Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Fear

I imagine I'm like a lot of riders in that I went along happily for a while, then suffered a debilitating blow to my confidence and have been trying to get back to where I was before ever since.

For me the confidence-crushung incident happened around eight years ago, when a lesson horse took off with me and bucked down the entire length of the indoor arena. I'm not sure how I stayed on as long as I did; I only fell off when he reached the corner. I wasn't hurt, but I was very, very scared. I did get back on, but only for a few minutes at the walk because the horse was clearly not right, and my instructor at the time was not the type to push you past your comfort zone. I took a few lessons after that on another horse who was incredibly sweet and never did anything wrong, but I was completely paralyzed by fear. I wasn't enjoying myself, so I made the difficult decision to take some time off from riding.

After a year long hiatus, I started riding a friend's old QH gelding, first around her yard, and then I went on trail rides with her. Eventually I even cantered on him, but then the woman decided to sell him, and there were too many questions about his longterm soundness for us to want to buy him. So I started taking lessons again. Instructors with school horses were hard to find, and the woman we found was less than ideal. She didn't know much about "real" riding, and while she worked on my equitation, she didn't make me into an effective rider. Her horse was lazy, heavy on the forehand, incredibly dead-sided and occasionally spooky. He was not fun to ride, but I did gain confidence on him.

Then I found a dressage barn. It was two and a half hours away, but they had horses that were forward, and a trainer who knew what she was doing. I wound up taking lessons there for an entire summer and fall on a Dutch Warmblood/Saddlebred Fourth Level schoolmaster. I learned a lot. I learned how to actually ride, not be a passenger.

After that I leased and took lessons on a large pony gelding for two years. He was a trail horse, and knew nothing about bending or any other of that good dressage stuff. I really loved him, and I thought he would end up being my "forever horse", but instead he prepared me for when Sofie would come into my life.

Sofie has been a challenge for me at times. I bought her because she was sensitive and forward, and I had ridden so many horses that were anything but. I was thrilled to have found a horse with those qualities, but it was also a hard transition for me. Her natural desire to move forward and abundant energy, made almost frantic by her painful feet, was difficult for me to deal with. I wasn't used to having that much energy to work with, and I wasn't sure what to do with it. She didn't steer, and rarely relaxed. Fixing her feet and getting her body better balanced and in shape has made a huge difference in her, and I can ride her outside without fearing for my life. But she still has a lot of energy, and some days I have to stretch outside of my comfort zone if I want to ride her. And I do, because the alternative is giving up. I don't give up easily. Riding hasn't always been fun for me, but I never wanted to give up, because I thought it would get better. It has. I've ridden a lot of different horses, and gotten positive results from them. I don't ride so I can compete with and beat others. I ride to develop a relationship with my horse, and help her become the best she can be. I try to always be an empathetic and sensitive rider. I'm not perfect, but I try. That's all I can do. It's all anyone can do.

It's a very uncomfortable sensation, working through your fear. But when I do it, and succeed, I feel good. Like I'm getting somewhere. It's never fun when you're working through your fear, but it's even less fun to not work through it.

The last time I went out to ride, the day was glorious. The snow had melted down a bit, and the footing was decent. It was a perfect day to ride outside. But for some reason, Sofie's brain was MIA. Even after longeing she was spazzy and distractable. Sofie without brains is not all that fun. When I led her outside and started walking her toward the mounting block, she spotted another horse being led back to the barn, spooked and mini-bolted. Then she would not stand still at the mounting block, so I led her around, trying to get calm. I know that being nervous is not good when one is working with a horse (especially Sofie without brains) so when I get nervous, I tend to get even more nervous because I know it's bad to be nervous. Ah, vicious cycles. But I mounted up and started walking Sofie around. Sofie did not want to walk. She had lost her brains that day for some reason, and seeing another horse being led back to the barn had apparently wigged her out even more. Plus, someone's dog was yarking away, which normally doesn't bother her, but like I said, she had apparently left her brains back in her stall that morning.

