Monday, November 22, 2021

Conditioning Star

Gemma is planning to move up a level in her hunter shows for next year (even though, based on her age, she could stay at the current level for two more years).  So she'll be going from Pre-Short Stirrup to Short Stirrup.  Pre-Short Stirrup has one division with three flat (i.e. no jumps) classes.  One class is walk only, one class is walk/trot, and one class is walk/trot with fancy stuff like jump position and sitting trot.  

Short Stirrup has two divisions, one focused more on the rider (Equitation) and one focused more on the horse (Hunter).  I'm still trying to figure this level out, but here is what I think I know so far.  In Short Stirrup Equitation, there are three classes.  One class is walk/trot on the flat, one class is walk/trot/canter on the flat, and one class is over fences not to exceed 18" (with the option to trot the course instead of canter).  I think the maximum is five jumps for the course.  This division is not VHSA-sanctioned, which means the Virginia Horse Show Association doesn't offer the option to compete in it for finals.  (That may or may not matter, depending on how the year goes.)

Short Stirrup Hunter, which is VHSA-sanctioned, also has three classes.  One is walk/trot/canter on the flat, and the other two are over fences (with the option to trot the courses instead of canter).  The courses are simply the reverse of each other, and I think there are five jumps, with the possibility of one change of direction (so the horse needs to be able to do a simple or flying change if cantering).

What all this means is that Gemma needs quite a few more skills to show in Short Stirrup than she did to show in Pre-Short.  She has already been practicing full courses of 7-8 jumps of 15-18" at the canter, and really the only skill she needs there is learning simple or flying changes.  She also needs a horse that is fit enough to canter at least one course for equitation, at least 2 courses for hunter, and up to three courses if she wants to do both divisions, plus walk/trot/canter flat work.

Freya is coming along, but we had a little set back.  I'll write more about that in another post.  Essentially, though, we had to pull her out of work for a few weeks.  We are gradually putting her back in work now.  I don't have any concerns that she would have the fitness level to do both divisions in Short Stirrup, but my big goal for her is that she learns how to move correctly and in balance while she does it, so that she stays sound and happy for Gemma for many, many years to come.  That means I'm willing to take the time it takes on that front.

Star is also coming along and continues to amaze me.  But the reality is that she is 24 years old, and that we don't have full access to her.  Gemma can ride her 2-3 times a week, and if she does, I can't ride her at all.  Which means I can't work Star like I would prefer and give her the kind of work that would be most beneficial to building her strength.  (Although even with me only riding her occasionally, she wowed everyone during our last lesson with my instructor.  She was doing a fantastic shoulder-in at the trot and we even started shallow half-pass at the trot.  I wish I could ride her more!)

But Star is currently not fit enough to handle two divisions with three jump courses.  I'm positive that she can do the Equitation division with just a little more conditioning, though.  So I've talked to Gemma about it, and we've agreed that our goal for Star next year is to get her fit enough for Equitation and we'll leave the Hunter division for Freya when she is ready.  

My preference is for Gemma to get the hang of the Short Stirrup level (particularly the walk/trot/canter class) with Star, whose only fault is likely to be going too slow, before she uses Freya.  Freya has shown herself to be very good in a number of situations, including one where Gemma was riding in the arena and another person got bucked off of their horse and said horse went cantering around like a loon.  Gemma knew to halt Freya and wait for the loose horse to be caught, and Freya was perfect at standing still.  I've also seen her stand completely still near a jump while another horse cantered behind her and over the jump.  She can spook, but if she does, she typically moves sideways for a couple of strides and then stops and looks at the thing that is worrying her.  So Gemma can easily sit that.  The one unknown is how she does if she is in a large group of horses all cantering around the arena with riders of different skill levels.  

I admit to a full-on panic attack when I think about Gemma cantering around an arena with 15 other horses whose riders have no clue and that look on the verge of being out of control.  Not every show is like that, but some of them are.  As of this writing, I've not seen anyone get hurt, but it isn't safe, in my motherly opinion.  (One of my friends - who has raised a horse-riding daughter - recently pointed out to me that it's possible that I might be overprotective, before admitting that she was pretty cautious when her daughter was younger too.  The problem is that I know exactly what can go wrong and how significant the damage can be, so even though the likelihood of something going wrong is small, the amount of damage that can be done is huge, so I continue to err on the side of safety, and I refuse to apologize for it.  I want Gemma to have a long life with horses.  And yes, at some point, she will probably have an accident that injures her, but the more skills she gets, the easier it will be for her to handle the situations that could lead to an accident.  Which means my focus is on building those skills as safely as I can, and not worrying about chasing points and getting ribbons.)

Anyway, this whole long explanation is the backstory for why we are now being more diligent about conditioning Star.  The biggest thing she needs help with is cantering for longer periods of time.  So out to the fields we go for some trot and canter work on hills and over jumps.  Cross-training is our friend:)

Luckily we are blessed with two things out at the farm where I board.  One is a field with a low hill that is perfect for strengthening exercises.  The other is the very recent addition of cross-country jumps that are low enough for Star to jump. 

The plan right now is to get Star out in the field for (short) trot and canter sets once a week.  Twice would be better, but it will be hard with the other lessons that she has going on.  Although, I am contemplating whether we can get away with doing field work on the same day she has a beginner lesson.  The lessons typically aren't physically challenging for her, so it is possible that we could add 20 minutes of hill work on those days.  Even just walking up and down the hill a few times could be helpful.  And I'm even wondering if that work would help warm her up for her lessons.  Right now, she really needs about 20 minutes to warm up and even then, the longer she moves, the better she moves, up to the point of getting tired, which typically doesn't happen for about an hour.

One of the things I want to work on is helping Star move more "uphill."  This was our first time cantering her up a hill, and it was hard for her.  I expect that with more conditioning, she will be able to keep her balance better.  But we have to start somewhere!

The other thing is to get Star out over the cross-country jumps once a week as part of Gemma's regular lesson.  She surprised me by jumping them with ease for the first time last week.  I don't know if she has ever jumped cross-country jumps in her life, but if she has, it has been at least 10 years.  And she acted like she had been doing it for years.


Then, of course, Gemma will continue to work on dressage/flat work, ground pole exercises, and regular jumps in the arena.  My hope is that both the variety of work as well as the focus on increasing Star's endurance at the trot and canter will be what she needs to help her feel comfortable doing the higher level division.

I would love to hear from you if you've had experience bringing an older horse back into condition.  Were there any exercises that seemed to help more than others?  I know we need to go slowly and pay careful attention to make sure she doesn't lose weight or strain herself.  And if, in the end, she isn't up for it, we will stop the work.  She is an amazing horse, and neither Gemma nor I want to see her injured.  On the other hand, she continues to surprise me with her willingness to work and her ability to improve both her endurance and her skills.


  1. From May to November that is a big change for Star. When my mare was in her late teens we discovered her amazing jumping and showing aptitude and we had younger riders hop on board for some ribbon chasing. It was short lived though as arthritis took over and she gave us a few more beautiful years on the trail until she retired at 25 and was euthanized at 29. She was one of those mares with tremendous heart and a stubborn refusal to quit.

    1. It sounds like you had an absolutely lovely mare! I see so many people retiring their horses in their late teens and many of them probably still have so much more to give!