xc schooling, systematically

Speedy and I had a jam-packed end of March, as the Friday after we got back from Shawna Karrasch we loaded back up for a two-day cross country schooling on “the dry side” at Tulip Springs. I had a lot of farm work to catch up on, so TrJ rode Speedy during the week for me. He came back with a very good report card — his flat work is coming along, he’s getting stronger and more balanced, but TrJ would like to keep jumping him once a week because he’s just so fun.

Oh and also because he could use her help with staying soft to the fences, which I guess is fair. And in reality, it works pretty perfectly with my heinous spring farming schedule, and is exactly why I wanted to be in a program with trainer rides.

Speedy finally got a chance to groom his lesson buds, and did so with gusto throughout the weekend. He stopped looking quite so deranged and desperate after half an hour or so.

On Friday, TrJ had Speedy and I come out for a private lesson, and instructed me to give Speedy a good lunge before coming out to gauge his energy levels and get him to start listening and then bring the lunge line out in case we needed it. I used some of my Shawna strategies during my lunge, and while Speedy wasn’t totally attentive and responding to the game, he did settle in to it and looked for clicks after some gawking. Since he seemed reasonably settled, I wandered out to TrJ on course with the lunge line clipped to my belt loop.

TrJ has a pretty different cross country schooling style to the other (what, three or four total??) trainers I’ve schooled with. She had me trot Speedy around working on the same things we work on at home (bending, going forward and back, a little bit of lateral work) until he felt really, really rideable. If he broke into the canter, I was to bring him back to the trot and keep working at the trot. TrJ wanted me to be able to go forward and back within the trot without tension in his response. She even called me out at one point when I thought about maybe cantering sometime soon and Speedy stepped politely into the canter.

all the media I have from schooling is a vast collection of blurry video/screenshots, thanks to iphone and android not playing well together. i blame apple obvs. but it is a pretty cute blurry screenshot.

“Did you ask for that?” TrJ yelled at me.

I had to sheepishly admit that no, I had not, and she instructed me to return to the trot. TrJ also had me trot around and between all the different fences, letting Speedy see them from all angles. At one point we trotted alongside between two fences, one of which TrJ was sitting on, and Speedy stiffened his neck against me. TrJ asked me why he did that. I thought it was Speedy telling me he was uncomfortable/uncertain. In this case, I thought it was because he wasn’t sure what I was asking him to do, or what I might ask him to do. Was he going to have to jump that fence again in a minute? TrJ agreed that it had to do with Speedy’s discomfort and lack of understanding, so told me to revisit any fences he stiffened at like that until he could stay soft around them. It never took more than a second pass by a fence for Speedy to stay on task and with me.

After an eternity at the trot (okay probably like 15-18 minutes), TrJ said that Speedy looked like he was ready to canter, and I desperately was. So we repeated it all at the canter. One thing I didn’t do as much, and TrJ didn’t push me on it, was ask Speedy to go forward in the canter. I didn’t know how much zip I would get in the canter, and this horse has taught me more than any other that I absolutely am not stronger than a horse. So I wanted to keep us both in control, and if that meant not opening up his canter too much in an open space, that was just fine with me.

We did, eventually, jump. But we warmed up (at the trot and canter) for probably 25-35 minutes, way way longer than I’ve ever warmed up for XC before, especially just schooling. TrJ let me know that her plan was to take Speedy over all the various elements that Tulip had to offer and see what he remembers and what he needs to work on.

Speedy was exactly as brave and forward to the fences as I remembered, and didn’t take a second look at anything. But he did get tense, pull, and fling himself over the fences from the very beginning. Sometimes he over-jumped, sometimes he just surged to the fence, but almost all of those first jumps involved Speedy breaking tempo, ignoring my half halts, putting his nose up, and doing exactly what he wanted. TrJ had me keep circling back to the same log at the trot, focusing on keeping the tempo and keeping him on the bit as best I could, until Speedy started to jump softly, in tempo, lifting through his withers.

blurry smudge demonstrates signature Speedy stag sproink

Next, we strung a few fences together. And every time Speedy got tense and rushed to the fences I just came back to the trot as quickly as I could and circled back to the fence at the trot. I don’t remember it taking more than one circle at any fence in a string to get a softer jump out of Speedy.

