January 7, 2009 -- The eight young riders participating in the 2009 George Morris Horsemastership Training Session learned about the intricacies of riding a Nations' Cup class in a fun format designed by Olympic gold medalist Laura Kraut.
The first two days of the clinic with Robert Dover and Anne Kursinski focused on the nuts and bolts of position and riding technique and how it affects the horse. George had told Laura that he wanted her to cover course strategy, so her session put all the technique together with all the components of jumping a Nations' Cup course--from the warm-up to the jump-off.
Laura set up the day so the first group of four riders was one team and the second group was the other. Each rider jumped the course two times, as would international riders competing in a Nations' Cup class, and then rode a jump-off. Here's what Laura said about how she came up with the idea of doing a Nations' Cup Team:
The first team was Jessica Springsteen, Victoria Birdsall, Matthew Metell and Carolyn Curcio. The second team included Sophie Benjamin, Chelsea Moss, Jacqueline Lubrano and Taylor Land.
The Course Walk
The riders began by walking the course and discussing how to plan their rides. "Think about what you need to do to prepare your horses," Laura said. "When you walk a course, you really want to focus on the horse you're riding. What are your horse's strong points? What are his weak points?"
When walking a course, you need to think about your horse's stride length, his spookiness and what type of scope he has. When they walked the second to third jumps, Laura asked how the line rode. The riders replied, a short four strides. "More important than knowing that it's a short four is knowing that it's a four and use your eye depending on what your horse does. He may spook, he might land shallow. Think about that."
For the water jump, Laura said that most people are taught to ride really forward to it, but on course you have to think about what comes after the water. In this case it was seven or eight strides to a quiet one-stride vertical in-and-out. So, depending on their horses, she cautioned the riders not to get too forward to the water. "Use your eye and deal with what's going on underneath you," she said.
When riding the warm-up, Laura said, "George stresses not jumping a lot, not wasting your horse. You come to the horse show prepared. So when you come to warm-up, you want to loosen the horse, then go in the ring." She said that George will let them jump only between eight and 10 fences in the warm-up.
Laura's strategy is to jump two crossrails off both leads to loosen up the horse's muscles, two verticals then two oxers to get the horses jumping across a fence and then one big vertical. As Jessica Springsteen warmed up, Laura told her to stop her horse, move him forward to test his brakes and back to test his accelerator. After the fence, she told her to bend him left, bend him right. "That way, when you go on course, you know you have the tools to make it happen," Laura said.
Throughout the session, Laura urged the riders to do what they knew was best for their horses. In the warm-up, she asked Carolyn if she wanted to jump a wide oxer again, Carolyn said yes. "I agree," Laura said. "He needs to be stretched out a little bit."
Though clear about what she wanted, Laura empathized with riders. When Matt's horse, whom he was borrowing for the clinic, stopped at the oxer during the warm-up, Laura relayed one of her 2008 Olympic experiences warming up Cedric. "George was at the ring, so we started our warm-ups on our own. Cedric did the exact same thing. He thought about leaving the ground, then put one more in. He broke the rails. I thought, 'This is excellent. I'm so excited about this. I'm off to a good start.' But in this situation, you just have to put this out of your mind and say, 'Everything is OK,' and ride a little stronger."
Riding the First Round
Once the riders started the courses, their strategies varied. Victoria rode the first line, which she walked in seven or eight strides, in nine strides, which Laura said was OK. "In a real Nations' Cup class, if there were a tight time allowed, you'd store that you added a stride and use it to make up time later on course where you know you're safe to use it. For example, you wouldn't try to make up time at a triple combination. You'd make it up by making a tighter turn to a fence."
Laura pointed out to Matt and Carolyn that they both slowed down after jumping a careful line that ended with a quiet in-and-out. "After the careful line that you had to slow down for, you're jumping the biggest oxer on the course. I would have kicked him after that line away from in-gate, galloped up, then balanced so the horse was practically in trot. It's hard to create something out of nothing."
