Growing up in Los Angeles, California, in the 1980s, amateur hunter rider Jennifer Harper always counted Anne Kursinski as an idol. So it was a dream come true to saddle up for the five-time Olympian on a chilly, drizzly Oregon morning in early April.
Jennifer won Practical Horseman’s Training with the Stars: Win A Day with Anne Kursinski contest, sponsored in partnership with Finish Line, Back on Track and Nutrena. In the essay that helped earn Jennifer the grand prize, she wrote about the ripple effect Anne’s visit could have on the equestrian community in Portland. Along with nine friends from Linda and Wade Worley’s Cornerstone Equestrian, LLC, Jennifer enjoyed a day of knotted reins, counting strides, dropped stirrups and discarded martingales. It was all in service to the notion that horses are reflections of their riders in their turnout and tack, for sure, but more importantly in their way of going and behavior.
For horses to reflect your best self as a rider and your intentions, you need clear methods of communicating with them. Most of the time, horses want to do what we tell them to do, Anne said. So it’s a matter of understanding what you’re asking them and how you’re asking it. Are you sending mixed messages? The wrong message? And, when you know the right message, are you communicating it in a way your horse can understand?
Clear communication starts with clear intentions in every interaction with your horses, Anne said. Whether she is preparing to school a horse at home or ride a grand-prix course in competition, she starts by clarifying her own intentions. “What am I looking for?” she asks. If it’s a jumping course, she rides the whole route in her mind first, adjusting for that horse’s abilities and tendencies. The point illustrated the day’s overarching theme: The first step in controlling your horse is controlling yourself—your thoughts, your emotions and your body. If you don’t know what you want out of your time with your horse, there’s no way he’ll know.
Equitation is a rider’s main form of communication, Anne emphasized. It’s an effective body position in which each part functions independently of the others and of the horse and all together as needed and does so instantly in reaction to what-ever the horse is telling you. Steady, relaxed breathing is an equitation foundation. “Horses know more about us than we think they do, and our breathing tells them a lot about what’s going on with us.”
A Strong Base of Support
Anne likened the ideal rider position to a deeply rooted tree with a strong, solid base supporting free-flowing branches—your legs and seat being the trunk and upper body and arms and hands being the branches. It’s a position to be maintained regardless of what the horse is doing. It needs to be flexible enough to go with the horse when called for yet strong enough to withstand the horse’s tendency to try to pull you into a less effective position.
This idea was first addressed on the flat as riders warmed up in Cornerstone’s covered arena set amid a lush forest and emerald-green pastures. Anne asked each group of three or four riders to work through transitions, stride lengthenings and collections, circles and halts. Simultaneously they were asked to alternate between a light, forward two-point and a deep-seated, dropped-stirrup position.
As they worked on these exercises, Anne had them hold the reins in front of a knot they made several inches from the buckle so the rein length was short. From a spectator’s perspective, it seemed as if this would create a death grip, but instead it automatically set the riders’ upper body and arms in a forward position that was more fluid and responsive than what they’d had with a longer rein length. As a result, the work generated dramatic improvements in the horses’ way of going. It also resulted in a more consistent contact with the mouth and with equal contact on both sides. It was an effective fix for a rider who had very busy hands.
When Anne asked riders to drop their stirrups, she told them to sink their heels down and use their whole leg to feel how to “sit the saddle” and “melt into the horse’s back.” It was especially helpful to those whose horses pulled them forward, sometimes out of the saddle, and those who had trouble slowing or stopping their horses. Slowing or bringing horses to a halt, Anne said, “is not about the hands.” Using the entire leg also prepared riders for extensions in the two-point when upward transition aids had to be all legs, no seat.
Throughout the warm-up, Anne stressed the role of the eyes, which emerged as one of the most important body parts. She asked each group of riders to space themselves evenly as they worked. Juggling the flatwork exercises while looking around to monitor their place relative to the other riders was challenging. Later, that work translated to Anne’s request that they use their eyes to monitor where they were in relation to the next jump.
For the day’s third and more advanced group, Anne added shoulder-in and counter-canter to the flat warm-up. They were asked to occasionally look down to check the degree of bend in their horses’ necks during the exercises—another task for the riders’ often under-used eye.
Anne described shoulder-in as a good way to get the horse into a round frame naturally. “Done right, the horse has to use his back and hind legs, which will make him naturally round. It’s not about pulling his head down.” It also establishes the connection between inside leg and outside rein. “Used properly, this is like yoga or Pilates for horses,” she said of shoulder-in, going in and out of circles, and the other warm-up work she’d asked of the riders.
Look at the Fence Early
The first jumping exercise for each session asked riders to start counting eight strides before the takeoff spot for a single small jump set on a diagonal. Anne instructed the riders to count
forward (one–two–three …) rather than backward (eight–seven–six …) to promote forward riding. She didn’t expect perfect stride predictions but wanted everybody to get in the habit of sighting the jump and their line to it several strides earlier than most riders were accustomed to doing. Few of the day’s 10 riders looked at the jump early enough for Anne’s liking at the outset. “Trying to jump without looking at the fence is like trying to hit a tennis ball without watching the ball,” she said.
Stride counting in this and other exercises was also important to establishing and maintaining rhythm and consistent mental focus.
