To say that I am easy to teach would be a lie. I always like a second opinion on my horse, but I have also been incredibly picky about who that opinion comes from and I have been this way ever since I was just learning how to ride. I remember being around ten and having to take a lesson from another instructor because mine was on vacation and riding past my mom in the viewing room just to roll my eyes or make a face. So when I like an instructor you know it is the real deal.
Becker recently brought in Dee Dee Hopper for a clinic and let me tell you: this lady is the real dang deal. I loved her and I think my horse loved her even more. The idea of old school, classic riding is so appealing but is far lost in the days of training aids and “head sets”, Dee Dee took us back to the traditional way of riding a horse and equitating.
I chose to ride Ax in the third session of the day, so I got the chance to watch a bit of the other lessons and I couldn’t believe it. One of the horses who is infamously full of sass was loping around the course as happy as could be. They went in as one horse and came out as another in the most positive way possible.
Part One: Warm-up
We started with a simple flat warm up of making sure that we were sitting in the center of the horse and riding both sides of the horse evenly. We were were instructed to use our thighs to keep the horse straight and to remain soft in our riding.
Next we moved onto canter poles set along the rail. The focus was to simply canter over the pole with emphasis on staying relaxed and soft throughout the approach and departure. (You’ll notice that this is reoccurring and much needed on my part). She honed in on my tendency to ride with a shorter, nagging inside rein and uneven hands and told me to “use muscles, not motion” when using my reins and body. She also strongly encouraged the use of the rider’s voice to relax the horse with a “woah” as opposed to using the reins to slow the pace.
To warm up over fences, Dee Dee had us combine the canter pole with an inside turn to a single flower box. The emphasis was on staying relaxed and not “jumping” the fence, but easily cantering over it. Ax and I began to have trouble on the final turn to the box where we bulged too far to the outside instead of coming in straight. I was instructed to use a slight opening-inside rein, close the outside thigh to guide, and shave off the corner instead of squaring it off all of which made a huge difference in our approach. This is also where Dee Dee noticed that Ax’s stride tends to build coming to the jump and she wanted me to use more of my voice and less of my hands to keep his pace consistent and slower; not as “prancy”.
Once we figure out the inside turn we moved onto a diagonal flower box with a rollback towards the wall on the landing. We missed the turn entirely the first time and barely made it abruptly cranking him to the right at the last minute. We managed to execute it smoothly on the fourth try where I finally sat up on the landing and guided Ax with my seat through the corner.
Part One: Adjustability
For the over fences portion of the lesson Dee Dee had each rider go one at a time and changed the exercise according to the horse and rider. Ax and I began on a flower box line that rode in a forward three or a short, slow four and our job was to get the four. This was probably the most frustrating part for me and unfortunately I think it was pretty apparent to all that were watching. Dee Dee told me to “say woah every stride” and as I did, I forgot to add enough leg to keep the canter so we broke to an awkward trot at the last stride. In an effort to fix that, I over-corrected on the next approach and ended up with too much stride, resulting in a long spot and a three in the line. The next two times down the line is where the frustration set in. On both entries Ax broke to a trot when asked for a shorter stride and ended up with threes instead of fours. Finally, I figured out that I was woahing too late in the line to shorten for the four and got it right on the last try. Then we changed direction and focused on catching our strong right drift through the line while still getting four strides.
Part Three: Relaxation
The last thing we did was a few single fences to keep Ax relaxed and stop drifting right. Our first fence was a long approach, single vertical that was hard, right launcher. After closing my thigh and slightly opening my inside rein we jumped straighter but I ended up throwing my hips to the right in the air. We then moved to a single vertical set on a slight diagonal off the wall. Our first attempt was solid but was rough on the landing, on the second try Ax didn’t even see the jump until he spooked at it and crashed over it, and the third time was the best with a steady approach and balanced landing.
I can honestly say that I noticed a difference in Ax from the beginning of the clinic to the end. He felt much happier and relaxed, and if he is happy then I am happy. I completely loved Dee Dee Hopper’s way of teaching as well as her style of riding. She was tough and challenged me all for the sake of the horse.