Sunday, March 30, 2014

Gymnastic Sunday, part 6

It's time for the sixth installment of my cavaletti lessons with Allison Spivey of Sprieser Sporthorse.  We had what was in many ways the most difficult lesson so far.  I say that because I literally almost fell off my horse 3 times during the lesson.  For the record, I would like to say that I rode my horse for 10 miles the day before the lesson, including a couple of short canters, and did not lose my balance at all, even when Nimo crow-hopped up a hill. (He misunderstood when I told him we were in the walk/trot/canter group, and thought we were in the walk/CANTER/trot group.)  In his defense, he was very excited - we were riding with 6 other horses, some of whom were whacked out of their minds with excitement - and Nimo was pretending to be like the crazy Arabs/TWH.  As it turns out, he really doesn't have it in him to be like that for long.  Within 15 minutes, he was happy to let the group be in front of him without feeling compelled to keep up with every little prancing step.

Anyway, while I am apparently perfectly capable of riding on trails, I suck at cantering over cavaletti.  I've always thought that Nimo was the limiting factor in our cavaletti pursuits, but after this lesson, I can only conclude that I am the problem:)  Here is a diagram of the arena set-up:

I'm sure you're thinking that it looks pretty easy.  I would like to point out that the black poles are spaced for cantering and there are SIX of them.  I would also like to remind you that Nimo has never cantered over more than one ground pole.  Finally, I would like to share that I used to have this little Arabian mare who was very athletic.  So athletic, in fact, that a trainer at horse camp one summer told me I should jump her.  I should note that I grew up in North Dakota, and jumping wasn't really a big sport there.  Barrel racing, pole bending, western pleasure, maybe some reining, and halter classes was where it was at.  That did not stop me.  I mean, why would I need a trainer to tell me how to get over jumps?  It's simple, right?  You just point your horse at the jump, and the horse jumps it.  Yeah, right.  My little mare was indeed quite athletic.  So athletic that she would jump 2' like it was 4', and I would fall off...every time...and there were no helmets back then.  I did eventually get to the point where I could stay on for 2 jumps in a row for a hunter hack class, but I'm sure it wasn't pretty.  And I did get to the point where I could stay on over small cross-country jumps with a little Appaloosa that I had after the little Arab.  But, jumping isn't my strong suit...

Back to the lesson.  Here is a diagram of the first exercise:

Exercise 1

If your eyes are sharp, you'll notice that there are now little Xs next to alternating sides of each pole.  That is because Allison raised one side of each pole (I think to the highest setting on the cavaletti - maybe in the 12-15 inch high range).  By alternating the side that is raised, the horse has an easier time staying in the middle of the poles because of the visual effect.  After an initial walk-through for Nimo to get his eyes back in his head, we started out trotting through the poles, which went fairly well.  (For those unfamiliar with cavaletti, if they are set for canter strides, you can do them at the trot, but the horse needs to do an extra trot stride in between each pole.)

After going through the poles at the trot a few times, Allison asked me to tap Nimo with my whip at each pole.  I admit that I really wasn't sure why.  I thought Nimo was moving really forward and doing surprisingly well.  But because Allison hasn't steered me wrong yet, I humored her and tapped.  After the third cavaletti, Nimo picked up the canter and CANTERED over the last three poles.  I got so excited, I lost a stirrup and almost fell off (that's #1).  We did that one more time, and then Allison asked me to canter Nimo just before we started the poles.  Nimo very clearly said, "Hell, no!" and did some sort of wiggly/wobbly movement and I lost a stirrup and almost fell off (that's #2).  I did eventually get him to canter through all 6 cavaletti, which was so ridiculously awesome, that I was on top of the world.  Then as we cantered down the center line and turned at C to come down the long side, I lost a stirrup and almost fell off (that's #3).  I can't explain why I had so much trouble, although Allison might gently point out that it might have been because my heels weren't down and I wasn't sitting back in the saddle, but I ride with poor position all the time and never have that much trouble staying in the saddle, so I'm guessing it has something to do with all the up and down motion of cavaletti plus canter.  Nimo's canter tends to have a lot more movement to it than other horses, and as demonstrated above with my jumping Arab story, I do have problems with up and down motion:)

If someone had told me at the beginning of the lesson that we would be able to canter those six poles, I would have said they were crazy.  As a matter of fact, when I started the lesson, I told Allison that I didn't think we would be able to canter any of the poles.  Allison agreed that it might not happen, but that she wanted us to try anyway.  (I'm absolutely positive that she knew then that we would be able to do it, she was just trying not to scare me.)  After we had cantered the cavaletti, I mentioned to her how amazed I was that we cantered over cavaletti as opposed to just ground poles.  That's when she said that she thinks it's actually easier for horses to canter over raised poles because it helps them get more height to their stride and develops the impulsion needed to canter.  And it did truly seem like Nimo figured out that it was easier to canter over the cavaletti than to trot over them.

But we weren't done with our lesson.  We still had one more exercise to do.  This time we focused on the red and blue poles at the other end of the arena.  Here's the diagram:

Exercise 2
This exercise look pretty simple, doesn't it?  And it is...unless your trainer is adjusting the distance for one set of poles while you are trotting over the other set (evil grin).  Each time we went through these poles, Allison would move them a few inches farther apart, so that by then end of several iterations, those trot poles were very close to the distance of canter poles, and Nimo was really stretching his stride.  (I didn't even realize she was moving the poles at first - I think Allison figured out that both Nimo and I do better if we don't know what is coming up, so we don't have time to overthink it).  Then, Allison started moving one set of poles closer together, while keeping the other set farther apart.  I also didn't figure that out right away either, but luckily Nimo did:)

I do want to show you one more diagram for a variation on Exercise 2.  We didn't get to it, in large part because I got confused when Allison tried to explain it to me.  It wasn't until I got home and drew it out that I realized it was not hard, but I'm a much more visual learner, so seeing it on paper helped me out a lot.  Anyway, here's the variation:

