A trip to Southern Pines; Part Two

After taking another day off for hacking, we had the first of two jumping lessons with Denny Emerson, international event rider and trainer. For the jumping lessons, I decided to ride the new pony Willie, as I hadn't jumped him much, and felt like we could benefit from "getting together" under Denny's watchful eye. My husband was mounted on Lion. We started the jumping lesson in the indoor ring, because a camp for ...After taking another day off for hacking, we had the first of two jumping lessons with Denny Emerson, international event rider and trainer. For the jumping lessons, I decided to ride the new pony Willie, as I hadn't jumped him much, and felt like we could benefit from "getting together" under Denny's watchful eye. My husband was mounted on Lion. We started the jumping lesson in the indoor ring, because a camp for ...

Story originally posted by: Heather Bailey

After taking another day off for hacking, we had the first of two jumping lessons with Denny Emerson, international event rider and trainer. For the jumping lessons, I decided to ride the new pony Willie, as I hadn’t jumped him much, and felt like we could benefit from "getting together" under Denny’s watchful eye. My husband was mounted on Lion. We started the jumping lesson in the indoor ring, because a camp for adult riders was taking place nearby and this morning they were borrowing Denny’s cross-country course, which adjoins his outdoor ring. He felt that the sight of that many horses galloping around the cross-country might be a bit unnerving for two green horses, and so suggested we start indoors until they were done and had moved on.

After warming up using the soft stretching method we had practiced in our flat lesson, we started with a simple cross-rail, no ground rail. Lion tends to be very forward to his jumps, so when I ride him, I have to concentrate on being very quiet in the tack to keep him from squirting to the jump or getting overly excited. Willie however, is a very quiet type, and though he loves to jump, he’s perfectly happy to do it at the slowest possible speed. I had a few ugly jumps initially as I had to mentally switch over from the quiet ride I give Lion, to the more active, stronger, more forward ride Willie needs. After a few tries, I found the rhythm, speed, and feeling I needed, and Willie was happily plopping over the small cross-rail, then the vertical. Lion was eagerly jumping also, but my husband had to work on keeping his upper body back more in the approach and then not throwing his shoulder forward in the air. I was sympathetic, because it’s a problem, I, and a lot of other riders, share.

Denny says this is because in every other sport in the world, running, bicycling, skiing, you name it, when you want to go forward, you lean forward and lean with your shoulders. So, every human instinct says that you lean forward to go forward. Unfortunately when you are riding, this instinct can let you down, as leaning forward compromises the horse’s balance to a degree that makes it difficult for them to do their jobs properly, especially over jumps. He suggests that in the approach you think about sitting tall, and if you fell the urge to lean, lean back, not forward. Similarly, when in the air, instead of thinking about snapping your shoulders forward, think about brining your hips back. Bending the hips back helps keep your leg firmly underneath you, and it keeps you from laying up the horse’s neck in the air.

He set up a small oxer on the other side of the ring, and we trotted the vertical and the cantered around to the oxer. Willie doesn’t steer that well at the canter yet, so my approach felt a little bit like that of a drunken sailor, but the horse was jumping well and clearly eager to find the jumps. Lion was going wonderfully, finding a rhythm and firing off the ground. Denny praised both horses, and after checking his watch, said he thought it would be safe to go back outside.

We went around the back way, so that we could play in the water jump a little bit. Out hacking Willie had proved a bit uncertain about the water, so Denny, who was wearing rubber boots, led him in and told me to just stand in the water with him, let him drink if he wanted, even let him play, but just generally make the whole thing a positive and pleasant experience. Lion was proving to be a little bit more difficult, but it seemed to be more of a personality conflict than about the water jump. My husband had been leading with Lion, a position that horse doesn’t care for when presented with something new, and they had had a bit of an argument about still moving forward from the leg, no matter what was in front of him.

Once Willie was standing the water, Lion was willing to walk in and stand, and then we took turns walking and then trotting in and out of the water. Though Willie was willing to walk through the water, getting him to trot took a lot more effort, and he clearly wasn’t sure it was possible. After we managed a few sluggish steps, he seemed to gain confidence, and plopped through. Lion too settled down, and walked and trotted through on his own several times, earning praise from his rider.

We walked down a tree-covered lane, and after a brief balk from Willie, who spied a patch of the dreaded "black water" (dark black mud pits which dot the ground in this area), we emerged in to a large field filled with cross-country jumps of every size and shape. There were still a few members of the adult camp working over the bank complex, and after observing our two horses and seeing that they weren’t overly bothered by the other horses, we practiced trotting back and forth over a few small cross-country jumps-simple log piles, etc.

I was extremely pleased that both horses just popped non-chalantly over the jumps, though both my husband and I got reminded about staying back in the approach, and not breaking over too much or too quickly in the air.

