Tuesday, March 29, 2011

I've Been Hit By A Truck

Not a real truck.  A figurative truck.  Although, my body certainly feels as though I was hit by a real truck.

Last week I had a lesson with my trainer.  I love him because he is conscientious and caring.  His lessons are not for a set time.  He teaches until he feels that you have understood the lesson.  This is a wonderful thing.  Unless, of course you want him to arrive to teach you at a set time.  He is notoriously late.  So, we have a system.  He calls me when he leaves the previous farm to come to my farm.  That gives me about thirty minutes to get ready.  Which is plenty of time, unless I go out to get my horse and see that he has rolled in sticky mud.  Which is what happened at my lesson earlier this week.


I was faced with a challenge:  Do I leave the mud on my horse and warm up properly?  Or do I get the mud off and start my lesson unprepared?

I went with option B and was, unfortunately, not even on my horse when my instructor got to my farm.  And it only went downhill from there.

In short, I had my ass handed to me.  It has been a long winter.  Spider is not in the greatest shape.  I am not in the greatest shape.  We are certainly in no shape to warm up in front of a Grand Prix rider and FEI judge.  We have lost a certain amount of discipline in our work and that is readily apparent in our warm ups.

The warm up is the most important part of a ride.  It sets the tone for everything else you do and speaks volumes for our technique as riders.  When performing for the judges, most riders (ideally) look the same: quiet, elegant, restrained..... but, when warming up you show the true colors of your training style.  In this case, I showed that my true colors are inconsistent, stiff, and slow to react.  Not acceptable.

In that vein, I have worked for the past week to remedy that.  "Inconsistent, stiff and slow to react" is not representative of my riding style, but I have allowed myself to become complacent.  I could make a lot of excuses about long winters, spring chores and the hazards of riding by yourself, but those are just excuses.  Instead, I chose to say "This is not 'me'.  I am better than this, my horse deserves better than this, and I will fix it!"

And that's why every muscle in my body is screaming for mercy and I feel like I've been hit by a truck......

But, my horse looks and feels amazing.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

What Is Intelligence?

Simply put, intelligence is the ability to solve a problem.  What is a problem?  Well, that depends on perspective.  It's subjective.  If problems are subjective, so is intelligence. 

I used to teach freshman level biology for a university.  Every year, I would have a new crop of naive former high school students.  They thought they were pretty smart.  But college is a different game from high school.  Inevitably many would get their very first bad grade ever in my class, and they would show up in my office completely distraught over how "dumb" they thought they were.   And I would laugh, then ask if they thought I was dumb.  "Of course not!", they'd say "You teach the class".  Then I'd ask if they could guess what my GPA was as an undergrad.  It was a 2.0.  For those unfamiliar with the American system of Grade Point Average (GPA), a 2.0 is a "C" average, or 70%.  It's the absolute bare minimum for not being kicked out of the University, and also the bare minimum to graduate. 

And now you know what a complete slacker I am.  I'm not advocating that as a good way to get through college.  But, that story serves to illustrate my point.  I wasn't too dumb to do the work, I just didn't see bad grades as a "problem".   If I liked a course, I did well.  If I didn't like a course, I put in just enough work to pass.  Is that attitude any different from your horse's?

I see this quite a bit in riders,  I am guilty of it myself:  the rider is asking the horse to do something, the horse isn't responding, the rider keeps doing the same thing over and over again, the horse keeps noodling around, the rider throws up their hands and exclaims "Why doesn't he get it?".  The rider is giving a cue, but the horse doesn't care about the rider's cue.  It's not his problem.

A horse isn't dumb.  Horses are pretty good at solving problems.  They just don't see things the same way we do.  A horse's "problem" is much different from a human's.  For instance, for dressage we know that the best way for a horse to go is round and forward, but the horse can't see that.  The horse feels the weight of a rider on his back and thinks "Ugh, this is hard!  I'll just pull myself around on my forehand with my head in the air. That's much easier."  We need to convince him otherwise.   In order to tap into a horse's intelligence, you've got to make sure he recognizes the problem.   Obviously, we aren't going to be able to show him all the studies proving that correctly trained horses suffer less injuries.  The horse's point of view is much simpler than that.  The horse needs to think "Hey, I get a reward when I do this." or, "She stops doing that annoying thing with her leg when I do this. "  He needs to think of how to solve his problem, whether his problem is "I want my reward" or "Stop doing that annoying thing".  And once he has been presented with a problem to solve, he needs to be allowed to figure out the solution.  This is the "feel" that is talked about in correct training. 

It doesn't mean that we sit there like sacks in our perfect dressage show position and wait for the horse to "get it".  It means that we get proactive in our aids so that the horse can understand what we want from him.  We stop the evasions immediately, anticipate the problems and instantly reward the desired behaviors.  

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Trot Poles And Such

The poles you put on the ground and make your horse work over go by many different names: trot poles, ground poles, cavaletti, torture devices.  I have no idea why.  I suspect it is like everything else in the horse world and just a case of regional vernacular.  Or perhaps those words mean different things and I'm just ignorant of the subtleties.  It doesn't really matter I suppose, I use all those words interchangeably to mean "things you stick on the ground and ride or lunge your horse over".

