hawley clinic: rhythm and pace

The Hawley clinic was, as in past years, super fantastique.  I was a little apprehensive getting started because of Murray’s Friday antics, but I shouldn’t have worried too much.  Even if Murray didn’t settle (he did), Hawley had a sunny attitude about his silliness and laughed both with us and at us.  While I appreciate the seriousness and advice of people like Yves and Chris Scarlett, I also really valued Hawley’s advice on how to get the best out of Murray in a show environment and keep riding through the antics to keep making it about learning.


We started, of course, with a circle of death.  Actually, we started by telling Hawley about our ponies.  I was in a group with two friends, one riding her young gelding, and the other catch riding.  I told Hawley that Murray and I have been fighting about basics lately since I’m bad at being strict about them, and therefore we slip easily.  Great! she said. Today will be all about the basics!


The circle of death was a tough one.  Much more of an ovoid-of-death, we were literally limited in our space by a fence that Hawley was sitting on.  No worries, girls, just don’t smash into the Olympian. No problem.  Murray couldn’t get it together to start with, flipping his tail and cross cantering and counter cantering and doing anything but cantering right, really.  Hawley was insistent that we stick to the track — horses learn by repetition, so you must keep repeating the correct exercises so they understand.  But I had to get off the track one time to get Murray moving forward and cantering properly.  Left was much better.

Next was an exercise of three step poles (9 ft apart) to a small vertical, three strides away, then straight down to the end of the arena before a left or right turn (alternating).  Hawley asked us what 9 ft step poles meant.  I said that it would mean pushing Murray forward, but the other girls were pretty confident they could just canter through.  Hawley reminded us: “And what is a horse’s stride length? So this will be a little bouncy for them.”  This was where Murray’s sassitude really came out.  He hadn’t quite worked out all the kinks in his back, evidently, and bucked all over the straight aways and tried to use any distracted to bubble out to the right.

hawley01working out the kinks

I kicked him pretty hard in the side to push him off of my right leg at one point.  Instead, Hawley suggested that I get off his back and focus on pushing him forward, and not pull on his face.  “So he’s feeling good,” she said. “You can still do the exercise. And then we keep doing it until that tail settles down and he can get through it steady and with rhythm.”  Steady + rhythm were very much the theme of the day.

On our third go through the poles-jump-jump exercise Murray just couldn’t contain himself and tried to buck right in front of the oxer.  The jump snuck up on him and he had to pop his feet down for a second to get us over, but he did it.  I’m so glad he knows how to get out of his own way.  I just wish he would use those powers for good a little bit more?

We built up the course to include a couple of sharply angled lines, between the center fence and the two fences of the circle of death (see above).  The angle was made challenging by the arena wall right there on the outside of the fences, and the fact that it was a mere two strides (four for extra special ponies named Murray) between the two fences.

Hawley reminded us to sit tall but not too deep on the approach to the angle, fix our sights on a point on the wall, and leg up to the fences.  She demonstrated how even a few inches of differences in shoulder position could affect the ride (though also claimed that you could fake it through Intermediate, so YAY for us leaners?), and told us to keep sitting really, really tall.  To a rider in an earlier group I heard her describe it as keeping more air between your chest and the horse’s neck, which is a great image.

Murray rode through the angle well the first time, but in the other direction saw the ground poles on the other side of the fence and objected mightily.  Hawley had me hold the line and then kick forward over the fence.  That is one amazing thing about little fences — you can walk right over them!  Murray didn’t love it, but he’s pretty familiar with the “go over this from a stand still” routine so he went.

 hawley04 hawley05
woooahhhh! oh fine then

As we moved through the courses Hawley started pushing us to get the correct striding between fences. She wanted five from vertical to oxer and down to the next vertical, and seven on the opposite line.  After a gentle tap with the crop to remind him that it was there, Murray was very responsive to my leg and moved up to the fences.  Murray got a little wiggly to one oxer and the barrels the first time around, but I kept my leg on and he went.  Hawley encouraged me to push him forward to them more.  The first time I tried this I still instinctively held for the shorter stride, but the second time I really pushed Murray into a forward but not rushed canter and the lines worked out perfectly.

