Saturday, August 15, 2009

It's All About the Canter!

It can be hot in TX, but we were lucky; a breeze wafted through the trees, and for at least part of the day, the clouds covered the sun. The groups today were going to work on stadium jumping.

In typical Nick Larkin fashion, each group began with "Righty-Oh. Tell me what you've done and where you're trying to go."

Nick watched the first group, the preliminary group, warm up, and while watching each rider, he makes the following observations:

"Keep his poll up--follow with your hands"
"Get your hands out of your lap"
"Don't let your horse sit on the outside rein; lengthen and shorten"
"The vertebra in your back still move, right? You're moving like a dead worm! You're still breathing, right?"
"Half-halt, then send him forward"

And so forth. Nick's good at honing in on what each rider is doing to hinder his/her horse's performance. He started everyone trotting over an X rail, then had them take a single rail.

"Don't land into your knee!" he told several participants. "Put your leg forward, and ride into it. Keep your stirrup leather perpendicular to the ground. Keep riding over the fence; don't shut down and expect your horse to do it!"

He noted that several people were riding with a flat--or "boring"-- canter. "Don't let your canter get boring!" That became a refrain for several riders. When their canter was too flat, he'd call out "BOAR-ing!" and the rider would work to make the canter more "bouncey". "Keep riding the hind end!" "More jazz!!"

Several riders had "too much fold" in their body/hips over the fence, given the size of the fences (and this would be a problem for ALL the riders in all the groups). "If you're folding too much, think drop fence: sit up, and put your legs slightly forward until you get to the fence. The riders who tried this really DID fold less. I need to try this, because I'm a huge folder!

After folks had warmed up over singles, he set out a course with a lot of turns, and had each rider do it. After they did, he would ask them "how did that go?" Most of the advanced riders were able to articulate what went wrong/right, but I noticed that the less practiced riders weren't often able to do so. I guess that's what miles will do for you: help to realize what you do well/poorly. First step is to recognize that you have a problem, right?

As he worked with each rider, he noted that often things get worse before they get better--so don't worry about exaggerating something and letting it be not quite right as you try to correct things.

A couple riders were "under-riding" their horses--the horses were "not on the aids". I got a tiny bit of what that felt like in my lesson with Weslee last week. Paddy was protesting how I was asking him to back up--but when Weslee did it, he was perfect. She explained that I wasn't keeping him on the aids. She merely collected her reins WITHOUT pulling, then closed her fingers, creating slightly more contact, while closing her legs. So I guess I was OVER riding before (just like when I kick rather than squeeze and he shuts down!). He likes to respond ON THE AIDS. Into the bridle. I need to learn that feel more.

Nick used the following metaphor: "When your car is coasting, it's harder to steer. Same with a horse not on the aids."

He told one of the riders "be careful of saying 'I trust you' to your horse. Yes, you need to trust them, but you need to ride them like they stop."

Several riders were told to release at the take off--and then Nick asked "just where is the take off spot?" Several riders tried to answer, but Nick finally told us that the take off spot is the stride BEFORE the jump. That's where we need to help the horse NOT by leaning forward, but by following with our hands, and later our shoulders.

One horse in particular was having trouble with a "boring" canter, and then after the course, he looked like he was going to sleep. Nick commented: "I see he's got his screen saver up."

"Don't saw on his mouth!" Nick yelled to one rider. "Use the half halt while you're pushing him. Take, take, give, while pushing."

Several of the Novice folks were approaching the fences too quickly, but without enough energy. Nick made the following comment: "Imagine you're sprinting to a vertical. What will you do right before the jump? That's right--you'll have to regroup a few steps before the fence if you're running flat out." His point was that horses who were flat/running were going to scramble before the fence. Horses who were coming to the fence with a springy, energized canter would be able to negotiate it from that canter.

Nick once again spent time talking about the three types of fences:

Vertical (has height, but no spread)
Oxer (has height and spread)
Ditch (has spread but no height)

The canter needs to be appropriate for the fence. Verticals need a very upright oval type canter, very "up" and collected. Oxers need a more round canter, with a bit more forward, but still up. Ditches need a more flat canter so horses can launch.

