Saturday, September 20, 2014

How To Say "Goodbye" to Your Beast

...but first, lemme take a selfie!

Before I start, don't worry, her highness is happy, healthy, and full of fall time drafty cheekiness.

I have written and re-written this blog several times at this point.  Deleting thousands of words each time I think I have finished, deciding it is not good enough, opening another beer, and starting again.

The first draft was lamenting how expensive horses are and how broke I am... But you don't need to hear that

The second was about because I am broke I needed a second job and now have no time to ride my horse... But you don't need to hear about that

The third draft was a mixture of the two complaining about working 60 hours a week plus taking multiple graduate level courses AND trying to get a draft horse fit.... But you don't need to hear about that either.

What you DO need to hear about is how do you know when it is time to say goodbye to the horse who has made you the rider and more importantly the horsemen you are today?

It starts with a lot of crying... like a lot... Like inconsolable body shaking hiccuping crying

And once that is done you man up and start problem solving.

Ariat has been on the mend from her injury and is coming back into work.  She has been feeling better and better, but if we are being perfectly honest, she is not the horse she once was.  We recently had a dressage lesson with a new trainer and while I learned a lot and A tried hard, and we made some good progress in the span of the lesson it really hit me, she is just not the same.  While she has never been a dressage super star, she REALLY does not want to bend, give, come through, or move laterally.  She is a bit uneven on a diagonal pair signaling she would like her hocks done and while majority of her unevenness at this point is probably because of weakness, she is not as comfortable as I would like.  

So weakness is a lessor of two evils right?  At least she is not broken-broken, right?  Obviously correct... Weakness is something that can be worked on and fixed.  However, getting Ariat fit and strong is an epic battle that only Sisyphus would understand.  

It means long hours in the saddle 6 days a week working on nothing but building her fitness back up.... and I started to think: to what end?  To have a horse who dislikes ring work be a Training Level dressage horse who MIGHT on a really REALLY good day pull off a high 60?   So I left the ring, as I believe that a strong base of fitness is started outside of a freshly groomed area.  The more I hacked Ariat out on the trails the more she seemed to come alive and really take interest in our rides as opposed to just "putting her head down" (in quotations because from previous posts we all know she never offers to simply put her head down) and do her job. 

So many of you may be thinking, "what's the problem Kirsten?  Just trail ride your horse?  Problem solved!"

The truth is (and this is where I still beat myself up with guilt about), I wish trail riding was enough to keep me satisfied as a horseback rider.  I know many many people who own horses that are simply pets, that they have retired, or are just trail horses.  Unfortunately, that's not me, it has never been me, I am far too practical of a person for that.  Horses are really freaking expensive and the only way I have been able to justify the cost of owning a horse is because she was allowing me to ride, learn, and compete which are all things I genuinely enjoy doing and have deeply missed.

Figuring out how best to ride A in dressage and how to condition such a large horse for a 3day is what I love.  Those puzzles and challenges are what I thrive on.  And A has nothing left to prove and does not need to be a part of my new goals.  I one day want to give Training a shot (knowing that I have LOT to work on before that discussion can even be broached and also knowing my confidence jumping might never get there.... But I want that to be an option)  and Big A obviously has never been that horse and has done her part in helping me get there.  

SO... there I was... Not happy with my riding... not happy with my horse... not able to afford my horse.... working too much to even be able to ride my horse.... and worse of all FEELING ABSOLUTELY HORRIBLE ABOUT ALL OF IT!  How HORRIBLE of a horse mom am I to get this frustrated with the horse who has literally given me everything?!

So I began to search for someone who would appreciate Ariat as she is now and ride her appropriately to her soundness and comfort level.  

I was looking for an on farm lease, maybe someone to come and hack her a few times a week while I'm too busy and this person could possibly help offset the cost of owning a horse when the most amazing opportunity fell into my lap.

An old friend of mine, who has similar education, experience, and horse caring beliefs as me (AND DRAFT HORSE EXPERIENCE!!!! because while practically perfect in every way... sometimes A can be.... well lets just say #JerkMare) contacted me asking if the adorable draft cross she saw on Craigslist (yea... I put her on CL... yea I was terrified and almost didn't, thank goodness I did) was mine!

I immediately called her, arranged a day for her to come out and meet The Beast, that went Fab with A being completely relaxed and right at home with her out on the trails (we had had several other test rides with less experienced riders and A was VERY good, but seemed a bit worried and definitely was not being the easiest horse... like come ON mare!  I steer you with my SEAT!  You can turn when they pull on the reins!  #JerkMare)

So after being an absolute crazy pants horse mom and calling all references despite knowing and feeling very comfortable with this person I went out and checked out where my girly would be living.

Lets take a second and step into an alternate reality... 

If I had a billion dollars and had a house with a barn in my backyard here is what I would do to keep Ariat.  She would be in a big mostly dirt paddock, with a run-in or shed, that she would be outside 24/7 in.  It would be hot wire because #JerkMare.  She would have AT LEAST one full haynet out in her paddock, ideally a few that she could move between.  She would have hay in front of her at all times because #spoiled and also #CorrectHorseManagement, and she would just hang out going on trail rides a few days a week and do nothing but exist and be her awesome Ariat self.

