Progression: Jumping

This has been mentioned time and time again in my posts over the last few months, but I’d like to take a minute and devote some time specifically to this:

Frankie consistently jumps much better now than he used to.

I don’t just mean that he jumps prettier- though he absolutely does. I mean that he jumps better- more strongly, cleanly, and powerfully. The “pretty” is a lovely side effect of these improvements.

So let’s take a little stroll down memory lane to see where we started together, and talk about some of what we’ve done to get to where we are today.

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First time I tried him, March 2016

 

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Our first show together, Loudoun Benefit, June 2016

 

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Our second show, HITS Culpeper, August 2016

 

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Working hard over the winter, November 2016

 

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Playing over the bigger jumps, January 2017

 

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NEVER NOT SHARING THIS PICTURE. First big outing in our new division, HITS Culpeper, April 2017

 

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Warming up at Upperville, 2017

 

Let’s go ahead and contrast an early and more recent one together real quick:

The height of the fence isn’t a factor here- in fact, the warmup fence on the right is quite a bit lower than the one in the show ring from last year (same venue, funny enough).

What we had early on was a horse that knew to get to the other side of the jump, but didn’t know how to use his body to do that efficiently.

What I see more recently is a horse that pushes off more powerfully from behind, uses his back and neck more actively, and is tidier with his front end.

And I think this speaks to a couple of different factors: (1) fitness and (2) knowledge.

Frankie has now spent roughly 18 months in a consistent professional program- he was certainly in training before that, but transitioned to a stricter program when he was put up for sale (which has continued since I bought him). Through that steady increase in fitness, he’s better able to power off the ground by rocking back instead of “pulling” himself over the jump. His back and neck muscles have developed the strength to use them in different ways. I’d still like to condition him further and fitness will be our main focus in the coming months, but the consistency of our program has been good thus far for his muscle strength and endurance.

In terms of knowledge, we’ve tried to build exercises that set him up to jump well- that make it clear what the “right answer” is. This means lots of grids set fairly short- asking him to rock back and collect his stride to carry himself through. This also means lots of lateral work on the flat, to unlock some of that motion and get him stronger in his hind end and over his back.

I think those shorter lines and grids are absolutely crucial for Frankie. He has a naturally big stride- not fast, just big- and it tends to get bigger and more strung out as he gets tired. By building the strength he needs on the flat to carry some collection in his stride, we are able to set him up to carry himself to the jumps. These shorter lines also force him to rock back on his butt to launch off- there’s no room for him to lurch over. And these lines make him fire a little faster to get his front end up and out of the way.

These are not often big jumps- we jack the jumps up 2-3x a month, if that. We only jump 1x a week, and most of the time they’re kept at 3’ or (usually) lower. We spend the time working on more efficient turns, adjusting our stride, playing with our track, and setting ourselves up to make jumping easier for him. So while I think Frankie gives a better effort over the bigger jumps partially because he has to in order to make it over, we have built up his fitness and ability mostly over smaller jumps and on the flat.

I will say that Frankie still prefers to gallop up out of stride instead of riding to the “jumper chip.” Doing that makes his life easy, since he has plenty of time to get his legs out of the way and doesn’t have to shift his weight back as much for takeoff.

The big difference now is that even though he doesn’t love the close spot, he can still give me a powerful effort. In the past, he simply didn’t (1) know that the close spot was the right answer or (2) have the fitness to give me that answer even if I asked (which I didn’t because I also didn’t know what I was doing and mostly still don’t so luckily he does now womp womp). It used to be extremely weak and lurchy and gross and icky.

In the spirit of total honesty- it is still sometimes totally icky. This is a work in progress, and I definitely need to back up all of my asks with a crapton of leg, otherwise he says HAH I CAN HALF-ASS THIS TOO MAHM. Which is fair.

So I definitely think there’s plenty of room for improvement here. As mentioned, fitness is going to be a big priority for us moving forward, to continue building that ability and willingness to rock back, adjust, and power off the ground. We’d like to shift that close spot to more of an automatic answer for him instead of automatically looking for an out-of-stride spot.

I think this is a great example of form following function. We’ve never tried to make Frankie jump prettier- we’ve just tried to get him fit for his job and set him up to answer the different questions he’ll be asked on course.

Hopefully as we continue to build our muscle and endurance, we keep improving together!

Especially for those of you with young/green/inexperienced horses: what have you done to develop their jumping abilities? I’d love to see any progress pics y’all have to share!

