One of the symptoms of being cooped up in the indoor is that I have a lot more time to think about my jumping. Doing courses outside, I get into a rhythm with the jumps. I have space to feel the movement of my horse before, between, and after the fences and because of that my body is more attuned to what it needs to do; I can rely on instinct to feel the spots. In the indoor, everything is so stop-and-go. There’s a lot more downtime between fences because we are usually only doing a single jump or a line. It requires a lot of planning, like deciding whether I prefer to negotiate a clusterfuck of ponies on the approach or on the landing. On the approach it can make me so disorganized, often putting us off-center on the first jump because the turn has to be cut short to dodge all the other horses. That makes the whole line out of whack. I find that dealing with them on my landing is preferable, although only the lesser of two evils. It means that the whole way down the line I’m thinking about where I’m going to take the barreling 1,500 lbs underneath me so that it doesn’t crash into or run over anyone.
The remedy for this, I’ve found, is to take a lot of time to get set up. To circle, to plan, to wait. And all that time, I’m thinking about what I’m going to do. How my left leg is going to push my horse over to the center of the jump. How I’m going to hold him to the base, wait to find the closer spot. These are important things to think about. But thinking about them too much in previous weeks has, I think, gotten in the way of me doing them. In today’s lesson I focused a lot more on my bodywork on the flat and because of that was able to get back to more instinctual jumping.
I rode Jasper, who I believe is my favorite horse in the barn. He’s not the best mover or the best jumper. He doesn’t have the finesse of Max or the verve of Summer. But something just between us just gels and I tend to have my best jumping lessons on him. He was fresh when I got on him, making the flatwork energetic and fun. I worked a lot on lengthening and shortening his stride, making a game of weaving in and out of the other horses to keep our forward momentum. I also tried out the technique I used last week with Max to get him off the forehand. It was not as drastic a result with Jasper, but I certainly felt his head come up and his weight shift backward. With this balance, I was able to bend him a lot better than usual as well. As Hannah described it, he “turns like a motorcycle”, just chopping corners left and right. But today he was really responsive to my leg and more flexible than usual.
The main thing I wanted to focus on today was quieting my upper body–particularly on my transitions and over the jumps. Two things helped me do that. The first is a concept that I just recently re-read in Centered Riding, where Swift describes growing your upper body out of the saddle like a tree. The image in the book shows that below the waist are the roots, while above are the trunk (your spine) and branches (your arms, your jaw, everything that hangs). She suggests trying to stretch yourself up in the saddle to illustrate that “growing” is different. When you stretch yourself up, your seat loses contact with the saddle. When “growing”, your body extends from your center upward as your legs reach down and around your horse. You have much more stable, and much less rigid, contact with the saddle and your horse. I’ve been practicing this growing with my upper body all week as I stand at my desk at work and as I walk around. I think what has contributed to being able to do that more easily is the second thing, which is that I’ve been swimming regularly. I finally have gotten on track with my workout schedule and have been swimming a few times now. I can already feel the difference it is making in my upper body, particularly in my chest and upper back. These are historically weak areas for me and have always been a problem spot in my riding position. But with this increased strength in my chest, the upper back is able to relax open, the shoulder blades moving down my back instead of my shoulders being forced open by my upper arms. The chest itself is more open as well. The area around my sternum pushes forward and upward, allowing room for my spine to extend naturally and my neck to lengthen, lifting my head. With everything open like that, there’s so much more space for my muscles to do what they need to do. Instead of scrunching down and rounding my lower back to firm my upper, it feels like my muscles are free to stretch out and support the framework of my bones. There is simultaneously much more stillness and much less tension in my whole upper body.
So these things helped a great deal, and I was able to do what I set out to do. With my transitions, I took some extra time to set my horse up and with my tall and quiet upper body, had so much of an easier time using my legs to push Jasper into the canter. He picked it up smoothly and then once we were there, I didn’t have to take several strides to pull myself together as I usually would do when rocking my upper body to generate momentum; we were already collected. And then when we were jumping, focusing on keeping my upper body still took my mind away from over-thinking my fences. I was much less hesitant than I have been in previous weeks. Jasper can always use some encouragement, even on an up day. We trotted into the cross-rail and cantered out over a low vertical. I know he can tend to hold back and go for the closer spot most of the time, but I wasn’t into “knowing” today. More connected than I have been in weeks, I could feel his rhythm, and without thought I closed my leg and went for it. He was right there with me and every time, we took off from a smooth, even, slightly big spot. And it felt great. The line felt like the exciting place it is, a place containing our inexorable and united movement toward the jump.