Glo­ri­ous Un­cer­tainty

Jump­ing will al­way• be a thrill. The•e tip• from Jim keep it from be­ing too much of a good thing.

Practical Horseman - - Cross Country With Jim Wofford - Based at Fox Covert Farm, in Up­perville, Vir­ginia, Jim Wof­ford com­peted in three Olympics and two World Cham­pi­onships and won the U.S. Na­tional Cham­pi­onship five times. He is also a highly re­spected coach. For more on Jim, go to www. jim­wof­ford. blogspot.

Iwas sail­ing through Am. Lit. 201 in col­lege un­til I bumped into Wil­liam Faulkner. Thank heav­ens for Cliff­sNotes! I never re­ally got my head into Yok­na­p­ataw­pha County, but Faulkner did say one thing that stuck with me: “There is some­thing about jump­ing a horse over a fence, some­thing that makes you feel good. Per­haps it’s the risk, the gam­ble. In any event it’s a thing I need.”

When it comes to jump­ing, I to­tally get Faulkner. There are no feel­ings like the glo­ri­ous un­cer­tainty of the ap­proach, the sen­sa­tion of flight and then that won­der­ful re­al­iza­tion on the other side, “I’m alive!” For a cer­tain type of per­son, there is no thrill like it. The psy­chic pay­off is due to ap­pre­hen­sion at try­ing some­thing when you are not en­tirely sure of the out­come, fol­lowed by the re­lief that you are hap­pily on the other side of the ob­sta­cle.

Recre­ational drugs have never had any ap­peal for me. There is no rea­son to buy some­thing that is il­le­gal when I can get the same sen­sa­tion from a 4-year-old who is just get­ting strong enough to “crack his back” over a small oxer. If I am ed­u­cat­ing my young fel­low and use some gym­nas­tics out of a book to help him take the cor­rect shape with his body over ob­sta­cles, and then he fi­nally gets it? That’s a party day for me. Mean­while, I’m still ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the rush that al­ways fol­lows glo­ri­ous un­cer­tainty.

That ‘Tim­ing’ Thing

The un­cer­tainty is caused by not know­ing what will hap­pen when you get to a jump—nat­u­rally you are go­ing to worry about it. Find­ing a stride to a jump is a process usu­ally called “tim­ing.” I de­fine tim­ing as “the abil­ity to pre­dict and in­flu­ence the re­main­ing in­cre­ments of stride be­fore an ob­sta­cle.”

Riders in the Begin­ner Novice stage never miss their stride. Be­cause their minds are full of the white noise of ap­pre­hen­sion, they leave the jump­ing process to their horse, who hope­fully is an ex­pe­ri­enced “schoolie.” A good school horse has a mi­crom­e­ter in his eye when it comes to stride se­lec­tion. Left to his own de­vices, that schoolie will ar­rive at a slightly close dis­tance ev­ery time. At the other end of the process, I have seen ex­pe­ri­enced riders half-halt their horses 10 strides away from a 5-foot ver­ti­cal, then never move un­til they step on the ex­actly cor­rect take­off point. Both of these stages in rider devel­op­ment take care of them­selves, but what about the rest of us, stuck be­tween ig­no­rance and ex­per­tise?

As your ex­per­tise grows, your abil­ity to pre­dict the fu­ture im­proves. At some point in ev­ery rider’s progress the sub­con­scious tells her—usu­ally when com­ing off a turn—“You are go­ing to stand off in three strides,” and three strides later, the horse takes off. The rider knows what will hap­pen be­fore it hap­pens. That rider will pull up with a be­mused ex­pres­sion while think­ing, “That was so cool. I knew what was go­ing to hap­pen and I wasn’t so scared.” In the mean­time, I am think­ing “uh-oh” be­cause that rider will now be hooked on the sen­sa­tion of mov­ing up to an ob­sta­cle on three length­en­ing strides like crack co­caine and she will do every­thing in her power to re­pro­duce that feel­ing of cer­tainty, that feel­ing of less ap­pre­hen­sion.

