Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Straight and Tall (and Skinny!)

Today was what we all wait for, anticipate, and love: Cross Country!

If I haven’t said it before, let me say that Falconwood is a super spot. Easy to get to, a lovely grass arena, a sound sand dressage arena, nice stalls, etc., and four separate fields of XC jumps from BN to P, all made with real care and skill. WOW! Kelley and J have built a wonderful facility, and they are kind to share it with us.

Each group warmed up on the flat, and then Leslie had us start over an easy log, just to get our blood going/feel what we feel, critiquing our form and our pace. Then we got into galloping position, allowing our body to come back with our shoulders straight before the jumps. He referred a LOT to yesterday’s lesson: “Think about your horse’s stride! Count before the fence so you can get that feel again!”

It had rained the previous evening, and the morning grass was pretty damp—and more than one horse in the first Training group to go slipped. I was concerned; PC slipped a bit yesterday in SJ when it started to rain, and I didn’t want to stress him (plus every time he slips now I’m thinking EPM??). Perhaps it’s finally time to get studs!

One of the questions that both Training and Prelim groups did was an open ascending logs, a quick turn, and two-three strides to a solid ascending wall. Leslie stressed the importance of setting the horse up before the fence. You need to come at the first with some pace, but you can’t ride to the second jump before getting around the corner; he called it a “patience jump”.

Several riders didn’t approach the first obstacle with enough pace, but the horse was able to sort it out; other riders had pace, but if their horse backed off a wee bit before the jump, they tipped forward. When they fixed this and kept straight before the jump, horse and rider were in balance and looked lovely.

In competition, Leslie said, some horses will go MORE forward, and others will back off. Regardless of what happens with jump one, you quickly re-group, get the forward energy going again, and go on.

Next, riders had to put together water, tires, another ascending not-solid panel, and a corner. Leslie had us do the larger corner set with the widest part against a tree, because he thought it was easier. He cautioned that we needed to approach it with forward energy, and straight. If it’s not a perfect approach, the rider needs to be quiet, tall, and stable; if you tip before the fence, you’ll drop the horse’s front end, and your jump will be less than balanced.

I got to see that happen…and, when it was my turn, I got to FEEL it (in the previous group of fences). It’s SO important to watch others go, because then you have an image for what you felt. AND, in my case, I knew it could be corrected, so I DID correct it!

I have to say that, when it came to my turn, I was pretty nervous. After all, even though this was a “safe” corner, we’d never done one before! I needn’t have worried; PC rocked, mostly because I sat up and kept my leg on!

“When approaching a jump like this, where you need controlled pace, you need to move your ankles up and down, giving little spur taps, massaging your horse’s side—and yet you still need to keep him in your reins. That way, you’re telling him to go forward, but in a controlled manner: Here you go—wait—here you go—wait—here you go…..”

The riders moved to a pair of “related distance” coops. They were set a strong four strides apart, and Leslie told the riders he WANTED four—and if a rider got five strides, he made them come back and do it again. It was a great example of the rider knowing her horse’s pace, and being able to regulate it.

If we tip our bodies before the jump, Leslie reminded us, we’ll be out of balance…and we DON’T want to jump out of balance! We ride the rhythm, we ride the horse. He referred to the exercise from yesterday where riders had to look at the jump at the other end of a 20 meter circle while jumping the one in front of them. If we don’t look at the jump but instead ride the rhythm, we’re less likely to jump ahead, and more likely to let the jump come to us. As I watched the riders, I thought of the fence coming to them, but they were also waiting for the fence. Interesting to switch the “agency”!

We moved on to some pretty big trakehners, and several of the riders noted that they’d had trouble with them before. Leslie stated that these are the only fences he’ll come to “poll high and head out”. “You need more pace, more ‘forward’ here; the fence will back the horse off, and he’ll come back to you, so you have to be ready for that.”

