Saturday, January 24, 2015

Bareback Milestones: Snow, Ground Poles, and a Spook

Those of you who live in the Northeast may be familiar with Winter Storm Iola, a storm threatening to bring rain, sleet, and snow to portions of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast.  Where I live in Virginia typically tends to get more rain than snow, except in a handful of memorable cases over the past 13 years that I've lived here, so I wasn't expecting much.  However, I was hoping to get a ride in last night because I absolutely missed my Thursday night planned ride (when it was reasonably nice out) due to inspiration striking for some scrapbooking I was working on.  I realize that sounds a bit feeble, but it has been almost a year since I have been inspired to do a legitimate scrapbook layout (because it is impossible for me to feel creative while a two-year old is "helping" me) and I have a lot of photos of my daughter that need homes.  So I wanted to take advantage of my motivation.

That meant I was a bit anxious to discover that some nasty storm was moving into the area on Friday evening.  But, as luck would have it, my husband got home from work early, and I was on the road by 3:25, hopeful that I would get a ride in before the estimated start time of 6 pm for the bad weather.  Five minutes later, as the snow started to come down, my hope of riding was diminished somewhat, especially because I needed to stop by the feed store before I could go out to the barn.  (Nimo would absolutely not have accepted my reasoning of needing to ride before the storm got bad as an acceptable excuse for not having any food the next day.)

The snow kept getting worse and by the time I was done at the feed store, I was pretty sure I wouldn't be riding.  That irritated me because I could have ridden the day before and didn't and because there was a chance I wouldn't be able to ride on Saturday due to bad weather or the aftermath thereof, and I'm really trying to get us started back into a legitimate conditioning program so we have a hope of going to the Foxcatcher 25 ride in Maryland on the second weekend in April.  I tried to console myself by thinking about the things I could do instead of riding, like trimming Nimo's feet, but it really wasn't helping.

When I got to the barn, I encountered a couple of chatty people, which was OK.  I'm often out at the barn in the evenings when no one else is (I've never figured out how people with day jobs can get out to the barn and have their horses ridden by 5 or 6, but somehow they do), so I wasn't opposed to having conversations with adults that involved things other than work or kids.

Anyway, after my chatting was done, I was left with a question - to ride or not to ride.  The snow was still coming down, but it seemed a little less intense and it had changed from fluffy snowflakes to bits of ice, and I finally decided to do a shorter bareback ride.  I figured it was a nice compromise.  Nimo wouldn't get as hard of a workout as if I rode under saddle, but that was actually a good thing because he had to be out in the storm all night and I wasn't planning on blanketing him, so I wanted to make sure he didn't get even the slightest bit sweaty.  But we would still get some work in and I'd get a chance to work on my bareback skills while keeping my legs a little warmer:)

I put the bareback pad on, bridled him, and took Nimo out into the snow to the arena.  By this time, it was about 5:30 and the light was fading, so I turned on the lights (this will be important later).  At this point, I wasn't convinced that riding was the brightest idea, but the footing seemed good because the temperature was hovering right above freezing, so it wasn't icy or frozen.  And honestly, 33 degrees is warmer than it is on a lot of nights when I go out to the barn, so the cold wasn't an issue.

We started out with just walking around the arena to warm up while I thought of a plan for my ride.  I decided that I wanted to do two things:  work on using the lightest aids possible to achieve whatever it was I was asking for and do some lateral work.  Then I added a third thing because I realized someone had set up three ground poles for trot work.  I still feel uncomfortable with trotting bareback, not because Nimo misbehaves, but because his trot is really not that easy to sit.  Contrary to popular belief by non-Friesian owners, Friesians are not gaited and those bred like Nimo (more of the carriage-style with upright shoulders and steep hip angles) have a lot of motion to their gaits.

