Let there be fun

Me on Eddie in the background, my student on Sammy in foreground. Picture taken last summer. Just for fun, note the bitless bridle on Sammy

Today I was setting fences for a student who was riding one of my horses, Sammy.  We’ve been working on strengthening her position and getting her riding fitness back up since having the summer off from riding.  She has good jumping basics and her fitness is on track so today it was back to jumping.  We started out with a cross rail which went beautifully.  I told her to keep cantering and while she went around the arena, I made it a small vertical.   She jumped that and I directed her to keep cantering.  I made it a 1’6″ vertical.  They jumped that beautifully.  I told her to keep cantering, she jumped the next change I made to the fence.  We kept at it until we were at a 2’9″ oxer, a pretty good effort for her level.  What struck me about it was how very easy jumping is when the basics are right and the rider has  confidence in herself, her trainer and the horse underneath her.  It was nearly as fun to watch as it apparently was to do, judging by the big old smile on both the horse and the rider’s face at the end of the lesson.

Speaking of getting the details right, and, as Nora Jones would say, “a little bit of nothin’ wrong”, here’s Peter Atkins and Henny running xc at Fair Hill last month.  Watch and smile.

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Best. 52.8 penalties. Ever

Sammy and I at a check on a hunt in TMH's beautiful Grand River fixture

Catalpa Corner Charity Horse Trial had a fairly tough training level xc course over the weekend.  I had entered my developing horse, Sammy, in his first horse trial there, and walking the course I felt like we probably were prepared, but that it would take some riding to get it done.  Sammy and I had done a lot of foxhunting together, which always makes me feel confident.  I really get to know horses when I foxhunt them for a season or two.  They say foxhunting is like war, but with only half the danger.  The experience of going through the excitement and the tedium of live foxhunting bonds us like men who spent time in foxholes together-we’d never ask the other to do anything we wouldn’t do for them and we’ve got each other’s backs.

We’d also taken care of the technical side of things, with dressage, xc and showjumping schooling of course.  We’d done a schooling horse trial at another park at training level and done very well.  So, I thought we were prepared and didn’t lose any sleep on Friday night.

Saturday morning’s dressage went fine and after a few hours’ break we were warming up for xc.  Sammy’s not much for show nerves, and galloping all over God’s creation on a hunt with 30 of his closest horse pals all winter makes the xc warmup chaos feel like old home week.  So, having warmed up, we trotted down to the start box.  Since this was only his second horse trial (the first being the schooling horse trial a few weeks before), he stood in the start box without much of a clue as to what was coming next.  So I enjoyed the quiet time, which I know won’t last.  When he has a few more horse trials under his belt, he will know exactly what a start box means and start revving up the engine there.  I enjoyed the peace while I had it.

3, 2, 1 go!  Have a good ride!   And off we went.  Sammy picked up a very nice hand gallop, taking in the scenery, and I got the feeling he was thinking there might be hounds to follow nearby.  When I mentioned to him that there was a nice log jump ahead, he switched his focus to it and, though we were 10 strides out, he threw all his legs forward for exactly one stride, (it would have gotten a nice reining score I think) then immediately continued cantering.  I heard a rapid conversation from his head, “What?  There’s no fenceline, what’s with the jump?  Oh, yep, I can do that.”  He went down and popped over the log pile.

On to fence two, a shiny maximum height pheasant feeder.  He cantered hesitantly down to it, felt extra wobbly at the second to last instant and exercised his right to wobble decisively left.  I could have stuffed him over it, I think, but I didn’t want him to have an awkward jump and scare himself.  I exercised my right to tap him on the butt once with the crop, gave him a second to reset his mind, re-presented to the fence and hopped right over the pheasant feeder on try 2.  Next, through the small creek (an easy deal for a foxhunter) and on to the barn jump.  He cantered on down to that and sailed it.  He’d seen this fence’s identical twin on the course 2 weeks ago, so he was good with that.  Canter up the hill and up the bank.  This was more like it for him.  Terrain issues are a foxhunter’s forte’.  He took that bank like a professional and now he was getting in a bit of a rhythm.

