Sunday, December 16, 2018

Getting Back into the Christmas Spirit

I have to admit that despite a good start at the beginning of the month, being sick for about a week and losing all the momentum from the first part of the month was kind of a downer.  I sucked it up yesterday and had a marathon day of Christmas stuff that started at about 8 am and ended just before midnight so that I could get back on track.  (I still blogged and took care of Nimo, but pretty much everything else was CHRISTMAS!)  It meant rescheduling a lesson and losing some valuable down time, but I knew that getting caught up would be the first step toward easing the panic I was feeling about being so far behind.

I  have to admit that the Christmas photo session did not go as I hoped.  I moved our tree to a different location this year and while I love it there, the light is horrible and didn't work for the photos at all.  And it was raining outside, so that put a damper on outside photos.  But I had a deadline and the rain wasn't letting up anytime soon, so I stuck an umbrella over my daughter's head and bribed her to stand on the deck for a few minutes in the rain.  (Please tell me that is totally normal behavior...)  That resulted in this:


Alas, I kept going and finally got a smile out of my adorable child, and got the shot that will end up in my Christmas cards this year:


Yes, that is an umbrella in my Christmas photo, but I guess some years you just take what you can get:)

With the photos printed, all my Christmas cards addressed, the Christmas letter written, and everything ready to drop off at the post office tomorrow, I could finally turn my attention to a relatively new Christmas tradition that we have.  Last year, we took Gemma to see the Army Band play at the DAR Constitution Hall in DC.  I remember worrying about whether she would survive the whole concert, but she had a good time.  She wanted to go again this year and my trusty friend once again procured tickets for us.  This year, we mixed it up and saw the Navy Band, which my husband kind of liked because he is a former officer with the Navy.

Before the concert started, Gemma and my friend and I were talking up a storm and not paying much attention to what was going on around us.  Then my friend pointed out someone we didn't know who was chatting with my husband.  My husband was using his "military voice," which is the voice he uses to show the utmost respect to other members of the military when he meets them.  It turns out the gentleman he was talking to was part of the performance, and he'd spotted a young child (our daughter) and asked my husband if he could have her name.  You see, he would be coming out as Santa Clause later in the show and he wanted to make sure Gemma felt special because she was sitting right near where he was coming out.  (Seriously?  How cool is that?)

In years past, this would not have been a big deal because Gemma didn't believe in Santa.  We've never really addressed it one way or the other although she knows who Santa is from movies.  But we haven't done the whole Santa-brings-you-presents thing.  Or the Santa-knows-if-you've-been-good-or-bad thing.  He's just a Christmas character.

Well for some reason, she started believing in Santa all on her own this year.  My husband and I were woefully unprepared, and thankfully she hasn't noticed our bumbling when she asks questions like, "How does Santa get to all the houses in one night?"  My husband, "He's really fast."  Me, "He has a lot of assistants, like elves."  Gemma, "What are elves?"  Me:  "Is the oven on fire again?"

Anyway, when I found out about Santa coming out for the show, I casually mentioned to Gemma that I heard a rumor that Santa might stop by.  She lit up with such excitement and spent the whole concert looking for him (periodically announcing a little too loudly, "That's not Santa").  Finally, near the end, Santa was introduced and came in right by our seats.  He said hello to Gemma, and this is the face he got:


And it occurred to me that maybe having your child believe in Santa is more than just a child believing in something magical.  Because it's pretty amazing to see this look on your kid's face.

So thanks to the Navy Band full of talented musicians who were capable of playing traditional Christmas carols, a hysterical version of the Christmas can-can that included 5 grown men acting like Rockettes and singing "Let It Go" (from the movie Frozen), a breathtaking African song from the Democratic Republic of the Congo in a native language, country Christmas songs, and a full on, knock-the-house-down rendition of O Holy Night (my favorite Christmas song), plus a kid who believes in Santa, I have my Christmas spirit back!:)

Saturday, December 15, 2018

My Wish List

Today I'm dreaming of a dry Christmas as more and more rain falls on our area.  I found out that as of yesterday, Washington, DC (we are about 35 miles away) achieved the wettest year since record-keeping began in 1971.  We've gotten over 60 inches of rain so far and there is more falling as I type.  Thankfully, flooding is not a concern for us (although it is a concern for getting out to the barn) because our house is on a bit of a hill, but when I looked at the creek behind our house this afternoon, I realized that the water has overflowed the banks more than ever before and it looks like the water level has reached our back fence in one section.  With at least 24 hours of rain still to come, I'm interested to see what happens.

The pavement you see is a bike path and it looks like the bridge is starting to be under water now.
In the meantime, I thought I'd share the few horse-related items that are on my Christmas wish list for this year.  I've been desperately wanting some of these brushes ever since I read about them on Ashley's blog.  But I have more brushes than I need, so I never got around to buying any.  This year, I recently misplaced my really good quality stiff brush and I decided that it is totally justifiable to replace it:)

I also wanted some new winter gloves.  I have used the Heritage Extreme Winter Gloves for 2 or 3 years now, I think.  They work well and I still have them (somewhere...), but I thought it might be nice to try the Winter Madison Gloves by Roeckl because I really like the other Roeckl gloves that I have.

