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!

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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.

Dressaging My Horse

I’m going to talk about a really novel theory here: better flatwork leads to better jumping.

ALERT THE MEDIA THIS IS AN ORIGINAL THOUGHT EVERYBODY IS NOW GASPING IN SHOCK.

I know, I know. We all know this. But I want to talk about it, so humor me.

More specifically, I want to talk about how hard we “push” on the flat and over fences, and how we can connect (or sometimes disconnect) the two.

I know for me- and I can’t be alone in this- my temptation is to push over fences. Jack ’em up, give us tighter turns, let’s giddyup and go. I don’t do this willy-nilly because I am not a total dumdum, but I love jumping and my drive to improve focuses on jumping.

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Doing this is better than cocaine (I mean…I think? I’ve only done the jumping, not the drugs)

But. Without dressage-ing my horse and building capabilities on the flat, I will eventually reach an ceiling of my horse’s abilities over fences. So I need to be pushing just as hard to extend our fitness and abilities on the flat if I expect to be pushing hard over fences.

This is why we’ve raised our expectations on the flat as we’ve raised the fences. Establishing balance around smaller circles = time saved by doing the inside turn in a jumpoff. Firmly installing lateral movements at all gaits = better control and precision on course. Maintaining a steady connection between the aids = the ability to adjust to the right spot, slice a jump without a runout, communicate more clearly. Not to mention the fact that all of this builds fitness and self-carriage.

This is why we do crap tons of lateral work and spend so much time “warming up” in our lessons. Frankie’s abilities over the small fences got 100x better as we improved our flatwork, and suddenly the bigger fences were coming up more smoothly.

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Remember when I considered this decent form for Francis?

So what would happen if we pushed to improve over fences without pushing to improve our dressage? What if there was a disconnect between the two?

Let’s assume that Frankie was in good fitness from hill work and regular exercise, but that we didn’t emphasize lateral work, collection/extension, things like that. Let’s assume that I hopped on him every day, WTC around for an hour, then hopped off. No pushing of technical skills on the flat.

I’d better hope I have the magic eye for distances >4 strides out, because we don’t have a ton of adjustability. I’ll need to shorten or lengthen much earlier because my horse won’t be tuned to that.

And I’ll need to hit the perfect take-off spot every time, because he will have a tough time getting a bouncy enough canter to handle a super short or long one.

Once we land, the turns better not be too sharp. We have a tough time connecting to the outside rein and moving off the inside leg, so we’re not super balanced as the turns get tighter.

We have a tough time moving our shoulders/haunches independently, so I’ll need to set my horse up very straight to each jump. Otherwise we risk a drive-by. I don’t have a lot of options with my turns since it’s limited to how quickly we can move his whole body.

And all this is assuming that my horse has developed the self-carriage to get a powerful enough stride to jump the bigger jumps. Which I find unlikely.

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A million leg-yields and shoulders-in later, that’s more like it.

So yeah. If we were running into a problem with our lateral work or collection, it wouldn’t make sense to me for us to try to progress with bigger jumps or tighter turns. It would make sense to keep the jumps at a comfortable, manageable level while we improved our knowledge and abilities on the flat and only THEN ask harder questions over fences.

While I haven’t sat in a dressage saddle in at least 10 years, I take dressage-ing my horse extremely seriously. Of the 5-6 hours of work he does each week, 4.5-5.5 of those hours are spent on the flat developing strength and consistency, flexibility and adjustability. When he gets a pro ride, that’s usually heavily flatwork-focused. We know he can jump the jumps- developing his “buttons” on the flat is what gives him more tools to do that. Even when working over fences, we keep them under 3′ most of the time- there are so many skills we can practice without jumping his legs off.

Frankie definitely prefers to jump. No matter how lazy or bored he seems on the flat, he perks up and hunts down the fences as soon as they go up. He would probably be much happier if we jumped more and flatted less. But I strongly believe that this would be doing him a huge disservice and lead to holes in training/health problems down the road.

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Mahm. Flatwork stinks. So bored. Mahm. Stahp.

So there’s my soapbox for the day. I’m sure it’s nothing you haven’t heard before, no novel new concepts, but I’m feeling pretty passionate about it these days. And if there’s anyone out there that I can rant to about the importance of developing a stronger shoulder-in, it’s all y’all crazies.