In another instanced, Laura said Matt's refusal to the vertical in-and-out started on the approach two fences earlier. Matt was at a disadvantage because he was riding a borrowed horse who doesn't like to get deep to the fences and would run past the distance. "By fence three, things were a little hectic," Laura said to Matt. "After the brown oxer, you wheeled around. I would have gone deep in the corner, given him a big pull to get him back. But somehow you got over the next oxer, and I'm not sure how because you gave him only about two strides. Then you got over the water and galloped down to the vertical in and out. He was too strong; you galloped to a deep spot, so he stopped."
Matt asked to be excused from riding the second round because his horse had a quarter crack. Laura said this increased the pressure on the team because there would be no drop score, putting them at a disadvantage.
Sophie, also riding a borrowed horse, added strides in several lines in the first course. "Sophie, you said you made your horse work hard, but that's exactly how you wanted to ride him," Laura said. "You don't know this horse, you added strides and that's fine."
Chelsea's horse stopped at the second fence, and Laura said she needed to sit more quietly. "Your eye works great. Believe in that. What doesn't work for you is you get panicky, he gets panicky. You say he runs away from you, but he's reacting from you."
Taylor started out beautifully until she had a refusal. "You rode the oxer brilliantly," Laura said. "But your horse jumps right, so he closed up distance in the line. You had in your head a number--nine strides. Then you saw eight, so you start to question it. What you should have done is said, 'I do not want to get that long distance. I'm going to give a big half-halt.'"
Jumping the Second Round
Riding the second round over the same course, Laura warned Jessica and Victoria, "These horses look like have they all have a lot of blood and energy, so I don't think they'll be tired. But they may know where they're going and take over. Or they may be OK. The only thing for sure you can't do is take the course for granted."
Jessica's horse showed how a horse can change from the first round to the second round. In the first round, she had the fourth fence, a narrow oxer, down. In the second round, "You overdid to the skinny oxer and got too long and too strong, so you had to battle all the way down," Laura said. "If you override, you know you'll have to work hard to get him back. You just have to know about it and cope with it."
Because of the scores and lack of a fourth team member, Laura pointed out that all of the pressure for the second round for the first team was on the third rider, Carolyn. "You need to get a really good score," she said. "But most important, you need to get a score. No matter what happens, you've got to get a score."
Carolyn said after the clinic that she learned a lot about riding courses from Laura. Here's what she had to say:
Riding the Jump-Off
In the jump-off, Laura pointed out a small detail that had a big impact on Victoria's ride. She was deep to a jump and clucked at her horse. "A cluck means forward," Laura said. "When you're this close to a fence, you need to go up, not forward. You have to have the confidence to say, 'Wow, I put my horse in an awful position, and I need to sit and wait. Instead, you clucked. She's a good horse and went forward and had a rail. Simple, tiny things like this make a huge difference."
When the second team got ready to jump off, Laura discussed strategy. In a Nations' Cup jump-off, you're all still a team. So for the jump-off, "you'd like to have your first rider do a solid, clear but not crazy quick ride. This team has Sophie on a quick horse for it's first ride, so that's good. In the number two spot, Chelsea will try to put in a clear round. Then we'll see where we are and what Jacqueline and Taylor will have to do."
The second team ultimately won the "competition."
Laura ended with a few more words of advice: "What I was trying to teach today is the pressure. You've got to go in and make it happen. You'll have mistakes, but you'll have to deal with them and go forward."
Sandra Oliynyk is the editor of Practical Horseman magazine.
The training session is hosted by Bates Saddles and Equestrian Sport Productions and supported by the U.S. Equestrian Federation. In addition to Bates, supporting organizations include Purina Mills, the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation, the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association, the Syracuse Invitational Sporthorse Tournament, Nutramax (Cosequin ASU), the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Practical Horseman.