What's on your Christmas list this year?

Note: All links provided are for your information.  I do not receive any compensation, financial or otherwise, for providing them.

Friday, December 14, 2018

The Training Pyramid

One of my readers, lytha, commented on yesterday’s post and asked for my feelings on the training pyramid. It turns out that I have a lot of things to say about the pyramid, so I figured I’d write a whole post about itšŸ˜Š

If you haven’t engaged in dressage lessons or competitions, you might not know about the training pyramid. You can see a pretty colorful diagram at: https://www.dressage-academy.com/training/dressage-training-pyramid/

It’s a diagram that a lot of dressage instructors refer back to when teaching, and it supposedly forms the basis of the various levels of competition for dressage. I think the idea is that the lower that the concept is on the pyramid, the more basic of a requirement it is. Ideally, you would achieve mastery at each level on the pyramid before proceeding to the next and then when you get to the top, you have collection. (If only all relationships could be reduced to such a simple process!)

But like most things that seem simple on the surface, training a dressage horse is much more challenging that a simple diagram can convey. For one thing, I don’t think a pyramid is a good way to represent the things listed, assuming that you think they are good things in the first place. I once spent an entire semester learning about graphic organizers as part of my training to become a teacher, so I’m kind of cringing at the visual choice in this case. For another thing, I question some of the concepts and the priority placed on them.

To start with, RHYTHM (with energy and tempo) forms the foundation of the pyramid. This is problematic for people like me who have no rhythm (despite being in band and/or orchestra from the time I was in 6th grade through my senior year in college). Nimo doesn’t have great rhythm either, so it’s pretty much the blind leading the blind here, and we are basically disqualified from dressage before we even start. (I once bought one of the metronome watches used by dressage freestylers to try to help us keep rhythm and it was a complete fail. My dreams of a stunning musical freestyle performance crashed and burned…) The big issue, in my humble opinion, is that rhythm forms a dynamic relationship with a lot of other things. For example, you aren’t going to have good rhythm if your horse isn’t balanced. You won’t have good rhythm if you aren’t communicating well with your horse or he’s worried about something (like the bleachers and the white jumps surrounding the arena!). It seems to be the result of or created in combination with something else, rather than the driving force behind better work, so it doesn’t make a lot of sense to have it at the bottom of the pyramid.

Next we have RELAXATION (with elasticity and suppleness).  Few things set Jean Luc Cornille (JLC) of the Science of Motion off quite like this particular word. I think part of it might be that he is a native French speaker while the pyramid is meant more for native English speakers. I’m not sure how the French interpret the word “relaxation” but I have the sense that it involves sitting around in a recliner watching TV, not engaging in an athletic endeavor. Being a native English speaker, I’ve got another interpretation of “relaxation” that means something like: able to focus; not anxious, afraid, angry, frustrated, or overexuberant; ready to engage without being stressed. So I would suggest to the makers of the pyramid that this word might be replaced with something like, “Ready to Learn and Work” to indicate a horse who is in a frame of mind that allows mental discipline and physical effort in partnership with a rider. And honestly, this should be the highest priority of them all. Like lytha mentioned in her comment, it makes sense for this one to come before anything else. If your horse isn’t in the right frame of mind (and the rider too!), you’re not getting anything productive done, no matter what discipline you choose.

Third up on the pyramid is CONNECTION. The fine print is good to read here too. “Acceptance of the bit through acceptance of the aids.” I think this language has given the bitless community more than a little consternation. And now that I’m working on riding with using the tone of my body instead of specific aids, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, either. I think what was probably meant here is more along the lines of communication. Can the horse and rider communicate regardless of whether there is a bit or not or specific leg aids or not, etc.? I would love to see this concept renamed to promote the idea of communication rather than an acceptance of aids.

Acceptance of aids is along the lines of obedience, which is also a term employed a lot in dressage (and alongside the pyramid in the graphic from the link at the beginning of this post). I’m not fond of using the term of obedience anymore. It implies a hierarchy in the horse/rider relationship that I’m no longer comfortable with. I had an experience during my most recent lesson that I hope to write about soon, but during the lesson, Nimo actually ended up taking an active role in solving the problem we were working on, and it led to a pretty big break-through. That isn’t obedience. That is the horse helping the rider, working with the rider, and actively engaging in the process. Horses are much smarter than this pyramid gives them credit for being, and I think we should encourage the idea of communication or even partnership, rather than obedience to an aid.

Moving on to IMPULSION (increased energy and thrust). I have to admit that I don’t really know what impulsion is. How do you know if your horse has impulsion? I turned to this article from Dressage Today to find out. Apparently impulsion consists of: “the horse’s desire to move forward, the elasticity of his steps, the suppleness of his back, and the engagement of his hindquarters.” Is it all clear to you now? Because it isn’t to me. I kept reading. “The desire to move forward means that the horse moves freely forward in a clear and steady rhythm and tempo; that he is readily available at the aids of the rider to move off into an energetic gait without quickening.” OK, so we’re back to the rhythm thing again and that the horse is energetic in response to aids. So we covered rhythm and aids in earlier parts of the pyramid, right? Why do we need to see them again here?

