I rode Bella again yesterday, the small chestnut mare I rode in my first lesson out here. No one else from my regular jumping class was there and the trainer is still out of town at shows, so I rode again with the assistant trainer and two young girls. The lesson turned out to be a good challenge. I brought my saddle along with me and rode in it for the first time in over a decade. It felt really, really good. I asked the trainer her opinion on whether it was too small for me, to which she answered, yes, it is. But not by too much. She said it’s noticeable but not glaring, that I could use a bit larger one but if it’s comfortable for me there’s no reason to run out and get another saddle. I’m going to keep riding in it for now because it is so comfortable.
The interesting thing I’ve noted about riding with this trainer is that she is very structured in her approach. Flatwork is not just a warm-up, it’s a training session that builds individual skills that will be used when jumping a course. In this lesson we really focused on turns and timing.
When warming up at the trot and at the canter, she had us do a similar drill to one she’s had me do before: alternating extending and shortening the horse’s stride. This time, instead of extending on the long side of the ring and shortening on the short side, she had us extend on the short side and rein it back in for the long side. This is a lot more difficult. This drill not only warms up the rider and the horse (all that extending takes a lot of leg and of course the horse is working hard to move that fast), but it’s also incredibly useful for jumping courses, especially lines. When you’re in between the jumps in a line you often need to either move up the horse to take away a stride or pull them back to add a stride, and this exercise builds those skills on the flat. It teaches you how to get that extension out of your horse by squeezing with your legs and how to get them to come back by sitting deeper in the saddle and using your back and hands. It also trains the horse to be responsive to those aids and flexible in changing her stride.
The next drills worked on turns. This trainer is big on circles, really emphasizing pushing the horse out with your inside leg while keeping her moving forward and on track with the outside leg. There’s a huge temptation to use your inside rein to get the bend; it turns the horse’s head and should be used subtly and indirectly to help create that silhouette. But when you’re thinking about jumping a course with some tight turns in it, you don’t just want to be wrenching your horse’s head towards a jump at the last minute. That will prevent you from coming in straight and will likely earn you at best a knocked-down rail and at worst a flat-out refusal. Instead, you want to be prepping your horse for the turn with your seat as early as possible–on the landing, if not in the air. To that end, we did two really useful exercises before jumping a course. The first was not dissimilar from one I’ve done with her before, doing a circle around different points of the ring with a focus on bending. But this time she upped the ante and took away the ability to use the inside rein at all; we had to take both reins in our outside hand and get the circle and bend entirely with our legs. This was hard. Imagine sitting on a bike and trying to make it go in a circle without touching the handlebars. And then imagine that the bike is 2,000 pounds and has a mind of its own. Pushing the horse out with your inside leg is so much work. Think of how much effort you have to put with your whole body into pushing a heavy piece of furniture; this is like that, but just with one leg.
After that, the trainer set up some poles on the ground. There were two in the middle of the ring at the longwise center line and then two perpendicular to that on a tight turn–one to the right and one to the left. It looked kind of like this crappy drawing:
We had to canter in over the two center poles and then make the tight right turn to canter the right pole, then come around and go through the center poles again to make the tight left turn to the left pole. The turns were very tight. The first time it took all of us by surprise and everyone did that last-minute jerk on the reins that made a very messy, bowed-out turn and did not get a straight approach. The trainer illustrated what needed to be done in a really helpful way though (to me at least, but not really to the two little girls): she asked if I’d ever driven a truck. I said I have, and so she likened turning the horse to turning a truck; you always have to go a little bit further out in turning the front end of it in order for there to be room for the hind end to get around the turn and come in straight. So the next time through, more prepared, I did much better; I set my horse up right after the center poles by switching my weight to the outside stirrup and pushing the horse over with the inside leg.
The course we did at the culmination of the lesson was set up to be all about turns. It started with a line on the long side, then went to a line across the diagonal, then a tight turn to a single jump on other diagonal and then around another tight turn to finish off over two poles. Like this:
It went pretty well. I was so focused on making my turns well that I got a little messed up about my spots. This was another situation where I needed to sit back and wait; Bella knew where she needed to take off and it was a stride closer than I expected her to. I have a tendency to sort of throw myself forward in the saddle; it’s almost like I’m trying to jump for both of us. It’s something I really have to work on, for two reasons. The first is that if I’m flinging myself forward and my horses refuses, it’s curtains for me. I’m going to go over her head. The second is that it’s totally counterproductive to my horse. When a horse jumps, the power all comes from the hind legs for the take-off, so she needs to somewhat rock back on her hind legs first. If the rider is ahead of the motion of the jump and her weight is forward over the horse’s neck, it makes that movement so much harder. Jumping position should happen over the jump, coming up to meet your horse’s neck and arched back, not before take-off.
I would have liked to keep perfecting the course longer, but we only had time to do it twice. It’s very useful to build up skills dong all of these flat exercises and I’m glad for the experience, but there are drawbacks, like not having a whole lot of time for actual jumping and also being pretty fatigued by the time we get to it. Hopefully next week I’ll get a chance to focus more on courses and take a break from all this intense flatwork.
To top off a good riding lesson and make the day extra horsey and wonderful, I also got to go watch some show jumping. My boyfriend and I went out to the barn in Burbank where they were having a competition and it was very nice. There weren’t many spectators, so we got to be right up close to the action. I don’t honestly think I’ve ever been this close to a horse jumping so high; the fences in the class we watched were 69″ (or 5′ 9″–three inches taller than me). I’ve seen it from far away in a grandstand and I’ve seen it on TV, but when you’re up close it really drives home the athleticism of these animals. You can feel the presence of such a huge body and the exertion of it leaping into the air carrying a person on its back. It’s pretty unreal. And exciting and beautiful, as well. Watching the riders take the course, I paid particular attention to their turns and found it to be very predictive. It was easy to see when someone was going to knock a rail down and almost all of the time it was because of a bad approach due to lack of a good turn. That’s way easier to see when you’re in the stands than it is when you’re down in the ring, especially since show jumpers don’t get a practice round. There’s no opportunity to see the course from horseback prior to entering for your round, there’s only a walk-through where riders and trainers apprehend the course on foot. If I ever get a chance to ride in one of these shows (and I want to, now maybe more than ever), I’m definitely going to keep that in mind on my walk-through and pay close attention to looking at where I’m going to make my turns.