Back To Basics

A fellow coach and I were discussing this subject a couple of weeks ago, and we thought it should move into the public eye more.

There’s a huge trend at the moment for grassroots riders to have one off lessons with different coaches. These might be clinics organised by riding clubs, or camps.

I firmly believe that a rider should have one regular instructor until they reach the point when they are knowledgeable and confident enough in their own goals and abilities, with a thorough all-round grounding, that they can choose the specialist lessons which will complement their aims, learning style, and current instructor. I’m currently reading a book “Two Minds, One Aim” by Eric Smiley, and I thought it was interesting that he didn’t promote the idea of going to lots of different teachers.

The trouble with going to different instructors for one-off lessons is that they have to assess you very quickly, and have to deliver something near to the lesson on offer. When actually the horse and rider combination may not be at a suitable level, or it’s a bad day for both.

What I mean is that, if a showjumping coach is offering a jumping clinic and a pair turn up who are not established enough on the flat or as a partnership to successfully achieve the jumping exercise planned then the lesson could go badly wrong.

Now there are two options for the coach. Firstly, they can ignore the weaknesses of the pair and hope that they don’t crash and burn over the jumping exercise. The client will feel that they’ve had their value for money because they’ve done lots of jumps, jumped high, or have completed a tricky exercise.

Whether they can replicate it in future, or did it in any great style is left unsaid.

Alternatively, the coach can go right back to basics, make some adjustments and have the majority of the lesson on the flat, before jumping lower than the rider might have expected to, but with much more style and ease.

I recently went for a jump lesson with a BS trainer. I tend to always use her, but lessons are infrequent. The first half hour is always focusing on our flatwork. The flatwork content differs from what we do in our dressage lessons, but only in topics; the fundamentals are the same. What I mean, is that currently in my dressage lessons we’ve worked on lateral work and encouraging Phoenix to let me position her body in different ways. In the last jump lesson I had we focused on transitions within the gaits, which is also helping me teach Phoenix to allow me to adjust her, but is aiming to improve our performance in the air rather than on the flat.

Some people would be disappointed that so long was spent on the flat, but by fine tuning the flatwork, the jumping section went smoothly and built confidence because each question we were asked was achieved easily. This means that less time needs to be spent jumping because fewer attempts are needed to perfect the exercise, and you risk falling into the trap of repetition. Did the jumps go to her maximum height? No. But as the focus was on our approach rather than proving how big she can jump, they didn’t need to be big, and if anything needed to be a height that it didn’t matter if she made a mistake on the approach.

However, some people would come away disappointed with this special one-off jump lesson because in their eyes they failed the lesson requirement: they didn’t jump the height they’re capable of, and they spent more time on the flat than jumping. But actually, this sort of lesson is safer for all involved, reinforces the basic building blocks which means that the jumping comes easily, builds confidence because the jumping goes smoothly, and provides homework which can be practised with whatever facilities you have available at home, and sets both horse and rider up for a longer, active partnership.

Unfortunately, trying to give immediate lesson satisfaction means that some trainers who run clinics, end up bypassing the basics, losing the quality to their teaching, and putting horse and rider in potentially compromising positions. Yet, they get positive feedback because the riders jumped “their biggest fence ever!” or felt that they got sufficient jumps for their money.

How can this be changed? Firstly, by educating the rider on the fact that “showjumping is dressage with speed bumps” and that improving their flatwork will improve their jumping. And that they will learn something from a clinic, even if it is in an unexpected area.

Then we need to encourage trainers, most of whom know the value of correct basics, to be confident enough in themselves to spend the time with one-off clients on the basics and setting them up for long term success over jumps, rather than putting a sticky plaster over the flatwork weaknesses and letting them scramble through the jumping exercise. This is difficult though, because the trainer risks a less than flourishing report unless they have one of the enlightened riders I mentioned in the paragraph before.

It needs to be discussed though, because in our current society of musical coaches, there is a real risk of a horse and rider having an accident because the coach has failed to revise and instill the basics.

My Gridwork Clinic

I’ve planned a series of polework and gridwork clinics over the winter, approximately one a month, at a beautiful local showjumping venue. They’re designed to run independently, so people don’t feel they have to attend all six, and I’ve given each date a theme. This helps me plan, and also helps riders chose which clinics to come to as they have a rough idea of what we’ll be working on.For my first clinic, I chose straightness as the theme.I wanted to work evenly off both reins as symmetry improves straightness, and often riders find it harder to ride straight when turning off one rein more than the other, so in order to ensure everyone had a chance to improve their stiffer rein, I used the centre line.I laid two tramlines just onto the centre line, to focus the riders on their turn so they didn’t drift, and were set up straight for the grid. With a fairly short approach I laid out a jump, followed by another one canter stride away. The third jump was two canter strides away, with a pair of tramlines in the middle to correct horse and rider if they’d drifted. Then there was a fourth and fifth fence one canter stride apart. The fifth fence was an oxer, and there were tramlines on the landing side and the then just before the turn at the track.The tramlines ensured they started and finished straight, and stopped any cutting of corners after the grid, so improving the getaway.I warmed up all the riders by getting them to trot through the grid with the poles on the ground, alternating the reins they’re coming off. Initially, all the horses had a good look at the arrangement of poles, but after a couple of goes, they started going straighter, my riders were channelling them forwards because they’d stopped looking down, and the horse’s stride length opened and rhythm became consistent. The riders could also start to think about whether it was easier to turn off the left rein or the right rein and make corrections.We then cantered through the poles from both reins. All horses will struggle to get the distances while there are no jumps, but as they got straighter and more forwards they started to work out how best to place their feet. So long as the horses are going through in a positive, rhythmical canter, I’m happy at this stage.I built the grid up slowly, starting with a cross as the first jump. The centre of the cross meant we knew if there was any drifting on the approach. The second fence was also a cross to help straightness, and then the tramlines corrected any drifting on the getaway and over the rest of the poles.The third jump was an upright, and once they’d jumped it confidently once, I made it into an A-frame. The apex emphasised the centre of the jump, and encouraged the horses to be neater over the jump. Of course, the horses and riders back off this slightly intimidating set-up, so I encouraged the riders to sit up after the second cross and ride positively in order to get the two strides. Once the horses have jumped it a couple of times it doesn’t cause any problems. The fourth jump also became an upright. With some groups I also made this into an A-frame, but if I felt that the first A-frame improved the horse’s technique over subsequent jumps I didn’t bother. And finally, we built the fifth fence into an oxer.Everyone found that the tramlines were incredibly helpful at helping both horse and rider stay straight, and the crosses highlighted any drifting so the riders’ knew how and when to correct over the last three elements. They could all feel the difference in their horses as their straightness improved because the distances were easier and the hindquarters more efficient at pushing the horse over the fence. They also landed in a more balanced way, ready for the next obstacle. When the horses were going straighter the riders could feel the effects of any twisting by themselves through the grid, which helped them fine tune their position.

All in all, it was a great, rewarding morning, with lots of progress from each partnership. Now I need to plan next month’s “Gears to the Gaits” clinic!