I walked her around, making little turns, and correcting her when she trotted. I knew I needed to just let her trot, but I knew if I did that, she would start cantering sooner or later. And after her gallopy/kicking out incident that ejected me from the saddle last month, I didn't trust her. I didn't know what to do. My choices were to either let her expend some energy, or get off and take her into the indoor arena. I couldn't take her inside on such a nice day, and I couldn't let her go faster (or so I thought) so I started walking her through The Place Where We Like To Canter, bending her left, right, left, right, trying to keep her at a walk. Sofie said, "I don't know about you, but I feel like TROTTING already" and broke into a trot. Then one of the neighbors started banging away on something, and I knew she was going to canter. I started trying to slow her down, then realized it wasn't going to do any good, and it might just piss her off enough to make her Do Something. So I followed. I tried to relax, and made sure I was sitting up and my heels were down, and I let her canter. She never sped up, she never kicked. After a nice, long canter, she came back down to a trot when I asked. I was still really afraid, but starting to realize that everything might turn out all right.

After that I stayed away from The Place Where We Like To Canter for a while, and did some trotting in the front yard. I started to loosen up and have fun. She did a few strides of canter a couple more times (one of which I corrected her for because she veered off toward the pasture where her friends are), trotted willingly away from the barn and rated facing the barn. She does get anxious about leaving the front yard/barn area sometimes, but we'll just have to work on that. I'm also not sure what to do about The Place Where We Like To Canter...correcting her every time she speeds up on her own just does not work. She needs to open up and move out, not do a few strides here and there. I'm hoping to eventually break the association she has with that place, but she is such a creature of habit that I'm not sure how to do it.

All in all, I was very happy with the ride. I let her move out, and she was very good (well, mostly). Even though she was having a spazzy day, she hardly inverted and was on the bit for much of the ride. I just need to trust her, let her go, and enjoy the ride. It's good to have a horse that pushes me out of my comfort zone. It's also incredibly hard at times, but I know she's improving me, and helping me conquer The Fear.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Stretching, rein-back, garbage hunting, etc.

Everything has been great in Sofieland lately. We've had some training breakthroughs, a major improvement in attitude, and Sofie has been much more comfortable since our Devil's Claw experiment. Last Saturday we continued to work on learning to stretch down at the trot, and we ended our ride with her reaching into the contact as I held the reins at a normal length and we trotted around. I was thrilled with this, as she used to be so tense and inverted at the trot that it is really a big adjustment for her to be lowering her head and trusting my hands like that.

There was a huge wet spot on the concrete in the place where we usually groom/tack up Miss Sofie, so we parked her on the other side of the aisle. She ground ties, so cross ties were not a necessity, but we did run into another problem. Sofie was absolutely fascinated by the garbage can, now within reach of her mouth. See where this is going? She started to nibble on the garbage can, and had to be told "No, stay OUT of the garbage can" repeatedly. After she nearly pulled the thing over, we got her some hay ("Here, you can actually EAT this!"). I figured if she succeeded in pulling the garbage can down that she would either spook or start rooting around in the garbage (the far more likely scenerio). Guess Sofie doesn't get enough variety in her diet.

Monday we got a bunch of snow dumped on us, so we spent the day shoveling. But the weather wasn't bad at the barn, so Sofie spent the day outside with her friends. Tuesday the roads were terrible, but we managed to get to the barn (not knowing if we'd be able to get back home if they continued to not, like, plow) anyway. Our ride started out a little shaky - she was anxious when I took up contact, and started to do her nervous bit chewing/teeth grinding thing that she sometimes does. I'm quite sure it's anxiety related, since it goes away after a little while, and she still takes the bit happily. It's almost as if she braces for a fight sometimes, and when nothing bad happens, she relaxes. I'm sure she hasn't always had sympathetic riders, and I know she has some baggage. This bit-chewy thing seems like a remnant of that. We'll probably have her teeth checked in the spring, though.

After a little anxiety from both of us, we got over it and finished up the ride on a high note. She stretched into the contact while tracking right and left, and while we weren't perfect or anything, it was still a very positive ride. She maintained a nice rhythm at the trot even when I let the reins go to encourage her to stretch down. We ended with a lovely rein-back in which she broke at the poll, was light, and actually tucked her butt and stepped backwards with a bit of power. Our first rein-backs are typically a bit foot-draggy, but if I don't get upset and don't nitpick at her, she gets better.

