August 2019 - Thinking Differently

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Emerging Athletes Program clinician Jimmy Wofford delivers five days of new and old horsemanship knowledge.

article & photos by Kim F. Miller

“I make a career out of repeating myself,” said three-time Olympic eventing medalist Jimmy Wofford during the USHJA Emerging Athletes Program June 26-30 in Los Angeles. But the riding clinician’s knowledge is so deep and broad he actually didn’t repeat himself very often over five days working with 23 students, aged 13 to 24, and with 3’ and 3’6” jumping experience.

Jimmy on rider position.

Along with his own riding and coaching experience and years of observation, Jimmy reads widely. During daily riding theory sessions delivered with wit and wisdom, he urged attendees to cast a wide net in building an always-growing knowledge base. His main goal was “to change your thinking, not your riding,” he explained on day-one. And he hoped to be like a good parent in that, by doing a good job, his riders will eventually no longer need him.

Having had the good fortune to audit earlier year’s EAPs with show jumping Olympic gold medalist Joe Fargis and horsemanship legend Kip Rosenthal, I was curious to see how this year’s group of eager hunter/jumper learners would respond to what I thought might be some different instruction given Jimmy’s eventing background. He admitted that his advice might not be ideal for those deadset on becoming equitation winners, then proceeded to offer horsemanship drawn from many and applicable to any english discipline.

Fast friends, Lauren Kaltenbach, Ella Johannes & Mia Park.

Lyric Breitengross.

Participant Mia Jones said it best in describing a top takeaway early in the clinic. “We need to pay attention to other riding disciplines to really understand our own,” said the Carolyn Biava student. “We should pay attention to basics of dressage and look at the way eventers jump and do their three-day competitions. A lot of that you can put into your hunter and equitation world.”

Mia Jones & Naomi Wegner.

Position, Position, Position

Jimmy’s first theory talk focused on rider position and the importance of isolating body parts because that facilitates the top priority of connecting with the horse. He reviewed four rider positions that correlated to the horse’s speed, three of them familiar to hunter/jumper riders: the 3-point, what he called “a light 3-point,” and the 2-point, plus the steeplechase/flat racing position with extremely short stirrups and torso parallel to the horse’s neck.

In the 3-point, the rider’s knee and hip joints are as open as possible and the torso vertical. In dressage, it correlates to the piaffe, in which the horse trots in place, without forward movement. At the other end of the spectrum, the racing position is suitable for galloping at 30-plus miles per hour.

Sports psychologist Mario Soto after a fun, constructive session.

Hannah Cowdray

The light 3-point is Jimmy’s preferred position for flat work, the work in which riders establish their “dialogue” with the horse, and much of the jumping work. Shoulders are slightly ahead of the hip and a light seat contact is maintained with both seat bones and the pelvic bone (never the tail bone), creating the most important connection to the horse. “What we feel in the hands is happening in the hindquarters,” Jimmy explained. Too often, that reality leads to riders addressing that hindquarter activity with the hand, rather than more effectively and directly with seat and leg aids. Keeping the seat in the saddle helps counteract that.

Working at the sitting trot, riders were instructed to allow their pelvis to move with the right/left, up/down movement of horse’s pelvis. Doing so facilitates suppleness in the horse’s back, which leads to free flowing forward and lateral movement and a happy horse. When the rider achieves this connection to the horse’s back, it can be seen in the horse’s relaxed way of going.

Maggie Franke

Anne Thornbury reviews feeding basics.

Developing connection to the horse’s hindquarters through the seat translated to jumping. A statement by American show jumping master, William Steinkraus, that “a rider’s eye (for a distance) is in their seat” was stated often.

Jimmy coached a hand position in a direct line with the horse’s mouth, and light contact with the mouth. He cited a study that determined horses prefer 2.2 pounds of pressure on the rein, much less than the 6-plus pounds riders in the study applied in seeking a dressage frame.

Naomi Wegner

Skylar Wireman

The goal in all exercises was to be connected and in balance with the horse’s motion. The best way to improve these fluid, responsive positions is lunge line and no stirrup work. A slipped-back lower leg and tipped-forward torso are frequent position faults that have many negative consequences. Not being able to make immediate stride adjustments on the landing side of a fence is one of those. A strong core and base of support are needed to ask the horse to lengthen or collect the stride on landing, making for smooth, small adjustments rather than drastic ones closer to the next jump or turn on course.  Jimmy described these efforts as “arranging” versus “finding” the right stride for the right distance. Arranging was achieved by lengthening and collecting the stride, versus going faster or slower. That’s where dressage comes in, he noted.

