So, I took Jack up to Joe Davies’ farm yesterday for a steeplechase sort of schooling. I wanted Joe’s professional opinion on if my horse was going to cut it as a steeplechaser and if I was going to cut it as a jump jockey. Joe has won the Maryland Hunt Cup a few times as a jockey and as a trainer and his wife Blythe Miller Davies won it last year. So really, if they said either of us wasn’t going to make it, I’d just say fine and move onto something else. But that wasn’t said. And a lot was said. And a lot was just shown to me. And a lot was just learned from riding. And the wheels in my head have been spinning ever since.
Read on with caution, this is going to be a long one and may not make sense to everyone.
Lesson number 1 – Yes, the Davies are correct when they said that 99% of the time, when a race horse goes backwards or sideways, it is the jockey’s fault. This was demonstrated to me but Joe taking Jack’s reins while we were standing in the driveway chatting and just holding hard. He didn’t even pull back, he just gathered up the reins and held tight and Jack went backwards super fast (I was still on the ground at this point). Then Joe just let go and stood next to Jack without holding on to him and Jack just stopped and stood next to Joe.
Blythe talked about race nerves as a jockey and how jockeys need to keep those hidden from the horses. She made some nice comments about Jack saying he looked good, looked sensible and looked fast. That last comment made me laugh cause she stepped back to take a look at him and was like, “yeah, you can win with this horse” and that was just with him standing. I have to admit, he does have that look about him these days.
Lesson number 2 – Once we got on (I was tagging along on one of their sets), Joe had me stand up in my stirrups and hold my neck strap for balance. So lets talk about the neck strap. I always jump with a breast plate of some sorts on. And it drives me nuts that my students don’t. A breast plate or neck strap is the most important investment in my opinion. The “grab” strap in the case of a traditional breast plate is super close to the saddle so really is only used in those “oh shit” moments.
Last time I did a clinic with Joe, he told me I needed a neck strap that moved with horse more. A yoke. So I rigged one with a breast collar. It worked great. Except that this year, I felt it was too much in my lap and I kept trying to figure out a way to put it way up on Jack’s neck. My thought was the grab strap was to help me stay with him when he was jumping. Wrong.
Joe explained that the grab strap was for the rider to balance without holding onto the reins. And… to help control the horse without holding onto the reins. The pressure on the base of their neck when you tug on it will actually slow them down. The key words being “without holding onto the reins.” Race horses are trained to run and the more you hold onto the reins, the more you give them conflicting instructions. So, off we went, with me holding onto the neck strap, which was placed a bit loose and in front of Jack’s withers, and not holding onto the reins.
Lesson number 3 – So now we are trotting through the woods and I’m standing up in my stirrups with a loop in my reins and my fingers around my neck strap and guess what, Jack is happily trotting in line and not trying to pass anyone. We jumped a few logs and then took a short walk break and Joe moved onto explaining where the rest of my body needed to be. Heels way in front of me by the horse’s elbows/shoulders, seat a bit back behind me, shoulders tall, eyes up. Funny… that is exactly how I was first taught to ride cross-country by David O’Connor and how I have all of my students ride. Or at least try to get them to ride that way. The only difference is that David then added that your leg comes back under you a few strides before the jump and you lightly touch down in the saddle when appropriate. Joe says to stay in that position the whole time… and not touch the reins. So off we went again, with more cantering and some bigger fences.
Lesson number 4 – My horse jumps better on a loopy rein. Really. He does. And what sucks is that I knew this all along. And here is where the wheels really started spinning. So we are all out as a group walking, trotting, cantering, galloping, jumping walls, timber fences, logs, crossing streams, roads, etc and I’m literally controlling my horse with my neck strap and no reins. And he just keeps jumping more and more relaxed and more and more tidy, and more and more boldly. That is how my horse used to jump when I first bought him.
