So, Tucker and I were scheduled to do a clinic last week with Eric Horgan. In case you don't feel like clicking that link, Eric was a member of Ireland's Olympic Three-Day Event team at Montreal in 1976, competed in the 1990 World Equestrian Games in Stockholm, 1992 Burghley International Three-Day Event, and the world-renowned Badminton Horse Trials. He was the bronze medalist at the 1989 European Three-Day Event Championships and is a two-time winner of the Punchestown (Ireland) International Three-Day Event. Just for starters. And that's not even getting into his coaching credentials. So, he's sort of a big deal.
Eric holding Court.
Then I get this email, saying that due to multiple scheduling conflicts and a couple of last minute horse soundness issues, the clinic would have to be rescheduled. My heart sank, knowing that Eric goes to Aiken, SC, for the winter, and wouldn't be back to New Jersey until the Spring. Then I read on, and saw that Eric was still going to be in town, and would be teaching lessons at a nearby farm (which happens to be owned by a fellow alumnae of my high school, the Ethel Walker School. Small world. Horse world is even smaller.). So... a private lesson? With a former Olympian? Who has a great sense of humor and an Irish accent? Where do I sign up?
You may be wondering why I was so desperate to ride with someone outside my discipline (resident hunter princess here). Well, first off, anyone that runs in the International circles that Eric does, and has been exposed to the best riders and trainers in the world, is always going to have something to teach little old me. And second, I rode with Eric frequently when I was in high school, and can honestly say that those clinics were the best pieces of riding I've ever managed. (Well, except for that one time when I ended up eating dirt, and came to, mumbling something about her getting behind my leg).
So after a few midnight (literally) body-clipping sessions after work last week, Tucker and I head out on a bright sunny November morning to introduce Tucker to Eric. On the way, we swung by Altea to pick up our blogging friends Amy and Sugar. Tucker fell instantly in love with Sug and had a momentary panic attack when he was separated from her for ten minutes while I tacked up. This should come as no surprise. She is one good looking mare. And even sweeter in person, if you can imagine. She didn't even mind Tucker's obnoxious space invasion, which drives most mares up the wall. Though she did eat all of his hay. But, he has always been more motivated by friends than food, so that was just fine with him. By the way, Amy and Sug are exactly the kind of travel buddies we like. They thought of everything, including bellinis. We love them!
When we started the lesson, Eric asked me about Tucker, what we needed to work on, etc. I focused on our major issue: getting the right canter, going forward, and maintaining pace. As it turns out, Eric was extremely helpful in this department. He watched the horses warm up and then brought us in to the ring to discuss what he saw. Though both horses travel quite differently, similar exercises were needed for both horses to improve their canter. Eric observed that Tucker has a naturally well-balanced canter, but that it's often very difficult to get a naturally balanced horse to work harder and really engage his hind end (yes, exactly. Tucker strongly believes that his natural way of going is good enough).
He also observed that I slouch. (Guilty as charged.) But here's a new way of looking at it: Eric gave us the analogy of how the natural horsemanship folks stand at the "driving line" and can send the horse forward or slow the horse by putting their body in front of or behind this line. So he wanted me to think about keeping my body behind the driving line, to keep my horse in front of my leg. For some reason, this concept really helped it click. As a result, there are actually some photos where I was sitting up. Look!
(Let's ignore the wonky thing my left arm is doing
and focus on the sitting up part for now, yes?)
We worked on transitions (and making me sit up through them). Walk to trot, trot to walk, then walk to canter, canter to walk. Once these were "crisper," we moved to transitions within the canter. Extend, collect. But not my usual gradual extension and collection. This was immediate: on a circle (around Eric), gallop forward, and then bring him back -- sharply, in just a couple of strides -- to a very collected canter, but all the while keep the canter "pinging." The first few times we did this, Tucker gave me a very unenthusiastic, slightly more forward canter, and then broke to a trot instead of collecting. To which Eric responded, dryly, "I can tell you do this a lot." Followed by, even more dryly, "That was Sarcasm." Yes, Eric, I get it. We need to work on this. Tucker eventually got with the program though and delivered that pinging canter that Eric was looking for.
We then worked on carrying this quality canter to a line of poles, which eventually became jumps. Has anyone ever had you work on the quality of your canter in the middle of a line? Yeah, me either. Quality of canter to the first jump, and even away from the second jump, yes. But in the middle of the line? I've always focused on stride length, but not canter quality. Would you believe the two are related? As in, if you have a better quality of canter, your horse's stride is much more easy to adjust? Makes perfect sense now. Never would have occurred to me before last Sunday.
As we worked on this very simple exercise, Eric broke down for us where the rides were going wrong. He focused a lot on recovery after the jump. To really drive the point home, he'd go stand in the spot where we actually recovered, and then stand in the spot where we needed to begin recovering (in case you couldn't guess, they weren't exactly right next to each other). As a general rule, I seem to do pretty much nothing for the first two strides upon landing. So in a six stride line, we have two big strides, and then four increasingly smaller strides. Instead of two or three balancing strides, and then three strides where I am just maintaining what I have until takeoff. So we worked on this, over and over, until I was better at it.
Once we added the jumps, Eric changed my jumping position a little, making me hold my shoulders back more so that I land in a better position to immediately start recovering upon landing. This worked pretty well too, which was a good thing, because we then added an end jump after landing from the line, that was either five or six bending strides away. Tucker showed his true colors here since I buried him to the end jump the first couple of times and he just shrugged his shoulders and hopped on over it. I finally got it though, and we ended on a great note, where I managed to land from each jump, recover, and maintain a decent canter throughout.
Very simple exercises, very big results. With a few laughs thrown in. Exactly what I was hoping to get out of this experience.
Now THIS is a good canter.
p.s. -- Eric thinks I should try the jumper ring with Tucker. He says I'd have a blast with him. The hunter princess is mulling it over....
p.p.s. -- Photo credit for this entry goes to E. Skuba. Thanks again Libby!