Top U.S. show jumper Candice King grew up riding cutting horses in California and showing a pair of Appaloosas in the jumpers, all the way up to the puissance at age 14. The internationally successful King has a well-earned reputation for being able to effectively work with the most difficult and sensitive horses, but I didn't know any of this when I sat down to watch her teach a clinic at the 2019 Equine Affaire event in central Ohio.
The session was titled “Bending Your Way to Straightness,” and as the proud pilot of a 17-hand wet noodle of an off-track Thoroughbred, I was certainly willing to listen to King's advice.
The call form to sign up for the clinic asked for riders and horses comfortable jumping up to three-foot fences, so it was surprising to step into the stands and see almost no jumps in the ring. Even more surprising, King spent nearly the entire 1 ½ hours of the session with five talented young riders at a walk.
“If you can't ride the horse at the walk, how can you expect to ride him over jumps?” King asked the crowd.
Her background in Western riding is perhaps one of the biggest influences on King's style, which utilizes her leg almost exclusively in cueing the horse. The system she demonstrated on that April morning was simple, but it entirely changed my perspective on working with my own OTTB.
“Uno” is currently in his third career as a lower-level three-day eventer. A Louisiana-bred gelding racing under the name One Good Eye, he has a large corneal scar on his right eye and is nearly blind on that side. Over seven years, Uno raced 38 times and won just once to earn $21,467. I met the big bay at Beulah Park in the winter of 2012, at which point he'd graduated to a job as a lead pony in both the mornings and afternoons.
He has a long, pretty neck and a kind eye, so it was easy to fall in love with him. When the opportunity arose the following year, I jumped at the chance to become his partner.
Uno taught me to pony at Indiana Grand, then carried me beneath the Twin Spires at Churchill Downs when I went back to college at the University of Louisville. We even ponied the 2014 Kentucky Derby, escorting Uncle Sigh to the starting gate. He worked the racetrack with me for four years before I started working on teaching him how to jump.
In all our time at the track, Uno rarely put a foot wrong. All I had to do was leave the reins loose and steer with a little pressure against his neck or my voice, and he'd do the rest. Unfortunately, that meant I confused the heck out of the poor beast when I started attempting dressage. Any pressure on his mouth meant, to Uno, that it was time to panic, and backing that up with leg just made him run away from the aids even more.
By the time I watched King's clinic in Ohio, Uno had been off the track for three years and things had markedly improved, thanks especially to my ever-patient coach in Louisville, Deborah Iezzi. Uno and I completed two Novice-level events in 2018, and ribboned in both. Still, the dressage was a serious weakness for us (isn't it always?).
It has now been six weeks since I began implementing what I learned watching King, and the improvement I've seen in that short time has been nothing short of remarkable.
Here's the rub: it's not magic, any new piece of equipment (in fact, I'm jumping him in a snaffle now when we'd used a gag bit before), or even anything I hadn't heard before. As a hard-headed amateur rider, sometimes I just need to hear the same thing explained in a different way by a different person, and all of a sudden I'll understand.
My lightbulb moment was: All I need to do is break it down and explain to Uno what I it means when I use my leg.
To communicate that message effectively, we had to slow it all the way down to the halt. King demonstrated several exercises in her clinic while riding one of the attendees' horses, each designed to make it abundantly clear what the leg aid should mean to the horse.
First, she took away the horse's head and neck from the equation. She would walk forward on a loose rein, then slide her hand down one rein and pull it to her knee. Then she waited for the horse to stop moving, released the pressure and gave him a pat. After a beat, she walked forward again and repeated the exercise to the opposite side.
Honestly, I wasn't sure what to think of this when I first started watching. It seemed a little bit unfair to the horse, but I started to understand when King moved on to the second exercise.
This time, she repeated the same steps as the first exercise but after the horse stopped moving, she would use just her inside leg to ask the horse to step around with his hind feet. The bend in his head and neck meant that he couldn't escape the pressure by stepping forward, so he had to figure out how to move his inside hind leg underneath his body to release the pressure. As soon as the horse gave her two or three good steps in a row, she stopped with the leg and waited for him to stop moving, then released the rein and gave him a pat.
It's important to note that King never got stronger with the aid, never did any more than “tickle” the horse's side with her spur. It wasn't that the pressure was strong, but rather it was consistent pressure that caused the horse to learn to move in the way she was asking.
Again, she repeated the exercise on both sides.
When I tried these exercises with Uno he was confused at first, just like the horse in the clinic. When I took away his ability to “escape” the pressure by running away from it, however, he started to “get it.” He finally stopped worrying about the aids and started listening to them.
The third exercise King demonstrated simply incorporated the first two at a walk and on a circle, moving the horse's haunches in and out with the leg. Any time the horse tried to escape the pressure by rising above the bit, she raised her hands to be level with his mouth. She didn't pull harder or increase the bit pressure, just simply elevated her hands and kept asking him to yield his hind legs. Eventually he figured out it was more comfortable to carry himself properly and allow his body to be moved around, and she progressed to working the circle at the trot and the canter, asking the horse to yield his haunches in and out once again.
Uno followed the same efficient learning trajectory when I tried it at home. I want to stress again that this isn't anything new – we've all heard it before when we've taken riding lessons – “More leg, less hand!” is every riding coach's refrain, mine included.
Now, finally, Uno is starting to understand what my leg is asking him to do and that he doesn't have to worry so much about my aids. He's actually relaxing into the bridle, and our dressage scores have improved by nearly six percentage points in just six weeks.
Not only has the dressage improved, but I can now jump a full stadium course at home in a snaffle bit without ever worrying he's running away with me – a minor miracle for my very excitable, hot-headed jumping machine.
Of course, with all the changes we've made, Uno's body got a little sore at the beginning. He is also 18 years old this year, so it was important that I listened to him and took it slow. I learned that he especially avoided using his right hind leg, so those muscles were the most under-developed. A little massage therapy and shorter riding sessions helped Uno's body catch up to the new, more correct way to use himself.
Candice King's approach is logical and simple, which is probably why it's been so effective. As an amateur rider, I'm sure that I'm still making mistakes in my implementation, but I couldn't be more thankful for the opportunity I had to watch her clinic. It's given Uno and I so much more confidence as a team, and there's no better feeling than that!
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