Sunday, November 8, 2009

Day 4: Cross Country/Putting It All Together

Karen and Cathy gave us a XC lecture the night before so that they wouldn’t have to waste time doing it for every group.

“Cross country is a continuation of what we’ve been doing: it’s all about the rider’s responsibilities, knowing how to jump different kinds of jumps, and being able to adjust your horse’s stride to be appropriate.”

The rider uses three positions in XC: the “cruising” or galloping position, the preparation or “balancing” position, and the jumping position.

In the galloping position, there are three points of contact:

  1. Your foot is further in the stirrup iron
  2. Your knees are pushed into the knee rolls
  3. Your reins are in a single bridge just above the horse’s withers.

How “scruntched” you are in your galloping position depends on how fast you’re going, if you have hills, etc.

EVERY jump needs preparation! Horses need to “load the hock” to be able to jump well.

How far from the jump do we prepare? Depends on how long it takes your horse to come back/get into balance. If it’s MORE time, start earlier! Twelve or more strides out.

Here is what we need to be doing before each jump:
  1. Let go of the bridge
  2. Raise the center of gravity by “opening the sail”
  3. Slightly raise hands—but still just above the withers
  4. IF NECESSARY, if your horse isn’t coming back, you may have to use leverage to get your horse to come back to you.

The jumping position is a “C”: you “hide your belly button behind your belt”.

Don’t forget to ROW, to ride forward to the jumps.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

My Lesson on Paddy in Stadium: Building Blocks

Today we were able to build on what we learned yesterday, which was really good for me.

I had a little difficulty getting Paddy forward again—we were doing the related distances in JUST the “normal” striding. Finally, I got him “up”, and I was able to put in two more strides in both lines. I had a chip the first time, and Cathy told me to “fix the chip further back/put the chip in earlier”. I did the next time!

I need to remember to keep my hips back, especially when I jump.

I also need to remember to keep my hands low. For some reason, I want to carry them up. Must be a residual hunter thing.

“Make your body responsible!” On a moving animal, we can’t be still. We need to move WITH the horse.

It’s not about the jump, Karen and Cathy told us: it’s about the quality of contact.

Both instructors encouraged me NOT to react to what I just did, but to keep going. Again, for someone “trained in the autopsy” of student papers, etc., that’s a hard concept to master.

I asked Karen what to do when Paddy raised his head (which he was doing when I was trying to get up collected), and she showed me how to keep a flexible contact with “elastic arms”. “Once he learns that’s what he’s going to get all the time,” she said, “he’ll stop that.” I hope so!

In the accuracy questions, we were encouraged to hold our reins wide. That really helps with Paddy, who DID look at the barrel!

Karen kept telling me to hold my reins “like the tick on the steering wheel”. I didn’t get that image at all until she explained that it was the minor adjustments we make as we drive to keep the car straight. NOW I get it! Cathy called them “Finger aids”. I like that.

Day 3: Stadium Squared

As I’d done yesterday, I woke up early, fed Paddy, made coffee, and went off to watch the prelim plus group at 8 before my own group at 10. Cool and misty, the fog came on little cat’s feet to cover the whole of Holly Hill: you couldn’t see but 10 feet in front of you. Thank GOODNESS we weren’t trying to do cross country today!

I came to the stadium arena to find no one there; I was a bit too early. A lone rider was warming up in the covered arena, so I went to watch her. It was Donna Struke and her lovely horse River Trout, trotting long and low to relax both horse and rider. When they reached the end of the arena, I could only see a misty outline of horse and rider, silhouetted in the mist. The world was blanketed in the heavy mist; I melded into the mist, hearing the rhythmic beat of the horse’s hooves like a heartbeat of the world, and the only other sound in the muffled stillness was the blowing of the horse, who was obviously enjoying the cool weather. It was magical, serene, other-worldly. What a phenomenal way to start the day.

Today the riders started with related distances again, but then moved on to accuracy questions. Karen noted that riders don’t have to trot first, or do an “x” first.

The riders began by cantering the related distances they’d done the day before, and then having a contest, seeing who could get the most strides in a five and seven stride combo. It was pretty impressive; every one of these riders had their horses “in hand” and “up”.

Riders were reminded to have a “long leg with weight in your heel”. “Lower leg stillness is the key to jumping,” Karen quipped.

Direction was emphasized yet again (it is, after all, the first rider responsibility!). Push into the horse’s shoulders to hold the line of direction.

After the related distances, the riders had to “thread the needle”—jumping a series of off-set jumps so that they had only two or three feet straight area to get through all of them.

“These are stupid pet tricks!” Karen shouted. “If you are jumping straight, there’s nothing to it!”

Riders were encouraged to be “more in the middle” of their horses, and to keep their heels down so that the soles of their boots faced the fence. Nice to hear Cathy and Karen admonishing the prelim-plus group for the same things *I* get yelled at for!

“Be soft in the take off” both Cathy and Karen said. That will help us land more balanced, more WITH our horses. But don’t land collapsed; hold with our quads and our core.

After they threaded the needle, they jumped a barrel on its side, and then upright with a skinny rail on the top. VERY impressive. The riders had to control the line of direction, and to lead the horse’s forehand to what (and where) the rider wanted it to go.

“Don’t put your upper body where you want the horse to be!” Karen encouraged. BOY, do I need to tattoo those words in my brain!

More accuracy=more “in the saddle”. I need to think about that.

Cathy encouraged riders to finish downward transitions with their LEGS, and not with their hands. That makes sense; it’s all about the engagement.

One rider complained “you want me to control all my body parts at one time?!”

Karen quipped “They call that coordination!”

“You’re not steering! Remind me never to drive with you!”

“There’s gotta be a push and a steer!”

One of the horses was having a bit of a tizzy, and they put the horse in a micklem bridle. Really interesting. I think I’d like to get one!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Workshop with Max Corcoran: Mad Max RULES!

We were really lucky in that Karen brought her long-time groom, Max Corcoran, who is an absolutely AMAZING horse woman. I wish I could do the Vulcan Mind Meld with her! She and my friend from the “Training Three Day by 2010” list, Stacey Curwood, wrote an excellent article about Max’s experience winning the Three Day Event at Wardeca in 2006 with David’s horse Walk On The Moon.

Today she was teaching us about grooming for the three day event. She’s old school, in that she pulls the horse’s tail—just on the sides, and to about two inches below the crest of the butt. She suggests latex gloves, because they protect your fingers and help with the pulling.

I was lamenting the fact that Paycheck’s tail simply doesn’t grow, and she told me a lot of eventers have that problem: even David’s famous horse Custom Made had a fake tail in competitions. She explained how to attach one (though we didn’t have one to look at). Makes me feel better about PC, about whom Whit Watkins said “tail extensions were invented for this horse!”

She showed us how to do quarter marks: you need a short, stiff bristle brush, and you need to use something relatively sticky like oil based fly spray. She showed us how to make shark’s teeth on the flank, plus how to make checkerboards with the cut off end of a $.49 plastic comb. She also showed us how they made a “USA” quarter mark for the Olympics.

If using a stencil, you simply brush down, put the stencil on, then brush up.

