Let’s kick off this post by introducing our clinician:
Olympic Coach Daniel Stewart
“Daniel Stewart has been a successful international trainer and instructor for over 25 years. In addition to the US, he’s trained riders in Spain, Portugal, England, Canada, Mexico, Switzerland, Belgium, United Arab Emirates, Greece, England and the West Indies. For many years he coached riders on several US Equestrian Teams at World Championships, World Equestrian Games and Olympics.”
You would think an Olympic level coach would be intimidating, but that’s far from the truth for Coach Stewart. There are three things you notice about Coach right off the bat: he has a silly hat, he likes white pants, and he’s very, very funny.
Coach’s clinics are renowned for being “designed to help riders match their strong leg and seat with equally strong confidence, willpower, and focus”. It’s his goal to find every rider’s inner greatness by emphasizing the importance of matching physical strength with mental strength. Riding is a tough sport and Coach always promises that his exercises won’t be easy, but that he’s confident that his students can prove that they’re as tough as the lessons he plans on teaching them.
On top of teaching thousands of students a year in his annual summer clinic tour (that spans more then 50 cities in 60 days—I think he said we were number 27!), Coach also runs Pressure Proof Academy (“the world’s first online site for equestrian confidence, conditioning, and coaching”), has many published magazine experts, and is an expert in equestrian sport psychology for the USEA, USPC, and USHJA.
Coach is also the author of several acclaimed books on equestrian sport psychology and rider fitness, including:
We picked the horses up from Rainbow Meadow Farm and rolled into the clinic grounds around nine o’clock, an hour before the clinic was set to begin. We had to take a pretty tight turn to get our big gooseneck into the driveway, then we were guided around a shed and into the back pasture, where we were able to swing our rig around, set up camp, coo over the neighbor’s goats, and unload the horses for the day. Then we got a good look at
Belmore Equestrian is much smaller than the SEC. From what I can tell, it has one main barn that houses about four horses, and then a couple of smaller auxiliary barns with turnout paddocks. They have no indoor arena, just a 126′ by 200′ outdoor arena with perfectly jump worthy footing and a set of standards/rails that I suspect were recently crafted (judging by the temporary pencil pins they were using for their jump cups).
Honestly? I loved it. It’s the sort of place that feels a little backyard (in a warm, inviting way), and I liked how small and intimate the setting for the clinic felt (the auditor’s got to sit ringside under a tent instead of watching the clinician from the top of a grandstand, which I always appreciate).
Most of the horses at Belmore were big draft/TB crosses—breeds that, while not as svelte as Teak an Kody, are respectably hardy and level-headed—and a lot of the riders were middle/high school aged, which makes me think they must be building up a pretty respectable Belmore Equestrian IEA Team. There was a little bit of natural segregation between the riders from the Belmore team and the haul-ins, but everyone was friendly and polite and we appreciated their hospitality. 🙂
After the first group of riders had gotten a chance to warm up, Coach Stewart called all of the clinic participants (including the auditors) into the arena for a powwow. Coach places a big emphasis on getting a rider’s inner greatness out by matching the great physical with the great mental, and this clinic would focus on the mental aspect of the rider. He talked about how the brain can hold the body back, and how it’s important to foster a sense of confidence, willpower, optimism, and focus.
“Goals can get us into trouble,” Coach warned. “This is our happy place. You can’t be upset in your happy place. You’re 34% better at what you do when you’re happy.”
The course set up in the arena looked straightforward, but the exercise he’d devised for the day was far from simple. Coach called the exercise the “Chain Link Fence”, and he quickly introduced two very important terms to us as a group:
CHANGE: when a rider uses one of the inside two fences (5 or 6) to change directions
LINK: a combination of jumps from an outside fence to an inside fence (or vice versa)
Riders would be designing their own courses on the fly, with coach providing stipulations (such as “two links and one change over four fences in twenty-five seconds”) after they’d already picked up the canter, leaving them very little time to plan. That meant that the two biggest skills that day one would test were mental shifting (the ability to move your focus back and forth between problems) and mistakability (the ability to avoid becoming frustrated and cranky—“franky”—after making a mistake). Coach’s ultimate goal was to cause “stress-induced amnesia” (forcing the rider to rush and be forgetful under pressure)—this exercise was a type of simulation training to help the riders discover what pressure does to them as an individual.