Now with that being said you will understand why I can even begin to stomach the thought of letting Ariat go... That is LITERALLY the barn situation Ariat will be in.

My girl will live the life of absolute luxury!  She will get 24/7 turnout which is something I couldn't even find for her this winter, she will get a big ol' haynet daily, something she can't have now and has actually begun dropping weight as the temps start to drop, and she will get both the time and the attention that she deserves that I simply cannot give her right now.  Her new job in life is to just go out on nice long trail rides up and down some dirt roads, down rail road beds, and through some beautiful woods.  We have literally found an "Ariat Paradise" and I couldn't be more happy.

I know there are people out there who might disagree with this decision, who might judge me, and who might think less of me because of this.  All I can say to that is Ariat's well being and honestly, happiness is and will ALWAYS been my top priority,  I would not let her care go out of my control unless I was 110% confident in the person's abilities, knowledge, and common sense.  Had I not found such a perfect situation for her I would figure it out, as (much to the chagrin of my parents) Ariat's well being has ALWAYS come before mine and that includes scrounging up the money to pay for her board every month.  

I wish I lived in that magical alternate reality I spoke of earlier... I would have my Ariat, my new big bold eventer (obvi originally trained by WFP and imported just for me), a fun GP dressage school master, and my favorite school horse from college and literally just spend my time riding all of them and competing and living the life.  Unfortunately, I have to spend some more quality time in the world of reality, go to school, pay my bills, and build myself a future that will allow me to include horses and competing without it being so stressful.

This decision was not made lightly and has been a long time coming going back to when we felt her start maxing out some Novice xc jumps.  I knew even then that I wanted to do more and that wasn't what was in her best interest.  The plan was to play around some lower BN courses, work on my eq, and eventually find someone who wanted an Elementry/BN packer to lease.  But as always with horses, you need plan A-zz and need to be prepared to utilize each and every single one of those backup plans.

So now Ariat is off to live her perfect semi-retierment life and where does that leave me?  I'll tell you, taking a nice long break from the horse world.  I feel very burned out right now with horse people and their drama and I just need some time to sort out my own crap without that added stress.  The plan as of right now is to find a place to take some dressage lessons next spring and maybe play in hunter world next summer in an attempt to build a lower leg and a semblance of a position over jumps.  If I have ANY hope of getting to Training Level I need to fix some massive flaws in my foundation first.  Eventually I will start the search for my next partner in crime, something big boned but not quite as chunk as Ariat.  Can be a work in progress on the flat, but I still need a horse who just goes out there and does its job over fences.  Ideally a big bay mare... but let's not get too picky here... Ariat fell into my lap when I was least expecting it and I will eventually stumble upon my next partner.  Until then the BeastEventer blog will be quite as I enjoy a non-horsey winter.

Thank you all for reading this, if you read the entire thing, thank you for acting as my therapist as I work my way through letting go of such an amazing horse!  Her new rider has given me an open invitation to come up and trail ride with them so really this is not about saying good bye forever, but instead about making sure Ariat is living the life she not only deserves but has earned.

Read More "How To Say "Goodbye" to Your Beast"

Sunday, August 10, 2014

VOTE FOR KIRSTEN COWAN & ARIAT ON EVENTING NATION

typical pair of hot messes 

Hey BeastEventer fans!  I have entered Ariat in a contest on EN for a trial on the new Hamilton BioVet UltrOz therapy!  I have done a lot of research into these therapies and would have LOVED to do this from the start of her injury, but it was out of my price range.  This is the perfect opportunity for it to help her recovery completely and continue on the path to a new job with no further discomfort!  Please go check it out and vote for us!

Read More "VOTE FOR KIRSTEN COWAN & ARIAT ON EVENTING NATION"

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

BeastEventer goes on Vacation!

Hello all!!  I hope you are all having a fabulous summer and competition season so far!!


Ariat and I have just been chillin and tack walking and cold hosing and chillin some more!  Because of the fact I can no longer seem to multi task her rehab has been even slower than planned... Not the worst thing.... But boring none the less!


Anyways, the point of this post is to say I'm taking a hiatus until September-ish.  Between school, work, rehabbing The Beast, and other personal life struggles (you can bet your dollar I will have a post about having non-horse friends in the fall)  I have not found the time to blog and honestly with Ariat sidelined there are only so many time one can blog about tack walking and/or 8:30am nap time.


However, please follow BeastEventer on Instagram for a new series of daily tips/products/musings 




Read More "BeastEventer goes on Vacation!"

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

What My XC Colors Mean to Me

In a single word?  

Confidence

Have you SEEN this Pusheenicorn guy?!  I can hold entire fb conversations around this little dude... To me, he is all confidence and is a bit like, "Yea, I'm a rainbow unicorn cat, what are you gonna do about it?!"

Are you sitting there thinking, "well it might take confidence to be a grown woman and dress yourself and your horse (thank goodness she is at least a mare) in as much purple as you can find to the point even small children and pony's can't beat your color coordination and also admit you know what a pusheeicorn is and seem to identify with it?!"

Naw, while almost true, that's not what I mean

To understand this I will have to give you a little history.

Jumping TERRIFIES me

There I said it.  It does.  It always has and I suspect it always will.

Photo Credit: GRC Photo - Used With Permission
Sure, we did this one day, had we jumped stadium the next day, I guarantee you those jumps would have STILL terrified me

But here is the funny part, I am infatuated with Eventing, there is nothing on this earth better than the feeling you have when you cross through those finish flags after a strong and honest XC trip.  That feeling perhaps falls only second to the feeling you have when you are driving home with your partner safe and sound tucked away all poulticed and lineament-ed in the back of the trailer munching away at some hay, sometimes after a good weekend, sometimes not, but safe and sound is the part that actually matters.

Happy Mare after conquering the beast that is Groton House
Note- Purple quilts

Now, obviously we all love the thrill of xc... But xc involves jumping... which TERRFIES me!!  Confused?  It's okay, I still don't get it.  Except that I really seem to enjoy working my arse off to achieve something thought impossible.  For instance I used to believe the idea that I would EVER start Eventing was impossible.  Than I found myself with an Ariat and Elementary domination became a thing that happened. 

Blue ribbon at our first event ever?!?!  Who had thought?!

Gosh, I was SO scared of those 2' fences!  SOME where even *gasp* 2'3" (I am NOT making fun of 2'3" quite the opposite, I was TERRIFIED of them).  SO SCARED.

I especially enjoy this look of happiness yet somehow confused that I had actually just finished a xc course... and hadn't died... Ariat looks equally shocked with what had just happened

Similar look of shock landing off of the last fence at Novice Champs (fence I came off at the previous year)

But Eveneting is something I wanted to do bad enough that I buckled down and tried.  Failed.  Tried again.  Failed again. and just kept trying.

#epicfail

Jump lessons after jump lesson.  The mixture of extreme fear to extreme hatred for my instructor for making me jump the "bigger" log or the log with a downhill landing (NEVER tell an instructor you are scared of a fence, you will find yourself jumping said fence on repeat and it will be on every "course" you school ever ever again... *shudder* Reservoir View *shudder*)

But I had an appropriate horse for my level of awkward life struggles and bonus points she seemed keen on keeping me in the saddle.  In fact the first time I came off her jumping was in competition and she was basically more upset about the situation than I was.

So?  You may be asking?  What does ANY of this have to do with the fact your xc colors are obnoxious?

Well I tell you, after I point out Purple is in fact the color of Royalty (totally not from my brain, but from a friend of a friend's and I stand by this statement 110%, also this is where a pusheenicorn could be inserted to emphasize the point that I just owned you with solid logic on purple's amazingness).  Somewhere along the line I began to figure what the heck I was supposed to do and while I would never consider Ariat and I good... I think we were safe and struggled along in our own little bubble enjoying when we pinned and just enjoying the sport when we didn't.

But on xc mornings I still felt violently ill.  I could eat nothing but fruit and while not necessarily personal experience, I was once informed you would know how nasty the porta potties would be the morning of xc based on how tough the course looked. #eventinglife

Nerves are good, in fact you WANT a bit of nerves going into that startbox!  A bit of adrenaline coursing through your veins.  You want to use this to go out and ATTACK that course!!  However, what you do NOT want is to be so overly nervous that you curl up in the fetal position, take your leg off, and stop riding.

waiting for the 10second mark... Nothing more nerve wracking 

So we all know this.  Not riding is in fact bad and especially when it comes to solid jumps that don't fall down... RIDING-riding is preferred... But try and tell that to me as I'm curled up in the fetal position in my horse trailer because my second Novice course was HUGE and there was no way in hell we were going to survive it.  (Spoilers- we did, Ariat was fab, we learned a lot)

After a major miss at Fence 1, remembering I might need to sit in and get her BACK on that bum

THIS is where my obsession of purple comes into play.  

Let's face it, BRIGHT purple is pretty ridiculous and it just plain puts a smile on my face... But let me walk you through my xc prep:

- Boot Ariat and apply purple duct tape with black electrical tape stripe (nervous energy is given a specific task)
- Black with purple trim saddle pad, mattes pad, and saddle goes on next (admire how nice that saddle pad looks, oh wait, xc, nervous)
- Time to dawn my crash vest which actually gives me some confidence in and of itself
- RIDICULOUS purple skull cap time!  The act of putting on this helmet get's me so motivated to "go into battle".  It puts a big smile on my face which is immediately followed by determination and sheer will to dominate (Ariat & Kirsten Style) whatever course is in front of us.
- Whip!  Black and Purple Jumping Bat!  Always carried, hardly ever used, also just is part of the uniform I wear "into battle"

At this point I usually stand in the dressing room of my trailer and take a few deep deep breaths and try to shake off not nerves, but self doubt.  I have surrounded myself by very knowledgeable horse people and I have convinced myself if they thought I was going to kill myself they would have mentioned something by now... Therefore,  that means I can do this and I WILL do this.

-Bridle time!  One bad arse draft monster head sized figure-8 bridle with... *pause for dramatic effect* ... PURPLE REINS! *insert pusheenicorn here*

At this point in the process someone somewhere has made some joke about my amount of purple which does nothing but bring a massive smile to my face, because lets face it, they are obviously TOTALLY jealous!  (another appropriate pusheenicorn moment)

After all of that I am still nervous, sure, but it is more manageable nerves, nerves I can use to R.I.D.E, remember to kick on, look up, and when in doubt, LEG ON.  EVERYTHING with Ariat is fixed through forward!  Blow a distance?  Stay tall and keep supporting... that mare is GOING to go over that jump, you just need to stay with her.

