This past weekend our farm hosted a small, informal clinic with local hunter/jumper trainer and judge, Scott DeHelian.
About Scott DeHelian
A professional horseman with more than 30 years of experience, Scott DeHelian has competed successfully at the Pennsylvania National Horse Show and Washington International Horse Show, winning titles in major Grand Prix events across the Midwest. From 2000-2006, he was an adjunct faculty member at the University of Findlay, coaching the Hunt Seat Equestrian Team to two national IHSA titles. He holds R judging credentials through USEF, and a special events judge’s card through AQHA for hunter/hunt seat equitation, as well as judging IEA and IHSA competitions. Today, Scott DeHelian continues to ride and train through Billow Beach Stables (at Wild Oats Farms) in Delaware, Ohio in addition to keeping a full judging and clinic schedule.
My trainer knows Scott fairly well, and he actually came to our farm a year or so ago to give a clinic to trainer’s IEA team. At the time, I was helping tack up horses and such for IEA practice, so I had the opportunity to audit the lesson. I just loved what I saw, and I learned a lot from just watching. Scott is very straightforward, but makes a point to discuss both positives and negatives about each and every rider no matter the skill level. He put together thoughtful exercises and was able to modify each so that all could participate, and was quite contentious. So this fall, I asked trainer if maybe we could set up something similar for the rest of her clients, and she was completely on board!
While Scott isn’t a big name trainer or clinician, he’s quite well-known in the area — I see him all the time at shows, and I like how he talks to clients in the warm-up and ringside. He gets the job done, but I never hear him raise his voice and he ALWAYS says something positive, even if the round wasn’t very good (although bad rounds don’t really happen to his clients very often…) For me, that’s key — I’m always my own worst critic and I perform much better if someone isn’t yelling at me. I like how he rides, and he’s always kind to his horses.
Theory and Flat work
The clinic ended up with two sections — a jumper/eventer section in the morning, and hunter/jumper section in the afternoon. We started off with a theoretical discussion on angles. The angle of your elbow, hip, knee and ankle all relate to each other and when the angles are correct, they make the job of jumping easier. As a refresher, Scott showed us where your leg should rest on the horse (at the girth or slightly behind) and talked about why that position is ideal — if your leg is too far forward, it tips your upper body backward and forces the rider to be behind the horse’s motion, and alternatively if your leg is too far back, it tips your upper body forward putting the rider in a vulnerable position and forcing the horse to carry more weight on his forehand. He noted that all saddles are designed so that the stirrup leather lays exactly in this position, and that you can look at the wear marks on your saddle to see where your leg tends to be (too far back, just right or too far forward).
After that, we moved on to flat work. Two of the horses in my group were a bit fresh (spoiler alert: Miles wasn’t), so we did a bit more on the flat. Starting at the trot, Scott talked about the rider’s hand position for hunt seat equitation: angled at approximately 45°, and positioned around halfway between the martingale and saddle pad. He noted that for jumping, rein length should be shorter. He also discussed how each rein should work: the inside rein should create path and bend, while the outside rein should regulate speed. While this wasn’t new information to me, it did make me focus on it, and I realized I don’t really compartmentalize my reins that way. I tend to overuse my inside rein, or use both — it’s hard for me to use JUST my outside rein. To begin working on this, Scott put us on a 40m circle or so at the end of the ring, and had us use our aids in time to our posting trot. On the down beat, we added inside leg to maintain the bend with a steady outside rein to maintain speed. On the up beat you check to make sure you’re looking ahead (1/4 of the circle ahead, always) and regulate speed if needed by adding or removing pressure in the outside rein. The symmetry of this exercise helped me remember all the things I needed to do, and helped establish a regular rhythm within myself so I was constantly checking each piece (eye, inside hand, outside hand, inside leg, outside leg)… but not all at once.
The canter work was a bit more personalized. We cantered left first, and of course Miles was grumpy and slow in the upward transition, so I used my stick on his shoulder. Scott immediately chastised me, and reminded me that the crop is an extension of your leg, and thus to be effective in moving the horse forward it needs to be used directly behind your leg. The only other comment I got was that my reins were too long — which wasn’t really surprise to me and something I need to keep working on.
