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.


  1. Sorry, this is going to be dreadfully long!

    I was - and still kind of am - in your position. Greta loved to go fast, so I was afraid to canter her because her polo-instincts kicked in and it was hard to even slow her down, much less steer her! She would get anxious to go at the trot as well. I would get really frustrated and angry. Finally my instructor and later my parents had a "come to Jesus" talk with me, telling me that I needed to calm down! The horse can definitely sense your frustration or, in your case, anxiety and they will definitely act on it. Greta noticed that I was angry, my heart rate up, and she was simply acting on my anger by getting anxious.

    I am not an expert, but it sounds like Sofie is taking advantage of you because she realize she can intimidate you, as I'm quite sure you've noticed! That's what horses do to each other in the pasture! I did a lot of ground-work with Greta and worked on relaxing, and it definitely reflected in the saddle. Don't let Sofie intimidate you! Be confident! Think about the good parts of the ride when you want to give up. Sofie will definitely noticed that happy, confident attitude and will hopefully reflect positively on it!

    Back to the canter haha! I found with Greta I just did a lot of trot work during our work-outs, and once she had a good trot going (it didn't have to be a beautiful, perfect 10 tot, just relaxed trot with a low poll and an focused demeanor) then I asked for a canter. It definitely wasn't amazing, but we just did large circles at one end of the arena until she felt a bit more relaxed and not so rushed, then immediately I let her trot then walk on a loose rein as a reward. We just did this every ride, and gradually she has begun to relax and be easier to control with my seat and less with my hands. We've been doing this routine for about three months now, and we're just now getting to a more relaxed canter. We'll keep up this routine. It'll take some time!

    Do what you are comfortable with, most importantly. Perhaps once you get some more confidence at the trot, then that will be the time to canter. While it is true that trot work reflects into the canter, don't put off the canter until you get a perfect trot. Do get a more responsive, relaxed trot, but it you'll never get the canter improved until you give it a try. Just a few large circles here and there at the end of a ride until you can build your confidence in that area as well. That's just an idea. If you do go along with it, you'll likely end up modifying it to your needs like I had to when I was told to that routine.

    But once again, do what you are comfortable with, what your trainer's comfortable with, and because you said Sofie seems "off" you definitely want to make sure it's what's Miss Sofie is comfortable with. I hope it's nothing physically wrong, just a mare-ish streak, and I hope you guys continue to progress and be buddies. Horses in general can be frustrating, but with enough patience and work, the end result will be an awesome bond in and out of the saddle.

    Hope that long tangent gave you some ideas!

  2. Hehe, long tangents are fine! I think the main issue was that all the factors set us up for failure, not success. Sofie was "off" from her fall. I wasn't confident. I hadn't asked her for the canter in many months. We were in the indoor, where she has no desire to canter because she's just going to run into the corner way too soon anyway. AND I asked for the canter near the end of an hour + ride. All of this set us up to FAIL, not succeed.

    Before we try to do any canter work, I'm going to need to get Sofie to wait for and be obedient to my leg aids, as well as my seat/rein aids. When I put her back to work after her time off to grow sole, I would let her decide if she wanted to canter, since her fitness was still developing, and I got into the habit of just allowing her to pick up the canter on her own, which worked fine until she stopped listening to me, like, at all. Like I said, training fail on my part, but our last session on the driveway was promising. My first goal is to be able to walk her around the yard without having her break into a trot. Then we'll incorporate some trot work, and once the trot is solid, we'll think about cantering. My mom will also work her on the longeline, which should help with obedience and get her to automatically pick up the canter from a voice command.

    I appreciate any input, since as of right now I don't have a trainer. I'm just not happy with any of the local trainers I have access to. I liked some things about the trainer I just tried out, but I did NOT like how she disregarded what I told her about my horse, and her attitude toward my horse wasn't the best. I know Sofie wasn't exactly a perfect angel, but she automatically assumed it was just a mare problem/bad attitude, and didn't seem to think I should consider a physical issue as the potential cause. And some of the things she told me about her own horse (like, that he tries to buck her off during EVERY ride) were kind of disturbing to me.