All in all, another great day, and I’m very glad the lessons weren’t cancelled for rain.  Murray stepped up and worked hard after a bit of a doofy start, and I felt like I rode better and better through each course.  Though the fences were small, I think I would have felt confident moving them up, even a foot, with how well Murray was listening.

I’m realizing now that all the media I’m posting is us being at least a little dweeby, but it’s all about transparency, right?  I swear some of our efforts were solid.

Hawley Bennet clinic 2-25 from Nicole Sharpe on Vimeo.


shut up and take my money

I actually did not look at my videos from the morning dressage lesson with JM until after my jump lesson in the afternoon, which was a funny choice.  I was worried that with all the ground breaking HARD work I was asking Murray to do and the fussy slightly shitty place he had felt like at times in our lesson that our video would be less than flattering and mostly slightly disappointing.  I was clearly wrong, but didn’t know it yet.  So when my jump lesson with JM started I wasn’t quite at “shut up and take my money”, but I certainly was afterward.

JM asked what he needed to know about this horse for jumping, and I simply said “We like to add.”  JM responded that he also likes to add, and is fine with it as long as you ride forward to the add.  Sounded like something I could do.

spankMurray did get in a teeny bit of trouble for refusing this coop, and responded like…. some kind of downhill goat or something

We started with the classic trot-pole-to-crossrail and after a few successful trips over that JM raised the X to a vertical.  As we were trotting into the vertical I heard JM say “steady, steady”.  As I could feel Murray plowing down on the jump I slowed my post a little to encourage Murray’s pace to stay consistent.  Unfortunately this had the opposite effect of slowing him TOO much, and we had an ugly fence.  The next time through Murray was picking up the pace a bit again and so I tried to just half halt through my core.  This resulted in an EVEN UGLIER jump.  JM stopped me, told me that my horse is a lazy SOB so I have to work to keep him forward instead of holding him back — and what do you know, Murray regulated his own pace.  Like he does.

We moved on to jumping additional fences, and Murray refused a green coop we have jumped a billion times. He was looking at a scary piece of filler off to the side of it and I didn’t ride properly — still hesitantly the line between over-doing it with the “YOU MUST GO” and underriding.  So he got one smack, and I rode properly to the fence the next time, and it was a non-issue.

We progressed through the courses relatively quickly.  After watching a few consecutive fences JM told me that I had the winning combination of a horse who was willing to sit himself up on his hind end, so my job was to keep the energy and push him to the good spot instead of letting him add until we are beneath a fence.  This is not particularly revolutionary or different from what other clinicians have told me — but that doesn’t mean we didn’t have a great ride!


We jumped around BN height with a few slightly bigger fences thrown in there (I told JM I wanted to start out the new year at novice, but obviously would re-assess in the new year) and there was nary a stop or shitty fence to be seen.  Despite being tired and having a hard butt workout that morning Murray was responsive and rateable — I could get him forward when I needed, and he came back equally well.  He took the long (for him) spots when asked, and didn’t fight me too much about getting on top of fences before takeoff.

I did feel a little looser in the tack than I would like, which I chalk up to being out of jumping shape, and I was ducking a little aggressively over the fences.  But I imagine I will get much stronger in the coming weeks as Murray and I get back into it.

The best part of all this is that I felt completely and absolutely prepared for the level — which is a first for me.  I don’t clinic much, but I feel like whenever I do clinic I say “I’m competing at BN” and there are still nineteen things that clinician gives  me to work on before I can be successful at that level.  I mean, yay for getting what I need out of clinicians, but it always leaves me feeling a little bit like “will we EVER get there?!”


And you may have noticed that there was nary a mention of Murray theatrics in these recaps.  Because there were none.  Trainer didn’t even have to prep JM with the Notorious OTTB backstory — we just stepped into a clinic and rode successfully like Southern motherfucking democratic republicans reasonable adult horses CAN DO.


I mean, we asked Murray to do a hard thing in dressage (use your hind end, fool!) and he neither lost his shit about it nor abandoned everything else he’d ever learned about dressage and turned into a giraffe.  That’s a huge win right there.  Then I took my tired horse and jumped him around at a good clip asking him to take longer spots than he wants to and not shrink his stride to the fences quite so much, and he didn’t get upset about that either!

