Summer Camp With the O’Connors, Part Three

Forgot to write yesterday; we moved over to the Horse Park in the early afternoon. It is incredibly crowded with 600+ horses in the Horse Trial plus the miniature horse show. Hardly any room to park the trailer so I stuck it in the "back 40" and indulged in a golf cart to haul things - and myself - back and forth. Before the clinic ended we all rode our dressage test with David or Karen judging. Clark warmed us up and within about 5 seconds had nailed my two biggest problems: bracing my leg off the horse ...Forgot to write yesterday; we moved over to the Horse Park in the early afternoon. It is incredibly crowded with 600+ horses in the Horse Trial plus the miniature horse show. Hardly any room to park the trailer so I stuck it in the "back 40" and indulged in a golf cart to haul things - and myself - back and forth. Before the clinic ended we all rode our dressage test with David or Karen judging. Clark warmed us up and within about 5 seconds had nailed my two biggest problems: bracing my leg off the horse ...

Story originally posted by Horsecity.com Staff

In this four part series, the author recounts her experience attending a training camp with Olympic eventers Karen and David O’Connor, and their staff.

July 18, 12:50pm
Forgot to write yesterday; we moved over to the Horse Park in the early afternoon. It is incredibly crowded with 600+ horses in the Horse Trial plus the miniature horse show. Hardly any room to park the trailer so I stuck it in the "back 40" and indulged in a golf cart to haul things – and myself – back and forth.

Before the clinic ended we all rode our dressage test with David or Karen judging. Clark warmed us up and within about 5 seconds had nailed my two biggest problems: bracing my leg off the horse and my death grip on the left rein. Gwen was rushing around but he insisted I put my leg on her and hold-hold-hold until she softened. It wasn’t pretty at first, but after a few minutes she relaxed into my hand and I was actually able to ride her very deep, which felt great.

Other things I need to do: widen my hands a lot, keep my wrists supple with the thumbs pointing ahead, and ride the outside aids around corners. Nothing new there, heaven knows, but as always sometimes just hearing things a new way helps make it "click".

I thought our test went pretty well but I was actually pretty tense in the middle and caught myself not breathing! With a judge like David O’Connor I guess a few nerves are understandable, although that’s never really happened in an actual show. Another thing Clark had me do was physically relax my body on command (or at least try. and the drop in tension on Gwen’s part is palpable when I do that. The middle part of the test wasn’t great but the beginning and end were decent. David liked her canter but I need to ask for "more" at the trot.

Other hints:
a. If you’re not really straight and balanced going into a corner, forget about going deep and just ride it as a quarter-circle.

b. School the halt by asking for halt then allowing the horse to move off the moment it softens.

c. Ride the "4 corners" exercise (10m circle in each and every corner) to get the horse anticipating something in each corner and waiting for it.

I walked the Cross Country course tonight and it is BIG! It seems long but is reportedly only 2400m. I’m going to wheel it tonight – 450mpm is going to be fast for me. There are a lot of big logs at the beginning of the course, a couple of combinations with bending lines, and a fun (but big) couple of jumps into and out of the Hollow. Fence 14 – shared with Preliminary – is a 2 foot log with a 3 foot drop on the other side. It looks ENORMOUS and I only hope it seems smaller from the safety of Gwen’s back, as most of the jumps do. All that bull riding last week should pay off…that is one big drop!

The jump into the water – almost at the end of the course – is currently perched on a very steep slope, just after you run under a very low-hanging branch. I looked at it and very seriously considered scratching then and there but then I saw the small note saying the jump would be moved to a far more reasonable spot for Sunday. Whew!

All in all very challenging for me, but I must remember Gwen has done much tougher stuff. I think I have the requisite skills, but it is all a matter of pulling it off! If I can get around this course I think I’ll be ready for any Training course, but I don’t think I’m going to be bored at this level for a very long time.

Schooled Gwen in dressage this morning and she was great. I’m still in search of a decent lengthening, but if I can keep her together for a whole test it will be a big improvement.

July 19, 4:00pm
They’re lowering the log at the drop for Training level! I’ve watched a few Preliminary teams do it and it still looks sizeable but hopefully after it’s lowered it won’t be so intimidating. I walked the Prelim course with David and the OCET "entourage" last night and my course does look much smaller now when compared with that one!

