It’s not unusual to find America’s best riders competing together in one place. But it is rare to be given a window into their lives as coaches and mental competitors, and perhaps no annual event does that better than US Equestrian’s annual George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Sessions in Wellington, Florida. Speaking as an amateur rider, myself, it’s one of the most informative events I think you’ll find anywhere on the calendar and should be mandatory viewing for those of us who are serious about the sport.

Last weekend, two groups of top junior riders spent three days training under the tutelage of Anne Kursinski, Kent Farrington, and Sunday’s “Nations Cup” chef d’equipe, McLain Ward, with all sessions televised live on the USEF Network (you can catch up here). Kursinski instructed them on the flat, Farrington over gymnastics exercises, and Ward during a mock-Nations Cup competition (Beezie Madden was also on-hand to coach the third Nations Cup team).

Over three days, the clinicians spoke candidly on everything from course setting and warming up for a class, to proper position and fixing specific training issues, to advice for aspiring young riders, and how to deal with stops on course (see below). And unless you’re one of the lucky few to be coached by these amazing competitors, you rarely get this kind of insight into their thinking in real-time and how you can apply it to your own horse and riding.

So, with that in mind, I’ve done my homework and have scoured this year’s sessions for 10 simple tips I plan to incorporate into my riding this very week. And guess what? You can too!

1. It’s okay to look down at your horse on the flat. 

Personally, I’ve always found it helpful when schooling on the flat to look down at my horse to see how he’s responding to what I’m asking. Though advice on this topic has always been mixed (some trainers advise you to keep your eyes up and ahead, no exceptions), as of this weekend, Anne Kursinski has officially given me permission, so step off. According to Kursinski, looking at what’s happening in front of you is a great way to stay connected to your horse and your flatwork, and since that jives with my own experience on the subject, I’m running with it.

2. Remember turn on the forehand/turn on the haunch? Yeah. Practice them.  

During Kursinski’s group flatwork sessions she routinely told the riders to change direction with a turn on the forehand or a turn on the haunch, and a couple of participants really struggled with it. I decided to try a few turns on the haunch during my own flatwork this morning, and, low and behold, my horse was solid to the right and totally dull-sided to the left—a side I also struggle with on the flat and over jumps. The verdict? I’m hoping that working on these turns more regularly will not only help to gauge my horse’s progress and responsiveness to the leg on his tricky side, but also help to improve it over time. (Thanks, Anne!)

3. Sorry kids—dropping your stirrups isn’t just for No-Stirrup November. 

During the year, I **try** to ride without stirrups at least once a week. But, like Dry January and other laudable resolutions, slip-ups happen. For me, Kursinki’s sessions help to illustrate how riding without stirrups makes you better, not just in terms of fitness and stickiness in the tack, but also by improving the effectiveness of your position. In fact, Kursinski commented how some riders in her sessions actually lost their position and base support when their stirrups were given back. Kind of makes you think, doesn’t it?

4. Get off the track. 

During Kent Farrington’s sessions, he repeatedly reminded his riders to ride at least 10-feet off the track of the ring at all times so they weren’t using the rail as a crutch. I’ve always known this was a ‘best practices’ kind of thing (not to mention where the better footing tends to be), and I try to do it whenever possible. But hearing Kent’s dedication to the concept really bumped it up on my priority list.

5. Jump the minimum. 

He may make 1.60m courses look like a cakewalk, but it turns out, Farrington spends a lot of his time thinking about how to minimize jump schools with his horses. Throughout his sessions, he kept the gymnastics low, advising riders to skip the actual jumps in favor of cavalettis whenever possible when they were working to correct a specific issue during their turn. In his own program, Kent says he only jumps one course a week with his horses, flatting or going out on trails the rest of the time, and using another day of gymnastics and cavalettis—as he did during his Training Sessions—to address the specific issues he expects to deal with on his course-jumping day. The bottom line? You can always be more methodical in your schedule and training program.