This kid is growing up.

your belt buckle is drunk

This past Sunday my trainer hosted a clinic with John Michael Durr, which despite an extreme lack of money right now I chose to participate in.  I have known of JM for a few years, but other than watching his go at Rolex in 2014 had never seen him ride.  A few weeks ago he came and gave lessons to a few people from our barn who all raved about him, and so we clinic(k)ed.  And it was great.

dress-4Spoiler alert: sometimes we look like we know what we’re doing

We did a double day, with dressage in the morning and jumping in the afternoon, since we didn’t quite have enough people to justify two days.  Murray has been so great in dressage lately, as I have described ad nauseum, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect during our lesson.  Obviously we had lots to work on, but what part of the “lots” would get targeted?  The basics, of course.  It’s always the basics with us.

I thought very carefully about what I would say to JM when asked to introduce ourselves, and ended up telling him that we were coming back from 6 months of 1-2 day a week rides and Murray had just now started to become steady and confident, whereas before he was tense and stressed out.  I didn’t want to unload on JM three years of woes and training debacles, but I did want him to know we were in a place that was new for both of us.  Since Murray came out looking and riding like a drunk monkey, JM immediately honed in on our lack of power and behind-the-leg-ness.

dress-1hrrrr new clinician’s here and I’m drunk!

Instead of riding him like he is four different pieces of horse that I’m trying to rally together all on slightly different schedules (fix the haunches, catch the shoulder, neck what are you doing! ribcage, get your shit together, etc.), JM said that we would be riding him very, very, very straight (which is also what Megan said, and I promise I really have been trying to do that!!).  This, in turn, would translate into a greater transmission of power from hind quarters to forequarters.  I was instructed to slow his front legs down with my thighs and quicken his hind legs with my seat, ride only straight lines and 90 degree angles, and do it with a slight counter flexion (except in the corners).

Totally easy right? Only like nineteen new things for me to focus on!  Not a problem.  Fortunately, Murray and I already have some concept of the thigh half halt, so I knew what to do with that, and add energy with the calves was easy enough.  JM coached me (step by step where needed) through the straightness and the corners, so we got those done too.  Murray was confused and fought the idea at first, but quickly came around.  And wouldn’t you know it: POWER!!

dress-2Oh yah actually I can step under with my hind legs if you ask right, just look at my bulging Arnold Schwarzenegger muscles

We did the same thing at the canter (though there is no photographic evidence as I apparently only cantered far away from my photographer), and Murray thought that was really hard.  Like, exceptionally hard.  He would rather make his trot MUCH nicer than work that hard at the canter.  To keep us on the straight lines at both the trot and canter as we got tired JM emphasized the idea of keeping control of my belt buckle.  If my belt buckle was pointed away from JM (the center of our square), then obviously we would move away from him.  If it was pointed toward him, then we drifted toward.  At one point as we crossed a short side Murray got really confused about a possible change of direction and we swerved wildly, which earned us the reprimand of “your belt buckle is drunk!”

dress-3Oh also I can lift through my withers, did I not tell you that?

This was even more important at the canter as I had to sink down through my back into the saddle but half halt with my thighs at the same time.  It turns out that I’m a pretty loosey-goosey canterer, and after a few squares pushing Murray with my seat + calves but half halting with my thighs, all while following with my hips and sinking down into my back, my entire body was protesting the hard work.  It seems that Murray and I will both be working up to longer intervals of this intensity.


Ultimately, both our trot and canter work felt more powerful and forward.  I couldn’t always feel when Murray lifted himself up to the saddle (or lifted the saddle, I can’t quite remember), even when JM pointed it out.  But that’s ok, I’m sure that feel will come.

JM said that he was surprised that Murray made so much progress during our lesson and that he lasted as long as he did, since it was quite a workout.  I retorted that it’s  because Murray knows what he’s supposed to be doing, but has trained me to let him go other ways.  JM disagreed and said that I was giving Murray too much credit, and that he really did need to learn how to use his body in this new, more effective method.


Can we just appreciate this picture again for a moment, and how much Murray and I look like we know what we’re doing here?!

