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Your Questions
Question:

Dear Nancy,

My horse has weak stifles. What would you recommend for him during the winter months while we are relegated to the indoor arena for the most part?

Martha

Answer:

The winter months are a challenge for all enthusiastic dressage riders, not only do you want to keep your horses fit, but you want to keep them interested and fresh. How many times can you go around the indoor before boredom sets in and you find yourself kicking and squeezing away just to try to get to the other end? In contrast with horses that can be more playful how hard is it to keep their attention before they start to play their own games?

JackieGoing into the arena with a game plan is imperative to a successful ride, especially under winter conditions. The worst thing you can do is get on your horse with the attitude, "okay, what horse do I have today?" Know your horse, process the conditions and make a plan. The most important thing is safety, so if he has not been turned out or if you have missed several riding days and you need to lunge, do so. I recommend teaching your horse to lunge properly under good conditions. This way when you need to use lunging as a tool your horse is comfortable on the lunge, listens to your commands and there is no risk of injury. I do not recommend lunging without tack just to blow off steam; I do like lunging in side reins properly fitted on a large circle with a lot of transitions to keep your horse focused. If lunging is necessary try not to work too long, save some energy for your ride.

Making your plan:
Schumacher and PolesThere are several themes I like to develop. The first one is with the use of cavalletti. Before you tack up your horse go out to the arena and set up your cavalletti. It is best if you have at least four round wooden poles. PVC pipe unless it is filled with sand, is not useful because it does not stay put. Square poles can be dangerous if the horse catches the edge. When you do cavalletti it is nice to have a ground person, if you do not, resign yourself to the fact that you will be getting on and off when your horse makes a mistake and to change them. This can be a fun game as well, if you are alone in the arena. I have taught my horses to stand and wait for me to come back for them, this lesson also needs to be taught under relaxed conditions, and then practiced without expectations on cold windy nights! There are many interesting combinations you can create with cavalletti. Working between trot and canter creates variety and gets the horse thinking, so this is one of my favorite exercises; place three poles on the ground just one meter from the short side in trot distance and one pole to the inside of these.( See diagram). After a short warm up, trot several times through the poles until it feels fluent and easy. Create a 20 meter circle that includes the poles. Place yourself so that each time you are directly in the middle of the poles. Notice if the poles feel too long or short and adjust accordingly. Hitting the poles now and then is normal, becoming completely scrambled and unclear of where your horse needs to put his legs means you need to adjust the distance. After several clean rounds sit after the poles and pick up the canter, canter one round over the center pole and then trot when facing the trot poles again, trot one or two rounds, sit canter, canter over the one pole and then trot when facing the three poles again. Repeat in the other direction. It is best not to canter every time, for variety. If you feel you need a longer canter you can canter the outside 20 meter circle an extra round before facing the trot poles for your transition. Do not make it too serious. Let your horse play with his body, while listening to your body language for cues. If you have eight poles you can create the same design forty meters away from the first set and make a figure of eight changing directions in the trot through the middle now and then. (See diagram) There are many cavalletti designs to play with. Reiner Klimke wrote an awesome book "Cavalletti" which has since been rereleased with additions from his daughter Ingrid. Definitely worth finding if you enjoy cavalletti.

Another theme for the indoor can be accuracy, implemented with the use of cones and/or round poles. It is possible to find inexpensive small orange cones on ebay. Again it is best to go out and set up your arena before you get on your horse. Set up several designs for each ride. Do not do the same design every day. One of the easiest cone exercises to create, and a hard one to execute is making corners. Place the cone 3 meters out from the corners of one end of the arena. After a short warm up in walk, trot and canter go to the short side where you have placed the cones and rising trot a 20 meter circle staying to the inside of the cones. After several rounds change direction and work your 20 meter circle in the other direction. Be sure your 20 meter circle is round on both sides, not just the side where you have your cones. When this feels fluent sit the trot as you come toward the corner and go to the outside of the cones as you make a walk transition, after you round the cone trot and go to the outside of the next cone, and walk after the corner posting trot for the remainder of the 20 meter circle. Repeat in the other direction by changing direction to the outside of your 20 meter circle. If your horse is 1st level or above you can also put two cones to the right and left of the centerline ten meters from the end of the arena. This way you can change direction through the center of your circle in sitting trot working on the accuracy of the two ten meter half circles. When this works fluently in both directions add a lengthening down the long side, sit on the short side without the cones, post and lengthen on the next long side and then walk in the corner by the cones sitting trot on the short side, walk around the cone, lengthen rising trot on the diagonal and then sit on the short side, then posting lengthening on the long side and walk behind the cone, sitting trot on the short side, walk behind the cone and then posting trot and finish up by doing a stretching down circle to the inside of your cones. Again, do not let it be too serious. There may be times when the pattern does not work out perfectly, just keep working. Make corrections so the next time is better, but do not ride in the past. Let the horse anticipate in a positive way the transitions and the playfulness of the exercises. Change direction after three rounds, even if they were not perfect, then come back to that direction and try again. Of course there are many designs you can do with cones. Use your imagination, but use common sense. Create designs from your tests. Put cones to the right and left of X to help with accuracy in halts, put cones on the quarter line to help with accuracy of fifteen meter circles and put cones at X to help with accuracy of ten meter circles. Create patterns that include stopping and going, do not wait for the right feeling try to create the feeling in the right place.

The last theme for today is your position. This needs to be worked on when the conditions are optimum for concentration and relaxation. Do not do these exercises when you have not ridden your horse for several days, and he has not been turned out! Cold weather is not good for our posture. We find ourselves bent over, trying to keep the warmth in, and our muscles tight and tense. We need to take time whenever possible to open up our bodies and work on our good riding posture. When you feel your posture is at its best, memorize that feeling, then your subconscious will remember and recreate it during all of your riding. If you have a partner you can work on the lunge. Not only stretching exercises, but practice the influence you have on your horse. Without a partner you need to be creative, but stay safe. Only ride without stirrups when the environment allows it. When you get on your horse keep your warm jacket on to give yourself time to do your warm ups without getting a chill. While you walk around the arena take your feet out of the stirrups, take note of how just this slight change created a different feeling for you in the saddle. Feel your lower back relax, notice it move with the horse naturally. Then do ankle circles in both directions. Try to move your ankles without tightening your thighs, keep your core engaged, feel that you do not need to affect your horse with this exercise. Notice if you do affect your horse, how? Try to keep your seat relaxed and moving with his back, even though you are moving your feet. Seems simple, but sometimes we develop habits in our riding that go unnoticed, do you tighten your seat when moving your feet? When this is easy move one leg forward and one leg back. Only go as far as you can go without changing your erect upper body posture. Again, it is easier said than done. The more you practice the farther you will be able to stretch, but the most important thing is that you pay attention to the rest of your body, isolate your legs, keep your seat relaxed, keep your body upright. If you have mirrors use them. Next, lift one thigh off the saddle, without changing any other part of your posture. Be careful not to lean right in order to pick your left thigh up. Isolate your right leg, keep you upper body upright, feel the hip relax, then let your leg down and repeat on the other side. Do this several times until it feels easy. Breathe deep into your belly, feel yourself stretching to the sky, and feel your seat bones equal in the saddle. If these exercises seem difficult on your horse, practice them at home first so they feel fluent and you know what muscles you are talking to before you try them on your horse. You will notice if you are standing on the ground and you try to pick your right leg up and to the outside you must stretch up with your torso and down into your left foot in order to stay perpendicular to the ground. There is no horse to hold on too. Work to create a feeling that you are not holding on to your horse, but you are independently balanced from your horse. It does not matter how far your leg goes, it matters that you keep the rest of your body from compensating for the movement. By this time your horse is getting a bit bored, so with your new legs do some warm up trot and canter so he can get a little bit warmed up too. Concentrate on how your legs feel related to your seat. Can you trot and canter without pressure in your hands? Do your seat bones feel like they did while you were doing your exercises? How about your lower back? Relaxed, following and supple, or did things change when you went to work? You are still warming up; let yourself try to emulate the lower body feeling you had in your stretching exercises. How does your horse react? At this point if you need to make a correction or aid make it and then go back to neutral. Over time you should notice your horse being more tuned into you because you are clear with your aids, with less struggling and gripping in between. It is easier for your horse to hear what you have to say. Now lets go back to the walk and work on the upper body. Again, mirrors come in handy for these exercises. Sometimes our perception of straight is a bit off, if we create a feeling of straightness when were are not straight this can develop into a big problem in the future. Next put the reins into one hand and stretch your free arm out to the side. Feel your seat bones equal in the saddle, feel your upper body posture, deep seat and relaxed lower back, middle back erect and shoulders square. With your palm up raise your hand toward the sky placing your upper arm by your ear, stretch your ribs, feel the energy stretching up through your fingers, keep your shoulder down, keep your shoulder blade flat. Now notice, did anything happen to your legs? This seemingly simple movement, did it cause you to tighten your legs? Now go back and start again. Hold the reins, put the reins in one hand and raise the free hand out to the side palm down, now palm up and raise your arm over your head, concentrate to keep your lower body relaxed and following the horse's movement. Now keeping that posture stretch your arm forward toward your horse's ears, then face the palm to the outside and stretch your arm out to the side and then to the back. Concentrate the whole time on the erectness of your upper body, do not go farther with your arm then you can without compromising the upper body straightness and relaxation in your legs. Now repeat on the other side. Notice the differences from side to side. Try to relax your dominant side while your weaker side does the exercises. Keep your posture and be careful only to go as far as you can without compromising your posture. Over time you will be able to keep the integrity and go farther in the stretches, but going farther means nothing when you compensate your posture. Again your horse is probably a bit bored again, so go for a trot and canter and feel your new upper body. Give this time to yourself. Although your horse must not be disobedient, it is also fine to let your mind focus more on your posture. Notice when you use your legs, does your upper body change? Is it possible to stay stretching upward and open in your upper body when you are following with your lower back. It is important to stretch yourself as often as time permits. When possible do this on your horse. Imagine when you have to use your hands in order to swing your leg forward or back, how does this affect your aid for leg yield or flying change? Sometimes we put pressure into our horses without knowing where it comes from. These simple exercises will help you with body awareness. Spend a bit of time every week on this and your body will become comfortable in a good posture while still moving with your horse. This in turn will keep your horse more focused on your small aids and interested in participating in your lessons.
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