Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Glenmore Fall Hunter Pace 2015

I'm a little behind on my posts, but about a week and a half ago, I picked up a friend and we headed south to Staunton (pronounced like Stanton for those who are unfamiliar with the area).  Each fall for the past three years, I have entered the Glenmore Hunt's Fall Hunter Pace.  I have always enjoyed it so much and I was excited to have the chance to go again this year. 

For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, hunter paces are long cross-country courses (typically 6-10 miles).  There are natural jumps out on the trail like coops and big logs and there may be gates to open or other obstacles to get through.  Competitors ride with a partner and the goal is to get through the course in the "optimum" time.  How the optimum time is determined can vary by event, but at the Glenmore Hunter Pace, it is determined by averaging the ride times of everyone competing in a particular division on the day of the event.  So the optimum time is unknown to everyone prior to the ride and it varies from year to year, depending on the weather, the footing, and the composition of rider/horse teams in the division.

Typically, English hunt attire is required, but many hunt clubs host "fun" hunter paces in the fall that don't require that level of formality.  For the Glenmore event, you don't even have to ride in English tack.  There is actually a division specifically for western riders and I have entered both that division as well as one of the English divisions and ridden in my endurance saddle (and bright blue beta biothane bridle) for both without even the slightest raised eyebrow.

This year, because my partner was riding a horse who is literally the perfect horse for a leisurely hunter pace, we entered the Hilltopper division, which is for riders with English tack, but for whom jumping is completely optional.  I didn't think we were ready for the Hunter Optimum division which is for teams who plan to jump most of the jumps and move out at something close to a hunt pace.  The terrain in Staunton is essentially mountainous, which means that I like to go at a slightly slower pace than say crazy hunt people on supremely fit horses.

After checking in, we got our horses ready and headed out to the start line.  To mix things up, the course would be run backwards from what I was used to, so that added some interest.  We walked the horses for the first 10 minutes to help warm them up, but then Nimo caught sight of a large group of horses, and he clicked into endurance ride mode.  I hadn't been expecting that because, in the past, we rarely have seen other horses on the trail, and it is usually just an occasional passing of a team or being passed.  Somehow, though, quite a few teams got jammed up. 

Over the next mile, we all worked on sorting ourselves out and adding some space between us.  We did end up leap-frogging with two other teams for pretty much the whole ride, but that was OK, because I'm pretty sure hunt riders are about the same as endurance riders in terms of friendliness.  One thing I was worried about was Nimo's ability to let the horses in front of us trot off into the distance and out of sight while not acting like a complete idiot.  He is normally pretty good on trails when we're on our own or with small groups, but race brain sets in when he thinks we are at an endurance ride and he can feel quite strong and difficult to hold back.

And, he did fuss a little when we slowed down to let the group in front of us go, but I turned him in a circle and made sure he knew he still had a buddy, and he actually settled pretty quickly.  Yay!  My friend was not used to doing a lot of conditioning work in the mountains, so she requested that we keep the pace to a dull roar and do a fair amount of walking, which we did.  But we also got in some good trotting and even several strong canters up hills.  Nimo did a simply beautiful job of moving out up hill and still remaining very controllable.  We also did do a few of the shorter jumps.  There are always plenty of logs that Nimo feels comfortable at least stepping over and he even trotted a couple of them in addition to leading almost the whole course.  There is one coop that I didn't feel comfortable attempting at this ride, but I think we'll be ready for it next year!

Nimo was so alert because two teams were passing us.  He desperately wanted to follow, but tried hard to be good!
I am a little embarrassed to say that I didn't even ride with a watch.  Despite winning our division last year, I really don't enter this event for a ribbon.  Because of the way the optimum time is calculated, I think it is blind luck to place.  Plus, because we had entered what I thought would be a faster division than what we entered last year, I figured we would probably be too slow.  However, I estimate that we did the 6-mile course in about an hour and a half.  When I ride with my western partner, we usually do the ride in about an hour and 45 minutes, and I knew we'd definitely gone faster this time.

