On the morning of Friday, June 21st, I pulled into the driveway at Valinor Farm in Plymouth, MA, feeling equal parts nervous and excited. I had signed up for a three-day adult eventing clinic, and it was the first morning. All I knew is that I was to ride Riff, the adorable Paint school horse I had ridden before in lessons, and I had some vague notions of galloping and jumping cross country jumps – but I had no idea where we would begin. Even though I have been taking lessons at Valinor since the previous fall, I had never “officially” done cross country before. (No, cowboying around over little logs on my Thoroughbred five years ago doesn’t count. This was the real thing!) I have been a hunter/jumper rider most of my life, but had always wanted to try eventing – at least that’s what I kept telling myself as my stomach proceeded to tighten into more and more knots.
Valinor’s main trainer, Erin Risso, introduced us to our visiting clinician Mike Robbins, a fellow eventer, and his dog Baxter. We then proceeded to discuss our plan of action for the three days ahead. How many cross country sessions did everyone want? How many for stadium and dressage? After that, it was time to tack up for our first dressage session. Riff and I were put in a group under Mike’s supervision. For some reason, I initially pictured Mike’s lessons as intensely challenging, sweat-dripping, pain-filled torture. I shouldn’t have worried. Mike’s teaching style was very calm and reassuring. He asked us about our horses and our riding experience, and encouraged us to warm up just as we normally would, as if he wasn’t even there. When it was my turn to introduce myself, he remarked that he remembered Riff from previous clinics at Valinor, and that Riff “could probably teach the clinic himself.” (He was right.) As Riff is a laid back kind of guy, Mike encouraged me to lengthen and shorten his stride on the flat, never keeping him in the same pace. We also practiced several walk to trot transitions, making sure Riff’s responses to my aids were quick and quiet.
After lunch, we had our first unmounted session. Today’s topic was studs, which, as Erin explained, can sometimes be a confusing topic. We learned when and how to use studs, how to clean them, apply them, and store them. I had no idea it was all so technical, and I wasn’t the only one in our group to wonder how on earth you were supposed to manage screwing in 2 studs per shoe on a real live horse – it was difficult enough on the sample horse shoes Erin had brought along.
Our afternoon riding session was divided into two groups – one group of less experienced cross country riders to try terrain work, and another group had a go at stadium jumping. Erin took us out to the beautiful field behind the farm to practice our terrain work. There we learned about the different cross country positions: the galloping position, the jumping position, the downhill position, and the “steadying” position. Then we proceeded to trot and canter up and down the hills practicing our positions and transitions from each position. Erin told us that people generally go up about one to two holes in stirrup length for cross county. Initially, I shortened my stirrups one hole, thinking that since they were already shorter than what I used for jumping I would be fine, but I ended up going up another hole after some trot work. I immediately felt a difference – after putting my stirrups up two holes, I felt more secure and was able to get up off of Riff’s back, especially going uphill and urging him forward. Galloping over those sloping grass fields was such an awesome feeling!
Day one completed, we returned to the barn to put the horses away for the afternoon. Riff took advantage of the new bag of treats I had brought along. Tired, but happy, I went home to prepare for the next day.
Returning to the barn on Saturday, everyone agreed that we were all a little stiff from yesterday, but ready to tackle today’s adventures. In the morning I was in the stadium jumping class with Mike. We started out over canter poles, eventually moving on to small verticals and oxers. Again, Mike encouraged me to adjust Riff’s speed in the trot and canter, moving him up out of his comfort zone and back into a steady pace again. When we started jumping, Mike also encouraged me to move slightly out of my comfort zone – aka a nice, lopey “hunter canter.” What? But this canter is beautiful! However, miracle of all miracles, when I moved Riff up to a more active, bouncy canter, our jumps were fabulous and we got to our distances much better.
After our unmounted session, which today was on confirmation, including what to look for and avoid in a horse, I headed out with my group for my first cross country lesson.