Exercise 2 variation
As Allison described it, it is a figure-8.  I couldn't really understand it at first because I couldn't see how to get 2 equal loops.  As it turns out, you don't need 2 equal loops to call it a figure-8:)

Anyway, this was really an amazing lesson.  The highlight for me was really the canter work, but the combination of the canter work over raised poles and the lengthening of the trot work over ground poles was excellent for strength-training.  I think Allison described it as going from doing knee-lifts to lunges, which is actually an activity that I try to avoid for myself, but I'm sure it was really good for my horse:)  Now, if I can just figure out how to stay on my horse while doing these exercises, we're going to be in great shape!:)

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Product Review: Horse Quencher

I found out about a product called Horse Quencher from this post by Saiph a little over a month ago.  It is a small packet of grain and flavorings that is added to 1/2-1 gallon of water to inspire the horse to drink.  When I mentioned it to my riding instructor, she said she'd had pretty good luck with the product and happened to have some free samples from the company on hand, which she gave me to try.  Although Nimo is pretty good about drinking when he's thirsty, I thought it wouldn't hurt to have something to motivate him to drink a little more, especially as we start increasing our mileage.

So, I gave Horse Quencher a try after a lesson a few weeks ago.  It was not particularly warm out, nor was Nimo sweating, but I figured if it worked in a situation like this, it would definitely work on a warmer day after a harder workout.

I grabbed a packet...

Dumped it in an empty bucket...

Added about 1/2 of a gallon of water...

Let it sit for a minute to build anticipation...

And then waited while Nimo looked at the bucket and then at me, and then at the bucket and then at me, as if to say, "Seriously, I know there's only a tiny little packet of food in there and it's totally not worth me drinking the water to get it.  How stupid do you think I am?"  I should mention that Nimo is very into cost-benefit analysis, particularly when it comes to food.  While he is very food-oriented, he has made it very clear that he will not perform stupid tricks for a single treat, nor will he drag himself across a swampy paddock for anything less than his full feed ration.

So, to sweeten the pot, I dumped about 2 cups of Pennfield Fibregized into the bucket.  That inspired Nimo to hold his breath, dunk his nose to the bottom of the bucket, grab what he could, and come back up for air to chew it.  He continued the bobbing-for-apples approach for what seemed like forever before he finally figured out that he could drink the water level down and eat normally.  Once he figured that out, he had a field day snuffling around in the bucket to get every last piece of goo.

I was encouraged by the test, but because I had two more packets of the Horse Quencher, I tried twice more after rides to get Nimo to drink water with just the Horse Quencher in it.  Unfortunately, maybe because he had already experienced me adding the Fibregized the first time, he would hold out each time for me to add it to the bucket with the Horse Quencher in it.

So, on my ride last Saturday, I was out of the Horse Quencher samples.  It was pretty warm - getting up to the low 70s, and we did 10 miles in 2 hours, 15 minutes (oh, so close to my intermediate goal of 5 mph!).  Nimo wasn't even sweaty after the ride, except under the saddle pad, but I used a whole gallon of water and added 2 cups of Fibregized.  Nimo drank the whole gallon and then enjoyed the mess at the bottom, which was a great response, and leads me to believe that I don't really need Horse Quencher in order to get my horse to drink.  Instead, I can probably use any high-value food.  And because I normally soak some Fibregized or beet pulp to give him after a ride, just dumping it into the bucket and letting it soak at the bottom while Nimo drinks (it usually takes him a few minutes even if there is just a half-gallon) seems to work well.

That said, Horse Quencher does have salt in it (according to the packet, 18-22%), and that would be useful in warm weather or for a sweaty horse.  However, I can just add a little of my own (which I do anyway on hot days) or I could use a commercial electrolyte.  One thing that the Horse Quencher website points out is that proper hydration of a horse includes both electrolytes and water, and that giving electrolytes without giving water can be dangerous.  So, using Horse Quencher to inspire the horse to drink and giving electrolytes is a good way to keep your horse hydrated.

The single-serving packets cost $2.50, which is kind of pricey for frequent use.  On the other hand, if you wanted to try the product (there are 4 delicious-sounding flavors), it's a great option.  Then, if the product does work for your horse, you can buy the 20 lb bucket for $99.  The website says the bucket contains 144 servings, so that would work out to about $0.69/serving.

My conclusion is that Horse Quencher isn't going to work for Nimo, but I really like the concept of the product.  In fact, it never would have occurred to me to just dump some feed in Nimo's water if I hadn't found out about this product.  And it is entirely possible that if I used more of the Horse Quencher (I think the packet is about a half cup), Nimo would drink the water with just the Horse Quencher.  But that would really drive the price up per serving and I'd get a better value from using any kind of horse feed instead.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Back to Climbing

Last Sunday, Nimo and I went back to the Shenandoah River State Park (aka Andy Guest) for our first climbing miles in over 4 months.  The weather this winter was so awful that I didn't dare do much in the way of climbing because the places that have that kind of terrain often get more snow, stay colder, and are more remote.  Luckily, some warmer temperatures and less snowfall meant that the trails at Andy Guest were likely in good shape, so a friend and I headed out there for a couple of hours of riding.

The yellow is the route we took for our ride
I wasn't really sure about what to expect from Nimo.  I know horses tend to lose fitness less rapidly than people do, but I thought 4 months might be pushing it.  The other issue was whether to put hoof boots on Nimo.  In the past, I've always booted Nimo's front feet when we rode at Andy Guest because of our very first experience there.  Shortly after that first ride, I wrote about my search for hoof boots in this post.  Among other things, I said, "I admit that I was skeptical about the need for shoes/boots for a 15 mile ride, but after riding 10 miles a couple of weeks ago in the area where the ride will be held, I am convinced my horse does need hoof protection.  If I could train on those trails all the time, I could possibly acclimate my horse's feet...or I could really cause some damage."  I am laughing at myself now because I no longer think that Andy Guest trails (which are the 10 miles of trails I was referring to in the quote) are rocky.  There are a few rocky sections and there is a gravel road, but after doing the OD Intro Ride last October, I realized I had no concept of what rocky meant when I wrote that post.

