Monday, February 21, 2011

Spring Cleaning

This past weekend, I would have loved nothing more than to spend it riding Eddie. But, in reality? I spent it sick on the couch. I could be bummed, but there are worse things than getting the flu once every 3 years, so I gave in and "did my time" and just took it easy.

The unexpected downtime gave me the chance to go through some of my materials I'd collected last year in my and Eddie's "return to the basics" and I found a write-up I'd done of a Kyle Carter clinic that I audited in Alabama last May. One of my good friends is the president of the Birmingham Dressage and Combined Training Association, and she and her trainer organized the clinic and gave me a free audit spot to come down and assist her with everything while she rode that weekend. Afterwards, I sat down and wrote a re-cap and sent it back to her to share with BDCTA. I honestly hadn't read this since I wrote it back in June 2010, so I went through it and pulled out the majority of the details to put up here. I'm cleaning up all my training notes and organizing my "riding diary," so as soon as I can stand for more than 10 minutes without getting light-headed and faint, I will be back to putting these lessons to good use....outside in the arena!

Kyle Carter Clinic
May 2010

Kyle instructs BDCTA president Kelly Hanby
and her horse, Trouble Maker.
On May 1 and 2, BDCTA hosted Kyle Carter – a world-class competitor in three-day eventing and a member of the Canadian Olympic and World Equestrian Games teams – for a clinic to help local riders practice their show jumping and cross-country skills. But, honing jumping skills was just the tip of the iceberg regarding the many lessons that both riders and auditors received that weekend at Blackjack Farms.

The rider groups were split into a starter/beginner novice group, a novice group, a group for training-level riders, and an advanced group of horses and/or riders who have competed or were planning to compete at preliminary or above. Each group started with a nice warm-up session on the flat, focusing on getting the horses quiet, supple, and forward. Kyle emphasized the importance of balance and connection during warm-up in order to get the horses thinking forward, but not pulling or leaning on the forehand. Establishing a frame that gets the horse in front of the rider’s leg and light in the bridle is necessary when preparing for a jumping phase in order to ensure that the horse is engaged, yet also sensitive to the rider’s touch and prepared for any questions that might come up on course.

Kyle addresses the issue of contact with USEA 2010
Area III Jr. Training Champion, Hannah Begue,
riding her horse, Asterix.
One thing that became apparent almost immediately was that Kyle is a knowledgeable teacher and has years of personal experience to back his recommendations. With that being said, his accessible nature and friendly coaching style was a welcome asset to all of the riders; with some riders who had previously ridden with Kyle, as well as a fair number who had never met him or trained with him before. Far from being aloof or intimidating, his encouraging guidance and individual attention seemed to calm both horses and riders and helped everyone – riders and auditors alike – to benefit from everything that was happening at any given moment. He explained in detail what he was seeing and thinking to not only the riders, but also to the auditors watching from the ground. Kyle’s ability to work with 3 or 4 horses/riders at a time, yet give each pair individual instruction based on what they needed help with the most, was a positive sign of his experience with a diverse student-base, as well as a testiment to his willingness to work with whatever situations came up for each horse and rider pair as they progressed through the training sessions. It also helped those of us who were participating as auditors; we were able to view a wide selection of riding styles and an array of different types of horses and experience levels. Even though I was not riding, I was certainly able to see similarities between myself and any number of the riders and gain some insight into how I could change or improve my own schooling at home through the instruction that was given by Kyle as he worked with each group.

Everyone watches as Jessica Moore jumps through
the show jumping gymnastic.
After warming up on the flat, each group was started over a simple cross-rail with a long approach down the center of the arena. After several introductory pass-throughs, Kyle set the fence to a small vertical (relative to the experience level of the group at hand). It was really fascinating to see how much can be accomplished simply by practicing one fence with a six or seven-stride lead time. Some horses would anticipate the effort five or so strides out and lock-on and jump from a fairly decent spot. Others would see the fence and move forward, then slow, then forward, then hesitate, and then jump from either a chippy spot or a long spot. One of the most difficult things for a rider, we learned, is the long approach to a single fence with no related distance. So much time to think! Some riders can see the perfect spot from seven strides out and sit quietly until they reach the fence and jump out of stride. Other riders may check and then kick, check, and then kick, questioning their sightline and searching for a spot up until maybe two or even one stride(s) out, which makes for a bit of a nervous approach and a quick and sometimes unbalanced take-off. Whether a rider sees the spot all the way down the approach, or only two strides out is irrelevant, as long as he/she can make their horse’s stride lengthen or shorten to accommodate that spot and get it right. Practice adjusting stride was valuable to getting horses and riders evenly down to the fence and over the obstacle cleanly before moving on to a small course of fences that were added to the initial question.

