Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Becoming Infatuated with Rhythm: Part Deux

Earlier this year I wrote a blog discussing the concept of "rhythm" and its importance during all three phases. (Available here - http://thoughtsofpoppyfields.blogspot.com/2015/01/becoming-infatuated-with-rhythm.html) Becoming infatuated with my horse's rhythm in all 4 gaits has been a major goal of mine over the past 8 months, but I can honestly say we finally had a "Eureka" moment about the concept very recently. We were guided to that understanding over not one, but two days of schooling cross country with my trainer, Eric Dierks.

Day One - Windridge Farm

I'd had a jumping lesson with Eric about two weeks prior, but was feeling pretty rusty after our hiatus from showing this summer. (Last show was in April! Yeesh!) We planned to meet at Windridge for their schooling day, but decided to skip the show on Sunday remembering last year's debacle. Managing to be the first horse and rider on course we had a wonderfully private warm up. Starting out, we tested out the trot, canter, and gallop, focusing on that all-important concept of rhythm. Eric said, "Taking straightness as a given, we have to focus on the horse's tempo, length of stride, and cadence to produce rhythm."

"Taking straightness as a given" was an important place to start. I found as we did some warm up gallop sets up and down the hills on course that the straighter I rode Tristan's body, (occasionally suppling him through the withers with my thighs) the more energetic and powerful his gallop felt, regardless of the mpm we were traveling. Another great term that Eric used for that feeling of power was thinking of it as your RPMs coming into the jump.

For a warm up, we worked over small, beginner novice and novice fences at a trot and after we had rhythm and energy at the trot, we moved on to novice, training and prelim fences keeping the same concept at the gallop. This idea produced better energy, more scope, and (here's the big one for me) a more predictable take-off spot. Eric has discouraged me from counting strides because he knows my obsessive brain would focus on that, and only that, coming into the jumps. Focusing on rhythm (remember; length of stride + tempo + cadence = rhythm) helped me be a more active rider in between jumps and less dictative of Tristan's take off point (because honestly, after 9 years he should start seeing those for himself).

As the schooling progressed, I felt more confident of my distances, regardless of the size of the jumps. Plus, if I did some counterbending to the outside of turns, I could improve my straightness and, more importantly, the energy and rhythm coming to the jump. I only had 2 jumps the entire lesson where I "missed"; once over a trakehner in the woods where I lost my focus and intent to the other side of the fence, and once over the prelim water complex where I got too anxious about the bank up to look for my out over the 3rd jump of the combination. Both errors were easily fixed the second go around.

Day Two - Gibbes Farm

Feeling pretty big for our britches and finally "getting" the idea of rhythm, Tristan and I came into our clinic group fairly cocky, if a bit sore from the previous day's school. I seemed like we struggled with applying the concept a bit more the second day than the first, but it was good to practice over a a wider variety of jumps and situations.

After we warmed up with the same exercises, trotting and then cantering small fences with the same feel of rhythm, we started challenging that rhythm with the introduction of hills and related lines. The pictures below are a good example of the challenges that came up. Eric put together a small course of a hanging long to a five stride combination (table to skinny), then a hanging log with a huge groundline (or baby weldon's wall) to a 2 or 3 stride combination (depending on your length of stride; we were instructed to not dictate the distance, just ride the rhythm). First time through this course, I had an oops moment that sent me off course.

Fence #1

Fence #2 Table at the start of the 5 stride line

 Fence #3 Skinny out (aka Oops)
First time into the combination, we had a great big leap in (not pictured) and I slipped my reins over the fence so I wouldn't catch Tristan in the mouth on the back side. 5 strides isn't a lot of time to get your reins back, so I only managed to get my left rein before the skinny, thus the awkward jump out. I took a bit too much contact on the right rein by bringing my elbow back, and continued to try and organize after the fence, causing me to miss jump #4 on our course completely. What's the one word I didn't use to describe that attempt? Oh, right. Rhythm. I got so drawn into "seeing a distance" to the table coming in that I completely went into neutral and stopped riding Tristan's rhythm to each jump, and then lost focus on my line to jump #4 and went off course. After a breather and watching my comrades jump through the same course, we gave it another go with much better results.

Fence #3 again

Fence #4
 Much prettier picture this time around. Focusing on rhythm gave us a better distance and line to the following fences. After popping over the hanging log up the hill and pointing towards the downhill 3 stride line, I was able to feel the rhythm, support to the base of the first log, and keep the RPMs revved to make the 3 strides work without depleting our gas tank and running at the second fence. The ability to see what needs to happen to the strides before and between jumps is something I've never been able to feel and accurately accomplish so I'm very proud of that little lightbulb moment.

After some successful coursework, we moved on to banks and water. Both those words give me more anxiety than I'd care to admit, but with the building blocks of rhythm and balance it was much easier to gauge whether I was coming to an up or down bank with an appropriate canter and, if not, what adjustments needed to be made to rectify the situation. We ended with some pretty nerve wracking water combinations, (a log, two strides to a three foot drop, gallop through the water to a three foot bank out) but as long as we stayed focused on rhythm instead of getting drawn into the anxiety of the more difficult jumps, everything went smoothly. I was happy to hear from my husband (the genius behind the camera on all these amazing pictures) that Eric commented that my position over the banks has improved dramatically and was almost perfectly where he wanted me to be. I've gone from being scared sh*tless over banks and water to logically thinking through any combination we are pointed towards.

Nice log before dropping into the water.
Jumps in the water present a challenge to maintain energy and rhythm along your track.
The biggest takeaway I had from schooling, and a general theme to Eric's teaching style, is that the more you can focus on having correct basics and a tactful frame of mind, the more you can handle every situation in front of you with calm and logic. To achieve rhythm we first need to be sure the rider is in an effective position, has a proper engine and power, and finally a prepared track (which also includes straightness). Put that formula together and you can achieve a balanced picture over any fence and achieve that cool competitor look that riders like Michael Jung and William Fox-Pitt portray so well. Instead of obsessing over the little anxieties, become infatuated with rhythm.

Until next time!

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