Ahem.  So, as it turns out, we didn't place in our division, but we may very well have placed if we'd entered the faster Hunter Optimum division that I didn't think we would be a good fit for.  The optimum time for the Hilltopper division ended up being an hour, 59 minutes, and 42 seconds while the optimum time for the Hunter Optimum division was an hour, 29 minutes, and 42 seconds.  I think it is possible that I now have a different sense of what slow is:)  And that might explain why my partner asked us to slow down more than once,even though her horse is pretty fit for a non-endurance horse...And it's possible that my horse may now be much fitter than he was last year.  But here's the thing - I thought we took it easy on the course.  We definitely could have gone much faster, which is kind of cool.

I found the course a bit intimidating the first time we did it and even last year, I thought it was still fairly challenging.  This year, it was literally no big deal (including the 10 foot drop-off that normally Nimo would have balked at, but that he didn't even blink at this year).  Yes, there are several pretty steep climbs that Nimo typically walks, but other than that, the course is well-suited to trotting and cantering.  And Nimo had so much energy left at the end.  The only time he didn't lead was the last half mile or so to the finish line because I could tell he still wanted to go, so I put him behind our partner, whose horse was tired, and let him set our pace.

While I love our accomplishments out on the endurance trails, I think I love our progress in other areas even more.  After each endurance ride that we do, I notice an increased confidence in Nimo (and me too!).  I know that many riders prefer to settle on one discipline and focus on improving in that area, but I have to be honest when I say that level of focus isn't for me.  I grew up riding a horse who could literally do anything (except stand still), so I learned how to do halter classes, western pleasure, western riding, reining, barrel racing, pole bending, jumping, and trail riding to the extreme.  Except for a multi-year commitment to dressage that ended up hindering us more than helping us, I've always wanted to do lots of different things with my horse, even if that means we never excel at any one thing.  There was definitely a period of time when I thought I'd be stuck in a dressage arena forever and the idea made me very unhappy.  So I'm beyond thrilled whenever I can do something different with Nimo - especially if it is totally breed inappropriate (team penning is now on my bucket list if I can only get Nimo over his absolute terror of being near cows).

When I first started on our endurance journey, I thought that we were doing what we were doing out on the trails so we could participate in endurance rides.  But it turns out that what we were doing was getting more confidence so that we can do both endurance rides AND other stuff!

Monday, November 16, 2015

Trail Milestone: Galloping!

I got together with Saiph and her husband Charles last Sunday for a ride at the barn where they keep their horses.  I always enjoy riding with them, partly because they tend to ride at a little faster pace, so it helps us work harder out on the trails, but mostly because they are both such fun to be around and it always seems like the ride is too short.

We rode about 8 miles of the trails in the rural Maryland countryside - I'm so jealous of how beautiful it is there!  Lots of trees and hills and fields that make me feel like I could be in another time.

View from the barn
We ended up crossing the railroad tracks several times, which was great for Nimo, because while he has crossed them before, he was a little reluctant about it on this ride and was convinced that if he just kept walking next to them, eventually they would end and he wouldn't have to climb over them.

Nimo very carefully planning his steps - photo by Charles
The highlight of the ride for me, though, was when we were riding on a wide trail through the woods.  We were trotting and Charles was out in front on Gracie and Saiph was behind us on Lily.  Charles asked Gracie to canter and Nimo trotted faster to keep up, but at one point he decided to canter and then he went faster and faster until I'm pretty sure he was galloping.  I admit to a small amount of anxiety because Nimo used to start bucking whenever I would push him in the canter, particularly going up hills.  I think it was a balance thing rather than disobedience.  He's always had trouble balancing at the canter and getting him to feel comfortable in the arena has been a long haul.  Cantering outside of the arena is still difficult for him, so I was excited that he initiated the canter, especially because he was wearing hoof boots on his front feet, and I often wonder if they interfere with his ability to canter.  It was an awesome feeling to be galloping through the woods, although we did have to pull up a little before we wanted to because the gaiter on one of the Easyboot Epics failed and I saw the boot go flying.  I'm actually not that upset about it because 1) the gallop was so awesome, it was totally worth the price of a replacement gaiter and 2) I'm pretty sure Easycare did not test their hoof boots on big, galloping Friesians, and that has got to place a lot of stress on the boot.

