo, a native of Nicargua who has extensive experience in jumpers, dressage and traditional Spanish-style riding. He attended the National School of Equestrian Art in Costa Rica and currently tours around the world with the Gala of the Royal Horses (previously he was a senior rider for the Royal Lippizzaner Stallion Tour). In Dressage, Armand trained under Hubert Rohr (Spanish Riding School of Vienna) and Major Hector Carmona (USDF Olympic Dressage Coach). He also has extensive hunter/jumper training, including riding under George Morris for seven years, Assistant Trainer for Greg Best and Assistant Rider for Margie Engle.
I was able to watch Armand both ride and teach some Dressage lessons on Friday, and wow. I was SUPER impressed by both his quiet and effective demeanor, but also by his classic approach to training. He worked with a young horse, teaching him to engage his hind end and give a very expressive extended trot. He talked about setting the horse up properly, asking and allowing the horse to make a mistake (breaking up into the canter), bringing him back and asking again, but always rewarding for even one step of the correct answer. A few things he said that really hit home with me:
- The moment you go into a ride planning to train your horse to do X, you’ve failed
- The answer to all your problems is more forward
After watching that, I was really excited to ride with him the following day. Only two of us opted to jump with Armand, the rest did dressage. I was both nervous and excited, especially to see how Miles would be. We started on the flat and I liked that Armand challenged us, rewarded us for trying and had a sense of humor when we messed up. He was never mean, never over-faced horses or riders, but really brought out the best in each of us. We started on the flat and my main takeaway for Miles and myself is to work on getting us to be more flexible laterally. I need to really give and take with that inside rein and push him forward into the contact. The second thing I need to remember is to push my horse forward into downward transitions and be soft with my hand.
The jumping phase started with trotting a single vertical on the short side of the arena. While I’ve trotted my fair share of fences, it’s not something Miles and I are particularly good at. However, the way Armand built us up to doing more better was really helpful. First, he just let us go over it. Then for me, he talked about finding my rhythm — I like to sit a few beats of trot before the fence to help me find my takeoff distance — but Armand challenged me to keep posting and find the distance out of stride. Then he drew a 2-3 foot box in the sand before the fence, and challenged us to takeoff in THAT spot. These exercises built my feel and confidence, so that by the end of the exercise I was actively telling Miles when to takeoff, and finding my distance correctly out of stride.
Next, we moved on to stringing a few singles together. Here, Armand wanted us to focus on LOOKING for the next fence to plan our path, and jumping with confidence. He said, “The worst thing is to drop a rail on the first fence or the last, so really ride those fences hard.” I liked this way of thinking, because Miles and I tend to have a weak first fence sometimes, so thinking of ‘attacking’ that first fence and riding it with gusto helped me a lot. We tackled the final element of the course separately: a triple combination (one stride to a two stride). The fences were set low at first which allowed us to get a feel for riding through it. I was pretty nervous (I’ve NEVER ridden a triple combination), but Miles was stellar and we went through without issue. Here, Armand instructed to open our shoulders — which REALLY worked well for me. One time through, Miles tipped a rail with his toe and sort of “tripped” a little bit — I could feel his center of gravity go down low, but instead of falling forward, I stayed balanced and Miles was able to pick himself back up and get out of the two stride. I never felt that “oh shit” moment of panic when things go sideways because keeping my shoulders open kept my balance! Talk about a HUGE win for me.
Finally, we strung everything together. The course included some challenging turns for me, which I was a bit nervous about. But Armand talked us through our tough spots (making sure our path allowed for more space in the turns, to set ourselves up well for the next fence), and away we went! For me, this was a really cool moment. I took my hunter through a “jumpery” course and we not only navigated the questions, but we had FUN!
Unfortunately, I don’t have video evidence, so you’ll just have to trust me that it went really, really well for us. After the course, Armand jacked up the diagonal fence to 3′ and told us to just go canter it. I was really nervous — Miles and I were both a little tired and I’ve never jumped that high, ever. But I certainly wasn’t going to say no! So I just told myself to pick up a good pace, look early through my turn, and then look passed the jump. And BOOM — Miles and I jumped over it TWICE and it was perfect. I saw my distance, stayed with my horse over the fence and on landing and Miles jumped it just as smoothly as he jumps 2’6″. I was absolutely over the moon ecstatic, as only you can be after jumping a MASSIVE fence successfully. This clinic really brought out the best in Miles and I, and gave us some great advice and tools to use in the future. Most importantly, it left me super excited for our future together. I can’t wait to see what we accomplish next!