Wednesday, February 19, 2020

an uphill battle....

See what I did there??? Har har har, I crack myself up lol.

Ahem. Aaaaaanyway. Moving on.

If you read the recap from my recent riding lesson with respected 5* eventer Sally, you'll recall  the lesson ended with a somewhat abrupt warning that: I won't be able to do what I want to do with the horse if I continue letting him travel in his current way of going.

She clarified by saying Charlie has a very pleasant way of cantering on along, but that he's too horizontal in his longitudinal (nose-to-tail) balance -- bordering at times on being downhill.

Arriving at the jump a little nose-heavy really limits our options in terms of adjustability -- and results in either our patented goofy leaper, or a squishy chip. This isn't such a big deal for Charlie when the fences are small, but the risks increase with fence size. Little misses pack more of a punch at bigger fences, and we risk Charlie quitting... or worse. Our ill-fated move up attempt at the Aloha Horse Trials comes to mind....

we have so very very few nice dressage pictures (and ever fewer of which are even somewhat flattering haha). this one is from may 2018. pc Austen Gage
So anyway. After obsessing over meditating on this little nugget for the last couple days, I have a few thoughts.

First and foremost: This is not the first time I've paid for this lesson, LOL. And actually, allllll the way back in May 2015, in the height of the Dan Days, I quoted him as explaining that, "when he tells me 'forward' what he really wants is more lift through the shoulders and 'jump' in the canter."

So... haha... it's a familiar story.

But ya know. As with just about anything in life, knowing a thing is not the same as doing a thing. Conceptually, the idea of lifting my horse's shoulders makes sense. I understand, in a sort of academic way, what basic mechanics have to occur for the horse to undergo that shift in balance. To lighten his front end, step under with his hind end, activate his abs, lift his back. These are all perfectly reasonable words, yes?

Perfectly reasonable words that I've been instructed upon, and have dutifully recorded here in ye olde training log, for actual literal years at this point. Perfectly reasonable words that I continue to pay for the privilege of having repeated at me again and again and again.

august 2018
Because it turns out I still don't really have a good feel for it. Sigh.

But ya know. I DO still have a very VERY crisp memory of crashing into that fence at the Aloha HT haha.... And.... looking further back, of running right on past Isabel's tipping point, to where she started reliably quitting at fences.**

(**Granted I'm still fairly convinced there were underlying physical issues going on that I was not granted permission to pursue.... But it fits the pattern. If her hocks or something were bothering her, she'd have been increasingly less comfortable shifting her weight back -- and we had increasing difficulty in getting to jumpable takeoff spots.)

So... Eh. Maybe now is the time to really dissect, inside and out, what it means to ride a horse "uphill." To really figure out not just the mechanics of getting there -- but also learning the feel for it, and committing that to muscle memory.

Seems doable, right? Maybe??? lol...

september 2018
Anyway. Obviously. My first step was to consult The Google. Which proved fruitful when the first search result was this Horse & Rider expert advice column by Paul Friday called "Create an Uphill Horse."

While there were some annoying and all-too-common circular explanations in the article ("concentrate on achieving a more uphill canter!"), it actually had some good actionable nuggets.

For my own purposes with Charlie, they were:

1. Rhythm.  First requirement is a consistent tempo and energy in the paces. I've been riding with a metronome since December and can confirm it's helped our balance substantially. It highlights the wide range of "energy levels" Charlie can have within a steady tempo, and keeps me honest about disrupting tempo when making smaller circles or lateral movements, for instance.

february 2019. pc Austen Gage
2. Pace. Paul writes that riders may naturally want to slow the horse down in an effort to help carry more weight behind, but that this becomes counterproductive by disrupting the horse's balance. It's critical to keep the horse carrying himself forward with impulsion.

3. Tension. A horse who is tense or tight in his back or top line will not be able to effectively shift his weight. Riders should focus on keeping the horse feeling loose and relaxed. Charlie likes to get tight right at the base of his neck directly in front of the saddle -- obviously a pretty major impediment to actually lifting through that area haha.

4. Impulsion. Paul writes that you're not likely to be successful in getting the horse more uphill if he's behind your leg. Which.... yeeeahhhhh haha, this is a struggle. To which Paul prescribes riding lots of transitions. Lots and lots. And also testing the quality of the connection. Can you move the horse from a higher 'competition' frame to a lower schooling frame? If not, that's a pretty good sign that there's a disconnect somewhere.

april 2019. pc Austen Gage
From there, the article goes into some specific exercises:

- 10m circles play a big role, as the author notes it's easier to get a horse lighter up front on a bend than on the straight. (But only if the horse is in front of your leg!)

- Lateral work is a theme too. At trot, he recommends leg yielding from center line to rail, then moving into shoulder-in. It's a simple pattern but I actually like it a lot, esp intermixing it with the 10m circles.

- At canter, the article suggests transitioning between haunches-in and shoulders-fore, with a 10m circle thrown in there too. Personally I'm less likely to adopt this exercise yet as I worry about accidentally riding Charlie crooked in the canter.

- Transitions within trot, mixed with 10m circles. Notably, this is the same approach Teresa suggested too. For where Charlie and I are in our training, tho, it's too easy to let this exercise mask Charlie getting behind my leg, so I'm reluctant to spend a lot of unsupervised time on it. Rather, I'll take the same approach but with complete transitions.

 june 2019
So. Yea. There are some themes here: Small circles, simple lateral work, and literally all the friggin transitions haha. I can do that! Thanks, google! And thanks, Paul!

In a way, tho, it's oddly gratifying that the prescriptions for getting a horse more uphill are all rooted in 1st / 2nd level dressage work. Which, you may notice, happens to be exactly where Charlie is. To me, this is reassuring, because it means that maybe we're right on time in addressing this aspect of his training, vs somehow wildly behind the curve.

Anyway. That was overall a very useful consult with the internet. I'm also obviously going to consult with the professionals on our team whenever we get our next lessons etc.

In the meantime, tho, there are a couple other ideas too. Mainly, and in general terms, I want to get Charlie really really fit. Possibly more fit than is really necessary for the level. With the hope being that: maybe if he's crazy fit, he's more likely to keep going and cover for my mistakes lol. We'll see how that all goes!

 november 2019
And, I also want to get more serious about our canter work. Jess from Hilltop tried to get us doing canter-walk transitions this past summer, mainly with the help of the arena walls. I more or less immediately abandoned that exercise tho haha - partly bc it's hard, and partly bc our dressage court is lined by small railroad ties that Charlie will most certainly jump over.

A riding friend suggested that I could try the exercise using spirals in the canter instead. Making the canter circle smaller and smaller until the walk transition is right there. So we'll see. Either way, we're gonna get serious about making canter-walk a thing.

And counter canter. We already do a little bit almost every flat ride -- sometimes just a shallow serpentine, but more usually a single figure 8 on each lead. I'm thinking it's time for more, tho. Counter canter is a great strengthening exercise for horse's hind end (actually, counter bends in general can be really useful), and every little bit helps.

So that's the plan haha. For now, at least. Until the next big "thing" crops up in our training lol. Bc there's always something urgently needing fixing, amirite??

31 comments:

  1. All really good tips and ideas for building uphill movement. With Pig, we did canter transitions on steeper uphills on our walks, worked to keep his neck round at the wither in canter transitions (bc he'd stiffen and brace there, dropping his back), and schooled a LOT of turn on the haunches and walk pirouette to canter. So maybe some other conditioning ideas in there?

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    1. definitely -- conditioning sorta falls into the category of 'getting charlie really really fit' haha.

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  2. Transitions, transitions everywhere, as far as the eye can see! I've been working on a lot of topline-related activities with Mae and as such, have worked on "lifting the belly" and so on. I haven't been working transitions as much as I had been this summer, but this is a good reminder to throw those back into the mix

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    1. oh man, there are never too many transitions tho!! and yea, 'lifting the belly' is a great thought too -- tho for me it still sorta falls into the category of "reasonable words that are meaningless without an associated *feeling*" haha

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  3. Such a thoughtful plan for moving forward. Hopefully you see changes in a few weeks time. 🤞

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    1. thanks - i'm hopeful. i'm really gonna zero in on exercises that feel attainable and positive for charlie, so even if it's still not really getting us all the way there, at least it'll hopefully still keep our work progressing lol

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  4. Those sound like good things to help with the more-uphill canter. Hope it goes well! I'm looking at intro C and the easiest training test this summer but horse's canter has to be less floppy/forehand-y and more purdy. My plan is related to yours -- more transitions (emphasis on walk-canter, which he does have but it's weak and he flails a bit), more lateral work, more ab-strength. For Bird, since we have a grasp on the shoulder-ins and the haunches-ins, we are doing those. I never saw a horse put on muscle quicker than Nick did when we spent an entire spring playing bend-like-macaroni. She went from slight to swole (for an arab) in three months. So Bird gets a helping of macaroni in his outings. It's not perfect but it is something I can do at a walk or slow-ish trot in the mud or on frozen ground where cantering might not be the best idea. Can't wait for spring...

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    1. walk-canter is one of my absolute favorites - and something charlie has really grabbed onto has a sorta game or puzzle that he knows the answer to. i like to use it a lot in our jumping lessons in particular bc it's a great way to right off the bat get the horse up in front of my leg.

      also lol at the "macaroni..." i can totally see how that's helpful. it feels daunting for a horse built like charlie, but ya know. that's dressage, right?

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  5. Ha! I love how similar our approach is to building a plan (it's not stewing if you build a plan, right?). I agree that transitions within the gait can be tricky because it's not about slower, it's about covering less ground but it's hard. Once you've done a million transitions between gaits it will be come easier (at least that's what I tell myself).
    Interestingly enough I read an article about training Baroque horses and the author was saying that slower is better ot build strength and power. I am feeling that with Carmen too. Pushing her too fast makes her gaits choppy. But she's a totally different body type than Charlie. I can see how moving forward makes a lot of sense with TBs as long as they are not tight.

    I too like the spiral exercise, it really gets them on their haunches. Leg yielding at the canter has helped Carmen a lot to get straight and carry from behind. We've done canter down the long side, when she gets strung out do a 10 m circle, carry on.

    Anyway, I'll stop writing this novel and simply cheer the two of you on because I know you can do this.

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    1. ha i love the novel tho! and yea actually i've heard a lot of people i really respect preach the value of "slower" work -- esp as you say for helping the horse not get run past his rhythm or balance. if you read back through the Dan archives, you'll see that we spent a LOT of time working on that slower pushing rhythm.

      my issues is that, in my own unsupervised solo schooling, it's a very very VERY slippery slope from "slow" to "behind the leg." given charlie's dinosaur-stuck-in-tar-pit tendencies, there are very real risks to getting sucked back into that sluggish behind the leg trot. charlie is king of the tiny mincing trot steps, and esp when compared to his large lanky frame, it's a very undesirable picture. maybe a better rider would be able to keep the RPMs up even in the slower step, but we just plain old aren't there and it is not worth the risk of undoing so much of the groundwork i've had to do in getting the horse more zippy off my leg.

      so for now, we will simply employ other methods and exercises that don't open the door for me to shut down the forward haha

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    2. oh I wasn't arguing with not doing the transitions in the gaits- I totally get it. I think you are wise to avoid it at this point.

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    3. sigh, one day charlie's inner dinosaur will go extinct and we'll be able to play around with collection. one day!!!!!

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  6. For me and May uphill balance is more of a war than a battle hahaha. For a long time, I needed to be in a lesson with a trainer who would point out to me when I should "feel" the difference. (probably because I started out as a H/J rider without a huge flatwork education). It took a while until I could recreate that feeling on my own.

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  7. I love how basically all training “issues” can be solved with more transitions. Personally I have PTSD from Gem who hates transitions and made life hell if we spent too much time on them. I’m getting better at working more in with Eeyore though I know I don’t do nearly enough.

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    1. ha yea, transitions with isabel could be..... dicey too. charlie is entirely different tho and the exercise is very helpful for him. just goes to show how important it is to adapt the "textbook" to the individual animal!

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  8. That sounds like a great plan! All super tips - all from Google too! lol Not that they wouldn't be out there, but all of those looked like very easy, doable, but good tips for really helping a horse with their uphill balance. That spiral sounds super cool!

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    1. lol the google is always such a great resource haha - no sense trying to reinvent the wheel when people way smarter than me have already written at great length on these topics!!

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  9. These are some awesome tips & tidbits. I'm always working to get both of my boys to rock back onto their hind ends. Counter canter is one of my FAVs to get them rocked back more!

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    1. i loved how simple a lot of the suggestions in that article were too. so so so so SO OFTEN in dressage, i feel like i'll be looking to solve a lower level problem and people will recommend solutions based on much higher level riding haha. like, ooohkay but if i could do what you're suggesting i do, i probably wouldn't be having this problem in the first place LOL

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  10. If you just only ride up hills than the horse will always be uphill *shower thoughts*

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    1. lol fun fact, tho, that may or may not be part of the plan anyway haha.... poor charlie better brace his tush for some werk!

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  11. A tip that helps me with my down hill horses (especially Henry!) is to think about lifting the horses shoulders with my shoulders. It's a bit hard to explain in written words, it's a feeling thing. But I always feel like to get them more up in front I want us both to lift our shoulder up and back which gets us both sitting straight and up hill. I suppose the visual helps create the feeling for me.

    i also need to do more transitions. Forever and ever!

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    1. Oh yea, rider position is definitely a critical part! Sally reminded me a lot to sit up haha bc I do want to get a little forward. It’s not enough tho, ya know? Like in jumping the riders position changes so much (what about galloping position?!?), tho obvi the balance should hopefully stay solid, but the horse still needs to travel in an uphill manner

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  12. A good jumping flatwork exercise I used to do (found in Practical Horseman) was to set up 3 or 4 canter poles (slightly raised worked best) starting with 14 or 15 feet between the poles. The aim is to get one stride there. Then you gradually (over a series of rides) move the poles closer together, ideally ending at 11- 12' apart, and still get one stride in.
    The horse really learns to back themselves off and compress their stride. Raised poles mean they can't fall over them. And the poles do the work for you so you don't have to pull on their mouth to get it. But it has to be a gradual shortening of the distances so that they learn how the exercise works.

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    1. Compression is such a great exercise - we’ve done a ton of it! Tho like I wrote above, there are real reasons why shortening Charlie’s stride is counterproductive at present.

      One question tho, are you sure about those measurements? When I think about the range from “compressed to true” for various distances, I usually think:
      Bounce: 9’ - 12’
      One stride: 18’ - 24’
      Two stride: 30’ - 36’

      I routinely set up long lines of canter poles (think seven or eight) set at 10’ between them to do as bounces. Can’t think of a time I’ve ever seen anything set at 15’. Tho I’m setting for a show horse (typical 12’ canter stride, and Charlie can get to 14’ without batting an eye LOL), ponies could obviously go shorter.

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    2. It's been a long time... maybe it's ending at 14'? I know I was surprised at how short it could go, and remember there's no takeoff/landing space requirement since there is no jump effort.. I'll have to see if I can find the article.

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    3. Compression is definitely great. The measurements are still off tho. A horse has to make it over the pole using a stride (12’) then have a stride between poles, then over the pole for a stride, then a stride between poles, etc etc. esp if you’re putting a bunch of poles in a row hoping to fit one full stride between each. The jump effort for a fence is equivalent to a normal canter stride, remove the jump and the horse should theoretically still cover an identical distance with a stride (excepting maybe Grand Prix fences haha)

      If you want an example, check out the photo from my sally lesson post that shows Charlie in the middle of a 10’ bounce. Even if those jumps had zero height there’s no other way for him to execute that exercise

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  13. oh girl I feel you on a spiritual level. Hampton is downhill and it's at its worse in the canter. It's very difficult, but not impossible. all of your ideas are excellent. I also find a lot of help in leg yielding at the canter. And a bazillion half halts.

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    1. Ha if Charlie grows up to be half the horse Hampton is I will be completely satisfied lol.... and leg yields at canter are something I guess I forgot about. We used to do them a lot to get Charlie’s RH in particular participating, but I hadn’t considered them for this purpose.

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  14. Ugh, I feel this. And it makes me get a touch frustrated with the training scale because, I need to work on the rhythm so I can improve my connection, and I need a better connection before I can expect him to be more uphill, but I need to influence his way of going to make him more uphill so he's not sloughing around downhill. Le sigh.

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