skinny chevron

Canter down the hill and up the next and on to the skinny chevron.  I had wondered how this one was going to go when I walked the course because some horses don’t think they will fit between trees like this.  I had one horse who actually jumped a 5′ showjumping standard in a clinic when the clinician set a skinny showjump.  The horse was sure he would not fit between them, but didn’t like to stop or runout, so, very logically, he jumped the standard.  His rider managed to stay in the tack by sheer benevolence of the Universe and the horse staying straight upon landing.  Had he done any minor squiggle in the first two strides after the fence, I’d have been a lawn dart.  Good man.  So I cantered down to the skinny chevron with a leg on, but wondering how this might go.  Sammy jumped it straight and true, no muss no fuss.  Yay Sammy, because the next fence was a bending line two stride log combination in the woods.    There was a lot of talk about the combination on course walks.  There was walking and rewalking the center distance, the inside distance, the outside distance.  As for me, I loved the combination, nice round logs, good footing, nice distance right down the middle, nice size.  And voi la!  Sammy agreed.  Smoked on over that combination.  Good man.

Trakehner. "Did you know there's a ditch under that?"

Next a let-up coop that rode easily and then down to the trakehner.  He’s done trakehners before, but still he was a little rattled early in the course and, though he was doing really well, trakehners are still funny things to horses.  He cantered down to it and at the last minute turned left exclaiming, “Camie, did you know there is a ditch under there?  I’ve got a solution for us.  Let’s go this way instead!  Look, no ditch!”  I think I actually giggled a little.  I know he can jump the height and I know he learns quickly, so I took a breath, gave him a pet, walked a few steps away, picked up a canter and asked him to have a try again.  He jumped it perfectly.

That was a turning point.  I think I heard an audible “click”.  He figured out that the easiest and most fun thing is to go over whatever is in front of him.  “Ohhhhhh.  I get the game.”  It was really cool.  In that instant, I knew the rest of the course was going to be pure fun.  He dropped into the water like a star.  Did the barrels in perfect stride, the combination felt like a gymnastic and we went down the down steps, both grinning like crazies. 

The steeplechase fence rode just like a real steeplechase fence, forward and confident.  The corner was easy and then on to the coffin complex.

Ok, this picture is from last year's prelim. Replace the coop with a table and put the c element to the left a bit and you have the training coffin 2010. There's a creek between the two jumps.

On the course walk, I was a little concerned about the coffin.  I jump judged it last year and I’d seen some inexperienced horses come up to the first element, start to jump, see the water on the other side, stop jumping and slither on their front legs back down the jump. Faced with that, a few riders stayed on and a few ejected.  No lasting harm to anyone.

So now I was cantering down to the same complex.  But I was not on the same horse I’d started the course with.  I was on One Who Got the Game.  Even cantering down to it, I knew it would go well.  He sailed over that table, took the creek in stride and actually locked on to the prelim C element.  I had to pull him off and send him to the training C, which he sailed easily.

Next a coop.  I giggled to myself coming down to it since a foxhunting friend of ours had remarked to herself about a coop on her course at a different horse trial.  “It’s just a coop.  We jump them all the time.  No problem.”  And promptly got eliminated at it on xc day.  So I rode the coop properly and with respect and it went well.

Birdhouse rolltop. Built by husband Jay and sponsored by Julie Kuhle as a memorial to her bird-watcher mother. Lovely.

The new bench was a lark and it was great fun to jump the birdhouse, which had spent a few weeks being born in our garage a few winters ago and was delivered to the park in our horse trailer.  And GREAT fun to jump.  Then a nice big table, and pet and praise the horse through the finish flags.

The 10th place ribbon is a very pretty cornflower blue.  And it was the Best.  52.8 penalty-ride.  Ever.

