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Overcoming freezing over a fence

Michael Hillman

Probably one of the hardest things that I've had to work on in my riding career is 'freezing' in tight situations, which for me, is anytime I'm in front of a fence. Now 'freezing' for me goes back a long way. In 7th grade, my father booted me off the football team after I handed the football to the guy next to me when I realized, after intercepting a pass, that I was about to be made minced meat. While my father admitted giving up the ball was nice survival instincts, he didn't look to fondly upon the fact that the kid was on the opposing team.

At my mother’s suggestion, I tried baseball, but every time I got to the plate, I struck out. (No one ever explained to me that you didn't have to swing.) My performance in the field was even worse. Every time the ball was hit in my direction, I ducked. I figured that the odds were against me catching the ball; instead, it would invariably be some part of my body that would. Since my throwing was pathetic, my father relegated me to score keeper, second string at that. Needless to say, it didn't bother me much when my dad got around to cutting me again.

After these two futile attempts at physical sports, my dad bought me a chess set and mumbled something about being happy that he had two more sons. I soon mastered Chess, but found the image of a high school chess player was less then desirable when it came to attracting great looking girls. Faced with being a labeled a 'nerd' for the rest of my life, I cast about for another sport to prove my maleness. On my first ski trip, I hit the snowplow. Basketball was out of the question; my little sister always beat me. I tried golf, but always lost all my balls before I got around the course. Eventually, my search finally led me to a riding stable.

My first riding lesson is a story in itself, and I won't go into it. Suffice it to say, the fact that the barn was full of rich collage girls answered the age-old collage student question: "Where are all the girls?" It took me a little while to get use to being on a horse, but as I soon discovered, the horses provided the physical stamina I lacked, while I provided the brains they lacked. Ok, I 'tried' to provided the brains.

As fate would have it though, my inability to think fast enough in a 'clutch' situation formed a performance ceiling which my riding coaches would hit and bounce off of, over and over again. I can't begin to count the number of times I was awarded 7th place out of six. Eventually the humiliation of my inability to work through freezing in tight situations led me to quit riding.

Horses, however, were never far from my mind and 5 years after quitting, for some reason that I can't explain, I called up Julie Gomena, my present coach, and inquired about her willingness to take me on as a 'mentally challenged' student. Because our paths had crossed before, she was knowledgeable of my past problems and found me a horse that would build my confidence. As my riding improved, we eventually hit, the dreaded 'Clutch zone'. Julie, who had long anticipated this, was ready.

Since I tend to freeze when I have to think quickly, Julie correctly reasoned that the answer was in develop my instincts to the point were the demands for me to think were, well, minimal. Over the following years, Julie presented and challenged me with every possible jumping combination, and even after I thought we were jumping it ok, she required me to jumped it again. And again, and again.

Since Oxers were my biggest fear, Julie always ended a lesson with a big one. After each lesson I would walk out to the field and walk around each of the fences I had jumped, measure them against my own height, stand back and look at them from a ground perspective as opposed from a horse's back. As time progressed, the fences got bigger, and my instincts got better. The scores at events soon began to tell the story, but it wasn't until that fall that for the first time ever, I finally beat the 'freezing'

The Loudoun Horse Trials had begun better than expected, we were in 6th place after dressage, sufficiently high enough were I would normally become so concerned about doing well that I would begin to 'freeze'. Determined more then ever not to blow my placing, I decided for once to follow my coach's advice about the benefit of watching others jump the stadium course. 

By the time I had seen the tenth horse, I had laid out a strategy; by the twentieth, I was able to visualize myself in front of every fence. As I tacked up for stadium, I kept going over and over my plan in my head. Like a chess game, I went through every option, every variation. I tried to think of everything that could go wrong, and plan for it, and I tried to think of everything that could go right, and build on it.

The first fence was tall, completely vertical, and somewhat imposing. Worf, my trusted steed, left to his instincts, would come into it heavy on his forehand. To get over him over it without dropping a rail, I knew I had to jazz him up. To do this, I had been taught, over and over again, to trot smartly into the ring, pick up a forward canter and make a sharp turn towards the fence, using the turn to force Worf to balance himself. Much to my surprise I actually did this, and much to my pleasure, Worf cleared the first fence with ease.

