The Wisdom of Smith Lilly

By Alexandra Layos

Saddle and Bridle Magazine Equine Articles


Crane logo Saddlebred Trainer Smith Lilly shares his wisdom. Written for Saddle & Bridle magazine by Alexandra Layos.
© copyrighted horse article.
Well known trainer, Smith Lilly and wife, Alexandra, of Mercer Springs Farm in Princeton, W.Va., visited Williams Woods University to host a saddle seat clinic. The students rode in sets of two all morning, until a lunch break was held. They then continued riding into the late afternoon. The riders learned a lot from their time with the Lillys, but something was learned by all of the attendees, even those who came simply to watch.

During the riding portion of the clinic, Smith Lilly spoke about everything from the rider's form to really "showing" your horse. "Keep your wrists constantly moving," he instructed, "don't keep them bent too hard the whole time. Once they're bent, you have nowhere to go from there."

He had many of the students work on what he called the "hourglass." Using the whole ring, he had the rider take his or her horse deep in the turn, and when coming out, come slightly off the rail and continue in a straight line. When approaching the next turn, they would guide the horse deep into the turn once more. This would be done on both sides of the arena, and when done properly makes the shape of an hourglass. It can be used on many different types of horses, and is especially useful in teaching young horses to guide, and in slowing down the cadence of a quick or choppy horse's trot.

Lilly spoke about clarity when riding your horse: "Saying 'whoa' for 'walk' is too ambiguous in training a horse. Say 'whoa', when you want your horse to stop and 'walk' when you want your horse to walk ... and insist on it! Otherwise you're asking your horse to read your mind, and you don't want your horse to have too many inventive thoughts. Don't make them have to interpret what you want."

He also instructed riders to stay ten steps ahead of their horses, and head off any problems before they actually occurred.

"Before you get to the turn this time, tell him he is racking around that turn," Lilly told the rider of a gaited horse who excels at falling out of the rack around corners.

Lilly made interesting comments on using stretchers to train saddle horses. He explained that he doesn't love them because they change a horse's rhythm, and can change a horse's mouth ... for the amount of time you have them on the horse. He feels that over the years he's seen many horses work well in stretchers, but the moment you take them off they lose the animation they had. He doesn't feel they help a horse warm up any better than they can without them on, so in his string of 38 horses, he chooses not to use them.

"I feel we should train them in a fashion that will help them show better, not make us feel better at home," he said.

Pizza, cookies, and drinks were enjoyed during the lunch break, but the Lillys' talk was enjoyed even more. Alexandra spoke about how she got into riding horses at a young age, and Smith told his story as well.

He gave two excellent demonstrations. The first involved a double bridle. Senior Jenn Holdren of Louisville, Ky., assisted him, holding the bridle as though she were the horse. Lilly demonstrated a second way to shorten your reins, by "running" your fingers up the reins instead of grabbing and pulling them through a tightly clenched hand. He also showed how "less is more," when it comes to working a bridle. He shook his arms and hands all around while holding the two sets of reins and the bits hardly moved at all. Next he demonstrated wrist movement, and showed how much this affected the bits.

"So," he explained, "when you really want to affect your horse's mouth, this," (he used his wrist and sent the bits flying) "is going to accomplish a whole lot more than this" (he let his arms and hands wave around and succeeded in making the reins flop while the bits remained nearly motionless.)

The second demonstration involved only a chair and another student, freshman David Trail of Rock, W.Va. Lilly simply asked Trail to sit down. Then he asked him to stand up.

"Ah, but you leaned forward when you stood up," Lilly pointed out. No one knew what he was getting at. He asked him to do it again, without leaning forward, and Trail found it impossible. Lilly offered him his hand to pull against and Trail was able to complete the task. Lilly then asked him to sit on the chair as if he were riding a horse, with his legs underneath him instead of out front. He again instructed him to stand up without leaning forward, and Trail succeeded.

Lilly went on to explain that although saddle seat riders sometimes tend to ride with their legs out in front of them, unless we want to pull on our horse's mouths in order to post, the better position, with very few exceptions, is to ride with your legs underneath you.

With WWU students hanging on his every word, Lilly spent much time speaking about his method of training, which involves three "zones."

The first zone he calls the relaxing zone. This part involved no stress, and it help warm up both the horse's body and mind. It depends on the horse how much time is spent in the relaxing zone. For some it lasts the few seconds it takes to make it to the ring, and for others a few long minutes are needed in this zone. This is why Lilly feels it is especially important to know your horse.

The next zone is the training zone. This is where you ideally want to spend most of your time. This requires horses to apply themselves physically, and focus more mentally. It is during this time that you teach new skills, but do not ask your horse to go full tilt. "A horse can not learn while going full tilt," Lilly explained.

The next and final zone he calls the stretch zone. This is the time when you ask your horse to trot higher, rack faster, or canter with more collection. It can be filled with any exercise that stretches their current capabilities. It is physically tiring and should not last long. Lilly feels that it is important to first teach your horse to relax, and then ask it to step up. He feels it is important to train against a horse's weakness. A tense horse should be worked slowly and calmly with lots of stopping and standing. A lazy horse's workouts should remain upbeat.

He advised, "but don't overdo it and make the horse miserable by making them do over and over something they dislike." Lilly trains by two main philosophies. The first of these is the teachings and writings of Colonel Podhajsky, Director of the Spanish Riding School for numerous years. Podhajsky believed that really great performances could be given only when a horse was quiet, supple and obedient.

Lilly also trains by the old adage that "If you keep doing what you've always done, you'll keep getting what you've always got." If something is not working, he stressed, change something. He pointed out that this flows the other way as well. Someone once said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

Lilly spoke about what it was like making a living in this business we call horse showing.

"You have to make sure you really enjoy it and love it, because when your friends have days off (Christmas, and Easter and Thanksgiving, and Columbus Day and Flag Day and Thursday...)" he joked, "you'll be able to remember that what you'd be doing with your day off is going to the barn anyway."

He stressed how much you need to love the sport in order to handle the pressure and responsibility that comes with being a professional. It is this love, he said, that you call upon "when the imes get tough and the nights get long."

Lilly went on to talk about how he feels, as an industry, we need to educate our horses first, and entertain them second. He explained how he's seen many horses that look nice, but once the grounding is taken away "the horse isn't much and doesn't know much." This he calls, "smoke and mirrors" training. Lilly feels that you train a horse with a bridle and saddle, not stretchers and fireworks. "We need to train our horses so that when we say 'go left,' the horse doesn't rubberneck, it doesn't look left, but it actually goes left." He was adamant that we need to train, really train, our horses first, and then get them excited.

"Then you've got a show horse making a show," he said, "and that's a work of art."

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