Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Gymnastic Sunday!

Once again, I headed over to Clearwater Farm (Sprieser Sporthorse) on Sunday afternoon for a lesson with Allison Spivey.  I should mention that it was a balmy 28 degrees outside and that I enjoyed an invitation to hang out in the heated tack room for a few minutes before I had to get ready.  The barn at this facility is literally other-worldly.  The aisle floor is some kind of super-special flooring that defies any explanation.  It's not pavers.  It's not concrete.  It's not rubber mats.  It's some kind of solid surface that felt nice to walk on and is color-coordinated with the barn, like a seafoam color maybe?

And there is a heated kitchen with a Keurig coffee maker, sink, fridge, etc.  And a laundry room that looked like it had enough machines for a laundromat.  And the tack room was HUGE with lots of spaces for tack.  And each space with immaculate.  My tack lockers or cabinets always look like some kind of explosion involving leather, saddle pads, dirt, manure, and hair.

Anyway, while I enjoyed the eye candy of the barn, I was really there to work on my riding.  I had a ton of fun at my last lesson with Allison, in large part because of the ground pole and cavaletti work (although Allison is great to ride with even without any fancy footwork).  This lesson was no different.  Allison had different patterns set up and we worked on two of them for our lesson.

She had us start out with a regular 3-loop serpentine with normal bend.  Then we did the serpentine with each loop in counter-flexion.  Finally, we added in three sets of cavaletti, starting with just two sets at a time and working up to a third.  One set was spaced more closely to encourage a shorter-strided trot with more articulation of the knees and hocks.  The second set was spaced for a working trot.  And the third set was spaced for a lengthened or even a medium trot.  Allison said there was a difference of about 2 and a half feet of spacing between the shortest set and the longest set.

While I've worked on shortening and lengthening Nimo's stride in the past, I've never used ground poles to do it.  And I really wasn't sure if they would work...Nimo is still pretty skeptical of ground poles and I wasn't sure I had the ability to shorten and lengthen while doing a 3-loop serpentine over poles.  It turns out that we were actually able to do the exercise and it worked!  Over the more closely spaced ground poles, Nimo started giving quicker hind leg action and he really pushed forward over the poles with the most space between them.

We took advantage of Nimo's newfound longitudinal flexibility to work on trot-canter transitions.  We would go over the closely-spaced cavaletti to get his hind end really engaged and then I would ask for canter immediately after the last pole.  It worked great.  He really picked up the canter nicely and then was able to maintain a much more engaged and balanced canter for more strides than usual.

After taking a break from the canter work, we started working on actual cavaletti, which were set up on a circle in the center of the arena.  The cavaletti were probably about a foot off the ground on the outside of the circle while the other side rested on the ground.  Visually, I think it was supposed to encourage the horse to stay on the circle, or at least give the rider a little help in terms of keeping the horse from veering out of the circle, which was probably about 12 meters in diameter.

You can see in the drawing below that the cavaletti were set up so there was one in each quadrant of the circle.  We started the exercise by just doing the 2 opposite cavaletti and then doing all four while maintaining a very forward working trot.  And then we repeated going the other direction.  We had a few bobbles because Nimo tried to actually go over the highest point of the cavaletti (possibly because the circle was smaller than what we'd been working, and he was feeling a little uncomfortable about the degree of bend), but he wasn't balanced enough to really get over the pole without smacking it.  So, Allison did a couple of resets for us, but overall, Nimo did quite well and the quality of his trot was impressive after the work.

Here is a diagram of the two exercises we worked on:

I have to say that I have always believed that ground pole and cavaletti exercises are beneficial, but I've never felt very confident about setting up patterns, so I haven't done much work with them.  These last two lessons have really convinced me that I need to keep up the work with cavaletti throughout the year, plus I'm starting to better understand the spacing between poles.  I had been convinced that I needed to figure out exactly how far apart the poles needed to be for me horse, but what I've realized is that there is definitely wiggle room and having poles that aren't ideally spaced can actually help because it improves adjustability in the gaits.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Why I see my horse everyday...

I've gotten into the habit of going out to the barn to at least see my horse everyday.  While I typically do trail rides or lessons on the weekends, I don't usually get a lot of riding done during the week.  My hope is to fix that once the weather improves a little...which is not going to happen today or tomorrow.  Apparently, we are under the influence of Snowstorm Janus.  Or is it Blizzard Janus?  I can't quite figure out the naming convention...