However, sitting the trot under saddle has become easier to do since our Fort Valley ride last October.  I spent a lot of time in a two-point position during that ride, and I have come to believe that being able to do a two-point position is remarkably like sitting the trot.  Your body is in a different position, but to do either well, you must be able to absorb the horse's motion through your body.  One method of teaching sitting trot in dressage involves putting the student on a school master type horse and than basically just trotting until the student is so exhausted that her body finally relaxes enough to sit the trot properly.  That method is not available to me (and it sounds about as appealing as cleaning a truck stop men's bathroom), so I've been working on it in shorter doses.  Anyway, all of that explanation is for me to get to the point that trotting over ground poles is a little intimidating for me, but I felt ready to try.

The worst thing that could happen is that I would fall off, and I have to admit that while I have spent the last many, many, many years of my life being afraid of falling off (I've had several nasty falls in my life as I'm sure most regular riders have, and I've developed an aversion to things like not being able to walk properly for two weeks, dislocating my shoulder, and being run over), that fear has recently diminished quite a bit.  I don't really know why, but the idea of falling off just isn't so scary anymore.  It's not that I want to fall off, and I'm certain that it will hurt regardless of how gracefully or gently I fall, but somehow the absolute terror of falling off is gone.  And that has really opened me up to feeling more confident in the saddle and being willing to try new things.  (I do still imagine that somehow I will fall off and be impaled on a tree - I can't explain where this idea came from - maybe too many Dracula movies?)

With my agenda in mind, I asked Nimo to start doing circles around the arena using the jumps that were set up as center points.  I did not pick up the reins or make any contact with Nimo's nose, though (I'm still riding in a hackamore), because I wanted to use only my body and legs, just to see how we did.  I think the majority of the circles were actually pretty decent, although we definitely had a couple that involved a total collapse of the inside shoulder.  But that happens when I'm riding on contact too, because if I lose focus on a movement for even a nano-second, Nimo interprets that as time to take a break and taking a break apparently involves a complete dysfunction of his body.  All in all, I was happy with that work, but I want to continue it to see if we can get all of our circles to be good.

Then I had Nimo trot for a bit while I worked on relaxing my body and feeling the movement.  And that was when he spooked.  I'm not sure if anyone else's horse does this, but Nimo can be a little spooky in the arena at night.  It's possible the spookiness is related to the bright lights of the arena contrasting with the pitch black of the outside of the arena.  I think I remember reading somewhere that while horses can often see better than people in the dark, their eyes don't adjust as quickly to drastic changes in light.  Anyway, the spook wasn't a big one, but we were trotting and he took a couple of big steps straight to the side.  And I stayed on.  As in, I didn't fall off.  I did lose my balance a little, but I would have probably had the same experience in a saddle, with the exception that stirrups would have helped a little.  WhooHoo!

I felt so brave after not falling off that I decided to dive right in to trotting the poles.  I should note that I walked Nimo through the poles a couple of times while we were warming up just because otherwise he probably would have tried to walk through them the first time I asked him to trot over them anyway - he's a very cautious horse:)  So we headed for the poles and I asked Nimo to move out the same way I would under saddle and he just trotted over them like they were nothing.  And once again, I didn't fall off.  So we went over the poles several times at the trot, and Nimo never touched a single pole (sometimes he will get a little sloppy and not pick up his feet enough).  For some reason, I thought it would be harder to stay on over the ground poles, but there really was no difference in Nimo's movement.  The other thing that I realized is that we were doing a legitimate trot instead of the more anemic trot that I've asked for when I've been riding bareback in the past.  I have been so worried about Nimo's extravagant movement that I didn't want to risk falling off by asking him to do the same quality of trot I would expect under saddle.  But judging by the distance of the trot poles, he was trotting with a pretty good length to his stride in order to get through them without hitting them.  And that was the same trot I'd been riding the rest of the time, so I felt like that was a decent accomplishment for me.

