Monday, November 21, 2011

Goodness Gracious!!!

....with the operative word here being "gracious." As well as, "polite," "intelligent," "approachable," "kind," "talented," "genius," "elegant," and "funny." These are all adjectives I overheard in regards to the one-and-only, Francis Whittington, during the clinic this past weekend at Chattahoochee Hills. I, of course, was thrilled to audit the clinic, meet Francis, and observe him ride and teach in person. But, it was gratifying to see the other participants also become ardent fans of Mr. Whittington, as well. And, before you even ask, NO....I did not at any time, in any way, under any circumstances refer to Francis as "Francy Pants." Well, not in his actual presence, at any rate. :-)

I was the only official auditor there (shame on you, GA folks, who did not come out and at least watch!), but there were a nice group of riders -- mostly from Lexington and Birmingham -- and a small group of viewers that included riders from earlier/later sessions, and family members who had accompanied riders. All in all, there were about 4 or 5 riders, and 4 or 5 observers, at any given time during the Saturday sessions while I was there. This meant everyone had close proximity to one another (observers, riders, horses, and Francis), but don't y'all go panicking and jumping to any conclusions. I was so well-behaved. It's not exactly as if I were my neighbor's 14-year-old daughter who burst into tears when she randomly encountered Justin Beiber at Target, clutching at his sleeve and having to be escorted from the premises by security. I mean, please.....I'm an adult. Most of the time. My dog, however, did make quite a dramatic scene not 5 minutes after my arrival. Oh well. You can't say that I didn't make a lasting impression!

Donna Miller and Francis compare notes as they
watch another rider jump.

One of the most surprising things about Francis is how, in a humongous arena like the main ring at Chattahoochee, he could be heard almost anywhere, although he spoke with a calm and encouraging demeanor. He doesn't yell, furiously repeat instructions, holler, or scold. Plus, he's got a great accent. Am I right?

Although I wasn't able to take Eddie with me, one of the girl's from Birmingham had a big chestnut that reminded me of Eddie (yes, yes.....he looked "just like Eddie") and he ("Will") had some of the same issues I deal with. After they warmed up on the flat, the rider seemed a tad flummoxed as Will got a bit fussy and anxious. She said more than once, "He is never like this," and I could tell she was a bit bemused that he was acting up away from home. As they trotted a crossrail to get started, her horse would pop the jump, rushing on take-off and landing. She resorted to a perfectly understandable defensive mode of tight rein on approach and a quick "deep seat" upon landing to keep her horse from rampaging from jump to jump. As she kept working with him, she hoped he would start to get tired and become more workable. But, it seemed as if the more she jumped him, the more he wanted to run. Finally, Francis hopped on him and worked him some on the flat. He quickly determined that some of the issue was that Will is weak in the hind-end and was having trouble carrying himself without just barreling. Kathleen (his rider) nodded in agreement, and all of a sudden, a familiar lightbulb went off in my head. Aha....yes, I've heard this before. One of the things I work on a lot is strengthening Eddie behind to keep him from pulling along on the forehand because he's just not strong and balanced enough to push forward underneath from behind. We've overcome this a good bit through our year of dressage, so I could almost see Kathleen and Will as an echo of where Ed and I were about this time last fall. I started paying close attention as Francis worked Will in canter circles and started giving him more and more rein. Before we all knew it, the horse was lightening up, carrying himself more, and stepping through under himself. And, this was within mere minutes of Francis getting in the saddle. 

Kathleen observes as Francis rides Will on the flat.

Kathleen was very pleased to see this transformation in her horse. I know she was exhausted and a bit surprised Will was so flighty, but as she herself said: "I've never seen him behave this way, but I'm glad it's here where I can get help with him!" If I were in her shoes, I would have absolutely felt the same way. After about 15 minutes working consistently on shape and balance, Francis turned Will to one of the oxers everyone had been jumping earlier and they jumped it nicely, if still a bit excitedly. But, Francis is such a phenomenally quiet and forgiving rider. He hardly moves in the saddle and his contact is consistent, but light and following. I was mesmerized (again, stop with the is well-deserved admiration, I assure you). 

After several more exuberant passes over the oxer and a vertical, Will started to settle down, so Francis began asking for a halt after each fence. On a big, excited jumper, this isn't easy. But, he never hauled on the reins or yanked back on the horse's face. He was asking for cooperation, not bullying the horse into submission. "Bullying" is not a word I would ever in a million years associate with Francis Whittington. Everything is very subtle, fluid, and flawless. As soon as Francis asked for the halt, he would sit tall and ask about 85% with his body, and about 15% with the reins. Not long after, Will was jumping with a little more control and waiting for Francis' instruction....not just flying at the fences like they were in a race. Francis returned Will to Kathleen and he had her get back on and work him some more in quiet circles to help loosen him further and have her focus on a long rein, allowing him to use his neck and back (not just his shoulders). After a few more minutes, I could tell Kathleen was much happier with her horse and felt more in control.