Anyway, I got to thinking about why it is so important for me to get out to see my horse at night, even when we are in the midst of a decent blizzard.  Tonight is not the first night this winter that I have spent driving out to the barn with my truck in 4-wheel drive because the roads totally suck in northern Virginia during a snowstorm.  The only thing I can figure is that VDOT didn't read the owners' manuals that came with all the snowplows they bought, particularly the section on actual snow removal.  I think this because I keep seeing snowplows that aren't plowing anything.  They appear to be out for a leisurely drive on some of our busiest streets and highways, with no apparent purpose other than to slow down traffic and take up space.  And when these snowplows are combined with motorists who really shouldn't be out on the roads in the first place because they either lack the capacity to drive at all in any conditions or feel so supremely confident in their super expensive SUVs that they zip around anything and everything going TOO FAST, it makes for a dicey and frustrating trip for the rest of us.

But that trip is worth it for me because the barn is My Happy Place.  It doesn't matter how awful my day was or how stressed I am about Life, when I get to the barn, it's like I enter this other dimension where I literally don't even remember those things exist.  I take one whiff of the barn smell, which is likely some combination of hay, bedding, urine, manure, leather, horse sweat, and dust, and I instantly feel like all is right with my world.

The barn and horses in general have been my refuge ever since I can remember.  I didn't actually have a horse until I was 11, but before then, I think my Barbie and model horses and my imagination were all I needed to get away from it all.  And I know that I've gotten through all of the worst times in my life by being able to commune with my horses.

I think another reason the barn is so attractive to me now is because of the long-time bond I share with Nimo.  We've been together for over 10 years now and we're comfortable with each other in kind of the same way that old friends are.  It's not that we never have a disagreement, but when I go out later in the evening, Nimo is already in his stall, having finished his dinner and working his way through a hay pile bigger than he his, and everything seems so quiet and routine.  I usually have plenty of time to enjoy the smell of his breath, which always smells like sweet hay and smell his coat, which smells like horse when there's pasture available and probably like mud the rest of the time.  The smell of a horse's coat, especially when he's on pasture, is the most amazing thing I've ever smelled.  It instantly reminds me of when I was very young and used to visit my grandma for a month every summer.  She had a horse named Skip and I used to walk out to find him in a fairly substantial pasture (we're talking maybe 75 acres here) just so I could breathe in his scent.

After spending a day working for usually about 4 hours and interacting with my daughter, my husband, and the dog the rest of the time, the sheer quiet of Nimo is exactly what I need.  He never nags at me, he doesn't bark or whine, he doesn't cry or throw temper tantrums, and he never demands more from me than I can give.  I almost always leave my cell phone in the car, so I can't be interrupted, and I just hang out with my horse.  Sometimes I groom him, sometimes I trim his feet, and sometimes all I do is talk to him for a few minutes, clean out his stall, give him a mash, and head home.  And somehow, even after only a few minutes at the barn, I'm ready to face my life again.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Gymnastic Sundays!

You may remember that I've started taking fairly regular lessons with Allison Spivey of Sprieser Sporthorse.  One of the reasons that I wanted to take lessons with her (aside from hearing some very positive things in general) is that during the winter, she does Gymnastic Sundays.  Gymnastic Sundays are essentially ground pole and cavaletti exercises for dressage horses.

This past Sunday, I slogged my way out to the barn, put the truck in 4-wheel drive, waded through the new pond that had formed as a result of the biblical rain and snow we've been getting, and hitched up my trailer.  Then, I loaded my stuff and squished through boot-sucking mud to retrieve my horse, who normally comes up to me, but decided instead to stand in the farthest corner of the field.  (All the better to watch me trudge through the mud, I guess.)  Next, I hosed my horse's whole lower half off because it was coated in mud, and I wanted to appear civilized for my lesson.  This plan may have worked except that I felt the need to stop at Burger King on the way and somehow managed to spill the ketchup sauce from a Whopper all over the front of my sweatshirt...

Anyway, regardless of my less-than-impressive appearance, I had an awesome lesson.  The arena was totally decked out with tons of ground poles and cavaletti patterns, and while Nimo was at first seriously concerned about even walking into an arena that had clearly been sabotaged by an irate lumberjack, he eventually figured out that the poles were not some kind of new predator lying in wait for him to pass by.  He even learned that he could pick up his feet and within just a few minutes of going over the ground poles, he was already moving so much better.

Below is my kind of feeble attempt to show you what patterns were set up in the arena.  I've outlined a pattern that you could do to incorporate all of the ground poles (there was also a set of cavaletti, but we didn't do that exercise, so I left it out of my drawing).  We never did the whole routine I've outlined here, but we did quite a few variations of the individual patterns as well as a some combinations.  The set up of poles worked really well, and I wish I could set something like that up at my barn.  But, it is primarily a hunter/jumper barn, so the arena is always set up with a full jump course.  Luckily, I'm signed up to do these lessons every other week, and I'm really looking forward to seeing the results.  In particular, I'm excited to show Allison that I am capable of steering my horse (apparently I get left and right confused sometimes) and I'm hoping that the next super fantastic canter we do does not end with me almost falling off because I got so excited that I lost my focus and my stirrup and nearly bounced right off the side...