Anyway, I opted not to boot Nimo for our ride.  Since I started trimming his feet, I've seen some definite changes, which I think are mostly good.  One big thing that I've noticed is that his sole has gone from relatively flat to more cupped.  And, on his front feet, the hoof wall actually grew down instead of out during the last cycle.  So, I wanted to see what that meant in terms of handling rocks and gravel.  The only other time I rode Nimo without boots at Andy Guest was the first time we rode there and he definitely had trouble with the footing.  He was pretty "ouchy" by the end of the ride (although part of the problem may just have been that he was flat out tired - it was kind of a tough ride for him).  Because of that initial response, I've always booted to be safe.  But, I'm pleased to report that Nimo had zero issues without his boots on this ride.  He handled the rocky sections of trail and the gravel with no problems.  We only trotted on the section of trail that had a coarse sand mixture on it, but when we trotted on that same section the first time we rode at Andy Guest, I could tell he was uncomfortable on it and he kept trying to get to the grass to trot.  This time, he was perfectly happy to trot on the trail.

So, I am thrilled that I probably don't need to boot when we ride at this park anymore.  Because I have a confession...I hate hoof boots.  Don't get me wrong, I love that they exist.  I love that there are several choices and that manufacturers have obviously put a lot of research into developing something that will work.  But they are such a pain.  Especially for Nimo and his giant size boots.  I have at least 5 or 6 of the stupid things that I have to keep track of.  At any given time, one or two of them need some kind of repair (usually a new cable), and while I'm more comfortable doing the repairs, I still don't like it.  And then, on the trail, I've got to carry an extra boot, and a special hoof pick for releasing the buckle, and spare parts for the boots, and two different screwdrivers for boot repair.  Plus, somehow despite the fact that I only use them on rocky trails, they are always coated in mud, and I suck at cleaning them.

I do still believe, though, that hoof boots are a better choice for Nimo than shoes, especially if he is going to feel more comfortable on a variety of surfaces.  I'm also positive that boots are a much less expensive choice than shoes.  I've never gotten a quote for how much it would cost to shoe Nimo, but given prices for normal horses and the usual premium charged for draft horse feet, I'm guessing it would run $200-250 every 5-6 weeks, which is really unsustainable.  Not to mention how hard it is to find a good farrier...So I'm still committed to hoof boots, but if I can find a way to minimize their use to just the rockiest of trails, I'm going to be much happier.

I was also happy to discover that Nimo handled the climbing just fine.  We rode maybe 7.5 miles and the only sweat Nimo had was a little under the saddle pad.  He also seemed fresh and still capable of doing more at the end of the ride.  I should mention that the climbing at Andy Guest is not the same as the more rugged climbing that is typical of OD rides.  Andy Guest trails tend to have small, frequent changes in elevation, while OD rides tend to have much longer climbs over much rockier footing.  That said, the climbing at Andy Guest is still quite valuable for conditioning and it was a great way to re-introduce Nimo to climbing.  My next step is to take Nimo out to the Shenandoah National Park within the next few weeks for some real climbing.

And this is probably a good time to mention that my endurance ride plans have changed for the year.  My original intention was to do the LD at the OD No Frills ride the last weekend of April.  But that plan was contingent on me being able to keep conditioning Nimo through the winter.  While we were able to keep riding, we just weren't able to do the climbing work or much speed work because of weather and footing issues.  If the No Frills ride was held over normal terrain, I definitely think we would be ready, but it isn't.  It's the same rugged terrain as the other OD rides, and it would be unfair to Nimo to ask him to do that ride without proper preparation.  Plus, I still don't have my camping equipment or containment system.  While I could always just sleep in the truck and tie Nimo to the trailer, I decided I really need a little more time to get my act together.  There are some non-OD rides and some competitive trail rides in the region that I can do, though, so I have options.  And if all else fails, I'm positive we can be ready to do the OD Fort Valley ride this fall.  So, the current plan is to get Nimo back into climbing and start ramping up our pace until I feel like he can handle about 25-30 miles of either an OD ride or another, easier ride.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Gymnastic Sunday, part 5

Last Sunday, I had my fifth ground pole/cavaletti lesson with Allison Spivey, assistant trainer at Sprieser Sporthorse.  Each lesson has been getting more challenging, so I was anxious interested to see what she had in store for us this week.

After walking up and down the driveway for about 15 minutes to start our warm-up, we walked into the indoor arena to find this set-up:

Arena Diagram

I should note that I really had to up my game in Photoshop to do the diagram because of all the different sets of poles.  They were colored in the arena too, which really helped me figure out what I was supposed to be doing.  I'm sure you can see that there are almost endless possible exercises.  I'll highlight the ones that we focused on.

We started off using the red poles near A.  We did a variation of spiral-in, spiral out, which is a great strengthening exercise even without the poles.  We were tracking right around the arena and began the exercise by trotting a circle through the middle of the poles.  Then, we tightened the circle by about a meter and went over the inside of the poles.  Finally, we expanded the circle by about 2 meters and went over the outside of the poles.  And we repeated variations of those circles in both directions.  The great thing about this exercise is that not only does the size of the circle change, but so does the length of stride.  So you and your horse really have to focus on accuracy.  One problem that we had was that I wasn't using my outside rein as firmly as I should have been, which resulted in Nimo's shoulder bulging to the outside.  This is a chronic issue for me, and this exercise really highlighted it for me.

Exercise 1
Our next exercise was a little more straightforward.  We trotted over the medium grey poles near M and then I asked for a canter just after Nimo stepped over the second pole.  Then we cantered as long as Nimo felt reasonably balanced, which ranged from just a few strides to being able to go most of the way down the long side or being able to do a half circle starting at S.  We also did the exercise in the opposite direction, so we cantered going towards R and either down the long side or into a half circle from R to S.  Having Nimo canter just after a set of poles is something we've done in past lessons, and the technique really helps him engage his hind end for the upward transition.