I’ve never had a coach on cross country make such a point of getting a calm, quiet response to every fence. Usually over-jumping and pulling is laughed off as great enthusiasm, maybe the horse jumps the fence once more, and then everyone moves right along. TrJ has talked to me at length at home about how rideable she wants all her horses (Speedy included), and I’ve seen her dig into other students about getting their horse rideable and responding correctly. Having Speedy approach each fence steadily and quietly, and jump each fence softly and with correct form, is an important element of that rideability. Speedy’s signature stag-leap is not a good habit to be jumping in. It might be the response that he’s “most comfortable” with, but our goal is to reprogram that response into something more reasonable, more stick-able, and less prone to scare the shit out of Speedy (or me!) when we start jumping bigger fences.

And how do we reprogram that response? More reps of jumping fences correctly, instead of in bambi-mode.

one of my favourite things about overnights with horses is morning coffee + grazing time

TrJ also introduced us to some technical elements (banks, ditches, sunken road) really systematically, which really came as no surprise after the way she approached us jumping a simple log on the ground. We took extra time at the banks to make sure Speedy and I were both on the same page, since I told TrJ right up front that I’m terrible at down banks. TrJ had me grip with my lower calf — none of this lean-back nonsense that I’ve gotten from every other trainer ever — rather than my thighs, and Speedy helped me out by being the most reasonable and conservative down-bank-dropper ever. Love him.

Our private school was long, and we covered pretty much every jump I was comfortable with that was out there. I kept expecting TrJ to say “that was good, let’s end it there for him” because that often happens in our lessons after Speedy and I complete an exercise well. But we kept on trucking along, and Speedy got more and more rideable and more and more sensible throughout the day.

hopefully someday soon I’ll learn to ride my horse AND grab mane?

On Saturday we rode in a group, and Speedy came out both more relaxed and more amped. On Friday, he felt nervous-new-place-what’s-going-on rushy. On Saturday, he felt strong-happy-friends-are-here-I-love-this-game rushy. But, he was responding to my clicks and looking for treats way more on Saturday. At several points he wouldn’t graze, but he did turn to me for a carrot, so that was neat.

Again, we schooled very systematically. Speedy was much more reasonable on approach to the fences, and TrJ noted that his tendency to stiffen, pull, and stag leap came when I was softening too much on approach to the fence. (Which is exactly what I do at home, and exactly what I’ve been dinged for as a rider for a decade so…. maybe I’ll finally break that habit?) TrJ reminded me to keep riding Speedy to the base of each fence, and I worked on staying effective and supportive in that ride (rather than chasing/driving).

We cantered more fences on Saturday too! But the same rules applied. If Speedy hollowed, pulled, and ignored my half halt, I just had to circle him back around and come to the fence again. It’s a bit easier for me to manage him in the canter, because it’s a gait I’m more effective in. Also, I put my stirrups up a few holes and was actually making contact with the knee blocks on my saddle, which was astonishingly helpful. Weird, how equipment works best when you use it as intended.

Overall, a really good outing for both of us, though I probably got more out of it than Speedy did. Speedy is still as confident and fun on cross country as the horse who convinced me to buy him at the gel√§ndeplatz. He’s SO game (seriously, not an ounce of refusal or balk in him out there) and so enthusiastic. I want to hold on to that, even while we rebuild his habits to be a bit more reasonable. TrJ is so organized, I can actually see a path for us to get that rideability out there. Which on its own feels pretty amazing, after floundering around in my riding for the last few years.

We will definitely need a few more outings before I feel show-worthy, which might be hard to wrangle with the spring schedule, but we’ll get there!