Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Farmington Hunter Pace 2016

If you've been following my blog for awhile, you may remember that a couple of years ago, I started incorporating the scrapbooking idea of December Daily into my blog. December Daily is basically any kind of scrapbook, pocket page album, or photo journal that documents at least one story for each day in December as a way to remember both holiday traditions and everyday life.  I do a December Daily scrapbook for my daughter each December, and I wanted to do something similar for Nimo.  I have really enjoyed the process for the blog and want to do it again this year.  So my first post in December is about the Farmington Hunter Pace.

I've posted several times about doing hunter paces with Nimo over the years and they have mostly been pretty great experiences.  For those unfamiliar with hunter paces, there are basically two types in Virginia:  the fun hunter pace and the competitive hunter pace.  I only do fun hunter paces with Nimo because he really prefers not leap over anything when there is a perfectly good path for going around it, and I really cannot blame him for that attitude.  Fun hunter paces have evolved a bit over the years and the rules can vary a bit depending on which hunt is hosting the ride.  But, hunter paces typically allow 2-4 members on a team that completes a 5-10 mile course through the countryside, with probably at least 8 obstacles like coops and fences to either jump or go around.  At least 3 divisions are included:  Jumpers (at least one team member must jump each obstacle), Pleasure (jumping is optional and western tack is permitted), and Juniors.  Some hunter paces include a division between Jumpers and Pleasure called Hilltoppers, for which jumping is still optional but riders typically compete in English tack and move out at a bit faster pace than the Pleasure division, but aren't as fast as the Jumper division.  Other paces call the Pleasure division Hilltoppers just to make things interesting:)

Winners are selected based on the optimum time for the course.  Whichever team comes closest to the optimum time, regardless of whether they were slower or faster, wins, and ribbons are awarded to either 4th or 6th place (depending on the hunt).  How the optimum time is set, though, is a mystery.  It can vary by course by year, depending on weather and footing conditions.  And it can vary by how fast each year's competitors finish it.  Some hunter paces set the optimum time as the average speed of all the competitors in the division that year while others seem to use times that are close to the fastest time, maybe because they are basing it on what a "hunt" pace would be or maybe for some other logic that will always remain unknown to competitors so no one really knows how fast they should cover the course.  This unpredictability is part of the "fun" for me, but it can be a bit aggravating to those who might be more competitive:)

This year, I found a steady partner (or rather, she found me!) and we did four of the seven hunter paces in the 2016 Fall Fun Hunter Pace Series in northern Virginia.  The final hunter pace in the series was held on November 6 by the Farmington Hunt down in Free Union, Virginia, which was easily the most out-of-the-way place we traveled to for the hunter paces.  The majority of the trip was on major roads, but the last 10 miles or so involved a lot of turns and one completely confusing section of road, which in good Virginia fashion was paved and then intersected with another road, after which it took a bit of a dodgy turn to the right for 15 feet on the intersected road and then a left onto a gravel road into nowhere without any kind of road sign to designate the path.  My GPS failed utterly and the only reason I made it was because my riding partner was right behind me and had been to the location the year before.  She had spent the better part of half an hour repeatedly turning around until she figured it out last year, so she was able to point me in the right direction.  (I have come to the conclusion that many horse events in Virginia are actually some kind of test to see how much you really want to ride your horse in the event or on the trail.  It can be so exasperating to find the darn places and get parked that only the most motivated people end up riding.)  Once on the gravel road (which was only wide enough for a truck and small car to pass each other but thankfully no traffic came from the opposite direction), we drove for a couple of miles in the wilderness and finally arrived at the location.  It was a field, which is normal, but there were so many people arriving at the same time that there was a traffic jam and lots of maneuvering required to finally get parked.

By the time I got parked and climbed out of my truck, I was sort of ready to call it a day.  My brain was fried from the crazy directions and driving for an hour and a half, and I wasn't sure I had much energy left for the ride.  But, I went through the motions of unloading Nimo and getting him set up with some hay, although he became immediately concerned because as I was leading him up to the trailer to tie him, a horse unloading in the trailer next to us fell on the ramp (which was a bit slippery from shavings and manure and at a very steep angle because we were parked up hill on a steep hill - and that is why I do not have a ramp on my trailer!).  I could tell Nimo was pretty freaked out by seeing the fall so close to him, and it took him a good 15 minutes to settle.  (The horse that fell was scratched from the ride even though he did not appear to be injured because his rider was worried about him.)

