Auditing Bill Woods Clinic

“Your goal as a rider is to make yourself the most fascinating person your horse has ever met. Think of dressage as an athletic, creative endeavor, not an obedience exercise.”

– Bill Woods


I had the great fortune of auditing a Bill Woods clinic a few hours away from home this past weekend. Bill has been a USEF judge (now “R”) for more than 25 years, he brings a special perspective to his teaching, which is especially helpful for riders who want to compete. He was mentored by Swedish Olympian Maj. Anders Lindgren for more than twenty years. He is a former three-time participant at the storied Violet Hopkins/USDF National Instructors’ Seminars. Then joined its staff in 1985, serving with amazing riders like Sally Swift through 1991. He has also written many articles for the USDF and several books. He is based in central Florida, but regularly travels around North America for clinics and shows.

I enjoyed meeting this interesting and funny master of dressage and it was a pleasure to watch him work with so many different riders. I would love ride with him the next time he comes to town.

Throughout the clinic, he told lots of stupid one-liner jokes told stories about past clients and horses, stories of the Intermediare-trained Holsteiner that also moonlighted as a hunting horse that packed elk down the mountainside, and the Thouroughbred that tossed his head so violently that  Bill’s hunt cap cut into his forehead and forced him to wear a face protecting polo helmet whenever he rode that horse.

Most of the horses in the clinic were enormous floaty Warmbloods that suffered from occasional balance and straightness problems. There was no distinct theme for the clinic, but I found that most of the issues addressed in the lessons centered around getting the horse more supple and sharper on the rider’s aids. One thing that really stood out to me was how he talked about surrounding the horse with your aids, not riding from inside leg to outside rein, but riding from inside leg to outside leg to outside rein. He emphasized closing in the gaps and clarifying every cue you give your horse. I brought a small notebook along and madly scribbled notes all throughout the clinic. When I reviewed them later, I found that 20% of it was gobbledygook that can’t make out, but a good deal of it was still decipherable and useful. Here are my biggest take-aways from the clinic and several of his most interesting exercises he used in the lessons.


Clarifying transitions:

Use a few lateral steps during the transition (like a turn on the forehand) to clarify the transition and eliminate jiggy steps. He talked a lot about stable and unstable equilibriums. Think of a cone. When the cone is sitting right side up on its base, it is stable and hard to move. You have to be willing to flip the cone upside down so you can move it however you want to. “Unlock your horse” and worry about straightness later. Throughout the clinic, Bill would often tell the riders to “fluff” their horses up. “We want them soft and souffle like!” he exclaimed more than once. I thought this was such a delicious image (very punny), especially when I mostly ride stiff little sticky horses that are prone to locking up and shutting down. He told one rider to “be heroic” about her transitions and get a response, and to worry about breaking later. He talked a lot about the aids working together to surround the horse, to push energy from the legs and seat and load and unload the hands to contain the energy. If you find the horse bracing, break up the symmetry of the aids when the horse leans and use some lateral steps.

Availability and Readiness:

You want to feel like your horse is ready at any moment to bump up to an energetic trot, or close into a halt. Tactful riders are not mild, but appropriate. You should aim to create a horse that is sensitive to your aids and avoid over working yourself. If the horse doesn’t respond quickly enough, use your spur or whip to “ring the doorbell” and remind him of your expectations. However, they must never become a crutch.

Rider suppleness:

He often told the riders to keep their fingers alive, and to let their legs flutter and breath instead of gripping.He also talked a lot about how your hand position affects the horse’s balance. He allowed riders to temporarily lift their hands to “help their horse up,” but not so long it would become a crutch. Once, he had a rider actually cross her reins so she had her inside rein in her outside hand and vice versa. This way, she couldn’t hang on her inside rein, nor could her horse pop through her outside rein.Think of the horse as a carpenter’s level, you want to keep the proverbial bubble of your horse soft and round within the tic marks of your aids.


I’ve never really thought about how the horse’s jaw effected a movement, but Bill frequently told riders to soften one side of the horse’s jaw if he was getting too stiff. He talked a lot about half halts as “fillers” for the spaces in between your cues. Half halts are to be used to regain balance, but they must also have a distinct expiration date, instead of hanging on tighter and tighter.


I paid special attention in this topic since cantering seems to be one of my biggest problems with Cooper. Bill was very encouraging to one rider who had a fussy mare that wasn’t interested in cantering. The horse would throw a big ugly hissy fit each time the rider asked for canter, but Bill just had her keep trying until she picked up the right lead. He continually told her not to worry about her antics because they would resolve themselves soon enough. Many of the horses had problems picking up the correct lead, so he often worked on helping them get the horse’s shoulders lined up so they would be in a position conducive to picking up the desired lead. Think shoulder-in, then cue for canter. When you canter, keep the horse surrounded by your aids. Ride the whole horse, superimpose all the things you were just saying in walk and trot. Don’t ever “just canter.”

Rein backs:

Teaching rein back doesn’t matter if the horse is backing for the wrong reasons. Start asking with one leg and then see what you can get. And, if the horse is inclined to go crooked in the rein-back, simply take the shoulders and shift them back to match the hind. Straightness will come after your horse learns the movement.

Hind legs: 

Left hind fills the left rein, right hind fills the right rein. The horse is like a DC-9, there are two engines in the rear and your goal as a rider is to get equal thrust from both engines. Try to get the hind legs to scoop under the horse, not up and down.

Useful movements:

Staircase: Ride a few steps of half pass, then shoulder in, then half pass, etc. across the diagonal.

Canter loop with 10 meter circle: Practice the geometry of your loop by trotting to the apex of your canter loop on the center line and putting a ten meter circle in the middle of your loop’s hump, then complete your loop.

Diamond: Practice riding a diamond turned on it’s head instead of riding a circle. Make a square with four definite corners and four definite straight lines. This will help “lift the withers into your lap” and you can practice re-balancing transitions and corrections.

Needless to say, I have quite a few new experiments to run with Cooper in the coming days. Clinics always make my head feel big and explosive with so much new information at once! There is another clinic I am hoping to attend in a few weeks (different clinicians).

Happy Riding!


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