strength training

I should look for a job conditioning someone’s expensive sporthorse, because I enjoy it. I enjoy walking up and down hills, trotting over hill and dale, all with a careful eye on building the strength and stamina of my mount.

This winter has been pretty wimpy, but one side benefit of that has meant more trot! The ground never got hard, and we’re probably going to have a drought this summer because there hasn’t really been any mud either.

We’ve been going up and down hills at walk and trot, mostly. I’ve taken delight in the 10 minute warm up and 10 min cool down (always observed this, but with renewed vigor as I follow Denny Emmerson’s writings), carefully warming up Midas’s muscles and then working them on the hills, then cooling them down again. Important at any age, but he’s in his 20’s.

We are outside the ring as much as we can manage.

We’ve also done some canter up hills, not a lot, but some.

I’ve worked twice in the ring this spring–I mean actually worked hard in the ring. There have been one or two other times when I didn’t have time for a proper ride so we did some bareback work while I dwelled on seat and legs.

And wouldn’t you know, that ring work was MUCH better. We’re straighter (it’s also been just me riding all winter, so that helps with his straightness, too), softer, and stronger in the right way. I’ve been deliberate about asking for softness, and then for shorter periods of time asking for self-carriage and roundness. (Rather than asking all the time and hoping desperately to get it now and then). Understanding that it takes physical strength to carry oneself makes a big difference.

All I have to do is think about me doing pilates and my approach to asking for such things changes dramatically. Midas not going around like a dressage pony has less to do with obstinance than fitness and know-how.

He gets fast when we introduce canter, like it simultaneously excites and frightens him, and if you let him, he’ll counter-bend and speed into the canter when he thinks you might want him to canter. So I focus on bending him the correct direction and not letting him zip, and then if we’re organized I’ll sigh, and say “Alright, go ahead” and he’ll usually pick up canter.

Sometimes I have say canter. Sometimes I don’t 😛

Sometimes I have to cue with my leg. Sometimes I don’t. 😛

But once we’re cantering, leg becomes essential.

He falls on his face a bit when he canters, so I have to sit back, lift my hands and apply lots of leg–not a kick or anything, but a steady pressure alllllll down the inside leg to remind his body which way to bend and to block his shoulder. If I’m too weak, he caves in and we lose our balance on the turns.

After all the hills, though, it’s easier to help him stay balanced.

We moved quickly through a bunch of different exercises last time I rode. A 10 minute walk on a long rein, then finishing with some bending, and leg yields, then trot–first at his pace with a long rein, then more organized and then finally collected for a little with bending. Then, canter.

You’ll laugh, but we cantered a time and a half around the arena left lead without falling apart, and that might be the first time that’s happened since I broke my foot.

When we changed direction, I let him canter without making him do figures at trot until he was bending properly, and it was a very unpretty and resistant canter where he DID NOT WANT TO BEND, so even though we made it around the ring it was disorganized and probably would have scared 13 year old me.

I changed tack, focused our breath on trot, doing figures, relying as much as I could on leg rather than hands, so I could encourage softness from him. Once we were organized, I let him canter again and it was MUCH improved, and I didn’t make him go more than once around.

I gave him a long rein immediately upon coming back to it–before he could pull, even–but kept leg on so he knew he wasn’t to walk–his trot was loose and not zippy, he was clearly quite pleased.

Once we got down toward the “canter corner” he sped up, despite my gentle whoas, and picked up canter. I decided I didn’t care. He picked up the correct lead, and I didn’t feel like spending the next however long fighting with him about that corner. I kept up the gentle whoas, but offered him no other help with his canter. He cantered up the side and returned to a dignified trot of his own accord, shockingly organized, actually, and I insisted he keep trotting because that’s what I had asked. In the “canter corner” he again ignored my gentle whoa and picked up canter, but only went a couple strides before coming back. As if he was tired, and also might have just realized he wasn’t listening to me. The next time he didn’t even speed up at all. The whole thing was on a long rein, I did almost nothing, and he figured out all on his own that maybe he should pay attention to my gentle cues like he does when we’re walking.

Also, we cantered on a long rein, and he actually did an OK job. We’ve both made good progress.

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