Order of Operations

Since I’m still doing super boring things in the saddle (aka walking around with two coolers and letting my pony snoot all the things in the ring for 20 minutes), I’m going to talk for a while about what we used to do when we did not-boring things. Today specifically I’m going to talk about the different skills we tackled with Frankie, what order we tackled them in, and why (not that I always have stellar insights, but I’ll try to articulate it).

To start, let’s rewind to the “base” that we started with when I bought Frankie. I won’t go over this again because I talk about this literally all the time (the words “good egg” and “broke but inexperienced” come up a lot). In a nutshell, we had a physically and mentally mature horse with decent fitness and the basic buttons firmly installed. A fantastic base to work with!

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Calm, obedient, and love at first sight.

The very first thing we worked on was the go button. We ignored my equitation for a while, we ignored collection (for the most part), we ignored technique, we ignored a great many things and we made. the. horse. move. forward. off. my. damn. leg. This was not a trivial exercise for a horse like Frankie, who had made it to the age of 10 without reeeeally needing to move very fast. We were NOT trying to gallop him off his feet, just make sure he understood that he must move forward promptly when asked. Thankfully he did catch on to this fairly quickly and while he’s certainly still a leg workout, I find him appropriately responsive and downright speedy when I ask.

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OMG HORSE MOVE IT PLS (this is before I figured out the joys of the driving seat)

Once we had a HAUL ASS button installed, we started focusing more on straightness. Not only must he move forward promptly, he must do so without trying to evade out sideways. The outside rein started being mentioned more often. Transitions had to happen without losing the shoulder or haunch. Walking in a straight line had to be a thing. Lateral work was our friend here, connecting his different parts and teaching him that he can move them independently. Going sideways in order to go straight, in a sense. He still likes to wiggle at the walk if left unattended, and will throw his shoulder out if I let him, but is much more educated to that straightness.

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“NO GO STRAIGHT I WANNA DO MY GANGSTA LEAN”

So then we had forward and straight. WOAH REVOLUTIONARY IT’S ALMOST LIKE THIS IS THE BASIS FOR EVERYTHING ELSE.

The next thing we did? Put the jumps up. This is around when we moved up to the 1.10-1.15m height and started schooling some bigger jumps at home. I don’t know that I would recommend this 100% of the time to 100% of people on 100% of horses, but I’m comfortable with how this worked for us. It wasn’t until we introduced some height that Frankie started really figuring out how to use his body a bit better over the jumps, and that now translates over the lower fences as well.

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“Oh wait you mean like THIS OH OK GOT IT”

In conjunction with that, moving up to the next division introduced some more difficult turns as we started exploring the inside options. Getting him to move not only forward, but sideways off my leg was crucial. Counter-bending through turns. Maintaining good balance. All that good stuff.

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I also learned that it really helps to actually look where I’m going. Weird, right?

This is around when we also began a more in depth conversation about adjustability. Can I place my horse where I want him? Can I feel my stride length and adjust to ride the plan? Our collection work became more intense as we pushed the envelope- changing his stride length between 10-14′ was no longer acceptable, we wanted 8-16′ of play or more. “Canter up and down like a carousel pony” was said more than once. Frankie did not like learning this skill. Collection is hard, yo. Butt muscles got sore.

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It sure did help his quality of movement at all stride lengths tho

And finally, we began having a really serious conversation about self-carriage. I know what many of you are thinking- WOAH THAT IS BACK ASSWARDS. I get it. But the fact is that up to this point, we were chugging along pretty well, and likely could’ve continued chugging along if I hadn’t said “hmm I wonder if Frankie can jump 1.20m” one day. He was always obedient and athletic enough to do just fine. Frankie is incredibly hard to push up into the bridle, both conformationally and in way of going. It absolutely does not occur to him at ALL and even now that he’s a bit more educated, it takes constant reminders. Convincing him that this is how life is now was very difficult and came with many grumpy ears. Getting him to carry his own dang head around sharpened up every other ask and took it to the next level.

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“NO NO NO NO HATE NO NO NO” PC- Liz

 

But ultimately, we now have a horse that knows how to use his body, moves powerfully across the ground, is adjustable and forward, and is broke as shit. The self-carriage is by no means a complete check in the box- we have a ways to go to really help him understand and move this way. But so far developing this has also developed more specific skills- our lead changes are prompter and smoother, our turns are tighter, he can literally canter like a carousel pony, and his movement has much more suspension and lift to it. Even if he thinks this is a total scam and he should go be a camp pony.

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“Why. Why is this my life.”

Your turn! What has your approach been? How has it changed for different horses? Has it followed conventional approaches pretty closely, or have you changed your order of operations? I’m curious!

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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!

Show Progression

I’m loving that people are sharing their progress pics (thank you to Lauren for the awesome idea!), so here’s our (very) short progression of pics from our shows. We’ve only been in the ring since March and have only been to 5 shows, so there doesn’t seem to be a huge difference- but hey, I’ll take any excuse to share pictures of my beautiful girl.

prog_show1 March ’15- our very first show together. We did the 2’6″ and 2’9″ hunters, and Addy was so relaxed about everything. She was also very bored by the height and pretty much cantered over the jumps.

prog_show2Also March ’15- our second show. We did the 2’9″ and 3′ hunters, and Addy was less relaxed. No shenanigans, but this is when Firebreathing DragonMare made her appearance. Apparently jumping 3′ is VERY EXCITING. Our flat classes were a disaster, but she was such a packer for my first ever trips at 3′!

prog_show3April ’15- Third show, and first outdoor show. 2’9″ and 3′ hunters again. We got waaaaay too quick pretty much everywhere and I had a very hard time keeping her steady. Nothing dangerous, just a little out of control. Flat class was ridiculous again, but overall we had a really fun day!

prog_show4May ’15- Our first jumper show (at 2’9″ and 3′)!!! We had quite a few setbacks in terms of duck outs/refusals, but it was so much fun going into the jumper ring. This is probably my favorite picture of us ever, I just wish it was nice quality instead of a zoomed-in screenshot.

prog_show5June ’15- A triumphant return to the hunter ring with one warmup trip at 2’6″ and then the 3′ division. Definitely our best show to date in terms of how relaxed and calm Addy was. We tried out a pelham and had a very calm warmup, and that eased Beastly into the day nicely.

I can’t really see much improvement in me here, which is kinda meh. I know I’ve been working on strengthening my leg and it’s gotten tons better, but I seem to forget everything I know at these hunter shows and just chuck my hands at her face. That’s what hunters do, right? Sigh. Time to drop my stirrups again. Apologies for the terrible photo quality, hopefully soon I’ll have some better ones to share!