Nimo actually did a couple of other short canters up hills, and each time went very well.  I'm pretty sure he's been watching Lily do it on our other rides, because I could literally feel him thinking through how he was going to move his body so he could canter.

I should probably mention that I give Nimo a lot of autonomy out on the trails.  I feel like it is a good counterpart to the micro-managing I do in our dressage work.  And to manage every step for 25, or 50, or 100 miles seems like insanity to me.  We're supposed to be partners out on the trail, and I think it is important for our relationship that I let him make as many decisions as he can with the understanding that I will step in if I think something is unsafe or somehow not appropriate.  Pace is typically a decision that I give to him whenever possible.  He rarely does more than he can for the footing and he's really honest about how tired (or not) he is feeling.  Because he has lacked confidence out on the trails, I think giving him some responsibility is necessary to building his confidence.  That he is now feeling comfortable doing some cantering out on the trail is a great sign because I think it means that not only is his fitness improving, but so is his balance and confidence.

It was a great ride, and I can't wait to share how Nimo continued to improve at the Glenmore Hunter Pace in my next post:)

Monday, November 9, 2015

Riding at Thompson WMA...FINALLY!

I first heard about Thompson Wildlife Management Area a couple of years ago.  Since then, several endurance riders have mentioned it to me as THE PLACE TO TRAIN for endurance rides, especially the ones run by Old Dominion (No Frills, The OD, and Fort Valley).  I admit that I didn't really investigate the park that much at first.  My experiences at the Phelps WMA convinced me that the State of Virginia had set things up to be as confusing and as difficult as possible for those wishing to access WMAs, particularly for horse-back riders, and after finally getting my bearings at Phelps, I wasn't too keen on trying to learn a new park.  Also, the only people I knew who could show me around were pretty experienced and hard-core endurance riders and the thought of trying to keep up with them over rugged terrain wasn't that appealing.

But then I met a lady a few weeks ago who rode at Thompson WMA all the time and wasn't an endurance rider.  She offered to ride with me at the park and show me the trails.  I also discovered that the park was only about an hour from Nimo's barn, which made it a lot more appealing that the hour and 45 minute drive I was doing out to the 4-H Center in Front Royal, so I could access the major climb into the Shenandoah National Park and up to Skyline Drive.

With the stars finally aligned, I met up with my new riding friend at Thompson's last Sunday.  I didn't really know what to expect, but I was first surprised by how small the parking lot was and how time-consuming it would be to park more than a few horse trailers there.  There are actually 11 parking lots, but my friend assured me the one we wanted to park at was the one at Lake Thompson.  I assume that the others are smaller lots or don't have good access to the trails (although I may explore a bit after I become more familiar with the park).  I remember spending a lot of time at Phelps trying to figure out which parking lot was the best one for horse trailers and accessing the trails.

Luckily the day we choose to ride had kind of crappy, drizzly, cool weather, so there were no other riders there that day and only a few fishermen.  After I got parked and Nimo was saddled, we headed out.  And right up the mountain.  There is no level ground in the area, except for a short path around the lake.  Even the parking lot has some slope to it.  I guess that makes sense because the park is essentially in the Blue Ridge Mountains and it doesn't take long to get to the Appalachian Trail, which runs through the park.  (And apparently horses are not welcome on the AT, which is a real bummer.)

The lady I rode with was quite familiar with the trail up the mountain and while she kept saying her horse wasn't that fit, he trotted quite a bit UP THE MOUNTAIN.  The trail was easily comparable to any OD trail I've been on in terms of grade.  Not all of it was super steep, but there weren't many switchbacks and it was basically a 3-mile climb.  The thing that made the trail perfect for conditioning was that it wasn't nearly as rocky as OD trails typically are and it was wide enough for two horses to walk next to each other for most of the way up.

