I was very fortunate to have the opportunity today to audit (all day) a clinic by Greg Best at a nearby farm. I ended up with awesome windburn/sunburn lines from the trademark sunglasses and probably more information than I will ever be able to fully digest.
First, I would like to say this: Greg Best is an amazing clinician. He's friendly, honest, down-to-earth, and sometimes even pretty damn funny. I like funny people. He is also a very gifted teacher, and it seems that he never loses his temper. He doesn't call people names and he doesn't pretend that he's god and has all the answers. He expects riders to be able to think for themselves and not need to have their hands held through an entire ride.
My roommate audited the clinic yesterday, so I had a bit of an idea of what to expect. Greg emphasizes consistency in every aspect of the ride. "Start with more and finish with less," seemed to be the mantra of the day. Now, this statement may seem quite counter-intuitive at first, but if you think about it, it really makes sense. Typically, as we go around a course or down a line of jumps on our horse, momentum tends to build. My interpretation of "starting with more and finishing with less" is not that the horse should be running out of gas and petering out... rather, it's management to maintain consistency. When you have a pole 60' from a single jump and then another pole 60' away on the landing side, the horse should take the same number of strides between both the first pole and the jump, and the jump and the second pole. If the rider does nothing to maintain consistency, the horse will likely leave out a half or full stride on the landing side compared to the take-off side; this is incorrect.
In order to help maintain this consistency, Greg advocates the use of the automatic release, though he doesn't refer to it in those terms. By his explanation of his theory, "following hand" would be a much more apt term. The correct amount of release over a jump is the amount that the horse needs - nothing more, and nothing less. This means that sometimes you may be reaching a bit more to give your horse freedom over the top of the fence, or that sometimes you may be a bit restrictive in order to properly maintain consistency on landing. He sees no useful reason for the big, long crest release seen so often in the hunter ring (especially when paired with a ducking rider and swinging leg). We watched a horse change from going over the jump like he was shot from a cannon to using himself better and listening to his rider through application of Greg's theory.
Greg says that he has two problems with the concept of "give and take" - the "give" and the "take." When we try too much to "finesse" a horse using give and take, many horses seem to think that "give" means, "I was given an inch... time to take a mile!" and take advantage of the give. The rider then has to "take" more than what would otherwise be necessary in order to re-establish what was previously had. By being consistent initially, rather than "giving" an overly big release, we maintain consistency, rather than always engaging in a discussion to re-establish it. This does not mean that the rider's elbow and shoulder should not remain soft and following.
Greg is also all about straightness. Straight, however, is defined a bit differently for Greg. Straight is relative to your intended course. Everything is also about straight. Our priorities on the landing side of a jump coming into a turn should be first straightness, then collection, then any needed lead change. When jumping off a left lead canter to a right hand turn, our commitment should be to maintaining the left lead, because nothing should change over the jump; we should remain straight and consistent. (Though, when he asked this question on Sunday and I answered that we should be committed to whichever lead would keep the horse straighter, he was okay with that answer, even though technically wrong. "That's a different answer, but I don't mind it.")
In terms of rider position, he wants the rider closer to the front of the saddle, a bit of a deeper seat than the usual "hunter perch." If he could fix one point of the rider, it would be the knee position. This is not advocating a pinching knee at all; we just need to be able to keep our lower leg well under us for balance and support (a bit behind the girth) and still have the ability to actually move our leg around to use our aides. Rather than the traditional "shoulder-hip-heel" equitation alignment, Greg asks for "shoulder-hip-ankle." Upper body control is also very important to Greg: he wants neither an upper body too far forward, nor too vertical. It actually strikes me that much of what Greg seeks in rider position is well-accomplished with a saddle that truly fits the horse and rider. Interesting.
Some of what Greg says may seem to be a bit unorthodox compared to the traditional school of hunter-jumper training in the United States, but it really makes sense. It really makes me wonder what he and the George (George Morris) think of each other and each others' methodologies... anyone know?
More tomorrow... when I actually get to RIDE in the clinic!