Frankie and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Well guys, after 3.5 years, we finally had a day where poor Francis Simply Could Not Even. He tried really hard, but the deck was stacked against him and the poor guy simply could not get those hamsters back on those wheels.

His morning did start off very rough – a drunk driver crashed into the fence next to his field and subsequently a telephone pole (against all odds, the driver managed to drive away from the accident and was found a few streets over, passed out and not a scratch on him). So to be fair, he didn’t have the calmest start to the day. This also led to a million utility vehicles with accompanying flashing lights and jackhammers right next to him. This was Poor Francis Incident 1 of the day.

By the time I got to the barn, he had been relaxing in his stall for a few hours and seemed happy to see me. I hadn’t heard about the morning’s incident yet and had no reason to think he wasn’t feeling completely settled.

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This was a few days earlier and completely unrelated, he’s just a really cute land hippo

Poor Francis Incident 2 of the day happened right as I was pulling him out of his stall to put him on the crossties: either a tractor backfired, a door slammed, or some other loud noise happened behind the barn as we were exiting. This was Very Scary and I had a tense-as-a-rock giraffe on those crossties. With plenty of pats and soothing tones we got a bit of relaxation, but not our usual crosstie nap.

Partially because Poor Francis Incidents 2 and 3 were happening in sight of where he was tied: there was a truck full of roundbales where there was previously Not A Truck, and there was a man clanging and fixing a fence where there was previously Not A Man.

Neither of these would have usually bothered Frankie beyond some mild curiosity, but he was already on high alert mode and looking for reasons to stay on alert. Every time he started to relax, the clanging started up again and we re-started the cycle.

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This is our usual attitude. This is not the attitude we had that day.

No big deal though, I know if I could hop on then we could channel some of this energy and give him something else to focus on. I don’t have a death wish though, so I opted to take him for a quick hand walk around the outdoor – the aforementioned utility vehicles and flashing lights were directly adjacent on the road within full view, and I wanted to give him a chance to see them with me offering reassurance.

He was holding it together pretty well until we reach the end of the ring closest to the trucks – which, of course, is when Poor Francis Incident 4 kicked in and they decided to start jackhammering. Homeboy was ready to peace out of there and take me with him, so I got us turned around and headed back towards safety (with Frankie taking many looks behind to make sure that this monster wasn’t chasing us).

I got us back in the barn, loosened his girth, and just stood there with him for a solid 10 minutes letting him decompress. His little brain was so overstimulated and he clearly needed some quiet time to take a deep breath. Once his head was no longer a periscope and his muscles weren’t hard as rocks, I took him into the indoor for a ride.

Considering what a tough time he had been having, he was a really really good boy for me. We took plenty of walk breaks when he started tensing up (mostly due to the clanging and hammering), we did some lateral work to keep his brain on me, and we praised tons for trying. And he sincerely was trying. I was very proud of him.

We even went back out into the outdoor and walked a few laps to finish up, with not even a peek at the trucks. He was back to his happy self.

Proud of how he listened and handled himself, I put him in the wash stall to give him a nice cool bath as a reward.

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We can totally do nice things together!

Which is when they decided to unload the round bales off the Truck That Wasn’t There Before. Poor Francis Incident 5.

At that point I gave up, put him back in his stall to eat his hay in peace and comfort, and decided to try again another day. Poor Francis. Every single time we got to a good spot, something else happened. Couldn’t catch a break.

I gotta say, even though he was clearly convinced that he had entered a Bizarro World of Doom, he looked to me at every point. He never once invaded my personal space – despite clearly wanting to crawl in my pocket – and respected the lead even when he very much wanted to trot away from the zona peligrosa. His attitude was never “I gotta get outta here,” it was very much “WE gotta get outta here.”

Just goes to show you: even unicorns can have terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days sometimes.

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

Favorite Exercises

Technically everything is my favorite thing to do with the Frankfurter since he’s a total bro, but there are certain favorite exercises that are even MORE favorite than others. They vary in technicality, but all of them have been super helpful for both myself and for Francis.

