Support the USEA by Supporting Our Advertisers
Thu, 2016-02-11 15:06

The Progression of Horse and Rider with David O'Connor: Flatwork

Authored By: Laura Powell
ICP West Coast Symposium Participants. Beth Cannon Photo.

Each year the Instructor’s Certification Program (ICP) brings in phenomenal instructors to host two symposia, one on each coast of the country. This year’s symposia features U.S. Chef d’Equipe David O’Connor who took instructors through “The Progression of Horse and Rider.” Laura Powell recaps her experiences in a three-part series of the West Coast Symposium, hosted by Galway Downs. The USEA would like to thank Event Clinics for making our ICP Symposiums possible!

O’Connor began the symposium with a lecture about his coaching philosophy and key elements concerning the progression of training young event horses and steps for progressively instructing riders. There were several common themes that O’Connor reiterated throughout the ICP Symposium this year:  the need for the instructor to teach rider responsibility, to keep instruction simple and to practice, practice, practice drills. O’Connor believes an Event coach and instructor needs to study other sports such as the NBA and the NFL to see how high performance athletes learn, train and succeed.  All high performance athletes in other sports engage in drills to practice various skills as part of their warm up. The skill set that an instructor teaches his or her riders need to be broken down into simple drills so that their students can practice and perfect the skills easily on their own.  The instructor also needs to teach rider responsibilities so that the riders can “own it” and be more consistent in their riding. This in turn will make the horse’s job easier.

When teaching a sport, an instructor needs to keep several key elements in mind: 

  • Technique - This relates to the never-ending position work, how to correctly hold the reins, follow the horses motion, etc.
  • Theory – This includes information about how the horse thinks and the purpose of specific exercises, for example, shoulder-in and transitions. The instructor must teach these basics until they are well ingrained with the students; only then he can build on this structure. 
  • Instinct - Riders need to be able to react quickly to any situation that arises when riding.  If they have to think about it, it is too late.  Instinct is something that is learned as a result of repeated practice and drills.  Ninety percent of the coach’s job is to get riders to this level.
  • Intuition – This could be defined as a rider’s natural instinct for “what’s next”.
  • Imagination -  This comes from seeing and understanding a situation in a unique way.  This is a rare quality and is only seen in a few exceptional riders; this cannot be taught.  The coach or instructor is a supporting mentor at this point.  

To develop instinct in an athlete, there are three things to consider when teaching a rider:

1.  Did the rider recognize a moment (e.g., if things did not go according to plan)?

2.  If so, did they do something about it?

3.  If so, were they effective?


The lessons each day were divided into three groups of horses by age: 3/4-year-olds, 4/5-year-olds and 6/7-year-olds.

3- and 4-Year-Olds

With consideration to how green this adorable group of horses was, O’Connor started the lesson by suggesting with a smile that the primary goal with this group is “keeping the horses in this general area” during the lesson. He emphasized that exercises at this level must be taken slowly and with lots of rewards.  Too many young horses with talent are pushed too fast with a resultant breakdown either mentally or physically. Riders need to give them time to build confidence and strength so they can eventually do their jobs safely.

Pairs of Cones Around a 20 meter circle are a grain training tool for accuracy. Beth Cannon Photo. 

The horses worked within a 20 x 60 meter dressage arena with three 20 meter circles defined by four pairs of cones positioned on four points along the circle. Each pair of cones is set wide enough for a horse to pass between them giving a “track” to follow. O’Connor explained that using the cones in this way is a great visual aid for riders. The image above illustrates this training tool. The cones help the rider see the track of the circle more definitely, and he instructed riders to ride the lines from one pair of cones to the next. The goal of the exercise was simply to walk, trot and eventually canter the horses within the circles, keeping the horses’ feet between the cones.  Regardless of what the horses did, riders were required to keep the horses on the lines of the circle traveling from one cone to the next Gradually the horses were progressed to transitions within and through all the gaits as the horses became relaxed.  

The riders did transitions within the gates and between the gates to introduce the horses to being asked to go forward and slow down. O’Connor encouraged riders to use the outside aids to push the horse around the circle, prevent pulling on the inside rein to turn and keep the haunches from swinging outside of the line of travel.  The horses progressed to other circles with many changes of direction as they became more relaxed. O’Connor reminded riders to use an opening rein to keep the horses on the line and to avoid using a direct, indirect or bearing rein at this point. The riders were directed to keep a consistent supportive contact with the horses being sure to hold the reins steady without pulling or throwing away the contact.  

