Day two was cross country at a neighboring barn. We arrived early so I would have time to lunge, since the weather was noticeably crisp. But that never happened because over the course of the next hour, Charlie decided it would be a good idea to remove the tack room door from our trailer. Geez! I had to wait until another participant showed up with a helper in tow so we could lift it back into place.
Then just before we headed out for our lesson, Charlie stepped on his reins and broke them. It’s a good thing I have a virtual tack store in my trailer. But it was cold enough that my fingers didn’t want to work very well at getting the old reins off and the new ones on. So it took longer than expected to make the switch, and I started freaking out that I was going to be late.
Then the gentle hack over to the cross country field was filled with gates that I couldn’t negotiate from the saddle, so I wound up dismounting and hand walking over, which took even more time.
By the time I got to where Eric was teaching, at the show jumping arena, I was more than a little frazzled. Beth Sokohl, who had handled the clinic registration, and who has known Eric for a long time, informed me that he was a little bit behind, and I was in good time. Without knowing it, she helped me calm down by telling me more about Eric, how he teaches, and how they had just done the long-format horse trial together the prior weekend. Then, she stoked my confidence by telling me that cross country was the absolute best thing about an Eric Smiley clinic.
Eric and I walked over to the cross country field. I used a picnic table to mount, and confessed about my rough morning and resulting nervousness as we walked down a massive hill.
Horses Have 4 Feet, People Have 2
Eric reminded me of an obvious fact: horses have four feet, and humans only have two. The reason is that horses are built to be surefooted while galloping downhill to get away from predators, and four feet make that possible. Humans, only having two feet, will fall on their face if they try to run down a hill. Charlie’s feet are like small dinner plates, and he is very precise with where he puts his feet. So I need to trust that, and trust him.
We started around a treeline, and Eric asked me to trot and canter around to get myself warmed up. Trotting uphill was alright, but the nerves kicked in coming downhill, and I broke to a walk. Eric chose a spot just off the trees to do a very large circle. I kicked Charlie up to a trot and started the circle on the left rein. If you look at it as a clock face, from 9 to about 4 was downhill. We got a good, energetic trot, which I held until about 10, and then chickened out. Eric encouraged me to keep going, and take the circle again. This time, I kept my shoulders back, and used my leg to urge Charlie to keep his trot moving forward. We trotted down the hill, and back up and around. Then we took it a couple of more times, just for practice.
Next came the downhill canter. Eric reminded me about Charlie’s feet, promising that none of them had fallen off, and that he still had four of them. We picked up our canter. I was reminded to breathe, which probably sounded like a balloon popping. Again, the first time through, I chickened out and broke to trot on the downhill. The second time through, I took the leap of faith and trusted Charlie’s feet. It was a lovely, controlled canter, all the way around. We weren’t setting any speed records, but that wasn’t the point.
Set the Agenda, Don’t Let Charlie Do It
We started jumping over some small things. Our first was a Beginner Novice (BN) coop on the treeline, that led into the field where we done our downhill canter work. Charlie was pumped. We trotted in to try and keep him calm. But two strides out, he went to a very forward canter, flew over the fence, and bolted into the field. When I finally came back around, Eric said, “Well, that was fun! But you stayed with it, you didn’t come off, and you got him back. It wasn’t what we intended, but was ultimately a successful fence.”
We moved to the water, eventually adding a log as we came out of it. But Charlie was definitely pushing the edge of the envelope to see where I would draw the boundary. I did better then with the coop, but it still wasn’t ideal.
Next, we did a little up bank, which was quite easy and fun. We both like the banks. Then Eric directed us to a log. Once over the log, we were to bear right around the lake. But that fun little bank was just on the left. The first time over the log, Charlie headed right for the bank, and up we went. <sigh> We trotted down the hill and back to the approach to the log. I shortened my right rein, and went over the log. And Charlie took us left again, up the bank. <big sigh>
Eric reminded me that I need to set the agenda, that the agenda isn’t Charlie’s job, and sent us off again. Only this time, he stood in front of the bank to block our path. This time, with that little bit of help, we jumped the log, and successfully got down the road, without taking the bank.
Get Comfortable and Have Fun!
As we worked our way around the course, taking all the BN jumps we could find, we came to our last few jumps. There was a coop at the top of a hill, headed away from home. Eric suggested that I give a lot more than I think I should with my hands, since the jump wasn’t headed toward home. We trotted in for a nice fence. The next go, we took at a canter, and I let Charlie canter away as much as he wanted. He gave us a nice quiet canter away. It was so much fun, and I was so comfortable, we took it a few more times just to get the feeling to sink in.
We moved down the hill to a pheasant feeder. After a good practice run, Eric told me to take it, and then go up the hill to one final long log. Charlie and I were getting comfortable with each other, so I was more able to give, and Charlie was more willing to respond to my asks. We made a big circle to approach the feeder, and cantered happily up the hill, and popped over the left side of the log. It was a great way to end our cross country session.
- Trust Charlie’s FOUR feet — Remember that Charlie has four feet, and that makes him more surefooted than I would be at cantering downhill. Just go canter around open fields wherever we can. Get really comfortable with those wide open spaces.
- Set the agenda — I choose where we’re going, and what we’re doing. Once I choose the line, it’s Charlie’s job to do what that line requires, like making a jump.
- Get comfortable and have fun — Charlie and I don’t get out to do cross country as often as I would like. I have several schooling passes burning a hole in my pocket, and I’m hoping to put them to use soon, so we can do more to get comfortable with rolling terrain.
Eric reminded me that professionals do the basics very well, and that I shouldn’t feel badly about continuously practicing those basics until they are completely ingrained. That would do two things: first it would make them look easy, and second it would allow those basics to come back in a pressure situation. Good words to live by for any eventer, especially on cross country…