I woke up Sunday morning not sure what day it was, or why my alarm was going of at 6 am. When I finally figured all of that out, I climbed out of bed feeling like I’d been hit by a truck, so that was gobs of fun. After a little coffee I was feeling slightly more human, and I made my way to the host farm to hand walk my horse and work out any stiffness he might have had.
Val happily explored the property with me, and seemed to be feeling pretty good despite having been cooped up all night in a stall. I groomed slowly, climbed on, and gave him some time to walk around in the arena, before giving him a slow, stretchy trot warm up as well–remembering to use the lengthening and shortening exercises we’d done the day before to work up to a more steady contact, and then we got right to work a few minutes after 8:30.
Ragan pulled out the poles on a curve exercise again this time at both the trot and canter, and he really emphasized that even though we should help the horse to an extent, we should really let the horse self-correct and learn from a mistake, rather than making a big correction. I actually had a lot more trouble with this exercise the second day, especially at the trot. Val is really peeky about poles on the ground (well poles in general-it’s why he jumps so well) and the first time through I had to let him just work it out and trot across all of the poles.
Once we’d worked that out, I really struggled to get Val to the middle and stepping across the pole nicely so that we only put one step between each pole. Ragan explained that I needed to really separate my aids in order to help him, since the exercise wasn’t as intuitive for him. Even though I needed to soften with my hand a little and not let my upper body get in the way, I needed to keep my leg on to encourage him to step up and across, and I needed to continue to steer across the curved poles with my inside hand, outside leg, and outside hip.
Finally, finally I figured out the magic combination of leg into hand but still giving him somewhere to go, and he stepped across the poles beautifully each way.
Then it was time to canter the poles! This went a lot better, and Ragan still got on me for not separating my aids well enough, but Val figured out the exercise for himself much better than he had at the trot, and we only did a few passes each way.
After mastering the poles, we moved onto jumping. We used the same single as a warm up fence again, but it had actually moved up the ring several strides. Val cantered down no problem to a nice waiting distance, then we had to open just a bit for a more gappy distance, but Val stayed relaxed about whatever choice I made and was right with me.
I worked hard to remember to keep my body up, and to ask by closing my leg and committing to the fence, rather than by throwing my body a stride out and it paid off well.
When I found a slight gap a couple of times, I asked Ragan if I was making the right decision. He affirmed that it was the right choice to make, and as the canter improved and we progressed, we were going to be more comfortable with that distance, and it would start to be a little less gappy.
Once we’d gotten a little height with the single (again, also remembering to think like a trainer on the back side), we moved onto a line on the other side of the arena, that was a pretty normal 5. We started with an oxer in, and out over a vertical. Neither were set all that big, just to give the horses a chance to find the right stride length to make it out in 5. The other two horses in our group had to open up a bit down the line, and jumped out a smidge long, so Ragan warned me that on my smaller horse, I would really need to motor.
Taking the advice to heart, we picked up a nice open, rolling canter, jumped in from a nice waiting distance, and I was able to let him flow for a couple of strides, and then just hold and wait for the base of the out no problem. Small he may be, but making strides is usually the least of our problems!
We did the line a few more times, making it bigger and bigger each time. Even though on the first pass, we found a close distance, the in came up a little long each time after, and I had to give a little extra encouragement at the base each time just to make sure Val knew we were jumping. Ragan again reassured me that the distance will eventually not feel so uncomfortable to us, and that as he gets more rideable, we won’t see that kind of distance as much.
After one of several times through the line when Val was giving me a lot of sass about bending around my leg on the turn to the line, which was causing our distance to get funky every time, I mentioned the issue to Ragan, and asked whether I should be making a big deal out of the issues, and putting my foot down, or if I should just accept and ride the horse I had, who was a little tired and a little crankier.
He paused a moment to discuss with us, explaining that we should always work with the horse but at the same time, we do sometimes need to insist that the horse do something correctly. In this scenario, it was better to leave him be, and make things work as is, since we were in more of a show type of setting, but that at home, it was ok to sometimes get a little meaner about shaping Val around my leg and not letting him get so hollow and unbalanced.
With that bit of information in mind, we jumped the line once or twice more with the height getting closer and closer to the tops of the standards, and then we moved onto a mini course.
We were to jump a single on the diagonal, canter around around the end of the arena and then jump a two stride. Since we had already worked up to the right height, everything started around 3’6, and despite my nervousness, Val cantered right up to all of the new jumps without issue, and I made good decisions. Even the two stride, which often causes problems for us if we don’t start small, worked out nicely, despite a little sass coming around the turn that made our approach wiggly.