Progress

Anyone who knows me well knows that I am pretty fiercely driven to be the best I can possibly be at everything I do. I won’t say competitive because it doesn’t matter so much to me how I rank compared to other people. I am constantly comparing myself to…myself.

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Both of my parents are incredibly intelligent, detail-oriented, driven people. I never had a shot of turning out any other way.

I am constantly scrutinizing videos and pictures and nitpicking- my toe is turned out too much, my leg isn’t directly under me, my hands are too low, my hands are too high, the list goes on and on.

And I think that can be a really good thing. Being realistic about my faults is what allows me to address them- the first step is admitting you have a problem, right? I don’t see it as being hard on myself, I see it as identifying opportunities to work hard and improve.

However, I think it’s so important to temper this nit-picking with the recognition of the progress we’ve made. Not in a bragging “look what I can do” kind of way, but more in an “even though there’s a long way to go, we’ve already come so far” kind of way. Recognizing that slow progress is still progress.

 

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So as we kick off my second show season with Francis, here’s a couple things that have come a long way that I’m psyched about:

  1. My ability to think on course. Pretty much since I jumped my first crossrail at age 6, I’ve picked up my canter…….and then come back to a walk. The jumping part in the middle has been a blacked out blur. I’m FINALLY getting the confidence and presence of mind to take a deep breath and consider my options on course. To actively make choices about my approaches and pace instead of letting my horse choose and clinging along for the ride.
  2. My understanding of WHY I ask for certain movements the way I do. Many moons ago, I was taught that picking up the canter involves moving my outside leg back a little and nudging. Now that I’ve spent the time learning about the biomechanics of the gaits and how my aids affect those mechanics, I’m questioning and exploring different ways of asking with some really fantastic results. There’s SO much more to learn but my eyes have been opened to this aspect of riding.
  3. My bravery. For a formerly EXTREMELY timid rider, I honestly can barely recognize myself. Not even so much that I’m jumping higher than I ever expected- instead, I’m excited that when I see a new jump, my immediate reaction is “ooh, I can’t wait to try that!” And when my trainer tells me a course, I don’t worry if I can make it around, I think, “OK, here’s what I’m going to do at every stride to make this a great course.” Do I still crash and fail? All the time! But I believe in myself and my abilities SO much more than I used to. My setbacks are not signs of failure, they are opportunities to learn and improve.
  4. My drive. Of course I’ve always loved riding and wanted to be better at it. But it’s only in the last year or so where I’ve consciously decided to pursue this sport wholeheartedly, and made changes in my life to accommodate that. Things may not end up working out exactly the way I have planned, but I’m setting big goals and doing everything in my power to turn them into reality.

I’m hoping to walk this balance moving forward: remembering to recognize my progress, while still pushing myself to constantly improve. Knowing that I’m not where I want to be yet, but I’m a lot closer than I used to be!

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What are you proud of lately?

Potential

I had an “aha” moment recently. I’m not sure why it hit me- my lessons have been going well, but they haven’t been earth-shattering. We are consistently and steadily improving, but there wasn’t some huge breakthrough that changed my whole view on everything.

But for whatever reason, I had a flashbulb moment:

I have to go after this whole horse thing with everything I have right now. I have to see how far I can go.

Since I’ve gotten back in the saddle, I’ve set goals for myself. Big goals! Ones that I would’ve never dreamed of achieving when I was a kid! And we keep meeting them, thanks to my ever-wonderful steed and the guidance of a fantastic trainer.

But if I’m meeting these goals so easily, it means I’m not thinking big enough. Six months ago, doing the 1.0m was daunting. It was a HUGE goal for me. Now we’re schooling 1.15-1.20m courses and it ain’t perfect, but it doesn’t feel like a big deal anymore. It isn’t scary or intimidating.

I have everything in the world going for me right now: my youth and health, a horse that is so game for everything I want to try, a trainer that believes in me and pushes me and is flexible because she knows how much I want this, friends and family who are always there for me, a Manfriend who is amazingly supportive in so many ways, a boss who approves time off for horse shows, no kids, no mortgage, a steady career, and so many other things.

So if I don’t take advantage of this incredible confluence of blessings, I have no one to blame but myself. I am beyond extremely fortunate and I need to grab this opportunity while I can.

Because I really do think that if I push myself and work hard and stay the course, I can achieve some crazy cool stuff. My goal is not to go out there and win every class at every horse show, but to stop setting arbitrary goals and push so I can see what my potential is.