Scott’s approach to the jumping phase was slow and methodical: we started off with trotting just the crossrail of the gymnastic and steadily built up to riding the entire course. To begin, he had us focus on four things: trot rhythm, path of the rider’s eye, straightness and evaluating the pace. It sounds like a lot, but each item was implemented at a different point of the exercise. In our trot circle before the fence, Scott asked us to focus on the trot rhythm, which he said I needed to “hear the trot rhythm louder in my head.” Saying it out loud sounds super weird, but for some reason made sense when I was riding? Mostly it helped remind me to count, and focus on the quality of the trot so that I could get the correct pace through the gymnastic.
Once the trot was established, he walked us through where our eye should go: from looking at the turn and path to the crossrail, staying ON the crossrail as we approached and then about 2-3 strides out, looking to the next jump, and then the third, and finally the end of the ring. This was the most difficult for me, as I don’t really do these “checks” and my brain doesn’t quite function fast enough to do it effectively because it happens FAST. Sort of like counting 1, 2, 3, 4 in your mind — your eye should move that quickly. I’m used to just looking up — all the way past the entire set of jumps in a gymnastic. But what I liked about this exercise is that it feels like the “next step” of riding. When you first start jumping, you have to focus on not looking down at the jumps, but as you progress, you can glance down more because you know to look up.
Also of importance is riding straight — straight to the jump and straight away from the jump. It’s worth mentioning, but to me was old hat, as we practice that a lot. Finally after we went through the simple gymnastic (of just the crossrail to a ground pole) , he wanted us to think about our pace. If the ground pole had been a jump, would we have made it over? Would we have hit the second jump at the appropriate distance, or were we too long or too short?
After working through the basics for a bit, we added to the gymnastic until it was finally all three jumps. This was probably the most profound section for me, as we worked on my release. Of all the riders in my section, I have the most “floaty” release. It’s easy to see in pictures — my hands just hover over the neck. So we spent some time talking about moving my hands closer to the neck — eventually the goal would be to have my hands right next to the neck, following the arch of Miles’s neck as he jumps, so that I lightly feel the neck. Scott called this a “circle of power,” which would help stabilize my upper body when things go wrong. He said the lower leg anchors your lower body, but then the upper body can be a bit vulnerable. My hover release is fine for when things are going well — but it doesn’t help me at all when things aren’t going well. Giving me an easy place to go to will help stabilize my entire body when needed.
I really liked his description, and when I attempted this new release, I did indeed feel more powerful… but of course I wasn’t doing it quite right and ended up with a lot of chicken wing elbows. But, that’s the first step toward what Scott was trying to accomplish. I’m interested to talk to Trainer about this, because in the past we’ve actually worked on the opposite — because I’m top heavy, she has worked to get my weight lower, and down in my heels. She’s said before she doesn’t want me to brace and rely on my hands to hold me up. But perhaps this is another moment of advancing? Maybe now I’m stronger and ready to add in some assistance through my hands? We shall see.
The courses really just built on all the items we’d worked on in our flat work and through the gymnastic. Staying straight and using each rein for a specific function helped us find distances to fences more appropriately, and we each had things to work on in terms of our body position over fences. It was pretty cool to see how the small adjustments Scott had us do made a big impact on the overall picture of each jump, and the course overall.
I loved the focus on equitation, especially some of the details Scott pointed out. My trainer focuses on the big picture, which I really love and has helped me in so, so many ways. But I liked getting a few detailed tidbits to work on throughout the winter. I felt like the things Scott cared most about fit in well with our overall program too — straightness, maintaining a consistent pace, evaluating as we go — these are all things Trainer talks about in our lessons, but it was nice to hear them presented in a different way.
This was definitely a great first clinic for me. It was a laid back atmosphere, and while we were pushed outside of our comfort zones, we weren’t over-faced in any way. I liked how straightforward his criticisms were, but that he was never loud or mean, and that he made a point to be complimentary as well. A weakness of mine is not being able to change very quickly, so when he asked me to change my release I tried, but I didn’t quite get there. Instead of drilling me or being upset, Scott said “I can see that you’re trying and this is the first step. Good job.” I like that. A lot.
So all in all I got a lot of good reminders, and some specific items to work on over the winter. I survived my first clinic, and I’m pretty excited to talk to my Trainer about the clinic in my next lesson!