Posted by: shannonc | November 2, 2009


Clinic report:  Eric Smiley – day 2.  Scarlet Hill Farm, Groton

Sorry for the post delay.  I picked up a bunch of extra work hours last week and had to contend with a farrier mishap.  The two kept me pretty busy (unfortunately, in the second case).  But day 2 of the clinic can’t go unreported!

The day dawned bright and cold with rain in the forecast for late morning.  I was glad my section was riding early – I’ll pick low 40s over getting soaked, if I have to pick.  The footing was going to be wet no matter what – dew in this case – and at SH the name doesn’t lie:  it’s hilly.  This year’s experience with the pony has made me more confident riding over all manner of terrain, but I get nervous anyway, especially when I have an audience with an internationally famous equestrian.

I got there early and hand-walked the pony out to audit the last half hour or so of the previous group’s work.  There were four or five horses working through the water complex.  I stood the pony away from the activity, but faced him in that direction, and let him graze.  I could be making this up, but I really think the opportunities he’s had to chillax and observe various eventing goings-on have been good for his brain.

Most of the horses in the group looked like they had some mileage – there was an absolutely gorgeous chestnut TB type who carried a secure air of been-there, done-that – but they had their challenges in the complex.  Green horse leapiness unseated a few riders and one fell (but, managing to do so without getting wet, landed on her feet to a chorus of cheers).  Aside:  I saw Eric do something I thought was interesting as he held the horse for the fallen rider to remount.  For whatever reason – the cold, the spill, the activity – the horse was dancing around and making it difficult for the rider to get back on.  Eric gave him a couple of quick, hard fists to the barrel, which got his attention and inspired a much more polite attitude.  I’m always one to think that especially in a safety situation, it’s better to go with hard and fast about making a point.  I was glad to see my tough love approach was shared by a rider and trainer far superior to me in knowledge and experience.

Everyone ended on a pretty good note.  One mare just would not drop down into the water.  Again here I felt reassured by the tactics Eric used to try and resolve the situation because I’ve used them too:  he gave her a lead; he let her stand on the edge and hang out to watch other horses jump in; he let her stand in the water and see other horses jump in towards her; he mixed her work up, having her go through the water in a bunch of different ways then reapproach in the troublesome direction.  On this day, though, that particular question wasn’t one the mare was willing to answer.  She had never dropped into water before, and Eric said it was better not to force the issue because it was only going to create fear, so she ended by re-riding a route she could complete confidently.  We were to hear more about Eric’s philosophy on xc schooling later.

Then it was our turn.  In addition to the chestnut mare, Penny, whom I rode with yesterday, we had a beautiful dark bay Dutch-TB-MorganX in our group.  I didn’t get the full story on this pair but they seemed a bit tense and I got the feeling the horse had maybe been testing the rider.  Eric started us out by telling us to move around, feel out the footing, and see what kind of canter we had today.  “Forget trotting,” he said.  LOL.  He reminded us we had to be able to turn, stop, and start, and warned us not to do any sharp steering and pull our horses over.  I liked that he asked each of us what was on our horses’ feet before we started. 

Pony was a firecracker.  A month of no cross country did not appear to give him any pause.  He seemed to know why he was out there, and it was a landmark xc school for him because it was the very first time he did not peek at the first fences I pointed him at.  Good pony :)

After one or two warmup jumps (“more control, Shannon” Eric called to me as the pony paddled over a small house) he started us on the first lesson of the day:  precision.  He put a handful of grass on a birch fence and told us our only responsibility was to bring the horse to that exact point on the fence, then let *the horse* decide where to take off.  This after a lecture on how doing nothing means doing a lot when you’re just trying to keep what you have:  your impulsion, your pace, your line, your position.  I was very nervous about being able to do this as I don’t consider steering our strong point.  But horses and riders did well all in all – I still had a bit of trouble controlling acceleration in the last few strides, but didn’t get picked on about it, I think because if I’d done much more I would have broken the golden rule of interfering too much too close to the fence.  We did a few of these exercises over various solid jumps (pony got props for putting in the “pat the ground” stride a couple of times, with Eric saying, “smart pony!  That’s JUST what you want!”), then moved to the crest of the hill (by the scary green house) where Eric upped the ante by putting two handfuls of grass spaced about 12″ apart on the top of the jump at an angle.  He said that we need to teach our horses to jump off an angled line because sometimes it’s the most efficient way to get from one fence to the next.  Now I’m nervous cubed, because not only is it a hefty jump and a precision steering question, but also, the last time I tried to angle the pony to something (plain rails no less), he stopped.  As it turned out, this must have been the right time in his education to ask this question again, because he was foot-perfect.