I know that riding is not my career. I know that I’m toeing the line financially. I’ve had several people tell me that I shouldn’t be making major life decisions based on my hobby. I’m choosing not to listen to them.

If I don’t put everything I have into this sport now, when will I ever get that chance again? Maybe there will be another time that things line up and that would be amazing, but do I want to gamble on that?

Nothing has changed really: I will continue to ride 5-6x a week and compete as often as finances allow. But I felt a physical sense of relief when I gave myself permission to put my whole heart into this. I’m so hungry to be a good rider and I’m beyond excited to see where I can go from here.

I simply love sharing the journey with you all. It’s a hell of a ride.

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Do Hard Work

You’ve heard me say over and over lately that I’m on show hiatus. Very regrettably so, but my bank account is heaving a sigh of relief for the multiple-month reprieve in show spending.

But being on show hiatus doesn’t mean we aren’t working hard. On the contrary- we’re working harder than ever both in the saddle and out of it. And it’s really REALLY fun.

I’ve been out at the barn pretty much every day, even the days I’m not riding. I’ll have a glass of wine with a fellow ammy as we deep clean our tack and talk about our horses, or I’ll organize my trunk while shooting the breeze with another boarder.

My trainer will give me a session on nutrition- why exactly Frankie eats what he eats, when he eats it. And a conformation seminar to identify Frankie’s strengths and weaknesses. I watched Assistant Trainer clip her horse while she gave pointers, and then she showed me the best way to break in a new bridle quickly.

At this point I know just about every rider and their parents (if they’re a junior) that are at the barn, since I’m there just about every day. I get to say hi and chat and catch up with like-minded people. And when someone new shows up for a lesson, I can sometimes help show them where and how things go around here.

Frankie gets a good grooming every day as his dark winter coat comes in, and his hooves, while always in good shape, are looking even better. Don’t even get me started on his tail- it’s long and luxurious and absolutely gorgeous.

We have days where I ask him to work really hard, and then we have days where his only job is energy and straightness as I work on myself. He’s continuing to build muscle and fitness even though he’s no longer in full training.

The pieces, while not together yet, are steadily coming together. We’re eliminating a lot of the old mistakes and we’re making new mistakes. We’re moving into the realm of skills that we can’t master in a single lesson- we can just keep persistently building strength and ability over time.

October has been an amazing month for all of the little things adding up, all the steps carrying us further. There have not been any single major breakthroughs, just the consistency and hard work adding and adding and adding together until suddenly I look back and realize that our knowledge and skills have progressed.

It’s a calm, contented sort of progress rather than the adrenaline-rush progress I felt all show season. And while I am eager to get back into the show ring as soon as warmer weather rolls around, I’m satisfied for now to buckle down and do hard work.

Put aside idleness, grasp the nettle, and do some hard work. – St. Bernard of Clairvaux

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. And What We’re Doing About It.

I know most of you must be familiar with the concept of your horse knowing your emotions before you do. Most people attribute it to horses being prey animals- they must be hyper-aware of their surroundings. I attribute it to voodoo magic. But whatever you attribute this to, horses always seem to be the mirror that shows us what’s actually going on.

For example: Addy has been refusing jumps in our last two lessons. Most are not dirty stops (though some absolutely are), but my jumping machine seems to have lost some of her hops. We can have a beautiful flowing course, and then she will come to a screeching halt at a simple 2’3″ vertical she’s jumped 2-3x a week for the last year.

I’ve never been the type to get overly worked up about a stop- I’ll give her a good thump in the sides as a big fat NOPE YOU DON’T GET TO ENJOY THIS, but I’m fine with making a circle and re-approaching. I’m not the rider who gets crazy frustrated and starts to cry about how my horse hates me. Instead, I’m more thinking “WTF is going on and what am I doing wrong.”

Key: what am *I* doing wrong. Not what darling pony is doing wrong. Me. Myself. I. Because even if I’m getting dirty stops, that’s something that I need to address. That’s a training opportunity.

So after ending our lesson on a decent note (I actually have lots of videos that I’ll be posting on Insta over the next couple days, shoutout to Manfriend for braving his allergies to get me more media!) I took a step back. I’ve been sick for a couple weeks. I’ve been out of town for several weekends. My riding routine has been disrupted and I’ve almost definitely lost some muscle mass from said disruption. Is it any wonder if my riding has suffered? My job has picked up a LOT lately. Is it any wonder that I’m coming to my lessons with a measure of stress and tension that wasn’t there before?

