Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A Ride

Sofie has been doing so well that I decided to try riding her on Sunday. She's been able to trot and canter (albeit only on the left lead, and mostly tracking right, but what else is new?) while free schooling in the arena, and she's moving more freely forward. She had a lot of energy when I free schooled her, and paid slightly less than no attention to me. When I stopped walking (which is her cue to stop), instead of stopping and turning to face me, she kept walking, and walking, eventually stopping in front of the door to the mares' three adjoined paddock areas. Which was highly annoying, I might add. I only free schooled her for ten minutes, because I wanted to ride, and I thought she might overdo the counter-canter and start going a little bit lame. I also knew I was taking a definite chance on Fireball making an appearance during our ride by cutting her free-schooling time short, but I hoped for the best.

Her attitude about being tacked up was pretty good, except she still doesn't like the initial girth fastening. It doesn't matter if I put it on one and one, I still get the head-swinging-back "I could bite!" reaction. The saddle fits her really nicely, and it doesn't shift around on her, even with a loose girth, so I think it is a sternum issue. She probably needs some massage in that area, in addition to her hind end (she gets massages from my mom every time we go out there, and recently I've started massaging her, too). When we were ready to ride, I decided to handwalk her out in the Big Field for a bit, since that was (hopefully) our eventual destination. I wanted to ride out there at least once before hunting season was over and the geldings went back out there.

The pony was wild (i.e. snorty and very alert, but pretty much just walking nicely at my side) as I led her around, checking the footing for super iciness (the ground was frozen with a dusting of snow in places and thin little icy pieces, but nothing too dangerous except rock-hard manure piles. Pony tripped over a couple of those) and watching Pony for signs of Fireball-ness. Pony held it together until we got to the fenceline she doesn't like, especially now that there are deer camps set up beyond the woods, so she can hear barely audible Strange Voices and see occasional, possibly imaginary Things that may or may not be Actual Things. We were right near the orange snow-fence repair in the fence, and there were also New Boards in the vicinity. It was all too much for Pony, and she spooked, flew backward, and kind of darted behind me, fortunately not slamming into me, running me over or getting away. She did brush me a bit, and it's amazing how much of an impact it can feel like when a 960-lb. large pony brushes against you at a high rate of speed. I was leading her by the reins, and I hadn't pulled them over her head to use as a long lead, either, so my hand was a few inches from the bit. My arm did get strained, as I found out the next morning (it hurts to slice cheese, even...oy), but fortunately I strained a different muscle than I normally do, yay for that! And Fireball didn't go go lame after her burst of energy, either, which was nice to see, since a week or so ago she went lame from a much quieter little spin.

After Sofie attempted to use me as a human shield from whatever it was that was going to eat her, I wisely brought the reins over her head, gave her some slack, and led her around on a circle until she walked past the super scary place reasonably calmly, and then we walked back to the barn, still spazzing slightly about the whatever-it-was, but only needing an occasional reminder to pay attention and not be an idiot. My mom drove up as we we heading to the barn, and walked up to the fence, concerned that I had fallen off. "Nope, but we're not ruling it out for today!" I said, or something similarly witty at any rate.

I started off the ride in the indoor, wanting to evaluate Sofie's movement (as well as her Wheeeeeee! factor). She walked off without complaint, feeling good, not at all stiff. Her back was swingy and her hind end felt solid. I sat on her, not really doing anything, and she went around on the rail better than she ever has, not drifting, even when I changed direction. "Maybe Choo-Choo texted her 'Watch your back'," I said jokingly to my mom (more about Choo-Choo in my next post). Eventually I took up a little contact and worked a bit on flexion, doing some turns and large circles, all at the walk, and she was quite good for all of that. I felt the improvement in my position and riding from the lessons I've been taking, which was really nice.

After that nice little work in the indoor, I decided to go out in the field, at least for a few minutes. "I can always get off," I said to my mom, like I always say as I embark on a field ride with my questionable horse. Sofa was very "keen" to get out there, and she listened much less than she had in the indoor, but we walked around without getting into trouble (I did stay away from the snow-fence area). It was a gorgeous day out, really pleasant with a little sunshine, and it was so nice to get out and ride. I halted her and got off after she started feeling a little bit "off". I don't want to push her beyond what she can handle right now, since even a short ride can be productive (possibly more so than a longer one, at this stage of the game), and I'd like to be able to keep riding and not have her go lame. She wasn't resting her leg after I dismounted, and she wasn't short-striding or picking it up in discomfort. So, yay, a ride after two weeks and two days! Awesome!

Friday, November 26, 2010


On this cold, windy Black Friday, as I avoid the crazy shoppers at all costs, I am thankful for my horse and her persistent spirit. After less than two weeks of pasture rest and groundwork, she is steadily improving. The last time I free schooled her, she trotted energetically right from the start and even cantered a few times. Sofie was feeling quite sassy at one point and stomped the arena footing with her front feet, demonstrating that she could easily take me down. Ooh, I'm really scared, Sofa. Nothing is more terrifying than a large pony that resembles living room furniture, am I right?

