Our First Clinic

At long last, I’m finally typing up my thoughts about our clinic with Will Simpson last month!

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There’s Francis trying to snuggle with Will! PC – Phelps Media Group

This was a one-day clinic where each group had 4-5 riders and about 90 minutes with Will to work on the flat and over fences. They started with the 3’6″ group, moved on to the 3’3″ group (which was mine!), took a lunch break and then had the 3′ and 2’6″ groups in the afternoon.

He had all of the groups do similar exercises on the flat, and I found this part really useful. Starting at the walk and eventually moving up to the canter, he has us establish a nice forward pace on a very loose rein, then add a bit of leg and a bit of hand to encourage a release over the poll. The instant the horse gives, you release the hands. Nothing groundbreaking in itself, but his explanation of the timing and aids definitely helped it click into place for me. He even got on Frankie to demonstrate!

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Not a big deal at all, just my horse being ridden by an Olympian.
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Francis: “Oh crap oh crap this isn’t my mom, he actually knows what he’s doing, this means work, MAHM COME GET ME”

For a horse that struggles with the concept and execution of self-carriage (or more accurately, a rider that struggles with the right way to ask for this), I’ve found this exercise to be extremely helpful in every ride since. I’m able to remind Frankie to soften and give, allow him a release when he gets it right, and decide how frequently and for how long I ask for it. Not only am I getting a rounder horse up into the bridle, but I’m able to ask for a more productive stretch once we’re warmed up.

You can even watch Will work with him on these exercises!

The next exercise he had us all do was a figure-8 over a pole at the walk, making sure to step over it with the inside front leg first. It was simply a very tight turn, eyes locked on the pole, and adjusting your track by moving left or right to get the perfect spot. I was a bit nervous about this since I am regularly a clueless monkey up top, but this actually worked pretty well. It was great practice for getting your eyes on an obstacle and keeping them there while making adjustments as necessary. He said he loves this exercise because it’s a great chance to practice precision and finding a spot without pounding the horse or stressing them out – they have no idea if they got it wrong since they’re just walking over a pole on the ground, so it’s easy to go try again.

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Francisco had those thinking ears on

The last big flat exercise he had us work on was cantering small circle-big circle-small circle. The way he had us do it was to pick up the canter on a very small circle to really encourage the horse to rock back and power up into the new gait, establish the canter on a larger circle, and then ask for the walk transition on a very small circle by using the turn to let them balance themselves into the downwards. I did like this a lot for Frankie – anything that puts the onus on him to balance and propel himself is very helpful and keeps his brain engaged. He caught on to this delightfully quickly and I really liked how the small circle discouraged him from “plopping” down into the walk.

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The actual most perfect Frankfurter be-boppin’ around

Then we moved on to some over fences work. The main exercise Will had our group do was coming to a small jump off a short left hand turn. His order of operations was: (1) lock eyes on the jump as soon as reasonably possible (2) use an opening rein to establish the bend towards the jump, then release the bend to allow flexibility in the track (3) actually jump the jump.

The hardest part for me was keeping my eyes on the jump for that long. Will really drilled it into us that once you look at the jump, you should not be looking away – that gives your brain the chance to get distracted and lose the spot. It definitely took some practice to not let my eyes wander off #easilydistracted and I noticed a difference when I was able to stay super focused on the jump. I found it interesting that he seemed to like a bigger flowier distance even to the little jump we were doing. For small jumps I usually try to put Frankie a bit at the base to encourage a better effort and I had to adjust to leave a bit further out for the spot Will wanted us to get.

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This is why I like a closer spot for small jumps – when we’re any further out, he’s comfortable cantering over it. And apparently taking a quick nap.

We moved on to doing 2 jumps on a circle, putting our eyes on the next fence while we were still over the previous one. Continuing to use the opening correcting rein to give us options on the track. It was interesting and certainly effective.

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It was the brown end jump and the tan RF jump (that was set smaller for our exercise). Bit of a circle of death in a good way.

And that was our session. Some good takeaways – nothing truly groundbreaking, but clearly communicated and good practice applying those concepts.

However.

There were several other exercises set up in the ring. There was a series of 8 bounces to encourage self-propulsion, and there was a gymnastic set up with 4 oxers each set one stride apart. I was really pumped to give those a go with our new skills. But then we broke for lunch and didn’t get to do either of them. Every other group got to do every exercise except for ours. Other groups ran over their allotted time to be able to do them while ours ended a bit early. I’m definitely salty about that. I’m not sure of the reason for it and I assume there is a logical one, but logically I also paid the same amount of money and would have liked the same opportunity to go through all the exercises.

You can read about all the exercises here: https://www.phelpssports.com/five-essential-exercises-olympic-gold-medalist-will-simpson/

You can also watch the 3’6″ group on USEF on demand here (complete with AT on her baby horse that she’s brought along from the ground up!): https://www.usef.org/network/coverage/2019rutledge/?cl=b

I will say that the venue itself and the way the clinic was run was wonderful. The farm is stunningly beautiful, the ring had great footing, there were snacks and water and a few little vendors set up, and I even got a swag bag! Frankie got some treats and I got a customized wine glass with the date and the clinician’s name on it. Not gonna lie, it made my hoarder heart want to go back and clinic there again just so I can collect a set. The host did a truly fantastic job of making me feel welcome and supported as a rider there, there were plenty of opportunities for auditors to ask questions, and you can’t beat the location.