When you see riders con­tin­u­ally chas­ing their horses to stand off, you know they are look­ing for their ap­pre­hen­sion “fix.” How­ever, be­cause those riders do not yet see their stride on a reg­u­lar ba­sis, they will usu­ally pro­duce more un­com­fort­able ef­forts rather than fewer, which will nat­u­rally in­crease their ap­pre­hen­sion. At this stage in the ed­u­ca­tional process, riders have only a one in three chance of stand­ing off at a fence. The other two times they will ei­ther get lucky and ar­rive at a nice medium dis­tance or they will find them­selves driv­ing at a short stride.

This can be a dif­fi­cult stage for riders to work through, but there are ef­fec­tive strate­gies for get­ting past it.

Four Ways to Find Your Stride

When­ever riders ask me about im­prov­ing their tim­ing, I have sev­eral sug­ges­tions: Look at the jump. Ride in a steady rhythm. Jump as many dif­fer­ent horses over fences as you pos­si­bly can. Use gym­nas­tics. The first two an­swers are a lot eas­ier to ap­ply than the next two, but they all

When you see riders con­tin­u­ally chas­ing their horses to stand off, you know they are look­ing for their ap­pre­hen­sion “fix.”

work. First, look at the jump. Re­mem­ber my def­i­ni­tion of tim­ing? When you are try­ing to pre­dict the re­main­ing in­cre­ments of stride to a jump, you are mea­sur­ing the dis­tance be­tween where you are and where you will go. Sci­en­tists will tell you that you must have a fixed point of ref­er­ence to mea­sure dis­tance. For you, that fixed point is the top of the rail as you ap­proach it. Look at the top of the jump un­til it dis­ap­pears be­tween your horse’s ears, then look ahead—don’t look down as you jump. Look at the top of your ver­ti­cals, the front rail of an oxer, the mid­dle rail of a hogs- back, the back rail of a triple bar and the back­side of an open ditch. Look­ing at the jump won’t make ev­ery stride per­fect, but it will tell you what’s go­ing to hap­pen and

Over small to medium jumps, where you take off from is not nearly as im­por­tant as how you take off.

you can re­act ac­cord­ingly.

Next, ride in a steady rhythm when you jump. Try this ex­er­cise: When you ap­proach a jump, start­ing about 10 strides away, count out loud in rhythm with your horse’s stride. Do not count sets of num­bers (for ex­am­ple, one–two, one–two) but rather just keep count­ing up un­til your horse takes off. The fi­nal num­ber is merely a re­flec­tion of how many strides away you started count­ing. This ex­er­cise is not about the num­ber; it’s about the rhythm. Your horse jumps to the best of his abil­ity when he is bal­anced. When you hear the rhythm, you hear the bal­ance. When you keep your horse in a good rhythm, he will stay bal­anced and jump bet­ter.

Once you can main­tain an even

rhythm ap­proach­ing the jump, prac­tice de­part­ing from the jump at the same speed by say­ing out loud “land” when you land af­ter the ob­sta­cle and then count­ing out loud the same num­ber of strides as you counted in the ap­proach. Mod­ern show-jump­ing cour­ses are com­plex and in­ter­con­nected, by which I mean that the land­ing over a jump is al­ready your ap­proach to the next ob­sta­cle. If you want your horse to ap­proach the next ob­sta­cle with a calm and reg­u­lar can­ter, you need to teach him to de­part from your last jump in a calm and reg­u­lar fash­ion.

Jump as many horses as pos­si­ble. If you can get a job as an ex­er­cise rider for a dealer and can make the time avail­able, by all means take the job. The au­thor Mal­colm Glad­well fa­mously re­marked that it takes 10,000 hours of prac­tice to be­come adept at a par­tic­u­lar skill. It is a safe bet that the won­der­ful riders that we watch jump­ing huge ob­sta­cles with in­vis­i­ble aids don’t just have 10,000 hours in the sad­dle—they have 10,000 hours of ac­tual jump­ing prac­tice.