I'm thankful that this horse is so good at coping, and that her considerable issues have not dimmed her personality. Mostly, I'm thankful for my horse.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Dark Days

I had a feeling that the start of winter would halt our rides temporarily, and I was right. We don’t really have snow yet, but the days are short and dark and temperatures are generally in the 30s, and even lower at night. There were some glorious riding days earlier in the month, and the weather was especially nice the last two days we rode.

I had one really nice ride right after my lesson with Jesse, where I worked on the things I’d learned in my lesson. It was the first time I’ve ever been able to take something from a lesson and apply it to my horse without any instruction. I worked on flexion on straight lines and curves and although Sofie can be pretty stiff, we got some nice moments when she retained the flexion when I gave the reins forward, and we even did a few pretty nice, flexed trot transitions.

The next ride was not so good, as Sofie was distractible and stiff and I was subsequently not in a good headspace. I felt like we had absolutely nothing, and the ride just deteriorated from there. I think several factors were at play. It was a nice, cool evening, there was activity around the barn, and Sofie wanted to go “fast” but was restricted by her hocks. She was quite lame after I got done riding, and I had to realize that, once again, what seems like a training issue is usually a physical problem with this horse.

Our last ride was on a gorgeous, warm day, and I just wanted to go on a trail ride. I let Sofie walk on and focused on my position, and she seemed to enjoy herself on the trail. Back in the yard, I worked on flexion a bit, and she was quite stiff much of the time. It was frustrating in the moment, but I know she’ll find it easier when her hock issues aren’t so bad.

In the past, I’ve always known when Sofie needed a break from weight-bearing because she told me, in no uncertain terms, to get the F off. This time, she never balked, flattened her ears or resisted, but she kept going lame when I rode her, even at a walk only. She would start head bobbing at the trot, or even short striding with her left hind at the walk and lifting it off the ground in obvious irritation when she stood in the aisle or the field. She’s never really been lame before, but fortunately it seems to be a hock issue. We had three months of riding, and the last month was amazing, just like earlier in the year. Right now I’m pretty much hand walking and lightly free schooling Sofie, and she’s being sensible. She lies down when her hock is ouchy, and she’s definitely not overdoing the exercise. She seems in good spirits and is improving with the relative rest. In light of what I’ve read on some of my favorite blogs recently, I feel grateful for that.

I was definitely feeling low for a while in there. Sofie going lame coincided with my going to a couple of the fancy barns in the area for lessons and to try out potential horses to lease while she was out of commission. I saw other horses that were sound and trained, many of which were standing around much of the time, unused by their ultra-rich owners, and it was hard. It just made me wonder, did I make the right decision? And the thing is that I don’t know. I don’t know if Sofie will ever be sound, or if she will always have mental and physical limitations. I don’t know if it’s right to try to make her into a dressage horse, or if she would be happier as somebody’s trail horse. I love her, and when she’s on, she’s amazing. But sometimes I just think, will I ever be able to work on circles with her? Flexion? Is it even fair to her?

There’s no way of knowing any of that now. What I do know is that, one year and eight months ago, she was the right horse. I know that with absolute certainty. She taught me how to deal with horses on the ground. Through her I've met wonderfully inspirational horse professionals and learned about barefoot trimming, alternative therapies and groundwork. I now have an eye and a feel for lameness that I didn't have (or didn't trust that I had) before. Because of Sofie I can ride out in a huge field without anyone holding my hand and telling me what to do. She’s making me a trainer, and we may not be technically correct in pretty much any aspect of our riding, but right now it doesn’t matter because she’s taught me things, invaluable things that no trainer possibly could.

I don’t know if she will be the right horse forever, but I know that everyone who meets Sofie loves her, and if I ever need to move on I have to believe she will find someone. I won't throw her away, and I won't pass her on to someone who isn't right for her. Unless/until that time when we need to part comes I’ll keep doing my best to work with her, and she will keep teaching me how to ride her, and anything else I need to know.

One more thing. November has been kind of a dark month for beloved mares in the blog world, it seems, and I feel kind of petty, honestly, for fretting about hock flare-ups and training issues. Everyone's in their own little world to some extent, I suppose, and each person's little disasters shine brighter than those around them. But Denali's Mom is facing the loss of a horse that she has put a whole lot into and clearly loves. I can see why, and I wanted to share a little of Denali. There have been a lot of emotional posts on her Denali's Mom's blog lately, but this post was particularly moving for me. You can really see the connection. You can see why this horse means so much to her people.


