Sunday, April 12, 2009

Day Two: Slip-Slidin' Away Cross Country

Did I mention that it thunderstormed ALL NIGHT Saturday night? And that the trailer rocked all night, and that Lucy (one of Jennifer’s cute dogs) paced and worried all night? Well, it did, she did, and we weren’t perhaps quite as rested as we might have been in other circumstances. But Jimmy Wofford does NOT accept whining/excuses, so on we went.

Neither Jennifer nor I had ever ridden cross country in the rain before…remember, we’re from Lubbock, where it’s sunny, arid, and flat. I had warmed up at Coconino in a light drizzle sheltered by the tall trees last fall, but the rain stopped and the sun came out before my ride.

The sun did nothing of the sort this Easter Sunday.

Nonetheless, I walked all over the XC course with Jennifer, and she with me. Given our 7.5 hour drive home, however, neither of us braved the final group, and I’m sad about that; I learn so much when watching other groups go.

The cross country lesson definitely built on the stadium jumping, and I was able to “see” the results given that we had more room to achieve—or muck up—the consistent pace before and after our fences.

He started us out by asking us to stay in galloping position at a trot down a hill, post at the foot, then canter up in galloping position. Once again, he emphasized that our stirrup leathers MUST be perpendicular to the ground, and that meant that if the ground went downhill, our stirrup leather needed to “follow” it to be perpendicular; same thing for going uphill.

Jim noted that he hated to see riders “post the canter”…and I’m afraid I’ve been doing that! I need to make sure that my “following” seat comes more from my legs and less from my waist. Something more to work on at home!

He started us out with a tiny log on the ground, trotting over it then turning around and cantering over it. Like the rails before, he wanted to make sure that we were balanced and consistent and NOT making the horse unbalanced by shifting our positions.

Of course, PC was a bit wonky about it all: cold, rain, mud the color of blood (which freaked us both out!), and he decided to “look” at the first three or four fences, including the tiny log. NOTE TO SELF: He’s going to do that. I need to recognize it and sit quietly, waiting for him to get over himself and get into the groove. If I flop and make a big deal about it, I’m simply feeding into his “wonkiness”. If I’m quiet, it will feed into making him quiet. If we pump with our elbows, upper body, the horse thinks we’re going to hit him in the mouth, and he’ll continue to be upset; if we’re quiet, the horse will settle.

He showed us a single bridge for galloping, and showed us how to wrap rubber reins around two of our fingers to keep them from slipping once our gloves have gotten totally soaked in the rain (so we could reign with our reins in the rain)…!

We soon put several fences together, and we practiced galloping position, sitting up/getting into three point, then jumping in rhythm. I was amazed at how smoothly horses jumped (even when they got close to the jump or took off long) when they were in rhythm! I know what PC and I have to do in the next couple horse trials. And yet again I’m saddened that we don’t have a hunt close by; I can see the benefit of doing that on a regular basis.

Going up and down hills, a lot of the riders (uh, including me) were in balance, but then we “let down” when we were done. We MUST find balance when we’re done! Hips over knees!

Riders also need to be careful that they don’t sit so tall—even back—that they don’t lean forward enough, then plop back too early (I think George Morris calls sitting down on the horse’s back before he lands the “cardinal sin” of riding). I fear I have been doing that in my attempt NOT to lean too far forward when jumping. I guess the latter is better than the former!

Jennifer needed to “let go” before and during the fence. She (and many others!) was concerned about the footing, and wanted to make sure they “controlled” the horse before the fence…but by doing that, the rhythm was lost, and the horse was MORE likely to slip/have a bad jump. He encouraged her to grab mane before the jump, then hold on until several strides out. I think it’s good for ALL of us do to that—after all, doesn’t William Fox-Pitt ride with a neck strap on some horses, even at the highest levels? I think it’s a great “recall” of how to balance WITH the horse, and I’m going to do it more. I’d started feeling proud of myself that I didn’t “need” to, but I think I’ve started to “separate” from my horse, and I want to be with him, to help him balance….and if grabbing mane helps, I’m THERE.

I think learning to event is like learning music, or even grammar: Some people do really well learning the mechanics: the notes, the parts of speech, and so forth. Others learn better by ear/immersion. Jimmy seems to teach the latter way—sort of a Suzuki method for eventing—but he continues to talk about the mechanics WHILE teaching us the “feel”. That way, when we’re ready, we can understand the mechanics, and “name” them—but only after we’ve felt them. When I learned to play piano, I wasn’t very good at the notes…but I could figure out the notes because I knew what the song was. So I’d memorize it by playing by ear first, then impress the instructor. That only worked, however, when I knew the song!