Eventers cherish their xc colors.  Everyone has their own reasons, tastes, and stories.  Some judge other for being too color coordinated or too ostentatious and even possibly obnoxious... But you know what?!  Who cares?  If the rider likes it and it brings a smile to their face, let them rock it out!


Although, the above picture is when I realized I should, for myself, tone it down a little.  I put a purple quota on my gear!  Purple reins were definitely necessary, so purple gloves got retired, purple brow band came into play, purple fly bonnet became our schooling hat.  Complete purple saddle pad fell apart, black with purple trim replaced it.

After all... Keeping It Cla$$y is really what it is all about


Oh... and this is a thing that happened #necessary #jealous

Credit: Pusheen.com
hehehe

Read More "What My XC Colors Mean to Me"

Friday, June 13, 2014

Horses are not robots... Neither are their riders

At long last Ariat and I have finally been given the all clear to start back to work... Tack walking... for 10 minutes...  I spend more time tacking her up than I do actually on her back... But it is indeed a start!



First ride back!  

We have been off and on again since last November.  But at long last we seem to be heading in the right direction!   However, it is SO hard for me to get on and have her not feel like she did last September.  I know she has had significant time off and I know she might be able to feel like that again... with time... LOTS and lots of time.  I understand she has no muscle left and is back to being very very weak, a chronic issue of ours when it comes to our Dressage work.

Long rein walk out of the ring is A's favorite part of this whole dressage thing

But that does not stop me from WANTING that feeling back.  That feeling of her softening in her poll and jaw, really stepping up from behind, lifting through her back, and suddenly she feels like a little rolly polly sausage of a pony who can be moved in any direction, laterally or longitudinally in a light and powerful way.  I want that... not in 6 months, but NOW!

I want my dressage pony back!

However, we all know that's not how it goes.  She will need time to come back into cardio, muscle, and mental fitness.  She has spent the last 3 months doing nothing but eating and this:


yes, her life has certainly been rough

And it took a long time to get her from

this

to

this
Photo Credit: Cindy Arendt Photography, used with permission

But injury aside this is not just an issue I am dealing with.  

It is important as riders that we remember our horses are not robots.  

There are no magic buttons to push when you get on to get them sitting, lifting, and moving in that big uphill powerful way.  

We have all had that one lesson where everything clicks into place, you get that 8/9 trot and that canter transition, darn close to perfect.  So the next day you are still on could 9, you tack up, hop on, and attempt to recreate that... and it fails... miserably.  Your horse is tight, resistant, and maybe even just a little pissy.  So as a ride your get frustrated and honestly, maybe you get a little mad... Not saying that's right, but that it happens.   

There are MANY many reasons for this change.  Most common for me is you just can't recreate your riding exactly as you do when your trainer is in the ring with you.  You miss the little adjustments, half halts, transitions they have you do that all build and lead to the desired outcome, if you are doing the same leg yield exercise that you did in the lesson, but your horse is actually just running with its shoulder first and dragging its bum along for the ride, chances are that's not how you actually rode the exercise the day before.  Riding by yourself is HARD and it takes time to remember to focus on the basics like not having your large 3/4ton horse run away with you at the walk... not that that happens... daily...

Another explanation is that that lesson was both physically and mentally hard for your horse!  Good solid dressage lessons have left Ariat more fried physically and mentally than any jumping clinic we have ever done.  And heck, YOU as a rider might be a bit sore!  I know after a dressage lesson with one trainer I solidly feel like my core muscles have been torn apart.  This is why I say riders are also not robots.  So don't beat yourself up when you can't recreate what your trainer can, there is a reason you are riding with said trainer.

Another area of this topic I want to address is how I hear a lot of fellow riders and competitors complaining about their normal steady eddy horse's behavior at shows, especially early in the season.  They get down right discouraged and also quite angry that their horses are not acting themselves.  Maybe they are a bit hot, high strung, spooky, looky at jumps they "should not" be worried about.  They say things like, "this is not acceptable behavior" (because the horse was calling to other horses).  I caution riders (understanding that sometimes these are legitimate behavior issues that will need to be addressed) to take a look at the environment their horse has just been brought to... what time of year is it?  Sure your horse showed all last season, but has he been in an indoor all winter looking at nothing but those indoor walls?  Sure he jumped ditch to walls last November at that one show without a problem, but has he even seen a ditch in 5 months?  

I consider my horse a very level minded animal who has competed up and down the East Coast, competed in another country (sure, Canada, but still... it counts!), and has really proven that she is a "been there, done that" type.  