And if the pressure of scrutiny of an Olympic coach wasn’t enough, riders received 1 fault for a chip/long spot, 5 for the incorrect number of links/changes, 3 for any downed rails, and 1 for every second over/under the optimum time. If you went over 8 faults in a round, you were immediately told to dismount your horse and perform 50 sit-ups before you could continue. End your clinic session with more than 30 faults and you had to finish up with another 100 sit-ups. 😯
“Riding is tough, so the exercises won’t be easy. Hard is our sport.” He looked each of the riders in the eyes and smiled. “Prove you’re as tough as the lesson I’m going to teach you. The pressure goes up, you calm down.”
Day One was all about PRESSURE PROOFING.
Group One (Intermediate)
The first group of the day was filled with riders that were confident coursing up to 2’3″—which included the Show Buddy and Teak! On top of that, tSB was also lucky enough to draw first position in the order of go, which means she warmed Teak back up, demonstrated a couple of important jump combinations that Coach wanted them to remember for later, and then got thrown right into the exercise with a course of:
“Two links, one change, over four in twenty.”
Teak was being his typical rocket pony self (I keep trying to convince tSB that he wants to be a jumper, not a hunter 😛 ), so tSB pulled him up at the end of the course and put him into a rein back. The rein back is a staple correction at our barn for a horse that doesn’t listen to seat/voice aids telling them to slow down because it reinforces the ignored half halt, though Teak’s rein back can be a little more frantic than normal. Coach put a stop to the correction and considered the horse/rider combo.
“You don’t need to slow that horse down, you need to calm that horse down.”
Coach called tSB out for being tense and suggested that instead of trying so hard, she “try softer” instead.
“Survival is the brain’s number one job, but the brain isn’t always right. People under stress either fight, flight, or freeze—and you’re a fighter,” he told the Show Buddy. “The brain doesn’t know enough to turn off that safety feature. You have to tell it to fight less. You have to watch out for that electric seat.”
The Show Buddy came back for her second and third round with a quieter mentality, and under the guidance of Coach she rode a much softer, more organized course. The Show Buddy’s real moment of honor, though, came during her fourth course, when she lost an iron mid-ride and chose to kick her foot out of her other iron and carry on without them—an ability courtesy of a strong core/lower leg built up by many stirrupless sessions done during her time with Trainer M.
Group One also included a big draft horse cross, an Appaloosa mare that was very green over fences, and a wonderful gray gelding (Pilot!). Pilot’s rider had barely jumped before and he was such a gentleman with her, I really sort of fell in love with the pair of them, but all of the horse/rider combinations did a great job and made a lot of progress during their first session. 😀
Coach ended the first group with some choice words of wisdom:
“You can succeed without being perfect.”
Group Two (Beginner)
The second group of the day was dedicated to walk/trot beginners, and unfortunately it started off with a fall. 🙁
The Appaloosa mare (she was very cute, see left!) from Group One got handed over to another rider in Group Two, but she was so amped up from the jumping that the preteen that was supposed to ride her took a tumble during warmup. Coach Stewart was kind and compassionate. He took a moment to console her, then sent for a different horse from the Belmore lesson string—a horse that would allow her to learn.
“It’s okay to be upset and cry after a fall, that just means you care about the sport. Never be afraid to be emotional.”
The rider in question ended up on another draft cross (seems to be a favored style in those parts!), whose name was Tater Tot. Tater Tot was a great choice of horse for her—she was safe, but she was also just disobedient enough to provide a challenge. Tater Tot very much wanted to stay in line with her friends instead of trotting over ground poles. At one point the rider was on the verge of tears again (poor girl!), but Coach Stewart helped her harness her inner “GRRRR” and get the job done.
