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.

OK Showoff

Recently, Franklin has been a downright pleasure to ride.

Don’t get me wrong, the Big Man has always been a joy and I can honestly say that I’ve enjoyed every ride with him. Even the “meh” rides with him always have something redeeming for me to focus on.

But for a while, it was a different type of enjoyment. It was a developing kind of enjoyment, where I had the satisfaction of knowing that we were building skills together and helping each other learn new ways of doing things. Tackling new challenges to push our limits and improve. We were in that mode basically since day 1, mastering new skills  and heights and then looking for the next one to push for.

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Bigger jumps, wider jumps, harder striding

As you know, we’re keeping things a little easier lately. We’ve put the jumps back down to 1m or lower, we’re competing less, and we’re not aiming at any particular goal right now. We’re not pushing that hard for new skills or heights, we’re working diligently to be better at the ones already solidly in our toolbox.

And Frankie completely and totally gets it. I haven’t had to explain anything for him lately. There has been no learning curve or delay while we both try to figure out what the right answer is. He has promptly understood and delivered every. single. thing. I’ve asked him to do.

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Me: Go be cute. Francis: U MEAN LIKE DIS

A few major examples that pop into my mind are from recent lessons. A few weeks ago, he warmed up beautifully – softly and happily, really just lovely. While that may be pleasant to flat, historically that translates to a weak and underpowered jump from him. At shows we joke that if he’s too happy in the warmup, we need to ruin his day a little bit to get him fired up enough for our round. So I was prepared to have to wrestle with him a bit during our first course to get him firing on all cylinders.

Imagine my surprise when he was forward, adjustable, listening, and jumping extremely well. No need to ruin his day at all. I think this was partially due to me providing more proactive support (albeit in anticipation of needing to provide more), but I do think it’s at least partially his own knowledge and fitness being at the point where his job makes sense to him. There is a definite sense of things “clicking” for him lately, where it used to take a bit longer for him to fully understand the rules of the game.

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Don’t let these happy ears fool you, historically he really only jumps well when he’s mad

And this past week, we were schooling a diagonal line to a bending line. Trainer didn’t tell me the striding, so the first time we went through and it rode in a very comfortable, slightly flowing 4 to a 5. Very easy.

You all know that Trainer doesn’t like when things are too easy, so of course she asked me to go back through and school the add. Do it in a 5 to a 6. You all also know that the add has always been a tough sell for Frankie – it’s hard to get that big body compressed and powerful enough!

So I approached the line, sat him down to collect him, got a really wonderfully collected carousel horse canter, got him to the base, and asked him to fit it in.

And this beast went and did it in 6. And then bent out in 7, and then happily kicked up to a hand gallop for our next fence.

That’s right, folks. We got the elusive double add.

Honestly having this much adjustability feels like a bit too much power and responsibility for me, but I’m tickled pink that he understands that cue so well now and is able to execute it so well. Seeing his thinking ears and then seeing him be so proud of himself at every “Good man!!” is a different and wonderful kind of joy.

At the end of the day I’m happy if Frankie is happy, and seeing him blossom under the praise for a job well done is just what I said above – a downright pleasure.

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My sweet sweet angel boy

Transportation Woes

Alternate title: At Least One Thing That Carries My Butt Around Is Functional

The functional one being Frankie, of course. The not-so-functional one is my car.

Long story short, I no longer have working anti-lock brakes in my Jeep. Options are to either shell out more money than the car is worth to fix it, scrap my show season to afford a new car, or ignore the problem until show season is over.

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I think you can guess which one I’m going with. Luckily this didn’t happen in winter when the roads get slick, and the mechanic said the car was totally fine to drive as long as I was careful. So if you see a red Jeep with horse plates in VA, give me a little space to brake, k? I’m frantically doing research on what I’ll do in the fall and calling in all favors from friends and friends-of-friends, so at some point I should be able to introduce a new (or more realistically, used-and-slightly-crappy) vehicle.

But back to the functioning beast. Our private lessons are, as expected, absolutely transforming us. Even with just 3 under our belt, I can already feel such a difference in my ability to ask Frankie to work harder as well as his own ability to work harder. At first he threw a few tantrums about settling into work, but he very very quickly learned that this is the new normal and now steps right into it. He still has his evasions that he tries and a big part of our lessons is teaching me how to anticipate and preemptively correct those evasions, but it really does feel like getting to the next level of our feel and communication.

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“Communicate THIS” PC: Liz

A few examples: transitions. THEY’RE HARD YO. We’ve been doing tons of them and insisting that Francis step under into them (both upwards and downwards) without popping up and inverting. When I get it right, it’s magical. Slowly starting to get it right more often.

