The schedule we received at check-in yesterday showed that I was down for the 8am ride with Waylon Roberts, and a 2:30pm ride with Phillip Dutton. So today, I arrived at the barn at 6:30am to feed Charlie Brown so he had enough time between eating and working. Plus, we were expected to be groomed, tacked, warmed up, and at our designated class meeting place 10 minutes in advance. So being at the barn early was mandatory.
So as not to get in over my head, I had signed up for the lowest level class. I figured that way the jumps wouldn’t be too big for Charlie and me to handle. But everything at True Prospect Farm seems to start around 2’6″ and gets bigger from there. The funny wrinkle was that the other people in my classes today were easily young enough to be my children. But that was its own form of motivation. I wasn’t going to cave in physically or mentally before they did. It was a point of pride for me!
Spoiler alert: Bunnie Sexton is my hero! That should give you some idea of my age bracket.
Lesson #1 – Cross Country Position & Pace
Thankfully, our first lesson was with Waylon Roberts, so it was a little less intimidating – until I remembered that this was the guy who had just placed third at the Bromont CCI3* in Canada the week before. But his demeanor was calm and supportive. And with the heat, in spite of the 5:30am wake up call, I was grateful for the early ride time before the sun baked us completely.
We had two points to cover: correct position and proper pace. Our group was small with just four of us. The position exercise was easy in that Waylon walked around to each person in the group and made adjustment to our stirrups and legs. Then we trotted and cantered in a large circle around him to get those positions down.
Interestingly, he had us shift the weight from the outside edge of our foot (right under your little toe), to the inside edge of our foot (under your big toe), and feel the difference that change made to our seat, leg, and overall stability. He pointed out that in dressage, you want the weight more under the little toe. But when jumping and doing cross country, centering the weight over big toe provided a more solid position. Then we cantered around him again, alternating our foot position, and feeling the difference.
Next, we set out to practice our pace. Each level of eventing has an optimal pace for taking your cross country course. The more advanced the level, the greater the expected pace. Please note, I didn’t say “speed.” Actually, I didn’t say “speed” because Waylon didn’t say “speed.” You’re in an open field. And while you are at the four beat gait of a gallop, this isn’t intended to be a headlong rush to the finish. There must be some control, some ability to lengthen and extend, some capacity to go faster or slower, depending on the upcoming jump or the terrain.
True Prospect Farm has a beautiful galloping track. And to help us with the question of pace, Waylon had set us up with some cones and a stopwatch. We had a start cone, and finish cones at 220m, 300m, 350m, and 450m. And from the start, you had one minute to make it the designated distance. Waylon called out a 30 second interval so you had a chance to adjust your pace. But the idea was to feel both how fast you were going, and how much effort the horse was having to exert to get there.
This all sounds very simple and elegant, but it was a solid and demanding lesson. I’ve had Charlie Brown for just about nine months, but we had not yet done a full-on, four beat gallop in a vast and open field. Well, today was the day. There were times when I thought I had no energy left, but at that point I was half way through my 350m or 450m runs, and there was little choice but to dig deeper and find a way to finish. My extra challenge was not only to finish, but to keep my head about me and actually feel the four beats of Charlie’s gait, and feel our pace.
If you have a friend with a stopwatch and access to a galloping track at home, this is a great exercise because so much of what we do is feel, and we often forget to feel our pace.
Lesson #2 – Stadium Jumping
When the afternoon lesson came around, it was my turn to have Phillip Dutton as my instructor. I was pretty tired, between the early feeding time, the repeated gallops with Waylon, and the heat. But this was what I came for! There were four of us, and Phillip figured we were already warmed up from the morning session, so we got right to it.
If you haven’t met Phillip before, he’s an interesting guy. He has a lot to say when he’s teaching, all of which is worth listening to. It can sometimes be tough to make out what he’s saying through the bullhorn, but it’s better than not being able to hear him at all. I wish I’d had a voice recorder because there was so much meaning and intuition packed into what he said to us. I’d like to hear it all again and see what else I could glean from his commentary.
He’s a tough taskmaster, and he won’t let you or your horse off the hook. But he’s kind and supportive, and knows how and when to reward a horse. He’ll demand more from you than you think you’ve got. But he also knows how to push your buttons – yours and the horse’s. If you’re doing well, during the lesson, you’ll get a small comment like, “Nice ride,” or “Well done,” or “Good,” and it will give you a boost of energy to do the next exercise. And at the end of the lesson, you’ll get a nod or a smile, and you feel like you’ve just won something major.
But if you run into Phillip when he isn’t teaching, he’s a pretty quiet, reserved, man of few words. So those compliments really mean something, even though they seem pretty innocuous.
We started with flat work, with Phillip’s repeated instruction that a horse’s first impulse has to be to go forward from the rider’s leg. We stayed together in a small oval at one end of the arena, working on getting the horses to be responsive. There were various tips as the horse’s reactions (or lack thereof) unfolded. “Kick him!” and “Use your stick!” were frequent refrains.
Phillip insists that his horses respond when he gives an order. And now our horses were, in a sense, Phillip’s horses, so his demands carried over. “Get your horse to respond!” He didn’t care if the horse got the wrong answer (like going from walk to canter instead of the intended walk to trot transition), but he did insist on a marked change in carriage at the first ask without delayed reactions.
When our pace and gait changes were acceptable, he added bending. Again, he insisted that the horse yield to the pressure of the rider’s leg and move away from it immediately – not later, not when they feel like it, not when they want to, but now. It was almost like a mini-dressage lesson. “If you can’t steer your horse, then how are you going to control where you’re going, especially on a cross country or jump course?” You have to admit, he has a point.