As Nick Larkin said, this type of fence is its own half-halt! I love that what one clinician says is starting to resonate with what others have said (or things I’ve read). In rhetoric, when a text harkens to another, we call it “intertextuality”. Perhaps this is “interclinicality”….or “intertrainerality”!

He started the Training and Prelim groups out with the smaller N/T trakehner. Most of the horses didn’t have any trouble with it, so he moved most of them to the Prelim trakehner. It didn’t SEEM that much bigger, but it did have a bigger ditch underneath, and I guess the horses saw it right before/during take off….and that certainly backed a few off!

We had a good run at the smaller trakehner, so we tried it. I came in with a lot of pace, but PC backed off…and then jumped it VERY big. I was all over the place! The second time, he was super, and he was so excited he ran off. She-Law Lesley (who was a really great cheerleader, btw—thank you!) suggested I put my hands up when he pulls down, taking the bit. I’ll try that next time. My little arthritic hands are having trouble holding PC when he gets his blood up!

He encouraged a couple riders to give their horse a tap behind the saddle right at take off (which means the reins must be in one hand). If the horse is really backed off, he might need to do it before the base of the jump. It certainly worked for the riders who tried it!

A few of the horses were SO forward that he encouraged them to ride a bit more controlled; they weren’t going to be backed off by the fence, and they needed to be reminded that the rider would give them a safe pace to go at rather than winding the rubber band so tight it’s not good before a jump. When slowing them, Leslie intoned, you first use your body (slowing your body down, half halting, etc.), and THEN your hands. ALWAYS in that order.

Leslie had riders next go through a narrow water to a skinny. He encouraged them NOT to go too fast before the skinny or they’d “blow out” of it…and he conceded that the water would slow them down some. But it didn’t surprise me that the riders who had trouble initially were the ones who cantered in, tipped forward, then their unbalanced horse said “no way!”

The riders who trotted in all did fine. Leslie put together some make-shift wings (note to self: in a pinch flags can be wings!), and eventually, all the horses did the skinny...including dear old PC! A skinny AND a corner! Woo, hoo!

The T and P groups before ours got to finish on a pair of slightly off set corners, one which was bumped against a tree, and one which stood on its own. Once again, he encouraged riders to be looking at the second jump, allowing the first jump to fold their bodies, so they could be prepared for the second one only two strides out. “Stay out of the way of the horse, and he’ll jump!” Leslie encouraged. By knowing the length of your horse’s stride, Leslie taught, referring to the exercises from the previous day, a tricky combination like this one will be easier, because you’ll be able to come into it with the proper pace to create the proper stride.

We asked Leslie about the tension in the sport now in terms of how much the rider should “tell” the horse what to do, and how much the horse should be left alone to “sort things out” on his own. Leslie falls in the middle of these two poles. Early on, riders with little experience need the horse to do more work. The horse NEEDS to be able to sort things out, because the rider doesn’t have the experience to do it as well—and, in fact, a beginning rider might actually interfere with a horse by trying to direct it. Of course, this beginning rider is doing beginning jumps, so none of them will be too difficult to “sort out”.

However, as the rider progresses, she needs to be able to take on more responsibility—but that doesn’t mean it’s a dictatorship. The horse needs to be a part of the partnership for the partnership to work. If the horse blows through the bridle, then the partnership is lost. Similarly, if you are too controlling, the partnership ceases to work. Every horse is different, but every horse deserves a balanced, working partnership. Greg Best calls this “riding on the edge of control” (thanks to Heidi for that!).

It started to rain during the last group (mine, alas!), so not only was our session a bit short, but the planned “cowboy night” was a bust. However, Kelley and J called a local place, The Crawfish Hole, and we all went out there and had several pounds each of boiled “purged” crawfish. MMMMMM!

All in all, it was an amazing clinic (with some pretty impressive perqs, like working with TWO Olympians, sampling some excellent local cuisine, riding on the beach, and so forth). I’ll definitely be back again! Thanks to Kelley, J, and both Leslie and Lesley!

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