Going away to clinics with your horse is different than staying home and different than showing. I had not been away from home with a horse to do anything in three years. But I made the eventing clinic at the Green Mountain Horse Association (GMHA) a lynchpin in “getting my sea legs back” (if you missed my first posts, you can catch up here and here).
I think there are three reasons that away-clinics are unique.
- Time: For one thing, there’s the time spent with your horse not riding. If you board your horse, you are now on daily care—something I personally like.
- Exposure: It’s a bunch of new stuff crammed together; new instructors, a new place, and a different schedule than you might be used to.
- “Social Networking”: Nope, not like Facebook and LinkedIn…but there will be small-world stories and your “village” will expand in ways you won’t expect.
First, a “small world” story, since they’re always entertaining:
Since I was unable to convince anyone else I knew to come with me, I headed to Vermont on my own. It’s an easy drive (about two and a half hours) with a rest stop in the middle that has a big, wide, easy-to-get-in-and-out-of parking lot. I hadn’t done a solo trip that was more than 15 minutes away in a few years, so it was a little bit anxiety-provoking. Thankfully, the trip was easy and we made good time, meaning I felt accomplished in the first step of our adventure.
Before I left I received my “group” assignment for the clinic sessions and, knowing that I would be attending on my own, I Googled everyone in my group to see if I knew them or knew someone that does. Turns out, the woman I was to share semi-private dressage lessons with at GMHA, Giuliana, owns a horse my trainer sold her, and I know the horse, whose name is Max. This is good, I figured; we will at least have an ice-breaker and my trainer said she was really nice.
I was staying at the Kedron Valley Inn in South Woodstock, picked for its strategic location near the barn so I could do night check. The first night, I also made a dinner reservation there for 7:30 p.m. so I didn’t have to drive anywhere else after my trip.
As I approached the desk to check-in, there was a woman ahead of me, clearly attending the clinic as well. She was asking about getting dinner, but the person at the desk wasn’t sure they could seat her. So I chimed in.
“I have a reservation at 7:30, I’m sure that the table sits two if you care to join me?”
She thinks that’s a splendid idea and introduces herself as Giules (pronounced Jules). We met in the dining room and started with the introductory chat, which for equestrians is, “What’s your horse like?” and, “what are you working on?”
Giules mentioned her horse’s name—Max—and I realize it’s Giuliana. I had stumbled right into her. It definitely made me feel more “at home” despite coming alone. Now on to brass tacks, or riding—the heart of the matter.
My first session was stadium jumping with Sharon White, who I had ridden with for three days a few weeks previously. I was grateful that my first ride in new surroundings was with a familiar instructor. Sharon is all about staying relaxed and in control, and providing positive reinforcement. Her exercises build.
The first exercise of the day seemed easy, but for forward-thinking horses, it was a challenge. The set-up was just a pole on the ground and then a cross rail at least six strides out. We were not supposed to jump it; we were supposed to stop after the pole before we hit Sharon, who was standing in front of the rail. (For the record, she did have to move out of the way once, but it was not for me.)
The exercise built into more work on adjustability as we went on to jump the line, putting in more or fewer strides, as directed. It was a great, confidence-building session, and our little group cheered each other’s efforts. On to dressage.
Our semi-private dressage session was with trainer, Kurt Martin, Giules and Max. Fezzik was not really listening to me as we tried to warm up a bit before our ride. He was pretty distracted and more than forward—almost vertical in his movement—and definitely not at the pace I wanted when and where I wanted. He was a bit better when I got him into the small arena with the familiar situation of an instructor on the ground, but I wouldn’t say he was making a great impression. We worked on a bunch of techniques to get him to stay at the pace I said, without breaking and without rushing. By the end, he was much more like his usual self.
By reminding myself that exposure to new things (new people, new places, etc.) was my goal, I decided I was okay with the work we’d done.
The second day started with gymnastics with Sharon, but this was not your run-of-the-mill jumping gymnastics set. We began by tying our stirrups to the saddle in an effort to keep our lower legs from swinging. Once we got used to that by riding around the arena a bit, we were told to ride with one hand behind our backs. This meant that we couldn’t really bother the horse with our reins, either; we had to just kind of let them move without interfering.
Next, we rode over a line of poles with our stirrups tied and one hand behind our backs. The exercise progressed (and we were allowed to use both hands again) to a line with four or five raised poles, followed by a 20-meter circle with four poles equidistant. In the last few rounds, an oxer was added. The poles were raised from a few inches to probably about 2-feet in the air, but the challenge was not the height, it was the footwork!
