An Eventer’s Guide To Better Learning

Sep 20, 2016 - 9:50 AM
Thanking Billy after we finished our jumper course. Photo by Captured Moment Photography

My entire life I have believed myself to be a good student, but I just discovered that the consistency I have shown as a student doesn’t necessarily translate into being a consistently good learner. This is something that I have never really examined, but a comment from a friend set me on a path to finding out just what the difference was between a good student and a good learner.

Sally’s remark was very casual, really. Just polite conversation about how much I had improved my show jumping, in a very short time, during a recent trip down to Temecula to ride with Hall of Fame Inductee Susie Hutchison and my coach, Hawley Bennett. But her observation got me thinking, “WHY did I improve so quickly?”

Most importantly, I made the commitment of TIME to learn to show jump better. Of my three phases of eventing, show jumping has been somewhat of an enigma for Billy and me.

We both have the talent for it, we generally look very capable, and there just doesn’t seem to be a reason for the rails we take during competition but not in practice. As a “good student” I sign up for clinics, host clinics at my facility, and do as I am told by the instructors.

But I realized that I had never addressed the problem of “show jumping” directly, only “jumping” in general, and that if something was going to change I was going to need to change my entire approach. I left my business and all of its distractions in the capable hands of my husband and family and travelled down south for two entire weeks.

This decadent use of time was almost harder to sacrifice than money. I am sure you can relate to being frugal with “wasting” time on yourself and having a twinge of guilt over any time and money that you do spend. Squeezing in a lesson for myself while I am already at a show and busy with 10,000 other things ends up being the common answer to this feeling.

But although I do as I am instructed and feel like I have gained something, having that last-minute lesson at a show seems to be clouded with just trying to find a hurried tip that will give me an advantage during competition rather than truly honing my skills. Not only that, being great at multi-tasking is not necessarily a good thing when it comes to learning. By switching between multiple tasks, even more of my precious time and money is lost, and the tasks become increasingly more complex.

So by dedicating a predetermined amount of time to my learning, I could be fully present and guilt-free while focusing on the task at hand. Because this trip was centered solely around my improvement in the show jump arena and nothing else, I can confidently say my instructor was not standing in the middle of the arena mumbling “Bueller….. Bueller….,” while I circled around endlessly, focused on anything but being present in the moment of learning.

Fear of failure can also be a big stumbling block for learning. When I am riding just before a show, or even while everyone is watching me during a clinic, I am unconsciously trying to look my best and to not make any mistakes. I am less willing to try something new for fear of looking like I don’t know what I am doing.

But failure is truly beneficial—it’s a part of learning that offers special opportunities that aren’t there when success comes quickly and without error. 


Billy and I show jumping at The Event at Rebecca Farm this summer. Photo by Nokomis Photography

So, although this trip was related to going to the Fair Hill International Three Day Event, there was not an impending big competition looming right around the corner to affect my lessons. I was free to admit fully that I was trying things for the first time, and that it was acceptable not to have achieved perfection prior to execution.

Because I had the luxury of so much time to myself on this trip, I made a point of writing things down in a journal immediately when I was finished. This gave me a chance to learn the same thing in a different way.

Again, once I get to multi-tasking and start thinking about what I’m making for dinner, or what my schedule looks like for the next day,  I have likely forgotten small things that I was told or felt during my lesson. It’s easy to say that you will remember something the next day, but in reality for me, putting it to paper that very day made all of the difference. Even if I never read it again, I had already further cemented the knowledge in my mind.

OK. Now that I have allowed myself to find and learn new skills, the retention, recall and transfer of these skills becomes critical. How can I accurately remember the information that I learned, recall it at a later time, and utilize it effectively when it really matters?

Well, one of the best ways to improve learning is by actually putting new knowledge and skills into practice. So for me, I arranged to gain practical experience outside of my comfort zone…. at an A-rated jumper show.

Cue the theme song from Jaws.

I knew I had learned how to ride more like a jumper in a lesson, but will I SHOW like a jumper? Or will I ride like a cross-country rider masquerading in designer clothes? Or, is that a wolf in sheep’s clothing?

I’m not too sure about that, but in any case, my dedication to this learning process was boundless. Even in my apprehension of showcasing my fledgling skills in front of high-jumping witnesses. Since I wanted the new information I had just learned to stay put, what better way to keep practicing and rehearsing it than under a pressure that is not necessarily the pressure I feel at an event, but certainly similar?

This “use-it-or-lose-it” philosophy was important for me because my mind was not allowed to prune away valuable information that had not yet been solidified, and I could test myself in competition.