Sitting Trot

I’m starting pretty darn basic over here folks. Just about any time I need a reset on anything, or want to work on anything lateral, I get into a nice collected sitting trot. Something about having that full contact through my seat and legs helps things *click* for Frankie more so than any other gait. I know much good advice says that slowing things down helps introduce concepts, but I find his collected trot much more rideable than his walk when I’m asking him to engage his brain. It’s also a great core workout for me and helps me get my hip angle open so that when I’m on course I can have a bit more range of motion. Once we’re warmed up, I like to do quite a lot at the sitting trot when we’re working on the flat (we play around with extensions while sitting sometimes and WOW CORE WORKOUT. Those DQs have abs of steel, man.).

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We also like dropping our stirrups

Shoulder-In

Ah, the magical shoulder in. It is such a tattle tale for us. As soon as I ask for it, it becomes immediately apparent whether Frankie is truly on my aids or if I’m letting him fake it. It’s also juuust enough brain power to help him loosen up his body and focus on me even in a busy ring. If we’ve been doing a lot of lateral work he sometimes will start anticipating by going all pretzel-y, and a gentle shoulder-in helps cut down on the noise and gives his brain a break while still engaging.

Short-set/Irregularly-set grids

We almost never set grids that are at perfect stride lengths. We’ll often do short stride to short stride, short stride to long stride, or long stride to short stride. Never long stride to long stride, because then we’re not really working on adjustability OR rocking back. The imperfect/short options help him figure out how to self-police his stride, which is something that we’re constantly trying to help him build. I credit a huge amount of his muscling and improvement over fences to these short grids.

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Short strides make Frankie mad but they also make dat booty powerful (also this isn’t one jump looped, this is 9ish efforts looped haha)

Canter poles

OK so these aren’t actually a favorite because they terrify me. But I did have to put them on the list since I’ve found them so helpful in building collection and straightness. Frankie is smart enough to not want to step on these, but not smart enough to know he can split his legs over them, so he’s really very good about self-shortening to make it through the poles as set. It’s a nice balance. Placing these on the quarter line also helps tattle on any drift we might have (especially towards the wall) so that I can keep him balanced and straight.

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Poles. Are. Terrifying. (For me, not for Francis. He’s mostly just sad that they are not eatable)

Counter-bend on a circle

One of my favorite things that we work on is making a medium sized circle, then making the same circle with a counter-bend, then going back to the regular bend. This helps unlock his body through his ribcage, and it’s just hard enough that he has to really be paying attention to me. This is one I like to do at the sitting trot to be super present and help him balance, and keep that trot a little more collected.

Most of these exercises have a common theme: they engage Frankie’s brain and challenge him. We intersperse these harder exercises with plenty of stretch breaks for our bodies and brains before going back to it.

I’ve also found that I can tailor the difficulty of these exercises depending on how Frankie feels that day – the circles can be smaller or bigger, the poles/grids can be shorter or a little easier, our lateral work can be a little shallower. I’m also finding that we’re developing new exercises to engage his brain (my new favorite is the canter half-pass, which is still rudimentary but developing really nicely).

I’ll also add that most of these exercises were not ones that I would’ve chosen for us when I first got Frankie and had to firmly install the forward button. At that point we didn’t have enough power in his stride to be able to ask for collection and lateral motion, and our focus was on forward motion at all times. Now that he knows the job and has a solid base level of fitness though, these are my go-tos on working to build our strengths and address our weaknesses.

I’d love to know what you all like to work on with your ponies too!

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!

Reaping the Benefits

You know how after every single ride I spaz out about how great my horse is and how much I love him? Hope you’re not sick of that yet ’cause it’s still a thing. Sorry not sorry.

I’m really just overjoyed at how much he’s taking care of me lately. I’m not nearly in the shape I was a few months ago, my mental focus is pretty scattered, and I went around half the ring yesterday on the wrong diagonal before my trainer’s laughter caught my attention.

20 years of riding under professional instruction. And I forgot to check my diagonal.

So yeah, clearly I’m not “all there” for him right now. You know how he handles it? Happy ears, obediently going left when I have an oh-crap-turn-left-not-right moment, toting my potato butt around without complaint. It’s awesome.

