Pre day (and pre-coffee!) thoughts: Before Karen and David called it quits last night, they set up poles in the arena. I know we’ll be working on getting our horses to go forward and come back, and I hope that Paddy and I are up to the challenge. Last year, we’d only been together about three months, and we weren’t so hot. We’re better this time, but still not to where Paycheck and I were. Still, it will be a good challenge for us…and for me especially, since I NEED to learn to ask him to be better on a regular basis.
Let the faint of heart beware! Karen and David O’Connor mean BUSINESS.
And that’s one of the many reasons why they are such a popular, effective training team.
The day was all about adjustability, and the morning began with the prelim group. Perhaps because this was the most advanced group, Karen was the hardest on them. I’m impressed that every one of them rose to the occasion.
She started by asking the riders to warm up, then to all together lengthen down the long side, and drop stirrups on the short side getting into a dressage canter, then picking them up again to lengthen down the long side. She insisted on a BIG change, yelling “is that your dressage canter? I want MORE” to several riders. When one young woman didn’t have much of an adjustment, Karen called her over to ask if the rider was “blowing her off”. “You’re paying a lot of money to be here—why aren’t you doing what I say?” The rider was respectful and made a much bigger effort—and was rewarded with a MUCH bigger difference.
Our group had to do the same exercise, and I had real trouble getting my stirrups back, especially on my left side. I ended up having to do it on my own for a couple laps….sigh. I need to practice this at home!
Event horses, Karen explained, are often eager. Many of the exercises they’ll be doing are designed to help teach them to hold off the jump. The first exercise consisted of two boxes set about 21 feet apart—a good solid one stride. The riders all took it as a one stride, then they had to fit two strides into it. “It’s a stupid pet trick!” Karen shouted to riders who were having trouble.
The riders needed to be able to shorten without just “pulling on the horse’s mouth!” Echoing yesterday’s rides, the riders were to use their seats and hands, pulling up the reins so that they were lighter in the reins.
“Get on a line” Karen said. “Those two boxes just happen to be there! One rider who was having trouble fitting the two stride in was asked to halt in between the boxes. She was finally able to do so, then backed up. “I didn’t say halt and reinback! But that’s self carriage! If he can do that, he can shorten!”
To another rider she said “if you can’t halt between the boxes, you’re out of control! I’m trying to save your life here!” Her main focus was to teach these riders to be able to adjust at a moment’s notice should the situation call for it…which might save their lives when they’re faced with larger jumps.
“Ask for halt…then change your mind! Karen said over and over.
Karen knew what she wanted, and she wanted the riders to oblige.
Paddy and I were able to do this exercise, but even when I felt he was collected, Karen demanded MORE. It was frustrating, but I found “gears” I didn’t realize he had….what an amazing horse!
To another rider: Too much concession! If you can’t do a two stride in a one stride, you are dangerous at Training level!
I think that’s true…but I fear a lot of riders at Training level would have trouble.
One rider’s horse was acting up, to which Karen shouted “If your horse is disrespectful, get mad! Then DO something about it!”
Several horses broke to the trot when their riders tried to make them collect. Karen encouraged them to recognize the moment when the horse comes together, then let go to lighter contact. I need to remember that/feel that.
The next exercise was a ground pole to a vertical to a ground pole. The goal was for the rider to concentrate on the first ground pole, finding a distance to it, then riding the rest in rhythm. The upper level riders seemed to “get” the exercise, but I had difficulty with it. Somehow, I couldn’t divorce the vertical from the rail on the ground, and the harder I tried, the more unbalanced I got. Karen finally yelled at me to stop counting, which flustered me even more. In later rides, she pointed out that the horse who came in balanced and in a good rhythm had no problem—I think I would’ve had more success had I understood that. Nonetheless, it’s an exercise I will set up at home!
Next we had to do a five fence one-stride grid. We had to go in balanced, then re-balance throughout. “I want to see you/hear you!” Karen yelled. She had one rider stand up in her stirrups the long side before the grid to get a feel for the grid, because “standing up means you have control of your upper body, and control of your upper body means clear stadium rounds.” Another lesson to remember. I need to get back to doing more gridwork!
Several riders (myself included!) were admonished not to “chase” their horses. After yesterday, when several riders were told to exaggerate the hand movements, I found that odd, but I realize she’s putting tools in our tool belt, and we’re expected to finesse our use of them. For me, that means being still, being quiet, and NO DRAMA. Boy, if I can master that, I’ll have come a long, long way.
“Don’t change the ride!”