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Is there anything better than a beautiful barn in Virginia in the fall? I think not.

I also had a great time with my friends that went, and of course I enjoy any opportunity to try new things with my favorite beast.

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Friends!
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The sweetest bay boys were happy to chill on the trailer while the other folks rode. Frankie loves Vinnie, and Vinnie solidly tolerates Frankie.
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This post wouldn’t be complete without a picture of Francis making some sort of funny face.

So overall thoughts: I’m kinda eh on it. It was fine. There were some interesting takeaways that I’ve found useful in the month since the clinic. I think I would’ve been perfectly happy for the novelty of riding with an Olympian if I had paid less for it. As is, I’m not thrilled that my group got less to do, and ultimately that colors my view. That being said, I’m already looking for the next clinician I want to ride with at that venue because the overall experience of participating there and the atmosphere was A+. Clinician was a decent 6/10, venue and experience were a solid 11/10.

 

Our Show Warmup

I realized that while I love giving you all a blow-by-blow of our shows, I tend to gloss over the way that we warm up for our rounds. Not that it’s particularly exciting, but every horse is a bit different and it seems that we all have slightly different approaches to the way we prepare to enter the ring.

 

The main title of our approach is: Conserve All Energy. That is really our goal behind all showing decisions, but it especially comes into play in the warmup ring.

What this means in practice is as short of a warmup as I can reasonably get away with, while still making sure my horse’s muscles are stretched and ready to go.

To go into a bit more detail, I tend to mount at our stall and use the walk to the warmup ring to set the tone of  “we move forward off the leg when it’s time to work.” By the time we get to the ring, I may do a lap or so at the walk depending on timing, but we get to work pretty quickly.

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Stretchies on a loose rein to get us goin’. PC – A. Frye

At this point it’s just about loosening up. I’ll do a couple laps each direction at the trot and then the canter to get the blood flowing and start really reinforcing the GO button. Light contact and a supportive leg to reassure him in a new environment but not asking for much yet.

Once we’re all on board with the forward motion, I’ll do a few lengthenings/shortenings within the gaits to tune him into my seat and make sure he’s fully paying attention. Maybe a few little shoulder-ins to help move his body a bit more. At this point I start picking up more of a feel as he starts lighting up a little.

And that’s my flat warmup. Short, simple, to the point. Francis is luckily well-behaved and attentive in busy rings, so we do not use this as a schooling opportunity – it is simply a warmup in the purest sense of the word: we warm up our muscles. We may throw in a few extra shoulder-ins on the rare occasion that he takes offense to a wheelbarrow by the rail, or we may do a few more transitions if he’s feeling antsy, but by and large I simply use this chance to make sure we’re paying attention to each other and are ready to jump. I very much want to save his energy for the jumping efforts.

Which we also try to limit before we go in. We’ll pop over a vertical a couple times, going up in height every time. We’ll then move to an oxer and do that 2-3 times. By that point we should be up to full competition height. We’ll then usually reset to a vertical and go up a bit over competition height to remind Frankie to pick up his feetsies. If there’s a particularly tough turn on course we’ll end practicing that turn – for example, if I know that there’s a point in my course where we have to land and immediately turn right, I’ll practice coming off a short approach and immediately turn. It sets the tone for him that he needs to be asking where we’re going at all times rather than assuming.

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Always always, the emphasis is on forward and straight to the base to encourage a good effort. PC – A. Frye

That’s pretty much it. We limit our flatwork to what we need to prepare to jump, and we limit our jumps to get us up to height and ready to turn. I like to head over to the ring when I’m 1 or 2 out which gives us a brief break to walk and relax before picking up the reins and heading in.

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I like to take this chance to let him relax and reset mentally so he feels fresh going into the ring.

That’s our warmup in a nutshell! It tends to be shorter than many others that I see, but over the years we’ve found that it works best for us. I have a fairly lazy horse, we often compete in the heat, and I like him to exit the show ring still feeling like he has plenty of gas in the tank.

I know warmups look very different for everyone, especially across disciplines – how do you approach warming up at shows?

Can We Try This Again

Y’all, I’ve been riding my horse more often and for longer times lately and IT FEELS AMAZING. He’s giving me lovely work, he’s jumping out of his skin and firing off the ground beautifully, and he’s straight up happy. I’ve told you so many times that the big dude thrives in a fuller training regimen and the proof is so clear – his already playful and curious nature is absolutely next level these days.

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I need to remember how to hold my position more tightly when the jumps go back up a bit, but the Frankfurter is simply excellent at his job

 

We’ve been incorporating more conditioning rides and as it turns out – Francis is totally faking being a chunk. I mean, physically he’s obviously rockin’ that Dad Bod. But endurance-wise? Barely sweating, not even puffing. Jokes on him, that just means we’re making these sets longer and more difficult. Seriously Francis, now I don’t believe you when you say you’re exhausted after trotting two laps.

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Couldn’t quite seem to keep all my body parts coordinated through this grid, but I’m confident it’ll all come back in time. 