I do think that Jim’s approach won’t work for everyone, but it certainly resonates with me, in part because that’s how I learn. It’s like the theory/practice split as well; I “hear” theory, and it makes sense after I see how it works with practice—but at least initially, the practice comes first. Only after the practice is comfortable can I see the theory—and then, eventually, I can read the theory, contextualize it in my “feel” of practice, and apply it before I feel it. But I had to be comfortable in my practice first.

My History and Theory of College Composition students struggled with these concepts in their blogs, too, last fall. They couldn’t understand why we had to deal with all the theory and history as context for their teaching; they wanted to know what to do on Monday in their classes! I think I need to give them a better mix next time. For I really do believe that some of them need the comfort of the practice before they can understand theory. Feel before understanding.

One of the things I LOVE about this man (besides the fact that he can ride/write/teach) is that he reads, he remembers what he reads, and he can cite vital insights of others at opportune times. It's like clinic-ing with 20 people rather than just one. Talk about more bang for your buck!

Thanks again to David and Laura, Woodland Equestrian, and especially to James C. Wofford. I hope I have the opportunity to ride with you all again in the future.

Day Two Lecture: Positioning Ourselves for Success

The second 8:00 am lecture began much as the first, with Jimmy asking for questions (though he’d prompted at least one upper level rider to ask a particular question!). Jennifer asked about the “Light Three Point” seat.

So Jim asked us back: “What does the ‘3’ refer to? What are the three points?

Several guesses: “knees and seat”; “feet and seat”; and so on. Nada.

“Pubic bone and seat bones.” Jim informed us.

We need to be able to hold that position through balance only, without reins and stirrups—we need an independent seat. Ahh, I KNEW he’d come to that freakin’ ride w/o stirrups in this clinic!

Other people refer to this as a “half seat” in which the point of your shoulder is slightly in front of your hip.

“Why do we ride in this position?” Jimmy asked.

“Because DeNemethy said so.” He answered, laughing. But he added that we have more communication, more influence over the horse in this position.

As our stirrups lengthen, we have more weight in our seats, and a more upright posture. Jimmy quoted LaGoff saying that a dressage rider sits above his seat. A jockey, however, is way above the seat.

As our speed increases, our inclination forward increases as well. But at ALL TIMES the stirrup leather should be perpendicular to the ground.

So in stadium jumping, we’re in a light three point all the time.

In cross country, we’re in galloping position/two point until some point before the jump—say 8-10 strides out—at which time we “enter the horse’s back” (a Blythe Tait expression). We’re not looking for a change in speed, but a change in the shape of the horse before the fence.

“You need to start to feel poised at speed.” Jimmy noted. Too many people equate increasing speed with loss of balance—what we’re after is a consistent, balanced speed.

Jimmy warned us that there is a twenty year learning curve. Sigh. I wish I’d started all of this earlier!

I asked how often we should be jumping/doing gymnastics, and Jim said in the winter, 2-3 months before we start competing, we should do them twice a week, including curved gymnastics (which our group didn’t get to).

To feel that balance, we need to do exercises like lifting our legs away from the horse’s side while still maintaining our balance, and spending five minutes every day sitting “into” the saddle (as if you were on a lunge line).

He talked about getting a horse fit, and while all this information is in his book, he gave us a guideline: For Novice and Training level riders, we need:

5 “ (minutes) at 220 mpm (trotting) 3 times, with a 2” (minute) walk (Lt) between “sets”
4” @ 400 mpm x 3 w/ 2” Lt
Every five days

So we might do dressage twice a week, hacking once a week, jumping once a week, and these sets once a week.

For Prelim, it would be:

5” @ 220 x 3 W/ 2” Lt
6” @ 400 x 3 w/ 2” Lt

He quoted the calvalry:

Walk for muscle
Trot for balance
Gallop for wind

Now that we’re “fit”, it’s on to cross country!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Day One: Grid/Irons

Jim began each session by asking each rider for his/her name, and then ONE SENTENCE ONLY about our horses. I thought it interesting that he didn’t ask us about our goals, but only about what we’d done.

He began the BN and N groups both by talking about where our foot should be in the stirrup for Stadium Jumping: the ball of our foot needs to be on the tread of our stirrup, with our little toe on the outside branch. The knees should be about at a 90 degree angle, and we test this by making sure when our legs “dangle” our stirrup tread hits right at or slightly above our ankle bone.

The stirrup leather should always be perpendicular to the ground, no matter what position our horse is in. That means if we’re doing flat work, our leg is under us. If we’re jumping up, it’s going to be behind the girth (“forget George Morris!”). And so forth.

Think about it this way: If our horse was removed suddenly, our feet should be on the ground.

We DO need to grip with our knees, but the inside part of our knees. We also need to grip with our lower legs, about ½ way down the calf. DON’T grip with heels. DO THIS until it’s muscle memory.