Ariat: "Got it!"
Kirsten: "AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH"
Photo Credit: Rachel Greene-Lowell

Ariat: "Got it!"
Kirsten: "AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH"
Photo Credit: Rachel Greene-Lowell

However, she is not a robot.  There is always a chance she can come flying off that trailer the morning of an important competition with her nickers in a twist.  Last season when we got to Fitch's in NY for Champs we hacked up to the dressage rings for a light school, really just a walk about to stretch legs and give the mares a chance to take in the sights... Ariat sees the massive round bales that were still out in the fields waiting to be picked up, she (obviously) decides they are Ariat eating monsters, drops her sounder, and bolts the other direction.  I nearly eat it because I was (obviously) not paying attention and I'm not sure my friend would have been able to help she was laughing too hard.  I then had to school Ariat for over 45 minutes because she was CONVINCED those round bales were out to kill her and I was equally CONVINCED I was going to have to retire on xc if they didn't get picked up because there was no way we would be able to gallop past them if we couldn't even handle them from a far.

pretending to be scared of something in the woods

Said round bales were moved by the next morning and we ended up finishing middle of the pack in a massive competitive Novice Champs division.  Moral of the story is my horse had just trucked 5 hours in the heat, been unloaded in a strange environment, then ridden, not in a normal ring, but hacked out to a big field (past Allison Springer!!!!!!  Although, I'm not sure Ariat was nearly as impressed as I was) and she thought the abnormal items in the distance were scary... You know what, I can live with that!

Something else I would like everyone to think about is how much of our horses behavior is dictated by the example we as riders/trainers/caretakers set.  Similar to being a parent if we as riders are stressed and freaking out that we are at a show chances are your horse is also going to start freaking out because CLEARLY there is a legitimate reason to be scared.  

If you as a rider are CONVINCED your horse will spook at the Judges booth, chances are your horse is going to think YOU are scared of the judges booth and therefore there is something to be scared of and in turn WILL spook at the booth.  

Same goes for that one jump on every xc course that you swear you are going to have a stop at.  If you let that fear get to you, convince you as a rider that your horse will stop, chances are you will either stop riding that fence or over ride it and your horse will decide there is clearly something wrong and not jumping seems like the better option.

Lets remember horses are not only herd animals but also prey animals.  I won't toot my own horn and say that Ariat sees me as her alpha... 

#notimpressed

The mare is dominate and thinks quite highly of herself, but for whatever reason she seems to not mind taking care of me and (for the most part) listening to me.  However, this is a partnership I have built over time with this mare.  I feel confident now that she will jump anything (within reasonable specs) I point her at IF I give her a fair ride.

At the start of last season we went to a TON of schooling shows at first so I could figure out the best way to warm the Girafferator up for dressage.  But it also got us into a routine, showing became no big deal.  I unloaded her and set her up next to the trailer the same way, tacked her up in the same order, off to warmup we went, sometimes we jumped, sometimes not.  It was all very routine and sort of became an everyday thing.  Now obviously I was nervous at the bigger shows as anyone would be, but because we were both used to the routine of showing in general it made for a much smoother experience.  I was not nervous about trailering her there, or about being at a show, or worried about how she would react to being at a show.  We had done it enough times that I was rather certain she would be chill and was even more certain I could handle it if she wasn't.  

So the moral of this long rambly post is that neither you nor your horse are robots.  Horses make mistakes, have off days, and are not push button despite what every sales ad out there says.  And riders also make mistakes and have off days.  And if your off days coincide AND its a show or clinic day, well then that's a bummer... But remember, you can always start a blog and share your story to the masses and turn it into an educational experience!

In all seriousness, if you are encountering problems with consistency or issues at shows, talk to your trainer and chances are you two just really need more experience.  More field trips off the farm and honestly, more chances to make mistakes and have minor freak outs without the outcome being blowing a large sanctioned competition.  

And if you are in my position where your large drafty gets winded from 15 minutes of tack walking where 6 months ago they could trot for 45 minutes with no problem... take a deep breath and remain patient, they will come back, it just takes time.  

In other news, who wants to start creating robot horses with me?
Read More "Horses are not robots... Neither are their riders"

Thursday, May 22, 2014

How to Condition a Beast Eventer

Conditioning you say?

So you want to get your beast eventer as fit as possible!  You want your draft cross (or other non tb horse) to be fighting fit out there on xc galloping right along with those nimble thoroughbreds!  Said thoroughbreds get fit walking to turnout everyday where as you have been consistently riding your beast for MONTHS and find you are still running out of steam on xc...  What are you to do?!  How do you condition a draft horse?

Take a nap in the sun, that is what you do!

I warn you getting a heavy horse fit is a HUGE time commitment.  Get ready to not skip rides because friends want to go froyo, because the weather is bad, because you are tired, are because you are stressed and busy.  Get ready to be tacked up and ON your horse for 5am because the temps are going to get up into the 90's with 85% humidity.  Get ready to discover what blisters, rubs, and saddle sores are.  Get ready to learn just how far you are going to need to push not only your horse but yourself.

I don't do mornings....

Sets in the POURING rain

Last summer I broke up Ariat's fitness into two parts, I will tell you what I did and will also tell you what I would do differently if I could do it all again, and how I will condition Ariat in the future.  This may get a little confusing, I will try to explain it as best I can.  I strongly suggest printing out a month calender and in PENCIL sketching out your plans.  As always with horses, Plan A-F generally don't pan out, keep adjusting and working, do NOT skip conditioning rides.  The best advice I received on getting Ariat fit for the 3day was from Denny Emerson who told me it was indeed possible as long as I did not "short change" my horse.  Be committed, because if you are not, it is simply not a fair question to ask your horse to perform.