The second fence was a crisscrossed vertical, the only thing I had to do was do nothing, which for me, is a lot harder than it sounds. But I had planned to do nothing, and I followed my plan, and Worf hunted over it with ease. The third fence, a big oxer, presented us with our first significant challenge. Set at a weird angle in relation to the second fence, it required Worf to make a sharp right turn and then make a sweeping circle to the left. 

If I pulled him up too quickly, I risked killing his bouncy, forward momentum, which I would need to get over the fence clean. Instead of pulling on the reins, I tried something novel, for me at least: a half halt. Worf responded instantly, and we were able to execute a smart turn towards the fence. Following the routine drilled into me by countless lessons, I consciously kept my lower leg active all the way to the base, and up and over we went. Three down, too many left to go.

It was about this time that I took my first breath and mentally paused to assess the situation. Everything had work according to plan, and while the forth fence was an fairly small in-and-out, my track record had taught me that the fences I consider easy are usually the ones where rails drop. Recognizing this, I jiggled the bit to get Worf's attention and asked for anther half halt. Worf’s front end rose in response to my signal and confident he was focused, I just sat and let the fence come to me. Worf jumped through without a hitch. 

The fifth fence was a plank fence, the type Worf had yet to jump clean. The way this was built, it should have had a sign around it saying 'drop rail here'. Remembering to increase the pressure of my legs before I increased the weight in my reins, I turned Worf towards our nemesis. Unfortunately, Worf began to cross canter. My first instinct was to panic and drop him, but I resisted and increased my leg and rein pressure. Holding him in front of me and between my legs, Worf had no other option but to approach the fence straight on. Though we were slightly out of sync on the take off, Worf still managed to clear fence with plenty to spare.

By now Worf's blood was up, and as he spied the sixth fence, an imposing, wide, nice oxer. As Worf grabbed the bit and accelerated towards the base, I visualized myself jumping a bigger oxer during a lesson. Worf responded to my unconscious signal and cleared the oxer without any indication of an effort on his part. The seventh fence was a three fence combination: an oxer to a vertical to another oxer. In watching the previous riders, the long distances between fences were catching many a horse and rider. I concluded that the many dropped rails were a result of approaching the combination without enough speed.

With thought of having a clean round now in mind, I accelerated Worf in the turn towards this combination, using the turn, not my hands, to balance him. Because I had held him to base of other oxers, I took, as Julie would say, 'a little money out of the bank' and asked for a long spot. Worf left the ground just were I wanted him to, and his speed set him up for a perfect one stride to the second element, which he also cleared with ease. The last element, an oxer, was jumped before I knew it, and for the first time I was cognizant that Worf was jumping straight in the middle of each fence.

The seventh fence was a medium sized vertical; again I used the turn to balance him, and then just left him alone to find his own spot. As I landed, I made a tight, fast turn to the right towards the second to last fence. A turn to the left would have given me a better approach, and the plan called for it if the round had not gone well. However, the left turn, which almost everyone was opting for, was resulting in everyone incurring at least 2 time penalties. Since the right hand turn was do-able, and I was having a good round, I risked it. Remembering to drive forward in the turn, I felt Worf fight to keep his balance. As we came out of the turn, he sprang forward like a coiled spring and jumped the next fence perfectly.

By now I was feeling pretty good, but was still aware that I had on more than one occasion blown a course by not riding the last fence. Faced again with a big oxer, I once again found myself visualizing jumping a bigger one in a lesson. As Worf accelerated towards the last, I could hear Julie's instructions in my mind. With a single well placed bound, and without any interference from his rider, Worf jumped his way into forth place.

With Radnor on the horizon, and the ground hard as a rock, I swallowed hard some well given advice and didn't run Worf the next day for cross country. I've yet to learn when to say enough is enough, but fortunately I'm smart enough to listen to those who have learned. The following week it rained, and with the ground more forgiving, Worf made his last pre-Radnor run a blue ribbon one. Unfortunately, it would also be the last of the season.

A stupidly broken arm was just around the turn for me. While I didn't get to Radnor, I have the satisfaction of sitting out this winter knowing that for once I did not freeze, that I had actually laid out a plan and followed it, and more importantly, the plan had worked. If I could do it once, I can do it again, and that thought has keep me warm all winter.

Read other horse related stories by Michael Hillman

Read other stories by Michael Hillman