Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Questions and Answers and Questions

No time for a long drawn-out post at the moment, but I wanted to write a quick update on Sofie. After the lesson, she started resisting going into the trot when I rode her. At first it was minor, and we worked through it, but then it started to escalate. She was fine at the walk, although she would occasionally trip a little behind, like she didn't want to pick up her right leg as much as the other. At first I thought I had ruined her training somehow, but then I said wait a minute, that's what everyone else thinks, but they're wrong, I know my horse. She is honest, and when she feels good, she is the best little horse I could ask for.

I had her vet checked, and she failed both her hind flexion tests. The vet recommended hock injections, and my mom had them done (I wasn't there, I had to hold down the fort at home that night). No x-rays were done, so I don't know the extent of what's wrong with her hocks, but I'm assuming she has mild arthritis that was stressed by recent trauma (blowing through deep snow, falling, being ridden in an hour lesson and getting ridden way too hard).

I'm not sure if the injections were a good idea or overkill (I don't really like or trust this particular vet, and I never have, but he was going to be at the barn that night and I knew he was good at evaluating lameness), but either way, we are never doing them again. It was too invasive, too expensive and way too stressful for Sofie. We are going to get her on a better supplement (the vet said her current supplement had inadequate levels of glucosamine AFTER he injected her), I will be mindful of her hocks when I ride her (no tight turns, no seriously long rides, no more charging through knee deep dense snow, and definitely no lessons with an overzealous instructor who does not listen to me when I tell her my horse is off and I want to go easy on her) and we will do some comfrey poultices on her hocks (I've heard great stuff about comfrey from Sofie's farrier, and we've got comfrey growing all over our field at home, might as well use the stuff).

At this point I don't know what the future holds for Sofie. I am hoping to at least enjoy her for another year or so. She may be fine for many years if the problems with her hocks are not severe, and we find the right management program for her. Either way, the lesson I must take from this is that I need to stay in the moment and enjoy every moment I have with her.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Some Lessons Are Hard

My lesson yesterday was mostly good, but it was not without issues. I did learn a lot, though, both things that I can do differently when I ride, but also that I need to trust myself.

During the warm-up, I told the instructor about Sofie's history, what I've been working on with her, what my goals were, etc. I also told her about Sofie's fall, and asked her to keep an eye on Sofie to make sure she wasn't "off", and she said she was definitely against working an "off" horse, and she would let me know if she saw anything.

I like this instructor because she came right out and said she was against putting horses "in frame" by pulling back on the reins while abandoning other critical factors like forward, straightness, etc. She said that the legs should be the dominant aid, not the hands, and that if all the factors come together over time, then the horse will be round. Which I agree with. I don't agree with what she had me do (or tried to have me do) later in the lesson, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

She said my reins tended to be way too long, and my hands were kind of in my lap, so she had me shorten my reins and put my hands out in front of me and closer together (Sofie sometimes needs wide reins to help with steering, so I tend to widen my hands a lot). She had me do a lot of work on "leg-yielding" out, especially on Sofie's left side, where she wants to fall in. We did a little work on turn on the forehand and leg yield in walk to help Sofie understand the whole "moving sideways" thing, and she had me work on controlling Sofie's speed at the trot - keeping her at a nice, quiet trot, and then going more forward when I asked. We worked on circles and diagonals and quarterlines with an emphasis on going straight and "leg-yielding" out.

There were some nice moments. Occasionally Sofie would "get" the leg-yielding thing, and move slightly sideways, and there were times when she was well-balanced, round, and over-tracking at the trot.

Sofie wasn't totally happy, though...she started out balky and pissy at the trot, and the ride was marred by an occasional tail swish or nasty face. It was more structure than she was used to, and we were asking more more of a connection, but I think she is still not quite right from the fall. She hasn't been at all reactive during grooming and saddling - she is SO much better about that than she has been in the past - but I think she hurts a little under weight. She was never "off" - at least I don't think so, and the instructor never thought she was - but she was never "off" when I put her back to work too abruptly after rehabbing her feet, either, and she clearly had muscle strain/fatigue. Obviously it's minor, but it's obviously causing her some discomfort. Because when she feels good, she's willing and happy.

Toward the end of the lesson, the instructor wanted me to canter Sofie. I said I hadn't cantered her in the indoor since last summer, and I hadn't planned to this winter. I didn't think it was a good idea to try to canter when we were still having issues at the trot, and I'd lost my nerve because of the balky/swishy/pissy/kicky issues she had last fall (and apparently is still having to some extent). But she wanted me to canter her, and against my better judgement, I tried it. I was scared, I wasn't commited, and we'd been riding for almost an hour by then. There was no way it was happening. The first few times I asked (and I didn't really even ask, I just stuck my outside leg back, sat the trot really badly and probably leaned forward) she just sped up at the trot, but finally she got sick of my leg being back there (the instructor told me earlier that some of her pissy reactions coincided with my legs going too far back) and she balked and threw in a little buck. Her head didn't go down, and I wasn't unseated. I pushed her back into a trot, then I walked her and started crying. I was so upset with myself because I knew it was a bad idea, and I was afraid I had just trained her to buck whenever I ask her to canter.

After walking around aimlessly on a long rein and crying, the instructor had me trot her again, and trot FORWARD. Sofie didn't want to do it at first, but she didn't do anything bad. We did some trot/walk/trot transitions (three steps of walk, then back into a forward trot) and I wasn't able to get quite as prompt a response (on the up OR the down transitions) as would be ideal, but it was a start, and Sofie cooperated. We ended with letting her stretch down at the trot, and then I cooled her down and put her in her stall for the night.

After the lesson I was really upset with myself for not trusting myself. Some lessons are hard. I'm all for pushing through your fear, but you have to set yourself up for success, not failure. I will canter Sofie again, but we need to perfect the trot first. I need to be able to rate her AND get her to go forward. I need to build my confidence so I can give her confident aids, and we need to be outside, where she has room to move, and a desire to canter. If I'm too afraid to ask her to canter at first, I will have my mom longe me on her. She listens very well on the longeline, and I can get her used to the canter aids again that way. Sofie has an excellent natural canter, and cantering her in a small arena with hard-packed, uneven footing will not improve it. Trot work improves the canter more than anything.

I also don't think my horse is just being pissy because she doesn't want to work. She wants to work just fine when she feels good. Even if she is not technically "lame" or "off", she's not right. Yes, she is a hormonal mare and she does have issues with being told what to do, but I'm sure that is compounded by whatever lingering soreness she has from her fall. I resent it when people make snap judgements that my horse is "bad", because I know how good she can be when everything falls into place.

But it was a good learning experience. I now know to trust my instincts and my fear. If I'm afraid to do something, there's probably a good reason. I also trust my horse. If she's upset, there's probably a good reason. She was really very good, all things considered - I asked her more more in the way of correctness and connection than ever before, and I rode for at least an hour, maybe more. A ride is not defined by its worst two minutes. And whatever issues we may have, I believe we can fix them.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

A Whole Lot Of Sofie

I am staying at the barn (well, Judy lets me stay in her house, I'm not staying IN the barn or anything like that) right now. I got dropped off later on Wednesday, woke up this morning at 5:30 to help feed, turn horses out and clean stalls, which I'll also be doing tomorrow morning. Then my mom will come and take me back home. Some of her usual barn help is in Vegas, which is why I'm helping out. So I'm seeing a whole lot more of Sofie than I usually do.

Yesterday we free schooled her in the arena, and she ran around, did flying changes, bucked and struck out with her forelegs a bit (once she put her head down as she struck out and nearly whacked herself in the face). I decided to ride her outside and just hack her on the driveway and hopefully ride down the road, since the side of the road had melted out quite a bit and it was now traversable. She was a little anxious at first as we walked around (so was I) but I tried to reassure her and stay relaxed. We couldn't ride very much on the melted-out grass because it was squishy, but we did do a little bit of riding on it and at first she thought she should trot, but she came back to me and we managed to walk a little ways out in the yard on a long rein without trotting. I think I'm just going to have to start slowly, and not try to go waaaaay out in the yard right away. She tends to have a lot of anxiety still about leaving her "safe zone" by the barn, and she worries about what I'm going to ask her to do, but I think she'll get more confident if I just give her things to think about, reassure her, stay mentally good myself, and start slowly. Yesterday was a good start.

