Me with Euro’s Amazing Grace and coach Jenna Rogerson (Skyland Stables) - photo by Tara West

Dave with Euro’s Amazing Grace and coach Jenna Rogerson (Skyland Stables) – photo by Tara West

by Dave Hanley:

My second winter show of the season took place last weekend, and leading up to it, Coach and I (well…really Coach herself) came to some rather important epiphanies about my riding.

First off, when my nerves kick in (as they often would at a show), I tend to ride with a rather forward light seat, or as she referred to it – perching.  Picture a bird perched dangerously on a wire…then put that bird on a 1,500 pound animal hurtling over jumps and that was essentially me.  Secondly, she noticed that as I got further into my course, my reins tended to get longer and longer, resulting in a phenomenon she likes to call ‘driving the bus from the back seat’.  Trust me, it feels just like it sounds.

Once we identified these issues, they were the main focus of our lessons working up to the show.  I thought coach had lost her mind in one session, when she started me trotting on a lunge line with no hands and then suddenly told me to ask the horse to canter.  Huh? Did you say canter? You realize I haven’t picked up my reins again right?  She knew…

Let’s just say my seat got real deep real quick with that exercise.  Perching problem: fixed.

The next challenge was my reins.  At home, with a smaller arena and shorter lines, this problem seemed relatively minor.  But open things up in the big ring as we did on schooling days, and things would go to hell in a hand basket pretty fast.  The horse gets on the forehand, my turns get sloppy and my position over fences becomes rather pathetic.

To remedy this, Coach elected to go with the age old method of ‘repetition-based torture’ to burn it into my brain that my reins were just too long.  After a few hundred times, the chorus: “Shorter reins!’ reverberated in my head without her having to say it, and – Voila! Problem fixed.

By making these adjustments to my position in the weeks leading up to the show, my control of the horse became much better which resulted in my striding and distances becoming far more consistent.

When show day arrived, the only two thoughts in my mind were ‘seat’ and ‘reins’.   I found it quite helpful to limit the number of thoughts in my head, as trying to think of too many things, especially under the pressure of a show, is often counter-productive.  I will admit, however, thoughts of my fall at the last show on the ‘dreaded’ outside pink flower 6-stride did creep into my mind a few times while schooling (Especially because I just had my show jacket dry-cleaned!)

In addition to my two schooling rounds and the three trips over fences, Gracie and I were also gearing up for our under saddle class.  The under saddle used to be my least favorite part of competing in hunters (after all, it’s way more fun jumping over stuff!) but now I have actually learned to appreciate the finesse and skill it takes to show off your horse’s movement and manners on the flat.  Plus the girls at the barn constantly remind me that with such a nice horse, I have no excuse for not winning this class!

Grace with ribbons - photo by Paige West Paige West

Grace  – photo by Paige West Paige West

What made things even more interesting on this Sunday morning in April was the fact that more than 20 other horses had entered in our division.  With this being a larger than normal turnout for a spring show, I would have to seriously step up my game if I wanted to be competitive.

Although Gracie was a little bit fresh, my morning schooling rounds went well.  I hit all of my numbers on the lines and maintained good contact with my reins and since she was a bit forward already, staying in my seat pretty much went without saying.  One issue we worked on after the schooling rounds was getting a better inside bend around the corners, as my shorter reins seemed to lead to some unnecessary outside rein, which resulted in a couple unbalanced corners.

My next three trips over fences also went extremely well.  Again I had proper striding on all of the lines, good pace and for the most part picked good distances throughout the course.  One error I made (which I found out later was actually quite costly) was asking for a little too much ‘whoa’ in a turn, putting Gracie into a trot for 2 steps, and ultimately resulting in being outside of the ribbons in that round.

When the dust settled at the end of the day, my show jacket was still clean (except for some green hay-slobber Grace nailed me with when I was doing up her girth) and I had a handful of ribbons to show for my efforts on the day.

First in under saddle - photo by Paige West

First in under saddle!!! – photo by Paige West

To my own amazement, I had actually won the under saddle class (yippee!) as well as two third place ribbons in the over fences and another two second place ribbons in the schooling rounds.  Thinking that my accolades were over, I left the ring, only to find out from Coach that they announced I had also tied for reserve champion!  Unbelievable.  Apparently if I hadn’t broken to that brief trot in the first over fences round…I likely would have at minimum been solo reserve champ, if not overall champion!

I couldn’t have been more pleased with the results.  Not only in the stack of ribbons I could now proudly display on Grace’s stall door, but even more so in the confidence I had gained in the ring since the last show.  My hard work had definitely paid off, and things were really starting to click.

We are now prepping for one more pre-season show before my ‘big A-circuit hunter debut’ in May.  We still have lots of work to do in the next few weeks, but after seeing some of the fruits of my labour, I am even more motivated than I was before.