Monday, September 10, 2018

Ralph Hill Clinic: Position to Movement

This past weekend, Charlie and I were entered to ride in our first ever jumping clinic with legendary eventer Ralph Hill! 

Ralph is an old school style of rider. While not necessarily a household name today, he has the elite distinction of competing at Rolex Kentucky for 29 consecutive years. And has since coached his own students to the upper levels. He's very much of the Jack Le Goff era; the same school of eventing that produced my own trainer P. 

I tend to be a little hesitant about jumping with unknown trainers, mostly bc of sometimes being a yellow bellied pansy. But these credentials (and a conversation about it with Trainer P, who has also ridden with Ralph) convinced me to take the plunge and sign up.

prancing through the puddles!
Charlie had other plans tho, ahem, so, uh, I audited instead. Here are my notes from the most expensive audit ever!! Boo hiss nonrefundable clinics.... 

Day 1 of the clinic focused on gymnastics and stadium. At least on paper, and in terms of what was set up in the ring (see MS Paint diagram below for your benefit!). What struck me the most, tho, was that.... it really wasn't a jumping clinic. I mean, I guess it could be if you're not already familiar with or schooled to these exercises....

But from my perspective, each of these exercises show up in our lessons with trainer P almost every single week. We know them inside and out.

standing water = no problem!
What distinguished Ralph's lesson, however, was how he wanted the riding to happen between the exercises. Essentially: it was all about the flat work.

Although Ralph wasn't exactly militant about this point, like former trainer Dan for example (omg but how I miss those lessons....). Rather, it was very subtle. And actually my distinct impression was that if you weren't really paying attention you might even miss exactly the level to which Ralph dug into the bio-mechanics. 

this farm was seriously pretty
So for this reason, I'm thinking it might have actually been more valuable for me to be sitting there tapping out notes rapid-fire to commit everything to memory, rather than trying to remember everything he said after the fact. Well. Almost haha. (damn you, charlie)

Right from the very beginning, after riders mounted their horses, Ralph wanted them to stand stationary at the block for a moment while they slid the bit gently side to side in the horse's mouth. Asking for a little flex this way, a little flex that way. Sliding the bit until the horse puts his head down. With the point being to say, "Hey there's a rider up here now!" and teach him that he's got to listen to you, right away. Get him chewing or mouthing the bit immediately, focusing.

From there, it was straight into warming up, with a treatise on the mechanics of each gait.

a picture of parents taking pictures of their kids while their kids circled Ralph lol
Position to Movement

First thing you figure out listening to Ralph teach is that he wants every single communication with the horse to be in direct relation to the horse's natural movement. And therefore your leg and hand aids will naturally be different from gait to gait.

The walk is a four beat gait. To develop your walk: Close your right leg when horse's right front is on ground, since his left hind is coming forward. Your left leg when horse's left front is on ground, since his right hind leg is coming up. Your leg aid is encouraging that opposite hind to keep stepping up and under. Once you get the walk you want, you relax in your body and aids.

Ralph repeated the above no fewer than five times as the riders walked around the ring. Seriously.

Also while walking, he wanted riders to shift their position as if they wanted to halt - a slowing of the elbows and arching of back - but then ride forward in walk again. This develops your half halt.

trit-trottin around
Trot is two beat gait so we use two legs at a time, not side to side as in walk.

We always work from position to half halt to movement. We have contact and our thumbs are up. To transition to trot from walk, repeat the idea of acting as if you want to halt - a slowing of the elbows and arching of back. And as the horse slows and collects, ask for trot. This is your adjustment of position into the half halt, into the trot.

To continue developing that half halt in trot, again arch back and slow elbows as if you might walk. As soon as the horses slow or collect, relax. Ralph wanted to see riders practicing this in the warm up. Personally I don't love the "arch back" directive but his other visual for the same idea I found much more effective: "Act as if I'm poking you right between your shoulder blades."

In the trot, you should apply leg aids as you’re coming out of the saddle while posting. This is because that inside hind is coming forward, and your leg aids should intend to create activity with the inside hind.

hey look, it's a canter! and a fun black pipe jump along the grass just for funsies
Canter is a three beat gait. To canter from trot: when your seat touches saddle while posting (ie, when the horse's outside hind leg is pushing off), ask for canter with your leg and open outside rein with indirect inside rein. You want to transition into the gait with the outside hind striking off. Riders should ask the same way every time - must be repetitive and consistent.

Once in canter, your collecting aids or half halts should be applied after the horse's inside front (leading leg) hits the ground. Because of where they are in the three beats of this gait, they're less likely to break to trot from a slowing aid.

