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2018 Evie Tumlin Fund Grant Recipient - Nicole Miller

Going Backward to Go Forward

I received the Evie Tumlin Grant for Region 9 riders this past spring. I was to take my horse, George, to a clinic with top British rider, Charlie Hutton. Conveniently located right down the road, this was going to be an opportunity to ride three times and really be able to capitalize on what we learned. I was looking forward to the opportunity with great anticipation.

And then life happened.

A couple of weeks before the clinic, George came up lame. Like, really lame. After extensive testing, we couldn’t figure out the source of his lameness or even where the lameness was stemming from – was it his back, a limb, his neck, something else? He was literally limping on all four legs at different times and had all the vets perplexed. So, George was given several months of pasture rest and I had to postpone my clinic. Fortunately, Charlie was scheduled to come back in December, so we were getting ready for that.

And then life happened. Again.

I took George to a schooling dressage show and had probably the most rodeo-like experience of my riding career – complete with being launched from the saddle in the middle of the warmup ring. At that moment, I came face to face with the realization that George was NOT happy being a dressage horse and he needed to find another job. And also, I’m not getting any younger, and dealing with these types of shenanigans on a regular basis is rather taxing on the body. I’d worked hard for years trying to bring George along. He’s talented, beautiful, and a sweetheart. But, apparently, dressage is not his thing. So, I sent him off to a jumping trainer where he’s having the time of his life doing gazelle impersonations.

And then Charlie came to town and I was horseless – again! However, I figured the best use of my grant would be to ride a nice, steady horse and focus on me. Years of riding trying to avoid ‘pushing THAT button’ on George have made me timid, insecure, and my form was less than stellar as I interiorly assumed a fetal position in anticipation of outward expressions of exuberance. Fortunately, Oak Hill Ranch (host of the clinic) has a sweet, patient fellow named Virtuoso who was just what I needed, and they agreed to let me use him for the clinic.

As I warmed Virtu up the first day, I talked to Charlie about my goals for this clinic. I basically said, ‘Treat me like a new student. Let’s go back to basics because I’m a mess.’

After watching me take Virtu through his paces, he asked if it was all right if we worked on the longe line. I was absolutely ok with that. So, on the longe line we went, and away went my stirrups, too! We worked for awhile on just me getting the feel of the horse, sitting into him, and relaxing my leg. I’ve become rather defensive in my riding, so it took me a while to relax. Charlie kept emphasizing ‘floppy legs’ and ‘letting everything relax’. I felt like a marshmallow. But, not having my stirrups to brace against forced me to recognize where I tend to grip (my knees) and how I’m typically balancing (off my stirrups and reins). I should be deeper in my seat, using my seat bones. Of course, I KNOW this … but getting my body to cooperate is something else entirely.

To help assist in loosening up my hips, Charlie did a stretching exercise in which he literally pulled my leg straight out to the side. I think he was surprised I didn’t really ‘hurt’ in this stretch, though it was tight. Mostly, inside my thigh was tight and he said I’m likely gripping too much there, too. So, after stretching out my hips we went back to work.

Charlie had me feel the horse and let him know when the hind legs were leaving the ground. For whatever reason, I had difficulty with this, although I was right on the money when the foot was hitting the ground! Timing is everything! The most interesting thing about this exercise, though, was that focusing on what the horse’s body was doing made me sit better on the horse – I had better posture and was deeper in the seat. Interesting!

The next thing was to go through all three gaits with no stirrups. Thankfully, Charlie let me do sitting trot! It was actually rather awkward for awhile to move up into trot from walk. Virtu is responsive enough, but I’ve become conditioned to be very timid about using my lower leg – I don’t think he even felt the aids, bless his heart! So, it took a bit for me to become a more aggressive with the aids and get him moving, using mostly seat and some leg. Then was transition to canter. Ok, so most of my issues with George happened during the canter, particularly the canter depart. I found myself holding my breath when asking for this, so I had to really relax and sit and just go with it. ‘Be intentional’ Charlie said. Basically, I should ask for it and mean it. And pay attention to ask at the right time – not doing so just caused a very fast trot! Virtu has very pleasant gaits and eventually I could relax into his rhythm. Working on allowing my hips to move with the horse rather than my lower back or my upper body swinging made for a very pleasant canter experience (what a concept!!).

The hard part came with the downward transition to trot. As Charlie so nicely put it, I did a great demonstration of how NOT to do a downward transition. So we worked on that for awhile: sitting into it and riding forward into the trot and the walk. It’s kind of amazing the difference just that choice of words makes. While I’ve known all along that I’m not supposed to be ‘stopping’ the horse in a downward transition, that’s what my brain told my body. Therefore, transitions were rather … abrupt. Thinking about going forward into the transition made them much smoother. Lightbulb moment! (I’m sure my regular trainer is sighing loudly because I KNOW she’s told me this. Repeatedly. It just stuck this time!)

