Saturday, October 31, 2009

Skipping Ahead!

Before I go on with the Saga of Sofie, I must skip ahead to the present because I have had some wonderful rides lately, and had a particularly excellent one yesterday. I also have some current photos of us riding around the barn owner's rather picturesque yard (probably the last good photos you will see for quite some time, as our confinement to the indoor arena is imminent...say it isn't so!).


I know this picture is already on the sidebar, but I adore it, so I'm double-posting it. I'm allowed. A lot of work went into the making of this picture!

The last couple of months have been dedicated to slowly building Sofie's fitness and putting muscle where it belongs (on the whole topline, not the underside of the neck!). We fixed her feet back in July (more on that in the next post), and I was given the "all clear" to ride. "You can't ride her too much," my wonderful barefoot trimmer told me. Well...apparently I did ride her too much.

At first, everything was great. Sofie was thrilled with her new feet, I was thrilled with my new horse, and I had four or five marvelous rides of trotting and cantering all over the yard with its slopes and hills. I rode on our limited trails, and Sofie eagerly peered into the woods at every turn, and occasionally ran my knee into a tree while attempting to blaze a new trail.

Then Sofie turned cranky, and began to really resent being asked to go forward. Her ears were always back, and she would swing her head around like she wanted to bite me in the leg. I could get her to do stuff, but something was not right. There had to be a reason for my previously willing and enthusiastic horse to suddenly be resistant and bitchy. So I stopped riding her, and she went on the longeline to build some fitness without the weight of a rider. Gradually we realized that her topline pretty much sucked, and all that trotting and cantering on little hills had probably been too much for her atrophied muscles.

I started riding her again for ten or fifteen minutes, mainly at a walk. I began to figure out how to minimize the crabbiness (look up and plan ahead, give her something interesting to do, ask for the trot when you're riding toward the barn, not away from it, etc.). Lately I have had almost zero crabbiness, and she's been a lot of fun to ride. I think she's enjoying the rides, too, or at least the hand-grazing that happens afterward. She has almost no grass left in her pasture, so when I take her back and turn her out, she's been hanging out with me for a few minutes, like "Are you leaving already? But I was having fun!"

Yesterday I wasn't sure if I was going to ride outside. The wind was whipping like crazy, and someone was also target-practicing. Now, Sofie does not mind wind or gunfire, and she practically fell asleep after a few minutes in the indoor arena. I was getting major "I am so bored I could fall over and die" vibes from her, so I felt confident that she would not run away with me or spook violently or anything, and I took her outside. She never spooked as the wind blew crazily through the yard, and she didn't even care about the line of T-posts laid out to be put in the ground for snow fence. We did serpentines through the T-posts (a great visual aid for turning), had a lovely, long canter through the yard (at this point in the rehab process, Sofie decides if she wants to canter), trotted around a bunch and ended up riding for almost an hour. Our "long" rides have been around 40 minutes lately, so that was an improvement!

I was so happy with my horse, and with myself for being able to figure out how best to work with her without a trainer constantly instructing me. I have a fear of working on my own, without my mom around as a ground person, but lately I've been riding around without much input from her, so maybe I can eventually put that fear to rest.

And now....PICTURE TIME!

(Just walk pictures this time, as our camera was being too impossibly slow for my mom to take any trot or canter pictures. But Sofie has a nice walk.)


Check out that reach! Pretty good for a little Paint mare! And what is that thing on the upper part of her neck? Could that be muscle? In the right place?


I am an awful sloucher. Please forgive me. It's an ongoing problem. I fixed it earlier this year, but then I got distracted by my horse trying to bite me while I was riding.


SOFIE! You blinked! And I look like a sick person (and I WAS sick that day...). Ah well, the fall colors are pretty.


Me: Sofie. We are not going back to the barn right now. Please. Turn. This. Way.

Sofie: I might steer better if you weren't looking down at my neck. Just a thought.


Her eye looks kind of demented in this one. Not sure why. Perhaps it's because I'm slouching terribly. How attractive. Nice scenery, though.


Walking by the barn owner's house. Sofie is looking in the window to see how cute she is, and I'm looking to see what an ugly sloucher I am.

Hope you enjoyed the pictures! Next post will be all about the disasters that used to be Sofie's feet.

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Early Days


My new horse was delivered on a Thursday. I gave her a couple of days to settle in, and then I went out to ride. I was excited and anxious. I had no idea if she had ever been ridden in an arena, and I'd heard horror stories of people buying endurance or trail horses, attempting to ride them in indoor arenas, and being run away with. But she'd been turned out in the arena, and she wasn't really spooky. She was just...kind of insane.