Addy is a horse that will work with me all day long and give me her whole heart, but she is not the type of horse to work for me. As frustrating as it is, she’s giving me the ride I need right now- reminding me that it’s OK to throw out the pretty equitation and get gutsy when need be.

But I also need to take a step back and realize what I’ve been asking her to do: even though I’ve been riding less so you’re not getting worked as consistently, and I’m tense and nervous and riding weakly, please cart my butt over that 3’3″ oxer. All my aids are screaming “I’m not sure about this,” but please go for it anyway.

Of course she’s not going to do it. Like I said last week, Precious Pony is not getting canonized any time soon, and it would certainly take some saintlike behavior to put up with that garbage.

But identifying this as a problem has actually made me feel tons better! Because now I have a trainer-approved plan to address it: build up our confidence. Her confidence in me, my confidence in her, and both of our confidence that we actually know what we’re doing.

So this involves building lots of positive experiences for both of us. Asking for things that she enjoys and excels at so that she gets tons of praise for succeeding. Taking the pressure off and enjoying each other’s company. Spending extra time grooming and bonding. Dropping my stirrups to get that muscle tone back. Basically psychological boot camp (with a little bit of physical boot camp too).

So when I rode Friday, she got to go on the buckle. I held a very light contact the entire time and just asked her to move freely without me hanging on her mouth. I didn’t ask her to collect or package or do anything too strenuous. Just stretch out and play together. Lo and behold, I got a gorgeous stretchy trot and a quiet, balanced canter. Bonus: I got a great lower body workout since I had basically thrown away the reins and was riding based on seat and leg.

Then just yesterday we went out on a long trail ride with friends. Even though she’s been on maybe 3 trail rides ever, she crossed bridges and trotted up steep hills and went through the woods and walked down neighborhood streets like she does this every day. It was just the reminder I needed that this horse is absolutely trustworthy. She wants to take care of me and she wants to do a good job.

It’s like Nicole explained in her post about the Trust Bank (which I legit refer to all the time because I love it so much)- if I want Addy to save my butt in tough situations, I need to make sure she knows that I will always always always do the same for her. Let her know that we get to have fun together including but not limited to jumping over colorful sticks. That I’m on board and leading and will set both of us up for success.

After all, two steps forward and one step back still counts as progress. I’m really excited about reaching a new level of understanding and communication with my Beastly Creature! I’ll keep you all updated on how it goes.

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What have you done when you needed to take a step back to build the trust back up? Any ideas for fun activities we can do together?

Mental Health Day

What a treat for you, Dear Reader: two professional Powerpoint diagrams two days in a row!!

Yesterday’s lesson was exactly what I needed: a reminder that even though we couldn’t do Very Hard Things on Monday, there’s plenty that we’re still good at and we’ve come so SO far together.

After a lovely afternoon thunderstorm rolled through, we warmed up in the outdoor ring. The rain kept the dust down and it was beautiful soft afternoon sunshine as the sun began to set. As I was walking around to get ready, I had one of those “how lucky am I?” moments. Answer: fortunate beyond belief.

Addy is always very short-stepped in the outdoor ring and dislikes going into the corners, so I focused on holding my leg strongly and pushing her exactly where I wanted her. Once I sat deeper in the saddle our circles got much more civilized. At one point a piece of machinery nearby backfired twice (sounded like a gunshot!) and Addy twitched and continued on. Love this spook-proof pony. We also did lots and lots of no-stirrup work at the trot and canter with Trainer laughing gleefully and yelling, “I love no stirrup work, it makes me sleep better at night to make you do it!” No joke, she was downright giddy.

We popped over a crossrail in the outdoor a couple times to warm up, then headed inside to play. Here’s our course!

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We warmed up over the quarter line towards home G-C a couple times. We trotted in and cantered out, so Trainer wanted us to do it in 4 strides. The first time through was great, the second was a very gappy three because I got complacent, and then we schooled through 2 more times to reinforce the 4. It’s awesome that she moves up for me, but I need to keep that leg tight and half-halt as soon as we land to remind her that a short, powerful stride to the base is our friend.

Then on to our course! We did A-B-C-D-E-F-G. Isn’t it funny how alphabetical that is? Almost like I planned it that way. So outside red 2’9″-3’ish vertical, then down the diagonal swedish oxer at 2’6″ish. Up the broken pink to yellow plank in a bending four (both 2’3″-2’6″ish), down the outside zebra-gate at 2’9″, and back up the swedish the other direction broken to the stone wall (2’3″ish) in a direct three. Nothing too big or scary for us, though the zebra gate was brand new.

