conditioning · longeing

Riding Update: Conditioning & Longeing

What about my actual horse, you might ask?

Well. Not much exciting.

I’m riding, which is in and of itself exciting after the winter/spring we had. So there’s that.

We’ve done about two weeks of a conditioning program. I am an expert at rehabbing this horse now. I spent some time really thinking hard about how to push him, looked for some new tools (reviews coming soon) and we’ve been diligently pursuing trot sets and planned days off since. I’m working him 4-5 days a week, huzzah for that.

Sunday, I came off. It’s been four days now and I keep getting new and exciting aftereffects: mostly throughout my back, which seems to have re-aggravated an old riding injury. It’s not dire, but it means I’ve been moving more slowly and making my fiance bring up all the boxes from the basement to unpack.

Since then, I haven’t felt up to hijinks, so I’ve been longeing in his chambon. I love that thing. With the understanding that it does really make him use his muscles, I’m longeing for ~35 minutes, then giving him a day off. Probably I will get back in the saddle on Sunday.

Summer means bath season again. Baths are the WORST.

The good news is after 40 minutes of longeing on Tuesday, which included canter in which he had to put his damn head down, he was only slightly warm to the touch at the end. It was a muggy, humid day in the 70s, so the fact that he was a) not blowing and b) not warm made me feel good. He was clearly a little muscle-tired, and drank half his bucket when he got back to his stall, but more of a good workout tired rather than an out of shape exhausted.

He’s also in good weight and I like where his topline is headed. I just have to stick to my guns and keep pushing him instead of getting nervous and backing off.


The Beautiful Monotony of Conditioning Sets

I’ve been focusing a lot lately on conditioning work for Tristan. Now that winter is settling in (2″ of snow overnight, heeere we go!) and the time change means that I always get to the barn in pitch black, it’s endless indoor circles for us.

Lately our schedule has looked a little bit like this:

15 minutes walk
5 minutes trot
5 minutes walk
5 minutes trot
5 minutes walk
2 minutes canter
10 minutes walk

Yeah. Kind of boring. But also very zen. I watch the arena clock. I focus entirely and exclusively on how he’s moving, whether he’s forward enough. He goes almost entirely on the buckle, and I make sure he’s really stretching his nose down and out.

The good news: he’s definitely getting stronger and more willing. His muscle tone continues to improve.

The bad news? Wow, is he out of shape. I feel like a terrible horse owner both for admitting that and for admitting that I don’t actually know how it happened. I know I’d been slacking off in the rides, and I know he doesn’t keep condition as well as he used to…but his respiration stayed up for almost that entire 10 minute walk after the canter. Ugh.

I’m trying not to read too much into this, but – could he have some respiration problems going on? He was close to 50 breaths per minute; not inverted and puffing hard, but not good either. He came down slowly, and didn’t go back to normal until he was standing for me to pick his feet out as we were ready to leave the ring. It was a hail mary on my part to see if standing still for a few minutes would help; I was totally ready to keep walking. Is it possible that he just needed to stand still?

The clipping did seem to help, though: he had more energy and was much less warm than he would’ve been, though some of that was due to the 30 degree temperature difference; it was 36 when I got on and 30 when I left the barn. Brrrrrr.

conditioning · winter

Long, Slow; Long & Low

After a black hole in the middle of last week due to work and life commitments, I got (literally) back on the horse over the weekend for some more work.

Mostly we did some basic, easy conditioning style rides. Long marching walk warmups with trot intervals, focusing on keeping him loose and stretching through his neck and over his back. 5 minutes of trot, 5 minutes of walk. Repeat. Working on my own equitation: stay loose and soft and deep in my leg, not the jerky bouncing about of my ankles that I fall into so easily.

It’s been cold here: highs in the 30s, lows in the 20s overnight. We’re on the slow downward spiral to winter. More snow at the barn over the weekend, but none of it stuck for long. Fiance went skiing yesterday, so he’s happy as a clam. Me, I mostly want to drink endless pots of tea while under a blanket. Tristan is wearing his midweight most of the time now and happy as a clam.