Exercise 2
The third exercise took us back to using the red poles.  In this case, we trotted over the yellow poles, went through the center of the red poles and then over to the green poles.  This seems like a pretty easy exercise, but the red poles, even at the center, were spaced farther apart than Nimo's working trot stride, so we needed to really move into the half circle through the red poles in order to get through the poles correctly.  Lengthening through the circle seemed counter-intuitive to me because I think I have a tendency to back off my forward aids during turns, so this exercise was great at helping me change my way of thinking.

Exercise 3
Then Allison really challenged us.  We haven't really done cavaletti, in the true sense of the work, up to this point.  For those of you who aren't familiar with the terms, cavaletti are typically poles set at least a couple of inches off the ground and can be much higher.  We have done some poles that were elevated on one side, but not the other, so Allison thought we were ready to try something more exciting.  We started off trotting from R toward S and then going over the dark grey cavaletti between S and H.  (You'll probably notice in the diagram that you could do this exercise while incorporating the light grey poles between S and R or by skipping them.  Including them definitely increases the challenge because they are set for a lengthened trot, while going over the cavaletti requires a shorter stride, but lots of energy.)  Each time we went over the cavaletti, Allison raised one of the poles, so that after three-ish times through them, we were doing 3 legitimate cavaletti, set about 8 inches off the ground.  One mistake I made the first time I did the exercise after the poles were raised was that I pushed Nimo too much.  My pushing caused him to lengthen his stride rather than shorten it and articulate his joints more.  I needed to find a way to keep the same energy as for the lengthened stride, but communicate that the stride needed to be shorter and he needed to lift his feet higher.

Exercise 4

Finally, we ended up by using almost all the poles in the arena.  So cool, by the way.  We reversed what we had done in Exercise 4 and trotted over the cavaletti between S and H before lengthening over the light grey poles between S and R.  Then, we needed to do a tight right turn (think square instead of circle) to go over the green poles near B.  We needed to stay focused over the black poles and then the light grey poles between V and P.  A quick breath and then we turned left to do a half circle over the red poles near A.  We then got back on the rail and had to do another tight turn at B so we could go over the light grey poles in the center.  Then, it was relaxation time as we kept trotting, turned right, turned right again and went back over the poles between S and R.  We finished off by going over the poles near M.  And as you can see from the diagram, you could keep doing the exercise in a loop because it ends where it starts.  On thing you'll notice is that we didn't use the yellow poles.  It's possible I'm having a memory lapse here and they were actually between V and K instead of between E and V, but I seem to remember that I had enough to do without them:)  Anyway, they could easily be worked into the pattern by moving them a bit, so you could pick them up right before the red poles.  Another thing that Allison pointed out is that you can really enter the pattern from a lot of places, so you don't have to start at C.  Plus, many of the sets of poles had different spacing, so you could customize this for your horse to include a lot of adjustability work along with the accuracy of all the turns.

Exercise 5
It's worth noting at this point that we started these ground pole/cavaletti lessons on January 12, so we're right at 2 months later.  It's amazing to see the difference in our comfort level between then and now.  I am positive that if I had seen this pattern 2 months ago, both Nimo and I would have run screaming...It is so cool to see how Nimo has advanced and become so much more comfortable with ground poles.  In fact, there have been a couple of times when I feel like I didn't really communicate with him (possibly because I was stuck in one of those "Oh, Crap!" loops in my head when I realized that what sounded simple was significantly more challenging in practice) and he still figured out what he had to do.  And there's no question that this kind of work makes a difference out on the trail.  The trail is a different environment, but I feel like working through challenging obstacles in the arena is going to improve how we work through challenging obstacles on the trail.  If nothing else, I will know he is lying to me if he tells me he can't pick his feet up at least 8 inches:)

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

My version of the blanket clip

Last Saturday, temps were in the balmy 60s, and I could not take Nimo's filthy hair any longer.  So I used the time I normally would have spent riding clipping him.  Unusually, he has not started to shed yet, and I knew from the forecast that we'd be getting more crappy weather in a few days, so I didn't want to do a full body clip.  Instead, I did what I call a blanket clip (I think that "blanket clip" usually means leaving the hair just where the saddle pad is, but that makes no sense to me), but what it means is that I clip the area that the blanket will cover and leave the exposed areas with all their winter hair.  That way, on warm days, Nimo can be better ventilated, but on cold days, a combination of his sheet/blanket with his winter coat will keep him warm.

I tried to take a picture of my efforts on Sunday, when I was getting ready for my lesson, but the angle of the sun was such that you just can't see the clipping outline well (which might be a good thing, because now I can pretend that it looks awesome instead of like a beaver did it).  On the picture below, I drew lines that delineate where the coat is clipped.  Basically, I left all the hair on Nimo's neck, face, legs, and belly.

So far, the clip is working great.  We got minimal sweating during our lesson, and Nimo seems to be handling the cooler temps well with just a sheet.  I expect to have to put something heavier on later this week, but overall, I'm happy with the results.  I also got a chance to really scrub Nimo's skin where I had clipped, which was great, because there was so much dirt and scurf and other general yuckiness that I think applying some soap and water was a good thing:)

Friday, March 7, 2014

Fitness and Schooling Thoughts

I was inspired by this post written by Mel.  In fact, if you check the comments section, you'll see we had a bit of a dialogue that kept me thinking well after our dialogue was done.  I'm not even going to try to paraphrase the post because there is just too much in it, but if you're interested in things like cross-training, interval training, and/or running, you should definitely check it out.  Instead, I'd like to go through some of my thoughts on conditioning and schooling that I'm hoping to put into practice shortly (assuming that Mother Nature in fact remembers that it is March and therefore, SPRING in Virginia).

Maybe about three years ago, I got into a conditioning and schooling zone with Nimo.  I wasn't really doing trail riding with him, except for a couple of group outings, but I did have access to a large field and a neighborhood to ride around, plus indoor and outdoor rings.  I felt motivated and was able to ride about 5 days a week for several months.  Prior to that time, I had been transitioning from a funk of not riding much, so when I started my 5-day-a-week plan, Nimo was used to being ridden maybe a couple of hours a week over 1-2 days.

