I went to my first lesson with Jim Wofford Friday on my six-year-old stallion, Salute The Truth (aka Willy). The decision to go was difficult. I'd been to Wofford once three years ago and decided that the system there didn't meet my needs well. He does group lessons using a different set of jumping exercises each week. You are faced with the questions he builds for the week regardless of what issues you and your horse are facing in your training. I ended up doing private lessons with Stuart Black that year and felt that what I learned was more tailored to our specific needs at the time.
I've trained my own horses with my own methods fairly successfullly for a number of years. I seem to be able to move most of them up to prelim within a year and do OK, but then they're sold. With Willy I have a horse that I intend to keep, and I want to train him without any holes and get the absolute best out of him in an extended career. He has the talent to win everywhere and at every level, so I don't want to blow it. I've watched Wofford's students and they are generally the best up and coming riders in the country and their horses win. So off I went yesterday, eager to soften the rough edges on my riding and accelerate the great progress that Willy has made this winter.
In recent weeks Willy had learned to wait for the jumps and become repectful of my half halts. We learned to add strides, which was something that we couldn't do before. I had felt, however, that he was becoming a little too respectful of my hands, and getting stopped up, especially around turns in front of fences. A couple of times in our small indoor he'd become frustrated and pushed through my outside leg in a very deliberate way. He hadn't stopped at anything, but I felt like the thought wasn't far from his mind. Jumping outdoors he had been better.
The lesson was indoors and there wasn't a lot of room to maneuver. Wofford noticed from the first cross rails we jumped that I was "doing too much." I wanted Willy contained and in balance, and Willy was just a little overwhelmed and not sure he wanted to be contained and balanced, so I was constantly correcting this or that between the jumps. He explained that in his system the young horses don't go in a "four star frame" to the jumps. He told me to stop correcting all the time so that the horse can find a consistent balance, even if it's more on the forehand than I like. Then he made me hold the reins as you would for driving, with them coming out toward the bit between the thumb and index finger. The effect was that I did very little with my hands because it was so unfamiliar. My learned, reflexive hand movements were gone; anything I did I had to think about first.
We jumped OK for the first half of the lesson that way, but in trying to do less I was never sure what was OK to do. In retrospect I think I underrode the turns, letting Willy lose balance and impulsion. It all fell apart completely when it came time to turn right off the wall to the triple. We couldn't get the right turn and be balanced quickly enough for a decent jump in, so the two strides to the oxer became two and a half. Willy, who never stops, stopped twice at the oxer. Then Jimmy looped my reins around his neck in a way that made it impossible to take back. I'd actually been instinctively trying to hold him for three strides when it was clear that two wasn't going to work. So there I was with no whip and my reins wrapped around his neck faced with a triple off a tight turn and my usually honest buddy under me totally overwhelmed by the jumps. Out came the red lunge whip with the very loud cracker on the end. He had me stand Willy in front of the oxer while he gave him some very loud cracks to his hind legs. I know it sounds bad, but I was quite thankful, since I was in no position to encourage the horse, and stopping is not something that event horses should learn to do.
"Warmbloods will do this," he reassured me.
"He's a Thoroughbred," I said.
"Oh, well then there's no excuse. Awfully good looking Thoroughbred."
Then we proved we were Thoroughbred. We started screaching around the arena flying through the triple like a steeplechase horse, barely squeezing the two strides in. On that note he had us cool out while he tried to give the other rider her money's worth.
So we were pretty thoroughly disgraced. Should I go back and continue to pay $70 and give up my day's income and drive around the beltway at 6 am so that I can destroy my and my horse's confidence in public? I will, a week from Tuesday I will. Willy will have the weekend off and I'll see what I've got on Monday. We will rebuild his confidence next week, and I will learn to do less, but I'll figure out what less actually means.
I feel like a challenge has been laid down for me. I can go back to the farm and continue doing what I know how to do and be assured of success up to a certain point, or I can become a beginner again, learn new methods, risk failure, but possibly become a much better rider with a much better horse. It's not an easy road to go down since I'm not trying to become a top international competitor. I only want to breed and train good young event horses and share good solid training and riding techniques my students. Maybe this will help.