RMDS Adult Amateur Clinic with Bill McMullin

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Bill works with Karen on her position as they execute a turn on the forehand.

This article won the 2018 GMO Newsletter Award in first-person experience for GMOs with 500 or more members. It first appeared in the July 2018 “The Centaur” Newsletter, Rocky Mountain Dressage Society.

Judi DeVore and Believe WS:

USDF’s mission is to encourage a high standard of accomplishment in dressage throughout the United States, primarily through educational programs. To accomplish this mission, grants for the GMOs are available to bring nationally known instructors to our state. This year the RMDS Adult Amateur Clinic hosted Bill McMullin. Bill is a USDF Bronze, Silver & Gold Medalist from Mansfield, MA and Wellington, FL. As a USDF Certified Instructor and faculty member, he works with riders from training to Grand Prix along with judging across the U.S. as a USEF ‘R’ Dressage Judge. After reading articles about Bill as a “amateur’s dream” instructor, I was excited to participate as a rider, and was not disappointed. I also was lucky to have my fellow barn-mate, Karen Harkin, join me with her horse, Acora. Having her ride shotgun made me braver to make the trip across two mountain passes in uncertain spring weather.  Fortunately our travel days were blessed with dry roads.  

The clinic was held at Reverie Farms in Longmont, Colorado which is a gorgeous facility owned by Nancy Davis. Nancy was very accommodating letting us come a day early to miss the bad weather that came in on Friday, and let us have a test ride in the arena the day before the clinic. The indoor arena is so much fun to ride in with mirrors everywhere.  I couldn’t escape my position issues because I saw myself coming and going!

Everyone was very friendly and the clinic organizer, Anclaire Spaulding, knocked herself out getting us all special goodie bags with treats for both riders and horses,  snacks and lunches for each day, and raffle prizes, one of which I actually won!  She also organized a dinner Saturday night for the participants during which Bill spoke about the process for becoming a judge and some basics that all riders should know about riding a dressage test —the geometry of the ring itself.

 Each day Bill had the riders work on their specific issues and gave us exercises tailored to what we were working on.  My request was to work on my mare’s contact to have it be more consistent, getting her stretching over the back more, and smoother transitions.  In addition to the exercises we worked on my position and how it impacts what my mare does in reaction to my seat. The first day our exercises involved shallow serpentines on the long side focusing on evenness in the reins and smoothness in the change of bend— thinking of just weighting the inner stirrup as I asked for the inside bend while keeping my shoulders level and even contact in both reins.

Another thing he had me do was “lighten my seat” as I asked for the upward transition to trot. I was reminded how less is more with how a rider can influence their horse in a softer way with subtle and  small position changes. After the long side of serpentines we turned onto the middle of the arena on the short side and headed in a shallow diagonal to the far side staying on the same rein, followed by a twenty meter circle on the next short side.  During this circle he reminded me to be mindful of making each quarter of the circle from my inside leg to outside rein and focus on making it a truly round circle of 4 even parts with the shoulders following the line of travel. We repeated two rounds of this exercise, then on the third lap, at the end of the narrow diagonal, a shallow leg  yield was added.  Interspersed with this exercise, he would occasionally have me go straight on the long side and walk 4 strides before picking up the trot again.  Because my mare became so relaxed during this exercise our walk to trot transitions were very smooth.  I felt the repetition of the exercise also gave her confidence in what she was supposed to do, which further enhanced her confidence and relaxation.

Three Mirrors – Believe & Judi combos from all angles!

The second day our canter transitions both up and down were improved with the following exercise. We again did the shallow serpentine exercises and at the end of the shallow leg yield on the diagonal of the long side, he instructed “sit three strides, look up and canter”. At which point my mare did a very nice canter departure. This is the method Bill uses with training his horses for canter departures when they are young. This exercise made my mare very prompt and kept me from over thinking the canter departure. On the downward transition he had me turn onto a slightly smaller than twenty meter circle and keeping her shoulders slightly to the inside of the circle, step down into my inside stirrup as I asked for the transition, then leg yield out on the circle. This helped to keep her shoulders up and prevented falling into the downward transition.

Bill McMullin watches Judi.

Throughout the two days, I thoroughly enjoyed my training sessions and also watching the other riders as they worked on more advanced activities.  It was a great learning experience to see what my mare and I have to look forward to. My only disappointment was the turnout for this clinic, as most of the participants were clinic riders and there were very few auditors.  I’ve participated as an auditor before and in some respects being an auditor is an advantage over being a rider because you get to watch and learn from all the sessions. We should have more members taking advantage of these great opportunities in our region.  

Karen Harkin and Acora:

When Judi DeVore originally asked me about the Bill McMullin clinic I was apprehensive, as I am with all clinicians. As a new-to-dressage rider, I feel inferior to others in my knowledge, the solidity of my position and the skills of both myself and my horse. I was even more apprehensive because this was a non-local clinician, riding with other riders from the front range who may not understand the uniqueness of our dressage community.

 I was more than pleasantly surprised and everything exceeded my expectations. The barn hostess, Nancy Davis, made us and our two mares feel very welcomed and easily  integrated them into her horses feeding schedule. The facility is spectacular inside and out with some excellent design features that could be replicated elsewhere. And the mirrors – WOW!!! Anclaire Spaulding, the RMDS Adult Amateur Committee Co-Chair, was party planner extraordinaire. No detail was overlooked and everything was very well orchestrated. The other riders were happy to have some representation from the western side of the state and were genuinely glad that we were there (they need to be careful what they wished for as we will be partaking in other front range clinics).The dinner and presentation by the clinician was another WOW! I had no idea how difficult it was to become a FEI judge.

Bill McMullin was amazing. He was a bottomless source of exercises specific to each horse and rider’s needs. His theme was consistent with what I heard from a symposium with Isabell Werth at World Cup last year. Ride every horse in a shoulder-in or shoulder-fore all the time, no exceptions. And from that position, he provided other exercises to work on straightening, suppling, stretching – whatever your horse needed, in addition to some very specific moves for the higher level horses.  I appreciated Bill’s focus on my position, especially my seat and where I sit in the saddle. He recognized that 55+ years of riding hunters put me on the pommel of my saddle.  Relaxing my shoulders down as well as sitting back on my pockets changed my ability to impact how my horse relaxed into the bridle. What I had mistaken as “fussiness” in the bridle was really my horse saying “no” to my seat, especially in the inconsistent use of my seat. This was a huge “AHA” to me.  I need to remember that when she is fussy and argumentative to sit back, sit down and sit in the middle of my saddle. Although the words he said were not new to me, the way he helped me to understand the connection between my seat into her connection through the bridle was eye opening. My daughter was taking series of photos and I could very clearly see what he was saying. Even the smallest wedge of light between my seat and the saddle impacted my horse’s softness, lightness and the beginning of self- carriage. Combining those pictures with the video taken by Judi made for a lasting reminder of what he said.

One exercise was particularly impactful to me as a starting place for half pass:

  • Travel the long side in a shoulder-in.
  • Turn down the center line again in a shoulder-in.
  • Increased engagement  with shoulder-fore prior to the lengthening and a more upright rider position by Karen, yielded more push from behind.
  • Move the haunches to start half pass for a few steps.
  • Straighten the horse into a leg yield.
  •  Repeat the shoulder-in to half-pass to leg yield exercise.

I plan to continue to watch for clinic opportunities, especially geared to the Adult Amateur riders.  It was one of the best experiences I’ve had.

This clinic was a USDF GMO Education Initiative Program. To learn more about the GMO Education Initiative, visit the USDF website. To find out more about how your GMO can host an event like this, contact USDF.

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