I used two books as my main source of information and inspiration:  Equine Fitness and 101 Dressage Exercises, both by Jec Aristotle Ballou.  She is currently a dressage trainer, but believes very strongly in maintaining a balance of conditioning and schooling, regardless of what type of riding you do, and the value of lots of turnout and socialization plus as much hay and as few concentrates as possible.  That belief meshes pretty well with what I think, which is why her books appealed to me.  I especially liked her insistence that conditioning is important, even for dressage horses.  I had been stuck in a schooling rut, and was looking for a way to do something other than ring work.

Anyway, I wasn't able to follow Ballou's recommended program to the letter, but I got pretty close and Nimo's level of fitness really increased a lot in a short period of time.  He went from hardly being able to huff his way around the arena at a walk and trot for 45 minutes to being able to do a 2 plus hour trail ride with a bunch of serious trail and hunt riders one hot August day.  Looking back on that ride, I definitely pushed him too hard, but the fact that he didn't have a metabolic incident is a testament to how much the work we had done had helped with his conditioning.  I should also mention that he was schooling 2nd and even a couple of 3rd Level dressage exercises (with the exception of his canter, which was still stuck in Training/1st Level).

Because of my previous success with Ballou's suggestions, I really want to try them again this year to see how they work.  One thing that I've been struggling with and that I've spent some time thinking about after Mel's post is the difference between Ballou's recommended plan of working your horse 6 days a week and most experienced endurance riders' recommendations of riding 2-3 times a week.  Ballou is actually a former distance rider.  (She won Vermont's Green Mountain Horse Association's 100-Mile Competitive Trail Ride when she was 13 years old.)  But I don't want to discount decades of experience of successful endurance riders as I try to come up with a conditioning strategy for this year.

After thinking about it for a few days, I think I know at least a couple of reasons for the disparity.  Ballou trains in an area where turnout for horses is extremely limited.  Coupled with her main focus in dressage, a discipline where most riders keep their horses in stalls 23 hours a day and who only work in the arena in good footing, her perspective that horses need to be "worked" 6 days a week makes sense.  Compare the foofy dressage horse who is in a stall all the time with the endurance horse, who is probably on pasture turnout 24/7, and I think I see why the typical dressage horse needs work almost every day - it's just to get him out of his stall!

Also, while Ballou just touches on how confined horses are not able to maintain bone density, Karen Chaton addresses the issue of bone density more thoroughly on her blog in this post.  She summarizes the results of a study on pastured horses, horses stalled with exercise, and horses on stall rest by saying, "The team concluded that horses on stall rest for 14 weeks lost fitness, as indicated by the increase in heart rate and blood lactate levels after the final SET.  But more importantly, they noted, pastured horses were able to maintain a similar level of fitness as the stalled, exercised horses in addition to having greater bone mineral content at the end of the study."

My guess is that most successful and experienced endurance riders keep their horses on pasture most of the time, which means that their horses are able to maintain, or even build, fitness while turned out.  Meanwhile, boarded horses in my area (including Nimo) are typically stalled 15 plus hours a day for over half the year.  Usually they will be turned out overnight during the summer months, which means close to 16 hours of turnout a day for a few months, but the problem is that when I am riding less because of weather and less daylight, my horse is also getting almost half the turnout, so it's like a double whammy for his fitness.

Additionally, I would like to point out that there is a baseline of fitness that a horse needs to achieve before doing any sport.  I think once that baseline is achieved, maintaining it obviously takes a lot less work than building it, and horses that have done multiple 50s or 100s probably don't need to be improving their fitness anymore, unless their riders have a goal of doing longer or faster rides.  So, riding 2-3 times a week is plenty for them to maintain their conditioning, especially when they are turned out most of the time.

But what about my horse?  He does have a baseline of fitness for dressage work and even trail riding.  But in terms of endurance riding, he still needs to be improving his conditioning.  And I can never forget that he is a Friesian.  I think there is some controversy about whether Friesians are warmbloods or drafts.  I've always thought of them as warmbloods, but they really aren't as aerobically athletic as some of the warmbloods that are seen in dressage and eventing.  Regardless of exactly what they are, I am pretty sure that they don't have a "second wind," which means I can't expect to work my horse past the cramp in his side and have him magically recuperate like I might be able to for an Arabian.

So, here's what I need to keep in mind about my plans for conditioning.

  (1) Nimo is a big, heavy-duty horse, which means that what might be easy for even a minimally fit Thoroughbred is going to be tough for him without a lot of preparation.  His metabolism isn't going to bail me out if I push him too hard.
  (2) He still needs to develop a baseline of fitness for a 25/30 mile endurance ride over easy to difficult terrain.
  (3) He is on limited turnout for much of the year, so my work with him needs to provide something close to what he would get if he was out all the time on a big pasture if I expect his muscles and bones to keep up with our conditioning.
  (4) The barn where I keep Nimo has maybe 3 miles of trails that I can use.  The trails are level.  If I want to work on climbing or longer distances, I have to haul between 30 and 90 minutes.
  (5) The barn has a large, outdoor arena with good footing.
  (6) I don't have a heart-rate monitor, and I don't plan to get one until we are at the point where we are conditioning for 50-mile rides.
  (7) To the extent possible, I'd like to continue to take a dressage lesson every other Sunday.
  (8) I have a one-year old child who is currently sucking the life out of me with her seemingly boundless energy.
  (9) I procrastinate about things, am whimpy when it comes to riding in the cold, the rain, and the heat, and I have to set my riding goals at a level above where I want to be because I will totally skip out on some of my planned rides.
  (10) I am not independently wealthy, and I have to work during the week, as does my husband, so the only days I have available for real trail rides and lessons are Saturday and Sunday.
  (11) I have a doctor's appointment for physical therapy for a chronic issue every Monday evening.