Dressage went really well. Gwennie was all business and was ready to be nice and relaxed. Our halts are much nicer with the "halt-soften-walk" exercise and we even got a tiny lengthening – the judge called it a "small difference". She didn’t rush through it and stayed soft in my hands, so we’re making progress. We got a 35, which put us in 4th place out of 18. We got a "nice teamwork" comment, which is gratifying and, little by little, becoming a fact.

Stadium was a little rough around the edges! I got a late start getting ready after going to help out a rider who’d had a very hard fall on the Prelim XC. I lost my crop (which was in the golf cart) in the process and by the time I got it all together they were 4 rides away from ours. Clark warmed us up again and I kept getting long spots, so we kept at it until I had some better fences. Gwen was quiet in the warm-up but grew her customary 2 inches in the arena!

We set off fine, but I got right back into the long distances, no matter what I did. Gwen, bless her brave heart, was more than happy to take them and jumped well in spite of me. Fence 4A-B, a tight one-stride combination right next to the in-gate, was going down (the "B" part) for 3 out of every 5 riders all weekend. I managed to shorten her stride and met 4A right on, but she tapped 4B and down it went. As is typical with Gwen, one rub or knockdown reminds her to be more careful, and although the long spots kept right on appearing, she jumped big and carefully the rest of the way around. Four faults, and some regret at missing "stadium day" during camp! Gwen’s ankle has been fine, and I still think the day off was worth it for her sake.

One good thing about all those big, bold jumps was the feeling that even the bigger jumps on XC are not going to challenge her much – she’s such a powerhouse! If I do my job and get her there, she’ll no doubt "know all the answers" tomorrow.

We managed to hold on to 4th place in spite of the rail. Tomorrow’s XC is going to be such a challenge, though, that the old runner’s motto "to finish is to win" definitely applies! We did a Training course walk Saturday night with David and a whole pack of us campers. It was very fun and lighthearted, complete with golf cart racing, although the things can only go about 2 miles an hour. David gave us a mini-education and asked us to have a very specific plan, complete with rationale, for each fence. And he quizzed us on it! This is good stuff – my Novice course walks were always kind of perfunctory, with the primary goal of not getting lost. On a course like this, though, the better the plan the better I feel about it.

A few good tips:
a. If there is a combination on an angle (like 4A-B and 7A-B) always set your horse up so he’s as straight as possible to the "B" element. If a chance needs to be taken with the angle or approach, let that be at the "A" element.

b. If a course is well-designed, try to figure out what the designer is asking. 12 to 13A-B, for example (a big vertical brush, ninety degree turn to a half-coffin): the approach to and landing from 12 is downhill, so you have to have brakes and balance well established beforehand. Lo and behold, just the things you need for the half-coffin! 12 may be big and vertical, but there is brush on top to protect the horse if you screw up and come in too fast. A lot of this subtlety is no doubt lost on us lower-level yahoos, but it makes the idea of the course as a series of questions very evident when you think about each fence and its relationship to the ones before and after.

c. When you have a jump near the edge of water where the horse has a chance to land on dry ground before stepping into the water (fence 19. he will usually "cut down" with his front legs on landing to ensure the best footing, so ride it a little like a drop fence.

David doesn’t believe in timing your way around a lower level XC course, and I got picked on a little for having wheeled it beforehand and for knowing the minute marks. His theory is that you should learn to ride a given speed by doing the course then figuring out if you’ve gone too fast or too slow. You can then apply what you’ve learned the next time out. I can certainly see his point – he hates to see riders reacting to their watches and not riding the course with a good flow, but my humble (and unsolicited) argument, which I kept to myself, would be that I think most of us are capable of applying feedback on speed while still on course.

If I finish a course and realize I needed to go a little faster or slower and my next Horse Trial isn’t for 2 months, what are my chances of remembering that precise feeling of pace? On the other hand, if I hit my first two minute marks on the slow side (for example) I can decide to step it up and have almost instantaneous feedback at the next minute mark.

It’s two sides of the same coin. If you ask me, my world of a small handful of shows a year at Training level is far different than his, and so I just jokingly said that since I am a scientist by training that I like lots of data. Who am I to argue with him?