She showed us how to braid using waxed thread:
  1. Braid the length of mane
  2. Sew the end through the bottom of the braid
  3. Make a loop, folding the end over on itself
  4. Roll the loop up to the horse’s neck
  5. Sew through it, loop around to the left, loop around to the right
  6. Tie it off and cut off the end of the thread

The forelock was the same, only you begin by French braiding the top.

She didn’t have quikbraid, but she showed us how spit works, too!

Max provided a wealth of tips that only an insider would know/think about. We complained that the round numbers that must be on a halter get shredded, and she showed us a re-usable one she’d bought. She also said she takes light colored duct tape and wraps it around the halter, writing the number on it.

If a horse gets dusty/dirty at an event, she sprays on some witch hazel and towels the horse off.

When trimming feet and under the face, go WITH the hair.

She trips around the hoof (like a bowel cut). If the horse has white stockings, you can trim the hair to make it whiter, but it also gives them less protection against fungus, etc. She likes Ivory liquid on white legs.

A quick poop remover on white horses: I capful of quicksilver into a spray bottle of rubbing alcohol (for non-white horses, you can use any soap). Spray on, wipe off!

Make sure you use a coat moisturizer after clipping.

Buy some kids no more tangles type sprays for tails. Someone in the audience suggested Afro Sheen, too. Show sheen should ONLY go on tails; NEVER on coats.

You can use witch hazel or Listerine on itchy fungus, rain rot, etc.

Feeding garlic does help keep flies away.

She’s a fan of MTG and Lona’s Linament, a local concoction. Lona made an appearance herself the following day, so I bought some! I asked her if she uses poultice, and she says she hates it. She’ll put Lona’s linament on the legs, then sprinkle baby powder on them and wrap the legs. Not only does it make a paste which stays, it smells good!

She cleans tack with hot water, glycerin soap, and then Lexol. She has used olive oil, too, which I find absolutely cool.

I asked her what was the best part of being a groom for the O’Connors, and she said the travel. She’s been to Greece, to Australia, to England, to Hong Kong! How great is that! Plus, she loves the horses, and Karen is wonderful to work with. No argument there.

My Lesson on Paddy in Stadium: Cowboy Up!

I came to the stadium ring with high hopes, and while we didn’t exactly crash and burn, we had a rather humbling beginning.

Part of that is my own doing, and I’ve been trying to figure out what it is that causes my anxiety. Is it a desire to please? A fear of failure? And to whom am I responsible: the clinicians, my coaches, my horse, my sport, myself?? Not to get all psycho-babble on y’all, but I do think I have this “gotta please everyone” thing going on. I wish I could forget about it!

Cathy kept encouraging me to “study the first rail”, reminiscent of Jimmy Wofford’s admonition to look at the first rail until it disappears between your horse’s ears. I realize I’m STILL looking down far too often…and to compensate, then I look too far up. It’s like looking to where you’re going in dressage rather than looking between the horse’s ears. So many things to remember in so many different contexts!

When I tried to make Paddy work, he would throw his head up. That was frustrating for me, and I think I over-reacted. Karen said he’ll stop when he realizes I have an elastic connection. Let’s hope so!

Once again, I jumped ahead (esp. in trot—I HATE jumping at the trot!). I was encouraged to let the horse’s thrust bend my hip—but “the hip bends first, THEN the hand follows”. That’s important, I think, because I tend to throw my hand when I jump. I need to think about that, then learn to FEEL it.

I’m also doing that standing on my toes thing again—Karen suggested I think about sinking my heels to the point that the soles of my boots faced the jump. I’m trying….

I was getting frustrated that I wasn’t getting Paddy in front of my leg—when we worked on cantering the related distances (first we trotted in, stopped; then trotted in, trotted out, stopped; then we trotted in, cantered out, and stopped; then we cantered in, cantered out, and stopped, this time trying to get more strides—more EVEN strides—between jumps). I could get one distance, but because he was behind my leg, I couldn’t contain the energy to adjust him. Karen could tell I was getting more and more frustrated; she kept saying “Enjoy the journey!”

Finally Karen stopped me and said “I want you to make him GO down that long side—pretend you’re a kid! Scream, yell, kick!”

Well, it worked. I think I scared Karen because I REALLY got going!

Next, she said, “do it again, but this time just lean forward, give with your elbows, and allow”. Once again, Paddy rose to the occasion, and we finally got going.

Once he got going, I could bring him back, and we could actually adjust our distances. What a great feeling! I’m still not in as much control of it as I’d like to be, but it felt GREAT.

After the related distances, we did some “S-curves”, then we did a course. I was a bit worried that I’d “lose” the great energy we’d gotten, but we didn’t; we had a great course. “Look at you!” Karen said at the end. My, did that feel good.

I have to remember NOT to stop my hip before the jump, to keep my legs at the girth, heels down, and the balls of my feet in the stirrup—she said my feet were too deep. Also, I tend to throw my reins away over the jump (esp. if I jump ahead). WORK ON THAT!

Day 2: Stadium and Related Distances

Isn’t the second day always more difficult? Your brain is full, your body sore, and your expectations either much higher or lower depending on Day 1 went? Of course, your horse and you have both had a day to acclimate, so theoretically, we should all be more comfortable. Hmmm….maybe it’s just me.

One of Karen and Cathy’s purposes today was to reinforce that “horses do what we ask them to”…and it’s our job to make sure they are straight (direction), going the right speed, with the right rhythm and balance.

Right off the bat, she told the prelim group that “you won’t coax a prey animal to do ANYTHING”. They need LEADERSHIP. Wow. That’s huge for me. Of course, this goes back to my first experience teaching (I wanted to be Julie Andrews in the Sound of Music…if they loved me, they’d all be good!). Ha. Try THAT with 8th graders….!

But I think I do that with Paddy….I love him, and I think of him as my pet…and I treat him like a pet. Julia Denton and I have discussed this problem, and it IS a problem as you need to ask the horse to step up at the higher levels…..and you can’t really “ask” in the sense of asking your pet… YOU need to tell the horse what to do, and to give him the confidence to do it. Karen and Cathy were adamant that if you can control the hind legs, you can do just about anything…and I’m becoming a believer. As Karen said several times to various riders: “This is NOT a democracy! He needs leadership!”

The second day was going to be mostly about related distances, with some accuracy questions. But, before we began, we worked on some basic moves: like trotting a vertical, then stopping. Later, we trotted a vertical, went back to a trot, then trotted an oxer and stopped. Finally, we trotted in over a vertical then cantered out over the oxer, and then stopped. Simple, right?

Well, it should have been. But somehow, we all find ways to complicate what should be simple.

The instructors added to the complexity: we had to stop after the fences to teach the horses that they need to be asking “what now?” after every fence—they need to be LISTENING to us (as leaders). But stopping was harder than many of us thought, and a stop wasn’t enough; we had to push into the halt so that it was round. Sort of goes back to the “expect more” thing I’ve been struggling with….!

“Don’t just practice what you’re good at” Karen reminded us.

The horse and rider needed to be on the same line (there’s that direction thing again!) or the jumps didn’t turn out well.

