For many of us, the winter months seem to revolve around homework, practicing and fine-tuning almost anything and everything that needs tuning. Of course, we practice and drill ourselves in the summer time, but for me, the winter almost feels like studying for exams and doing various and specific homework assignments that help prepare me for the summer’s competition schedule.
Recently, I watched a very interesting indoor jump lesson where two individuals were practicing jumping their horses over very small jumps more or less randomly placed in the arena. They worked on accuracy, precision and getting THAT canter — not too fast, not too slow, but just right.
After watching this lesson, I decided to follow their lead and jump relatively small jumps the following day. There were about five jumps total set up, and my mission was to basically get in right to every single fence by developing and maintaining a quality canter that allowed me to move forward, come back or stay the same as I needed. If none of these options in the canter were available, then the distance to the jump would inevitably go missing.
I started by warming up Vinnie in our normal fashion, allowing him time to stretch his legs and get into the swing of things. He is going to be 16 this spring and has some normal stiffness, so I always give him a slightly longer warm-up up than I would give a younger horse. I do tons of walking on a loose rein to begin with, followed by a very methodical and easy stretchy trot and canter in both directions until I feel his back, mind and the rest of his body click into gear.
After his warm up, I gave him another break and then went straight to work. In the beginning, the exercise seemed simple and almost felt flawless. Vinnie has a naturally engaged canter, which can spoil me at times. If I can get his mojo going, as Vinnie tends to be super laid back and casual, especially in the indoor, then everything seems to fall into place. Although, the flip side to this horse is that because he is very lazy and laid back, I can easily fall victim to his complacent, underwhelming and almost robotic canter that honestly gets neither of us anywhere!
However, the middle of my ride was very telling. Both Vinnie and I started feeling a tiny bit tired and were losing focus ever so slightly, which resulted in semi OK distances. The whole purpose of this exercise for ME is to really stay focused, find that perfect uphill, balanced and quality canter, AND consistently see a really good distance, not a mediocre distance.
I started feeling tiny pieces unravel beneath me and decided to stop, take a deep breath and change it up. I cantered around the ring not jumping, just cantering. I asked myself repeatedly: Is this the right canter? NOPE. How about now? Not quite. Is this a canter I would want to jump out of? YES … I found it. This is it … OK, now go jump out of this canter and find that canter immediately upon landing.
After a swift kick in the pants, I regained my lost focus and ended on a fabulous note, jumping around a small course, landing, turning, jumping, landing, turning, jumping, etc. We were nailing our distance, and we were in sync, which felt incredibly rewarding.
The ability to succeed is in my control and within my reach, but I have to make the effort and stay completely focused; otherwise, it’ll vanish at a moment’s notice. I am not looking to be an OK rider; I am longing to become a great rider, and great riders don’t allow for mediocrity, but rather they strive for excellence.
What’s fascinating about this exercise is that some people might find this incredibly boring and useless. And yet, I cannot tell you how many times I have seen overly confident riders truck in for a lesson with Denny, and he might have someone try this exercise and they cannot do it.
They immediately crumble and the lesson seems demoralizing in a way. They either go home and practice, or they don’t practice and they come back in a month only to replay each agonizing experience over again. They cannot see their distance to a rail on the ground, yet they are desperate to jump HUGE jumps and work on really challenging courses.
I understand the urge or the fascination with jumping bigger, harder fences. Believe me, I love jumping, especially a bigger course on a great horse whom I trust and have a relationship with. But I also see the extraordinary benefits of jumping small jumps in a relatively small area repeatedly. I have come to love this particular challenge and exercise because it is unbelievably telling. You either can do it or you can’t. The jumps and the course don’t lie.
You can either fall victim to this exercise by avoiding it all costs, or you can man up and face the music by working on homework and drilling yourself as if you were in in basketball practice. Honestly, how else does a basketball player improve his or her shooting skills? They have to practice making a basket by actually practicing to make a basket. There is no other way I can think of besides doing the thing in order to accomplish that very thing.
The same goes for jumping. I am sure that upper-level riders and Grand Prix show jumpers don’t jump four or five feet every time they jump. I’m positive that many professionals mix up their week with gymnastic exercises, cavaletti work and jumping “smaller” courses, as well as jumping bigger courses with harder questions. These are all skill sets and different ways of practicing similar things.
Everything we do with our horse and the training and exercises we do are all interconnected. Therefore, missing some steps or overlooking certain areas in our riding or training will ultimately haunt us forever. We have to start small and work our way up to the bigger, harder exercises. There’s no such thing as skipping small steps and becoming a great rider.