I was able to observe the Training/Prelim group before my own ride time, and as usual, I think I learned almost as much watching them as I did riding. I was lucky in that I knew all of the participants, so I was able to see how they improved. All of them had horses who'd done upper level work, but all of the horses were a bit quirky, so it was a challenge for them. Two were aspiring to Preliminary level, and one had done a few Preliminary horse trials.
Kathleen began the session by asking the riders what it took to move up—and, conversely, what keeps you at a level. Several of the riders answered thoughtfully: a lot of impulsion….keeping your horse underneath yourself…..lots of leg….technique…remembering stuff….
Kathleen nodded, then told them her version, which encompassed all of what the riders were saying:
Attention to detail.
"Awareness," she said. "Hearing what your horse is telling you. Getting feedback from your horse, and then figuring out what it's telling you. So many riders ask a question, and when they don't get an answer, they continue on…often with disastrous results. You have to know that your horse hears you, and that you are CONNECTED. Listen to what your horse is telling you. "
Obviously, the riders moving up to Preliminary need to be much, much more aware of their horse and what it's saying.
Several times both Kathleen and Bobo made reference to being "married" to your horses. That's a really interesting concept; I've often said that Paycheck was like my husband: easy going, hard worker, earnest. But the idea of being married—that is, knowing each other to the point where you can finish each others' sentences, to the point where you KNOW your partner so well it's almost like an extension of yourself—that can probably be both good AND bad. I'm guessing that once you're "married," you stop demanding MORE each time your ride. Kathleen noted that each time we ride, we should expect improvement in something—walk, jump, collection, leg yeild—something. Do we do that when we're married? Or do we simply become so acclimated to our spouse that we simply expect the same of them (and then they live up to our expectations)?
Kathleen asked another interesting question: Why do horses let us ride them? How do we get them to do what we want? They can feel a fly landing on their flank, so they're obviously very sensitive. WE need to be aware of what our body is doing; horses can feel our seat bones through the saddle…so we need to be very, very keen on what we're doing, what we're asking, and how the horse is responding.
So every day WE must get better and better, too. We need to place the same expectations of getting better every ride on ourselves as well (ok, so maybe this is like couples' counseling in marriage?). We all start out as passengers, Kathleen noted, and gradually, as we learn more and move up the levels, we become more directive. Initially, we're only about 5% of the equation…but by the time we get to Preliminary and above, we need to be about 95% of the direction. If we can't do that, if we're not becoming more directive, then we shouldn't move up.
We practice, and if we practice well, what we practice becomes instinctive, and then we work on honing it down (or honing other things), making them more accurate, more reactive to what our horses are telling us. We can then ride fewer jumps before we're ready, and it takes less time to move up.
After the initial conversation, Kathleen sent everyone out to gallop, and she critiqued their galloping positions. Several of the participants had nice, fluid, following hips, but some were a bit stiff in the hips, going up and down rather than following forward. The ones who were stiffer were more active in their shoulders, which, I'm guessing, made it harder for their horses to balance, and probably took a bit more energy to deal with—and, at the upper levels, that's something big. Amazing to see how something as simple and ubiquitous as a galloping position can make such a difference.
"Eventers have three basic positions," Kathleen noted. "Stadium, XC, and Dressage. In SJ, we need to be a bit more upright, stretching up; in XC, we can be a bit more defensive, pushing into the stirrup with our toes and slightly rounding our bodies." These positions give us more tools—so that we can draw from one to use in the other scenario. She talked about dealing with hills before and after jumps, about stretching up going down hill to keep them from getting hollow, and I recalled the "aha" moment I had learning to stretch up in dressage, and how it helped me get my horse "rounder". Amazing that this concept worked in all three disciplines!
"What are the three things we have to control before a fence?"
All of the riders had ridden with Kathleen before, and so they were able to articulate for her the answer:
Speed, Direction, and Balance.
Of these, Kathleen warned, the most important is direction to help the horse jump effectively. Speed is next important.
There are two ways to help the horse do things correctly, too: the rider can do it by learning more, or a particular exercise can do it by forcing the horse to do it correctly. She explained that, between the first bending line, there was 60 feet. How many strides is that if you trot in and canter out? If you canter the whole thing? Riders answered somewhat uncertainly; we forget that, when trotting in, we can use the whole 12 foot stride and NOT account for take off/landing….so it's five strides if we trot in, four if we canter. Another bending line was 69 feet…not a multiple of 12. The riders once again came up with the right answers…a short five or long four. She encouraged the riders to try for the most strides they could, and thus began a competition (did I mention upper level folks are competitive?). Someone actually got seven strides…but they also made quite a bend in their line!
Kathleen told the riders that, at their level, they needed to be thinking about their position before, during, AND after the jump. Was it balanced? Are they hindering their horses in any way?
Several of the riders were trying to get their horses to come back to them before a jump, and that was good—but Kathleen warned that if you take away power before a jump, you need to make sure you add it back at the base. The horse doesn't get to come to the fence on his terms, but on yours—but make sure your terms are correct!
What I learned today:
1. Stretching up before the jump is vital for me. It helps me to keep my horse balanced, it helps ME stay balanced over my heels, and if I do it while sinking my heels down before a jump, it lets him know I'm not just a passenger—I'm going with him.
2. A consistent pace will help any course.
3. If I'm stretching up, it's harder to jump ahead.
4. Prepping for the jump begins in the turn BEFORE the jump.
5. DON'T FUSS WITH HIM FOUR STRIDES BEFORE THE JUMP.
6. I have to wait for the jump to come to me. If I do, he'll take the extra stride and be safe.
7. I need to sit up as quickly as I can after the jump.
8. I need to be thinking about the next jump when I'm in the air on this jump.