After our little session on the driveway and the surrounding area I decided to go ahead and ride her on the road. We were both a little nervous because we hadn't gone out there in months, but apart from doing a bit of a serpentine instead of a straight line, and being a little high-headed, she was perfect. I didn't ride her terribly far down the road, as the melted area started to narrow out, and I didn't want to push her too far away from home when she'd been so good. On the way home it got interesting. There was a guy working on his garage, which was not an issue, but his medium-sized mutt was out with him, and she noticed Sofie and took off yarking. Oh great, I thought. Sofie was tensing up a bit (but still walking!) and I waited for a few seconds to see if the guy was going to call his dog. No, of course he was totally oblivious. Wishing for a tazer, I looked back at the rapidly approaching moron dog and yelled "No! Get back!". And she totally STOPPED, which I seriously didn't think she would do. Of course THEN the guy started calling his dog, and she ignored him (I know it's a she because he called her "Lady") but she didn't come any closer to us. I guess Moron Dog figured out that it wasn't a great idea to run up on a horse's butt. Or maybe she went "Oh my God! It's a talking horse! And it sounds MAD!" But whatever. I was proud of us for being able to handle that so well. I still want a tazer, though.

Last night I helped Judy bring the horses in, and Sofie came in first (she is usually first), trotted up to me, and then started walking around the arena. I think she thought I wanted to free school her or something? But I convinced her that no, she just needed to come in her stall and eat her Kwik pellets and her hay and her various supplements (though she gets most of those in the morning). I had the bright idea to take half her hay away and give it to her just before I went to bed, since she eats too fast. So I went back down there at 9, and sure enough, she'd eaten every scrap of hay. So I surprised her with the rest of her hay and she nickered at me and was very sweet.

Today she had kind of gotten used to me being around all the time so I didn't get any weird looks when I fed her and turned her out. This evening I have a lesson, my first since I got Sofie nearly one year ago. It's not with my first choice trainer, but I have a feeling she may be better than my second choice trainer, who I thought was amazing. But now I have my doubts. It seems as if dressage trainers have an inability to tell when a horse is lame. If I can tell a horse is lame, then it is definitely lame. I watched an upper-level mare being ridden this week, and the only time she looked happy and moved freely was at the end of the lesson when they let her walk on the buckle. The rest of the time she was behind the vertical, swishing her tail, gaping her mouth, and her gaits, especially her canter, looked man-made. Mechanical. Not free. It makes me even more proud of my accomplishments with my little Paint mare.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Better Now

Just a quickie post today to update anyone who might have been concerned about/depressed by my last post. I went out yesterday to see Sofie, expecting her to be stiff/sore/damaged in some way by her fall, but she was pretty much fine. She let me catch her, was calm, and appreciated her grooming without being crabby/reactive. She didn't seem to have any sore spots, so we decided to tack her up and see how she did under weight. She was pretty chill about being saddled.

She walked fine in both directions and was nice and relaxed, almost a little lazy, but that made sense because it was 50 degrees and we were in the unstimulating indoor arena (it seemed too squishy outside to ride, it's melting like crazy out there). When I started trotting her, she was gnarly, but not uneven or lame or anything. She was actually better on the right, the side she fell on! So I got off the outside track and started riding her in different patterns, changing it up, and doing smaller turns to make her think a little more. She got interested in what we were doing, and her attitude became magically better. After that, she was even fine when I put her back on the outside track to work on stretching down at the trot. She didn't stretch down decisively or consistenly (I haven't worked on that in a while) but she did put her head down intermittently, and I was able to steer her and keep her on the wall.

When another person came into the arena to go out and catch a horse, she got a little distractable, and stopped steering well and paying attention. But when my mom reminded me to look up and ahead, she started focusing a LOT better. That was a real wake-up call for me...when I have steering issues outside, I'll bet anything that I start to look down at her neck. And when I do that, she loses her forward motion, concentration, everything goes out the window. The more I focus on her not focusing, the worse she does. But if I look up and plan ahead, she comes back to me.

