Ep. 5: Office Hours

Q&A with Jon Holling
Recap from 09.21.21

Victoria Clayton holding two horses

By Victoria Clayton

Q: What are some things I can do to strengthen and correct my leg position when jumping on a hot horse?

One of the biggest things with leg position and young horses especially is that you must really push and squeeze with your leg to get them to the jump. 

The first thing you have to do is keep the horse straight and in front of your leg. As far as position, I find it difficult to just push my heels down. I have to have a little more of a mental picture in my head–I think about having my leg a little in front of me and think that I need to land off the fence into my stirrups rather than my seat.

Q: What does it mean if “the horse is behind your leg” and how can I tell if that is happening?

“Behind the leg” basically means that when you put pressure on your horse’s sides with your leg that they either (1) don’t move away from the pressure, or (2) push back into the pressure. 

You want your horse to move forward when you just touch them with your leg. They need to become very attentive to your lower leg. 

Q: What frame do you warm your horses up in?

It really helps me to visualize things, and I use a staircase analogy for warming up. It’s a “round and down” frame, not a “long and low” frame or the frame you use for a stretchy circle in your dressage test.

To follow the staircase analogy, you should put your horse in their round competition frame and visualize a hinge at their wither. Think of a staircase and take your horse’s frame down a step. Remember, when you take step down, you also take a step out. 

When you’re warming up in a round and down frame and you feel your horse lower its frame, you have to give with the contact just as much as they’ve given. The idea is to get them to lower their frame down the stairs and give with the contact each time they take the next step.

The staircase approach helps with relaxation. It also helps horses build their topline and become looser in their back.

Recommended Ride iQ Lesson: [Flatwork Warmup, Orange] [67] Transitions & Leg-Yield with Jon Holling:

Ride iQ Audio Lesson Cover for a Jon Holling Flatwork Warmup lesson called "Transitions and Leg-Yield"

Q: Do you use any sports psychology techniques while competing?

For awhile, if something made me nervous (say on cross country), I would have to vocalize it. If I kept it inside, I would think about it too much, so it was helpful to vocalize it. What I learned in time was that I had to be careful doing that because it would worry my fellow competitors and some of my students! 

Today, I have a few things I look to do at competitions, but the most important thing is that those are things that work for me to get into a good headspace. What works for one person isn’t necessarily what will work for someone else. 

Q: What advice do you have for students who are perfectionists and worry about messing up or letting their coach down?

I was driving back from Jiu Jitsu tonight with my son Caden, and I asked him a question I ask him every few months, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” The last few times I’ve asked, he’s said he wants to be in the military because he wants to make a difference and help people. I told him that was great, but I also make a difference. He went on to tell me I don’t make a difference, I just ride horses (ha!). 

I think it’s really important to know that as much as it matters to you, that’s just pressure you’re putting on yourself–it really doesn’t matter, and it’s not as big of a deal to others if your performance doesn’t go great. Your support system is still going to be proud and support you.

Q: How can I check if my saddle fits me and my horse?

As far as the saddle fitting the rider, the best thing I’ve heard came from Kim Severson. She said if she was thinking about it, then it doesn’t fit. I think that’s the simplest way to think about that.

As far as the horse, the best thing is to have a good saddle rep. Find a good rep that knows how to properly fit saddles, and ride in every option they have available.

If there’s not a saddle fitter in your area and you’d like to check if your saddle fits, there are some basic things you can do. You can put a plain saddle pad on the horse with the saddle and go around in it. When you’re done, look at the pad–it’s a good sign if the marks are even. 

You can also put the saddle on without a pad or with a thin white pad. If you stand to the side of the horse, the saddle should be sitting level from front to back. Once the girth is on, you should not see space between the seat of the saddle and the horse’s back. I also carefully stand behind the horse because you should be able to see through the center of the saddle. Take two fingers at the gullet of the saddle and make sure it has room at the wither. Once you get on, you can check that space at the front of the saddle again–you want to be able to fit 1-2 fingers there. 

All that said: I am not a saddle fitter, these are just things I do!

Q: Are you in favor of using the same saddle on different horses?

Personally, I don’t believe in custom-fit saddles for horses. I basically have two of every saddle I ride in: one version that is narrower and one version that is wider, and all my horses go in those saddles. Every once in awhile, I might get a horse that the saddle doesn’t seem to fit well. In that case, I’ll call my saddle rep and she will help me decide which of my saddles work best for that horse. It might require a special pad or, in a rare case, a new saddle.

Q: How thorough of a vet check would you recommend for a horse that will go training or prelim? Would you get more imaging for a horse that is intended for upper levels?

When I buy a horse, any horse, I always do a very thorough vetting. I want to know that when it comes time to sell that horse, it’s going to have a reasonably clean vetting or I will at least know the problems I can tell the potential buyer. I think the more information, the better. 

Jen and I have bought horses that have some issues that would be deal breakers for others. It’s just a matter of what you’re willing to accept. That said, I’ve also bought horses that passed their vettings with flying colors and ended up having issues. A vetting doesn’t guarantee that a horse will be perfectly sound its entire career.

Q: When a horse is still young and green, how do you know it has what it takes to event at the upper levels?

It’s hard to know, but you can look at their breeding. If it’s a purpose-bred sport horse for eventing, look at the lineage. If it wasn’t bred for eventing, consider how much thoroughbred is in them. 

That said, I don’t really know if a horse has upper-level potential until it has gone preliminary. That is when the questions start becoming difficult enough to see if they have the potential. 

A lot of times, the horses that are going to be 5* horses are not going to be great lower-level horses when they’re young. 

Q: For people early in their career as coaches and professional riders, what advice do you have so we don’t look back and think, “I wish I’d known that?”

First, be comfortable with the fact that you’re always going to look back and say, “I wish I’d known that.” If I had a dollar for every time I said that, I’d be super rich! 

Make sure you have access to good instruction. The fact that you are connected with Ride iQ already shows that you are seeking good instruction. Stay in a program and stay with good people. Make sure you ask questions to top trainers and professionals. Absorb as much information as you can! 

Q: If my horse pulls a shoe on cross country, should I pull up and stop?

There are a lot of factors. Ask yourself if the horse feels sound and comfortable. If you’re not sure, pull up to trot and see how your horse feels at the trot. 

You have to consider the footing–is your horse going to slip? Also consider how your ride is going to have to change without the shoe. 

Keep thinking about these things throughout the course, and if you’re unsure then it’s best to pull up and save it for another day!

Q: Can I rely on my physical fitness from riding every day or should I be working out on my own as well?

No, you can’t rely on that. You need to be going out and doing something extra. Realistically, the level you’re riding at does play a part in that, but my opinion is that something extra is needed. I’m one of those annoying CrossFit guys.

Q: Should I ice my horse after jump schooling or cross country schooling at home?

Yes. Anytime my horses do a hard jump school, they get iced. We do 20 minutes on the front legs, 20 minutes on the hind legs, and 20 minutes on the front legs again. I’m a big advocate of icing!

Q: Where should I look for my next event horse?

The first thing I tell people is you need to have a good coach, agent, or person advocating for you! Connections are very important. Some of the best horses are found through word of mouth. 

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