We joke that the Dark Mare, Lee, is a survivor. She lives her life in a fairly constant state of alertness, and if there is a sign of trouble brewing, she is going to get out of dodge. In her younger years, she broke cross ties and halters with frequent regularity and closely monitored objects such as dumpsters, mounting blocks and piles of jumps for the presence of trolls, chipmunks and other instigators of mayhem. While she has mellowed somewhat, in general, if danger is afoot, Lee is leaving—with or without you.
When Lee gets upset about something, she can really revert to a primitive state of fight or flight. On the one hand, it is easy to understand that this reaction has kept horses as a species alive for eons, and the behavior is imprinted in her genetic code. But at the same time, it is frustrating because the reaction can be so out of proportion to the problem. And at some level, one would hope that her training and systematic exposure to all kinds of stimuli would result in at least one ounce of trust in her humans, but this has not always been the case.
As a result of dealing with this behavior for the better part of a decade, I realize that I have come to assume the worst of Lee in many circumstances, expecting her to have mini or major meltdowns over various situations. You might think that I am about to tell you how my preconceived ideas usually set up a self-fulfilling prophecy, and that Lee lives up to my (minimal) expectations when push comes to shove. However, increasingly, the opposite is the case, and perhaps it is I who has the trust issue, not Lee.
This March, tired of being in the indoor and looking for a change of pace, I was riding Lee in the dirt parking lot at the University of New Hampshire during its Spring Break week. The footing was actually quite good given the season and weather we had experienced this winter, but the lot was ringed with a decently sized plow bank creating a de facto fence line and leaving only one entrance/exit from the lot. I had planned to do a set distance, changing direction at regular intervals, working at the trot and canter. As I was getting close to the end of my set, I noticed a fairly dark and ominous looking cloud in the not so far distance, coming from the direction that ‘weather’ normally approaches us from. “I am almost done,” I thought. “Two more laps and I will head in. No problem.”
Almost before the thought was complete, the wind picked up like I have never experienced and began to howl. Debris that I hadn’t previously noticed was flying sideways and into us. Suddenly it began to precipitate—something. Hail? Snow balls? I couldn’t even tell you because the intensity of the icy precipitation combined with the incredible wind meant that I couldn’t even lift my head. Lee instinctively swung her hindquarters into the wind, but we were still being pummeled from all sides and were instantly soaked through. I had no idea what was going to come next—I wondered if a tornado were about to blow through, and had the thought, “so this is how it will end”.
We were not in a safe situation, and I knew we needed to get out of there, but due to the snow banks and our position in the lot, to do so required riding the length of the parking lot heading straight into the wind and snow/ice/rain to reach the exit. I truly couldn’t even raise my head to see ahead of us due to the intensity of the weather, so I dropped down onto her neck and yelled “go on!” to Lee over the wind. And sure enough, Lee actually went—straight into the wind, neck and head down, in spite of the power of the frenzied air. As soon as we rounded the corner, I urged her to the trot and we made a break for the barn, wind to our backs.
I was impressed with Lee that day. She would have been well within her rights to bolt or panic, to scoot or ignore me. But for whatever reason, she didn’t. I was (and still am) quite proud of her for all of it and for getting the both of us to safety.
This spring, I had to move both of my horses to new facilities. Anna had been in the same barn for five years, but Lee had been at UNH for over ten. I wasn’t too worried about Anna making the transition, but I honestly worried and worried about Lee. I can worry like it is my job. The barn she moved to is a low key private barn at my good friend’s home; it allowed Lee her own paddock with run in and access to dirt roads and trails. Perfect. Yet I worried. My friend has a mule—what if Lee is scared of her funny mule noises? The fencing is just electric wire. What if Lee doesn’t see it or respect it? What if I can’t ride Lee alone on the roads? What if…?
The night before the move, it poured, the first rain in almost a month. When I say it poured, I am talking about the soaking type of deluge that saturates you through to your core instantly, the kind that is like a hose from above. I don’t think I slept more than a few fits and starts as my anxiety and worry ate away at me. What if Lee won’t go into the shelter? What if she works herself up into a colic?
