hiatus benefits

Winter arrived late this year, or perhaps it returned from a temporary hiatus to Hawaii, and about five weeks ago it suddenly became frigidly cold and then started pouring. Which is normal winter weather but after days approaching 70 felt like a really nasty trick by mother nature.  This coincided with ramping Murray back up into work and trying to get fit for the first show we could possibly make it to this year, April Fresno. (A show which is horribly, terribly coincidental with Rolex Kentucky 3DE,  so…. I will be following the live tweeting I guess?)  This has kinda made our hiatus longer than expected, but not terribly so; and I’m trying to put the work in regardless.

I expected Murray to be a) super unfit and b) really unhappy with the getting-back-to-work situation. But I’ve been shocked really very pleasantly surprised.  He’s happy to come to work, and pretty happy to listen t me during work. I mean, he’s still Murray. He still bucks and screams and exorcises the bad feelings by shooting them out of his butt.  But when he’s not doing that, he’s working.  Even better, we’re working together.

And boy-o is way stronger and more muscular than before, especially through his topline. To which I can hear you saying “woah woah woah now Nicole, you let your horse languish in a stall and pasture for 20 weeks and he got more topline? now I know you’re smoking the ganja”, but I’m not. I swear. Sure, he’s a little huskaroo right now. But I found a conditioning program (by the fabulous Jec Ballou) pretty early on that emphasized walking, stretches, and calisthenic exercises (poles) to help a horse keep topline and fitness during downtime. And I did it. Religiously Scientifically. I have walked my horse over so many freaking poles this year, probably more than in the first four years we were together combined.

he’s put on even more muscle since I took this photo

Oh, and poles. We can do them now. Not like “I can hurl myself in a disorganized and inconsistent fashion at these sticks on the ground and hope it turns out all right oh GOD ITS NOT ALL RIGHT HELP”. More like “I can trot to these poles at a steady pace and if I need to stretch out over them I can push from behind”. This is a horse who chipped into trot poles literally 50% of the time from 2013-2017. Not kidding. And now he trots calmly toward them, and, unless there’s a huge question or some kind of majorly weird thing going on, just trots right through them. WITH HIS HEAD DOWN.


will walk over x-rails for treatz

Murray now has way better longitudinal balance, and his lateral balance is getting there. I worked pretty hard to reward him for walking and trotting around while stretching over his topline, so now it’s something he just offers to me because he knows he gets cookies for it. It’s like the lunging and liberty work doing this unlocked his ability to actually use his back and his abs — both on the ground and under saddle. He trots around in a halter (on a lunge or at liberty) with his head down, stretching over his back now. It’s the best trick ever!  (I think this is part of what helped him with the trot poles, as he can problem solve without needing to tighten his back line and tense up.)

And his tail grew. I know it’s a big thing but I’ve lamented his thin and somewhat sad tail for a while now. I vowed not to bang it and to be very careful brushing it while he was on stall rest so that when we got back to work I’d have this big reveal of LOOK MAGNIFICENT TAIL!  A new pasture buddy foiled that plan by chewing half of it off at his hocks in December, and then the rest of it got so long that Murray started stepping on it and pulling it out in his stall.  So I banged it and gave him some light layers, and it still looks thicker and fuller than before, if a titch shorter than I might like.


also: less spooky and not afraid of strange heavy machinery any more

It’s hard to enumerate the benefits we reaped over our 4.5 month break. I expected to have a long uphill climb after taking the time off, but it’s just… not the case. Murray came back sounder, smarter, and happier to work, and I learned a lot about riding, training, and how to teach my horse. Which is kinda crazy to think about, because I feel that we were in a pretty good place even before we went on hiatus. Murray had just saved my butt all over Camelot, and we were hammering out some pretty essential riding/training kinks. To be feeling better than that is pretty baller.

Don’t get me wrong — I have also learned (and continue to learn) about some of the (many) fuckups I’ve made in training this horse over the last four years (see above re: can’t do trot poles). But I also feel like this break showed me how reversible they are, and how to avoid making them again in the future. So… if I make more mistakes it’s okay, we’ll just fix them.

It’s good to be feeling good!

