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Well, OK, that might sound obvious, but bear with me…

Watching clinics can be a really good learning experience, not only do you have the safety of sitting back and learning from the mistakes of others, but I find that it’s sometimes much easier to understand what’s going on in the arena from a bit of a distance, without my horse. So, most clinics you go to there will be a gathering of “speccies” in attendance clutching notebooks and mugs of tea. If they’re at one of my clinics I’ll have warned them to think a bit about the English weather so they will have waterproofs, sunglasses, polar fleeces and suncream. They’ll probably also have lots of sweeties and chocolate and expectant looks. At a lot of clinics the riders will not ride for the whole day, so they will be in the ranks, normally cadging sweeties and chocolate on the grounds that they earned it. If you feed them cake, most riders will be your next best friend and share what the clinic is meaning to them.

I’ve got 7 top tips for species:

1. It’s not always possible, but if you haven’t seen a trainer before I’d urge you to get along to the first day of the clinic. It’s generally informative to see the riders when they start to have an idea of what they’re working on and their goals. Normally the trainer will also give some insight into how they work and why they do what they do. I remember a bright and breezy Pony Club type lady turning up on day 3 and a half of a 4 day Parelli clinic, studying proceedings for a few minutes, then turning to the audience to ask “Have they done Join Up yet?”. A kindly soul took her aside and gave her an overview of what had gone before and the 7 Games. As I say, a kindly soul. (This is some years back, I haven’t organised Parelli clinics for some time).

2. Remember, you’re a paying customer and there to learn. So if you don’t understand what’s going on – ask. You might need to check whether that trainer likes to take questions at the end of a session, or is happy to take hands up while working, but make the best of your time. A little bit of clinic etiquette… if you’ve been asking questions non-stop for the last half hour, around you species are saying things like “kettle on anyone?” and the trainer’s horse has just laid himself down for a sleep in the sand… it’s probably time to let the riders have a go. Oh, and take a notebook and pen. And ask first if you want to take photos or video.

3. Take along your own comfy chair. This is a key Top Tip. Whether or not seating is provided, take your special Comfy Chair and be ready to settle down happily while all around you fidget atop straw bales. I have two Comfy Chairs, and in the summer they never leave my car. Before you leave for the clinic you should practise a Steely Glare in the mirror. You may need this for the times you go off to grab refreshments, and return to find someone happily tucked up in your Comfy Chair, gazing fixedly ahead at the arena and pretending they can’t see you stood beside them with tea in one hand and a bacon butty in the other. The correct procedure in these circumstances is to move into their eye-line, fix them with your Steely Glare and announce “I’d like my chair back now… please”. If this fails, well, you have tea to hand, you could always try tipping it on them.

4. I know, because I am one, us riders are complete numptys sometimes. I mean, if only I would just take my bit up one more notch, or take my leathers down a hole, or get after Celebrity a bit more, well everything would come together. The thing is, I’d rather you didn’t hang over the arena fence, hiss at me to get me to ride over, and then start to explain all this. I know it’s very well-intentioned, but I have a limited capacity for concentration (it’s my age!) and can only deal with one trainer at a time. Seriously though, this isn’t really the done thing, some trainers will leap on it, others don’t. The trainer has a limited amount of time to get things done, and quite often they’ll deal with the things that they think are the priority for that horse and rider, deciding that the way toes are pointing isn’t really that important. I’ll also just mention that I’ve seen a lot of horses and riders getting thrown off-track away from the arena by well-intentioned people approaching them with advice on how to do things differently. Or even offering to take their horse and show them some moves. It’s pretty confusing and to be honest, most spectators won’t really explain things as well as the trainer does, so best avoided. A man offered to hold my big cob Joe for me at a clinic once, while I answered a call of nature. I had a feeling he’d been making comments to his companion for some time about how ineffective I was and how he’d do things differently and better (see tip 5). I returned in time to see him nearly get his head kicked off. Which highlights just one potential danger arising from deciding to work with someone else’s horse. Joe was, let’s just say – deceptive.

5. If you’ve read my earlier blog you’ll have read about how Mark Rashid refers to the arena as a safe place for the riders. This is really important, it’s absolutely nerve-wracking sometimes to be on the end of a rope, or on board your horse, and feeling that you are completely stuffing things up. It feels much worse if you can see a gaggle of spectators leaning in together, waving hands in your direction, and probably comparing notes on what you’re doing wrong. Even worse if the occasional word can be heard. I know, I know, they might not be talking about the me, but it sure as heck feels like they are. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t comment a bit about what’s going on in the arena, I’m just saying that it’s really nice if spectators think about this and how they might be coming over. If the riders could do it perfectly they wouldn’t be there, and they’re not riding a demo. Mind you, if you can see daylight between my horse’s belly and his girth, feel free to mention that. I will thank you.

Similarly, think before you ask public questions. Say for example you ask the trainer why they don’t correct bad rider posture, 8 out of the 10 riders in the arena will think you mean them. Although they might seem like seasoned clinic attendees, this can result in a rider being found later that evening in their horse’s pen, with their head in her neck in tears. You could phrase it differently, or you might wait and ask the trainer when they’re on their own. Normally in this sort of example the answer will be about priorities again.

This is turning into quite a long top tip… but anyway bear with me. The more you get doing this stuff, the more friends you will make and obviously you’ll be having reunions at clinics. This is all pretty cool, but maybe have a think about where and when you’re going to have your good old catch up. If you are sitting in your Comfy Chairs with the other species, nattering on about how your mum is getting on, or your farrier tribulations, expect to have tea poured over you. You have been warned. You can also expect to have tea poured over you if you treat all within earshot to a running commentary on how you’d deal with the riders differently.

6. Make sure you know where your next meal is coming from. Spectating clinics seems to have a certain effect on the metabolism, trust me, you will be starving by mid-morning, so make sure you know if lunch is included or not. And of course tea, and coffee, and snacks. Eating is one of the great pleasures associated with watching clinics. If you’re lucky there will be pub gatherings organised in the evening, giving you even more opportunity to stuff calories and sugars down your throat. Expect to put on at least half a stone in an average summer of clinic spectating, maybe a stone. If you’re staying for a four-day clinic pack two sizes of jeans in your bag to allow for expansion. Don’t worry, you can work it all off dragging hay to your horses in the winter.

7. Last, but by no means least, plan to learn, make friends and enjoy yourself. That’s the best Top Tip of all.

As always, I’d love to hear some anecdotes and tips from you dear readers.

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Kas Fitzpatrick is the founder of Exploring Horsemanship. She has been the clinic organiser for Steve Halfpenny, Tom Widdicombe, Amanda Barton, Dave Stuart and various Parelli Natural Horsemanship instructors at different times. She lives in UK with her beloved horses, Celebrity...

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