The fourth jump lesson

It was very pleasant to be looking forward to a jump lesson rather than dreading it. Whichever instructor it turned out to be and however many horses were in it, I was pretty sure I’d be fine … until I found the lesson had been moved inside as the outdoor schools are so boggy today.  That meant we were moving from a 60 x 30 m school to one 40 x 20 m and there would be 6 horses in the group. This did not feel good to me,  but at least we were having the owner teach the class, so I was hopeful that she would organise the available space as well as possible.

From the beginning she made it clear that at any point everyone except the one person jumping should be on the outside track, i.e. against the wall. The open order warmup was not to include canter – there would be an opportunity to canter individually after the initial warmup was done. This did wonders for my concerns.

During our individual canter we got the correct canter lead on the right rein first time. Woo!

In the indoor school it was more obvious just how many spectators watch the jump lessons, but I wasn’t too conscious of them.

We began with a pole on the ground some distance before a little cross pole.  We had to count the canter strides between the two.  When I was watching the others I couldn’t get the hang of it,  but when it was my turn it made more sense, and handily it was on our good canter rein.  Drifter got praise for his perfect neat 3 canter strides, which I managed to count on the second approach,  as on the first I was so focused on counting that I forgot to steer and we missed the jump.

Then we linked two jumps together that were not in a straight line and needed us to take a gentle reverse s shape to link them. To me this sent alarm bells ringing regarding canter leads,  so we did it in trot, and it went very nicely.  One of the others, a large horse inexperienced at jumping, did it in canter. I don’t know if the canter lead was the problem as I wasn’t watching his legs, but balance and steering were an issue as they came off the second jump and they pretty much crashed into the pony at the front of the ride, head to head. But nothing bad happened. This was the first time I’d seen a horse and rider actually get right inside the personal space of another horse and rider – it is something I worry about in these group lessons if I lose steering and Drifter loses his balance, but judging by the lessons so far, it seems we’re not as much in danger of doing it as I feared, because he understands how to jump. I also think that Drifter is quite submissive to other horses and so even if he is off-balance I think he would do his very best not to get in another horse’s face. But also I’m relieved to see that even when this crash that I had feared did happen, everyone was fine. Obviously the horses and riders involved were a bit ruffled, but the horses kept quite calm and gave their riders no trouble over it. So that’s another thing that I probably don’t need to worry about as much as I have been.

After that we tacked a third jump on the end of those two, but this was quite a straightforward line afterwards so we trotted over the first two, picked up canter and popped over the third, in a very satisfying way.

The next challenge added two more jumps to the beginning and one to the end. While part of me was insisting I couldn’t remember where to go over 6 jumps, other parts of me managed OK. So far I’d jumped everything on the right rein from trot and everything to the left in canter. This time I had a go at the first two, which were to the right, in canter. We got the right canter lead but as we jumped the first my foot and stirrup almost parted company, leaving the stirrup under the wrong part of my foot, so I steered away from the next as I didn’t feel secure to jump until I’d adjusted that. We went around to try again, this time struggling with the canter lead and going over in trot anyway. Ah well. I remembered the course and we got stronger as we went on, finishing with me feeling quite proud. The merit of jumping 6 things in a row is that if the start is not what you planned there’s still time to do better!

To finish off, we ended with two jumps in a straight line and a return to the ‘counting the strides between’ task. Unfortunately for us this was on our unbalanced right rein. The instructor suggested I approach in trot and just canter between the jumps. I’m sure this was a sensible suggestion but it confused me mightily and we did not manage a canter between the jumps. Then we were told to cool down. I was really sorry that the lesson, which I’d felt really good about until then, was going to end with me being all confused like that so I asked if I could just jump one more thing so I didn’t finish on a bad one. After being told that the instructor will decide when it’s a bad one, not me 😉 , she told me to do the same again. It went worse, to the outside observer, but mentally it went much better for me so I didn’t care. But as it looked worse she sent me to do it one more time. I’m not sure if that was any better, but I’m glad I had those extra goes.

It’s difficult because I want to get my confidence up by jumping from his balanced trot, not his unbalanced canter (whether right or wrong lead he’s always unbalanced on the right rein) but on the other hand if I don’t try then it will turn into a big deal and that will make it more difficult.