I have to share our course because of how cool it was. Trainer said it was an adaptation from the West Coast 3’3″ Jumper Seat Medal Finals that happened last week- I love finals season because we get to try out all the fun Big Eq courses! We sometimes have to tweak a bit for the shape/size of the arena but they’re always fun to play with. Here it is:

west coast gymnastic course

So it’s corner oxer, forward bending 4 strides to bounce, shaped short 5 out over the natural; other natural to box in a flowing 4, s-turn out over blue in a short 4; up the outside line in a one to a three; then other s-turn also in a forward 4 to short 4.

Phew!

This course was SO MUCH FUN. Lots of rating our stride bigger and smaller and focusing on our track. That one stride to the three felt incredible. I was a Big Eq Princess in that moment. It just came up perfectly and I could sit there and look pretty as my horse flowed effortlessly through. I think that’s what being on drugs must feel like because I am jonesing for another hit of that.

I guess I’m just really thrilled with how easy this all felt for him. It was ok that I wasn’t all there giving him explicit instructions, because he didn’t really need that much input despite the technicality of the course. He rated easily, he was prompt off my leg and forward-thinking, he was straight up easy to ride.

Over the past couple of years, we’ve worked really hard to educate him to the job. It’s been a joy and has gone quite smoothly, but it’s definitely still been a lot of sweat and time. And I plan to continue putting in the sweat and the time to continually improve both of our abilities.

But right now in this in-between where I’m not super actively training, I feel like I’m getting to sit back and enjoy the outcome of all that hard work. I’m simply enjoying my incredibly well-trained horse.

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Also really enjoying his love of drinking from the hose ❤

 

Blog Hop: Your Trainer’s Mantra

Britt had a fantastic post recently about what she hears most often from her trainers, and I just needed to join in!

“Coil the spring”
We talk a lot about getting Frankie’s energy up in front of my leg, and then recycling it back to his hind end to create power. And what happens when you try to compress a crooked spring? It bounces out to the side. She says this to remind me to keep Frankie straight between my aids and bouncing up in front of me.

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Get that shmancy prance up and bouncy

“We have beautiful hands”
This is a more recent one, as Frankie’s jump has gotten a lot rounder and more powerful (and therefore pops me out of the tack much more easily). This reminds me to keep a soft following hand over the fence to reward this effort. It also makes me chuckle as I’m walking into the show ring.

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It isn’t supposed to mean “touch his ears” so this is clearly a work in progress

“SHOULDERS!!!”
Ya girl over here gets fetal sometimes, especially around tighter turns. Hearing this belted across the show ring is just the kick in the pants I often need to get my balance back centered over his and in the driving seat up through the turn.

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I’m almost 100% certain that Trainer said SHOULDERS in this exact turn

“Ride the plan”
I really like a thinking ride. That’s 100% of why I like the jumpers- I don’t actually like to go fast. I just really like puzzles and strategy and planning, and for me a well-ridden jumper course is the ultimate in executing a plan. Trainer knows this, and we work together during our course walks to develop a detailed, comprehensive plan that plays to our strengths and accounts for our weaknesses. Sometimes I just need a lil reminder that we come up with a plan for a reason, and I shouldn’t just abandon it in a panic (HAHAHA WHO DOES THAT DEFINITELY NOT ME).

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In theory I’m supposed to look where I’m going? All the time?

“Go have fun”
My all time favorite thing she ever says. It’s our little ritual every single time I walk into the show ring. No matter how jittery and anxious I may be, no matter how intimidated I am by the course, this makes me smile and remember that I’m doing this because I frickin’ love flying around with my Francis.

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Big release of tension, big smiles

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.

Ch-ch-ch-changes

Some very exciting changes going on in my little corner of the universe!

First off- there was a bit of a re-org at work. Nothing dramatic and my job title didn’t change, but the focus of my work is shifting a bit to more organizational effectiveness and process streamlining. I. Am. Thrilled. It’s a much better fit for my experience, skills, and interests, and my new manager and I have already worked together multiple times to great success. I think this new little department of ours is going to be super helpful for the company as a whole, and it’s going to be superduperamazingfantastic for my own career growth.

