Training is tricky when the weather doesn't co-operate!
Usually I panic when spring is late in coming, as it has been this year. (See above photo!)
I make up for lost time by sticking to a regimented Back Into Work Program, after Cruz’s unavoidable winter lay-off due to the bad weather and no indoor arena.
No time for frivolity and games: I hear the Siren Call of the New Show Calendar and have to get my horse fit in time for that first dressage competition.
It’s flatwork, flatwork all the way.
But this year, I decided to introduce fun stuff right from the beginning. If we’re ready for the first show – great. If not, who cares as long as we’re enjoying life?! :)
“Steady On!” Doesn’t Mean “Creeping Forwards”
I still need to protect Cruz’s tendons by building his fitness gradually. But there is such a thing as going too slowly. I’ve noticed that my friends don’t crawl at the same excruciating pace as me and their horses survive just fine. :)
My guy has been roaming the great outdoors throughout the appalling weather months, with the occasional trot and canter. It’s not as though he’s been stuck in his stall for four months, doing nothing.
These poles were on dry land when I was trotting through them last week!
Poles on the Ground
When I trot Cruz over poles on the ground, he leaps over the whole lot in one bound.
The last time I trotted him over cross-poles, he bucked. A lot. I then put him on the lunge and asked him to pop over them without me on him.
This time his buck after the obstacle was so huge that when he took off I was pulled face down into the dirt. I let go and watched him roar back up to the barn.
That was two years ago, and I’d not had the nerve to try again. I wanted to have fun with my horse instead of just doing dressage drills, but didn’t want to end up in the dirt!
So I decided to take advantage of the fact that Cruz is currently unfit.
Right on day one of our return to work, I lay a single pole down on the ground, and in a separate place put down two poles with the correct distance for walk between them.
I use Ingrid Klimke’s brilliant book Cavaletti: The Schooling of Horse and Rider over Ground Poles to help with the distances and gymnastic jumping ideas.
I rode him long and low in walk, giving him extra rein as we approached the single ground pole. He walked over it quietly so we went back and forth over it between shoulder-in, leg yield and haunches in, only riding for about 15 minutes.
On day two, I rode him over the two walking poles with a light rein contact, not tensing my seat as we approached them. He was happy to walk over the two poles, not even thinking of rushing over them. :)
I added a third pole the next day, with the same calm response.
I then put them at trot distances. He sped up a little, but was easily persuaded to slow down.
Building on this success the next day, I placed a pole over two upturned plastic feed containers (see photo) to raise it a couple of inches. Our walk warm-up included moseying over it from both direction and then I approached it in sitting trot, as Ingrid Klimke recommends.
This would not normally have water on one side!
In Cruz’s mind this had now ‘become a jump’ and he wanted to rush it. I kept my seat calm and maintained very light rein contact to stop me pulling back on his mouth. He popped over it a little hastily, so I brought him back to walk before trotting him again.
To my amazement, at our second attempt he reacted to my seat cues by slowing down to a walk in front of the ‘fence’!
With Ingrid Klimke's book to guide me with the distances, I set up cross-poles and a trot take-off pole. The approach included the same three trot poles Cruz had been trotting through, several strides before the take-off pole.
To ensure that I stayed calm when asking for my horse to pop over the line (remember how badly he’d bucked the last few times!) I had a friend join me.
Cruz loves Kelli’s mare, Pippi. He goes almost limp with calmness when she walks into my arena. Kelli calms me down, too, so they are a great combination for us
Pippi went first over the three trot poles and the cross-poles. I couldn’t believe how she simply glided over everything in a trot stride. She didn’t even attempt to jump the cross-pole, but fitted it into her regular trot rhythm.
If only Cruz would do the same! However still I tried to sit, his ears shot forward towards the upcoming cross-pole when we trotted over the ground poles. But he jumped quietly over the cross-pole and halted after a few strides in a straight line.
This was massive progress!
Then he actually transitioned into walk in front of the cross-pole!! And no bucking. ;)
I kept the session really short, suppling him with walk exercises for ten minutes before popping over the cross-pole.
But Cruz was enjoying the change in routine. The added interest in his work (plus his being unfit) were keeping him sane.