Our first jump was very nice even though it was one of the bigger ones on course and out of a long approach. We’ve done this approach often enough that I know how to leg up and hold for our distance, and Addy rarely wiggles to this anymore. Coming down the swedish was actually ridiculous- we took a totally huge flier over it. Good pony for saving my butt when I thought we had another stride in there. In all honesty, I should’ve held stronger for that closer distance. Lesson learned. Our first time through we got a little gappy into the pink, so I had to sit deep and WOAH for the four, but we salvaged that and jumped out well. We came around to the zebra and I got complacent, which meant that Pretty Pony ducked out. New scary jump plus lack of commitment from the lady upstairs? She wasn’t feeling it. So I circled and came at that sucker with so much gumption! She went just fine after that. We were a little strung out to the swedish in the other direction though the distance was decent, and held for the broken three out.

We went back through and tried this again, and I changed a couple things. I still got a bit of a gap into the oxer, which got us a bit strung out for the first broken. I committed HARD to the zebra fence and we got that very comfortably, and finished up more packaged and controlled for the final broken.

Trainer had me go back and just do the long approach to the oxer to the broken four. I kept my leg on more strongly and held to the base, which set us up really nicely through the corner on landing. It made it a lot easier to get more powerful- not faster or longer, just more powerful- out of the turn to the pink, so our distance set us up for a nice bouncy four out.

One side note: Addy was absolutely jumping out of her skin over every single one of these jumps. I don’t know why she was leaping so high, but she cleared everything by a solid foot. DragonMare was NOT going to touch those rails! It made it a little more difficult to keep my balance, but on the bright side I can’t think 3’6″ would be scary anymore. We’re already jumping 3’6″ over 2’6″ jumps, how different can it be to actually have the rail there?

I was very happy to hear Trainer tell me that she was happy with how I schooled Pretty Girl. She told me that as Addy has gotten fit and as I’m asking for more and more from Addy she’s giving me a more challenging ride, and Trainer is very happy that I’m keeping up and riding actively. Then she added that when we nail a course it’s because I was thinking and making the right decisions. When we were doing crossrails and tiny jumps Addy was very auto-pilot and made all the decisions for us- which is honestly why I started leasing her. But as I’m pushing her buttons she’s giving me more to work with, and it’s getting more difficult to contain all of it. It is seriously So. Much Fun. I would much rather work hard to package and push and play with this girl and do all the fun things we do instead of having a point-and-shoot beginner’s horse. I never think of Addy as a difficult horse to ride since I’m so used to her, so it was really nice to hear Trainer say that she liked how I rode her. I have miles and miles to work on and improve, but it’s so awesome to have an encouraging trainer and the DragonMare to point me on my way!

We didn’t do anything crazy- the jumps weren’t huge and the courses were simple- but it reminded me that a few short months ago I could barely release over a crossrail, and I would’ve never been able to package Addy up for the corners and different stridings. We’re going to continue to work really hard on getting her more sensitive to my leg so we can get those turns, but I’m going to remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day. We’re going to train hard and improve and have so much fun doing it!

PS- One of the juniors at the barn took some GORGEOUS pictures on her fancy camera while we were warming up, and I’d love to share. I’m just waiting on the OK from her, so hopefully in the next few days I’ll have a post for you that’s almost exclusively pretty pics of the Beastly Unicorn!

PPS- I also got Addy a fancy new show pad for our trip to Loch Moy on the 16th. I felt really bad that I had treated myself to TS breeches and got her the cheapo $30 fake fleece pad. I snagged the Shire fleecey pad when Dover was having a sale, and was very happy when I used it during our lesson yesterday.

PPPS- Last one I promise. I told Owner Lady that I want a saddle just like hers since it’s so supremely comfortably and fits both me and Addy really well, and she may sell hers to me! It needs some re-stitching, but it would be great if I could snag it! It’s a 17.5″ M. Toulouse and feels like sitting on a cloud with my legs placed just right. I’m in love with it. Now I keep texting her that she deserves to treat herself with a saddle upgrade and does she really want to go through the hassle of consignment when she already has a willing buyer?? Keep your fingers crossed for me!

When have you had a moment where you looked back and realized your progress? What’s been your proudest horsey moment lately?