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.

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A Love Letter to Training Rides

While I had my Trainer or AT hop on Frankie with some regularity (if not frequency) during the first few years of owning him, 2018 was the first year that I set aside a larger portion of our budget for a more regimented schedule of training rides. Frankie spent pretty much all of our show season in his 2x/week program of pro rides in addition to his rides with me.

As a training tool for competition, these rides were absolutely invaluable. My lessons always built on the exercises that Frankie had worked on that week, so there was a ton of consistency and continuity in our work. The extra saddle time helped his fitness immensely, and the correctness of the work made sure the right muscles were developing appropriately. It was a very sympathetic program, but rigorous nonetheless. And while Frankie likes to pretend that he’s a lazy slug that hates work, he actually thrived in such a busy program- both physically and mentally.

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AT taking Frankfurter in a schooling round at Lake Placid before I arrived

But as we kick off 2019, I’m not in the midst of show season, I’m not planning on having a particularly busy or competitive show season in the next few months- but I still have Frankie in a 2x/week program.

And I still love it just as much, albeit for slightly different reasons.

For one, there’s the continued benefit to Frankie. His training rides are tailored to exactly whatย he needs to work on- not any other horse, not his rider. Just him. While he’s always been a confident horse, I’ve found that these sessions have made that confidence absolutely skyrocket as he’s been set up for success and praised for trying. He’s kept fit, he’s kept limber, he’s kept educated.

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A very blurry screenshot of AT taking Frankie in for miles in the 1.20m at Upperville

But there’s also several enormous benefits to me.

The first and most obvious benefit is when I’m in the saddle. A fit and well-educated horse is a million times easier and (in my book) more fun to ride. Especially Frankie, who tunes into me much more easily when he’s in consistent moderate-heavy work. So as I’m getting back into shape and gaining my strength back, having his help makes it much easier and more enjoyable. Basically I only have to worry about myself since I know he’s got this on lock.

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And AT giving him a great ride in his first ever 1.20m class at Blue Rock

The other benefit is when I’m out of the saddle- namely, that I actually feel that I can take days out of the saddle. As much as I love being at the barn and want to be there all the time, I have other responsibilities to take care of (that I ignored for like 3 years straight womp womp). It used to be that I’d try to cram everything in after the barn and would have to stay up super late, or I’d just push everything to the weekend when I had a bit more time. But now I feel like I can take a day to go home after work and take care of things without feeling guilty about not seeing Frankie. He’s still getting worked, he’s still progressing. It’s allowing me to find a different balance in my life without sacrificing Frankie’s quality of workload.

Basically instead of trying to be an ammy that trains like a pro, these pro rides let me be an ammy that trains like an ammy. Some days I’m a pretty good ammy, some days I’m a pretty floppy ammy, some days I’m an absentee ammy, some days I’m a competitive ammy. I work hard, I cross train, I spend most of my time obsessing about my horse and his care and his work and his health and his schedule and all things Francis-related. But it’s really really refreshing to give myself permission to spend time on other things every once in a while without feeling like I’m trading away my progress in the saddle.

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All that pro attention has made one extremely ammy-friendly pony

I’m still figuring out what my new normal is as a newlywed, and I’m so grateful to have the help of wonderful people and a great program at the barn to help me as I adjust.

 

Triumphant Return

I’m baaaaack!!!!!

Didja miss me? (Just say yes. I don’t care if you’re lying). Because I gotta be honest, I missed all y’all. Two weeks was a long time.

But enough with the sappiness, let’s get into the good stuff. Greece was great blah blah blah you saw pictures and it was a magical once-in-a-lifetime type of trip and coming back home was only tolerable because my pony was waiting for me.

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REUNITED AND IT FEELS SO GOOOOOOOD

So let’s talk about the pony.

I had a “meeting” with Assistant Trainer for her to hop on Frankie and show me what they’ve been working on while I was away, so that I can be sure to ride consistently and not undo all their hard work. And side note here- my trainers are awesome. Usually in this situation we would just discuss what’s been going on, but AT knows that I’m a very visual learner, so she hopped on to SHOW me instead of just telling me. I gotta tell ya, super grateful that she tailored her communication for me like that.

Also grateful that this training is very clearly tailored to how Frankie goes and what our competitive goals are. We discussed how Frankie will never be the fastest horse in the ring- he isn’t “spicy” like most jumpers. On the one hand, this is fantastic for me. I never worry about getting run away with, I trust him to jump the jumps, and overall he is Mister Reliable and this relaxed disposition makes him a pretty perfect horse for me. On the other hand, we need to generate more power. He currently gives zero f**ks about anything, and we need him to give a couple f**ks. Not like, a ton. Just a couple. (Pardon my French)

So with the knowledge that we cannot turn him into a fiery white-eyed jumper (and we don’t WANT to do that), we discussed how making efficient turns and jumping cleanly are going to be the key to success in the ring. We’ll be doing lots of gridwork and exercises to encourage him to use his body better over the jumps- currently he doesn’t really use his neck effectively, and is slow to pick up his feet. We’re also building lots of strength in that hind end to get him pushing instead of pulling, so those turns will be less barge-like.