As I hitched up the trailer in the pouring rain, I not so silently cursed the Powers That Be for the weather on this most important of days. The schedule was to move Lee first, then go back and pick up Anna, since she was taking over Lee’s stall at UNH.
When we arrived at Namaste Farm, Lee fairly quietly unloaded, marched into her new abode, and took a tour around. She didn’t touch the wire fence. She didn’t respond when her new neighbors whinnied to her. While clearly not 100% settled, she was far, far less worried that I was. We did end up having to lock her into her run in that evening, as it continued to pour, because she wanted to stand outside near the other horses (who had sensibly gone into their own sheds) even once she was shivering under her rain sheet. Once she figured out that the shelter was dry though, she began using it on her own when the doors were re-opened the next day. We haven’t had to shut them since.
After a day or two to settle in, I took her for her first ride. I decided to start in the fields first. Lee’s new neighbors whinnied as we left, but she didn’t answer, and instead was all business. But when we got to the fields, she became quite unsettled and agitated, and was being overly spooky and difficult. “Here we go,” I thought to myself. “I knew this would happen. She is going to be unrideable here.” I ended up having to dismount for safety and led her in hand for a bit, full of negative thoughts and wondering what I had gotten myself into.
The fields were soaked after the heavy rain and I was worried about leaving hoof prints once she started to act up, so I decided that maybe I should try taking Lee down the dirt road instead. I had hesitated to start with this, because the traffic on the road can occasionally be unpredictable and since she can be too, I thought it might be a bad combination. However, I knew that on the road I could more confidently ask Lee to go forward and it seemed like maybe that was just what she needed.
So I gamely re-mounted and headed off down the road, away from the farm. Almost instantly, my reliable distance horse was back. She happily trotted off, one-two-one-two, going all the way to where the pavement starts near the town line, and then home. No issues. No spooking. No drama. She was in her Zen place.
And so it has gone with Lee at Namaste Farm. Since that first ride, she has gone all the way into Newmarket and into a little subdivision, she has ridden alone and in company to Adams Point and seen her first cormorants and sailboats, and she has even come to tolerate the fields (though the bugs which live on them, not so much). She has done nearly two hundred miles of trail since her arrival, and is just one of the herd.
I don’t think I will ever stop worrying about things which haven’t happened and might not ever happen. I can at least recognize that the worry and anxiety I feel is, for me, an inevitable part of change, but I also am trying to learn to be more accepting of the fact that some variables are just out of my control. I think worry starts with some kernel of truth, but then it can grow and mutate and take on a life of its own.
I need to start to give Lee more credit for the animal she has become. On August 1-2, she completed her first two day 50 mile competitive trail ride (CTR), and I never felt one ounce of quit in her the whole weekend. In a week, she has more than recovered and was joyfully jigging all over the place on our AM ride today. While I am sure there will be situations in the future where the “survivalist” Lee comes back, I also think that I know the horse well enough to start to trust that she will cope more often than she won’t.
As we all know, trust in any relationship is a two way street. Perhaps Lee and I are more alike than we are different in our tendency to worry. Sometimes I take care of her, and sometimes she takes care of me.
I grew up taking lessons at the local hunter/jumper barn, and so I would guesstimate that I have been jumping horses for nearly thirty years, give or take. While I have never aspired to the upper levels in any jumping discipline, there was a time in my life when I was fairly comfortable and competent over fences up to about 3’6”. As a Pony Clubber, I passed my B rating and competed at the USPC National Championships in 1994 in Senior Girls Tetrathlon, which required a 3’7” show jumping course. In fact, through most of my USPC ratings, if I could manage to squeak through the flatwork, I felt quite competent in the over fences sections. It was my forte.