In 101 Dressage Exercises, Ballou recommends the following schedule:

  -Monday: One-hour loosening session.  This session is supposed to be just the basics, with no new or difficult exercises.
   -Tuesday: New material.  After a healthy warm-up, spend some time working on a new or difficult exercise or movement.
  -Wednesday: Ground work and Longeing.  Do longeing or long-lining for 20-30 minutes, mostly at the trot and with side reins and engagement.  The work could also include ground poles or cavaletti.
  -Thursday:  New material.  Build on what you did on Tuesday or do something new.
  -Friday:  Fitness.  Work on cardio for an hour, including hills, canter, jumping, or trail riding.
  -Saturday:  Confirmed Movements.  Only do things that your horse is comfortable with, but do all of them in one ride (e.g. practice a dressage test at your level).
  -Sunday:  Off.

In Equine Fitness, Ballou recommends something a little different.  She goes through suggested conditioning schedules for developing basic cardio fitness, strength-building, and maintenance, but these schedules are not specific to any particular discipline.  The one I'm most interested in now is the strength-building phase.  Here she recommends 2-3 days of schooling, 1 day on cardio work, and 2 days of strength training.  I should note that she allots 2 months for this phase, so the work-out plan is not meant to be a forever-type of endeavor.  That is something I didn't notice the first time I read the book...

Alternatively, Nancy S. Loving presents a baseline fitness development plan specifically for endurance horses in Go the Distance.  She suggests riding 3-4 times a week, starting at one hour or 5-6 miles per ride and increasing up to a pace of 8 mph over easy terrain.  Then, she says you should do 5 workouts per two week period, with 4 short (less than an hour) workouts at 10 mph and one long, slow distance ride of 18 miles. A significant component of her plan is reliance on monitoring the horse's heart rate and keeping it in the 110-150 bpm range, with an occasional quick burst up to 170 bpm as the horse gets more fit.  After the baseline fitness as obtained, she believes you only need to do 2-3 rides a week of 5-10 miles to maintain the fitness level into the next season.

So, how should I proceed?  Luckily, I have a little experience with something that previously worked well for Nimo.  It was primarily based on the 101 Dressage Exercises schedule because, at the time, Nimo was a dressage horse.  What I'd like to do is pull the best of all three of these recommendations, customize them for my horse and boarding situation, and come up with something that helps my horse become more fit for trails and more advanced in dressage.  (I tried to insert a sarcastic comment here, but none of them really fit, so I'll leave you to insert your own version of what a ridiculous pie-in-the-sky scheme this is...)

Here's my starting point:

  -Sunday: Dressage lesson or schooling session at the barn that includes new or challenging work.  When weather and footing permits, include a 20 minute warm-up and a 20 minute cool-down walking around the farm.
  -Monday: Rest.
  -Tuesday: Strength training.  If light and weather permits, ride at the boarding stable on available trails and do interval-type work.  If light and weather do not permit, and the work needs to be done in the arena, incorporate some exercises from either Equine Fitness or 101 Dressage Exercises that are designated as strength-building exercises.
  -Wednesday: Hand walking on gravel for 20-30 minutes, followed by stretching and bodywork, as needed.
  -Thursday:  Dressage schooling session (one hour) that focuses on stuff we already know how to do fairly well, but also includes significant time for trotting for 10 plus minutes and increasing Nimo's ability to canter.
  -Friday: Long-lining or lungeing for 20-30 minutes, occasionally over ground poles/cavaletti.
  -Saturday: Long trail ride (2-4 hours) that focuses on climbing one week and developing speed the next.

Despite designing this lovely schedule, I know the weather and footing will get in the way, particularly in the spring.  Sometimes the schedule won't work because of my job, my husband's job, or our daughter.  Occasionally, I might want to do a ride just for fun or compete in a Judged Pleasure Ride, or a Hunter Pace, or God-forbid, an actual endurance ride, so I'm going to have to make adjustments.  And of course, I could figure out that something else works better or I just need to change the work over time to keep us both fresh and motivated.

Anyway, at least I have a place to start, with a tangible schedule that I can immediately start procrastinating about:)

The team concluded that horses on stall rest for 14 weeks lost fitness, as indicated by the increase in heart rate and blood lactate levels after the final SET. But more importantly, they noted, pastured horses were able to maintain a similar level of fitness as the stalled, exercised horses in addition to having greater bone mineral content at the end of the study. - See more at:
The team concluded that horses on stall rest for 14 weeks lost fitness, as indicated by the increase in heart rate and blood lactate levels after the final SET. But more importantly, they noted, pastured horses were able to maintain a similar level of fitness as the stalled, exercised horses in addition to having greater bone mineral content at the end of the study. - See more at:

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Gymnastic Sunday, part 4

About a week and a half ago, you may remember that I met up with Saiph to go for a ride at Manassas Battlefield.  That was a Saturday.  The next day, I had a lesson with Allison Spivey of Sprieser Sporthorse.  She is the queen of putting together a bunch of poles and cavaletti in an arena and coming up with meaningful exercises, and I was looking forward to another ride with her.  However, I was a little concerned about how Nimo would feel after his 9-mile ride the previous day.  He didn't really seem tired after the ride, but we also haven't been able to ride as much as I had hoped this winter, so I thought he might be a little sad about having to get on the trailer again.

As it turned out, I really didn't need to wonder about how he felt.  When I pulled up to the barn with the trailer (I had just left it hooked up from the day before because I was tired of putting the truck in 4-wheel drive and wading through a swamp to hook up and unhook my trailer), I saw Nimo out in the field.  Even from a distance, I could tell he was coated in mud...He looked up, immediately saw the truck and trailer and galloped to the center of the field, where there was the most standing water and mud, and promptly rolled.  As Allison said, "There's nothing like a horse giving you the middle finger."

I usually don't bother much with baths during the winter, but I made an exception this day.  Not only did my boots accumulate enough filth to make a garden bed, my horse was beyond saving with something so insignificant as a brush.  It was still fairly warm (high fifties probably) and we have hot water at the barn (as long as the temperature is above 20 degrees, anyway), so I hosed us both down.  I contemplated putting a cooler or sheet on Nimo for the trailer ride, but I figured he would dry faster without one, and I was kind of pissed about the major mud removal project, so I opted for no sheet.

