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Train like the professionals

- training with top event riders Clarke Johnstone and Samantha Lissington

Words and photos: Show Circuit

Join top eventing riders Clarke Johnstone and Samantha Felton as they school Samantha’s two horses Ricker Ridge Rui and Ricker Ridge Skywalker through gymnastic exercises to prepare them for their upcoming competitions. Read on for inspiring tips and tricks that will help you on your way to the autumn eventing circuit and beyond. 

© Show Circuit Magazine

The professional - Ricker Ridge Rui

Rui is a seven-year-old warmblood x thoroughbred, by Littorio out of a Corlando x thoroughbred mare, and is currently competing at 2* level with Sam. She has owned him since he was three years old and has brought him carefully through the grades. He is quite a big horse, standing at 16.3hh, and has a big jump to match. Talented and energetic, Rui is a very good jumper and very bold on the cross-country course. His most significant achievements to date have been 6th place in the CIC2* National One Day Championships in 2015 and taking out the Equidays Isuzu D-Max Show Jumping and Cross Country Challenge. 

“He jumps everything too big, and if he wasn’t so careful he would be too much horse for me,” says Sam. “We use the jumps to back him up, and I try to think about riding to the base of the fence rather than holding to it, which helps me to land in control on the other side. Clarke’s help has made a huge difference to Rui’s rideability over the season. He recently competed in his first seven-year-old class at Woodhill Sands Grand Prix show and placed third.”


To begin, Clarke gets Sam to stretch Rui nicely in walk, trot and canter to get all his muscles nicely warmed up and loose. This will help to keep him relaxed and focused on the job, making him much easier to manage when they move onto the jumping. 

“Try and keep the neck nice and low in the stretch,” Clarke encourages. “Sit up nice and tall and avoid leaning forward. You can stretch him down without leaning forward! And keep your weight right down through your heels.”

Clarke encourages Sam to let Rui stretch without leaning forward as much.

© Show Circuit Magazine

Adding lateral movements to the warm up ensures the horse is supple, elastic and responsive - especially important before you move onto jumping or harder dressage exercises.

Sideways motion

Once Rui has established a nice working manner, Clarke moves Sam on to leg yielding him in the stretch to make sure Rui is moving nicely off Sam’s leg, suppling him at the same time. 

“The better your horse is on the flat and the more elastic he is, the more athletic he will become and the better he will be able to do his job in the jumping. It was good when you were leg yielding to the right, but when you came around on the left the quarters were leading a bit too much, so try and keep it a bit more parallel,” Clarke advises. “Always try and make your movements and shapes as perfect as you can.” He also reminds Sam to concentrate on maintaining her rhythm all the time.

© Show Circuit Magazine
© Show Circuit Magazine

Make him adjustable


Once he’s going nicely in the trot, Clarke moves Sam and Rui on to the canter. An excellent exercise for all horses is to do many transitions within the pace - ask the horse forward for a few strides, then carefully bring him back and shorten the canter. This will make the horse more adjustable, which is very important when you start jumping. 

“Go in three-point position and try to slow the canter a little, always thinking about the hind leg and making sure that he is active and jumping,” Clarke says. “This horse is really energetic, a real worker, so in the warm-up, we focus on getting him to relax and be soft. We work a lot on having him really quiet and having him listening and waiting for Sam so he will go on to jump nicely.” 

Sam continues the exercise until they are both satisfied with Rui’s responses to her aids. “Good, see if you can get him a little slower again. Then let him go on a bit, don’t keep him too slow for too long, and when you go on, make sure he is listening and good off your leg, and then slow again. When you send him on again, make sure that he feels like you can get him going forward with your leg.”

© Show Circuit Magazine
© Show Circuit Magazine

Riding a course

Clarke then sets up a simple course to test whether the earlier pole and grid work has helped Sam and Rui. Sam is able to ride forward to the fences, with Rui backing himself off and taking off closer to the fence. He shows a beautiful bascule, rounding his body over the highest point of the jump, just as Clarke was hoping.

Over time, these exercises will improve Rui even more as he and Sam move on up through the grades. 

© Show Circuit Magazine

The young horse - Ricker Ridge Skywalker

Luke is a six-year-old 16.2hh thoroughbred by One Cool Cat and was purchased sight unseen from Kirsty Sharapoff in the South Island. At the time of the lesson, Sam had only had him for three weeks, and Clarke had never seen him. 

“He is looking very promising for the future. One Cool Cats are supposedly a bit crazy, but so far he has been a little quirky but very manageable,” Sam says. “He has a lovely trot and a wonderful canter. He seems very bold in the jumping and is always forward-thinking, which presents a few challenges in his training, as poles don’t necessarily back him up. I rate him as one of the best horses we have had.”

Being young and keen, Luke tends to take off a stride early over jumps, so Clarke encourages Sam to work on her rhythm, encouraging Luke to wait a little more in between poles and fences.

To start with, as Sam said he would, Luke takes off too soon, so they set up two poles on the ground, five strides apart and keep going down the line, keeping the rhythm until Luke looks for the pole and backs off it. 

Now he can try the grid that was set up for Rui, showing how simple training techniques can work for both young and experienced horses.

© Show Circuit Magazine
© Show Circuit Magazine

Pole work

Clarke and Sam use poles to improve their horses’ jumping techniques and striding between fences. Luke is still very green, so he is still figuring it all out. “Just let him find his way through the poles and work it out for himself,” Clarke encourages. 

Sam goes through the line in trot a few times before coming around in canter. Again Clarke emphasises maintaining straightness. “Work on keeping him very straight, especially around the turns.” 

He also emphasises the importance of Sam using her body weight to control the horse. “When you want to slow him down, don’t just pull on his mouth! You have to use your upper body as well, so sit up and control him.” After a few times through the exercise, Luke starts to think and be more careful through it, which is a very good sign for what’s to come in his future career.

Tackling a course

The time spent working Luke over the poles pays off when they come to tackle a course. He canters in deeper to the fences, stays balanced and straight before and after the jumps, and goes boldly around the course. Taking the time to build a young horse’s confidence up will pay off in the future.

© Show Circuit Magazine

Clarke's View

Sitting pretty

It’s easy for riders to concentrate so much on their horse that they forget about maintaining a good, correct position of their own. Even top riders can slip into bad habits and have to think about their position all the time.

“When he gets a bit close to the fence, make sure you don’t ride up his neck too much. Try to sit nice and straight in the saddle all the time.” Clarke also reminds Sam to keep her heels pushed down all the time to give her extra security over the fence.

Producing the young horse

Clake immediately notices how careful Luke is, even at this early stage in training. “His nice attitude towards his work is going to make Sam’s job much easier as she brings him through the grades. He’s in the right hands with Sam, as she will be able to carefully produce him correctly and build his confidence to set him up for the best career possible,” he says. “It can be very tempting with a talented young horse to do too much too soon, but if you take your time with young horses, don’t push them too hard and are careful not to rush, you will certainly be rewarded in the long run.”

Keep it together!

Young horses can tend to get a little long, lean on the bit and fall on the forehand. It’s not a big problem; it’s just due to them being physically weak and needing to build strength behind to carry more weight on their hind end. 

“The more they carry themselves behind and jump in the canter, the easier they’ll find it when they get to the fence,” Clarke explains, advising Sam to keep Luke a little bit more together. “The better he sits, the more power he will have for the jump.” 

Remember: Let your horse travel between the fences and ride positively.

Rewarding the try

With young horses, it is essential to reward them with plenty of rests. They will get tired quite quickly, so pay attention to that and give them plenty of breaks!

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