The Sneaky Sully Full-Body Workout

Don't be deceived by his cuteness.
Alternate title: Death By Ground Poles

The double-whammy lesson weekend continued on Saturday morning when I arrived with Sully in tow to find five ground poles scattered throughout the indoor.

You know you're in for a second killer lesson in a row when your trainer sets up ground poles instead of a jump course. I did not truly understand the pain I was in for.

I will also be the first to admit that when I started riding Sully last summer, I may have been a little bit cocky about the work I was able to get out of him. He was fit as a fiddle after a full season of hunting, trail riding, and regular lessons, and very much in the groove of a fairly heavy workload. Sure, his canter still needed a ton of help and he needed to build strength in order to hold himself round at all gaits, but Sully was a pretty easy ride at that point in time.

Now that he's had about six months off, is woefully out of shape, and very much unimpressed with the indoor arena, Sully's naughty pony brain was running full steam ahead in our lesson to try and get out of work in whatever devious way he could imagine.

Sully's Mom, I have a newfound respect for your struggles with this horse!

Our ride started out well enough at the walk, with Sully reaching nicely into the bridle and staying relatively forward off my leg. He's pretty much kicked his sneaky behind-the-bit habit, and gives a nice feeling in the reins without any huge effort on my part. We kept him off the wall since he tends to get sucked into it, using my outside aids to act as the barrier instead. It took some doing, but managing his straightness wasn't too hard at the walk.

The warm-up trot work was also not too bad! Again, it takes a lot to keep Sully straight and from leaning on the wall, but it's doable, and my biggest focus was keeping him as forward as possible and trying not to nag him around the arena. Still, keeping him going takes quite a bit of effort, and I had to adjust my stirrups longer a couple times to keep from getting leg cramps. At this stage of the game, it's physically hard for him to keep going forward without breaks, and he tries to just outright stop every once in a while just to see if his pilot is paying attention. It was SO difficult to find a balance between nagging and just letting him do whatever he felt like! But he was still doing really well with reaching into the bridle, and as long as I kept him forward, Sully was moving pretty decently. We began to circle over a couple of the poles, and started to work on really using strong outside aids to turn his boat of a body.

Look at that long back! Great for jumping in the hunt field, not so great for flatwork. 
Then Trainer asked me to canter, and all the wheels fell off.

I got Sully into what I felt like was a decently forward, connected trot, slipped my outside leg back, asked for a canter, and... Nothing happened.

I spent the next several rounds of the arena ineffectively flopping around like a Wacky Waving Inflatable Arm-Flailing Tube Man, trying in vain to get Sully to canter. What eventually worked was, of course, slowing it down, rebalancing, and giving dear Sullivan one good whack with my stick when he pretended like he couldn't hear me, instead of giving a thousand little taps and ineffective squeezes that he could easily tune out.

You would think that finally achieving the canter would mean that Sully would get with the program and listen to my leg.

Ha. haha. No.

We went on to school that canter depart from the trot and the walk ad nauseum, and when it came to actually keeping the canter, Sully looked for every single opportunity not to do it. The moment I took my leg off to tell him "Right Answer," or tried to get into half seat to let him cruise, he totally died on me, falling into a trot so hollow and jarring that it jolted me right out of the tack. I felt several times that he was forward and self-propelled enough to leave him alone, and when I did he would immediately pop a shoulder, fall on his forehand, and break to the trot. This was NOT the easy-to-ride, gentle Labrador of a horse that I had played with last summer! This was a devious, sneaky PONY in horse's clothing. And he was exhausting to ride!

So we schooled the canter departs, got Sully galloping as much as we could, and hit the poles, which he finds pretty fun. We combined circles over single poles with trips down a five-stride line, and single poles on the quarter line and on the diagonal just a few strides off the wall. The most difficult thing about it by far was turning and circling.

The circles we had to make were maaaaybe 15m, not very large, and steering Sully vs. steering Dino is like driving a school bus vs. driving a mini cooper. School busses don't corner very well.

Two very different characters
The magic bullet with Sully is without a doubt the outside aids, especially when turning left. If I use the inside rein at all, he just bends his neck and pops his shoulder out, overloads his left foreleg, and can't get out of his own way enough to turn. He ends up breaking to the trot and just completely falling apart. By using the entire outside side of my body (strong feel on the outside rein, outside lower leg, and outside thigh) to PUSH his body around the turn, we're able to keep the impulsion and make it through the turns without falling apart. But it takes some serious work.

Major takeaways and key ideas for Sully include:

  • Ask for forward once, if you get no response, lay into him HARD, ONE TIME. He knows that leg means something, and I am a good enough rider to be accurate with my corrections. No nagging allowed!
  • To combat the wiggles, keep my body straight and just act as a barrier for Sully's wandering body parts - don't over-correct. 
  • Sully needs a lot of support at this level of un-fitness. I can't expect him to carry himself, because he physically can't take that responsibility yet. 
  • Outside aids, all the time! BE THE WALL.
  • Even if Sully feels like he's forward and balanced enough, he's probably not. Ask for more until he feels super fantastic - then he's actually correct. 

By the end of my ground pole lesson on Sully, I was totally wiped out and we both were drenched in sweat! I had gained a new understanding of just how difficult this horse is to ride, and a serious appreciation of everything his mom is able to accomplish with him despite being a relative rookie in the dressage and stadium rings. While the ride was a little frustrating, I left my trainer's barn feeling more motivated than ever to improve Sully and myself this season, and get us both to a point where we can put in a decently competitive dressage test and stadium round at some point this year!



  1. Oh my gosh I had that exact same canter on Bullwinkle. And I was 100% inflatable arm man. It never really got good, but it got somewhat better. Feeling the struggle.

  2. "BE THE WALL" --> lol that's basically my motto with Charlie right now too haha

  3. omg are you sure you werent riding my horse LOL I have so MANY of the same issues (Not so much as going into a canter anymore but the stop any second he can and the pop the shoulder, poke the nose and so on and on) LOL I found myself NODDING vigorously as I read your blog LOL yes yes yes! And felt your exhaustion! Been there too and got the tshirt! Great job though! WHEW makes you appreciate your mini cooper yes? :)

    1. PS he is very cute I must admit though (You get to ride two very adorable horses ;)

    2. They are both LUCKY that they're so cute!! LOL! Glad to know someone else shares my struggles!

  4. By god this lesson sounds like a hard workout! Good on you for putting the pieces together and finding success...I don't doubt that you were drenched in sweat! I know I'd have been, too! Thinking push rides are great to learn from, but oi the pain involved haha

  5. It's so funny how similar this post makes Miles and Sully seem... and even Moiya and Dino! I have some of the same thoughts when I switch back and forth lol

    1. So funny! Sully and Dino are actually fairly similar in that they're both mostly lazy and constantly trying to out-think you! But Sully is definitely, for me, the much more physically demanding ride!

  6. "Be the wall" LOL! I love it.

    As a sidenote, I just wanted to let you know I have changed my blog name, so it may not show up in your reader list anymore. The new url is www dot twoandahalfhorses dot blogspot dot com. You may have to re-enter it into your reader list to follow again.


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