But somewhere in my mid to late twenties, my feelings towards jumping changed. It was a slow transition, so painstakingly unhurried that I was almost unaware it had happened. I became less bold, far less brave and much more anxious. I have taken falls, like everyone else, and I have ridden stoppers and horses with low confidence that don’t pull you to the fences, but (fortunately), there is no single event that I can point to and say, here, this is where it began. The change was so insidious as to be almost invisible, but it occurred all the same.
When I bought Anna, she had been worked lightly under saddle at the walk and trot. The rest of her under saddle education has been from me. I took her on her first canters, taught her about dressage, and introduced her to jumping. From the very beginning, she was a willing partner, if a little lazy, and only spooked at the occasional fence. The first time she saw a ditch cross country, she just popped right over it; no fuss, no drama. Banks, drops, water— same. I competed her for three seasons of sanctioned eventing at beginner novice and novice, earning her USEA Silver Medal and taking trips to the Area I Championships at both levels (with clean cross country rounds). Sure, we had a stop here and there; at her first horse trials at Huntington, she was in first after dressage ahead of several accomplished trainers but spooked her way around the cross country course. She spooked at the glare on a freshly painted coop at Hitching Post one year. But for the most part, I could rely on her to give me her best effort, and if she did take a peek at a fence, on the second presentation she willingly went right over.
Fast forward to the fall of 2013. For the more complete story, please read my earlier blog, “Reflections on Gratitude: Part I”. But the short summary is that after completing (with only one penalty) three solid novice courses in a row (GMHA, Groton House, and Fitch’s Corner Area Champs), we were eliminated at King Oak in show jumping for three refusals, and then somehow scrambled around Stoneleigh Burnham two weeks later, in spite of refusals in both jumping phases. Gone was my willing partner. And gone was my sense of confidence or belief in the horse. Jumping had become a real chore and ceased to be fun at all. After several months of down time, I began working Anna over fences this winter in the indoor under guidance from my longtime coach. She had me focus on being softer in my arms, trying to not “set” Anna so much for a takeoff point, and to stay lighter in my seat so as to not hollow her out before the fence. Things were better—mostly. Except for oxers. And in and outs. And anything new or unusual or unexpected.
I dropped back down to beginner novice for our spring prep outings in 2014, which should have made things super easy, given her accumulated experience over fences. But at the shows, Anna got stuck, wouldn’t go, and stopped at fences for no apparent reason. I was eliminated in show jumping at two combined tests (THANK YOU to the organizers of each who recognized the schooling opportunity and allowed me to complete my rounds anyway). I was so, so discouraged. It is hard to ride confidently towards a fence while in the back of your head you think the horse might stop.
When I arrived at Tamarack in May, I was seriously worried about how on earth I was going to get through the jumping lessons. I felt so many emotions about it. I was frustrated and embarrassed. I felt like I was a bad trainer and like I had messed up my horse and caused these problems. I was worried about being overfaced or incapable of riding to the expectations of those around me. I was embarrassed to have people watch me ride.
My first jump school here did nothing to assuage my worries. We had the unfortunate luck to begin our school right as a thunderstorm was rolling in, forcing us into the indoor. Anna had yet to settle into the routine at the farm, and was anxiously calling for her new BFF Lee, as well as reacting to the thunder and rain on the indoor roof. During most lessons, Denny will call students over to him to discuss concepts relevant to the day’s exercises; while Denny was speaking that day, my horse was spinning, calling and in general acting in a disruptive and busy manner. The other horses in our group were quite green over fences, so Denny had set up a teeny tiny vertical for us to school back and forth over. The idea was to quietly trot to the fence with a soft rein and just sort of casually go over it. Anna was so tense and distracted that our “quiet trot” was more of a “forward trot/canter”. My “soft rein” was more like a steady rein as I tried in vein to keep her in the quiet trot. We approach the teeny tiny vertical—and my horse stopped.
The truth was, my own anxiety level was through the roof—I was nervous about the jump lesson, my horse’s behavior was doing nothing to sooth my nerves and now I was unable to even jump this simple fence. How much worse could it get?