Making the point to ride more frequently and with more focus is also straight up making me a better person in all areas of my life. I know it was the right call to take a small step back from riding for the wedding and for school, but now that I have a better handle on things I definitely prefer getting back into my previous 5-6x a week schedule. It forces me to be more disciplined and productive with my time and I’m simply a better student, employee, wife, daughter, friend, etc. when I’m getting my full horse fix. I suspect a lot of you know the feeling.

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We’re both much happier when we get extra time to goof off together.

As you may have seen in pictures, I also got myself a new helmet during the IHAD weekend sales! And this whole thing is actually where the title of this post comes in. As you may or may not remember, I got a new helmet about a year ago – I went to Dover, tried on a bunch, and was informed that nothing really fit my head except the CO that I ultimately ended up buying. I was super bummed because I had really liked a Samshield I had tried on previously, but we all know that helmet fit is paramount and that was basically the only thing they had in stock that truly fit my head. The rep there sadly informed me that the Samshields just didn’t fit my head as well.

You know what I wish she had said instead, that would’ve been more accurate? “The Samshields THAT WE CURRENTLY HAVE IN STOCK don’t fit you as well.” That sentence would have been accurate.

Because back in June, I stopped by one of my favorite show vendors to peruse their ever-lovely merchandise. I admired the Samshields yet again but informed the rep there that sadly my head was not destined for such breathability. She then proceeded to spend the next 20 minutes pulling out not only different SIZES of liner, but different SHAPES. Because newsflash guys, Samshield makes liners for both round and oval heads. And it turns out that yes, Samshield does have an option that fits me perfectly and safely and is extremely comfortable (and yes, I have basically a child-sized head). I didn’t pull the trigger and buy it on the spot because I was in the midst of paying for the show – but with truly amazing service, the rep wrote down all the info I needed to be able to order it myself when I was ready.

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After a VERY intense week of lessons/pro rides/conditioning rides, we did have a much-needed toodling day to stretch our muscles and recover. I love my mobile couch so much.

So fast forward to now, I went ahead and ordered it from their site. They put in the customer service and effort so they 100% deserved that sale. And I now have a helmet that fits perfectly, helps with the sweaty head, makes me feel super fancy, AND I can swap out different sized liners so I can actually safely wear my hair either up or down. This is LIFE CHANGING to no longer get a blinding headache when I need to wear my hair up in the eq ring.

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Francisco approves of it and that’s clearly the most important thing

So the moral of the story is that when working with a salesperson, it would be good if that salesperson is not only knowledgeable in what you’re talking about, but is willing to, I don’t know, PULL OUT ANOTHER SIZE WHEN ONE DOESN’T FIT.

And in a quick mishmash of other updates: Frankie’s leg wound is healing great with no complications, we’re psyched for our show this upcoming weekend, and I finally bought brunette hairnets (I haven’t been blonde in many years). All good stuff.

Time to Tighten Up

As we’re heading into our busy fall, I’m thinking hard about how to make sure Frankie is ready to tackle every adventure feeling fit and healthy. I’ve gotten pretty good at managing his workload at shows so he doesn’t get too tired – he never does more than 2 classes a day, and we stick to 1 when possible – but the clinic we’re signed up for does have a roughly 90 minute slot. I definitely don’t want to be the pair that’s losing energy halfway through, so conditioning is the name of the game!

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I feel like this angle is EXTRA unflattering but yeah he’s a real chonky boi right now

To do that, I’m trying to increase the length of our rides. My lessons once a week are obviously a full hour, but historically I’ve let myself get lazy with our other rides. I’ve been making an effort lately to help increase both of our fitness levels by pushing a bit harder (within reason) and this is roughly what I’ve come up with:

Lesson 1x a week. Hoping to transition back into private lessons on Fridays this fall as the show season slows down a bit – maybe even this week? A full hour private lesson vs full hour group lesson is quite different in terms of duration of work. And I do miss those private sessions where we can really drill into the specifics of what Frankie needs from me to be better.

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Honestly I kinda desperately need some dedicated attention so we can look like this again

Training rides 2x a week. These happen mid-week and to be fair I do need these days at home to get schoolwork done. These tend to not be hugely long sessions since AT has plenty of horses to get done. They’re more targeted at tuning up his sensitivity and getting him to work really correctly, which is more of a weight-lifting exercise for him. I then usually manage to undo all this hard work from week to week, but that’s fine we don’t need to talk about that.

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My trainer can literally make my horse go around a course this big looking happy and confident so yeah big fan of what she’s doing with him

Conditioning rides 2x a week. I’ve been keeping up with our hill sets with some degree of success when weather cooperates for us to get out in that field. We’re up to 6 sets up the long steep hill, and I think we can comfortably add a 7th the next time out. He’s definitely sweaty and puffing by the end, but less so than when we started. It’s also a long enough walk back down to the bottom that he gets solid recovery time between sets. I also kicked off trot set days, which are the most boring thing ever but super helpful. After the first couple sets Frankie likes to offer some great stretch, so I think these days will be a great mental break for him to stretch out and metaphorically jog on a treadmill for an hour (with regular breaks, of course).

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Off to the right is the hill we use, it’s nice and steep and goes on just long enough that Francis hates me by the time we reach the top

Practice rides 1-2x a week. These days are more for me than for Frankie, and these are really the ones I need to extend. Our dedicated practice days tend to feature pole work, focus on improving our lateral work, tons of transitions, and getting Francis super tuned in to me. These days he’s so dang good at his job that I tend to ask, get the right answer, and want to let him be done because he was a Good Boy. I need to get more creative about offering breaks in different ways without being done so we can continue to improve our stamina while reinforcing those skills.

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Note to self practice rides are for more than just bopping around on a loose rein

This puts me on roughly 4 times a week, which is proving to be fairly attainable with my school schedule these days! Francis also recently got his hocks and SI injected, is getting a massage next week, and has been seeing the chiro regularly. I’m hoping that with some help from my trainer during the week, this schedule and support will help him feel his best for our busy schedule of fall outings coming up through the end of the year!

Break out the Calendars

I know I mention my husband in passing with some regularity, but I want to start this post off by saying straight out that this guy is cool. I like him SO much. He’s always the first to encourage me to try new things, is my biggest support when things get hectic, and keeps me going with things get tough. Whenever I have cool news to share about Frankie, just know that behind the scenes is a wonderful man who makes this all possible.

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AND HE FEEDS ME SO WELL BECAUSE HE IS A PRINCE AMONG MEN

As I’ve mentioned previously, we’re heading to the Piedmont Jumper Classic at the end of September. The plan is to go in at 0.90m the first day to get our sea legs back, and then step back into the 1.0m Low Adult classes over the weekend. Partially because I like riding in a division, but more so because I have a pair of as-yet-unworn white pants that are just begging for a classic. I never said that my decision-making process was logical.

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I believe I have made my feelings about white pants extremely clear to everyone. I like them.

To prep for that, Frankie is getting his SI injected next week as a complement to his hock injections. While he’s a pretty solid chunk right now, his fitness is actually in decent shape and he’s been giving me some AMAZING rides lately. I’ve been putting the screws to him a bit as a reminder that he is in fact a shmancy show horse, and he’s been showing up to work like a pro. We schooled some 1m-ish jumps in our recent lesson and he was soft and rhythmic and adjustable, so I think the addition of the SI injection will make it that much more comfortable and easy to do the Lows at the show. I could gush more about just how great he’s going but just trust me on it – all the hard work we put into developing a partnership and skills has paid off, and I am rewarded with a wonderfully trained animal. It’s great.

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This animal has won speed classes yet falls asleep on the crossties almost daily. He has reach peak levels of energy conservation.

In other exciting news, we’re adding a few things to the calendar! Our next show after Piedmont will be the WIHS Local Show/Zone Finals at the end of October. We’re obviously not qualified for any Zone champs this year, but they have a few adult medals on Friday and a few open 1.0m jumper classes on Saturday we can go have fun in. I like the venue and it’s close to home, so should be a good time.

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I have competed there multiple times yet somehow have ZERO media of me actually on a horse there. So enjoy this uncomfortably close selfie of me picking up a ribbon Frankie and I won there in the Highs a few years ago.

And in a first for us, we are signing up for a clinic in October as well! Will Simpson (Olympic Gold Medalist, Beijing 2008) is offering a one-day clinic as part of the Rutledge Farm Sessions Olympic Medalist series, with a focus on finding perfect distances and shaving off time in the jump-off. Sounds useful, right?? Rutledge Farm is just down the road in Middleburg, and the chance to ride with someone with so much experience doesn’t come along every day – I just had to sign up along with some of the other girls at the barn. I’ve heard that he’s very kind and patient with the horses and riders, and that he gives great homework to take away from it, so I’m thrilled to expand our knowledge with him.

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The facilities just look gorgeous, and they bring in lots of big names across disciplines – Peter Wylde, Boyd Martin, Ali Brock, Philip Dutton, and Stacia Madden are all there this year.

I originally figured I should do EITHER the clinic OR the show, since we’re trying to make some reasonable financial decisions. WBBH (World’s Best Horse Husband) is the one that encouraged me to go for both, and that he wants me to be able to enjoy Frankie as much as possible. Like I said, he is a kind and thoughtful and wonderful man and I am extremely lucky.

So there you have it! I originally thought we’d have a quiet fall, but it turns out we have two shows and a clinic slated in the next two months alone! I can’t go to the big show in November, but hoping to maybe do a nearby one-day in December to round out the year.

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TIME TO WAKE UP MY DUDE AND GO BE A SHOW PONY

Just to be obnoxious and really drive it home, I’m feeling extraordinarily grateful for the ability to go out and do these things with Frankie. I counted myself lucky to be able to do 3 shows with him the first year that I owned him, and even with school in the mix it looks like 2019 will end up having 7-8 shows across different disciplines. I could’ve never imagined having the support professionally and personally to take the time/ money/ energy to do this and I hope to never take it for granted. None of it would be possible without a boss who encourages me to use my PTO and work remotely so I can travel, friends who stay in touch when we all have busy schedules, parents who have always taught me to go tenaciously after what I want, trainers that push me to be better, and of course, my dream heart horse Frankie and my dream man Nicholas. I’m grateful.

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I’m honestly living my dream life with this ridiculous goofy wonderful creature.

OK now time to stop with the gross mushy stuff and get back to riding!

Phases of Training

Strap in guys, this one is a monster post.

It’s no secret that Frankie’s workload these days is much lighter than it was last summer. I’ve talked about it quite a bit, and he’s been on this lighter schedule for roughly a year now so I have some solid comparison to go on. In looking back at the 3.5ish years he’s been mine, I think our training approach can be broken into 3 main phases (thus far). I’d like to take a look at those three phases, what worked, what the results were, and what I’ve learned about what works best for my horse and our partnership.

Part One: Train Like Lesson Students. Apr 2016 – Nov 2016

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This first phase lasted most of the first calendar year that I owned Frankie. We lessoned once a week, he did not receive training rides, his physical maintenance was minimal, and we were showing at 1.0m in the Low Adult jumpers.

At this point, the main focus of our program was getting to know each other. I hesitate to even call it a program, because there was not a lot of cohesiveness to what we were doing. It truly was all about the basics: making sure forward was always the answer, learning to keep my balance and keep my leg on a very different ride than I was used to, building show miles and trust in the show ring. We developed strength and balance but little nuance on the flat. He had decent muscling and decent conditioning – plenty to do his job comfortably but nothing to write home about. We ended this phase with a much better understanding of each other and much better communication, along with a great deal of trust built by a successful show season.

The biggest thing we learned at this point was how to hit the gas pedal. Building that forward motion did not come particularly naturally to either of us at that point, but has been the foundation for literally everything we’ve done since. In a sense, we had to learn to gallop before we could learn to trot. We had to rev the engine before we could tune it into sportscar mode, which brings me to our next phase.

Part Two: Train Like Pros. Dec 2016 – Jul 2018

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Our second phase lasted about a year and a half, and coincided with our move up to the 1.10/1.15m High Adult jumpers. We took private lessons at least once a week, started with one training ride a week which then bumped up to two training rides a week, had a dedicated 6 day/week strength and conditioning program for both of us, and got much more aggressive with our physical maintenance.

At this point, the main focus of our program (and it truly was a Program with a capital P) was to hone our skills for the move up. Our private lessons very closely tied into what AT worked on in her pro rides for him, with the goal of getting me closer to riding at that level. He often worked twice a day in addition to his hilly turnout, and he was superbly muscled and trim. By the end of this phase, we were confident at 1.15m, he was going at 1.20m with a pro in the irons, and we had competed at a lot of bucket list locations.

One of the biggest things we developed during this phase was a sense of timing. Before this, I knew what a half-halt was, I knew how to adjust his stride, and I could get out of his way over a fence. My biggest takeaway from this intensive period was learning WHEN to cue him in different ways to give him the most support and be the most effective rider I could be. I remember at first feeling completely discombobulated and my trainer reassuring me that the muscle memory would come in time – she was right, and these frequent rides were the reason I was able to internalize it. Even though I’m a little flabby and rusty now, I’ve been able to maintain this sense of timing in much of our work (though not all! This skill certainly atrophies from lack of use like any other).

Supporting this heavily increased workload was heavily increased maintenance. We did hock and SI injections, he got massages, he saw the chiropractor, he got his tack evaluated and re-evaluated. Maintaining that level of fitness truly was not easy for him, and while he remained sound as a bell and healthy, he needed our help to maintain that muscle tone comfortably.

The time and effort we needed to put in to keep Frankie at peak fitness and performance was very high and difficult to maintain with wedding planning and then school added into the mix, which brings me to our next phase.

Part Three: Train Like Ammies. Aug 2018 – present

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Our current phase has lasted about a year now, and has coincided with a step down in height and exploration of the eq and derby rings. We’re back in group lessons that happen mostly weekly, he’s still in his 2x/week training rides to maintain fitness, but I’m only on 3-4x/week and the conditioning work, while still a part of the program, is less targeted and intense. Physical maintenance stays high but is needed less often.

At this point the main focus of our program is maintaining the base. Maintaining his fitness at a reasonable point, maintaining the skills and abilities we fought so hard to learn, and maintaining a base level that we can work off of when we’re ready to jump back in more intensely. He’s got a bit more of a dad bod, but is fine to jump around 3′ once a week. As he gets older, we’re incorporating more hill work to keep his hind end feeling strong, we’re icing his legs after every jump school, we’re using Back on Track hock boots to support his hock injections, and we’re overall being more thoughtful about the every-day preventative maintenance that we’re providing.

One of the big things we’ve developed during this phase is confidence. We haven’t introduced anything newly difficult to Frankie in almost a year – that’s not to say that we haven’t asked him to work hard because we certainly have, but the heights and questions have all been heights and questions he’s been asked before. It’s like giving him a test that he’s already taken, so he knows how to ace it. It’s been refreshing for both of us to step back and do things that are so solidly in our wheelhouse.

