Written by Jenna Calcaterra
On November 20–21 Mary King came to the area to teach a two-day clinic at Morven Park in Leesburg, Va. For those of you who don’t know about Mary, she is a British eventer who has won many medals among the Olympics, World Equestrian Games and European Championships. She has been part of six Olympic three-day teams and is, in the eventing world, an icon of Team Great Britain. Over the course of two days, 20 riders, divided into several groups, rode in front Mary doing basic flatwork exercises on Thursday followed by an over fences day on Friday. Riders and auditors were also given the opportunity to have dinner with Mary at the governor’s mansion at Morven Park on Thursday evening.
For the flatwork session, riders were split into pairs to work on the flat. Right from the start, Mary insisted that riders keep their horses in a frame and working correctly over their backs. She often corrected problems with the riders’ positions and told each group to pick a top-level rider to emulate while riding. For example, she noted that she tries to emulate Carl Hester for dressage and Ben Maher for show jumping. It was refreshing to hear a top-level professional doing the same thing many of us average riders do.
Mary wanted the horse to remain soft and in the bridle during all transitions, even if that meant attempting the transition several times until the horse and rider were able to produce the desired result. Many times, she told riders not to get lazy in their own positions and check themselves periodically throughout their rides to make sure they were positioned correctly.
From there, the riders moved on to four canter poles on a circle, which is popularly known as the “circle of death,” starting out with only two before moving on to all four. The purpose was to have the horse riding the proper track and keeping a steady rhythm. Many of the riders, including some upper level riders, had problems either meeting the pole correctly or with the horses swapping off their leads.
Mary then asked for adjustability between the poles. For example, in one quarter of the circle, she would want six strides, and the following quarter would be five and so on, alternating the striding between. During this time, the horse was supposed to be coming over his back and staying soft and round in the bridle.
The overall theme of the flatwork day was the basics. These exercises should be performed routinely, and all the riders should be proficient in them.
On day two, the riders walked into several challenges of accuracy. On the flat, Mary wanted to see the riders put their flatwork to use. They should be able to lengthen and shorten the canter easily and make sure their horses are in front of their leg and ready to work. Riders started by trotting over a simple ground pole to a cross rail, making sure their mounts didn’t rush at the ground pole and that they themselves didn’t either by jumping ahead with their shoulders. She then asked the riders to canter a small oxer. The oxer was gradually built up.
Mary emphasized that riders should make sure the canter had enough “punch” and the horses were sufficiently in front of the leg. Many riders—the author included—had issues with this. Many seemed to throttle down, to which Mary correctly responded that every half halt has to be backed up with leg. She used an analogy that Captain Mark Phillips had told her years before. When you want to bounce a basketball higher, you don’t bounce it slower or faster; you bounce it stronger. The same applies to the canter. When approaching a bigger obstacle, the canter doesn’t need to be faster or slower; it needs to be stronger.
Once horses and riders were warmed up and ready to jump, Mary added in some accuracy questions. On one side of the arena, she had a triple combination set up consisting of a vertical to an oxer to another vertical. For the more advanced groups, there was one stride between each element. For the training level groups, she generously gave them two strides. One vertical was just a pole, while the other had barrels placed underneath it, and the oxer had a liverpool underneath it. Riders started by cantering the verticals on the ends (elements A and C) on an angle off the long approach. The idea was to get the horses used to the idea of jumping on an angle. When this fazed some of the horses, Mary told the riders to keep coming and made the exercise more inviting by lowering the obstacle. She was extremely good at building up a horse and rider’s confidence throughout the clinic.
Her next exercise was not as easy. Mary had the riders jump element A of the triple on an angle, loop around element B, and then jump element C (mimicking a tight bending line often seen on cross country). From there, riders did a roll back to C angling in the opposite direction, looped around B again, and finished over A on an angle. During this exercise, keeping the horse straight between the aids was crucial.
Exercise number three was to jump only element B on an angle in a figure eight pattern and then canter through the triple combination as a whole. This proved to be the most difficult exercise for many of the horses in the lower sections and young horse group. Not only was the oxer on an angle a question, but many of the horses balked at the liverpool underneath and the subsequent sound the footing made against it when they stopped or tried to duck out. Accuracy was key here again, and the triple combination reinforced Mary’s desire to have a punchy canter. Many riders met the gymnastic a little weak. Mary corrected them by having them maintain the canter in the corner so that a drastic move didn’t have to be made.
While she discussed the canter she wanted with riders, the triple was dismantled. She created a cantering bounce down the center of the arena, and veering off there was a barrel and a mock corner made by resting the ends of poles on a barrel. She started this next exercise by allowing the horses to jump the barrel on its side. She emphasized the need for standards so that the horses didn’t learn that ducking out was an option.
Once the horses and riders were comfortable over the barrel on its side, she turned it upright to become super skinny and moved the standards in close to the barrel. Again, she asked the riders to ride a strong canter at this accuracy question. By this point, most of the horses were comfortable with the questions she was asking.
Her final exercise consisted of cantering into the bounce and riding a bending line to the corner in five strides before going around the short side of the ring to the barrel in a bending five back to the bounce.
Throughout the day, horses and riders walked away with a positive experience. Many of the riders asked when she was going to be coming back to the area for another clinic. All in all, it was a positive and very well put together clinic. Kelly Gage of Team Engaged, the company responsible for this clinic as well as William Fox Pitt last year, did a fabulous job with her organizing and selection of riders. Morven Park provided a beautiful arena with lovely footing that all the horses went well on. Despite the cold, there were plenty of auditors, and smiles were all around.
Be sure to check out the video from the clinic on our website at: horsetalkmagazine.com/marykingclinic. Special thanks to Valerie Durbon of Valerie Durbon Photography for the use of her photos and video.