I’ve been using a slightly different quarter sheet, and I really like it so far. It’s all wool, and the kind that goes underneath the saddle as well. So there’s wool + saddle pad + sheepskin half pad under the saddle. When I take the saddle off, his back is definitely quite warm. He’s been more willing to stretch out, and earlier. I feel like I’m finally understanding what people mean when they talk about cold-backed and warming the back up.

It’s not that I didn’t understand the need for a warmup: I am obsessive about long walk warmups. But the actual physicality of a warm-to-the-touch back is something new for me. Until now, I would definitely not have characterized Tristan as cold-backed, but I may need to revisit that slightly.

Today: massage and more conditioning, tomorrow possibly some longeing, Wednesday off.

conditioning · falling off · stupid human tricks

Opposite Day, or That Time My Lazy Pony Bucked Me Off

I honestly can’t remember the last time I came off my horse, you guys. It’s been at least two, maybe three years. Moral of the story: I was due.

I headed out later in the evening, after trading off the puppy and cleaning around the house, tacked up in his jump saddle and figure-8 bridle, and set in for some conditioning & hills work.

Conditioning has proven ever so slightly tricky because on the farm I have too much of a good thing: hills! We’re going up or down as soon as we set foot out the front door. It’s actually harder to find good long straightaways for road hacking. I can’t modify the difficulty level, really.

Last night I tried out a bit of a system that I’d been pondering in my head: namely, circling all the upper paddocks at various gaits. So we started walking around the entire area, about a mile and a half. Then we trotted up the hayfield hill, then walked back down and around the furthest paddocks.

We repeated that for two trot sets, one canter set, and another trot set. The first trot set was ugly; the second perked up halfway through; then after that it was smooth sailing: he was stretching into contact, pushing from behind, and not quitting at the top of the hill.

Red outline is the first walk set we did, purple is the hayfield hill, about a half mile steady rise. The entire red outline is some kind of hill – the trailers near the upper right part of this image are the highest elevation point in this image.

For the last set, we trotted up the bottom part of the rectangle, then turned and had an easy canter for about 1/3 of the way up. Then I bridged my reins and asked for some speed.

BOOM. He launched himself for about three strides in glee, then chucked his head down and let fly with two or three decent bucks. I was caught totally by surprise, and on the third buck found myself on his neck.

They weren’t running bucks, more like he had bolted, landed, thrown his head down, and bucked mostly in place. I had a split second’s realization that I was going down, and yelled “YOU LITTLE SHIT” at the top of my lungs. I landed on my side and my hip and rolled to my butt, still holding on to the reins, glaring up at him.

He looked so pleased and confused that I couldn’t stop laughing. I stood up, made sure he was steady, and got back on, and within a stride or two asked him for the gallop again.

YAHOOOOO for two or three strides, but this time I was ready and yanked his head back up and KICKED, and then he settled right in to a nice big power gallop the rest of the way up, with firm contact and a fistful of mane on my part. I had to stand up in the stirrups a bit to slow him down when we got to the top of the hill.

He was clearly sweaty and tired and very pleased with himself. I laughed the whole way back to the barn, and then turned him out into a gravel paddock to hang out and finish cooling off, bringing a bucket and sponge out instead of using the wash stall.

Best part: other than my hips & thighs from the two-point work I did, I am not the slightest bit sore from the fall. Whew!

He’ll get tonight off, then a dressage school Thursday, then road hack on Friday.

conditioning · stupid human tricks

Pushing Too Hard

One of the most popular posts I’ve ever written on this blog was called “When to push, and when to back off.” It’s something I struggle with still.

Saturday night, I pushed too hard. It started out really, really well: he warmed up well, and was responding nicely. We were moving forward, through the walk and into the trot to work. My intention was something of a conditioning ride: not really hard dressage work, but more like trot sets.

