For my two schools in Virginia, Phillip was all about making JR stay in front of my leg and on the same page as me. JR is a bit of a monkey, and when he’s screwing around it’s so easy to allow him to get behind in his body, it feels like his shoulders are behind me! The result is that he always adds another stride to the jumps, gets hotter and hotter and he and I get caught in a vicious cycle that’s hard to ride. Phillip wanted me to make JR travel across the ground and be with me and in front of my leg, whether I was going slow or fast. We worked more on cross-country than show jumping because I feel that’s my weakest link and something most of us don’t practice enough. With Syd, both the Virginia schools with Phillip concentrated on making him stay really correct around his turns in show jumping so that his body stayed in line. But whether riding show jumping or cross-country, the principle is the same.
When Phillip saw JR and Syd in Aiken, he was really pleased with the progress I’d made with both horses. I was better at making sure I could dictate where their body should be and at controlling their turns. He also taught me on my new horse, Dyson, who is literally just getting his feet wet.
The next thing Phillip has given me to work on is my reaction when things aren’t going well. Rather than panicking and changing my ride, he told me to let things happen and trust the horse is going to sort it out. I’m really going to think about that the next couple months! Phillip reminded me that even at Kentucky, everything can be great 80 percent of the time, but the other 20 percent might not go as well so you have to keep a clear head and trust that your horse is smart. I think that we all know that but hearing him say it me, and then me saying it to my students is a good reminder for us all and one more reason that, as a professional, it’s good to take lessons.
After my lesson with Phillip in Aiken, Mark Phillips was in town to do a clinic and I decided to ride cross-country with him because he’d had some interesting comments about my rides on JR and Syd at Fair Hill last fall. Plus, he knows both horses quite well. Basically, Mark had thought I was trying too hard with my horses and making things too hard for them. I was bottling them up trying to come back to the fences, not going with the flow. The picture was that I was against my horses. So I thought would be interesting to just have Mark do a simple school with both horses and see what he thought.
I started with Syd and jumped maybe five to seven straightforward jumps. Mark thought everything looked good. We talked about how to meet the jumps out of stride, keeping the same canter or gallop and just changing the balance to the jump. He suggested I concentrate on staying with my horse’s gallop a bit more and trust that the jumps will work out as I balance them. This became even more important as we went on to more complicated exercises involving hills, turns and skinnies. Mark had me think about keeping my horse’s shoulders up so that I had more options, and riding the turns without getting against them. As I went with Syd, I tried to keep with him, keep his shoulders up and not tighten his canter as his balance came up, even in a coffin or water canter.
As I changed horses and got on JR, we talked about concentrating on the same theme: horse’s shoulders up, create the balance, stay with them going forward. But as we went on to more difficult exercises, Mark pointed out that my galloping position was affecting the way JR traveled and jumped. Syd is so big he doesn’t really notice if I change my balance—I could be standing on my head and he’d still jump! But I often feel big on JR; I’m not, but with him I was almost trying to push my butt out behind me to stay in balance, whereas Mark had me more upright, keeping my hip over my knee with my hands down on his neck until I needed to get closer to the saddle for whatever I was trying to accomplish—jump, water, skinny, up or down a hill. It was amazing how much happier it made JR! And, after a couple times practicing, how much easier it was for me. I had felt my balance wasn’t quite right on JR, but he can be fresh I’d learned to sit back and down on him rather than just allowing him to gallop freely and balanced toward my hand. Just that one change in my position and balance at the gallop make a big difference to my horse, and was my take-away for the day.
I’ve taken three lessons with Silva Martin down in Aiken, with a couple horses each time. She teaches the same basic theme as Phillip and Mark and she knows Syd and JR so well! Silva just really worked on me being able to feel like I could push their hind legs to their front legs, or past them, and still maintain the balance in their shoulders to the bit. She had me be really conscious, as I change speed in or between gaits, that they still push and yet wait for me at the same time. I needed to be able to either make a turn or make a circle, know exactly where their bodies were and feel like I could change their hips at any moment to have more engagement, whether I was going bigger or smaller. Silva had me really concentrate, when they were up on my inside leg, on thinking about where their hind legs were stepping, whether in a turn, circle or lateral work.
We also worked on putting my horse on a line, starting with correct positioning for whatever was to come next, and then performing the movement. For instance, for shoulder-in, I put my horse on the line I wanted and thought about riding both hind legs up to his outside shoulder. For my half-pass, I put my horse’s nose or shoulder onto the diagonal before I started to think about going sideways so that I could really control the direction, finishing the corner before beginning the movement rather than starting off sideways. Anyone who’s done this a long time as I have may feel as though they have it right but then we hear, “No, too sideways!” and realize we don’t.
Silva also had me do a lot of simple exercises, like trot to canter transitions, just to make sure I could make it look easy but at the same time, when I came back from canter to trot, still riding their hind legs forward and keeping them responsible for staying forward and carrying my weight. Simple but not easy.
It’s so nice when you feel like you have one common theme with your horses and your riding across all three phases. We want to disconnect our flat work from everything else because of the "weeee, we’re jumping!” factor. But the more you can control where your horse’s body is and affect their balance through your correct riding, the easier everything seems. Making your horse be a bit more true to your (hopefully invisible) aids, creating correct balance, working to produce a more adjustable horse able to hold a line, knowing where their feet and body are at all times—the basics. As Jimmy Wofford always says, keep it simple, stupid. And if you can, get someone to help you with that.