Then we moved on to lateral work.  I've done a little leg-yielding while bareback in the past, but I've never done shoulder-in, haunches-in, and half-pass.  What I really wanted to focus on was feeling my body while I was giving aids and doing as little as possible while still getting the movement.  I have to admit that the aids felt strange to me without a saddle and I struggled a little with getting them right.  In particular, the concept of weighting the stirrup was not even possible, so it forced me to think about how I used my seat and legs differently.  I ended up choosing the following sequence to get both of us really focused:  haunches-in as we came around the corner onto the long side of the arena for 5-6 strides, then carefully shifting the haunches so that Nimo was straight, walking straight for a few strides, then going into shoulder-in for 5-6 strides, then carefully shifting Nimo's shoulders so he was straight, walking straight for a few strides, then going back into haunches-in, then straight, and then shoulder-in one more time.  I also stayed on the inside track of the arena (about 3 feet off the rail for non-dressage people) so that I was sure it was my aids and not the rail that generated the movements.

Next we moved on to half-pass.  At this point I choose an exercise from Jane Savoie's Happy Horse program.  She suggests starting across the diagonal of the arena, then going into half-pass, then going straight on the diagonal, then going in to half-pass in the other direction, and then going straight again.  The objective is to keep the horse's shoulders on the diagonal at all times while shifting only his haunches (for non-dressage people:  half-pass is basically haunches-in on the diagonal).  I've done the exercise under saddle before and it is always challenging, but the first time I tried it bareback, it was a complete disaster with no bend for the half-pass and crazy weaving all over the arena.  The second time, though, we got our act together, and it went pretty well.  Nimo didn't have quite as much bend as I would have liked, but his shoulders stayed where they were supposed to, which was the most important thing about the exercise.

I should note that I take frequent breaks of walking on a loose rein with Nimo when I do lateral work with him.  I usually don't do more than 5 minutes worth of work without taking a break and sometimes I will let him stretch as often as every minute.  That does three things:  first, it gives him a physical break because holding a frame and using himself for correct lateral work is challenging for his muscles; second, it gives him a mental break from listening to me, which he does very well as long as I am focused too; and third, it gives me a chance to evaluate the effectiveness of the exercise.  What I mean by that last one is that if the work was done correctly, Nimo's walk on a loose rein will be more forward and he'll stretch his neck forward and down a little while moving actively through his hind quarters.  If he just collapses or slowly wanders around, I'll know we need to go back to that movement, maybe after an energizing trot, and try again.

Last night's work went really well, and I decided to tack on one last exercise before cooling down - the reinback.  You may remember from my last post that I want to start working more diligently on improving Nimo's reinback.  We had some success during our lesson, but I wanted to see how we would do without a saddle and also just to reinforce the work.  We won't get any better unless we practice:)  Anyway, the first time I asked him, we had the same issues as before - resistance, crookedness, and lack of diagonal footfall.  Then I remembered I was supposed to be using light aids (I have a tendency to escalate the pressure of my aids when Nimo resists) and I realized (light bulb!) that maybe one reason Nimo was having trouble with backing up is because he is so careful about where he puts his feet.  He absolutely refuses to back off any trailer (even one with a ramp).  I've worked on it intermittently for years, but I've concluded that unless Mark Rashid personally comes to work with him on it, I'm just going to have to live with it.  And to be honest, I don't really blame Nimo for not wanting to back off a trailer.  I've seen more than one serious injury due to a horse backing off a trailer and slipping, so having him turn around and walk off is really the safest way to go.

But back to the reinback.  After our initial mess of a movement, I asked Nimo to trot forward and halt.  Then I waited a second, took a deep breath, leaned slightly forward and asked him to back.  This time, when he initially resisted, I lightened my rein aids and tried to relax.  And that did the trick.  When he didn't feel trapped by the pressure on his face, he stopped feeling so panicked about backing up, at least that is what I think is likely.  I don't think he had good diagonal movement, but he did back straight for several steps, and I called it a night.  I can see the reinback is just going to be something we'll have to work on over time, but I think the combination of setting him up properly (an active trot-to-halt helps keep his hind legs engaged), not using so much pressure on his face, and practice will eventually do the trick.

So my simple little bareback ride actually yielded a lot of positive results.  We only worked for about 40 minutes (my typical dressage schooling sessions are about an hour and 15 minutes), Nimo wasn't sweaty, and I had a couple of breakthrough moments.  Also, there was ice building up on the bareback pad, so I figured that was a sign that we were done for the night:)

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Gymnastic Sundays Are Back!

