Monday, April 30, 2012

Lesson 23: Straight Through the Jump

We worked this week on getting Louie straight between my aids as we prepared to jump.  He was wanting to drift his haunches to the outside of the circle (I guess he has always done this, I just didn't really recognise it), so we had to work really hard on paying attention and keeping him straight on the circle. 

After a while we trotted up to a single jump (cavalleti on the highest position) without any trot poles before it.  Julie likes to think of a jump as a canter depart, so the goal would be to come out of the jump on the proper lead.  Well, as we were tracking to the left, Louie should have taken his left lead out of the jump. . . but not so. . . even with his feet placed exactly where Julie thought they should have been, he always managed to re-arrange them at the last minute to avoid taking his left lead.  Apparently our lead problem is reversed.  You may remember some posts quite a while back about how much Louie hated his right lead. . . well now that seems to be his one good side. . . I think that may be due to his left hind stifle, as we've been thinking about having it injected now that we're asking him to work harder and he has been chronically lame (very very slight) on that left hind for a few years.  We've had it evaluated, but haven't had it injected for about 3 years. 

We tried about 20 times to get the left lead out of the jump- with me putting my right leg back, left leg forward, and opening the left rein inward, having him almost in haunches in as we approached the jump, and even cantering up to the jump and he just wouldn't take the left lead out of the jump.  Well, we FINALLY got Louie to take his left lead out of a jump by managing to get him to approach a line of 6 caveletti followed by 2 bounces and go over with his left leg first.  By the way, we did that gymnastic about 3 times before he finally timed it right to get his proper leg going into the line. 

Louie did a good job and is a very willing and able jumper, just not so loving of his left lead right now.  I think he'll be plenty capable of showing in the Saddlebred shows in the Saddle & Bridle classes, as I don't think they care what lead you land the jump in. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Lesson 22: Jumping Lesson Two

Sorry this post is a bit delayed, but our second jumping lesson last week was good! 

We emphasized the need for a good walk warm-up, working on exercises to keep Louie between my aids. 

We had to ride in the indoor arena because it was pretty cold outside, so we couldn't work on as many bounces as last week, but got in some nice cavaletti lines followed by a single jump.  Louie did well with this and Julie thought he was actually not too bad over jumps, and uses his front legs really well. 

Nothing monumental in this lesson, but had a fun ride on Monday with my friend Jordan, who also rode Louie and I showed her the ropes of how to get Louie to relax into a nice dressage frame.  We had fun, Louie is a good boy!

Monday, April 16, 2012

Massage Lesson

We had a different type of lesson tonight (an extra, so I didn't include it in with the rest of the lessons for the purpose of this blog).  We had a group lesson about massage- with 3 other horses/owners, and we went around from horse to horse watching and feeling with our hands, elbows, shoulders, etc. to learn the sore spots and feel tight muscles and anatomy on each horse.  Julie has a lot of experience in massage, not only through personal certification and education programs in equine massage and chiropractic, but from years of practicing on her own and client horses.

Julie started with a little bit of her usual assessment- running the fingers forward down the spine from the SI joints to about the base of the withers (fingers about 6 inches apart so that they travel along the paraspinal muscles).  A horse showing a lot of tenderness with this first assessment may have a chiropractic abnormality and may require some adjusting.  We divided the horse into portions, with the most forward portion of the back indicating problems in the neck and the most posterior portion of the horse (from the loins on back) indicating the hind end.  She also pushed on the SI joints and on the C7 vertebrae at the base of the neck to look for soreness or maladjustment in those areas. 

After that, we moved along to muscle assessments, and basically just rubbed over the major muscle groups looking for signs of soreness, tightness, or "stringy" feeling muscle bands.  When we found something sore, we would rub that area, either with constant pressure, cross-fiber massage, or rubbing along the length of the muscle belly.  Julie noted that her preference is constant pressure over tight spots until they loosen, she has found this method to give her the most bang for her buck.  When working areas on the back, it is useful to stretch the back (do an ab lift exercise) right after massaging the area. 