On the subject of the canter lead, I managed to lunge him one night this week (owing to the waterlogging issues lately it’s been really hard to get a chance to lunge unless you’re there at seriously antisocial hours, so I haven’t managed it for about a month) and it was very productive. I started with him in the pessoa to get him working, but after 10 minutes I took it off to work on the canter without it. I wanted him to be free to move how he chose so that he would better learn which canter lead was balanced and which unbalanced. Using Lee Pearson’s advice, when he was on the wrong leg I brought the circle smaller so he could feel why it was wrong. Once he got it right I let go out on a bigger circle and let him “have a coffee break” in walk. It worked really well and he got the correct leg maybe 80% of the time, which is real progress. There was one moment where I rolled my eyes at him for getting the right lead, then doing a flying change to the wrong one, but by and large he really seemed to be learning. I hope I’ll be able to repeat that, but the school situation is still problematic.

From a jumping point of view, I think it’s now feeling much more “ordinary” to leave the ground on the back of a horse. From an all round point of view I wish that the jump group was once a fortnight and I could have  a flat lesson in between. Working on the canter alone is going well, but I could really use eyes on the ground more often to let me know if I’m correct when I feel like the lead is wrong or right. I had thought I was making progress on feeling the lead, but today it felt wrong to me when it was actually right, so I still have work to  do there that I can’t really do alone. I could decide to go to the jump group only on alternate weeks, but I would miss out. If I hadn’t gone today I would have missed the work on counting a stride, and then when the group built on that  in future that I would have been at sea. At the moment I don’t feel that I have the stamina for a jump lesson and a flat lesson in the same week, and of course like everyone we have January finances to consider!

Richard from Centaur Biomechanics is coming back later this month but I don’t know if I want a session with him or not. On the one hand I think highly of him and you get lovely videos out of it, but on the other I have so many new ideas and new opinions on my riding in my head at the moment and not enough time for it to all settle out and sink it. It’s not long since we saw the-dressage-judge-that-upset-me and Lee Pearson, and since then I’ve had two different instructors for the jump lessons. Do I really want to add another set of opinions right now? Especially as we’ll be seeing Lee again in February. But Richard doesn’t have an intrusive style of coaching, so he probably wouldn’t add too much to my overfull brain…

I may find that by the time I make up my mind there aren’t any slots left and this will all be academic. Hmm.

Time to tie up this waffle, I think, and wish you all a very happy 2014. Let’s make it a good one.

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A lesson with Lee Pearson

Following my last experience with having a lesson with “someone from outside,” I was somewhat worried about having a lesson with the holder of 10 gold Paralympic medals and a CBE, among other accoutrements. Had I not paid a deposit ahead of time I would not have gone through with it this close to the last one.

But I had paid, so we were doing it.

As quite a few people had had their lessons before me I was able to find out what to expect. Lee Pearson would be seated in his (beautifully shiny red 4×4) car in the corner of the school and would be speaking to me through a microphone/earpiece. I would wear the earpiece and battery pack. Everyone seemed to have enjoyed their lessons, but I wasn’t placing too much store in that as last time everyone but me enjoyed their lessons.

D being generally easy-going about such things I knew I wouldn’t have to worry too much about the car being in the school, so at least all I had to worry about in that regard was not crashing into it. That would be embarrassing, to say the least.

Owing to my little holiday, I hadn’t ridden for 3 days beforehand, which felt like a ridiculously long time, so I was keen to get on board for bit before the lesson. Luckily I managed a 15 min warm up before my slot and we pottered around. I’m glad I did as it helped me to go into the lesson more confident and I’m sure the warmup was good for woolly-boy.

The preceding rider was the eldest of the teens, with her immaculately groomed horse plaited and herself looking smart in white jodhs and a black jacket. She’s been riding her horse for 8 years so they’re a pretty “together” package. On the other hand my horse was a bit grubby, desperate for a mane pulling and I was head to toe in purple*, more by luck than judgement. Ah well. If I spent energy stressing about the way we looked I’d have little left for the lesson.

So my slot rolled around and we entered the school and introduced ourselves. I explained where we were with the canter (i.e. me barely cantering at all these days). If he’d have said he didn’t want us to canter I’d have been fine with that, but I was pleased to hear that he did want us to have a go.