Overall Thoughts

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Each of these phases made sense at the time, and each has taught me more about what Frankie needs to feel his best. We’ve consistently learned and changed what we do to fit his needs, and I have a few main takeaways to consider as we move forward together:

  • This is a horse that thrives on knowing he’s done a good job. When introducing new skills/heights/expectations, take plenty of time to ask him questions he knows the answer to. His work ethic and attitude soars when he’s set up to get it right.
  • The timing of the release is everything for him. He is not a sensitive horse and is happy to hang on my hand forever. He also knows that his job is to go forward now, so this means I end up with a front-heavy unbalanced horse. Learning WHEN to release after a solid half-halt has 100% been the key to developing a consistent and balanced gait, with a horse that trusts that his effort at maintaining that will be rewarded.
  • His conditioning will absolutely not take care of itself. He loses fitness practically overnight and it’s tough to regain it once lost. It’s also hard to maintain on a busy amateur schedule, which means that our expectations for his performance have to match our ability to help him out in that area.
  • He doesn’t need a program, but he does thrive in one. Much as he loves knowing that he’s done a good job, he loves consistency in his workload and is much happier when he’s getting worked with fairly consistent intensity at consistent intervals. Those intervals and intensity don’t have to remain unchanging forever, but he is happiest when those hold steady for a solid chunk of time.

To get super reductionist, Frankie is a horse that thrives on consistency and well-timed rewards. If and when a new phase in our training is necessary, these are some common threads for us to carry forward.

Chugging Along

I wish I had something super exciting to share with you, but things are pretty quiet over here!

By quiet I mean that work is very busy but manageably so, school is interesting and fun and not nearly as time-consuming as I had feared, I’ve been spending some wonderful time with friends, and Francis continues to be the World’s Best Horse(TM) at all times forever.

I guess by quiet I actually mean it’s not even a little bit quiet, but it’s been really nice finding a new equilibrium for myself.

I’m now about 5 weeks into my first 7-week term, and I continue to love being a student. Even the dreaded group projects have been great, as I hooked up with 3 other fantastic people who are smart and interesting and great to work with. We share pictures of our dogs every day (we all agreed that Frankie counts as a giant dog) and it’s been a pleasure getting to know them and work with them!

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Everyone needs to see this picture of Francis being the most precious snoozler

On the home front, I bit the bullet and hired a cleaning service to come into our house once a month. So far it has been worth every single penny for peace of mind. Could I just do it myself? Absolutely. But with work and school and the barn and other commitments piling on, I want to be able to just enjoy my limited free time at home with my husband without worrying about chores. It took a major source of stress off the table entirely! I don’t know that it’s something we’ll continue once I finish school and my schedule opens up a bit, but for now it’s some very welcome help.

On the random personal front, I finally got that haircut I’ve been talking about! I told you all how much I hated that super long braid coming out of my helmet, so I went ahead and chopped it all off. My only regret is that I didn’t do this sooner bc OMG I LOVE MY NEW HAIRCUT SO MUCH. Seriously, I feel twenty pounds lighter and a million times better.

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I’m not so great at selfies but I FEEL SO MUCH BETTER

On to the star of the show: Frankie continues to be a steady rock of wonderfulness, sharing his happiness every day. He recently accidentally got a week off – between school, work, sickness, and my trainers being gone at a show, he missed his training rides and I didn’t make it out – but I didn’t even find this out until after I hopped on and he was absolutely perfect. He’s constantly re-winning the Best Ammy Horse Ever Award. I can almost see my reflection in his coat right now from the shine, he has little dapples peaking out, and is just looking beautiful right now. I know soon enough he’ll get sunbleached and faded so I’m enjoying that spring coat while it lasts!

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The lighting isn’t great but just look how handsome he is!!! I just can’t stand it.

We have a show coming up later this month and I’m feeling great about it! We’re planning to do a mishmash of things – some Low Adult jumper classes, some adult eq classes, and if the weather holds and they run it outside I’ll do the hunter derby with him too. We’re not trying to qualify for things, we’re not trying to get the jumps higher, we’re just planning to go out there and have fun doing some different work together. I’m incredibly excited to go play with my best boy!

So there you have it. Things are busy, but a good busy, and I’m thoroughly enjoying this stage of life. Hoping to rope a friend into videoing some rides soon so I can have some media to share though – I realized I don’t have any record of me jumping my horse since last year!! I pinky promise that we’ve actually been doing work and he’s been awesome at it. Can’t wait to share when we have something 🙂

Favorite Exercises

Technically everything is my favorite thing to do with the Frankfurter since he’s a total bro, but there are certain favorite exercises that are even MORE favorite than others. They vary in technicality, but all of them have been super helpful for both myself and for Francis.

Sitting Trot

I’m starting pretty darn basic over here folks. Just about any time I need a reset on anything, or want to work on anything lateral, I get into a nice collected sitting trot. Something about having that full contact through my seat and legs helps things *click* for Frankie more so than any other gait. I know much good advice says that slowing things down helps introduce concepts, but I find his collected trot much more rideable than his walk when I’m asking him to engage his brain. It’s also a great core workout for me and helps me get my hip angle open so that when I’m on course I can have a bit more range of motion. Once we’re warmed up, I like to do quite a lot at the sitting trot when we’re working on the flat (we play around with extensions while sitting sometimes and WOW CORE WORKOUT. Those DQs have abs of steel, man.).

