Sunday, November 23, 2008

Day Two: Cross Country

Today began much like yesterday, with Kathleen asking questions to prep the riders for what they would face. What are the rider's responsibilities (direction, speed, balance)? The rider has to be listening to the horse—and responsive to the horse, just as the horse must be responsive to the rider. The rider has to be ready, movable, and elastic if he wants the horse to be the same. YOU have to ask the horse to do the right thing—then YOU have to do the right thing.

I caught up with the Preliminary group as they had just finished multiple drops to a skinny, and were working on the water jump. In the drop, they worked on keeping their bodies elastic, following the horse (rather than leaning back over a drop, which can make the horse hollow). If you get behind on a simple bank, it's not the end of the world. However, get behind on a drop down combination with a turn to a skinny, then it's a problem. By this level, you can't afford to get behind like that.

Once again, being straight was emphasized. If you bring the horse into a complex combination straight and with the right speed, you're more likely to be successful. You need to ride the hind end with contact/guidance. Don't bring the horse to a complex underpowered, sitting there like a monkey, waiting for the horse to crawl over and save you.

The group did the training jump into the water (log, two strides to water, three-four strides in the water to a bank up, bending two strides to a log out). It was heartening to me to see these experienced riders make the SAME mistakes I make: one person successfully negotiated the log, lost some impulsion in the water, then went straight instead of bending, and then tried to turn his horse wit JUST the reins. The horse would have none of it, and ran out. However, he rode it perfectly the next time.

Each of the riders had a good but unimpressive trip over the Training route—but then they did the Preliminary route: a skinny log, one stride to a larger log into the water, three steps in the water, a bank up, one stride to a log out (all this coming from a down hill gallop). Each of the riders concentrated and did it perfectly—probably BECAUSE they were paying so much attention to detail and were more focused.

She suggested that those riders still riding Training level should begin to ride T aggressively to prepare for Preliminary. Don't just pull to stop/slow/turn; RIDE the hind end. The horse always has to be in front of the rider's leg. I'm just now starting to understand what that means—and I'm thinking it's very, very important. It's the source of power and impulsion. But it's still one of those terms that sounds right but incredibly elusive in terms of really understanding it.

I'm grateful to adult rider Catherine Baker who took glorious notes for me while I schooled XC. We started out making sure that we had a good, consistent rhythm before AND after the warm up fences—including a plan as to what we wanted our horses to do after the fence. One of the riders made HUGE improvements with a young horse by simply moving her hips all the way to the jump, instead of stopping them and being still before the jump. The horse literally went from hesitating and "deer jumping" to jumping smoothly and powerfully over the fences. It was a really powerful lesson for all of us.

Several of us needed to put our horses together before fences rather than just "point and shoot" (as one experienced rider put it, "If I'm scared before a fence, I just push with my legs to let the horse know we're going to take this!"). We do this NOT by pulling on the reins, but by using our seats to half-halt, and by fluffing the reins if necessary. The horses have to believe they can use their backs and necks over the jump. So while we DO create impulsion with our leg, we DON'T brace, pull, or get in the way. The horse needs to find the spot he feels he can jump from safely.

The trouble with adult riders, Kathleen maintains, is that they carry their baggage with them. Picture the monk in the movie The Mission trying to climb a mountain with pots and pans and other heavy material chained to him; that's what I think we're like sometimes. We remember coaches yelling, our mistakes, our blunders, and so forth, and we carry them in our shoulders, our seats, our backs…..we need to be able to LEARN from them, and then MOVE ON so that we're thinking about the next jump (too often we adults are thinking "thank GOODNESS—made it over that one!" rather than thinking about the next jump…!).

We moved to the "pimple jump"—the log on top of a hill (a large one by West Texas standards!). Kathleen noted that we needed to sit up and fluff at the base of the hill, allowing our horse to get his hind end under him, so that he'll have the impulsion to jump the log at the top (otherwise, he'd have to crawl over the log, which I saw several Rolex horses do one year). We took it both directions, and because I tried to collect TOO MUCH when using the log as a drop down the hill, my dear horse LAUNCHED. Kathleen threatened to take him home, and after two tries, I finally gave him his head, and he "slunk" down rather than leaping into nothingness. He wasn't happy with me when I did the SAME THING at a drop down later…..why can't I get it through my head that my horse needs to use his head?

What was VERY cool about today was that I got to do several Training level jumps—the first was a Training level table (and because I don't know my right from left, I *almost* took a Prelim table, which looked REALLY big….I pulled up before it. Thankfully, when I took the Training table, it didn't look big at all!). We then moved to the coffin complex. Now, when we've taken ditches before, and he doesn't like them to school them—but when we're on course, and the adrenaline is flowing, he'll fly over them.

Alas, we were schooling, so my horse was "ditchy". He hesitated before the ditch, and then took it, but with a big leap so that we were a bit disorganized to the log out.

The first time we put it together (log to ditch to log), we trotted, and I got left behind at the ditch, taking the log out a bit like Mary King ("hailing a cab"). Kathleen reinforced the idea that we were to be in a defensive position, with our feet a bit forward, our rear ends a bit back, "scrunched" down so that we could be elastic and following AND we could help our horses if they got into a bind. Thankfully, the second time we put it together, I remembered to "scrunch" and even though we broke into a trot over the ditch, we kept ourselves together over the log out.

When we got to the water jump, we got to start with the Novice (log, four or so strides to water, couple strides out to log), then we got to do the Training (log, couple strides to water, bank out, bending line to log). Because I remembered the rider who tried to do the bending line w/ just reins, I had my leg on—so much so that I lost my right stirrup in the water! But you know what? I had my leg on, and was able to direct my horse with my leg over the bending line. We had a good Training water experience!

We ended on another ditch to a skinny log. Once again, my horse was a tad "ditchy", but recovered nicely to do the log as long as I had impulsion (which I did). So we trotted the ditch to the log, and I wasn't great with my "scrunch"…so we did it again, at a canter, and while he hesitated a moment before the ditch, I scrunched, snuggling into the saddle, and was elastic, moving WITH him. Then we were able to march right up to the skinny and take it nicely.

What I learned today:
1. LESS HAND before the jumps. And keep my hands low before the jump, esp. drop downs and ditches, so that he can USE his body over the jump. I need to repeat this one about ten times! Half-halt with my seat, NOT my hands—and if I need to half-halt with my hands, then RELEASE after the half-halt. Half-halt. Push. Half-halt. Push.
2. Be definite in my aids. If I "say" something to my horse, he needs to know what I'm saying.
3. Conversely, if my horse "says" something to me, I darned well better be listening. If he throws a tantrum after a drop or a bank up to tell me that I was IN HIS FACE, I'd better listen and NOT do it next time.
4. I really do need to learn my right from my left. I'm honestly not sure how I'm going to do this, but if I ever want to move up, I think it's imperative.
5. Bigger jumps don't necessarily mean "faster". I need to keep my horse between my hand and leg….and release the hand!
6. Even if we end up losing momentum—breaking into a trot, etc.—we can STILL do jumps as long as I push with my legs and remain active. It's when I use my reins to bring him back then become a passenger that we have trouble.

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