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.

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