So we had a long walk warmup, and then we trotted on a loose rein for a bit, and then I picked up the reins. I didn’t do anything but work on my own hand position and just basically take hold of the reins. I got a feel of the bit but didn’t specifically ask for anything with it. I worked on keeping him straight through his whole body, paying careful attention to his haunches. As he got more forward and loose, he started to reach forward into the bridle himself. Historically, he has to be coaxed and teased into reaching for the bit at all, so behaving like a normal horse – ie, get him straight and forward and he will go into the bridle – is awesome.

We took a walk break, and then picked back up with a few minutes of trotting and then 2.5 minutes of cantering. Doesn’t sound like much, does it? But a couple of factors made it a poor decision on my part. First, it was significantly warmer than it has been: in the mid-30s rather than low teens. Second, he was already gunning more forward than he typically is, and his canter reflected that. Third, I had started him on his right lead canter, which is his stronger lead.

He was puffing a bit after the canter, but recovered in a few minutes, and then I compounded my poor decision. I thought since we had worked his right lead, we had to work his left, which is where he really needs more work. So we repeated the exercise to the left: 2.5 minutes of trot, 2.5 minutes of canter. At 2 minutes into the canter he started blowing hard with every stride, so I pulled him up.

And then we walked. And walked. And walked. He was panting in a way I’ve never heard him do before – short, quick gulps. After 3 minutes of walking, I stopped him and pulled his saddle, then got on him bareback. After 3 minutes of that, I slid off him and walked. He slowly, slowly, slowly took longer and deeper breaths, and at about the 8 minute mark it started to resolve into a normal breathing pattern.

He was never in any other obvious kind of distress: pulse was fast but ok, he was moving easily (not even overly tired-appearing), he wasn’t sweating more than a hint of dampness, and he was alert and nosed me for treats when I paused him occasionally. When he was breathing mostly normally again – a bit elevated but nothing that set off alarm bells for me – I brought him back to his stall and he took a small drink of water and happily dug into his hay, then begged for his grain (which had been pulled before we started riding).

I felt like something you’d scrape off a boot. I paced, and paced, and put away all his tack and checked him every time I walked past his stall, and then I found a half-dozen odd organizing jobs around the barn and kept checking on him, and then I sat in my car for 30 minutes and Googled “horse panting after exercise” on my phone and texted Hannah for reassurance. Finally, well over an hour after I had put him back in his stall, he was still looking totally fine, I went home. I fretted the rest of the night, and woke up the next morning at 6:30 and watched the clock in agony until I knew that the morning feed person would have laid eyes on him and called me if there was anything wrong.

Sunday, he was fine; he even got his massage. J. said he was clearly fatigued but not sore anywhere, and that he’d actually begun building back muscle tone. He needs more weight again, and he still needs a lot more muscle, but the overall quality of what he is adding is good and there’s clearly just a bit more along his back.

So, lesson learned. I still feel wretched, and I can still hear perfectly his quick huffs of breath, but he’ll be ok. And I’ll be much more careful in his conditioning rides going forward. He’s showing me he’s older in all these small ways, and I need to pay more careful attention.

conditioning · massage · topline

Topline Exercises

Every time I handle Tristan – whether it’s just a grooming day, a longeing day, a hack day, or a riding day – I’m doing a series of exercises with him to work on his topline. They’re like strength or core building exercises that isolate the right muscle groups. I’ve been really, really pleased with the immediate visual way I can see his muscles engaging with both of these.

The first is a belly lift.

Placing one knuckled hand – or stiff fingers – on either side of the tail, at the point of the croup, about 1″ to either side of where the tail begins. Draw a straight line down, with moderate to heavy pressure, to just under the point of the buttock, or about halfway down the gaskin. Watch your horse’s withers and back while you’re doing this; every horse will have a slightly different trigger point. As you trace down, his back will lift. When you reach the gaskin, it will be about as high as it can get.

I started doing 5 of these, and now I do 15 every time. I hold the lift in the back for a good solid 2-3 seconds. You can also adjust to focus on one side or the other depending on how your horse is standing, or where he’s turning his head. A head turned to the left will give extra lift to the left side of the withers; the opposite to the right. Ideally, they should be square for most of them but it’s fine to turn their head for some of the exercises if you’re trying to even out an imbalance.

