January 2019 - The 2018 NorCal Clinic with Mandy Porter
Written by by Darby Bonomi, PhD • photos by Kim F. Miller
Friday, 28 December 2018 04:12

health & horsemanship

A report from the sidelines.

by Darby Bonomi, PhD • photos by Kim F. Miller

Forty eight lucky riders were treated to the NorCal Hunter Jumper Association’s clinic with superstar grand prix rider and trainer Mandy Porter. The clinic, which was really two clinics spanning over two days each, was hosted by Leone Equestrians in Sacramento from November 29-December 2, 2018. An annual NorCal tradition, the free-to-members clinic had almost 100 applicants for the coveted spots.  

Connection, Connection, Connection

Day 1 was focused on improving the horse and rider’s connection and communication so that they could tackle the challenging questions in the upcoming gymnastics phase and the courses on Day 2. Labeling her flatwork “basic,” Mandy started by asking riders to ride off the rail so they were sure to have their horse around both legs and not use the rail as a crutch. She emphasized going forward first, into the hand, using the inside leg to push the horse into the outside hand. A good reminder for many riders was to be careful not to overbend to the inside, instead keeping the horse straight with the outside rein and not allowing the haunches to swing out.

Mandy Porter. Being a 'clear, firm pilot' is the best way to be kind to our horses.

Mandy’s flatwork is designed to promote suppling, loosening and rideability. To establish suppleness, riders were encouraged to use their breath during transitions—as the rider releases tension, so does the horse, which helps him give into the command. Mandy noted that a horse sneezing or blowing is evidence of relaxation and acceptance.

Etsuko Sakimura II serpentines her 5 year old CANTER Thoroughbred through elements of the gymnastic, for suppling & relaxation.

Lots of bending lines and up and down transitions were used to continue the loosening, especially in the ribcage, and to develop rideability. Mandy stressed that horses need to be responsive and in tune with the rider’s instructions; in addition, riders need to be assertive and clear about what they want. She emphasized that the rider and horse are in a continuous conversation; the rider must be present with the horse in every step to maintain the connection.

It was a little cold, but we stayed warm by the heaters!

Rhythm and Balance

Noting that Day 2 was all about rhythm and balance, Mandy asked riders to apply the principles from the day before to do their own flatwork while she observed and commented. She emphasized again the importance of staying in conversation with your horse and being clear with your aids. It’s all about staying connected! Any disconnection will quickly evidence itself on course (such as with a refusal, bulging or having a rail).

Before getting started with jumping, Mandy gave valuable advice on how to utilize the 45-second clock. “Many people don’t use that time effectively.  It’s a time to get a lot done and you need to plan that out, just as you do your course. In your circle before your first fence, your horse has to be ready and in tune.

“Make sure you have your 3 canters,” Mandy continued. By that she meant, in order to have your perfect “10” canter (the one you go on course with), make sure you can get a 12. “Kick ‘em forward!  Gallop and make sure the gas pedal is working; then collect and make sure you can get your ‘8.’” Again, it’s all about rideability and connection to set yourself up for success.

Nicole Beales follows Mandy’s advice to keep her eyes up, which helps the horse’s balance as well as the rider’s.

After warming up on jumps set on a circle, riders were asked to negotiate a robust course with many related bending lines and tight turns. To ride it correctly, horses had to be balanced, forward and responsive, and riders had to be clear and precise about what they wanted. They had to keep the pace and stay on the right track. It was clear to those of us on the ground that the horses and riders had really benefitted from the work the day before; everyone seemed to have a more relaxed and yet more responsive horse, and they were able to answer the questions presented on course.

Using the inside leg to push the horse into the outside hand helps encourage suppleness and engagement.

Tailored Coaching


Mandy took a great deal of care to tailor her instructions to each pair. While the groups were well matched, each horse and rider team had its individual struggles, and Mandy was adept at challenging each but not over-facing anyone. For those with the sensitive or young horses, she cautioned not to frustrate or push them too much. “Maybe we didn’t get it perfectly, but he’s given a good effort and gotten closer so we’ll reward him.” With the sensitive and hotter ones, it’s still important to have your leg on—they need support—but it’s a guiding leg. The use of the breath is extra important with these horses, again helping them to relax and release.

All three Bonomi girls applied to ride in the clinic, and Adele got the slot. Mom Darby groomed & reported for this article!

On the last day I asked Mandy if she had any general observations or thoughts about what most riders needed to focus on. Mandy replied: “Most riders, well—my thing is—go forward with connection. Keep a consistent pace on course. What happens to most of us, me included, is that we slow down in the turns and then we end up taking back to look for our distance. That is a natural tendency. But instead, go forward out of the turn and let the distance present itself.”

Cecily Hayes on a CSU Fresno Bulldog horse from her school’s NCEA team

Well, I didn’t even get to ride in this clinic but if I had, that’s the exact advice she would have given me! To be honest, I feel a little relieved that even Mandy Porter has the urge to take back in her turns!

In short, the long weekend was a terrific success. All riders came away with buckets of personalized advice and, even more important, a new connection with one of the best riders in the country. Thank you, Mandy Porter, for giving so generously of your time and talent. It wasn’t just the 48 riders who came away full: it was everyone who was in attendance.

Author Darby Bonomi, PhD is a sport psychologist and performance consultant who specializes in working with equestrians and their families. She is based in San Francisco. In addition, she rides her horse Little Wing in the A/O hunters and adult medals and cheers on her two teenage daughters who also ride. Dr. Bonomi writes a regular column for the website www.StreettoStable.com and is an occasional contributor to California Riding Magazine. She can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .