Any good teacher knows never to overface a student, be it horse or human. It’s the most efficient way to shred confidence. I teach writing. I’d never tell a beginner writer to start her novel. That would be like my trainer telling me to jump a 4-foot oxer. The difference is that my writing student might suffer a bruised ego if she confronted a blank computer screen, whereas there’s no telling how many body parts I’d break or bruise if I attempted that oxer.
We’d start with one-paragraph writing exercises—word cavalettis—then build up until she had the skills and confidence to tackle more. The question is when to push; what is the line between overfacing and challenging? Knowing the difference separates the good from the bad teachers.
Melanie Smith Taylor—the Olympic gold medalist who convinced the show jumping world that women didn’t need their own award category after winning both Lady Rider of the Year and Rider of the Year—knows that difference as well as she knows how to gallop down to a fence. I just came back from her inaugural TaylorMade clinic. I posted a couple blogs about it and will write my next column about the experience.
I took my mare, Katie, to Melanie’s clinic because I am intrigued by her marriage of the traditional hunter/jumper approach with the teachings of Ray Hunt and Buck Brannaman. I’ve done a couple Ray Hunt-type clinics and found them invaluable. As a result, all my horses self load onto trailers, ground tie and, on cue, move themselves next to a fence and stand still until I mount.
One of my goals was to strengthen my bond with Katie and become the riding team that my other mare, Brenda Starr (the star of my equine mystery series) and I were. That was more than 30 years and several head injuries ago, so I have different goals for us. While Brenda and I made it to amateur-owners, I doubt I’ll ever jump 3 feet again, let alone 3’6”. Because it comes down to that line between overface and challenge.
A Judgment Call
To Melanie, knowing which side of the line you’re on is the key to riding success. “Never, ever overface,” she said during a recent telephone interview. Melanie’s emphatic words got me thinking about overfacing and the seemingly vague line that separates it from challenge. How do you know when to push yourself and when to stay the course? Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer.
“It all depends,” Melanie said. “It’s a judgment call.”
Preparation is the first step, and Melanie has a rule for that: Keep it simple.
“So many people worry about approaching a jump and finding a distance,” she said. “That makes you tight and tense, and it just paralyzes you. You’ve got to build up that confidence so you can trust yourself. You can’t force yourself to relax; you have to come to that confidence through basic exercises. You have to make the easy things difficult.” Such as cantering ground rails off the turn and adding and subtracting strides.
“You can get all the technical skills you need over rails on the ground. George [Morris] could teach a lesson over one cross rail to Olympic riders. If you make simple exercises difficult, then the difficult exercise—the reality of the show ring—is easy.”
OK you brave types, here’s your opportunity to snicker. I’m about to whine about why I didn’t move up as planned from the 2-foot pleasure division to the 2’6” special adult hunter division at the Lexington Spring Premiere show in April. Katie was prepared. Gordon Reistrup, my trainer, had shown in her a 2’6” division earlier in the week. But the special adults were to go in a different ring than the one in which I’d schooled. A gullywasher rain rearranged the rings, leaving me no schooling opportunity.
Katie can be on the looky side. She supposedly told a horse psychic she has a specific idea of what a jump should look like, and if it doesn’t match, she doesn’t know what to do. This usually happens just at the first jump and requires a firm, “Yes, this is a jump, now jump it!” response. I wasn’t good at being firm with my kids, and I’m worse at it when it comes to jumping.
There was a 2’3” division in the new ring the day before the special adults. That would give me a schooling opportunity. As I watched the ponies canter around, the line between overface and challenge became extremely distinct. If those adorable pigtailed pipsqueaks could do it, so could I. Into the class we went. We got around, but I was nervous and made stupid mistakes, cutting the turns, looking down, wrecking our lead changes.
That night I waffled about moving up to the special adults. Three inches difference, big deal. Even I, Weenie Woman, realized Katie wouldn’t notice. Still this was my first AA show, and only our second show over fences. I was just getting comfortable at 2 feet.