The next horse that Francis rode was a huge, dark bay foxhunter that a rider from Kentucky had competed twice at Novice....after stealing him from her husband who hunts him during the season. He was a gorgeous thoroughbred, with a big sloping shoulder, long back, and huge stride. For a big horse, his rider was able to control and compact him well, but she was using a gag and a running martingale, which Francis wasn't wild about. The first thing he did before getting on was to take the reins off the gag and just fasten them directly to the bit. Next, he removed the running martingale and got on. After about 10 minutes of just working him on the flat, the horse was so light and elevated.....really moving forward and a way that one would never imagine a heavy TB to be going in such a short time with 1). less artificial aids, and 2). a strange rider. But, that is why Francis is so amazing to watch. He doesn't get on a student's horse and ride him the way that Francis would ride, and then explain to the owner how to do it exactly his way. He rode each of these horses off in the arena away from the rest of us, getting a feel for the horse and riding that horse in the way that it needed to be ridden. We were all just holding our breath as we saw this horse go from a slightly disorganized puppy dog into a 4-star horse right before our eyes. You could have told me that horse had galloped gamely around Badminton this past spring, and I would have totally believed it. Francis has this ability to quietly read a horse and ride it as if they were not a horse and rider, but rather as if they were having a mutual conversation: the horse talking to Francis, he listening then speaking back, and the horse -- in turn -- listening to everything he said. It was just incredible.

After he returned the thoroughbred to its owner, she was so pleased. She got back on and was instantly able to feel the difference in her horse. As we gathered back around Francis, the rider came over and I could see the admiration and hear the murmurs of appreciation rippling through our tiny group. I just sort of stood there and smiled. The one rider thanked Francis and complimented him by exclaiming what a "lovely" and "elegant" rider he was. Of course, Francis took this praise very politely and humbly, but it started a positive chatter of adoration from everyone. It is one thing to appreciate a good, talented rider from afar -- by watching them on a dvd, or seeing their photographs online, accompanied by successful results at competitions around the world -- but to see that rider manifest right in front of your eyes and absolutely ride a horse in a way that very few people can....well, that is quite memorable. Francis finished the day on Saturday with a healthy handful of happy, smiling riders, and I was so pleased that he was as amazing in person as I'd always imagined. Yes, he's got a great smile. And, of course he's just as cute as can be. But, he is a friendly, bright, and fun person to learn from, so I am crossing my fingers he had a great time and will be back in the U.S. to teach again soon. I must introduce him to Eddie. Eddie will love him!

Now, what on earth will I be like, should I get to ride my favorite horse in the world (EDDIE!) with one of my favorite riders in the world? That is a day I eagerly await!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Attention All Passengers: My Horse is a Saint!!!

A young participant discusses her ride with Kyle.
(Photo by Catherine Efinger/Lauren Romanelli)

We are home again after a busy, successful, bustling, and very WINDY weekend riding with Kyle Carter in Nashville, TN. The clinic was amazingly successful and very well-attended. There was a nice mix of experienced eventers, newbie eventers, upper-level riders, lower-level riders, youngsters, oldsters, ammies, pros, and sweet ponies galore. I think that everybody had a great time and learned a lot. 

(Photo by Catherine Efinger/Lauren Romanelli)

I rode late on Saturday afternoon in the last group of the day, and dark fell much faster than any of us had expected. But in that time, I had the chance to work some on the flat and I had mentioned to Kyle (in our group introductions) that Eddie and I had primarily done nothing but dressage this past year and I was hoping to make the transition back into jumping by using our newly-found skills. Previously, Eddie thought dressage and jumping were two completely different things. The sandbox was a place to clench his jaw, tighten his back, and put his nose in the air, while plowing through the test by performing according to what he thought should happen when....and I was just an innocent victim. Now, there is synchronicity in our tests! I ask, he gives; I tell, he does; I smile, he prances. Thus, I am hoping to inject some supple ridability, control, lightness, and softness into his jumping phases as well. As we started off trotting through poles, Kyle asked us to be round into the poles, and I got frustrated and grabby when Eddie approached the poles roundly, then stiffened a bit to find the spacing as he trotted through. It wasn't heinous, but Kyle gave me the most spot-on advice: "It doesn't have to be perfect. It just needs to be better each time." Yep, that's me! I feel if it isn't perfect instantly, then we might as well give up (forget the fact that trotting through poles fairly competently is something we didn't do successfully over a year ago, so anything decent this weekend was a Godsend). I kept forgetting that we hadn't jumped in over a year and we are RUSTY right now. I felt like things needed to be perfect while riding with a coach of the caliber of Kyle Carter, so for him to acknowledge any positives, and to encourage progress, was a welcome reward. 

