Like Water On Stone: Reflections On Day 3 Of EAP

Jul 12, 2018 - 1:49 PM

The third day of the Emerging Athletes Program might be the one day in the week that feels like a “normal” day. The initial anxiety is gone, expectations are set, and everyone has established something of a routine. When tomorrow arrives, there will be just one day remaining, a realization that always seems to change the tone just a bit whether it’s a summer camp or a vacation. Friday’s a short day, and then we’re all back to our regular lives.

The third day of the EAP also marks the point where it gets a little trickier for a parent to get a feel for the details of what’s going on. Once the introductory talk is over on the first day we’re officially excluded from the barn. Aside from the bits and pieces we catch from our perches along the periphery, our only window into what’s going on comes during the sessions in the ring. The girls themselves are too tired to fill in most of the blanks. On Tuesday they were at the barn and at work from 6 a.m. until 9 p.m. At that point they weren’t willing to divulge much more than their desire to get back to the hotel and into their beds.

So let me talk about the riding. I’ve now seen two sessions in the ring with Anne Kursinski. I hope you’ll pardon me a digression in order to set up my reactions to them.

Back when I started blogging for COTH, I had a vague notion that I might one day use my posts as the beginnings of a book chronicling my experiences and observations as a horse dad. A few people have encouraged me in that thinking over the years, and I seem to be at a point in my life where I’ll soon have enough time and enough material to give that a shot. (So if you happen to know an agent or a publisher who might be interested, let’s just say that I’m not very hard to track down via Google search.)

I mention this because a few weeks ago I told an old friend and frequent professional collaborator about my tentative book project. We’ve got enough of a history together that we can say things to one another that we wouldn’t say to other people. He asked me how much riding I’ve done, and then started to press me a bit when I told him the answer is “hardly any.” Wouldn’t I be better able to appreciate my daughters’ experiences in riding if I tried it myself? And wouldn’t that put me in a position to write a better book?

It was one of those moments where you hate to admit that someone has a point. But he had a point.

It’s not that I’ve been a complete non-rider. I took a lesson once about a decade ago. And I went on a few really long trail rides where I learned about the need to dress to avoid chafing and the importance of minimizing my pre-ride coffee consumption. Plus I have certainly done my share of work on the ground.

But it was only recently that I climbed back on a horse, this time thinking that I’m actually going to learn how to ride.

My timing, for blog-writing purposes, could be better, because I’ve only managed to ride once since that resolution, so it’s still early days for me. But I don’t mind saying that first attempt went pretty well. I knew how to hold the reins and had apparently internalized some knowledge about how to use them, and I even used my legs a bit. Nobody said anything bad about the videos of myself at the trot that I posted on Facebook, and a few people said some pretty nice things, and not a single one of them was my mom (mostly because she’s not on Facebook).

COldfatherEAP3jump
Audrey’s group in a riding session while another group observes and serves as jump crew. Photo courtesy of Chad Oldfather.

But here’s where we get to the point where I start to bring this back to the EAP and Anne Kursinski. When it came time to canter, my grasp on what I was doing got a lot more tenuous. I started to feel like less of a rider and more of a rag doll. My thought process went from “let me try making this adjustment” to “I’m bouncing around a lot. Like really a lot. How do I stop bouncing around so much?”

I didn’t have an answer for myself right then. It’s been a really long time since I’ve sat in on a lesson where someone was learning how to canter. Whatever I might once have known about that is long gone. Whatever my daughters know about it has become so automatic that they don’t even have to think about it.

And so as I sat there watching and listening to Anne’s commentary, I had two recurring thoughts.  The first was that I’m so far away from being able to think about those sorts of adjustments. It’s mind-blowing, really, just how much knowledge these riders have accumulated over the years, and how much they’re able to do without having to think about it.

The second was that I’ve heard so much of this before. “If you can’t control your body, you can’t control your horse.” “Work with the horse, not against the horse. Anger is counterproductive. Think of the horse as your best friend.” “Attention to detail in everything that you do. That’s what the winners have. No stone goes unturned.” The importance of “coordinating your aids.”

And I’ve seen so much of this before. The use of single-file riding on the flat as a way to enhance a rider’s focus on using her eyes and controlling her rate of speed and pace. The importance flatwork basics to being able to effectively jump around a course.

The familiarity of it all doesn’t surprise me, and it doesn’t dismay me. I’ve heard and seen these things from sitting in on clinics given by people like George Morris, Diane Carney and Bernie Traurig. I’ve also heard and seen them in Serah Vogus’ lessons at Millcreek Farm, and from some of the other trainers we’ve worked with over the years. The fact that these concepts get repeated over and over suggests to me that they’re important. The fact that it’s necessary for them to be so consistently emphasized suggests that they’re difficult to master.

I once heard George Morris characterize the process of training a horse as “like water on stone.” It takes time and consistency to leave a mark. So, too, it seems, with riders. My daughters didn’t learn how to do all the things they can do on a horse in one shot. It’s impossible to point back to one lesson or one clinic and say “that’s the one where I learned how to do a perfect shoulder in.” It was a process of gradual accumulation.

One more quote from Anne: “Feeling, not thinking. That’s what makes a great rider.” No doubt feeling is the sort of thing that some people have more natural aptitude for than others. But I’m also willing to bet it’s something that can be, indeed has to be, nurtured and developed over time. The journey from where I am to where these riders are is a journey of years, of dedication, and of repetition. The journey from where they are to where they hope to be will take more of the same. The EAP, and time spent around a team of people as knowledgeable as the USHJA has put together, is an important first step.

Chad Oldfather is spending the week with his daughter Audrey at an EAP Regional Training Session and is blogging about the life lessons he’s learning along the way. Don’t miss his reports from Day 1 or Day 2.


Chad Oldfather is the blogging COTH Horse Dad. He’s the non-horsey father of two junior hunter/jumper/equitation riders, and he’s taking readers along on his horse show parenting journey. By day, he’s a law professor in Wisconsin, but on weekends and evenings, he can be found, laptop in hand, ringside at a lesson or show. Read his first blog, “My Soul For An Equitation Horse” to get to know him. 

Read all of Chad’s COTH Horse Show Dad blogs for the Chronicle.

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