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pony stuff for mf’in adults: seconds pro app

I take my horse’s fitness seriously. There are a lot of things we can’t change about our horses, but fitness isn’t one of them. There is a lot we can do to help out our equine partner’s fitness, and I’m a firm believer that we should.

I also swam competitively all the way through high school, and one thing we would never be without when swimming was a clock. Workouts were written up on a big whiteboard that we could all see from the edge of the pool, and a huge minute clock with a moving second hand sat next to it.  We hauled ass to get through our 200s and 400s within the allotted time, caught a precious five or ten seconds of rest on the wall, and then did it all again. Over. And over. And over.

I can write out my horse’s fitness workouts, but timing the sets is a much bigger challenge. I no longer ride with a watch for a variety of reasons (not the least of which being that my boyfriend takes it off and hides it under the bed when I’m sleeping because it ticks too loudly), and despite many attempts to the contrary we’ve never managed to keep a clock in the arena for more than a few months.  Plus it’s hard to catch a glimpse at a clock that isn’t a jumbotron as you canter past anyway.

When I started bringing Murray back into work seriously I became even more interested in a proper way to time my rides. My eventing watch only beeps on minute intervals, and that isn’t good enough for me — you still have to keep track of how many have passed and how many you have to go before the next set, which get really difficult when you have complicated sets planned out (for example: walk 2 min, trot 3 min, walk 1 min, trot 2 min, canter 1 min, trot 2 min, canter 1 min, trot 2 min — where was I in that set again?). Cell phone alarms definitely didn’t cut it — I have no interest in fumbling with my phone to get one alarm turned off and another set.

Enter: Seconds Pro. (~$4.99)

Interval training is really popular, so I knew there had to be an app out there to solve my problems — something that would let me customize my horsey workouts so that I’d know exactly where I was in the ride and exactly how much time I had left to go. I shopped around a bunch and the internet seemed to agree that Seconds Pro, though pricey, had all the options I could ever want in a pony fitness app.


at left: setting up a workout. at right: what a workout looks like while you’re workin’ and outin’.

Seconds Pro lets you customize your workouts (duh, what’s the point otherwise) and automatically counts its way through the workout after you initiate the timer.  There are different countdown options so you can have your phone tell you exactly what you’re supposed to be doing next in its weird robot voice: Trot Warm Up Left, phone lady tells me. So I trot left.

You can choose left and right splits, so if you want to trot for 4 minutes total and be told when to change directions, the phone lady will do that too! (Or you can have an unobtrusive beeper let you know, your choice.) You can also add pretty colours! I don’t bother. To make your life easy, if you’re interested in doing a bunch of short sets, you can set up one workout and then loop it X number of times — so easy.

so many beeps, so little time

I feel like I’m underselling this app, but it is SERIOUSLY AWESOME.  As you can see from the screen shots, I already started using it for regular rides with the Zookini.  Have you ever trotted a really forward horse who likes to lean into your hands for 2 minutes in each direction when you’re really out of shape? I was begging for those beeps. BUT THEN I STILL HAD TO CANTER FOR 90 SECONDS EACH DIRECTION WTFFFFF.

I was so ambitious. I set just two, 3-minute walk breaks.

I totally took more walk breaks.

Anyway.

I think that Seconds Pro is going to be an awesome tool for horsey and human fitness — those trot sets are totally going to happen, and are actually going to be as long as they are supposed to be.

Oh gawd what have I done to myself.

hot and tired trot sets

After our cross country run at Twin I was surprised at how little Murray was sweating and how low his breathing rate was — we had just run a 5:50* XC course and the boy was barely sweating!  Then I found out I had 13 time penalties (aka 33 seconds over time), and watched the video and realized we did the first 3 minutes at a slow canter and realization dawned upon me.  Murray wasn’t out of breath because we hadn’t run anywhere.

does anyone else feel kinda cheated when their cross country
courses are sub five minutes?
when optimum is like 4:19 i just feel like i’ve been tricked into getting less time
doing the funnest part of the show.
so a 5:50 optimum is awesome for me.