My partner and I went to check in and get our number and were surprised to learn that we were the last of the pre-registered entrants to check in.  But, we figured that would be OK because we wouldn't have to worry so much about being passed on the course.  We have been moving at a pretty good pace and quite close to the optimal time at the other paces that we did (and actually have only been passed 3 or 4 times total at all the paces we did this year), but we had an unsettling experience at the last pace where we were just walking along though a field while approaching some woods and two teams with 5 total riders galloped from behind us and past us without slowing down and without calling out to let us know they were behind us and planning to pass.  Both of our horses were so solid and completely non-reactive, but a green or sensitive horse could have really reacted and someone could have gotten hurt (which is why we reported the team to the ride management for unsportsmanlike behavior - obviously passing is OK, but even hunt riders should have the etiquette to at least call out to make sure the riders in front are aware).  It is actually the only time something like that has happened in all of the probably 8 or so hunter paces I've done, and I do realize that etiquette varies between different disciplines, but I'm going to draw a line and say that galloping a group of horses past other horses who are walking without at least calling out should be a violation in every discipline.

Photo by Rick Stillings Photography (cropped by me to protect my riding partner's privacy)
Anyway, we ended up being maybe second or third to last on the course, but that did not dissuade us from keeping to what had become our usual pace.  I have not clocked us, but my endurance intuition tells me that we ride somewhere between 5.5 and 6 mph.  On this ride, I think we ended up being closer to 5 mph, but that was solely due to the sheer number of gates.  This is the only hunter pace I've done where the competitors are responsible for opening and closing ALL of the gates.  (There are typically quite a few gates on hunter pace courses because the trail goes exclusively through private land that is often used for grazing cattle.)  Most of the gates only needed to be negotiated if you weren't jumping the obstacle, but there were others that all competitors had to do.  At the other hunter paces, the ride management stationed volunteers at the gates to open and close them, but apparently Farmington Hunt thought it added something to have the competitors do the gates themselves.  Or they just couldn't find enough volunteers, because there were literally at least 15 gates (I stopped counting because it was becoming too mentally taxing for a Sunday morning).  I was lucky to ride with someone whose horse actually competes in trail classes, so he is good at opening and closing them, but it took both of us to handle one gate that was on the side of a hill and about 12 feet long and heavy.  My partner stationed herself next to the post while Nimo and I pushed the gate up the hill.  Once we got the gate to the top, my partner moved her horse in to hold it while she did the latch.  Talk about teamwork!

With the exception of the gates, the course was lovely.  Some open fields and some wooded trails with almost no roads.  The terrain was quite hilly, though, so lots of good conditioning work for the horses.  The temperature was about 70 degrees and it was sunny, which to be honest, was a little much at one point.  I actually started whining briefly about the piercing sun beating down on me - it was the first weekend in November and I was really ready for fall!

We finished the course in an hour and 17 minutes (I'm pretty sure we used about 30 seconds to one minute per gate) and I think the distance was somewhere around 6 miles.  The winning time was an hour and 27 minutes (which I'm assuming is within a minute or two of the optimum time because the Hunt never published the optimum time - to keep us guessing for next year?), so we actually came in a full 10 minutes ahead and did not place.  But with 25 teams competing in our division alone, placing would have been a surprise no matter what the optimum time was.  (At one ride, we finished a mere 4 minutes ahead of the optimum time and still came in 8th place!)  Luckily, I don't do the hunter paces for a ribbon; instead, I do them because they are an opportunity to ride on land that is otherwise not available on a safe, well-marked course and to hang out with a friend and maybe even to get a bit of conditioning in for Nimo.  Plus, a couple of the rides are less than a half hour away from the barn where I keep Nimo, so the short travel time is a nice change.  Overall, it was a fun ride and provided the added challenge of the gates to keep us doing something different.

Photo by Stephanie Guerlain
 We did miss out out on most of the really good food for lunch because we came in a little later, but there were still some yummy desserts (homemade apple pie!).  The hunter paces I've been to often (although not always!) have a nice lunch for competitors after the course, but riding late tends to mean that the best food has been eaten by the people who must have gotten up insanely early or live close by.

My riding partner and I had such a blast doing the hunter paces this year that we are planning to try to get to all seven in the series next year.  Maybe Nimo will even consent to doing a jump or two!:)

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Progress!

When I first started working on the Science of Motion course, I got this sinking feeling that it was going to take me at least years before I was able to master even the simplest task of walking Nimo around the arena.  As it turns out, things are progressing a bit quicker than I expected.

A little over a week ago, I was working Nimo in the arena and I could tell he was a bit more "up" than usual.  I think it was probably attributable to riding at night with the arena lights on combined with some sort of animal noises coming from the darkness that even I had to admit sounded horror-movie creepy.  I decided to use the extra motivation to my advantage and we worked on walk to trot transitions quite a bit.  Nimo was doing really well, so the thought occurred to me that maybe I should try the canter.  At that time, I hadn't cantered Nimo for over two months, and I admit to being worried about what the consequences of taking such a long vacation from the canter would be.  Nimo has always really struggled with canter and you may recall that it was his increasing stiffness in the canter that played a big role in connecting me with SOM in the first place.

Anyway, I figured the worst that could happen is that I would ask for canter and wouldn't get it, so I decided to give it a try.  Then I remembered I didn't have my whip.  I don't ride with a whip in the arena anymore because I don't feel like I need it for communicating with Nimo, and it seems like a distraction that I don't need as I focus on learning a new position and way of communicating with Nimo.  But having it would have made me feel more confident about getting a solid canter transition.

As it happened, I shouldn't have worried.  Nimo picked up the canter the very first time I asked.  He didn't crow hop or buck or fishtail his hind end - all things he would have done in the past after having had lots of time off of cantering.  It wasn't the most beautiful canter ever and he could only hold it for a few strides, but it wasn't an unmitigated disaster either.  So I tried asking again and again and again.  And Nimo was amazing.  He picked up the canter at least 90% of the times I asked and got the correct lead too (another issue we'd been having a few months ago).

However, I discovered that the canter started feeling heavier instead of lighter the more we worked, so it occurred to me that instead of asking for canter from the trot, I could ask for it from the walk.  I was a bit apprehensive about how that would go, but again I shouldn't have worried.  It was clearly more effort for Nimo to canter from the walk, but he also gave me better quality transitions and movement.  In fact, I ended the ride when I got a walk to canter transition that felt pretty much perfect to me.  It was lovely to feel and certainly a higher quality transition than I have ever gotten on Nimo.

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to reproduce that perfect transition later in the week, but we did still work quite a bit on the canter transitions.  Nimo did feel a bit heavier on the forehand during the week, although I was still able to get some good work from him.  Looking back, I suspect I pushed a bit too much during the ride where I first started asking for canter, and he was probably a bit sore.

Luckily, whatever was causing the issue had cleared up by this past Saturday, in time for my monthly SOM lesson.  I was interested to talk to my instructor about the canter transitions and get her feedback on them, but the thing that I was most excited about was learning more about the Pignot jog.  You may remember that I mentioned in my last post that there is a concept in the SOM course that I suspect is a gold mine for endurance riders.  I wasn't sure when I would feel comfortable blogging about it, but it turns out that my comfort level increased faster than I expected.

You can read more about the Pignot jog in this article, but here is my basic understanding.  The Pignot jog is a trot in the horse's natural cadence.  Because it is the horse's natural cadence, it is theoretically sustainable for an indefinite period of time without undue stress to the horse (assuming at least some level of pre-existing fitness, I think).  Unlike much of the other SOM work, the Pignot jog is not done in collection.  Instead, it is a more forward movement (think somewhere between 6 and 9 mph, depending on the horse and his fitness level), although the horse is still in a balanced frame.  The neck is lengthened (not stretched) and carried more forward than in collection, but it is still elevated (not long and low).  The rider shortens her stirrups a bit (my instructor recommended 2 holes for me) and leans forward enough so that her hands can rest on her horse's withers.  And instead of posting or sitting, the rider goes into what I have always called a half seat.  It's similar to a two-point position, but you stay much closer to the saddle.  I think of it as floating over the horse while he trots, using my knees to absorb the motion of the trot.

The reason that I was excited to learn more about it is because by this point, I was pretty sure I understood the Pignot jog well enough to realize that it was really close to what I was doing with Nimo out on the endurance trail.  The only thing I wasn't sure about was how to determine natural cadence.  And I'm still not sure about that, but I think one determining factor is how long the horse can continue in that cadence without speeding up or slowing down.  So, essentially if you are constantly nagging the horse to go faster or slower, the horse is probably not in his natural cadence.

I did demonstrate our endurance trot in the arena for my instructor, although Nimo's trot in the arena is slower than it is out on the trail when he's motivated.  It was my instructor's opinion that the trot he showed in the arena (which I'm thinking was about 7 mph) looked like a natural cadence for him.  The only adjustment she had me make was to lean a bit more forward, so I could rest my hands on Nimo's withers (not something I normally do).  And that was it.  We had the Pignot jog!

It was my secret hope that we were already doing the Pignot jog, and to have confirmation was so motivating.  It means that I can continue that work in the arena and out on the trail without guilt and actually do legitimate conditioning work with Nimo.  I'm not sure I can convey how that makes me feel.  I am definitely committed to the SOM work, and I can already see positive results from it, but it is wonderful to be able to do something that feels more natural instead of constantly reminding myself about position nuances.

