Friday, May 25, 2012

Who is jumping that fence again?

Let's talk about jumping.  First, let's define WHO is jumping.  This may seem silly and a bit "master of the obvious," but I seem to exhibit some confusion in this area.  The horse is jumping.  I am not jumping.  The horse and rider are not even jumping together.  Just the horse.  What's the rider doing?  Riding.  The horse.  Who is jumping.  So, when a rider is riding a horse who is jumping, what is the rider's job?  To sit the f*#k still and let the horse do his job.  At least, that's what this rider is trying to do.

Hi, my name is Julie, and I have fence anxiety.  I could go into some details and theories as to why I have fence anxiety, but to keep this blog post out of the book category, let's suffice it to say I fell into a green rider + green horse cycle which did me no favors in the jumping arena.  It did however teach me what I believe to be a fundamental rule: between the two of you, horse and rider, someone has got to know what the hell they are doing.  Millions of dollars later (I jest, not millions, definitely thousands, but sometimes it feels like millions) several green horses that didn't work out (shocker), lesson learned (eh) and I land Bernie.  More on Bernie later, back to jumping. 

Now that we have defined WHO is jumping, what are my goals as a rider riding a horse who is jumping?  As a newbie, my goals are pretty simple: try not to interfere with the horse as he figures out how best to get both our asses over this fence.  At this stage, I can do very little to help a horse as we approach the fence.  Better riders can judge their distance and see the mythical "spot" and adjust speed/gait to the fence to help the horse reach that spot and not have an awkward fence.  As Steuart Pittman said to me (sage words alert), "Once you can feel and know where the horse's feet are underneath you, you can easily adjust to a fence the same as you can easily adjust your own stride when jumping over something."  To illustrate his point further, he pointed to a small cross rail and asked me if I was to run and jump that (me, on my own two legs) could I adjust my stride to accommodate the jump?  Of course I could.  Makes sense, sounds easy, I bet its not. 

So, as we approach the fence, Tom has given me two jobs: leg on and stay straight.  Leg on is me riding forward and telling the horse "yes, we are going to this fence."  The sensibility of keeping the horse straight to the fence and its crucial role in getting us over said fence, I hopefully don't have to discuss.  These two jobs are my active role in getting us to the fence.  In addition to these two jobs, Tom has given me two more as we reach the fence: give the horse his head, and sit the f*#k down! These latter two jobs fall into the "non-interference" category.  Stay out of the horse's way, let him carry you over the fence.   It sounds simple and straightforward, so why I am utterly convinced I need to be doing something at the fence to help the horse jump it?  This is a 1,000+ lb animal, I cannot physically, actively do a damn thing to help the horse (or make the horse) jump.  Good riders help their horses get to the fence correctly, even encourage them and give them confidence in front of the fence with their aids, but once there, they have to sit down and let the horse do the work of actually jumping.  I refer to my above statement that the horse, and only the horse, is doing the jumping. 

That said, there are lots of things a rider can do to hinder or interfere with a horse at the fence and I'm quite sure I am guilty of them all.  My offense of choice is the forward lean.  At best, I make my forward lean as the horse is jumping, so its somewhat forgivable (forgivable by the horse, not Tom).  At worst, I make my forward lean WAY too soon, forcing the horse onto his forehand (and off balance) and making him work harder to get over the fence.  I'm working with small fences here, so a VERY forgiving horse will save my ass and still take the fence.  Why, for all these years, have I thought two-point was something I needed to "get into" in front of/over a fence?  I need to start changing my thinking.  Two-point is a position the horse PUTS me in as we go over a fence.  Well, that's what would easily happen if I could stay a bit more fluid and mobile through my hips, allowing the horse to move me and "fold" me.  This is where kids have the advantage, they're all loosey goosey, the old person stiffness and resistance hasn't crept in yet.  I have actually asked other riders, "how do you know when to get into two-point?" I'm sure a got lots of different responses, but the answer is, that's a dumb f*#king question. Because I don't "get into" two point.  I sit down and try to relax (maybe have fun) all while keeping my leg on.  I actually find it difficult to keep tension in one part of my body (squeezing my leg on) and relaxing the rest of it so the horse's motion can move me.  Seems like I'm all relaxed or all tense and stiff.  Maybe I need to do more yoga. 

So, as I am actively trying to sit still (that makes no sense) in front of the fence and sit down and not lean forward, I get a bit stiff and un-relaxed and end up staying a bit too upright with my upper body (but I'm sitting down!).   I'm resisting against the horse and not allowing myself to kinda fold in half from the hips.  Tom assures me this is the next progression of our jumping form and after I eventually master sitting down and not leaning forward, we shall move on to this next offense.  It amazes me how incredibly hard it can be to NOT do something.  The silver lining in all this: I know when I've done it correctly and I know when I've mcuked it up (shameless plug).  I don't necessarily have the presence of mind to correct myself all the time, but I do at least KNOW what I've done (or not done as the case may be) and if it was correct or not.  I'm hoping this makes me a good student because I can practice on my own and know if I'm getting it right.  Maybe Tom would agree about the good student part, maybe he wouldn't.  It seems to be taking an inordinate amount of time for me to break my bad "forward lean" habit, but maybe the upside will be when I finally do break it, its gone for good. 

The bottom line is, I'm thinking about it too much and my need to do SOMETHING at the fence is a result of all this over-thinking.  I tried a horse at Dodon Farm recently (more on that in a later post) and Steuart Pittman agreed its all in my head.  And I quote, (Steuart Pittman) "You are right, its definitely all in your head because you have good balance approaching the fence."  That made me happy and frustrated all at once.  Way to over-complicate things in front of Steuart Pittman.  Tom has an interesting approach to quieting my inner monologue:  he makes me take fences off sharp turn approaches.  His reasoning is it makes me think more about the turn than the fence.  I have less time to think about the fence and screw it up.  We make that turn and the fence is there, and bam!, you just go with it and its natural.  A long approach gives me an opportunity to stare down that fence, over think it and make 50 million unnecessary adjustments.  And he's right.  I don't think Tom reads my blog, so don't tell him I said that.


  1. Don't let the "And he's right" comment go to your head! You are only right like 99.97% of the time!

  2. Holy cow, Im sitting here reading this saying OMG this is SO me!!!! These are my issues as well but finally the words I haven't been able to find to explain what I am thinking & feeling to my trainer. Like you, stepping out of my comfort zone is very hard. I know its the only way to make progress but after some very bad experiences by a "trainer" I find it amazing I'm not sitting in a corner rocking at the thought of a horse, let alone back to riding and now starting eventing. Keep on taking one step at a time Lady. No matter how small it is every one has a lesson. Sounds corny but I keep a journal of every ride. Hack, lesson or whatever. I try to note what we did, what was good, what needs work and what was an improvement from the time before. In itself, each entry doesn't seem much, but when you go back and read last week or month, all the little steps turn into leaps. :) koodos to you ma'am, kick on!

    1. I'm so glad you can relate, this was actually a hard blog post to articulate. I think it is awesome you keep a journal of every ride and note what was good, what needs improvement, etc... I might have to start doing that too! Sounds like a great method for continual growth and improvement.