Riders at the Los Angeles’ group’s experience typically “see” their jump take-off spot about 45’ feet, or three strides, before the fence. As their experience enables them to predict where they’ll be in relation to the distance they’ve seen evolves, so should their ability to make the needed adjustments. If they predict they’re going to be short of the desired spot by three feet, for example, lower leg/heel pressure and a slight softening of the hand should add one foot to each remaining stride, placing them ideally for take-off.

Later in the weekend, Jimmy complimented Skylar Wireman for masking a “terrible distance” so well that it remained a secret between her and her horse.

Zoei Brogdon

Stacie Ryan & Faith

Rhythm, Refusals & Realities

Rhythm was added to connection and balance when jumping was introduced. Working on various elements of a full course on Saturday, Jimmy had riders count out their strides on approach.

Not to help determine the take-off spot, but to help them internalize a consistent rhythm on approach and going away from the fence. That required a balanced position, with Jimmy explaining that any change in the rider’s body caused a change in the horse’s balance. Quite frequently, riders reacted to a too-long distance by leaning forward, rather than having their torso poised slightly forward, ready to go with, but not before, the horse’s jump. “How many jumps did you jump today?” he asked. “None. Your horse is jumping.” Tipping forward on approach, rather than opening the stride at the right moment, often resulted in chipped distances or refusals.

Course walk with Jimmy.

The group had a high number of refusals over the weekend jumping sessions. It seemed contagious. Jimmy described it as a little bit more than normal, and said the upside was showing participants the realities of life as a horse trainer. The well-schooled equitation horses aren’t what pros ride day in and day out, and kids need to know that. Based on the EAP’s selection criteria, Jim estimated half the participants would go on to be pros and he saw these challenges as teaching moments for those bound for that life.

In coaching riders through the refusals, he emphasized it was the horse’s job to jump what he’s asked to: assuming it’s within his scope, he’s sound and the footing is good. Too often, riders think it’s their fault and don’t discipline the horse, he said. Even when it is the rider’s fault, the rider must be consistent and systematic in their responses to refusal-related disobediences: “You’re not Mary Sunshine and you’re not the Wicked Witch of the West,” Jimmy explained. “You are cold and calculating with your leg, spur and stick.” A run-out to the right, for example, always warrants a spur and stick on the right side, with the horse facing the jump immediately after the run-out. The more frequent the issue, the firmer the response. After two or three refusals, the fence was lowered and the rider was encouraged to get the horse over it with whatever means necessary, followed by immediate praise upon completion.

Naomi Wegner

Cordelia Edwards

Revisiting the topic of rider position, Jimmy encouraged EAP-ers to get comfortable with the variety of positions needed to effectively ride different horses. While the light, forward, going-with-the-horse’s motion is the ideal, different horses -- sometimes the same horse on a different day -- need a stronger position. “The well-trained rider has the tools to deal with whatever horse emerges that day,” he noted. “It shouldn’t be ‘Oh no! He’s different today.’ It should be ‘Oh, goodie! He’s different today.’”

Throughout the weekend, Jimmy encouraged riders to learn from mistakes, their own, his and those made by others. “Mistakes are good, valid and a part of the learning process,” noted participant Cordelia Edwards, a Far West Farm student, as one of her top EAP takeaways. “It’s OK to take a step back as long as you are taking a step back in the right direction.”

These highlights only scratch the surface of the ground covered over five days. Additional highlights came from Anne Thornbury’s instruction as the stable management coach. She shared many years’ experience on nutrition, efficient and safe stable maintenance routines, and pre- and post-ride horse care, with ample time for the many questions participants had about their own horses and horsemanship in general.  Sports phycologist Mario Soto shared eagerly-received insights about overcoming negative self-talk and show nerves through reality-based assessments of fears, being one’s own cheerleader and embracing the reasons we ride in every moment with horses.

By Sunday’s end, it was clear all riders would be taking big steps in the right direction as a result of five days with Jimmy Wofford and his fellow EAP presenters. Kudos to Stacie Ryan for another year of smoothly managing this wonderful educational session in Los Angeles.


Jimmy Wofford’s Reading Recommendations

1. William Steinkraus’ Riding and Jumping. Then, in 5 years, read Steinkraus’ Reflections on Riding & Jumping.
2. George Morris and Anne Kursinski titles
3. Riding Logic, by Wilhelm Mûseler (written in the 1930s, but “totally applicable today.”)
4. Training the Three Day Event Horse & Rider, by James Wofford
5. Modern Gymnastics: Systematic Training for Jumping Horses, by James Wofford