Monday, June 2, 2008

Day Four: The Test

Today was, for all intents and purposes, a test of what the participants had learned throughout the clinic. I know it had to be intimidating for the riders, but it did equate to a "show" or test situation, so it was good training all around.

David set up a stadium jumping course, and after the riders had warmed up on their own, he invited them to walk the course on their own while the audience members held their horses. Since he'd been pushing "thinking for yourself" througout the clinic, he didn't help them as they walked the course. Afterwards, he asked them questions (like "how many strides between elements" and "how will you make the turn to X line?" all of which they had to answer thinking about THEIR OWN horses), but he didn't give them answers--he made them figure things out for themselves, and when they answered, he asked: "are you sure? Why?"

After that, he helped them warm up with a few specific fences and some advice on how to take them more successfully. Then it was time for the test.

He instructed the participants to enter the ring as they would a FEI jumping day, noting that it was required to salute the judge (which he was serving as). Some of the riders did this awkwardly, and he made them go back and do it again. He quizzed them about how long they had from when the bell/buzzer sounded until they had to jump (45 seconds). It was obvious that the riders were tense, but determined to do their best.

Most riders were able to do the course fine, either clean or with a rail or two. Afterwards, he asked the riders what they thought, and he expected them to be able to discuss what went well (and WHY), as well as what went wrong (and WHY). He asked how many strides people got between efforts, and was obviously disappointed if riders couldn't remember. Some riders had to do lines or even the whole course again (and for a few of the advanced riders, he set the course up another level and asked them to do a maxed out course). Even I could see how the riders were riding better.

Some things I learned:

*Every time you add a stride, you add 2 seconds.

*Basic sports psychology: "I'm sitting on the best jumper in the house." BELIEVE it.

*When you enter the ring, in your mind go over every fence in order.

*USE the corners to balance, but DON'T lose that forward energy: Turn the FORWARD into UP. Go so far as to help the horse's head come up so that he can see the fence. Balance isn't just going slower.

*If your horse is spooky, walk him by the fence/line that is problematic (parallel). Make him go straight, and where YOU want to go.

Because of the 10 hour drive to Lubbock, we had to leave before the clinic was over....but all in all, this clinic was a phenomenal learning opportunity for the participants AND for the audience. I would encourage everyone to participate or audit in an O'Connor clinic in the future. I hope to participate in the future.

Some final notes: Thanks again to Tracy and Bobby Hewlett for hosting this clinic, and especially for allowing us to audit at no cost. They have a wonderful facility, and they embody the generous nature that I've come to see as a part of this sport.

And special thanks to David O'Connor, who came and put on a fantastic clinic despite the personal tragedy of losing two beloved family members, Teddy and Tigger Too, before the clinic. His honesty, his straightforward observations, his wealth of knowledge, and his obvious love for the horses and the sport of eventing were made crystal clear. Bravo, and best wishes to you and Karen.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Day Three: Cross Country

I'm proud to say that my partner in crime Karen McGavin and I went out with every single group today, despite the humidity/heat/hills (remember we both come from West Texas, where the first and last things don't exist and the second is always a “dry heat”). It was worth the discomfort, for once again, our fearless leader, David O'Connor, had some powerful insights.

David had all the riders warm up by working (once again) on what he covered the first day: being able to transition within gaits, this time from a two point galloping position. With the lower level riders, he also reviewed and corrected the galloping and preparation positions before they were put to use. Note to self: Think about how these two positions are different, and WHY. The galloping position is defensive, with your feet a bit forward and your rear end out of the saddle (and thrust a bit back). He had riders bend a bit lower than I've seen others bend, but that was to differentiate this position from the preparation one, where the rider's shoulders come up, the hips become straighter, but the rider still doesn't “sit” down on the seat. This position vital, because with it the rider must bring the horse “up” before the fence, capturing the previous “forward” energy and pushing it into “up” energy before the fence.

Watching the advanced riders go, I was truly able to SEE this process happening before my eyes. In the “preparation zone” before each fence (about 8 strides from the fence) the riders sat up more, collected their horses, channelled the FORWARD energy into FORWARD AND UP energy, and they let the horses know/see that something was coming. David noted that the horse needs some “quiet” time before the fence to study it, and so the rider needs to do most of what she will do in regards to the four responsibilities (direction, speed, rhythm, and balance) in that zone. The next five strides are all about consistency: the rider's hips need to be quiet, the legs need to be on, and the rider's mind needs to be calm and focused (more on the “focus” in a bit). It's more of that “you simply think the direction you're going when you drive a car, and you go” type thinking....but it works when riders and horses are working together.

