It’s always fun to ride with Dom Schramm, but riding in a clinic with him right after he finishes the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event kicks things up a notch.
I have been bringing Cairo up to ride with him at Meika Decher’s Polestar Farm in Lake Stevens, Washington, almost every year since 2015. I was going to skip it this year due to some COVID-induced budget constraints, and because my wild child has not settled into clinic brain yet this year. She currently suffers from a distinct lack of ability to stand still with five other horses in the arena.
I tried not to pout, as I watched Dom and the powerful Bolytair B on the livestream from Kentucky in April, or stress about missing out on the fun. I could always do a COVID-safe audit, I told myself, though my heart is in riding rather than spectating.
My disappointment was short-lived. I was incredibly lucky to be offered a chance to ride my friend Alex Gray’s new Hanoverian mare Lordanna (Lokomotion—Wayana K), also known as “Lotte,” or as I sang to her all weekend, “Lottie-Dottie, we like to party.”
Lotte has been competing very successfully at training, but given I had never ridden the horse before or jumped cross-country since last fall, Meika, who Alex and I both train with, went easy and put me in the beginner novice group. Lotte is as big and relaxed as Cairo is little and hot, so they are entirely different rides.
Day 1: Show Jumping
This year, Dom was fond of car similes. Honestly, similes and metaphors in riding haven’t always worked for me.
One trainer once told me, “Sit on your horse like a frog on a ball.” So I awkwardly drew my legs up beneath me and perched unhappily on the saddle.
That was not what she was going for.
She explained she was looking for relaxation. “Oh!” I exclaimed, “You mean a dead frog!” I was picturing a frog scrambling to stay on top (and had no clue why I would sit a horse that way), and she was thinking something considerably more relaxed. Said trainer was not amused.
Dom, however, has always been clear (and funny, as fans from his and Jimmie Schramm’s Evention TV days can attest), and as I drive a car, his comparisons were easy—even fun—to follow. I even made one of my own, comparing Lotte to a Cadillac or a luxury SUV while Cairo is more of a little Miata roadster.
Riding corners and bending lines was the name of the game on stadium day. When one rider on a hot horse overshot a bending line, Dom vividly compared it to a “Tokyo drift” and then demonstrated how an effort to fix the front end can still leave the hind end strung out around the curve. “Don’t drive with the inside hand brake on,” he warned.
Simply adding weight to the outside stirrup is a small fix that can make the difference between five strides and five and a half in the line.
“Horses are long and skinny,” he pointed out. They are powerful up and down, as anyone who has tried to hold a horse’s head down can attest, “but not side to side.” So, he said, “Use that and step into the stirrup.”
In keeping with the focus on straightness and corners, each group started with a canter cavaletti exercise on a curve. The exercise began with a pole raised on one side, then a bending one stride to a bounce over a vertical, landing with a bounce to a pole on the other side, mirroring the first half of the exercise.
“It’s not supposed to be easy,” he said of the canter poles, “it should be a little hard getting out.” The goal of this exercise and the next was “setting you up for the rest of the jumps to be easy,” he said.
Before the jumps got “easy,” there was another simple to set, but more difficult to negotiate, exercise: Dom set two crossrails a short one stride apart, then also put five trot poles centered around and perpendicular to the jumps in the middle. Riders would start by doing the trot rails and then, making a figure-8 pattern, come back in the canter and jump in, landing between the center set of rails, which creates a train-track effect. It’s an exercise in control and straightness and—despite the intimidation factor of all those poles—even the green horses figured it out.
For a wild-minded horse like Cairo, Dom suggested starting off with fewer poles. Lotte, however, executed both the trot rails and then cross rails like a pro, with only a short peek at the poles as she landed over the jump.
Warmed up and ostensibly in control, each group moved next to a course with a nice mix of long lines, bending lines, short turns and long gallops, allowing Dom to continue his focus on turns.
As it turned out, the bending emphasis was important for Lotte and me. Cairo really does ride like a sports car—she’s almost overly responsive—while Lotte ponders her movements more. It took me a bit to figure out Lotte’s gas and clutch, as well as her steering.
Dom had each group jump into a long outside line and get whatever number of strides we were comfortable with, which was nine strides for most. Then, coming the same direction, we added a stride to make it 10. Finally we reversed directions, heading away from the in gate, and asked for one fewer stride for a going eight.
Dom noticed that, as I straightened Lotte off my hand on a right bend, she would swap her lead in front without really getting straighter. Off the left we had no issue. Land, he said, as if you could turn left. We couldn’t without leaving the arena, but it was the feeling he wanted. “What would it take for me to canter right here, and do a left circle, maintaining counter-flexion?”
The idea worked, and I was able to maintain the right lead even on bending lines.
