Thursday, March 19, 2009

Anyone Can Event!

Completely random thought for today:

Have you ever see Ratatouille? It's a great little animated film about a rat who wants to be a chef.  He idolizes a dead French chef who wrote a book called "Anyone Can Cook".  Anyway, it gushes with Pixar goodness (second only to WALL-E, in my mind).  The rat's arch nemesis is a food critic who insists that [insert condescending tone] "No, not just anyone can cook."  Of course, in the end, the critic is won over, but he has a great character arc in which he makes a stunning realization:

When the dead French chef said "Anyone can cook", he did not mean that "Everyone can be a Five-Star chef", but that a "Five-star chef can come from anywhere".

In no small way, that is the motto of this blog.  If only I could make a wildly successful animated film about Brego!

But anyway, I don't believe that every horse can be a great eventer.  But I believe a great eventer can come from anywhere, showing talent despite the typical "profile".  People should remove the scales from their eyes and stop the "breed" chasing and just look at raw talent, no matter how pudgy the packaging.

We're talking about adult ammy standards here, not Olympic talent.  You know, the horse for the 98% of riders out there.

Completely objectively (*cough* *cough*), Brego has talent.  He is not as talented as some, but he is more talented than most.  And I am exceedingly lucky to know him, I take no credit for his talent.  It's his and his alone.  My neighbor cum trainer is a wonderful and kind woman, but we've not ridden for her yet so she has just seen Brego standing around in a field.  And he does not exactly ooze talent just standing there, scratching his butt on a tree.  So, even though she tries to hide it, she's very skeptical when I talk about him as a dressage horse, or as a jumper.  She's stuck in the "breed trap".

No matter what sport you perform, or even no sport at all, try to frame your mind that "Anyone can _________!" The next big Five-Star chef may just be scratching his butt in your pasture right now.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Conditioning a Draft

Brego and I hit the road today. Since I knew we would be doing trot sets, I put him in his easy boots with a support pad to help with the concussion of the road. I love roading, I think it's an often overlooked piece of the conditioning puzzle.

Any good book or trainer will tell you more about conditioning than I can, but I can share with you some of the observations I have had while conditioning a draft horse that were slightly different. As with all horses, conditioning hard tissue and tendons takes much much longer than conditioning heart and lungs. Most people look at heart rate and respiration as THE conditioning parameters. To a large extent, they are the easiest to measure and they are important. But the hardest part about keeping a draft going in a fast sport is not heart and lungs, it's keeping them sound.

From what I have read, legging up, or conditioning bone, tendons, and connective tissue takes six months or more, depending on the horse. Conditioning heart and lungs takes about six weeks. That means that long before you add speed to push the heart rate up, you need to be riding long, slow miles over some pretty rough terrain to build up the legs. It also improves balance and body awareness while strengthening the stabilizer muscles. This is why I like roading. In my experience, walking and some trotting over hard surfaces really improves legging up. It stimulates dense bone growth. My last jumping trainer once told me that Brego's front tendons felt like bridge cables, huge, tight, and hard. That's a conditioning complement. Trotting endless circles in a sand arena, even in the correct intervals, will not build your horse from the hoof up. You have to get the miles in.

I rode Brego for a full year out on trails before I ever added speed. I would put 12-15 miles in a day at the walk with a little trotting, over very rocky terrain. In fact, I didn't add speed and heart and lung conditioning until just last year.

There's lots of information out there on interval training, especially for eventers and endurance riders. I think interval training does build heart and lungs faster and easier than just riding fast for a long time. So once you have a legged up horse, investigate some good interval recommendations from people a lot smarter than I. Incidentally, foxhunting, with its checks and gallops is great interval training (and very fun)!

The biggest problem for me, when I first got started trying to add speed, was that I was afraid to push Brego. He would be blowing after a few minutes of trotting and I thought he was done. What I have learned over time is that he blows, and he needs a recovery period, but that after five minutes, he was back to 100%. Brego comes off a jumping course blowing, but he's not exhausted. He's more than likely hot, and he just blows. The key is his recovery period. If he is not fully recovered in the desired time, I pushed him too far. If he is recovered in a minute, regardless of the how much sweat and foam and blowing, he was not pushed enough.

I mean, Training level eventers come home with Thoroughbreds completely lathered after a conditioning set. Sweat is not the indicator of over exertion. Recovery time is a better indicator. If he looks as bad ten minutes later as he did while we were working, something is wrong.

Heat is the biggest problem when conditioning a big muscled horse like Brego. For normal horses, humidity is like a 2x magnifier. For Brego, it's 10x. It could be 50 F, if it's humid, Brego can't cool down. If he can't cool himself, he can't recover. So again, the recovery is key, and I have to factor in the weather when taking note of his fitness.

I also keep Brego body clipped in some form or fashion all year. Right now he has a trace clip, but in the next month, we'll go to a full body. This improves his recovery time immensely. Brego has good legs, and he has a good strong heart, but he is just so HOT. So anything I can do to keep him cool while he works adds noticeably to his performance.

One other observation is that when Brego is fit, he recovers faster at a trot than at a walk. So I can use judicious trotting in our interval sets during the break to add to his legging while not pushing him too far cardiovascularly.

So to apply all this information to today's ride:

I make the assumption, when restarting after a long break, that I am starting at zero. So the first few conditioning rides won't even include cantering.

We went down the road and walked the loop in a neighborhood we would later trot. I wanted Brego to see everything and everyone to see him first. Then we trotted three 5 minute intervals with 3 minute breaks. During the first break, I watched his breathing until he recovered and so that set the length of the subsequent breaks. Since we were working on a hard surface, I let him set the speed within the gait, I only asked that he pushed up the hills. I didn't let him drag down on his forehand.

After the intervals, we walk/jogged back up to the farm. Brego was blowing very hard, but couldn't stay in a walk, he was very alert, jigging. Once we got into the barn, he suddenly seemed quite tired. I noticed he was sweating around his eyes and his respiration was high. I untacked him quickly and got him back outside, offering him a drink. Once out in the breeze, he perked up again. He was stifled in the barn and wanted a walk. I cooled him out and within five minutes he was completely cool and dry. So even though he was blowing and sweaty, I didn't push him too much during the ride. However, since we were on a hard surface, I am happy with the amount of work we did.

After I turned Brego out, he cantered around his field some more, just to flaunt that he was not tired. But for a moment, in the barn, he looked exhausted. He was just hot. So, I need to do more to cool him and will likely body clip him before too much longer. By the way, today was sunny, 50 F and about 35% humidity. He just has too much hair for his liking.

Brego showed me we are not starting at zero. He should bounce back into good form within the next six weeks.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Back in the Saddle

I had a great ride today in the indoor. Totally Ab Fab. We set up a 2' jump on the diagonal on some of those plastic blocks used for cavallettis. There are no real jumps available. After a little warmup, I took Brego over at a canter.

The boy can jump! Sure, it's 2' and sure it was a single fence, but he felt great. His canter was nice and balanced, thanks partly to the super tight corners in the indoor. He hit the striding and jumped properly, really using his back. He picked up the correct lead over the fence or swapped after one stride. The boy still has his auto changes.

I, of course, looked like I always do, elbows flapping, toes to the side. But! I did not get forward and I had a following contact. A little rusty, but not a complete disaster.

I feel really encouraged that we will be successful this season. And by success, I mean showing good improvement, no over facing (of either of us) and being respectful in our performance to the judges. No embarrassment.

Ok, so we can still jump. But Brego's conditioning is a real problem. I am glad the fence was just 2'. He needs to be much more fit to do higher or more jumps. Conditioning is now my #1 priority. Trot sets, here we come!

During my walk home, I put an arm around his neck as we walked and chatted about jumping and the summer and shows. I realized it was the first time we had jumped since the day of the Big Crash of '08. The fact that it had not occurred to me before then is a really good sign, that my nerve is still good. I also felt no hesitation from Brego. It will be interesting to see if either of us get any flashbacks as the intensity of our jumping progresses through the season.

For now, I am very very happy.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Another Gorgeous Day

I must have done something right, because I have been gifted another gorgeous day. And on a weekend, no less! So in between playing on the farm, Brego and I hit the road. We did more hill work at a walk and trot. Brego's feet have been wet so I am watching his toes for wearing down on the asphalt. He could stand to lose a bit of toe. I left him long through the winter as long as he maintained his concavity. His feet look great, I should get some pictures soon.

Anyway, we came trotting up the hill on our road and ran smack dab into the driving Morgan and his people, out with their sulky (or whatever the two-wheeled cart is called). Brego, I am sure I have mentioned this before, HATES driving and not-surprisingly, he went completely non-linear. I would say nearly logarithmic. I mean, he F-R-E-A-K-E-D out.

I performed an emergency dismount and swung the reins over his head and then chatted with the neighbors while he jigged, levaded, and piaffed at the end of his reins. Good boy never pulled, but I kept my eye on him. We decided we would follow them home so he would "chase" the cart and keep it in front of him at all times.

This worked well until we got to their farm and their minis, literally less than three feet high, came running up across the paddock. Brego snorted hard at these little horse-eating cougars and finally came completely unglued, running circles, running backwards, plunging. I had to use some quick feet to keep the proper distance from him, but luckily, he never bolted or pulled on the reins. My friend in Texas always says the mark of respect from a horse is that when they are running from a cougar, they run around you, not over you. Well, Brego was very respectful as he gyrated around me, but I wasn't taking any chances. We danced together for a bit until I could get him close enough to the minis to actually see them (they were blanketed so looked even more strange than normal). Once he saw them, he instantly relaxed. Flipped a switch. I mean, he did live with minis not four months ago. Cougars no more, Brego lowered his head, sighed big and then started asking me for carrots. Dork.

We stayed a bit longer so Brego could watch the Morgan being unhooked from his cart. Then I let him "chase" the cart as it was wheeled into its spot. He's very brave when something is moving away from him. That's why I call him Bravo. :)

Anyway, it was a fun visit and a good ride. Not too much saddle time, but lots of good mental stimulation and "listening" time.

Riding outdoors two days in a row??? Must be spring...

Spring!! No, wait. Winter!

It's been a good week on the Brego front. I rode three times, twice in the indoor, and yesterday out in the sun, the blessed sun! Highs in the upper 50s. Spring! Of course, it is supposed to snow tonight. Winter.

Anyway, Brego has been loosening up and starting to work off the aids. It is amazing what his brain retains. It just reinforces how intelligent these animals are and how much of their perceived "dumbness" may be related to the physical, unable to perform the movements, in pain, etc.

Anyway, the first show of the season (a two-phase combined training) is at the end of April, so I used my outside ride yesterday as an excuse to drop by the neighbor who trains and inquire about lessons. We chatted for a bit and then setup a plan to start scouting for indoors to take lessons in. The indoor across the street may not allow outside trainers. Regardless, I am so excited to start lessons again. And jumping.

After visiting neighbor #1, we rode up the street and stopped by neighbor #3 who has the driving Morgan and the minis. We got the scoop on some good trails in the area that will be out from under snow in only four short weeks. We also got the fairground's schedule. They host shows most weekends of the summer, and they are two doors down as well. Mostly breed shows, but we may be able to pop into an open class just to get a round over fences in.

Both horses did very well. They were calm with the intermittent traffic on the road (I did wear my highway safety vest!) and stood patiently while we chatted with various people. After a winter of being limited in their external sensory activities, I was happy to see that they had not lost their brains.

Today is more sun (before the return of snow), so we're going to hit the road again. My street has a colossal hill that we can condition on at a walk (trot if it's dry). Any riding is good riding, at this point.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Good Reading

In my last post, I alluded to some great Jane Savoie tips. I listen to her CDs and got a lot of my inspiration there, but she also writes an incredibly informative blog. I love Ms. Savoie because she speaks to the average rider, even though she is an Olympian.

I am a mere mortal, but even playing around with some of her tips have really helped Brego and I. The emphasis being "play" and experimenting. I am always trying to find the key to my particular horse who is quite unlike the "average" dressage-oriented sporthorse. He requires that I think outside of the box, and not push leg into hand (a method enjoyed by my TB). So the main themes that drive my riding with Brego are 1) Balance and 2) Flexibility.

If Brego is not balanced, weight off his forehand, we cannot be successful. He is too big and clumsy. For a year, I have focused on balance and his hind end and it really helps. He will never be "catty" with huge suspension, but he does push well from behind and is much more coordinated.

Brego has a thick throatlatch and can get heavily muscled through the neck. So keeping him supple and flexible through his body is key. I spend time "in hand" and under saddle, asking for him to unlock his neck. I even overbend him to the side, allowing him to pop his shoulder if necessary, sometimes just to make the point. Not every movement we make is perfect or beautiful, but it all should be following the themes. I can cram his head in a perfect frame or never let his hind legs cross or never pop his shoulders, but he will not learn to loosen his neck. A lot of time, from the ground, our rides looks pretty weird. But he *feels* great!

This is just what works for me. After doing all the exercises, I spend the last week before a show putting him back together in a consistent way, to ride the test in a flowing manner. I don't ride the test to train, I train to ride the test. Well, actually, I train to have the most rideable horse I can. But the point is that riding countless 20 m circles does not improve Brego. I have to go beyond to strengthen him and then we can put together a nice 20 m circle. Nothing revolutionary here, just my thoughts on the matter.

Anyway, enough of my rambling. Here's the good information from Ms. Savoie:
Clearing up Confusion About Canter Aids
How to Help Your Stiff Horse Bend
Strengthening Your Horse's Weaker Hind Leg

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Of Canter Cues and Bending

We had another nice ride in the indoor tonight. Brego definitely feels better having lost some weight, I would guess maybe 50-100 lbs. He still has a nice layer of fat over his ribs, but he's lost the roll behind his shoulder blade and over his withers. I no longer struggle to get the girth on the first hole.

Since we're getting back into the swing of things, I kept cantering to a minimum. We worked just enough on it for me to practice my new canter cue. I have been listening to Jane Savoie on CD and she talks about the canter cue being a "windshield wiper" type movement of the outside leg (in addition to the other aids). She says too many riders hold their outside leg back for too long and then cue with a squeeze. Guilty as charged.

For as long as I had Brego, getting him to canter was such a chore that I liked to "warn" him it was coming, so he could gather himself and try not to fall on his face. As he improved and got stronger, I, being the weaker link, kept the cue. So the last couple of times we have ridden, I was retraining myself and Brego to canter with a swift outside leg cue. It takes more coordination than it sounds. :)

Regardless, tonight we started to get it. Brego definitely understand the new cue, but his body is still in hibernation. A couple of our departures were more like lunges into the canter but the key is that we both have agreed to change our vocabulary and seem to be talking once again.

At the walk and trot, I worked on Brego's bend. He (or rather I) tends to be one sided, so I tried to work on strengthening his weak hind leg by overbending his stiff side and counter bending his good side in a figure 8. I am not sure I completely understand the logic, but Brego certainly did. It was very hard for him to counter bend. Think of turning Brego like a bus.

After trying this at the walk and trot, Brego started offering a very relaxed and true bend on his bad side (if I could remember to keep my inside leg at the girth). Lots of mental thinking and coordination during this session, which is the part I really love about dressage.

Overall I am encouraged. Brego's mind is as sharp as ever and he seems willing, even excited, about the mental gymnastics. Now if it would stop snowing and we could go for a real ride and let him stretch his legs. The smallish indoor really does make me feel like we're both boxed, anticipating that next corner coming way too fast. I tried to mentally trick myself that the arena was larger than it was to not cut off the corners. It's amazing that when I focused on it, Brego did much better. Horses are mirrors of our thoughts.