  • Moment of suspension: check.
  • Tracking up: check.
  • Lifted back: check.
  • On the bit: check.
  • Lifting through shoulder: check.
  • Sitting up straight: check.
  • Leg at girth: check.
  • Heels down/neutral: check.
  • Straight line from elbows to bit: check.
  • Reins not too long: check.
  • Looking up: LET’S NOT PAY TOO MUCH ATTENTION TO MY HEAD. I was having a helmet problem, ok? I cut my hair and now my hair doesn’t do the right things under my helmet any more. I need a solution to this problem but for now my head looks alien and deformed.

If I can ride like this for one frame, surely there is hope for me?!

For homework, I have been prescribed six weeks of straight-lines-only flat work (I may make curved lines while jumping, evidently) in short, intense bursts.  Lots of walking in between, and not too many reps per ride.  (Like, a few minutes each way, tops.)  I am to finish with some stretchy trot work with counter-flexion, and if after two weeks things are going well I can do counter-flexed figure 8s at the trot.  JM said that if I did my work properly I should see muscle development behind the saddle by his next visit.

In conclusion: 10/10, would ride with JM again.  Our jumping lesson in the afternoon was just as good (recap to come tomorrow).

Oh also, I rode in my buband. I’m not sure I liked it, I think it made my boobs look flat and deformed.  However, I didn’t jiggle at all (not one bit), and I felt like I was being hugged for much of the day (human thunder shirt?).  It did give me an unflattering mic-pack look at the back of my shirt, though.  This device will require more investigation.

yves sauvignon clinic

On Saturday, before I rode with Megan, I got to ride with Yves Sauvignon, who is a local trainer (based in Sebastopol/Santa Rosa area), 3* rider and trainer, and all around awesome guy.  In addition to being French, Yves is a great coach.  His standard coaching technique both encourages you and pushes you to keep doing better, and his ride philosophy includes a lot of technical elements and precision.  At the same time he’s really understanding of different horses’ strengths, weaknesses, and uniqueness, and helps you play to their strengths.


We started out with a trot placement pole, which Yves usually places 9ft out from the base and often serves as a canter pole as well.  Murray was on point.  At first Murray needed to get a bit more forward in the trot, so Yves suggested that I loosen up/relax my knees a little.  I learned a few months ago to distribute my weight into my thighs to help balance and regulate one of the speedier ponies I rode, and have apparently incorporated that into my riding of Murray pretty thoroughly!  Yves explained that this squeeze through the knees* is part of the half halt, so while I was trying to push Murray forward I was also rebalancing him, and needed to relax my knees a bit to allow him forward a bit more.  It took me a minute to figure out how to ride with loose knees again (uhhh apparently I’ve been weighting my thighs a lot more than I ever realised), but after that it was smooth sailing.

yves1* I don’t (think) I pinch my knees — I feel like I would have been cured of that really quickly by being absolutely launched over Murray’s shoulder — but will be investigating this more.

yves3Murray, in addition to being on point, was also on one and expressed many and varied opinions.  Through both vocal and body language.  Fortunately his opinions did not detract from Murray’s desire to jump the jumps.  So jump we did.

Yves has a strong philosophy of show-and-tell for horses that are a little less confident, and doesn’t think that surprising horses a lot does them much good in the long run.  He wants his horses, especially young ones, to be brave with all different types of fences.  Fortunately for us, Murray didn’t require any show-and-telling, and while he was a little backed off to some flowers the first time we saw them,  he jumped them beautifully and in stride.


One of Yves’ big suggestions was to put a bit of a lid on Murray’s antics.  While it’s nice to know your horse is feeling good and has a sense of humor, it is (apparently) not so much fun to ride a goofy possibly bucking horse through the lines and not know if there’s some extra goofy behavior coming.

yves7Y u not want to ride dis on XC?

Yves also really appreciated Murray’s ability to balance himself up to the fences and add strides where needed.  Even better — during the lesson, Murray was also taking the long spots when I asked him to, and even changed leads a few times (though only when I tricked him).  Overall Murray was super responsive to my leg, both laterally and in terms of speed and power — he would step up the pace the moment I put my leg on, and it resulted in a ton of adjustability.

yves5Can’t complain about jumping with this backdrop!

