“You’re late!” a voice bellowed from the arena. The other three riders in my group were already trotting around, but I had just returned from riding a bike to the other end of the property to use the restroom. It was 8:55 a.m. and my lesson, Day Two of the Rob Gage clinic, was supposed to start at 9.
As I was mounting I shot back, “You’re early!” I knew from my first ride with Rob that he was kind of a smart aleck and so I reciprocated the sass like a mouthy teen.
“You know when you have to describe yourself in one word, the word I always use is. . .”
“Punctual,” he finished.
“That’s a good trait,” I offered as an olive branch.
I had awakened with a headache Sunday morning and felt as though I were wearing a too-tight hat. I did NOT want to ride again. Nothing about my Friday night lesson was smooth and to have a host of spectators at the arena’s sidelines watching me in my weakened state botch riding a course that I knew the little girls could do was going to be too much to bear.
I have hubby to thank for telling me to take Advil, get dressed and go through the motions like I WAS going to ride. He said I couldn’t cancel because I had already paid. So pragmatic.
The day before I watched the same group I would be riding with in their group lesson. Rob had them jump a more intricate course with twists and turns like I’ve never done. My comfort zone is in the outside, angle, outside, angle realm or some variation thereof. The last full course I had jumped was a year ago, last spring at the Thoroughbred Classic show–and that was a crossrails twice around. Seriously.
Extensive summer travel, hurting my back in October (I was taken to the ER via ambulance–that’s a story for another day) and the torrential downpours of this California winter have not provided for me the most consistent riding schedule to bolster confidence.
How to Warm Up
Rob called for the four of us to circle round so he could give us an intro to our lesson.
He stood next to a jump standard to ask us if we knew how high he had ever jumped. We didn’t know. It was 7 feet one inch, on a Hanoverian. He then went on to tell us his philosophy.
“You couldn’t pay me enough to go on a trail ride!”
Rob explained the exciting part about to him about riding is the relationship with the horse and how because horses are living beings, unlike a car, they are different each day and it’s our job to know what kind of horse we’re on that particular day.
Soon he gave us the analogy of a pilot’s pre-flight checklist. Before a pilot takes off he or she has to check a bunch of things, like how the engines are performing, do the flaps on the wings move, etc. He said before we start jumping, we need to check in with our horses and see if they’re lazy or feeling fresh–how well do they slow down and speed up for us this day. According to him, just trotting around in circles and changing directions is not a warm up.
“Now go the rail and show me a crappy trot. This is what a beginner rider will settle for. This is what they know.” He said we were all capable of better than a lazy, crappy trot, but he wanted us to know how “wrong” felt so we could compare it to “right.” And so he urged us to show a medium trot.
“Now do a big trot.”
Knight broke to a canter twice; Rob said he didn’t mind that during a warm up. When I asked Knight correctly he did a fairly extended trot. After trotting half a circle Rob said, “That’s enough with this horse. Go practice cantering down at the other end.”
He asked me if I knew why he didn’t want me to do the forward trot. I nodded and said yeah. Amped Thoroughbred does not equal an easy ride.
Rob called me back down to the others and said that in his clinics, the adults went first when there were few jumps and he’d have the kids go first as the course grew. He said he knew what it was like to lose brain cells through aging and so he wanted us adults to have a chance to see the longer courses so they’d be easier for us to remember. At this point he began to grow on me.
I was the second oldest there, so I turned to my more senior friend on her gray horse and she said, “Oh, you go first!” Great.
I trotted or maybe cantered the single fence (you can see it in the first picture–the red plank with the white box underneath). Nothing dramatic happened. The other three riders followed and then he added a second fence, the red, yellow, black, and white panel (pictured). Again, nothing dramatic happened.
During the clinic Rob addressed my bad habit of anticipating that Knight is going to launch himself and my defensiveness in not wanting to give him a release. Rob told me when I hang on Knight’s mouth over the fence, that’s actually telling him to stay up in the air higher and will make him land long. (I have amazing blooper photos of the launch and my hanging on for dear life from Day One which I am too embarrassed to post.)
I was very deliberate in trying to release and give Knight his head. Like learning new footwork for a dance move where you take a larger than necessary step–that was me making a larger motion than necessary to just feel what “right” felt like.
The next addition to the course was to trot after fence two and trot an X to a small vertical. Would you believe I had another refusal at an X? This time I stayed in the saddle, and there was no shouting. In fact, I think Rob calmly said, “Do you want to try that again?” And so I added leg and it was fine.
The course got more complex and so the kid riders began starting, which really helped. It was at this point a blue oxer in the shade was added in. Instead of jumping it at the end of the pattern of fences we’d been practicing, I buzzed right past it.
The Perils of Perfectionism
“Why didn’t you take that jump?”
“I thought I was too fast and wouldn’t make it.”
“You remind me of my girlfriend.”
“Why, she’s old and wise?”
“No, she’s perfectionist. Just go. Jump it. You’re fine.”
His confidence of it not being a big deal, made me realize it wasn’t a big deal. I learned to trust my “gentleman” of a horse more.
Rob admitted to all of us that he made it a tough course for us.
As “Munchkin,” the 10-year old in our group made her round he said that he could tell she was a fighter and he yelled encouragement each time she went over a fence, reminding her to bend forward and release. Munchkin made it, the teen made it, and my friend on the gray made it and was told her round was an A+.
Before I started my full round with all of the fences he said, “Don’t go too fast into that last one-stride or your horse will make it a bounce.” Oh boy.
And we were off.
Knight jumped wonderfully even though I brought him into to the first trotting one stride a little crooked.
The course seemed to never end, but I just kept trying to look at the next fence and block everything else out. And overexaggerate giving Knight his head in mid-flight. And breathe.
We did the last one stride as a one-stride, not a bounce (Phew!) and we completed the course.
I walked Knight up to my trainer who was standing as a course marker for the next riders to canter in front of and she said, “Night and day! Sooo much better than Friday.
“I think I’m done. I don’t know if I could remember it again.” My trainer said to tell Rob.
“And I have no idea if we got our leads, it all just happened so fast.” She said Knight kept doing his flying changes. Those were all on his own because I wasn’t cuing. I was just looking to the next fence.
I walked Knight over to the coach. “Rob, I think I’m done for today.”
He said, “I’m happy with that.”
I watched a later lesson and a rider fell off. Rob was really kind about it. I even overhead him refer to one of the teens as sweetie.
I had a conversation with my friend, the one who used to not want to canter alone. We agreed that Rob’s setting up an adversarial vibe with us initially, forced us to dig deep. Maybe we are better riders than we’ve thought all along. And it just took a gruff Olympic coach to prove it to ourselves.
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