We warmed up our horses on the grassy hills, and then started jumping. I have to admit I was slightly terrified. Today I was riding with a group of people who had all done cross country before – fellow rider Elena and her mare Melody looked just about ready for Rolex in my book – and suddenly I was a bundle of nerves. Not to worry, however, for Riff the super pony took absolute and complete care of me.
We started out over some small logs, and all I had to do was sit up, steer, and shoot! Riff happily bounced over everything I pointed him at. Mike suggested I take him over a slightly bigger log. “Um, if we could just keep it small for today, that would be great,” I squeaked, and Mike smiled and said that would be fine.
We finished off the lesson by going out back to the big field again, this time to jump. We worked on lines, jumping two to three obstacles in a row, on various terrain. Riff loved it, really opening up his stride and tackling each jump enthusiastically. We jumped some more logs and barrels until, with a tell-tale “clink” one of his front shoes popped clean off. Riff stopped and stood next his rejected shoe (how many horses can you say point out to you where their thrown shoe is?). We were out of action for the rest of the lesson, but still had gotten some excellent cross country training in for that day.
And now, I would like to express the wonder and amazement the hunter rider experiences when going through a water obstacle for the first time. Because of his thrown shoe, Riff and I were permitted to walk through the water, which came approximately up to Riff’s knees. I had walked through some streams before, but my darling horse Nordic is a strictly no-water kind of guy, so this was truly a treat. Despite only walking, a huge grin spread across my face as we splish-sploshed from one bank to the other through the water. The next day in our cross country session, shoes restored, we cantered through the water. I may remember that glorious event in slow motion, with cascading water arcing all around us, the theme song to Chariots of Fire playing softly in the background.
Sunday, the final day, was bittersweet: we were all looking forward to resting our aching muscles when the clinic was over, but sad at the same time that all the fun had to end. Our unmounted session that morning was spent setting up a grid and learning about striding, which has always been a weak point for me. I blame my lifelong aversion to anything involving numbers. However, with Erin’s instruction, it made a lot more sense, and we were able to build a very satisfactory grid.
I decided to give Riff the morning off that day, and rode Taboo, or Boo, in a dressage lesson with Mike. Boo is a grey Thoroughbred mare who I lease at Valinor, owned by Erin’s sister Dana. I started riding Boo earlier this year, and I think it’s safe to say she is one of the more challenging and sensitive horses I have ridden. However, she and I have gotten to know each other and she can also be extremely sweet and a blast to ride. In our session with Mike, we focused on outside rein contact, riding a lot of circles and lines with an outside bend and inside leg. When we straightened out again, I felt much more of a connection and fluidity in Boo’s movement. Boo tends to be strong, and her canter stride is big and fast, so I sometimes have trouble keeping her organized. However, with this glorious addition of outside rein contact, our canter work was great that day. Mike also advised me to tell her exactly where to go on our circle, in order to keep her focused. I also worked at making myself relax and give a little more when she started going the way I wanted. These are all things that Erin and I have been working on in our lessons, but somehow working with a different trainer and getting a new perspective really makes the light bulb go off. Boo and I had a great lesson, and we were both tired and sweaty afterwards.
Our very last session of the clinic was another cross country session with Erin and Mike. Here I fleshed out my cross country experience by jumping ditches and banks for the first time (and the aforementioned amazing canter through the water).
The Novice level ditch was, admittedly, a little frightening to me at first, but once again the Riff pony saved the day. We jumped the ditch uphill to a log jump, but lost a little bit of steam up the hill and just barely made it over the log. Erin’s advice was one word: “ATTACK!” Attack the jump! That became my cross country jumping motto. I muttered it to myself as we approached the log again after the ditch, and Riff happily obliged. No pokey hunter canter here!
At the end of a long, but successful day, we headed back to the barn to put the horses away. I gave Riff a big hug, plenty of treats, and thanked him profusely for all his hard work taking care of me over the weekend. The weather had been perfect, the instructors awesome, and the horses willing and fun. We all thanked Erin and Mike and told them we wanted to come back in the fall for another clinic!