When we got to Clearwater Farm for the lesson, I saddled Nimo up and in the process discovered that I'd left his breast collar draped over the trailer hitch...again.  To be honest, it really does seem to stay there, no matter how long the trailer ride, so I'm thinking maybe that is just where I should start keeping it on a permanent basis.  Then I wouldn't have to spend 10 minutes looking in my tack cabinet and rifling through the truck trying to find the damn thing because I forgot it on the trailer hitch.

Once we were saddled, we did a short walk up and down the long driveway to start our warm up and then headed into the arena for a little more work before our lesson.  As I mentioned above, Allison has a gift for coming up with these amazing patterns with ground poles and cavaletti.  She does quite a few lessons during the day, and all of us are at different levels with different types of horses, and she finds a way to accommodate all of us.  This week's lesson was by far the most difficult we've done so far, and looking back on it, I think the best way to describe it is as a focus on adjustability of stride.  Below is what I'm pretty sure the poles looked like in the arena.  My memory totally sucks these days, but I think I'm pretty close, although maybe not quite to scale.  You should get the idea, though.

Our first exercise was to do a five-loop serpentine at the trot over the poles between A and C.  You'll notice that each set of two poles is progressively farther apart as you go from A to C.  That is not a mistake in my drawing.  The way it was set up was that the poles closest to A were designed for a short trot stride, while the poles closest to C were designed for a very lengthened trot.  So, as we went through the serpentine, the goal was to use the working trot between the poles and then adjust stride length (except for the middle poles, which were set for working trot) for a brief period as we crossed the center of the arena and over the poles.  I should note that the first time I did the exercise, I did a three-loop serpentine because I couldn't fathom the idea of doing five loops and that we did have some difficulty making the adjustments.  Nimo definitely bailed my lack of aids out more than once because I'm pretty sure he's getting the hang of ground poles now and he figured out that he needed to adjust his stride length over the poles.

The next thing we did was to modify the serpentine to include the single poles that are between the quarter line and the center line.  You'll have to forgive my crappy attempts at drawing half circles, although I can assure you that our actual ride looked a lot worse.  The point was to incorporate the same adjustability in stride as the first exercise, but to include a ground pole in the half-circle portion of the serpentine.  The single ground poles were then raised on the outside only to make it a little easier to keep the horse from drifting on the circle.  But then, Allison raised the whole rail, so Nimo needed to hop over a pole that was maybe 12" off the ground.  So the final version of the exercise meant leaving the double poles from A to C on the ground and raising the single poles about a foot.  Of course, if you were really ambitious, you could raise the double sets of poles too.

The third exercise looks pretty simple in my drawing.  I assure you that it was not.  We were supposed to trot to just before C, then turn and trot through the double sets of poles all the way to A.  Trotting straight down the centerline while going between poles that are close together and that concern your horse is harder than it looks.  But, the real excitement started when Allison asked us to repeat the exercise, but this time, we were supposed to trot between the poles and walk through the poles.  It doesn't sound hard, but you have to keep your horse straight and really nail the transitions because the poles were only about 10 feet long and there wasn't that much distance between them, so we couldn't dribble between gaits or we'd already be at the point for the next transition.  The first time that we did it, it felt really challenging.  The second time, though, both of us started to get the hang of it.  I won't say that our transitions were beautiful, but they did flow better.

But Allison didn't want us to get bored, so she had one final challenge for us.  This time we were starting out  by trotting to A and then continuing to trot while turning right to go through the double poles before turning right for a 10 m circle and going back through the poles.  Then, we continued on through the next set of poles and turned left for a 10 m circle.  And so on.  You'll see that the single poles (or cavaletti by that time) provided a little bit of a barrier to help keep the circle on track, which was really helpful.  But it was still tough as hell to get through this pattern.  Once again, I think my drawing is still better than the bizarre shape we rode during the exercise.  If you think you can steer your horse, this exercise will bring any faults in your aids to the forefront.  As it turns out, I absolutely cannot steer my all.  If the barrier poles hadn't been there, Nimo probably would have just trotted right out of the arena.

What I loved about this lesson was not how amazing we did (because we really weren't amazing - better than I would have imagined, but not anywhere near amazing), but rather how exciting it was to try different patterns and not have to practice them ad nauseum until we had perfected them before moving on to the next thing.  One thing that has really turned me off dressage lessons in the past is having to do endless circles while fine-tuning Nimo's frame or length of stride.  I've noticed that with Nimo, he seems to improve faster if I do something a couple of times and then leave it alone for the rest of the ride and maybe even for a week or two.  Then when I come back to it, the concept seems to have percolated and he improves with seemingly no practice.

I can't say for sure, of course, but I wonder if it is possible that he goes over what we did in his mind and that mental "practice" helps more than drilling.  I know for me, I tend to be very thoughtful about anything physical.  I am pretty uncoordinated, but doing something over and over doesn't usually help me get better, at least at first.  What I need is to have someone show me or help me do the activity and then I do it by myself a little bit, and then I think about it for awhile before I do it again.  That thinking process is really essential for me and I think it is for my horse too.  It's the only explanation I have for why we can improve significantly between lessons every 2 weeks when we either don't practice at all or practice once or twice.

There was a time when a trainer I was working with wanted to use Nimo for a demo because her horse was lame.  For about 2 weeks before the demo, she rode Nimo almost every day and all she did was basic walk, trot, and canter for 20-30 minutes, because that's all she wanted to show.  This was probably about 3 years ago, and Nimo was actually quite fit and working at a higher level in dressage then he is now.  I hadn't really taken him trail riding, except for a couple of times with a group, but I was doing a lot of conditioning work out in a big field with a nice hill and lots of space plus I was doing 2-3 arena rides a week, for a total of 5 rides a week.  During that 2-week pre-demo period, I didn't ride Nimo at all, mostly because I really wanted a break from all the riding we'd been doing and I also didn't think it was fair to ride him twice a day, even if one of the rides was short.