I ended the ride with a really nice, soft, relaxed trot. She was really relaxed and happy after the ride. I'm amazed at how well she did just a day after falling flat on her side, but that just shows how durable she is. My entire right side is messed up right now (for once I put more weight in my LEFT stirrup when I rode, and my right arm kills) but I'd much rather it be me than her.

Today I watch a couple dressage lessons at a nearby barn. Tomorrow I ride, and stay at the barn until Friday, as I'm doing barn work Thursday and Friday morning. And I have two lessons scheduled this month as well.

Monday, March 8, 2010

There's a first time for everything... this case, my first horse and rider fall. Not something I expected to have happen, but we're okay. More on that later.

My training has been kind of...I don't want to say "unraveling", as I'm trying to stay positive, but...we've been having some issues.

The past few rides I've been dealing with fear issues, which didn't make sense at first, but now I kind of realize that it's not just me being an idiot. Typically there is a reason for fear, especially fear bad enough to affect my enjoyment of things.

I've been riding outside, and Sofie has been paying less and less attention to my attempts to rate and steer. I haven't been able to just walk her around the yard - she will walk just fine on the driveway that's melted out, but once we go out into the snow (and away from the barn) she starts to speed up, drift, veer out and basically try to do her own thing. I think some of it is her trying to get through the snow in the best way possible - she can really lift herself in the trot and especially the canter, so perhaps it's easier for her to get through the really deep stuff. But also, I think I let her canter toward the barn one too many times, and now she is anticipating that, and trying to expedite the process. Can I really blame her? No, I can't, because this was really a training fail on my part. I knew she had been a rental horse at one point, and where do they typically canter at those places? Back to the barn. Sofie is very smart, and she does anticipate. I did turn on the forehand with her twice at one spot in the indoor arena, and now if I halt her there, I get a turn on the forehand.

She's also a bit anxious about leaving the barn sometimes. I'm sure my fear of her forwardness way out in the yard doesn't help her. She's not balking anymore, in fact yesterday I had to half-halt constantly just to get her to walk to the trail without breaking into a trot or canter. But when I ask her to go away from the barn, she meanders and doesn't stay straight. So we clearly need to work on that too.

Yesterday, after a relaxed warm-up on the driveway, I couldn't deal with her way out in the yard, and the snow was too sloppy, anyway. So we went back to the driveway and another area that had melted out. The footing was a little squishy, but okay, so I decided to trot a circle in an area that seemed firm. It went fine until I accidentally took her over a patch of slick snow, and she hit it with both hind feet, slipped, I flew off and she went down on her right side.

She got up, and was favoring her right hind slightly for a few seconds, but it seems to have just been bruised. I landed on my right knee and skinned it (tore a hole in my brand new riding tights, too) but was otherwise fine, just shaken up. I mostly felt really bad for getting her in that situation. I should have watched the footing more, but she is so surefooted and she'd been dealing with the snow, mud, slush, ice and slop so well that I just didn't think about it. She was moving sound, so after walking her a bit I got back on, walked her around the driveway area and then took her on the trail. She was really wanting to trot and canter, so I had to pull back on the outside rein a lot to keep her straight and get her on the trail when all she wanted to do was turn the corner and canter. I don't like getting up in her face, especially since it was my training fail that made it necessary, but (in that instance especially) she needs to listen. She can't just go do her own thing out there, she was 23 hours a day to do her own thing. Listening and waiting are not her strong suits, but I'm just going to have to be more assertive. And for a while it may just be too sloppy to ride anywhere but the driveway. The side of the road is melting out, so I'm hoping to be able to ride her down the road soon. She is still doing well on the trail.

The main issue here is not that I'm a bad rider or trainer. I don't know too many other people who could have gotten the results I have gotten with this horse. It's inevitable that I will have the occasional training fail, because I'm not perfect and I haven't been doing this forever. The fact that my riding occasionally falls apart when I'm upset or tired or hungry doesn't make me a bad rider. The main issue is that when I do mess up I am very unkind to myself. If I have a 40 minute ride, and 2 minutes of that are bad, then I will focus on those 2 minutes, and let those 2 minutes define the ride. A ride is not defined by its worst 2 minutes. But my head is screwed up, and while I can go back and re-analyze and realize that I did accomplish good things during those other 38 minutes, when I'm in the moment, I can't see anything but the bad, or the bad things that might happen, or every bad thing I've ever done. I'm not a good friend to myself, and it limits me. I've robbed myself of so much joy that it's ridiculous. I need to change.

So we have a lot to work on. I'm hoping that by later this month, when the one-year anniversary of me owning Sofie rolls around, I will have made progress that I can be proud of. Today I've got to go out and see how Sofie is doing after the fall. I hope she's okay, her right side has always had issues and it was just starting to be okay. The barn owner said she came out of her stall just fine and didn't seem reluctant or uncomfortable, so that's good. I don't care if I can't ride her for a bit, I just want her to be okay. And I really want me to be okay.

Monday, March 1, 2010

A Different Ride

Sofie's brains appear to be back. Last Friday I had a good ride on her in the arena, and on Saturday I brought her in and we groomed her while a bunch of Pony Club people were rushing around, opening and closing doors, bringing in horses, etc. She got pretty high-headed but never moved her feet, and I was very proud of her. It was a good experience for her to just stand there and get used to the commotion, since we may be trailering her to a nearby barn for a lesson with the excellent dressage trainer I mentioned, since he will not come to us (even though it is only a fifteen mile trip for him, and it would be a lot easier/less costly for him to drive to my barn than for me to haul my horse to his barn, but oh well, that's dressage divas for you). On Monday I rode her in the arena again and we got an opportunity to practice working through tension and anxiety, since one of the other boarders was wandering around the mare pasture calling her horse's name over and over and talking to her. So we were inverted and anxious for a while, but once we started our trot work in only took a few neck rubs for her to relax and stretch down.

But I must confess that much as I love Sofie, I've been cheating on her. Though I don't really think she minds, except that she has to share her bit with the other horse, so her nice hay-and-slobber patina gets ruined.

Sam is a Quarter Horse/Arab/Percheron cross gelding that I began riding last month. The majority of the horses at my barn are rarely ridden, so I decided I might as well see if any of the owners were interested in having their horse exercised, my reason being that every horse is different, every horse requires a different ride, and every horse is a learning experience. Having another horse to ride would also help me get in better shape, and I knew Sofie probably wouldn't mind sharing me. My first choice was a crossbred gelding named Baruch, who is absolutely gorgeous and built for dressage, with lovely gaits. His owner was willing to let me ride him, but after speaking to the barn owner (who knows absolutely everything about all the horses at her barn, and isn't shy about telling you all the gory details) I learned that he acts up on the crossties, sometimes rearing and becoming dangerous, and he has also bucked his owner off. Several times. Which earned him his early retirement. No thanks, I'll just admire him as he gallops around the field.

So then I called Sam's owner, since he seemed like the next best thing, and appeared to be well trained. I knew his owner let him get away with all kinds of crap on the ground (he's her "baby") and that his ground manners were nonexistent, but I also knew that when his mommy wasn't around and he was handled by people who didn't think he was such a cute widdle horsey, he got rapidly better.

The first time we worked with him, his ground manners were atrocious. He was used to recieving a steady stream of carrots while being groomed/tacked up/messed with, so when we attempted to bridle him without meeting his treat quota he had a hissy fit, stuck his head waaaaaaay up in the air (he is fairly tall, and part Arab, so yeah, he can really get that head up when he wants to!) and clamped his mouth shut. It didn't help that his bit was a single-jointed snaffle. I've never met a horse who liked one of those, except for Sofie when I tried her out, and that might have been because she was used to a Tom Thumb bit and a tie-down. *shudder* But we got the bit in his mouth eventually.

