Sunday, June 29, 2008

Drafts as Sport Horses?

I will preface this discussion by saying that Brego is an amazing horse. He is perfect for me, he's got a lovely sense of humor and a great personality. However, Brego is not a physical freak. The level of physical accomplishments he has attained is not exclusive to El Brego de Oro. There are many, many draft horses out there that can do the exact same work, with the same level of talent. What is missing is that there are not enough draft horse OWNERS out there who believe in their horse.

You read the comments everywhere. People are very negative about draft horses. They are "awkward, but amusing". They feel "like jackhammers". They can't jump 2' without crushing their feet. It goes on and on.

Come on, the majority of "riding" draft horses are less than 1700 lbs. Old Style Oldenburgs are 1600. Most warmbloods are 1300 lbs. Brego is 1400 lbs now at this fittest, filled out and mature. Most of them have good bone. And for whatever reason, most of them have big, appropriate feet to absorb concussion.

Which makes more sense? Jumping a 1400 lb horse on 8" wide feet with 11" diameter canon bones, or jumping a 1300lb, 18h Westfalian on 5" wide feet with 9" canon bones. Remove the mention of "Draft Horse" and just talk about physics and things don't look so biased. And with the soundness problems that we are seeing in these warmbloods, seems like there are longevity problems in all breeds. Yet, these same people are saying it is cruel to jump a draft horse! I can tell you my horse doesn't require hock injections at age 7....which is more than I can say for some of these warmbloods...

The simple matter is that draft horse performance is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Sure, they don't sprout from their dams with a huge, floaty trot, but look at this mare:

Embiggen this picture to see the suspension!

This is Klein over at The Jumping Percheron. She's four years old and she's magnificent. She has a great owner who believes in her. I can't believe her suspension and balance, at four she has a look that would make most sport horse breeders wet their pants. This mare has TONS of talent AND she's a registered Percheron (World Percheron Congress, watch out!!)

Want to see Brego at four years old?

Can you believe I bought this horse?

Yea, not pretty. Want to see our first english lesson?

Just looking at this picture hurts a little. E'gads!

Anyone who saw us at that time would not believe what we are doing now. You have to listen to your horse, but you also have to believe they can perform. They work so hard to please you, if you encourage them to move well, they will. Period.

So the secret to my "success" is not buying a perfectly bred "sport" draft, it is really loving the horse I have and wanting him to be the best he can be, for his own longevity. Some things that are critical to Brego's performance:

Propertly fitting tack - I cannot overemphasize this. If the tack doesn't fit, he will never perform for you. Most saddles do NOT fit, sad to say. If you bought it off the shelf, unless it is marketed for drafts or super-wides, it will not fit.

Chiropractic work - Brego needs this less and less as he gets fit and his work gets more "correct", but it was a big help in the beginning. Poor saddle fit problems (see above), coupled with a rapidly growing, ungainly horse meant a lot things didn't work like they should. Three different sessions, over a year and a half, has completely turned him around. If something hurts, he can't perform and it's unfair to ask. I think all horses should be screened once a year by a reputable chiropractor.

Quality Feed - Most people feed draft horses crap. They are big, easy keepers so they get very little feed in general and of dubious quality, because, you know, they are just draft horses. I feed Brego like I feed my Thoroughbred, nutrient dense, just in smaller amounts. He gets high quality forage and I don't worry about him being on grass. He works five days a week and he needs calories to perform. If he is cannibalizing muscle from lack of calories, he will never get stronger. This is a mistake I made early in our lives together. I feed him too little to keep him from getting fat. Nutrient dense, quality feeds, in the appropriate amounts give him the energy he needs.

Barefoot - Brego is barefoot. Knock on wood, but I have not missed a single riding day in 2+ years due to unsoundness. This horse is crazy sound. His big feet flatten out and absorb his weight on landing. I know that some horses cannot go barefoot, but I believe that many types of shoeing have the side effect of keeping the hoof too rigid on impact, which can then cause problems. I have never put shoes on him to test this theory because he doesn't need them, but I believe it is a factor for the big guys.

Dressage, Dressage, Dressage - and when I say dressage, I mean training the horse to carry himself in balance, not a headset or the competitive sport. Call it classical riding, call it whatever you want, but Brego needed to be taught that he did not need to pull himself around on the forehand. But he did learn, and now he's getting stronger and stronger, saving his front feet from pounding.

The point I am trying to make is that, yes, Brego is awesome. But he's just a gelding with a reputation for bucking I pulled out of someone's backyard for $1700 (back when the horse market was strong, those were meat prices!). Every horse, sound and sane, can do what he is doing. Believe in your horses and they will learn to fly for you.

I make a point of encouraging all draft owners to start a blog and promote the wonderful athleticism of these horses. With enough of us out there performing with happy and healthy horses, people will figure out that a draft horse can be a willing and wonderful partner. So if you want to start publicizing your awesome horse, like Klein above, drop me a note and I am happy to help.

Clinic - Steuart Pittman

Today, Brego and I headed down the road to a beautiful cross country field tucked away in Lyman, Maine. The clinic was taught by Steuart Pittman, a great upper level rider who focuses on the quality of the rider. In general, I found him to be bright, interested, constructive and helpful. Even though we were in one of his lower level groups, he took our needs and concerns seriously and really guided up appropriately for our level. In short, if you get a chance to work with him, I HIGHLY recommend it.

Steuart kept the skepticism about Brego off his face as he asked for our verbal history at the beginning of our session. I talked about Brego being green and needed to be more forward, and his looky tendencies. I mentioned schooling 3' and I didn't see any recoiling in horror at the idea. Steuart is an open-minded professional.

After a few fences, Steuart turned to me smiling and said, "Wow, he's the best purebred [draft] jumper I have ever seen." Then we got down to business.

We worked on jumping over terrain and reinforced a lot of the things I have been learning recently, namely, ride my horse over the course, not an imaginary Thoroughbred. Brego's style is to get a bit deeper, but he is safe and careful. So I need to ride him to his style. This is reminiscent of what my jumper trainer taught me on Thursday. Nice to get more validation.

We also worked on using downhills to build up momentum for propelling up the inevitable upswell to fences. Instead of holding Brego up on the downhill, I learned to let him really get going. The upswell will back him up on my behalf, so less work for me, less holding of his face, and he had more forward impulsion to the jump. This was a big lightbulb moment. Terrain questions are very new to me, coming from Texas.

We schooled banks and Steuart was happy with my form both up and down. He was also pretty happy with my jumping form and told me not to worry too much about my elbows, they will sort themselves out as I get my balance further back. I had dropped my stirrups to their original height and I felt much more secure and my leg was more forward. Steuart did not mention anything about my form being unsafe. I think he felt like I was appropriately secure for my level. He used my upright style with slipping of reins down banks as an example for the other riders. I was very honored.

He gave me a great tip to ask for more go on the landing of a fence than before the fence. Three strides before the fence, I have what I have, and I need to be quiet and let Brego figure out the fence. Any nagging I do before the fence is a distraction. But if I can pop him after a particularly sticky fence, he learns he needs to come away strong and I can make up time, if needed. You make up time away from fences, towards fences is quiet and steady.

The final course was a bit of a disaster. The one bad thing about group clinics is that you sit for 10 minutes between rides. A horse like Brego goes to sleep. Then I need to really get him going again. When I started my course, he was not going at all and we had some really awkward fences, including a near stop at a horse-eating stone wall, until he woke up and started striding around the course. I was pretty disappointed. Riding him when he doesn't want to go is like riding a cow, he is just not impressed and nothing I can do, short of a cattle prod gets him going (and believe me, I have thought about a cattle prod). He's just not a self starter.

Steuart did give me some good pointers about how to get Brego going at the shows. He said to warmup very little and go straight from a big forward warmup fence into the start box. Then, once we began the ride, to override like a wildman to the first fence, get over it, then pop him on the landing and ride like a wildman to the second fence. Once Brego starts to get his blood going, usually after the third fence, he was self-propelled and we really had a nice rhythm.

I did the first half of the course again, with very little break time, and Brego was amazing. He jumped nice and round out of stride, he got his leads, he powered up the hills, it was effortless and fun. Steuart really liked what he saw at the end and emphasized training Brego to start strong. I need to get him trained that when he leaves the start box, his job is to run like there are cougars at his heels. He needs to know that cross country courses require concentration from the beginning.

Steuart also made an interesting observation that draft horses usually don't have good riders who teach them how to get off their forehands. Drafts get the husbands or the super beginners, because of their brains, but then don't get the help they need to jump. He was very impressed with my ability to ride Brego and he appreciated the training we had done to get to this point. It was all very positive, a great confidence builder for both of us, and I think I am getting well prepared for the upcoming events.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Conditioning, Or Lack Thereof

I attempted to do a conditioning ride on Friday. It was raining and thundering, but I figured I was about to be a hard-core eventer so while the hunter lesson went on in the indoor, I did my sets in the rain. Sometimes, it is simply my smugness that gets me through the day. :)

Anyway, while it was raining, we did well. Then the sun came out and sauna began. Steam rising off the ground and off of Brego's back. It was hot and sticky and we were miserable. With my new, shorter stirrups, I was having a lot of problems catching my balance. And my legs were tired. I couldn't get myself out of the saddle. I managed just two 2 minute canter sets after our three 5 minute trots sets and we were done. I have never felt so sapped.

Brego felt very hot after the ride and took a long time to recover. I checked his pulse at 10 minutes and it was just under 60. His whole body just radiated heat. It was one of those days were you can't catch a breeze and you just bake inside your own wet, sticky skin. He never stopped asking for cookies though, the ever-faithful Brego-barometer. So I let him stand with some water and he was totally normal after 20 minutes.

On Saturday, we will both rest, because we have a very exciting Stuart Pittman clinic on Sunday. If I can't stay out of the saddle on Sunday for more than two minutes, it will be a waste of all of our times.

I am not going to read too much into this performance. I don't think Brego is backsliding that much in a week. We had a full week of riding, including two dressage days and a jumping lesson all after two very hard days last weekend. We're tired. And the humidity was the knockout punch. More rest and we'll be fine.

Jumping Lesson

Thanks again to everyone who responded to my request for video input. Also, thanks for all the wonderful and generous comments supporting this crazy endeavor. I appreciate every one.

On Thursday, I had a jumping lesson with the resident trainer at my barn. I have watched him work with children in the hunters, and I am so scarred from hunters that I was immediately turned off. But after hanging around with him at the barn and unofficially discussing technical matters related to Jumpers (and not the "crest release over 18" cross rails"), I slowly learned that my bias was keeping me from a great learning opportunity.

So I signed up for a lesson and I asked that we focused on technicalities. Brego is very strong and brave, but neither one of us have the technical skills to get around a jumper course.

The lesson was largely successful and I was buzzing from what we had done. I learned four major things, all worth the price of admission:

  • A "chip" and a "deep distance" are the same thing, ridden differently.
  • Ride the line for the horse, not the horse for the line.
  • Big impressive jumps are fun to watch, but hurt your ability to recover and turn to the next fence. Ride deep to fences on turns.
  • How to ask for your leads off the ground.

Never Chip
Brego is a notorious chipper and it's frustrating. When in doubt, he adds. I have been worried about this for a long time. Will he ever be scopey enough to jump from a regular distance, you know, like a Thoroughbred??
Well, it turns out, Brego is not a Thoroughbred. And he's plenty careful and powerful, he can just power over a fence from a deeper distance. Expecting him to jump like a Thoroughbred is not only going to leave us frustrating, it's going to take rails. He flattens out when he reaches and is less careful. So for my horse, I need to ride deep and let him jump up and over the fence. A "deep distance" becomes a "chip" when I give up. When he doesn't take off from this mythical Thoroughbred distance and I drop him and stiffen, in anticipation of the "terrible" jump. Every time I chip, and it's me chipping, not Brego, he rubs or takes a rail. Every time I sit up and help him off the group with my leg from a deep distance, he goes clean and looks nice and balanced. This was a lightbulb moment.

Go Deep
Along the same vein, when I ask Brego for big, flier fences, it takes twice as long for him to recover his balance. If we have a 4 or 5 stride bending turn to another fence, that's 2 strides instead of 1 that is lost just in recovering from that huge effort. If he's strung out on this forehand, regaining his balance, no amount of outside aids is going to bring him around. But, if I can "ride deep" to the jump and curl him around it, I gain a stride on the recovery to make my turn easier and he lands in better balance. Writing this, it seems painfully obvious. But in my hatred of "chips", I was making both of our jobs harder in real courses. For my horse, going clean means conservative, well balanced fences. Leave the photo ops to the Thoroughbreds. :)

Ride The Line for the Horse, not the Horse for the Line
This isn't freakin' hunters anymore. I should not care if the line is supposed to be ridden in 5 strides. If it is slightly uphill and late in the course, I will ride it in 6. This lesson taught me a whole new way of looking at courses and cross referencing the layout with what I know about my horse. He can collect easier than he can extend. He tends to be sloppy over fences he is not impressed with. And his conditioning is a constant battle. Even the slight slope of the arena had effects on my horse I had not realized before. The object is to go clean and make Brego's job as easy as possible, not mold him into a convention. Neither one of us are conventional.

Get Your Lead
Finally, we worked on leads. Although Brego is probably ready to start working on his changes, I have not focused on them because he does tend to auto swap when he's paying attention and needs the balance. I have a video from our first ever jumping round and I think he did 4 or 5 swaps in it, all by himself. I was certainly too freaked out to cue them! Anyway, getting simple changes, which is becoming habit for us really messes with his impulsion. The fences after a simple change are almost always sloppier and more likely to take rails or be from off distances. So until can confirm his changes, I MUST get my leads in the air. So we worked on that. If I could remember to ask, Brego was perfect. I just need to ride jumper courses and technically thoughtful as dressage tests.

So the lesson was wildly successful. I felt my confidence increase throughout the lesson and we studied some very technical concepts with few jumping repetitions (a very good thing for Brego). We worked on rider questions. Brego already knows how to jump and he listens, so he doesn't need to school endlessly over fences and make him bored and hate his job. It was the perfect style lesson, a real thinking exercise, sprinkled with some practical application. And I made enough mistakes to drive the points home, but I was always treated positively.

On that note, this trainer is Mr. Positive. He glowed about Brego and talked about what a great Jumper he was, not what a great Draft Horse Who Can Jump. He talked about his conformation and his balance, how he was honest and well trained. It's funny, I think trainers are always 25% skeptical when we start, even if they have seen Brego before. But they always finish up being impressed. I, myself, was impressed that we're finally at the level that we can work on technical questions without overfacing either of us. It was FUN!

Percheron Jumping Lesson from Eventing Percheron on Vimeo.

And then I watched the video. I had punched another hole in my leathers and brought my stirrups up one more notch. I don't know if my body can't bend that way, or I am not strong enough for the shorter stirrups, but my leg was terrible. Especially when asking for the lead off the ground, I was bringing my "new" outside leg back 45 degrees! And my arms! Good gosh, can I throw my elbows out anymore. I don't care what they say about how we made the turns, etc, that is poor riding. I need to get my elbows and hands back in control so I can give a proper release. It's a good thing my reins are too long or else Brego would get popped over the fence.

I think I am going to drop my stirrups again and see if I am more comfortable. Maybe I can get out of the tack more with my slightly longer stirrup if my leg is properly positioned under my body. Because raising the stirrups one hole did not get me out of the tack, it got me back into swinging my legs in odd ways. More fun to experiment with.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Dressage Practice

On of the great things about turning thirty-- twenty one!, is that my family got together and bought me a Hi Definition Video camera. So now, I can post videos in startling clarity, which is either a good or a bad thing, depending on my riding that day! :)

I dub the new, better videos, Breg-o-Vision!

As a consequence, I am experimenting with alternative video hosting. So I have for your review a small series of clips from my last dressage work, complete with claps of thunder and torrential rain.

You Tube:

(If you get the option below the video to "watch in high quality", please do so for a far comparison. You may have to actually make the jump to you tube to get the option.)


Dressage Practice from Eventing Percheron on Vimeo.

Please leave a comment about your experiences, if you strongly prefer one way or another. One of these days, I am going to learn how to use all this technology to make nicer videos with better production values. But for now, a rough fade between clips was all I could manage.

Oh, yea, about the horse... :)

We worked on canter departs and upward transitions. You can see in the halt to walk how he reaches under with his hind legs. The last two canter departs were not quite there yet, a couple of trot steps, but much better.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Cross Country Schooling

Sometimes, I over think things.

We went cross country schooling at the same place where we schooled last week. Oh, and I measured the LOG from last week and it was 3'6" in the middle, where it was cut down. So, yea, I am an idiot for asking him to do that, but he is the Best.Horse.Ever.

Back to today, one day after the iffy hunter trials. Brego was a complete star schooling cross country today. He walked, trotted, and cantered through water without hesitation. He jumped up and down banks. He jumped everything that was asked without question.

I did not get a chance to school a roll top, but I am sure he would have done well at that.

We were both feeling yesterday's ride so I kept the schooling to a minimum and then took him out on course. The course was relatively short, 13 fences, all of which he has seen before, but not today. Everyone knows that with horses, every day is a brand new day.

Delicious Irony of Jumping in front of horse drawn-rake.