The rider should look where the horse looks—between the horse’s ears. Look at the jump until it disappears, then look where you’ll be landing. Focus on something—a knot, a crack, a discoloration—on the rail, and it’ll help you concentrate.

When horses and riders make different mistakes, there’s a separation. When they make mistakes TOGETHER, there’s harmony, even if it’s not perfect. Jimmy gets angry when a rider says “well, we brought the rail down because my horse chipped.” Because usually the idiot on the horse’s back jumped ahead, CAUSING the chip.

Great quote: “If you make the same mistake as the horse, it’s not a mistake….it’s an adjustment.” Reminds me of the old software talk: “it’s not a bug, it’s a feature!”

The point being, if we stay WITH our horses in balance—not getting left, and not jumping ahead—then they will be better jumpers EVEN IF THE STRIDING ISN’T PERFECT. Wow.

There are five types of jumps:

I Vertical
II Parallel
iIi Pyramid (hogsback)
iII Staircase (triple bar)
\___/ Ditch/Spread

Where we look depends on the type of jump it is. For the vertical and parallel, we look at the first/top rail. For the hogsback, we look at the center (highest) rail. For the stairstep and the ditch, we look at the back rail/back of the ditch.

For those of us who are learning new things, it takes 10-15 THOUSAND repetitions to “get” something….and twice that many to UNLEARN a bad habit. Dang.

He began all the SJ sessions by walking a horse over two rails on the ground on a loose rein. Then the horses trotted over it. His goal was for riders and horses to stay in rhythm…and it was AMAZING how many RIDERS mucked up the rhythm by stopping/hesitating in their posting! He encouraged riders to let the horse lower his head/neck to “use” his body. Riders weren’t to change posting motion or position; they were to help the horse with his balance and rhythm.

He eventually created a very small one-stride bounce using the ground rails, less than 2 feet high, asking the riders to trot in, canter out.

Jim reinforced that the jump position was merely the “up” part of the posting trot. Several people were, as he said, “jumping a 3’6” fence over a 1’6” fence!” meaning, of course, that we were bending our bodies too much and placing our chins on our horse’s manes, thus throwing the horse off rhythm.

“Think about being taller in the air.”

When the horse lands, we “follow” with our elbows. I was reminded of Karen O’Connor’s adamant statement: “There are no crest releases in cross country!” For Jimmy, our balance needed to be fluid enough so that we could follow our horse’s motion, staying in balance with him.

Several riders had trouble with their horses speeding up. “Don’t chase your horse to the fence,” Jim warned. “Squeeze at the base of the jump.”

“You don’t have to MAKE this happen. You have to LET it happen.” The horse is responsible for take off, landing, and staying poised and balanced. WE need to stay in rhythm and stay “with” our horses, and then let the jump come to us.

Jim insisted on a “light three point” for all of stadium jumping. Two point is good for galloping, he maintained, but we have more “influence” in our light three point. Two point: only have legs and hand; Three point: have legs, hand, AND body/weight. The key for me is to remember that it’s a LIGHT three point; I still need to have weight in my stirrups, close with my knee/lower leg, and NOT “plop” down into the seat at ANY time.

When Paycheck wanted to play after the jump (I had obviously “let down”, telling him he didn’t have to listen anymore), Jim had me give him something to do—a 90 degree turn as though going to another fence. Amazing how giving him something to do/think about kept him under control!

Once we’d done several grids, he had riders do a figure 8 over a single vertical, asking the horse for the correct lead over the fence. As the horse takes off, the rider looks in the new direction, leads a bit with the rein in that direction, places the outside leg back, and very slightly leans into the landing shoulder. Amazing how we could SEE when riders were doing these things…and when they weren’t. When they did, their horses ALWAYS took the correct lead. Jimmy warned that only landing on one lead—a “favorite” lead—would break a horse down early. So we needed to practice lead changes over fences often.

Several people (uh, including me!) were put in “bike reins”—that is, we had to hold our reins like we were holding the handlebars of a bicycle. It felt TOTALLY weird—and that was the point. It made us aware of how we were using our reins.

Jim talked about the desire to “ride deep” into the jumps, “yet we don’t want to chip”. What’s the difference?

It’s all about power. A chip is a powerless jump where the horse “throws up” at the base of the jump, and they land slower than they took off. They’re likely to have rails, and what Jimmy calls a “hinky” jump.

Riding deep to the base of a jump means that the horse is in front of the rider’s leg, and the rhythm on take off and landing is going to be the same/similar. IF the rider is with the horse, it’s likely NOT to bring down rails.

Day One Lecture: At the Feet of the Master

Thank goodness I left in plenty of time to find the Woodlands Equestrian Center! Thankfully, Mapquest’s directions were fine…but I wasn’t expecting such a, uh, scenic backwoods drive (with a large trailer/truck). But, because it was light and because we drove slowly (as no stranger to dirt/gravel roads; I live on one!), we were able to find the place and settle in before dark.

