Focus and Intent

Photo courtesy of Nathan Stancliff. Photo courtesy of Nathan Stancliff.

Training horses is something not achieved in one day, one week or even one month. Achieving one’s goals is something that takes years, decades and even a lifetime to accomplish. Tristan and I have been on this path together for nearly nine years, but I have found the accomplishments from the past month to be truly remarkable in our progress.

The most recent eureka moment started at a clinic with our longtime trainer and friend Eric Dierks at the Gibbes Farm in St. Matthews, SC. We were a bit dissapointed to arrive Saturday morning and find that it was raining too hard to ride the first day, even with the sandy soil drinking it in; but Eric found a way to help us all get our money’s worth out of the weekend by throwing together an impromptu three hour lecture!

When I say three hours, Eric encouraged us to take notes, and I have seven full pages filled with ideas and wisdom he imparted to us. He covered everything under the sun, from his own personal training scale (1. Rider’s Position 2. Energy 3. Track and Straightness 4. Rhythm [made up of length of stride, tempo and cadence]), to Eric’s thoughts on why we are seeing so many horse and rider falls in the upper levels, and even why we as riders train and compete in the first place (which should be to improve the horse’s longevity and suppleness through proper development).

The biggest points he drove home during his lecture and the cross country lesson the following day was this: Focus and Intent.

Photo courtesy of Nathan Stancliff.

Photo courtesy of Nathan Stancliff.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, riders obviously should be focused on what they’re doing on horseback. How big of a concept could this really be? Well that’s partially true, we all focus on different things as we develop as riders. As a child, it’s pretty simple; heels down, eyes up, post on the correct diagonal, chin up, and smile!

As an adult, we get more into the details: find the correct distance, suppleness to the bit, activity and responsiveness off the leg, engage the hindquarters, etc. Sometimes we focus too much on the arbitrary goals (like I need my horse to keep his head down in front of the dressage judge, or I don’t want a bad jump in front of my trainer and all my friends at the show) and forget the overarching purpose of training and showing in the first place; to show the harmony and communication between horse and rider.

As we practiced our focus at the clinic, Eric had us warm up by all four riders in our group jumping a single vertical together following one another in a circle. Now instead of focusing on the jump, we were focused on keeping equal distance from the horse in front of and behind us on the circle and needed to be aware of our horse’s speed and track, as well as maintaining the proper energy to the base of the fence.

What this was encouraging in our riding was to care less about the actual jump, and more about our rhythm and straightness, especially the track before and after the fence. After warming up, we schooled over several different questions to challenge our focus and play with the new concepts we had discussed the previous day.

I finished the schooling with my interest piqued in the topic, but felt like we hadn’t really internalized the lesson and applied it to our riding. As we prepared for the upcoming shows at The Fork and FENCE Horse Trials, I tried to keep the idea of focus in the back of my mind.

The week before The Fork, I really felt like I was desperately in need of a dressage tune-up. I trailered over to Eric’s farm in Tryon, NC to take a lesson, and the concept of focus came up again. But what should I be focusing on in the dressage phase? Keeping Tristan from executing his flawless giraffe impression? Making good transitions happen? The movements of the test themselves?

Eric had me run through the test once without commentary and then asked me my thoughts on my ride. Frankly, it was a terrible attempt, very jerky and mechanical, difficult transitions, and low quality of gaits. But what was I doing wrong? Tristan is really quite a nice mover, why aren’t we showing it off when we perform and actual dressage test.

To fix it, Eric had me ride the same test again, but this time he talked me through it. “Ride actively to the next letter, make your circle. Pretend there’s a jump at B that you are actively riding to.” He broke down the test, movement by movement, until it was merely a geometric jump course with no fences, which encouraged us to ride energetically from movement to movement, completely focused on each individual part of the test.

We removed focus from the arbitrary “picture” of a round and pretty dressage horse, and instead intently focused on the actual training and riding at hand.

Photo courtesy of Nathan Stancliff.

Photo courtesy of Nathan Stancliff.

The Fork

I was happy to find when schooling dressage the day before the show, Tristan was happily performing our dressage movements with suppleness and obedience I could have only dreamed of before. We performed the test the following day with one of our best rides to date, only lacking a bit of energy for true pizazz in the lengthenings.

However, when we went on to our stadium course, we got a bit drawn in to the crowd, excitement and colorful jumps, and reverted to starting out flat and running, but right around half way through, we found a good rhythm and and focused better on track and straightness to finish with just one rail down. Starting to understand the concept of focus, and how revolutionary it was going to become in our competitions, I felt like I had direction for our improvement on the cross country course.

