Don’t Break The Glass Box: A Clinic With Jay Duke

Feb 14, 2019 - 9:17 PM

When it comes to horses, if it’s not one thing, it’s another. Over the course of this fall, Cairo and I had slowly been getting our act together jumping-wise. I hauled over to my friend Becky’s place and schooled fences on the weekends, and once or twice I actually had to lay down the law on jumping ALL the things, not just the ones on a perfect stride. But given that Cairo had previously been jumping for me with a saddle that was pinching her and a case of ulcers, I figured we’d get a little pushback when we started jumping again.

We reached the point were I was like, “OK, Cairo, we are ready to haul somewhere for a lesson because I feel like now if you are naughty it will be your normal sassy and not pain-induced naughty.” So I signed us up for a hunter/jumper clinic with Jay Duke in Washington.

My trainer Meika Decher signed off on the idea—she too knows Cairo takes a certain touch, and I figured  hunter/jumper sensibility would be good for our three-day eventing selves.

Cairo however had other plans. As of this past Christmas, I have owned Cairo for five years. She was lame one time, right after I bought her, and (knock on stall door) hadn’t taken a lame step since. I realized how freaking amazing that was right before New Year’s when Cairo took a lame step, and then another. Logic said abscess, as this is the season for it in the rainy Pacific Northwest, so we pulled the shoe and soaked. (I say, “we” because I had to travel, so my friends got to participate in several rounds of “wrap the angry mare foot.”)

I’m paranoid and didn’t want to turn Cairo out until we’d ruled out a tendon injury. Cairo was distinctly not thrilled with being kept inside, wrapped in diapers and duct tape.

I didn’t last long before taking Cairo to the vet. After a couple rounds of blow-darting the angry hummingbird (aka doing a nerve block) we went for X-rays. No abscess; it was a bad stone bruise. This, on the one hand, was great, but on the other it meant more time off. Cairo doesn’t play “time off” well.

Still I settled for the fact that we had a diagnosis; it was a pretty mild injury in the general scheme of things, and that I could turn her out to go be a horse.

It also meant no clinic for me, and I really wanted to build on all we had been doing all fall. The vet signed off on putting her shoe back on the day before clinic, but I didn’t want to stress Cairo after three weeks’ vacation, let alone point a loaded mare at a fence!

Cairo got rest, foot packing (Magic Cushion is messy but amazing), NSAIDs, the aforementioned turn out and Outlast for ulcers. Then I got a call from Meika telling me I could still do the clinic, which was close to her barn, because she had a client’s horse I could ride—another lovely Irish mare.

By “lovely” I mean that, like Cairo, Flo (Kleary’s Foolish Heart) is an athletic jumper and a talented horse who is fun to ride, and she also has opinions. Most of them good ones, but some of them different from mine. In other words, she’s probably smarter than me.

I got to Meika’s Polestar Farm on Friday, in time to hop on Flo and figure her out a little over a couple fences. Flo is more of a kick ride than Cairo, Meika explained, as I huffed and puffed a little.

Flo is big-boned and cute and a blast to ride, so I was feeling very lucky despite missing Cairo.

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My borrowed mount, Flo, was perhaps not as enthused about the clinic as I was. Photos Courtesy Of Camilla Mortensen

Another of Meika’s clients, Shara Boggs, was not only riding in the clinic, but in the same group, so she put Flo in her big fabulous trailer and hauled the red mare and her own lovely bay gelding, Monte, over to the clinic on Saturday morning. When I told her I was riding Flo for the first time this weekend and was trying to restore my teenage “catch ride” chops, she assured me that the first day wouldn’t have much jumping.

I am not sure, but I think she might have said the words “flatwork hell.”

Day 1

Ever the clinic geek, as soon as we pulled into Noble Jumpers at Oxer Hill Farm in Snohomish, Washington, and got the horses settled, I was ringside taking notes.

I’ve reached a point in my riding life where I’m less, “Surprise me!” and more, “OK, how do I prep for this?”

I didn’t prep for goats. But, really, who preps for goats?

Watching an earlier group, there was a younger rider on a hot horse I could really relate to, given Cairo’s hot-blooded tendencies. Jay even used an old expression I’ve heard more and more lately—that the horse was a “blood horse.”

First, he advised, on the hot horse, drop the whip.

