With the 2020 show season officially in my rearview, it’s time to maximize the next few months before we head to Florida. We are still heading to Florida, even with the world’s many unknowns, because while showing is lovely and fun, my team and I really go down to train in the nice weather and to be close to my coach, so I can get more help with my herd. If we actually get to show, then great. But the training is the key.
Fortunately, all three of the 9-year-olds in my life are in a place where the training is really important right now. For Gretzky, aka Puck, he’s ready for his Prix St. Georges debut, and for Elvis, he’s pretty darn close to having the passage, piaffe and transitions between them that could take us down centerline at Intermediaire II. That means my time is being spent making them both a lot stronger for collection.
This is where it’s nice to be at home, specifically my home. My farm sits on 135 acres of rolling hills, and this year we’ve had a perfect autumn with the right amount of rain to make the ground fantastic. So I’m working out of the ring at least two days a week. For Puck, canter pirouettes on a hillside are giving him a lot of balance and a lot of coordination, and for Elvis, piaffe down a hill is helping with engagement. Any hill work is fatiguing, of course, so I’m careful about watching the amount of time that we spend working, and I give lots of breaks to help keep injury at bay. But it’s been extremely helpful already.
I also have been working Elvis, in particular, for longer periods of time. To make the jump from where we are now to where I want us to be in January, Elvis not only needs more strength to sit and carry, but he also needs both more muscular and more cardiovascular endurance, to sit and carry longer. So I wear a watch when I ride now, and I sit on Elvis for 45 minutes a day, five days a week. What “work” looks like varies day to day, of course, and I’m sympathetic to his fatigue as well. But the 45-minute rule stands. In the beginning, when he was absolutely trashed, there were days when that entire 45 minutes was walking or stretching at low speed, or both. But we’ve been at this for a month now, and it is truly remarkable how much it’s made a difference. Ali Brock, my coach, said something I loved: I need to feel like I’m saying “whoa” when I cue the piaffe, instead of having to tell Elvis to “go.” Ask Elvis about how our schooling went on Saturday, when it was 35 degrees. WHOA indeed!
Helio is the third 9-year-old in my life, and he’s in an interesting place, too. Helio is relatively comfortable with the Prix St. Georges work—it’s certainly been a step up this year, but for a horse in his first year at the level, he’s figuring it out just fine—but he’s an Iberian horse, and I find that he, like many of them, struggles to maintain a really honest reach to the bridle through the back. Many of the PREs and Lusitanos in my world over the years have been very easy to “trick train” without the back lifting, and/or they find it easy to learn the work but are chronically curled in the neck. Teaching them to reach for the bit and stay “out” in the neck is an uphill climb.
That’s been my focus since we came home from the show. I put him back in his snaffle, where the half-halt isn’t always as prompt, but I can really make the connection a lot simpler. We do boring, basic things: 10-meter circles at canter, transitions between and within the gaits, shoulder-in to half-pass back to shoulder-in, focusing on just making him lift the back and meet the bridle with his hind legs.
Helio is doing some hill work too, because as long as the footing is good and the length of the training session is well planned, hill work is basically never a bad idea. But for him, that reach for the contact is the key.
And that’s my day. The young horses are doing what they’re doing. Assistant trainer Karrigan Norris has a new 3-year-old in her life, which is fun to explore, especially since a horse that age is also on my horizon (though with two failed vettings thus far, I’m feeling rather broken-hearted about it all). Some of my students are taking a deep post-show season breath, and some of them are focusing on ramping up new partnerships for an exciting winter season in Florida. But it’s fun, as the median age of my string is so advanced now, to be able to focus on some of the nuance, instead of just thinking big picture. It’s a different level of responsibility for sure, but one I’m excited to embrace.
Lauren Sprieser is a USDF gold, silver and bronze medalist making horses and riders to FEI from her farm in Marshall, Virginia. She’s currently developing The Elvis Syndicate’s Guernsey Elvis and her own Gretzky RV and Ojalá with hopes of one day representing the United States in team competition. Read more about her at SprieserSporthorse.com, or follow Lauren Sprieser on Facebook and Instagram.