Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The Plan

The progress that Nimo and I have made to-date on our endurance journey has sort of looked like this so far:
I suspect some kind of non-linear progress is common for most people in most disciplines just because horses don't always improve linearly and neither do people.  Plus, endurance doesn't sound that complicated on the surface, but when it comes to bringing hauling skills, camping skills, riding skills, conditioning skills, nutrition skills, and health skills all together and having the time and money needed, things do start to take time to get right.

In Nimo's and my case, we've also added that Nimo isn't really an ideal endurance mount and my own health issues combined with being a parent and working.  Sometimes I'm surprised we've made any progress at all, to be honest.  But I guess sheer persistence pays off at least some of the time:)

One thing that I've been procrastinating about is truly incorporating the work we've been doing using the Science of Motion philosophy/methodology into our conditioning rides (I mean, how do you do collected trot up the mountain?!).  I was procrastinating for two reasons.  First, I didn't know anyone to ride with who would tolerate the experimentation that I would need to engage in (or even better, do it with me!).  Second, I don't actually have any idea how to use SOM for conditioning for endurance.  As far as I know, no students in the course have done it successfully.  I know at least one lady tried and she did complete a 40 km ride, but she said it was awful to try to hold herself and her horse together and it didn't sound like she had plans to repeat it.

When I asked about it on the forum for the class, I got a lot of...let's say...not super positive feedback.  That is probably because everyone views endurance as FEI-level endurance racing.  They basically thought I was not doing right by my horse to even consider doing something like that with him.  (I could curse the FEI and the international endurance community for not only creating the travesty that is that sport but also for creating a terrible stigma around anything distance riding-related.  I could devote more than one post to my thoughts about the damage that has been done by not only the FEI, but by all the other "affiliate" organizations.  Other horse people know about endurance racing and the horror that it has become and if you say you do endurance riding, you can expect to face the tar-and-feather squad.)

So I never mentioned it again and instead of attacking the problem, I let it languish, hoping that Nimo would somehow figure it out on his own.  To give him credit, he has definitely had some good moments out on the trail, but overall, he was still moving the way he always had.  Which is the very thing I was trying to get away from.

For those of you joining me in my journey more recently or who have maybe forgotten because my initial posts about SOM were some time ago, here is why I turned to SOM.  With each dressage instructor that I worked with, I always got to a point where we couldn't progress.  In fact, we would start regressing.  Most recently, Nimo really started having trouble with his canter.  It was out-of-balance and rushed when he could pick it up (which became less and less often) and it was a real struggle.  Canter has always been hard for him, but I saw all our work fading away and my instructor's refusal to acknowledge it.  She kept having me push Nimo faster and faster into the canter until he was racing around the arena.  I actually tried to integrate some of the beginning concepts of SOM work into our lessons (for example, working on always keeping the withers vertical and slowing down the movement to help Nimo with his balance), which caused a bit of an argument between us and I decided to walk away.

Luckily, there was a fellow student in the course who is also an instructor in my area.  SOM doesn't certify any instructors at this point, but there are a few located around the country who were already instructors and shifted their teaching to include SOM principles.  If you can find one, you are in luck, in my opinion.  (Not that other instructors can't be good as well, but if they show, it is likely they will send you down a bad path for your horse due to the way movements are judged.)  I was really hoping that the principles of SOM, which are based on current scientific research about the way a horse actually moves (not perceptions from 100+ years ago that have been horribly mutated to serve the show ring) would help us overcome the inevitable problems that would come up with other instructors.

It helps that I no longer want to compete in dressage shows, or basically in any other competitions other than endurance (although I'd like to try a hunter show just once for the shock value of brining a Friesian in the ring...), so I don't have to worry that I'll be giving up blue ribbons.  But I've become convinced that there are too many things about dressage shows, in particular, that are really bad for the longevity of horses, especially as they become more advanced.  I mean, ask yourself how many dressage horses you know that are still competing at even 3rd or 4th level in their early 20's?  Most are done by the time they are 12, maybe 15, and they've got at least one and usually multiple physical issues that have to be managed for the rest of that horse's life.  That is the direct result of the "training pyramid" and other nonsense like supremely extended gaits because training a horse that way trashes their bodies.

Despite their willingness (most of the time, anyway) and the fact that they have a back that is the perfect place to put a saddle, horses never evolved to be ridden.  So if we are going to ride them, particularly in athletically demanding ways, we have to condition them specifically to be ridden in addition to being able to engage in the physical effort of the discipline.  If you watch videos of dressage competitions from even just 20 years ago and compare them with today, you can start to see how exaggerated the movements like half-pass and extended trot have become.  If you look at movements from earlier than 20 years ago, you'll see an even greater difference.  Some people have argued that horses now are simply better bred than they were even 20-30 years ago so that's why they can perform in such a sensationalist way.  But if they are really better bred (something I honestly don't know enough about to comment on) and the movements really aren't that bad for them (and the training methods like the dreaded rollkur) and even improved them like dressage is supposed to, why are these horses breaking down?