Today was gorgeous and warm, so of course we went outside. The footing was kind of packy and not as nice as it used to be (although it wasn't as deep), so I mostly walked her, but it was still a good workout and I meant it to be more of a hack anyway, since she'd been doing so well with the arena work. We went around the yard a few times and down the trail, where we enjoyed the warm sunshine and looking around at everything. She trotted voluntarily once (away from the barn too!) and came back to a walk obediently. I asked her to trot away from the barn twice, just for a few strides. She was a little slow to respond, but she didn't balk at all. When I dismounted and let the reins out, she started eating snow, just like she did when I tried her out. She let me pet her and hug her and just seemed really happy.

So it looks as though we may have turned a corner in the rehab journey. She's been very willing, much more cheerful, even in the arena with no distractions. She usually looks happy when I come to catch her (she was particularly sweet today) and she's even starting to take a few steps towards me. And if she sees us drive up, she walks back behind the barn and waits for me to catch her. She refuses to be caught anywhere else, though - if I walk out to one of the side paddocks to catch her, she avoids me until she gets back behind the barn, where she spins around and faces me again. She is very particular about things like that - I have to be careful about asking her for certain things in the same place more than once, because then she goes "This is where we turn on the forehand. Oh, or back up. You want me to back up? Or turn?" when all I'm asking for is a halt.

I'm starting to harass, I mean, call up a local dressage trainer I really want to take lessons from. He's pricey, and notoriously busy (as well as scatterbrained) but he's really nice to his horses. He rides lightly and praises them for little things. He used to work a horse at the first barn I boarded Sofie at, and even then he was kind of fascinated by her. So I'm hoping to get him out for a lesson before he gets even busier in the spring/summer/fall. Really hoping!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Some of my (other) writing

No time for much of a post today, as I spent much of my limited computer time working on my novel. But yesterday I had a nice ride on Sofie. She got four days off from riding (we longed her for three of those days, though) since she was a little off in her hind end and her right shoulder. We put her on liquid Devil's Claw, a sort of herbal bute recommended to us by Anne, Sofie's farrier. She gives it to all her old/messed up horses when they have flare-ups, and it's working great on Sofie. She was still a tiny bit off in her right shoulder, but was very good and not at all crabby. I worked on a "pole-bending" type exercise at the walk with cones, and did some trot work, ending with a niiiiiice stretch down. She is starting to "get" the whole stretching-down thing, and after seeing that she CAN be nice sometimes, I'm feeling more confident that I'll have a really nice horse once it warms up and we continue to work on her "issues".

Since that hardly qualifies as a proper post, here is a snippet of my novel. This is the "prologue", and it won a local short story contest last April.

A Made Pony
I stood in the barn aisle, thoroughly winded after mucking my share of the stalls at fever pitch. I had my hands full, trying to keep up with the more experienced stable hands who went about their work as if it required no more exertion than couch surfing.

My newly acquired muscles burned, and my hands had become so blistered I no longer recognized them. When I first got this job, I had thought it to be an act of kindness on the part of Solly Turner, an old man who made the choice to live out his days in this stable instead of a nursing home. Now I couldn’t help but wonder if he had meant for me to learn a lesson. Point taken.

With the stalls done, I assumed I was free until time came to scoop grain and all manner of supplements from carefully labeled bins for the polo ponies’ evening meal. That was my job description: feed in the morning, muck stalls, then feed once more in the evening. Hadn’t sounded too difficult at first, but it was a vicious cycle of grueling labor. The other stable hands did much more, some even exercising the horses, but I was too inexperienced to be trusted with such valuable animals. I was learning to ride under the guidance of Solly and Cricket, a former polo pony whose arthritic hocks had earned her retirement after many years of service. As Solly frequently reminded me, the difference between Cricket and a pony in its prime was that of a golf cart and a sports car.

I hadn’t grown up with horses. More accurately, I had never touched a horse in fourteen years of life until I crawled under the gate out in front of the Lexington Polo Club and woke up the next morning with a horse’s breath in my palm. In the words of Wilson, the barn manager, head trainer and team coach, “Kid, you are real lucky we’re short one hand.” Jobs at such an elite facility were sought after, and in order for someonelike me, with no experience or connections, you needed to be in the right place at the right time.

