Susan Mackenzie sits in on a lesson, and wishes she was riding not writing…
Roz Neave took the photos.
Back when I was a 16-year-old eventer doing interschool competitions I thought we were doing pretty well just to get school saddlecloths and the odd report at assembly for the Equestrian Team. Things appear quite different at the girls’ school, Toorak College, at Mount Eliza in Victoria, which recently organised a three-day clinic with eventing superstar Megan Jones.
I joined the older girls on cross-country day, which was held at Sara Madden’s beautiful Tuerong property, ‘Fairhurst’ on the Mornington Peninsula. The riders were oh-so-keen, the sun was shining and Megan was wonderfully enthusiastic (and had my schoolgirl-self been there she would have been eager to get out on the course!).
It was a hot day and we took a minute to spot Megan who was under the cover of a very large hat, hard at work with the youngest riders. You wouldn’t think “Oh wow, there’s an Olympian” as she casually helped a 12-year-old girl get her pony through the water for the first time, enjoying the success just as much as the diminutive rider. Low-key, keen, quick, exacting, patient, particular, extremely knowledgeable and very approachable – that’s Megan Jones.
Before the girls even started the clinic Megan was examining all their gear, noting things like too-tight nosebands and unused saddle cloth tags which she said should be attached to the saddle or cut off, never bunched under the saddle: “We don’t want horses misbehaving at any time, but certainly not from pain”. Having taught the girls on the flat as well as over jumps Megan began the lesson with a revision of the previous days’ lessons, reminding them about hands and shoulders, balance and the responsibilities of the rider; emphasising that it wasn’t the rider’s job to get the horse over the jump, but to work everything out in between the jumps. This was the focus for the lesson.
“Your job is to sit in a balanced position, to ride the horses properly, to sit properly and to turn them properly.” “One of the biggest parts about cross country is travelling between the jumps. Rather than slopping along in between the jumps you need to stay connected. If you’re galloping along and see a jump then you are ready. All you have to do is have your leg on, hand connected, elbow connected and the horse is ready. There’s no scrambling to get ready.”
Megan explained the importance of using your body not just to balance but also to slow the horse, and not just focusing on your arms: “Who wins – horse against a bicep muscle? The horse every time. Horses are very sensitive and react better to your body than your hand, they will notice you’ve altered your position and react before they would acknowledge your hand.”
One of the schoolgirls showed that if you are just pulling your reins you end up pulling them in towards your tummy, which makes you collapse your body forward. You end up looking down, the connection is lost through the elbow and the horse runs away, ignoring you.
“To let them be free your shoulders must be back, your shoulder blades together and strong and you must be balanced. Your leg keeps you on, not your hands.”
“Your cross country seat is different to your showjumping seat. Riding cross country is all about being able to sit up if you need to, being able to go up and down hills, jump downhill, jump banks, stay on if the horse trips.”
Megan asked the riders to stand straight up in their stirrups to start the lesson, explaining that riding like this is the jumping version of riding without your stirrups on the flat. It allowed the riders to find their balance and find where the hands should be.
She asked them to trot and halt in this position, carrying their hands. A few horses were a bit confused by their riders asking them to halt with no seat in the saddle and carried on, not liking the hands that were there and not moving: “If the horse hits your hands from your balanced position that’s ok, because that’s not you pulling on them. They’ll hit them and go – ouch, that’s embarrassing, I hit your hands, I won’t do that again.”
One of the young riders made a point of asking Megan to help her with her horse’s tendency to get long and to run. Megan was quick to point out how important the rider’s position was to stop this: “Your hands need to be forward and not in at your tummy. A horse that gets long must be forward. If you ride with your hands back and him thinking backwards, you’ll be in trouble.”
The first jump was a skinny log, and Megan emphasised the rider’s responsibility: “Your job is line and pace. You show them the line, you show them the pace. No chasing three strides out, let the horse jump, not you. Line and pace.”
Seventeen-year-old Stephanie Wake had ridden one star on her grey horse, White Russian, but the horse hadn’t jumped for six months and was getting a little cranky, bulging through the corner and speeding up at the jump. “Turn your shoulders and the horse’s. Turn your inside shoulder back more. It’s all about where he’s putting his head and neck. As soon as he rolls over he pops his shoulder out.”
“Next time the horse’s shoulders need to come around the corner like a bus around a corner, get them moving early.”
“Count the canter rhythm in your body, your hands and in your elbow. Don’t lose it. Same. Same. Same.” Once the horse accepted the line, Steph maintained the rhythm and the jump improved.
“Look he hasn’t jumped for six months so no matter what you do today he’s going to whinge and complain. He hit your hand a few times, but that’s his problem. You choose the line, not him.”
Some of the riders were tempted to try a last-minute fix three strides out from the jump but Megan’s mantra was “The same, the same, the same. Rhythm, rhythm, rhythm.” She emphasised that it’s the quality of your canter that gets you over the jump, not fiddling three strides out, and the next time the girls jumped they were spot on.
The first related line was the same skinny log to another log on a rather sharp right-hand line: “You find your line, you find your fence”.
