Affirmation: A Lesson Recap
Alternate Title: Straightness, Connection, and Control Freak Tendencies
I was really eager to get to a lesson after our less-than-ideal horse trial at the beginning of the month. My brain has been fighting against me, and after a well-timed vacation for both Dino and I, a lesson was definitely in order sooner rather than later.
As I was warming up in our lesson on Friday, my trainer commented that Dino looked like he had just come off a week's vacation. I laughed and agreed that he certainly felt like it, too! He was sluggish off my leg, but by no means throwing any tantrums. Dino was just not 100% enthused about going to work. Who can blame him?
Since I needed to focus more on jumping, flatwork was kept short and sweet. We focused on the most basic of basics: getting Dino to go forward off the leg, stretch over his topline, and seek contact so that I was able to connect his front end with his back end. After some hand gallops down the long side of the arena and tactful 20m circles, homeboy was moving in a forward and balanced fashion. I also learned a different way to soften when Dino began stretching into the contact - My trainer told me to close my hip angle just a little when I felt him stretch over his topline in the trot, which lightened my seat just enough to tell him "That's right!" without changing the balance or rhythm. Using this release, it was easy to keep Dino soft and flowing forward without feeling like he was going to dump on his forehand and fall apart on me.
We had a short chat about what had gone wrong in stadium, the mental hangups I was having, and the issues I felt were my biggest obstacles, and then got right to the jumping.
My trainer had us start over a low and wide oxer on a 20m circle - the fence was small to start, maybe only about 2'3". This exercise would set the tone for the rest of the lesson, building the foundation for the course we would jump later.
She told me to concentrate on (surprise!) the quality of the canter. Dino's at a point where he, for the most part, respects my leg aids and goes reliably forward towards the jumps. He's got a few different canters that I can work with now, and the quality of each jump depends on how well I can shape his body and balance in the canter.
Here's where things started to get tricky. I needed to maintain a forward but balanced canter - one with enough energy to get us over the fence, but with more "sit" to prevent Dino from getting strung out and on the forehand. In the last couple strides before the fence, my trainer also wanted me to soften my hand to allow him to use his neck to jump, but WITHOUT dropping the contact or opening my fingers.
Hello, automatic release. Long time no see!
It took me a little while to get myself coordinated, but eventually we had some really fantastic jumps over the oxer - which had grown several inches over the course of the exercise. I was able to get Dino right to the base of the fence for a good, close distance by virtue of collecting the canter with my seat - not riding backwards to the jump and pulling on my pony's face. What a concept! AND I softened my hands by dropping them down towards the withers, not dropping the contact, which translated into an automatic release once Dino took flight.
Having ridden that oxer like I was the Champion of Jumping Oxers On A Circle, my trainer laid out a simple course for us: a single vertical on the diagonal towards the short end of the arena, right turn down the quarterline over the oxer, a nice long "rollback" to jump a pile of cavaletti on the opposite quarterline, followed by a long sweeping righthand turn around the short end to a two-stride line on the diagonal. All of the jumps looked to be in the 2'6-2'9ish range - not big, but they required some attention for sure.
The butterflies that have taken up residence in my belly got quite active at this point, but I told them to simmer down and started the course.
The first vertical rode very nicely, as did the oxer and the pile o' cavaletti. I was doing a pretty OK job of balancing the canter to each fence without shutting down the impulsion, but as we came around the turn to the 2-stride, I felt Dino's hind end wiggle away and disconnect from his front end. I'm not sure it was even connected to his middle at that point.
Without a straight pony, the 2'9 vertical I was aimed at suddenly looked about 10 feet tall. I didn't see a distance. My canter was crappy. Instead of putting my leg on and working it out, I pulled my classic panic move and turned Dino away from the fence at the last second, giving him full permission to run out to the right.
I was frustrated with myself, but almost relieved that I had done a Panic Drive-By for my trainer to see. She was enormously helpful in helping me work through it for the remainder of the lesson!
Dino wasn't going to give me any freebies, and since I had opened that door to the right, he continued to run out to that side a few more times. Admittedly, I wasn't exactly insisting that he go straight, either.
I'm a total enabler sometimes.
My trainer put the first fence down to a crossrail, and had me jump the first one and then halt STRAIGHT in front of the second one, turning left instead of right to come back at the line. We did this several times until I was riding straight over the first fence and towards the second, and then I worked on cantering the second fence by itself. I had one or two drive-bys here, too, but what helped tremendously was getting a nice, collected, on-the-bit 'dressage canter' before heading towards the jump. Once Dino's front and hind ends were connected, the turn to the fence was SO much easier and I was able to keep him straight, and jump the dang jump!
We finished by stringing the line back together, both fences in a row, using a more compressed canter to get a compact 3 strides instead of 2. It wasn't pretty, and Dino wasn't 100% committed to it, but I stuck to my guns and told that pony he was jumping whether he wanted to or not, and we ended the lesson by successfully jumping the line.
The best part of the lesson, however, was the talk my trainer and I had after we were done riding. She affirmed that I am a good rider. I have tools in my toolbox. I am capable and educated. Dino is athletic and catty, and can get us out of an awkward distance, even if the fences are sizable. I have the ability to follow my pony's back-cracking efforts - "Any way you get to the jump, you're getting there together. You always go with him." I can't let my comfort with Dino's predictable bad habits prevent me from being the leader and telling him - with conviction - what we're going to do.
On the subject of my need to feel in control sometimes manifesting in shutting down the impulsion in the canter, my trainer suggested that I pour that energy into controlling our track and direction. If I can put Dino's body exactly where I want it on the way to the jumps, the canter will be there, and the distances will be just fine. I was able to feel so much control of the balance of the canter just by riding with my seat and keeping a solid contact in the reins, that I think I can learn to rely on that instead of attempting to pull and ride backwards to a closer distance.
Our homework? Short spurts of leg yield to encourage straightness and back-to-front connection, practice being exact in our path, and riding STRAIGHT and BALANCED to the jumps while keeping a soft connection with the bit. This means better distances, more brilliant jumps, an auto release, softer, balanced landings, and more rideability. Let's do this.