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We also like dropping our stirrups

Shoulder-In

Ah, the magical shoulder in. It is such a tattle tale for us. As soon as I ask for it, it becomes immediately apparent whether Frankie is truly on my aids or if I’m letting him fake it. It’s also juuust enough brain power to help him loosen up his body and focus on me even in a busy ring. If we’ve been doing a lot of lateral work he sometimes will start anticipating by going all pretzel-y, and a gentle shoulder-in helps cut down on the noise and gives his brain a break while still engaging.

Short-set/Irregularly-set grids

We almost never set grids that are at perfect stride lengths. We’ll often do short stride to short stride, short stride to long stride, or long stride to short stride. Never long stride to long stride, because then we’re not really working on adjustability OR rocking back. The imperfect/short options help him figure out how to self-police his stride, which is something that we’re constantly trying to help him build. I credit a huge amount of his muscling and improvement over fences to these short grids.

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Short strides make Frankie mad but they also make dat booty powerful (also this isn’t one jump looped, this is 9ish efforts looped haha)

Canter poles

OK so these aren’t actually a favorite because they terrify me. But I did have to put them on the list since I’ve found them so helpful in building collection and straightness. Frankie is smart enough to not want to step on these, but not smart enough to know he can split his legs over them, so he’s really very good about self-shortening to make it through the poles as set. It’s a nice balance. Placing these on the quarter line also helps tattle on any drift we might have (especially towards the wall) so that I can keep him balanced and straight.

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Poles. Are. Terrifying. (For me, not for Francis. He’s mostly just sad that they are not eatable)

Counter-bend on a circle

One of my favorite things that we work on is making a medium sized circle, then making the same circle with a counter-bend, then going back to the regular bend. This helps unlock his body through his ribcage, and it’s just hard enough that he has to really be paying attention to me. This is one I like to do at the sitting trot to be super present and help him balance, and keep that trot a little more collected.

Most of these exercises have a common theme: they engage Frankie’s brain and challenge him. We intersperse these harder exercises with plenty of stretch breaks for our bodies and brains before going back to it.

I’ve also found that I can tailor the difficulty of these exercises depending on how Frankie feels that day – the circles can be smaller or bigger, the poles/grids can be shorter or a little easier, our lateral work can be a little shallower. I’m also finding that we’re developing new exercises to engage his brain (my new favorite is the canter half-pass, which is still rudimentary but developing really nicely).

I’ll also add that most of these exercises were not ones that I would’ve chosen for us when I first got Frankie and had to firmly install the forward button. At that point we didn’t have enough power in his stride to be able to ask for collection and lateral motion, and our focus was on forward motion at all times. Now that he knows the job and has a solid base level of fitness though, these are my go-tos on working to build our strengths and address our weaknesses.

I’d love to know what you all like to work on with your ponies too!

A Constant Student

Since I kicked off classes last week, I’ve really started getting back into the student-mindset. Despite being out of school for close to 6 years at this point, I found that certain patterns came back as soon as I started reviewing the first syllabus. Almost like a muscle memory.

I did the same thing I used to do in undergrad – mark deadlines on the calendar, build a study plan for each week, go through my checklist of materials to make sure I had everything. I started reading some of the articles and textbook chapters, taking notes and jotting down thoughts where I agreed or disagreed with the conclusions. There’s something refreshing about the expectation of forming an opinion as a student, while the professional world is so much more about achieving harmonious consensus.

I found that this attitude also spilled over into my recent rides with Francis.

Last weekend I had spent a few hours on school-work in the morning, and then took a break to go get some air and work with the Frankfurter. And you would have thought he was a cart horse. Plodding along with zero intention of moving faster than a slow shuffle.

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Walking is HARD moving is HARD I just want TREATS

My usual instinct in those situations is to push. It’s time to work, so I need him moving. Sometimes this is exactly what he needs! But I started thinking about some of the articles I had read about conditioning work, some of the conversations I had with some professionals I admire, and some of the patterns that I’ve noticed with Frankie’s work ethic.

And I decided to let him do his cart-horse shuffle for a solid 10 minutes. On the buckle, wandering the ring, no instruction beyond simply moving his body in a way that he felt comfortable. And then we started trotting a little. Still on a loose rein, still making big loops, maybe a few shallow serpentines to help him start bending through his body. Then a few easy walk-trot transitions to help him start listening. Slowly slowly starting to pick up a light contact as he started focusing in on me and the work.

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Not trying to go too hard too fast, just letting the muscles warm up

By the time I hopped off, I had a forward fresh horse who had just given me some of the best trot-canter transitions I had ever gotten out of him. Balanced, stepping under, lifted through his back. Absolutely lovely.

And then this past weekend, we had a lesson with AT (who you all know absolutely kicks my butt). She opted to let us warm ourselves up while she observed, just intermittently calling out when she wanted us to do something different. While I do love my guided warmups, it felt really good to tune into what Frankie needed and just focus on that in the moment – tons of figures off the rail, lots of transitions within gaits, slowly picking up the contact and asking for more engagement.

I joked with AT that I probably work harder when I know she’s watching my own work than I do when she’s telling me what to do, since I don’t want her to think I’m slacking. It was really encouraging though, I do tend to be pretty reliant on my trainers and this was a great reminder that I do know what we need to work on and I can work on it independently. I’m glad that’s a skillset my trainers encourage, rather than wanting me to always depend on them for everything.