Denny noted that I was (quite unconsciously) pulling back on Anna and holding tension through my arms as we approached the fence, and that when Anna did jump, she rushed over the fence. We had just gotten into such a negative cycle with one another that in order to try to fix the problem, there was little option other than to go right back to the beginning. So that is what we did.
“Earnest in a Box”
Something that has become clear to me is that when it comes to jumping, especially in public, I have begun to suffer from performance anxiety. I am so concerned about being perfect that I work myself into an anxious state which is completely counterproductive for riding. On the one hand, I know what I need to do and I know that I am physically capable of doing those things. I have years of muscle memory on my side. But in spite of this, the state of anxiety and emotional turbulence I get into are ultimately causing me to be less competent than I should be. Even going to jumping lessons had become a big deal. As in, we were going to JumpToday, instead of jumping being just a matter of course in our training.
Most of us are familiar with the term “earnest”. According to its definition in Merriam and Webster, “earnest” is an adjective which means “serious and sincere; not lighthearted or playful”. It would seem that for someone who wants to become an effective trainer and rider, being earnest in the study of horsemanship would be an admirable quality. But Denny has brought up several times that being too earnest can actually interfere with a rider’s ability to be effective. Being “earnest” can cause us to overanalyze and worry, which results in physical and mental tension. I absolutely fall into the category of “earnest rider”, and Denny has helped me realize just how much this earnestness has interfered with my desired success.
Denny coaches that there are certain aspects of ourselves that we almost have to “lock in a box” when we ride so that they don’t get in the way. For me, earnestness is one of these qualities. Each time I have a jump school, I have started to remind myself to lock my earnestness in a box, along with any feelings of performance anxiety or franticness.
Another critical concept that Denny brought forward is that ego has no place in horse training. If you need to go back to rails on the ground to work on your horse’s canter, do it. If you need to ride with a neck strap so that you don’t catch your horse in the mouth, do it. If you have to jump 18” verticals for six months because that is where you or your horse is comfortable, do it. Humility is NOT one of the qualities which should be locked in your box.
Furthermore, even though you might think that everyone around you is watching and judging (especially at a show), the reality is that at the end of the day, no one really cares about your performance except for you. So learning to let go of what others think is an important quality.
Back to Basics
Horses will provide us with the responses which they have been conditioned to understand. Teaching a horse to jump is a matter of conditioning them to understand that when they are presented to an obstacle, they jump it. But if they are punished by the rider for providing this response, whether through being caught in the mouth, pounded on their back, or being put too many times to an incorrect take off point with insufficient impulsion, then they are not going to be a willing partner.
It sounds so simple, right?
To start to rebuild both horse and rider confidence, Denny had me jump very small fences from the trot several times per week. The idea was to make jumping much less of a big deal than what it had become. This approach is what he uses when introducing greenies to jumping for the first time, as well as how he works to rebuild shaken confidence. The intent is to create a situation that is set up for success. Keep the questions simple and repeat them until it is a confirmed response. A quote from former USET coach Jack Le Goff that Denny repeats often is the guiding philosophy here: “Boldness comes from confidence, confidence comes from success, so do a bazillion little things that guarantee success and you will have a bold, confident horse.”
To begin to instill this feeling of success, I would establish a forward but not rushing trot with Anna, and before the fence make sure that I was keeping my leg on, my eyes and chin up and not leaning with my upper body. I also grabbed mane over every fence. Denny wanted me to never ever catch Anna in the mouth and by so doing discourage her effort. The reins were kept soft but not totally looped either. He would have us ‘go play’ over the fences. I only jumped the ones I felt okay with; there was no specific course or plan– very low pressure. Some days, we only jumped maybe eight or ten fences, and if she stayed happy and relaxed, we went for a hack. The pressure had totally come off.