USEA 2010 Area III Open Training Champion,
Nikki McCreeless, discusses her round with Kyle.
Once the participants started riding a series of fences, incorporating turns and angles, Kyle worked with each rider on any number of issues, including speed, balance through the turns, using the ring and the rail to position the horse for a good line, making smart approaches that weren’t too quick or off of too short of a turn, and then using the backside of the fences to collect and make a plan for the next effort. Everyone benefitted from start to finish through these exercises and considerable improvements were seen in everyone by the time the show jumping session ended.

Riders prepare to tackle a cross-country gymnastic.
On the second day, Kyle focused on horses and riders going cross-country, starting with an effective warm-up. The starter, beginner novice, and novice groups from the day before were combined into one group that rode first for the cross-country session. The training-level and above groups were similarly grouped and rode that afternoon. 

Having everybody start out trotting on uneven terrain, Kyle assessed rider position and control issues for each pair before briefly practicing some downhill canter to make sure that everybody was moving forward yet balanced and in control. Having riders then go uphill and canter up a steep slope gave him an even better idea of rider position and impulsion before moving on to the first jumping exercise. The first group warmed-up over a single fence on an uphill slope that proved several pairs to be fast and flat, while others were a bit slow and too short to the fence. Kyle instructed everybody to ride wide down the hill and into a sweeping, balanced turn before asking them to sit up and push their horse underneath them to get up and over the uphill question. He focused on a controlled and careful approach, and was quick to stop and correct riders who came too fast down the hill, leaned into the hill, cut the turn, and sped over the fence. The lesson here was definitely not "who can get to and over the fence the fastest," but rather "slow and steady makes for a prepared and safe ride." Once riders started making better approaches and not cutting short the turn or letting their horses get heavy and flat on the approach, then their jumping became more confident and forward. 

After schooling the single fence, Kyle added two more verticals to the question: one perpendicular to the uphill jump on the approach, and one perpendicular to the uphill vertical on the landing side, with two strides between each of the three elements (forming an "S" shaped combination across the side of the hill). This exercise really asked the riders to find a line through all three jumps that allowed for a balanced first jump, a forward two strides with plenty of impulsion to the second, uphill fence, and then a quick, right-hand turn to the final fence of the series. (In the above video, Nikki McCreeless gives Kelly Hanby's green horse a productive school through the combination.)

Some horses/riders rushed through the fences on wobbly lines and half-strides, while others got a good approach to the first, but lost momentum to the second, which backed them off of the third fence. Kyle took the time to address each horse and rider combination and took them through the exercise as many times as necessary until they felt confident going forward and making the split-second decisions that the turns and angles required. He focused on getting the riders to turn their horses with their leg, seat, and body as opposed to just pulling the horse’s faces and hoping the rest would follow. Everyone ended this session having learned a lot about balance, impulsion, and rider preparation while riding a tricky combination over hilly terrain. (In the above video, Kyle has a green rider/horse pair circle between the elements to slow the horse down and even their pace for a safe and confident ride.)  

Anna Efinger negotiates the bank.
A short exercise up and down a bank ended the day for the first group of riders and allowed them to happily finish the clinic with lots to think about and take home with them for future schooling.

The second group warmed-up similar to the earlier group, but moved on to jump a series of cross-country obstacles that included rolltops, banks, cabins, and a small bench/palisade. Kyle had the riders practice many of the elements that were discussed on the previous day in the show jumping ring, including balancing the horse’s stride while approaching a single fence at the gallop, turns and angles, as well as adjusting speed according to the fence at hand (short and bouncy to a drop; forward and underneath uphill to a bank; compressed and controlled on a short turn to a cabin, etc.). Everybody gained a lot of experience over cross-country terrain and fences that built on the show jumping exercises from the day before, truly bringing home the knowledge that each phase of eventing, each exercise and activity, and the combination of flatwork and jumping can incorporate seamlessly and fluidly through each of the questions asked of a three-day event horse. Through Kyle’s entertaining and personable approach to instruction – from the green-as-grass horse and rider to the most experienced and successful of combinations – really made all the participants feel positive and comfortable about what they were accomplishing and where they needed to go to continue to grow and improve as better riders and competitors. 

Kyle talks to H-A pony clubber, Antonia van Os, about pace and lengthening/shortening the gallop stride.

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