It was a short lesson but a very good one. Murray was feeling awesome, and Yves said I had done a great job with him so far.  I so love riding this forward, game horse!  Yves also validated my slow-it-down strategy with Murray, and said that he likes to slow it down even more with horses like this, and keep cross country to a controlled canter and trot the fences where necessary.  I worried to Yves about making the time, and he said he’s made it at Novice while still trotting quite a few fences, and assured me that Murray’s canter was more than adequate to make time without any freaking out or galloping needed.  I’m not sure I tooootally believed him (based on experience and the fact that it feels so slow!), but it was a good, powerful, rhythmic pace so I couldn’t complain.


Maybe not the biggest fences in the world, but some solid coursing that was totally confidence building for both of us!  Yves also said that I have done a great job with Murray, which made me feel awesome.  It’s incredibly rewarding to hear that I am taking this little quirk ball in the right direction!

Hawley Bennett clinic, day two

Day two with Hawley was just as educational as day one, and in some ways more educational for me, as Murray challenged me more, in some of the ways I have recently been struggling with, and a little bit in new ways.

helicopter tail
please enjoy Murray’s helicopter tail over the white gate

Hawley changed the course up from the day before, adding in a little ditch made with poles and a tarp, and a corner filled with a couple of tires.  There were also some scary oxers and a bounce, though I did not get to ride it.  We warmed up again over the trot and canter poles, this time with a bit less guidance from Hawley and a general expectation that we would be able to find a good pace and stick with it.  Hawley urged me to find the 18-stride canter (of the prior day’s circle exercise) as the canter with enough power and movement to get us successfully through a course.

tranter(Murray: how do I approach poles again?)

On day two our course started with canter poles to a little oxer, which Murray attacked the first time with the gusto of someone really not sure they are interested in eating the food put ahead of them.  He stuttered through the poles, downshifted to a trot, and then the good boy launched himself over the oxer anyway.  Once again straightness was an important theme – Hawley had us go to the end of the arena between the bounce before making a left turn to wrap back around to another fence.  Next up was the bending line from the oxer to the right, all the way around to the opposite vertical, and then back up the oxer line to do the same thing in the opposite direction.

tranter2Textbook tranter. Magnificent. Literally, trotting in the front, cantering in the back.

We also schooled the tarp ditch by first walking the horses past it and bending them away from the opposite direction so they could look but not LOOK at the ditch, and then trotted up and over the ditch with no problem.  We added a fence two strides after the ditch, and then jumped the two of them after the skinny natural oxer.  The first time around Murray made it in 8.5 strides, so Hawley asked us what the plan was for the next go around.  I pushed for 8, and while we did it, it was ugly, and 9 would have worked better (which we accomplished handily for the following rounds).


All of this was fine, as it was when we added in the skinny natural oxer to the left.  But when we came down one of the oxer lines to a panel we have jumped about 40 times before Murray was like NO WAI GEORGE.  I’ve watched the video in slow motion several times and managed to isolate just the moment when he stops moving his front feet but still has the momentum from behind carrying him – it’s quite entertaining really.  I have seen Hawley deal with horses stopping before, so gave Murray the opportunity to walk right up to the fence and stand there for a moment, which is exactly what Hawley directed me to do.  Only, Murray didn’t want to stand up at the fence and look into the face of the paint and wood of his shame, he was worked up and wanted to dance around and back up and go anywhere but to the fence.   Hawley made me just keep sitting there and talking to him until Murray settled enough that we could back up and then jump the fence from a trot.

stop2You expect me to WHAT?

After we got over the panel once more Hawley pointed out that Murray clearly knows he’s supposed to be going over the fences – he punished himself for not jumping the fence by getting all worked up and miserable.  So I just have to keep my cool and build his confidence a bit more, and not let him get so fast and on the forehand that he feels like a jump comes up on him before he can get a good enough view of it.  Understandably, after this reasonable and compassionate chat about my horse stopping I burst into tears because equestrian crybaby.  I’m not actually sure what set me off, but I think the emotional high of the day before to the crushing defeat of Murray refusing over such a ridiculous obstacle got to me.  Hawley kindly ignored my sniveling until it was my turn to ride again and I could get myself back together.


(Olympian points to the super easy section of fence she wants bad pony to jump.)