While all the riders were aware that they had to ‘look’ for their jumps Megan explained the need to be able to ‘feel’ the lines as well, noticing the shoulders and if the horse was drifting: “You have to be able to feel if they’re crooked. You have to get your ‘feeling senses’ on. We are looking for the jump, but you also have to feel it. If you don’t feel, the line is going to be a train wreck.”
The first rider was too fast and Megan pounced on this immediately: “I’m going to pick on you for a bit. Think back to the flatwork. It’s the same here. Your job is to control the line and pace: your horse wasn’t going too fast, you were choosing to go too fast, it was your choice.” “Your legs hold your position strong, which allows you to let go of your arms and use your body to slow him down.”
Megan was quick to notice anyone looking down as they approached the jump: Matilda Alexander, riding a lovely Anglo-Warmblood called Tanuie Lad, dropped her eyes before the jump, fiddling with the pace: “Get your eyes up and trust your distance,” said Megan, “It was there but you didn’t trust it, keep your leg on him, not a fast leg, but a supporting leg and trust that you’ve got it right.” They cruised through the sequence second-time round.
Another focus was on the energy in the canter, the canter having enough revs: “No matter how fast or slow you are going, you always need your leg on to set the horse up. You might have good speed but you need more energy.” “Now shorten the canter, keep your leg on, just open your chest and shorten your body.”
“Ride your leg to get organised.”
Megan was quick to put the responsibility back on the riders; after showing them what to fix the first time she then asked them to get it right on their own, because as much as we’d all like Megan Jones in our head each day, we do have to do this ourselves: “Now, do it without me saying anything. You need to check your legs. You need to check your eyes. That’s what you’re in charge of.”
Megan asked who wanted to go next and I almost opened my mouth, wishing I was 16 again, sitting on my old eventer ready to go…
It wasn’t revolutionary, what Megan was saying, we’ve heard all these things before from numerous instructors over the years, but coming from Megan it just made sense, and you could see that the riders thought so too.
Having established the basics we moved on to a series of brush jumps either side of a log on a mound. “I know you girls can jump all these jumps easily,” said Megan, “but together it gets difficult.”
The riders were reminded to feel the turns from the brush to the log (which were at 90 degrees) and Megan re-emphasised the importance of a balanced body on the downhill log: “Jump it down, stay tall, let your arms lengthen if you need to, teach them to jump down into your hand so you can stay in safety seat.”
“I’m the queen of sitting back! Some people go forward and that’s fine if you’re a strong man, or a woman who goes to the gym a lot. But if you’re not and you sit forward you’ll be spat out if something goes wrong. I’d rather look a little old fashioned sitting back and know I won’t fall off. Falling off isn’t fun.”
“I want you to all have horses that feel like Jester on cross country! He jumps down with his head up and ears forward, looking for the next fence, not down at the ground.” The sequence was a skinny brush, sharp right turn to the bank, up the bank, down over a log, sharp left turn to another brush. All supposed to be in control, balanced, with hands where they should be, canter full of ‘revs’, eyes looking for the jump, shoulders turning when you want them, horses under control…
How do you find teaching riders this age compared to teaching adults?
“I teach a lot at this level, I teach a whole range, but I love it, they’re responsive, they’re keen and they’re usually not scared. Adults, you’ve got much more of a fear factor there as well that you have to overcome, and then add in the control and balance. The first thing is the fear factor, and to get them more controlled and more balanced gives them less fear, but they don’t want to stand up and go down hills, so you have to get past that and then they’re like, oh hills are fun now, I can go down hills and jump fences.”
“These kids are keen, they’re soooo keen. It’s been great. The whole school has been great, we had a group today of kids this morning who would have been about 9-12, they were cute with their ponies, just cruising around. I had one little kid who was quite scared as her pony pulled and bucks a lot, but once I got her confident to go with the horse, send the horse forward back to her, rather than fighting it, then she was cantering down the hills, jumping off banks and she was just ecstatic to get over that fear of letting her horse go, and then to bring it back, it’s something I see over and over again.”
You were really focusing on working at riding between the jumps, rather than the actual fences…
“Yes, because the fences are easy, at the end of the day the horses are either going to jump or not jump, and they generally stop or duck out if the approach wasn’t right or the balance wasn’t right or the line wasn’t right. So I do a lot getting the balance right, the connection right, I could do a whole lesson with them just cantering circles, without them even jumping a fence!”
I don’t think you’d be very popular with the group if you did that…
“They’d absolutely kill me! If I came back next time I’d love to do one day of flat and two days of cross country with the first day working on balance and lines and control and second day you go out and jump the big jumps and gallop fences and do trickier jumps, but without the control there, it gets a bit scary. I want to be safe the whole time.”
“I said to them I want you to feel that you’re riding Jester on cross country. Because I didn’t realise what a cool horse he was, and what a great balance I had with him, until I moved on to my other horses and brought them through to two star and three star and then I went, hang on a minute, what’s missing here, what am I doing wrong. I went back and watched videos and looked at photos and realised – it’s the eyes, the shoulders, the hands; all of it I just did, I didn’t think about it. So I had, not relearn that, but look at what I was doing so then I could teach it to other people. Because, if they could feel like they were on Jester that would be great, he’s so nice to ride.”
…and wouldn’t we all like to ride Jester cross country!