But we’re not done with this level. “The elasticity of the steps has to do with the flexion and extension of the legs: The horse shows a springiness to his gaits or, in other words, cadence or suspension. If the horse quickens his steps instead, he tends to flatten the gait, which will actually hinder impulsion.” So impulsion includes springiness or suspension. Except probably in the walk, because there isn’t any suspension in the walk. And God forbid, we don’t want to flatten those gaits, whatever that means.

How about suppleness of the back? “The suppleness of the horse’s back implies that he is relaxed through his topline and that he is using his abdominal musculature to support the stretch of his back muscles.” This sentence literally sent me into an involuntary twitch. Let’s just be clear. If your horse is relaxed through his topline, you’ve got a serious medical issue and you should not be riding. That topline is supporting you, the rider, and all the muscles need to be working (not lounging by the TV). And if I’ve learned nothing else through Science of Motion, it is that the abdominal muscles do not support the back muscles. I have looked at cross sections of the muscles and the evidence is just not there to support this statement. And the stretch of the back muscles. There is no stretching going on here. The muscles are working not stretching.

And finally, “The engagement of the hindquarters means that the horse is capable of carrying his weight with his hind legs and propelling the energy into a longer, more upward thrust for the medium and extended gaits.” Seriously? This doesn’t even make any sense. Any horse not capable of carrying weight with his hindquarters should not be alive. So let’s get rid of that bit. It’s completely unnecessary. And another thing I’ve learned from my SOM classes it is that the forelegs are more responsible for thrust than the hind legs. Plus this statement only applies to medium and extended gaits. Yet the top of the pyramid is collection. What is going on here?

My brain is kind of swirling around and in danger of collapsing on itself, but let’s keep going. The next level is STRAIGHTNESS (Improved Alignment and Balance). Great, I think we can all get behind straightness (as long as we are, ahem, straight, ha, ha!). If you’re on a straight line, the horse needs to be aligned front to back, and if you are more advanced, you might be thinking in terms of up and down too. Like the withers should remain vertical. But what about transversal rotation? Let’s skip that for now. What if your horse is on a circle? Well, I’m probably going to leave this one mostly alone too, but suffice it to say, horses’ spines don’t bend nearly as much as some people would have you believe, so you want to be careful when getting into bend on circles and in lateral movements. But straightness is important there too. I could probably live with straightness as a component of this pyramid, but I think a better word might be “balance.” Or maybe even “balance and coordination.” Because alignment sort of sounds like a chiropractic term and not a riding term.

And at long last, we’ve reached the pinnacle of the pyramid: COLLECTION. Wait, what? What about medium and extended gaits? Or backing up? The parentheses help a little bit – “Increased engagement, lightness of the forehand, and self-carriage.” Oh, OK. I can live with increased engagement and self-carriage. In fact, based on my admittedly minimal experience with an actual collected gait, I would suggest that self-carriage is really the goal here. In my mind, the idea of collection always brings an image of a scrunched up, compressed horse, performing mincing steps with hardly any forward motion and usually a twitching tail indicating extreme distress or discomfort.

And the piaffe has become the pinnacle of the vision of a well-trained horse because it seems like the ultimate in collection. But did you know that even kids learn how to ask horses to piaffe and that piaffe is taught early in the horse’s education at French riding schools? (I know from talking to people from said French schools, and I was amazed.)

So this collection thing at the top of the pyramid? It doesn’t make sense to me that collection is introduced at Second Level and it is at the top of the pyramid. Few people would say that Second Level horses are advanced horses. Why would the top of the pyramid be something you do at Second Level (or much earlier in the French schools)?

And what about the goal of dressage?  To me, it is to produce an athletic horse capable of doing something else, anything else, really. It’s unfortunate that so many people never move past just doing dressage (but if it fulfills you and your horse, I’m not judging).  But collection can't be the goal with so many other possibilities going on.

You’ve probably gathered that I’m not a big fan of the pyramid. But I do understand how organizing information visually can be helpful to people, so let me propose my alternate graphic for consideration:

I just whipped this up in Photoshop in about 10 minutes, so it isn't fancy, just something to give you an idea of what I'm thinking (it is seriously better than the piece of scratch paper that I used, though). With this graphic, I have renamed Relaxation to “Horse and rider are in a frame of mind that supports mental and physical discipline.” (I thought I could be wordy to fill up more space in the circle.) You can probably think of a catchier way to say this, but it seems to me that without the proper mental state anything you try to do is going to be excessively frustrating and/or unsuccessful, which is why I used it as an all-encompassing circle.

Then I added in what I think of as spokes of a wheel. All the spokes need to be in good shape for the wheel to function at its best and each spoke contributes if not equally, at least significantly, to the end goal. So, I did put rhythm as a spoke because I don’t think you’ll see a horse with good balance and self-carriage that doesn’t also have good rhythm. But I also think that rhythm develops along with those things, so making it a prerequisite isn’t a great way to think of it.