I made this in like June... It got changed several times so the numbers are not right, but you get the idea!

Part I --> Was Dubbed "Before Fitch's" and was the conditioning schedule I did leading upto the Area I Champs (we completed at Novice)

We came out of the indoor in April and I started to slowly increase her riding time.  I am a firm believer in breaking the 60 minute rule.  You cannot get a horse like Ariat fit in 60 minutes, hell she takes 45 just to warm up!  So we came out of the indoor and I at first just did slow and steady:

3 minute trot sets (with 2 minute walk breaks) * 3
1 minute canter sets (with 2 minute walk breaks) * 3.

Now you may be saying, ".......... 1 minute canter sets Kirsten?!" This, for Ariat, was a lot at the time!  It's impossible to get her wind fit at the canter in an indoor.  Something else to remember is that when you come out of an indoor your horses have been on nothing but (hopefully) perfect footing all winter.  This is NOT what they will encounter out on xc therefore I spent a lot of time hacking across different terrain and I am also a big fan of walking on pavement to start building up their feet (barefoot ponies out there) and their bone density again.

My general schedule right out of an indoor is riding 6 days a week, conditioning sets once a week, jumping once a week, and a mixture of hacking and dressage.

Throughout the month of April and into May I built her up to three 3-minute trot sets and three 2-minute canter sets and then began a very regimented schedule that would be the backbone of our work for the rest of the summer

It is an 8 day rotation of work.  Note that she hardly ever worked a full week without getting a day off, for my schedule it was just easier for me to have something planned for everyday that way if something came up and I had to miss a ride (dressage schools ONLY), it wasn't the end of the world.

Day 1 --> Conditioning Sets
Day 2 --> Dressage
Day 3 --> Jump School
Day 4 --> Dressage
Day 5 --> Conditioning Sets
Day 6 --> Dressage
Day 7 --> Dressage
Day 8 --> Hack

Jumping days were usually my lesson days and if I did not have a lesson I would do jumping-like exercises like cantering over ground poles and small grids to help us build strength.  I am a big fan of building my horses strength on the flat, the mare knows how to jump, she knows her job, the goal is to get her fitter and stronger so she can do her job to the best of her ability.  My jumping position leaves much to be desired, but a lot of that is also a strength issue, so just cantering over ground poles in my short stirrups was a great exercise for me as a rider.

Conditioning sets slowly increased over time (Fitch's is in mid July).  I usually did 2 set days at one time frame and then increase them on the next one.

For example:

Starting Set Numbers (Done for 2 conditioning sessions)
3 minute trot set (w/ 2 minute walk breaks) * 3
1 minute canter set (w/ 2 minute walk breaks) * 3

Next Move-Up (Done for 2 conditioning sessions)
4 minute trot set (w/ 2 minute walk breaks) * 3
1.5 minute canter set (w/ 2 minute walk breaks) * 3

Next Move-Up (Done for 2 conditioning sessions)
4.5 minute trot set (w/ 2 minute walk breaks) * 3
2 minute canter set (w/ 2 minute walk breaks) * 3

... and so on.  With the trot work at first I increased it by single minutes and increased canter work by 30 seconds.  This is horse dependent, just go slow and steady.  Later in the season I was able to move her up in 3 minute intervals at the trot and still just 30 second intervals in the canter.

**WARNING** While horses do not need to be in a dressage frame for conditioning sets they should be put together and in good balance!  Letting them barrel along on their face or completely inverted is not good!

So this continued until we arrived at the magic number

5 minute trot set (w/ 2 minute walk breaks) * 3
3 minute canter sets (w/ 2 minute walks breaks) * 3

And this is what we did until Fitch's came around.... and while she was pretty dang fit, for her, it was HOT and HUMID, and we almost retired on xc.  She came off xc in rough shape and it took lots of ice and walking to get her temp and respiration back down to normal.  I ran into the one and only Boyd Martin about 30 minutes into my cool down with Ariat and she (... and me....) were still a hot mess and his horse was prancing as if he just arrived at the show.

One tired hot beasty after sets in August

Part 2 --> 3-Day Fitness

After a few days of just hacking (I rarely give Ariat a day off-off after competitions as her muscles knot up) I began to devise how I was going to take this horse from "horse trials fit" to "3day long format fit".  After talking with a few well respected trainers in my area I reflected on my beasty and come up with this:

Day 1 --> Conditioning Sets  (Hack)
Day 2 --> Dressage
Day 3 --> Jump School  (Hack)
Day 4 --> Dressage
Day 5 --> Conditioning Sets  (Hack)
Day 6 --> Dressage
Day 7 --> Long Set
Day 8 --> Hack

As you can see above Day 7 is the only day that changed.  What this basically has done is allowed for a "hard" (not dissing dressage I PROMISE) every other day.  What this allowed me to do is really evaluate her on the flat the day after a "hard" ride.  See how tight she was feeling, how much walking she needed that particular day to loosen up, gauge how much energy I had left after a hard jump school (Her grain and caloric demands went through the roof during this time).

The end goal was this:
On Conditioning Set Days: 15 Minute Trot Sets (w/ 2 minute walk breaks) * 2 and 5 minute Canter Sets (w/ 2 minute walk breaks) * 3
On Long Set Days: 25 minute log trot sets (w/ 5 minute walk break) * 2

Of course you don't just DO this... well some do... DON'T BE THAT PERSON!

