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:)


  1. I love these posts on your lessons with Allison Spivey. I've never seen such creative use of ground poles and cavaletti to work a horse. I've read about it, but had not heard of an actual real-life trainer using them in this way. Makes me wish I had access to a trainer of this sort a bit closer to home! We never did this kind of intense work during my jumper days and I still have the same gut reaction as you to anything involving ground poles! It will be exciting to see how this further improves Nimo's work on the trail. :)

    1. I feel so lucky to have found Allison. I don't know anyone else who does this kind of lesson and it's such a great change of pace from a more typical lesson.