Next came the ditches.  First he had us trot over the half-ditch a couple of times.  He was looking for the horses to come in, look, then jump up and over.  He said it’s important that they jump up – if they don’t, it shows that they’re still worried, and it’s difficult to then add rails and create trakhener questions.  He said that too many people bring their horses much too fast to these kinds of questions, which creates a flat jump, and a conviction in the mind of the horse that they won’t be able to negotiate the jump without running at it.  With a very green horse, he said you should spend a lot of time just walking back and forth.  “I have endless patience when it comes to these things,” he said.  The minute you punish too much or get too aggressive, you create fear, so take the time the horse needs.

I sort of sat there nodding, thinking I should have brought the horse who was sitting back in the barn for this part of the program.

I was curious to see what the pony would do, because Groton House was the first ditch he ever negotiated in a relaxed way.  Normally, he comes up to the edge, plants his front feet, pokes his nose into the hole in the ground, then puts in a great leap (necessitating – of course! – much patting on the landing side).  At Groton House he seemed to have decided the ditch was just another jump on the course, and jumped right over.  I didn’t know if that marked a turning point in the way he thought of them, or if it was just an anomaly maybe born of the ditch being the 11th or so obstacle on course.

At the beginning of our session, the woman with the dark bay had asked to be the first one to go in our group, because she said her horse got very worked up staying behind (TB anyone?).  Once we started the ditches, Eric scrambled the order and had the pony go first.  He was the example!  Pressure, pressure.  After the half ditch, we trotted back and forth over the medium ditch and then he pulled us in to talk about what our horses were telling him.  When we came in, I happened to stop the pony standing maybe fifteen feet away from the large ditch.  Eric talked to us for a bit and then turned to me and pointed at the large ditch.  “Go,” he said.  At my look:  “Go from there.”  So I picked up my reins, nudged the pony into a trot and presto!  Big ditch, no problem.  Both the other horses had some trouble here, so we did the ditch a couple extra times so they could watch.  I got to be the proud mom for this part of the session, and the pony got to embrace his inner showoff.  Okay.  Maybe not so much inner. <3

Aside:  During one of these talk sessions Eric walked up to me and picked up my reins, which are knotted on the end.  “Why do people knot their reins like this?” he asked.  “So if you lose them, you can pick them up more easily,” someone answered.  Eric looked at me.  I shrugged.  “I knot them because they’re too long,” I admit.  Pony reins are on the XMas list, but for now the knot keeps me from putting my foot through.  I don’t mention the foot part because I don’t want to horrify him.  “Knotting the reins is a good idea,” Eric tells us, “but let me show you where they should be knotted.”  He takes mine and reknots them just over where the rubber starts.  “People hate this because it’s hard to get used to,” he tells us, “but this is where your knot needs to be if it’s going to help you pick up dropped reins.”  He also tells us that many types of reins, including most rubber ones, won’t hold a knot there (mine are the nylon center kind so they did ok), so what you should do is get an old shoelace and tie it around your reins in that spot.

We circled around the water and went to the banks.  We get an Eric tip:  when jumping down a bank, imagine a little piece of holly down the back of your britches – don’t hurt yourself with the holly when you land!  “How do you bring your horse to a bank like this?” Eric wants to know.  “Which one?” Penny’s rider asks.  “The big one, of course,” Eric says with a mischevious smile.  Silence from the gallery.  “You show jump it,” I offered, opening myself up to a whole series of questions and making me suddenly wish I had done nothing to invite the spotlight.  At the end of which we all agreed we need hind end coming in because the horses need to jump UP.  Not flat.  UP.  So we all did that.  And then, of course, he wanted us to jump down.  “How are you going to bring your horse to this?” Eric asks, picking me since I was the sucker last time.  I look at the down bank and the continuing downhill slope landing out into the open field.  I’m guessing “ride around it” is not going to be an acceptable answer, so I say, “trot.”  “Ah!”  Eric says.  “And where do you establish this trot?” 