Ob­vi­ously, I want you to make sure that you im­prove your po­si­tion and your aids as well as your tim­ing, but ev­ery jump you take is stored in your sub­con­scious, wait­ing un­til some day you start to rec­og­nize what is go­ing to hap­pen and can sub­tly help your horse get to the right spot in front of the next jump. While you are at it, worry more about how you take off rather than where you take off. Over small to medium jumps, where you take off from is not nearly as im­por­tant as how you take off. My point is that un­til you are test­ing the lim­its of your horse’s scope, you need to worry more about his bal­ance than which par­tic­u­lar grain of sand he steps on.

Fi­nally, gym­nas­tics are a valu­able tool for im­prov­ing both your horse’s jump­ing tech­nique and your tim­ing. I think the de­sire to min­i­mize ap­pre­hen­sion ex­plains why riders en­joy gym­nas­tics so much. They can usu­ally feel

the im­prove­ment that gym­nas­tics will pro­duce in their horse’s jump­ing tech­nique. But gym­nas­tics (when rid­den cor­rectly) pro­duce a very pre­dictable re­sponse, which is com­fort­ing to riders who are still un­cer­tain as to the out­come when ap­proach­ing a jump.

There are nu­mer­ous books avail­able about gym­nas­tics, and I have even writ­ten a cou­ple of them my­self. (Shame­less plug alert: I will put a link at the end of this col­umn to lead you to them.) Once you have a sim­ple one-stride gym­nas­tic set up, prac­tice it sev­eral times. As you jump the first el­e­ment, while still in the air, look at the next el­e­ment in the gym­nas­tic and tell your­self, “That’s one stride.” Later, build gym­nas­tics with two strides be­tween el­e­ments and re­peat the process. Dur­ing this ex­er­cise, your horse must learn to re­main reg­u­lar and bal­anced in his can­ter. When I’m teach­ing, even­tu­ally, I will build gym­nas­tics with as many as six strides be­tween el­e­ments while ask­ing my riders to ver­bal­ize the re­main­ing num­ber of strides to the next el­e­ment, count­ing as in the ear­lier ex­er­cise I gave you.

I try hard to teach both you and your horse to main­tain a steady rhythm dur­ing the gym­nas­tic ex­er­cises. De­vel­op­ing your tim­ing takes quite a while at the best of times, but it be­comes im­pos­si­ble if your horse speeds up, slows down or takes ir­reg­u­lar strides in the ap­proach. To rec­og­nize the re­main­ing in­cre­ments of stride, the pre­ced­ing in­cre­ments must all have been the same length.

I hope your next jump­ing ex­pe­ri­ence is even more en­joy­able be­cause of these ex­er­cises, but I also hope you will al­ways have a lit­tle glo­ri­ous un­cer­tainty in the ap­proach. If we knew what would hap­pen, we would get bored and take up a dif­fer­ent sport.

3. Right now this rider would agree with Wil­liam Faulkner that there is some­thing about jump­ing a fence that makes her feel good. She is think­ing, “Yea! I thought I would be dead by now, but I’m alive af­ter all, and I’m so ex­cited!” Ob­vi­ously, her horse is think­ing, “Sit still, Mom, it’s a bend­ing five to an­other small house. I got this!” The whole process makes me laugh, and makes me admire horses even more.

2. I can’t write a cap­tion for the rider in this photo, be­cause there is noth­ing to say … there is noth­ing go­ing on in her brain ex­cept white noise. Her horse, on the other hand, is ob­vi­ously think­ing, “Wow, I love this sport!”

1. When watch­ing cross coun­try, I usu­ally don’t see a di­a­logue be­tween horse and rider, but rather two par­al­lel mono­logues. In the fi­nal ap­proach, the rider is think­ing, “OMG, he is run­ning through my half-halt and my coach said to press him to the base so I can hold him off the jump and get a for­ward stride to a quiet dis­tance, and I have to keep my shoul­ders back and re­mem­ber to kick and I can’t see through the splash and I know I’m go­ing to die!” Mean­while, back in the real world, the horse is think­ing, “This is so cool. I haven’t seen the old small house-in-the-wa­ter trick since last month and she is so scared she has stopped pulling on my mouth, which means as long as she sits still I can put my ears for­ward and find a com­fort­able dis­tance and jump the liv­ing bleep out of it.”

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