Monday, November 28, 2011

Eric Horgan and the Clinic of Miraculous Revelations...

Eric describing the "Magic Canter."
Recently I experienced what, to me, was a little slice of heaven.  My blogging buddy Marissa and I were able to clinic with a horseman we both respect tremendously, eventer Eric Horgan. She trailered over to my place to pick me up, we loaded Sug on Marissa's trailer next to her handsome gelding Tucker, and blithely headed off down the road to a friend's farm in search of higher learning.  By the time we arrived about 15 minutes later, Sug had unapologetically eaten most of a completely smitten Tucker's hay.

Sugar and I are jumpers. Marissa and Tucker are hunters. You may wonder why we would want to clinic with an instructor whose expertise lies in a different discipline. Eric, a native of Ireland, has ridden at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal ( finishing 15th individually), the 1990 World Equestrian Games, the Burghley 3-Day Event and Badminton Horse Trials, won the Punchestown International Three-Day Event twice, and is the bronze medalist from the 1989 European Eventing Championships. Basically, the man has forgotten more than I will ever know about horses, riding them, and getting them to jump over stuff that they normally would just avoid altogether.

What I like most about working with Eric is that he deconstructs concepts and presents them in their most easily digestible format. Essentially, he helps me press the EASY button. The first time I rode with him, he watched me for about 5 minutes, asked me a few questions about my horse's background, then asked me some about my background and what I wanted to accomplish. He seemed to understand my horse's strengths and weaknesses almost immediately, which I would expect that most true horsemen would be able to do. What really impressed me, however, was that he understood ME immediately as well, understood what motivated me and relaxed me, and how to get his point across in a way that would make sense to me. 

So, about this past weekend. Our session was scheduled to be an hour and a half.  Marissa and I started out by catching up with Eric, telling him where we were in our training and what we hoped to accomplish during our time with him.  We then started out warming up while Eric watched us, and when we were done he had us come into the center of the ring. Eric told us that since time was limited to the one day's session, he was going to bring us back to basics. He asked us if we'd seen the FEI coverage of the Grand Prix at La Baule and Michel Robert's round. (Uh, yeah, we're Horse Junkies, of course we had.) He explained that the canter shown by Robert's mare, Kellemoi de Pepita, was the kind of canter we needed to be able to produce in our horses. The kind of canter that can be adjusted forward and backward, the kind where the horse can explode off the ground at any moment.

Sug listening intently to Eric...
MIRACULOUS REVELATION #1 - The back. Eric then asked us go out and work our horses through transitions between the gaits and within the gaits. The goal here was to get immediate response from the horse, as well as to get the horse in front of the back. Back, you say, not leg? Yep, the back.

Eric stresses the use of the upper body (and thus the rider's weight) as key in driving the horse forward or slowing it down. As I tend to hunch my back, and thus weaken it, Eric often reminded me to sit up, sit proud, and bring my shoulders back. The problem here was that when I brought my shoulders back, I tended to lose the elasticity in my arms, which irritated my horse and caused her to invert above the bridle.

Eric then asked me to imagine that the power in my back was concentrated between my shoulder blades (something you can practice while driving, by the way -- pull your shoulder blades down and back so that they press into the seat back) and flowing out through my elastic arms. He then told me to "give" with my inside rein for a stride or two, then take back the contact and vibrate the inside rein a bit. I tried to visualize and then implement this idea, and lo and behold, my mare's head dropped, her back rounded, and her canter became supple and buoyant. Zoinks, that was almost too easy.

That's something Eric stresses. You'll often hear him say, "How easy was that?" after you've followed a bit of advice and seen the immediate change in the horse. I'm a fan of pressing the EASY button. Many of the adults I ride with feel the same way. It's almost as if we're all computers that have only so much memory and when there's too much going on - ALERT!!! NOT ENOUGH MEMORY FOR THIS FUNCTION! My friend Libby and I joke with our trainer all the time that she can get us to do one thing at a time. If she wants us to remember the strides in a line, we can do that. If she wants us to remember strides AND try to get the horse to land on the correct lead AND keep our body still, well, that's just too much.

MIRACULOUS REVELATION #2 - The "magic canter." That's part of the deconstructing thing that Eric does. One of my issues jumping a course is that the first few fences are usually pretty good, but then everything gets a bit loosey goosey and strung out at the end. Eric stressed that the first thing one needs for a successful round, hunter or jumper, is a quality canter. So, we worked on that, circling around Eric and collecting and extending our horses until we could get the round, elastic "magic canter" where the horse was literally "pinging" off the ground. The trick was not only getting that canter, but then maintaining it for a full circle.