Then I renamed Connection to Communication. I think the idea of communication better fits a broader approach to dressage work and is inclusive rather than exclusive. If you want to ride your horse with a cordeo and a bareback pad, more power to you!

You might have noticed that I got rid of Impulsion and anything like it. I don’t think it is helpful for understanding the successful path to self-carriage. What little I did understand from the idea presented in the Dressage Today article seemed to fit under other categories like rhythm and communication. The rest of it was scientifically inaccurate and should no longer be promoted.

Then I swapped Straightness for Balanced and Coordinated. Straightness is a good thing to work on, but I was looking for a term that was broader and that better captures the dynamic approach to riding that I think exists.

And I couldn’t help myself but add in another spoke that doesn’t relate to the existing pyramid. The idea that your horse should be healthy or if not healthy, supported in the best way to help him work if the work is intended for rehabilitation or management of an issue (e.g. arthritis). Healthy to me means a proper environment (turnout for at least part of the day with herd mates), good nutrition that is species-appropriate and designed for the individual horse and work level, proper hoof care, and any other things the horse needs to be happy and physically fit.

That leaves the center of the wheel for Self-Carriage. I like that term better than Collection because I think it is more inclusive of what we are looking for. A horse can be balanced and coordinated and moving well but if he’s going over jumps, he’s probably not collected. I think this idea that piaffe is the end result of dressage training is misguided. Instead, we need to think about creating a horse that is capable of completing a significant athletic exercise (e.g. jumping, cross-country, working cattle, endurance). If you decide engaging in those types of activities isn’t for you and your horse, that’s OK, but dressage was never intended to be the final stop of a horse’s development and we shouldn’t look at it that way.

This long-winded response may make you think twice about asking me for my thoughts about anything else, but I hope that it inspired you to think about the pyramid differently. And maybe even rewrite it for yourself. Think about what you want for your riding partnership and look for qualities that you see in other horses and riders that you want to incorporate into your own work. There is no law that says dressage training must be linearly progressive or that you have to use a pyramid to represent your training plan. Maybe a bulleted list works better for you. Or a Venn diagram. Or a pie chart. There are a lot of ways to visually organize information and choosing one that appeals to you and best represents your thoughts and goals can be a great way to internalize your plan.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

The Point of No Return

One of the reasons that I hadn't been posting on the blog, especially over the last few months, is because I wasn't sure how my renewed commitment to using Science of Motion principles would be received.  The people commenting on my posts have always been so thoughtful and respectful, even if they disagreed with me.  But I know that the SOM work is probably not that accessible if you are an endurance rider reading these posts or if you train using classical or conventional dressage techniques.  I've seen some pretty vehement arguments occur between SOM and other types of dressage trainers/riders, and I have no interest in being part of that debate through this blog.  I also have no interest in putting other people down or making fun of them because they don't use SOM techniques.  There are a couple of "show-ring" dressage techniques/movements that I am highly critical of, but I think I was critical of those long before I started learning about Science of Motion.

I have always believed and still believe that there is no one Right Answer when it comes to working with your horse.  We are all individuals and so are our horses.  That humans and horses can communicate at all, much less engage in working and competitive partnerships, is truly astonishing.  So if you have found something that works for you, that's awesome.  I'm not here to tell you that you are wrong or that you should change.

Instead, I'm trying to write about what works for me and Nimo and what doesn't.  Right now, Science of Motion is working for us.  I'm planning to start posting about some specific rides/lessons where we've had some break-throughs to help explain why it is working for us now.  But I also want to be clear that I'm not some kind of SOM disciple.  SOM is not for everyone.  It can be a long and tedious process.  It can be hard to think about things in a different way than the way you've thought about them before.  I don't know any SOM students who just leapt into the class and 3 months later had a horse that was winning lots of shows or was performing piaffe and passage.  The SOM journey is years at best and more likely a lifetime commitment.  Students typically come to SOM because they are having some kind of serious problem with their horses that conventional instruction or even medicine isn't helping.  It is sometimes even a last desperate stop for horses whose only other choice is euthanasia.  And I have seen enough footage of the improvement that many of these horses have made to convince me that the techniques are very effective on all but the worst cases.

People who are happy with the way their horses are working probably don't need SOM.  They probably ride well already and their horses don't have any special needs that need to be addressed.  And that's great.  But I wasn't happy with conventional dressage instruction.  It wasn't working for Nimo or me.  It was exhausting and confusing and not helping Nimo be stronger.  Whether that is because I had the misfortune to choose 4 different trainers who were really awful, I don't know, but I had to make a change.

That is not to say that I have never wondered if I made the right change.  I have.  Sometimes on almost a daily basis as I struggled with the complex issues that I'm learning about.  And I think that is OK.  I should be constantly questioning the way I'm working with Nimo and be ready to make changes if something isn't working for him or us.

But there came a time when I knew that SOM was right for us at that time.  It was right around the time I had the difficult conversation with my instructor, so the end of July, probably.  I had hauled to the covered arena that we have our lessons at, and I told my instructor that I really wanted to work more on achieving the collected trot.  We'd been making progress toward it, especially since our clinic with Jean Luc Cornille at the end of April, but the actual, true collection had been frustratingly elusive.

