Since my group didn’t go until mid-day on Sunday, I spent all morning watching other groups do cross country. I noticed a theme throughout – tired horses. Considering we’d done over an hour of ring work the day before and jumped a lot of fences, this wasn’t surprising. I got on Henry thinking that he too might feel a little tired and stiff. HA. HAHAHAHAHAHA.
As soon as he realized we were walking out to the XC field he started jigging. I made him walk politely while he pouted, waiting for me to so much as breathe heavily so he could pretend I’d asked him to canter. Note to self – Henry is plenty fit. After a brief warm-up we trotted a teeny log, which he leaped over with such gusto that he popped me out of the tack. Oh boy, here we go. We cantered a few logs, then did a little mini-course. If horses could smile Henry would have been ear to ear galloping around the field. At this point I tossed my whip in the golf cart lest I die or end up getting dragged all the way to Louisiana.
Once we started going, he settled in and got down to business. We did another small course, working on using the terrain to help with half-halts, and more emphasis on upper body position just like on Day 1. He was definitely dragging me a bit, and when he gets heavy like that he tricks me into dropping my shoulders, then we kind of end up in a heavy little ball together. Hawley said to think of it as keeping my hips forward when he does that, which for some reason really clicked in my brain.
After that we headed over to the banks and water. My ground crew didn’t make it over there so no media from that part, but we popped up and down a bank (Hawley said she prefers to trot down banks, even at Advanced, so the horses really have time to look at where they’re putting their feet and understand the question), through the water and out over a fence, and did some jumps after the bank so we could practice a quick recovery after slipping the reins. Again the focus was on upper body position on the approach (vertical) and the proper canter (forward and uphill).
Hawley is also not a fan of letting the horse break to trot for the water… the water naturally makes the horse’s stride flat and long, so if we ride into it backwards, we don’t have enough good uphill forward energy to have a good ride out of the water. It’s the rider’s job to keep the canter forward and uphill, keeping the leg on and the energy in the step so that the horse doesn’t get bogged down and flat. Trotting the down banks and keeping a forward canter into the water is exactly what I’ve been doing with Henry, so it was good to hear that Hawley’s approach is the same. She also made a good point here that when you ride an upbank, the horse’s first stride after jumping up is naturally shorter than a typical stride (usually about 9′ as opposed to 12′). Because of that, it’s very important to land with your leg on and keep coming forward, especially if you have another fence right after.
After that we went into the woods to the ditches. Hawley asked how my horse was about ditches and I said that either he doesn’t notice them or he just jumps them greenly, so of course Henry trotted up to it and went WHAT THE HOLY HELL IS THAT and slammed on the brakes. Granted, it was a deep ugly ditch and most horses felt the same way. It took some cajoling but he leaped over, so we just kept trotting the ditch until he settled. I watched a couple of the other groups school the ditches too and Hawley was really great with the green ones here. Their only choice was forward, but she gave them time to understand that it was no big deal, not a monster, and made sure the horses were immediately rewarded when they jumped it. She said that she isn’t a fan of yelling and beating and scaring the horse into jumping – that it makes them just run at things out of fear instead of thinking their way through the question, and makes the rider look uneducated. Just give them time to understand and repeat the exercise until they’re relaxed about it. All the horses got it, and they were all calm by the end.
Once they were all trotting calmly over the ditch she built up a two stride to one stride coffin, then around to a vertical, two strides to an angled wall. We had to keep a good bouncy coffin canter and be very straight for the exercise to work. Henry was great here, and it was his first time jumping through a full coffin exercise. We let the horses be done with that, and Henry strutted the whole way back the barn. Ending an XC school with a confident horse is always a good sign.
The clinic was great, Hawley has a lot of horse sense, and we learned a lot. Given the horses that Hawley has had success with in the past, I guessed that she had to be a tactful, sensitive, thinking type of rider, and that’s exactly what came across to me throughout the weekend. I’m very careful about who I ride with, since Henry is so, uh… mentally delicate. All it takes is one wrong reaction or one too many buttons pushed to cause a come-apart for him, but we never even got close to that point. He was happy and relaxed and confident the whole time. Hawley’s approach was really in line with what my trainer teaches and what I believe is correct, so it was a great building block to add on top of what we’ve already been doing. She demands a thinking, focused ride but she is still very kind and very fair. I would definitely ride with her again! On to Buck in 3 weeks…