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
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
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
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.
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.