It wasn’t that I thought Murray was super fit, by any means.  But I was surprised at how fit he appeared to be, based on the very, very minimal work we have done this year.  Like, pleasantly surprised at my pony’s baseline level of fitness!  Look at him go, fit thoroughbred pony, not needing any prep for his first rated even in 18 months!  So I guess, yay that he was fit enough to do that, but really… if you aren’t fit enough for BN you’ve got to re-evaluate your pony priorities.

like maybe just a skosh less of this, mmkay?

My regular rides probably range from 30-50 minutes, but that typically includes a bit of ground work, lunging (before dressage rides), and a fair bit of walking.  I’m trying to integrate more extended trot sets and dynamic transitions into our regular work outs, but there’s only so much I can do to think about timing/length of time I’ve spent trotting while also attempting to dressage.  My mind may be mighty, but it’s not that capable.  Plus, the best reward for Murray when he offers up good dressage is a walk break.  It hardly seems fair to keep him trotting and cantering and trotting on when he’s trying to be good in the fetid black tack.  So this weekend I made a concerted effort to put in some fitness hours for me and the pony, even though it was hot and I knew it would be kinda boring.  Because fitness is important, and I hear that if you’re doing it right you can work cardio fitness while also practicing some of those all-important dressage skyllz, and it’s super fun.

And Murray was great, and more than handled the trot and canter sets.  Based on the advice in Equine Fitness, we did two 3 minute canter sets sandwiched between 6 minute trot sets.  It was the first kinda warm day of the year (we burst out of winter and RIGHT into 90 degree weather, wtf), so I was terribly unmotivated to do anything much longer than that.  We both sweated, my left leg hurt from all the two-pointing, and we went both directions.  I consider that conditioning ride #1 success.  I really should get a TPR baseline on him, but (wouldn’t you know it) it’s a little hard to approach Murray with a stethoscope.  Put a foreign body up his ass and he’s totally fine with it, but auscultate near where the girth goes? NO THANK YOU.

I’m firmly of the belief that part of conditioning isn’t just the slow and steady increase of cardiovascular capacity and stamina, but also the ability to persist and work through tiredness.  Tired and sore muscles are a legit thing for athletes, but nobody is stopping on cross country for a walk break.  So if we want to be successful (I mean, probably not at Novice but maybe in the future we’ll get beyond that?!), Murray and I both need to be able to behaviorally manage lactic acid build up and fatigue, by knowing what pace will allow our muscles a bit of a break.  But we also need to know how to mentally push through the pain and unpleasantness of the lactic acid build up and keep jumping and running.

Another piece of the puzzle, on my side of things, is becoming a good enough rider and horseman to manage a tired Murray.  I’ve heard this on the live stream nearly every time I’ve watched Rolex, but the horse you have in the last two minutes of a 4* course is not a horse you have necessarily ever ridden before — they are so tired and so spent that you have to manage them fence by fence as you go.  I’m not trying to say that running BN is anything like running a 4*, but as we move up the levels managing a tired pony is something I’ll have to think of.

cruising

It’s Spring in Davis, and that always means one thing: WIND.  The Spring winds are awful and persistent and awful.  Last week it was gray and windy, and this week it is hot as balls and windy, but sandwiched in the middle there were a couple of days of beautiful, 72* weather and no wind.  So friends and I took advantage and hauled out for a hack.

Our journey wasn’t without drama.  Murray decided that post-Twin he was never getting in a horse trailer again, or something like that.  The trailer we used for that 5 hour haul was on the small side, and Murray and his big ego don’t do small-horse trailers, I guess.  On the way home he flat out wouldn’t get into the second spot (which is actually bigger, but appears smaller and harder to get in to), and only got in to the first spot after my trainer took a hold of him.  I was a little worried about it on Thursday, but since we were using a different trailer that Murray likes (normally), I tried to play it off like I was super cool.  Alas, Murray wasn’t buying it, and would get two front feet on and then pause and wildly back up when I asked him to come forward.  I’m not really willing to let him slam his head on the top of the trailer, so I’d let him.  He was so not on board with the trailering game that he wouldn’t even eat a carrot out of my hand, which is pretty clearly not a happy Murray state to be in.

Eventually my barn manager got him on, but not after standing for about five minutes with his hind feet out of the trailer, stretching his neck as far forward as possible to be with her, little toes pointed.  I can’t remember exactly what precipitated it, but eventually he bunny-hopped his little feetsies into the trailer and off we went.

