Ragan Roberts is based out of Virginia and shows all across the US. He rides everything from green beans to top level Grand Prix horses and trains his own clients along with providing clinics throughout the year.
The theme of the weekend was finding the right track, by practicing the creation of a correct bend and then completely removing the bend for proper straightness after the turn. All of this helped create a listening horse that was riding from the leg to the hand happily.
We dived right in with the first exercise.
There were only three of us, so we kept our flatting to the top 1/4 or of the ring, On the long side which was not against the rail, Ragan placed three trot poles and had us first walk through them as a group several times until the horses were pushing to step through the poles instead of losing contact and getting short and choppy through them. The first time trough Val was a little wiggly, as he is wont to do. He’s always a little peeky, especially with poles on the ground which is why he jumps so well all the time. He improved every time through though, as did I. When I shortened my reins and pushed him up into the bridle he stepped through with suspension.
Once everyone had mastered this with a working walk and soft contact, we moved on to the trot. Val had no problem with suspension through the poles at the trot, but we did struggle with keeping the momentum, and stretching through his top-line instead of losing contact through the poles. Ragan asked us to slow down, and use more leg through the poles. All of that seems so backwards, but it worked. By slowing our pace going in, Val carried a more appropriate stride for the exercise, which allowed him to push off in front of each pole instead of having to suddenly change his stride length and getting choppy/inverted. The result:
Even in the photo my reins could have been shorter but you can still see how nice he was through the poles, and suspended enough that in this moment none of his feet are touching the ground. Through this whole exercise we were asking for a nice bend in the corner, and creating true straightness in between. It was important not to lose or gain momentum coming out of the turn, so that the poles didn’t go poorly. All of this helped create a horse that was right between the hand and leg, and was allowing a soft contact.
Once everyone was doing this nicely both ways with a nice bend, but not an over-bend, the exercise was modified to be a tiny vertical that we (one at a time) cantered over several times, working on the same things. This was where it became much more evident when we were not on the right track, or the horse never completely lost his bend. Val was very good through this exercise and with the correct bend, and good track and size of stride (which needed to be a tad on the collected side), and a concentration on taking the bend back out of his body quickly, the jump came up nice every time without needing to adjust. Any error was almost always on my part, as Val was listening so well. If I didn’t ask him to straighten, he held the bend and the jump came up funny, while we fell in on the turn on the backside. When I rode every part of my horse the jump was perfect, and he went straight after.
The left lead was harder for us than the right lead, because his canter is just not as nice going left and it seems to be harder for him to carry a quality canter. Regardless, he tried very hard for me, and you can see in the photo above what a nice bascule this exercise produced quite consistently. I think we did about 3-4 times around on each side, before we all moved on to a new exercise.
The next exercise was the first in our actual “jumping.” Ragan considered all the exercises previous to be part of our flat work. Despite that, we were practicing many of the same things; bending -> straight, correct (and consistent) track, and finding an appropriate stride length. Again, this exercise was off of the left lead, then the right. But instead of going around and around, we jumped, halted, and then waited in line. We came off the left lead first to the vertical behind Val in the above photo, and it was a very shallow, backwards turn off the rail. Ragan stressed the need to look ahead before the turn, and not to cut the turn too early. The first time, I turned a solid three strides earlier than I needed to, and gave myself a very short and not so great approach. The halt on the backside was very wiggly, and Val really wanted to dive through the turn instead of halting straight, especially since we had continued cantering in the previous exercise. I did my best to keep him between my hand and leg, and though it was messy, he finally halted fairly straight.
Something that I know – but that it is easy to forget – is that horses are creatures of habit. Ragan reminded us that horses usually want to do whatever they did the last time. Because of this, he wasn’t unhappy with our halt; since Val was expecting to keep cantering around the turn, it makes sense that he was not prepared for a halt.
We then came off of the right lead, and this was an easier turn, but we had to go by a pile of scary jump fillers. This made it tricky to get a good bend through the turn without his hind end disengaging, and the first time was not super pretty. However, our halt on the backside was much improved, thanks to a better use of my seat, and Val being prepared to halt. It was still a tad wiggly, but he did not fall apart through the downward transition.
We each did this several times, with the jump going up and eventually becoming an oxer. As the jump height increased, it became more and more important to get to a reasonable distance. This “sweet spot” turned out to be a little deeper than we are used to, and normally Val gets fussy when I get him to that spot frequently (because he has to try extra hard from that distance). I’m not sure if it was the way we warmed up, or just that he was being very cooperative, but he did not get fussy or mad at all.
Ragan explained that once we found the right track, it was crucial to stay on that track every time, and to adjust stride length, and look at the jump farther back in order to make a better adjustment to get to the jump well, rather than changing where we placed the turn or holding the bend too long to make the distance better.
