Cross Country Clinic with Brian Sabo

As I mentioned in my post about schooling cross country, I’ve been wanting to do a clinic and get some professional help with cross country. The barn that hosts the schooling shows also has monthly Brian Sabo clinics so I signed up for a private cross country lesson on Sunday. I would have liked to get there early and watch more of the other lessons, but my husband wanted to do a conditioning ride with Eugene, so we didn’t end up getting there until 2:00. We ate our lunches while watching a jumping lesson.

At 3:00 I hopped on and we started in the arena to warm up. Apparently Brian used to ride and train mules in the past so he was familiar with them and seemed to like Nilla. I gave him a little speech about our past and why were there. My main goal was to get some instruction on how to approach cross country jumps so I don’t feel quite so panicked.

With the canter he talked to me about lightening my seat when asking for downward transitions. I apparently sit deep into the saddle and drive her forward while asking her to stop. He asked me to sit up a bit and open my hips. As soon as I did that, she really did slow much more easily. Then we started with a little cross-rail and he quickly got on my case for jumping over her neck and hurling my hands forward. I need to sit back and let her jump it. Which would be a refrain for the entire day (and really this is not the first time I’ve heard this).

I mentioned that I wasn’t sure how to go about jumping with Nilla. I can often see that our striding isn’t going to be perfect. But she doesn’t really like me to manage her. So we trot most jumps since she doesn’t knock them that way. He had two thoughts on this. First we had a discussion about the debate in eventing and show jumping where various trainers discuss how horses should either be ridden forward and allowed to figure out the jump for themselves or if they should be ridden precisely to the right take-off spot. His opinion was that beginning eventing horses need to learn to think for themselves. Once you hit prelim and up you should start micromanaging them, but you want them to be able to figure out how to jump themselves at the lower levels. 
As for trotting, he said he actually has his BN riders trot cross country jumps. They can canter on landing and canter in between jumps, but should come back to trot for the jump itself. And he requires his Novice riders to pick two jumps in cross country and trot them. That way the horse still understands how to come back to the rider and do a jump without always running to it. So we were fine to keep trotting most jumps for now. Which was great to hear as I had been worried about even attending a clinic without the ability to canter jumps. I thought I might have been told I need to go back to the basics before even attempting cross country.
With all that discussed, we headed out to the cross country field after that and Nilla was psyched to be out there.

We started with a little log to the tube we did last time.  The log went great. The tube, not so much. As we were approaching the tube, she starting slowing down. I pushed my leg on and drove her forward and she basically stopped and then popped over it. I really felt like I got left behind, but Brian tried to convince me that that’s the position he actually wants. Sit back, wait for the jump and then go with it. He even described the muscles in my stomach and lower back working to keep me going with her. Which I felt like were emergency muscles trying to keep me from falling, but are apparently just my muscles actually working to keep me centered instead of me flinging myself forward in advance of the jump


I wasn’t sure why Nilla had been so hesitant to the fence. We jumped it last time without an issue and she was loving the log jump so she wasn’t disinterested in jumping. As we approached the second time, I quickly learned why. It was a lizard. Unlike last time when all the lizards fled at our approach, this lizard wasn’t giving up his spot. And Nilla wasn’t going anywhere near the damned thing. And she was serious about that.

Her initial reaction was just to stop and refuse to go near it. The above reaction was because I tried to get her to just walk towards it. We sidled back and forth in front of it. We stood by the jump. We tried walking over the jump. We even turned her around and let her do the log going away to get her back in a jumping frame of mind.

But she did not want to do the tube jump. I asked my husband to come over and get the damned lizard. He tried but it just ran under the flower box. As we approached again, it climbed back out right in the middle of the flowers.  
It was a tiny little jump and I knew she could just walk over it so I just rode through all her shit. The only option was over the jump. She finally took an awkward hop over it. I truly got left behind on this as I was expected her to just step over it, but she did it. Lots of pats and a re-approach. It took a few more times to get her to do it without crawling to a walk, but we managed it.
From there we moved on to a line with a log to a pile of logs with a slight downhill approach. I was freaking out since I hate downhills. Even slight downhills. But Brian really took the time to walk me through my approach. We discussed exactly where I needed to be looking, which was level with my where my eye line would be at the top of the jump. In this case all the way across the field in the branches of some trees. Not where I thought it would be which was past the jump a bit down the field. He said if I looked there, then I’d be looking down while going down the hill and then I’d lean forward and mess up the approach. I jumped the little log, cantered down the hill, and jumped the log pile. 