We brought her into the barn and tied her in a stall so we could groom and saddle her. She found it very difficult to stand still, and constantly stared at everything. Not spooky, but very, very anxious. Sofie is a small mare, around 14.2 hands, but back then she carried her head very high, and when she tensed up, she got BIG. Somehow we got her saddled, and led her to the arena. She was "rarin' to go", but not in a good, enthusiastic way. I know now that she was anticipating pain, but I didn't know that at the time.

I was scared. I didn't want to have to deal with this horse on the ground, or get on her back and ride her. Based on her behavior that day, if she'd been a horse I'd been trying out, I would have said "no thanks". But I kind of had to get on and ride her, because she was my horse. So I did.

Ever seen how jockeys mount Thoroughbreds before a race? That's kind of how our early rides started. Sofie would take off at a fast trot as soon as I settled into the saddle. She wasn't bolting, bucking or doing anything horrendous, but she was anything but calm.




She basically flew around that little arena, totally inverted and tense. As you can see by the picture below, her neck really wasn't all that bad. The muscling was all wrong, but her neck was actually pretty long and elegant on the rare occasions when she relaxed.


Her walk was very good, even back then. I think this picture was from our second ride, and already she's reaching for the contact a bit at the walk. But there was a limit to what soft hands and good intentions could do. I had a lot to learn before I would be able to really help her.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

When The Search For A Horse...Ends

I had been looking for a long time. Probably eight years. It seemed like it was taking forever to find a horse that was sound and sane. Our horse-buying budget was low, but not impossibly low. Most of the horses we looked at were barely rideable, and the ones I felt comfortable riding were either out of our price range or lame in some way. There was a nice little mustang mare with a really comfortable trot, but she was way too green for a relative beginner who'd lost confidence after getting bucked off. There was a Thoroughbred who was a wonderful ride, but his ground manners were awful and his owners were spending thousands of dollars a year in vet bills to keep him sound.

So I kept taking lessons. Eventually, I found my way to a real dressage trainer's barn, and then found a truly amazing trainer to occasionally take lessons from. I leased a little paint pony for a couple of years, and learned a lot from him even though he was no dressage schoolmaster. I improved him to the point where he had a decent canter, would take the correct leads, and was starting to "get" lateral work. I offered to buy him repeatedly. I said "name your price", but he was not for sale. Other people were riding him, and I had no control over what happened to him. Then the horse market crashed. Horses were cheaper, and more were available. I decided I needed my own horse.

In February of 2009, I was looking through the horses for sale on a website a local barn owner had told me about. I found a picture of a grade Paint mare on a trail ride, standing in a lake. I couldn't really judge her conformation from the shot, but it didn't look like she was built any worse than the pony I'd been doing dressage with. She was eight years old, good on trails, traffic safe, and she crossed water, according to the ad. She was also $750. I figured she was worth looking at.

When I first laid eyes on Sofie, the horse we'd driven two hours to look at, one thought crossed my mind: This is not a dressage horse. I was not of the popular opinion that one must have a Warmblood to do dressage. But the horse I was looking at was obese, with a long back and short legs. Her neck tied in low to her chest, which was massive, giving her a front-heavy appearance. The muscling on the underside of her neck was incredibly over-developed. And her feet had long, overgrown toes and insubstantial heels. They had every kind of hoof crack known to man. "When was she last trimmed?" My mom asked.
"Last fall," the seller replied.

At least she was honest.

We asked the seller to ride her first, so I could see if she was insane, and evaluate her movement. I was expecting western pleasure-type gaits. So when she walked off, her degree of forwardness took me by surprise. "Her walk looks kind of weird. Is she okay?" I asked my mom. I was used to my little paint pony, whose walk was rather lethargic.

The seller moved her up to a trot. This little Paint horse with the opposite of the ideal conformation for dressage was tracking up! How is she doing that? The seller had trouble getting her to canter, but her canter was not flat, forehand-heavy or four-beat as expected. It was uphill! Now I was really intersted. So I put my saddle on over her rolls of fat (which you could literally pick up and play with) and test rode her. She was forward, sensitive and not spooky. I could sit her gaits. She would need training, for sure, but I wasn't looking for a schoolmaster or a show horse. Her feet were crappy, and that was a concern, so we researched and called farriers and sent pictures to farriers and researched and researched. We had to decide quickly, because all of a sudden lots of people were contacting the seller about the mare. We went out to see her again, and she was fun to ride again, and she looked like she had personality and the potential for a sweet disposition. She was too interesting to pass up. I had wanted a horse I could learn from and enjoy, and I got that in spades, though sometimes more learning than enjoying.