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!


  1. Wish I could find such a talented instructor in my area (mine moved :( ). Lessons like this are challenging and fun because they keep you and the horse thinking and engaged. I'm definitely looking forward to future posts.

    1. I feel ridiculously lucky to have the opportunity to work with Allison. I think it's rare to find a dressage instructor who does this much work with cavaletti.

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