Jumping the oxer backwards

Sammy and Camie jumping a vertical the correct way... Barbara Hall Photo

The course at the schooling show called for jumping a single vertical, roll back left to another vertical, bending line to an oxer, then left to a vertical with a big puddle that strongly suggested it be jumped well left of center.  After that another  rollback left.  It was about 90 degrees with high humidity and I’d done a pretty good job of keeping myself and my horses hydrated and well rested.  I was pretty proud of myself for finally implementing the plan to keep us all doing well.  My dad, a dairyman in his youth, always said, “Take care of the stock before you take care of yourself.”  That’s a really good plan until the person taking care of the stock passes out from heat exhaustion and then there’s no one left to take care of the stock.  My Dad was great and I still love him silly, but I’ve lately subscribed to the flight attendant mantra:  put on your own gas mask first before assisting others.  So gatorade, water and snacks are always with me at horse shows and I take them in freely at the same time my horses are refreshing themselves.

So I can’t blame what happened at the schooling show on dehydration or heat exhaustion, but it makes for plausible shorthand if needed.  The real story is a little more involved and more fun.  We were doing the training level combined test. Dressage had gone well, with my up-and-comer, Sammy, coming within a point of my prelim horse, Eddie, who was doing the show mostly on a tune-up lark.  I was delighted with both of their tests.  On to showjumping.

Since it was a small schooling show, it was my choice which of the horses to ride first.  I decided to ride Sammy, since I would have a little more time to warm up the first horse I rode.  I was the only entrant at that height, 3’3″, and it turned out I was the last to go in the only ring that still had classes running in it.  The show staff were politely, but periodically, looking at their watches.  I had both horses tacked up and ready to go when they had the course set, and a friend was holding Eddie while I rode Sammy.  I entered the ring after a brief warmup and Sammy felt great.  He picked up a lovely balanced canter, the buzzer sounded and off we went over fence one.  Roll back to fence 2, bending line to the oxer, no sweat.  Turn left to the puddle fence, where the trouble began.  I hadn’t walked the course because 1) the footing at the show was generally great, despite the 2″ of rain that fell overnight; 2) I was confident in my horses at the height, and  3) I didn’t have opportunity to walk the course due to having ridden another dressage test on Eddie for practice at 2nd level just minutes before.   Those are my excuses and I’m sticking with them.

So now I was faced with jump 4 and the big puddle.  The obvious solution was to jump it left of center, from the beach, rather than the tidewater.  I asked Sammy for a few steps left in canter, a cross between half pass and please-get-left-quick-horsie.  He was fabulous about it, kept the rhythm, jumped neatly out of stride and we landed, yay, and having accomplished that, I immediately blanked regarding what the next fence might be.  The puddle had surprised me and I’d used all my available brain space to get the horse to a good spot to deal with it and I could not for the life of me think where to go next.

At one  point early in my riding career, faced with the same difficulty of having no living clue what the next fence was, I’d actually stopped the mare I was on to take a quick look around, figured it out, picked up a canter and finished the course.  I thought I was so clever to buy myself some time!  I quickly learned that stopping, even unrelated to a fence, was counted as a refusal in showjumping.  D’oh!  The agony!  An honest-to-the-TD, skidding, rail-splintering crash of a refusal is one thing, but being assessed the penalty for a refusal without a really good story is just not palatable.  So, rather than go wimpering down in a mewling penalty at this show, I figured I’d canter on and look about for a likely candidate that might suffice for jump 5.

Well, lookee here, straight ahead, nice square oxer and I’ve got a nice canter going.  What a bonus.  One stride later it dawns on me that there is no ground line on this side of it, and it isn’t square, it is slightly ascending, from the other side.  At moments like this I tend to simply keep doing what I’m doing and think at light speed.  So in the next stride, the thoughts that went through my head were: 1) I should pull him off, that is obviously not the right fence; and 2) but this is a really fab canter and the distance is perfect, it will sail; and 3) he’s a relatively green horse and this is a schooling show, so I don’t want to pull him off and give him a jar; and 4) he’s a relatively green horse so I should not ask him to jump a ground line-less descending oxer; and finally came to the conclusion 5) hell with it, Lucinda Green jumps ascending oxers backwards as a matter of course in her training and Sammy’s been jumping bigger than this without a groundline at home and what does he care if it is a descending oxer, he’ll land 8 feet on the other side anyway.