Before the riders started work on related distances, Karen quizzed the riders on all the variables that influence the number of strides. Some of the answers are:

  • Length of the horse’s stride
  • Terrain
  • The take off spot
  • The height/width of the fence
  • The speed
  • The impression of the jump the horse has (scary? Busy? Etc.)
  • The line/direction
  • The size of the field/stadium

And so forth. The thing is that related distances are all about lengthening and shortening strides, and that’s something that has to be done in ALL THREE PHASES. So why don’t we work more on it??

Once again, we were reminded that the horse should fold our hips for us; we don’t need a big move. What we need to do is to stay in the horse’s center of gravity.

Karen reprimanded riders for using a crest release—we need to be using the automatic release so that we can keep contact with our horses before, during, and after the jump. The crest release tends to give your horse too much rein, and it puts the rider ahead of the motion. We should follow and allow what the horse needs, and no more.

In stadium, we use two “seats”: two point and light sitting (what Jimmy Wofford calls “light three point”). In two point, our breeches should barely touch the saddle. In three point, our weight is still in our heels, but also in our seatbones and pubic bone. We need to practice BOTH.

If a horse is above the bit, we need contact—but we need to PUSH the horse into contact rather than pull him into it. Once we have impulsion, Karen said, it’s “just cruise control”. I like that—I don’t need to keep fussing.

We should be able to lengthen/shorten in two point.

She asked one rider who just had a rather awkward transition “how often do you ride your horse?” The rider responded about an hour a day. “How many hours are there in a day?” “Twenty-four” said the rider. “If you’re only giving your horse only an hour, shouldn’t you give him your FULL ATTENTION?” Point made!

When a horse says “I can’t do that!” We need to show him that he can—that means WE have to be straight, be in a good rhythm, speed, balance, etc. So the rider responsibilities really do extend into helping the horse learn HE CAN.

Both Cathy and Karen would say “you’re letting him out the front door!”, which means that we’re sending the horse forward, but not into the contact. So instead of building power, we’re letting the horse squirt out between our legs.

A few riders, when they had a bad distance, etc. got what Karen called “the car wreck” look on their faces—I wonder if you can control that?

To get a better canter, she had one participant do canter-walk-canter-walk transitions.

The take off spot is critical to what the horse does before, during, and after the jump. We need to make sure we understand that.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Workin' It: My Dressage Lesson with Karen

Karen began the lesson like most clinicians, asking about our experience and our horses, with the caveat that she knew Lindsey, the young woman who shared my lesson (and had apparently found her horse for her). She’s been doing Training level, so I was excited (and a little apprehensive) to be working at that level.

Karen, obviously an excellent judge of horseflesh, thought highly of Paddy, and thought she may have seen him at other clinics/shows

She watched both of us warm up. I tried very hard to make Paddy go FORWARD and to keep him straight and consistent. I was working pretty hard, but he was doing better than we’d been doing in terms of going (bigger spurs help—I don’t have to use them all the time, but they serve as an excellent “reminder”!).

She zeroed in on some things I’ve been working with Bobo and Weslee and Kathleen about: keeping by body more still from the waist up (and NOT leaning back); keeping hands fairly still, and only about as wide as the horse’s mouth/bit; not leaning into my turns; not collapsing, but stretching up; and USING my legs, but also keeping my feet anchored in the stirrups.

She talked about the Rider’s Responsibilities: Direction, Speed, Balance, and Rhythm. She also quizzed us about key terms:

  • Engagement (the horse using his back legs)
  • Contact (a connection with the bit, with energy coming from the back end)
  • Impulsion (a desire to go forward, mitigate by the rider)
  • Resistance (any kind of avoidance)
  • Throughness (energy coming from the hind end and through the back to the bit)
  • Preparation (what we do before transitions, etc.—eventually, it becomes less obvious, but it ALWAYS must be there; it lets the horse know what’s coming)

These are ideas that I understand cognitively, but it’s really hard to KNOW when you’ve got it (or, when you do get it, exactly HOW so that you can replicate it!)

I’m really interested in understanding/feeling “impulsion” and “thoroughness”.

She also talked about the four types of yielding that horses MUST be able to do:

  1. Front End
  2. Hind End
  3. Head Down
  4. Back Up

We work on these via lateral work, transitions (especially downward transitions), both between and within gaits, as well as ring figures. She had us do some of all of these—we did a lot of leg yields at the trot diagonally across the arena, and a lot of transition within the gaits. And, of course, we were doing ring figures the whole time.

We started out at the walk, and when Paddy would “jig”, she told me to “clamp my lower legs against him like I was cracking a lobster claw”. When he walks, I release. He got it very quickly.

When he curls his neck, I’m supposed to keep the connection consistent, which might mean I have to pull back on the reins, mimicking him. He has to learn that he can’t avoid contact.

We worked a lot on transitions within the gait, and I had a somewhat “aha” moment: I DO lean back when I sit (and even when I post, alas!), thinking that somehow, I’m HELPING him (aka “doing it for him”!). But, just like the jumping ahead, I’m actually HINDERING him when I do that….so we worked on my position. I need to bend forward just a tad (or at least FEEL like I’m leaning forward) to help him. She actually had us stop, then clamp with our legs (nothing), then push with our pelvis leaning a bit forward…and we got some GOOD forward motion (and we actually stopped the horses by clamping!).

So part of my homework is to sit a tiny bit forward (and look through the horse’s ears and not lean).

In sitting trot, I kept losing my stirrups! I need to work on that anchor without tightening my legs. It’s so counter-intuitive to tighten your core but relax your butt…!

In our canter work, I learned that if I prepared Paddy (that is, shortened his stride and worked on being more “up”), I had a MUCH better canter transition. ALSO: I need to go WITH him when I ask for the canter depart, not lean forward OR be caught sitting back. THINK AHEAD!

We cantered, working on a slight bend, a good circle, and consistency (which means NOT LEANING BACK), then lengthened on the long side OR in the circle. She encouraged us to “follow” with our hands and push with our hips as we lengthened…then, to shorten, we need to keep moving with our hips, but STOP moving our hands, keeping them still. When I did it correctly, it was AMAZING. It really works!

At the end of the lesson, she noted that Paddy has trained me very well (that is, I have to work hard to get him to go). She said to think of it this way: if we stop at a red light, we don’t get praised; it’s EXPECTED. It’s what we’re supposed to do. The same thing goes for the aids: it’s expected. It’s what the horse is supposed to do—and he’s suppose to do it when we ask him (first time, every time). I need to work on short, rhythmical pressure, but NOT constant! Maybe it’s like the reins: too much, and he protests. But he responds to light aids….

Four Days in Paradise

If you will recall, dear reader, that last time I had a clinic with Karen O’Connor, I had some difficulty pre, post, and during. My competition horse had just been diagnosed with EPM, and I was riding Dylan, who is sweet, willing, and relatively untrained. And we were in the Training group. I learned a lot, but it was incredibly frustrating, too

I was so impressed with Karen, however, that I signed up for a clinic with her at Holly Hill this past year. However, given my very interesting personal life, I called Tracy Hewlett and asked if I could possibly get someone to take my place and then focus on my family situation.

