Adapting the Forward Riding System to Today’s Hunter-Jumper Industry: An Interview with Corky Shaha
For the past twelve years, forward riding proponent Corky Shaha has taught and trained at Wells Bridge Farm, in Littleton, CO, a business she co-owns with Paul Rohrbach. She traces her success in the hunter-jumper industry to her early days at Jane Dillon’s riding school, and an ability to adapt the forward riding system to the modern show ring.
Corky rode under the late Jane Dillon at the Junior Equitation School in Vienna, VA, in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. “We were really fortunate to ride almost yearly in clinics with Captain Littauer,” she said. “I feel like I got the very best education possible. The best part is that I can take a beginner rider of any age all the way up through Medal/Maclay level.”
While studying under Mrs. Dillon, Corky met Joe Fargis. “To earn riding lessons, Joe and I used to be leaders for the beginner classes,” she recalled. “We would lead them around while they learned to steer and control the horse. So I heard hours and hours of lessons being taught. Later I taught what Mrs. Dillon called the pre-riders, the six and seven year olds who needed one-on-one instruction.”
Unlike today’s over-scheduled children, Corky spent much of her time at the barn, immersed in forward riding. “While at Mrs. Dillon’s, I just lived it,” she said. She finds the forward riding system just as relevant to the hunter-jumper industry today. “Recently Joe said to me, ‘I keep finding myself going back to the things that we learned as a child.’ He was talking about the relaxation and stabilization of the horse, and the correctness of the rider, and I would say that’s the basis of our business at Wells Bridge.”
She finds herself being referred to as the “position Nazi, because we really stress correct position for correct communication with the horse,” she explained. “Neither Paul nor I can emphasize enough to our students that they’ve got to have a solid foundation and non-interfering jumping position. We start our students out grabbing the mane and work on position until they can press knuckles into the neck, and with equitation riders we work on the automatic release.”
“Both Paul and I also focus on flatwork,” she continued. “We spend a lot of time on correct flatwork because horses need to be able to stretch to the bit on a long rein as well as be able to ride in a connected way, to collect and extend the gaits, stretching like an accordion.”
Corky stresses connection and relaxation as key elements of forward riding. “If the horses aren’t relaxed and don’t know how to stretch through their back, then none of this works very well,” stated the former AHSA dressage and combined training judge.
Both veteran Olympic show jumper Joe Fargis and veteran Olympic dressage rider Jessica Ransehousen give clinics at Wells Bridge. “Heaven forbid that we should use the word ‘dressage’ in the hunter world, but one of the influential people in our lives here is Jessica,” said Corky. “When she does clinics, she adapts flatwork for hunters and jumpers and emphasizes the partnership between horse and rider.”
Corky sees an emphasis on flatwork as crucial to success in the hunter and jumper rings today. “The forward riding we did in the 1960’s has to be updated for the show ring now,” she explained. “In the old days, we didn’t count strides or worry about lead changes,” she stated. “You got a nice rhythm, you galloped cross-country, and the jumps just came up. But that has changed. There are hardly any outside courses. Hunter rings have gotten small and we often show in tight indoor rings.”
As courses have gotten tighter and more technical, so have the questions asked of horse and rider. “So the balance and bending is just primary,” she explained. “Riders need to understand how to create transitions, bending, and suppleness. They have to know those things in order to successfully ride today’s more technical courses. If riders don’t have a position that allows them to do that, they’re in trouble.”
According to Corky, the horses must also be schooled to those aims. “We do not make a distinction in our program for whether a [green] horse is going to be a hunter or a jumper,” she explained. “The horses all do the same flatwork, being able to shorten, being able to lengthen. So the riders need to learn how to use their aids and weight effectively to achieve these transitions in the show ring. We try to be subtle and invisible with the aids.”
“That said, with the jumpers we work on more advanced engagement, such as fast rollbacks, which are like canter pirouettes,” she added. Corky relies on the fundamentals of the forward riding system to keep her horses competitive. “For example, the stabilization and long rein work is important for an under-saddle class,” she added.
Corky and Paul also strive to keep the horses happy through a long show season that includes the Indio circuit, Tucson, and many of the midwestern ‘A’ shows. “We don’t jump a lot of courses at home during show season,” she said. “We do a lot of cavaletti work and use poles to set up exercises rather than jumping courses.”
And she looks for opportunities to get outside the ring as well. “We don’t get to ride cross-country, but we do go to Spruce Meadows and ride in big fields there,” she said. “It’s sad that there aren’t a lot of outside courses, but everything is being built up. We have half-million dollar homes within a stone’s throw of our arena.”
Over several decades in the business, Corky has found herself adapting to the shifting needs of riders and the changing demands of the industry. “We really work with students more on the bending and the transitions because it’s become necessary,” she said. “There need to be some updates to the system to include more dressage, but the basis of the system is still going forward.”
“One of the things we really focus on is being a team with the horse,” she added. “That’s something that’s not emphasized in today’s horse industry, because the professionals often set the horses up for their students to ride, but we still teach that teamwork. They’re learning how to ride, not just how to horse-show.”
“We have students in children’s hunters, junior hunters, Medal/Maclay, and adult amateurs,” Corky said. “We have three Grand Prix horses this year, and Paul won the $30,000 Grand Prix in Tulsa in April. The system works for all levels and that’s what I think is so wonderful.”