Our next set of fences involved the ever-terrifying tire corner, which I (thought) I gave a good go right up until Murray was like “FUCK NO LADY” once more.  I honestly anticipated that, though, given his spookiness earlier in the lesson and his general distaste for tires.  Hawley basically had to break the fence down to poles on the ground for Murray to even consider going, but after that he was pretty honest (until we changed direction).  All in all it wasn’t until we’d had about 5 refusals at the same fence that Hawley was like “okay, that was him!” when I was ready to give up and beat the boy 2-3 stops earlier.  Interestingly (or not interestingly because she doesn’t abuse her horse the way I abuse Murray?) she never told me to give him a smack with the whip (at least not for this, only to encourage him to be more forward in different circumstances), just to keep my leg on and ride.  However, once we’d gotten over the damned tires in both directions we were golden.  I later asked her if she thought that showing Murray the tires to start off with would have given a different outcome and she frankly responded “No, you just needed to sit up and put your leg on.”  After a bit of pouting about that (and some reflection thanks to adult camp weekend), I do agree.


As always, Hawley demanded correctness and called you on your shit without being rude, mean, or harsh.  She wasn’t going to let me get away with bad pace or not riding forward to a fence, even though I could do the rollbacks and was relatively straight, any more than she would let my group-mates get away with too-long reins or right-drifting jumps.  She was unerringly cheerful and positive, and paid absolute attention to her students.  She is liberal with praise but also free to encourage you to correct the things that need changing.  And it doesn’t hurt that in lots of my videos you can hear her saying “good job” or “great ride”.

trotIf you have the chance and the means to lesson with Hawley DO IT.  Audit if you don’t.  I learned as much as an auditor last year as I did this year as a rider, and working with her definitely changed the way I’m approaching fences.  It really added a valuable element of understanding to my riding and now I’m side-eyeing more clinics she’s holding in our area an wondering if or when my financial situation will be able to manage it.

(PS look at that insanely adorable trot I got out of Murray like four times during the clinic!)

Hawley Bennett clinic, day one

IMG_6458On March 26-27 my barn hosted Hawley Bennett for a jumping clinic, so of course I had to join in after I had such an outrageously good time auditing last year and immediately vowed to myself that I would ride with her at the next available opportunity.  It also helped that March 27th is Murray’s birthday, so what better present for the birthday boy than to ride with an Olympian? None. The answer is none.

Hawley was just as forthright, focused, and fun as I remember her being, and the fact that she said my horse was cute and should be competitive was a pretty big plus.  But let’s start at the beginning.

With all groups, Hawley started out with pole work.  Nobody was exempt from trotting poles set on a circle (two steps apart), not even the babies who may not have trotted poles in a while.  I watched the groups ahead of me and tried to soak in the advice, as I mostly put Murray over straight poles not curved poles.  The most valuable piece of advice that I heard was to keep my hips pointed in the direction I wanted to go — i.e. AROUND the circle.  Thus, when I got into the circle exercise I kept pointing my hips around the circle and Murray just turned through the trot poles like we trot poles on a circle every day of our lives.  In reality it was like attempt number one.  Cue pride.  And if you press play, you can hear Hawley layering it on too (spoiler alert: I was WILDLY proud of Murray during this clinic and Hawley did nothing to stop me from being so!).

Hawley Bennett clinic – trot poles from Nicole Sharpe on Vimeo.

We moved from there to canter the poles and Hawley expected us not only to get one stride over the poles, but to get the same number of strides around the circle each time too.  Headed left Murray demonstrated his incredible rideability and awesome steadiness by getting an easy 18 each time.  To the right I struggled a little more and got 20, 16, and then finally 18.  Much of this was the shape of the circle (I let him fall out to the left and then pushed in too far to the right), but also spoke to Murray’s weakness tracking right.  Fortunately for me since Murray got the exercises pretty quickly I had plenty of horse left for the funner stuff.

hawley courseAs last year, the course consisted of some kind of ovoid-of-death to lines across the diagonal and on the vertical, which Hawley had walked and wanted us to get pretty precise striding to.  Hawley had even pulled out some weird, scary filler which I was a bit worried about, but planned on just riding to and not making excuses for myself.