Cantering on the circle was started with one horse at a time. The horses were bent to the outside for the canter departs, using an opening outside rein. O’Connor explained that these young horses are bent to the outside because at this stage in their training because this is now horses more normally balance. He added that as the horses become stronger, riders can begin to ask them to keep true bend through transitions.

The next progression of exercise was to teach the horses to move sideways off the leg. Riders should use their weight to help with turning and beginning lateral work. They can do this by putting weight more to the direction they want the horse to go, then adding leg to push the horse in that direction. They were encouraged to use an opening rein to keep the horses on the line and encouraged to go forward.  The riders were directed to keep a consistent supportive contact with the horses being sure to hold the reins steady without pulling or throwing away the contact.  

O’Connor’s main focus with this group was positive riding. He urged that horses at this early stage should be allowed to keep his head up and out and be ridden in large open spaces. His philosophy is that horses this young still need freedom to move and look around so they can learn that the rider won’t put them in a dangerous situation. 

4-and 5-Year-Olds

These horses started on the same exercise as the previous group, working on a 20-meter circle with cones, but these horses were more quickly moved onto other circles and direction changes and did more challenging transitions.

O’Connor asked riders to send their horses forward with their legs, then slow the horses down as if they were striving for a passage, but not actually performing that movement. The riders were not allowed to use their reins to slow the horses, and O’Connor made a point to emphasize that the rider’s seat should be commanding the speed. He told riders to post taller and slower, pressing against the stirrups as if on a springboard. As the riders continued to work on this, he then asked them to do the same exercise in sitting trot. He explained that using the seat in this way, to control tempo and stride length, becomes the half-halt.

Even practicing adjusting the horses’ movement, O’Connor made it clear that still at this age young horses should not be rushed into a dressage frame until they can balance themselves with their head and neck and can be easily controlled by the rider’s seat. 

6-and 7-Year-Olds

While the exercise set up for this group was similar to the previous two groups, these riders and horses did more advanced work for more suppleness and to achieve better gaits as well as to begin more work towards collection. At this stage, the quality and consistency of the contact is more important. This goes hand in hand with the strength, understanding and acceptance of the rider’s seat. 

O’Connor had riders ask their horses for transitions within and between the gaits as well as beginning of collection of the hind end and to lift and carry the front end. The horses were asked lateral work in walk and trot to teach bend while maintaining straightness of the hindquarters on the line of travel.  There was more work done with lengthening and shortening the stride in the canter with this group.  O’Connor pointed out that riders can fix a bad trot by getting more elasticity through canter work.

O’Connor remarked that he observes that up to 80% of horses at shows travel at the walk and trot with the haunches swinging to the outside line. Typically, the rider wants to bend the horse to the inside which can cause the hind end to swing to the outside. In the canter, he added that he usually sees the opposite and most horses typically carry their haunches to the inside. This can be corrected by the rider bringing the shoulder into alignment with the haunches.

While working on stride lengthening and collection in canter O’Connor suggested the riders think of rolling their seat in a tiny circle to initiate collection. Then as soon as the horse collects, the normal seat is resumed.  By doing this to initiate collection and putting the haunches in on a circle with the rider’s outside leg, the rider puts the horse’s outside hind leg, the pushing leg, under the horse which makes the canter easier for the horse. 

Stay tuned for the next two articles covering David O’Connor’s instruction in the show jumping and cross-country phases of the West Coast ICP Symposium. 

You can still catch David O'Connor's instruction in Ocala next week! You can register on-site Monday and Tuesday. Click here for more info. 

About Event Clinics

Event Clinics Inc. was launched in May 2015 to enable Riders to easily find and register for clinics with the world’s top riders, as well as premier schooling opportunities. Use of Premier Registrar Service platform reduces a rider’s discovery, registration and payment effort from an hour or days to less than two minutes. Organizers have instant access to registration details, documents, & funds. The EC Instant Pay feature enables up to five custom recipients to receive payment for each registration. With unique proprietary software and a scalable database, the Event Clinics system is able to support thousands of rider registration transactions annually with associated document storage.  To learn more about Event Clinics, visit:



USEA Official Corporate Sponsors