In our weekly lesson we are now jumping about 85cm (2'9") which probably doesn't sound like a big deal, but my desire is not to jump as high as possible in as short a time as possible, but rather to excel at going over jumps, raising the bar a bit at a time, and address whatever shortcomings become most obvious as the difficulty increases. My immediate goal, is to ride around in rhythm, to turn to the jump in rhythm, go over the jump in rhythm, and, you guessed it, ride away in the same rhythm. A Strauss waltz is a great thing to have in my head... so is Chuck Berry. Anything to keep time. And this is what we're working on because this is at the edge of where we feel capable, and it's the aspect of jumping that needs attention now, and this is what we will do until it seems too easy. Because, as I wrote before, learning and improving requires three pillars or legs to stand on, viz., do not leave your comfort zone, do it until you can't get it wrong, and pick the low hanging fruit first.
I don't recall being told this technique explicitly. I don't recall reading it anywhere, or hearing it expressed in any of the many pieces of advice, either from my how-to-train-your-horse videos, or from my book on learning to jump, or any of the materials I've gathered over a lifetime. Perhaps I have, but I've forgotten it. Or haven't read it in years. I cannot say. (I am also not going to back over all that material again to find out, either.) I do know that my video trainer, Clinton Anderson, explains that, 'whatever you goal, find a starting point, however far away, and work from there' and 'only ask for a bit at a time, and always reward the slightest effort' and Warwick Schiller on YouTube has a large number of videos that implicitly use these same principles, and many others write or talk about refining the process and refining your aids and so on.
I simply reduced all that down to three parts that I now keep in mind when training, which is why we went from adamantly refusing 30cm X-rails last January to clearing a dozen jumps at about mid-thigh height now. And the first measure is comfort and confidence.
When I say I do not leave my comfort zone, it does not mean I'm absolutely comfortable. If that were the case, I'd be doing nothing at all. What it means is, that at some point at whatever I'm asking him for, Oakley is going to balk and absolutely refuse, and at some point, he's going to be totally fine and relaxed (maybe a little too relaxed) and in between is a point that begins to make him nervous and he tries to avoid doing it. That's where we are in jumping. We started a course in learning to jump over things last summer (2016). Every obstacle, even the easiest was a series of refusals, until he'd finally go over, and then we would go over it again and again, until he was doing it (but still trying to find an out) and we'd eventually have about ten to 12 obstacles that we could go over in a sequence. The next week we showed up, he'd refused to go over anything again, and we'd start again, but each time, there would be fewer refusals. Eventually, we finally got around a really, really easy course the second time. Huzzah! And thus ended the outdoor season. We moved inside and went over the same thing with small x-rails. But when I started with 101 Jumping Exercises, the first few exercises do not actually ask him to go over a trot pole, they ask him to go near trot poles. That put him well inside our comfort zone. Eventually, we went over one pole. Then eventually a series of poles. Then some poles and two poles lying together on the ground. Then a small x, just barely off the ground. &c. &c. What I've come to appreciate is, that what we were doing, what we've been doing all along, is not just to stay within the limits of what we can do, but to go to the limits of what we are confident we can do. Oakley has not left his comfort zone, I have not left mine, but we went out from the place of total and complete confidence to the edge of what made us begin to feel doubtful and uncertain, but not beyond that point. What happens is a wonderful thing: after working at that point for some time, eventually it comes to seem easy, we become so totally confident in our ability to go over it, that when I raise the bar a little, we both know it is within our ability, even if not yet seem entirely easy. By going to the edge of the comfort zone, but not beyond that point, the edge has, in an of itself, expanded. So we never leave our comfort zone, it just gets bigger, the more we spend time at the edge.
The second idea I took from Warwick Schiller who took it from a sports shoe ad: do it until you can't do it wrong. He explains that does not mean perfection each time, but to repeat something until it becomes so thoroughly learned, so ingrained, so easy to repeat that you never have to think about what you are doing. I wrote before about what Ms. Klimke said about doing good corners, which amounts to something like 14 steps, if you break it down into parts, so that trying to think of all 14 steps when doing a corner is going to guarantee a very bad dressage score. But... we do those 14 step sequences over and over until it becomes two phases that succeed each other and until every time I get to a corner, I perform these sequences without thinking them through, and I do beautiful corners, keeping a frame but not losing any energy, almost every time. I do not have to think about it. I have done it until I cannot do it wrong. Similarly with jumping, starting with going over a single trot pole. Just going over that pole, once Oakley would step over it without flinching, I could practice my body position to go over a jump, I could practice lining up to a jump, I could practice keeping my head up and looking ahead, I could practice working on my seat and my balance, and whatever other aspect of jumping (I recall reading an article that had something like 23 points to keep in mind) that needs the most work, until it flowed, and then I'd add a bit of height, and it would become a bit more difficult to hold it all together, and we'd work at that level until everything was reliable and stable, and by then, the comfort zone had expanded and moving the cup up another hole was no Big Deal. This second pillar works with the first: because by repeatedly going to the edge of the comfort zone, one becomes so used to working the jumps at that level that it becomes second-nature. And when that has become second-nature, and the bar goes up, then new weaknesses show up.
That leads into the third pillar. Whenever the comfort zone has expanded and the doubt zone has become something more difficult, and we go into that zone, then the stress immediately shows some flaw in my technique that was not apparent at the easier level, no matter how carefully I've tried to work on everything. Seriously, how can I know I have a crappy release if I am going over a trot pole that doesn't require a bascule? How can I know that my legs aren't very strong if there is no actual strain on them because Oakley is stepping and not jumping over something? I cannot. I could not. But as soon as Oakley stopped stepping and had to start jumping, even over low, low obstacles 30cm (1') high, these flaws became obvious, and, of course, that was what I needed to work on before we could improve and move the bar up to a more difficult height. Many aspects of jumping cannot be learned until reaching a certain level of difficulty, when the lack of a particular and necessary skill becomes apparent. At that point, of course, this is the most glaringly obvious, the most in need of improvement, if we are to continue. This has become the low-hanging fruit, because it is also the easiest to attend to, to work on, to get right. Naturally, the best way to do that, is to see point #2, above, and jump over and over again, concentrating on fixing this issue, be it flapping legs, hands too low, jerking on the reins, not staying in balance, not folding forward, pick something, there are 23 things to look at.
So the low-hanging fruit right now, is building and keeping a steady rhythm while going over 85cm jumps, which we cannot yet do with the utter blasé confidence that comes from a huge number of repetitions. But we're working on it.