We noted common areas of soreness in many of the horses:  around C7 and completely around the scapula (should be able to bury the fingers under the scapula all the way around it essentially), along the triceps area above the horse's elbow, along the paraspinals and loins, in the hind quarters, hamstrings, and between the hind legs.  Louie's most sore spots were in the back (big surprise there)- basically the entire area the saddle panels cover (which, it turns out, may not be the best area to work to release the tension- the soreness may be referred from somewhere down the muscle belly or the kinetic chain), and in the hamstrings.  This has some bearing on how we ride as well, as it is interesting to note that a horse who spends a lot of time without its hind end engaged, and legs trailing behind itself will typically have tighter hamstrings, just based on principles of kinesiology. 

We worked on our horses on each of these areas for almost an hour, then worked on some stretches.  We stretched the front legs- extended straight out and a little bit medially and laterally (Julie says laterally is where she tends to get nice adjustments), neck (pressing on each vertebrae and bending the neck around the hand in each direction), and "hulas" in which you push on the horse's rib cage to the side in points moving from front to back pulling the tail around so the horse's body bends laterally throughout the back.  We worked on treat stretches like the ones recommended in Hillary Clayton's book "Activate Your Horse's Core" (which I own and love)- reaching to each side and down between the legs.  One important note that Julie wants to see is when the horse reaches around for the treat, their ears should remain pretty level- they aren't doing the exercise correctly if they twist their heads and turn it sideways as they reach to the side. 

Of course Louie and I also added in a lot of abdominal exercises and back-lifting exercises, per the Hillary Clayton book, which are a great compliment to all of the rest of the body work we're trying to accomplish. 

It was an interesting lesson and I think I learned a lot, about how to assess and massage a horse, finding sore spots and working them out, and improving flexibility and joint mobility.  Hopefully doing some form of regular massage work with Louie will help us to improve not only his comfort level, but may even improve his soundness and movement. 

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Lesson 21: First Jumping Lesson

Well it may be obvious from the title of this week's lesson, but Louie and I had a blast in our first jumping lesson tonight!

We rode in the outdoor again and he started out a little tense and "looky" in one corner, but Julie had me shorten my reins, plant them on his neck (so I wasn't pulling on his mouth) and push him up into it.  We knew when he was ready to relax and stretch some when he started to get a little heavier in the bridle, and was actually letting me push him up into it.  After some warm-up of trotting some 3-loop serpentines, we worked on a few quick drills to get him nicely between the aids. 

We did a little bit of leg yielding at the trot, some nose-to-the-wall leg yielding and shoulder in, then did a little bit of 10-meter circle work.  We worked on our sitting trot on the 10-meter circle (which was much better because I worked on our sitting trot a lot over the past week), then worked on a few canter transitions, and cantering on the small circle.  Much to my surprise, Louie did awesome with this, and had several very nice, balanced canter departs, which usually deteriorated into a faster, less coordinated canter, but he still kept in the canter, and on the small circle (which was a huge improvement from 2 weeks ago when he was in the habit of quitting after 2 or 3 strides).  We had a little trouble getting our canter-trot transitions to be any good, but Julie thinks that's because he was doing such a difficult canter that it was too unbalanced to get a decent transition.  I still need to work on my "wiggly back" in the canter, riding it aggressively enough to keep him going, but not pushing him too much with my seat.  We did several sitting trot-canter-trot-walk transitions on the 10-meter circle going each direction, then started in on the cavaletti. 

We first trotted a long line of about 8 cavaletti in their lowest position- something we have done lots before, so this was no big challenge.  While doing this, we made a few position changes that are different than our dressage equitation.  For this, I got to lean forward (haha, I think I should probably just be a hunter rider with how much I like to lean forward), put my heels down, and we shortened my stirrups just one notch (I rode in my all purpose again).  Julie wanted me to keep my feet a little bit more forward, and post basically with my hips rising and falling only, but my head and chest staying level.  Julie explained that she typically teaches more of an eventing-type equitation because it's safer and more practical than equitation sought in the hunter ring.  Sounds like a plan- I'm all for safe!

After a few trips through the cavaletti, Julie rolled the last cavaletti in the line out and up to it's highest position (so there was about 6 feet between the last low cavaletti and the high one).  She wanted me to post the cavaletti, then think "sit, sit" when I got to the end of the line, then just follow him over the last one.  The first time through, Louie didn't really leap the last one, just kind of trot-cantered over it.  Julie wanted it to be more like a canter stride over the cavaletti, but didn't want me to cue him to canter, just help him to "think canter" when we got to the jump.  So to help him get into the feeling of "canter" over the jump, she rolled out another one out at it's highest position so that we went through the line of cavaletti, then had the 6 feet of nothing, then a high one, 6 more feet, and another high cavaletti, which created a bounce stride on those last two high cavaletti.

