Through a various set of circumstances, I found myself able to finally participate in a XC clinic with Local Event Trainer Who's Pretty Damn Good. Honorary Big Sister Jen was nearly pleading with me to go - she claimed it would make her feel better to have someone there who is brave. I guess at some point I was assigned the role of "brave."
I decided, after much hard thought, to try a new bitting configuration for Sparky for this XC outing. I read a lot about people changing the noseband, rather than increasing bit for their horses. Now, this makes a lot of sense to me and seemed, perhaps, a most excellent solution with Sparky, because he gets so behind the bit in any metal mouthpiece, regardless of how "soft" that mouthpiece may be (JP double-jointed full cheek with copper-rolly-ball, anyone?). I really like how Sparky goes in his Duo on the flat, but he sometimes gets a little strong in it while in company or over fences. So I decided to try his Duo with a figure-8 noseband. I reasoned that it would put an eensy-weensy bit of pressure on his nose, and well, I already had one, so it was rather convenient. Jumping him around in it a couple days prior, it seemed to work pretty well. Of course, for XC Clinic Day, the JP was on back-up. ;-)
XC Clinic Day was a beneficial day. Though Sparky was there with this two best buddies (the three of them - AKA: The Three Stooges), Sparky, AKA Moe, wasn't pulling or racing around to try and catch up with them. He seemed content to just listen to me and do as I asked. After warming up on our own at a walk, trot, and canter, we started out by going over a crossrail in the stadium ring. Sparky and I approached at a trot the first time. He wanted to make a bit of a bid at the jump, but I held him and maintained the trot, and he jumped it very well. The next time over we cantered, and then the jump was raised to a vertical. I thought Sparky might try something funny with it - like a stop - so I rode very positively to the jump, keeping my leg on. He jumped that one quite nicely, as well. We then moved on to a few jumps strung together: vertical to oxer to barrels. I knew the vertical and barrels would be fine, but I wasn't 100% sure on the oxer, so again I rode in a manner to convey, "We are not stopping." The Sparkplug was perfect. So perfect, in fact, that he got a pat from Local Event Trainer and was told "You're a good pony." I told her to not jump to any conclusions, yet.
It was now time to head out to XC. No baby steps, here - straight to the point, jumping the Lincoln Logs, a hanging log, and an oddly-shaped log on the ground. I knew Sparky would nail the Lincoln Logs, and the last log, but we've only ever done the hanging log once, so I had some concerns. Unfortunately, since I "knew" Sparky would be fine over the Lincoln Logs - they looked so small, now! - I rode rather poorly and we got a crappy spot, causing me to end up too forward with my upper body. I wasn't too concerned, because I know that's not my standard MO. Local Event Trainer, however, jumped all over me for it. This bothered me, because I felt as though a sweeping assumption was being made because of one fence. I guess you only get one shot to make a good first impression, but had we not just jumped several stadium jumps well? Didn't that count for anything? We approached the hanging log, and I asked Sparky to trot to it: I wanted to be sure he was where he needed to be (in terms of being on the aids, that is), and I wanted less forward momentum if he did decide to stop. I kept my leg on, but held him where I wanted him, and he went over just fine. And I got yelled at for not kicking and galloping forward. We cantered to the oddly-shaped log, about which I had no concerns, but having learned my lesson from the Lincoln Logs, also didn't take for granted, and it went well. I think I was told, "Much better," and then directed to go do the last two again, this time keeping my leg on and kicking to the hanging log. Hmmmm.... (it went just fine, as, at this point, I knew it would).
On to the ditches. Sparky was a bit of a pig starting out, and stopped. And I again got yelled at to sit up. Okay, this time I really should have known better and stayed back more, given our history with ditches. I eventually coerced Sparky across (read: smacked him so that he knew I wasn't playing his way today), and we came back over like it was no big deal. We were to then jump the small ditch, and continue on to a new jump - another set of logs like the Lincoln Logs. The ditch was fine, but Sparky stopped at the logs, which didn't surprise me. I'm pretty sure I got yelled at again about leg. I gave Sparky a tap with my crop, and we re-approached. I rode better, and Sparky went over. We turned around and came back over, me keeping in mind a postitive ride with leg. Sparky went right over, and we continued on to the ditch, which was again pretty much flawless. It was then decided that Sparky needed to do the big ditch, as well. Sparky again decided to slam on the brakes. He got smacked, protested minimally, we re-approached, and over he went. On our return trip, he stopped again, but I was more ready for it this time, and didn't get tossed up his neck until he bucked in protest at being smacked. A very small (for Sparky) confrontation, and he went over again, with some hesitation. We then strung it together with the new logs, and all was well.