We then hacked across the field and in to the back gate of the large outdoor ring filled with show jumps. Tamarack Hill had hosted a schooling horse trial the day before, so the ring was filled with freshly painted and colorful jumps, including flower and brush boxes. I wasn’t sure how the horses would react to all the colors, and Denny suggested we at least go to the flower box and let them take a look. When they showed no visible reaction, we proceed to trot a small course of jumps. Denny feels strongly that when jumping young horses, it is important to keep them quiet and comfortable and give them every chance for success. He feels the oft bandied about term of boldness comes from trust in the rider and positive experiences. Hence, we let them see a potentially scary fence, and we trotted, instead of cantering, in order to keep them calm and cool and keep everything easy.

Seeing those fences appear and disappear between the happily pricked ears of Willie, and watching Lion flow happily from jump to jump with bright eyes, was unbelievably gratifying and whole lot of fun. We concluded the lesson with a bite of carrot out of Denny’s tack room, and nice stroll up the driveway.

The next day we had another jumping lesson scheduled, and we had hoped to do more cross-country, but when the morning dawned with pouring rain and thunderstorms, we knew it was the indoor or nothing-oh well, you can’t control mother nature, and at least it was warm!

I was again mounted on Willie, and my husband was on Lion, but joining us in the lesson was a third rider on a more experienced mare. I was impressed that throughout the lesson, Denny was able to make slight alterations to the basic exercises to make them easier for Willie, say, or harder for the more experienced pair. There was an in and out on one long side, a single fence set on the diagonal, and pair of standards on the other long side that were used to make a bounce and an oxer, alternately.

With Willie, we continued to work on trotting fences and just keeping everything positive and easy. He jumped the single fences well, and the in and out, though he was drifting a bit to the right, so Denny laid a pole on the ground about a third of the way in from the edge of the standards in order to help keep him straight. We then moved on to the bounce, an exercise Willie had never seen before. Denny set two tiny cross rails nine feet apart, and told me to trot in positively lean back, and look up, and just keep coming.

The first time, Willie sort of shuffled through, but Denny had me praise him and keep coming, after a few tries, he was going happily through there, but he was starting to breath and sweat a bit. Denny then laid out a small course over the jumps, which started by jumping the bounce the opposite direction we had just practiced.

The first time we came to it, Willie tried to canter, to make it easier on himself, and when he correctly deduced the distance was too tight to canter in to successfully, he stopped. I kicked him forward, and made him walk out through the fence. The second time we came in, and he tried to balk in the corner and not turn to the bounce. Denny said that he knew he was tired, and that this was hard for him, and that he would be done in a minute, but that he had to learn that he needed to push through in times like these and not be a grump. This has been an ongoing issue with Willie-when he gets a bit tired he thinks he’s entitled to quit, so I was a little pleased he was exhibiting this behavior for Denny to see.

I got him through the corner, and then cleverly managed to jump up his neck. "You leaned," said Denny. I knew it, but made him walk out through the jumps anyway. The third time though we managed to get it right, but Denny had us come back one more time. As we landed from the bounce after that fourth successful time, Denny had us trot but trot around to the in and out, an easier question for Willie since he could put in a canter stride to make it easier on himself. When he saw the combination the horse visibly brightened, and jumped through eagerly. Denny had me praise, him and then walk him on loose rein, he was done for the day. Once he was cool, and I halted to watch the rest of the lesson, Denny had me dismount, loosen my girth and just stand with him. He emphasized that when they have been pushed a little out of their comfort zone, it was very important to delineate that "You were good, now you are done." So the horse always associates good behavior with a reward.

Lion for his part was a star. Today Denny had him cantering most of his fences, but some of that right hind weakness demonstrated itself by my husband having to work harder to maintain the canter through short tight turns from the right. In addition to the exercises Willie had done, Lion also started jumping the single fence at an angle. With the increase in recent years of the technical requirements for event horses, Denny believes it important to introduce accuracy questions like angles, narrows, and corners early on in the horse’s career.

After he had jumped a variety of fences, and my husband had worked through what he needed to do to keep the right canter, he looked as tired as Willie, and he too was instructed to dismount, loosen the girth, and let the horse know, "You were good, you are done."

At the end of lesson, Denny felt both horses were nice, and had shown great attitudes throughout a week of new experiences and tough work. He felt that with Willie, I should just continue to practice "plopping around" over small fences, to both improve my eye and timing, and to expose him to lots of fences in a low key way. Lion needed similar work, but was more ready to "go on and do something". He stressed though that since Lion is a more eager, hotter type, to make sure that jump schools remain low key, in order to not make him to excitable to his jumps.

The boys seemed pretty pleased with themselves, though, when I glanced out in to their paddock later in the day, I saw them both stretched out on the ground, head to head, sleeping, so I guessed they were both quite tired after all.

All in all a very successful and fun trip down south!

To read the first part of this article, click here.