We joined a friend at WSS, and the three of us cruised all over the property.  Murray is always pretty good in groups on trail, as long as nothing too exciting is happening.  Too exciting is defined as a gait above a sedate walk, or doing anything other than eating grass when other horses are achieving said gaits.  That was awesome for my friends, as their ponies needed a little mellowing out away from “home” (though she boards there, my friend’s horse is not totally comfortable in the wide open spaces just yet).  In his own way, Murray was a great teacher for this.  Want to trot? Eat some grass.  Worried? Eat some grass.  Don’t know where you’re going? Eat some grass. Feeling a little queasy by the vast expanse of the unknown and your sudden realization of your own miniscule existence in the universe? Eat some grass.


solution focused, this one

We walked all over the cross country course, and would have gone through the water were there any.  We even cruised over toward a many-mile (I think like 12 miles?) perimeter trail that goes around several neighboring properties and is part of an easement agreement between all the owners.  I would be totally game for that trail some time, just maybe not on a weekday when I have work to get to at home.

We cruised for nearly two hours, and were probably past due to head home, really.  Though we did nothing but walk, I felt like it was a good notch in Murray’s fitness belt, since the terrain undulated gently, in addition to a couple of nice hills.  Plus, how often do I walk my horse around for more than ten minutes, even?

I would like to do more hacking out this year, and add in some trot and canter sets.  I think I can find a mile long track on the perimeter to canter, which would be a fantastic fitness exercise.  But we will see – real life and real jobs have a habit of getting in the way of these things.

get fit or die (of boredom) trying

The hard thing about getting Murray fit this year is that I know that there are all kinds of fun things that he can do, but that we shouldn’t do right now.  Given the fact that Murray has been essentially sitting in his stall and cruising around pasture with intermittent 40 minute exercise chunks once every two to three weeks, leaping back in t work is bound to come with a tired pony and some sore muscles.  I do not want to sour him by making him muscle sore and burned out with a sudden return to the six-day-a-week lifestyle.  So I’m trying to be mindful of Murray’s current level of fitness, but still keeping our rides fun and productive.

In some ways we’re way ahead of where we have been in the past, because Murray is so much more ready to work and understands using his body better.  I no longer have to wait until we’re most of the way through our ride to get Murray connected to the outside rein, or ride around hanging on the inside rein to get him to stretch down.  So I get to focus on our bad habits, and encouraging the good habits.

wp-1463587279209.jpgnot getting fit

There’s a lot of walking involved.  I hear it’s the foundation of fitness.  Also, if I do it right, I can hatch a lot of Pokémon.  Leg yield at the walk, shoulders-in at the walk, haunches-in at the walk, free walk (if possible…)… it’s all fair game.

The other day I threw in half a long side of shoulder-in and then a volte and haunches in between four loop serpentines in the outdoor arena.  At first Murray was like “what the WHAT, turn AND go straight, are you crazy?!” but after a kick and some coaxing he remembered.  And then he was so good with the shoulder-in and haunches-in that I was like “maybe I could try a little bit of the half pass again that I rode at dressage camp?!”  But that wouldn’t be fair, since I’m not sure I could ask for it again without coaching and Murray would certainly be confused.  Later.

IMG_20150223_134233not getting fit

Today we worked on keeping a good outline and spiraling in from a 30 meter circle to a 15 meter circle with good bend and keeping our hind feet under us – enough of a challenge even when we are fit.  Then we took a walk break and changed directions.

I did a couple of canter transitions in each direction, and was quite pleased with them.  Often this summer, when I didn’t have time to ride or didn’t bring out riding clothes, I would throw Murray on the lunge in side reins and work on canter transitions, as they have bene the source of many comments for us.  We had all kinds of problems with them, leaning on the inside rein, throwing our heads or bodies around during them, and most of all tensing up during the down-transitions.  But the change in Murray’s transitions from the lunging has been huge.  He is much straighter and can even pull out a few round transitions without leaning on me!

nap-02not getting fit

But that’s another one where I don’t want to fatigue him.  I know that good canter-trot transitions rely on a supple SI, and overworking this trick will not a supple SI create.  So I kept it to a few canter transitions and then let us both have a break with some stretchy trotting.

Oh yeah.  There has been (and will continue to be) a lot of stretchy trot too.

The key, for me, is going into my rides with a game plan.  I have absolutely zero interest in cruising around the arena doing bit trot and canter circles and changing directions across the diagonal a few times – even if those changes do happen to be fancy and flying (not us, yet).  I have never been that type of rider.  I find it mind numbing and it’s the fastest way for me to get off a horse.  So I plan out a little exercise while we’re doing our walk warm up, even if it’s a circuit that involves a few repetitions (4 loop serpentine, 15 meter circle, shoulders in, 15 meter circle, haunches in, 4 loop serpentine, repeat…).

2014-07-12 10.05.32not getting fit

And that’s how we fitness.  And with any luck we will get back to the fun stuff soon.

Napping montage brought to you by Murray, the nappiest pony in the world.

old lady problems

I had a lovely, relaxing weekend of celebration (with beer donuts! anyone want a recipe?) and pony rides.  I honestly travel or have some kind of adventure on so many weekends (usually 3 per month) that a weekend at home with the creatures is a luxury.

Beer donuts almost too successful..

A post shared by Nicole Sharpe (@nicolegizelle) on

Anyway, after a long few days off to recover from camp Pony was back in work, and then promptly terrified me by looking lame on the lunge line.  SIGH.  He wasn’t, though, just stiff and sore still from our camping adventures.  Though I was obviously sad he was sore, it does fill me with a little bit of joy that despite it being a very tiring weekend, Murray was willing to give me his all for our stadium and XC rides.  So we took it easy Wednesday and Thursday with light, stretchy dressage rides, asking pony to remember how to stretch since he had clearly forgotten in all of that jumping excitement.

As we worked towards returning to our former dressage “glory” I decided to accept “good enough” stretch and warm-up work and just move on to some of our current exercises, like shallow counter-canter serpentines and crisp simple changes.  I suspect I am suffering from a kind of shifting baseline-like effect — I’m so used to the new “normal” that it seems that we have made no progress, despite having made LOTS of progress in the last year.  I’ve also been working hard on my own position lately, since I discovered how freakishly crookedly I ride.  [I wrote about that for Horse Junkies last week.]

dressaging01
Glorious for the dressage hating baby

Saturday I got on for what was supposed to be an easy, quiet dressage ride and Murray decided he had completely, utterly, totally, entirely forgotten the concept of bend.  I am sure that holding my body in a new way is freaking him out, but it will be better for us in the long run.  So I took a cue from many of the blogs I’ve read lately and just worked on shifting his shoulders around both on and off a circle, and finally worked towards the spiral in.  We only got to about a 13 meter circle in the middle before Murray’s bend would break down, but we did finally get true bend in there, and I managed to control his bulging shoulder on the spiral-out too.  A hard exercise for a pony generally disinclined to acquiesce to that request.  I try to include some canter work in every ride too, since I know it helps stretch hamstrings and limber the back by using the pelvis in a different motion, so we did some of that too.

Sunday I did something I have never done before — you all are going to laugh at me — I jumped in the rain.  Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever even ridden outside in rain like that.  We had an uncharacteristic California Spring shower (THANK YOU ALASKA FOR THE COLD FRONT!), and I was already tacked up and had set my jumps outside when it started sprinkling.  No worries, I thought, time for some George Morris style saddle breaking-in.  Well, then it got colder and rainier and the only way to stay warm was to keep moving so I did.  Fortunately, we came in before it started POURING freezing cold rain on us.

And that brings me to my old lady problems.  In getting Murray and myself fitter, I’ve been doing a lot more two-point.  And lots more two-point has actually really been helping my balance and position so yay.  However, lots more two-point also makes the outside of my calf hurt.  You know that tendon that runs down the outside of your shin bone?  I have no idea what it’s called, but it’s always stretched when I two-point because my heels get so deep.  And then after some trotting and cantering it starts to kinda… hurt in a stretched way.  As I’ve done more and more two-point in my rides, it’s hurt later and later in the ride (so it’s getting stronger, I think?) but I can’t really two-point around every day since I do a lot of dressage work so… any exercises to help that tendon/muscle/whatever strengthen and hurt less?