One thing that would help me on that search for collection was the discovery of how to get off my gluts.  It was probably a few weeks before this particular lesson when I had asked if we could work on Pignot jog.  I'll try to do a more comprehensive post about it later, but Pignot jog is basically a slow, controlled jog trot that is used for conditioning purposes.  It is balanced, but not collected.  And it is likely the main gait I would use out on the trails for endurance riding.  I wanted to check to make sure our work in that area was correct so we did a few laps in the arena for my instructor to watch.  Somehow through that process, my instructor and I realized there was a solution for the way I was sitting during regular work.

You see, when I was doing Pignot jog, I was using my half seat position because that is the best way I've found to efficiently get down the trail riding the crazy, Friesian trot that Nimo often produces.  Posting is exhausting and sitting is impossible.  It turns out that the half seat I was using was a bridge to the type of seat I needed to adopt for regular work.  My instructor saw that during the lesson, and I experimented with shifting my balance a bit before finally settling on something that seemed to give me good balance.  It was definitely a eureka moment that allowed me to resume forward progress.

With my seat in better shape, I was able to work more on achieving collected trot.  And so it was at the end of July, toward the end of our lesson, that Nimo and I got our first steps of true collection at the trot.  We'd been working on very slowly walking to make sure Nimo was in good balance before moving into the trot.  It's always a bit of a challenge to slow him down once he knows what we are working on.  He has a tendency to anticipate and get right to the more advanced work.  So my instructor was asking me to do full, large pirouettes off the rail to help Nimo slow and balance himself without me having to pull on the reins (something we try to avoid at all costs and is incredibly hard to do!)  Each time as we approached the rail from the pirouette, I would ask for a trot.  The trot steps got better and better and then it just happened.  Lightness.

I don't think I'll ever forget that moment because it was the first time I ever experienced true lightness while riding a horse (except possibly the one time Nimo did a levade when he was 4-years-old because a herd of polo ponies was galloping toward us - I was too scared to appreciate it, though!).  I don't know that I even have the right words to describe it.  Nothing really changed in the way I was sitting.  My reins didn't all of sudden go slack.  Nimo's weight didn't dramatically shift to his hind end.  None of the things happened that I thought might happen if I imagined how Nimo might collect himself.  It was just as if, in a nano-second, Nimo was carrying himself in a new way.  My rein contact was still the same as it was a second before in terms of the way it looked, but the weight was just...gone.  It felt like we could do anything.  It was effortless.  Sitting was effortless.  Steering was effortless.  It was, without a doubt, the most amazing experience I've ever had on a horse.

We worked on just a few steps at a time and were able to reproduce our effort maybe 3 more times before it was clear that Nimo was tired, so we ended the lesson.  Ever since that day, that feeling of lightness is what keeps me going when I'm not sure what I'm doing or can't figure out the solution to a problem that I'm working on with Nimo.  (It turns out that reproducing the collection was not as easy as I'd hoped!).  For me, those few steps of collected trot really were a point of no return.  I can never go back to working on dressage the way I used to because the way I was working on dressage didn't offer a path to get where we got that day.  Everything was about speed without a thought for balance, and I can see now that Nimo needs balance more than anything else to be able to perform more advanced movements.  Yes, he can rocket down the trail at a 12 mph trot, but it isn't doing anything for his balance.

Now I can never think of riding Nimo like I used to.  That feeling of lightness is addictive.  That it is difficult to achieve and requires effort from me like nothing else is not a deterrent because I know how valuable it is for Nimo.  If he is balanced and strong, there is less likelihood that he will experience injury or if it does, it will be easier for him to recover.  And the ease of communication!  Wow!  My goal is for us to be able to communicate like that all the time.  I fantasize about just trotting down the trail with Nimo in that state of lightness.  I don't think anything could be more fulfilling (except possibly doing that while completing an endurance ride!).

So I am committed to continuing to work with my instructor, who is really more of a mentor now.  Over the summer, I was able to improve enough that our lessons really are a partnership as we try to figure out how to help Nimo and me be the best partners that we can be.  It isn't easy at all.  In fact, I've had some moments where I wondered if I should be riding a horse at all.  But I've also had moments where I knew that everything I'd struggled with had been worth it.

My journey with Nimo is definitely taking an unexpected direction, and it is one that I'm not sure will resonate with everyone.  If it doesn't resonate with you, that's OK.  You do you.  But if something that I write helps motivate someone or help someone overcome a problem, that's great too.  From here on out, the waters ahead are murky.  I wrote about my plan for going forward a couple of days ago, and it probably sounded like I had something more concrete in my head.  But I really don't.  I am the kind of person who must have a plan to proceed or I feel lost, but I know that the substeps are unknown in some cases.  Like how do I get a horse fit enough to do a jog trot for 25 miles?  And if I do, how will I finish the 25 miles at a 5 mph pace or faster?  I don't know the answers to those questions, and there isn't anyone who can answer them for me.  I just have to try.  If you decide to stay here with me for my journey or even check in from time to time, I would love nothing more.  But if you decide that it looks like my path doesn't make sense to you, that's OK too.  I think the best any of us can do is to try to find a way to work with our horses that keeps us and them sane and healthy.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Building a Topline

One of the things that has sort of bothered me for awhile, like probably years, is Nimo's topline.  But I kind of put that worry on the backburner.  I assured myself that everything was fine because his weight was good and he was fit.  So what if he didn't look like Secretariat?  But the more I focused on Science of Motion techniques, the more I saw horses that looked really amazing.  Even older horses in their 20s had great muscling.  They didn't look their age at all.  And I started to wonder if maybe there wasn't something more that I could do.

