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Tik Maynard

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‘The Rider Should Never Find a Distance…’: An Excerpt from In the Middle Are the Horsemen

Photo courtesy of Horse & Rider Books/Lauren DeLalla.

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.

‘In the Middle Are the Horsemen’ by Tik Maynard: Excerpt II

Tik Maynard’s new book, In the Middle Are the Horseman, comes out from Trafalgar Square Books in June 2018 and is currently available for pre-order. Earlier this week we previewed the book and caught up with Tik for a Q&A, and now we are excited to present a two-part series of sneak preview excerpts to tide you over until the book arrives next month. If you missed it, read Excerpt I here

Photo by Kathy Russell, courtesy of Trafalgar Square Books.

I glanced down. I saw the sweat from my face fall on Sapphire’s withers. It mixed with hers and slid to her shoulders. Her neck foamed where the reins rubbed against the skin. Drool from her lower lip fell, caught by the wind. We were two strides farther before it hit the ground. I was back in Canada, on Vancouver Island, in full gallop, home from Germany, and enjoying an intermission before heading to Ocala, Florida, to work with Karen and David O’Connor. I looked ahead the way a soccer player looks downfield before chipping the ball to a teammate. Eventing. Eventing! So this is what it was.

This was a thrilling and wild affair. My parents watched cautiously. It seemed they had hidden this great thing from me. What! How? Now they offered advice timidly. My friends didn’t know where I was. But this was no fling; it was love. It snatched me from my home. It arrested yesterday’s desires and replaced them with new purpose.

I had no idea where this sport might lead me. Would I end up living in Germany? Or maybe competing in Ontario or the Carolinas? But I was getting ahead of myself, and that was the one thing, perhaps the most important thing, I should not do in this situation. I smelled the air, fresh from the Pacific Ocean. Sapphire’s hooves struck the ground like the thunder of timpani, and we galloped on.

I was halfway through my first course, wondering what I had been doing my whole life before now. I looked to the left—a cord of wood blocked my entrance to the forest. I continued on, my horse’s legs flew in double-time, straight and true, and we turned to be perpendicular to the obstacle. And then we were up and over, and on a new trail. The trees rushed by! A blur. I knew they were evergreens, but they might have been fir or juniper or hemlock. The browns and greens blended together. We sped through; then we were out on the grass again.

The ground was firm, but not too firm. Dry, yet not too dry. Green as the emerald pastures of a picture book. I had no idea that footing like this was not just great—it was rare.

In my childhood, riding happened in a ring. Both my parents were my coaches. My mother showed me the joys and principles of riding as an amateur. My father explained the obligations and responsibilities of the professional. Although they had both evented themselves, they quit when my mom was expecting.

“Too dangerous,” they explained when I was fourteen, “too many crushed bones.”

“Yeah?” I had said.

“Too many shattered hearts. Eventing is like trying to outrun a train: eventually it’ll catch up to you.”

“Sure,” I’d replied with a laugh. “But don’t worry, I can leap tall buildings, too!” And I hurdled, and tripped, over the couch. The truth was, I was not really interested in eventing—at least not back then.

“You think I’m worried about you? No way!” my mother had said, shaking her head. “It’s the horses. They don’t deserve that.”

Fifteen years after that conversation I found myself at my first event. And my parents were there to support me…

…Cross-country! It was fast! It was my heart in my mouth, tears in my eyes! It was my arteries working like pistons, throbbing in time with Sapphire’s stride. Ba-BOOM. Ba-BOOM. Ba-BOOM!

And then there were the two water jumps, the first that left me behind, but the second that was smooth. My leg swung slightly forward, I landed in my heels, and I found my horse’s mouth again. Below us the water splashed, cooling her chest, leaving a tiny rainbow in our wake. And then we were off.

We looked ahead. The Cowichan Valley rose up on my left. There was forest on my right. We rushed forward.

Spectators sat on the hill. They held dogs. They looked for photo ops. Sometimes they held their breath. I saw all these things, and I saw none of them. The stirrups held me high, out of my mare’s way, but her breathing was more labored now.

The finish line came up. There were two flags marking it: red on the right, white on the left. I crossed through and forgot to glance at my watch. I was breathing hard, along with Sapphire. The stewards glanced at their clipboards. The vet was busy with other competitors. Sapphire put her head low, but her ears stayed pricked and forward. Someone took our photo.

Later I would notice that in the picture, I was smiling.

