November 2015 - No Nagging Allowed

Rich Fellers clinic is one of many extras at Sacramento International Horse Show.

by Kim F. Miller

In a free, one-hour clinic held during the Sacramento International Horse Show, show jumping star Rich Fellers shared his system for developing sensitivity to the rider’s aids, specifically the go-forward leg aid.

There was no nagging allowed. Too many riders, Rich said, first apply soft leg pressure. If the horse doesn’t respond, they keep squeezing and squeezing. If there is still no response, then we kick and kick, then lift the heel to apply the spur.

photo by Kim F. Miller

That sequence doesn’t exist in Rich’s training system. “In our program, we apply pressure with both legs and it has to be an effective aid every time and no matter what.”

Sounds good in theory, but how?

Rich began that answer by talking about the concept of “calibrating” the aids. He likened this process to calibrating electric brakes on a horse trailer. “You want to set it at a degree of sensitivity that you like,” he said. It doesn’t matter what the degree of sensitivity is except that it has to be to the rider’s liking, not the horse’s, and it has to be consistent.

Rich applies equal pressure with both legs and does so by relaxing his knee and stretching his leg down to wrap around the horse’s sides.

He had all the riders drop their stirrups for this upward transition in the beginning. “That’s kind of a cheater way to do this,” he explained. A deeper seat and longer leg result from dropping the stirrups and the stirrups dangling at the horse’s side can also help animate a dull-sided steed.

“If nothing happens, don’t squeeze harder,” he coached the four young riders in the clinic. “Look up, and add a cluck.” If the horse doesn’t respond to that, apply the crop to the horse’s side, just behind the lower leg. “I can’t explain how hard or light it should be: that depends on the horse.”

A big part of developing a sensitive horse, he noted, is being a sensitive rider – knowing the right amount of pressure to apply to get a response. Forward surges and sometimes a little buck are bold reactions Rich said he loves to see from the horse.

Participants practiced the leg aid in upward transitions from the walk to trot, walk to canter and trot to canter. In upward transitions to the trot, Rich said he never starts posting right away. “You want to evaluate the quality of the trot first” and with a focus “on what’s underneath you and behind you.”

“If you feel you have to put more leg on your horse once you rise to posting trot, then you didn’t do your job in the transition.” In transitions and while working in each gait, “you want to feel that good energy, that pushing from behind and a supple feeling in your hand.”

Rich, of course, is most famous for his long partnership with the now 19-year-old Flexible. They became the first Americans to win the World Cup Finals in 25 years, when they were champions in 2012, and the stallion continues to be a big-time contender.

Rich may have shared a secret to Flexible’s longevity when he advised riders to “consistently take a tiny bit of weight off of your horse’s front end and they might last a little longer.” It’s a system that has certainly worked for Flexible!

The idea of forehand lightness came up again as Rich advised a rider whose lower leg kept slipping back as she applied more pressure on her horse’s insensitive sides. He told her to bring her leg forward where it was almost parallel with the girth, and to use the cluck or crop as needed to get the reaction she sought. The habit of letting the leg slide back set the rider up to fall forward after a fence, another scenario in which unnecessary weight is put on the horse’s forehand, Rich noted.

One of four free clinics presented on that Saturday afternoon, Rich’s session drew a big crowd of railbirds, even in the 90-degree plus heat. Everybody took away great horsemanship tips and it was a fun way to get a sense of Rich’s personality. He was business-like and set on delivering good instruction and also funny, especially when he struggled to remember each rider’s name.

The session took place just a few hours before Rich and Flexible were to enter the arena in the Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping class. Unfortunately, they had two rails, which did nothing to diminish the crowd’s enthusiasm for their appearance.

The clinics were a nice component of the Sacramento International. Hunter/jumper trainers Buddy Brown and Kristin Hardin also presented popular sessions, as did reining horse trainer Mike McEntire.