When I saw this bounce gymnastic configuration she had set up, I thought, "oh my, Louie can't handle that!  That's way too advanced for the likes of him!" but much to my surprise, we went through, trot, trot, trot, jump, jump!  Woohoo!  And I think Julie liked the canter steps/jumping that she got with that configuration so she added one more bounce to the drill, so we had 3 high cavaletti to go over, one right after the next with no stride between.  Louie did great with this, he didn't get flustered, he didn't refuse or try to run out too much, he just sailed right on through it.  I think I remember at one point, Julie saying that she wanted them to kind of muddle through it and struggle, as I'm sure that builds their skill and depth perception, stride judgement, and take-off, etc.  She also had to keep reminding me to pull my feet forward a little bit, as they have been wanting to sneak back to where I balance them for my flat work. 

We did the 3-cavaletti bounce a few more times and Louie got better and better each time through.  Julie thought we did a nice job, and didn't notice Louie being an ugly jumper (though admitted she was watching me much more than him- which I can't fault her for), but I'll take that as a good thing if my horse can do at least a good enough job to not overtly embarrass himself!  Here I have been worried that Louie will not have any skill at jumping, but he could prove me wrong yet.  I could feel him kind of reaching for the last jump on the 3 cavaletti bounces, so I think if we had had 4 in a row, things might have gotten ugly, but as it was, he did great, and this is a fantastic start to building up our jumping ability, not to mention muscle in the hind end and back, flexibility and good brain food.  What fun!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Lesson 20: Conquering the Hard Hearted Horse

Louie was really wound up and naughty at my lesson this week.  I'm really not sure what got into him, but as I headed down to the outdoor arena (our first lesson in the outdoor, though we had ridden in it several times previously) I had planned on having about 20 minutes to warm up before I was set to begin.  I planned this as a little chance to "get the edge off" as both Louie and I were a little amped up that day. 

Well we got down there and Julie had finished early, so she started right in with my lesson.  Drat!  As she taught us the math of the outdoor arena and where each 20 meter circle should be, Louie walked along at what I felt was a gait that was ready to explode.  Eventually we trotted and instead of relaxing, Louie did a little short stride, back tight, head up, teeth grinding trot.  Ugh.  I knew I needed that warm up time!  Well we worked through it.  Louie was all over the place and had way more energy than he knew what to do with. 

Eventually he settled in a little bit and we worked on some shoulder in, leg yielding, and other lateral work, which Louie did quite well.  We worked a bit on extension as well, and we hit one diagonal with an awesome extension!  I think Louie is starting to pick up on what I'm looking for.  Our good extension came when we trotted across the far end of the arena fairly quickly, then Julie had us take the diagonal and try to slow down, yet cover ground.  That seemed to be a winning combination thought process. 

We later worked on the canter, which was not a pretty sight. . . As we cantered 3 strides on the left lead and broke, several times in a row, I kept failing in keeping him going, Julie kept telling me that all I need to do is lay the whip on him, so next time I did, and BAM!  Louie leaped through the air in what felt like a massive buck (but apparently was only a really big kick at the whip) and completely unseated me.  I lost my right stirrup, was sitting way off to the right of the saddle, Louie still cantering forward and to the left.  I tried to steer him into the rail to stop him, but he got to the rail and started going sideways so I further lost my balance, and my left stirrup.  I thought for sure I was going to come off, but thankfully I somehow stayed on, and once seated back in the center of the saddle with both feet in the stirrup, we had a little discussion about what the whip is and the fact that I can put it on him and he does NOT get to kick at it. . . . I think we've had this discussion numerous times, but it never seems to sink in.  So afterward, Julie was correcting my leg postition a little bit (my toes were sticking out like they sometimes have the tendency to do) and she said, "stab your toes into his hard heart!"  I thought that was a pretty good way to think about it. 

