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!

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