I actually sat back so well and had good enough position over this jump that I didn’t have to do it again! Phew.

From there we went over a hanging log. Nilla was not a fan of this jump and really that was all my fault. No lizards to blame this time.

This shot doesn’t look terrible, but I got left behind so the next time I chucked my hands and upper body at her and she actually knocked the jump over. It was actually pretty funny. She knocked it down and Brian called me over to talk. He asked if I knew what I did wrong and hinted it was something I thought was helping. I mimicked throwing my hands up her neck and he was like “exactly!” My husband actually walked over and showed me this picture on the camera viewfinder and I cringed.

As Brian said, if you want a horse to throw its front legs into a jump, this is exactly how you’d ask. Eek. So we discussed keeping my hands down and sitting back. I came back around and this was the result:

Hands down? Check. Sitting back? Check. Happy mule? Check. He congratulated me on taking the instruction well and said I need to practice making a routine for myself. Brian was really great about introducing various sports psychology theories into his instruction. I really felt like he helped me not just with jumping the jumps, but with organizing myself as a rider for the future.
We went on to the little empty water/bank complex. As I mentioned, I’m terrified of down banks. Brian took a lot of time to walk me through the correct position for landing, which is not to lean back, but to land in the middle of the horse. I need to picture myself staying vertical through all parts of the jump. I stay vertical, the horse’s back end comes up behind me and that makes it look like I’m leaning back, but I am not actively doing so. I’m just staying straight. This is something that’s going to take a lot of practice for me.
We started with walking down the tiny bank and then trotting through and up the other side’s tiny bank.

After we walked that twice, he told me to trot down the large bank and then out the small one. And I was like, we’ve only walked the tiny down bank and now you want me to trot down the big bank?


I’m from the old school world of you do whatever the trainer tells you to do. Even if you’re terrified.

So we did it. And Nilla took a leap off that bank. And then she tripped and nearly fell on her face. And as we were falling, my thought was, well this just confirms everything I’ve ever though about down banks. Thankfully, I was able to stay upright through the trip by slipping the reins, pull her head up a bit, and point her at the out bank all within one stride.

Sorry about the pictures. Their not actually cropped badly; that’s all I had to work with. My husband wasn’t really prepared for us nearly falling on our faces and didn’t have the camera aimed that low.
Brian commended my riding through that and said he had not anticipated her leaping off the bank like that. So he had us come around to the smaller bank line at the trot. We managed that much better.

After the banks, we moved on to a little green coop. Nilla hopped over this really nicely.

And she got lots of pats for being such a good jumping mule. Plus, her canter is really getting so much better. It’s photographable now.

After the coop, we did another line on a slight downhill incline. This one was much less of a grade so I wasn’t as bothered. Brian asked me to canter both jumps. He said if she came down to a trot, to let her trot them, but to ask for canter and see if she would canter. So we did. 

This was the first time her tongue really came out that day and Brian thought it was really cute. He commented on how she’s not really doing it as a resistance thing, it’s more that she plays with her tongue. I commented on how I’ve lost points in dressage for it as lack of submission and he said I shouldn’t have. She’s not fighting the bit with her tongue. She’s playing. But I suppose it’s hard for a judge to tell that.

From there, we went over to a ditch. Brian gave me a great description of why horses don’t like ditches and how to ride them. Then he had me walk over it the first time and Nilla just hopped over like no big deal. Because we’ve got…

I need this T-shirt from ©Dapplebay

So he had us come around and trot it. Mule doesn’t care. Lizards are terrifying, but ditches are irrelevant.

To finish out the lesson, he told us to do the ditch and then canter around to the log and tube line from earlier in the day.


Barely worth picking her feet up for.

Canter around like the field like a grown up eventing mule?