Once again, the idea that once a rider dictates the direction, speed, energy, and balance (and, we hope, does so correctly), the horse's job—to jump—is made easier. “Your role,” David noted “is a supporting role five strides before the jump.”

David came up with several excellent metaphors, and one of the most memorable was the idea that the rider's reins are basically creating a railroad track. The rider needs to get the horse on the track, then keep him there, making sure that he goes to, over, and lands from the jump on the tracks. As I watched the advanced riders go, I actually got to see them “place” the horses exactly where they wanted them to go (for the most part), and I could see how their seat, reins, and body helped create the “track”.

Another great metaphor: “Trying to steer a stiff horse with only the reins is like tying my hands to my belt and then asking me to run across a balance beam. I'll fight the ropes, trying to free my arms, at least until I fall. The horse needs to be moved from his back legs, not his face.”

One of the techniques David used for the Training and Novice group to help them focus was a flag on the fence: they HAD to go exactly over the flag. As the groups began to focus on the tiny flag on the fence, the riding got better. Later, he put some hay on a jump to the same purpose. A simple trick to be sure, but an effective one. “Don't settle for average!” David shouted to the riders.

Once again, the participants were encouraged not to dwell on a “bad fence,” but to figure out what MADE the fence bad, and to fix it before the next fence.

The “zone of preparation” which came approximately eight strides before the jump was vital, for all levels, but particularly for the advanced riders. David had them literally raise their reins, helping to lift their horses up (while keeping their lower leg on to encourage the energy forward and up). If a horse backs up in front of the fence, then the rider needed to go faster on landing; similarly, if a horse rushed, David instructed the rider to come to a stop (straight) after the fence.

During the lunch talk, David did some Q&A with the participants, with topics ranging from bitting (don't use the bit you'll be using for XC to school in; use it only for XC. School using a snaffle). David quoted Mark Twain as a means of encouraging riders to learn about the sport, both informationally and theoretically: “Don't spend so much time learning the tricks of the trade that you lose the trade”. He also talked about how eventers used to come to the sport as a second or third specialization (after riding race horses, hunting, show jumping, etc.). These participants, he mused, already knew how to gallop over undulating terrain, and so XC wasn't so difficult. He announced that all the young riders had to watch The Man from Snowy River and be ready to gallop down the hill.

One of the most interesting aspects of the lunch talk occurred as the topic inevitably moved to the safety issues and the upcoming summit. David outlined a proposal he's already made to the USEA and USEF. It goes something like this:

Why do we feel we need to stick with the nomenclature of the existing eventing structure? Currently, there's a big leap between training and preliminary, and between preliminary and Intermediate, and then Intermediate and Advanced. It could very well be that many of the accidents currently plaguing our discipline are due to people (and horses) moving up before they're quite ready. So—why not make it easier for people (and horses) to prepare for this move up?

The system that David proposes is similar to the system show jumpers currently operate under. Instead of BN, N, T, P, I, etc., we'd have a 10 level system.

Level 1 80 CM Fences 300 MPM

Level 2 90 CM Fences 350 MPM

Level 3 100 CM Fences 420 MPM

Level 4 100 CM Fences 490 MPM

Level 5 110 CM Fences 490 MPM

Level 6 110 CM Fences 520 MPM

Level 7 115 CM Fences 520 MPM

Level 8 115 CM Fences 550 MPM

Level 9 120 CM Fences 550 MPM

Level 10 120 CM Fences 570 MPM

I may have some of the MPM's off, but basically what the proposal does is to allow folks who want to “try out” the next level a safer space to do that, where they can move up the speed, but maybe not have to encounter maxed out jumps.

I believe that this system would be combined with more rigorous requirements about moving up (at least four events run at the previous level, with at least three of them clear over XC). Some real food for thought. I, for one, would be happy if this new system were to be put into place, since my goal is to get to training one day (after I become REALLY GOOD at Novice, which I hope to do by the time I'm 50).

Over all, today was another incredible day of learning, experience, and osmosis.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Day Two: Stadium Jumping

Once again, we were situated under the cool covered arena for our second day at the foot of one of eventing's greats. And once again, the message was fairly simple, yet vitally important. “Today is about thinking” David told the riders. Easy, right?

To illustrate, David began the lesson with a simple exercise: Three simple rails set at approximately three strides apart. After warming up by reviewing the three positions in jumping (full seat, partial seat, and two point), and by reviewing lengthenings and collecting, the participants were asked to canter over these rails, and they were only to stay straight and to start counting about eight strides out, and then count out strides between poles. Easy, right?