A big turning point came one week when all of the farm’s horses were being schooled over gymnastics. There were two lines set up, one which had several bounces in a row to a one stride, and another that was a vertical one stride to an oxer one stride to another oxer. Obviously, each line was built up gradually. The fences were kept low, as the intent was to work on the horses’ form and function through the exercise. Gymnastics, and bounces in particular, are physically demanding on the horse and it is quite important to ensure that you quit while you are ahead.
On our first approach to the bounce line, Anna really backed off and though she went, it was sticky and lacked forward intention; this was the feeling which I had gotten so used to when she was faced with new and unexpected questions. Denny had me make a fairly strong correction with my whip (we actually school her over fences with a dressage whip, as you can more easily touch the horse without taking a hand off the rein). Then I reapproached—and he said something which for some reason really, really sunk in. I had to ride to the fence EXPECTING THAT SHE WAS GOING TO JUMP, instead of riding assuming that she was going to stop. So much in your body changes when you are thinking that your horse is actually going to jump the fence—you stay softer, you keep your leg on more, and if you have been coached enough, you wait with your upper body for the horse to throw you out of the saddle and close your angles.
Once I began riding EXPECTING THAT SHE WAS GOING TO JUMP, she actually did! We had no trouble through the rest of the day’s exercises.
Several days later, the horses were schooled through the gymnastics again. Denny’s wife May came out to help, as Denny was riding with us. May has retired from riding herself but still has a sharp eye and uses her years of personal experience to note fine details in horse and rider performance. She commented that during the grid line, I needed to keep my hands in a steady crest release, and not let them move around so much (where it is easy to start getting backwards pulling). She suggested shortening my rein and lengthening my arm (something which I say to my students all the time, how funny), and then finding the crest release and just staying there. When you come to the fence with your hands out ahead of you, it is SO MUCH HARDER to pull back. This was a second turning point for me. In addition to EXPECTING THAT SHE WAS GOING TO JUMP, I needed to remember to ride with SHORT REINS AND LONG ARMS, and to keep pushing her towards that contact, instead of the other way around. I was rewarded for paying attention to this detail by a horse that happily skipped through the exercises.
And in this slow, steady, methodical way, Denny began quietly increasing the questions we faced. One day we jumped the barrel fence. Another day we jumped some of the colorful panels (Tamarack has the most amazing array of beautifully painted fences). Each time, we came to the quiet trot, and I rode like I EXPECTED THAT SHE WAS GOING TO JUMP. And with each fence that she willingly popped over, a little boost of positivity went into our partnership.
Slowly, quietly, with as little fanfare as it had slipped away, I realized that my confidence was coming back, and that the horse that I had formerly trusted to jump was coming back too.
Using the Lower Leg—and What That REALLY Means
Anyone who has taken or taught a jump lesson should know that in order to encourage your horse to jump, the rider must apply leg. “Add leg!” “More leg!”
But riders (and coaches) must remember that the leg goes all the way from the hip joint down to the sole of the foot. That is a lot of real estate. Our quadriceps (thigh) muscles are usually our strongest in the leg, so when riders are coached to “add leg”, the common instinct is to squeeze with the thigh, which turns into pinching at the knee. However, if you stand still on your horse and squeeze as hard as you can with your knees, your horse will not move. This is an incorrect use of the leg.
To be effective over fences, the rider must be able to apply her LOWER leg to the horse. Denny quotes Bruce Davidson as saying that there is a control button on the horse, located just behind the girth and against the rider’s heel, which when activated will send the horse forward. But even saying that you need to apply your LOWER leg is still not descriptive enough. You must apply your leg at the location of the ankle bone/heel, and this must be positioned on the control button (just behind the girth). In order to apply this part of your leg, you actually have to rotate your leg from the HIP joint. And you also must SIT in the saddle.