Anyway, by the time of the demo, Nimo refused to canter at all.  He wouldn't stay on the rail to save this poor lady's life and he looked pretty awful, honestly.  And this was a horse who two weeks previously could trot and canter up steep hills for an hour and do all lateral work at the trot, including shallow half-passes.  Plus, he could do 15 m balanced canter circles (okay, he could do one of them, but still...) and walk to canter transitions that were not embarrassing.  My conclusion is that two weeks of basic drilling literally sucked out every bit of training he had.  I was never able to get him back to where he was after that because I ended up getting pregnant within a couple of months and while I did ride through my second trimester, I had to take it easy and I didn't want to be cantering around open fields, where he had a tendency to buck or be a little more uncontrollable exuberant than would be safe.  I also eventually cut ties with that trainer and just rode on my own for a while, although I do want to say that our time with this trainer wasn't wasted.  She actually helped us quite a bit at first.  It was just that after awhile, things started to go stale and get repetitive.  Anyway,  I started doing trail rides and doing some minimal arena work after my daughter was born, but it has just been this past December that I started taking lessons again.  It's wonderful to see Nimo getting back to his old, more well-schooled self, but it makes me sad to think about where he could be now if I hadn't given permission for him to be used for that demo (or if I had at least ridden him out of the arena a little).

I hate to see talent wasted and that is really what happened.  Between all the drilling that Nimo hated, me feeling disillusioned with dressage lessons and then getting pregnant, and then my desire to start endurance riding, we really wasted some time in terms of progress for dressage training.  I don't regret the miles that we've ridden on the trails, though.  In fact, I think they were essential in helping me get away from dressage for awhile so I could come back to it in a healthier frame of mind.  Part of me just wishes that we could have come down this path a little quicker.  Luckily, Nimo still has lots of good miles left in him, and I've found a trainer I enjoy working with, so I hope that we can find a way to get the best of both the dressage world and the endurance world.  I think we'll both be a lot happier that way.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Gymnastic Sunday, part 3

So I'm waaaaaayyyyyy behind on writing about my dressage lessons over ground poles/cavaletti with Allison at Sprieser Sporthorse.  This is in part because of the blizzard we got a little over a week ago and also because I've just been busy and haven't had the time to do the diagrams.  Anyway, I'm back on track...I think...

I wish I could tell you a humorous story about my third lesson over cavaletti, but I literally can't remember anything about that day, except the actual work.  It was probably insanely cold, or had recently snowed, or was going to snow, or was 65 degrees because that is the only kind of weather we've had this winter.

Here are the diagrams of the patterns that we worked on.  I'm going to show you the arena set-up first, followed by the different exercises because otherwise I think it's a little confusing to see how things work.  I will say that seeing this set-up in person was pretty impressive.  (Also, note that my memory of the day is seriously in question, so it's entirely possible that I missed a pole or got something a little out of place, but I have to work with the brain cells I have.)  Seeing half the arena basically covered in poles was a little daunting at first, but after going through the exercises, the set-up made a lot of sense.

This next diagram shows you the first exercise we worked on.  The exercise can be done from either direction and it involves turning the corner to approach the poles as a square, not a circle.  The poles were set at a distance that encouraged a nice working trot.  Because of the square approach, the exercise targeted balance and rhythm because the horse had to really focus on shortening the trot a little to make the corner of the square while being ready to move into the working trot quickly.

The following diagram shows you our second exercise.  The way it worked was to come in toward the center of the poles and then proceed to do an incredibly tight circle around the inner four poles at a walk.  After going around a few times at the walk, we would simultaneously go into a trot while expanding the circle to the second set of 4 poles.  After doing the trot circle a few times, we would slow to a walk, while simultaneously decreasing the circle back to the inner 4 poles.  You'll notice that the circles on my diagram are not really that great.  That is because I am no better at free-hand drawing circles in Photoshop than I am at steering my horse in the arena.  That is how our "circles" really looked:)

We repeated that exercise a few times and then came out of the circle at the pole closest to A.  As Nimo took his last step over the pole, I would ask for canter.  The combination of the exercise plus the last pole had the effect of making Nimo quick off his hind end and gave us a nice canter transition.  I think one of the times we did this canter transition, we actually attempted the canter poles as you see in the diagram, but you'll notice from the tight spacing that you really need to do a square corner before the canter poles, and Nimo's balance just wasn't there yet, plus he is still a little intimidated by ground poles at the canter.  So what we did instead was to come off the trot pole at A, canter, and then aim for the arena wall and skip the canter poles altogether.

And finally here is our third exercise.  Let me note here that I get my money's worth out of my lessons with Allison.  She asks us to do exercises that I would never attempt on my own and am pretty sure when she asks me to do them that my horse will lay down and refuse to move anymore.  In reality, Nimo seems to really like the cavaletti work and steps up to the plate more often than not.

So, what we did for this pattern looks pretty simple on paper, but definitely felt a little overwhelming at first because of the tight turn and all those poles!  We trotted down the long side of the arena and then turned in a fairly tight circle (probably less than 10 m in diameter) to come into the cross-like structure of poles on a diagonal, push for a little bit of lengthening, trot over the center of the cross and then continue the lengthened trot over the group of three ground poles before trotting on our merry way.  Allison added a bit of a twist after we'd done the exercise a couple of times by raising the outside of the 4 inner ground poles about 12-15" so a giant raised pinwheel was created.  Visually, I think it was very intimidating to come into, but it also had the effect of directing Nimo to the very center of the poles.

Overall, the effect of all these exercises was to create a more balanced and forward horse.  By the end of the lesson, Nimo was trotting in this huge, self-motivated trot that I literally did not have to do anything to maintain.  At which point, Allison reminded me that my legs were really out of position and needed to come forward with heels down.  It was awesome to be able to actually only worry about my legs instead of a hundred other things as well.  I'm pretty limited in my capacity to do more than one thing at a time, so whenever I have to work on steering or getting more balance or engagement from my horse, my legs and arms wander off into strange positions.

Anyway, my fourth installment on these lessons should come fairly quickly.  I've locked myself in the office in an attempt to get caught up on my blog and so far, it's working:)