The reason I think the Pignot jog is such a great concept for endurance riding is because of the sustainability of it.  If you read the article I referenced above, you'll see this quote:
They concluded that, “there was a speed where the amount of oxygen used to move a given distance, (rate of oxygen consumption divided by speed,) reached a minimum value.” (Hayt and Richard Taylor, 1975) The two scientists concluded that the horse selected naturally a speed within each gait around the energetically optimal speed. Earlier on, Milton Hildebrand studied the phenomenon form the perspective of muscle fatigue. There is more energy in the cycling leg as a mechanical system when a horse walks fast than when it trots at the same speed.” (Hildebrand, 1987)
Essentially, there is a trot (as well as a walk and a canter) at which the horse operates most efficiently.  I think a lot of endurance riders and horses probably find this speed intuitively, and it is probably a huge component in their success.  But imagine if you could find this optimal cadence and your horse has additional education about how to balance and coordinate himself so that minor gait abnormalities don't develop and cause some kind of compensation that eventually can lead to lameness.  (Remember that balance and coordination under saddle is different than without a saddle and I have come to believe that the vast majority of horses won't intuitively know how to change their way of moving as a result of carrying a rider.)  It is my current speculation that most of the injuries seen in any discipline (including endurance) are the result of a long-term gait abnormality that caused a minor compensation in the way the horse moved.  That minor compensation then eventually created a clinically observable lameness, which resulted in a temporary or even permanent removal of the horse from competition or even riding.

Obviously there are injuries that can't be prevented because they occur due to a spook or a bad step or poor footing or some other plain old accident.  But if you can prevent performance-related injuries and find the optimal speed for your horse, how amazing would that be?  I can't think of any endurance rider that I know who has been doing endurance for more than a couple of years who hasn't had at least one horse out with an injury like a suspensory ligament tear or even an undetermined lameness issue that improves with rest.  So I can't help but wonder if those horses had a gait abnormality that contributed to the injury.

Anyway, this idea is something that will be on my mind for the indefinite future and I may write more about it as I learn more in the SOM course and as I work with Nimo.

Back to my lesson:  In case you are wondering, we worked on canter transitions too.  My instructor agreed that doing the walk to canter transition was best for Nimo right now because he is actually going to have more trouble doing the transitions correctly from the trot for awhile.  She also gave me some tips on my position and I discovered that instead of going through this whole process to get Nimo to canter, he actually has an easier time if I just ask for repeated transitions quickly.  For example, if I ask for a canter and either don't get it or the transition is poor, I should immediately bring him back to a walk and immediately ask for canter again.  I had been taking a lot of time to set him up in between failures and that was actually not helping him.  When I started asking for canter transitions quickly instead of overthinking them, they came much easier and more quickly.

The other thing you might be wondering about is that I had previously written that my instructor noticed a gait asymmetry during our last lesson.  Nimo was leaving his left hind on the ground a bit too long in the walk.  Our homework to address that issue was to do what SOM calls quarter pirouettes at the walk and conventional dressage would probably call quarter turns on the haunches.  The reason for the difference in terminology has to do with bend.  Conventional dressage uses the term turn on the haunches to designate the horse turning on its haunches with no bend in his body.  Pirouettes are similar except that the horse is bent in the direction of the turn.  SOM maintains that the bend may actually be harmful in some cases and uses the pirouette as a more general term that includes no bend, some bend (although not as much as you'd see in the dressage show ring), and even counter-bend/flexion, depending on what is most beneficial for the horse.

Regardless of the term, Nimo and I did lots and lots and lots of quarter pirouettes (and eventually even some 180 turns).  We did a quarter pirouette at every single blessed corner in the arena plus I made up patterns with diamond shapes and squares so that we could do even more of them.  We also did significantly more turns to the left than to the right because it was Nimo's left hind that was having the problem.  In SOM, the exercises are often very specific to a particular direction unlike more conventional dressage, which typically advocates for giving equal weight to both directions.  The thing to remember with SOM is that it is considered therapy for the horse, so I think about it like a situation where a particular limb has been out of commission for awhile and any physical therapy for rehabilitation will focus on that limb because the other limb is doing OK.  Because Nimo's left hind was the leg having trouble, the idea was to find a gymnastic exercise targeting that deficiency.

During our most recent lesson, my instructor said she didn't see a single case of Nimo's left hind dragging or moving abnormally.  I'm not naive enough to think that the problem is permanently resolved after such a short time, but it is rewarding to think that the work we did during the previous month really addressed the issue. 

The other thing my instructor had suggested we work on was zig zag half passes at the walk.  At the time, Nimo was literally incapable of doing a half pass.  He would try, but could not maintain his balance at the walk and move laterally in that way.  Over the course of the month, though, I was able to develop the half pass a bit, and Nimo can now do the half pass zig zag at the walk.

It's been so motivating to see Nimo's progress over the past few months.  We still have a long way to go, but I have hope that we will be doing amazing things in the not so distant future, and it's even possible that I have tentatively put an intro endurance ride on our ride calendar for March...