Conversely, if you're looking to transition down to trot - apply your aids before that leading leg hits the ground. This is when the horse is already in the phase of the gait with a diagonal pair of legs on the ground, a natural transition point to trot.

so many fun looking elements tucked away around the farm - like this sunken road + bank jump
Additionally, Ralph wanted the riders to use their warm up canter to prepare the horses for jumping. He encouraged riders to get up into two point down the long sides of the arena, then sit and settle in the short ends. His reasoning was: You’ll have to get out of the saddle between jumps so this is how you warm them up to get them to use their whole backs.

At the close of the warm up, as riders transitioned back to trot, he encouraged them to bend the horses out when their seats were out of the saddle. And bend the horse in when sitting in the post. That this would help encourage the horse to stretch.

Gymnastics & Jumping

The jumping was a continuation of the same themes. Every exercise started in the same manner of progressing from one gait to the next, just as in the warm up.

you'll need a lot of poles to set this up, but each individual piece can work well alone too
I gotta be 100% honest here too. Personally I am a HUGE fan of each of these four exercises individually. They each ask slightly different things of the horse, but if you're well schooled to all of them you're probably well on your way to getting a good foundation on the horse.

My only qualm, tho? It bugged me that it's all left turns. Probably this had more to do with the arena than anything else - it was fairly narrow and with a noticeable grade to it. And I think Ralph has a distinct style of "flow" that he's looking for as riders move from one exercise to the next (see below for more on this). But if I were setting this up myself, I'd make some changes to layout to get both right and left turns and approaches.

Salvation in Going Forward

Anyway, it's all fairly straight forward. Line A was four trot rails to a cross rail. Trot rails spaced 4'8 apart, then 9' to the cross rail. Ralph said that for schooled horses, he would shorten to 4'6 between the trot poles to teach compression. But green horses must first learn that they can solve their problems by - nay, that their salvation is in going forward. Amen.

trot poles to X!
Line B was a simple cross rail set 18' from a cross oxer (ie a cross rail with a back rail). Second thing you learn about Ralph is that he likes his oxers wide.

Third line, Line C in the diagram, was a three stride line of oxers, also set WIDE. Final Line D was another cross rail set 18' from an oxer (wide), then three strides to another oxer (also wide haha).

So clearly there's a pretty natural progression to these exercises. Learn to trot in pleasant but forward to just an X. Then take an X to a cross oxer in one short stride. This introduces him to the combination. Next is a longer combination, and finally both combinations combined. #meta lol.

To me, the most interesting part here was how Ralph wanted things ridden in between lines. Specifically: Riders came back to walk after every single line. As in: pick up your trot (in the same manner described earlier), navigate the poles to jump the X. Then walk. Then turn (this would be the narrowest inside turn in the diagram), pick up your trot (again, in the same manner as before) to approach the one stride grid. Then walk. 

Ralph says this is how you teach the horse the difference between speed and impulsion.

one stride grid!
From my perspective, this would have been the most challenging part of the ride for me and Charlie. Not the exercises themselves, but the focus on so many correct transitions in between each line. And each transition with the same degree of purpose as stated in the warm up.

As riders proceeded from one line to the next (in the stated order in the diagram), they were directed to come back to walk in between each and every line. Obviously the trot poles were always taken from a trot. The Line B one stride was also always taken from a trot. So between these two lines, riders executed simple trot-walk and walk-trot transitions.

After the first passes tho, Lines C and D were taken from canter. So when riders approached these lines, Ralph asked them to do canter-walk and walk-canter transitions. He wasn't crazy strict about this - trot steps were allowed. But it was interesting to me. There wasn't any circling tho. Just land from an exercise. Walk. Turn to approach the next line. Then canter to the line.

such a seriously pretty farm tho
For cantering from the walk, Ralph directed riders to ask for canter when the outside front leg touches the ground, since that's when the outside hind leg is coming up. This prompts horses to strike off easily and immediately with the outside hind leg.

During the jump exercises themselves, Ralph had just a few things he wanted to be very clear about:

- Wait for the horse to the fence.
- Give with your hands before your body.
- Give the horse their head and neck so he can lift his back and wither over the jump.
- Give through the lines (noticing a theme?)
- First beat on landing is when front feet come down, second beat is hind feet. Only then can you add leg aids for forward.

So a very simple, straight forward approach. Almost misleadingly simply, honestly. While these jumping exercises are nothing new for me and Charlie, I 100% plan on introducing more of these mechanics-focused transitions into how we approach them.

Mostly tho, if nothing else, I hope to take to heart my favorite Ralph quote of the day: "I was taught to ride as if I had a hangover. Nice and casual." Yup, that's something I can aspire to, Ralph!


  1. Sorry you couldn't ride in the clinic....I hope Charlie is ok and this is just a minor blip on the radar of health for him.

    1. thanks yea he's gonna be just fine. it's just more of the same with him, always and forever haha

  2. As someone who rode every ihsa class hungover and therefore refused to bounce, I appreciate Ralph's comment! 🤣

    1. lol YUP. it's definitely something i try to avoid these days bc.... i have past regrets lol. but also definitely something i can understand....