I heard shuffling footsteps behind me. Soon, Solly was at my side, wearing his trademark overalls, ascot cap and strange smile.
“Wilson said to get that end stall ready,” he said. “And Wilson said to bed it down thick, ’cause this new occupant might not be comin’ out for a while.”

Even for Solly, that statement was downright strange.
“Wilson bought an injured horse?” I asked.
Solly snorted.
“Are you kidding? Wilson’d sooner shoot a gimpy horse than buy it. This mare’s fit and healthy, all $10 of her.”
My eyebrow raised.
“OK then. What kind of horse can you get for ten dollars, anyway?”
“In this case, a made pony, and a brilliant one at that. Knows the game up, down, backwards and sideways.”
I stared at him in disbelief. “Ten dollars? For a made pony?”

Solly looked at me with sadness in his eyes.
“No, Cavanaugh,” he said. “Ten dollars for a ruined pony.”
He shuffled off, and I followed.
“You’d best get to work on that stall, Cavanaugh, and I’ll tell you what I know.”
The stall had been stripped already, and I quickly poured in a generous helping of shavings, then spread them with a few swift strokes of a shovel. I turned to Solly.

“This mare had a few successful seasons under her girth when this guy Alfred Harrows bought her. He paid a sizeable amount for her, maybe even more than she was worth, because her owner was reluctant to sell her to anyone, but especially Mr. Harrows,” Solly sighed. “The mare had received the best training a horse could hope to have. She had the build for polo—fast as lightning. But even more than that, she had that fire inside that drives a horse to win even when it’s pouring rain, the mud is fetlock-deep and her rider is tired and has already given up. Her owner could foresee what might happen to her in Harrows’ hands, but he was running a business. Harrows gave him an offer he couldn’t refuse, and he didn’t.”

I leaned against a pitchfork, eager and afraid to hear what would happen next. Solly stared right through me, his expression distant.

“Lots of people think they have to dominate the horse, Cavanaugh. They don’t think the horse can hear them, and they sure as hell don’t listen to the horse. This mare—Eloise, that’s her name—was trained to respond to fingertip pressure on the reins, but that wasn’t how this guy rode. He was rough with her. Real rough.”

His eyes focused on me.
“I don’t know exactly what happened, but I can pretty much guess. She fights the pressure, refuses to stop. He puts some hellish bit in her mouth, hauls on her, and she fights even more. She’s in pain. She’s freaked out of her mind and she’s got a right to be, ’cause this guy’s acting like a predator on her back. The rest I know for a fact: she reared up, and went over backwards. Unfortunately, this guy bailed just in time, so she didn’t fall on him. He caught her, got right back on, and had his groom hold her down while he beat her.”

I realized, after a few beats of silence, I had stopped breathing.
Solly shook his head.
“In a couple weeks, this mare’s value went from five figures to two. The barn manager posted a rule that anyone who came in contact with her had to have a gun on them. All the hands were terrified of her. Harrows contacted just about everyone in the region, begging them to take this horse off his hands. When Wilson agreed to, I’ll bet he threw a party. Son of a bitch probably opened a $10 bottle of wine.”
He laughed hollowly.

I took a deep, ragged breath.
“What is Wilson going to do with her?”
Solly threw his hands in the air.
“I have no idea, Cavanaugh. I don’t think he does, either. If he can repair the damage and get her playing again, she’ll be the greatest living bargain of all time. If she doesn’t kill somebody first,” he added.

The sound of tires on gravel reached my ears. Both of our heads whipped around at the same time. I could see a battered-looking, single horse trailer through the open door. Solly and I approached it cautiously. Now that the engine had been shut off, the rig was ominously quiet. “D’you think she’s dead?” I hissed.
Solly rolled his eyes.
“No, Cavanaugh. If they shot her, why would they bother hauling her sorry carcass all the way here?”

Wilson’s footsteps rang in my ears as he strode past us to meet the driver, who had climbed out of his truck.
“How did she ride?” he asked brusquely.
“Oh, she rode quiet enough. Took four men to get her loaded, though, and they were a heck of a lot bigger than that kid over there.”
I heard barely stifled laughter from behind me, and glanced over my shoulder. Sure enough, the other stable hands had gathered in the aisle in time to hear me humiliated.

