After four young riders walked a vertical-to-oxer line, Olympic gold medalist Laura Kraut asked them how they thought the two jumps would ride.
"It's a short four strides," said one of the riders.
But if a horse landed short from the first vertical or spooked, the four might not be so short, Laura replied. "More important than knowing that it's a short four is knowing that it's a four and using your eye depending on what your horse does," she said.
Knowing your horse--his stride length, his scope, his spookiness level--was one of the main themes of Laura's lessons with eight riders on the third day of the 2009 George Morris Horsemastership Training Session in January. George Morris had asked Laura to review course strategy with the riders.
Laura split the riders into two "teams" and had them ride against each other in a Nations Cup format--jumping the same course twice and then a jumpoff. More important to the riders than the number of rails they had down or their final placing, though, were the strategies Laura gave them for warming up, riding a course, jumping off and dealing with pressure.
The Course Walk
"When you walk the course, you really want to focus on the horse you're riding," Laura said to the first "team" of Victoria Birdsall, Jessica Springsteen, Matthew Metell and Carolyn Curcio. "What are your horse's strong points, and what are his weak points?"
The first jump was an oxer to a bending eight or nine strides to a four-stride vertical-to-oxer. Then there was a right-hand turn to an oxer with a narrow spread to a water jump. The oxer to the water jump walked in six-and-a-half strides, requiring riders to decide whether to jump the line in six or seven strides.
"We're taught to ride forward to the water, but you have to look at what comes after the water," Laura said. "In this case, it's a pair of verticals, which are usually tight. So you can't come too fast to the water without considering that you have two careful jumps afterward."
Next on course was a sweeping right turn by the in-gate to the biggest square oxer on course. After the oxer, there was a bending line to an airy vertical-oxer two-stride. The oxer to vertical walked in eight strides, but Laura cautioned the riders to "use your eye and deal with what's going on underneath you. We set this plain airy vertical coming in to the two-stride and a spooky oxer after it. The horse will look through the vertical to the oxer and have a rail at the vertical. You want to get there so your horse is on his haunches. You want to focus on the vertical, then worry about getting across the oxer."
The course finished with a right turn to a large wall to an oxer-vertical in-and-out. Laura's tip: The line walked in six strides, but some horses could hang up in the air over the wall, in which case seven strides would be better.
"In the warm-up, George stresses not jumping a lot, not wasting your horse," Laura said. "You come to the horse show prepared. So when you warm up, you loosen your horse up over eight to ten jumps, then go in the ring."
Based on that strategy, Laura said her typical warm-up consists of jumping
- a crossrail off both leads to loosen the horse's muscles.
- a vertical off both leads to get the horse thinking about jumping up.
- an oxer off both leads to get the horse thinking about jumping wide.
- a bigger, narrower oxer so the horse is jumping a higher width, or a specific type of fence, such as a liverpool, so the horse isn't surprised by it on course.
- a vertical the size of the biggest fence on course, so the horse gets a feel for how big he'll be jumping.
As the riders warmed up, Laura focused on details. She advised Jessica to stop her horse after the crossrail to test his brakes, then bend him right and left, "so when you go on course, you know you have the tools to make it happen."
To Carolyn, she said: "If your horse is a little stiff to the right, work on that between warm-up fences. Ride a circle to the left and counter bend him to the right, while pushing him off your right leg."
Laura sympathized with Victoria, who allowed her reins to get too long, saying she, too, had to constantly remind herself to shorten them on course. But the reins need to be short because "if you have to steady, you'll be hitting yourself in the stomach. You'll have nowhere to go."
Moving to the oxer, Laura told Victoria it was OK to hold for a quiet distance, but to be careful that she wasn't lowering her hands as she took back. "The last thing you want to do is be pulling down at a big oxer," she said.
After Carolyn's horse reached a little to get over the first oxer, Laura widened it even more to encourage him to stretch over it and told Carolyn to ride to it with more pace. "We want to get him thinking about getting across out here, while the fences are still low."
After the oxers, Laura put the fence down four holes and put a liverpool underneath it to simulate the water jump on course. The riders decided whether they wanted to jump the liverpool once or twice, then Laura built a 4-foot-9 vertical -- the course height. She asked the riders to "let me know if you want to jump it once or if you want it bigger. You guys let me know what you need for your horses."
The warm-up complete, Laura said, "We've jumped nine to ten jumps. You feel ready, and your horses feel loosened up, not exhausted before going to the ring."
Before the riders jumped the first round, Laura had them tell her their strategies. It was OK for them to deviate from the plan, if they meant to. But if they didn't, a change in plans could indicate where a problem may have started.
Jessica, the first rider, stuck to her plan but had a rail down at Fence 4, the narrow oxer. For the second round, Laura advised her to "ride it like it's six feet wide" to help her horse get across the width.
Victoria didn't stick to her plan from Fence 1 to 2 and rode nine strides instead of eight strides. "That's OK," Laura said. "If there's a tight time allowed, though, store this information and use it later on course when you know you're safe to use it. I wouldn't try to make up time at a triple combination, for instance."
When Carolyn rode the first line in seven strides, Laura said she thought it made her horse a little flat. "I like the eight or nine strides to keep the horse a little rounder, a little bouncier. With some horses, when their stride gets long, it's hard to get them back."
