I recently went up to Sunset Hills Eventing for a 3-day clinic with Eric Smiley. He comes to Maryland three or four times each year, and Kate Chadderton hosts him at her farm. If you ride the whole thing, lovingly scheduled by Beth Sokohl, you do one day in each discipline. I always do all three, partly because it allows Charlie a few days to settle in, and partly because I find eventing to be like algebra — each discipline builds on the last. So I feed more relaxed and prepared for show jumping after a day of flat work, and I’m more ready for cross country after a successful jumping lesson in the arena. Not that I’ve conquered my nerves, mind you!

Once again, this clinic did not disappoint. I know I’m just riding Beginner Novice level, but I feel like I learn more than all the other riders do. Maybe that’s because I have more to learn. Maybe it’s because Eric makes it fun. He also knows that I try to hide my nervousness at cross country, and he sets us up for success. And he usually sneaks things in so that you wind up doing more than you thought possible.

The part I really like (which goes hand-in-glove with the sports psychology session I recently had with Daniel Stewart) is that Eric is so positive. Some instructors won’t tell you what to do, but expect you to find it on your own. So all you hear is, “Stop moving your hands” or “Quit driving with your seat.” But that doesn’t work so well for me. Tell me what to do, and I’ll try my best to get there. I may only achieve it for a little while, but then my muscles and my mind have something to try to replicate. And Eric does just that: “Hold you hands still. Put them in front of your saddle and hold a bit of mane to stabilize where your hands go. Then release the mane as you settle into the position.”

Hearing Different Words

One of the things that makes my time with Eric so useful is that he says things differently. For instance, I constantly hear at home that Charlie and I need “more speed,” especially at the canter. Eric says it differently. He says we don’t need more “speed,” but that I need to stop working so hard to carry us around, because try as I might, I just can’t carry around a 1,000 pound horse! He insists that Charlie carries me. What a magical phrase! “He carries you.” So instead of focusing on going faster, I focus on requiring Charlie to do more of the work, while keeping our gaits “forward, straight, and regular.”

That’s one of the big lessons I’ve learned about clinics. It helps to hear someone new — a different voice, different words, different descriptions. Sometimes I think I’ve heard my instructors at home a little too much because their regular admonitions don’t seem to mean anything anymore. It’s almost like they’re not even speaking English. The words just become random sounds with no meaning. Something as simple as hearing someone else use a unique way of describing the same concept can help you make an improvement that has eluded you for ages.

Dressage

I feel comfortable in the saddle, but embarrassed with the quality of our flat work. You typically get Eric in a private lesson for this phase, with a little bit of a viewing gallery of other riders. It began as it usually does, with Charlie dragging his hooves lazily around the ring, and Eric pushing me to push him to take more responsibility for moving forward.

He also showed me how to stop “rowing the boat,” and keep my hands more quiet. I can’t do it all the time, but now that I know how to get there, I keep working on staying there. Same with my seat.

Eric has also taught me how to be more brave, tapping Charlie with the whip when he breaks his gait before I ask him to. It takes some moxie to hit a 16.2 hand horse with a whip. But when I do it from a place of leadership (Hey! This is what we’re doing. Not that.) it’s very different than just a random vengeful whack with the whip. And as weird as it sounds, my mental attitude somehow translates through the end of that stick.

He also showed me how to take a firmer contact with the reins, and be demonstrative with Charlie about what I want to do. More importantly, he showed me how to do that without just hanging on Charlie’s mouth. It’s a fine line, and a nuanced one to master. But again, now I know the kind of contact that Charlie responds well to, and what I’m wanting to repeat.

Show Jumping

This is where my anxiety begins to kick in. The lead up is a little nerve wracking, but manageable. And once I’m jumping, I can’t remember why I was so nervous. But there’s always something to challenge my ability to maintain composure. This time it was the oxer. We don’t normally do them at home, and it’s always a little startling to me when I see them.