Knowing my partner as well as I do now, I knew I needed to allow Billy to be successful so that he had the confidence to tackle the big challenges of the Grand Prix Ring. Life can’t be all mistakes and diving into the deep end, and sometimes a little success is all you need to get to the next level.

So on the first day at the jumper show, we stayed in the ring that let you wear polo shirts and applied what we learned to intermediate-sized fences. I was so delighted to have Susie there ringside to confirm that I was, in fact, supposed to go in a waiting stride off the gap, and viola! we had a clear round!


Billy and I in jumper-land! Photo by Captured Moment Photography

It was such a nice round that Susie said that I couldn’t have done it better. I almost retired right then and there after that comment, but upon second thought, I knew I would be a terrible golfer and would need to stick with horses. Besides, I had the big kid’s ring to look forward to in two days time.

My stress level was much higher on our return to the jumper show, and the relaxed feeling I had after the first day of showing was gone. Fighting weekend Southern California traffic had made us late to our course walk with Susie, and I hate feeling rushed.

Knowing that I still had to get Billy studded for the grass was also looming in the back of my mind, and I realized that I was definitely feeling more like I do for a big event. The feeling was even more poignant when Hawley exclaimed that the course looked big as we drove by the main arena to park the horse trailer.

As we were walking the first course, I had to agree with Hawley that the jumps seemed plenty high enough, and I was already letting my mind wander to the higher class I had entered after this one. After a quick walk with Susie, it was back to the trailer to grab the horses, where luckily the girls had managed to get them studded, and it was off to warm up.

This was not quite the friendly and casual warm-up that we had experienced in the ring filled with polo shirts. This warm-up was occupied by top riders on very stylish horses milling about and looking quite different from our fit and trim eventers. It also seemed as if each fence was under lock and key and closely guarded by a pack of oddly loyal minions who were there to defend the warm-up fences with their lives.

It was very lucky for us that we had Susie to claim a fence for us and give us space and time to get ourselves ready.

The atmosphere in the Grand Prix ring was certainly a step up from the other jumper ring, and Billy reacted to the electricity with his usual tension. But because I was instructed to not worry about my start time, I moved around the ring and realized that I normally rush him through this critical 45 seconds before we start. I also let myself go through my instructions one more time before approaching the first fence, another luxury I sometimes deny myself. Our go was a huge improvement, and I let myself feel a glimmer of optimism for the bigger class coming up.

As they set the next course and we were walking it, my hopes for an easy go were dashed as they brought out the widest liverpool I had ever seen and proceeded to set it under an enormous square oxer. Oh goodie!

I let Susie know my normal course of action when approaching a liverpool with my very spooky partner, especially one under an oxer. She quickly told me I would do no such thing and that we would ride it exactly like all of the other fences. Because it was a jumper show and anything goes, we had the opportunity to actually practice over a liverpool in the warm-up, and Susie worked us through it several times over a greatly reduced version. I entered the arena filled with jumps bigger than they set at Rolex, took a breath and patted Billy, and the rest was history.


Billy over the liverpool.

I have just returned from one of the most productive trips thus far in my eventing career. It ranks right up there with completing Rolex and being awarded the Rebecca Broussard National Grant in my list of proudest moments.

I finally gave myself the gift of time and to truly improve. I cleared the biggest show jump course I have ever attempted with style and confidence. Billy sailed over a massive liverpool without batting an eye. And I am a better rider than I was before I left.

I got to enjoy the overwhelming feeling of gratefulness for the opportunities I have, opportunities that only come from the support of so many wonderful people in my corner. And most of all, this trip down to Temecula marks the point in my life where I became a good learner, not just a good student. 

Jennifer McFall started her riding career in Pony Club and showed her family’s Morgan horses on a regional and national level, winning many national and world titles in hunter pleasure, western pleasure, dressage and jumping. She and Dragonfire Kublakhan, a Morgan gelding bred by her family farm and her partner during her teenage years, are pictured on the cover of the Pony Club “A” manual and had an exciting career together. Her early years as a trainer/instructor earned her recognition on the national level and most recently the Morgan Horse Association honored her for her influence on the Morgan breed, particularly in the area of eventing.

Jennifer has always loved eventing and remained an active competitor. Currently, she and High Times, a Holsteiner gelding she has brought up through the levels, have finished in the top 10 at multiple CIC and CCI*** events and successfully completed their first CCI**** together at the Rolex Kentucky Three Day Event in 2014. Jennifer runs Dragonfire Farm, a sport horse breeding, training and sales facility, in Wilton, Calif., alongside her husband and fellow eventer Earl McFall and their daughter Taylor.

Read all of Jennifer’s blogs here

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