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Coaching the Novice Level Rider
(...and remembering once more, why you love eventing!)

Michael Hillman

This fall I have the heavy responsibility of getting two students ready for their first run at Preliminary. Doing such, it's easy to become too focused on drilling them in what they need in order to compete successfully at this level; and, in doing so, almost forget that first and foremost eventing is supposed to be about having fun. I'm reminded of this by the happy reaction of the lower level students when they accomplish even the most simplistic movement or jump a simple 'x' for the first time.

One of the best parts about getting a new student is that new students are fertile ground for countless stories; and Jen Goldup, of Littlestown, Pa. is no exception. I first met Jen when she accompanied one of her friends to my farm for a lesson. She was struggling with riding self-confidence, having just failed her D-2 rating in spite of the fact that she had just spent a year as a groom/student at a dressage barn.

Preoccupied with other issues at the time, I didn't interact much with her that day, outside of the usual civil pleasantries. Even her volunteering to clean some tack failed to raise my interest . . . that is, until I used it the next day.
The bridle had been cleaned to within an inch of its life, oiled, and then hand rubbed to a finish that only my wife, an ex-Olympic team groom, had ever been able to accomplish. I felt guilty about my indifference to her and, when she called later that night, sheepishly inquiring about the potential of a lesson, I jumped at the chance to return the favor.

Her first lesson was, well, less then remarkable. Upon the recommendation of a friend, she rode a young mare, a very young mare. After the trying lesson where I spent more time focusing on the horse than on Jen, I enlightened her and her mother on the old wisdom that new riders should always be paired with seasoned horses. The next lesson she brought a twenty-one-year-old dressage schoolmaster. While this was clearly a step in the right direction, its inability to even step over a cross rail didn't do much for her eventing career. Then she brought Charlie Brown.

Having myself learned to ride on a horse called Charlie Brown, I immediately fell in love with him. A 16-year-old ex-racer, ex-jumper, ex-whatever, he was well built and seasoned beyond belief. His eyes just sparkled knowledge and kindness. When I inquired why she hadn't brought him the first time, she informed me that her last instructor had said he would never amount to anything and so she planned to sell him for what amounted to 'chump change'.

Charlie's dressage wasn't anything to write home about but his jumping caught my attention. I set up an in-and-out and quickly became occupied with seeing how high he could jump over the out oxer. So preoccupied in fact, that I forgot his rider was a beginner. I was so deep in thought after watching him bound awesomely over the fence that I failed to notice Jen had parted company with him two strides after it.

It wasn't until Jen's mother tapped my arm to inform me, that I became aware Charlie was standing next to me, sizing up the fence he had just jumped. By the time we got to Jen, the shock of her fall had turned into joy. She had jumped a fence bigger than she had ever imagined and survived her first fall, all in one lesson. She was ready to event!

Since Jen had never competed in even a starter event, I suddenly found myself back with her in the unrecognized circuit and; with the opening of the unrecognized season just around the corner, I found myself making some decisions that at first seemed out of step with my past practices yet somehow, they seemed right.

Jen's background in dressage was ok, not firm, but she understood the basics. At the ripe age of 16, Charlie Brown was a little bit stiff. Where with other students I would do five dressage lessons for every one jumping lesson, for Charlie and Jen, it was jump, jump, jump. The more Charlie jumped, the freer he moved. The more Jen jumped, the more self-confident she became in how she rode Charlie. By the end of the first month, Jen was performing perfect 20-meter canter circles over a series of X's, whereas the month before she couldn't manage even a 40-meter circle in an open field.

Their first attempt at a ditch was a disaster, as was the second, the third, and the 22nd, but the 23rd was a charm. The next day, Charlie jumped it on the second try; but when presented at a new ditch, he once again refused -- teaching Jen quickly the important lesson all successful eventers know only too well: "The fence you'll have the stop at is the one you're most sure about."

Recognizing that experience is often the best instructor, I was eager to get Jen into an event. With a wide range of starter events to choose from, I simply chose the next on the books, which, as fortune would have it, was an easy starter novice event.

