The Cost of Improvement

So we just did a breakdown of how much we spend on horse shows, and now I’m on a kick. So I’ll talk a little bit about what else I spend my money on when it comes to Francis- specifically, how we ramped him up for this show season.

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We took extra naps

You’ve heard me talk ad nauseam about how fantastically incredibly amazing Francis is- and I ain’t sorry. He deserves the hype. Those of you who have met him and seen him in real life can attest that he’s a straight up awesome dude.

I think we’ve progressed quite steadily since I brought him home a little over two years ago. We’ve both built knowledge, we’ve both built fitness, and we’ve really developed a wonderful partnership that I’m very proud of. But the rate of improvement has vastly accelerated over the last few months. When I say that I didn’t have this horse under me three months ago, I mean it. It’s an incredible transformation.

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HE. IS. A. STUNNING. BEEFCAKE. 

But it is not a surprising transformation. It has been a very deliberate, careful process.

First off we did some stuff to ensure his comfort- SI injection, hock injections, chiropractor, massage, shimming our half pad to get his saddle to sit better, etc. This is more than we’ve done in the past, but I think it’s appropriately commensurate with his workload and age. All things considered, he’s fairly low-maintenance (especially for a Shmancy Show Horse). I’d say we probably spent an extra $1500 this year on this type of stuff over last year.

So that was the base we needed to establish in order to push harder. We got his body feeling loose and happy and comfortable before we started asking him to work more.

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The Hat of Knowledge told us what he needed

Because the real transformation came from more professional attention. Simple as that. Two training rides per week to teach Frankie how to use his body more actively and more correctly, and a full hour private lesson with me every week to teach me how to reinforce and correctly ask for that level of work. Over the past few months, I’d say we spent an extra $500-1000 or so on this over the same period last year.

I know there’s a range of opinions on training rides, but I couldn’t be more thrilled with how they’ve been working for us. Trainer and AT have built these rides to be part of a cohesive program- the skills that AT works on with Frankie are the same skills that Trainer works with me on in my lessons. We have frequent discussions on what/how they’re working on things so that I can continue that work on my own time. It’s very much a team effort to be consistent and fair with what we’re asking of Frankie.

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“Fair would be more cookies plz.” PC- Liz

And it’s really really working. You should’ve seen our first private lesson when we kicked this phase of our program off. Trainer ended up having to get on to show me that yes, actually, Frankie is capable of this, he’s just not convinced that I mean it. We didn’t even jump because I was just trying to get a certain level of flatwork out of him. It took a solid 45 minutes to get a few moments of that correctness so we could end on a good note.

Nowadays when I hop on he immediately set off to work. It doesn’t take 45 minutes- he is right there offering it up as soon as I ask. He knows I mean it now. I’m having to get more and more creative with my rides. He answers every question I ask promptly and obediently, so I’m having to come up with new, harder questions. I am the limiting factor in this equation now.

So it’s a lot of work, and a lot of luck, and a lot of patience, but at the end of the day we accelerated our improvement by throwing more money at it. It’s not romantic and it doesn’t make for a good Lifetime movie. But hey- it works.

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Upgraded Rounds

I mentioned in my Blue Rock recap that I started out riding the 2017 Frankie before getting my butt in gear and riding the 2018 Frankie (new Francis who dis). I’d like to elaborate a little bit on what I already mentioned, because I’ve definitely adjusted my strategy in the ring.

Getting our gallop on: I used to go in the ring and immediately pick up a hand gallop before waiting for the buzzer, because I needed a little extra time to open up his step. Nowadays we can get that fire stoked much more quickly, so I don’t need that runway as much. It ends up giving me a bit too much time to overanalyze and start picking at him. Much better to just rev the engine and head to the first jump.

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Please take away my runway, I will just abuse it

Related distances: I used to have to land and WOAH hard in every line, because he almost always landed a little off balance and strung out. Not awful, but it definitely took a stride or two to get him back under me, and that would eat up a decent part of the line. Nowadays he lands in much better balance and much more tuned in to me, so I can simply steady him and press out of the line- which has the added benefit of me being able to soften and allow him to the fences, which leads to him jumping out of his skin.

Left drift: we’ve always had a left drift. Partly because I think he fires a little more strongly on the right side, partly because I have a weak left leg that doesn’t block him hard enough. We’ve gotten much better at using outside aids around the turns and getting him straight in both directions, and I think the carrot stretches have helped him feel more bendy.

Release: he used to jump fairly flat all the time without really using his neck, so there was never a need for a big release- he just didn’t take up the slack when it was given. Now he’s firing harder off the ground and using his body much more actively, which is awesome! But it also means that I need to reward that much more actively. I need to focus hard on some core work, since right now I tend to collapse up his neck a bit upon landing when I give that long release. I have a decent auto release in my toolbox, so it’s just a factor of getting that super ingrained in my muscle memory. Planks galore!