Me and Eddie (on the right), my sister and Molley (on the left), wait our turn.
(Photo by Catherine Efinger/Lauren Romanelli)

After several more increasingly improved trips through the trot poles, we moved on to a canter turn to the left to a small vertical off the rail. I was nervous about this, since last year's jumping efforts ended in a wild leap and landing bucks over even the littlest stuff. As we cantered up stiffly to the vertical, Eddie bounced a quick one, two, three strides and popped lightly over the vertical, and landed moving forward eagerly. It felt soft and effortless, and I was feeling more confident than I have in a year. The several other riders in my group (including my sister) rode through the exercise a few more times, but Kyle didn't have me do it again, since it was getting dark and I hadn't massacred that initial effort too badly. As dark fell completely on the arena, he caught up with each of us briefly in preparation for the continued session the next morning. Kyle reminded me that my horse is very nice and I need to soften and let him move forward more. He had instructed me to keep more energy and adjustability in the canter (when we were working on the flat), so I need to transfer that same soft bend and impulsion from the flat into our approaches to the fences. 

Kyle works with Lauren (clinic organizer) and Brandy.
(Photo by Catherine Efinger/Lauren Romanelli)

The next morning, I rode in the first group (again with my sister) and this session focused more on jumping bending lines (approaches, turns, pace, and control). I started off the group by trotting through the poles again, to a left-hand canter turn to the same little vertical from the night before. I felt like this was going to be alright and we could succeed in this exercise, so we cantered down the rail and made a slight left turn. As we jumped the jump, I kept a tight hold of Eddie, expecting the over-jump and possible buck....but he just hopped over it and cantered away. I was pleased, but Kyle called me out (rightly so) for my clenching hold on the reins that flattened Eddie's jump. We also drifted off to the right on the landing, and he asked us to stay more straight as we rode away from the jump. I came around again, and the approach was lighter and I softened more, but we took the exact same line upon landing. I was so worried about the pace and my control on the approach that I completely forgot his previous instruction to move left on landing, so he informed me that our jump had been better, but the ONE thing he'd told me to do, I hadn't done. DRAT. I didn't want to get rattled, but I was also worried about not appearing to be very I'm someone that takes 5 or 6 failed attempts before I can actually do it right. I made a point of letting Eddie move up on the approach and staying WELL TO THE LEFT on landing, and Kyle gave me the "OK" sign after I finished. So, we stood by and waited for the others to work through the exercise. 

Megan Corbett leaps through a gymnastic.
(Photo by Catherine Efinger/Lauren Romanelli)

After everyone made improvements over the single vertical, Kyle added another vertical to the right of the first one, making a 3 stride bending line to the new jump. Again, we started by trotting the poles, cantering left off the rail to the first vertical, then turning right to the quick second vertical. I was so worried about the bend that I grabbed the reins after landing from the first fence, turned my head/body to the right, and wrenched Eddie's face toward the second vertical. We almost overshot it to the right and we ended up trotting the last half-stride and jumping from almost a stand still. Oops. Kyle's VERY ACCURATE assessment of "That was brutal. Just brutal!" was much-deserved. His point was that as I anticipated the second jump and turned my head, Eddie was actually responding without me even noticing, and my "extra guidance" had caused us to over-turn and almost miss the jump to the inside. As we cantered around again, Kyle said "soften and just stop pulling him." The second attempt was better, but I was still all over the reins. As Kyle prepped me for another attempt, he said that the way I was all in Eddie's face, he "should dump me on my butt and gallop off for the barn." Instead, my sweet horse puts up with me and he jumps whatever I ask -- and goes wherever I yank him -- time and time again. Man, did I feel like the worst rider in the world! I watched my groupmates go through a few times and then I tried it again. I just let Eddie go and I tried to turn with my body and leg (not the reins). It wasn't picture perfect, but that next time was a big improvement. I think we did it one more time fairly decently, so showing opposed to horrifying regress......was a nice feeling!

