I was kind of hoping to skip doing this, but I've had specific requests so here's a brief report on my second lesson at Jimmy Wofford's place this past Tuesday.
My heart sank at the outset when he said, "So we finished up last time in some rig with the reins..." and he walked over and wrapped those suckers around Willy's neck again. Willy has a thick stallion neck, and my reins are the shortest ones I own. I had to hold the reins at least 2/3 of the way up his neck, and I felt like I was strangling him with the loop that goes underneath. It made Willy back off a bit and not want to go forward, but after a few jumps he untied us and let me hold the reins the way I'd been practicing for the last thirty-some years.
The point was well made, however, and was made repeatedly throughout the lesson. I have got to learn not to "take back" when we're coming down to or turning toward a jump. The high point was when he congratulated me for not pulling back when Wofford was standing against the wall and I had to canter by his nose. Willy did a mild spook and Wofford watched my hands. Instead of pulling back in response he said I just squeezed, and a stride later our canter was back in rhythm.
Willy jumped OK for most of the lesson, demonstrating his athleticism and carefulness, but I still was frustrated by the fact that Willy hadn't settled into the stop-go routine of a jumping lesson. Our canter was never as soft, round, rhythmic and obedient as it is when we work at our own pace and with our own plan that is tailored to Willy's responses. In a lesson like this you stand and watch, and then you canter and jump without a lot of delay whether you're ready or not. What it did for us was to exaggerate our weaknesses. I needed this, because other situations also exaggerate our weaknesses. One is to go 500 meters per minute across a field and then jump a road crossing of angled verticals. Another is to barf our way through a combination and then have to turn downhill to a skinny. Another is to have to pass the in gate, turn right, go three strides to a maximum height triple of oxers. All of these have happend in competition, and they've all made Willy upset, which makes him want to run, and I've always responded by pulling back with my hands, which makes him run with his head up and/or stall with his hind end. He's honest and athletic, so we always come out OK, but it won't work at higher levels with more technical questions. So I really shouldn't whine about the conditions of the lesson bringing out the worst in us! I should be glad, and learn how to make the best of it.
A note on Wofford's methods for horses that stop. Both of us in the lesson were on training level horses who hadn't seen a chevron. He set up a small but narrow one but had it set up with wings that acted as a chute. He first had us show it to our horses. He then had us canter to it. The first horse stopped I think three times. The second time he actually chested it and knocked it over. He did not bring out the lunge whip because, I believe, there was an effective rider aboard and a horse who truly didn't understand that the funny looking triangle was a jump. He knew that it would click in the horse's mind without the need for outside assistance. After the horse jumped it he had her bring him back and show it to him again before jumping it again. He did the same intro thing with Willy, but Willy didn't see what the big deal was. He figured it was just another jump.
At one point in the lesson when Willy was resisting my hand and throwing his head up, Wofford said, "I bet he doesn't do that in the dressage. You're making him do it." In the truck on the way home it dawned on me how
differently I ride dressage. I would never do a half halt on the flat by taking back with my hands. I use my legs and my seat and I might squeeze a little with my fingers if necessary. But somehow when I'm heading down to a jump I've gotten into the habit with some horses of using too much hand. I have to re-train my body to respond differently when I see that spot and want the horse to wait. It's the quick, sensitive horses that I do it to, and they are the ones that need to be allowed to focus on the jump. A little tug on the bit can be a big distraction three strides from a jump. When I think about my worst cross country rides they are the ones where my hands were doing the most talking. When I think about the horses that I've done best with on the cross country, they aren't the most athletic horses, they are the ones who galloped in a rhythm and maintained their own balance. I never got in the habit of using my hands with them and they always surprised me by how easy cross country was. I have to admit that some of them were warmbloods who were not the best or safest athletes. I don't want to ride warmbloods for the rest of my life, so I have to learn to communicate with my horses in from of the jumps without
messing with their heads.
As an aside, George Morris has argued that the American jumping style of the 70s was softer and used less hand than the European style in part because American's rode more sensitive horses...TB's to be precise. Now the styles and the horses are less distinguishable, but the point is relevant.
Like all of us, my work is cut out for me. Fortunately, my other horse that I'm competing this spring confronts me with the same issues. I'm looking forward to re-training myself and am glad that Wofford is so demanding of excellence and knows what it looks like. We go back in two weeks.