Tuesday, December 29, 2009

New Years Revolutions

2010 is just 3 days away. Looking back, it's great to see how far we've come as a pair, but what's almost more amazing is how far Val has come in his training.

At the beginning of this year, Val had just your basic training- he was good walk, trot, canter, could jump simple courses, could round up most of the time, and had some adjustability of stride. He could do okay leg-yields and shoulder-ins. He was hardly ever hot and he was the type of horse you had to push for every stride, unless he was on cross country.

Change was gradual the first four months or so of the year and gradually built up to the last month's crescendo. Although I (unfortunately) haven't been blogging about it, we've gone through some radical adjustments to Val's training.

The first lesson with some really "new" stuff in it was maybe a month and a half ago. We worked on lengthening and collecting the canter and the beginnings of his working, collected, and extended canter. Pinching knees are starting to mean, "collect!" and a slightly driving seat combined with light leg aids, "lengthen!" Val's becoming fine-tuned! The change just in the last month has been incredible.

With our move up to Novice probable sometime this show season, there's one big weakness we needed to explore and fix- Val's sluggishness. About a month ago, we had a lesson that focused on what I like to call Val's "rocket launcher." We were essentially teaching him to go from 0 to 60 as fast and balanced as possible. He's great at it- he really uses his hind end and comes up in front. But even more amazing to me, he maintains the speed. My sluggish Val has finally found his motor!

At BN, the fences are small (no more than 2'7") and the optimum times are pretty generous. Most horses can easily make the XC and show jumping times. Novice is a speed increase of 50-100 mpm, up to 350-400 mpm cross-country. It becomes even more important that the horse have drive and impulsion from the hind end. Although we've only had time penalties because of refusals and other difficulties (more to come on that later!), and only at two competitions, we've mostly been closer to the slow side. I definitely think we can make novice time XC now.

Our biggest speed problem has always been in showjumping, though. Even though we've only gotten time penalties twice during showjumping, we were still prone to crawling around our courses last year. When you consider that the slower we go, the more my position deteriorates, it's a big problem. You can't have a nice jump without impulsion, which we were lacking in most if not all of our showjumping rounds last year. So, that's probably where our new-found speed will help the most!

We've been practicing stadium jumping at faster speeds. Going back to the rocket launcher metaphor, I like to imagine that I'm aiming a missile at the jump. I lock him on, and then we go; no sluggish oozing over fences.

One of the most interesting lessons we had lately involved a fake Weldon's Wall-like jump. There was maybe a 2' wide fake ditch (created with the use of a handy sheet) in front of a 2'9" vertical, and we were expected to jump it the first time as a part of a combination. After it, there was one stride to an oxer of similar height, then two strides to a skinny vertical. This quadrupled the difficulty- in order to get the two strides to the skinny, Val would need a forward-reaching, fairly fast stride from the very first fence.

I'm not too ashamed to mention I was feeling very nervous of that fake Wall. Whenever I'm nervous about whether or not Val will jump a fence, my first instinct is to get a nice, collected, fairly slow canter. Sure, it probably doesn't have the impulsion it needs to make jumping whatever it is easy, but that kind of canter also doesn't have the impulsion to launch me off my horse if he stops! I'd rather knock it down the first time then get dumped on top of it at speed. Not really a good idea if you're cross-country, though, and a dangerous frame of mind to be in at all. Our instructions were to jump it like a cross-country fence and get the striding right the first time.

So, we went right to it- Val's "new canter" has a totally different feel, and although I was nervous, I could still tell that he wasn't. He hardly even blinked at the strange-looking fence, and we got over that and the oxer just fine. We got over the skinny, but we took three strides in between. We continued to do the line over and over again, but eventually both Val and I were tired and we still hadn't gotten the 2 strides. My trainer jumped on and got 2 strides the first time: the current hypothesis is that I'm landing slightly too early after the jumps and nicking him in the back, making him reluctant to step out like he needed to to get the distance. We've started work on that, but we haven't yet tried to get a two stride again.

Despite that minor failure of the day, it was still an amazing lesson and I got to really feel a forward horse. He was happy to be going at a good clip and happy to be jumping, and I was happy to not have to constantly nag at him with my leg.

That lesson started Valerius' personal revolution. He's become a completely different horse in the past month; his dressage has improved exponentially from the added impulsion. I'm able to apply my aids much more selectively when I don't constantly need to nagnagnag for more, smoothing out the communication between us.

We've started serious work on haunches in and out, as well as shoulder in and out. The half-pass has even been experimented with at the walk, and it's all looking good! I now understand the idea of riding forward to the bit a lot better and our connection is better for it, although he was getting really fussy about taking contact for a few days. That's been mostly resolved. I love his new-found responsiveness more than anything; I can't even explain how incredible it is that he's changed so quickly.

While Valerius has mostly finished his impulsion revolution, I'm just beginning a fitness one. My general lack of fitness is just not acceptable anymore; I can't demand fighting fitness of my horse and not of myself. Fitness has always been an off-and-on battle with me. Although it's probably the most important thing I could do for my riding, I've never really devoted myself to it for more than a month at a time. This is the end of the road for that; I've made a fitness pledge to myself and my horse for the very last time. This time it will be fulfilled.

See you in 2010!

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