The jumps on the Training course were fairly standard for the following day, and with nothing revolutionary to keep me up at night, I was focused on my plan of making sure to get Tristan in front of my leg early on in the course so all I would have to do is support the stride to each obstacle.

As we left the start box, I reached back to give him a nice hearty smack behind my leg with the crop to get the gas pedal started when our plan was utterly destroyed in an instant by my stupid, buttery fingers. I dropped my whip before the first fence. Oops.

Tristan is a wonderful horse and I love him dearly. However, he is a pony cross, and I have learned over the years that if a pony catches wind that you have nothing to back up what you’re telling him to do, you’ve got nothing. Tristan knew immediately that my whip was gone, and my focus immediately when to “Oh sh!t, now what.”

I had no back up plan. I tried using the end of my reins to flip over his neck like a western rider, but to no avail. What I did notice, was through the more difficult jumps (the trakehner, half coffin, and giant brush at the bottom of a hill) we were fine. I stayed focused on my track and energy, and we jumped through just perfectly.

But on more simple questions, I would lose focus on my track and had a stop at the B element of a turning question early on, as well as a log in the water when we got distracted by the rest of the water complex. Basically, this show drove home the fact that we had plenty of homework to reflect on for the following weekend at FENCE.

Photo courtesy of Katharine Stancliff.

Photo courtesy of Katharine Stancliff.


Our plan for dressage went fairly well the last time, so I aimed to give us the same ride with more energy. Again, Tristan showed up for work, happy, supple, and willing with my improved focus of riding the test like a jump course and we were thrilled to put in one of the best rides of our lives (minus a bobble after the canter lengthening that the judge luckily didn’t look too harshly on) scoring our very first sub-30 dressage score ever with a 28.8!

Feeling strong, we moved on to cross country with my whip FIRMLY rubber banded to my finger to keep from slipping it through my hand again. Eric’s advice for this very forward uphill course? Ride like Tristan offended you. Not too difficult, I was still dissapointed in our performance from the previous weekend.

We came out of the start box, teeth gritted and determined to jump the hell out of this course. What followed was the strongest, most fluid and satisfying cross country rides of our lives. Every jump came directly out of a strong forward stride, Tristan didn’t bat an eyelash or put a foot wrong the entire course.

Instead of worrying about the perfect distance or a perfect jump, we were focused on rhythm, track and intent to the other side of the fence. We finished up with just a couple seconds of time to add to our awesome dressage score. I was very proud of our teamwork and how we had been able to execute the plan on course.

Warming up for stadium the following morning, I tried to make sure to get Tristan in front of my leg right away, but he still felt a bit sluggish and unresponsive. Eric pulled us aside and said, “Don’t just ask him to eventually get in front of you. Ride 3 or 4 strides of a strong, forward gallop, and then bring him back. Then 3 or 4 more forward strides. Keep playing with the back and forth.”

We adjusted our ride and immediately felt a huge improvement. Now the plan was to play it smart around the stadium course, and almost ride it more like a dressage test, focusing on the track before and after each fence more than getting perfect distance to each jump. Our ride wasn’t perfect, but something I gained was the ability to think through the course, just like I can now think through a dressage test.

Photo courtesy of Nathan Stancliff.

Photo courtesy of Nathan Stancliff.

The internal dialogue goes something like, “Ok that was a big jump over that oxer, let’s package the canter again around the turn. Straighten out our next line and ride the track. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, ok and now the inside turn to 4, keep up the energy into a packaged stride around the turn…” and so on, and so forth.

Previously, I would get so caught up in the course as a whole, it would be difficult to break it down jump by jump, movement by movement, but by shifting our focus internally on what makes a better round instead of, “Gee, I don’t want to look like a bad rider in front of my friends,” we ended up having more rhythmic, beautiful rounds! We finished in 2nd place with a 30.8.

The end result is this: when you go to a show focusing on things like making the judge like your horse, looking good in front of your friends/trainer/any pro riders that may also be competing, or the actual results, you lose sight of the big picture. We compete to exhibit the training we’ve worked very hard for at home.

You should be riding to show yourself you can have the same results under pressure as when you’re all alone in your own arena. Eric gave me a great phrase that I found myself repeating all weekend, “I respectfully don’t care what anyone thinks.” Stay focused on what’s really important and ride for yourself and the joy and pleasure of being with your horse. At the end of the day, nothing else really matters.