Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023

Hitting Moving Targets



Remember how I wrote last time about Swagger, and how he was perfect, and I was having to restrain myself from pressing on too hard? Well, I came home from three days of teaching a clinic in Florida to a horse that was about 2 inches taller behind, with absolutely no ability to lift his back and reach for the bit at the trot, and who is only capable of cantering at about 100 miles an hour while ripping my arms out.

So … life with young horses comes atcha fast, Ferris Bueller.

There was no real show plan for Swagger this year anyway, but were I trying for something, much less something of significance like a Young Horse Championship, it would be like threading a very fine needle over and over again, trying to keep him fit enough to do the work, happy enough in the work, and consistent within the work at multiple qualifying shows over a multiple-week, if not multiple-month, period of time. It feels like hitting a moving target.


At this point in his life, Puck can give me his all for two to three consecutive days but then needs the rest of the week to recover.

And that’s not a phenomenon unique to Swagger. Both Puck and Elvis are 8 years old, and while they’re at very different places in their educations—Elvis is very comfortable and confident in the Prix St. Georges work, whereas Puck has about 20 different trots, none of them 100 percent consistent on any particular day, and can’t currently bend to the right for love nor money—I struggle on both of them with how to build them up to being able to give their best effort for multiple days in a row.

Elvis starts his summer show schedule soon, and I’m navigating the waters of how to frame his week when he shows. He just doesn’t feel amazing after a day off, but he’s also not a jerk, so I can give him Thursdays of show weeks off, then school lightly at the show on Friday in the snaffle. At home, when I do a day off and then a day in the snaffle, he feels absolutely incredible on Day 3, which I do in the double bridle, and feels OK on Day 4 but not quite as sharp. And naturally, the qualifying classes for the Markel/USEF Developing Horse Prix St. Georges National Championships (Illinois), at which I’m taking a crack, are all on Sundays.

So do I shift my plan back a day, giving him Friday off (even though it’s my only chance to school in the show arenas), risk a crappy test on Day 2, and then have my best horse on Day 3? I didn’t like that plan, so I’ve spent the last few weeks trying to press on a bit, trying to build some fitness in him so that Day 4 is a really great day. It’s a little better, but not by much, and the last thing in the world I want is for any of my horses to be pissed and sore because I’m trying to build condition in what is ultimately still a young horse.

For Puck, it’s even harder. Puck is actually giving me the kind of work that I would let see the light of day, and as such I started toying with the idea of entering him in a show. (Third 1, still can’t really half-pass right at the trot, but it’s shallower at third 1 than at any other test that he could produce, and there’s no canter half-pass.) My problem is that he can also only produce three days of decent work, but unlike Elvis, Puck is still potentially prone to orangutan behavior, such that I don’t want to give him a Thursday off lest I die at the show on Friday. So that’s off Wednesday, then work at home Thursday, then work at the show on Friday, and that gives me about half the horse I need for the class Saturday, and an exhausted mess on Sunday, from which it takes him half a week to recover again.

I don’t have an answer to this problem, so if you’re looking for me to sum up this blog having learned some Greater Truth, then sorry, you’re out of luck. But I believe the following things:


1. This is a temporary stage of development. It’ll pass. They’ll get fitter exactly when they mean to, and not a minute sooner.

2. What one achieves in one’s 8-year-old year doesn’t necessarily set the tone for the rest of the horse’s career, for good or for bad.


3. The Olympics aren’t on either of their dance cards in the next 18 months, so who cares?

So I’ll be here, plugging away at figuring out how to teach my respective 8-year-olds how to carry their own damn front ends for more than 72 hours, hoping the front half of my baby horse catches up to the back end (because the only thing I want less than a 17.2-hand 5-year-old is a 17-hand-in-front, 17.2-hand-in-back 5-year-old), and occasionally just giving up and riding in the field for fun.
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