Sure enough, he cantered down to it and sailed it very nicely.  And I rode the next few strides waiting for the whistle signaling my off course-ness and at the exact instant it went off, I came to the brilliant realization that I should have turned left after fence four and rolled back left to fence five.  D’oh.  I asked for and received permission to continue, and finished the course just fine.  Sammy never knew he was a victim of pilot error.  There was no hint of it in the party I threw for him when he crossed through the finish flags.

So I’m thankful that the people who educated me about riding and showing pounded into my thick head the habit of always schooling at a more difficult level than I show.  We all make mistakes or get surprised by things that happen in competition, and it is nice to have a little more horse or a little more training in my horse than I need to respond intelligently to the questions that come up in a competition.  I don’t go off course often and I don’t intend to do it again for a while, but it sure was fun cantering down to that oxer knowing it would go well, knowing I’d be eliminated for doing it and knowing I didn’t have to pull my horse abruptly off the fence and confuse him, because it was going to go fine.  His experience at home had allowed me the option of pitching the class rather than his confidence.

So, yeah, I jumped the oxer backwards.  And it was fun.

Horses Understand Apologies

horse and riding landing from a jump while the rider smiles and waves

Camie and the wonderful Carolyn Mare. Photo courtesy Derith Vogt

A friend asked me to ride her wonderful mare on a cross country school this Mother’s Day.  The weather was glorious, calm winds and sunshine, with a delightful absence of bugs.  My friend tacked the mare, handed her to me, and got in her pickup truck to meet me at the start box.

I had about a half-mile hack between me and the start box, and during the first quarter mile walk warm up, I marveled at my friend’s trust in handing me this magnificent animal.  There were no special words of direction from my friend, just an affectionate pat to the mare and handing over the reins to me in complete trust.  I was humbled at that, and the mare, and amazed at my friend’s apparent inner calm while I rode off with her fabulous partner.

Then into trot on the hack to the start box and I got to thinking about my recent struggle to Push Back the Walls and I was extremely grateful for the time I spent contemplating larger jumps, since today would definitely include them with this mare who was schooling Prelim.  Then on to canter work and the pre-flight checking of the craft:  right turn? check; left turn? check; canter to trot?  Check;  trot to canter? Check;  rebalance canter?  Check;  Gallop and come back?  Check.  Satisfied with the communication system and quite warmed up, we were ready to do some jumping.

We started out over some smaller jumps and the mare was a rock star.  She was keen, smart and in the moment.  The rider was having an acclimation period to the mare’s particular scopey jumping style, however, and found a few new definitions of “in the back seat.”  After about three jumps, we were dialed in.  Then we went on to some training and prelim level jumps that went well.  Cross the stream with a little hesitation, and on to the coffin complex, piece of cake.  The mare was starting to get self-congratulatory—a spring in her step and a cheeky arch to her neck.  Lovely to have a fine fit mare who shares her joy in the green grass of spring.

Then we went on to the steeple chase jump, pure fun.  Then the step combination.  This is a two bank combination with one stride between them.  The first time through it went quite acceptably, but not smoothly.  I gave her a rub, told her what a good girl she was, did a large circle back and re-presented.  I cleverly chose to compress her too much, ride too far into the base, miss the distance, scramble up the bank, put in two strides on the first level, and asked her to stop so we could work it out, rather than go up the second.  Brave mare on a mission that she is, she jumped the second bank from a halt, whereupon I unintentionally hit her in the mouth.  Ugh.  I felt terrible.  We had missed the first distance because I over-rode and killed the engine and buried her, and the rest fell apart through entropy.  I mourned powerfully inwardly for a few seconds.  I then told her I was sorry in words and gestures.  I let her walk on a loose rein, while I pulled up the Lucinda Greene “How to ride a bank” recipe card in my brain rolodex, picked up a canter, re-presented and had an acceptable ride up the steps.

That mare never missed a beat the rest of the day.  She accepted my apology entirely.  She never questioned, she never held a grudge.  We dropped off banks into water and left a vapor-trail of pure yee-ha over the tiger trap.  And I was reminded of two lessons from her:  Most of riding happens between your ears–pull up the brain rolodex card for each jump before you jump it; and when you mess up, fess up, own it and carry on.  The best apology is doing better next time.   Huzzah Carolyn Mare.

