Today I ventured over to the USEA Clinics at Longwood farm to watch Mark work on cross country with prelim/intermediate riders. About 30 other people were watching the clinic, and it seemed like everyone appreciated the way Mark involved the crowd with questions, explanations, and jokes. One moment that really impressed me was when Mark admitted a mistake in that he asked a difficult question to a younger horse and then did not make the question easier after the first refusal. In nearly 10 years of watching and taking lessons from eventing coaches, I don’t think I have ever heard a coach admit a mistake. Not once. In the unlikely event that a coach makes a mistake, I think us riders would appreciate it if they held themselves accountable and let others learn from their mistake rather than implicitly placing the blame on either horse or rider. Here are a few other key thoughts from the clinic:
1) Jumping fences is about being consistent. Horses learn by repetition, and balancing before the fences to a good deep distance needs to be repeated every single time, no matter what the size of the fences. During warmup, several riders just cantered down to open distances without paying much attention. While that worked fine on the smaller fences, Mark pointed out that the riders were missing important training opportunities. If you have a flier, you need to make sure that your next jump is to a deep distance, otherwise the horse will get used to leaving long, causing problems at the next technical element. Good balance is what gives you the options to pick the spot.
2) Don’t worry about your lead. This surprised me a bit, but Mark said to worry about balance and the jump, and if the horse is more comfortable on the wrong lead, don’t worry about it. I’d be interested to see if he would say the same thing at the training sessions tomorrow with the top riders. Personally, I’ve never understood why counter-canter has such a bad reputation.
3) Read the ground. This might have been the most mentioned point in the whole lesson. The course builder in Mark came out, and he regularly spoke about the path before the fences, including the slope, turn, and camber (whether tilted to one direction or the other across the line of travel). Ground that naturally balances horses includes uphill, turns, and camber with the turns (like a NASCAR track). With ground that naturally unbalances horses, such as downhill, and against-turn camber, riders need to balance before reaching this ground.
4) Ride leg to hand (shocking, I know). Mark said that the hardest XC technique with a really forward horse is remembering to put the leg on before using the hand and seat. Using the leg to generate pressure in the hands is the proper technique for holding a horse on the line to corners and narrows.
5) Don’t let your leg aid go to Indiana. After one sticky jump at a corner, Mark commented that the rider’s leg was “somewhere in Indiana.” I’m not sure Mark has ever been to Indiana himself, but I thought it was an amusing phrase and plan to use it for the next few days until everyone around me gets sick of it. Go eventing in Indiana.