Part of this went really well for Fezzik and part of this went really well for me. With me driving, Fezzik actually managed to keep on the circle, jumping at a canter, even though riding him is a bit like driving a Cadillac Eldorado. He did super… but then he started to fade. We came around what was to be our last round, and he crashed through the line. We came around a second time, and he crashed through it again (the jump crew wasn’t quiet about it by this point). Finally, I incented him enough (by “incent” I think I mean got after him enough) that we got over it—and then we were toast.
That whole process, though, was actually very good for me, as the last time I was in Sharon’s clinic, Fezzik crashed into a jump and it scared me. This time, I wasn’t scared, and I was able to push him through it. Progress!
The afternoon was a private dressage lesson with Rebecca Vick (another cool thing about GMHA clinics is riding with not just one top-notch rider, but many!). I had never ridden with Becca, who is a Grand Prix dressage rider, and I was not quite sure what to expect given our dressage lesson previously.
We went in early to warm up and Fezzik was a bit better than the first day, though still somewhat distracted. Becca tried a bit of a different track with him than Kurt had taken. In order to have him move at the gait we wanted, without breaking into a canter to avoid the trot, we moved Fezzik sideways, something that worked really well and gave me another tool for the future. As a bonus, Becca was very down to earth and genuinely thought Fezzik was a cool horse.
The final day of GMHA was when all the parts of being at a clinic came together. We began with cross country, the thing I have been struggling with and that has been the hardest for me to come back to.
Due to preparations for an event that weekend, cross-country was set up over a hill at a nearby farm, about a 15-minute hack away. We headed out with a group and Fezzik was pretty good on the trail, which proceeded over a steep hill in the woods and ended in open fields leading up to the farm.
Another group was finishing up, so naturally, there were horses galloping around, jumping stuff. We were standing there, waiting for our instructor, when Fezzik started to become restless. I made every effort to keep a loose rein and walk him around, but he still felt like he was going to take off. I tried to get him to stand—and then he began to jump up and down. This caused me to panic. I thought that I had to dismount, but I was kind of frozen in place.
Miraculously, I eventually remembered not just how to get off, but that I was also wearing an air vest. Not wanting to explode, I actually disconnected the vest and was able to dismount, albeit while hyperventilating and bursting into tears. Here is where the “social networking” came into play. Betsy, one of my barn mates, was watching the lessons on foot, and came over to check on me and eventually to take my horse. She brought him to a nearby arena that was enclosed with hedges, where she walked him around and made him move left and right over some poles until he relaxed.
By then, I’d relaxed enough to take him back and walk him myself. Another friend who was watching and hand-walking her horse nearby came up to babysit us, and I finally worked up the nerve to get back on Fezzik in the arena, with my babysitter. Long story short, we didn’t have our cross-country lesson that day, but we did calm down, work in the arena a bit, and watch the lesson without further incident. I “got back on the horse”, and thankfully, we still had our final clinic lesson to go.
As it turned out, dressage was the perfect note to end on, as Fezzik totally redeemed himself. This was his third session in the arena, and we were back with Kurt. He paid attention, he impressed Kurt with his movement, and I felt like I could ride.
I took away two things in particular from this experience. First, exposure does work. We made lots of progress up to and during the clinic. Second, there are still some problem areas that I could not solve on my own, but these were not necessarily about me or my skills. The important thing was to come home and to put a plan in place to move forward, and I did.
I arranged for my trainer to take Fezzik to a show a couple weeks after the clinic. There, I hoped, he would get some more exposure without me, but with someone that could show him the ropes a bit. I planned to continue building on my own experience by schooling at home and by competing at both a show and a cross-country derby this fall. My goal for the season has become completing a three-phase event with Fezzik off the property.
In the end, the clinic was a success. I didn’t excel at everything, but this wasn’t a horse show, it was a learning experience! I did get a concentrated dose of self-reliance and help from my “social network” of friends, both old and new—all important aspects when getting your sea legs back. This horse thing “takes a village,” and I had extended mine. We’ll pick up again during show season.
About the Author
Laura Strassman works in technology marketing and lives in the Boston suburbs. She has a long and checkered history with horses but currently owns a wonderful TB X Percheron named Fezzik. He is 17.2 hands, so aptly fits his name if you know the reference. Laura enjoys taking photos and creating video both for work and in her free time. Her favorite subjects are food, and of course, horses.