Performance and the 7 games
Recently I had the opportunity to attend the Rolex 3-day Event in Kentucky, a test of the top competitors in the 3-day eventing field including many past and future Olympians. Among some of this years riders were Karen O’Conner (from “The Future of Training” with Linda & Pat Parelli and Karen & David O’Conner), William Fox-Pitt (this years Rolex winner), and Marlynn Little-Meredith (finishing a close second).
In Eventing, the horse and rider are put through 3 days of challenges. The first day is Dressage, the second day consists of a Cross-Country jumping course – over 30 obstacles (including 3’ 6” tall jumps with a base of over 8 feet and jumps into water and at a gallop) while on course the riders and horses often exceed 20 miles per hour, and the course is 4 miles long. The final day (for those competitors able to continue) is stadium jumping (a course of jumps set up in an arena), meant to test the horses stamina and athletic ability. Eventing was originally designed to test horses aptitude to be mounts for the military. These horses needed to have great athleticism, maneuverability, courage and stamina to be good mounts for military men, hence the intense nature of the sport!
I have attended the Rolex event at least a dozen times in the past, it is where I found a passion for event horses and the challenge of the sport! After all those times watching the horses and riders this year something struck me with a new clarity. It’s one of those things that I’ve heard, talked about, practiced and even taught but “all of the sudden, out of nowhere” a BFO (Blinding Flash of the Obvious) comes and smacks you right between the eyes! This BFO was: the 7 games, and how they were a part of everything happening over the 4 days of competition. Most of the riders have never wiggled a rope at a horse to back them up, but their success depended, in large part, to the quality of their 7 games while riding!
Over the long weekend I was able to watch the horses progress through the disciplines and I started to see a pattern. On the first day of competition I watched the riders go through the dressage test (to test these supreme athletes ability to exhibit precise movements). Keep in mind these are horses that are fit enough to jump and gallop over 4 miles (the following day) and we are asking them to come out and show their rhythm, relaxation and obedience the first day! As the horses were flexed around circles, asked for precise transitions (between gaits as well as within gaits) and demonstrated their lateral maneuvers. All I could think was Circling Game for every arc and bend that they did. Yo-Yo Game during the transitions, and Sideways Game during the lateral maneuvers and lead changes! Not to mention the obvious friendly game with 1,000’s of spectators and international waving flags from various countries!! And here’s the best part: Pat says “Observe, Remember, and Compare” – what a great opportunity to do just that! I had the whole day to observe these horses and see if right circles or left circles were easier, to see if upward or downward transitions were harder and if the energy of the crowd bothered the horses. “Well, how will this affect the cross country day?” you might ask, after all the horses will no longer be in an arena, they will be galloping not walking and trotting a predictable pattern and it will be over uneven ground vs. a groomed arena?? Here is what I observed: the horses who had more trouble on their left circle, for example they might leak out through their right shoulder just a little – making a slightly bigger circle than the rider wanted or doing it with a funny angle in their body. These same horses on the cross country course, when unsure about an obstacle/jump, would duck out to the right and refuse the fence instead of going straight as an arrow over the jump. The horses that had more trouble with a downward transition in the dressage ring were the horses that had trouble coming back from a gallop to a canter when approaching a jump and as a result may jump ‘flat’, meaning without balance causing them to have a hard landing or need more space after the jump to recover their balance. This meant that they were not going to be ready for the next obstacle and may fall down or refuse to jump! Also, those horses that had beautiful half passes right but lacked the same ease left might miss a sharp turn, push through/ignore the riders leg and end up taking the long way around the course costing them valuable time (the riders often get options when coming up to several jumps, a difficult but fast way or a easier but slower way – the course is judges on time, so a rider needs to go as quickly as possible while making sure their horse jumps all the obstacles)!!
As I watched these simple (simple not always easy) things happen and build as the days of competition went along it reinforced in me the passion Pat has about playing the 7 games with excellence. After all he has often said that Level 4 is just Level 1 with excellence, and after seeing (with new eyes) the Rolex, all 4* Eventing is; is 7 games with excellence! As I watched the riders and horses struggle with the balance of the 7 games I knew ways to solve those problems on the ground without having to struggle through while riding. Thanks to Pat and Linda I have tools that will help me even at the most advanced Level of competition. I have a foundation that brings those pieces of the puzzle into focus and helps me know how to solve the problems that show up. The simple brilliance of the 7 games has given me the horse-mans tool kit to puzzle solve the most complicated problems, and Level 1-4 has given me the emotion fitness to look at those problems as puzzles and something to learn from vs. something to dread and avoid!
So, with a renewed passion for excellence in the simple things I am on the road again teaching and seeing just how good I can get those simple things with my horse. Even though we may not be riding every day I can be practicing what it takes to be excellent at my riding goal every moment I am with my horse. There doesn’t need to be a day where “we just played on the ground, and didn’t have time for riding – so I didn’t progress towards my goals”, every day even if we just halter and go out for a bite of grass I can ask myself how am I preparing positive patterns today that will serve me when I’m riding on a cross country course? How was his flexion when I put the halter on? Did he pull on my lead rope while he was eating grass? If yes, then we’ll take an extra moment to fix the flexion or to be sure I am not practicing heaviness by my horse pulling me around to the grass. One day that lead rope will be my rein and I need lightness so that there is no question about my horse sitting his weight back after a long gallop and getting balanced and ready for the next set of jumps/challenges! No matter what our goals or dreams are as horse-man no moment with our horses needs to be practicing the wrong thing, we can get excellence in the littlest things, after all our big goals are just made up of lots of little pieces.