Well, Tracy did me one better: she shifted my clinic entry to this fall, and here I am in a four day clinic with Karen O’Connor, her groom Max Corcoran, and noted rider Cathy Wieschhoff. Talk about an embarrassment of riches!!

While this fall isn’t a whole lot less stressful (I’m still teaching three—four really—grad classes that I’m woefully behind in), my family life is less hectic, plus I’m working hard at bonding with Paddy….so I opted to go for it.

Unlike that last KOC, I had absolutely no difficulty getting to Holly Hill. And this time, the weather was nigh to perfect: 70’s during the day, mid 40’s a night. I left after several commitments on Wednesday, driving half way to Willow Draw, which Janet Book graciously offered as an overnight place. We arrived without incident, and we were able to get up and leave y 7:25 the next morning.

We arrived at Holly Hill just past noon. After unloading Paddy and making sure he had hay and water, I was able to catch the last part of Karen’s lesson. I’m going to write this information up in this post, then make a separate post for my lesson with Paddy….since that’s what I need to concentrate on!

At lunch, I asked Karen what they main thing she noted about the lessons in the am—what was the one thing you found all riders doing/needing to work on? She noted that many riders are “lacking in fundamentals”-that is, the basic rider responsibilities (direction, speed, balance, rhythm). We need to spend more time on these.

I asked her how someone who worked alone much of the time could improve—how they could ask for “more”. She said that this situation is hard—all pros have/have had a LOT of help, because it is so difficult to do things on your own. Most riders, she said, are loathe to leave their “comfort zones”, and as a result, they either don’t push themselves, or they reinforce bad habits. If we’re going to learn, we need to be prepared to do it wrong—even to fail—but to LEARN from that. OUCH. That sounds like the talk I gave at the RNF last year!!

Some great “Karen-isms” from the clinic:

  • Look where you’re going…then go there!
  • You got a whole lotta horse doing a whole lot of what you DON’T want him to….
  • Don’t upset the apple cart! (that means don’t lose the gait or stop)
  • Elbows have to have springs in them
  • My mother told me to be an exclamation point, not a question mark
  • Don’t lean back—you’re shutting the door!
  • And you’re PAYIN’ for this abuse!
  • Keep your hands straight, and your horse will be straight
  • Don’t soothe—you’ve soothed enough! Make him DO IT.
  • It’s all about growing, climbing, reaching
  • Horses that are over at the knee are always good jumpers
  • Don’t push beyond his balance
  • They do what WE ask them to. We’ve got to make sure we’re asking correctly!
  • If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always get (I need to FRAME this one!)
  • We RARELY fall off the horse backwards…DON’T JUMP AHEAD!
  • Don’t practice your bad habits!
  • 100% of your body is chasin’ that chicken!
  • Don’t sit on the horse like you’re sitting on the toilet!
  • Take off balanced—land balanced
  • If you’re not living on the edge you’re taking up too much space

Monday, January 12, 2009

What a Long Strange Trip it's Been!

Hear that sound?

It’s the sound of my head exploding. (The sound was also heard later in the evening, between two tiny ranching towns in the middle of NOWHERE as my rear truck tire exploded.) I’m afraid this posting is going to be a little more “all about me” and a little less an impartial report on the final day of the clinic. I’m still processing all that went on, and I likely will be for quite some time. If you EVER get an opportunity to work with Karen O’Connor, do so. You’ll learn a lot.

Now, part of the reason that my head is exploding (even still) is that some of what I learned flew in the face of what I’d learned elsewhere, and what I’d been practicing both on my own and with other clinicians/instructors. What happens when ideas and world view collide? Well, it seems to me that I’m going to have to look at both, synthesize them with what I’m doing/what’s working/what I want, then decide to follow one or the other (or some combination).

I have to say that I was a bit…overwhelmed? Remember, I’m on dear, sweet Dylan, who’s wonderful but not in very good shape (nor has he done anything above BN in terms of horse trials). And I’m in the Training Level group that Paycheck was supposed to be in—and while we were able to do all right in the stadium jumping, Cross Country was…well, a bit intimidating.

We started out by talking about the rider’s position (galloping or “cruising” position, in which the rider’s legs are forward, the seat back, and the back somewhat rounded/soft); the “opening sail” or preparation position in which the rider’s body comes up (though still in two point, with perhaps a bit of the seat brushing the saddle so the rider can “row the boat”), and the jumping position, again with the feet forward. Karen had some problems with my galloping position—I was leaning too far forward, and my feet were too much under me and not forward. I wasn’t making a “C” with my body. Similarly, when I got up into the preparation position, making a “sail” with my body so that the horse could feel the wind resistance, I was keeping my hands too high—they should always be below my hips. In fact, she had some real issues with my hands (or, perhaps it’s better to say that *I* have some real “hand” issues….!). Karen wanted us to have our hands on the horse’s withers: NO CREST RELEASES IN XC.

We practiced raising and lowering our bodies from cruising position to preparation/sail position, over and over (one of the participants said we all looked like bulldogs in the “up” position). Karen also had us work in a single bridge on the withers with our thumbs touching (I’d been using a double bridge), I think because it’s easier to slip/get back. I wonder when you use the latter?

I had a conversation with Whit Watkins (a dressage instructor/rider) once about how frustrating it was that I was supposed to do one thing in dressage, and something different in jumping (I think it had to do with me getting my legs under me in dressage after working on keeping them forward in XC). She simply said “hey—you’re the one who wants to do eventing!” Point taken. And once again, I was reminded that what works in one discipline doesn’t necessarily translate to another. So all the George Morris “learn the automatic release” or dressage hands up to help your horse be up isn’t what Karen says we should be doing in XC: we keep our hands still on the horse’s withers, slip the reins before and/or during a jump, get them back, and keep them still again.

I asked her how stadium jumping differed from XC jumping: in stadium, you’re staying off the horse’s back so that he doesn’t drop his hind end (and then drop a rail). You’re more upright, lighter, more following with body and hands. In XC, you’re a lot more defensive: since you’re galloping then “answering questions,” our positions are in part to help the horse prepare (thus the “sail” about 5-7 strides out), then we GIVE WITH THE REINS (more on that later; I had some real difficulty here, too) and get in our semi-defensive jumping position, which is more snuggled into the saddle, legs farther forward, helping but also making sure we’re ok.

“There are four things to consider when we jump,” Karen said before we started. First, we need to think about the face of the jump: is it vertical? Ascending? That will determine how fast and how collected we are. Then, we need to think about what’s behind the jump: a drop? A spread? An uphill? Water? Next, we need to consider the terrain around the jump: Is it flat? Uphill? Downhill? Mixed? Finally, how narrow is the jump? Narrows will require more collection.

I’m sure I’m not translating this as well as I could; I basically participated in my session, then watched the last half of the next group, and the first half of the third one, and I had to get going…..after all, I had what I thought was going to be a six hour drive home. Don’t I wish….

After practicing our positions (and I was having trouble with the more upright-feet forward in both galloping and sail positions), she had us take two fences, both which were Novice fences. Now, yesterday we started slowly with an X rail and trotting—so I was a bit apprehensive. After all, Dylan and I haven’t done this for a while, and when we did, it was at a lower level. But we put on our big girl/boy pants (which I think we both soiled later) and gave it our best shot.