It's amazing how complicated two inch poles can make a line.

In every group, from advanced through beginner novice, riders had difficulty keeping focused, straight, and consistent. Those who were able to ride consistently were challenged by David to try for four strides instead of three.

After the line, David would ask the rider “were you straight?” and “how many strides did you get?” When riders couldn't answer, he would make them do the line again. If they could answer, he asked them what they would do differently, then he'd make them do it. The idea was, I believe, if you can articulate it/identify it, you can fix it—OR you can keep doing it (if it's a good thing).

David reminded folks to keep their eyes on the top rail until about two strides out, then look at where they want to land/go after the fence. “Don't lose focus in the combinations” David warned. “Our tendency is to land after the first one and say 'I made it! I'm alive!' then wait until the third stride before focusing on the next fence—and then we're not prepared.” Two strides in front of the fence, it's done—be thinking about the next one.

“Have your head in the game!” was heard often. And frequent references were made to the work done the previous day. “If you have a horse with a lot of different canters,” David said, “there is no bad distance.” You choose the speed at the first fence, then be consistent. Bring your horse back if you need to, because quality and consistency is vital.

To get the riders thinking about the next fence, he simply yelled “next!” after the first fence in a combination. It was an effective way to get riders to focus on the next fence, the next question, and to pay attention to preparing before it was too late.

He suggested that the more advanced riders be able to predict within three points what their dressage score would be, how their cross country would go, and what they would encounter in stadium. “You should know your horse—and yourself—that well.” Once again, he suggested that riders choose a “master” rider with a similar body type and imitate their riding. “Decide what you want to look like,” David said, “and identify what you're doing both well and badly. Then fix it!”

In an engaging lunch talk, David asked the participants what they thought about the issues of the day—the safety issues, rider issues, and so forth. His take seemed to be that good, consistent riding—that is, being able to ride straight, to turn, to be able to go faster and slower, and to ride with rhythm and balance—will fix the sport. “But can riders do those things?” David asked. “Think about the Beginner Novice/Novice warm up. They can't turn, they can't stop, they can't slow down. Let's jump!” He noted that horse trials warm ups were too scary, and that he wouldn't come near them.

“It's simple, really. You don't fall, you don't get hurt. You need to be able to ride consistently and well enough not to fall. If you do fall, you should come back another day. If you have two refusals, you should go home, practice, and come back another day.”

David spent a good deal of time reiterating the Rider's Responsibilities:

1.Direction. Be able to go straight and to turn.
2.Speed. Be able to lengthen and to collect.
3.Rhythm. Be able to choose and keep a consistent rhythm.
4.Balance. Be able to keep the horse and yourself in balance.

When you think of it, he mused, jumping is the horses's responsibility. If we take care of our responsibilities, the horse's job is easy. And the riders all proved the previous day that they could do all of the things riders are supposed to do.

In his lunch talk, a preview of the Cross Country day tomorrow, David spoke about the four positions in XC:

1.The cruising or galloping position, or two point, where the rider's butt is off the horse's back.
2.The balance/preparation position, the zone about 5-6 strides before the fence where the rider must decide how fast, how straight, and so forth.
3.The jumping position, where the rider's shoulders get taller and the rider's butt moves toward the back of the saddle to activate the hind end.
4.The down drop position, where the hips follow the motion of the horse (and the rider slips the reins).

The rider's hands shouldn't move much—no more than a dinner plate—but you can't clench your hands. You must be able to slip the reins and to get them back.

Your job is to TAKE CARE OF YOUR HORSE both on XC and stadium. You need to have the tools, AND you need to be able to react/use them.

Once again, the riders and horses needed to be in good shape; David made the participants ride in two point for almost five minutes, and more than one rider was blowing by the end. He noted that riders should be able to do everything they can do in a dressage seat in two point. We should all be practicing two point ten minutes three times a week before we enter an event. Gulp.

Overall, today was about recognizing what we're doing, and, if we need to, fix it using the tools we already have. It was comforting to think that we have the tools now—and I think we do—but humbling to see how difficult it was for even advanced riders to put them to use consistently.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Day One: Dressage

Notes from the David O'Connor clinic, day one: Dressage

On a lovely, breezy day in Benton, LA, a crowd of eventing enthusiasts gathered at Holly Hill Farm to learn at the feet of one of the kings of the sport: David O'Connor. Alas, due to a tragic accident, Karen O'Connor couldn't be with us today, but I can't imagine getting any more out of a day's lessons than I did watching David.

