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)

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