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.