In this excerpt from his international bestselling memoir In the Middle Are the Horsemen, eventer Tik Maynard ponders a controversial theory from the jumping coach of one of the best riders in the world.
A riding apprenticeship in Germany means twelve-hour days, or more, wearing long underwear all winter. It means starting work in the dark and finishing work in the dark. It means being replaceable. It means feeling replaceable. But it also means knowledge. At Hinnemann’s, I saw horses learning piaffe and passage every day. At Ingrid Klimke’s, I learned flying changes aboard Abraxxis, a horse that’s worth at least half-a-million dollars. (Seriously!)
Although I didn’t get as much formal instruction as I’d perhaps hoped for, every day I could learn by watching and learn by doing. And the more I learned, the more I realized how little I knew. I felt as if I were a high school student trying to stay afloat in a doctoral program. I was definitely in over my head. But every once in a while I would surface and look around and realize I wasn’t just treading water, I was actually making a little headway.
One of the highlights at Ingrid’s was being able to watch her jumping lesson. Her jumping coach arrived confident and prepared. He was slim with short brown hair, probably in his fifties—still
young as far as equestrian coaching was concerned. Ingrid liked his matter-of-fact style. During her lesson I would set the jumps and ask him questions. His grasp of riding theory was impressive, and I saw the sense in everything he taught—that is, until he answered one question toward the end of one session.
He liked the rider to be in a slightly forward seat, thus allowing the horse to move more freely. He encouraged the rider to ask for more engagement from the horse when the horse was not working hard enough. Usually this is simply a matter of clearer communication, but it might also be the other half of training that is missing: motivation. Leg! His ideas on rider balance and its relationship to the horse’s movement and balance reflected an inquisitive mind and an excellent eye.
And so I asked him if he could recommend any exercises for helping riders find a distance to a jump. Just like with a human long jumper or high jumper, the takeoff point for a big jump on horseback is vital to distance or height attained. My dad taught me to count “1-2-3-4-5” for each stride as I approached a jump. It helped me focus on slightly lengthening or shortening the stride length in order to get to the jump at the right spot. But I’d found that finding a distance was one of the hardest concepts to learn and to teach a student.
Other riders had different methods for finding a distance, most of them centered on the notion of paying attention to the rhythm of the horse’s stride—for example, by counting “1-2, 1-2.” Still others, including Ingrid, didn’t count at all. They could just “see” a distance. To me, that ability was amazing and something I’d love to acquire. So I was curious what her coach thought.
“The rider should never find a distance,” he said patiently. Instead, he explained, it was the horse’s responsibility to find a distance. “Every horse can see a distance to a jump four strides away.”
“And if he can’t?” I asked.
“Well then, get a new horse.”
I looked at him, quiet.
“The proof,” he said, “can be found by watching a horse free-jump. Without a rider, a horse will always find a distance to a jump.”
Assuming he meant a “good” distance, and not just any distance, it was all a little hard for me to believe. A good distance is usually about six feet out, although it depends on the height and type of jump. It is the distance that allows for the smoothest bascule to clear the fence. Hearing him was like listening to a passionate environmentalist lecture on conservation, then hearing him slip in that he was paid by the oil industry. It made me go back in my mind and replay everything he had said before. It made me question all his theories.
In a way I could see what he was getting at. If a horse, especially a green horse, attempted to clear an obstacle from an awkward distance, he might hit it if he got too close or land on it if he jumped from too far away. If the horse found a “deep spot” and hit the jump, then he might learn to rock back and lift his knees the next time, or shorten his stride in time to find that “sweet spot,” where the takeoff was just right. The more athletic the horse, the less he might care about finding a “bad spot,” because he could clear the jump easily anyway.
When the rider stayed out of the way, it really shouldn’t matter to the horse where he left from, as long as it didn’t feel too awkward to him. When the rider caught the horse in the mouth, on the other hand, or lost her balance and landed on his back—well, that certainly
worked to turn a horse off jumping. What I found made a big difference to a horse learning to jump and to find a good spot was his level of anxiety. Lots of horses rushed toward an obstacle, and it was almost always because they were worried, not because they loved jumping.
Relaxation and understanding were two sides of the same coin. And they led to confidence. An unconfident horse, however, might start to rush or would jump flatly. Maybe even refuse.
With an experienced horse jumping at the Grand Prix level, a lack of confidence could be dangerous. Sometimes those jumps were as big as the horse! And what about a tight turn in a jump-off when the horse didn’t even see the fence he was expected to clear until he
was one stride away? In this scenario, could we still trust the horse to find his distance?
Ingrid’s show-jumping coach did not have answers to these questions, but he still maintained, “It’s my theory, and it’s the best theory.”
I pondered it. Perhaps he was right—maybe it was all a matter of finding the right horse. I liked his confidence. Was such assuredness typical of the German mindset, or just typical of somebody who had studied horses a long time?
Ingrid Klimke was anything but typical. At thirty-eight with a six-year-old daughter (and a very supportive husband), she was competing at the highest levels of eventing and dressage. She
was always presentable. I never heard her raise her voice, yet every word she spoke carried the weight of her family’s dynasty. Her late father was perhaps the only person I would consider to be a better rider.
It would be years before I thought about the difference between riding a horse and understanding a horse. Or between training a horse and showing a horse. But these months in Germany provided the germ of such ideas, for Ingrid could do it all.
My last day at Ingrid’s came too quickly. I had only been there a few weeks to replace what would have been my last month at Hinnemann’s. I was sad to be leaving but had already made plans for where I was going next.
I was supposed to meet Ingrid for a final talk after the horses were all ridden. A “talk” such as this would make any guy nervous, but I had prepared notes and questions. I knew that this would be different than my final talk at Hinnemann’s. There I had been nervous about how wrong it might go; this time I was nervous about how well it might go.
Maybe she will invite me back.
This excerpt from In the Middle Are the Horsemen by Tik Maynard is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (www.HorseandRiderBooks.com) In the Middle Are the Horsemen is now available as an audiobook from your favorite audiobook retailer.