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.


  1. So envious of these lessons you're getting. Beyond thankful that you're recapping them with diagrams so I can learn and apply on my own some!! THANK YOU.

    1. You're welcome, Liz:) I'm hoping I'll actually use these diagrams in the future to remind myself of the exercises so we can practice!