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We use our neck more when we are not being restricted by our pilot

Taking breaks on course: yeah I never had the mental state to be able to do this before. This past show was the first one where I felt like I could use the ends of my ring to take a deep breath, half-halt and reset, and give Frankie a little scratch on the neck as I softened. Not too much because I didn’t want him to think we were done, but we were both able to calm down a bit before firing back up. I definitely think this helped keep him tuned into me and feeling fresh instead of tiring out in the latter parts of the course.

Part of this progression has been due to working on our adjustability, partly due to increased fitness, partly due to education (for both of us), and in large part due to me relaxing enough to think more actively while in the ring instead of LOSING MY MIND OMG FRANCIS TAKE THE WHEEL. Let’s be real- there will always be Francis-take-the-wheel moments. No one is perfect. The goal is to make them less frequent and less cringe-inducing.

After all, it’s like I’ve always told you. I’m not so concerned with our ribbons- I’m concerned with making sure I can come out of the ring and internalize the lessons learned and apply them in the next round. Go make new mistakes, and then fix them, and then move on to even newer mistakes.

At this point, the horse is super broke and fit and educated, and will go around as well as I allow him to. It used to be that mistakes in the ring were kinda 50-50 due to me getting in the way AND him still learning the expectations we had. Well, we’ve gotten rid of that last part. He knows the game, likes the game, and is damn good at the game. Mistakes are now 100% rider-generated. In one way, WOW OK PRESSURE IS ON because I can no longer cite “lack of experience” as an excuse, but in another enormously huger way it’s AMAZEBALLS. I have a schoolmaster packer that will turn and burn and slice and sit back and do absolutely everything I ask. Now it’s on me to ask for the right things at the right time.

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MAHM STEP UP PC- Liz

Sore and Ready

I wasn’t planning on blogging before heading out to Ohio, but I just had the most motivating session with my trainers and I have to share with all y’all.

The best way I can think of to sum it up is as follows:

Learning how to ride is kinda hard.
Learning how to ride WELL is super freakin’ hard.
Learning how to ride in a way that shows nuance and expertise is EXPONENTIALLY HARDER THAN ALL OF THAT.

As I had mentioned, Assistant Trainer and I set up a time for me to watch her ride Frankie and then have me hop on for some coaching on replicating that ride. It ended up being about 30 minutes of AT riding with constant commentary (mad respect for being able to multitask like that) and then 30 minutes of me working with Francis- and I could barely keep track of my limbs, let alone speak.

First off- Frankie looked AMAZING with AT. I’m such a visual learner and getting to see what kind of work he is capable of makes me that much more confident and excited about achieving it with him myself. I wish I had video to show you, but I was too wrapped up in listening and watching.

Some of the key takeaways that AT shared throughout both her ride and mine:

  • Walking needs to be powerful and forward. While warming up we’re not at all worried about where his head is- we are entirely focused on getting him moving off the leg and pushing powerfully from behind. Insisting on straightness- no wiggling out of a powerful forward walk.
  • A good way to encourage him to open up his stride more at the walk is alternating leg aids- cue with my left heel as he’s about to pick up his left hind, right heel for right hind, etc. Getting him more sensitive to my cues will help make this more effective at encouraging the activity from behind.
  • The contact on the outside rein needs to be steady- it does not need to be heavy, but it does need to be consistently present at all times. Test his self-carriage often by releasing the inside rein. He should not change pace or the shape of his body.
  • Stretch breaks are good, but that doesn’t mean throwing away the work. He is never allowed to grab the reins out of my hands- when I like what he is doing, I can feed the reins to him and encourage the stretch down. Part of working the most effectively with him is timing our breaks to be just as much of a training tool as the active work.
  • Insist more. Frankie is a well-trained, athletic, fancy horse- if I stick to my guns and continue asking, he will give me correct work. I can’t get lazy or he will get lazy. This doesn’t mean that he can’t do the work, it just means that I have to keep supporting and encouraging the right answer.
  • No more calling him a llama. The language we use matters, so we are only allowed to call him a fancy shmancy show horse. My new go-to is gonna be FancyPants Francis, but I’m open to other posh nicknames for the big guy.
  • Carrying himself properly is really hard work, and we can’t expect him to do it all the time quite yet. At the same time, we need to ask for it a little more every time so that we build that strength and build that muscle memory for him. He lets us know that he’s tired by getting strung out or trying to break- that’s when it’s on us to work really hard to support him for another half-lap or so to push just a liiiiittle bit more. Not enough to fatigue him, just enough to push a little harder than last time.
  • Drop my stirrups as often as needed. Especially when working at the sitting trot, go ahead and drop my stirrups so I can wrap around his barrel and get him super active to my leg. As he gets stronger and learns more self-carriage, that trot is getting a lot bouncier, but his back is also getting rounder and softer so sitting is getting easier.
  • At all times: straightness. Keep a major focus on where his hips are- is he trying to slide them to the inside or outside? Stay very vigilant about keeping his whole body on one smooth track unless explicitly asking for lateral movements. Keeping a steady outside rein will mostly take care of his shoulders, but let hands go wide if he needs some help finding that center track for his front half.
  • Don’t ride his head. When we are pushing powerfully from behind, we’re straight through his body, I have a steady contact on the outside rein, and am half-halting from my seat and inside rein, he will be poll-high and in the bridle. The goal is not a false headset- it’s that he’s so strong and soft through his body that he is pushed up into the bridle. If he gets too high- add more leg. If he gets too low- half-halt from my seat.
  • Almost think to counter-bend through the end of the ring. Frankie is happy to pretzel into a false bend and that is not productive. Keep that strong outside rein (notice a pattern yet?) and use my outside leg to keep his haunches on a smooth track through the turns.
  • When coming down to a walk, no plopping. He must continue forward on the contact. Do not feed him the reins until he is giving me the walk I want.

