Clinicians who have trained and competed at the elite levels in multiple disciplines have a depth of knowledge and experience that is the accumulated wisdom from countless types of horse and mentors. Bernie Traurig, Hall of Fame horseman and founder of EquestrianCoach.com, is one such clinician, and he’s made it his mission to give back to equestrian sport by improving access to top-notch instruction, exercises and lessons.
Traurig recently gave a three day jumping clinic at Ridgeway Stables in Dover, NH, where he engaged auditors, riders and even his ring crew with tips, theory, questions and feedback. Regardless of the level of horse or rider Traurig’s instruction centered on the importance of correct basics, equine responsiveness to appropriately applied aids, selecting the best equipment for the job and of course, and always thinking like a horseman.
Here are five recurring themes Traurig emphasized throughout sessions, which ranged from 2’9” to 3’6”:
1: Basic Bitting is Best
Traurig believes the best bit for each horse is the one which will offer the rider sufficient control and effectiveness in the aids in the mildest way possible.
“I don’t care what bit you have in the horse’s mouth, so long as it isn’t abrasive and works for the horse,” he explained. “School in the mildest bit suitable for the horse and rider. The horse has to accept pressure in a comfortable way.”
In fact, Traurig travels with a ‘bit bag’ and made frequent adjustments throughout the weekend to many horses’ equipment. Every change was made on an experimental basis, with a willingness to adjust again if the change wasn’t working.
“I like to start with a single jointed bit and see how the horse responds,” he said. “If the horse has an extremely low palate, they may need a double joint. I don’t like when [riders] just go to the gadget. People tend to go wrong with gadgets and sharp or thin bits.”
While Traurig is not opposed to the use of leverage bits when they are required, he thinks there is a real art in finding what level of pressure a horse is happiest with on their bars. “Stick with classical bits,” said Traurig. “Tack rooms and tack stores should have walls and walls of Bert de Nemethy bits, not walls and walls of whatever the latest bitting fad is.”
2: Constantly Improve Responsiveness
Regardless of experience level, each group’s warm up began with a period of establishing an energetic and active walk.
“This is the first step in putting the horse on the aids,” Traurig explained. “Your horse must always march forward from your leg, with their nose reaching forward. The rider must have a soft contact, not loose reins. There are two ways to walk—totally off the contact or on a correct rein. When going between them, you do not want to disturb the walk or the movements of the neck.”
Traurig reminded riders that their leg must always be on the horse’s “go” button, and that the horse’s response to forward is most important. “Never increase the pressure from your leg unless you want a response, whether asking the horse to move forward or sideways. Otherwise, your leg should hang passively.”
In their warm up, most groups performed a variation of an exercise which helped to improve the horse’s responsiveness to both their rein and leg aids. At the trot, Traurig had them perform a “shoulder yield”, guiding the front of the horse towards the rail with an opening outside rein away from the neck and an indirect inside rein at the neck. Both hands were taken out to the side, in the direction to which the shoulders should move.
“Use very little leg,” he cautioned. “This is mostly a rein cue. You are looking to displace the shoulders.”
The more riders practiced the rein yield, the more subtle their aids became. “Eventually the horse responds so well that you don’t see the aids, and you can use a subtle opening rein to shift the horse’s line without slowing them down,” said Traurig. “This is excellent for a hunter class.”
Traurig also reminded riders that the inside rein shapes the horse’s neck.
“Inside leg to outside rein is good but there is no shape in the neck. Every book you read says indirect rein goes to the opposite hip. But Littauer says that this depends on the effect desired. When used toward the outside hip the indirect rein affects the whole body, but when used towards the other hand it only affects the head and neck. The rein aids and the leg aids must be blended together. You have two legs and two hands. They all have to work together.”
Riders next performed a leg yield away from the rail, then back to the rail, first in the walk and then the trot. “Sitting trot works best for this,” he said. “If you feel you can’t use your leg, then drop your stirrups.”
Traurig reminded riders that how their mount responded to the aids on the flat would translate into the jumping. “You have to know if you see a forward distance that your horse will react,” said Traurig. “The horse has to be in front of the leg. If your horse ignores the aids, it’s okay to be a bit firmer once in a while.”
3: Constantly Improve Position
“You should fix your position flaws not because of ‘good equitation’, but for correct basics.”
Traurig gave riders well balanced feedback, quick to offer praise even when some elements of an exercise went wrong. In particular, he helped the riders to learn to feel when their positions were hindering their ride. “The goal in the walk is to have elastic arms, allowing the horse to accept a soft feel and reach long over their backs,” he noted.
Several riders struggled at first to find the right balance between holding the reins too much or not enough, and Traurig helped them to find the middle ground.
In the warm up work, riders were told to stretch out at the two point in the trot, creating a 30 degree angle in the hip. Many riders felt their lower legs slide back when they transitioned into two point. “When the leg goes back too far, you have to exaggerate holding it too far forward for at least thirty days,” said Traurig. “Then it will be normal.”