Now, I know this isn’t going to be the answer he wants, but I can’t resist, because I know I have to do this balancing act with the pony whereby I get my whoa far enough before the fence to actually ride forward to the fence.  And sometimes, getting the whoa takes me a long time.  So I wave up the hill a couple of miles and say, “back there….by fence 14?”  He smiles at me, shaking his head, and I smile back.  I know what is coming next.  “Shannon,” he says, “do you plan to make the time on this course?”  We trot down the bank.  The woman on the dark bay has problems because she’s afraid of being run off with on landing.  She is pulling up in a hurry and since her horse is already on its forehand, he’s offering to buck.  So Eric tells us to land and send our horses on.  “Float your eye way out into the field,” he tells us.

Now, I know I should NOT follow this advice.  I basically know it’s meant for someone else.  But the pony is being good and I think maybe it’s okay for him to have a little fun, so I do what Eric says.  The pony, predictably, says WHEEEEE!!! and takes himself across the field as fast as his furry little legs can carry him.  I just keep him straight.  During the strides where I have no control whatsoever, I giggle.  The pony makes me giggle a lot.  Maybe too much.  I return to a mock-stern look from the clinician.

“Now this time,” he tells me, “land and remove four teeth.”  Here is the advantage of a two day clinic:  evolution.  On day one, he can tell me to remove my pony’s teeth.  On day two, when he knows me better, he can specify exactly how many he wants taken out.  So we go down the bank and this time I actually check, and everything is fine.  But because I was a smart ass in the beginning about the trotting thing, Eric singles me out again:  “Now go canter off it.”  I look at him, making no move at all.  I’m a little pony riding statue.  “Go!” he says.  And because I paid my $240 to listen to someone who knows a lot more than I do, I go.  And it’s fine.  He doesn’t land with any more gas than he did trotting.  Leap of faith for me.  Eric looks over.  “That was scary,” I say.  “It’s supposed to be,” he tells me with a grin.  But I did notice no one else had to canter off the bank!

More ditches now – the horses all go willingly and we just do them once.  No need to drill this when the horse gets it, Eric says.  If the question doesn’t bother them, we don’t want to give them the idea there was something scary they didn’t notice the first time.  He circles us up and tells us that riding a xc clinic with him is about puzzle pieces.  Give the horses the pieces, show them the way, and they will put the puzzle together.  It takes time and repetition.  Be patient. 

Last, the water.  Horses worry about their footing, Eric says.  They can’t see this footing.  They don’t know there aren’t any crocodiles in this water jump.  So first, walk them in, walk them around, and walk them out.  He points to the pony to lead the group, and the pony is a good boy.  Maybe he skipped class on crocodile day and ate grass instead.  Then we trot in, trot out; trot in, jump out up the bank; trot in over a log, trot out; trot in, jump out over the log.  Then he puts a series together for us:  trot in over log, out over up bank, one stride to skinny log.  That is a mini P question!  He tells us we will have to be strong on our left aids because the horses will be pulling toward the simple run out option they’ve already done.

We jump in, I find the line to the up bank, and notice for the first time that the log is, in fact, SKINNY.  At least two feet narrower than the up bank and maybe more.  The pony jumps up the bank, and having lost momentum, wiggles.  I make my reins very wide, glue my eye over the middle, sit and kick.  I can hear Eric yelling, “keep at it, keep at it.”  The pony gets two strides in the one, but he goes and I’m happy.  He thought on his feet and he was obedient.  Next time through, he’s figured it out and goes really well.  Then we were done for the day.

I was waiting for us to do the drop in, but we didn’t.  I wonder if Eric eliminated it from the program because of how difficult it was for the group before.  I’m pretty sure that’s what he was thinking because he went around starting with Penny and said, “for her, I think that’s enough for the day.”  When he came to me he sort of hesitated.  I knew it was my chance to ask to do the drop.  But the truth is, the pony’s dropped in before, whereas he just finished well on something he’s never done before.  So I kept my mouth shut and missed my opportunity.  What Eric finally said to us was, “and you…You have fun with that pony.”

Oh, I will.



  1. …And we’ll have fun watching and reading!

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