Well we proceeded with the lesson and didn't really get anything accomplished since he was now more wound up than before.  Julie pointed out that it was likely I would have to ride him like this at a show sometime in the future, so I best get prepared for it!  To work through it, I just continued to apply half halts and try to bend and stretch Louie around my inside leg.  We got through the lesson, but if it hadn't been a lesson, I would have galloped that horse around for a good 20 minutes then come back to what we were trying to do.  Though I don't think Julie believes me, Louie really needs a good long warm-up and for him, working him for a long time (running or trotting, spirals, etc) really does seem to help him get into a good state of mind if we have issues.  After all, that is kind of what we did at the show. . .

Since that awful ride, I'm happy to report that we've had two rides, one of which was quite nice- yesterday, in the indoor arena, with the sprinkler going.  Surprisingly enough, Louie did great with that, and we had a nice ride, he was very responsive to my aids, but not overly sensitive. 

I asked Julie if we could jump this week at my lesson, so I think I might show up in a jumping saddle for my next lesson.  I think Louie could use the change of pace- something different to do for a while.  We'll still work a lot of the same principles as we use in our flat work, but since we're not going to the Otter Creek spring show (we decided we're not quite ready for a rated show in less than one month's time), but I think the jumping will add an extra element of fun or challenge for Louie, that will help break up some of the repetitive dressage work for him. 

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Dressage Schooling Show

Well the schooling show was pretty fun.  Our scores were indeed lower than last year and we had a couple of little bobbles that hurt us, but overall we did pretty well and ended up training level champions (yay!  we got a gift certificate to St. Croix Saddlery for that!) even despite our less than awesome performance.

The derby went fairly well.  Louie was not probably warmed up enough prior to this class to really do well (though, honestly it's supposed to be a warm-up, so I shouldn't really be too concerned with that).  He was having a hard time relaxing and stretching down, and was overly sensitive to my aids and wouldn't stay between my aids very well, but we got through alright and won the class with a 65.8%. 

I wasn't very happy with Louie's poorly relaxed version of the derby, so we worked on a lot of walking sideways before this next test.  Though I'm not that certain it helped, he was pretty inconsistent with his neck position in all of the classes and he about died in the left lead canter.  Other than getting a 3 on the left lead canter here because we broke twice, it wasn't as awful as it felt.  We actually got a 6 on our stretchy circle and our free walk, and 7's on our halts, for a total of 56.9%.

Well you can imagine I wasn't thrilled with that ride, so we went down to the outdoor arena to blow off some steam after that ride.  We worked on that left lead canter and we made several canter circles then went to practice a canter through the diagonal and Louie actually did a flying lead change on me!  Wow, that was cool!  Totally accidental, but fun!  Well, we worked the edge off a bit, took several trips over the cavaletti that were set up down there, and spent some time getting over the scary big white plastic dressage letters set up in the outdoor ring.  By the time I went up for my next test, I had a  much more manageable horse, and ended up with a 60.7% on test 2.  Of note, we got 8's on our halts in this test.

I got off to rest after the second test, and got on just before my final test.  After just a little bit of warm-up we rode test 3, which happens to be my favorite of the training level tests (I think because I like the difficulty of the loops and the canter-trot transition through the diagonal).  While we had no stretch in this third test, the rest of it was pretty decent, and we ended up with a 61.0%. 

Well, overall, it was a decent show, and I think it shed some light on thing we need to work on over the next few weeks/months.  We need to work on the stretch (constantly) and especially getting the stretchy trot when I ask for it.  We need to work on our canter, especially the left lead.  And we need to work on our straightness and getting him moving off of my aids quickly, but not being overly sensitive. 

I got a little down on myself and my horse over the past couple of days because we didn't do as well in the show as I had hoped, but a couple of friends have reminded me that I'm being a bit too hard on us and that these tests weren't as bad as they felt.  I guess I was just a little bummed because we seemed to have such a nice clinic ride that I had higher expectations for the show. 

Well one thing that I think we've learned I need to do before my next show is to ride a lot, and warm up a ton before my first class.  As training level is all about being relaxed and submissive, I think getting the edge off a bit more before my class would be better.  I didn't even need to use my whip at all in the show, but it might be nice to have a bit of a tired horse who needs to be pushed along somewhat for training level. 

We're trying to decide if we're ready to go to a rated show at the beginning of next month.  At this point I'm not sure I want to shell out a lot of money to go and do poorly and put up sub-60% scores, so on Thursday at my lesson we're going to try to decide whether it would be worth our while to go, or if we'd be better off saving up for a different show later on this summer when we'll have more time to prepare. I guess we'll see!