Two instances popped up in my lesson yesterday that brought this to mind. One, Trainer A upped the anty on our collected work. Again. Instead of bounce-one stride, she set up a long line of low, tight bounces. Yay, cavaletti work. She snuck them in another 6 inches which caught me and papi off guard. We kept getting deeper and deeper until there was no choice but to let the canter break down and shuffle the last two. That got our attention and he sat back for some lovely passes. Trainer A was pleased with his effort, but wanted more from me. I could do it without really riding, so I wasn't. I thought I was, but I wasn't really. What can I say, I don't respect little fences.
Trainer A is a smart lady.
I was cantering in for another pass when I saw jump in the middle of the cavaletti height grid was suddenly about 2'6". WTF?! I knew it was going to be tight, tight, tight, so I sat him down hard coming through the corner. Theo realized things just got real and gave me no arguments. I lifted, half halted, and put my leg on. We nailed it with a bascule over the one jump that made me feel weightless at the peak.
Trainer A looked at me, shook her head, and said 'you're supposed to ride the approach like that every time, not just when I gave you a fright'. I thought back and realized that I knew if I didn't get him all the way back, there was a good shot of things going south and someone getting hurt. My old jumper instincts kicked in hard and I set him up like we were going to a 3'6" oxer. She said the second my eyes landed on the jump, my chest lifted and I gave him a completely accurate, no nonsense half halt. My instincts took over and suddenly I could do exactly what she wanted. It just wasn't a conscious decision.
So we had a talk about technique vs. instinct. I've got a whole array of instincts that I've honed over the past three decades, mostly over fences and mostly on the horses no one else wanted to ride. Many trainers have seen this in action and referred to it as the 'I don't wanna die' position. When things start to go south or I get that jolt of startlement/fear, I suddenly sit up, get back, and ride as something other than a middle aged ammy. My overactive mind gets the heck out of the way and I ride what I feel. It's not about 'how is my position', it's about getting to the other side. Fortunately I've had enough good trainers and good (but explosive) horses that my instincts don't have me doing dumb things like curling and pulling. In that split second when I knew this was going to be very difficult, I set Theo up the way Allen taught me. I never ride Theo the way I rode Allen. They couldn't be more different as rides.
Allen and me in the jumpers, eons ago
Me and Theo this summer
Trainer A's suggestion was that I need to bring my instincts into my technique. My body clearly knows how, but I can't consciously access it. It usually happens so quickly that I'm not aware of what I'm doing. My instincts need more polish through my technique and I need to be able to bring those instincts into my technique. That split second of 'omg, sit down, papi!' was a correct half halt. Now I have to do it without a scary jump, because there are no jumps in dressage. Her concern is that we'll struggle with staying up and engaged when there's nothing to get my adrenaline pumping or trigger those responses.
I'd never thought of that serious business position and reaction as being a very effective half halt. But now that I've been learning what a half halt really is, I can recognize it. Lift his shoulders, sit him down, rebalance him so he's in a position to safely meet the challenge, then let him go because you must go forward to a fence. Repeat as needed. Never, ever pull. Thanks, Allen. I guess you taught me more than I knew. It seems my Hellbeast installed my basic half halt and I never realized it.
Me and Allen being serious business jumpers. It's four foot.
There was a young lady working with her thoroughbred at the same time. She's been having trouble with him barging off and her instinct is to pull. Being an old racehorse, he just grabs the bit and takes off harder. I recognize this struggle, and my heart hurts for her. This is a hard, hard lesson. She was pretty down on things when she started to realize just what she was going to have to learn and relearn, so I told her I'd done the same thing when I was a bit older than her. I told her that it was hard, and made me want to cry many times, but in the end you get to make the leap to the next level of riding. Everyone that gets past the 3' jumpers has to learn this painful lesson when you stop pulling with your hands and start riding with the rest of your body.
It took me about a year to learn it. Her horse is a bit less powerful, she might learn it faster. But I told her it's a long, difficult lesson and that most of us have to go through it. She won't get it in one lesson, or two, or six. She felt better hearing me say that I'd done it and survived. I think it will do her a lot of good. She gets nervous with him right now. Part of the lesson will be learning to trust her seat and recognize that him lifting and swinging his back can be a good thing. She has to learn to feel what he's up to, not just assume any surge of energy is bad and needs to be stopped. I'm lending her my metronome so she can learn to identify rushing versus impulsion. I remember when I thought a horse was supposed to accelerate to a fence. It seems a long time ago.
We're doing opposite things. She's breaking down and rebuilding a broken instinct. I'm taking my already repaired instinct and dragging it into conscious use. Trainer A is saying the same words to get opposite, yet identical results from us. It's fascinating. I think I now understand why we've been put together in lessons. It doesn't make sense on paper, but in practice, it works perfectly.