The last time I took Charlie Brown out in an open field, we didn’t do so well.  I fell.  And while the physical injuries were no fun, they eventually healed.  But the psychological damage has been more difficult to overcome.  And while my confidence has returned — albeit slowly — over the past several months, it was time.  Time to go out cross country again.

A local venue, Loch Moy Farm, offered a two-day stadium jumping and cross country clinic with Lesley Grant-Law.  For those who don’t know, it’s a little bit funny. Lesley is married to Leslie.  Both are professional eventers. Lesley is the wife, and Leslie is the husband. Lesley is Canadian, and Leslie is British, but they now live in Florida. If you’re thoroughly confused now, let me make it easy.  We’re dealing with Lesley — the wife.  And I’ll save you the suspense:  she’s awesome!

I did a fair bit of research before signing up. I asked friends, fellow bloggers, and Google for all the information they had. What kind of instructor is she? What is her personality like? What do I need to do to be successful at this clinic? What should I expect to get out of it?  The reviews were unanimous — Lesley is a great clinician, and I would get a lot out of the experience.

With all that background, I was feeling optimistic about it, so I signed up for the clinic. When I got to the online registration, it also gave me the option of registering for the Loch Moy schooling horse trial at the end of the weekend.  Scared?  Absolutely!  But I felt the need to rise to the challenge. It was time. I deliberately chose the elementary division (one notch below beginner novice) to keep things simple, and allow both Charlie and me to re-build our confidence in an open field environment.  I wanted to set us up to succeed.  I clicked the PayPal link, and we were in.

The clinic format was stadium jumping on Thursday, and cross country on Friday. Our ride time on Thursday was after lunch, so we trailered up that morning.  That would give us plenty of time to get Charlie put away and let him settle in.  I packed and prepped the trailer the night before to keep my stress down.  Mercifully, it also made things very simple on Thursday morning:  let Charlie eat, hand walk him so he can stretch his legs, light grooming, shipping boots, load, and leave.  Easy!

We got there at lunch time, and found the group enjoying a lively conversation with Lesley. I got Charlie and his gear unloaded quickly, and joined in. It was readily apparent from even a casual conversation that Lesley has forgotten more about horses than I know, and I listened eagerly to the insights she offered over lunch.  She talked about buying horses, about competition, about goals, about pushing yourself and your horse, about safety, about how horses think.  She spoke plainly, and didn’t try to gloss over the tough parts, which I appreciated.  But she also spoke with passion about the successes and joys of her life and career and horses.

Fortunately, I happened to sit down next to Lacey, who, as it turns out, was another of the four riders in my group.  She was there with her own paint pony, Kody, who is extremely cute.  Whew! I’d have a friendly face in the group, and at least one person whose name I knew. I’m pretty challenged about remembering names, and it’s embarrassing, so I like to know at least one person’s name. In fact, Lacey and I wound up walking down to watch the beginner novice group that went just before us.  Hey, a little recon is always helpful for my nerves.

Lesley held nothing back from the group, pushing them to do more than they thought they could.  The exercises varied, and she changed them in response to the reaction the horses and riders. Some riders had challenges. Some horses had challenges. She started everyone over a single jump, and built up to a line of gymnastics.  Then they moved on to a variety of short courses of 6 to 8 jumps.

Lacey and I headed up to the barn a little before they were finished so we could get ready. When we got there, we met Audrey and her horse Bo (a young OTTB), and Lucia and her horse Kyrie (a lovely gray mare). The four of us tacked up, and set out for the jumping ring. It was hot, so we kept our warm up to a minimum so that we didn’t tire everyone out (both humans and horses).

Lesley worked us on the flat to start, so she could get an idea of our confidence and experience, and our horses’ attitudes and reactions.  She also used the opportunity to remind us that when jumping, the rider’s job is to control line, pace, and tempo. The horse’s job is to jump. It felt a bit like a session at home because as we went around, Charlie and I kept running up people’s tails.  His stride is pretty big, and covers a lot of ground, so even when we’re just loping around casually, we tend to run up on the horse in front of us.  So I’m always challenged to keep the space in front of us open.  It was somewhat reassuring to have it happen here, because that meant we weren’t doing anything unusual, and I know how to handle that issue.

When we started to go over fences, Lesley started us with a simple cross rail to trot in and canter out.  I intended to go first so I wouldn’t have time to overthink things, but it didn’t work out that way.  I wound up going next to last, but only because Lacey was gracious and let me go ahead of her and Kody.  Self doubt kicked in anyway, and I clenched with my hands.  Lesley spotted it and called me out.  “You have to give him his head or he can’t jump anything for you, and you can’t jump for the both of you!” I loosened the reins by a couple of inches. Charlie relaxed and dropped his head. <sigh>

After a couple of rounds, Lesley set up a second jump, making it a bounce. We trotted in, and I was happy with our tempo and pace. But as the fence approached, I tensed. Boo! I knew it, but I couldn’t talk my body out of doing it.  It’s weird when you can hear your body and your brain arguing with each other, and the wrong one is winning.  I wound up nearly breaking stride coming in, and Charlie barely had enough energy to get over the second jump. I was just choking him. Lesley told me to come around again, in at a trot, but to think of nearly cantering to get Charlie’s motor really wound up, and then grabbing mane over the rails so I didn’t pop him in the mouth. “He’s not going anywhere. Let him move forward and it will be easier to go over the jump.” Taking that advice fully and at face value, I swallowed hard, and we came around again. I almost thought we were going too fast, but we were just at a good energetic trot. Then, with my hands out of the way, the fences seemed not to even be there, and we more floated over them. Charlie was very proud of himself, and we had a little head shaking afterward.

Next, Lesley set up one more, and then one more jump: a bounce to a 1-stride to a 2-stride. The exercise was to take the gymnastic, putting a deliberate halt at the end of the first run, before turning and taking the line in the opposite direction (which was slightly down hill). While it was simple, it wasn’t easy for me initially because of my need to get in rhythm with Charlie, my need to let him do the jumping, and my re-emerging confidence.

Then we moved to a variety of courses, starting with three jumps, and progressing up to eight.  There were panels and pole, left turns and right turns, up slopes and down slopes. We could trot in, but Lesley really wanted us to canter away, even if we came back to trot for the next fence. My intention was to trot into the first fence and canter the rest, but I came back to trot as a way to rebalance and reorganize us mid-course when we needed it — or (candidly) when my inner control freak started to overpower the rest of my brain and body.

Through all of this, my lizard brain had to come to terms with the idea that I was steering, but Charlie was in charge of rowing our boat. A tall order indeed! But with repetition and the encouragement of both Lesley and my fellow riders, we came together to find our stride and our rhythm.  Ours, not mine.  It was a fundamental revelation. Because of the heat, we cut our scheduled two hours a little short to avoid a heat stroke. But Charlie and I made it through without any unscheduled dismounts. More importantly, we made progress together. Lesley finished our session by checking to see that everyone was satisfied with their rides. We all were, and we set off back to the barn to untack.

We spent the rest of the afternoon hanging out in the aisle, telling stories, hanging out with our horses, and getting to know each other.  We compared notes about other clinics, and ratted ourselves out about our riding adventures (and mis-adventures).  We ordered pizza for dinner, and stayed until past sundown.

And I went off to bed, feeling good about our accomplishments, and eager for tomorrow’s cross country…