The plan was working!
It was time to add canter work over small jumps.
Again, I would begin with walk work and keep the sessions really short. But I did want to build on my success with the trot exercises.
I invited Christina over, who has a gray Percheron stallion. Cruz used to be deadly scared of this big guy’s huge presence. But after a weekend show where they were stabled close to each other and chatted over their stall doors, Cruz decided that Peanut is a good guy.
Our first time together, Peanut and Cruz alternated going over the same combination of trot poles and the cross-poles as before with Pippi. Peanut was also just coming back into work, and that was enough for him.
A few days later, Peanut returned to join us for The Canter Exercises.
We began with the previous trot work, then took turns cantering over my raised ground pole, once in each direction.
Peanut was very calm in his approach and popped over the pole in stride.
Cruz was more animated, and needed a quick correction to shorten his stride in front of the ‘fence.’ Although he listened, our first two attempts were a bit discombobulated. But I stayed calm and had faith in my ability to positively impact my horse.
Peanut is a big 17 hands high Percheron stallion with a lot of presence. But he's actually a real sweetheart!
Once Peanut had gone over a second time and Cruz had his breath back, we tried again. This time our stride was flawless, in both directions.
Flushed with success, we moved onto a tiny upright. I’d placed this across the width of the arena, so our horses couldn’t gather speed before or after the obstacle.
The previous canter exercise now paid off. Both our horses popped over the upright calmly and in stride, on a circle in both directions.
The Grand Finale
With Cruz behaving so well, I decided to see if he was ready for one final exercise.
This one didn’t involve jumping: it meant facing his fear of horses coming towards him in trot and especially canter. I need to use every occasion which presents itself to work on the issue.
I positioned Cruz by the little fence he’d just jumped, where he would be facing the oncoming horse, and asked Christina to bring Peanut over it again in canter. This meant Peanut would momentarily be cantering towards Cruz before turning to pop the jump right next to us.
This was the moment of truth. I held the reins on the buckle and told myself: “If Cruz goes crazy, I’ll deal with it then. I’m not going to worry about it until it happens.”
Peanut was now rounding the arc of his circle and cantering directly towards Cruz. My bay pricked the one ear nearest to Peanut, and I felt a quick quiver go through his neck – not even his whole body. Then he relaxed as Peanut came round and finished the fence.
I was on cloud nine. “Do it again, would you, please?” I asked Christina. I had to make sure this was for real – that no one was pinching me!
This time Cruz didn’t even register the 17 hand stallion as he came towards him.
This was unbelievable progress for my horse and for me. He usually does a half rear and spin.
I aim to build Cruz’s confidence in me in these quiet yet playful ways and continue doing fun stuff which involves other horses.
As an example, next Saturday Christina and Peanut will accompany Cruz and me to a local cross-country venue. We'll splash about in the water jump which is open to the public for the day. There will be a lot of other horses milling around, and with Peanut’s help Cruz will stay relaxed.
Soon it will be time to focus more on preparing for dressage shows. And really, we’re already doing that, aren’t we?
P.S. Yesterday I splashed Cruz over the watery obstacles in readiness for Saturday. He LOVED it!
Update: I went to that cross-country water training. Christina couldn't get off work, so I joined a lesson instead at the same venue.
Cruz absolutely loved the Appaloosa-donkey in the group! He was very hesitant about getting in the water (which has a swimming-pool blue base) even though the other horses were milling around happily in it.
But the instructor talked me through it, telling me to look ahead at one of the riders standing in the water and nudge Cruz forwards at his elbows with my foot.
I was proud of him for not rearing or spinning round. He just kept backing up, then taking a few steps forward, then backing up again, etc.
I could feel he was about to lunge in and held my bucking strap for security. But I was told that this changes my position in the saddle. So I had to stop being a wimp and let go!
Eventually Cruz closed his eyes, held his nose and jumped in. It was not a huge launch as I'd anticipated. I patted him like crazy with a big grin on my face.
After that he was happy to trot and canter in.
What a great day!
Horses are my big obsession, and I'm constantly striving to get better, smarter and more in harmony with my equine buddy, Cruz Bay.
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