When approaching the fence, the rider must shift the horse’s balance from forward and down to back and up (Denny likens this to cocking the pistol). The LOWER LEG of the rider in the location of the heel/ankle bone must be on the horse in this phase, in order to keep the hindquarters engaged and the hind leg underneath the horse. An image Denny uses is to imagine your leg coming slightly to the east-west position on the horse’s sides. The rider sits in the saddle and adjusts back with the upper body to help the horse’s shoulders to lift. The horse is the one who closes the angles of the rider’s hip and knee when he leaves the ground, while the angles of the rider’s shoulder and elbow open as she releases the rein. The rider’s body is essentially shaped like a “?” mark.
Some trainers advocate approaching fences in a light seat/half seat in the final strides, but it is quite physically impossible to apply your lower leg at the ankle bone when your seat is out of the saddle. One of the most common arguments against sitting is that it causes the horse to hollow his back; however, if you think of a dressage horse, riders sit all the time and the horse remains round and engaged. The key to successfully sitting before the fence is to do so without locking the hip and driving. The rider sits so that they can apply the leg and to ensure that they wait with the upper body.
3,2,1 Jump—Finding Your Canter
Denny frequently points out that most horses don’t have a jumping problem, they have a canter problem. Riders need to know what quality of canter is necessary for successful jumping, and they need to develop their ability to adjust that canter slightly to get to a correct take off point. He calls this “developing a three stride eye”.
Riders can work on this every single day, not by jumping, but by using hoofprints in the arena footing or other inanimate objects that are ahead of them in the ring. Practice transitioning from a travelling canter to a jumping canter and count down, “three, two, one” in rhythm with your horse’s stride as you approach your mark. If you are in jump tack, you can also practice the transition from a light/travelling seat to the sitting seat/leg on you need in front of the fence, asking your horse to shift his/her weight back and down while lifting the shoulders up.
Denny was helping me on the flat one day, and he asked me how many hoofprints I had jumped in my warm up. I had to admit to him that I had “jumped” no hoofprints, as I wasn’t happy with the responsiveness to my leg in the canter and besides, we were doing flatwork, not jumping. Denny said that working on the 3,2,1 exercise would actually IMPROVE the quality of the canter as well as my horse’s responsiveness. So I started riding with that thought in mind; sure enough, the exercise of looking for the three stride approach caused me to use my leg more effectively, thereby bringing more thrust and jump to the canter.
I personally have an easier time using an object that is up higher or is broader in my field of vision than a hoof print as a focal point; I have been using jump standards or rails on the ground to work on the 3,2,1 concept. The more a rider practices this during every ride, the sharper their eye becomes. The next step is to begin to figure out what the rider needs to do in those last three strides to affect the canter if they aren’t going to reach a perfect take off point. If they are going to stand too far off (leave long), they need to add more leg and move up. If they are going to come too close (chip/get deep), they need to half halt and further adjust the horse back. These skills make a not perfect distance less problematic—but it requires knowing when you are three strides away from the fence as well as having a horse that understands and is responsive to the aids which adjust stride length.
The first test of my rediscovered connection with Anna came at the Tamarack Hill Farm Schooling Jumper Show on June 18. THF offers these shows once/month in the summer time, seeking to fill a need for affordable, local, low intensity opportunities to practice jumping skills. Denny is a HUGE advocate for supporting these types of shows and believes strongly that event riders should take advantage of them to improve their jumping skills.
As hard as it was for me to do, I had to lock both my earnestness AND (especially) my ego in a box when I chose to enter the 20” and 2’ classes. This was a perfect opportunity for me to put all of the skills and mental focus I had been working on to the test, and to do that, I needed to keep the stakes very low.
My reward was that Anna was focused, confident, and wholly with me during both rounds and jump offs. Both of us admittedly had more experience as a team than most of the other entries in those classes, but it was with a huge surge of relief and joy that I actually felt a sense of partnership with my horse return. This was exactly what both the horse and I needed to be doing right then.
“Boldness comes from confidence. Confidence comes from success. So do a bazillion little things that guarantee success and you will have a bold, confident horse.”
It is my “earnest” hope that this jumper show represents one of those ‘bazillion little things’, and that we will only continue to grow in confidence from here.
Celebrating the incurable addiction which is being an equestrian