Connection. It used to take me a solid 45 minutes and a virgin sacrifice to get Frankie up into the bridle. And to be totally honest, even then it wasn’t great. I simply did not give enough leg, hold a steady enough contact, or insist on this enough. This is still very much a work in progress, but I’m actually able to get him pushing from behind up into the contact much more consistently. It’s not 100% of the time by any stretch, but it’s vastly improved!

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THE BEEFIEST. THE SHINIEST. PC: Liz

 

Adjustability. Turns out that when I stop using a driving seat and have my horse balanced underneath me, I can totally pick whatever stride length I want. Which means I can then pick whichever spot I want. It also turns out that my eye is a lot better than I thought it was- I just haven’t had the tools to accurately ride to the spot I see. Now that I’m communicating with Frankie more clearly and he’s built the knowledge and strength, I feel so much more confident in our ability to get to a really solid take-off.

Overall brokeness. Holy. Crap. Guys. My horse is so frickin’ broke now, it’s not even funny. He will always be a little dull and he would not make a professional happy (pretty sure you’d see a pic of him in the dictionary under “Ammy Friendly”) but he has become the fanciest horse I have ever sat on. Ever. Including my German import I had in high school. He has so many dang buttons and he’s gotten so strong, it’s like I can think something and he does it. Part of that is the training we’ve been doing super intensely lately, part of it is me learning how to ride more better, and part of that is continuously building our communication and partnership. I’ve been absolutely blown away by him in our last few lessons.

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Let me love you forever PC: Liz

It feels like we’re in a totally different place from even a few weeks ago. I need to get some video so you can see the Frankfurter strut his stuff- hopefully we get some good ones at the show this week! Trainer confirmed that she’ll be taking him in his first 1.20m and I’m spazzing out excited. Keep your fingers crossed and send high-flying thoughts in our direction!

Ow. My Legs.

Before I get into talking about how my legs hurt so much, I have to tell you about my meetup with Liz and Austen!! We got to meet up (huskies in tow) out in Middleburg for lunch, and it was so fantastic to be able to just talk ponies and cocktails. It’s the funniest feeling meeting blog friends in real life- even though it was our first time seeing each other in the real world, it felt like we already knew each other so well. I was hoping they would have time to come meet Frankie, and even more fantastically they had their cameras with them!

It was so lovely to get to introduce them to Frankie. I know I may be biased because I’m his mother, but there is something so special about that horse and I love getting to share that spark with friends. He was enthralled with the huskies and was on the lookout for scritches the whole time. We even popped Liz and Austen up for a brief ride- Frankie was a bit confused that he still had to work, but was happy enough to go be a good goober for both of them. It makes my heart so happy to see him go be such a good soul. Bonus: I have so many absolutely gorgeous pictures to share with you guys!!

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This one is absolutely getting framed. Liz, somehow you managed to capture Frankie so beautifully and with such kindness, and it brings tears to my eyes.

Now on to my muscle soreness: we have officially entered the era of private lessons once more. It’s been two weeks with my new flex schedule and while it’s been a bit of an adjustment to get out the door earlier in the mornings, it’s ABSOFREAKIN’ FANTASTIC. I may never be able to go back to a normal schedule again, you guys. So far we’ve had two (incredible) private lessons on Friday afternoons, and here are some jumbled thoughts that I have so far:

  • In our first lesson, we did not jump a single fence. We worked on correct transitions, channeling our energy straight and powerfully, and convincing Frankie that I know what I’m doing up top (which is only sometimes true, but he doesn’t need to know that). I was sweaty and dying by the end.
  • Frankie absolutely can and should carry himself, and he is smart enough to know that historically I have not insisted on this. He does not test Trainer or AT. He does test me- which is fair. We had a few mini-tantrums when I continued to insist, but once we pushed past that he gave me INCREDIBLE work. He’s pretty sure this whole “work super hard to build muscle and self-carriage” thing is bogus, but he seems to be resigning himself to it.
  • THIS IS SO FREAKIN’ HARD. My muscles are so sore. Like, muscles that I don’t usually use for riding are sore. Which is actually also super encouraging, because it means that I’m moving in different ways and the whole point of this is to be doing things differently and better. But ow. Seriously, ow.
  • Francis is, as always, my tattletale. My leg comes off? Head immediately pops up and he totally inverts. I stop engaging my core? Prancing jigging steps. He is happy to work, but only as hard as I am. And he will not give me what I’m asking unless I ask properly, which makes him such an excellent teacher! Luckily he’s patient as I work through all the ways to *not* ask properly before landing on the right way.
  • He needs to respect this new bit- he cannot park on the end of it like he did with the snaffle. If he learns to park on this bit, we have just lost all our adjustability that we gained with the additional leverage. This is why I must insist on that self-carriage, and it’s why my trainer didn’t entrust me with this type of bit until quite recently.
  • Rewards must be quick and frequent. As soon as I feel him soften, I must soften in return- but not until I get that softening. Reward the good, and respond to resistance with consistent but firm correction. Set him up to answer correctly so that we can reward often.
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We take breaks when we are a good pony. PC- Liz
  • When we have the right canter, we don’t need to see a spot. In our last lesson, I felt like I nailed every single distance to every single fence. Some were a little longer or shorter than others, but every single one felt powerful and out of stride. He was so adjustable and powerful that getting to that right spot was downright easy, and he rewarded me by cracking his back over the fences- I got popped out of the tack a few times because of the strength of his effort!
  • Riding him more strongly and insisting on more is downright addicting. Of course he’s always a blast to ride, but feeling that balance and power underneath me is the most incredible feeling. I was grinning through my entire last ride. I was also panting and sweating trying to get all my muscles to move in concert, but I was on the verge of giggling as I felt Frankie round up into the bridle and push. I didn’t ever want to hop off.
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“Do not want work, pls stop.” (as I gasp for air) PC- Liz

