Riders went back to basics and were pushed outside their comfort zone in Anne Kursinski’s annual show jumping clinic at Market Street, Inc., in Frenchtown, New Jersey, on Nov. 15-17.
Three groups spent two hours each day with Kursinski. They started with flatwork and grid work, progressed to more difficult jumping exercises, and capped off the weekend with course work.
The first two groups consisted mainly of hunter and equitation riders who compete at the lower levels, while the third group was jumper riders (and an eventer).
Kursinski started the clinic by focusing on flatwork and position, giving her a chance to see how participants rode.
“So many people horse show all the time and jump and turn, jump and turn,” said Kursinski. “For training, ask yourself: Can you ride into the corners? Can you slow it down? Can you keep the horse straight?”
On Saturday, she introduced a simple course with straight lines, having riders jump lines in a hunter distance, then adding strides, learning to adjust the horse. She had riders drop their stirrups and halt after the jump, forcing them to sit down in the saddle.
Sunday brought it all together, starting with flatwork, then warming up with a jump on a straight line and halting after. Next, she added some turning exercises and finished with course work.
Lighter Aids And Learning Feel
Kursinski encouraged riders to put themselves in the horse’s situation, trying to feel what they want the horse to do. On the flat, she asked riders to pay attention to the horse’s body, to feel where the head and neck are, and feel where the horse’s body is.
“Many of the kids get on and ride, and they don’t really feel the horse,” said Kursinski.
In the warm-up, she asked riders to focus on supple elbows, light hands and giving a little, “so you’re not always riding with the parking brake on.” In the rising trot, she asked riders to think about jumping and whether they needed to be more forward. She had riders drop their stirrups and do a little shoulder-in to the right, with the left leg asking the horses to keep the haunches on the wall.
“As the horses start to gather I want to see lighter riding—not that you smother them or dig your spur into them; less aids, not more aids,” Kursinski said. “Close the leg, release the leg and touch with the spur if you need to. Think about giving; the reward of releasing the pressure is more important than the correction in a lot of ways. Don’t be like a critical parent! Reward them when they get it right. How little can you do to get the job done?”
Throughout the jumping sections of the clinic, Kursinski had riders count their strides. “For a lot of people who think about whether a distance is going to be long or short, if they just focus on the counting and the rhythm, very often it changes remarkably,” she said. “Some trainers think their students don’t need to count like that, but I promise, just getting them to do that helps them immensely.”
She asked riders to count strides on a figure-eight over a fence. They began by counting “one” out loud on the take-off, counting strides in both directions. They worked backwards all the way to counting eight strides before the fence, with the goal of improving the riders’ timing and helping them learn to find a distance.
This concept carried through the weekend, with riders counting out loud through related distances, turns, and between every fence through their entire course.
“People will say it’s hard for them, but it helps because they look sooner,” said Kursinski. “The reason I have them count eight is so that they’re ‘on it’ earlier with the distance. If they only count two or three strides, it’s too late to make an adjustment before the jump. Riders will start to see their distance sooner with practice.
“It also helps with breathing and rhythm, and it gives them something to do,” she continued. “Some count a little off sometimes, and some of them count really strong like they’re in the military—One! Two!—while some count more slowly. Counting definitely and loudly is better because then the rider is more ‘with it.’ Some people kind of whisper, and that’s also how they ride, sort of willy-nilly. So again, the strength of the voice matters. As the rider counts, everything else just sort of falls away, and it’s interesting because I have a lot of them say, ‘Yeah, that really helped with staying focused and tuning out the noise.’ ”
Kursinski commented that many people worry about the problem, not the solution. “What’s the end result?” she asked. “They’ll say, ‘My horse does this,’ and, ‘My horse does that,’ and lose sight of the result that they want to achieve.”
A simple focus exercise consisted of cantering a small gate, then halting on a straight line when the horse reached the arena wall. Kursinski placed a small towel on the wall as a marker, so that riders could focus on that spot and ride to it. She had riders count strides as they approached the fence, then count until the halt. The line was on the diagonal from left to right. After the halt, she had them turn to the right, which was a challenge since the horse would naturally anticipating tracking left along the wall from that angle. Most of the riders had trouble with the exercise the first time, but with repetition it became easier. She noted that the exercises were designed to make riders more effective in how they communicate with their horses, and that both horses and riders learn through repetition.
She also encouraged riders to focus on doing their best, having a plan and being able to execute it—or at least think about executing a plan. That plan might include riding deep in the corners, figuring out how many strides to take in a line, or even visualizing the course before riding it.
“When riders get it in their head, even before they ride a course, and even watch someone else do it first, then it can be easier to execute that plan,” Kursinski said.
Teaching By Doing
During every group Kursinski picked one horse to ride and schooled it in something that the horse or its rider was struggling with. No matter how much the horse resisted, she never lost her patience. Even when a horse reared straight up Kursinski calmly proceeded with the session, and the horse calmed down and eventually understood what she was asking.