Some schooling tips: If a horse runs out to the right, make him turn around to the left and take it again. If a horse stops, go up to the fence and either make him take it from a standstill, or almost take it (lowering head prepping to jump). Make the punishment harder than just jumping--then jumping will be the easiest choice. But when making a correction, the rider needs to be convincing; not "it would be nice if you would jump" but "get over it NOW!"

Sometimes when a horse had a problem it was obviously the rider's fault. "But his job is to get you over, no matter what."

The outside rein is to control the pace; the inside rein softens/controls the bend. "What makes an aid an aid is that there's a give on it" Nick said. Dang, I need to remember that!

Other things to remember:

Keep elbows relaxed, soft
Keep shoulders back

Julia Denton, my ATC team leader, came to watch the last half of the clinic--she and her horse Winston will be doing their first Training Combined test tomorrow. Good luck to her!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Fall that Foreshadowing?

I enjoyed working with Nick Larkin so much this spring at Greenwood that, when I heard he was coming to Roadrunner Farm, I jumped (ha) at the chance to work with him again. Karen LeKashmand and Jan Micchie went the extra mile for me, since I had mentioned I might bring two horses, then realized I could only ride one well....they are the salt of the earth. Good folks.

Because it's still summer (though summer is waning, alas), I was able to leave Friday after several delays (re-packing the trailer after un-packing from the Greenwood schooling, making sure kids were ok for the weekend, etc.). Donna was kind enough to let me borrow her Stackhouse again, the only saddle I've ridden in that fits Paddy, and when I picked it up, I realized I was on the "high road" to Argyle...the one that goes through East J. Nowhere, with no cell service, and no one to help you if you have a flat at night (see KOC clinic blog!). But it was day time, I have new tires, and I was feeling lucky. So on I went, even indulging myself by stopping in Dickens, for fuel and the BEST BBQ in TX (thanks to Donna for the heads up on that one!).

I got to Roadrunner w/o trouble, other than driving through some pretty narrow almost city streets, and I was greeted by Jan and Karen, along with Kelli and Keith. And Kelli was sporting a LOVELY tummy, one that will come to fruition in December....Congratulations, Keith and Kelli!!!

Paddy settled in well, I was able to park my trailer by Jan's lovely house and hook up, and I even got to go our w/ Nick and Jan, Keith, Kelli, and Karen for dinner.

At dinner, while we talked about horses we loved, who were special, etc., someone mentioned horses with really short ears, and Nick talked about "the X factor" in TBs. According to Nick, TBs with big hearts (literally) like Secretariat, Man O' War, have that tendency from their X chromosome. Ear size is also determined by the X chromosome. So horses with smaller ears are more likely to have a big heart.

Sigh. Almost all of my horses have large ears.

When I got back to the trailer that evening, I made up some goals for this clinic:

1. Work on my partnership with Paddy--building trust on both sides
2. BE QUIET and effective
3. Be secure in my seat--that means heels DOWN, let ON
4. Think after the jump!

Here's to a great clinic!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Wow. I am now officially a Nick Larkin fan.

It will be hard for me to describe what this clinic was like—but it wasn’t like being in a clinic, really. It was like having a lesson with your coach, who knows you (almost too well). The man has an uncanny way of sizing up horse and rider, and then helping them do things that they had no idea they could do. All in all, what a HUGE confidence builder! Thanks to Christie Tull and Greenwood Farm for hosting this clinic.

One of the things I appreciate about this man is his attitude. He’s happy. And he loves what he does (working with horses…and, I suppose the riders, but I really believe it’s the horses he thinks about first). Even in the last ride of the day on Sunday, he was upbeat, and that attitude is contagious. I wrote a while back that one of the things I’ve learned as I’ve aged is that life is too short to spend any time at all on mean, energy sucking people (or mean horses!). Conversely, as I age, I think I’d like to spend time with people (and horses) who have a positive attitude. I was able to do that this weekend.

Because my competition horse, Paycheck, was diagnosed with EPM about three weeks ago, I took my “true love,” Dylan, the little horse who has the best attitude of any I’ve ever known. Dylan’s a bit out of shape, and he’s only done BN (and that was a year ago), but he’s a trooper. After only riding him a week, I took him to a Karen O’Connor clinic, and we learned a ton—we felt a bit overfaced, but Karen was a champ and helped us learn a lot. We’ve been working hard on what we learned the last three weeks, and by golly, we made progress, or we wouldn’t have been able to do what we did this past weekend.