Every time we came off of the right he wanted to stare at the pile of stuff, but he got better and better about paying more attention to me and bending nicely instead of falling in on the turn to avoid the scary things. This took a lot of support from the outside rein and inside leg, which again, Val was not at all cranky about, and it definitely helped later in the ride. Our halt ended up lovely, and he was really using his hind end well to transition down instead of falling onto his forehand. The key to this was engaging my own seat and core, and pushing him up into the bridle with lots of leg to support, instead of dropping him or halting with just hand. In a later group, there was a big emphasis on a correct halt, using your seat rather than standing in the stirrups to halt, and one girl was asked to drop her stirrups after the jump so that she had to use her seat to halt. This made her horse stop much more quickly, and in a straight line, keeping his hind end underneath him to transition.
Next it was on to courses! We first jumped a couple of the scarier things by themselves, those being an oxer with a crazy, abstract looking, splatter painted panel in front that was wide and definitely taller than we usually set when introducing a new jump, and an in-and-out that had a scary looking oxer on the out. Val definitely wanted a closer spot and had a slightly smaller canter on the approach, but he popped over no problem, and I was very glad my saddle was extra sticky from Friday night’s cleaning.
In preparing for course work, we also jumped a four stride line that was a vertical to a square oxer. This was between the blue oxer and the in-and-out to establish the right stride for courses and let the horses know we were going to be changing what we were doing. The first time down the line we almost had the four, but he peeked a smidge, and was not quite straight down the line, and we added a tight fifth stride.
While my first instinct was to be critical of my ride and Val’s hesitation, Ragan reminded us again that horses are habitual creatures. Up until that point we had carried a more collected stride and jumped lots of singles. Now he knew what I wanted and the next time through should be easier. He was right of course, and then next time down the line the distance was a smidge long, but Val jumped out in four and blew me out of the tack in the process.
This is the course that we did:
The first time was ugly. There were ok parts, but it was not my best. Until this point I was thinking “man, my eye has been pretty spot on today!” Then I cantered down to the first jump which was painted to look like a brick wall, and went “I don’t see it!” My motto is generally “when in doubt leave it out,” which I’m not saying is a good thing, but it is what it is. Val however said, “This is new. It’s kind of scary, and you’re a crazy woman. I’m putting my feet down one more time.” So we climbed over, and kept cantering around the end of the ring. We didn’t really go straight long enough, and it took a while to get ourselves recomposed. Unfortunately we never got back to a good quality canter, and we also came too backed off to the in-and-out, which was bigger than the previous time through, and Val then added a stride and climbed over the oxer, somehow leaving it up because this little thoroughbred has scope for days. It’s a miracle that he went straight, because otherwise I’d have eaten some dirt. It was at this point that I worried I would have to say goodbye to the “don’t embarrass my trainer” goal, because after that mess, we couldn’t even get our lead change. We circled, I took a deep breath, and we jumped number 3 quite nicely which was a roll top we hadn’t yet jumped. We got a slightly close distance, which was appropriate for the turn we needed to make, but then coming out of the turn to the brick the other direction, I didn’t make a great turn, and moved up past my distance for another too deep distance. We cantered down to the oxer in 8 instead of 7 because we didn’t jump into the line well, and ended ok on the outside 4. This was when I reminded myself that the point of a clinic is to learn, and not to be perfect. Making mistakes is a good thing, because it means I now have a learning opportunity.
The next horse had a similar issue with the 2 stride, so it was put back down a hole to be more inviting.
The next time around, I had a plan. I was going to keep my leg on softly all the way to the base of jump one, and I was going to stay on the rail longer for a better approach. On the landing I needed to go straight longer, bend through the turn, and get a good pace going so the 2 stride would be smooth. I executed all of that well, and then shortened a bit for number 3 to prepare for the turn off the rail to 4. This turn was better as far as track, but I overcompensated, and instead of holding my shorter stride, I kept shortening so that we still didn’t get a perfect distance, though it was an acceptable distance. Because it was tight though, we had to gallop down to the oxer. Because we got to a pretty long distance, I didn’t trust him enough to leave the ground (which he did quite amiably) and I wasn’t with him over the jump. While he was still awake we came right back to the line and did the 7 quite nicely.
When it was our turn again, we did the course one more time. We had finally mastered most of the tests in the course, so we practiced shaving off some time by not going so wide after the roll top. Our track this time stayed inside the pink line on the paper, without affecting our turn, and we jumped into the line great, and back out without having to fly down the line, since Val now knew what was expected.
All in all it was a super productive day. Val was super brave and willing, maintained a solid work ethic, and any mistakes were generally mine; as soon as I fixed myself, Val got better too. Sunday’s lesson wasn’t quite as intense, so I will use that post to go over everything I learned from the other sessions as well.
Did you learn anything new from this write up? Did I put too much detail or not enough? Did any of you readers attend this weekend as well? If so are your impressions thus far similar to mine?