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!