  3. Ah nuts! Sorry you couldn't ride in the clinic! I hope Charlie is still doing okay! These all sound like really good points! It looks really ominous but I'm glad you could audit!

    1. ha "ominous" is definitely the right word for it -- we had insane amounts of rain this past weekend. basically everything scheduled on sunday (including a number of major events that folks needed for qualifications...) was cancelled, and unfortunately the clinic's cross country day was no exception. otherwise i would have all my notes from watching on that day to share too.... but nope. just get the stadium. boo crazy weather!

  4. I get that clinicians don't want to provide refunds because refund to you = money from their pocket, but ugh! Horse people know dumb stuff happens to make horses unrideable :(

    1. ugh yea i totally get it too. like, being a clinic organizer is TOUGH. and esp with out of town clinicians (like Ralph) you're paying them for their travel and time no matter what happens. this weekend was a real doozy too so it ended up that almost everyone kinda lost out: day 2 of the clinic was cancelled bc of the weather, so most riders only got the one lesson for what they paid. tho there were a few single-day entries for sunday that missed out entirely, including the person who bought that lesson slot from me when i realized charlie wouldn't be sound. so.... yea. basically everyone ended up getting at least a little bit screwed by the weather. it's seriously unfortunate.... but what can you do about it?

  5. Bummer you couldn't ride! But sounds like you still got some good info :)

    1. definitely some good info!! it was interesting to me bc i've heard my trainer say some of the same stuff about gait mechanics during our lessons, and now i know where she got it from haha. AND at least this time i was taking notes (instead of being busy riding) so i could actually try to remember some of it. honestly the gait mechanics stuff is kinda tricky for me when i'm in action - it's a lot to remember and can almost be distracting.... but at the same time, i want to think more deeply about it bc it all essentially boils down to riding more and more by feel. we'll see how well i can put it into practice on my own!

  6. I was just thinking the other day about how I love these old school clinicians. They've learned so much through their riding and really know what works long term. They're not into all the new techniques just because they are the hot new thing. I wish you could have ridden, but auditing sounds like it was worth every moment!

    1. yes - exactly -- and this clinician was very much about that. very much about riding the horse by feel, not as if they're a machine. i esp liked that he was also very encouraging and quick to identify when the horses were trying and wanting to be good.

  7. Sounds like a really cool clinic that I would have found helpful to ride in too (minus any puddles Dante loathes those lol I mean that would still be very beneficial to him) I love your MS Paint diagram too very beautiful!

    1. oooooooh boy if you like that MS Paint masterpiece, just WAIT for what i came up with next lolololol.....

  8. It's too bad you didn't get to ride in it (hope Charlie is okay!)...but hells yeah, lots of juicy info in the audit.

    It actually hurt my brain just a little. lol.

    I already feel like I have too much I need to remember at once...:)

    1. ha yea omg this hurt my brain too, and even trying to go back and check my notes against his actual words in the videos..... idk. part of me feels like there's inconsistencies in there somewhere and part of me wonders if i just, like, idk, don't understand it all fully lol. but as best as i can tell, even if we can't necessarily remember each specific mechanic of inside this and outside that etc etc, the idea is to just keep looking for those moments of "feel" in the gait where the horse is best balanced for a transition, and to work on developing the half halts in each gait as a manner to further refine this. easier said than done tho!

  9. Oh I love Ralph Hill! I’ve ridden with him twice in my life (once in 2002/3? And again in 2013) and both times I got a lot out of his clinic. I remember I had so much confidence in his clinic that I was jumping my mare successfully over jumps I’d never thought we’d do and doing them well. Did he tell stories from his past? I remember him talking about timing the sitting trot when he first started eventing and he said to himself “I just have to sit the trot for 2 minutes and then I can jump around cross country” ;)
    Glad you had a great time even if Charlie had other plans!!

    1. ha his story times were GREAT!! i actually had a couple written out in my notes (the cool thing about auditing was that i got to hear each story more than once lol, so i could backfill any gaps in my notes throughout the day!) but then it felt weird trying to type out his stories here, without getting the full effect of his own way of telling them lol. but yea he was great - and a very encouraging clinician too.

  10. Oh Boo that you couldn't ride! Auditing is great though because it allows you to see how others deal with it. Sometimes I get a 'oooh that's how that looks!' lol.

  11. Darn it Charlie!!! Hoping it's a minor setback- but still super bummed for you. Glad you still were able to learn a lot and have some great take aways (Great recap btw!) but still bummed for you.

  12. Thank you for taking the time to break all of this down! Great visuals and I like the paint diagrams :) I don't love the arch your back either, but lots of other great concepts here. I'm glad I'm not the only one who makes everyone stand at the mounting block and soften at the halt before doing anything else.


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