And by Pegasus** we cantered!

But first a little trot work. In trot we did a delightfully fun exercise – within the trot we varied the speed to the min and the max. We tried to find (and sustain) the slowest trot he was capable of without it becoming a walk and the fastest trot without it becoming a canter. The slow trot fascinated me and focussed me; the fast delighted me.

Since I got this horse I have been told “steady the trot,” “slow the rhythm,” “stop him rushing,” “tick-tock, slow and steady.” A constant litany that I should be holding him back, slowing the rising, steady, steady, slower. And being obedient, so I have done. I have almost never urged him on in trot – always the constant insistence that he slows down. So to let him go and even ask for more speed was such a release. It was hard to find the balance of asking for more but staying in trot, but it was great fun trying.

The idea was then to ask for the canter from this trot, because horses, if left to their own devices, or on the lunge, run into canter. This was in complete contrast to anything that had been suggested before, but I’m always happy to try something new. The other big new concept for me was that if he went on the wrong leg we would keep cantering and come onto a circle. To let him feel that cantering that way on a circle is harder than doing it properly. To make the circle smaller if he didn’t seem to get it. To come back to trot for only a few strides, make sure I had inside bend and ask again for while the legs were really active under him, helping him to strike off right.

The first right canter was on the wrong leg, so we sailed around the school at great pace on the wrong leg. I won’t say I’ve never done this before, but it’s the first time I’ve done it without feeling bad about it! Yes we were unbalanced, but hey, we were both learning things!

The next time I asked for canter two amazing things happened.

1) He picked up the correct lead

2) It felt better than the wrong one

Point 1 proved that Lee’s method works for us. Point 2 probably also supports that, but also suggests that the weak leg is stronger than it was. Last time I cantered him on the right leg on that rein it felt just as wrong as being on the wrong leg. Progress has been made.

Of course all of this was a bit worrying for the woolly-boy. And when he worries he goes faster. Which is how we ended up flying round at great speed in little circles, not always on the right leg, with no brakes. Having a humorous and chilled out voice in my earpiece was rather helpful at these times and although there were hairy moments where I argued briefly with centrifugal and centripetal forces, there was only one moment where I felt the pull of gravity and knew all my weight was in one stirrup and wondered if it and the girth would hold me. There were also a few moments when we wondered if we would hit a wall (or worse – Lee’s beautiful shiny car), but every crisis was averted, one way or another.

So we didn’t have brakes or, at some points, steering. But we had speed, we had canter and we had fun. We also had a flying change at one point, apparently.

Was it a controlled, elegant ride? Nope!

Was it the first time I’ve ridden my horse like we’re both alive? Maybe.

Was it out of our comfort zones? Yes.

Are we going to ride like that again? Hell yes.

That was the canter exhilaration I’ve only had at Caeiago before. I didn’t know you could get that in a school. I didn’t know I could get that in a school. I didn’t know we could get that in a school. You may recall that in previous posts I’ve been pretty excited about cantering a single 20m circle? Well I had no idea I/we were capable of the canter circles we did with Lee.

We discussed lunging, briefly. Lee recommended, as under saddle, that if he goes on the wrong leg on the lunge, fine, let him canter on the wrong leg, but bring him into a smaller circle to help him learn that it would be easier to go correctly.

I feel that what I learnt from Lee (apart from that I can stick on better than I thought 😉 ) is a way of helping Drifter learn for himself rather than a way to teach him. This feels right to me. I can’t teach a horse how to canter. I am not a horse. I am not an experienced horse-woman. He is the horse, and the responsibility to learn is with him. Yes I will learn alongside him and give him all the support I can, but I can’t do his job as well as mine.

I realise that I have written little about Lee Pearson. This was not my intention, but on the other hand I don’t want to delete anything I have written and I don’t want this to turn into another epic post.

The most important thing I can write about Lee is that if you ever see an opportunity to have a lesson from him, seize it. Everyone I spoke to who had a lesson from him came out glowing and beaming and asking when we could get him back for another day of lessons (I believe February is a possibility). We were riders and horses of all different ability levels, personalities and experiences but every one of us had a positive experience.

What else should I say. That he was funny? Undoubtedly. That he kept me calm when others would have panicked me? Definitely. That he made me feel capable, positive and empowered*** regarding my riding and my horse? Certainly.