Wilson’s eyes took in all of the hands.
“Dudley. Aldridge. Ramor!” he barked.
The eyes of the men he called upon widened considerably.
“What about the kid?” Aldridge demanded. He had never been a fan of mine.
Wilson glared at Aldridge.
“I don’t like that Cavanaugh kid any more than you do, Clint. But I’m sure you’d rather unload that mare than scrape his brain matter off the floor. So get to it.”

Without further complaint, the three hands made their way to the trailer.
“Stand back, everybody,” Wilson snapped.
The driver lowered the ramp, and the trailer door swung open to reveal a dappled-grey mare. She was fighting fit, and her entire body was braced in tension. Her head was fine and feminine with a strong profile, and her large, intelligent eyes seemed to size up the men who approached her. Ramor, known for his calm way with horses, stepped into the trailer and pulled the quick release knot on one of three lead ropes clipped to her halter.

Easy, mare,” he said softly. As he took hold of her lead, she looked like a normal horse. But in seconds, she became a monster.
The mare bolted down the ramp, dragging Ramor behind her. He nearly went down when his feet hit the gravel. Aldridge and Dudley rushed forward, each grabbing a lead. Eyes rolling, the mare thrashed between them. Ramor recovered his hold on her, and her eyes focused on him. She bared her teeth, and in a split second she had sunk them into his shoulder. Ramor jerked away from her. She lunged after him, ears flat against her skull.

“Run to her stall!” Wilson bellowed. “It’s the only way you’ll get her in!”
Ramor hesitated for a moment, then took off for the end stall. Aldridge and Dudley let out the slack in the lead ropes, and the mare leapt the short distance to the stall, dragging the massive stable hands with her. As Ramor dodged her teeth and bolted from the stall, Dudley and Aldridge slammed the door shut seconds before she flung herself into it.

For a few minutes, the only sound to be heard was the ragged breathing of Dudley and Aldridge as Wilson, the driver and all of the hands stared at the locked stall. Finally, Ramor uttered a string of obscenities, then announced he would be taking the rest of the day off. Everyone took this as their cue to get back to work.
As the evening feed commenced, Wilson was nowhere to be found. Wordlessly, everyone went about their usual routines, and all of the horses were fed, with one notable exception.

Which is how I found myself in front of the end stall with a pail of grain in my hand.
“I don’t think this is such a good idea,” I said, glancing helplessly at Solly.
“Cavanaugh, do you believe in Santa Claus?” he asked.
“No,” I growled. I wasn’t in the mood for Solly’s eccentricity.
“Well, there’s about as much chance of that guy comin’ to feed this horse than of me bailin’ you out.”
The other hands roared with laughter. I glared at them.
“How many times have I cleaned your stalls when you didn’t feel like it, and never said a word? I don’t ask for much around here. I just want to make it through the day!”
Silence ensued. I took a deep breath.
“Fine. But if I’m dying in this stall, you’re not getting the pleasure of watching it. So go somewhere else, and if you hear a ‘thud,’ call 911, OK?”
Solly turned to the other hands.
“I think we owe him that much, fellas.”

Several heads nodded in agreement, and they wandered off, leaving me to die.
I unbolted the door, and opened it just a crack. The mare stood in the far corner of the stall. Her head was lowered and she stared into nothingness. She was alone in the world, and no one had been kind to her in a long time. I knew the feeling.
I opened the door just enough for an escape route, and slipped into the stall. I let my shoulders sag, and didn’t look her in the eye. Body hugging the wall, I made my way to her feed tub and poured the oats in. Then I retreated to the door. Her eyes were on me, but she still held her submissive stance.

Without thinking, I slid down the wall. This is crazy. I really am going to get myself killed. But something kept me from leaving. I sat in the shavings, watching her. She had raised her head, and her nostrils quivered. She smelled the oats. Keeping one eye on me, she walked to the feed rub and eagerly began to chew. When she finished, she returned to her corner. “Good girl, Eloise,” I said quietly. She braced a bit at the sound of my voice, so I kept talking until she relaxed. Then I crawled out of the stall and closed the door.