The clinic started on Saturday morning, and it was COLD: 27 before wind chill, and we had a 20 mph wind blowing almost all day. The first group was Training/Prelim riders, and my, what beautiful horses! And the cold made this group of very fit horses FRISKY. Nick watched them warm up, then he brought them together to ask about specifics: their experience concerns, goals, etc. He repeated this process with each of the groups: The N/T, the BN/N, and the BN. I was in the BN/N group.

Each of the Saturday lessons began with trotting an X, then cantering the X, and then cantering and X and then a vertical. The fences started low for all groups, then the fences were raised to the appropriate level as the riders proved they were up to snuff. After working on simple lines, he had riders do a three fence, one-stride gymnastic to put into practice what they’d learned over the simpler lines. He used the stadium jumping as a warm up to cross country, but also as an opportunity to critique the rider’s form. Some of the critiques he made:

“Try not to wiggle; you need to anchor yourself in the saddle” (to a rider who was “doing a little dance” on the horse)
“Your horse is a rocket with a constant leg. Try using your leg in rhythm.
“Too much fold!” (“why DO we fold?” Nick asked. After several answers, he agreed: balance. Over fences, he explained, you’re only folding as much as the fence is high. So if you fold too much on a smaller fence, you’re throwing the horse off balance.)
“Move that back end before you get to the fence! If you crank on the front end, what happens? You lose the back end. So don’t crank w/o leg”

He said that the inside rein should feel like “a fish nibbling on your line”. The inside rein is for flexion only. We need to feel that “fish nibble” intermittently, NOT rhythmically. The outside rein is for balance and straightness, and it should be fairly constant “like a fish on drugs.”

He pointed out that some riders straighten at the knee over fences, but we should be folding from our hips, keeping our leg on the horse.

He asked riders when they should be releasing over a jump: the answer he was looking for was on stride out (with most horses). The horse needs to lower his head/neck to get over the jump, and if we don’t allow it, we’ll have a crappy jump. Similarly, we get the reins back one stride out, after horse has had a chance to re-balance.

Nick said he wasn’t a fan of folks who leaped/galloped through water. “Better be conservative and have a few time penalties”.

Because I was jumping ahead (sigh), he suggested I try to wait by sitting up. “You’ll get worse before you get better,” he said. “We always correct too much at first. But better to be left behind the shot forward!”

He asked the riders what their plan was three strides out. Interestingly, he noted it might be different for different horses—at least one horse needed more encouragement; some less so (they’d rocket if you put leg on before); some needed loose hips; and so forth. So he tried to get each rider to articulate a plan that would work for them. One horse, for instance, wanted to rush the fences. Nick said “He’s telling you ‘Shut up! You haven’t been a horse! Let me do it MY WAY!’” If the rider was consistent in “packaging” him before the fences, Nick asserted, the horse would be a bit upset at first, but then he would recognize that it was easier, he still had his power, and defer—which is exactly what happened. It was amazing to watch.

Nick was big on the rider keeping her feet forward and sitting up, with hips moving with the horse (“you need to be Black from the waist down! Black people have rhythm!”). I found out myself how much that worked. I tried letting Dylan have more “agency” before fences, and he actually refused a few XC fences (and knocked down a stadium oxer). “You need to package him more—he doesn’t want to do it on his own. He likes being in a partnership,” Nick said. Amazing how that worked. Kathleen Zins once commented that I had to hold Dylan’s hand over every fence. I took that to mean I had to be very encouraging. But as the fences get higher, Dylan wants me to take more responsibility in working with him, or at least more PHYSICAL responsibility; I have to actively help him to prepare in a way that’s best for the fence, particularly with my seat and hands. PC, on the other hand, is much more able to package himself, so I have a LOT less work to do. Fascinating how these different horses ride so differently—and I’m just starting to see that.

To one rider, Nick asked “Are you afraid you’ll mess him up?” The rider nodded. “You’re more likely to mess a horse up by NOT riding. Ride the horse like you expect him to go.” Nick said too many of us were simply sitting quietly—and the horse didn’t know what to do. “USE your aids strongly. If you don’t, often horses don’t know what you’re asking. Even if you use a strong aid and get the wrong reaction, you know that aid produces that response. Now you need to try something else. If you sit quiet, the horse doesn’t know what you want.” Yet he expected us to sit quietly over fences. So many things to remember!