I was fortunate to have Eric all to myself for this lesson, too. He asked where we were, and I told him that I had a very successful lesson a couple of days prior at 2’6″ at home. He smiled wryly, congratulated me, and set about the lesson, which was all about the rollback. Before I knew it, he had me doing courses, often changing them on me after a single run through.

And he let me learn a couple of lessons the hard way. One course had the final two jumps as an oxer, and a bending line to a vertical that came up quickly. He mentioned that the vertical was very soon after the oxer, and that I needed to look at it while I was over the oxer, and be very clear about where we were going. Well, my nervousness kicked in, and I was so happy to have cleared the oxer that I completely forgot about the vertical. I finished and turned back to Eric, expecting to see his gentlemanly clap, only to see him shrug and put his hands on his hips. “What about the vertical?” Oh no! I forgot it. He said he thought about reminding me as I went over the oxer, but decided to let me learn the hard way because he could tell when I made the turn that my brain was done at the oxer. <sigh> And no, I didn’t forget another jump for the rest of the lesson!

Because he didn’t make a big deal about it, I didn’t realize until we were done that we had done the whole lesson at 2’6″. That’s a big deal for me because in our group lessons at home, the school horses we go out with are limited to 2′. So it’s nice to get some height going.

Cross Country

This is where I get the most nervous. And Eric knows. He’s taken enough people out that, like our horses, he can read us. The last time I took Charlie cross country schooling with Kate, he took off with me, bucking and snorting like some kind of possessed lunatic. I only stayed on because I was determine not to fall off and embarrass myself in front of Kate.

Today was our first ride on Kate’s new cross country course. She has converted a couple of pastures to a great schooling course, complete with hills, ditches, water, and a variety of jumps.

So even though today Charlie was a different horse, I hadn’t forgiven him, and had convinced myself that he was going to be equally bad this time. Eric started out with his usual check of the horse: do we have whoa (more important in an open field), go, left, and right. This particular day, Charlie had plenty of whoa, and needed some encouragement on the go. Lesson learned: ride the horse you have today, not the one you took out last time.

Eric started us over a small log (which Kate had pulled out just for us) headed uphill. It was a gentle and quiet way to start without Charlie getting to excited, or me getting to nervous. But despite it’s small size, I got a true jump out of Charlie. Then Eric wanted to see trot and canter on both the uphill and downhill terrain. It’s obvious I still need plenty of summer afternoon time running up and down the hills, getting comfortable with the downhill, and trusting Charlie four feet. But we did it, both gaits, and both directions.

We went after everything set out at Beginner Novice level, including a small corner (our first!). Overall we did well, but there were a few hiccups. For instance, we went to one coop without enough oomph, and Charlie refused (a few times). It was my fault and I knew it. Eric didn’t say anything because he knew I had learned my lesson. Once we conquered it, he reminded me that I have to be convinced first before either of us goes over any fence, but that it starts with me.

I also have to learn to be more ambidextrous with my whip hand. Eric had us go through the water to a small up bank coming out. The issue was that next to the back, on our left side, was a simple slope up out of the water. And Charlie, looking to conserve energy figured that if we were going out of the water either way, that it would be easier to just go up the slope, and he ran out to my left, skipping the bank. It took a couple of tries, and a move of the crop to my left hand, before we got it.

There were also beautiful moments, like when Eric sent us slightly uphill to a coop, then over level ground to a second coop with a downhill landing and departure, then up the hill to a log. We took the coops fine. My inner control freak started to kick in at the down hill, and I had a full conversation with myself in about half a second, and decided to leave Charlie alone, and trust his four feet to carry us safely down, and then back up the hill. It was a glorious, powerful canter, but not crazy. It was a great moment to choose to trust him, and for him to respond with such care and attentiveness and energy.

Friends

In addition to the wonderful instruction and experiences I always have with Eric, there are also the great friends who return to this clinic every time. It is good to see them, and to watch their progress as well.

I have a lot of schooling to do in the meantime, but I’m excited for how much we can accomplish by Eric’s next visit in the fall…