I stood up and headed for the hayloft, but I hadn’t gone ten feet before I ran into Solly.
“You’re covered in shavings,” he said, grasping my shoulders. “Are you hurt?”
I shook my head. “I’m fine. No thanks to you, though.”
Solly smiled.
“I knew you could do it.”
“Then why did you think I was hurt?” I asked.
“Well, you know,” he grinned. “I’ve been wrong before.”

I returned to Eloise’s stall, bearing two large flakes of hay, which I set near her door.
Feeding Eloise became a part of my routine. The other hands were mystified as to how I was still alive, but they were happy to leave the job to me. Each time I fed her, she became more confident in my presence, though I still hadn’t made contact with her. That needed to change. Her stall was filthy, so I devised a plan.
I chose a quiet afternoon at the stable. After giving Eloise her evening ration early, I approached her with a lead. She made no move to charge or retreat. Speaking softly, I reached out and rubbed her neck. Flinching a little at my touch, her eyes showed fear. I removed my hand. She relaxed. I touched her again, advancing and retreating until she accepted me. Then I clipped the lead to her halter, but left it slack. I watched her closely. I couldn’t take that first step forward until she was ready. I had seen how she reacted to force. I opened her stall door, then took her lead in my hand.

“It’s your decision, Elle,” I said.
She took one step toward the open door. She was tense, but her ears were pricked. I began walking, and her hooves thudded behind me, then rang loud and sharp on the concrete aisle. We walked to the cross ties, and I clipped them onto her halter.
Showing no signs of panic, she watched as I cleaned her stall and poured down fresh bedding, then tossed a flake of hay into her favorite corner. I released her from the cross ties. Then we made our way back to her stall. She stood still as I unclipped the lead, and for a moment after. Then she went to her hay. She did not watch me. She trusted.

I had never ridden in a polo match, and couldn’t comprehend that feeling. I had a fleeting thought that it couldn’t be better than this. Then I returned to my chores.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Lateral Workin' & Saddle Possibilities

Our lovely snow is now unrideable due to the melting-then-freezing phenomenon. It's hard enough for me to walk on without making a dent in it, and it's full of holes from where I rode before. Fine for Sofie to traverse on her own, but not with the weight of a rider, and especially not for cantering/hand galloping, which I just know she'd try to do. So even though the weather has been nice enough to go outside, we've been stuck in the indoor. As I've mentioned before, Sofie is a trail horse. She likes to GO somewhere, not go around in circles looking at the same boring walls. So it's a challenge to get her interested in arean work. There's also less to distract her in an indoor, so she concentrates more on her little muscular aches/pains/twinges/whatever. So we generally have a little more resistance to work through.

Yesterday when I went out to catch her, she started to walk toward me, but she made the mistake of walking behind Piper, aka Diabolical Mare (my new name for her). Diabolical Mare likes to kick. A. Lot. She doesn't just kick randomly, she is an opportunist. She waits for my horse to walk behind her, or hide behind her (like she does when she doesn't want to be caught), then she lifts a back leg and kicks with precision, sometimes several times in a row. Diabolical Mare especially likes kick at Sofie when Sofie is hiding behind her on the ice (where the water trough overflows). Then she watches Sofie run (on the ice) with an evil gleam in her diabolical eye.

So Sofie starts walking up to me, and Diabolical Mare lifts her back leg waaaaaaay up and coils it, ready to strike. Sofie turns around and goes back to standing by the fence. Diabolical Mare then streeeeeetches her leg out, like "I only wanted to stretch my leg"...sure, Diabolical Mare. So I go to catch Sofie, who looks at me like it was all my fault that Diabolical Mare kicked at her. Sure, Sofie. I have trained Diabolical Mare not to mess with Sofie once I have caught her, however. The last time she started trotting up to Sofie, like "I will GET you", I just said "PIPER" and she stopped in her tracks and looked at me with her big, dumb eyes, like "I wasn't doing anything." Sure.

