The circle of death

Sometimes the answer to a problem is so simple, you overlook it.

Yesterday, I made my mecca to Holly Hill to get Chip’s monthly pedicure. Since it’s a 2.5 hour one-way haul, I try to make it a worthwhile trip and squeeze in a lesson or a XC school. I try to stick with the same instructor, so we can have continuity, but Julie was at a horse show. I was contemplating a hack instead with Amy when a lady walked up and asked if I was the one looking for a lesson. I affirmed, yes, I was seriously needing some stadium help. When she said, “well, I haven’t drank my beer yet, so…” I knew she was my kind of instructor. I told her I was fine with her drinking while she taught–who am I to deny her a cold brew on a hot Saturday afternoon?

Stupidly, I had decided to wear shorts this morning & planned on changing into my breeches when I got there. And then even more stupidly, I walked around and got hot & sweaty before changing. So, there I was, in the back of my trailer (because that dressing room gets freaking hot if the a/c isn’t hooked up), balanced on my toes, trying to shimmy into full-seats without falling over. Y’all, I love my Kerrits Sit Tights supreme, but stuffing my sweaty legs into those tights took me longer than it did to tack up my horse.

Chip was pretty anxious out in the ring. There was a lot to look at & he was the only horse out there. Since he wasn’t eager to stretch right out & walk on the buckle, I picked up the contact and immediately began asking him to step into the connection. Unfortunately, he was so distracted by everything around him, he wasn’t really hearing me. As I was about to begin my typical fix for that, EI (eventing instructor–I didn’t ask her if I could publicly announce her name on the world wide web) asked me if I’d ever ridden the circle of death.

It probably goes without explanation, but, on the off-chance you live in the barren lands without instruction (been there myself), you might just not know what the heck the circle of death is. And it probably sounds pretty intimidating. Will I die? Will my horse die? Ultimately, it’s just 4 poles on the ground (or small jumps) placed in a circle. And you ride that circle. Sounds easy enough, right? Well, that simple little exercise shows you really quickly if you really have your horse on the aids.

Circle of death

We started off just on a small circle, and EI had me supple Chip by simply moving his shoulders in and out of the circle with some counter-bend thrown in there. Chip quickly got the gist and finally relaxed, so we moved onto the circle of death.

I very quickly realized that I wasn’t looking around the circle, focusing too much on the oncoming pole and not planning ahead. This resulted, as EI observed, in a square, rather than a circle. By looking ahead and working on keeping the bend, rather than worrying about where the poles were, my circle improved dramatically, and it was time to move to the canter.

Luckily, Chip, like most OTTBs, has a great canter, so after a few trips around, EI told me to break off and hop over a small vertical off the left lead. We had a beautiful canter all the way. And then….I saw the long spot. WE HAD AN ENTIRE STRIDE LEFT AND I LAUNCHED MYSELF UP MY HORSE’S NECK. And Chip being the superstar pony, who was going to be so sweet and put in that stride said, “well, ok, mom, if you think we take off here, I’ll jump.” I should’ve ended up on the ground. Instead, we cantered off on the other side. I was mortified.

So, EI pulled the top rail off and set it as a placing pole. And this time, I told myself, no matter what, I would not jump ahead of my horse. And I didn’t. But I still threw my shoulders ahead like we were jumping a grand prix oxer instead of a 2′ vertical.

We swapped to the right lead. And this time, as I cantered up to the fence, I told myself to just wait. Lol, and so did EI. I could hear her shouting, “wait! Wait! Wait!” with every stride. I didn’t worry about the distance, I just kept Chip’s canter steady and waited. And, IT. WAS. BEAUTIFUL. So we did it again. And EI asked me if Chip had enough left in him to ride a small course. He did. So we did. And we jumped around in a quiet hunter canter, and I only threw my shoulders forward once.

I have lessoned with some pretty famous instructors: Lucinda Green, Jimmy Wofford, Stephen Bradley, Kristin Schmolze…and they’ve all put a grid in front of me. And grids work. They definitely have their place. But sometimes, it’s the simplest solution that has the most effect. Fix the canter, and the jump will happen.

My take home lesson was to keep the canter quality and then just sit and wait.  The quote of the day was, “When you think it’s time to jump, you still have another stride.”


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