And this isn’t even everything- just the high level recap. It was mentally and physically a hugely demanding session- I was getting feedback on what to tweak with literally every single stride.

I basically rode in circles for 30 minutes, and my legs are about to fall off. All of this was hard. My brain felt like a hamster on a wheel trying to put all of these pieces together, my legs are like cooked noodles from the sheer intensity of the workout, and I’m still heavily ruminating on all the work we did.

None of these things are new concepts, it all basically boils down to inside leg to outside rein. It’s just the timing and subtlety of these aids that is some next-level work. AT assures me that with enough practice, these cues and their timing will become as automatic as keeping my heels down- I’m pretty sure it’ll take a good long time to get to that point but I’m hopeful.

Trainer was there as well so I had both her and AT working with us. Talk about intense. She told me that she’s not as fixated on my position so much anymore- there are certainly always going to be things to fix and improve upon, but she knows I know the job. Our focus now is on being the most effective rider I can be. In her words, “this is the difference between coming out to the barn to ride, and coming out to train. It’s time to train.”

So now I am incredibly sore and incredibly motivated. It feels like we’re really kicking it into a whole new gear and I couldn’t be more excited to get to work with my FancyPants pony.

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What have we learned lately?

Surprise weekend post! I realized that I’ve been soaking up helpful tidbits like a thirsty little sponge lately, and I wanted to get them all in one spot. Without further ado, here’s what I’d like to get in my muscle memory:

  1. Large circles with a counter-bend to small circles with the correct bend help give a lot of suppleness and softness at the trot. Changing the bend often is a great way to break up stiffness and resistance.
  2. Long warmups at the walk, both on and off the contact, are great for getting Beastly’s back moving and getting in the right mental state. Show up a little early for rides so we have plenty of time to do big stretchy circles before getting into more strenuous work.
  3. When the Unicorn tries to lean on my inside hand and get unbalanced around corners, give her a good push with my inside leg to force her into my outside aids.
  4. However, don’t overdo the bend. Keep a very strong feel on the outside aids around corners.
  5. Pick my hands up- bracing on her mane does absolutely nothing except ruin my position and take away control. Hands should be at hip height for now until I learn to let them be more independent.
  6. Sit up straight and sit deep. We may have fun at hunter shows, but a light seat doesn’t help us. Nor does leaning up the neck until I’m lying on my face. As my trainer tells me so often, “Ride like ze Germans!”
  7. Take deep breaths on the approach to a fence. This has a 100% success rate of getting us to a nice distance. I can still sometimes find a decent takeoff spot if I’m not breathing regularly, but it happens much more naturally if I’m actually taking in oxygen.
  8. Half-halt with my thighs. This has recently changed my world. Suddenly my half-halts are actually accomplishing something pretty dramatic! Remember to back it up with a lot of leg.
  9. Leg leg leg leg leg leg leg. It is OK to soften when things are going well. Softening does not equal taking leg off. As soon as the leg comes off, we lose brakes, steering, gas pedal, all sorts of control. Leg must be on at all times.
  10. As stated, soften when things are going well. Don’t be clinging to her face or half-halting every other stride if we’re balanced and comfortable. Correct her just enough to reach a good place, and then reward her by getting out of her way. Re-correct as necessary.
  11. Use all the releases in my toolbox. If we have a very tight turn as soon as we land, an 80s style gigantic jumper release probably isn’t the right choice. Our automatic release has proved to be a fantastic choice most of the time, but there is still a place for the familiar crest release.
  12. Get Drafty McDrafterson to stop trying to pull from her front end like her plow-horse ancestors, and get her instead to push from her hind end by doing tons of extension-collection transitions. Collection needs SO MUCH LEG to encourage her to pick herself up and channel the energy more roundly instead of just forward.
  13. Give My Little Pony infinite kisses and treats for challenging me and teaching me, all while making sure I stay safe. She has saved my butt countless times as I try to put all the pieces together. She earns all those cookies.