In the summer of 2017, I tried to put a little weight on Nimo and build some muscle, and I was mildly successful.  He did put on some weight and muscle, but I was still left with a the same topline.  I honestly expected the schooling exercises I was doing to add more, but they weren't.  And I finally started to focus a bit more on that specific issue this past summer.  One thing that I think I mentioned briefly in an earlier post was that Nimo had these twin depressions on both sides of his back that exactly matched the saddle panels I was using.  I couldn't deny any longer that the saddle could be part of the problem.  I talked to my instructor about it and her perception was that the saddle was likely a contributing factor to a lack of topline development.  I'll write more about how I handled that problem in another post.

Another potential factor was food.  This article by The Horse popped up in my Facebook and I found it to be an interesting read because it seemed to indicate that we need to evaluate a horse's body condition not just with the standard scores of 1-9 (with 5-ish being considered a good target, at least so I thought), but that we need to add in a separate standard for toplines.  This quote in particular stood out:

Two things cover the topline: Fat and/or muscle.  Most horses must reach a BCS score of 7 before their bodies lay fat along the topline. In contrast, in horses with BCS scores of less than 7, muscle development of the withers, back, loins, croup, and hindquarters makes up the visible topline.  Often, a horse shows signs of reduced performance before visible topline changes. Note that a horse can have an ideal BCS, but deficient topline muscles.


And farther on in the article, "While exercise will condition muscle, it does not make muscle."  So basically, this whole time, I've been expecting that the work I've been doing with Nimo will build muscle, and this article is saying that isn't true.  I'll talk more about the way I've been feeding Nimo to address this part of the equation.

So basically, my conclusion is that I need three things for good topline development:  a proper fitting saddle, good nutrition aimed at helping the topline develop, and proper work to keep any muscles in good condition.

Building Nimo's topline is definitely a work in progress.  I started addressing these three things at the end of July and there have definitely been improvements.  But Nimo isn't yet where I want him to be.  I wish I'd documented his topline back in July, but I did take the time to document it today.  Bad lighting and my post-cold hoarse voice do not make for the best video, but I've been wanting to start adding video content to my blog for awhile (like years), so I guess I need to start somewhere:)


I wasn't able to get quite the right camera angle/view to show you exactly what I am seeing with my eyes, but essentially I'm looking to build his back from behind his withers to his loin area plus a bit more over the hindquarters.

Feel free to share your tried and true supplements, exercises, or other ideas about how you developed your horse's topline!

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The Plan

The progress that Nimo and I have made to-date on our endurance journey has sort of looked like this so far:
I suspect some kind of non-linear progress is common for most people in most disciplines just because horses don't always improve linearly and neither do people.  Plus, endurance doesn't sound that complicated on the surface, but when it comes to bringing hauling skills, camping skills, riding skills, conditioning skills, nutrition skills, and health skills all together and having the time and money needed, things do start to take time to get right.

In Nimo's and my case, we've also added that Nimo isn't really an ideal endurance mount and my own health issues combined with being a parent and working.  Sometimes I'm surprised we've made any progress at all, to be honest.  But I guess sheer persistence pays off at least some of the time:)

One thing that I've been procrastinating about is truly incorporating the work we've been doing using the Science of Motion philosophy/methodology into our conditioning rides (I mean, how do you do collected trot up the mountain?!).  I was procrastinating for two reasons.  First, I didn't know anyone to ride with who would tolerate the experimentation that I would need to engage in (or even better, do it with me!).  Second, I don't actually have any idea how to use SOM for conditioning for endurance.  As far as I know, no students in the course have done it successfully.  I know at least one lady tried and she did complete a 40 km ride, but she said it was awful to try to hold herself and her horse together and it didn't sound like she had plans to repeat it.

When I asked about it on the forum for the class, I got a lot of...let's say...not super positive feedback.  That is probably because everyone views endurance as FEI-level endurance racing.  They basically thought I was not doing right by my horse to even consider doing something like that with him.  (I could curse the FEI and the international endurance community for not only creating the travesty that is that sport but also for creating a terrible stigma around anything distance riding-related.  I could devote more than one post to my thoughts about the damage that has been done by not only the FEI, but by all the other "affiliate" organizations.  Other horse people know about endurance racing and the horror that it has become and if you say you do endurance riding, you can expect to face the tar-and-feather squad.)

So I never mentioned it again and instead of attacking the problem, I let it languish, hoping that Nimo would somehow figure it out on his own.  To give him credit, he has definitely had some good moments out on the trail, but overall, he was still moving the way he always had.  Which is the very thing I was trying to get away from.