Sofie was stiff in her hind end from the cold (she swished her tail when she had to turn around her me to close the arena door) and while she enjoyed being groomed (she's shedding ALREADY, we must've gotten a pound of hair off her) she got a really nasty look on her face when I brought out her saddle pad and then the saddle. I wouldn't have ridden her, but one of my friends had come to ride with me, so I didn't want to cancel on her when my horse wasn't lame or anything like that. My mom longed her for maybe ten minutes at a walk and a little jog trot, and she did a lot of stretching, and appeared in a better mood, so I figured I could at least ride at a walk and help her stretch.

From her initial attitude when I brought the saddle out, I expected her to be resistant under saddle, but I actually had a really good ride. It undoubtedly helped that she had the distraction of the other horse in the ring (we don't get to ride with other people too often, since most of the boarders hardly ever ride, and those that do typically take lessons or ride in the evening). I've been working on sitting straighter, and I was actually able to push her over to the wall with my left leg (that was previously useless and floating somewhere slightly above my stirrup tread) instead of pulling her over with my outside rein. She's still a little counterbent sometimes, but using inside-leg-to-outside rein seems to work better than turning in a circle to get back to the wall (because then she thinks I want her coming off the wall and circling, and she can do that all day long!). She was actually leg-yielding slightly, which is great. For some reason I find it really hard to get a leg yield if I TRY, but if I just do inside-leg-to-outside rein, it happens. Obviously I must be trying too hard, or something.

I've also been working on doing walk-trot transitions to make things a little more interesting for her, and it seems to help. It also means we stay in trot for less long stretches of time and have fewer "grrrrrr" moments from her. Our trot work, while not perfect, was successful, with no tail swishing, balking, head twisting or glaring and only a little bit of tension at times. I've been experimenting with letting the reins slide through my hands at the trot to encourage her to stretch down, and she's experimenting with doing so. She's pretty unsure of herself, but she is starting to stretch. She'll bring her head up again, then put it down, then bring it up and so on, like she does on the longe. I need to work a little on my steering (especially to the left...boy does she like to fall in!) but I think she'll get it eventually.

We've been doing better with our backing up lately. For a while she was really good at backing up (when she first learned how) but then she got really heavy and bracy and took little mincing steps backward. I realized it was hard for her under the weight of a rider, so I started accepting the little baby steps and just trying for softness, and she's doing better. I've actually gotten some stronger steps backward, more than three steps in a row, and she hasn't been locking her poll and jaw. I know the backing up is really good for her, I think it just was a little bit of an effort for her and I was expecting too much, which made her resistant.

We're slowly learning our basic lateral work. The ride before last, she was "getting" turn on the haunches more than turn on the forehand, so I worked on TOH and got her to take a couple very slow, deliberate steps of TOH while stationary. It's hard for her to learn that she can step sideways while standing, because she's so sensitive to the leg and so eager to go forward. So normally I have her do more of a "traveling TOF or TOH".

Yesterday I was going to work on TOH again, but she was showing an affinity for TOF and not getting TOH, so we worked on TOF instead and we got a couple nice quarter turns. It was more of a "traveling TOF" and it was a bit more like a reining move than a dressage movement as it was a bit quick, not so deliberate and slow, but it was still a good response, and something to occupy her mind. She was really trying hard to understand, and when I let her stop at the end of the ride and let the reins go she practically put her nose in the dirt, like "Whoa, that was a lot of thinking!" I was really proud of her for listening and trying so hard to understand. What a good beastie.

Also, I came to the conclusion that I need a different saddle. The Wintec works well enough, and I love riding in it, but it does not fit her as well as it should. The panels are too angled for her nice, wide, flat back, and it may not be quite wide enough, either. I'm looking into a couple synthetic, changeable-gullet saddles, because I like the light weight, the adjustability, the affordibility, the comfort, the grippiness and I LOVE that you can neglect tack cleaning GUILT FREE! So here are my top two choices (at this point...I have to consult with a saddle fitter and possibly do a wither tracing):

Thorowgood Broadback Dressage

This one is obviously more of a dressage saddle, and it sounds well designed and very adjustable. My only concern is that it looks awfully nice and shiny (aka slippery) and that the stirrup bar may be set back a little, which might make my leg go TOO far back, since I have good alignment in my current saddle which does not support good alignment.