Karen had us jump a three log ascending jump, then turn and do a stone wall (more of a vertical). Her analysis of me (and some others) was simply “NO PREPARATION!”. The thing is, I thought I had prepared—so one of the things I’m processing is this: What IS preparation? I sat up, but I didn’t keep my hands down. She kept telling me to “slip your reins!” and instead, I was raising my hands. That wasn’t enough, Karen said. We prepare, then we bring them back, then we send them forward again, with a looser rein. I’m having such a difficult time with that (recall my difficulty at the Area V Novice Championships at Holly Hill last year—another occasion where I learned more via “failure” than via success). I had THOUGHT that what I needed to do was to bring the horse back then send him forward in the collection—in other words, with a somewhat shorter rein. But I think (in retrospect…I don’t think I “got” it at the clinic) what Karen wanted me to do was to prepare, then loosen the reins, sending my horse forward INTO the looser reins, maintaining the previous preparation with my leg/seat. I’m not sure I ever quite did it, though. Sigh.

Karen used the metaphor of venetian blinds. You open up by sitting up/standing up, and your horse's head comes with you.....then you slip the reins and push with your legs/seat to keep that level of "open". I think I'm getting the image. Now I just have to get the feel!

After the two jump combo, we moved to another part of the field to try more complicated combination….and that’s where my (and Dylan’s) confidence was pretty much done in. Like shattered.

We did a slight uphill to a log pile (which was either Novice or Training), then did a wide turn to what Jan called the “roller coaster” and what Karen called a “HaHa” jump. It was a vertical with a downhill on the other side, which then rose uphill to another vertical (about seven strides between). After that, we made another wide turn to a series of three jumps: A skinny coup, to a regular coup, to another skinny coup (with five and three strides between, I think). These were big, solid training jumps (at least). Gulp. Poor little Dylan had never done anything like this before…and Paycheck and I had, but only once or twice.

I had the same problem with little/no preparation before the first one, and we simply didn’t have enough impulsion….so we had to try it again. Then I got TOO controlling before the “HAHA”….and he refused it because he didn’t get a good look at what was coming afterwards. We were able to do them all three ok then, and we came around to the Training combo. Poor Dylan was wondering WHY I was sending him at this large skinny, and he ran out….at which point Karen remembered that he’d never done above BN. She had us only do the big coup in the middle, and a direct route to it. That was scary and challenging, but doable for where we were.

I have to admit to being very, very frustrated. Shouldn’t I be a good enough rider to take Dylan over these new questions? But I wasn’t able to do what Karen kept asking me to—when she told me to slip my reins, I was afraid of Dylan running out…and then I was so focused on my reins I forgot about my legs. Then I was worrying about my feet being forward, and forgot about the reins. I think with Paycheck, who’s got more miles and seems more confident over bigger jumps, I’d be ok…but Dylan was looking to me for his confidence, and I was looking to him, and we were both disappointed.

Luckily, the next field we went to contained various drop downs and bank ups (as well as the water jump, which was frozen, so we didn’t get to do it…sigh). Interestingly, we started very slowly with the drops/banks—trotting up a small incline to a 2 foot drop, then trotting back up the bank. Then we tried a much larger drop (maybe three-four feet?). Karen was adamant about us scrunching and sliding our reins, then practicing getting our reins back (or putting our elbows back to steer).

She built on what we’d done in the previous lessons with the S-curves with her next exercise: A Training? Round coup on a slight uphill, a sharp turn to a woodpile (Novice?), to the smaller bank up/down, to the larger bank up and larger yet drop down, one stride to a low vertical, then a sharp right turn to another low vertical.

Because of the riding we have done on the ranch, Dylan had no problems with the drops/banks. Thank goodness! We actually did the exercise (with a slightly less sharp turn after the last drop), but still more challenging than we’d ever done before. I was still having problems with my preparation before the other jumps though; now that I’ve thought it through, I can’t wait to try again. I think Paycheck will benefit, too, from this lesson.

We finished the lesson trying out our “sail” positions as a means not just to slow the horse down, but to stop. Karen maintains that if you can’t stop in four strides, you’re out of control—and by that standard, we had a lot of out of control riders/horses! We all galloped, then we had the length of a telephone pole to stand up in our stirrups with our feet forward (harder than you think!), pulling on the reins….and RELEASING WHEN THE HORSE HAD LISTENED. That’s a big thing with me (and others): knowing when to release.

Some Karen O’Connor highlights:
“It irritates your horse that you have such a death grip on the reins before the jump” (to a rider whose horse was misbehaving over/after a jump)
“You job has only begun on the take off of the jump. You need to land sending your horse forward” (after horses that lost impulsion going up a bank)
“You can think ‘Yeah, I’ll lose impulsion over the jump, but I’ll get it back on the landing’”
“Your horse needs to be able to see the fence—to study the exercise. He can’t if you don’t slip your reins” (uh, to me)
“Ride positive!” (encouraging riders to push before the fence)

That last one is a great motto.

A couple not-so-highlight moments:
At the AreaV/NTEA Banquet, Mike Huber was the MC/auctioneer for the fund-raising auction after dinner. I decided to bid on a lovely necklace made of local stones and pottery pieces found regionally, and when it got down to two bidders—myself and someone in the front—I realized that Mike had been referring to me as “the gentleman in the back”. Geesh. I know getting older means less estrogen, thus your “feel” your testosterone….but I’m not a man! Ironic, though, given that I was buying the piece for Joyce.

At the banquet, Karen and others made mention of an Area V woman and her dog who were asphyxiated in her trailer when she went to sleep with the propane heat on. I was using propane heat in my trailer, and when I went to bed after the banquet, I couldn’t stop thinking about that: What did it feel like? How would I know? Of course, every time the heater came on, I woke up and worried. Which meant I woke up about every half hour or so. I made sure a window next to my bed was slightly open, and since it was about 10 degrees outside, that meant I was freezing. Perhaps another reason I didn’t have the best XC schooling on Sunday!