Image courtesy of Trafalgar Square Books.

Many thanks to Trafalgar Square Books for allowing us to share. Learn more about In the Middle Are the Horsemen here

‘In the Middle Are the Horsemen’ by Tik Maynard: Excerpt I

Tik Maynard’s new book, In the Middle Are the Horseman, comes out from Trafalgar Square Books in June 2018 and is currently available for pre-order. Yesterday we previewed the book and caught up with Tik for a Q&A, and now we are excited to present a two-part series of sneak preview excerpts to tide you over until the book arrives next month! 

Photo by Kathy Russell, courtesy of Trafalgar Square Books.

“I would have done that a little differently,” Bruce said, as he shook his head. “I would have gone slower. It’s not a race. And when you do get the rope around his neck, make sure you leave out more slack.”

I nodded. The horse kicked out as he cantered away from us.

“Right now we just have to catch him,” he continued. “One try with the halter is enough. We just want to get him out of here as calmly as possible. It should be whatever is easiest for the horse. Later, when he’s settled in at my place, we can start with the real work.”

The gelding was now at the far end of the ring, looking straight back at us. One ear was forward and one back, then they switched. But both eyes never left us.

Bruce went to the middle of the corral where he had left his rope and picked it up.

“How we get him in the trailer now depends a lot on what kind of space he’s in. With this size here, the lasso might work best.” He let the rope slide through the honda knot, creating a cylindrical loop a couple of yards in diameter.

“If you keep him at this end, I’ll see if I can throw this over him.”

“Sure, no problem,” I said, but I was a little skeptical, both of Bruce throwing the loop over the horse, and of this being the best tactic to take in order to quietly catch him.

Bruce walked down the middle of the corral, directly at the gelding. The lasso knocked against his thigh as he moved. He stopped about fifteen feet from the horse. I stood on the left side of the ring, so that if the horse moved we knew it would be to the right. Bruce brought his lasso into a slow swing over his head.

There are many kinds of throws, and I had learned three: the overhand, the houlihan, and the backhand. Bruce was planning a simple overhand. The horse saw the rope move and bolted down the fence. Bruce didn’t hesitate. Once more the lasso went behind the man’s back, picking up speed, before leaving his hands and moving, slowly it seemed, toward the fence, slightly ahead of the gelding. The horse galloped on—straight into the trap. As the rope settled around his neck, his speed and momentum tightened it, but he continued down the fence.

Time seemed to speed up. Bruce madly played out rope, letting the horse gallop, giving him a chance to feel the rope and the easy tension in it. I tried to stand out of the way behind Bruce. He let the horse circle the corral twice and settle.

“This is a lot different than roping cattle!” Bruce yelled to me, coiling in the rope.

I thought back to the afternoon when he had taught me how to rope. Bruce showed me the simple overhand first, then the backhand from different angles, and finally the houlihan. He demonstrated the scoop toss and del viento, but I stuck with the basics. I learned how to switch from the backhand to the hula, but how it’s impossible to go from the hula to the backhand. He showed me how the scoop toss soars into the air like a dove freed from your hand, returning to the earth in a deadfall, until suddenly, when the calf steps into the trap, you pull on the rope, and the scene unfolds in double time, the rope quickly, suddenly, ferociously, alive.

After that lesson, when Bruce had left, I had kept practicing. It was hard enough on the ground; I couldn’t imagine riding at the same time. But I had liked the feel of the rope in my hands and set up a bale of hay on its end, playing with the different roping shots until dark.

“Tik,” Bruce said, breathing hard now, “I don’t call this ‘natural horsemanship.’ Once he’s got that rope around his neck, or a halter on his head, that ain’t ‘natural’ anymore.”

The horse turned his head to the outside of the corral, looking to get away from the tension he felt encircling his neck. There was sweat glistening along his flanks. He broke into a trot. Bruce was watching, ready to release the pressure as soon as the horse took one step toward us.

“Look at it this way,” he said, gesturing to the left with his head while managing the rope. “Over here are the ‘natural horsemen.’ And often there is nothing natural about what they do. And over there,” he nodded to the right, “are the, well, whatever the opposite is—the people who don’t take into account the horse and what its capabilities and tendencies are.” Bruce paused for second, thinking. “There are lots of those guys, I guess. In the middle, though, are the horsemen.”

Image courtesy of Trafalgar Square Books.

Many thanks to Trafalgar Square Books for allowing us to share. Learn more about In the Middle Are the Horsemen here