In a nutshell, I’m trying to learn how to ride Frankie like my trainer rides Frankie. And it’s really really hard and a lot of work and everything hurts and it is so incredibly fun as we both learn the rules of the game.

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THE SWEETEST SNOOT. PC- Liz

Muscles are sore, heart is full, and I’m so beyond thrilled with the Big Best Beast.

Big Plans, People

And I’m not talking about Culpeper Finals (which will also be big and I’m so excited for as a wrap-up to our first show season together).

We’re talking about what’s next. As in, post show season.

A NEW FREAKIN’ SHOW SEASON IS WHAT.

Nah seriously though the new season may start on December 1, but Mama’s gotta eat so no shows this winter. We are officially on show hiatus after Culpeper Finals until the spring. But that doesn’t mean we can’t plan!

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I have no relevant media so enjoy these screenshots from my last lesson where Trainer had me jump without stirrups. And Frankie said MAHM TINY STEPS ARE HARD Y U DO DIS DO NOT WANT

Starting in October I’ll be taking private lessons. I learn SO SO SO much from my group lessons and getting to watch other talented riders is great, but Trainer and I think that 1-on-1 attention for a full hour is going to be some next level stuff. I’ll likely be adding another (group) lesson to the rotation also, so I’ll have two lessons a week- one group and one private.

The reasoning for this is that I’m not showing for several months, and then plan to step in the ring at a new height in the spring. With my budget I don’t have the luxury of several “get  back into it” shows, so we gotta be ready for our division when we arrive on the showgrounds in the spring. I’m gonna be working my tail off to make sure we not only don’t backtrack over the winter, but that we progress and the move-up is a no-brainer.

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LOL so glad my muscles survived the two week break and I was able to not look like Quasimodo PSYCH THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT DIDN’T HAPPEN

We’re also gonna start talking maintenance with the vet come spring. Frankie is a superbly healthy horse with very low miles, and I want to KEEP HIM HEALTHY. Now that he’s living the horse-show lifestyle with much more regular jumping, I don’t want to wait to address any problems that may arise. We’re gonna be proactive about his joint health- luckily I have a FANTASTIC vet who loves to talk shop and is big on the proactive vs. reactive side of veterinary care. He actually keeps his horse at my barn so I can bug him with questions all winter.

And then looking ahead to the actual show season. Do you remember back in May when I set some goals? And my pie-in-the-sky goal was to qualify for Zone 3 USHJA Adult Amateur Jumper Championships at some point eventually? Well yeah. We’re gonna go for it. Trainer and I are sitting down in the next few weeks to plan out my show schedule to maximize chances of qualifying. It may happen, it may not, but Frankie and I are gonna work our butts off to make it there. We had a kid do the Children’s Jumper version of it this year and she said it was SUPER fun (and that the ammy teams all brought wine, so I’m sold).

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OK we do have cute moments though. Also note to Francis- THIS IS WHY WE DO TEENY STEPS. YOU JUMP LESS LIKE A DRUNK ALPACA WHEN WE DO TEENY STEPS.

So there you have it! It feels like we’re transitioning from “riders who compete” to “Competitors” with a capital C. Francis and I are having a blast!

PS- THE STUPID LIVERPOOL WASN’T IN THE RING FOR MY LESSON. Ugh. I swear I’m gonna make sure they drag it back in there soon so I can jump it. It needs to happen. I have grabby hands. I want.

PPS- Trainer said that she could really use 5 of Franklin. Cue the warm fuzzy proud Mama moment. He’s such a wonderful unicorn, I still can’t believe I have my dream horse.