Spring means a lot of things out in Kentucky. But for most of us who ride, it means that with the thaw of winter comes the eventual onset of longer days and saddle time.
I was lucky to get in contact with James Houston and squeak in a clinic prior to the major launch of April (Keeneland, Rolex and the lead up to the Kentucky Derby) and the competitive season. Over the period of a weekend, we knocked off the rust and gained focus to begin the season.
James is an FEI rider and competitor who has been around the block with large and small names. He currently competes I1/I2 and has a clutch of young, talented horses coming through the ranks.
James was really exceptionally kind to the motley crew of horses and riders that showed up. We threw the sink at him from foxhunters and endurance horses to a tune-up on a Grand Prix schoolmaster. My own is a 14.1 hand welsh cob. The man handled it all with typical English humor and enough grace to make him Southern.
James’ principle is simple. Improve the horse through balanced gymnastic stretching exercises and improve the rider through the application of bio-mechanics. In short, be effective by using your body and the exercise as leverage; the rest will follow.
The first day I rode with him, my mare and I were locked against each other and had been for a few rides. Like a yoga instructor he took us back to home position and schooled us down to core fundamentals. To an outsider, this was probably the most boring of sessions, but to us, it was like coming home. Both sorely needed and welcomed at the same time.
Normally, most clinicians on the first day want to ramp up and really test out what you have ability-wise. This can go spectacularly great, or it can end very badly. Most of the time, from experience, it ends badly, even to the point of having to reschool a few times before you can go back to where you started. So, it was really refreshing to have someone hear (and see) both what the horse and rider need without going into huge fuss about what should be done.
The goal was to open up her body and get mine to let go. By the end of it, the pony really started to come back, and I was freer in my body. His way of staying with you but just staying out of the way allowed room for you to create your own style while learning.
During our session, aside from lateral work (haunches-in, shoulder-in and counter-shoulder-in were the most common), the most common exercise was uberstreichen. This helped us re-affirm the half-halt in addition to allowing more uphill balance and freedom. This was challenging since I got into the habit of being static with the aids. But by having us be flexible within the movement and within the application of the aid, it gave us a lot more power and natural carriage.
Day 2 led us to push the envelope a bit while keeping the same soft connection that we achieved the day prior. We played with variations on the outline and worked through lateral work. Her canter was still a little weak, but even then, with small adjustments in my body, she powered into a lovely collected canter. We’re still weak on the pirouettes, but the half-passes were great quality, and the rest of the lateral work was nicely put to rest.The new found power and freedom in the work was really exciting to feel and later look at on tape.
The thing was, my pony wasn’t the only one changing, I saw positive changes in everyone, even really difficult rides. More importantly, I saw riders who felt really empowered to go out and try the things they learned.
Houston will hopefully become a regular here in the Bluegrass and is already scheduled to come back in April for three days. I know we have a lot to work on between now and then, and hopefully the pony and I won’t disappoint.