Following these rides, Kursinski discussed the horse with its usual rider and gave them some suggestions for things to work on.
After every session she asked the riders, one by one, what they’d learned. Opening the discussion encouraged riders to really think about their ride and gave her the opportunity to give them constructive feedback.
Thinking Outside The Box
A variety of exercises were geared toward getting the rider out of their comfort zone. Whether it was counter-cantering, dropping the stirrups, or holding the reins a different way, Kursinski pushed riders, encouraging them to stretch them a little. Many seemed surprised but excited that they were able to do what she asked.
“It’s on purpose at a clinic to change things,” she said. “I’ve just got three days, so I try as much as I can, without confusing them, to give them new things to learn with. I try to give them homework to go home with, try to help them learn new feelings. I tell them if they like it, try it again; if you don’t, you don’t have to. But it’s something new to have in your toolbox.
“I like giving them different experiences, different things they can try, and then they can go home with them,” Kursinski continued. “So much of it is mental. Getting loose in your seat, yes, that’s physical. But the better focused the rider is, the better the horses go. I say that all the time—the horses know how to jump; they would do it better if you weren’t riding them. If you can just get with the horse, you’ll be fine. The human being likes to do too much. By all means, get the job done, but ask yourself: How little can you do to get the job done?”
She had riders hold the reins like a carriage driver to practice the automatic release. Riders had to keep their hands low and wide, forcing them to use their own balance and strength to support their position, rather than hanging on the reins.
She asked, “With the automatic release, can you control your position? I do use the automatic release when I ride. Joe Fargis did, Conrad [Homfeld] did, and some top riders still do. Those are some of my pet things; they’re in my book too. It’s not that riders can’t go back to the crest release, but trying the automatic release shows them that they can do it. Having different positions is important whether you’re a hunter or a jumper or whatever, if you want to be a top rider. Get out of your comfort zone and try something different. If I can inspire people to get to another level, whether they ever do it again, then I’ve achieved something with the clinic. After my clinic you never have to do it again—but while you’re here, humor me.”
Mindset For Riding
The emphasis on the final day of the clinic was being thoughtful and mindful of how you’re asking the horse for something, having a plan and then being able to execute it, and the feeling and the timing involved in riding a steady round.
Cindy McKee of Soaring Life Coaching gave a talk about mindset during the Sunday lunch break.
“We’ve all had to navigate tough challenges; I have and you have, and those especially can shape our belief systems, influence our success, our health, and so on,” she said. “Understanding mindset is key to eliminating self-doubt and understanding how our mind functions. I’m not talking about positivity so much as beliefs and thinking habits. When we are clear about what we want, we can bridge the gap between where we are and where we’d like to be.”
When McKee was in her early 20s, she woke up in a hospital bed one day with a rare neurological condition that left her unable to move or speak.
“I heard that it was possible to get better, and I turned that into probable,” McKee said. “It was October, and I decided I was going to get out of the hospital by Christmas. I thought about riding day in and day out. In my mind I could visualize the horse’s neck in front of me, the feel of the reins in my hands. I didn’t watch TV or have any distractions. On Dec. 24, I walked out of the hospital. At the time, I didn’t know that I was laying the groundwork for what I do now; I was laying neurosynaptic connections for what I wanted.”
McKee said “beliefs dictate your destiny,” explaining that people are designed to learn things from the first experience, like touching a stove that is hot.
“If you identify limiting beliefs you can deal with them,” McKee said. She shared a diagram with five connecting bubbles arranged on a circle, and arrows pointing from one bubble to the next. In the first bubble she wrote, “Beliefs,” followed by “Thoughts,” “Feelings,” “Action (or Inaction),” and finally “Result”—which connected back to “Beliefs.”
“Beliefs are decisions,” she said. “Decisions shape our destiny.”
Relating this to riding, she used an example: “Jane couldn’t see a distance. She did counting exercises over a pole every day for a month, and she told herself she could do it. At the end of the month, she could see a distance. When you notice a negative thought, you need to move on. Psychologists say we can change our beliefs, but many people don’t want to take action to change their belief because it’s uncomfortable. Take baby steps to believe in yourself. As a trainer, take your student back to basics to develop their belief system.”
A Note On Rider Fitness
By the third day of the clinic, a few riders were looking obviously worn out. Discussing rider fitness, Kursinski said, “Since the 70s, maybe the 80s, I started going to the gym. Rider fitness is so important, especially for the weekend warriors who don’t get to ride all the time. But to have core strength and be strong, you need to go to the gym and work with a trainer, not just use an app on your phone, so you can learn to use your core and use your body properly. When kids get stronger, they really ride better. I like to say, ‘Be the horse.’ You want your horse to be fit and strong. You use things like shoulder-in to improve their flexibility and strength. If you want your horse to be fit, you need to keep yourself fit, too.”