This isn’t just a back exercise, either; though you can’t see it from the back, the back lift is at least partly because this technique causes the horse to tighten his abdominal muscles. It simulates crunches in humans. So it does double-duty, lifting the back and tightening the stomach.

The second exercise is a sternum lift.

Reaching underneath your horse’s chest, find the sternum with your fingers. It’ll be about midway, and when you push up through muscle/fat (and in my case, winter fuzz) you should feel a clear thin line of bone. Using stiff fingers, dig into that bone, perhaps wiggling your fingers a bit, and keep your eye on your horse’s back: it will not rise as obviously as with the belly lift, but it will gradually fill in and have more of a “finished” look than with the first exercise.

I do these for 10 seconds on, 10 seconds off, working up from 3 the first time to 5 now. This one targets different muscles (though there is some overlap) and activates them in a different way. In a way, this one teaches them to hold the lift themselves: watch closely, and you’ll see how long they hold after you remove your hand.

We’ll have to wait for updated topline photos in another few weeks to see if these are helping along with the rest of the work we’re doing, but judging by the evidence of my eyes, and the way the muscles are being used in these exercises, I’m very pleased with them.

conditioning · longeing · topline

Tristan’s new least favorite torture device

I mentioned once before that I have a new technique for making Tristan work harder. I’m really pleased with the way it turned out, actually: it does exactly what I hoped it would, and it will be a great tool for those winter days where it’s too flipping cold to work for a full hour.

When I was first putting it together, the barn manager walked by and I explained it to her and she exclaimed “It’s like a redneck Pessoa system!” Well, sort of. It has more in common with a TTouch bandage wrap. I like to think it combines the best of both. In essentials: it’s a resistance band that loops around his hind quarters and attaches to a surcingle, making him work twice as hard with every step, strengthening his hind end, stifles, and lower back.

I can’t necessarily take credit for this. I read that someone on the COTH forums had tried it and loved the idea immediately, found it was quick, easy, and inexpensive to put together, and worked exactly as advertised. Ready?

Step 1: Two carabiners, purchased at the hardware store downtown. My hand will show you their approximate size. They’re not large, nor are they mountain-ready, but they did the trick nicely. $1.49 each.
Step 2: 8 feet of surgical tubing, purchased at a local medical supply store. (And if I have a local medical supply store in freaking Vermont, you have one nearby you too.) There were two widths; I went with this one, which is about 1/2″ in diameter. $14.00.
Step 3: Tie the surgical tubing to the end of the carabiner. Get a nice, tight knot. Pull the surgical tubing around the hind end, under the tail, tucked in that groove just above the hocks, and around to the other side. It helps if you have it attached to a surcingle or girth already for this step. I pulled until it was fairly snug, and it took a bit of muscle to pull it back, but it wasn’t so tight that it was hard to pull. More like, I could just feel resistance. I tied it off on a carabiner attached to the other side, and had about 1 foot of tubing left. (So I’d recommend closer to 10 feet for a larger horse; Tris is right on the line between cob and horse sized for many tack fitting things.)
Step 4: Torture your pony. When I longe him in this, he oversteps 2-3X more than he does without it. He also gets tired much faster, so I limit the use of this to 10 minutes, max, and only 5 of that in the trot. 
I am still feeling out when I think it is most useful; I tend to use either this OR the chambon, because I don’t think it’s fair to isolate two muscle groups at once right now. If he were more muscled up, or in better shape, sure, I’d double up. I wouldn’t use either until he’s warmed up, but that’s my own personal neurosis.
I’ve used it both in longeing and under saddle and I almost like it better under saddle, because I can direct that hind end push more effectively. He is a more forward horse on the longe line, and that’s when I tend to use the chambon to help him reach and develop back muscles without interference from the saddle.

conditioning · not-so-quiet-freakout

Conditioning Miles

So here’s sad: I’ve spent about the last day and a half wondering why my calves are a bit sore.

