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