Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Boyd Martin on "Riding the Horse Underneath You"

After being born and raised in the chilly suburbs of Chicago, I was excited to move to Greenville, South Carolina and put Tristan and myself smack dab in the center of all the equestrian events and training in the southeast! It also helps to befriend local trainers, and I have made (hopefully!) lifelong friends out of my trainer, Eric Dierks, and his equally talented wife, Trayce. In addition to having access to their beautiful farm in Tryon, NC, Renovatio Farm, they're also the type of horse people that know everybody. I mean everybody! Last week, I got wind on Facebook that Trayce was putting together an impromptu clinic with the one and only Boyd Martin! I think I texted her hoping for a riding spot within about 10 seconds of hearing about it. Never, ever pass up an opportunity to ride with a well-respected trainer, especially if he/she is an Olympian!

Renovatio Farm is nothing if not incredibly picturesque, and that's just the house!

I know lots of eventers go gaga over Mr. Martin, due to his dashing good looks, Australian accent, and sincere love of his horses, but I'm selfish. No matter how many accolades a rider has, they're of little use to me if they can't teach me and my horse a way to become better, safer competitors. I am happy to report that Boyd is probably  an even better clinician than pretty face for magazine covers!

We started out by discussing stirrup length. Boyd said there should be three distinct lengths; one for dressage, one for jumping, and one for riding (flatwork in a jump saddle). The flatwork length is going to be somewhere in between your dressage length and jump length, and should fall just above your ankle bone. After our stirrups were up to snuff, we did a light walk/trot/canter to warm up, with the focus being on the horse responding to the leg. While working at the trot, we sectioned the arena into three areas with square turns in each corner, allowing the horse to focus on straightness and impulsion instead of putting a huge effort into creating a bend. At the canter, we put all the horses into a light hand gallop before attempting to try any collection, thus allowing them to stretch out their backs before compression. This started all our mounts out with a great, forward thinking mindsets before we started jumping.

Then back to the stirrups. We took a moment to adjust to our jumping lengths, and Boyd introduced a new concept regarding stirrup position. While the traditional position of the stirrup bar is across the ball of the foot, Boyd had us scoot our feet out a bit further so just our tip-toes were on the pads. He said this was easiest to do with wide-tread, plastic stirrups that have cheese grater pads. The goal of this positioning was to create a deeper heel angle and fuller contact between the rider's lower leg and the horse. This tactic was especially useful on jumps requiring extra support to the base of the fence, like banks on cross country, or spooky stadium jumps.

Then to warm up for jumping, we set up two raised cavaletti in a figure-8 pattern. We started with a large, looping figure 8 for the first 4-5 jumps, then cut the turns in half to a tight, turning figure. This got the horses to start thinking on their feet before we started over larger jumps. From the figure 8 cavaletti, we turned down a long gymnastic line of a bounce-two stride-bounce-two stride-bounce, which was progressively raised from small cross rails to larger Xs.

Now on to the bigger stuff. To go back to practicing the deep heel and secure lower leg, we worked over a vertical fence with a turn back to an oxer with a v chute.

Tristan and I over the V
Eric Dierks and Puff

I liked the feeling of the deep heel coming into the base of the fence. I have a tendency to take my leg off entirely a couple strides before the jump, but having my heels pushed down helped make me more conscious of my leg contact into the base.

We then put some small courses together, and Boyd focused on everyone's individual issues. My biggest problem is something I've been working on for almost a year. Sometimes, when I start encountering problems on a course, (missing distances, lacking power, too much power, etc.) instead of reacting and adapting to the situation, I will instead sit there and go "Oh dear God, I hope this works out! Tristan take the wheel!" Well... not quite that bad, but my body goes into a neutral state instead of fixing the situation.

We were working on a one-stride to a 5 stride bending line to a Swedish oxer. I came through the line 3 times and each time, ended up with 6 strides. Boyd stopped me and said simply, "You're doing it wrong. You need to take the inside turn and make it 5 strides." So we came around again, I gritted my teeth and put my strong lower leg in effect. Tristan powered through the one-stride, we landed, I set the inside turn, and we made the distance in not 5, but 4 strides! The "Little Horse" stepped up his game! This was, of course, not the ideal reaction, but Boyd was happy that we had made the change to a more powerful, direct route, rather than losing energy while adding strides.

Making that inside turn happen!

When you ride with different trainers, you always gain a little more perspective. Sometimes you find out that they have very similar ideas to what you've already had yelled at you for hours on end learned, other times you pick up entirely new concepts. From this clinic, I know I need to refocus on "riding the horse underneath you," as Boyd put it. He told me it's very important to react to what the horse is telling you, since issues early on in a course could spell refusals later on, or worse. Also, I'm going to practice scooting my feet further out of the stirrups and allowing my heel to sink further down and create a fuller connection with my lower leg. This show season, I don't want to continue making the same mistakes, but let every past failure breed future success.

***Thanks to Erik Olsen for taking video of the lessons!***

***Thanks also to Linda Valerio Stenzel for taking photos of the entire clinic! Her album is available here***