“I am not trying to be tricksy with them; I need them to know balance, bend, whoa,” Dom said of the horses and exercises.
He emphasized the importance of the quality of the canter: A good canter to a bad distance isn’t ideal; a bad canter to a bad distance has far worse results. The horse, he said, needs to go like a bunny rabbit into the exercise, not a bull.
To get into a line correctly, and this one in particular, Dom broke the turn down into three parts for each group throughout the day: Rebalancing, how much is needed is dependent on how tight the turn is; establishing straightness before you finish the turn; and then putting the power back in from whatever you had to do to get the turn done.
“Don’t forget to put the power back in and think you can coast,” he warned of a common mistake riders make coming out of a corner.
It was an excellent reminder from someone whose own mount, Bolytair B, is so strong he put one stride in a two on cross-country on a course where other horse-rider combinations were having falls. (Why yes, we did convince Dom to watch and analyze his Kentucky Three-Day Event ride on the first evening of the clinic).
It wasn’t a car term, but Dom’s word of the weekend was “squircle,” which he brought up when he asked the more advanced riders to come from the right lead to a one stride combination on the long side, roll back right at the far end to a skinny fence in the middle of the arena and then take six strides, bending left to come back and jump the one-stride in reverse, making a letter P with the skinny fence at the bottom of the loop of the “P.” The squircle itself (square-circle) is the combination of straightness, bend and power needed to get such a turn done.
By the end of show jumping day, both from riding Lotte and from watching the other groups, I started to feel like I had a handle on her. Meika had schooled me over some fences and on the flat the day before the clinic and helped me better establish contact. I commented that I was starting to figure out how not to have Lotte toss her head between the fences.
“She doesn’t do that with me,” Meika mused. Hmm, challenge accepted.
Day 2: Cross-Country
Polestar Farm has a lovely cross-country course with every kind of fence and some nice terrain challenges.
Dom has each rider start by cantering a course of fences, starting small and getting bigger. By the end you are on a nice roll and the horse knows her job. Despite that fact I haven’t catch-ridden a horse in years, or really done cross-country in months (let alone on any horse but Cairo), Lotte was a total doll. But even on cross-country, she took more leg than I am used to. As Dom watched Lotte and I lope along, he commented, “This is a different ride for her. Normally she’s on a hurricane.”
Yup, Dom knows us well.
I had to pick up a crop to ensure Lotte kept her feet moving. Even when I biffed a distance, she cheerfully popped the fences, but I knew I still didn’t quite have a handle on her as I came to a small drop to the water. Her nose was in the air and she didn’t see the water until the last minute, so she stopped.
This mare is not scared of water—she’s jumped in and out of it—but as Dom pointed out, she had blocked me, like a teenager ignoring her parents. After she finally hopped in, we came to it again, and I more successfully got her nose oriented to the direction we were going.
In another cross-country question, when one horse refused to jump a fence set on a downhill, Dom surprised us by telling the rider to turn around and come uphill to it. There was a quiet chorus of disbelief: Why would this horse, who clearly was having a small fit about the relatively bright fence and downhill drop behind it, want to go up a hill to it?
The horse, as Dom predicted, cheerfully jumped up it, and then came back and jumped it downhill. We all shamefacedly admitted we thought it was not going to work. Dom explained that, to a rider, it looks harder, but a horse goes from low to high quite naturally.
Lotte was more whoa than go, but Dom is one of those instructors who can address the hot horses, the strong ones, the slow ones and so on. (I shamelessly encouraged him to write a book given he’s both entertaining and deeply informative).
Since, in addition to riding Lotte, I was taking mental notes for Cairo, I watched carefully as Dom showed how a rider in two-point position is less effective at using to their reins to slow than a rider who first moves to more of a full seat—and simply moving from two-point to a half-seat then a full seat can effectively slow the horse on its own.
It was doing ditches on a bending line where I had my breakthrough with Lotte and figured out her gas, brake and clutch, so to speak.
I finally understood what Dom had been saying about getting a horse to “let you in” and “have access” to the shoulder. I am used to being quite tactful with Cairo and, as strong as I thought I was riding Lotte by comparison, she needed me to apply more leg. Once I truly established the bend with my leg, her head tossing disappeared. Color me unsurprised to figure out that Meika has a stronger leg than I do and knows better how to apply it.
We cantered up to a log, with Dom encouraging me to be slightly more aggressive, three strides to a ditch then a controlled five to another log. Lotte came strongly though it with barely a head toss and earned us a “top class” from Dom, his high praise for the weekend.
Next year, I am hoping that COVID lets my finances recover and Cairo’s brain relaxes a bit as we get back into the swing of things. But for this year, driving a Caddy in a Dom clinic is not a bad way to kick things off.