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Aidan O’Connell Clinic


By Allison Lail
Photos courtesy Gretchen Pelham

Tennessee Valley Hunt Club hosted a Cross Country Riding Clinic and Foxhunting Seminar with Aiden O’Connell August 23-24, 2014 at Blackberry Ridge Farm in Greeneville, Tn. The goal of the clinic was to help prepare any rider at any skill level to ride any type of terrain or obstacle they may encounter riding across the fields, trail riding, cross country, or foxhunting. His emphasis was on preparation and how to strategize the ride. The weekend’s events also included a saddle fitting demonstration with Kate Wooten.

Everything about Aidan and this clinic was so encouraging, calm, and “just keep going; all is well!” he said with that subtle Irish wit. On Saturday, the lessons were held in the covered arena, with O’Connell explaining and demonstrating concepts to the audience of auditors and riders in other groups. He began with the non jumping group, which finished with learning to “strategize” how to jump two cross rails before they realized they were jumping! Everything just fell into place. Sunday was devoted to taking these same riders out across the countryside, where they negotiated various terrain including ditches and natural obstacles. A few advanced riders took some cross country jumps.

Aiden encourages all riders to use a neck strap, particularly for experienced riders, for security, balance, and to prevent grabbing reins and pulling on the horse’s mouth, which can upset the balance of your ride. The neck strap sits on horse’s shoulder where the withers meet the neck, secured with shoe laces to the D-ring on the saddle. In Kate Wooten’s saddle fitting demonstration, she agreed that the D-ring on the saddle is not a secure base of support for equipment, such as breastplate or neck strap. In Aiden’s steeplechase experiences, he learned a good rule of thumb is to never trust metal buckles because they are the weakest point on tack. “What’s one of the first things to break?” he asked. He also advised that a good way to help prevent any breaks with rein buckles is to tie a knot in the reins.

What better way to learn, than by watching others? The clinic mixed advanced horses with green horses, or experienced riders with green horses and green riders. Mixing up the riders means they can learn from watching each other. Then, at the end of each lesson, write down three things you have learned. Even if you learned a lot more, write down three highlights to remember and work on.

The first thing a trainer scrutinizes is ‘what is the rider’s leg doing?’ Then the trainer can analyze what to teach next: position, balance, approach, and even saddle fitting.

O’Connell taught the five phases of jumping: 1. Approach 2. Take off 3. Suspension 4. Landing  5. Away or Recovery. “It’s all on the approach. The rest will take care of itself,” O’Connell explained. “Use the ‘away’ to recover from any mishaps you may have encountered. Pat the horse for well done and keep on.”

Key points O’ Connell emphasized:

·  Balance is the key.
·  Keep looking where you are going or horse may go where your eye goes.
·  Stirrup length (for balance) should be shorter.
·  Keep leg on or in front of the girth, especially for drop fences.
·  Most important is the approach! Align your horse to the jump or obstacle, sit down, and look over the jump. Maintain the rhythm. If all this is done, do nothing else; hands and upper body must be quiet. Let the power of the take off take care of the jump itself.

During the clinic, riders learned about bridging their reins, finding related distances between fences, and learning to let the reins slip through your fingers as the horse needs to stretch his neck, especially on drop obstacles.

About Aiden O’Connell: He is a legendary Irish horseman who has spent a lifetime hunting, breaking, schooling, and training horses and riders for eventing, hunting, racing, and show jumping. Riding since childhood, by age 16 he began a serious career in show jumping, and trained with many international instructors.  He won his first Grand Prix at age 17. He has competed Grade A show jumpers successfully at all the major international horse shows in Ireland. He won the Dublin Horse Show on his famous horse “Suntan.” He has ridden in over 150 steeplechases, including three English Grand Nationals. Aidan has the unique ability to identify how horse and rider can improve in cross country riding. Aidan’s techniques teach the riders to aid and not interfere with the horse doing his job. His style of teaching is very entertaining, while making his students comfortable with the task at hand.

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