Not The Place To Move Up
Plus our lead changes got sticky when I got nervous. And AA shows are expensive. Gordon and I agreed this was not the place to move up. The money would be better spent on lessons to gain more confidence and work on the leads. The line was clear to both of us: This was more overface than challenge. I probably could have gotten around and lived to talk about it, but at what cost? If I got really nervous, I’d have climbed up her neck if I didn’t see a distance. She can take a joke, but why ask her to? She’s green, I’m nervous. It made sense to wait until all the stars were in alignment.
“Just like Upperville wouldn’t be a good place to move up, neither was this,” said Gordon. “It’s just too big a stage. You want to move up where it’s really comfortable.”
Gordon spent the next month doing what Melanie would’ve had me do: basic exercises on the flat and over non-threatening obstacles. Bending lines, adding and subtracting strides, leg yielding, serpentines, circles, squares, simple changes, flying changes and so on. My confidence—and Katie’s confidence in me—grew with each lesson.
At the end of May we went to the House Mountain Horse Show at the Virginia Horse Center, in its smaller East Arena where I feel most comfortable. Comfort is a big factor in the difference between challenge and overface. If you feel comfortable—be it with the ring, the weather, the jumps, your mood, your hair, whatever—you ride with more confidence, which moves you solidly from overface to challenge.
It’s All About Confidence
Gordon showed her in the 3-foot green division on Saturday and apparently all the jumps met her expectations. “She’s got her game face on,” Gordon told me, meaning it was game time for me. The next morning, I showed her in the pleasure division. For the first time, the 2-foot jumps looked puny. I talked to Gordon about moving up. He said that both of us were ready. I knew that, but having my trainer say it gave me even more confidence.
We marched into the ring and clocked around the course like we’d been doing it for years. Katie landed every lead, and we nailed every distance because I rode with confidence, knowing I was prepared, my horse was up to the task, and my trainer believed in me.
Like Melanie said, by making the easy exercises difficult, it had made the difficult exercise—riding over bigger fences in a show ring—easy. One of life’s greatest pleasures is rising to a challenge, and that would have been reward enough for me that day, especially in such a large (17), fancy division. So bringing home the tricolor and the saddle pad embroidered with “House Mountain Horse Show Champion,” made a rewarding day perfect.
However, I’m still thinking about the line between overface and challenge. I like what my young friend, Erin Bartle, has to say about it. She’s a 28-year-old eventer who just turned professional. I think she’ll do well in her new profession with this attitude:
“As a trainer I have to challenge a horse for it to learn, grow and succeed, just like I do with students. All the questions we ask, all the situations we put horses and riders into, should be confidence building. If the question is too big, too intimidating and the horse/rider fails in a way that gets them hurt or scared, you've over-faced them. So as a trainer you have to make sure the question you ask is answerable based on the horse/rider's education and background. You have to take the risk to improve, but at the same time you have to be confident that you've prepared and taught that horse/rider enough that they can answer the question correctly.
“I firmly believe that if you've given a horse all the tools to figure out the question they won't be over faced. You might not get exactly the answer you were looking for or expecting, but you keep educating and working, and eventually you get the right answer. And this applies to every person that touches a horse: grooms, riders, coaches. Every one that comes into contact with a horse is a trainer and needs to understand how each moment is a training opportunity, whether it is seized or squandered.”
Jody Jaffe is the author of "Horse of a Different Killer," "Chestnut Mare, Beware," and "In Colt Blood," which have been featured in People Magazine and translated into German, Japanese and Czech. She is also the co-author of the novels, "Thief of Words," and "Shenandoah Summer." She is a journalist who was on a team at the Charlotte Observer that won the Pulitzer Prize. Her articles have been published in many major newspapers and magazines including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Washingtonian and Practical Horseman. In addition, she teaches journalism at Hollins University. She lives on a farm in Lexington, Va., with her husband, John Muncie, and their eight horses. She attempts to ride hunters with her trainer, the ever-patient, Gordon Reistrup.