Our first task was to ride the oval at the end with six strides between each of the two fences, and a steady thirteen along the long side.  Once we had accomplished this we added in our first oxer (the pink, I know not an oxer in this image), in six but I rode it in eight at first (crooked and spooky pony), then all the way around to the three stride (four my first go around) green-blue line and back to the ovoid of death in six.  The key was to ride forward and evenly.  Despite making a big deal about the striding, Hawley said she actually didn’t mind that Murray kept wanting to add — as long as we rode forward to the add.  I wasn’t allowed to let Murray back off to add strides, I had to keep my leg on and push him forward.  Hawley likened the strategy to one she took with her former horse Bodark (not an almost-comparison I mind!), who would balance himself up and add add add in to a fence, but would go as long as she kept her leg on.

IMG_6530This picture tickles me

We rode different combinations of the lines, always starting or ending with the ovoid of death.  Hawley increased the difficulty based on the weaknesses of the horses in the group — so for right drifters, she added in a hard left turn from the pink “oxer” to the three stride line in the back, and then 90 degree left turn to the four stride line.  Murray is not a right drifter, but my lack of planning and excitement at getting through combinations occasionally bit me in the ass as I did not prepare for the next line. So instead of getting excited about jumps I’ve already completed I need to remember to keep my mind on the task at hand — i.e. the jumps I still have left!

IMG_6766Look at us jump 2′ oxers! wheeeeeeeeeee kings of the world!

I was really proud of Murray’s rideability during the whole clinic — we could take pretty much any corner, and he responded to me putting my leg on either side with great reasonability, even if he didn’t get all the way over when I needed him to.  The only thing I was a little disappointed by was the jump size — Murray’s and my problems increase as the jumps go up, so I would really have liked to problem solve over bigger fences.  But in all honesty, it was probably good the jumps were small because it meant that I could easily kick Murray up to anything even remotely scary, and when I pushed for a long spot it wasn’t an issue.  And honestly, if I couldn’t perform the exercises accurately over 2′-2’3″, I’m not sure that trying anything higher would have been productive.

IMG_6712At least we can still jump!

I also worked pretty hard on my own position during the clinic, and am proud to report that I didn’t let my reins get too long or get picked on by Hawley for my reins, or my leg, or my upper body.  Not bad for seven rides all March prior to the clinic!

triumphant (adjacent) return

I accidentally took off blogging for Lent.  (Actually, I reduced almost all the fun things in my life by a lot for Lent — riding, blogging, reading blogs, having fun, etc.)  I say accidentally because I am not nor have I ever been religious, but somehow I went into thesis lockdown mode around the beginning of Lent and came out of it around Easter.

And now I return. Trimphant.  Or triumphant adjacent, as I didn’t finish my thesis but I did get two chapters really nailed down and the third is underway.


We did get to do some XXXXXLLLL fun things towards the end of March and last weekend, starting with a Hawley Bennett clinic and ending with the best weekend all year — ADULT CAMP!

This year, one of B’s friends who is a dressage judge heard about our camp and thought it sounded SO FUN that she offered to come up and do a fix-a-test clinic with us for our dressage rides.  So an absolutely huge shoutout to Kalli Bowles for coming out and providing such excellent feedback.  I got on Murray and he was super quiet and responsive for warm up — a pleasant change from our previous attempts at dressage away from home — and he remained so quiet and reasonable for both our tests.  Plus our outfit was on point, so you know.


I went in for our first test and rode Murray exactly as I would at a show.  I focused on the things I knew I could fix without pushing him to be as good as he can be at home, as I know that can encourage Murray moments.  I rode the geometry hard, because I know that’s the only place I have left to be able to pick up points, and tried to keep my leg long and my hands up, and an even pressure between my hands, and Murray was so reasonable.  He just bopped along like the little dressage professional I’ve been trying to coax out for the last three years!  Kalli said that we put in a great test — good geometry minus some pilot error, and a very steady ride.  Steady is our number one goal, as almost all of my point deductions in the past have come from our inconsistent nature — in both contact and overall picture.  Her biggest suggestion was to increase Murray’s loin suppleness, as he braced in down transitions and wasn’t really swinging through his lower back.  I could tell this (as well as how crooked he was) from the ride, but after a month of 1.5 rides/week and then a quick jump week before the Hawley clinic, I was going to take it!