Canter up the little hill to the log? 
Yes, please.
Jump the tube with the demon lizard?
Fuck no.
The damned lizard was back. I’m not making this up, the little bastard was skittering around between the flowers right in from of the jump. I love how the camera keeps panning because my husband was anticipating us, oh I dunno, actually going over the damned jump. I really do not know why she even cares about the stupid lizard and I’m really not sure how to practice this at home. Anyway, we re-presented and conquered the tube. Then we did the whole course over again with this result:
And we were done for the day. We walked out with Brian who was also done for the day. He was very complimentary of the mule and we thanked him for the lesson. I thought it was a really great lesson. He did a great job of breaking things down and explaining them, pushing me past my wimpy limits without completely mentally damaging me, and giving me a lot of advice for riding on my own to keep improving. I already want to do another clinic with him though I think my husband is going to do the next one. 

31 thoughts on “Cross Country Clinic with Brian Sabo

  1. TeresaA

    What a great lesson. He sounds like a good and patient teacher. I'm like you- you do what the teacher tells you.

    As for the lizard- that is a tricky one. Maybe you could get a plastic one from a toy store and put it around places for her to get used to. It could be that her instinct is treating it like a snake.

  2. eggiewegs

    Look at the happy mule ears. Besides the fire breathing lizard that eats mules, it looks like you both did really well. Go Team Jump Mule!

    I recently started riding at Sabo Eventing and I love it. I haven't had a lesson with Brian, but the teaching there is wonderful.

  3. Checkmark115

    Only horses (or a mule in this case) would worry about a damn lizard! She looks adorable though. And Sidetone, I love BS. I rode with him years ago and he was one of my favs

  4. Micaylah

    What a happy mule! I only rode a mule a few times as a teenager and omg the canter transition was something else. And he loved to launch over jumps

  5. Horseyhabit

    ok… she is SUPER cute!!! I'm glad you guys did so well!

    What about getting some fake lizards from the dollar store or something? Just for desensitization? might work… put them all around her food or something. 🙂 Just an idea!

  6. Olivia

    I'm certainly planning to get a plastic one, I'm just worried it won't work if it's not moving. And this mule has seen and ignored snakes in the past.

  7. Olivia

    We actually have lizards all over our barn and trails in the area. She has stepped on lizards before and not cared. Something about it being on the jump was terrifying. I'm betting she won't care if I put fake ones around, but I am going to try it and see.

  8. Olivia

    Yes, she's very good at launching herself over things. I'm really not a good enough rider to keep up with it when she goes from zero to launch.

  9. Olivia

    Thanks. Brian's comment on seeing the ear bonnet was "well, you're certainly not trying to hide those ears." And I replied "of course not, they're the best part."

  10. emma

    What an awesome lesson – seems like you tackled all the biggies too. Good to know that Nilla is apparently athletic enough to nearly eat shit going down a bank but still manage to save it!!! Also I kinda love the lizard pics – mare has opinions!!! All in all tho it sounds like a really positive outing!

  11. Nicole Sharpe

    Super schooling! I cannot believe Nilla was so sensitive about that lizard! Also, what did Brian think of her canter? I know you have expressed concern in the past but in all your pics she looks like she is cantering the jumps and doing so really well!

  12. Olivia

    It's interesting you ask. I didn't ask him but he did comment on her canter. I told him about how bad it used to be and he said I'd better have gotten that in video since there's no way anyone would believe it now. She's cantering much, much better now.

  13. Liz Stout

    She really is the prettiest jumping mule.

    "His opinion was that beginning eventing horses need to learn to think for themselves. Once you hit prelim and up you should start micromanaging them, but you want them to be able to figure out how to jump themselves at the lower levels." I was really excited to read this. And most everything he said, really. I like that mindset. I like the idea of being able to "bring the horse back to you" and I love starting horses a little slower and letting them figure it out. That's exactly what I've unintentionally done with Griffin (we have no outside training at this time because to get it I have to trailer us about 3 hours one-way) and I'm glad it's an okay method! Great recap, thanks for sharing!

  14. Olivia

    I'm glad it could help. I tried to type everything I could remember since I also don't have regular (jumping) instruction. So I can look back on this too. I really liked his instruction style and found his advice helpful and easy to understand and follow.

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