Sunday, January 5, 2014

And winter is still here...

A friend and I had made plans to ride on Saturday well before I realized exactly how cold it was going to get on Friday.  Some kind of nasty storm blew in Thursday night and it was followed by winds that must have been directly from the Arctic.  I don't want to take anything away from the parts of the country that had well below-zero temps and wind chills in the minus 30-50 range, but you have to understand that we don't have severe winters in northern Virginia.  We have nice winters that give us a little snow, a little cold, are punctuated by occasional warm days and then are over before we get too sick of them.

This winter has been colder and wetter than usual and it is making me more whiny than usual.  Anyway, when I woke up on Saturday morning to discover that it was 12 degrees outside, I desperately wanted to go back to bed and curl up with a hot water bottle and some coffee for the rest of the day.  This behavior is no longer possible, though, because my one-year old would sit on me and bounce up and down if she found me laying down and she would definitely steal my coffee, and then proceed to run around the room while alternating between drinking it, giving some to the dog, and throwing it on the floor.

So, I was forced to get up and be productive, while hoping that the projected high of 38 would come to fruition.  At 9, I left for the barn to get ready for my noon ride with a friend at Andy Guest State Park.  As I was trying to wrench my truck door open (it was frozen shut), I wondered if it was such a good idea to be out riding today.  Then, when I was trying to hook up my trailer and the snap that holds my emergency brake line was frozen shut and I had to smack it with my rubber mallet (best tool ever, BTW), I contemplated the wisdom of continuing to be outside.  Next, as I was attempting to kick the wheel blocks from my trailer wheels (they were frozen to the ground and had to be whacked with my favorite tool to pry them loose), I fantasized that my husband was telling me we were moving to Florida tomorrow.

Finally, I got everything hooked up and loaded, and I pictured in my head the steep hill to get into Andy Guest park and the very short, but very steep hill in and out of the trailer parking lot.  I wondered how well the park maintains its roads in the winter...and it occurred to me that maybe my friend and I should ride someplace else like Manassas Battlefield, where at least the parking would be level and we would be 15 minutes from my house if we ended up needing help.  As it turns out, my friend was on the same page and had already left me a message on my cell telling me that she thought the Battlefield would be a better place to ride.  So, we agreed to meet at the Battlefield.

As I pulled into the parking lot at the Battlefield, I was surprised to see that another rider was already there and while her horse appeared to be covered from nose to tail in some sort of giant purple winter parka, I assumed she was planning to ride.  I was guessing she was a woman because I know of no man who would outfit his horse in that fashion.  It turned out that this lady was an endurance rider I'd seen at events before.  I have never seen her or her horse in any state other than perfection, which boggles my mind.  She seems like a very nice person, though, so I try not to hold the fact that she is always beautifully dressed in coordinated colors and that her horse is groomed at least as well as any top halter show horse against her.

I pulled into a parking spot while noting that the parking lot was covered in a lot of ice.  Then, I opened the door of my truck, put one foot on the ground, and promptly slipped and fell out of the truck onto the giant patch of ice on which I had parked. Luckily, I was wearing about eighteen layers of clothing, so mostly I just injured my pride.

I noticed that a similar patch of ice was behind the trailer, so when I unloaded Nimo, I just explained to him that he needed to be careful when getting out of the trailer.  Whether it was my explanation or the fact that he has four legs or is just generally less clumsy than I am, Nimo was totally fine, and immediately set about eating as much hay as possible while we waited for my friend to arrive.

After my friend got there, we saddled up and headed out into the Battlefield.  I wasn't sure what the trails would look like, but as you can see from the pictures above and below, there were only a couple of inches of snow on the ground, so the footing was actually pretty decent.  We did run into a few patches of ice as well as some ice in the creek we crossed, but otherwise, the trails were great.

We ended up riding a little over 2 hours, which was about an hour and 45 minutes longer than my toes felt comfortable with, but aside from the loss of feeling in two of the toes on my left foot, I was in pretty good shape by the end of the ride.  (Note to self:  Buy wool socks!)  Nimo, on the other hand, was still quite fresh, and could easily have gone another couple of hours.  In fact, I ended up doing some lateral work on the trail to keep him focused on the way back to the trailer.  It turns out the nice, wide trails at the Battlefield are perfect for super short zig-zag leg yields and half passes and there is plenty of room for shoulder-in and haunches-in too.  So, conditioning ride, check AND dressage work, check.