After lots of singles and lines, we strung together a full course. It started with the same single on the diagonal, but going the other way (toward the gate), which was a much trickier approach, because its placement really made you want to leave the rail too early, and it took a lot of planning and trust in that plan to make the approach correct. From the single we went up that outside line, down another single on the other diagonal we hadn’t yet jumped, the first single going the opposite direction (away from the gate) and a quiet, bending six to the out of the outside line, and then finish over the two stride.
He didn’t give us much insight or help, and expected us to really make a plan before starting, rather than flying by the seat of our pants, or just jumping the jumps as they presented themselves.
We needed to wait to come off of the rail to the first jump, then really use all of the arena after to get a good approach to the line. Then to the next single after the line, we needed to shape our horses well and use a lot of outside leg to hit the jump straight and in the middle, since we had to go around some barrels and another jump, and the horses might not lock on as well. Then it was a long canter to get yourself organized, and what needed to be a quiet distance into the bending line, so that you could put a lot of bend in the line to jump out in a quiet six. By this point in the course, we would probably be pretty forward, and might need to settle again for the two stride, so that we wouldn’t have a rail on the vertical that was the out.
I executed the first jump pretty much how I meant to, but then lost my horse’s shoulder turning to the line, and totally botched the distance when I saw the long spot that was just too long, and Val put one more stride in, pulling himself neatly over the big oxer, and still making it out in five. Bless this horse for not holding a grudge, and for really having grown up this year to take care of me like that. The next jump also rode just how I wanted it to, but I came in too big to the bending line rather than finding the close distance I wanted, and I apologized midair as we jumped out in a lovely, but incorrect five strides. We then came around the turn to the two stride with a little too much pace, jumped in big, and squeezed in two tight strides, jumping out clean, but with a hard rub that would have cost us a rail if there had been flat cups.
Ragan wasn’t too upset about my putting in five strides, and said it was simply a lack of planning, and not realizing how open my horse’s stride was since we were so far along in the course. At the two stride however, I should have known better, and he was quick to remind me that it was only my horses clever feet and curved cups that had saved me from a rail. If the combination had been a vertical-vertical combo at the end of a course, I likely would have had at least one, if not both of the top rails.
I went back and did the bending line by itself after giving my horses a moment to sit, and I found a more appropriate close distance, really shaped my horse and made an intentional track, and the six worked out just fine. Since we’d had trouble with it the day before, I asked if we could do the bending line to the green jump on the blind turn to end, especially since the second fence was still set pretty small. He was a little wiggly, and not quite sure where we were headed, but my good little thoroughbred jumped the jump and then dived around the short turn and celebrated.
All-in-all, my session was a lot less about being talked through everything and told how to do things, and a lot more about being required to make those connections ourselves. We had to make a plan, and execute it, without any guidance before hand. Essentially, we were asked to “think like a trainer” for the whole session, and I learned a lot, even if what I learned was much more about feel and knowing what to expect from my horse, and less about specific tools that I can verbalize.
My horse was much more squealy and sassy on Sunday, but even still I felt like we really belonged in the 3’6+ group, and I felt like we were really set up to perform at our best all day by the way Ragan warmed us up.
After the session wrapped up, I stuck around for a few minutes to discuss with Ragan what I needed to work on. His main suggestions were to work on the quality of Val’s canter, mainly that it be less hollow, and more leg to hand. This made sense, and we’ve obviously been working on it. We actually had a lovely bit of canter on Saturday when I picked it up to go to a jump, and when I told Val he was being good and cantering nicely, Ragan appreciated that I recognized and rewarded my horse for it. As far as improving myself, he wanted me to work more on separating all of my aids and being able to use them independently. This mainly applied to the jumping. I have a tendency to get really soft everywhere over and just before poles, jumps, etc. because Val is a really sensitive guy, and I’ve worked hard to get to a place where he’s not upset about my fussing. But now, it’s time to ask that he accept a bit more. Ragan described it as the difference between getting in the horse’s way, and helping him, and explained that the horse will recognize the difference and be more accepting of help as he learns to recognize it.
This made itself most obvious over the pole exercise, where I was giving with my hand too much and throwing my horse away, and letting my leg off so that I wasn’t providing any support over the poles. I’m still digesting that tidbit, and processing how best to execute it. In my mind anyway, this is a pretty advanced concept, and there aren’t really any exercises I can do to practice. In order to get better, I simply need to be aware, and be disciplined enough to think about it all the time so that I can improve, and that’s hard. But my horse stepped up well, so the least I can do is step up to meet him halfway.
Ragan also asked if he was really all thoroughbred as we were discussing these things, and I think he was impressed with the heart and talent in my little ex-racehorse, which had me tickled.
Here’s higher quality video of (almost) everything if you’re curious! If you have the sound on, you’ll hear my shouted “Sorry!”
I was planning to include everything I learned from the other sessions in this post, but since we’re already at 2,000 words, I’m going to let that be a post on its own–don’t worry, there’s plenty of wisdom still coming!