You may remember that during the winter last year, I wrote about caveletti and ground pole lessons with Allison Spivey of Sprieser Sporthorse.  They were so much fun, and I'm excited to report that Allison has started them up again for the winter.  (Note:  You can read about last year's lessons at the following links:  lesson 1, lesson 2, lesson 3, lesson 4, lesson 5, and lesson 6.)

Allison has a special gift when it comes to this type of work - my experience with her last year was that she designed patterns that really challenged us, but were still something we could accomplish.  I remember being pretty intimidated by some of the patterns, like the time I almost fell off three separate times during the lesson, but this year I am so looking forward to whatever she can dish out.  My confidence (and Nimo's) is much higher this year, so I'm glad to say that I was only mildly freaked out when we walked into the arena last Sunday and saw this set-up:

The entrance to the arena is at A, so the first thing I saw was what looked like an endless string of ground poles (there are actually 13 of them).  However, the other two groups of poles looked totally doable:)

We did a quick warm-up in the arena because I'd already spent about 20 minutes walking Nimo around the roads and fields at the stable and doing a little bit of leg yield at the walk while waiting for the previous lesson to finish up, so he just needed a few minutes of trot and canter before we were ready.  I could feel that he was in good form - he felt fluid and loose and motivated, which was nice because I hadn't ridden him a lot during the previous two weeks due to either traveling or weather.  Evidently the break was good for him and he was ready to work.  Which was good, because we worked!

Exercise 1

For our first set of exercises, we used the group of 4 purple poles at the far end of the arena.  You'll note in the diagram that the poles have Xs on one side only.  That is because there were cavaletti supports only on one side, allowing the poles to lay flat on the ground or be raised on one side to add to the difficulty.  Because Nimo has a history of worrying about the poles when we first see them, Allison is great about giving him time to get a good look at everything before we get to the final stage of the exercise.  I've diagrammed that final stage here, and I'll explain how we got there below.

Exercise 1a
We started out by trotting in a 20-ish meter circle around the outside of the poles.  Then, Allison would have me work in one pole and duck back out to the circle.  Then, we would trot two poles and then three poles, and then finally we were trotting all 4 poles and Nimo was quite happy with the situation.  To add to the difficulty, we essentially did a spiral-in so that we trotted on the outside of the poles, then another circle over the poles, and finished with a 10-ish meter circle inside the poles.

Once we did that well, Allison had us go back to trotting a circle outside the poles while she raised one side of one of the poles and had us work it in before going back to the outer circle.  Much like when we introduced the ground poles to Nimo one at a time, we introduced the raised cavaletti one at a time.  Once Nimo felt comfortable over those (the objective is to keep him moving at the same speed and stride length while crossing over the middle of each pole, which is a little challenging because the pole is asymmetrical), we did the spiral-in exercise again, and Allison added in the spiral-out, as seen in the diagram below.

Exercise 1b
Once we'd mastered the spiral-in to spiral-out in both directions, Allison ramped up the difficulty by adding in half circles in a figure-8 pattern through the center of the poles, like below.

Exercise 1c
I should note that I totally suck at drawing in Photoshop, but hopefully you'll get the idea.  This exercise was tough because the objective was to continue to maintain the same speed and stride length while doing 10 meter half circles, changing direction, and going over the cavaletti raised on one side.  We did it, though:)

Exercise 2

Then, it was on to our second set of exercises, using the very intimidating 13 poles on the centerline. I gave the subgroups of poles different colors in the diagram, but in the arena, they were all just plain poles.  The extra spacing between each subgroup helped visually set them apart, though.  You'll see that the yellow poles have the closest spacing and the spacing gets wider as you move toward C.  (Note: There is no particular reason why there are 4 poles in the blue group and 3 poles in the other groups - Allison says it just that it was early in the morning when she set them up:))  The objective was to smoothly lengthen Nimo's stride as we trotted through the poles.  It is apparently common for horses who do lengthenings to gradually let their hind legs drift behind them and lose engagement, so the poles help to keep the hind legs honest through the lengthening.