In fact, that is how Jack jumped all the way up through the Training level when I was eventing him. So what happened? The game of eventing changed. The courses got more technical, more foot work oriented. I was ready to move my horse up to Preliminary and all of a sudden my trainers were having me do 10m collected canter circles, counter canters and asking my 17.2 hand Thoroughbred to jump out of an 8-10 foot stride. Why? Because a Preliminary and above horse had to be that adjustable. Next thing I know, Jack is not as bold, we have the occasional stop at Training level, I drop him back down to Novice, jump back up to Training and then we have a silly fall cantering up to a 2’3” vertical in the ring and both end up in the hospital. I’m not saying our fall was related to all the compression work we were doing. I’m saying that in hind site, our fall happened at exactly the right moment. BEFORE we went Preliminary. As much as it sucks to admit it, if I asked him at that time to jump around a Preliminary course in the overly connected frame I was asking him to go in, we never would have made it. I know that now.
And as we were bee-bopping our way around the Davies’ farm on the buckle and jumping all kinds of stuff from all kinds of odd approaches and distances, right on the heels of the horse in front of me, I was kicking myself for screwing things up five years ago.
Lesson number 5 – At the end of our set, Joe had me and his student hop over a few bigger post and rails while he watched. All he kept saying was “good” over and over again. And that did make me feel good. I’m sure if any of my students or eventing friends were watching they’d think I was riding like crap. But I wasn’t. I was letting my horse jump. I had forced my brain to shut up and forced my body to be perfectly and, more importantly quietly, balanced so my horse could simply jump. And he jumped well.
Oh, and here was something else key that Joe explained early on in the set… the horse’s ears tell you where he is looking/listening. Duh, we all know that. But… if you are going to a jump and the horse is flipping his ears back and forth between you and the jump, then is he really focusing on what he is about to jump? Probably not. He’s probably listening to you. And at that moment, a few strides before the jump, it is his job to focus on the task at hand, so why do we keep talking with our hands, legs, etc?
As we walked back to the barn, Joe said there was no reason why my horse couldn’t be a timber horse. He said he jumped nicely and had the scope for it. Then he said there was no reason why I couldn’t be a jump jockey. I just needed to reprogram my head and relax. Oh, and did I mention he was riding his two-time Grand National winner that is scheduled to run at the Hunt Cup this year, in a bit-less bridle. Why? So that no one riding that horse is tempted to hold onto the reins. And yes, he does use a bit when actually racing.
Conclusion – So on the way home, I was thinking hard. Thinking about how Jack felt that day. Thinking about how I was going to recreate that same feeling this weekend at the hunter pace. Thinking about what has gone wrong in the past and how to not make those same mistakes again. Thinking about the sport of eventing and how in many ways, it has gone the wrong way. Thinking about the courses I was designing for the Redland HTs and how I could help in some small way to get eventing back on the right path. Thinking about if my ideas of that right path were even correct. And the thoughts just kept spiraling from there.
So what now? Not exactly sure. What I am sure of is that on Saturday at the hunter pace, no matter what happens and no matter what other people might say, I will ride Jack the way Joe had me ride yesterday because that worked for Jack. Because that has always worked for Jack, I had just forgot it. Jack was happy and that made me happy and more importantly, more confident in my horse again. I also know I’ll be heading back to Joe’s next week for another set.
What I’m not sure about is what to do with my eventing students and horses in training with me for eventing. I know that one specific training method does not work for every rider and does not work for every horse. But, I strongly believe that we have got to get this sport back to the “go forward and jump” mentality that it used to be. I’m sorry, but just because your horse can trot up to a jump, does not mean that you should be allowed to trot your whole course. When did that become acceptable? If as a rider you are too afraid to allow you horse to go forward and jump their fences, then practice at home before competing. If your horse is not balanced enough to go forward and jump a fence, then stay home and teach him. Simple. That is what I’m doing. I know I was nervous at Green Spring. I know I did not let Jack go forward. So, no racing for us till I can allow him to go forward and jump. It is that simple.
Now I just need to convince the rest of the world.