Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Training an Event Horse. For Real.

Summer boot camp with Dan has resulted in a tough couple of months for me and Leo. Physically hard. Dan zeroed in on the gaps in Leo's flatwork training and the real focus for the last 8 weeks has been on strengthening Leo's back and getting him using his hind end properly. Not only has Leo had to change his way of going, but I've had to change my way of riding him.

We've both struggled to pull it together. Leo was continually sore for the first 6 weeks. Dan and Kaitlin monitored him daily and adjusted his schedule accordingly. Every flatwork session was followed by two days of long hacks. Dan handled most of his serious under saddle work to start and left me to do his hacking. Recently it seems the "serious" riding has been transitioned back to me. Luckily Dan keeps a watchful eye on us and even when I am riding on my own, comes over to help me.

Flat Theme: Slow the front-end, Quicken the hind-end
It was clear from the get-go, that Leo was not on the aides to the standard that Dan expected a prelim horse to be. I think Dan actually said he had novice horses more broke than Leo. I don't mind the tough love. Dan clearly knows what skills and education a prelim, ready for intermediate, horse needs to have. He's never looked at Leo and said "I have no idea what to do." He had a plan right from the start. And it started on the flat.

Our re-education has started at the walk. I must slow Leo's front feet while getting him to take quicker, sharper steps with his back feet. This involves half-halting and immediately following with lots of leg, spur and seat wiggling. And repeat. I'm not allowed to trot or do anything until I show I can keep Leo's front end slow and his hind feet sharp. It's hard. And just when I think I did it right and can proceed with an upward transition, Dan will tell me to stop and start over. We're slowly developing better quality gaits.

Jump theme: Establish the proper canter and keep it 
The jumps have stayed very low, mostly 2 1/2 ft, but the exercises have been demanding on both of us. Every jump exercise requires Leo to maintain a powerful 12 ft stride; to engage his haunches and control his body. For me, I squeeze my legs nonstop during my rides trying to generate the power and then squeeze my core nonstop to control how the energy is dispersed.  When we land from a jump, I have to immediate get Leo back in the canter I had approaching the jump. Sounds so easy, such a no-brainer, but Leo loves to land and accelerate and I have allowed the habit all these years. Breaking bad habits is no easy task.

July Highs & Lows
  • July 3: Dan took Leo cross country schooling and he was fine. Some charging at the fences but got progressively better
  • July 9: Dan then competed Leo at training level at Loch Moy. Leo was absolutely horrible in dressage. HORRIBLE. He was bolting, looked like a giraffe. He was clearly sore. His jumping was quite good with Dan. Dan took him in a snaffle and he was relaxed and confident. 
  • For most of July, Dan handled the tough training rides and I got to take Leo on long hacks around Kennett Square. Hermitage Farm is definitely one of my favorite places I have boarded. 
August Highs & Lows
  • Aug 6: I took Leo xc schooling and had some good results and some crappy results. We had runout at the left corner - an old problem of ours. Then had more left runouts at the coffin - in a combination that required Leo to power up a steep hill for 2 strides and then jump out over a skinny. This land-and-power-on problem also showed up in our jump lessons at home. It's a cross country education gap for sure. 
  • Aug 13: I was supposed to compete at training level at Fair Hill, but Leo broke out in hives the day before the show. I only rode my dressage test and it was again, HORRIBLE. Appalling really. Leo was bulging off the rail and carrying on like an idiot. I think the hives were still an issue but who knows. 
  • Aug 26: That led us to go to Plantation Field for their schooling dressage show. We rode Training A and Prelim A. Dan warmed us up and Leo was great! Very workman-like. He was a drastically different horse. I think finally his muscle strength was increasing so he was more comfortable and less resistant. 
Early September Highs
  • Sept 3: I finally completed a horse trial with Leo at Seneca! We finished on our dressage score at Training Level: 40.5. I even rode Leo xc in a french link snaffle - and had control! Our stadium round was solid and really quite nice. He was workmanlike again for the dressage ring and showed real progress. I didn't ride very forward at the start of xc and messed up some combinations but I got my act together after fence 6 and the rest of the round was easy.  
  • The week of Seneca was the first week I really felt Leo go to work and not feel sore and resistant. Note to self: it takes at least 2 months to build muscle strength in weak areas - and that's with constant attention > not hoping it just happens on its own. 
Dan and I talked at the end of August and decided to put our 1-star plans on hold until next year. We both agreed that we needed to focus on Leo's training and Dan was adamant that Leo should get sounder and stronger before attempting a 1-star. I totally agreed. So we're going to aim for Bromont 2017!

Around and about at Hermitage Farm...


  1. Bromont!!!!!! That's so exciting!!!! I mean, it's kinda a bummer that the plans got pushed back a little but it honesty sounds like you guys are getting some serious good work done. Dans lessons are maybe the most challenging personally for me of all the trainers I ride with... But I appreciate that he is very consistent and the goal is always the same: that elusive high quality canter. And the horse WILL get sounder and stronger with the work. Good luck!

  2. love love love the last picture.

    as someone who is constantly pushing back their plans for their horse (took competing off the table all together this year, for the most part) i approve of all of this. but you're going to be REALLY happy in the end when you're not just scraping through but actually killing it.

  3. Ugh filling those holes in can be so hard for both horse and rider! Sounds like some EXCELLENT work though.