Then he encouraged the rider to get off the horse’s back, as her seat was acting as a driving aid that the horse didn’t need. This horse was a light-seated ride, he said, explaining that as a rider you need to adapt to different horses and be able to ride all three seats—a deep seat, a two-point and more of a three-point position. “You have two options on a horse like this,” he said with a laugh, “ride in a light seat or get another horse.”

That might sound a little tough, but Jay’s the kind of tough that also has a sense of humor.

For another group with young kids, he quizzed them on the bits their horses and ponies wore and what the purpose of those bits were, and if they didn’t know, or got confused, he didn’t call them out, but rather gave them “homework” to learn their bits and how they worked before their Sunday rides.

When it came to my group, the 1.0-meter group, Shara wasn’t kidding about flatwork. Shara is a hunter/jumper, so she didn’t have the brain fart that I did—hunter/jumper riders, in my experience, are much better about dropping their stirrups for flatwork and raising them for jumping. Many of my eventer friends and I tend to do our concentrated flatwork in our dressage saddles and trails, stamina and jumping in our jump saddles. I might have made my stirrups a leeetle longer if I had thought things through.

Jay asked the adults about their bits too, and I had a moment of panic when I realized that Flo’s rather conscientious and loving owner Lanie Martin had put the bridle on for me. Broken mouth or French link? I desperately tried to remember what I had packed. “Broken,” Lanie hissed, clearly seeing the deer-in-the-headlights look in my eyes.

A long session of sitting trot with and without stirrups, trotting with one stirrup, dropping one stirrup and picking it up 10 times, and two-point all while working on straightness and keeping my hands up and together made me flashback to my youthful equitation days. Later when Meika asked me how the clinic was the first day, I mournfully replied, “I forgot that flatwork could make you so sore.”

The bulk of the session was a pole and cavaletti exercise. Four poles were on the ground one stride apart, but the first and third poles were off to one side, and the second and fourth off to the other. This meant you could ride the first and third poles in three strides (track one) on one side, the second and fourth in three strides (track two) on the other, or go straight down the middle and do all four poles (track three).

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Flatwork, poles and cavaletti—oh my!

We did it first at the walk, and here is where I should mention that Flo is not actually a kick ride on her first day away from home. She was in fact quite enthusiastic. She was even more enthusiastic when the resident goats popped out of their little shelter across the driveway from the far corner of the arena, and one of them began to make a concerted effort to eat the Christmas lights strung on their paddock.

Flo was not a goat fan, and she employed a duck-the-shoulder-and-zoom technique a couple times to keep me on my toes. She wasn’t trying to get rid of me, nor was she actually scared, but it wasn’t her problem if I thought hanging out with goats was a good idea. Lanie, who was coming back from breaking her ankle, joked, “Better you than me!”

Jay introduced something that was new to me—people always talk about inside leg to outside rein, but he had us use the outside rein more effectively than I’ve had it explained. We used an opening outside rein in the corners, so inside leg to open outside rein. It was like magic. Flo went to play in the corner by the goats, and I opened the rein, and she cantered beautifully around the corner.

Jay, I should say, was a Canadian equestrian team member, developed top hunter Mindful, and is a course designer. I mention the latter, because there is nothing better than learning how to ride corners to fences than learning it from a course designer.

Faced with the poles, Flo became the consummate event horse and stadium jumper that she is and happily focused on the exercise. Flo has competed through prelim and is quite confident that in certain areas she knows more than I do.

Straightness, straightness, straightness was the theme of the day, with reminders for me to keep my hands up and together, which of course made it more effective when I needed to open the outside rein. We did the three tracks at the walk (which is an oddly hard gait to keep a horse straight and through at), the trot and then the canter. I had sweated through my shirt by the time Jay raised the poles to cavaletti, which is a testament to how he was able to make doing poles real exercise.

Though the jumps never got that big, my brain and body were pleasantly worn out. And I definitely missed Cairo. Flo was a super experience, and I could feel all the places she exposed my weaknesses, like a tendency to soften when I doubt my distance. But this was the kind of challenge that Cairo needs early in the season—mental but not overwhelming, and very focus-driven.

Day 2

I was entirely wrong when I thought that since Sunday was jumping day, we would not be doing that much flatwork. Jay had us serpentine the arena, each of us following the other about two horse-lengths apart. As we serpentined (here’s the walk and chew gum or pat your head and rub your tummy part) we had to practice the opening outside rein exercise.