His saddle was problematic, too, because apparently whoever stuffed it was a wool flocking Nazi ("No more wool flocking! No more wool flocking!") So while the tree appeared the fit him well, the panels were pathetic, and the saddle sloped ridiculously to the rear. It doesn't help that Sam's built uphill. But we finally got him tacked up and out to the arena, and we brought out the three-step mounting block (oh yeah, the big guns). Then of course he didn't want to stand for mounting (might as well complete the trifecta of bad manners, eh Sam?).

The first ride was a bit awkward. I couldn't balance to save my life in that saddle, especially at the posting trot (posting uphill = impossible), and Sam was having some rushy tendencies, so I wound up just posting faster faster faster as he trotted faster faster faster. His movement is different than Sofie's, fairly smooth, but not as forward and a little more up and down, so I was using different muscles than usual, which wore me out. But I had fun, and he was a good boy for me. It was nice to ride a horse that just went, didn't question things or have much of an opinion.

At the end of the ride my mom said "Let's check your stirrups, 'cause you were really crooked the whole time." Turns out one of the stirrups was three or four inches longer than the other one! Always check your stirrups when you ride in someone else's saddle, kids!

I rode him again in a few days, and he was already better behaved. Then I got busy and couldn't ride him for more than two weeks. I finally got a chance to work him again, and when I went out to the gelding pasture he was quite a ways out (the gelding pasture is HUGE. I leased a gelding there one winter, and he would let me catch him, but I always had to walk to him. All. The. Freakin'. Way. In the snow, and cold, with other obnoxious geldings coming up to me going "Wanna play? Wanna play? Got any treats"? and me going "No, but I DO have a longe whip, and I WILL beat you with it."). So I was inwardly whining about having to walk aaaaaaalllllll the way out there when he saw me and took off running. In my direction. Like "Where have you been?! I missed you!" When he got fairly close, I put my hands up, like "Please don't run me over, k thanx" and he stopped.

We'd gotten permission from his owner to experiment with his equipment a little, since the last time we put the single-jointed snaffle in his mouth (with difficulty) he gaped his mouth for at least ten seconds, communicating in no uncertain terms that "This sucks", and I agreed. His mouth didn't look nearly roomy enough for a single-jointed bit, so I decided to try Sofie's bit on him. It was the right size, and it's a double-jointed oval mouth snaffle curved to follow the shape of a horse's mouth. We also made a shim to try to level the saddle at least a little.

He didn't forget anything during his time off, and was much improved in his behavior. He still wasn't great about opening his mouth for the bit, but once it was in he didn't gape his mouth at all. His mouth actually stayed nice and quiet, except for the two times he stuck his tongue out as I led him around.

I found it much easier to ride with the saddle more level, and I was actually able to control my posting, so we didn't have issues with rushing. He stopped and backed willingly (and lightly) and seemed much happier with the new bit.

I've been working on getting Sam to move more freely. He isn't very supple, and his back didn't really swing when I started working him. His walk especially was tight and restrained; he wasn't loose through the back, and he didn't really move his whole body or nod his head. He also had a problem with going behind the bit at the walk, particularly after coming back down from a trot. He is naturally high headed, so his tendency is to invert.

Yesterday I rode him again and saw some good progress. His walk was freer and much improved. We also cantered for the first time. The indoor is a little cramped for cantering, especially on a big guy like Sam, but we managed to canter down one long side and it was nice. He needs to be rounder at the canter, but that will come with time. I'm not about to force it. I'd rather he was inverted at the canter than behind the bit.

I think I'm going to learn a lot from Sam. He is similar to Sofie in some ways (sensitive, anticipates, good energy) but also very different. Sofie's walk is very strong, mainly because she does swing through her back and relax and stretch down. Sofie is also very supple and can spin on a dime, whereas Sam is kind of stiff like a board. Sam's work ethic is very good, and he seems to love attention, Sofie can be like that, but she doesn't hand it over quite as easily. I love Sam for his uncomplicated, willing nature, but at this point I couldn't tack him up by myself if I wanted to, and I wouldn't ride him down the road. Every horse has different strengths, and they all have something to teach.

"Ew! I have to share my water AND my bit with a BOY?!"