But these things do not capture the character of Lee Pearson, and he has a great deal of character. Instead I will try to quote a few of the things he said to me. It is inevitable that I will have remembered these in my own words, which is a shame, as I would rather offer you his, but I cannot do anything about that. I’ll do my best to capture the spirit. For the full experience read them to yourself with a grin.

“I want you to leave today as a canter-whore.”

“Your horse has energy a lot of warmbloods don’t have. It’s good to see in a native breed.”

“I don’t know you from Adam but I’m proud of you.”

“I’m so glad you didn’t end up hitting the wall because then you would have left with this being a negative experience.”

Readers, I think I might be a canter-whore.

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Lee Pearson links: http://www.leepearson.co.uk/id2.html

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Lee-Pearson-CBE/182388078495516

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lee_Pearson

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*Well not actually head to toe – hat, boots and half-chaps were black(ish), so actually I was knee to neck in purple if you want to be exact.

**Insert deity of choice.

***I tend to avoid this word or use it ironically because it’s so overused in certain circles. But in this sentence it’s here to do a job without irony.

On and off the lunge line

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For the past few weeks Drifter and I have been having our lessons on the lunge* line. I’d decided I wanted a chance to work without reins to look at my position, and thought it would be good to do some sitting trot without trying to steer at the same time. I’d not been offered lunge lessons before, but when I asked they agreed, albeit with a cautious “Is he OK on the lunge?” To which the answer is that he’s not going to rear, buck or go bonkers, and comes with reasonable voice control, but hasn’t really got the hang of what shape a circle is supposed to be.

The instructors and office manager seemed surprised that I wanted lunge lessons. I’m not sure why – they all know I have symmetry issues that I’m trying to improve and to me this seemed one of the most logical ways to look into them.

In the first lesson we just worked in walk and trot. Drifter was well-behaved in terms of speed and gait, but struggled with the circle concept, particularly on the troublesome right rein, and put some corners into the circles, which were pretty unsettling for me, but I sat through them OK.  At first we just worked on rising trot (with stirrups), getting in balance with the horse and getting my hips and shoulders following him. This I found quite difficult, but then, the reason we were doing this was because I thought things weren’t right, so I was glad to uncover what I’m struggling with. By the end of the lesson we took my stirrups away and did some work on sitting trot, which went better than I’d expected, but mostly involved me holding onto the saddle to pull myself into it. I learnt that my right hip isn’t as mobile as it needs to be and is in the habit of doing very little.

Following that first lesson I had a reasonable amount of muscle soreness, which in itself was a useful learning tool. When I rode on my own in the days following the lesson I could feel when I was turning correctly with him (i.e. things were sore) and when I was slipping into old habits (couldn’t feel anything).

In the second lesson we began with a quick discussion of the bit (at this point I was using the borrowed bit with the full cheeks) and for some reason that ended with the instructor tightening the girth and not me. I hopped on and we started with some rising trot with stirrups. I got into balance on each rein much more quickly and easily than I had in the previous lesson. As we returned to walk on the right rein I noticed the saddle had slid to the outside a bit. “The saddle’s slipped,” I called to the instructor, to signal I wasn’t ready for another go, then, “The saddle’s going… the saddle’s going … the rider’s going!” During the last word gravity had taken over and I was falling through the air. The ground met me kindly and I rolled and stood almost before I’d finished speaking.

One the one hand I know to always check my own girth, but on the other hand the instructors have been doing girths up for me since my first lesson so it never occurred to me there’d be a problem. We sorted out the saddle (by now worn fetchingly on the side of my horse) again with her doing it up (this time because I was a little edgy with adrenaline and couldn’t get a good grip on the leather) and she gave me a leg up. They like to get people back in the saddle as soon as possible after a fall. Although I was completely uninjured I’ve always thought I’d like a little breather first, but there we are. So I was back on board and the instructor told me the girth was tight this time. Knowing my horse and my tack, I asked which holes the girth was on. She replied “1 and 3.” I’m glad I asked because that would have had me on the floor again!** Once we’d tightened the girth again and got back into the lesson we did a little canter with stirrups on the left rein but couldn’t get him to strike off on the right leg on the right rein, which was quite disappointing because we’d assumed on the lunge he’d go on the right leg OK, but we didn’t have any time left to keep trying.

