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HUB Club 2017 Annual Spring Clinic with Sterling Graburn: Horses, Drivers, and Auditors Take Home “Sterling” Silver Nuggets of Wisdom

If you closed your eyes – and your ears, carriages are quite noisy/squeaky – you could have imagined you were at a dressage clinic on May 27and 28 when the HUB Club hosted Sterling Graburn at the Fox Valley Saddle Association (FVSA) in Hampshire, IL. Sterling competes in both Pleasure and Combined Driving, with singles, pairs, tandems, unicorns, and four-in-hands. He has competed at the World Singles Championships, twice won the USEF National Combined Driving Single Horse National Championship, and thrice won the FEI Top Driver Award at the North American Challenge, Single Horse Championships. Encouraging, fully engaged, and witty, it’s hard to tell where his main expertise lies, as he seemed equally gifted in all three phases of combined driving: dressage, cones, and marathon/obstacles.

Sterling gives pointers to Jane Hemboldt driving her 11-year-old Morgan gelding “Liam”

If you’re a dressage rider, these instructions from Sterling should sound familiar. That is, much is the SAME between ridden and driven dressage:

• “You should be able to put the head anywhere you want it and still talk, still be connected”
• “In the walk, march, march, march, business-like”
• “We want more engagement but not faster”
• “He needs more activity in the hind end”
• “We want impulsion but not speed”
• “Forward into the contact”

And here’s some advice that Sterling gave drivers which is DIFFERENT from what might be heard from a riding instructor:

• “You may feel like you’re doing something, but there are two terrets between you and the bit”
(Lots of drivers fall into the trap of moving their hands left, right, up, or down to steer their horse or rate the pace, but because the reins pass through two sets of rings on the harness, we are unable to use a leading or opening rein.)

• “Use the brakes to stop the CARRIAGE, not the HORSE”
(Yep, some carriages have brakes on them, and they can be useful for all sorts of things, like slowing the carriage when going downhill or turning sharply around an obstacle. In this case, Sterling was instructing the driver to support her horse by touching the brakes on down transitions so that the horse only had to worry about himself in the moment, not stopping the carriage and driver too.)

• “Push with the voice, not the hand for a lengthened trot”
(Drivers lose the seat aid when they move from the saddle into the carriage – the leg is replaced by the whip – so in order to lengthen the frame and stride, we use another tool, the voice, which is permitted in driven dressage tests. Although test readers are not.)

Lydia Gray negotiates cones with “Newman,” her 16-year-old Trakehner gelding

Related to the stadium jumping phase of an event, most drivers (and horses) really enjoy cones courses. Since they show up in both pleasure driving shows and combined driving events, it pays to get top-notch instruction from someone like Sterling on negotiating them fast and clean, as we’re all seeking the “double-clear.” Not only did he drive most of the horses (including Newman!), he also personally walked the lines he wanted us to drive – even bravely walking with us following right behind him! – and also used himself as a human “cone” when drivers were cutting corners or turning too early or late quipping “I’ll help you.”

Sterling trots a line into the Four Corners obstacle (forward, round, and with bend!)

One of my biggest takeaways from the session on cones was that drivers should make the set-up, or the preparation, the priority, not the passing through the actual cones themselves, because that’s what causes us to turn too early, or too late, or look down to see if we hit the cone, etc. He shared that when he is walking a cones course at a competition, he will often stand in between a pair of cones and look backward to find his line and where he needs to turn to make that line. Some of my other favorite takeaways came from a wonderful lesson with a 70+ year-old driver and her Morgan gelding:

• The idea is to pass through cones perpendicularly, not on an angle
• Wait, wait, wait (to turn until past the cones)
• Can start the BEND when the horse’s shoulders pass, but not the turn until the driver is past
• Drivers take balls down not because of speed but because of turning too soon
• Steering is better when you’re forward into the contact
• The most obvious route may not be the best/fastest ie what looks shorter may not be faster

Jane Hemboldt drives“Liam” straight and clean through a pair of cones

Sterling kept the auditors chuckling during the two days, such as when he told this same driver: “think of the cones as fire – don’t get burned!” or his favorite saying when horses got tired near the end of lessons “I think your horse has run out of nickels” referring to the grocery-store mechanical horse. Then there was “you can’t get to 6 that way” when a driver turned the wrong way after 5, and our favorite “That’s right. Start from the beginning. From 5.” What now?

The marathon phase with its obstacles (formerly known as hazards) are usually the combined drivers’ and spectators’ favorite part, much like the cross-country phase is the favorite part in eventing. We were treated to two Intermediate lessons (one KWPN and one Fjord) that trotted to the start/finish flags then galloped through the obstacles as directed by Sterling, trying to better their times each attempt. Then there was me.

Jennifer Thompson gallops her 7-year-old KWPN gelding “Lucas” into the Four Corners obstacle.

Sterling boldly drives “WW Reidar,” a Norwegian Fjord owned by Linda Syverson-Kerr

I make lots of excuses for why Newman and I are not fast in obstacles, such as: “he’s a 17hh long warmblood that turns like a bus” and “I have a fancy presentation vehicle not a true marathon cart,” but it really comes down to me not being brave or either of us having the desire to really “attack” the obstacles. Sterling rode on the back in the navigator position and coached us from warm-up – which included easy passes straight through the obstacle – to gradually tighter and tighter turns that culminated in us trotting around the inside of the obstacle, around two barrels. When we did eventually hit one of the wooden fence corners, his response was “if you’re not rubbin’, you’re not racin’.” My first full lesson in obstacles, I learned: 1) that the line is the most important thing and that you keep the bend with the inside rein and half-halt on the outside rein to rate the speed and tightness of the turn, 2) that it’s important not to look at the horse but ahead at your line to where you’re going, and 3) that you need a certain degree of forward for the horse to be able to accept a half-halt on that outside rein. To me, this sounds a lot like good dressage!

Lydia F. Gray, DVM, MA SmartPak Staff Veterinarian and Medical Director Dr. Lydia Gray has earned a Bachelor of Science in agriculture, a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM), and a Master of Arts focusing on interpersonal and organizational communication. After “retiring” from private practice, she put her experience and education to work as the American Association of Equine Practitioner’s first-ever Director of Owner Education. Dr. Gray continues to provide health and nutrition information to horse owners through her position at SmartPak, through publication in more than a dozen general and trade publications, and through presentations around the country. She is the very proud owner of a Trakehner named Newman that she actively competes with in dressage and combined driving. In addition to memberships in the USDF and USEF, Dr. Gray is also a member of the Illinois Dressage and Combined Training Association (IDCTA). She is a USDF “L” Program Graduate and is currently working on her Bronze Medal. Find Dr. Gray on Google+

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