“This can take a long time, or go fast,” Jay told us. “It’s up to you.”

This was because we had to maintain the two-horse length no matter what, and we each took turns being the leader, in the middle and at the end. Flo was now back to being a kick ride, and Monte was super-enthused, so that meant when I was in front, Shara was whoaing Monte, and when she led, I was desperately kicking. If we got too close or too far apart, we had to keep doing the exercise. Jay also added in alternating between sitting trot with and without stirrups, two-point, dropping one stirrup, and more things I’ve probably forgotten.

We next did the serpentine routine at the canter doing simple changes—harder than flying changes on horses that know how to do them and are trying to keep up with the horse in front of you!

One thing I realized about the exercise is that it really drove home the use of the opening outside rein because you aren’t just practicing the rein; you are using it in context where you are doing three other things at once—just like in a show ring.

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The serpentine exercise was a great opportunity to practice the use of the opening outside rein.

After the flatwork, we moved on to the fun, twisty course that he had us put together, line-by-line, so that horses and riders were thinking about each element and line. The course was a nice mix of questions like riding in and out of corner, a line where you could add up or go longer, bending questions and an in-and-out. Basically you got a little bit of everything and the chance to work on each one.

I went first, and Flo apparently had a goat flashback. We were supposed to halt into what I now think of as “goat corner,” and Flo instead thought it would be fun to toss her head and play. Instead of halting, Jay had us circle and push inside leg into the opening outside rein until Flo got over herself, which took only a circle or two.

Flo’s gleeful antics really gave me an opportunity to practice the open outside rein. If I remembered to do it, the most she did was shake her head, but if I forgot, she tossed some happy, bouncy bucks in. Flo is the kind of mare who lets you know if you messed up or didn’t step up, and when you do things right, she rewards you. When I used the rein correctly, we had great show jump corners.

That outside line was where you could go forward in six or add in seven. When one of us hit it on a half stride, Jay said, “Horses don’t like decimals and fractions.” Earlier in the day, on the same line, a rider ’fessed up that she hadn’t counted strides. “Do you drive?” Jay asked her. “Yes,” she said.

“Good, when you go home tonight, put a piece of tape over the speedometer on your drive home so you can’t see how fast you are going.”

The rider looked suitably horrified (so did her mom, who I presume would have been in the car with her). Jay clarified he didn’t actually intend for her to do that, but that the point was counting strides acted as a speedometer, and you don’t drive without one, so don’t jump without knowing your strides.

I was better at keeping my hands together on the second day and only reverted to my bad habit of lifting my hands before a fence once or twice. Jay used the example of a glass box—the space over the withers where your hands should be. “Don’t break the glass box,” he said, pointing out that some riders need something like that in their heads—a mantra, a focal point or even just counting the strides. It helps to have something to maintain your focus.

Piece by piece we put together the course, and I really only had one good biff. Flo had been giving a blue flowered fence the hairy eyeball each time we went near it, and I knew she might take a look at it when we jumped it. But instead of riding to it, I figured she wasn’t spooking a few strides out and that we were golden. Flo took offense at the base of the fence and let me demonstrate my excellent stickability.

This is actually a problem that comes up with Cairo sometimes. Even though I know a fence might be hard, or need a stronger ride, I wait until the problem happens to address it.

Jay explained that I looked at the fence, and when I didn’t feel Flo react, I simply assumed she would jump it. Instead she never really realized she was jumping it until she was almost on top of it, and what I should have done was keep riding.

In other words, Flo, who has easily jumped far harder and way bigger fences, took advantage of my weakness, which in the end was good for me as it let me work on the issue. Also it just proves that getting on another horse (or for some buying another horse) won’t solve the problems the rider is having if the rider is in fact the problem.

I like to think of myself as less the problem and more sometimes problematic. It’s a fine distinction, but I have my pride.

I think the clinic wrapped up with all of us feeling like we had been challenged mentally and physically but not overwhelmed—I left feeling confident (and like I’d be happy to ride Lanie’s nice horse again any time!).

Now back to Cairo and working with my new foster horse Scout!


Camilla Mortensen is an amateur eventer from Eugene, Oregon, who started blogging for the Chronicle when she made the trek to compete in the novice three-day at Rebecca Farm in Montana. Camilla works as a newspaper reporter by day and fits training and competing Cairo around her job.

Read all of Camilla’s blogs.

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