Our second test was even better.  Knowing that Murray was feeling good I went in and really pushed for the connection.  I still biffed some transitions due to not knowing the test, but Murray responded to every one of my requests for more with “okay”.  Kalli scored this test, and among lots of 6s and 7s we even got two 8s and only one 5 (the fetid down transition).  I have never been so proud of Murray — every time I asked for more he responded instead of reacting, and we put in two really solid tests in a scenario that has historically made him lose it.  I am really  hoping we can repeat this at the show in a few weeks.

Friday afternoon was stadium, and I applied some of the lessons from the previous week’s Hawley clinic and my subsequent jumping lesson with B. Murray’s and my issue of sometimes refusing fences for no apparent reason hasn’t completely gone away, but I’ve developed a much more reasonable strategy for dealing with it, and we only got better as the weekend wore on.  I only had one stop at a slightly scary fence, and our rides through a one-stride grid were pretty fantastic, so I’m not complaining there.

Saturday morning we schooled cross country and I could not have been happier.  Murray was so fun and cheerful and pleasant out on cross country — the happy, lovely boy that I know is (almost always?) in there.  The same principles applied as in stadium — keep your leg on and commit to the fence, and you will go.  Even if it wasn’t super pretty the first time, we got over it, and things got smoother as we schooled.  We got to school much of the Novice course as well as the BN course we will be jumping in a few weeks, including our first little jump-drop combo:

Sometimes you just need to take a good look before deciding to save Nicole's butt. #goodboymurray #notoriousottb

A post shared by Nicole Sharpe (@nicolegizelle) on

I have to give some big credit to my friend Anna for making me jump that.  After she schooled the training and prelim questions she told me I had no excuse not to… so I did it.  And it was fun!  I suck at drops still, but once again, if good horse will go, let’s go!  We ended up schooling the fence that ended the training course last year again, which is always a nice little confidence booster.  I’m not sure what I’m more proud of — that Murray was willing to go over the arrow even after nearly coming to a dead stop in front of it, or that we did it nicely a second time.  Both are really reasonable responses to that question!

Training arrow at Camelot from Nicole Sharpe on Vimeo.

The only discussion Murray and I really had to have at camp was on pace.  Murray decided that a certain tractor and gravel pile was just an unacceptable addition to the XC course, and he would not — under any circumstances — canter or gallop past it.  The first time I got him to trot by, but the second time he was so wrapped up in his own sense of self-and-Nicole preservation that we basically backed past the scary objects.  The frustrating part about this wasn’t that Murray was scared of that stuff, but that he didn’t listen to me asking him to slow down so we could pass them at a more reasonable and less terrifying pace.  Instead, he wanted to balls to the walls gallop down to them and then screeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeech to a halt when he realised what terror awaited him.  This, of course, will not be acceptable when we actually try to run cross country.  So I schooled all around the terrifying hell tractor and its accompanying murderous gravel pile at a slow canter with Murray firmly bent away from said objects.  As long as we kept the gait I was asking for Murray got lots of pats and encouragement, and after all was said and done we walked up to those things and showed Murray that, really, they weren’t so bad after all.


Sunday morning saw us putting in yet another really solid dressage test and a fantastic stadium school over some big, scary, FULL GROWN beginner novice sized fences.  But there was terrifying new fill and Murray JUMPED IT ALL. Stuttery it may have been, but we WENT.  And if I can just stay out of his way enough, we will not have rails either.  With the best weekend all  year in the books, I return to thesis land and Murray gets a few days off to recuperate before we work on some suppleness and straightness before our show on the 16th!

PS — We did it all on only three shoes.  In fact, I need to text my farrier!  Friday morning before we left I discovered that Murray had wrenched his left hind shoe 4/5 of the way off and rotated it about 90 degrees on his foot.  Magical barn manager pulled the shoe off with her bare hands, did not compromise any of Murray’s hoof wall (she is magic, after all), pulled out one errant nail that was hanging down, and we went on our merry way.

PPS –  did you know the flying potato got to come too?!  But I will leave that story to Peony….