Wellington, Fla., January 20, 2008 -- After landing yesterday, it was off to John and Beezie's barn for the afternoon. I watched a few horses flat and jump. From the get-go, it was very clear that there is a strong focus on rideability. There were no crazy tricks or shortcuts, just consistent work on every little element that comes together to form an entire course. In talking to John at the end of the day, their approach is to steadily improve upon the fundamentals day by day.
On the stable management side, I got to see a bit about how the horses are cared for every day. As you would expect, very close tabs are kept on them to ensure their health and happiness. I've ridden at some barns where the horses were treated like robots and as a result, had no personality. While the horses here are very well-mannered, they're also bonded with their people and social.
This morning, I watched almost all of the horses go. It was a good 20 degrees cooler than yesterday and really windy, so I assumed the horses would all be fresh. Some of them seemed to have a little extra energy, but all in all, everyone kept their brains about them.
Between yesterday and today, I've gotten to stand with John as he schooled different riders and horses. It's been very insightful to see not only the exercises that he recommends, but also the "whys" behind the process. One of the first exercises of the day is one that I'm sure is familiar to many riders--riding the same line of equally spaced ground rails in different strides. First a four to a four, then a three to a five, then a five to a three, and so on. I've seen and ridden this exercise more times than I can remember, and every time it was a big adjustment between the first and second part of the line. John explained that you want it to be a gradual increase or decrease. The results were amazingly smooth, and while you could tell that the horses were carrying a different pace in the second part, there was no jarring moment when it suddenly collected or extended.
This afternoon, I got to ride one of their horses. What a good girl she was! I'll admit to not being in the best riding form lately, and she took it all in stride. During our flatwork, John helped me focus on two major points. The first was to really wrap my entire leg around the horse without pinching or gapping anywhere. The second was to relax everywhere. Not in a lazy or sloppy way, but just so that I was elastic and able to go with the movement. He commented that you'll frequently hear people say things like "soft" to describe this feeling. Using Beezie as a handy visual aid, he pointed out that she is very strong but also flexible. After a little more trot work, we moved to some fences. Our flat work carried over directly as my struggles remained keeping my leg steady and body with the motion.
It's been awhile since I've been on a horse that truly takes me to the fences, so I had a hard time restraining myself from overmotivating my horse to the jumps. In addition to the earlier improvement areas, John also had me thinking about my body position over the fences. He had me canter over a low oxer, keeping my two-point position the entire time. I have to say, he was right--it did feel weird and a little awkward to have her jump up to me. The next time I came in from a normal seat though, I was able to keep my upper body more disciplined in the air. We were also stopping in a straight line after the fence. Even though I saw students do this exercise yesterday and today, it didn't stop me from initially making the exact same mistakes I saw some of them make! Instead of keeping my feet in front of me, I was letting my legs slip back while also trying to pull the horse up. The mixed aids don't exactly thrill the horse, much less result in an attractive halt.
We moved on to a line with the same goals in mind. The first time through, I definitely pushed my horse much more than she needed. I forgot about my legs and ended up spurring her into a little buck before I was able to get my legs back under me and get the halt. We worked back and forth over this line a few times, and it got better. John talked to me a bit more about really relaxing and feeling a part of the horse, instead of just feeling on top of the horse, and we tried it once more in each direction. It was so much better and a much more confident feeling--the horse seemed appreciative of my softening as well.
I really enjoyed the lesson and got a lot out of it. I'd seen John teach and while he was always very clear with a message of a few points to improve upon, I have to admit that I was a little worried that he wouldn't even know where to begin with me! Having only a few objectives to think about made it easy to concentrate on them.
Later this afternoon, we went over to the showgrounds to watch a speed class. The new grand prix ring looks great and most of the horses seemed to be fine with the banks. Since it was raining, most of the people were huddled in tents instead of in the new seats. I'm sure as soon as the sun returns, those seats will see a lot of action for the next few months.
Katie Faraone, 27, spent a week with John and Beezie Madden as a grand-prize winner of the 2007 Week with the Maddens Contest, sponsored by Bates Saddles, Practical Horseman and the Syracuse Invitational Tournament. Katie started riding when she was 11 and showing jumpers at 15. She works in sales for a staffing company in Boston and rides several times a week.