So I just wanted him to go around a course clean. I walked it in advance and the footing was perfect, not wet anywhere. We started at the top of the hill and then jumped 13 fences as we worked our way down and back up. He was very good. He looked hard at the first two fences and then got down to business. We had a minor disagreement about which way to turn at the bottom of the hill, which resulted in a loss of momentum, but he recovered and then flew up the hill. He had a nice forward gallop and just got better and better. At the top of the hill, he was tired and I could feel him start to lunge to make it to the top, but he stayed in front of my leg. We jumped one more log and we were done. What a difference from yesterday.

Top O' The Hill

I then went back and schooled a 3' coop. He was getting in close every time and then jumping round over his shoulder to clear it. Looking at the pictures, it's easy to see why. He was exhausted. His back end just couldn't push off from a longer distance. The boy was tired.

Guest Rider showing me great form! Thanks, S!!

We jumped one more fence, a 3'6" hog back oxer, and called it a day. He was safe and I didn't feel like he was protesting on the approach, and he went through some athleticism to clear the fence. But it's very clear he was tired.

Tired boy with an excellent effort.

I feel really good about where we are right now. I think conditioning and fitness is the biggest issue. He needs more dressage work to get him stronger through upward transitions and then the jumping from a normal distance will take care of itself. As a big horse, I don't think he should be taking flier fences, but it would be better for his front end if he could get more balanced back.

Brego gets tomorrow off. I will be turning 28... no, wait, 24!! and I am going for a sunset cruise around Portland. I love Maine. Then dressage work through the week until Thursday where I have an official jumping lesson. Woo hoo!

Next weekend, we are going to the Stuart Pittman clinic to work on cross country. I can't wait to soak up some knowledge.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Hunter Trials

Today, Brego and I headed over to a farm in North Berwick, Maine, to participate in Hunter Trials hosted by a local hunt. The course was long, about 10 minutes of cantering, over 15 fences. Part of the course wound through some woods, and thanks to some recent rain, the mud was very deep and tricky.

I walked the course in advance and I was concerned about the footing but others said the wooded trails rode fine. This was Brego's first ever "real" course, where we were cantering the whole way over fences he has never seen. I wanted a very positive, forward ride as a barometer of where we needed to be by mid August (our recognized event).

The trials had "foxhunting" obstacles in addition to the cross country course. We had to open a gate while mounted, perform a hold hard when the horn blew, turn it up during a "gone away" section, and finally dismount and lead Brego over a fence and remount (mounting block was provided, thank you very much :) ). So the point was not to get a steady rhythm on a perfectly groomed and drained cross country course, but just to see how obedient and suitable the horse is for hunting experiences.

Our warmup was terrible. It was very, very humid and the area was wet so we couldn't get a good forward canter going. Brego was not slipping outright, but he was not really cruising either. I knew I was going to have to really ride aggressively to get him in front of my leg.

Brego was pretty good at the gate, moving over in a side pass when asked so I could reach it. It was the starting point to the course and he trotted off pretty well towards the first fence. The first fence was a very small log, very inviting, and Brego acted like it was made of some sort of horse-eating wood. He looked hard at it and then jumped fine. I really pushed him on then, seeing that this was going to be a "looky ride".

The next fence was a vertical with standards out in a field and he did just fine. Brego understands arena fences. Then we went into the woods and the mud was problematic. He just lost all confidence and slipped all over the place. We ended up trotting all the fences and even jumping some from a walk, due to the footing, but he was a good boy and tried. The one time he got ahead of me and cantered, he slipped very hard from behind and I kept him back. So much for training forward.

After the woods, we got out into a nice dry field and I tried to reestablish a nice forward canter. We popped over a gate fine and then the horn blew. So back to a halt for five seconds. Then canter off again. So much for training forward.

We went back into the woods and although this trail was drier, he was very hesitant. I could tell he was rattled and not trusting of the footing. We trotted through the woods, over a couple fences, including a nice 2'11" brush and then back into the field. The first fence back into the field was a stadium vertical over barrels. Ah... the dreaded barrels. I popped him with my whip three strides out, he locked on and with a slight resistant bend, jumped fine. I hope the I can officially call his barrel phobia over.

Feeling pretty proud of us, we got to the "gone away" flags where we are supposed to gallop, flat out, until the next set of flags and go back to a working pace. This test shows obedience in the horse. Brego did fine, he actually did speed up, much to my surprise. He came back easily as well, probably because the "gone away" sprint was right up a steep hill.

Then we had an easy curve to the left, over some spooky logs. Brego really popped his shoulder and I had trouble getting him straight. I deduced from the pictures that my reins are way too long to really help with bending and my legs too high.

Then we had another nice canter up to the top of the hill where some stadium jumps were set up. I was flagged to jump a 2'7" roll top at the top of the hill. When I walked the course, I thought "That's going to be a problem". Brego has never jumped a roll top before. It was big and green and right at the top of the hill. I got Brego up the hill and he was tired. I was tired. I tried to lock him on the roll top and I could tell he thought I was kidding. I popped him and really drove him towards it. He almost bought it and gave it a good effort, but at the last minute just stopped and looked at it. Neither of our hearts were in it after the climb, so even though it was a stop, I felt like it wasn't a "refusal". I circled around, with myself collected and ready and he jumped it fine.

Lots of pats and we headed back down the hill. We had a long gallop to a log and even though we were flagged to jump this tiny thing, he gaped at the bigger log next to it. So more bending, resisting, while he stared at a log we weren't even going to jump. Through sheer strength, I held him on a good enough line to get him over the baby log we were supposed to jump.

Then another muddy water crossing where he refused to go faster than a walk. He's smarter than I am. Then another log up a hill, no problem. The final fence he looked at, but jumped it and then we came to the lead over. I halted, paused a second to let him settle. Then I dismounted, ran up my stirrups and led him over a fence. He did great.

So all in all, a very green, shaky round, but we're both very green. I was completely exhausted by the end of the 10 minutes of cantering, and he was blowing pretty hard as well. I hosed him down and he recovered fine, but it was a wake up call. A Beginner Novice course will be half the distance, but as many fences. We need more conditioning, both of us, and I will pray to the weather gods for no humidity. It is a killer for the big guy.

When I was done, I was bummed about the roll top. But as I thought about it, he did amazingly well out there on course, by himself, first time ever, after slipping and nearly falling in the mud. He's a green horse, he will have stops. He's not a dirty stopper or dishonest, it just wasn't meant to be. If I were a stronger rider, not exhausted myself from the climb, I could have stuffed him over. But that's where we both are right now. I would rather get a clean stop, regroup, and represent for a clean fence, instead of squeak over. That's getting dangerous. I need to trust Brego that if he says he can't do it honestly, he can't do it. He's earned that trust from the work he's done to this point. We will ride another day, we will both get stronger, no big deal.

I am going cross country schooling tomorrow. I am going to focus on water, trying to rebuild some confidence lost today. I am going to focus on forward to fences he has not schooled. And I am going to shorten my reins so I can be more effective. Oh yea, and fix my leg.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Fun with Words

What's the most important word on this blog??

Created with wordle

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Conditioning Stats

As our first recognized event draws ever nigh, I am checking off the skills I believe we will need to be successful at Beginner Novice. And by successful, I don't mean winning or even placing. I mean being safe, prepared, and having a rather pleasant time of the whole thing. So here's the list:

  • Dressage - Check! Training level is just fine.
  • Jumping - Check! Schooling 2'9" to 3'. Shouldn't be any combos or anything trappy.
  • Cross Country - 75% there. Need more schooling at speed to make sure he's forward over unseen fences
  • Conditioning - er...
Conditioning is important for both horse and rider, even at the lowest levels. This is doubly important for the big guy, to make sure he's up to the wear and tear of a full course. And for me, to make sure I am up to the wear and tear of riding Brego.

So today was conditioning day. I borrowed my sister's heart rate monitor to see how the rider half of the equation is holding up. Brego did some arena work yesterday and we focused on energy to little fences. It was, um, not very successful so I am moving "Find a Jumper Trainer" higher in my priority queue.

Ah but anyway, today was conditioning day. We did three 5 minute trot sets, with 3 minute walk intervals. Then two 3 minute canters with 3 minute walk intervals. I finished with one 4 minute canter. Brego was fully recovered in 11 minutes after the last canter. So that's a big improvement, especially in relatively warm and humid weather. Plus, our conditioning track is up and down a pretty steep hill, much more steep that the hill cross country schooling. Lots of good hind end work.

As for me, during the ride, my max heart rate was 186 beats per minute. My average rate was 144 beats per minute. I burned 700 calories.

I then rode my bike 5.3 miles home from the barn in 25 minutes. For reference, that ride burned 300 calories. So conditioning sets are a pretty serious work out for both of us.

I am not the fittest person around, but my blood pressure is around 103 over 60. My resting heart rate is 45 beats per minute. I could stand to lose 20 pounds. When I played ice hockey in college, I worked out 2 hours a day and played 5 days a week and was about 30 pounds lighter. That level of fitness is just not sustainable for a (young) 30-something full time computer nerd.

I also wore the heart rate monitor for my jumping session yesterday and burned 600 calories over an hour. So for people who say the horse does all the work, they have not ridden MY horse. :)

As a cute aside, there were three 5-6 year old kids playing in dirt piles. Each time I rode by at a canter during my sets, I heard them squeal "Brego! It's Brego!" I just get a kick out of his fan club. I felt like I was at Rolex. :)

Brego (and I) get tomorrow off. Then Dressage on Friday. We have a Hunter trial (Ratcatcher division) on Saturday and then back to cross country school on Sunday. Good thing we're getting fit!

Monday, June 16, 2008

Dressage Monday

After a roller-coaster Monday, I was really looking forward to the quiet concentration of Dressage work. Brego was rested and in a good mood. His legs felt nice and tight after Saturday's cross country, so I tacked him up and did our usual in hand work to reengage his brain.

I try to start each session by just asking him to "dance" with me. He must walk with energy and halt solidly with me at his head, striking off again at command. No lazing about or dragging around. Then I ask for leg yield away in hand, lightly using my whip as the leg aid. Then we work on shoulder in around me, as if I am the pillar. This kind of work gets Brego thinking about me, about his balance, and stretches him laterally before I even get in the saddle.

Once aboard, I moved him off at the walk and just felt with my seat. He felt good, even, maybe a bit behind. I worked on adjusting him in the walk, moving him forward with a light calf aid, slowing his cadence with my seat and abs. I love him at the walk, he is so light, like I am balancing on a ball. He can move in any direction with very slight aids.

It's the trot where he stiffens and sets himself in cruise control. Before we got to the trot today, I wanted to make sure he really understood bending around my inside leg. I worked on shoulder in, setting up with a volte. He is so smart, picked up right where we left off last time we rode dressage. Then I worked on travers. We have not schooled it much, so we struggled to maintain the bend. But I got a few good steps each way. Progress, not perfection.

At the trot, he started very stiff and I went back to asking for bend with inside leg, raising my inside hand when he would brace around he corners. He started to soften down, really lovely. I got some nice shoulder in at the trot both directions.

Then a great disturbance occurred outside the arena. Some horses were running and calling and Brego could hear them but not see them. He stiffened and started calling back. I was working alone, and this is about the time that Brego, in his playful youth, would have taken off bucking and storming around trying to get involved in the ruckus. I did not want to ask Brego to halt for fear of him being naughty, so I pushed him into a very big trot and we worked on figure eights. I changed rein often, through his calling and rubber necking, trying desperately to get his brain back on me and not on the running heard.

Finally the noise abated and Brego was high, but soft. He had a little extra spring, but he let go of the stiffness in his neck. This was the first ride in a long time where I felt like he was softer after the trot work than before.

I did a little canter work, 20 m circles where I asked for the transition and then sat quiet and balanced. Without my constant nagging, he would break to a trot or start four beating. So I would ask again and then leave him alone. He needs to be self propelled in the canter, even on a 20 m circle. He was perfect to the right, and we were marginal to the left. I found that to the left, I would weight my right seat bone. Poor guy. When I corrected my balance, he was equally nice to the left.

I asked for a trot transition after the canter work and he had the most lovely and forward trot. He then stretched down into contact, a very rare thing. So much progress.

So all in all, nothing earth shattering, nothing miraculous. Just a good solid, feeling ride where we both came out feeling better for the work. Quiet progress = a perfect ride.

I will try to get pictures or video soon.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Cross Country Schooling

Today, Brego and I headed over to a nice farm in New Hampshire and met up with another rider who we met online. She brought her absolutely gorgeous Friesian mare. We are all entering the show at the farm in a couple of weeks and we wanted to get a good schooling in before we made fools of ourselves competed.

My goals for the day were to get Brego over everything and to put together a course so that we can work on rhythm. The Friesian rider was very cool and nice so after exchanging a few pleasantries, we hit the course.

We ended up schooling for over two hours, but with the low humidity, Brego had plenty of energy, even in the hot sun. We worked on cantering through water, sometimes including a small bank into the water. We trotted over a small ditch with no problems. We jumped coops, benches, logs, three-step banks. Brego was a pro at all of it. No looky loo problems. And as the day wore on, he got more in front of my leg and really started cantering. Jumping in wide open fields is more fun for him than stuffy arenas.

The course itself was really fun. It started at the top of a hill and wound down the hill, mostly along a tree line, with jumps set up every hundred yards or so. It was very straightforward and fast, although the hill was fairly steep at places.

The camera is not crooked. That is no Texas hill.

At the bottom of the hill, you jumped a couple of jumps and swung back up, jumping three fences until you get to the top. At the top of the hill was a log. And when I say "log", I don't mean a little birch log laying around, barely visible above the grass. I mean a LOG. A maxed out Novice log. At the top of the hill, so it looked even bigger than it was. And it was big.

After two hours of schooling various questions and working Brego along the complete course, all thirteen fences, simulating a real run (read: the boy and I were getting tired), I decided I had lived a good enough life and I was going to jump the LOG. So we went back down to the bottom of the hill and up we cantered.

Now I had a plan. A few strides out, I was going to make an executive decision and if Brego looked funny or felt like he was sucking back, I was going to open my right rein and guide him over the smaller, much less deadly log right next to it. Then we can say it was a steering error to present to the LOG in the first place. So we're cruising along, about to get to the top of the hill and four strides out Brego's ears went forward. I opened my chest and raised my hands and waited. Three strides out he was still in front of my leg. About two strides out I suddenly realized we were going to jump the LOG. One stride out my mind went completely blank, no visions of rotational falls, no final words, just nothing. Then we were up and over the LOG. Brego never thought twice about it. I had the mental capacity to deliver him at a perfect distance and damn! if the boy didn't make it look easy.

Brego can fly!

I jumped off, amid praise and hugs and thankfulness for my unbroken body. I loosened his girth and walked back to the LOG. From the ground, it looked even bigger. Now I am 5'9" and Brego is no tiny pony either. That jump was huge. He cleared it by at least a foot and didn't even looked stressed about it. And, I can testify that although that was the biggest solid thing he's ever jumped, it was not his biggest jumping effort. He's made jumps that made me dizzy from the thin oxygen up there. I am just in awe.

Not no pansy Birch log!

So those of you really paying attention to the pictures will see some pretty glaring riding faults. I seem to have controlled my elbows, but my knee is completely rolled off the saddle, my toes are straight out, and I have slid/fallen back into the saddle. The only good thing I can say about the jump is that my hands are in contact but not grabbing his face.

I spent the last week off from riding by studying books and video. I watched my rounds in painfully slow motion, where every jiggle is apparent, and I came to a shocking realization about my riding: I wasn't hanging on. I would throw my upper body forward, almost like one would in a gale to head into the wind, and turned my knee off the saddle and I just tried to "balance" it out. When Brego was particularly thrusty, I would be thrown to the back of the saddle before we even got to the top of the fence. And of course, this resulted in my hitting the saddle on the way down, undoubtedly causing some discomfort to the old boy on the back side of every fence.

So with this in mind, I figured I needed to start holding on over the fence. Friday, it was very hot and humid, but I jumped enough to feel like I made progress. I turned my toe in and gripped with my calf up my thigh. I shortened my stirrups a hole and got out of the darn saddle, and used my abs and legs to stay out on landing. I felt tighter in the tack. Real progress.

Now all those lessons went out the window over the LOG. Remember, my mind completely blanked. But I still feel like I am on to something, even if just cerebrally at this point, until I can retrain my body.

I made another interesting observation during schooling. Brego and I had a lot of trouble with distances on the smaller jumps. I don't know if I ride them less "up" or if he really can't rate them, but we would blow the distance time and again. That really messed with our rhythm. When I would try to add or substract on an off distance, he simply did not respond. I think it's because he was just cantering the smaller fences and made no jumping effort. He was not prepared to do any adjustment from the canter. Maybe four strides out from a smaller fence (unlike the LOG), he is still thinking about cookies. He does not perk his ears on smaller fences. Maybe when he gets to the fence, he's surprised at its sudden appearance under his hoofs and just clobbers it. When we started jumping larger coops and of course, the LOG, he rocked back and made adjustments as needed. He thought about the fence. The larger the fence, the easier the ride because he started to get into the rhythm of his stride.

So I wonder if small cross country fences are as demoralizing to us as small arena fences. Which is a big hole in our education. Brego's jumping ability far surpasses his and my technical ability, so we need to school gymnastics and other technical aspects. And the most effective schooling is at lower heights to save his legs. So we both need to "turn it on" for even the smaller fences. I talked to the jumper trainer at my boarding barn and explained the situation and he gave me some good exercises to try to teach him to respect tiny fences. He can still canter them (instead of jump), but he must be ratable and hit the stride I dictate.

Also, during my long study break, I came across some dressage epiphanies as well. But that's a topic for another day. I have so much swirling in my head right now, and we're both showing real progress. It's a fun time to be learning.

Next weekend, we will do a Hunter Trial and then on Sunday head back to cross country schooling with our new Friesian buddy. I want to get my position stronger by then, but still have much dressage to work on. Busy, busy summer days.

Friday, June 13, 2008

A Brego By Any Other Name

Brego is the kind of horse who loves people and is loved in return. He is always a barn favorite and everyone takes time to develop a special relationship with the big boy. Just today I was stuffing a hay bag, and a very young girl at the barn walked by singing "Ol MacDonald" but instead of singing "B-I-N-G-O", she sang "B-R-E-G-O". I laughed and taught her my special song for The Brego:

He's Big and Handsome and Handsome and Big
He's a little bit brown and he's also a pig
His mane was so long, we made a wig
'Cause he's Big and Handsome and Handsome and Big

Pretty catchy, eh?

Anyway, Brego not only inspires song and verse, but he has many nicknames. The usual derivatives of his name, of course: Breg, Bregster, The Brego, Big, Big and Handsome. As an amusing aside, I did actually notice that Brego responds to the word "Handsome" as much as he responds to his name. That is, he swings around and immediately opens his lips for a cookie. I think he knows he's loved.

Brego has acquired two more names that require a bit of explanation.

Back in Austin, we used to drive by this dive of a Mexican restaurant every day on the way to and from the barn. It got pretty good reviews in the local paper, but for some reason we never stopped. It was called El Borrego de Oro, which I think is loosely translated as The Golden Sheep or The Golden Lamb. It didn't take took long for someone to start calling my horse El Brego de Oro, which means, of course, The Golden Brego. Although it's a long nickname, it must roll off the tongue, because it makes the rounds quite often.

The final nickname was penned by my sister when she first saw Brego. She remarked that he was the "International Horse of Mystery". Sometimes, when he is standing tied, half asleep, with his lower lip swinging in the summer breeze, I don't see much mystery going on. But then sometimes, when we are really clicking and he's soaring over fences, I can start to feel a little intrigue, a little curiosity, a little... dare I say? Mystery?

At least I can say, "Yea, baby!"

Monday, June 9, 2008


A major heat wave has hit the area, with highs in the mid 90s and high humidity. Brego and I were definitely feeling it last Friday when we did finally schooling before the weekend Hunter show. I was debated whether to enter Brego into the 2'6" or 2'9" hunters. I knew I didn't want to wait all day until the Jumper classes.

The Friday schooling was an unmitigated disaster. Brego took down nearly every rail in the 2'3" course. He was out of breath, couldn't get his leads, misfired. We were all over the floor. I was frustrated. The last time we jumped, he nailed every lead and left all the rails up. How could we possibly go to a show if he can't even jump 2'3"?? Granted, this was a minor, minor schooling show, and hunters no less, so the humiliation factor was low. I wondered if he was just exhausted. We've been working really hard the last couple of weeks, trying to get fit, trying to get prepared for the impending eventing season. Was he just plain tired?

He was so out of breath it really scared me. He couldn't jump 8 fences without hanging his head and just blowing. After a break, I set up one final 2'9" oxer to see if he crashed through it like all the other fences. To my surprise, he jumped it from so far out and so high, I was completely thrown out of the saddle. So that deepened the mystery. If he was so exhausted, why did he make such an effort on a larger fence?

I decided to scratch the little hunter show and give Brego five days off. I would go and read my cool new dressage books, enjoying some free time in the evening (a rare thing indeed). I called my trainer and told her the situation and she recommended I give him Saturday off, take him to the show on Sunday, and just school him. Just to get him to a new place and see if he was still unfocused.

So Brego got Saturday off. Then Sunday dawned as one of the hottest days in Maine. We arrived at the show at 8:30 and then, in the grand tradition of hunter shows everywhere, we waited. And waited. And waited. Brego stood tied to the trailer, or to a fence under a tree in the shade, for six hours. Six hours! Just to make sure it was nice and hot.

Finally, the three thousand classes covering every single permutation of 18" fences were over and it was our turn. By then, most of the competitors had left so it was just 8 or so in my classes. Brego warmed up fine. We spent pathetic little time on the flat, due to the heat. I just made sure I remembered my canter cue, either lead would do fine at this show, and in we went.

The first course was fine. The corners were tight. I definitely need to work on turning. Brego is loosening up his neck in dressage, but definitely not cantering around a course. It's like he's on rails, very stiff and resistant. No big deal, it gives us something to work on. Anyway, I felt like I was really pushing him around he course, and my leg suffered as a result. It swept back over the fences and my elbows were so far out I almost took flight. I was trying to make the course look "quiet" like a hunter.

The second course was much better. Brego took a rail, and it was the weirdest thing. The stride was correct, he overjumped the one before. I wonder if he just didn't see it. Anyway, after the rail I decided I was going to screw the "hunter thing" and rode more aggressively. I even reached back and popped him before a fence. Man oh man, did Brego smarten up! He was awesome. We cruised around and I am very happy.

Finally after the 2'6" class, they had a free schooling at 2'9". I took Brego around a few fences at 2'9". He was such a pro, didn't look at anything, and really put in a good effort. Not bad for baking in 95 degree weather.

So now Brego gets his 5 days off. I will read my dressage books and try to visualize me not flying like a chicken over fences. I will plan some softening and bending exercises. And then next week, cross country schooling! The last piece to the puzzle will hopefully be put to rest next weekend and I can go into the upcoming schooling events with full confidence.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008


I had another longing session yesterday where I was longed, sans hands and stirrups while I attempted to find my quiet, happy place. I must say that Brego is quite the bouncy boy, and my quiet, happy place wore a little raw. Alas, I think my sitting trot was stronger and I felt more grounded in the canter.

We finished with me riding off the longe and cantering figure eights with a 4 step simple change through the center. Brego caught on quickly and although the transitions were not the smoothest, I could really control his bend through the change. He was also pretty snappy picking up the new lead.

Today it was hot and humid. Brego was sweating before I even pulled him out of the field. So I took a longer than normal amount of time to warm him up at the walk. He was very stiff to the left, his bad side, from his work yesterday. So I did a little bending work at the trot, but didn't push it. Today's goal was to jump a 2'9" course to see what classes I would be entering at the hunter show this weekend.

I asked that the two outside lines of the course be set to 2'6" and the inside lines, including two oxers set to 2'9". Well it turns out that the two oxers were set to 3', but it made no difference to Brego.

I cantered a nice courtesy circle struggling to remember my hunter etiquette from the darkest reaches of my mottled brain. The outside line rode well, with Brego getting his lead. The first inside line we got close, but he just wrapped around the poles and didn't touch them. On the next outside line, we actually got our spot, but I guess I just stopped riding. Brego took care of everything. The final inside line with the 3' oxer was awesome. I saw the distance about a mile out and Brego was cantering so slooooow, but we just nailed it. He has definitely gotten stronger where he can canter so slow and balanced and just LAUNCH over fences. Between my ducking and his huge jump, I bumped his withers with my chest over the oxer. I need to sit up and learn to ride that much power.

My leg seems to be more effective, but I still rotate it out quite a bit. Next time I school fences, it is all about fixing my leg again. Today I really focused on getting him around a course. He obviously gets around a course just fine, I need to focus on riding him better. He deserves it. :)

In other news, Brego was devastated to hear of Roxie's new boyfriend. He made a point of hanging out with his new girlfriend, Rosie. Rosie is a gorgeous Belgian out of the PMU trade. As I walked away, I could have sworn she said "I, Rosie, love my new boyfriend, Brego."

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Diet Update

Now that we are in the great white north, I have had to adjust Brego's feed based upon availability of brands. So here is the most recent makeup of his diet:

2 parts Triple Crown Senior
(14% Protein, 10% Fat, 15.7% NSC) = $19/bag

2 parts Kent Feeds Omegatin
(15% Protein, 20% Fat, 22% NSC) = $29/bag

1 part Triple Crown 30% protein supplement
(30% Protein, 3% Fat, 13.1% NSC) = $29/bag

1 part Natural Glo Rice Bran
(13% Protein, 20% Fat, ~30% NSC) = $38/bag

Overall for just grain: 16.8% Protein, 13.8% Fat, 19.75% NSC

He gets good quality timothy blend hay, but not free choice (which is a very good thing). I also occasionally give him a few pounds of Triple Crown Safe Starch (11% Protein, 6% Fat, 8.8% NSC) as additional forage. I don't think he needs it, but it's conveniently packaged for trailer rides and shows.

NSC stands for Non-Structural Carbs which is, in general, the main component you are trying to lower in an EPSM-related diet. Conventional horse feeds contain 30% or more. Brego has never shown any symptoms of EPSM, so we are less strict about NSC. Some owners target for 10% or less which is really hard to do with packaged food. There's a lot of discussion about the EPSM diet, and I don't think we have the final answer yet. I believe a healthy diet has more going on than just the NSC count, such as fats availability and exercise level. I basically listen to what Brego tells me and am not afraid to adjust ingredients up and down.

Due to availability, I had to drop the Progressive feeds, which Brego did very well on. So far so good though, his recovery is nice. His energy level is up, but not "high" and his muscle tone is really getting there.

I should note that when I switched to giving Brego monthly Adequan shots, I dropped his SmartPak entirely (Dare I mention that his "blackening" supplement failed to deliver as promised?). So he is no longer getting any other supplements. Besides apples, that is.

Perfect Day

I think it is officially summer. I spent 4 glorious hours at the barn today, doing a whole bunch of nothing. Well, maybe not nothing, but certainly taking my time "working".

I started with some longing in side reins to work on balance through transitions. Brego did very well and needed little support off the line to keep a nice bend around the (smallish) circle. He's a smart cookie, so his circle radius has to be exactly the length of the longe whip. Three inches larger and he refuses to do anything.

I then dressed him for success in dressage and we worked on canter circles and staying light and soft. He did really well, even with the heat, and I feel like we had a real break through on his shoulder in to the left which is his stiff side. He had nice thin "lipstick" after the ride. Not foamy, but definitely softening.

After we schooled dressage, I gave him a twenty minute break while I switched saddles to his jumping saddle. The barn owner wanted to take him for a spin in the outdoor. I admit it, I rounded up all the barn girls and told them that the barn owner was going to jump Brego (although she had no intention of doing so) so there was a nice audience in attendance for her inaugural ride. After much cajoling, she did canter him down the outside line and they both did super. His jumping was really soft today, which maybe points to him needing more bending flatwork before jumping sessions in the future.

Please put cookies in my lip pouch!

This picture was taken after the ride. He looks a little pooped, but I wanted to show off his new clip in the sun. He's a good weight these days, putting muscle on in all the right places. I am aware that most black horses fade in the sun. The thing that is really weird about Brego, however, is that I had a second Percheron in Texas, in the exact same sun and exact same living conditions, and she hardly faded, if at all. Brego is just lucky, I guess.

After the ride, I took off my shoes and we went for a swim in the pond. Brego loves to swim and he's actually quite proficient at it. The pond at the barn is not really big enough to swim across, so I guess I should say we went for a wade. I then lazed on his back while he grazed under the shade of a tree. There was a light breeze, the flowers were blooming, the grass was high and the sky was impossibly blue. It was a perfect day.