USDF Adult Clinic

I audited the first day of the USDF Adult Clinic, featuring Hilda Gurney. That was interesting.  I drove an hour and a half each way, and paid $45 dollars to watch this clinic…

Warning: This post is depressing and relatively negative. So, you may want to skip it. I promise to be more optimistic and upbeat on the next post.

In order to ride in the USDF Adult Clinics you have to go through a selection process. You send in a video of you demonstrating the movements of the level you are claiming you’re at, along with instructor references, a written statement from your trainer describing the riders abilities and history, and a list of clinicians you’ve ridden with in the past, PLUS scores earned at what competitions. The selection committee is supposed to have three different people view the video submissions and pick the top riders. The ones they all agree on get selected for the clinic. There’s a long 2 page document detailing the selection process and guidelines for it. It’s supposed to be very thorough to ensure that the riders are capable enough to demonstrate an independent seat, can give correct aids, and can incorporate the instruction into the riding immediately so that the auditor can see the difference put into practice right then.

What really happened… and leave it to my region to end up with this… smh.

Before we even start watching anyone ride, they give us a hand out on basics for horse and rider. You know, like what is rhythm, what is balance, what the basics of dressage are and the corresponding pyramid levels.

The first lady is riding a horse she had been training for the past two years because she “wanted to bring her along correctly” and she “wasn’t rushing the training”.  In reality, the horse wouldn’t accept contact with the bit, curled under when the reins were used, traveled heavily on her forehand, and was so unbalanced at the canter that Hilda expressed concern for the riders safety (strongly expressed concern).  On the plus side, we got to watch Hilda transform this horse into moderately level balance at the end of a 45 minute session. The quality of the gaits improved, the contact improved (not great, but at least was there more than it wasn’t), and the horse could make it once around the ring at the canter without looking like she was going to skid sideways and fall down. So that was nice…

The second rider rode a plain jane looking draft cross. If you saw it in a field you’d never give it a second glance as a dressage prospect. As introduction, the lady told us she’s riding Second. The lady warmed up the horse, and the draft drug itself around on the forehand with the most pathetic gaits. The lesson started and the rider was yanking and jerking the bit. Hilda kept asking her to shorten her inside rein, and every time Hilda asked, the lady jerked her hand backward or downward hard. Finally Hilda stops the woman and reams her out for it (Thank God). The lady finally stops yanking after the little “come to Jesus” moment Hilda has with her, and Hilda gets the lady to shorten her reins and actually start riding the horse. The transformation was amazing! That horse could really MOVE. Wow! I bet if he were ridden correctly consistently he’d have some serious suspension in his trot. His canter was to die for once he was off the forehand. Absolutely beautiful horse that has serious dressage potential, assuming the rider can learn how to ride.

Hilda refers to the hand out and specifically goes over what independent seat means and how important it is… again.

The third horse and rider come out. This one is a professional rider. I was really looking forward to seeing some good riding (finally). She was on a really cute, well-built, long-legged QH that she’d had since he was super young. The rider told us that she’d done all his training. He was 14 now and competing at Third (or Fourth, I can’t remember now). The minute they start the lesson, horse is dragging itself around on the forehand really badly, absolutely no suspension in any of the gaits (not even the canter). Not only that, but the rider is seriously sawing on the horse’s mouth. I don’t think Hilda saw that while the horse was warming up because Hilda was facing us trying to explain to one auditor why having the head too low was causing the draft so many problems. Hilda starts the lesson with the pro rider and is working on getting the horse more up in front, more forward, and carrying itself more correctly. She’s trying to convey the concept of softening the poll to the rider and is referring to the horse’s head/neck as “a broomstick” because it’s so stiff. This is when the rider decides to saw on her horse’s mouth right in front of Hilda. Who immediately gave a tongue lashing to the lady. After that the lesson went pretty well as the lady gradually was able to get the horse more engaged and moving forward correctly. Hilda also helped by getting the horse straighter (it looked like a crab cantering), and getting the withers up so that the hind end had some place to go (instead of sideways).

Most of the riders look about in tears at the end of the lesson. It was hard to feel sorry for the ones yanking and sawing on mouths though.


I went outside for most of the fourth rider so I could try and warm up some. Jogging in place looks really stupid in that setting. I made a note to try and not care what others thought.


I was getting pretty disillusioned with the whole clinic at this point, and was contemplating leaving. It was such a long drive and a ton of money in gas and fee’s that I felt like I needed to stay a little longer.

After lunch it starts off with a well built, lovely warmblood and a lady who doesn’t take lessons. That session ends with Hilda strongly encouraging the lady to start taking lessons. I think the lady was near tears. Then another lady with her horse decked out with a double, who’s horse four beat cantered while heavily on the forehand. Hilda immediately had her put a plain snaffle bridle on the horse and then worked on getting them off the forehand and moving forward again. The transformation in the quality of gaits was amazing from before and after. Hilda talked about how introducing the double too soon can really wreck a horse, but she let the lady know that her horse wasn’t beyond repair. I think that lady left near tears too.