At one point, Karen said “we’re about making horses and riders believe what’s possible”. Given what I saw in terms of horses REALLY coming back, etc., I tend to agree. I guess it’s hard to imagine. It’s even harder to DO. But it can be done!
To one rider Karen asked “Was that the right speed?”
“It was a little bit too fast”
“Then a little bit slow down!”
When riders reacted to this, Karen said “don’t mess with me!” and turning to the rider next to her, said “Having fun riding with an Olympian? Hot stuff, right?” I love that she can literally bark out orders, yell at riders, then poke fun at herself all within the scope of a minute!
After a rider successfully navigated the next series of jumps (short two stride to an oxer, long four to another), she told the rider to do it again. “You don’t own it unless you can do it over and over!”
All the riders did a corner to a skinny, and then she put a course together including ALL the exercises…which meant we needed to ADJUST a lot.
One group with a couple very exuberant horses came in, and Karen lamented that “the next exercise will be like marbles spilling on a floor!” She kiddingly asked a rider to move so “I can see [the rider on course] get bucked off”…..! Luckily, no riders got bucked off, and EVERYONE was able to navigate the exercises successfully!
To a rider (who recently had a baby): “Organize! Organize your life! Did you remember diapers this weekend? “ (rider responds: “who, me?”) Karen: Yeah, YOU’re the one sh**ing yourself!”
Great Karen line: “It’s a matter of keeping all the balls in the air.”
“Be effective! Make a difference!” (but I need to remember: QUIETLY. NO DRAMA)
One of the best lines from the weekend: your horse is your teacher. Listen to him!
One rider who was a bit timid (“milk toast”) was told: The great with horses is that is you are milk toast at home, you can be anything on a horse. Be an actor! Be a hard a**! Be Karen O’Connor!” The rider went quite well for a long while after that. I need to remember to try to “be” someone I respect.
TO a rider who couldn’t get her horse to “step it up” and get a good canter going: “If you’re not loud enough with your aids, it puts the horse in peril! Doing “not enough” is one of the most unkind things you can do to your horse”. That’s another one I need to think about.
Karen and David fielded questions at the lunch talk. Questions about changing leads more effectively were addressed (need to make sure haunches are in before asking). David reminded us that the reins controlled the horse’s shoulder, and the seat/legs the hind in. He had us stand up, then gave us several scenarios (leg yield, shoulder in, half pass, etc.), and had us move our bodies/reins where they should be to best assist the horse. It was a great learning aid (for instance, shoulder in and leg yield are very similar—but one is four track, one three track—so for shoulder in, the hips stay straight, while the shoulders/arms bend in to the inside of the ring, while both are tilted in leg yield).
I asked about dressage riders who seems to be leaning back to make their horses extend, and Karen noted that the “big dogs” (my term) often did it (I even saw folks at Rolex do it). Karen noted that it was a good question, but it had to do with engagement. The more engaged the horse is, the more you can be upright to push. The horses who are VERY underneath themselves might make a rider look like he/she was leaning back…but typically, even then it’s better not to lean back.
At training level, the horse’s engagement is such that ANY backward leaning is a “drag”. So when a rider posts with hips very forward AND shoulders go back, it makes the horse think the rider is sending mixed signals.
I asked about doing better about prepping at home, and Karen said “if you didn’t bring it with you to the competition, you won’t find it there”. In other words, the groundwork MUST be done at home. That means that we need to expect more: read the directives in the dressage test. Videotape yourself and critique it. And so forth.
“Too many people exercise their horses without expanding their knowledge” Karen said. I need to think about that. How can I expand Paddy’s knowledge on our daily workouts??
David said there were five levels of learning:
Most riders, David asserted, get through the first three. Even up to Intermediate. Intuition and imagination are the prowess of the top level riders.
The problem is, most people go straight to instinct: muscle memory is the best metaphor I could come up with. They don’t finesse technique, nor do they do enough with theory. We need more of the first two.
Someone asked Karen and David what was hardest for them to master. For Karen, it was elastic arms. “It took me ten years, and a lot of ruined mouths” Karen stated frankly.
David was a bit more coy at first: “How to speak up!” Eventually, he admitted that balance was hardest for him. Karen is short, strong, with legs relatively long for her body. “She’s balanced naturally” David said. “She can pick up skateboarding, skiing, surfing, etc. and do it really well very quickly….but I can’t. I have to really work at being balanced.” David does have a “gift” he was born with, however: he’s very flexible, even double jointed in several places. He has pins in both elbows, but he’s still got full flexibility.
Nice to know that these Olympians have difficulties in certain areas…and nice to know that hard work can overcome difficulties.