May 24 / I May Be Mentally Ill

Monday, May 24, 2010

It’s been a couple months since Bird jumped.  We hit a few pot holes on the training road.  He had a corn, created by one of his studs that made him really lame and at that time we discovered he had some additional soreness, so I gave him a rest period.  I then started out with hacking, flatwork and finally jumped him with Sharon White two weeks ago.  It was a very good lesson and I look forward to more with her.  She really “gets” the Bird.  That is important because I have learned that a few great trainers “get” him and many more just don’t.  A lesson on Bird with a trainer that doesn’t understand him is pure Hell for both of us.  Elizabeth says they must have had experience with a horse like him to understand him.  I agree because the trainers that “get” him also love him.  The trainers who don’t, don’t seem to like him much either.

I need to preface this entry with something.  When I drive to Virginia for a lesson with Jimmy, I always leave really early.  There are several reasons.  The first being I do not want to be late for a Jimmy lesson.  I’ve seen his face when people arrive late and I don’t ever want to be that guy.  Second, I don’t like to have a rushed feeling, especially on the Bird.  More than that, if you arrive at Last Frontier Farm early, the worst thing that can happen to you is you will learn by watching others.  I’ve been lucky to see quite a few coaching sessions between Jimmy and Sharon, which I can tell you is awesome.

Since I first saw Sharon ride, I admired the way her horses canter.  She has perfected the canter on each and every horse she rides.  Her balance is perfect.  She is in the center of the horse with a light, perfect contact.  The horse is balanced, light and happy.  This is regular and consistant during the time she is riding and jumping.  I have always wished to experience this.  I’ve seen lots of riders at Sharon’s and I have never seen anyone come close to producing this perfection.  I don’t know if you have to have the horse that can do it or if you have to be able to ride/train the horse to go in this manner.  I suspect a bit of both.

When I arrived at Sharon’s last week, I was excited.  Usually not a good thing, because I am an overachiever and excited means uptight.  The good news is I am now aware of it.  Since I got Bird he has wanted to run at fences.  I have been told by all of the people I train with that he is the hardest type of horse to ride and fix.  I don’t care because I love that horse.  So my goal for the lesson was that Jimmy would not tell me “don’t pull back”, even once on this day.

I was in a lesson with two other riders who I really like.  They are good and their horses are good.  This makes for a good lesson.  I took my time warming Bird up, spending a lot of time in the trot.  Jimmy likes to walk in, sit down quietly and observe us.  He asked me if I had cantered Bird and I said not yet.  He said, if he’s going to be bad, we’ll just deal with it, go on.  I responded that I really didn’t think he was going to be bad and with that Bird was airborn.  The next thing I said was “Yes Jimmy, you are always right.”  He smiled the big smile.

Things started off well and Jimmy was offering advice and criticisms as expected.  Birdie was being exceptional and maybe I was too.  About a quarter of the way through the lesson we jumped a line and there it was.  It was that canter.  I immediately responded to it with the most supple shoulders and arms I could offer.  It’s a good thing Jimmy likes you to canter around once you jump a line, because I didn’t want to stop.  It was balanced perfection.  It was beautiful.  The Angels were singing in Heaven.  I wanted to exclaim, “Do you guys see this??”  I wondered when I halted if we would ever produce such a canter again.

I don’t know why Birdie picked this particular time to produce this canter, but it’s a wonderful thing to have a breakthrough such as this in a Jimmy lesson.  I know what you’re thinking.  He produced it because you were in a Jimmy lesson.  Maybe so, but Bird has also been improving in leaps and bounds lately and I’ve been doing really well myself.  It may have been a combination of things.  I don’t know if we’ll reproduce this, because I haven’t cantered him since.  He had a day off and hacked yesterday.  Moving on…….

So, I haven’t been jumping much.  It’s been mostly flatwork for me, Willie and Bird.  Jimmy decided to put two oxers up as we were nearing the end of the lesson.  They were not big fences.  Bird and I have jumped bigger without incident many times.  I notice one is a bit bigger than the other.  It’s also in the shade.  The other two gals jump beautifully with their horses.  Bird and I were doing well and we cleared the first without incident.  The second in the shade, he stops.  Comes around, stops again, I hit him – not hard of course.  He stops again and Jimmy has his helper put the ends down.  I want to inject that during all this time, I’ve got the beautiful canter, but the Angels have now stopped singing.  We get over it and Jimmy says to do the liverpool which is about two feet high.  That dirty dog, I mean Bird stops at that and Jimmy says “Now he’s seen that a thousand times, hit him.”  I did, he went, but not willingly.  He then stopped at the first big oxer that he’d already jumped, I had to hit him and they had to put it down.  We did manage to get through everything, but it was embarrassing and I ended up being the “class clown”.  You know the one that couldn’t do the lesson – and it was Jimmy, making it worse in my book.

At the conclusion, Jimmy asked if it had been a while since we jumped and I said yes.  He said you are both rusty.  Start off low, but put a few fences up and do something every third day.  It’s actually been months since I jumped anything much over 2’6″.  I’m still fairly new to this and I think this was my first experience with fences that aren’t big, look big if you haven’t been jumping that high.  I am sure that at least part of the problem at the second oxer was me.  It could not have been a coincidence that I thought to myself it was bigger than the other one and was the fence that started Birdie’s stopping festival.

As always, I leave the lesson thinking about what happened.  I was the class clown.  I should be embarrassed, but instead I feel great!  I must be mentally ill.  All I can think about is That Canter.  It stayed even after he started stopping.  Even after I corrected him with the whip, which I’m here to tell you is unpleasant with Mr. OverReactor.  That incredible canter, that I was able to maintain.  If that isn’t a gift, I’ve never gotten one.  Then it occurs to me that Jimmy never told me “Don’t pull back.”, even once.  He rarely says this to me on Willie, but on Birdie, I do it at least a few times during a lesson and Mr. Wofford calls me on it every time.  Here Bird was dirty dog stopping and I never pulled back approaching any fence.  I did get the “don’t do your chicken imitation” once, but that was after he was stopping.  My friend Kathy and I saw Ollie Townend doing the chicken imitation at Rolex and she swears she’s going to flap her arms going to a fence and tell Jimmy that Ollie does it too.  That will go over like a lead balloon, but if she ever really does it I want to be there.  It is good to know that even the best have flaws.

So, I call Elizabeth to tell her about my lesson with Jimmy.  I tell her about the stopping and then I talk about this canter.  The Angels start singing again.  I am light as a feather.  I’m on cloud nine.  I tell her I must be mentally ill because I should feel embarrassed.  I achieved that canter and that relaxed connection with Birdie.  I know he can jump, I’m not worried about that.  We can fix the stopping.  Elizabeth tells me that I am not crazy.  After all, she said, which horse do you want to have?  The one that runs at all his fences, throws himself over, but never stops or the one who approaches in rhythm and relaxed?  He has to learn to jump all over again and you have to learn to ride him all over again once more.