Courtney Carson: The Aiken Chronicles, Part II

Courtney Carson is an eventer from Area IV who has made the long trek from Southern Illinois to Aiken for the past three years. She just wrapped up her trip and has sent in her final thoughts about her time in the sun training with Meghan O'Donoghue. Do you want to share your winter trek adventures? Tip me at [email protected]. Thank you Courtney for writing, and thank you for reading!

Goose got to go back to the racetrack to relive his glory days. Goose got to go back to the racetrack to relive his glory days.

From Courtney:

I finally think I am almost back to normal after getting home from Aiken. After 10 amazing days of riding, watching and learning, we have all made it back to the tundra that is the midwest. After all of the horses had been delivered back to their rightful barns (which involved another three hours in the truck to St. Louis), I cleaned up and got two horses off on trial, and then I jumped back in the car to jet off and do something non-horse related. I finally have some time to sit down and reflect on my time in Aiken, what all I learned, the feelings I had while riding and what my plans are from here.

After our first flat lessons, we were all geared up to jump our horses the next day. Our horses are all in the Preliminary level range, although they are three completely different rides. My young horse was particularly excited to jump outside and spent the first 20 minutes of the jump school landing and bucking, something he usually reserves for when I do something wrong. We had set up a grid with a canter pole leading into a bounce, then four strides to a small square oxer. We warmed up over the bounce with the poles just on the ground, slowly building to riding the line straight through.

The skills we developed through the grid were then put to work in a related distance of six strides and a bending line of nine or 10 strides. We kept things small during this lesson, working more on our accuracy and horses being rideable than jumping big. It was stressed that fixing the canter and balance with lower fences will make riding the bigger fences easy when we get to that point. Most riders are in a situation where they only have one horse to practice on, and jumping big every jump school is not an option; therefore, you have to get the most accurate ride over the small fences.

Putting our skills to good use in a jump school.

Putting our new, powerful canter to use in our final jump school.

After all of our horses had gotten to jump a bit, we took them to Paradise Farm to cross-country school the next day. We all definitely had some rust to knock off, and it was great for us to reestablish our eye over galloping fences. Our focus was on transitioning from galloping position to a balancing position with minimal effort on the rider’s part and without taking too much away from the canter/gallop. I ride with a tendency of either coming into a fence on too open of a stride or completely killing the canter at the front of the fence, making this school very beneficial for me to feel the correct canter for certain questions.

By taking out a group, we were all also able to see things from different angles in the field and give our own feedback to each other. For my horse in particular it was an eye opener, as this is the start of only his second season, and I could see that he still came out fairly green as opposed to the keen, brave horse I had in the fall. Overall, the cross-country school was very productive, and I think everyone took some good things away from the day.

All set for a cross country school!

All set for a cross country school!

After a light day to rest the horses’ bodies, we went right back to work with flat lessons. I had an amazing breakthrough day with my horse; I had the feeling where this lesson started right where my last one left off, which is something I personally have never felt before. I’ve had lessons that have built on one another, but to feel like I just took a walk break and continued on instead of a four-day break was entirely new. We were able to work on some more serious collection, using my outside rein to establish it and really pushing my horse’s shoulders toward the outside of the ring to utilize every inch we can. Meghan O’Donoghue was able to move my position ever so slightly in the first flat lesson, and it already felt more natural during my second ride. She continued to work on how I rode my corners and to try to get me to relax and go with him in my elbows, allowing him to come up into the contact instead of pulling him into a tight frame.

While it sounds simple, when you ride on your own for so long, it is easy to focus on the picture outsiders see as opposed to what you feel as a rider. We worked a little on my sitting trot, which is something I have struggled with in the past, as well as some counter canter, which is fairly new for my horse. I left the lesson feeling confident in the work I have been getting this winter and comfortable in continuing his education though the spring. Meghan gave me some great tools to deal with each of the two horses I run into within Goose — to work on taking his neck in and out along with going forward and collecting for when he is tight and stuck, to keeping his poll up and really engaging him behind for better collection when he lets go in his back. Watch out DQs — the little Thoroughbred is (hopefully one day) coming for you!

The next day consisted of jumping a little bit bigger course and working on riding the canter instead of the jumps. We warmed up over a step rail plank to get the horses thinking about their own feet again and to get us riders feeling the rhythm of the canter instead of worrying about the distance. After that, we moved onto a low wide oxer, especially for my horse, to work on getting them to cover the distance instead of just jumping “up,” and for us riders to keep our leg all the way through the arc of the jump. The amount of improvement in the horses from the first jump day through this lesson was very noticeable, and when we went into coursework at the end of the lesson, both horses jumped extremely well.

Deb's horse was quite excited to be jumping outside!

Deb’s horse was quite excited to be jumping outside!

The final day down south was spent working on things everyone felt they needed to improve on. One of our riders chose to take another flat lesson, as her horse is a little sports car on the cross country and she felt it was better to continue her education in the dressage ring. We were all fortunate enough to go up and watch her lesson, and while the wind had all of us huddled under a cooler, we learned a lot. Her horse has a bunch of movement up front so that he really covers the ground but never really engages behind, so Meghan helped her to collect his stride and get him to push into the bridle instead of just showing off his awesome trot. By the end of the lesson (and a very long week) she got some great sitting trot and canter work out of him and hopefully some great tools for helping her this spring while she gets ready to move back up to Preliminary. I personally enjoyed seeing the difference in him between when I have seen her ride at home and then after a few days of boot camp.

The rest of us went out for another cross-country school, which allowed me to take what I had learned from the first day and continue to apply the same feeling to this ride. I still have a lot to improve on, and while it is impossible to simulate the adrenaline rush you have while on course, it was helpful to know that I can find the canter and get some of the tough questions done without that rush. My horse came out much more keen to the cross country, which gives me a good feeling while planning my spring season now.

Overall, I am thrilled with our trip, and I want to begin planning one for 2015. I was very fortunate on this trip because I was able to take lessons almost every day while I was there, and all the work I did was supervised. At home, I will be riding on my own and will fall back into some of the bad habits I have, which is inevitable. Instead of letting these habits take over my riding, now there are some more tools in place to work through them.

I am not saying that my trip was perfect, and I did have some tension with my horse and some unfortunate jumps, but overall the trip was successful. I learned a lot; I brought home lots of tricks for my own horse; and by watching other lessons, I learned as well. The spring season is right around the corner, with my first event of the year opening in just under a week, and this trip fell at just the right time. I feel rejuvenated and am going to try my best to continue to get the quality of work I had in Aiken through the spring. There is lots to discuss and work on at home. Now for the rest of this snow to melt!

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