View from the trail about halfway up the mountain
Just to be clear, Nimo does not trot up mountains.  He walks in a dignified manner being very careful about where he puts his feet, especially if he doesn't know the trail.  So when faced with riding with someone who wanted to trot up the mountain, I wasn't sure what Nimo would do.  As it turned out, he apparently felt quite perky and happily trotted some sections.  We didn't trot all the sections of the trail that our companions were capable of doing, but I was pretty happy with Nimo's effort.  We did the 3 miles up at a pace of 4 mph.  I know that isn't super fast, but compared to Nimo's typical walking speed of 2.8 mph on climbing trails, I was pretty impressed.  And that kind of a pace on an OD ride would be great if I could make up some time on other sections of the trail.

Even better is the idea that we can continue to train at the park and probably improve our pace up the mountain even more, which means that Nimo should get quite a bit fitter.  And best of all, we can work on trotting down the mountain as well.  I think the trail is quite comparable to the downhill section of the first 15-mile loop of the OD ride that gave us some trouble and being able to practice at Thompson WMA will give us great experience for the next time we do the ride.

View from the top of the mountain down the trail
Plus, there are a couple of side trails off of the main climb that should provide some variation and additional miles to the 6-mile trip up and down the mountain.  I'm really looking forward to doing more riding at this park, and now I understand why so many endurance riders like to condition there!

Monday, November 2, 2015

Improve Your Dressage through Endurance Riding

I think it is pretty common to think that schooling dressage exercises can help improve a horse's performance in another discipline.  On the other hand, there are certainly many, many dressage riders out there who view dressage as a discipline in and of itself (I used to be one of them).

Recently, though, I've begun to wonder if there isn't something else going on.  I try to take dressage lessons regularly.  Typically, I like to have one every other weekend, which gives me some time to practice what we worked on during the lesson as well as get some conditioning rides in and maybe even take the occasional weekend day for some down time.  However, when I'm getting ready for an endurance ride, I take a break from my lessons for 4-6 weeks to allow me to focus exclusively on trail and conditioning rides, so I can test any changes in my equipment, make sure my brain is where it needs to be, and give Nimo a short break after the ride.  And, looking back on my ride log for this summer, I can see that I didn't do much dressage work outside of my lessons.  I think that when the extreme heat started early this year, I got unmotivated quickly and never really got back on track.  So between the lack of independent schooling and the pre-ride preparation for the OD in October, I got nowhere near my optimal schedule for dressage work since probably May.

But something interesting happened.  Normally, if I had been that inconsistent about my dressage work, we would have stagnated or even started having problems with movements that we'd been able to do before.  Instead, the quality of Nimo's leg yield has steadily been improving for the past few months.  It is certainly possible that it would have improved faster with more dressage work, but the point is that it improved even without it.

And then something even more interesting happened.  I had my first dressage lesson in what I though was 6 weeks this past Saturday.  But when I checked my ride log, I realized that it had actually been 8 weeks since our last lesson.  So, we haven't had a dressage lesson in 8 weeks, and we did exactly 1 ride in the arena during that time (2 days before the lesson).  All the rest of our rides have been conditioning rides out on the trail.  During that time period, we had 3 rides that were particularly challenging:  1) Graves Mountain (not a long ride, but it included a really extreme climb), 2) 15 miles of the OD, 3) 12 miles at Andy Guest with 4 other endurance riders (we rode FAST!!!).  Those rides were done within a 5 week period with quite a bit of rest for Nimo in between them.

Getting ready for our lesson

Anyway, back to the lesson.  I pretty much expected it to be pathetic.  We had done no practicing with the exception of one ride 2 days prior, which was basically to make sure my dressage saddle still fit, that I could find my dressage bridle, and that Nimo remembered how to move on contact and canter when asked.  The ride actually went surprisingly well, but we only covered the basics, so I was sure that we would spend all of Saturday's lesson with my instructor asking us for more forward movement, reminding me to keep my heels down, and essentially wondering why she keeps bothering to try to teach me.

