November 2017 - Candid With Karen
Written by by Karen Healey
Monday, 30 October 2017 20:05

Preparation that involves doing it the hard way produces the best results.

by Karen Healey

A little bit of preparation goes a long way toward success in our sport. As a student of George Morris, that idea was hammered into my consciousness early on. It was a foundation of my training program for 30-plus years and today as I coach riders with all levels of equitation and jumper ring aspirations.

After watching this year’s Platinum Performance USEF Talent Search Show Jumping Finals and the new USHJA 3’3” Jumper Seat Equitation Finals in the West, I was disappointed that some riders found the gymnastic phases particularly difficult. To me, that’s a phase all riders should be well prepared for because the exercises involved in the gymnastic phase are exercises that should be included in at-home practice every day. Plus, the specific exercises are available to all and can be built at your home arena.

When I was coaching riders for the Talent Search, we didn’t practice the specific USET gymnastic exercises all year, because the riding questions they asked were always part of the normal courses I built at home. The patterns ask that you lengthen or shorten stride and ride a track, whether it’s a bending line or lines that include unusual fences like Swedish oxers or a water obstacle. Our regular schooling courses asked every question imaginable and were always tougher than what my students would encounter in the show ring.

In the days preceding the Talent Search Finals, we did set the exact patterns in a back ring so we could practice them. I always set the suggested distances much longer or shorter so it would be harder than what my students would encounter in the Finals. By the time they got there, it was easy.

In the Talent Search Finals, judges, who also design the courses, now have to use at least three of the exercises printed in the Finals prize list for the gymnastics phase course. I’m not crazy about this requirement: I wish it was only two, so the judges could be a little more creative. But, I do like that fact that these exercises are available in the prize list and online, so it’s easy for someone who wants ideas for course elements to build at home.

We’ve included a few of those elements here, and you can find all of this year’s Talent Search gymnastics phase options here:, on pages 15-16.

Unfortunately, there’s a segment of our sport that won’t take advantage of this opportunity. They are too busy horse showing to practice: to do the lessons and the schooling that includes things like these real gymnastic elements. And then there is a tendency to give in to those who want things soft and easy. Too many people want it set up so kids don’t fail. If we make something hard, then they get upset and don’t like it. They don’t realize that you are going to fail a few times before you figure things out. A lot of trainers are afraid of upsetting the children, or the parents. If the kid goes home and cries about a hard lesson, that can be bad for business.

Coddling is not just an issue in the horse world. There are any number of articles describing how important “grit” is in becoming a successful, happy adult and how that quality is not cultivated enough in today’s kids. Our sport can be a great way to teach that, with far-reaching, real-world benefits whether these kids keep riding or not.

Doing it the “hard way” doesn’t suit everybody. That’s for sure. But it’s the way that leads to the best results and creates real riders ready to move on to the next level in our sport.

Author Karen Healey is one of our sport’s most accomplished teachers and coaches. She worked for George Morris in the early 70s and has carried on his teachings ever since, along the way coaching 100-plus-and-counting medal finals winners. NAJYRC medalists and international stars including Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum are among her protégés. Karen shuttered her California training barn at the end of 2015, after 34 years, and continues to work with riders in lessons, clinic and coaching at shows through Karen Healey Training. For more information, visit or e-mail Karen at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .