Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Conditioning is Fun (for dressage horses too!)

I'm a huge proponent of equine fitness (human fitness too, but that's another post). Coming from a background in eventing, I've always had it drilled into my head that you can't expect your horse to perform at the top of his game unless he's been conditioned to do so. As a human athlete I feel it would be unfair of someone to ask me to perform outside of my capacity, so why would I ask my horse to push himself past what I have prepared him for? Basically, conditioning is common sense.
But Mom, the outside world is calling to me!
Monday's are conditioning days for Team Guinea Pig. Lots of the dressage riders I know consider going for a "trail ride" unnecessary, and they condition their horses with lots of ring work. That is possible, and not wrong, but it's not the way I approach my horse's training. Here's why:

1. As a thoroughbred, Guinness responds well to being outside. His behavior brightens and he really has a lot of fun hacking through woods and hills and roads. I like to have fun too, chock this point up to simply enjoying time with my horse.

2. When riding out, I am able to take a more firm connection with Guinness' mouth. He doesn't fuss and toss his head, and I seem to be able to be more consistent and following with my contact. It's good practice, and seems to carry over into the ring.

3. Nothing can help my horse and I get the feeling of collection like trotting or walking up and down hills with a firm connection (see above for the miracle of good connection). I also like hill work for the immense cardiovascular and muscular development it creates with very little drilling. I could trot and canter endless circles in the ring boring my horse and I to death or annoying him with my nitpicking, or I could go trot some hills to put muscle on him. I'll take the hills.

4. Developing a true relationship with your horse comes from spending time with them, better still if that's quality time. Guinness and I spend a lot of time working through "what was that?!" moments on the trail, discussions over rating our speed while galloping and convincing ourselves that you can do dressage movements in the great outdoors, not just in a level ring. It's a lot harder to get his attention (and keep it!) when riding out, but I know that when I have gotten it that I worked for it. It's rare for me to end a long ride across country without exclaiming. "God, I LOVE this horse!" There's something to be said for that.

As an example, I give you last night's long ride:
At nearly 6 miles, it wasn't the longest ride in the world, but we aren't trying to be endurance horses. There's lots of hills, some flat galloping stretches, plenty of trotting in a nice extension, and even some trotting through a creekbed (resistance training, anyone?). It was lots of fun, and also a good way to help us achieve our goals. What do you think?

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Happy Guinness Goes for a Run

As promised, here's a video of me releasing Guinness into the pasture. It's hard to see, but his pasture goes about a mile up the road (way over the green hill you can see back there). It's a HUGE pasture and the largest on the property. We just moved him into this pasture a few weeks ago, and it will be his permanent home on the property.

I think his enjoyment of his new home is pretty evident here: 

Friday, April 6, 2012

Good Rides, Bad Rides and Everything In the Middle

Oh the joys of training yourself and your horse for a show season ... I mean, oh the non-existent joys.


The past couple of weeks have been rough. We've been sticking to the schedule (for the most part), and at least riding 4 days a week. I've also been lengthening the time of our rides to try to increase cardio and strength for Guinness. Me too, it turns out.

We've had a few breakthroughs, mainly with my position. After spending a day in my jumping saddle, I realized that I have been very weak in the upper thigh. I've been practicing closing my hip angle and really controlling every movement in my body as well as keeping my lower leg OFF unless I'm giving a command. This seems to be really helping Guinness. He responds much faster to my requests for bend, and to forward aids. Now, if only I could manage to ingrain this quickly! After a week of strictly working on this, I seem to be sore, but still having to think about it every step. Come on muscle memory ...

The Week in Recap:

Monday:  We went for a long harrowing trail ride (Okay, truth? It was only 4 miles, but it felt like FOREVER!). Guinness was a mess in the cross ties. He couldn't stop dancing and calling and crying and prancing and ... just being a pain. I thought a long conditioning ride/trot would help calm him down and we could have a relaxing long walk.
The first indication that this ride wasn't going to be "relaxing" was the gigantic leap across the small worm-sized stream of water at the outset of the trails. After dragging myself back into the saddle, I managed to pilot us through the narrow tree-filled trail. It was a close call, and I promised to take more care. Good thing too. During the duration of the trip Guinness spooked at cows, ran from a pony, couldn't manage to walk in a straight line, never looked forward for more than 3 seconds, was completely unable to take a long rein without losing his brain and jiggling his head up and down to rattle the bit (racehorses ...), leapt a creekbed from edge to edge, three times and sweat so hard it took two baths to get him clean.
It was a long evening ...

Tuesday: I planned to do a conservative ride, considering the previous day's antics above ground. I was pleasantly surprised that Guinness wasn't lame at the outset. Not even stiff. The larger field, grass and more exercise seems to be helping keep his stiffness under control. Also, warm weather. That helps too.
We mostly worked at the walk, practicing my hip angle thing and taking contact without changing rhythm. This has always been difficult, and we've been neglecting our walk work. I got a few angry backups and head tosses when confronted with contact, but after I remembered to keep my hands up and close my fingers we did much better. Constant contact. It's not just an email program I use at work ... ;)

Wednesday: Guinness' day off! I took the dogs running and put things away instead ... it was fun. Turns out I miss being at home sometimes.

Thursday: Canter work and bend. We started off just the same as Tuesday, practicing taking contact and keeping it constant. Then we moved into the trot and the canter and worked on bend. Lots of bend. I really got to practice keeping my hip angle closed and my legs OFF except when I wanted to use them to say something.
Going to the right I had a LOT of resistance to bend. Guinness was popping his shoulder to the inside and just bracing against me. We did some work (at the canter) that we practiced in our clinic in February. Basically, the thought is to loosen him up to the bending aids by pushing him over hard in the leg yield. We're trying to make him exaggerate his cross over and sideways bend. I don't care if his shoulders lead, I just care that his whole body bends. It's a little extreme, but it works when he's really locked up.
Needless to say, a couple of these extreme leg yields and he was much more receptive to bed.
He felt pretty good, so we ended that and went for a short ride down the road with a friend. It's always good to end on a good motoring walk note.

After our ride, I had Hannah help me take some updated conformation shots. They aren't glamour shots by any means, but they get the job done!
You can see all Guinness social-climbing battle wounds. He's out in a new field with a bunch of new horses (15 or so?). He's been slowly climbing his way to the top, which is funny because he's usually the most laid back horse in the field. Now, he's on top and seems happy to be there. I'll have to post the video of him bolting to see everyone from the other day ...

He's starting to get some ab muscle, and his butt muscles are getting more defined. I can really see how swaybacked he starting to look. It seems that his withers are SO MUCH higher than they used to be. Of course, his neck is starting to develop more and more along the top, so that helps. I'll write about saddle fit soon, since that has a lot to do with the topline in this photo.

Guinness has the next two days off. I'll get back on him on Sunday and see how he feels