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#professional

Also work related- my flex schedule was approved! One of my all-time favorite perks of my job is that they’re very willing to be flexible with my schedule (remember when I worked remotely from Ohio for 2 weeks so I could compete without using vacation time?). As long as the work gets done when it needs to be and I attend any meetings that require my presence, no one is too fussy about the specific hours and where I am. But even better than that is a formalized flex schedule! Starting next week, I’ll be in the office Mon-Thurs 7:30a-5p with a 30 min lunch break, WFH Friday morning for 4 hours, and then I have every Friday afternoon off. Entirely.

What does one do with a free Friday afternoon? One heads to the barn.

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DUHH

One of the big reasons I wanted to work on a flex schedule was to fit in a private lesson somewhere. Currently I’m really only available for a 7p lesson, or maaaaaybe 6p if I can rush out the door. You know who else is only available at 6p or 7p? Every single other person. So all lessons at those times have by necessity been group lessons. I knew that if I wanted to get an hour all to myself, I’d have to come up with a way to get to the barn at a different time. Which I now have every week!

Don’t get me wrong- my group lessons have been great. I love learning from watching other riders go, and hearing my trainer explain things in different ways to different learners has been enormously helpful. But I’m also now at the point where I’m hoping to get Frankie feeling great at 1.20m+, and there are few other riders at the barn with that ambition (at least in the near term). I think some individual attention will really help push us to the next level and get us focusing on tackling the skill sets we need to master. Our last spate of private lessons was totally transformative for us and I’m excited to keep transforming!

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Last time we did private lessons, it started out like this. I fully anticipate that I will be cursing this decision and become incredibly sore, but it’s gonna be awesome I swear.

This timing works out perfectly with Frankie’s maintenance- by the time next Friday rolls around, he will be ready to get back into full work after his series of SI and hock injections. He’ll be full of bouncy juice, has been adjusted by the chiro, has better saddle fit, is rocking his carrot stretches, and I just got him a shiny new BoT pad (in navy, duhhh). Because why not do everything we can while we’re at it, right? I have a feeling he’s going to be feeling fantastic, and I’m going to have to grab a lot more mane!

I also got his new 3-ring in and have been using a borrowed figure-8 to great success. I think we’ve really found a great balance of giving him something soft enough to move forward onto, while still giving me a clear enough line of communication to get his attention.

We had a lesson in it last night and I fell in love with my horse all over again. He was hunting down the jumps, had fire in his step but was tuned into me the whole time, and was straight up FUN. He’ll get a few more days off after his hock injections today and I seriously can’t wait. If he’s already going around so amazingly beforehand, I can only imagine how incredible he’ll be once everything is totally 100%.

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He seriously felt like this last night, he was springy as all getout

I also got to sit down with my trainer to talk about our show season coming up, and how best to prepare. Right now the tentative plan is to have AT hop on 2x a week leading up to Blue Rock in May, and then have her take him in a few 1.20m classes to see how he likes it. I’ll stick in the 1.10m Highs for now. We’ll plan on attending Upperville in early June (my favorite show of the year!) where I’ll do the 1.10m/1.15m Highs and she may take him in a 1.20m schooling round, and then late June at Lake Placid I’ll just take him in the 1.15m Highs. If all is going well at that point and we’re all comfortable with the moveup, I’ll take over the ride in the 1.20m Low AOs in August or September. It’s all very tentative and subject to change at any minute, but I’m very happy with this plan. We’re in no rush, so I’d rather Frankie build a lot of confidence and know-how at that height before his amateur mother steps in. As always, we’ll be paying very very close attention to see how he likes that job to make sure we’re not pushing him too much. Even if it doesn’t materialize the way we’re planning, the fact that my trainer has faith in us and Frankie’s abilities means the world to me.

It also turns out that I’m no longer busy during Team Finals (we’re only doing Lake Placid for one week instead of two) and I have enough points to qualify….so I may be looking at the finances to see if we could go from Lake Placid down to Tryon first week of July. I don’t have to decide for a while and it may end up being too much for the Frankfurter, but cool to have the option!

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EVERY SHOW JUST TAKE MY MONEY HERE YOU GO

Things are feeling really good right now. Exciting career changes, exciting progression in our training, and an exciting summer coming up. It’s all a little crazy but it’s the best kind of crazy.

Oh yeah, and I’m planning a wedding. Coolcoolcoolcoolcoolcool.

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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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