Matthew's horse refused the vertical in-and-out after the water jump. Laura said the problem started on the approach two fences earlier. "After [Fence 3], you wheeled around. Instead, I would have gone deep in the corner, given him a big pull to get him back. But somehow you got over the next [narrow] oxer. Then you got over the water and galloped down to the vertical in-and-out. He was too strung out and you galloped to a deep spot, so he stopped."
Laura said that after riding the careful, quiet vertical-in-and-out line, both Carolyn and Matthew needed to build impulsion. "After the careful line, you're jumping the biggest oxer on the course. I would have kicked him after that line away from the in-gate, galloped up, then balanced. You can't create something out of nothing.
"That's exactly what the course designer was looking for -- for you to land and not go forward," she added.
Before the second round, Matthew asked to be excused because his horse had a quarter crack in his hoof. Laura said this increased the pressure on the remaining team members because there would be no fourth drop score.
When discussing the upcoming round, Laura told Jessica and Victoria, "These horses look like they have a lot of blood and energy, so I don't think they'll be tired. But they may know where they're going, or they may be OK. The only thing you can't do is take the course for granted."
After a few warm-up fences, Laura said they looked ready to go. "Pat your horses. Keep them happy in the warm-up."
On course, Jessica rode to Fence 4-- the narrow oxer she had down in the first round--stronger to make sure her horse got across it. But he got too excited, so she had to "battle all the way down" the line to get him back under control. "This is a really good example of how a horse can change from the first course to the second course," Laura said.
Carolyn had the pressure of needing to finish with a score for the team to remain competitive. "Got a plan? Feel the pressure?" Laura asked her. "You want a clear round, but no matter what happens, you've got to get around, so keep riding, keep thinking ahead."
The team finished with a collective score of 12 faults before the jumpoff.
The jumpoff was Fences 1, 2, 3, 9, 10A, then a left turn to jump the vertical in-and-out (6AB) backward. Riders could opt to leave out a stride from fence 1 to 2 and do seven strides, but they needed to get their horses back for the turns from Fence 3 to 9 and from Fence 10A to 6A.
Above all, Laura said, "You're a team. You're not trying to beat each other. This is about time and going clear."
During the abbreviated warm-up, Laura asked the riders what type of fences they wanted to jump to best prepare their horses. Each said they needed a vertical. When Jessica made a short turn to it, Laura said, "I like that you're thinking about your horse and what you need."
But all did not go smoothly on course. As Jessica rode to the first fence, her horse refused. "Jessica's horse wasn't awake," Laura smiled and added, "And I don't think she was awake either. Make sure he knows the first fence is there."
Victoria also offered a learning opportunity when she rode her horse to a deep distance and clucked. "When you are dead deep to a jump, don't cluck. A cluck means forward," Laura said. "When you're that close to a fence, you need to go up, not forward. Have the confidence to say, 'I put my horse in an awful position. I need to sit and wait.' You put in a cluck, and she's a good horse. She went forward and had a rail. Simple little, tiny things like that make a huge difference."
The Second Team
Laura's advice for the second team -- Jacqueline Lubrano, Chelsea Moss, Taylor Land and Sophie Benjamin -- was similar to the first team. Again, she encouraged them to pay attention to their horses and use their eyes.
Sophie used her eye in the first round on her borrowed horse, but she thought she had added strides in too many places. "Sophie, you said you made your horse work hard, but that's exactly how you wanted to ride him," Laura said. "You don't know this horse, you added strides and that's fine."
Chelsea's horse stopped at the second fence. Laura told her to believe in herself. "Your eye works great. Believe in that. What doesn't work for you is you get panicky, then he gets panicky. You say he runs away from you, but he's reacting from you."
Jacqueline's horse also stopped, but at the water jump. Laura said when Jacqueline realized she was getting to the jump on the half-stride, "you committed the cardinal sin and went into the fetal position."
Taylor's horse jumped beautifully until he got to the second-to-last line. She had planned to ride the oxer to the two-stride in nine strides, but her horse "closed the distance a little" by jumping to the right," Laura said. "You had in your head a number. But then you saw eight and you started to question it. What you should have done is said, 'I do not want to get that long distance. I'm going to give a big half-halt.'"
After the riders jumped the second round, the points tallied so that Team 2 won the Nations Cup, but Laura still had them ride the jumpoff for practice.
"In the Nations Cup, you're all still a team, so technically, I'd like to have the first rider do a solid, clear but not crazy, quick ride." Sophie, who rode first, was on a naturally quick and careful horse, so that was a bonus. If she went clean, the emphasis of the second rider would still be to go clean, Laura said. After that, the team would have to see where it was, fault-wise, before the last two riders would know how to ride the course.
Chelsea's horse stopped at Fence 6A after she galloped from Fence 10A and tried to make the sharp left turn. She made a prompt circle and her horse cleared 6A easily. Laura said, "Lots of horses lock up after a long gallop." The key is to sit back around the turn and bend the horse so he can see the fence earlier. "When you sat back on the reapproach, you still did a really tight turn and your horse was happy to jump it."
Laura concluded her lessons by reminding the riders that knowing their horses was most important to successfully riding a course. "Learn about your horses. Understand their personalities. Have empathy for them," she said. "They're doing things for us that no human would do. Always understand what your horse is like."