Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Coming to the Aid(s)

I missed the first group-and-a-half this morning (training and prelim) because I had a lesson with the “she-Law”, Lesley Grant Law, who was recovering from a nasty accident, operating from a four wheel vehicle and crutches. I didn’t know much about her other than she is a formidable, talented competitor..but I was here to learn.

I started out the lesson feeling intimidated. Lesley didn’t say much at first, so I kept thinking “I must be really bad!”. Funny thing, though, because one of the first things she DID say to me was “you shouldn’t be so worried—I’ve seen a lot worse riders than you! You guys are really quite good!”. I guess I needed some encouragement, and that was just what I needed to hear. I told her I was having trouble with the “be straight, engage the core, but be soft” thing, and she talked about how the best riders NEVER look like they have a rod up their..behinds…, but instead look soft, straight, and supple. THAT’S what I want to look like!

But how?

“Think about your spine being straight,” Lesley said, “your shoulders down, supported ribcage, but the rest jelly.”

I’ve heard that before, but I guess in conjunction with the image of the spine and supported ribcage, I got a better picture for me….which, in turn, became a better feel. She encouraged me not to lean back (ha! I lean back because I used to lean too far forward!), and to make my elbows very fluid. She doesn’t like to see people rise too much at the trot (from their feet)…so I tried to get that feel.

She had me trot, then collect WITHOUT USING THE REINS (just tightening and slowing my posting), and then allowing him to extend. “He should WANT to extend!” Lesley commented. I needed to think “up” with my body as I collected. When I did it right, he did! It felt really good to have that power under me, that I didn’t have to work that hard to get. Key thing for me to remember: If I’m working too hard, it’s not good. Good stuff takes work, planning, but not “hard” work. Soft and subtle work. I recalled Rebecca’s “milking the cow” reference, and it made me “feel” what a soft squeeze of the rein felt like.

I had some trouble with the collected trot until she said that collection takes more leg. Duh. I was thinking “slow down” and I should be thinking “push up”. When I re-framed it like that, PC was great.

We did the same thing in the canter. We were working on grass in the field, so it was hard to “find” my 20 meter circle. But I did try what Rebecca said to so (look ½ way). I couldn’t tell if it worked on the grass, though!

I said I wanted some help with my sitting trot, too. I was told to post using my belly like a belly dancer—but then I was told DON’T break at the belly. I wasn’t sure what to do.

She had me sit for ½ circle then post for ½ circle, and she noticed that my legs were creeping up (uh, yeah, I still do that, Chris and Bobo and Whit….sorry). She tried to get me to relax them, and I really had a hard time. I took them out of the stirrups, but still gripped. Then I tried relaxing them in parts, and suddenly, my ankles were loose and my legs (w/ feet in the stirrups) were, too….but the difference I felt was this: before, I tried to relax my legs so that they’d bob up and down in the stirrups. But when I was really relaxed, they bobbed side to side, against the horse. I’m not sure if I’m describing that right, but I “felt” it.

I talked with Lesley about “feel”, and she said that the sports psychologist that worked w/ the Canadian team said that we do what we do because we love it…we feel good doing it. So what he suggested was that we try to capture the moment BEFORE we did something really well—before we got that “feel”. We capture the moment before, the one that precipitated the feel, because most athletes, when asked “what were you thinking when you did X”? will say: “nothing”. They were “in the moment”, in the zone. If we can remember what went on that got us there, that will help us get there again.

One of the auditors, Heidi Ziemer, a former professor at Rice University, was taking notes (really good ones!) during the clinic, so I asked if I could borrow hers. She graciously agreed, so what follows is some of my recollections/notes, and a lot of her information. Collaboration is a GOOD thing.

The “he-Law” started the stadium sessions out with a lot of flat work. In the walk and trot, he had riders do shoulder-in and haunches-in along ¼ of the arena. I was a little taken aback—we have practiced some, but not much, because we don’t need it. But Leslie insisted that horses need to learn to accept the leg and be soft in the bridle, and this type of work encourages that.

Even though we might have a tight rein, we need to have a relaxed arm. If I take nothing else from this clinic, the “supple arm” is one that I have SEEN and FELT make a difference.

The MOMENT we get on a horse, we should be thinking “position!” The rider needs to stay over her leg when doing these movements, staying WITH the horse. Behing the horse hollows the horse’s back; ahead puts it on the forehand and unbalanced. When the rider is in balance (weight in heel, lower leg at girth, tush middle of the saddle) then the horse is happy, because the rider isn’t nagging.

When I did this exercise, there was a jump in the middle of where we were supposed to be doing shoulder/haunches-in….and it messed me up. But I think that was part of his plan; I had to be able to think about what I was doing w/o being freaked out by outside influences.

Legs need to be on/relax/on/relax. Too much is nagging; continual pressure eventually means nothing.

Once they’d done the lateral movement, he had them try counter-canter. The rider needed to stay in position to help the horse stay in balance; that is, outside leg back became inside leg back, and inside leg at the girth became outside leg at the girth. The inside bend needs to stay the same, and become a counter-flex. If the horse breaks, simply stop and start again on the lead you were on. I got one circle of counter-canter to the left, but he broke every time I tried it to the right. More homework!

Leslie set up two low verticals parallel to each other on a 20 meter circle, and as the rider jumped one, he was to look at the other one. Each rider was to count strides to reinforce rhythm. By concentrating on the rhythm and looking at the other jump, the horse and rider were in MUCH better position; they stayed together!

The rhythm will get you there in stride, Leslie insisted: “Most people try to ‘send’ their horses with the body, instead of riding the rhythm.” Sounds a LOT like my hero, Jimmy Wofford.

Here’s a quote I like a lot: “You know how I learned most of my riding? WATCHING. Watch and learn. Don’t wait for someone to tell you.” Being a huge believer in the Greek arts of imitatio and mimesis, I add a hearty “Amen!”.

By counting strides at home, you become aware of how your horse goes, and you “know” his stride. It also releases tension; if you count calmly, your horse is likely to GO calmly. Counting strides also takes the “luck” out of it.

Leslie then set out two verticals in a related distance. He had riders do the line in six strides, then seven. “You need to control your horse’s stride,” Leslie noted “without being a dictator.” You set the strides up BEFORE the first fence by choosing the pace. Try for level strides, all the same length, for a balanced ride. Wait for the jump! Don’t be too eager to “get the jump done”!

A good rider can shorten and lengthen the horse’s stride.

Never take the long spot, Leslie warned. It encourages a flatter jump. If you can get your horse to the base, the horse will jump rounder and safer.

The riders finished with a grid of four bounces to a three stride vertical. THIS is where the rider’s balance was challenged! He had the more advanced riders practice an automatic release over these jumps. In the automatic release (or “following hand”), the rider follows the contact over the jump, with the arms operating independently of the seat. The crest release, invented by George Morris to help beginners with their balance over jumps, has become an end, rather than a means to an end, said Leslie. When the rider becomes balanced enough, she should begin practicing the automatic release to help her horse with his balance and to prepare earlier for the next jump.

Kelley and crew set up a fun “show” and dinner at Alligator Park just down the road. Fun stuff! We got to hold baby alligators, touch crocodiles and caymen and a GIANT Python, and even play with a hedgehog. Then we got to see “Big Al”, the largest alligator in TX, and the second largest (whose name I forgot) do a mating call/dance. Dinner was fun, too, because I got to pick the brains of the Laws. 

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