This weekend was a small, informal-adjacent clinic at the barn with Christine Scarlett, former Area VI Young Riders coach, Advanced rider, and trainer of many years. Chris was my trainer’s coach when B was on Young Riders, and has been training locally for a long time, but she’s hard to find on the twinternet. B recommended her highly, and the price was right, so I signed up. And what a clinic it was.
To start with, the course was simple but highly technical. There were three lines set — oxers on the right, about 21 feet between each set, the line with the two diagonals in the middle, 21-21-33 feet from navy to pale blue, and then a single angled fence on the quarterline. I set the course with B the night before the clinic and it was hard to set! The angled fences make you go cross-eyed when you set them, and we kept second-guessing them. In the end, Chris ended up moving the fences around a little bit to sort the distances out for the horses, but I feel that we did a fairly good job.
As you can probably tell from the lines, the theme of the clinic was straightness, but Chris was interested in more than just riding the horses straight through the grid. She wanted riders keeping their horses straight through the turns in addition to the grid (more on this in a little bit), and precision with every step of the ride.
I got a bit of a head start on my riding by watching the first ride of the day, one student with her lovely thoroughbred gelding who is a little green but very game. This particular kid (I guess I’ll just call her “the kid!”) is one who I’ve had ride Murray for me when I’m out of town in the past, as she has a very forgiving seat and leg. She’s even taught me some pretty valuable lessons about riding my own horse, which is cool. Aaaaaaaaanyway, Chris got on the kid pretty quickly about her reins being too long — a crime for which I would also be committed — and really emphasized giving through elastic elbows instead of by letting the reins get long. Additionally Chris really enforced the “ride the canter” philosophy, and wanted people to “ignore” the fences and just ride the canter, letting the jumps come as they may.
We started our lesson trotting over the poles in the oxer line laid down into a row of trot poles. Each trot pole was actually a pyramid of three poles and Murray took one look at them coming down the line and was like “uh… NOPE.” In his defense, we were approaching a neon green pole and the sun had just come out after a morning of no sun? No defense. Just… dorkin’ out. Chris stopped me and explained the idea of the “prep zone” before a fence, and reminded me that my job was to let my horse know “hey dumbass*, look ahead that thing is coming and we’re doing it!”
* colorful language not necessarily verbatim
Please enjoy this video of our “straightness” through the line as a text breaker.
Our next few runs through the trot poles Chris had me keep posting no matter what and keep my leg on to manage the pace. I have a bad habit of going “WAAAH OKAY MURRAY FIX THIS SHIT NOW” and taking all my aids off (longstanding bad habit actually), which is, shockingly, not actually riding the gait. Next we warmed up over the angled fence on the quarterline, and took it straight — straight down the quarterline. Chris actually didn’t care what angle we took the fence at, as long as the horse’s head was in line with his shoulders were in line with his haunches. Taking a fence and landing crooked on the other side = not straight. Haunches flopping around up to a fence = not straight. Many Murray antics = not straight.
Sweneyway, my lesson buddy and I both demonstrated amazing examples of not riding the canter to the fence. I let Murray shrink his stride as we approached the fence and he jumped from basically atop the ground line (which was rolled to the base of the X so that’s not embarrassing or anything), and my lesson buddy’s horse leaped from a full stride out. So to really enforce the idea of the preparatory half halt Chris had me canter down to the angled X and then halt about 10 strides out. After a little halt I was to canter on and take the X.
“I have a question,” I piped up. “What if I don’t have a canter to halt transition? Or halt to canter?”
“Well,” responded Chris, “just give it a go and we’ll see what happens” As I cantered off I heard “I should be asking why you don’t have a halt transition.”
Buuuuurn, Nicole. Sssszzzzzzz.
So I did it. And we halted through the trot and cantered through the trot but it really got Murray listening to my half halts.
Chris set the center line to Xs where the centers all lined up, and our goal was to ride really straight through the line after taking the X on the quarterline. My first attempt through is linked above (instagram video) — observe my fantastic straightness through the grid. If you listen carefully, you can hear Chris saying “that was ridiculous” at the end. I agree. But she did commend me for sticking to the line despite my clearly fantastic setup, so there was that. Chris instructed me to ride just so: shorten my (damn) reins, keep the canter with my lower leg (don’t let Murray die out/shorten the stride in front of the fences), and make a straight turn my riding my outside aids. To ride the turn straight with the outside aids, Chris said to think about turning one’s back towards the inside of the turn (or turning your chest to the outside) and making the horse’s inside hind make the turn first. Very interesting, and resulted in a very straight approach after the turn.
Unfortunately, Murray had some uh… feelings about this strict riding. And Chris had some feelings about Murray’s feelings.
That awkward embarrassment over, I pulled Murray out of future bucking attempts and he soon cut that shit out. And we started to ride with precision and straightness to all the lines. About half way through the ride Chris adjusted my seat from sitting to a half seat again, as it would help me take the jumps in stride better, instead of going from “sitting” to “jump position” every time a jump came up. It did, of course.
We rode through the grid several more times, and Chris really encouraged me to stay straight but KICK Murray to make the striding in the grid. I struggled with this, as I don’t think of kicking through a grid as riding the canter, but turns out that taking my leg off and letting Murray shrink into a faster/shorter/shittier stride through the grid is the opposite of riding the canter. So there’s that.
I had a chat with Chris at the end of our lesson about my struggle with that feeling. A few times when Murray and I have felt really “on” and together, I can feel the energy and step are just right and we make strides easily and don’t struggle with the shrinking step before fences. But it’s a fine line from there to pushing Murray into fast/flat/strung out and that is where I get burned over fences — every time I’ve gone crashing into a fence was associated with some kind of fast/flat disaster.
Chris pointed out that a slower canter is almost always going to be a bigger canter, because you are covering more ground with each jump. I’m not sure that I always believe this, I’ve felt Murray do some pretty tiny, slow canter, but I understood the idea behind it. Murray, however, does not like to lengthen his hind legs in the canter (or trot), he likes to quicken them, shrinking the step. So Chris set me up with a little leg yield exercise to help him learn to lengthen his stride instead of getting stabby and short.
This was as really great clinic, because Chris called you on everything you were doing wrong. It wasn’t enough to get through the grid straight with flappy reins, she wanted short reins, leg on, and turns on the outside aids (in addition to standard equitation: heels down, straight back, not jumping ahead &c). I truly felt that Chris could do amazing things for my riding, and is just the person I would go to in order to really perfect my riding and hammer out some shit. None of my rides were perfect — in fact, there was no run through the grid where I was really satisfied with the way it played out, but I came away with a lot I know I can work on. Praise was a little sparse, but it felt pretty awesome when you got it!
Best go through — still not that great
In the end, one of my biggest takeaways was that precision is really a kinder, more sympathetic (and more effective) way to ride your horse. When I ride with long reins, not only do I make my messages unclear, but when I need to make a correction it comes later and is necessarily harsher than it would be if I maintained a steady contact. With a shorter rein and a leg that is active and on, I can let Murray know that I mean things right away, instead of having to fight about whether or not I really mean “go” when I put my leg on. Much to think upon, and much to improve within myself!