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.”

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