A Clinic with Richard Spooner

I had the great fortune to ride with Richard Spooner, a rider who has been ranked in the top 20 riders internationally for several years. Most of the time, clinics are conducted by semi-retired professionals who had great successes in their career. What made this clinic so unique and special was that it was taught by someone who is still active and successful in the sport. Richard is also known for his odd, yet successful, jumping style and he talked a bit about how you have to throw away convention and think outside the box to find new ways of training. I will share the highlights of the clinic below.

The clinic was conducted much like a lecture - there were half a dozen students on horses and Richard would send one out at a time to complete an exercise. He would ask the audience questions, make comments to the rider and discuss shortcomings and strengths of each pair. I have to say it was a little bit intimidating being put on the spot like that, especially when I’m not used to taking group lessons!  

Richard spent about 75% of the clinic focusing on flatwork. I love flatwork because of the difference it makes not only in the horse’s health and fitness, but also how it improves their athleticism and responses to aids. We had the privilege of watching him ride several different types of horses, while he explained what he was doing and trying to accomplish. One horse was incredibly spooky and it was truly amazing to see him work through the problem. He couldn’t get the horse into the corner by focusing on the corner and leg yielding into it, but by pretending to turn earlier and then leg yielding into the spooky corner, he was able to get the horse closer to the offending object. He went on to explain that a spooky horse is a careful horse, and he likes the blood horses because they are generally willing to work.

In the flatwork, he had us work our horses off our inside leg, encouraging the horse to step under and across (Kiva and I do this pretty well - our trouble is in collection). He spent a lot of time focusing on not using rein. He said that the sport has changed in that the courses are more technical and times are much tighter. In essence, your leg should control the throttle while leaving your hands free to steer. He talked about using upper thigh and knee to slow the horse (a concept I knew from my time with a dressage trainer) and using heel to send the horse forward and sideways. It’s incredibly difficult not to use rein to bend or slow down since that is how we were all taught when we started riding. He said top speed riders know they have to land off the jump and go, so it’s important to teach the horse to balance through the speed and off the leg. He also wanted us to really challenge the horse - push all the buttons and see what kind of response we get. He said too often American riders are afraid to make their horses go forward, bend, collect, and do other things that might be challenging. He said if you want to improve your horse, you have to overturn all the rocks and see what’s under them, and don’t be afraid to make a scene. If you have a rider who is afraid to go forward, over bit the horse a little so they feel comfortable trying to go more forward.

In jumping, he wanted us to keep our horses bent all the way to the base of the jump. This proved to be much more difficult than expected! However, my horse’s jump felt amazing when I was able to actually keep her bent to the base. I tried really hard not to use my rein to turn and balance her; it felt like I was flying around the turns but watching the video, I realized that we were really just cantering. Richard rode a couple horses that were being a bit tough for their riders. He had one very strong willed animal that he kept very bent. After a dozen or so jumps, the horse was a bit easier (albeit still difficult but better). He said that there are some horses that never go a straight day in their life because when they get straight, they get strong against the rider, and then you have no chance. It was such a simple concept but has made such a difference in my herd in the last month.

I loved his anecdotes and metaphors. One was about checking the girth because at one of his earlier clinics, he didn’t check the girth, the saddle slid, and off he came (in a bit of embarrassment). Another was about allowing room for horses to be horses - taking into consideration that each horse is different and that’s okay. He spoke about having to make choices in the ring (take an inside versus outside turn) based on the horse’s level of tolerance of decorations (some horses hate banners on walls, hate flowers, etc.). There were so many, it would take an entire post to just go over his stories.

I also loved his general attitude. It was very clear that he loves this life, loves horses, and loves the sport. There was a lot of laughter from everyone in the midst of the learning. He really tried to engage his students and audience by asking questions and guiding discussion. He welcomed questions and answered them well.

I’m incredibly grateful to Dianne Yeager and Westhaven Farms for hosting this clinic. If you ever get the chance to clinic with him or audit, I highly recommend it.

Kiva and me trying hard to try something new. Photograph by Esther Hahn.