Cross Country Gears

I had a fun cross country lesson this week, and what we worked on really seems to have fallen into place with my rider and his pony.

Let me give you a bit of background. He’s had his pony for seven months, so is rapidly growing into him, and they have the most adorable relationship. Don’t tell him I said that! But it is, it’s so lovely seeing a boy who loves his pony this much. Anyway, he does everything with him, and so far doesn’t seem to be afraid of doing anything on him – you can imagine the “can I jump that?” As he points to a Novice brush fence!

However, before I’ll let them get too gung ho (we’ll leave that for the hunting field) and ambitious, I want to teach a bit more of the technicalities of jumping.

A few weeks ago we went cross country schooling and had some problems with the steps in particular. So with this in mind, we planned some cross country sessions for half term. And used the in between lessons to work on core muscles, position towards a jump, developing his seat aids, and getting him more aware of the variations in his trot and canter and subtly altering them.

Last week we went cross country schooling and we had a mixed afternoon. We began to improve his riding towards steps – he was no longer racing towards them, and was sitting up for longer on his approach. They jumped the trakhener and some rather large, straightforward fences confidently. With the water complex we had an issue of racing towards a small fence and creating so much splash his pony couldn’t calculate the jump. Then we had a problem in the water. A long, over confident leap up a step then caused a refusal in the water which led to an unfortunate dunking for my rider.

This week I was adamant that I was going to sort this out so that next season the boys didn’t start with a phobia of steps.

The pony is very bold, but tends to get long and fast on the approach to jumps, often preferring to take off half a stride too early than get closer and make a steeper bascule. His rider, because he’s a growing boy and still maturing, plus still growing into his pony, tends to collapse a bit through his core and over ride the last couple of strides to each fence. Which encourages and enables his pony to go long and then take a long stride to a fence. Which causes problems at technical fences because his pony either takes a long stride or can run out.

So how to make my client realise and understand how to maintain a more balanced canter towards these technical fences? After all, being a boy you can’t overload him with information. Last week, I’d tell him to sit up and hold the canter towards the fence, which meant he forgot to ride positively with the leg. So the next time I’d say to remember the leg, and he forgot to sit up towards the jump! We needed a simpler set of instructions which encompassed all aspects of his riding.

Then it came to me; use the gear changing analogy. He likes driving and has a go-kart, and if we put numbers to the gears it will be easy for me to instruct on the approach and a short directive for my client to take in. After all, it tied in well with our lesson the other week on transitions within the trot and canter using the seat and a scale of one to ten to identify the size of the gait.

We warmed up in the field, using transitions and shortening and lengthening the canter. We had a check of the braking system to make sure it was enough that the pony didn’t get strong and pull my rider forwards yet wasn’t too severe. Then I had my rider warm up over four simple fences in a fairly straight line, looking at the canter staying very rhythmical and balanced throughout. Which meant my rider had to tone down his riding so his half halts and squeezes of the leg were enough to steady or encourage the pony without affecting the canter. The second time they did the exercise it flowed beautifully.

My rider could tell me how smooth the canter was, and I told him this was fifth gear. And I wanted him to remember how this had felt. Any simple, straightforward jump could be ridden from fifth gear.

Then we did another course, with mainly simple logs, but there was one jump on entry to the water. I let my client have a try, after all he’d jumped a similar fence last week. They jumped the first few fences nicely in fifth gear, but approached the water in fifth gear. His pony caught sight of the water behind the jump and put the brakes on. I reminded my rider that when jumping light to dark, or into water the approach needed to be steadier to give his pony time to read the question and answer it. I suggested he tried approaching the water jump in fourth gear. Then they flew it. So we repeated the course, really focusing on the gear change.

Just by using the term “fourth gear” instead of “steady the canter and sit up” meant I could efficiently get the message across and my rider put the whole set of aids together automatically – sat up and used his core and didn’t flap the last few strides. Whereas before he’d follow one instruction but forgot the other instruction.

We moved on to the steps complex, and talked through the gears for each jump: fourth gear for the fence going into the water, third gear for the steps uphill, fifth gear for the log out of the water, and third gear for the steps downhill.

The first course was pretty well faultless, but I did feel the uphill steps could have been better by my rider riding forwards between the two steps to keep the momentum going. So they repeated the course, and it looked fabulous! Apart from the loss of stirrup between jumps, of course.

As the steps were looking much more straightforward to them, I took the pressure off them and we did another “fun” course, which included a double of larger houses and a trakhener, with a couple of twists and turns to keep my rider`s brain ticking over. Fourth gear was required for the trakhener so his pony could take in the question, and any jumps with turns very close after were also a fourth gear. Unfortunately, the pony got a bit strong on this course and they took the houses in sixth gear, so their bascule was long and flat, clipping the roof. My rider could feel that the canter was a bit too fast and out of control, so we did another similar course with the houses, focusing on maintaining fifth gear. That time they jumped the houses in a much more controlled and stylish manner.

It was good to see this time, that I could send my rider quite far away from me – within sight but out of earshot – and when he had a problem with a skinny due to his approach and collapsing forwards as he overrode on the last couple of strides, my rider had to solve the problem himself. He changed his whip over, steadied the canter back to third gear and sat on his bum. Afterwards, we talked about how to solve that particular problem so that he was more confident in the way that he had handled it and so would do the same next time. Which he did.

To finish the lesson, we returned to the big water complex, which was where they had their dunking last time. We didn`t have any problems with the splashing fence out of the water like last week, which was great. By slowing the canter into third gear, the splashes of water didn’t obscure the pony`s view of the jump and he was much happier popping over it. It was much of repeating the concept of changing gears to ensure my client was feeling more confident about adjusting the canter, and making sure his pony was responsive to the aid. We did the steps out of the water and had a little blip when they both thought too much about last week; in the last course the first step was a little long, but it’s that fine line between the pony feeling confident and taking his rider into the steps and his rider being able to bottle the energy and maintain third gear. Which will get easier as he grows and gets stronger. I was being very picky though. However, the boys jumped the bigger step perfectly, and the rest of the course flowed really nicely.

We did try to do a bigger step, with a small blue brush on top, which caused a few problems but we soon established that the pony was actually cautious about the blue brush rather than the step itself, so we left that fence after a couple of attempts – that will be next year`s challenge!

I feel that everything started to come together in this session, and instead of just jumping bigger and faster, the two of them were thinking about the way they rode the fences and starting to think for themselves out on course. The idea of gears really struck a chord with this client, and he seemed able to coordinate his rein, seat and leg aids when thinking of the gears rather than being overloaded with specific corrections or instructions. When he walks courses in future we`ll just have to label each jump with the gear that he needs. Over the winter I want to develop his core stability and his knowledge and ability to extend and collect his gaits as well as improving his pony`s ability to maintain a more collected canter towards fences and jump in a less point-to-point fashion. Then I think they`ll sail around BE80s.

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