“Horses will always solve their problems with speed,” Nick warned. That’s part of the problem we’re seeing at the upper levels. Riders need to learn how to package horses before fences in the right way for each fence. “If you help a horse understand he can still have that power he had with speed, but in a controlled way, he’ll still feel like a bad ass going to the fence.” I like that image.

Basically there are three types of fences, and the horse needs to be in a different shape for each one—the canter has to match the obstacle. There are

•Vertical fences, for which the horse has to be up and down, very bouncy;
•Ditches/spreads, for which the horse has to be “going” and long;
•Oxers, which are both, for which the horse needs to be bouncy and “going”

“Don’t worry about distance,” Nick said. “Worry about proper impulsion for the proper fence.” Later, he said that, of course we needed to learn distances, and that would come—but for now, we needed to make sure we had an engine first, one that was right for the fence.

One of the upper level horses kept running off when the rider locked her hips. While dear Dylan wouldn’t run off, I did notice that Dylan worked SOOOO much better to the fence when I kept my hips moving. VERY important lesson learned. When I’m scared, I stop moving. I had to FORCE myself to move, and it worked EVERY TIME.

For the difficult fences like the coffin complex, he broke down the parts: start w/ the ditch, then the ditch and the log out, and finally the whole thing. He had even the upper level folks start at the trot, and even us Novice riders did it successfully. He did the same thing for the water complex, starting everyone through the water, then through and out the N log then adding the N log before hand, and then moving the process to the training and even prelim obstacles (depending on the level of the group).

For a log that was in the shade, but coming in on a downhill approach, he suggested that we back the horses off, allowing them to see/size up the log. Keep it low key, but make sure you have momentum.

For banks up, he emphasized that the horses needed a vertical canter/trot—short and bouncy, because “it’s a vertical”. If there’s water before the bank up, then we need to adjust accordingly: “water provides a drag, and sometimes there are holes—you need to make sure you’ve got enough momentum to make it up”. He suggested we provide the proper impulsion, and then let the horse figure out the proper place to hop up. And we SHOULDN’T JUMP AHEAD! (can you tell I did?).

We did the drops, and we were told to fold from your hip as you go off, look up, keep our weight in our heels (and our feet forward in a defensive position) and to “slouch” on the landing so we don’t land hard on our horse’s back. The bigger the drop, the slower you go (down). “On the landing, put your leg on first, THEN gather the reins”.

When approaching a fence we’re not sure our horses will like (such as the Weldon’s Wall), we should take them past it sideways, and even show them that there’s a nice landing spot on the other side.

When correcting a horse who has refused, we should urge them to get right up to the jump—as though we were going to jump it from a standstill. Then turn the opposite way the horse ran out, and try it again. We need to soften/float reins three strides out, pushing into the impulsion we’ve established.

I honestly can’t believe we did all we did: Dylan and I did all the drop ups/down (even the “big league” ones), we did the training water complex, we did the training coffin complex, we did the “pimple” jump on top of the hill from both directions, and we did the training weldon’s wall, the thing that’s terrified me on the Greenwood course. And NONE OF IT seemed big/intimidating; most of it we broke down and/or did slowly at first. It brought to mind what David O’Connor said about his cows being able to jump 3 feet from a standstill; these horses had no trouble trotting any of the fences we did. And when we trotted, they didn’t seem so big. Knowing that Dylan and I have done these will go a long way towards building my confidence as I try to get really good at Novice and one day move to training, with my goal being a Training Three Day.

Some random fun Nick quotes:
She’s smokin’! (about a horse who was bright and ready to go)
Is there a roof on every jump? (to a young lady who ducked over each jump)
More jazz! (as riders approached the turn before the weldon’s wall)
Kick it! Yank it!
Zoom, zoom, collect, release!
This horse needs to shoot some ‘roids (about a very placid gelding)
Are you whispering something in his ear? (to a rider who was leaning over her horse)
The weldon’s wall and the trakehner both have a “free half halt” on the approach (it’s “an oxer with a fear factor”)
You need to get angry! Doesn’t anything make you angry? (to a rider whose horse had run out, and she was half-hearted in her correction)
Righty ho, let’s move on