On the day of the event, in spite of her best efforts to hide it, Jen was a bundle of nerves. Having stood on the sidelines and watched more then her fair share of dressage rides over the past few years, she was finally going to get her chance to shine. Charlie, for whom dressage was his number one nemesis, found the going in the sand arena much to his liking; and much to everyone's surprise, especially Jen's, put in a respectable test.

As it was a starter event, the stadium was designed for beginners. Much to the enjoyment of the crowd, Jen followed my instructions to count her strides out loud in front of every fence. Her "5, 4, 3, Go," or "5, 2, Go" brought smiles to the cheering crowd and the few coaches present, but it helped her jump clean. While she had two refusals cross-country, she nevertheless came back grinning from ear-to-ear.

With Jen's confidence improving with every ride, I opted to forgo any more starter events and let her try her hand at a recognized event. Jen was more than game. Realizing the event I had chosen for her debut world would be a true novice level course with a few move-up fences on it, I wanted her to go into it with as much confidence in her jumping as I could muster. As such, for the next few lessons, I avoided the dressage ring like it had the plague and focused on their jumping.

Charlie, unsure about Jen, had begun to break into a trot just before a fence. To address the issues, I drilled them back and forth across a small oxer until Jen got comfortable with it. Once Jen started to ride down and over the fence, Charlie abandoned his trot steps and once again began to jump in stride.
The evening before the event, I found myself having second thoughts about sending them off to a recognized event. I had all the confidence in the world in Charlie's ability to jump whatever would be presented, yet I was not sure Jen was equally ready. Up until now, Jen had jumped just about all the fences in my field singly, with the exception of a training size oxer, but never in sequence. It was obvious to me what we had to do.

After completing a short, very successful stadium school, I pointed Jen in the direction of the cross-country and directed her to jump it in sequence. Having jumped everything exceptionally well, as they flew by me on the way to their last fence, I called out to her to jump the oxer. Jen never missed a beat. Half-halting like a pro, she set Charlie back on his haunches and drove him forward to the oxer. Charlie basculed over it like an Advanced horse. They were now ready for their debut. I was ready for a gin and tonic.

All the jumping had done wonders for Charlie's attitude and agility and no place was it more obvious than in his dressage test. Where three weeks before a canter depart preceded by fourteen trot steps was considered a gift, now his upward transitions were light and fluid, his downward canter transitions, were, er, not so good; but Jen rode them tactfully and accepted what she got. That was good enough for me.

With wide spacing between each fence, the stadium course was perfect for first-timers like Jen. Once again counting her strides out loud, she clocked around the course. I found myself holding my breath like a worried parent as she approached each fence, only daring to breathe once she was safely over it. But it wasn't until I walked the cross-country that the responsibility I had taken on by teaching Jen really struck home.

In spite of all I thought I had done to get them ready, I found myself fretting over some of the 'move-up to training' sized fences on the course. Jen, still elated with the oxer she had jumped the day before, was unfazed. I was a nervous wreck. In spite of her confidence, I still had visions of Charlie, just weeks before, stopping at fences he had never seen before. So, as we walked the course, I focused on teaching her how to give Charlie the best approach to each fence, so that he would have time to see it, size it up, and figure out how to jump them safely over it.

After walking the course a third time to solidify what I had told her, she warmed-up like a pro and promptly went out and did as she was told; and because of this, Charlie was able to do his job and do it in style.

Jen's ear-to-ear grin as she handed her pinney in, brought back memories of incidents at the beginning of my eventing career. I was a working student at the time for Bruce Davidson and had just jumped a huge fence. I was so thrilled; I let out a 'Ya' and began to laugh. Bruce smiled, and turning to the other students simply said, "Remember, this is what it all about, having fun. Never forget that. Never."

Jen's smile reminded me of Bruce's words, and my smile soon rivaled hers.

Read other horse related stories by Michael Hillman

Read other stories by Michael Hillman