Here's what actually happened.  Nimo was awesome.  He was the most forward in a lesson that he's probably ever been.  It may be the first time that I've ridden him in a lesson and achieved the nirvana of forward movement where instead of asking him to move with more impulsion and energy, I just sort of allowed that impulsion and energy to come out at the appropriate time.  I'm not sure if this makes sense, but it was kind of like the time when my dad adjusted the timing on our old Chevy Impala, and I think he made a mistake because the car basically idled at 25 mph.  I remember having to keep the brake on for much of the drive because the car's default speed was a little faster than was needed.  So Nimo's default trot was more like a lengthened trot, and I would gently contain it for some of our movements, and then basically ease my foot off the brake for lengthenings or when we needed more energy.  I didn't ask for more energy in my usual way, which would be gently squeezing my legs or tapping with my whip; instead, I sort of thought, "Forward" and he would move more forward.  It was a very cool feeling.

And because Nimo was moving so well, I could spend the time I normally spend worrying about his movement on myself.  The result?  My heels were DOWN the entire lesson.  They didn't come up a single time.  I think it was because I have a tendency to contract my leg when I'm trying to get more movement or get Nimo's attention, but because I didn't have to do that, my body naturally stayed in a much better position.

Plus, our leg yields were improved over our last lesson.  They have begun to feel deliberate to me.  I'm not at the point where I can place every footfall, but when we do the leg yields now, it seems like time slows a bit and I have the ability to focus on fine-tuning the movement.  Before, I just pressed with my leg, held the outside rein and prayed for lateral movement:)

We did still have things to work on, of course.  My hand position still needs some work because I have a tendency to hold my hands just 2-3 inches too wide and too high.  And we needed to work on consistent bending and tempo through 10 meter circles, but at no point during the lesson did I feel like I was gasping for air, which I had previously thought was an essential component of all my lessons.  There were definitely challenging parts of the lesson, but they didn't exhaust either me or Nimo like they have in the past.  I'm sure my instructor will figure out how to up her game in future lessons, but it was nice to have a lesson where I felt like we were really working together.

Yet, how to explain so much improvement when it had been 8 WEEKS since our last lesson with ZERO practicing?  Most serious dressage riders school 5 days a week with a light hack on the sixth day, and I have definitely found that a schedule like that is effective for improving my horse's dressage work.  It does require paying a lot of attention to what you're working on each day and making sure you are working different muscles on alternate days and incorporating cardio work.  And there's the mental factor - I have a hard time spending that much time each week in the arena for weeks, months, and even (gasp) years! on end.  So it's not a schedule that I want to use, and it may not be the most effective one for us, either.

The only conclusion that I can draw is that all of our heavy duty conditioning work is somehow helping both Nimo and I to communicate better, to become more fit, and for Nimo, to become more flexible and forward-thinking.  What is interesting about this conclusion is that I ride so differently out on the trail than I do in the arena.  Dressage typically demands a constant communication through seat, legs, AND reins.  I find it exhausting and tedious much of the time because it means that I must be so focused for every step Nimo takes.  And I wouldn't be surprised if Nimo found it equally exhausting for the same reason.  But, we do it because of the benefits that I am convinced dressage schooling conveys.

On the other hand, when we're out on the trail, I give Nimo as much autonomy as I can and I rarely ride with contact unless Nimo seems to want/need it, or we are negotiating a difficult section of trail.  Whenever possible, I let Nimo choose his pace and where he goes on the trail (outside, middle, or inside if the path is wide).

One thing that I do for both trail and arena work is that I never fuss at him about head set or frame.  I have discovered that he will move his head and neck according to the terrain and effort he is putting in out on the trail and that in the arena he will typically adjust his frame based on whether we are warming up, working, or cooling down.  His head and neck will be lower during warm-up, cool-down, and breaks, and they will come up for work.  I rarely have any issues with him throwing his head up or down to evade the bit, or in his case, the noseband, so I don't feel like I need to worry about it.  And even in my lessons, the only thing my instructor will say to me is to ask him to be a little more round (it is usually a pretty minor adjustment).  She seems to be as unconcerned about his headset as I am.  I suspect that is because she uses the exercises to generate the appropriate frame, rather than expecting me to frame the horse and then do the exercises.

Anyway, I am now wondering if instead of thinking of dressage as improving our endurance riding, I should be thinking of endurance riding as improving our dressage:)