That's what we did yesterday, trotted over poles.  I've been wanting to do some conditioning work for awhile.  My pastures are still muddy, and I'm tired of basic arena work.  Spider is forward, he is round, he leg yields, renvers, travers, shoulder ins, shoulder fores and does a mean turn on the forehand.  We are bored with that.  But, I don't really feel that he's working consistently enough to start training something new.  I am beginning to feel uninspired. 

So, I got out the trot poles.  Actually, they're landscape timbers.  You can use anything as cavaletti.  I happened to have some landscape timbers laying around, and so they got used.  One of these days I'll get around to painting them white.  Maybe.

I like to lay my cavaletti out in a half circle.  That way, the distance between the poles is varied.  You can choose your spacing without getting off the horse and adjusting, very handy for those who ride alone.  You'd think that after nearly 5 years of riding the same horse I would have the spacing figured out, but no.  I like the variability of the half circle, anyway.

I set them up so that the narrowest distance is 50 inches and the widest is 100 inches.  It just so happens that my booted foot is 10 inches long.  I use that as my measuring device, hence the rather odd, arbitrary seeming distances.  It works well, though.  I let Spider go over on a loose rein a few times to find his "sweet spot", then we go from there.   At the end, I had Spider go over the narrow end to encourage him to lift his legs higher, sit down and collect.  Difficult work, but he handled it well.  Next time I'll probably lift the poles off the ground a few inches with blocks to encourage even more engagement.

Today we worked on canter, mostly transitions between trot and canter and shoulder fore.  I'm trying to develop balance and collection to help with counter cantering and simple changes.  It went well, but the canter is not quite ready for more difficult work yet.  Patience is a virtue.  As Podhajsky says: "I have time"....

Monday, March 14, 2011

Spring Forward!

Mud everywhere.
Every winter day I face a difficult question:  In my limited hours of daylight, should I do all the chores, or ride my horse?  I hate that decision.  Some days I procrastinate so long in making the decision that I don't get anything done. 

For the last few weeks, the sun has been setting later and later.  A sure sign that spring is coming.  And now we've set the clocks forward, giving me an extra hour of daylight in the evening.  Woohoo!  An extra hour to get things done!  (I'm not a morning person. I get up early, but I don't get much done in the morning) 

Now, if this mud ever dries, I can take Spider out to the pasture and do some much-needed conditioning work.  We're both a little flabby.  And we're getting bored with the arena.   This winter has been far too long...

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Bon Mardi Gras!

"Where am I and how did I get these beads?"

Laissez les bon temps rouler! 

 "Let the good times roll!" 

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Lengthenings And Lateral Work

I'm beat.  The weather has been tolerable, and I've gone on a fitness blitz of sorts.  Of course, since Spider has had so much time off, I can't just dive right back into work.  We've been working every other day so far.  To build a muscle, you need to stress it.  But, you also need to allow it to heal.  Muscles are built by making tiny tears in the muscle fibers.  The body then repairs them, making the muscle bigger and stronger.  With this in mind, when bringing a horse back from any sort of layup I like to use an "every other day" schedule. 

Spider is doing well, even after a winter's worth of inconsistent work.   He is consistently working over his back, but the work lacks "oomph!".  "Oomph!"  is my word for the next level of forwardness.  Obviously, for a horse to be round, working over the back, on the bit, in a frame, or however you want to say it, the horse must be forward.  That is the basic idea of dressage training, and what we all strive for.  But, at some point, the horse needs to have some "oomph!" to take him to the next level.   I have been trying to cultivate Spider's "oomph!".

What I need to do is get Spider to engage his hindquarters more.  And that's where lengthening and lateral work come in.  One day, I had him do haunches in and shoulder in down one long side, then lengthen down the other long side.  We did that at trot and then at canter.  In the canter,  I had him do shoulder fore down one long side, then lengthen down the other.  For Spider, lateral work in canter is a great way to help him balance.  He tends to get strung out and on the forehand at canter, particularly left lead.  I don't ask for haunches in at canter, because Spider already wants to go with his haunches in at canter.  No need to encourage that. 

Since we had worked hard at trot and canter in that session, for the next session we worked at walk, halt and rein back.   This is difficult work too, more difficult than walk and trot, but in a different way.  Walk, halt and rein back is more like strength training.  It requires the horse to really push from his hind end, rather than allowing his own forward momentum to carry him.  Since it is difficult, I had him take frequent breaks at free walk to stretch. 

On our last ride, the day before yesterday, we worked more on the trot.  I had him do 10 meter circles, then leg yield across the arena from the cirlce.  I like that exercise, it really gets the hind end working.   Eventually, I will also use ten meter circles to ask for half pass.  That's a few months away, though. 

Now I have to figure out what to do for today.  It's much cooler today, I suspect Spider will be revved up, especially since yesterday was his day off.  That means we may just end up cantering.  That fits well into my plan, anyway.  I don't like to repeat the same types of exercises over and over. 

Of course, there is no "every other day" for me.  So, while Spider languishes on his day off, I'm still working: cleaning up poop, getting the garden ready for spring, housework, etc.  Which is why I feel like I've been hit by a truck.  At least I know my horse will stay sound......


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