On the way home, after filling up in Benjamin, TX, a really small ranching town, I drove 20 or so miles and at just about 7:30 (just after dark) had a massive blow out/explosion in my “off” rear tire. Now, with my little trailer aid, I can change a trailer flat in 20 minutes…but I had never changed a truck tire. I was so frustrated! I learned that Sprint doesn’t work at all in that area, too, so I couldn’t even call anyone…but I was able to send a few texts out (but not every text made it out). I finally found the owner’s manual, and the instructions were awful. I had a moment of horrible conscience when I realized I would have to unhook the trailer A) to get the tire out from under the car (I was on the rim, and it was sort of stuck even after I got it out), and B) to use the jack. Somehow, that felt wrong to me, and I literally sobbed, telling Dylan I wouldn’t leave him. Truckers drove by and shook his trailer, and he was getting nervous—I felt awful! I FINALLY got the trailer off and the truck eased forward enough to be clear of the trailer and the spare…only to find that the lug nuts on the blown tire wouldn’t budge. I was able to figure out a way to lean against the truck and balance the tire iron with one hand and jumping on it. After three or four jumps, I usually was able to loosen the nut. Of course, that means it took about ten, because I’d fall off, the tire iron would slip, etc. Mind you, this was for about a million nuts. Then I found the jack, crawled under the truck (VERY little space—it was literally resting on the rim), and tried to put a piece of wood under it, but the axle was too low. I got the jack as high as it would go, and while I could removed the tire, I knew it was too low to get the new tire on. That was ok, because I couldn’t lift the dang thing anyway. After 2.5 hours of this, the local county Sheriff came by and offered his super-sized jack—and he and I together lifted the tire into place. He also took me to a secret sheriff’s garage to fill up the spare a bit. I drove home no faster than 50 mph…so all in all it took 10 friggin’ hours to get home. I finally got there about 1 am. Fascinating, though: I got lost on the way there, and I got lost in the SJ lesson....and I was very overwhelmed/frustrated in the XC, just like I was on the way home when the tire blew and I had to fix it. And in all the situations, I felt terribly guilty: I'm not doing enough for Dylan; He wasn't prepared for this: and so forth. The good news is that, despite my frustration (and yes, a few tears), I learned a lot, and we got it done. All with a little help from my (new and old) friends.

Sometimes the lights are shining on me
Other times I can barely see
Lately it occurs to me
What a long strange trip it’s been

(Grateful Dead, "Truckin'")

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Day 2: Learning Lessons the Hard Way

First, can I say that I absolutely LOVE RoadRunner Farm? It’s ensconced in a little valley, with trees all around, yet couple lovely pastures….some fabulous jumps….and well-kept buildings. Gorgeous! And the owner, Jan, is one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. But I digress...

Today, two more groups did jumping exercises (we had to split the groups so that Karen could give a keynote address at the Area V/North Texas Eventing Association’s annual banquet). I saw some incredible horses today (just as I did yesterday), and some mighty fine riders. Of course, Karen soon zeroed in on some problems, and I know everyone learned a lot—including the auditors!

But we all earned it: it was COLD. I’m guessing it was around freezing, but with the wind chill, it was worse. And just standing around….BRRRRRR! Trying to video and write just about did my little fingers in.

Once again, Karen began the lessons asking for a little information about each horse and rider, strengths and weaknesses, and goals. Then she watched each rider warm up to get a sense of how they were doing. The ground poles were again used (this time, two at about 16 feet apart). The riders had to trot and canter over them in a collected fashion, and once again, the riders had the same trouble “seeing” a spot. Once they sunk into the saddle, moved with their seats encouraging the horse to go, and holding with legs and reins, they ALL got better at both gaits over the poles. Karen noted that the very top jumpers and eventers spent the bulk of their time doing exercises like these. I guess I know what I’ll need to build into my weekly training program!

Karen began the lesson by going over the rider’s responsibilities, the ways to engage the horse, and so forth. I’m constantly amazed that these simple concepts really do provide the backbone to EVERYTHING we do. We just need to master them, and think about them all the time.

I should note that the lovely place next to RoadRunner Farm has a herd of very playful, very LOUD donkeys. Yesterday, several of the horses were nervous as they went around close to the donkeys, and today one of the horses actually got so scared be began bucking, and a rider fell off (and wasn’t hurt, thankfully). Once she was sure that horse and rider were ok, Karen used the incident as a teaching opportunity: horses are prey animals, and their instinct is flight when they’re afraid. If we haul back on the reins, the horse panics, because it’s afraid it can’t get away. Once the rider gave with her hands, the horse calmed down a bit, and they were able to work. Karen kept tell her to “Bend to the left! Bend to the right!” as she went past the donkeys: “By giving your horse something to think about, something to do, he’s less likely to have time to be scared—especially ‘ADD’ type horses.” Karen noted that some horses are “big tight beach balls”….and when they get that way, we need to “deflate them by giving them something to do—they don’t get a reward for being bad; they get to work.”

When it came time to trot a low fence and halt, Karen made sure that the horses were presented with the fence straight. “By allowing your horse to be left of center all the time,” Karen said, “You’re teaching him to wander.” And while “wandering” doesn’t matter as much at the lower levels, once you begin getting more complex questions, you’ll need to be able to put your horse where he needs to be to have the best shot at being successful.

A number of times during the lesson, Karen would yell at the riders to “push to the stop”. DUH. Lightbulb moment. Last summer, after reading a thread on the Chronicle of the Horse list about getting a good stop in dressage, I tried keeping my leg on as I asked for the halt…in fact, any downward transition (which seems counterintuitive). By golly, it works! I got MUCH better downward transitions when I kept my leg on ….and “pushed to the stop”.

Several of the riders had difficulty maintaining an even pace after the jump—or, when the exercise was to trot to a jump then trot afterwards, they had a difficult time bringing their horses back down to a trot. She suggested they consciously “allow with their hands” after the jump—and bingo! Several of the horses got much smoother.

She did a couple things differently this time. After a three jump combination (vertical-vertical-oxer) she had riders stop, then continue on to the two-jump combo (coop to oxer). Again she noted that the first thing your horse should be thinking about after a jump is “what do you want me to do next?” To get them to think that way, we GIVE them things to do after a jump. Of course, WE need to be thinking ahead so that we CAN tell them what to do!!

Several riders had a difficult time getting their leads in the S-curve jump sequence. Karen maintained that riders needed to use their arms AND their legs to get the lead over the jumps. And that bit of balance really made a difference in some of these horses over the S-curve.

Often Karen would tell the riders to “put your hands far apart—wide, like you’re riding a tricyle”. She did this for a couple reasons: Several of the riders were leaning their hands on their horse’s withers/neck over the jump, and she wanted to teach them to have a more independent seat. Also, many of the riders were stiff with their arms/elbows, and this action forced them to flex.

Another activity that was different in these lessons was students jumping three fences on an angle. “Horses don’t mind jumping on an angle—it’s the riders who do. Unless something is interfering with the horse’s sight, they will jump angles just fine.” Yet another example of “rider error” and “rider fences”…the horses will do it fine if we just get out of their way! The riders had to jump three fences that were off set from each other—a straight line if everyone was jumped at an angle, and a yucky, weird line if they weren’t.

The last fence was a Liverpool, and when the horses looked at it, she once again shouted for the riders to “row the boat!” When some horses still had trouble, she once again broke it down for them, first allowing them to jump the “water” part, then adding the top rail. By the end, all the horses were jumping the Liverpool as though they’d jumped it all their lives.

Karen emphasized rider position throughout the lesson. By putting your lower leg forward and “smooshing” your seat into your cantle, you’re in a defensive position. You can still “row the boat,” but if your horse stops, you’re not going over his head. Watching these riders—all of whom were really good riders—fall into the feet back position so often, I was reminded to be vigilant about my own position. More to work on!

