A Lesson in a Lesson

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

I had a lesson with Jim Wofford on March 26. I’ve been feeling low about my riding. I’m not doing badly, I’m just not where I wanted to be at this time. I failed to achieve my short term goal. Part of it is that I am so overwhelmed. Trying to keep up with my riding and do all that I must to place and rehome retiring racehorses. There is always pressure.

I got to Sharon’s early and had the pleasure of watching Jim work with her. I love it when that happens. I’d made up my mind I was going to be softer with Birdie and use my core to slow him, not my hands. I don’t think I’m a handsy rider, but I am for Birdie, if that makes sense. It was wonderful, he was relaxed and I was soft. We were easily getting the four stride in four strides, not the usual three. Jimmy wasn’t yelling at me. This is going to be the best lesson I’ve ever had with Jimmy…

Jimmy was dressed in camouflage for hunting or fishing. I just assumed he’d come from or was on his way to fish. Maybe he was, but he decided to stop by Sharon’s and shoot down a rider who needed to focus on learning more, not what they had recently put together. A lesson is for learning new things, not showing off what you know – you know.
I purposely do not allow myself to think about the fact that fences are being raised. I am aware they are raising them, but I’ve seen how it creates anxiety in other riders. So I don’t allow myself to do it. It only matters what height they are when you are approaching and jumping them. Not when you are sitting on your horse. So the fact that Jimmy was raising the jumps on a line; vertical, two strides to hogs back, two strides to an oxer, didn’t have much effect on me. After all Birdie and I had just jumped that line beautifully. I know Bird will be able to jump anything Jimmy points us at.

I’m 10 feet tall.
Right lead – beautiful rhythmic canter, soft. We make the turn to the jump and Bird sees the hogs back is higher – much higher. Me, I’m sitting there fat, dumb and happy. Birdie isn’t dragging me to the jump. He’s relaxed and not rushing. This is going to be great.

Wrong.

Bird wants some support, the height of the second jump has backed him off and his rhythm has slowed. Bird being the Bird he is, doesn’t quit. He tries to jump it and does something he rarely ever does. He knocks down the rail. Now I’m out of balance and aware I’ve lost my left stirrup. Bird is a trooper, he’s still going to get the job done. He tries with all his Bird might to get over that hogs back, which is higher than the vertical. This wonderful horse jumps it with me completely a burden by now. By this time I am complete with sound effects. Sort of like the ones you hear in an old cartoon. I really wish I’d stop doing that, but it’s likely I never will. At any rate, Bird is still trying to jump the oxer, but luckily I steer him away. He would have been so upset if I’d fallen off, and one more bound may have been one too many. So now I am grappling to pull him up, and I do.

Poor Jimmy what must he think? All the work he’s put into me and this is what he gets?
I’m now 3 feet tall.
Jimmy says, “He’s crazy but he’s not stupid, when I raise them he reacts to it. Let go of the reins don’t expect to get a TOW over bigger jumps. Now come again.”
Now, I’m 6 inches tall.
We come again and we get through clean.

Everything was going so wonderful. Why did this have to happen? Why couldn’t Jimmy just let me have this one good day? One day when I don’t feel like a complete and total failure?
I remember what Sharon told me the previous week. You have to take your anxiety and bad feelings and put them aside. You can’t ride with them. I decide to get my head together. The rest of the lesson goes great, mostly because I return my mind to where it was before the mistake.

Towing? Birdie has to tow me? I thought I was getting much softer. More tactful. Better. Maybe I should just resign myself to the fact that I am an ordinary rider, capable only of ordinary things. This horse is too good for me. He needs a great rider to be able to shine the way I know he can. Towing.

I watch the video that night. Towing. It’s an accurate description. I tell Diana that I don’t know how to ride a horse to a fence. She reminds me that Birdie is the horse I’ve learned to jump on and until recently he ran at everything. It’s not easy to learn to ride to a fence on that kind of horse. That’s my excuse, but for me it’s inexcusable.

I’m a lot of things, but I’m not a quitter. This works well for me most of the time. There are times that it causes me a lot of grief. Still I can’t help it, I’m just not a quitter. So I turn my attention to March 31, 2009. Schooling at Morven Park. Jimmy is coming to work with two groups. Preliminary and Training. Cherie organized it and did a superb job. The only problem is “Cherie, Training? Are you nuts?” She assures me that most of the people are Novice level and planning to go Training. Still Diana and I think, well I don’t know what we thought, but we’re going.

Towing. I know what Training level fences look like and I know for a fact towing isn’t going to get me and my Bird to the other side. We get there early and I watch part of the Prelim group. They’re good and it’s fun to watch. I need to get to the trailer to get my Bird. I want to stroll around and have plenty of time to get my butterflies flying in formation. From the start I must do what Sharon has said. I must not allow myself to have anxiety or feelings of failure. It’s a choice to have them. I know how to put them out of my mind, I did it for 20 years while galloping racehorses. I’m going to do it today. I know that Birdie is going to question the approach to these bigger fences. I must give him the rein length he needs to jump and I must keep him straight to the fence with my legs only.

The first two fences are just logs and though I am nervous, it goes well. On the other side of the road there is a more substantial log and a jump further along that I immediately don’t like the looks of. We jump the substantial one and on approach, Birdie is iffy. I use my legs and soften my reins. He responds and takes off. I have to slip the reins to give him enough, he is so round. He is happy. “My human let me jump!!”

Next it’s both the substantial and the one I don’t like. Thanks Sharon, I’m not going to screw this up by reacting. I have the formula and I’m sticking to it. It’s a Bird, we can fly! He is so happy. I am so happy. Thanks Sharon, I’m going to stay focused and think about jumping.
Back to Jimmy, “You’re flapping your arms to the fence, use your legs not your arms.” Yes I was and I worked the entire day to stop. The video clearly showed:

a) it’s really ugly when you flap your arms, and no matter what someone says when they tell you
about it. It’s far worse when you see it.
b) It won’t help the horse jump.

The only problem I had all day was at a really big jump that everyone had issues with. Birdie ran out because – you guessed it – I started to flap my arms. “Human, why would you choose now to do your chicken impression? It’s not a good time.” So I stopped doing it and he jumped it beautifully. In my opinion he jumped it the best of every horse there. I love my Bird.
So here’s my point. I had a wonderful day at Morven Park. Absolutely wonderful and I learned a lot too. I am sure – I am positive – if I hadn’t had that lesson on the 26th with Jimmy, and if he hadn’t raised that fence and taught me that lesson, I would not have had a wonderful day at Morven. I would have had a wonderful lesson with Jimmy where I learned nothing, and then a horrible day at Morven. There was no way my Bird could have towed me over those jumps.

Thank you Jimmy.

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