Once we were able to maintain the magic canter for a full circle (picture two adult women on horseback repeating the mantra "Ping, Ping, Ping, Ping" while gasping for oxygen) Eric set a pair of poles on the ground 6 strides apart. Our task was to pick up the canter, canter down the line in six even "magic canter" strides, and canter out of the line without changing the canter. Let me tell you, this was easier said than done. I'd come in with my magic canter, canter over the first pole, and then find myself losing it and either chasing Sug down the line to the last pole or racing and then holding her back the last couple strides. Basically, I either did four long strides to two short ones, or three short to three long strides. 

Eric walks over to draw
a line in the sand...
MIRACULOUS REVELATION #3 - Recovery. After watching a couple of our botched attempts to canter a line of poles in a consistent rhythm, Eric walked over and drew a line in the footing with his foot, approximately two strides out from the first pole. "This is your line in the sand" he told us. "Your issue is recovery after the fence. You need to sit up and assess where you and your horse are and make any necessary adjustments by this point in the line. You can't just sit there congratulating yourself that you made it over the fence in one piece." I had a good giggle over this, as that's exactly what my friend Libby and I do -- we're so bloody thankful when we make it over a fence intact we pretty much spend the next three strides in a state of giddy relief! So we worked on recovery, over and over, for what seemed like three days until we got it right.

When we were finally able to canter down the line of poles with some consistency, Eric put them up into jumps. We were told to treat the jumps as if they were the same as the poles, just another "magic canter" stride in the line. HAH! Again, easier said than done. I tend to be a micromanaging control freak, so of course I had to overthink things and nitpick my mare down the line, which resulted in two fairly crappy efforts. Eric told me to circle, get my "pingy" canter, and then had me focus on a tree in the distance instead of the jumps. Focusing on the tree prevented me from micromanaging, and enabled me to just sit my "magic canter" and allow the horse to take care of the jumps.

"Ride the canter, not the jumps!" yelled Eric.

Well, would you believe how well that worked? MIRACULOUS REVELATION #4 - The quality of the canter really DOES affect the quality of the jumps, and maintaining a consistent rhythm really DOES make finding a distance much easier. Well, duh, technically I did know that, but these exercises really helped illustrate it and drove the point home.

As the last exercise of the day, Eric put up another fence on the short end of the arena, a straightish five or bending six strides away from the last jump of the six stride line. This tested our ability to ride the canter, and our ability to recover in time to assess the situation and make any necessary adjustments. It was a great exercise for me, because, as Eric identified, I tend to look at the entire course and go into panic mode, instead of just concentrating on my canter and each fence as an individual obstacle. Eric was adding building blocks for me, in bite size increments, which made it easier to concentrate on my overall objective.

We had a couple rough and ready, get 'er done rides to the third fence before I was able to pull myself together, recover in time, and get the "magic canter" to the last fence. By the third or fourth time I was able to do it, and could land the last jump and move off in the rhythmical canter we'd spent the whole lesson trying to perfect. Honestly, the feeling I had after that last successful ride must've been similar to what Sir Edmund Hillary felt after summiting Everest, sans the frostbite.

"How easy was that?" asked Eric. 

Not only did we have a great lesson, each of us also had a little extra time in our schedules.   Since we had planned ahead and it was a lovely, almost spring-like day, after we'd taken care of the horses and put them back on the trailer to resume what Marissa called "their date," we hunkered down in some lawn chairs with Bellinis and chocolate donuts to watch Eric's next lesson.  Doesn't get much better than that, my friends!

(Don't worry, I shared a few bites with Sug and Tucker.  As if I would neglect the Sainted One and her new paramour.) 

Looking forward to riding with Eric when he comes back in the Spring.  Maybe by then I'll be able to keep that magic canter over an entire course!


  1. This is an awesome post! So glad to know I'm not the only one who does the whole "giddy-relief-because-I-made-it-over-the-fence-then-forget-to-ride-my-horse-to-the-next-fence" thing. Eric sounds like an awesome teacher... maybe someday I'll get to ride with him. :)

  2. Wow, what an awesome experience Amy! Eric sounds like a great teacher. I would have loved to get a video of you and Marissa pinging away on your horses. All this and donuts too?

  3. Great recap! I feel like I have been hearing Eric's voice in my head every time I've gotten on my horse this week, and I am still learning from him. (Oh and thanks for calling the big man handsome... Aw, shucks.)

  4. Oh man, are you my long lost riding twin? Everything you summed up describes me and my horse perfectly. Too bad you didn't get video, I would have loved to watch along with your description.

  5. Although I am not at a riding stage where I can really practice this, I really learned a lot. Plus I am having Miranda read this. Thanks for sharing your lesson with us!