A Courtney Angel on my Shoulder

10492006_10204357741209426_2238477003540273240_n

As a rider, it’s incredibly important to have a trainer and mentor who you truly respect. In speeches directed to young riders, Courtney often stresses the point that when choosing a trainer, you must prioritize that the potential trainer is a good person and not just a good rider. Pick a person who you would like to become more like as a professional and human being and not just by their show scores. Because… well, it’s going to happen. And I couldn’t agree more. Don’t settle! Courtney is the epitome of a good mentor, and I don’t know how to express how thankful I am to learn from her. She’s someone who inspires me to try-try-try by her example as a professional, a friend, her amazing training ability, her ambition, and where her caring heart is every day.

Gumption is one of my favorite words that Courtney has been using lately. When you look it up in the dictionary it’s described with the words: boldness, initiative, courage, guts, spunk… There’s excitement in the feeling of a ride that’s going for something! It makes me think, to have courage I have to challenge myself with something bigger than the typical feelings and exercises I’ve come to know so well; I have to take some risks, be creative, and give myself the opportunity to be courageous. What would Courtney’s goal for the ride be?

When her voice isn’t booming over the microphone and I’m riding on my own, I realize that I find myself asking, What would this horse feel like to Courtney if she was sitting on him right now? I bet it would feel like butter. It would feel like power. It would have purpose! Now what is it that I need to do in order to create that feeling? Often just that decision to ride with purpose and precision is enough to dramatically change the feel of the horse’s body. It’s also very helpful to ride imagining the picture of Courtney’s position and the lovely way that her horses go.

Something I’m still trying to fully get into my own head is that riding with gumption does not mean charging around the arena. Having big fancy movement requires a lot of energy and activity, but it doesn’t mean speed racing. Sometimes I find myself flying around the ring as I aim to accomplish something fantastic, but the horse isn’t really with me. It’s not collection of power if the power is hurling itself out the front door!

“Don’t be crazy!”

That’s something that Courtney likes to half shout, half laugh at me. Well, maybe it’s mostly shout the second or third time she has to say it… Trying hard doesn’t just mean amping up the power and going 99 mph – even though it’s how fast that I like to go! (You were supposed to sing those last words to yourself… Fitz and the Tantrums yo!) Anyway, I may feel like I’m trying hard and going somewhere, but true collection and power takes even more effort. It means I have to settle my mind, trust my horse to keep the power without my chasing, as well as challenge my core to stay strong to support the horse’s collection underneath of me. That’s the real effort!

In a recent lesson on Shanghai Courtney had me think to “Ride him like an accordion.” As we started by cantering around on a large circle with his neck down in a somewhat stretchy frame Courtney would say, “Don’t let his hind legs get any further from his nose.” Meaning, as I shortened and lengthened his strides, I should only let the strides get longer. He should not become sprawled out with his hind end pushing further behind him and his nose should not go any further in front. The back should stretch and round like the smooth arch of an accordion

How do we do that? How do I make his butt go down more and his hind legs stretch under his body – especially when his neck is down? It’s not as if I am sitting behind his tail and can literally push is butt forward. The connection with the seat and leg is all we have! I can only sit myself down in the saddle and decide that the horse’s hind end will do the same. I can feel my core engaging – it’s a firm but supple feeling of support to the horse. My body says, hind legs stay here! while the rest of me says whether to shorten or lengthen the strides.

There’s a distinct difference between sitting on the horse’s saddle, passively following along as a passenger and the feeling of sitting in the horse’s back. Sitting in the horse feels like one powerful connection between your core, the horse’s hind end, your leg, and their front end. Just be careful not to get crazy and lean too far back, down, and hard – I HAVE managed to give myself a bruise to the tailbone in my efforts during one lesson. Oops… Ha. But it’s so worth frequently checking in on your passenger status. One of Courtney’s most used reminders is simply, “Butt down!” It’s easy to lose sight of having that connection even if you know the difference in the feeling!

An exercise that has been very helpful to me applies both in trot and canter, but I want to explain it in the canter. Courtney has me ride a shortened canter all the way through a corner – almost a “pirouette canter” which would be cantering on the spot, and then I push the canter bigger as I half pass across the arena. Channeling the power before the sideways movement exaggerates a half halt. It puts the horse way back on his hind end underneath of me and allows me to support his collection as I push for the beautiful jump in the half pass rather than having it be fast and flat. (aka crazy!) It allows me to direct the collection that I already have rather than struggle to create it after I’ve started the movement. Woohoo!

Since Courtney has had her sweet second baby, Bailey (Congratulations beautiful mommy!!!) there were a couple of weeks of alone time for me and our horseys in the 20×60. It makes me so aware of how extra million bazillion thankful I am to have such a precise, consistent, correct coach in my head that I can hear her voice loud and clear even when she’s 20 miles of country roads away. You’re a gem, Court!

Advertisements