I say “we” because while Jennifer taught Friday morning, she was still able to travel the last third of the drive. How? Joyce and Miles flew her, and we texted when they took off, deciding that Elk City would be the closest airport to meet. I drove the couple miles out of the way, picked up Jennifer and her dogs, and away we went. With the extra time to find the airport, it took me about 8 hours from home to my designated spot. Eight hours is nothing when it comes to meeting and riding with one’s hero, though!

We gathered in David and Laura’s house (the owners of this fine facility) at 8 am Saturday for a scheduled “lecture” with Jim Wofford. The man entered the kitchen promptly at 7:55 with a cup of tea in hand, and he quickly greeted us all, asking for questions. Most of the people gathered there had been to his clinic before, and the room became frighteningly quiet. So…of course I had to ask a question!

I asked about the idea of a “fifth leg”: should the horse figure it out? Or should we “teach” him?

“Our job,” Jim began, “is to find an appropriate rhythm and to retain it. It’s the horse’s job to figure out where to take off, how to navigate—but we need to “hear” the rhythm, and “feel” the balance.”

He then illustrated by asking us to imagine a cantering horse: ta-da-dump, ta-da-dump, ta-da-dump, jump, ta-da-dump….was that a good jump? Then he gave us alternatives: ta-da-dump, ta-da-dump, tadadmpJUMP, taaaa-da-dump (etc.). His point was simply that when a horse is in rhythm, he’s more likely to take a jump smoothly.

“What’s a perfect jump?” Jim asked. We all fidgeted; no one wanted to stick our necks out! A few people offered ideas: “good bascule” “scope” “even” and so forth. “I don’t know what it is either!” Jim said. His point was this: It’s going to depend on the balance of the horse, they terrain, the jump, the rider, etc. So a good jump is one that leaves the rails up, that has the same rhythm before and after the jump, that the horse and rider are balanced over, and one that has an appropriate pace/balance.

“Let me digress for a moment” Jim would say. He asked in prelim dressage, what’s the difference between a working canter and a regular canter? The answer? Only lengthening of the stride; the rhythm MUST stay the same. The horse must stay in the same balance. Same thing before a jump: the horse must stay in the same balance, the same rhythm, even if he chips….because then he will land in balance/rhythm and be able to go on more effectively.

He asked if anyone had ever seen a horse free jump. Most of us nodded our heads “yes”, and he asked us to describe it. The horse USES his head and neck; he’s not afraid of his mouth. We need to try to achieve that type of balance…and we cannot do it by trying to control our horse’s heads and necks via their mouths.

“What do we mean by ‘classical’ riding?” Jim asked us. After a few feeble attempts, he told us his definition: Don’t ask horses to do anything that they don’t do in nature, that’s “part of the horse’s natural range of motion.” Our job is to try to duplicate what occurs in nature. We shouldn’t have to teach a horse to do that; instead, we teach him that we will allow him to do it. He quoted extensively from the book Riding Logic by Wilhelm Museler (“Lucinda Williams’ favorite book”).

We let the horse find his stride; after all, he’s got to pack his weight AND ours over these fences. That doesn’t mean, however, that we don’t walk the course! We need to help the horse by giving him the best rhythm and balance for the fence. The horse eventually learns to take advice because you’ve helped him. As jumps get bigger—say, Prelim on up—horses need more “timing”, and more help with that timing. But THEY need to be figuring things out at the lower levels, with help from you.

“But how do you learn to help them?” I asked.

“You learn by jumping.” Jim said simply.

Before we went out to prepare for the day’s clinic, he left us with one last bit of advice:

“Don’t listen to what I say” Jim said. “Watch what horses do.”

Thursday, April 9, 2009


I can't believe that in just a few short hours I'm going to meet/clinic with my all-time hero: James C. Wofford.

I'm sure everyone in eventing knows this icon--he's DA MAN. I've read his blogs (love those), read his articles, read his books....even watched his dvd. From my somewhat novice perspective, he seems like he has...well, wisdom, plain and simple. Good basics, astute observations, uncanny ability to synthesize what's going on in the context of these basics/astute observations....AND, to top it all off, he's a good writer. Talk about a great package. I'm reminded of Charlotte's web, and Wilbur's reminiscence of Charlotte: "It's not often you find a good friend who's also a good writer. Charlotte was both."

Perhaps after this clinic I can say that I know Jimmy Wofford, who's a good coach AND a good writer...just like Charlotte.


I'll be riding Paycheck, my competition horse who's recovering from EPM. Jennifer will be riding Dylan, who's been the "go to" guy while PC was sick. I hope they both are on their best behavior!

Keep your fingers crossed that we have good weather. Right now it's supposed to storm Saturday night and Sunday. Gulp.