Anyway, I have no expectation of ever competing at the Grand Prix level.  I just want to help my horse become better at his job, which is supposed to be distance riding.  And as I mentioned in a post earlier this month, I finally got the courage to ask my instructor about how we could do that.  Her response was, "I don't think you can do endurance riding and SOM."  I knew that is what she would say, which is why I didn't want to ask it.  And here is why I think she said that.  Her vision of endurance riding is FEI-level endurance racing.  She envisions horses racing at speed with hollow backs and uneducated riders, and there is no room for that kind of activity within the SOM framework.  I tried to explain that there are horses and riders who don't move like that.  I mean, you don't get a Decade Team unless you have a lot of things working out well.  And let's not forget about Clair Godwin's Tevis finish this year on her 26- (or was it 27-) year old Merc.  I watched that horse canter in to the finish line and he didn't look broken to me.  My instructor might not have been super happy with his movement, but it was a hell of lot better than some of the sh*t I see in dressage rings, even at high levels.

The problem is that when people can't acknowledge a path to the end, it is hard to get them to try.  But as you may know, I truly enjoy like to torture myself attempting things that other people think are impossible.  So here is my plan:

Step 1:  I'm not going to tell my instructor that I am planning on someday doing another endurance ride.  In fact, it's possible that I've led her to believe that I've given it up (which may end up being true depending on how my plan goes...).  I don't want her worried that I'm secretly racing Nimo down the trails because we've never done that I have no expectation of doing that.  I want her to help me condition Nimo just like any other horse.

Step 2: I bought a new saddle.  I'll post a little bit more about this part of the plan hopefully later this month.

Step 3: I'm feeding Nimo a whole bunch of food.  Again more about that later this month.

Step 4: I'm reworking my conditioning with Nimo.  This is the hardest part of the plan, and with the crazy wet weather we've been having for the past few months, it has been the hardest part to execute, but I've had some positive experiences and I'll share those with you too.

For the longest time, I couldn't figure out how to come up with this plan.  With no one to follow, I didn't know where to start.  But I finally realized the principles are the same as what I've always done.  I work to keep Nimo healthy with good turnout, good food, and good medical care if he needs it.  I ride him as much as I can in as many different situations as I can.  I try to increase his ability to go down the trail in terms of time and pace until I can get to a point where doing about half of our expected competition distance is a fairly standard ride and 5-6 mph is a sustainable pace.

The tricky bit is how we go down the trail.  I'll write more about the details in an upcoming post, but I kid you not, we are either going to get it or die trying (like die of old age, not a horrible accident).

Essentially Nimo and I are starting over from a conditioning standpoint.  That idea of starting over was hard for me to stomach until this past summer.  When finally I was ready.  Because I understood I am not giving up what we've done so far.  All those miles and all those rides were not for nothing.  We have learned so much.  We are pros at camping.  I can haul my truck and trailer through just about anything and park it just about anywhere.  I know the trails of some of the competitions pretty well which will help me condition better and smarter.  I know the trails of all the major conditioning places so well which helps when I try to figure out where we should go to test something out.  I've met so many awesome people and I know if I need help, I can ask for it and get it.

And so, now you know the plan...


  1. I encourage you to speak with a veterinarian about Nemo's backsliding in training, particularly in regards to his increasing reluctance to canter. My experience has taught me that horses (like many people) sustain injuries that aren't obvious but DO have long-term impacts. Sometimes it's as simple as slipping in mud and knocking some bones out of place, which a qualified equine chiropractor can definitely fix. Acupuncture is also helpful.

    Many (dare I say most?) times, it's the feet. Your horse is BIG (my horse is merely Quite Large by comparison!) and thus it's especially important to tend those feet meticulously. By that, I mean ask a VET, not a farrier or the barefoot community on Facebook or...well, you know. Get somebody who has a medical degree and is accustomed to looking at the entire animal to see if there is something (or more than one thing) that can be adjusted to help you move forward.

    And please, keep me posted!

    1. Hi Aarene! Thanks so much for your concern about Nimo! Definitely a vet would have been a good idea if Nimo normally had a good canter and it became harder for him. In reality, one very frustrating thing about working with him is that his canter has always been problematic, even before he was under saddle. Friesians that are bred like Nimo to be flashy carriage horses are bred almost solely to trot. Cantering is very hard for them (something I wish I'd know before I bought a Friesian to ride!). There are Friesians bred more for riding now, but Nimo is definitely a carriage horse type. I have had him seen by a highly qualified chiropractor several times during his life and no issues were ever uncovered. And there have been no injuries that I'm aware of. Because I've owned since he was a yearling, I can probably rule out an old injury flaring up. And you are certainly right that bad trimming can cause problems. I have had Nimo's feet evaluated by a farrier that I trust fairly recently, but I suppose x-rays could add some new information. Honestly, though, vets here are not that great at diagnosing hoof trimming problems. And because Nimo has struggled through his canter work with several different excellent farriers, I am doubtful that is the cause in this case.

      I really do believe that it was the way I was riding him. The constant rushing and pushing and quickness was so hard for him. He is much better balanced now and slowly headed in the right direction. I hope to post about some of that canter work in the future because there have been a couple of really cool things happen:)