Finally, toward the end of the day there were two riders that came out with well trained horses. Both could ride too. It was beautiful to watch them ride, and see how they improved during the lesson. You could tell the basics were there and at that point it came down to the rider having to be more conscious about their body positioning and weight, and expecting more perfection from the horse (instead of allowing an imperfect transition, to make it perfect). With those two riders we were able to get into half-steps, flying changes, and tempi’s. Hilda stressed control after “opening Pandora’s box” of flying changes.  Good to know.

All in all, I’m glad I went. I learned enough to make it worthwhile, I enjoyed my time there, and I got to meet Hilda in person! I tried to take notes, but it was so cold most of the day that the ink in my pen kept freezing. And… did I mention I got to meet Hilda Gurney!! And she is actually a super nice, friendly, person IN person.  So, all in all, I’m glad I went.

No pics as that was against the rules. I would’ve like to have taken some video of before/after on some of the horses, and edit it to show the transformations.

Side note: If I meet one more middle aged woman that just has to ask Hilda a question so that said lady can then talk about her own life for the next 20 minutes… I’m probably going to kick that lady in the shins. Just saying… We’re all glad you came to the clinic to learn, but we’re not here to talk about you. You’d learn more if you closed your mouth and opened your ears.


Last thing… I decided not submit an entry for the clinic because I was so concerned that my riding and my horse’s training were not good enough.  I thought it was going to be  super star riders, with perfect hands and perfect seats, on the best trained horses you’ve ever witnessed. That’s how I imagined it. So at least now, I won’t have any misgivings about sending in an app for it in the future. I can’t be any worse than the worst of what I saw.

p.s. I am extremely glad that the riders in this clinic put themselves out there and did this. Not only so the auditors could learn, but so that they could be better riders/trainers. Anyone who’s willing to lay it all out for the whole world to see gets a kudo’s in my book. I have the highest respect for them for riding in that clinic. I didn’t have the cojones to do it.

5 thoughts on “USDF Adult Clinic

  1. I am friend with the lady who rode the draft cross. I do appreciate your honest review, but this is what really discourages a lot of people from putting themselves out there. That lady rides every day, she works very hard. No one is perfect. Not even Hilda. But that said, I do look forward to more posts about this clinic. Wish I could have gone!


    • Karen, I thought your friend had a good seat, good balance, and has a lot of potential to be a really good rider. Other than the use of her reins, overall I thought she was a very capable rider. Her rein usage really bothered me, but after Hilda got after her for it, then your friend rode awesome.

      I didn’t communicate as effectively as I would’ve liked in this post. I was just writing what I saw and hadn’t really processed it all yet.

      What disappointed me about the clinic was not the riders skills/abilities, but that it highlights the lack of decent trainers in our area. We can only be as good as our best trainer, and if our trainers are unable to teach their students how to effectively get their horses off the forehand, how to use aids effectively, then we’re doomed. We’re going to be stuck barely doing passable excuses of Second level tests, all while being told “if you had a better horse you could go higher”. It’s not the horse. Most of us have horses who are more than capable of doing a well executed Second Level test, if trained correctly. What I saw at the clinic were a ton of extremely dedicated, hard working adult ammy’s who didn’t know their horse’s were on the forehand. That is a MAJOR problem. If your friend is anything like me and the rest of the adult ammy population, then we take this stuff extremely seriously. We want to be good, we want to learn correct dressage, we want to move up the levels. But without access to quality trainers, we’re doomed to be stuck at First and Second the rest of our lives, buying and selling our “not quite good enough” horses because our trainers are topped out at what they know.

      Personally, I think this clinic highlighted the real problem with absolute clarity. But.. that’s just my opinion.


  2. Loved your review, Mia! I’ve been judged by Hilda many times and have been congratulated by her at a show. She IS a very nice person and a very kind judge. How frustrating to see such poorly ridden horses. As you know I’ve participated in a number of clinics myself, although none as prestigious as this one. It is hard to ride in front of everyone, but the best way to go about it is to leave your ego at the door and do EXACTLY what the instructor tells you to do. That’s why you’re there! And hopefully, you’ll get a chance to feel your horse work better than ever. :0)


    • Thanks! The entire time I was at the clinic I kept thinking, “Gosh, Karen gets to see this lady ride and judge all the time”.

      I think it helped a lot of people in the audience to see the problems each rider was having and see how they fixed it. I tried a few of the things Hilda was teaching once I got home and it helped immediately, so that was pretty cool. And i heard a few comments from auditors about how they could see x y, or z problem now (when they couldn’t identify it before). Which is great.


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