Between groups, I asked Karen couple questions based on a comment she made to the first group about what might well be the “fifth” rider responsibility: seeing your spot. Timing. Somehow, to me that seemed to be inconsistent with some of what other “big names” were saying. For instance, a while back, Jimmy Wofford (admittedly my all-time hero) wrote about how, by asking horses to do more and more complex dressage, we were destroying their own ability to find a distance, to develop what Karen (and others) referred to as “the fifth leg”. Being able to get out of a tight spot by themselves. By making horses so dependent on our instruction in dressage, Wofford maintained, we are killing their own self-preservation ability—and then if we don’t know what to do/don’t think fast enough, accidents happen. Similarly, Lucinda Green in her recent address to the USEA annual meeting said we need to learn to trust our horses more. How do these ideas mesh with the idea of timing being the rider’s responsibility?

Karen took the question seriously, and approached it from a variety of angles. Both of the afore-mentioned riders came up during a time when courses were different, and they all had early experience on horses that knew their jobs. Plus, she noted, cross country jumps simply weren’t as solid as they are now. As a result, riders could “kick on” and even crash into a fence and still get back on to compete (and often even do well). Yes, we want horses to find that “fifth leg”, but some horses have it—and others don’t, or at least can’t find it as easily. Does that mean they’re not good horses? No—we just need to help them more. “So we need to learn timing to help our horses all the time?” I asked. Karen answered yes, but that it’s all part of being a better horseman. Of course horses need to learn how to get out of a jam—but we have to learn, too. What we need to do, she said, is to give kids a horse and 100 acres to ride on, and have them play cowboys and Indians. I get her drift: growing up on a farm, and riding bareback day after day, I learned to “feel” what my horse was doing (even when we did, uh, crazy things like jump over gravestones, or cut calves out of the field), and I trusted her (and she me). We did some pretty crazy things—but we depended on each other. So if WE know, we can help the horse learn—and vice-versa!

What I learned today:
Ground pole exercises are vital to becoming a better jumper.
I can never do too much work on adjustability.
Clinching and pulling can make a hot horse pretty darn crazy.
Pushing into the halt works outside the dressage arena.
While I need to learn to trust my horse, I can’t JUST depend on him to save my….seat. I need to take responsibility, too.
I feel more confident when my lower leg is forward and my seat back. And seeing these riders re-affirmed that it LOOKS safer, too!

Some memorable quotes:
“If you’re going fast and your horse has an accident, you’ll likely be thrown clear. If you’re going slow, your horse is likely to fall on you!” (to a rider who was a bit afraid to go forward)
“The ground always wins” (to a rider who’d taken a spill)
“I could be in Florida right now!” (it was DANG cold)

Friday, January 9, 2009

Day 1: Finding Our Way

I left just after 5:30, since Mapquest told me it would take 5.5 hours (I always add to that, given that I’m hauling a pretty big trailer). I figure would give me a hour and a half leeway. But I didn’t count on a lot of construction right around Guthrie (or a lack of ….well, anything!...including gas stations in that area). I got re-routed around the town, and missed a turn off. Thirty miles later, I realized what was going on, and I turned around. I made it just after the first group—the one I was supposed to be in—started. Now that I think about it, my getting re-routed might have been prophetic..! The woman I was supposed to switch with was riding, so I didn’t mess up the group at least. I put Dylan in his stall (after letting him stretch his legs), made sure he had hay and water, and went to watch the Novice group. I ended up riding with my original group—which frightened me at first, since they were almost all doing Novice and prepping for Training (except one, who was riding Training and schooling Prelim)—but there was at least one other person on a new horse, so I at least had some excellent company.

I admit to being a bit star-struck; after all, Karen O’Connor is an Olympian! She looked exactly like she did in the short series about the O’Connor event team and their up-and-coming riders (one of which was formerly local rider Clark Montgomery). Petite and blond, she had a no-nonsense demeanor, and yet a lively wit. I liked her immediately.

Much like David, she started the lesson by getting to know the riders and their horses, asking about what levels they’d competed at, and what their goals were. Then she quizzed them on the responsibilities of the rider: direction, speed, balance, and rhythm. After David O’Connor’s clinic, these have become a mantra of sorts, and yet it’s still amazing how difficult it is to put these four seemingly simple concepts into practice.

The initial exercise for these riders (and for our group as well) was a collection exercise, where the rider had to control the first two concepts: direction and speed. She simply set up four poles 8 feet apart and told us to canter over them. Simple, right? But we were to get our horses up, rocking on their hocks, with their front end light and a consistent pace (with rhythm and balance—so I guess we got all four!). “What are the ways we can influence collection,” Karen asked the participants. Once again, there are four ways:

• Lateral work: leg yields, shoulder in, and so forth
• Downward transitions, either between gaits or within gaits
• Reinback
• Stopping/using reins

It was amazing how difficult such a seemingly simple exercise could be!

Some horses tried to leap over at least the first pole; other swapped leads throughout; others sped up or broke to a trot (or were “trantoring”—being inconsistent in their gait). From the ground, it was easy to see how the rider’s position has a HUGE impact on the horse. The riders that tried to sit still had horses who either sucked back or went as fast as they wanted….but the ones who “rowed the boat” as Karen calls it, using their legs to push, their seat to half-halt, and their reins (but only momentarily—then let GO) had much nicer canters. She would ask each rider “what can you do to make it better?” If the rider had trouble, she’d offer a response: Is lateral work what you needed just then? (for a horse that was rushing). “No” the rider replied “I need a downward transition” Karen encouraged the rider, saying that even a halt or reinback might be in order if the horse isn’t listening.

Several of the riders applied half-halts, but didn’t give afterwards, causing their horses to speed up or to brace. If we ask them to come up using a half-halt, we HAVE to release after they do it—otherwise we’ve asked them to do something, then we keep yelling at them after they’ve done it/tried. NO ONE would like that. These horses tended to grab the bit and run at the jump. Good to know if I feel that happening to me—it’s likely I’m “hanging” onto my half-halts!

We also saw how effective these aids were when used in succession: push with leg, into the half halt, and then release, all why moving WITH the horse’s body, but lifting it with the core. In my group, I had difficulty because Dylan was so out of shape; I finally had to take my legs out of the stirrup, and use my whole leg to “fluff” while trying to hold him up. He finally did ok—but this is DEFINITELY an exercise we’ll come back to.

She said that, to really get a horse on his hind end, start with the four rails, then nine feet, then a vertical. The exercise will force them to get their hind ends under them.

Riders are responsible for speed, direction, rhythm and balance, but the horse needs to “give” in the front (turn on haunches), in the rear (turn on forehand), in the front end (reinback) and vertically. The next exercise was to get the horse to listen to the rider after a jump: they simply trotted to a very small vertical, then halted right afterwards. “Why do we halt?” Karen asked. The riders responded that we need to get our horses to listen to us after the jump. She suggested that we include other things after a jump, too, so that the horse is always looking to you after a jump, saying “what do we do now?” We could stop, reinback leg yield, even do a turn on the haunches/forehand…anything that gets the horse listening. I like that—too often, I get over a jump, and *I* need to think “what do we do now?” Perhaps by practicing these various exercises I can learn to think ahead!

Several horses had a hard time stopping after the fence. “Halt using a leg that’s holding the horse into your hand” Karen said. Again, easier said than done; I found myself being pulled out of the saddle by dear sweet Dylan. She suggested we sink our weight into our heels and sit, but that we don’t haul on the horse’s mouth.