First, I would like to thank Tracy and Bob Hewlett not only for hosting this incredible clinic, but also for letting us audit for no charge. I can say without a doubt that it was worth the 10 hour drive from Lubbock.

David began all the lessons with a chat: who are you? Who is your horse? What would you like to work on? And so forth. Then he allowed the participants (two per lesson, which means everyone got a LOT of attention) to warm up as they would normally. Watching the riders closely, David worked out for himself how well the strengths and weaknesses meshed with what the riders had articulated.

Once he'd observed the warm up, he again called the riders over to him, and this time he engaged the riders in a theoretical discussion, one that resonated with the level of rider yet covered similar territory. What is the purpose of dressage? What is the purpose of collection? Why bend? What do hands and feet do? What are the responsibilities of the rider? And so forth. Most of these questions were met with halting responses from the riders, but eventually David answered his questions (or elaborated on a participant's answer), and then set out to illustrate, either right there, or by beginning the lesson.

The main goal for the dressage lesson today seemed to center around lengthening and collecting using the rider's seat. These transitions within the gait were impressive with the upper level riders. David encouraged all riders to “make it obvious”--it can become subtle later on. I was impressed at how the upper level riders took his advice to heart; they weren't afraid (or perhaps they were simply balanced enough to try) to exaggerate their position, to “make it obvious” by really working their hips up and down to get the collection, and to swing them long and low to get the lengthening. One of the suggestions that David made again and again was to “place your weight in the pads of the stirrup—press up and down against the stirrup pads” as means of aiding collection, a concrete example that almost everyone understood. Other bits of advice: “Use the saddle like a springboard” and “think of it like a trampoline”. In an attempt to get the participants to USE their bodies—particularly their seat, which David noted spanned from the rider's knee to her upper rib cage—he encouraged riders to think of the reins ONLY AFTER using their seat. He reminded riders over and over NOT to collect using reins first.

One of the surprising edicts I heard over and over again was “no bending!” Particularly the inside bend: David was adamant about the fact that riders should NOT be bending the inside before they established balance and rhythm and straightness. He even encouraged several riders to counterbend their horses, and others to strive for straightness rather than an inside bend, because the horse needed to learn balance and straightness first before learning to bend. “How does a horse in the pasture run?” he asked participants. “Do they bend to the inside?” Most riders answered that no, they tend to look up or outside. “If that's natural, then let's use that, rather than starting with step three before we've mastered one and two.” I know I'll be changing the way I ride a circle for a while.

“The rider's responsibilities” David maintained “are first direction (telling the horse where to go) and speed (telling the horse how fast to go). The rider must choose these two, then make sure she gives the horse consistent aids." He continued: “When you drive a car or ride a bike, do you think about going straight? No! You look ahead, THINK ahead, and go. Do the same with your horse.” Pressure, he noted, is the means by which we get reactions/give directions. We put pressure on, and when we get a reaction, we take the pressure off.

At every level, the riders concentrated on the direction they were given. The rare “There you go!” was a well-earned reward from David for a job well done.

Whenever a rider collected the horse, David would encourage: “Think Piaffe! Think Passage! Whenever you collect, be thinking at that level. Try for that level.”

David warned that the lessons learned today would come back to haunt them every day during the next four days. "During stadium and cross country, we will be coming back to these basic concepts of collection and lengthening, of going faster and slower within gaits."

Participants in the clinic needed to be in good shape (as did their horses)....riders worked consistently in the trot and canter, lengthening and collecting within the gaits for nearly an hour with few breaks. Many of the riders looked exhausted, but no one complained; they were too busy learning, and the expectations were high. David challenged the riders to “explode” in their lengthenings, and to come back to their collection with energy. He encouraged riders to work on faster, smoother transitions. It might have taken fifteen steps to “get” the transition during the clinic; they should work at home on getting it in three. “Learn to move with your horse; they are more responsive when you move with them” David intoned.

In an attempt to illustrate for some of the lower level riders what he meant by “be obvious,” David mounted one of the participant's horses and illustrated a leg yield and shoulder in with exaggerated side-to-side hip movement (so much so that he got a few catcalls and applause from the auditors). Always a good sport, David laughed and continued with a verbal illustration: “when a horse is young, you need to turn it by pulling the rein. Later, you're able to apply a more subtle aid like sponging.”

One of the more memorable quotes: “I learn more by copying other riders I admire than almost anything else”. In my line, that would be the Greek concept of imitatio/mimesis.

“The purpose of dressage,” David said, “is twofold: First, we need to learn to communicate with our horses. Second, we want to establish better coordination/develop a better athlete.” That pretty much sums up what this first day of the clinic was all about.