Exercise 2a
We started the exercise by trotting down the long side and gradually shortening the stride as we approached F and began the turn to A.  And we had to keep working on shortening because Nimo was pretty excited about all those poles!:)  In fact, I would say the beginning of this exercise was the hardest for us because of the shortened stride.  Allison had me really focus on bending Nimo's body through the two turns prior to the poles and I added the strategy of making the turn from A to the poles in such a way so that we weren't directly in front of the poles until one step (not stride) before we needed to go over the first one.  That way, Nimo wasn't anticipating the need to go over the poles as much and lengthening his stride as a result.  By giving him less time to prepare, I was helping him focus on his stride (and me) and not the poles.  Also, I used a lot of half-halts:)

Once we had gotten comfortable with this approach, Allison had us come at the poles from C instead of A, resulting in going from a lengthened stride to a shortened stride.

Exercise 2b
And much like the previous version of the exercise, we had the most trouble with the yellow poles.  Because of Nimo's enthusiasm for going over the poles, having him lengthen his stride was not a problem, but gradually shortening it was an issue.  The poles helped visually, of course, but his tendency was to rush over them and be sloppy about shortening his stride.  So my job was to give lots of half-halts to help make the change in length of stride more deliberate.  I think we got close to doing this exercise correctly, but I wouldn't mind seeing it again in the future to work on it a little bit more.

Exercise 3

Then we turned to the final group of poles for some excitement (and by excitement, I almost always mean canter).  Note that the Xs alternate for the gray cavaletti, which means the intent is to raise each pole on one side, but have the raised sides alternate. That alternating does two things in my mind.  First, it helps to keep the horse centered while going through the cavaletti, but it adds difficulty because it looks more intimidating visually.  (There could be some other reasons, but those are the ones I thought of.)  The end result of this exercise is to canter either a square or a circle (I diagrammed a square because it is a little easier to draw), trot just before going over the poles, and then go back to canter just after trotting the poles.

Exercise 3
As before, we gradually accustomed Nimo to the raised poles one at a time and we started out by doing the whole exercise at a trot before adding the canter.  We did the exercise in both directions, and we had two issues to work through.  In the direction shown in the diagram, we had a little trouble with the canter transition just after the poles.  Nimo would pick up the canter when I asked, but it was the wrong lead.  Eventually we figured out I was leaning a little to the inside, which was probably affecting Nimo's balance a little (for such a big horse, he is really particular about me using correct aids!).  When we changed direction, Nimo would get sloppy coming over the last pole and sort of dart off to the right toward the center of the arena and be heavy on his inside shoulder.  At the time, I couldn't really see why we were having that problem when we weren't to the other direction, but now that I am writing this and looking at the diagram, I see that the final pole was raised to the outside of our square/circle, making it easier to go over the lower part of the pole to the inside.  Anyway, during the lesson, Allison had me move Nimo straight after the poles for a short distance (maybe 10 meters) before turning and that solved the problem.

Exercise 4

Whew! You would think we'd had enough by now, but there was one thing that I asked Allison if we could work on.  Reinback (or for normal people, just backing the horse) is not introduced until Second Level in dressage competition.  There is some controversy about that because at least a few people (don't ask me who - I just remember reading about it as some point in the past 10 years) believe the reinback should be taught sooner than Second Level.  I agree with that view point, particularly because when you are out on the trail, your horse really needs as many tools as possible for negotiating obstacles, and backing is certainly very helpful.  So I have been working on Nimo with backing for years.  I've never been that disciplined about it, though.  If he would back a few steps on the trail or in the arena, that was fine, and I didn't worry about it beyond that.

Lately, however, I wanted to be more disciplined about it, and I realized that Nimo was having two issues.  First, he fusses when I first ask him to back up and he usually is quite crooked.  Second, he doesn't move his legs in diagonal pairs.  A correct reinback has the same stride as the trot, according to the dressage world.