We then moved on to the "middle" of the Calimar XC field. We were now to string together the small bank up, the small bank down, to a kinda-rampy-hangy-log thing that I'd never done before and looked bigger than the previous hanging log, up the big bank, over the barrel-train, back over the barrel train, down the big bank (gulp) and an almost 90-degree turn to another new jump that distinctly reminded me of a firewood rack. The small banks were fine - we'd done those before - but I was a bit nervous about the kinda-rampy-hangy log thing. Remembering the new log jump, I kept my leg on, thought positive thoughts, and we went over - despite Sparky's misgivings about the jump and his desire to stop. It had not been a very good approach, because Sparky was looking for a way out and was being wiggle-wormy, BUT he went over. This was definitely something of a breakthrough. Of course, Local Event Trainer didn't see it quite the same way I did, and wanted us to do it again, this time stay in the middle of the log thing. So we did it again, and this time as we went over, I channeled our work with Greg Best, and used my right leg and an opening left rein to keep him straight, with a successful result and a much better jump. Up the big bank with some hesitation, and over to the barrel train and either a rotten jump. I suppose here I was again taking the jump for granted. We went over a few times, but it was always sticky, even coming back over. We then went to the big bank down. I think this was the only jump I was truly nervous about. Even if I stay back, Sparky is still pretty talented at tossing me forward... I really did not want to go over his shoulder and down another three feet beyond the usual. Sparky did stop, and it took a little convincing to go down the bank, but eventually he did. It was also always a bit sticky, so it's now on the list of "Things To Work On." We then cantered up to the firewood rack, and for some reason, I felt really good about it. And dammit, I was right. Another jump we'd never seen before, and really, it felt pretty perfect. Figures that the hardest jump is the one we'd do the best. We took a break, and then did the last three jumps again. The barrel-train and down-bank were still not great, the the last one was again pretty damn good.
We then progressed to the water complex. Down the little bank into the water, up the little bank out, down the ramp into the water, and canter to a vertical right at the exit. When I had my approach right, the canter in and vertical out went really well. Of course, that was the minority of the time. Once we did a reasonable job with that, we were to then go jump another rampy set of logs and then the small cabin right by the water wheel. These were also jumps we'd done before, so I knew the only reason we might have problems would be if Sparky decided to again test me. The two jumps rode fine, but now Local Event Trainer got on my case about my hands and catching my horse in the mouth. At least she did seem to realize that it's a trust issue - I don't trust that Sparky is going to not stop/duck out, and hard - but she kept on harping that he will start stopping all the time if I'm not softer in the air. So we did it again; of course, this time I knew we were okay, so of course, it was much easier to trust my horse.
As we were heading back to the trailer, Local Event Trainer again admonished me about my hands, and "he'll start stopping all the time." Really? *Sigh* Please don't get me wrong - I think that going to this clinic was a great thing for Sparky and I, but I also think it illustrates some of the shortfalls of one-day clinics, and the fact that all clinicians are not created equal. As a clinician, I realize that one has to make some relatively quick assessments of horses and riders, which I'm sure is no small task. However, the drawback is that (I feel) sometimes the assessments made are not always 100% accurate. No, you don't know me, my horse, and our history... but there is a reason I ride the way I do (for the most part! See the section about the Lincoln Logs). And I *do* know my horse. He doesn't stop because I sometimes might have a rather strong feel on his mouth. He stops because he's either worried, or an asshole. I think I felt a bit like Honorary Big Sister Jen did when people kept suggesting she remove Tiki's hind leg wraps.
Honestly, I left feeling a little defeated. Sparky was pretty much a rockstar, and I am actually feeling like maybe we might have a future in this eventing thing, but...
I'm not used to being told that I'm going to hurt my horse's confidence, or that I'm going to cause him to start stopping. No, I didn't ride perfectly. I made some dumb mistakes, yes. But it's not like I'm riding some made packer. Really, my horse is not an easy horse to ride. Someday he will be, but we're not there, yet. But I really don't like leaving with the feeling that I didn't ride well.
I think that perhaps Local Event Trainer is not the right match for me. It's not at all that she didn't help me, or that I don't like her as a person, or that I don't think she knows her stuff - because she did help, I do like her, and I do think she knows her stuff. I just think that maybe it's not a good personality match for a teaching relationship. That said, I do really appreciate that she pushed me a bit beyond my comfort zone in jumping Sparky over scary new fences. Jumping the never-before-seen kinda-rampy-log-thing and the firewood rack on the first presentation is a BIG accomplishment for Sparky and I.
It's like I've said before: everyone has something to teach you. You take what works now and use it, and you file away the rest for future reference. So I'm taking the good stuff, filing away the not-so-good stuff, and remembering that I would still rather ride with Local Event Trainer than some other trainers out there.
And Sparky's figure-8 and Duo combination worked great! I now have a legitimate reason to put him in a bad-ass-looking figure-8!