Saturday, April 11, 2009

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.”

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