I started out by showing Allison how Nimo backs and he obliged by being super fussy (head tossing, avoiding the aids, etc.) and crooked and not using diagonal pairs.  Instead of saying, "Oh my God, what is this horror!" Allison just nodded and asked me to trot Nimo in a circle, halt in between two of the poles that were on the centerline, and immediately ask Nimo to back.  That worked much better because by trotting into the movement, it was helping Nimo keep his hind legs quick and responsive (as opposed to the sort of drifting into the reinback, like I'd been doing before).

But Nimo was still struggling a little with the start of the movement and with using diagonal pairs.  So we did the circle, halt, back routine again and this time, Allison placed her hand on Nimo's chest and used a gentle pressure to draw his attention to his chest.  She felt that he wasn't using himself correctly because he just didn't know any better.  So by placing her hand on his chest, she was telling him to use that part of his body for the movement.  That was really helpful, and after repeating the exercise a couple of times, Nimo was backing mostly straight and moving with diagonal pairs.  WhooHoo!

I think we'll definitely need to work on reinback for a couple of months to help develop Nimo's muscle memory because we've been doing it incorrectly for awhile (the dressage masters are probably shaking their whips at me), but it was such a relief to find out that the solution was pretty simple.

And that concludes what was actually a mere 45-minute lesson:)  I didn't even almost fall off my horse at any point, and I can tell that Nimo seems to really enjoy the work.  So stay tuned for more Gymnastic Sundays!

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Nimo's Trail

The farm where I board Nimo is actually well over 300 acres.  Unfortunately for our riding goals, it is primarily a working farm, so the vast majority of the acres are in crop production and cannot be ridden on.  However, there is a road that runs through the farm as well as a couple of miles of trails in a section of the farm that is kept for timber production.  I actually don't ride around the farm too much, just because I typically trailer out for our conditioning rides on the weekends and it is usually dark when I ride during the week.  I once did attempt to ride on the wooded trails in the dark a few months ago, but that idea quickly lost its romanticism after we heard the baying of a hunting dog far too close to us, so we got out of the woods as soon as possible, and I've been sticking to arena riding at night for now.

Anyway, there is one trail - I call it the blue trail because it is marked with mostly blue ribbons - that I have begun to think of as Nimo's Trail.  I'm not sure exactly when I first noticed Nimo's affinity for this trail - maybe sometime over the summer?  While he is generally well-behaved at our rides off the farm, he can still act like an idiot when we ride around on the farm.  For example, yesterday, he tried to revert to his old spin-an-bolt behavior when he saw snow on a pile of dirt as we rode down the farm road.

However, when we are on Nimo's Trail, he doesn't act like that.  And it isn't that we are in the woods, or headed toward the barn, because he can still be a little uncomfortable on the orange-marked trail in the woods and his behavior on the blue-marked trail is consistent regardless of whether we are heading to or away from the barn.  I'm having trouble finding the right words to describe exactly how it feels, but he moves really forward (like a shift from his typical 3 mph walk to 4+ mph), yet not jiggy or pacey.  He's incredibly ratable, especially at the trot.  He is sensitive to my aids in a way that I have never felt in the arena.  And when I ask him to trot, he shifts into this almost unimaginable gear.  There is so much power coming from his hindquarters, but all of his muscles feel like they are moving smoothly and without any friction.  I always go into a half-seat for the trot on this trail because it is easier than posting.  In fact, maybe "effortless" is the best word to describe what happens.  It feels like we could continue indefinitely without either of us getting tired.  And we are connected and floating/flying over the ground.  I felt something similar toward the end of our first loop at the Fort Valley ride last year, but this trail is where the perfection really occurs consistently.

I think I have ridden my whole life in search of that feeling.  I have been blessed to have had a couple of horses in particular that were just amazing animals, but I never felt like how I feel with Nimo out on his trail.  There is no baggage there, no constant thoughts of how I should correct my position or ask Nimo for just a little bit more of whatever isn't quite enough, no worries that Nimo will spook.  It is just the melding of two very different species who have found a way to communicate and be with each other for a moment in time.