Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Jeff Cook Clinic Recap: Day One

Day One, we were told, would be gymanstic-type work, and Day Two would be course work. 

After we had walked around for a bit and the horses were loosened up, Day One started out with Jeff asking us to form a semi-circle around him, while he came around and inspected everyone's tack, making minor adjustments as he went.  (Stirrups up or down a hole, a flash one hole looser, a martingale an inch longer, etc.).  As he came around he learned each of our names, asked us what division we show in and what height we school at, what bits we were using, etc.  When Jeff came around to me I said a silent prayer that Tucker would not frisk him for treats... thankfully, he did not.  Small miracle. 

We started out on the rail at a rising trot and Jeff worked on our positions.  Things I heard:  stretch up taller, sit on your imaginary back pockets, quiet hands, thumbs up, elbows in, left rein is longer than your right (a relic of my formerly completely twisted position).  I also heard, "Stetch up taller.  TallerTaller.  There."  (Yikes! That hurt.)  About half way through our trot warm up as I was circling around Jeff he said, "Do you feel what your left hand is doing, right now?  You're nagging him.  Do you feel yourself doing it?"  My honest answer:  "No.  But now that you point it out, yes."  Jeff explained how critically important it is to have quiet hands, because otherwise the bit becomes a punishment and the horse never gets a reward for being soft.  Especially on a horse that wants to be as soft as mine.  I vowed to fix this. 

Jeff had us warm up in the canter and work on full seat, half seat, and two point.  Not surprisingly, my "full seat" is really a half seat, and my "half seat" is really a two point, and my two point is just standing way too far out of my saddle.  We worked on this with a little 18" crossrail at the end of the ring.  By the end, if I tried my hardest to demonstrate a full seat, I could pretty much get the half seat Jeff was looking for.  Still have some work to do on that....

The first jumping exercise we did was basically a serpentine through the ring, landing and halting straight after each fence, and then turning, picking up our canter, and on to the next one.  By fence three, Tucker was convinced he was in trouble.  Landing and halting straight surely was some sort of reprimand and Tucker was on the verge of a melt down:  "Oh no I don't know what I did but I think maybe now everyone hates me and I'm a bad horse and I never do anything right and, and, and...  oh wait, she's patting my neck.  She wants me to go forward.  I think maybe I'm not in trouble.  Ohhhh.  This is just part of the exercise.  Okay, I get it.  Stop and go.  No problem.  This game is easy."

This exercise got Tucker sooo light up front on the way to the fence that I actually had too much bridle using our normal jumping bit, and had to switch to something lighter for Day Two.  I worked on not overjumping with my body, and keeping my thumbs turned up, which seemed to be the two most important pieces I was missing.  Jeff seemed pleased with our progress after a few tries.  I was amazed at how each horse improved as we did the exercise a few times. 

The next exercise was a simple two stride off the left lead, set on the quarter line, but instead of landing and continuing left around the end of the ring, we had to land and turn right, into the wall, and back up the long side.  The first time, Tucker was completely caught off guard.  The second time, he landed right and I swear he was making the right turn even before I asked.  Here again, Jeff pointed out that the turn was really nice and soft and I picked at him with my right rein.  (I did?  Do I really do this all the time?  [Answer:  see video footage.  Yes, I do.])  Next time through, I was soft on my right rein, and Tucker executed a brilliant soft right hand turn, followed by a circle right, back up the two stride, and then a lefthand turn into the wall, and then over an end jump.  This probably requires a diagram:

That isn't exactly drawn to scale, but hopefully you get the idea.  The goal was to get the horses paying better attention, because we were asking them to turn in the opposite direction from what they were thinking.  Tucker, being a child prodigy, picked up on the exercise immediately.  There is no fooling him.  But it did get him light as a feather, so that when we added two long approaches to oxers after this, he went forward, extended his stride where I asked, and stayed engaged and really light in his front end.  Brilliant!

One other thing Jeff worked on with me and another couple of riders who were having trouble getting the right pace right from the start.  He'd say "gallop!" and we'd ask the horse to canter off right from a halt in the corner, come really forward around the end of the ring, and then when we got straight to the fence he'd say "now cool it."  And wouldn't you know, the perfect distance was right there every time?  Get the right pace and the right forward rhythm right from the start, and the rest works itself out.