That was the lesson before the dressage test. I did feel like surely I should have had a lesson on the test rather than lunging, but I was so pleased with how much I was learning on the lunge. When I used my sore muscles to check I was turning with him, everything got better in the dressage test – turns onto the centre line were easier, circles were better, he was straighter and halts were squarer, so even though it felt weird to do so, I still chose the lunge lesson.

My third lunge lesson (and the most recent one) was the most intense. Rising trot balance was there almost immediately so we moved on to sitting trot without stirrups. We did quite a lot of this although I didn’t feel like it was going as well as I hoped. By this lesson Drifter seemed to have understood a bit more about circles so we had fewer unexpected corners in the circles, which helped me. We moved on to cantering without stirrups (eek). On the easy left rein we did a lot of cantering. For all that’s our good rein it was still very hard for me and I spent most of the time clinging to the saddle with both hands while trying not to get flung off the side of the wall of death. At one point he got a bit worried and gave his usual response of speeding up, which I did not entirely appreciate. There was at least one point when I shouted that I was going to fall off … but didn’t. Then we tried the other side, repeatedly asking him to strike off in canter and him always going on the wrong leg, unfortunately. We discussed different ways I could try to get that canter lead on my own outside of my lesson as the lesson was now over.

Following this most intense lunge lesson it was several days before my muscles recovered enough for me to walk normally. The day after I didn’t even try to ride because I didn’t think I could! I was supposed to have another lunge lesson a few days later but I was still so sore I changed it to an ordinary lesson. We spent much of it trying different tricks to get the right canter lead, all of which failed. We tried asking conventionally, asking just before a pole across the corner of the school, asking on a circle, by riding him at the  fence, and by counter bending him. All failed. Any more suggestions will be gratefully received! In my last regular lesson before I started lunge lessons we had this problem and eventually the instructor got on. It took her about 8 tries and she eventually got it by counterbending him into the wall, but when I tried that this time I still couldn’t get it.

I’m not really sure where we go from here. I thought I might try lungeing him without a person on top and see if he gets it then or not, but that will have to wait for a day when we won’t be in riders’ ways (as you’re not allowed to lunge in a school someone’s riding in or vice versa). I’m afraid I’m going to end up having to pay for a lot of schooling for him to get this, which I can’t really afford, but on the other hand if I want to do walk trot canter dressage (which I do want to do) or jump (I do want to do this once we’ve got canter steering sussed) then I need him to be able to canter in both directions!

On the other hand I’ve had him canter on that leg properly before. It was never easy to get him into canter in that direction, but I’m sure I’ve done it quite a few times and I think he was on the right leg, so I don’t know why he’s suddenly decided he can’t do that. In fact I’ve just checked back to my Centaur Biomechanics videos – he was on the correct leg that day, apart from one brief time when Russell pointed it out and we came back to trot. Quite why this has become a problem I don’t know. Hmm. I suspect this will be the subject of future blog posts. I’m glad I’ve got video evidence that we’ve successfully cantered on that rein on the correct leg, otherwise I’d be wondering if I’d imagined it. If we’ve done it before I’m sure we can do it again. I’m just not sure why we’ve it’s become such an issue lately, especially as so many things seem to be falling into place nicely. Cantering on our happy left rein I pretty much just have to think the transition to canter and it happens. We can do circles of a sort (remembering that his concept of a circle has corners and mine is often egg-shaped – what I really mean is we can make shapes that are vaguely roundish) and I am generally more relaxed and in control than I have ever been in canter before. So some things are going very well. No doubt in time we’ll solve this and then some new problem will arise! But in the meantime if anyone knows any tricks for getting that right canter lead happening, please do let me know.

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*Yes, UK spelling – Firstly because I’m British and secondly because I find it really confusing that in the US you have horses lounging around, which sounds way less energetic than the reality of what you’re writing about!

**Drifter really puffs up when girthed. Initially every day I struggle to get him into the  first hole one each side (i.e. the girth is as long as possible). Then I pick his feet which distracts him and then I can easily go up to 1 and 3. I walk him to the school where I go up to a minimum of 3 and 3 before getting on and should probably (although I often don’t) go to 4 on one side once I’m on.