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My favorite activity is making matching faces

Frankie was obedient if a bit heavy in our flat work. Several years later he does still think that carrying his own body around is some sort of bogus hard work, but as he gains some fitness back it’s improving. But you know what gets rid of the heaviness and revs the engine more than anything else?

Jumping. It was hysterical – I had a lazy horse who was giving me pretty good work but was requiring a TON of effort on my part, and then we pointed him at a crossrail and all of a sudden we had gas in the tank. It was our first time jumping in the outdoor this season, and he was SO happy to stretch out his stride a bit. I could even feel him think about porpoising a bit! He didn’t because he’s Francis, but I definitely could sense him considering it. I ain’t mad, he was having fun and feeling good.

Our coursework that day was just lovely. He gave me everything I asked for, and for the most part I was had the wherewithal to ask for what I needed. His tendency was to stretch his stride out to monster proportions in the bigger ring, but to his credit he did soften and come back to a more useful canter as soon as I asked. It used to take a long time to make that adjustment and nowadays he brings it under much more quickly. We were able to put some of the jumps up (not huge, but bigger than we’ve jumped in a while) and it just felt effortless.

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Literally how is he such an angel, this horse is the most amazing creature

It does feel that lately I’ve turned a bit of a corner in my ability to think on course. I don’t know if it’s the fact that I know my horse so well now, that he’s so educated, that I needed the mental break for a few months, or a combination of all of these. But I’m feeling much more able to make a plan for my ride and then execute where necessary, while still adjusting in the moment to give Frankie what he needs. I don’t think there’s a super visible change, but it’s this subtle change in my own perceptions of what we’re doing.

At the end of the day, I’m excited to learn new things and pursue my degree, but I think I’m most excited to be back in the mindset of a student and apply that mindset to everything else in my life.

Why Jumpers?

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BECAUSE THE JUMPERS FRIGHTEN ME

Nah all kidding aside, I was ruminating on this the other day. Frankie and I have played in the equitation, I grew up exclusively doing the hunters/eq, we’ve toodled around baby XC, Frankie has done eventing and hunters and pleasure classes with other riders. I’ve even mentioned that I hope to take him in a hunter derby at some point.

So with all that time spent in other rings, why do I keep our main focus on the jumper ring? It’s not a question of ability – we’ve both been perfectly happy and capable in other disciplines. And it isn’t a question of access – I’m in comfortable driving distance of high-level barns of practically every English discipline. Even my own beloved trainer has a strong record in all three H/J/E (she’s even a hunter R judge).

Circumstances have not forced us into the jumper ring. It is by no means a default, and by no means an accident. In simple terms, I focus us in the jumper ring because I love it there.

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PC – ESI Photography

In my world, training for and competing in the jumper ring combines all of my favorite parts from each discipline and turns them into something even greater than the sum of its parts. There is the precision flatwork of dressage, there is the speed and thrill of eventing, there is the careful effective position of equitation, there is knowing how to bring out the best in my horse from the hunters. And it takes all of these parts and gives back a sport that is pure strategy and focus and fun.

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PC – USHJA

I love the focus on results above all else, but that the results reward the process. Sure, you’re not being judged on your position – but try to go clear on the Frankfurter without a supportive leg and balanced body. See how that works out. And you’re not being judged on your horse’s steadiness of pace or bascule – but try to beat the time and leave the oxers up without a good jump and adjustable stride. At the end of the day though, when the rubber meets the road you have to be willing to dig in and throw out the pretty to make it work.

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PC – K. Borden

I love the strategy of it. How it’s a thinking ride with every single stride. Once that buzzer sounds, there’s no time to be nervous or notice anything else, because a good course demands your attention. It’s all about playing to your horse’s strengths to set them up to succeed through the entire course, with each component building on the next. How you need to ride the plan, but above all else ride the horse you have under you in that moment.

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PC – Hoof Print Images

I love the people. The Zone 3 Adult Jumper riders are all fantastic, and getting to see them and catch up at shows is a treat. We cheer each other on, we wave hello in the warmups, we take pictures for each other. The show crews in our area are wonderful people, ready to say congratulations on a good round and answer my many questions. The warmup rings tend to be surprisingly civilized since most people have done this before and behave accordingly. For all the horror stories I’ve heard of snobbery at the big shows, I’ve never failed to have someone smile back and say thank you when I tell them how pretty their horse is (which I do constantly because I really really really like ponies).

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Now that I’ve been doing this for a few years with Frankie, I love it even more because of how professional and eager he is to do this job. How he starts asking me to move out when he hears the buzzer. How he lands already looking for the next fence, even after we’ve passed through the timers. How he struts back to the gate after a good round with his ears up, proudly knowing he’s done a great job. How I know I can trust him to be right there with me every step of the way.

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PC – K. Borden

It’s not about the speed – we’ve made amazing times not by galloping, but by being deliberate and efficient with our turns. It’s not about the height – I’ve had just as much fun at 0.80m as I have at 1.15m. It’s the power and precision and exhilaration of working with my partner to pull together all our skills to perform.

I’m excited to keep trying new things with the Frankfurter and find great joy in expanding our horizons, but my heart will always be in the jumper ring on the back of my favorite big bay.