Then we started jumping. First, a single jump. Just a small cross-rail oxer. It wasn’t very high, but there was some spread to it, which was new for Charlie Brown and me. For some reason, the spread didn’t phase either of us. We just went over it and kept moving. As Phillip would say, “Don’t think, just go forward.”
Then, he added a second oxer six strides later. We took that line repeatedly until our runs were smooth and even. Then we increased our pace, and pressed the horse to cover the same line in just five strides. Simple, but definitely not easy! Our take-off spots got a bit too big, our approach wasn’t controlled, and our balance was thrown off as a result. There was a notable difference in our ability to get the desired number of strides, depending on whether we trotted in, or cantered in. But Phillip doesn’t seem to like trotting into jumps very much (it’s part of that moving forward concept), so we dispensed with the trotting in pretty quickly.
We took one of the oxers by itself, over and over, on a figure eight pattern: come in, jump, turn left, around to the jump again, go over, turn right, around to the jump again, go over, turn left… We had relatively little trouble with the left turn. But the right turn was tight, very close to the side of the arena. This particular arena is an un-fenced space in the middle of the field with beautiful footing in it. But Charlie is a big guy with big strides, and sometimes I find turning him tightly to be a tough task. In fact, our first time through this butterfly exercise, we ran out of the ring entirely, and into the grass.
Phillip reminded me that if you’re driving a Titanic horse like Charlie, I have to be absolute with my plan for where we’re going, and quick with my call for him to turn. So out we went again on the butterfly, and immediately to the right. No point in saving the challenging parts for last! I sat up and back, pressed my right leg into the girth, held his left shoulder (which he tends to pop out) with my left leg, and still had to use a lot of rein to pull him around while staying in the arena. It wasn’t pretty, but Phillip was pleased. “You have to do it first. Then you can make it look easier and prettier when he knows what you want.” Needless to say, we did it several more times before we were allowed to take a break.
Then there was the skinny jump, which, just eyeballing it, was higher than anything Charlie and I had done before. But this was Phillip Dutton teaching, and he seemed to think we could do it, so I swallowed hard, tried to keep my eyes up, and off we went. We took the skinny over and over, first by itself, and then along with one of the oxers in a small circle.
Next, we added a brick wall to a vertical with one stride in between. And these looked big. I was intimidated, but I wasn’t going to not jump them. Once again, I took my cues from the fact that Phillip seemed to think Charlie and I could do this. And somehow, when we got to the point of running various short courses, I wound up first in the order of go. Phillip would call out a series of jumps — four and five and six of them — and Charlie and I would run through the pattern. When everyone had finished, we got a slightly different pattern. This kept on for quite some time. And just when I thought we were getting close to being finished, Phillip would call out yet another combination of jumps for us all to take. By the end of class (which lasted significantly more than the scheduled hour), we were doing these small course, all at the canter, all with decent control and responsiveness.
When we were finally finished, we all took a loop around the galloping track, albeit at a walk, to cool our horses out.
The Other Riders
When I wasn’t riding myself, I was watching the other riders in the camp. We can all learn from the ground, as well as in the saddle. I figured there were eight hours a day where people were riding. And even if it wasn’t me on the horse, I wanted to see it, and drink it all in. It gave me a chance to check my eye, and see if I was seeing what Phillip was seeing. It also gave me some additional jumping time, without actually jumping. I got to see more advanced riders taking bigger jumps, and figure out what they were doing differently than I was. I got to hear more instruction from Phillip and Waylon. Sometimes it was something they had been telling me about my own riding. Sometimes it was something I would need to know to get better and move up into the next class.
One thing I noticed that Phillip and Waylon are both really good at is tweaking their lessons, depending on the needs of the horse and rider. It was just as useful to me to see how they made those adjustments, what the intention of the change was, and whether it worked.
In one case, there was a mare who wouldn’t take a large ditch jump. After the rider tried unsuccessfully several times, Phillip hopped on. And through his aids, he told the mare exactly what he wanted — we’re going over that ditch! She wasn’t convinced. He used his leg. He used his stick. He let her canter in a tight circle around the ditch, but he never let her leave it. Then he took down the approach again. No dice! So back to the schooling exercises he went: leg, stick, circles both directions.
Then another approach from the opposite direction. And in the last few strides before the ditch, here came the big, demonstrative leg and stick aids together — not once, but with every one of the last three strides. There was no mistaking what he wanted out of this horse. And finally, she understood. They sailed beautifully over the jump. And as soon as her feet hit the ground on the other side, he immediately loosened the reins and patted her neck, rewarding her for figuring it out. Then he turned her around and did the same ditch several more times before letting her stop, and giving her back to her rider. When the rider then took the ditch, the mare took it easily, having learned what was expected.
World Class Grooming
As you know from a previous blog, I went to Emma Ford and Cat Hill’s clinic a couple of weeks earlier that goes with their new book, World Class Grooming. Tonight, they gave an abbreviated session, but they discussed the most important aspects of a groom’s job. They talked openly about some of their biggest challenges (like the gray horse who rolled in manure in his stall the night before a major competition). We talked about mistakes people make in grooming their own horses, and how to avoid those miscues. And we talked about the importance of keeping your horse as happy and healthy as possible — and not just to win international events.
Emma told us about the personalities of the FEI horses she cares for. Cat talked about her transition from hunter/jumpers to eventers. It was a grand adventure through the lives of two super grooms!
Call It A Day
After a 16 hour day, including about three hours of riding, I finally made it back to the hotel. I think I was asleep before my head hit the pillow. It had to be. Tomorrow was to be another early day…