For those of you joining me in my journey more recently or who have maybe forgotten because my initial posts about SOM were some time ago, here is why I turned to SOM.  With each dressage instructor that I worked with, I always got to a point where we couldn't progress.  In fact, we would start regressing.  Most recently, Nimo really started having trouble with his canter.  It was out-of-balance and rushed when he could pick it up (which became less and less often) and it was a real struggle.  Canter has always been hard for him, but I saw all our work fading away and my instructor's refusal to acknowledge it.  She kept having me push Nimo faster and faster into the canter until he was racing around the arena.  I actually tried to integrate some of the beginning concepts of SOM work into our lessons (for example, working on always keeping the withers vertical and slowing down the movement to help Nimo with his balance), which caused a bit of an argument between us and I decided to walk away.

Luckily, there was a fellow student in the course who is also an instructor in my area.  SOM doesn't certify any instructors at this point, but there are a few located around the country who were already instructors and shifted their teaching to include SOM principles.  If you can find one, you are in luck, in my opinion.  (Not that other instructors can't be good as well, but if they show, it is likely they will send you down a bad path for your horse due to the way movements are judged.)  I was really hoping that the principles of SOM, which are based on current scientific research about the way a horse actually moves (not perceptions from 100+ years ago that have been horribly mutated to serve the show ring) would help us overcome the inevitable problems that would come up with other instructors.

It helps that I no longer want to compete in dressage shows, or basically in any other competitions other than endurance (although I'd like to try a hunter show just once for the shock value of brining a Friesian in the ring...), so I don't have to worry that I'll be giving up blue ribbons.  But I've become convinced that there are too many things about dressage shows, in particular, that are really bad for the longevity of horses, especially as they become more advanced.  I mean, ask yourself how many dressage horses you know that are still competing at even 3rd or 4th level in their early 20's?  Most are done by the time they are 12, maybe 15, and they've got at least one and usually multiple physical issues that have to be managed for the rest of that horse's life.  That is the direct result of the "training pyramid" and other nonsense like supremely extended gaits because training a horse that way trashes their bodies.

Despite their willingness (most of the time, anyway) and the fact that they have a back that is the perfect place to put a saddle, horses never evolved to be ridden.  So if we are going to ride them, particularly in athletically demanding ways, we have to condition them specifically to be ridden in addition to being able to engage in the physical effort of the discipline.  If you watch videos of dressage competitions from even just 20 years ago and compare them with today, you can start to see how exaggerated the movements like half-pass and extended trot have become.  If you look at movements from earlier than 20 years ago, you'll see an even greater difference.  Some people have argued that horses now are simply better bred than they were even 20-30 years ago so that's why they can perform in such a sensationalist way.  But if they are really better bred (something I honestly don't know enough about to comment on) and the movements really aren't that bad for them (and the training methods like the dreaded rollkur) and even improved them like dressage is supposed to, why are these horses breaking down?

Anyway, I have no expectation of ever competing at the Grand Prix level.  I just want to help my horse become better at his job, which is supposed to be distance riding.  And as I mentioned in a post earlier this month, I finally got the courage to ask my instructor about how we could do that.  Her response was, "I don't think you can do endurance riding and SOM."  I knew that is what she would say, which is why I didn't want to ask it.  And here is why I think she said that.  Her vision of endurance riding is FEI-level endurance racing.  She envisions horses racing at speed with hollow backs and uneducated riders, and there is no room for that kind of activity within the SOM framework.  I tried to explain that there are horses and riders who don't move like that.  I mean, you don't get a Decade Team unless you have a lot of things working out well.  And let's not forget about Clair Godwin's Tevis finish this year on her 26- (or was it 27-) year old Merc.  I watched that horse canter in to the finish line and he didn't look broken to me.  My instructor might not have been super happy with his movement, but it was a hell of lot better than some of the sh*t I see in dressage rings, even at high levels.

The problem is that when people can't acknowledge a path to the end, it is hard to get them to try.  But as you may know, I truly enjoy like to torture myself attempting things that other people think are impossible.  So here is my plan:

Step 1:  I'm not going to tell my instructor that I am planning on someday doing another endurance ride.  In fact, it's possible that I've led her to believe that I've given it up (which may end up being true depending on how my plan goes...).  I don't want her worried that I'm secretly racing Nimo down the trails because we've never done that I have no expectation of doing that.  I want her to help me condition Nimo just like any other horse.

Step 2: I bought a new saddle.  I'll post a little bit more about this part of the plan hopefully later this month.

Step 3: I'm feeding Nimo a whole bunch of food.  Again more about that later this month.

Step 4: I'm reworking my conditioning with Nimo.  This is the hardest part of the plan, and with the crazy wet weather we've been having for the past few months, it has been the hardest part to execute, but I've had some positive experiences and I'll share those with you too.

For the longest time, I couldn't figure out how to come up with this plan.  With no one to follow, I didn't know where to start.  But I finally realized the principles are the same as what I've always done.  I work to keep Nimo healthy with good turnout, good food, and good medical care if he needs it.  I ride him as much as I can in as many different situations as I can.  I try to increase his ability to go down the trail in terms of time and pace until I can get to a point where doing about half of our expected competition distance is a fairly standard ride and 5-6 mph is a sustainable pace.