6. Follow the “10 percent” rule. 

Yes, jumper riders, we can train ourselves to ride better at speed, and for Farrington, that starts with his “10 percent” rule. After the riders in his groups had mastered certain elements of the gymnastics course, or for those riding particularly well-schooled horses, Farrington advised them to repeat the exercise but to do it at 10 percent more pace, therefore more closely resembling the ride they were looking for in the ring. In my own training, I’ve found it’s easy to get caught up in perfecting an exercise and sometimes I lose sight of the fact that in the show ring, there are no points for style, and the jumps are going to come up a lot faster. Though it’s hard to recreate some show ring variables at home, this is an easy way to get more comfortable at your competition pace and to smooth out the major kinks.

7. Bring your spurs (and whip) to a water jump fight. 

Want to know how to irritate McLain Ward? Show up to a spooky indoor jumping course without the tools necessary for success. If you have spurs, put them above the spur rest. If you have a stick, and your horse is hanging back, use it. Although Ward advised that he isn’t one of those pros who think every horse needs to go with a stick and spurs at all times, for a track as difficult as this weekend’s mock-Nations Cup course proved to be, showing up without some sort of Plan B, should things get hairy, was irresponsible. Plenty of riders this weekend learned that lesson the hard way (read on).

8. Pull yourself together.

We’ve all seen McLain’s steely competition mask, which goes on at about the same time that he mounts up, and doesn’t come off until he’s chasing around his fellow podium-finishers with a bottle of expensive champagne. The interesting thing for me, though, is just how much Ward preaches what he practices. Several of the riders in Sunday’s Nation Cup were praised or critiqued for their composure (or lack thereof), and Ward seemed to value this aspect of the participants’ rides as much as he did their ability to actually jump clear or ride smoothly. But it’s not just about looking the part. Ward illustrated how a lack of mental composure caused some riders to begin their course prematurely, rush their horse, or pick a poor approach to an important fence. Composure is easier said than done, of course, depending on the circumstance, but at the very least, it’s a good reminder to take an extra moment to breathe and organize before starting every course you attempt.

9. Oh, heyyyy lower leg, I see you. 

I don’t remember the last time I’ve given my lower leg much thought, but it was probably sometime around my last attempt at an adult equitation class five years ago. Turns out, a good lower leg position isn’t just about picking the best horse show photo to share on Instagram. Ward commented on the lower legs of at least two of the strongest-performing riders in his sessions, telling one it would determine how far she was able to go in the sport, and even chiding McKayla Langmeier for some lower-leg slippage during her first round. Now I can tell you, on my best day, my lower leg isn’t within striking distance of McKayala Langmeier’s on her worst, but we all have to have goals, right? If the lower leg is a deal breaker for McLain, it’s now officially a dealbreaker for me.

10. Got a stop in the show ring? Here’s how to cope. 

I won’t go so far as to say that Sunday’s Nations Cup class was a dumpster fire. But, for several of the participating riders in the Training Session, it was a really rough day, and trust me when I say, we’ve all been there. The chief culprit was a spooky open water fence that McLain, himself, said was very difficult, and a majority of the participating horses stopped, thought hard about stopping, crashed through it, or offered some combination of the above. Huge props to McLain, who offered to stay after the Nations Cup to work with the riders who were struggling with this fence (something I wish they had been able to live stream!). But Ward did have some important points for how to deal with the inevitable spooky fence or unexpected stop on course.

#1. Whatever you do, DON’T let your horse run by the fence. Over, under, or through is best. Stopping straight is the only other option.

#2. DON’T LOSE YOUR STIRRUPS—especially if you know a spook or required correction is coming. Losing a stirrup will compromise your position, your ability to make a timely correction, and it may cause you to fall off. Worse still: somewhere in the world, McLain Ward will know you’ve lost your stirrup and will be instantly P-Oed.

#3. End on a high note. If you get excused, and you can, jump another fence on your way out (something similar in type to the problem fence, if possible) and then take it out to the schooling ring. Find people who can help you and DON’T freak out. This is show jumping, and stops, falls, and crashes happen to everyone. What matters is how composed you’re able to stay when it’s happening to you.

Want to catch up on the 2018 George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Sessions? (Yes, yes you do!)  You can watch them all at US Equestrian, here.