Wintec Wide All Purpose

This is a little more "hunt-seat-ish" than my current saddle, but it doesn't look too bad. I've never had a problem riding in my all-purpose saddle, but I had a terrible time in my dressage saddle, so I'm not overly partial to the idea of needing a dressage saddle to do dressage. Also well designed and adjustable, and it has gusseted panels (which my Wintec NEEDS, if it had those it would be perfect) and three additional wide gullet plates. I can also get it on sale.

Photo credit goes to the Trumbull Mountain Tack Shop (trumbullmtn.com) from which I will most likely be buying my saddle, since they have an excellent trial policy and offer lots of fitting advice.

Monday, February 1, 2010

A Tour Of The Barn With Sofie

A Tour Of The Barn With Sofie

Translated by Meghan

Photos by Meghan

Hi, my name is Sofie and I'll be your tour guide on this fine afternoon. Or evening, or whenever you people decide to read this. Whatever. I do expect to be compensated (yeah, I know me some big words) with treats. Nothing too sugary. I'm watching my figure, k thanx.

First, let's stop by My Stall. I have My very own Stall in the barn, it's very nice. I go in there at night or sometimes I stay in if it's very cold or wet or windy (or if the ditzy lady who cleans the stalls thinks it's icy in the pasture). I get My Grain and My Supplements in My Stall. I get a special grain called Nutrena Quik, 'cause apparently real grain is bad for me. I also get a Vitamin Supplement, a Joint Supplement, and a Please Calm Down Already supplement. It tastes like a vanilla milkshake. Mmmmmm. It does help me calm down, but I can still gallop whenever I want to. I try not to gallop when Meghan rides me, 'cause she gets scared and then jumps over my head, which is pretty freaky. I mean, she could kick me in the head, or something. Very dangerous. Anyway, here's My Stall.

Sometimes late at night my friend Piper, who thinks she's so great just because she's half Friesian (big ugly black horse with hairy legs) will stick her head through her window and look at me standing in My Stall. And she will squeal at me and be all "Get away from My Stall" and I will be all "You get away from My Stall, Piper". Once we did that very late at night and woke Judy up (Judy owns the barn and all the Stalls, even My Stall) so she came down to the barn and shut Piper's window.

Here is the Aisle where you get brushed and tacked up (ugh). Mostly it's pretty boring, but sometimes I get to watch Other Horses being tacked up (ha, Piper, you have to get Ridden sometimes too. Neener, neener!) and once I saw People bringing Hay in! Very exciting, except they never dropped any bales where I could reach them. Too bad.

After you get your Tack on (gross) you have to go somewhere to get Ridden. A lot of times in winter (cold, cold, ugh, ugh) I have to get Ridden in the Indoor Arena. Here it is. It is small. And dark. And boring. I like to run around loose in the Indoor Arena, but I do not like to get Ridden there. Too boring.

Sometimes I get Ridden Outside. I like it Outside, especially on the Trail. But it's nice in the Yard, too. Especially when Meghan turns me toward the Barn. I looooooove the Barn so much, I always try to get there even faster. But not too fast, 'cause like I said, I do not want Meghan jumping over my head again. Crazy human.

See, there is me being Ridden Outside. And there is the Barn. I love you, Barn!

Also Outside is the Mares' Pasture. That's where we go to get our Hay and Fresh Air and Exercise (but not too much of that, 'cause otherwise we might strain ourselves). I like to stand in the sun and watch the stupid Geldings gallop around like big dumb stupid idiots. Except for Bud. Bud is a Western Pleasure horse. He never gallops, it's against his religion, or something. Whatever.

There's me (the lovely petite pinto behind the fence), Jessie (the big spotty one with no tail, how weird is that?!) and Piper. Piper is the Boss Mare, because she is half big ugly black horse with hairy legs (as I mentioned before) and because she likes to kick. A lot. So me and Jessie were like "Sure, whatever, Piper. If it means that much to you. Just stop kicking us already!"

So that's it. Hope you enjoyed the photos Meghan took and my stimulating color commentary (I know big phrases, too). Treats can be deposited into My Feeder in My Stall, or directly into My Mouth.