I loved these exercises.  Even though this was the 3' section, the jumps were small (2'6"ish) so we could concentrate on the exercise and not worry about the jump itself.  Jeff wanted simple changes if needed, nothing fancy, nothing too elaborate.  He was also quick to compliment the riders who "worked it out" even when it wasn't pretty, and pointed things out that applied to the entire group or applied to another horse, so that we all felt like we were still learning, even when we were just waiting around for our turn.

At the end of Day One, I felt like I had a lot of new things to work on (and some of the usual issues too), but overall I was pleased with my riding and overjoyed with my clever horse.  Think I could get one of those "Proud Parent of an Honor Roll Student" bumper stickers for Tucker's butt?

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

My Triumphant Return

Testing, testing....  :::tap, tap, tap:::  Is this thing still on?

I realize that my prolonged hiatus from blogging may have caused some of you to remove me from your RSS feeds or delete your bookmarks... but hopefully, you'll come back?  I've got lots to tell, and I am done making up excuses for not blogging.  I have been great at making excuses though.  It started off with being too busy to write.  And then I was too busy to ride, so I had nothing to write about.  And then it had been a while, so I thought I had better make it a good one, and I didn't have anything exciting to tell you.  And then I just got writer's block.  And then...  Well, you get the idea.  But the point is I'm back and I've missed all of you.  (Not only have I not been blogging, but I've not been reading either, and I have lots of catching up to do with you and your horses.)

My next couple of posts will recount the Jeff Cook Clinic that Tucker and I did this weekend, which was fantastic.  Jeff is an amazing teacher, who made small adjustments to my position that had a huge impact, and gave us creative, different, simple but challenging exercises that got our horses responsive, sharp, light and engaged.  He also has a way -- mostly through positive reinforcement I think -- of instilling serious confidence in his riders.  I rode ten times better with him than I usually do, and mostly because I wasn't going around wondering if I would be able to do it.  After the second day I thought... if I win the lottery, my horses and I will just follow this man around the country. 

So here are the highlights:

1) At some point during the flat phase of Day 2, Jeff repositioned my seat so that I was sitting deeper in the saddle.  As I tilted my hips forward and scooted my bum underneath me a little more, Jeff said to me:  "There you go, you can sit a little deeper on him, don't worry, he'll allow it.  You ride well."  Thank goodness he turned his attention to someone else at that point because I literally started beaming and the only thought in my head was, "okay, I can die happy now."

2) Throughout the clinic Jeff made general observations about the sport of riding in general.  My favorite was:  "Do you know why the highs are so high with horses?  Because the lows are frequent."  Words to remember.  He pointed out that he could make a nice easy course and tell us all we're wonderful for two days, but unless he gives us a chance to make mistakes, he's not going to be able to help us out.  Took the pressure way off.  At least for this little perfectionist.

3) Jeff repeatedly emphasized making the horses' jobs easier and more pleasant.  For example, when we first got on in the ring, he wanted all of us to walk the horses around for a good 10 minutes or so, on the buckle.  I got on and did what I usually do, which is ask for a long and low frame and ask him to walk forward, but Jeff corrected me.  He used Tucker as an example to show how much bigger their step is behind when you drop the reins and let them walk around on the buckle with their noses poked out vs. when you ask for an "artificial" frame right from the start before they have a chance to loosen up through their backs.  He then had us warm up at the trot with no contact with the horses' mouths at all for the first 7 minutes.  Of course, Tucker started out with his head straight up in the air, but after a few minutes settled right down into a nice relaxed frame, all on his own, just from me sending him forward and asking him to be straight using my leg.  I was impressed. 

4) I love the way Jeff helped us out in front of the jumps.  If we needed to come forward he'd just say, "Stay on it!" and if we needed to wait he'd say, "Now cool it."  Maybe cause I never play anything cool, ever, I kind of liked being told to "cool it."  Just seems like the right image to me.  And when we got it right, he'd yell out, "GOOD RIDE!" and there was a conviction in his voice that just made you believe him. 

5) After the flat phase on Day 2, when I had finally figured out how to quiet my hands and get Tucker to reach and relax through his back, Jeff looked at me smiling and said, "You're really right there on the edge of it with this horse now.  He really wants to do it right.  If we had another couple of days together to start adding some shoulder-ins and lateral work to what we've been doing, you'd have him exactly where we want them to be.  Nice job."  (Pretty sure I didn't hide the beaming that time.)

Stay tuned for a more detailed account of the exercises and courses from Days 1 and 2.  It's nice to be back.