A view of the beautiful setting for the clinic, Southern Promise Farm.
(Photo by Catherine Efinger/Lauren Romanelli)

The final exercise of our session was to go out of the arena and onto the side of a hill to practice jumping a bending line uphill on uneven terrain. We cantered around a clump of trees at the top of the hill, turned right as we cantered downhill, then came back up the hill to jump over a 4 stride bending line consisting of two small verticals. I was worried about the canter down the hill, since Eddie thought we were going foxhunting when we went out into the field and he was literally jigging on air. But, as I sat quiet and we turned to listen to Kyle explain the task, Eddie settled down, pricked up his ears, and patiently observed the question. When it was our turn, Eddie cantered softly around the trees, went lightly down the hill, and lifted back up into my hands when I half-halted. We came up to the jumps a bit bouncy (I was just too much in his face still with my hands) and, although we jumped out fine, we lost our line a bit through the bend. Kyle told me to come around again and to just leave Eddie alone once we made the turn up the hill to the jumps. So, I did just that, and Eddie jumped lightly and quietly like a star, cantering on enthusiastically after the second fence. When I pulled up and turned back for Kyle's comments, he said, "Your horse is nice and wants so badly to do whatever you ask him. You need to do about 60% less of whatever you're doing and just enjoy the ride." I smiled and said, "Thank you. I'm glad you said that. I keep forgetting this is supposed to be fun." He started to laugh and said, "YES!", then he turned and said, "Well, now, I didn't say anything about FUN." But, we all know that isn't entirely true. Kyle is Kyle, and if anyone can make a job and a lot of hard work "fun," it's Kyle.

Not Eddie, but a lovely "look alike": Grace, ridden by Jess, the daughter of the
farm owner, Anita Scott (in the teal hat in the foreground behind Kyle).

(Photo by Catherine Efinger/Lauren Romanelli)

And, I did have fun! I wasn't the most talented rider there. I wasn't the most accomplished and my horse wasn't the fanciest. But, we made more progress in 2 days than we have in ages, and we left feeling confident and ready to build on that instruction in the coming weeks. I enjoyed being there with my horse, my friends, my sister, and many fellow eventers. A large amount of the satisfaction in a good clinic is the information gathered and the lessons learned. But, there is also a decent amount of satisfaction that comes just from having a good time and leaving with the confidence to pick up where we left off when we get home and resume schooling on our own. I'm hoping that Kyle will be doing a clinic again in the spring, because I have lots to work on over the winter and I'd like to ride with him again to see how much I've progressed. And, the operative word here is "I." I am the one who needs to work on improving myself, not my horse. Eddie just needs to do nothing more than keep on being Eddie!

My sister, smiling as she jumps through the hill exercise at the end of a
very windy morning session!

(Photo by Catherine Efinger/Lauren Romanelli)

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Coming Attractions!

There are some fabulous activities in my near future, and I'm really looking forward to them! This next weekend (11/12 and 11/13), Kyle Carter will be in Nashville for a clinic, and I'm riding in it with some of my friends (and, my sister!). Check out the entry form I've included here (below), if you might be interested. The entry deadline of November 3rd has passed, but I know they have 2 or 3 slots left, so if you would like to ride with Kyle on Saturday and Sunday, contact Lauren ASAP.

Kyle Carter clinic entry. Lauren's contact info is listed at the bottom.
(Click on this image for a larger version)

Following on the heels of the Kyle clinic is one of the highlights of my year. Francis Whittington will be teaching a two-day clinic at Bouckart Farms/Chattahoochee Hills. I've also included the entry for this clinic (below) and I know there are some spots left. What a wonderful opportunity to have Francis teaching here in our own backyard! Plus, the price is phenomenal (includes stabling, all facility fees, lesson costs, and a dinner on Saturday night). Fantastic! Auditors are also welcome, with a fee of $25 for both Saturday and Sunday. I will be there as an auditor and I am really looking forward to this clinic!

Email Samantha ASAP if you are interested!

On December 3, Penrose Farm here in Knoxville will be hosting a schooling dressage show and combined test. If the show is well-attended, they hope to hold more of these schooling events often throughout the winter. So, anyone in the Knoxville area who needs to get out and put in a little work before taking a break over the holidays, get out and support Penrose! If you want the entire entry/release form, let me know and I'll be happy to email it on to you.

Prize list for Penrose Farm schooling show.

Last, but not least, the annual USEA convention will be held in Nashville this year, so I clearly must be there. I'm looking forward to getting the chance to attending with some of my friends.....enjoying an eventing activity that doesn't involve a truck, trailer, tack, horse, and tag-a-long dogs. The one time of year we all get to gather without the stress of a competition weekend!