Push Back the Walls

It is springtime and I am in a happy mood.  We had record-setting snowfall this winter, which made lots of people pretty cranky.  For me, winter was mostly amusing, because it came in with a fury and made it known it was here to stay, so I accepted it.  I actually was thankful it didn’t give us little peeks of spring only to dash our hopes against the dreaded frozen snowbank of despair.  I didn’t try to ride horses in 4-foot snowbanks with sharp winds biting our faces.  I gave in to the howling winds and undulating expanse of white in my outdoor riding arena from January to about mid-March by feeding extra hay and giving lots of kisses and cookies to plenty-warm muzzles.  I set to humming a happy tune while cleaning the closets in my house and dusting ceiling fans.  I went into total acceptance of the reality of what this winter was, and it made it a really lovely time for me.

But we all love spring when it comes (and spring with the spring cleaning done is a knockout combination.)  The flowers and seeds are planted, the birds are back and the air smells pungent and fresh.  The horses are out at grass when not working their one hour or so per day and their coats are getting slick as the last bastion of dead winter hair releases its grip.

And now I have to learn to ride again.  This is the only part of this spring that is seriously harshing my buzz.  We’ve all had those moments where we realize that what used to be easy for us is now daunting.  Whether that is riding outside of an arena, cantering or whatever your used-to-be-comfort zone encompassed, we all have experienced the moment when we realize our world of possibility has shrunk.  At that moment we have a choice: either live in the shrinking world, or push back the walls.

Last fall I was galloping and jumping somewhere around 3’6” and flirting occasionally with 4’.  And it was easy.  It was thrilling.  It was a gift from the Universe that I thoroughly enjoyed and was grateful for.  This spring feels like starting all over again, and it doesn’t help that I have a really Fascinating Pony (FP) in for jumping training.  We are up to 2 feet which looks giant to me right now from the vantage point of 12 hands.

Each day when I feed, I walk by my jumps, which had been set at 1’-2’ for FP training.  Over time that height had started to look normal to me.  The me of last fall would not have considered them even warm up fences.  One of my horses literally shies at fences set that low.  (This I found out right after informing an international  clinician, who had asked about my and my horse’s experience, that 4’ hunters were in our past.  I trotted away at his direction and had an inglorious stop and near unplanned dismount at a 1’ vertical.  Spectacular.)  But after this winter of not riding and the early spring of cavaletti and 1’ grids, 2’ was looking big to me.  The walls of possibility had slowly pushed near enough to me that I had to keep my elbows in to turn around.  So I made a plan to push back.

I started by changing the default setting on the jumps to 3’.  This required a lot of extra work because every time before I worked FP, I had to lower the jumps and afterwards, I had to raise them.  But something about walking past those jumps set at 3’, which looked a little big to me at first, stirred a memory from last summer of walking championship level eventing courses and at first saying “Oy chee mamma, that’s big.” And then walking them again  and maybe again, and finding them acceptable on further consideration.   The easiest part comes next: simply putting those jumps between the gunsights of my wonderful horse’s ears, and thoroughly enjoying being lifted effortlessly over, flying and grinning.

After a few days the 3’ fences in my arena were not big to me anymore and I jumped the made horses over them while they yawned and my heart raced.  It occurred to me when I untacked their unimpressed selves that humans think entirely too much.

So tonight when I feed I will set the jumps to 3’6” and look at them a day or two, get my mind around the height and then canter on down to them and jump them.  It won’t be easy at first, but easy will migrate home to roost like the predictable bird it is.  I will be back and I will feel better, and who knows, maybe I will crank them up more and look at them with feed buckets in my arms, and feel future easy flight.

This process of pushing back the walls is like wading into a cool spring-fed lake.  We walk out and the water gets deeper and colder and we wonder if we should continue or just go back to the warmth of the sandy beach.  When we choose to take the plunge and glide, swimming along in the balmy top few feet of the water, we remember that the acclimation process we had to go through to get there was simply the appropriate price of admission for the ride.