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'")