Then I remembered that I spent about an hour in the half in the saddle on Saturday. Oh yeah…

Really good ride overall. Nothing fancy. Friday night we went for a long hack, and Saturday we did conditioning sets. Schedule went something like this:

20 minutes walk
10 minutes trot
5 minutes walk
10 minutes trot
5 minutes walk
10 minutes trot
5 minutes walk
3 minutes canter
5 minutes walk
3 minutes canter
cool out w/ trail walk

I was pleased with both his willingness and his fitness. I’m enjoying that point about midway through the second trot set when he clicks in and settles down to business and starts to tick right along. By the time we picked up our third trot set he was really enjoying himself, stretching into the reins and giving a nice big strided gait.

This week, we prep for our first overnight show, at Hitching Post Farm in Vermont. I’m getting a bit nervous. We’re entered at Grasshopper (tiny baby jumps) so the show itself shouldn’t be particularly stressful, but I am not a good traveler with horses. I worry, constantly, even more so when it’s my own horse. I worry about packing, and about hauling, and about settling in, and on and on. I’m working on packing lists and timetables and have emailed everyone to confirm everything, but I won’t be settled until Tris is home in his own stall on Saturday night.

If all goes well, we’re due to move up to a schooling show at Beginner Novice in late June, after a few cross-country schools and dressage tests.

conditioning · lesson notes

Lesson Notes: Outside Rein

It’s been a frustrating couple of weeks. I’ve been extremely busy and stressed in the rest of my life, and some of that has bled through to my riding. My last two lessons weren’t great; one was outright awful. Tris is having what T.  has characterized as a “rebellious phase.” We’ve fallen off the edge of the plateau and are slowly climbing up again.

Last night’s lesson was better, though. Tris had his teeth done, and I think that helped him feel a bit softer and looser in the mouth, because he was more willing to work with me than he has been. We even got to some fairly nice work by the end of it, and are slowly touching on good stuff in the canter.

My next step is to really solidify my outside rein. Tris gets so stuck either overbent or stiff as a board that I have trouble feeling that sweet spot, that just-enough-bend moment when I can drive him through to the outside rein. I tend to overcompensate on the inside and focus on that instead of really balancing from outside aids. T.’s new mantra for me is “your inside aids are doing enough.” I’m also working hard to half-halt through my hips instead of using my elbows, which is bearing fruit in the canter.

After a really, really rough patch with the right lead canter we are slowly getting that back. Tris learned a bit of an evasion in flinging his neck and shoulders around, picking up the wrong lead, and then dropping into trot; we’re getting the right lead more consistently now, and I have more ways to fix that problem.

I spoke with T. about a conditioning schedule as well. There has been some back and forth on the COTH forums about conditioning, and I described the two camps to T. and asked for his opinion. My gut, as I explained to him, is that Tristan is not currently fit enough to come off a BN cross-country course in the kind of condition I’d want, so I’ve been doing a schedule that looks something like:

15 minutes brisk walk
8 minutes trot
2 minutes rest
8 minutes trot
2 minutes rest
8 minutes trot
5 minutes rest
2 minutes canter
1 minute rest
2 minutes canter
1-2 minutes loose trot into walk and done.

T. agreed with the schedule. Tristan doesn’t have the base of fitness that many event horses do – he wasn’t started until he was 11, after all – and he doesn’t exactly exercise himself in the field. (T. described at length Tristan’s attitude when others in his field are cavorting around: “You guys, that looks like a lot of work and effort and there is hay, right here, for me to eat. You’re all stupid.” I commented that Tris is constantly saving his energy for when a mountain lion actually does attack, and in the meantime, he sees no point to it.)

Conditioning will also tighten up his ligaments to get ready for the concussion of a XC course, and I’ve been instructed to do my sets in two-point, which will work on my lower leg. I can already see what a difference riding in short stirrups more regularly has made, so tonight it’s a conditioning night in two point for us. I was glad to have my gut feeling confirmed.

We are officially entered at Elementary at the Valinor Farm CT, and will be schooling XC afterwards. We’ll also enter Hitching Post at the end of May at Grasshopper, and are arranging stabling for that.