Some of the horses were very sensitive to their rider’s rhythm. She suggested that one rider post all the way to the fence, to help her horse find his spot; she told me to lean a tad forward before the fence. For some riders, she encouraged them not to keep their hands so low; for others, they needed to stretch their hands down so that the horses can use their neck. Several riders tried to collect their horses by putting their legs back—she encouraged them to use their leg rhythmically, which means as the horse’s leg is going up. She was very good about seeing how horses could be improved by their riders—she seems to be a good judge of both!

She built on the exercise: Trotting two fences in a row, then stopping (and many of the horses had a hard time coming back to a trot). Then she added a third jump, and after trotting the first two, the horses could canter the last one (an oxer). Again, these were smaller jumps, but good for practicing the concepts we were learning/reinforcing.

“When do you think about power?” Karen asked when several horses (mine included!) jumped a little…well, flat, heavy on the forehand. “Before the jump!” I answered, and she wanted more: how much before? Since we need the horse going the proper speed and direction at the very LEAST by the base of the jump, we need to be thinking about—and influencing—these things 4-5 strides out. If you are on a 5 stride combo, that means AS SOON as you land, you’d better be thinking about what you need to do. If you jumped big, you might have to collect/shorten. If you chipped, you might have to ask for more power. It’s our job to think ahead; it’s the horse’s job to jump.

She emphasized over and over that the rider needs to sit with her foot in front of her (or at least under her) and NOT behind. We should be sitting up, but NOT with an arched back (a “soft” back so we can follow the horse’s movement). Our seat needs to go back as we jump. She had us stand in our stirrups and then get down w/ our head below our horse’s withers—and if we wanted to do that w/out getting out of balance, we really needed to keep our feet forward and our seats back. We also need to re-establish our position between jumps, and fairly quickly, too. More to practice!

She added some turning lines, including some pretty darn tight “S-curves” (fences were set up in a circle). Suddenly, riders that seemed so “together” got a little out of whack. She emphasized that we can’t turn our horses simply by pulling on his head (though many riders tried!). We need to push with our legs and our outside rein (almost like neck-reining). They need to bend around our inside leg (just like in dressage—duh!). We can USE the fences to our advantage: A horse like Dylan (who she called the SS Dylan because he’s so big/wide) needs a lot of space, so rather than putting him in the middle then asking for a tight turn, we can jump at an angle to give him more time to turn.

She had Dylan and me go out and gallop, then come back to a canter, then gallop, then come back—and he was a lot more adjustable afterwards. Note to self: DO MORE TRANSITIONS W/IN GAIT.

She emphasized that we need to be busy BEFORE the jump, figuring out speed, direction, etc., but DURING THE JUMP we need to be calm and quiet. Boy, do I need to take that to heart! One of my favorite rides was a young woman doing a whole course, and Karen yelled out “Busy! Calm! Busy! Calm!” throughout, indicating when the rider was to be adjusting, etc., and when the rider was to just sit. It really illustrated viscerally when a rider should just SIT.

Several horses (uh, like dear Dylan) lost a little forward impulsion between jumps sometimes…so she had us “rock the boat”, or push with our seats RHYTHMICALLY. It really did help the horse get going. Not to self: don’t need to goose him. Row the boat. Which comes back to that position thing she talked about earlier: we need to have our bodies in a position where we CAN move our hips.

And during our last “course” with a lot of bending lines, I got, uh, a little lost. Just like on the way here. And I didn’t figure it out until later. Karen told the story of a woman who was completely lost over and over, and Karen asked her what she did for a living: “I’m a air traffic controller” she replied…! At least I teach rhetoric, which is all about negotiation….but I really DO need to get better about remembering courses. In my defense, our 10 year old crawled into bed w/ us at 2 last night (and no one can sleep in bed w/ him—he’s a squirmer), and I got up at 5, and I’m getting old, and I drove 7.5 hours, and I got lost….hmmm. I see a pattern. I really do have to work on this memory thing.

I got a lot out of this lesson. Of course, some of it was stuff I “knew”. But boy, it helps to have someone say it just a little differently—and to SEE how it affects both horses and riders.

Here are my “lessons”:

1. I need to be balanced over Dylan’s withers—even when we turn, etc.
2. I will get more adjustability with Dylan if I over-exaggerate the transitions (gallop, come back, etc.)
3. I need to learn to “use” my fences better, given the horse I’m riding
4. If I stay up, lightly forward, and push with my hips, I get more power than if I kick
5. Turning the SS Dylan involved TWO reins and TWO legs…and good balance and planning on my part

Some highlights: after doing better at an exercise, a rider patted her horse, exclaiming “Good Boy!” to which Karen replied “It wasn’t THAT good….!”

Other great quotes:

“Watch out for trees!” (after a rider nearly took one out) And no, it wasn’t me; though trees aren’t native to West TX, I DO live in a pecan orchard!
“Never put your body where you want your horse to go” (to the same rider who almost took out the tree)
“Don’t nag your horse!” (to a rider who was using hand and seat but simultaneously, confusing the horse)
“Don’t practice your bad habits!” (to a rider who kept doing the same thing after re-starting a jump)
“Riding is complicated. It’s our job to UN-complicate it for our horses.”

Thursday, January 8, 2009


RoadRunner Farm is hosting a Karen O'Connor clinic, and when I heard there were open seats, I sent in an entry. I'd blogged a clinic with her husband, David O'Connor, at Holly Hill last year, and I learned a ton. Due to some sort of mix-up, I wasn't notified that I'd actually gotten into this clinic until just a few days ago. I'm thrilled!

The bad new is, however, that my competition horse--Paycheck--who was going Novice and schooling Training, aiming for a Training Three Day Event within a year, was diagnosed last weekend with EPM.

Now, I have a second horse, one that is, in fact, my True Love: Dylan. I rode him in 2007 at BN, and in the spring of 2008 HE was diagnosed with EPM. He went through two rounds of Marquis, and he seems to be better than ever.

So I'll be taking Dylan to the clinic. We schooled over jumps with Chris the other day, and he feels better than ever-really round over the jumps. I have to remember to sit UP before the jumps with my shoulders back (helps him to round), to half halt before the jumps so he won't rush, but then to relax and put an encouraging leg on (i.e., not a "goosing" one). AND I have to ask him for a lead change over the fence. The challenge for me will be to remember all of this, AND to prepare for whatever comes after the jump. I tend to be one of those "Thank HEAVENS! I made it over! OH CRAP, there's another one!" kind of person...but I really WANT to be someone who plans ahead and rides according to plan. Brain transfusion, anyone?

My friend Jennifer has been riding Dylan during the fall while I rode and competed Paycheck, so while he's not in competition shape, he's doing ok (though he DID get a little plump over the summer...!).

So we were able to drop down (although not quite to BN--we used to be in a N/T group, and now we're just N).

I'm bummed that I won't be riding Paycheck, though. We were doing really well. I hope his recovery is as complete as Dylan's was.

So stay tuned....I'm leaving for the clinic early tomorrow (Friday) morning. If I can get internet there, I'll update daily; if not, it won't be until Monday. I can't wait!