Part of this process is asking him to carry himself higher than he has been. We’ve been doing lots of long and low which has been lovely, but now he’s at the point fitness-wise and experience-wise where we need him rounding up into the bridle and carrying himself from his hind end more. He’s naturally built fairly uphill, so this isn’t working against his conformation. Just retraining and building different muscles to get him rocking back and powering across the ground.

We also got some groundwork exercises that can help build muscle and train in some of that lateral responsiveness that will help our turns. We’re definitely upping the expectations in each ride- Frankie is past the point where he needs hand-holding and is ready to buckle down and work. It’ll be hard work for him for now, but this is going to make his job in the show ring SO much easier.

I was able to hop into a lesson later that day to apply what we talked about. And wow. It makes a huge difference. The quality of his gaits was majorly improved (hello suspension) and his responsiveness was noticeably better. Asking for collections and extensions was a much less “heavy” process, when he was traveling uphill like that we were able to get that adjustability SO much faster.

Moving into the jumping, I could also tell a difference- clearly they’ve been schooling the close spot with him. A couple times I didn’t see a spot and kinda tried to launch from outer space and Frankie just said “NOPE I HAVE BEEN INSTRUCTED TO FIT IT IN AND I WILL BE ADDING THAT STRIDE YOU ARE WELCOME MOTHER” and it was like huh….that was actually a much better choice. Thank you horse.

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We have this fun new ivy-covered rolltop/barrel, and a coop set up too. Yay new jumps!

Overall I am SO PSYCHED for this month of training together. Even if we weren’t competing regularly I would be glad for this- we’re working together to get Frankie really fit and able to do his job well and I can’t see a downside to that. I came back after 16 days and hopped on my fit, shiny, healthy, happy horse and jumped around while he took care of me. Can’t complain about that!

Again, I’m thrilled to be back and checking in with all of you. Cheers!

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I swear if I don’t get to jump this liverpool ASAP I’m going to lose it. Formal request is to try it out this week in our lesson. I don’t know if you can tell from this angle, but its SUPER wide. I just wanna.

 

Bootcamp for Francis

I’m heading to Greece for two weeks for a family vacation at the end of August and I can’t wait! Two weeks of lounging by the pool, playing with my niece, laughing with my brothers, sailing the Aegean with my parents, telling stories with my sisters. Two weeks of paradise.

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We’re heading back to the same villa we stayed at 5 years ago. It is not terrible
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Five years younger but we’re still all fresh to death. We get to bring another sister this time around!
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Accurate. Will be doing this in every picture.

BUT.

Two weeks away from my Francis.

Sadface. I hate not seeing him two days in a row, so to go two full WEEKS is going to be a major bummer. I’ll miss my sweet boy so much! Not to mention I’m going to lose all my muscle because I refuse to work out on vacation. I’m sorry but I just won’t do it.

For the first time, I’ve had to consider what to do with my horse when I can’t be there for a solid 16 days. I can ask buddies to hop on him once or twice if I’m gone for the weekend, but I like him to be ridden 5-6x a week and I simply can’t coordinate 10-12 rides for while I’m gone.

So after talking to my trainer and discussing the different options available, I’ve decided to put Francis into full training for the month of September. He will get ridden by a pro 5-6x a week including flatwork, gymnastic work, and conditioning rides. I’ll be having a chat with Trainer before I leave to discuss what we want to work on with him and formulate a plan to get there.

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Priority numero uno: snuggle him tons while I’m gone because he needs his smooshes.

In an ideal world I would then compete at HITS Culpeper finals at the end of September, but it’s looking like the finances won’t be in place for that. Because I will have just paid for a month of training. So my wonderfully tuned up horse will just have to dazzle me at home. Womp womp.

Honestly though, this is going to set us up really well. Our first show at 1.0m this year was very manageable once I got over my stage fright, and I think with some hard work at home over the winter we can move up to the High Adults (1.10m) in the spring without too much fuss. This month of training will kick us into gear and get him ready to tackle some bigger fences in the fall and winter training season.

I’m dreaming pretty big with Frankie. It’s no secret that I want to make it to the 1.10m classes, but I do think he has the potential to take me even higher. I don’t think he’ll ever be the most traditional jumper- he doesn’t have that FIRE to attack the jumps like a lot of the top finishers I see at the shows- but I simply love competing and progressing on him. Despite the expense, I think putting him into professional training for the month is going to be fantastic for both of us as we pursue our goals!

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Clearly scope is not an issue for him

What arrangements do you make for your horse when you travel?