We finished with that for the day. I put lovely Virtu away hoping I didn’t make him too sore with all my jostling around on his back. He seemed perfectly happy to go back to his stall and call it done. He’s such a sweetheart!

The theme of day two: fake it until you make it!

The second day we did not do any longe work, it was all riding. We focused more on getting the horse round and connecting him back to front. Being on an unfamiliar horse, I was hesitant to take too much contact or be too strong with the aids. Charlie made sure to tell me what I was doing was, obviously, not effective. Essentially I was asking the horse to respond more like “I think I want you to trot. Soon. Please? I think..” Rather than “Trot now.” It was kind of funny when he put it that way, but it’s pretty much how I felt. So, we worked on making that commitment to move faster or slower, when I asked. It’s going to take awhile to retrain my brain to realize I’m not being unreasonable or mean, the horse just needs to respond to what I ask. (Story of my life - I’m too ‘nice’!)

We did a lot of sitting trot, too. On my best day, I’m not super at sitting trot. Virtu had a reasonable trot but I just couldn’t get ‘more’ out of him. Charlie had me lean backward. So I did. He laughed at me and told me to lean back to where I felt uncomfortable. So I did. He had me look in the mirror – I was finally straight. Hmm. So, guess what … yeah, Virtu was able to give me more trot because I was pushing him through my seat, not falling on his neck and tapping him with my legs. I rode like that for awhile to get the feeling for it. Of course, focusing on one thing means everything else fell apart. My legs were all wonky and my arms were floppy. He told me that it will take me some time to be comfortable and secure enough in my seat, but the rest will fall into place as I keep working at it. That was encouraging!

I mentioned to Charlie that, generally speaking, I tend to tip forward when I ride, particularly in transitions. I struggle with this all the time and have yet to really stop it from happening. I thought it was partly lack of muscle and the fact that I’m rather long waisted. He asked me an interesting question: “How confident are you in your riding, on a scale of one to ten?” I said “Six.”. “There’s your problem! You have to ride with more confidence. Act like you know it all. If you don’t, you’re going to continue to collapse because you don’t think you have what it takes.” I said I wasn’t really that confident!!! His response: “Fake it till you make it. Just do it.”

So, we went forth and worked on just being more confident and riding forward. I was still a bit too timid, but there was overall improvement which I was pleased with.

The final ride with Charlie was probably the most fun for me. I went in telling myself to just be confident and ride! We focused on putting together all the things that we’d been working on and it felt pretty darn good. I was more comfortable with Virtu and less concerned about being too aggressive. I was more successful in getting him round and soft and moving along much more quickly. (This was also helped along by the use of dressage whip!)

However, Charlie noticed that we weren’t really using our corners. So, to help me do better with that and to help Virtu work off of his hindquarters more, he had me trot deep into the corner, walk a couple steps, then trot back out. We were going at a very strong working trot interspersed with medium trot. Virtu started figuring out what we were doing and would read my body language and break early and swerve in from the corner. So, we mixed it up a bit and then moved to the same exercise in canter.

Canter down the long side, walk a few steps in the corner, and canter out. This had the effect of forcing Virtu to rock back, really listen to the aids, and resulted in a really fun, forward, and uphill canter. I was so pleased with this because I’ve never ridden a horse that carried itself so uphill and forward in the canter for more than a step or two - it was a great feeling and something I can work toward with whatever horse(s) I find myself on the in the future. Plus, with more push from behind, he was lighter in my hand, and I didn’t have to work so hard. What a win!

Another thing I found beneficial was that I know I can be a bit crooked at times, and I was feeling Virtu occasionally fall in toward the right. On my horse, when I would try to correct this, he’d ignore me or get cranky, and the result was never a straighter horse and quite possibly emphatic expression of opinion. With Virtu, I could make the correction in my body and feel the result immediately in a straighter and more responsive horse. It was such a treat to not guess that I had perhaps felt wrong and made an incorrect response: I made the correction and it was done. This is what riding is supposed to be!

Charlie seemed pleased with most of our work and told me I wasn’t ‘faking it, I was making it’ because I wound up with a lighter, rounder, more pleasant horse to ride. That really made me feel like I’d accomplished something!

Riding with Charlie Hutton was a great experience. He was very encouraging and gave me a lot to think about and work on. As much of a mess as I felt I was going into this, he didn’t once tell me to give it up and was generous with praise where I got right. While I had intended on riding my horse in this clinic, in the long run, I think I got more out of it by riding Virtu. Being able to focus on me, where I needed to improve, and seeing/feeling the results of those improvements immediately was invaluable. I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again, and hope that I will be able to repeat it in the future.

I’m so grateful that the Evie Tumlin Grant made this opportunity possible for me. I am so encouraged and looking forward to what the next months will bring, whether it’s a new horse for me or just riding whatever horse I can. I feel like I can do this … and those days I feel I can’t, I’ll just fake it until I make it!

Photos by Marie Cobb - Ree Photographics