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!:)


  1. Thanks so much for these lesson write-ups -- I really appreciate/enjoy them!

    And fwiw, I jump and I still find cantering ground poles to be super-awkward. It seems like it's super-easy for the horse to start popping you around if they come at all disconnected or unbalanced as you go through, and six in a row will magnify that effect like whoa. Great exercise and I suspect you'd have lots of company in wobbliness if the rest of us tried it, too. :)

  2. I love your descriptions of your gymnastic work! I especially love how you are able to find the humor in a situation that could be frustrating. :) I hated ground poles so much when I was jumping; I had a really hard time with them. I think I've said it before, but it would've been wonderful to have trainers capable of ground poles for gymnastics the way Allison Spivey does! Wish she was closer!

    1. *capable of using ground poles. Sorry; commenting from phone!