I did the same as I did in "Part-1" and slowly increased her times, for the shorter trot sets I started to be able to increase her by 2-3 minutes every 2 rides, if she felt particularly tired after an increase or if the weather got incredibly humid, I brought her back down.  There is a lot of trial and error with numbers, pay attention to your horse, and try and figure out the difference between them being tried from a good hard ride or them being tired because you demanded too much.  I kept here at 3 sets for the trot work until I got up to 3 8-minute sets ( technically 24 minutes of trotting) and then switched her over to 2 10-minutes and then started building her (a bit slower because the time frame was longer) in the 2 set format.

Trotting in off of Phase A

Here is my rational for doing this: Phase A of the 3day is a long trot set, Phase B: is a sprint, Phase C: is a trot set, and Phase D: is your xc (or canter set).  So in my mind if she could do 2 15-minute trot sets (Phases A & C) and then go out and do 3 5-minute canter sets that *should* cover her fitness for the shorter Phase B and then also leave enough for Phase D.

You will notice that 3 days a week I have " (Hack) " after the normal daily work.  These are the infamous "2adays" work days.  Building Ariat's fitness was a slow process and she literally needed legit hours and miles to get her fighting fit!  I would have LOVED to walk up and down hills with her, unfortunately that was not possible for us where we were living and training.  So instead I took her out on powerline trails or over to a local trail system and just walked for about 60-90 minutes.  If she was behaving her beastly self (about 70% of the time) she could be on the buckle as long as she was walking forward with purpose.  This allowed for her muscles to get stretched out, to help her feet build up, and to help her stamina build with low impact on her drafty joints.  I can NOT stress how much simply WALKING your horse will help.  Ariat also seemed to really enjoy getting out and about and not just drilling the work, but exploring and adventuring.

Powerlines hacking!

Now, because my horse is huge and because we were increasing these numbers throughout July and August the hottest most humid months of the year this required some tack.  First I purchased an equine HR monitor to keep track of Ariat's vitals.  I did HR, Temp, and Resp after trot and canter sets and logged them.  This allowed me to keep track of her HR on those redic hot days.  Second, I figured out how much more efficient cooling her down with ICE water.  I know, I know, "DUH KIRSTEN, DUH!", but for real!  I would empty my freezer ice bin into a bucket, fill with a bit of water (the ice will melt more as you do your sets) and set that out on a jump standard in the ring I did my sets through.  That way during our walk breaks I could sponge her off a bit and believe it or not, it REALLY helped her core temp.  Then when I got done with sets I would hop off, sponge and scrape for a few minutes, and then pop back on and cool her out under tack.  Because I lived at the barn I could keep copious amounts of ice in my freezer and once I un-tacked her I would go get another load of ice and ice her down in the wash stall and it legitimately cut her cool out time in half.  Lastly, use your brain.  As I mentioned above there were more than a few times I was ON my horse at 5am when the temps were already in the 80s and sticky, but that beats the 99 with 90% humidity of the afternoon.  I also did sets in the dark a few times in the outdoor.  Sets in a ring is just a special kind of punishment, but you do what you have to do!  Remember you can NOT short change a heavier horse.

Sets by head lamp happened 4 times, she is a SAINT

Now if you have been following my blog for a while you will know that Ariat was not accepted through the second jog at the Waredaca 3-day.  She was SO SO muscle sore, I had lightly hacked and stretched her out the morning of the jog and knew she was ouchy, I was not sure I was going to jump her even if we were accepted through the jog.  I decided to present her as it is part of the whole experience, and we were spun.  I will write a separate blog about how I say Ariat is "EPSM-ish", but I believe she had some sever muscle cramping from a number of reasons.  We had a xc fall about a month out from the 3day that resulted in her being a bit back sore and that in essence put a stop to our conditioning work.  I was able to keep her at status-quo, but unfortunately, because she is who she is, she loses respiratory and stamina fitness VERY fast and this took its toll.

Photo by GRC Photo, used with permission
Who would have thunk my beasty could do steeplechase?!

That being said, our last event before the 3day was FABULOUS.  Well, I messed up Stadium... but Ariat managed to keep everything up despite me burying her to EVERYTHING.  And that xc trip is the best I have felt.  Which is funny, because she struggled with the 2 wider jumps on course, my mare has draft-horse power in her bum which allows her to get in deep and get over things, but this does not allow for a lot of scope, so when we get deep to wider fences, she ends up hitting with her back feet.  Just another reason she is now retired from Novice.  But we galloped through the finish flags and she was looking for the next fence and I felt like I could go ride it all again.  That had never happened before!

"I did good right?!  Food now?!"

Something else I recently noticed is that in on xc in May we got 18 and change time faults on a course with similar terrain and speeds at the 3day where we got 19 and change time faults... So similar time faults on xc, only at the 3day this was AFTER Phases A-C.  The mare was fit fit fit and she was strong and just powerful.  Had we not had a bit of a string of bad luck and had I made better management call at the 3day (kept her moving throughout the night instead of leaving her in temp stabling after endurance day) I do believe we would have completed.  At the same time I am so damn proud of that mare, she is a true Beast.