The tricky bit is how we go down the trail.  I'll write more about the details in an upcoming post, but I kid you not, we are either going to get it or die trying (like die of old age, not a horrible accident).

Essentially Nimo and I are starting over from a conditioning standpoint.  That idea of starting over was hard for me to stomach until this past summer.  When finally I was ready.  Because I understood I am not giving up what we've done so far.  All those miles and all those rides were not for nothing.  We have learned so much.  We are pros at camping.  I can haul my truck and trailer through just about anything and park it just about anywhere.  I know the trails of some of the competitions pretty well which will help me condition better and smarter.  I know the trails of all the major conditioning places so well which helps when I try to figure out where we should go to test something out.  I've met so many awesome people and I know if I need help, I can ask for it and get it.

And so, now you know the plan...

Monday, December 10, 2018

Nimo's Evening Routine

I wrote yesterday about heading out to the barn to see Nimo, and I thought I'd provide a few more details because I've changed things a bit from previous years.  You may remember that I go out to the barn every day.  I have for several years now, unless I am out of town or on my death bed, in which case my husband goes for me.  It is something that has become such a part of my daily life and with a recent change, it has become even more meaningful.

Usually between 6 and 7, I make my daily pilgrimage out to see Nimo.  Sometimes I might go a bit earlier or later, depending on my schedule and whether I'm also riding, but I try to be as consistent as I can.  In past years during late fall, winter, and early spring, Nimo's schedule was set up a bit differently from the other full board horses at the barn.  I don't like him to be in overnight and Nimo doesn't like to be in overnight, so when I first started boarding at this facility a few years ago, I approached the barn owner about Nimo basically staying out in the field except for coming into his stall for breakfast and dinner.  The barn owner was wonderfully amenable (because really it saves bedding and labor by not having to clean the stall but not all barn owners see things that way), and that has been how Nimo has been managed for probably close to 5 years now.

That system has worked pretty well, but there have been a couple of glitches that I have been looking for a diplomatic way to address.  One issue was that sometimes the staff wouldn't bring him in to his stall to eat.  Instead they would feed him in the field.  That wasn't necessarily a big deal except I feel more comfortable if someone is leading him back and forth twice a day because any lameness issue or major medical problem would likely be identified sooner.  The other problem with that practice was that I left alfalfa hay in his stall from him to eat because I couldn't feed it in his field.  I used to just throw the hay in the run-in shed for him to eat when I would come out at night, but it turned out that one of the horses in his herd is sensitive to alfalfa and was nibbling up the remnants of Nimo's alfalfa and getting diarrhea.  And last year, for the first time, one or two field boarded horses shared his field at night.  I'm sure he liked the company, but it made it hard for me to feed him anything special at night unless I brought him in and waited for him to eat it.  Plus, there was the very occasional time that someone would forget to turn him back out if they brought him in for dinner.  It wasn't a big deal because I came out every evening, but he sometimes spent an hour or two with no hay to eat and probably stressing a bit.

This year, I finally came up with what I think is a really good solution.  Nimo just stays in with the other horses at night until I come out.  (That seems like a super obvious solution in hindsight, but I had previously worried that if I didn't make it out for some reason, he would be stuck in the barn, but I feel pretty comfortable with my ability to make it out there every day now.)  He has a chance to eat his dinner plus the hay I leave for him and has plenty of time, but he's only in for 2-3 hours, which is very manageable for him mentally.  The staff often still feed him breakfast in the field because he is already out, but I can live with that because it is more important to me that he is out than that someone walks him to the barn for breakfast.  (You learn to pick your battles when you board and this particular facility is really one of the best I've ever boarded at, so I'm willing to compromise on most things.)

I do also give him a third meal when I come out because I am trying to put weight and muscle on him (more about that in a later post), but it only takes him about 10 minutes to eat it.  While he does that, I clean his stall, which always has 3 piles of poop and 1-2 pee spots.  I don't know how a horse can produce that much waste in 2-3 hours, but mine does.  Anyway, I love cleaning stalls (maybe just not 15 of them every day) and it is a nice way to wind down the day and just hang out with him.  We have a little dance that we do while he eats and I clean.  He moves a little back and forth so I can get the soiled bedding out and he just seems to know when I need him to move - I never have to ask.  It's cool that he's so aware of the process.

Sometimes I will also ride, so in that case, I typically give him half the third meal before I ride and half after.  And the final thing I do is let him graze for about 10 minutes because there is no grass left in his field, but there is still quite a bit of green stuff around the farm (probably not so much after last night's snow,though).

I really love the way this change to the routine is working out and it's also awesome not to have to go get him to bring him in.  His field is the closest one to the barn and Nimo always comes when I call, but it's usually dark and cold and especially on Wednesday when I have a limited window to ride because of my daughter's lesson, having him already in feels like such a time saver.  And instead of sitting around looking at Facebook pictures while he eats, I'm moving around cleaning a stall, so that's better too (and it helps keep me warm on these cooler nights!).