The other old lady problem I have is my left foot.  The big muscle under the arch/base of my foot starts to cramp after a while.  And then I have to kinda pinch my knee to relieve the pressure, or shove my foot into my stirrup so the stirrup bar puts pressure on that muscle.  I suspect it’s because I’m tensing my foot up somehow, but attempts at relaxing it are futile!  Any hints on that one, fellow old ladies?

equine fitness project: week whatever & a weak hind end

Back in January I was pretty obsessed with getting on the fitness train with Murray hardcore, and I had a whole plan to do it.  Unfortunately, life got in the way (swollen knee, lame, out of town, horse fell down, horse got chiro), and Murray and I haven’t really done much conditioning to date.  I guess we did do some hills, which was quite good for us.  To try to make up for that, I’ve been doing extra long warm-ups and cool-downs (at least 10 minutes of walking, closer to 20 if I can manage it), and a long trot set before our last conditioning ride.

I mentioned back in week one that it’s important to Improve your piano technique with Hanon exercisesknow your horse’s unevenness, and both Ballou and other equine fitness authors talk about the importance of working the weaker side correctly.  My intuition, as a hoomin, is to just work the weaker side more.  I’m right handed and a pianist, so when I wanted to gain strength and dexterity in my left hand I just did Hanon scales and exercises with my left hand until it was ready to fall off.  Then I did them some more.  But this doesn’t work with horses.  Such muscle fatigue, depending on the person you talk to, just causes more compensating with the stronger side, stiffness on the weak side, and possibly even injury.

You can’t ignore the weak side, you just can’t approach it the way I’d approach my weaker side (work it hard, work it often, don’t let up until you get the results you want). According to Ballou, the best way to approach it is with a combination of conditioning and stretching exercises.  Stretching encompasses everything from shoulder in and lateral work to stationary stretches done from the ground.

How do I approach this with Murray? First is to know his weakness, and know it well.  (Know thine enemy!)  Murray is weak through his right side.  He struggles to bend right, but not because he is stiff through the left.  Kid can stretch both directions on the ground very well.  He struggles to bend right because his right hind is weak, and engaging it is a) hard, b) challenging, c) not intuitive, d) all of the above.

These are the exercises I can do every day (aka no need to trailer to some hills) with Murray to help strengthen his right hind, though I do them in both directions. I’ve obviously not been great at it lately, but I’m planning on incorporating at least two of these into every ride from here on out.  For all of these, I used Equine Fitness, my dressage trainer, or our equine masseuse to guide my way.

First position/shoulder fore/shoulder in — I try to ride around in first position all the time but I struggle with it — Murray doesn’t naturally follow my shoulders when we’re tracking right (because he doesn’t want to stay off my inside leg). Shoulder fore and shoulder in both encourage your horse to step under with the inside hind, and stretch and engage their lumbar muscles as well!  (Image from Sustainable Dressage, one of my fave websites!)

Faux turn on the forehand — Murray can’t do a real turn on the forehand because he cheats.  Instead, I hold him in hand and turn him in a small circle asking him to step over strongly with his inside hind.

Canter departs — Murray’s weakness really shows in his left canter depart (the outside hind takes the brunt of the force in canter departs).  For a horse like Murray who is in good enough shape to practice these, canter departs really help strengthen the outside hind.  They are always something I can work on — especially if I ever want that elusive lead change — but I must be careful not to drill because someone gets cranky when I do that.

IMG_8458

Canter transitions within the gait — Cantering, which is already pretty fun, also stretches out the quadriceps and hamstring muscles, of both hind legs but especially the outside hind.  My masseuse suggested that I ask Murray to do a little collected canter, medium, collected, extended, medium during our canter sets to get those muscles limbered up and moving.

Toe touch stretches — Straight out of Ballou’s book, I like these stretches because they move his leg in all different directions.  You take your horse’s hoof and stretch it straight back as far as you can, directly to the side (think perpendicular to the direction of their body), and forward, all keeping the toe close to the ground.  You hold each of these positions for ten seconds, and repeat at least once.  Move slowly, especially in the beginning.  I’ve found Murray really appreciates these now, though he was fairly resistant in the beginning.

What are your favourite exercises and stretches for the hind end?  I want to learn more!