In one group, riders cantered a 2-foot-6 brick wall on the diagonal. In addition to counting the eight strides before takeoff, they were asked to count strides going away while riding on a straight line, dropping their stirrups and halting, perfectly straight, in front of a (brave) volunteer, Tess Harris. Anne reminded riders to recall the flatwork without stirrups in which she told them to sink their heels down and use their whole leg. It took a few tries for most, but the long leg and deep seat achieved on the flat helped all attain a smooth, straight halt without any dramatic or harsh rein pressure. Anne told riders to incorporate how that felt and worked if they were struggling to prevent their horses from accelerating and/or getting anxious before a jump.
Anne expanded the stride-counting exercise beyond looking early and steadily at the jump and monitoring the approach to it by having the riders work over a small jump on a figure eight. Now riders had to see their distance and do something to make it work. Alternating between left and right approaches to the fence, riders began by counting just one stride before takeoff, then progressed, one stride at a time, to eight strides before. “Look sooner, keep your eye on it like a laser beam, see your distance and follow to it,” Anne said. (Watch a video of the pattern being ridden at www.PracticalHorsemanMag.com.)
The exercise is easily done at home and without the wear and tear of jumping by using a pole or cavalletti, she added. Its lessons are equally effective for jumping, hunter and equitation riders at all experience levels.
Next, Anne applied stride counting to choosing and riding the right track in a line. Within a short course, Anne asked riders to set up and ride a straight, long-ish five-stride line, followed by a bending six-stride line over the same two fences. In both lines, she adjusted the striding requests, most often adding, to help each rider take control of her track and pace. Depending on the length of their horse’s stride, Anne helped riders pick the angle to either set up a direct line and ride forward through it or to angle their approach to establish a wider, bending-out track to fit in the strides.
Fitting in an extra stride (or two) at the end of the course was a good challenge for all participants. Looking at the second jump while in flight over the first was key to identifying the track needed to fit the requested strides, which varied from six to eight strides for the most advanced group. Bending the horse out toward the rail to nail that track, then controlling the canter were the next critical steps.
As the riders jumped the course, Anne again reminded them about the effectiveness of the long leg, deep seat to slow or settle their horses. The earlier exercise was proof, she said, that they could slow or stop their horses, so they didn’t need to ride them on course as if they were going to run away with them. “If you can halt your horse, there’s no reason for him to be accelerating. If he’s speeding up, it’s because you are either telling him to do that or allowing him to.”
Bringing forward all the work they’d done on the flat, Anne said, “This is all about having your horse listening to you and waiting for you, rather than the rider being a passive passenger.” She reminded Gwen Kramer, riding a scopey, big-strided warmblood, that her horse was “doing everything you ask him to” during the flat exercises. Hearing that from Anne a few times, Gwen shifted to a softer, yet equally effective ride. Amateur jumper rider Mel Tilkicioglu was also able to put the lesson to immediate use, getting the hot-wired, former grand-prix jumper and off-the-track Thoroughbred, Top Cat, to maintain a much smoother pace before the jump. “Having that better, more elastic connection, I was able to relax more,” Mel explained.
These improvements were among several aided by tack adjustments. Anne removed the running martingales from both horses and put Gwen’s horse in a stronger bit, going from a thin wire to a double twisted wire. Both riders gained more control with less effort.
In the day’s third session with more advanced riders, Anne added another exercise: the automatic release. The crest release, in which hands rest midway up the horse’s neck in flight, is good for lower-level riders, but the ultimate goal is maintaining a non-interfering body position without that crutch.
With reins unknotted, riders were asked to spread their hands wide and low, approximately 1 foot off either side of their horse’s neck. Further, they reversed their grip on the reins so the thumb side of the fist faced the horse’s mouth in what is sometimes called a “driving rein” for a softer feel. They had to maintain that rein hold on approach to, over and after the jump, and later through a short course, all while still counting the eight strides on approach to
A strong base of support and fully engaged core muscles were critical to attaining the minimal upper-body movement Anne sought, essentially letting the horse jump up to the rider and staying out of his way through each phase of the effort. She cited grand-prix pros Ian Millar and Eric Lamaze as masters of this free-floating body position and described it as “giving your horse space to jump up into.” Because it both requires and builds balance, the wide-hand position also helps cure ducking to one side over jumps and puts the rider in an ideal position on landing, whether a straight line or a turn was ahead.
After each session, Anne asked riders what their main takeaways were. Contest winner Jennifer echoed the comments of most when relaying that she felt her riding was lighter and softer and that she was getting a much earlier handle on the jumps. “I feel like I’m looking at the jump way back when I can do something about it rather than just watching things happen at the last minute.”
There was universal appreciation of the knotted-reins riding to achieve a more forward and elastic upper-body position. Everyone related to Anne’s constant emphasis on the idea that, “If we can’t control our own body, how can we expect to control our horse’s body?”
Jennifer was right about the ripple effect of Anne’s visit. In addition to the day’s riders, several spectators—kids to professionals—soaked up the sessions’ many lessons. The chance to ask questions of and chat with Anne during breaks in the action and lunch in Cornerstone’s arena viewing room were additional bonuses.
“For the whole barn and the spectators, Anne’s visit raised our level of awareness and motivation,” Jennifer added when contacted two weeks after the clinic. “We are using the tools she gave us in our lessons and when hacking on our own and in our entire outlook on our lives and relationships with our horses. She went far beyond merely telling us to be our best. She showed us how, and that’s priceless!”
This article originally appeared in the July 2015 issue of Practical Horseman.