Traurig helped riders to become more aware of their release style. “A crest release on a hunter is fine, and the long crest release is fashionable, but it has a longer recovery time when you need to correct the line,” said Traurig. “The automatic release allows more refined use of the rein aids in the air. Riders can start using an opening rein to take their horse out to the rail before they even land.”
Even experienced riders can benefit from position checks.
On day two Traurig challenged the most advanced riders to warm up without their irons in the counter canter. He then had them raise their outside arm above their head, then drop the arm to hang behind their knee, all while maintaining the counter canter. After returning to sitting trot, the riders were told to use their inside hand to grab the pommel to really pull their seat down. Finally, they were asked to post without their irons for ten feet, then hold two point for ten feet, continuing this around the arena.
“When I was on the Team, we were each longed at least once per week,” he said. “Longeing is the best way to develop increased independence in the seat, and daily longeing will help make anyone a better rider.”
4: Perfect Practice Makes Perfect
A lot of becoming an effective rider is about knowing what to do and when, in just the right amount. To achieve this end requires hours of practice; but as we all know, only correct practice will build the long term responses we want in horse and rider.
One young horse became hot and excited when approaching the fences. “Repetition of schooling exercises which decrease anxiety and the aggressive approach to the jump are in order,” said Traurig. “It is tedious, but necessary.”
For this horse, Traurig prescribed trotting jumps with plenty of halts after fences, with an emphasis on a gradual rather than abrupt transition. “Take a few strides,” said Traurig. “As you practice it more, you can expect the halt to become more prompt.”
Once the horse jumped more quietly, he was allowed to canter a few fences, followed by a halt. Eventually this would build to cantering into a line and trotting out. “Be a horseman,” said Traurig. “Always quit when the horse has been good, especially when they are young and green and have done well.”
Another experienced horse had a habit of stopping at new fences. Traurig told the rider that she must carry a crop that is “worthy of a correction.”
“Do not change how you ride at a show,” said Traurig. “Do not be intimidated by the crowd. If the horse stops, you must give the correction. Ride your horse absolutely quiet unless they stop. Then you make the correction. And then you ride like they are the best horse in the world. You cannot ride a stopper aggressively.”
5: Details Matter
To be a truly excellent horseman, the rider must always pay attention to the smallest elements of precision, whether it is in terms of care, tack adjustment, or ridden performance.
Traurig’s sharp eye missed no detail and gave all participants a sense of the type of attention required. For one example he reminded everyone that spurs must be worn on the spur rest, or else it is not possible for the rider to apply their leg without using the spur. In another correction Traurig told riders that they must be precise with the timing for the flying change.
“Do not do the change on a curved line,” he coached. “Hold them straight. There are three fundamentals to riding a good change. First, you need impulsion which you can balance, straightness produced by holding the line with an opening rein on the outside, and the correct timing and intensity of the leg aid, which is determined by who you are riding. If the horse is hot or sensitive, you may have to stay in half seat to help them stay quiet.
“If a horse has not yet learned the flying change, and especially when there is little room on the recovery side of a fence, riders should plan to trot at the corner no matter what,” Traurig continued. “It is better to do this than to allow the horse to start swapping in front without changing behind.”
Knowing what is expected for your specific jumping discipline also falls in this category. “For example, if there is a bending line on your hunter course, most of them are smooth so both holding the counter canter or doing a change is acceptable,” said Traurig. “In lower level equitation, the same is true, but in higher levels you must either land on your new lead or do the flying change.”
Even knowing how to ride a line well comes down to details. “See your jump first, then look beyond it,” Traurig explained. “Approach management is key. For example, knowing where to come to on the in of your bending line to effect the distance is a skill. The trick is to hold your line on the landing so as to not put you on a half stride.”
Traurig told riders that for any line which requires a turn, the best technique is to look for the approach to the second fence first, then back up the line to where you have to make the turn from. “Whenever you don’t see [a distance], stay out further and shorten the stride a little to buy some time.”
Finally, Traurig reminded riders that every horse has their own “right” canter, a speed at which they jump the best out of. “You can jump any course in the world with good track control and the ability to adjust the length of stride.”
Final Take Aways
Traurig is an attentive and enthusiastic educator, passionate about communicating with all present the fundamental basics which underlay any successful equestrian performance. Blending a commitment to correct basics with his precise ability to customize exercises and tools to suit each unique pair, Traurig is a master at giving riders the information they need to know, right when they need to hear it.
Traurig’s final piece of advice?
“The most important part of your body when you ride is your brain.”
About the Author
Christina Keim is a self diagnosed equine addict who has been around or on top of horses for a nearly uninterrupted span of over thirty years, when she was first given riding lessons “just for the summer.” She has enjoyed and experienced many disciplines including hunters, equitation, jumpers, dressage, eventing, Pony Club and most recently competitive trail riding. Christina is based at her Cold Moon Farm in Rochester, NH, and holds an M. Ed from the University of New Hampshire.