Vet Box - Jumped Clean... slow, but clean

So moving forward, if/when Ariat is back under saddle (Broke herself this February) and *fingers crossed* will be able to return to Elementary/BN eventing I will condition her more like the "Phase 2".  Our sets will not be as long or as intense, but she will be hacked and built up slowly and longer trot sets will be incorporated.  And if by some miracle we get back into an actual competition rhythm, I will return to the 8day rotating conditioning schedule for her.  It work so SO well and while everything will not be quite as intense, that regimented schedule really helped her flourish.

Make it fun!  Sets on the Beach!


Conditioning Randoms:
*  Conditioning Sets are just as important for the rider as it is for the horse!  When I started I could barely hold my 2-pt for 1 lap around the ring.  By the end I could hold it for about 5 minutes straight, then go back to posting for a minute or so and stretch back out, and then right back up.  While this was still painful for me, it was POSSIBLE.  Also, in one of my first jumping lessons of the summer my trainer kind of stopped talking, tilted her head to the side, and was like, "whats that? (pointing at my lower leg) What's going on there?"  I had NO idea, but my right leg was just swinging in the breeze in rhythm to A's canter stride.  As I did my trot sets I remained focused on this issue and was rewarded with a "look how much steadier your lower leg is!" comment while xc schooling in August!

Even though this was from a dressage school, I've never seen my lower leg that secure and that on

* FLAIR nasal strips are A-MAZING.  I know it may seem a bit ridiculous to use one at "just" novice, but whatever, they help Ariat out there galloping on xc and I even put them on her for our sets if the weather was particularly horrid.

Photo by GRC Photo, used with permission
Ariat rocking her FLAIR Nasal Strips

* I added beet pulp into Ariat's diet twice a day in order to not only add more calories and bulk into her diet, but also to add a bit of extra water.  I'm lucky in the fact she will eat it VERY sloppy, so I basically filled the bucket with water and she would drink the water down and then eat the beet pulp.

Beet Pulp Kisses!

* Ariat is always a pretty game horse, very forward thinking for a draft, but she does struggle with her stamina (hence all this talk about conditioning).  I DID add the supplement Red Cell into her diet in July and found that, for Ariat, it did not make her hot, but we did have more energy 45 minutes into our rides and we started coming off xc in better shape.

*  Ariat is barefoot and I took a lot of time in the spring building up her hoof condition with hacking on roads, gravel, etc.  I called my farrier in about May and "complained" about her being a bit foot sore and he reminded me that the feet need to build up just like any part of her body!  She only got foot sore after galloping on hard packed paths at horse shows, you know, those paths through the woods that are just really rock hard.  I got into the habit of just packing her feet with a hoof pack after we did work on those types of surfaces and I never had a problem again!

*  As Ariat got fitter she began to get a wee bit naughty/cheeky, if I hopping on for a bareback halter hack, which previous would not be an issue, if I were not paying attention I would find my bum on the ground.  She was just a bit more alert about life and far far too fit for me to not be actually riding.

Bareback halter hacks are okay in the winter when she is fat and lazy

Sets on a local Trail System, almost too fit for me to even take this picture!

* 5 Minute canter sets were hard for Ariat, even at the end, What was especially hard is she got SO downhill and on her face, pulling with her shoulders.  So about every minute or so I would sit down, half-halt, bring her back as if we had a jump in front of us and if she were really trucking even make a transition down to trot or walk and then bump her back up.

* Try and keep it fun!  We also did a 10mile competitive trail ride where my drafty herself placed second in our division with a score of I *think* 97.5?  (100 is PERFECT and we got a few points off for respiratory), everyone was very impressed with her condition and we trotted the entire time, only walking when the trail called for it and she felt fresh until about the 8th mile, then she felt a little tired, but had no problem finishing it out.

A new discipline that we both enjoy!

More hacking!  This time we practiced our Trail Class skills!

I really hope this does not discourage anyone, but possibly invigorates them?  Sets are not fun, I often felt very broken and sore as just the rider the next day, I don't think I have ever crawled into bed with more "stuff" than the nights after I did sets: Heating pad for my back and ice on my knee, ankle, and shoulder.  But it is so important you pay attention to your horses needs.  If you want to compete at Novice, which I consider big for my particular horse, you need to take it seriously and put in the time.

One last HUGE note: Your horses fitness is not the only thing that is important here.  Rider fitness is KEY!  On top of doing all of this I was working in the barn and also hitting the gym 5-6 days a week.  I will at some point write a blog about being a bigger rider, but for now, take your own fitness as seriously as you are taking your horses!  I'm not talking about being skinny or light, I'm talking about being STRONG.  Being strong enough to stay off your horses back for your ENTIRE xc trip, being strong enough to stay up and out of their way when you hit a funky distance or when your horse trips, being strong enough to be able to take care of your horse properly after they have run their heart out for you.  I was NOT strong or fit enough when we ran Groton House last June and it really kicked my ass into gear and I made serious changes and it made all the difference!

So go out there, ride hard, and have fun!

Heading up to xc warmup at Fitch's Champs
What I was saying, "Eventing is Fun!!"
What I was thinking, "Don't Puke... Don't Puke... Don't Puke"



Read More "How to Condition a Beast Eventer"