Several riders in the beginner group were tasked with finding their “GRRRR”. One of them, a young girl riding a teenage Thoroughbred gelding whose work ethic bordered on Ezhno’s, even found herself being chased by a clapping Coach!
“Aggression doesn’t belong in our sport, but sometimes you’ve got to be cruel to be kind,” he told her. “Sometimes you should get cranky. Sometimes you’ve got to find your GRRRRR.”
It was during Group Two that Coach Stewart introduced one of his favorite concepts:
The Goldilocks Zone
“There’s a mental mindset where you’re neither too lethargic nor too anxious; too confident nor too worried; too fearful nor not fearful enough. This place is called your Goldilocks Zone because the emotions you experience in this mindset are ‘just right’.”
Getting in and out of the Goldilocks Zone (not to mention being able to stay in that zone while under pressure) soon became one of the main focuses of the clinic, to the point that we were even assigned homework on the Goldilocks Zone—but more about that later. First we’ve got the highlight of the day to cover. 😉
“It’s our job to make the horse his best. Whatever you want in your horse, you must first create in yourself.”
Group Three (Advanced)
The final group of the day was meant for anyone competing at 2’6″ and up, and Coach Stewart had preemptively warned us that Group Three would be something none of us would want to miss. The basics of the exercise would be the same, but on top of having to keep track of links/changes, number of fences, and the clock, the riders were also required to end their courses on specific fences and count down to their jumps.
In the words of Coach Stewart, he wanted the riders in Group Three to juggle a chainsaw, a cactus, a hotdog, and a kitty. 😛
But before they could even get into the exercise, the riders were already in trouble. Coach Stewart asked them if they wanted cross rails for warm up and they used the only three words that riders aren’t allowed to say in his clinics:
I don’t care.
Coach teased them for starting out their lesson with a lie, then shared another snippet of quote worthy wisdom:
“When you start to say ‘I don’t care’, the most confident thing you can do is think about your real feelings and tell the truth.”
Coach Stewart left a couple of fences down as a cross rail and put the others up to about two feet, though he didn’t give them much time to prepare. Instructor A only had three minutes to get the lay of the land before she, like the Show Buddy, was thrown to the wolves as the first rider in the order of go.
Instructor A came out for her next round with a much more decisive outlook. While her round was done at a faster pace (at one point she did a 35 second course in 18, LOL), this time she and Kody fell into a more cohesive rhythm. They cruised around their course with confidence, and coach praised them for the improvements and challenged them to go even further to find their Goldilocks Zone by “thinking calm”, “landing lazy”, and “starting slow and ending strong”.
“Adrenaline is the chemical that makes you rush. Pressure changes us. Pressure makes us forgetful.”
Coach also warned against “analysis paralysis” (overthinking something to the point where you can’t make a decision), especially for the adult riders. “The older we get, the more we overthink things,” he said. “We get in our own way!”
The other two riders in Group Three were both riding draft crosses. One of them was the daughter of the owner of the facility, and both of them were good riders on competent horses, which made them very fun to watch!
As the last clinic session came to a close, two out of three riders (including Instructor A) were sitting above 30 faults total, which meant they had 100 more sit-ups to look forward to.
To really put the pressure on, Coach Stewart gave the sit-up free rider (the barn owner’s daughter) the chance to save the other members of her group from anymore sit-ups. All she had to do was ride a round with less than eleven faults—but she had to do it on a completely different horse! 😯
She put her game face on, dismounted, and collected the other rider’s draft cross, a horse that she had some experience with four years ago, but hadn’t ridden since. Coach gave her sixty seconds to warm up and she went out and rode a quick course while practicing counting down to the jumps on her unfamiliar steed. Forty-five seconds later, she declared herself ready to go.
The result? Well, I think I’ll just go ahead and end this post with this:
“We get better by observing. Learn from the mistakes of others; you don’t live long enough to make them all.”