Monday, November 8, 2010

The Right Decision

My decision not to go ahead with our lesson was definitely the right one. She is still rideable, and I will continue to ride her until she tells me to stop (haha), but she’s definitely not at her best, and a dressage lesson would have meant waving bye-bye to any chance of subsequent November rides. On Tuesday I rode Sofie outside, and she did fairly well. We went on a nice trail ride and then worked in the yard, where had a bit of an opinion clash. I intended to ride her mostly at a walk, with some trotting, mostly to see how she was after her head-bobbing lame incident. Fireball wanted to trot. And canter. A lot. I was not thrilled with this, as she wasn’t paying attention, and I was sure she did not need to be trotting and cantering like a maniac. So she got yelled at a few times. It was kind of a weird, moody ride for both of us. She went forward very well without any resistances (except when it came to down transitions), but her ears were back a lot of the time. Puzzling, but it probably had to do with the fact that up until she went lame, we had been bombing around on our rides, doing lots of trot and canter work. Sofie loves to go forward, and she does try to please, so I think she was still trying to do what she thought I wanted, and paying for it with discomfort, so the ears were probably back in frustration.

We did canter a couple times. The first time going through The Place Where We Like To Canter, she took the canter and then veered off toward a hill, which is exactly where she does not need to be cantering. I mean, really. Hill work at a canter, just the most excellent thing to do when your hock is flaring up, right? So I tried to pull her away from the hill, which made her disgruntled, of course. We also cantered in the corner near the driveway, and it felt well balanced. She thought about picking up the right lead a couple times, but then went “No”, showing very good judgment indeed.

She held up really well, only starting to head-bob slightly well into the ride. I dismounted shortly after, since she still wasn’t terribly into “just walking”.

The next time I got out to the barn, the other three mares were all out picking up hay wispies, and once I got in the barn, I looked through the arena and saw that Sofie was standing in the shelter with her bad leg cocked. I was feeling terrible for her until she walked away from me, not wanting to be caught. She walked all the way to the other mares and proceeded to hide behind them (one of her old tricks that she hasn’t done in forever). I can remember her not wanting to be caught maybe one other time this whole year. Fortunately I found a dressage whip that was randomly lying in the outdoor (talk about convenient) and moved Sofie around until she finally decided to just be caught.

She actually free schooled well; I got her to move out nicely in the trot. After we groomed Sofie, we sticked her to find out how tall she actually is, since we were curious after hearing about a supposedly 15.2 hand TB who turned out to be only 14.2. Sofa was suspicious of the measuring stick, but she stood, relatively squareish, kind of (good enough). Turns out she’s really only a little over 14 hands (she would need to be shod to make it to 14.1)! “Sofa! You’re short! You’re a little pony!” We exclaimed. Sofa did not appreciate the teasing (she doesn’t like comments about the size of her belly or butt, either…such a girl).

I rode for about 20 minutes, and she did well at the walk. Her turns were good, and she stayed on the rail nicely, with reminders. The same was true of the trot. She only had one brief gnarly moment near the end of the ride, but she started head bobbing slightly after a little trot work, so I walked her a little more and then quit.

I did have a good ride yesterday...the weather is cooperating for now, which makes things easier on Sofa. I have lots to write about, including the awesome clinic I audited last month, and (more recently) my awesome lesson with Jesse!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Hock Fail on Halloween

With a glorious October nearly gone, Halloween was appropriately weird in Sofaland. Over Friday and Saturday, I had finally (FINALLY) finalized plans to haul Sofie an epic twenty minutes or so to the UP Equestrian Center, where we would finally (FINALLY) make our mark in The Land Of Dressage Queens and get to have our lesson with Jesse Collins. Sofie's ride was set, along with a competent person who could load, haul and unload her. Our lesson was scheduled, and FREE, as I won a gift certificate for a free Jesse lesson at a dressage clinic I attended midmonth. I was going to ride on Sunday and Tuesday, and clean my tack and boots on Tuesday as well, and Wednesday at 3 was our lesson. I figured the time was right, since Sofie had been holding up to longer workouts, more cantering, and more pressure. I was all kinds of nervous (I have PTSD when it comes to hauling horses after my first horse, an evil wicked Appy filly scalped herself in the trailer while we were in the process of bringing her home), but I was also looking forward to it.

Sofie had two days off after Thursday. I started free schooling her on Halloween, and she was stiff but working out of it. Midway through our free schooling session, the neighbors started target practicing. Sofie doesn't normally mind gunfire, but whatever gun they were using sounded kind of "off". Instead of just your standard BLAM sound, it made a weird skittery whip-cracking type noise. We all know Sofa is a very sensitive soul, and prone to overreacting to random noises that sound like cues (i.e. chirping birds, and now guns, apparently). So her reaction was to get all high-headed and trot all fancy like, with lots of hock action, as she tried to figure out WTF she was supposed to be doing.

Eventually I took her to the aisle, where she stood with her head as far in the sky as it could go (I haven't seen her like that in a long time. It used to be a routine head position for her, though). "This is a preview," I said jokingly. "She's trying to convince me not to take her to the Land Of Dressage Queens." Her neck has definitely reshaped, though...her underneck muscles are paltry now compared to what she used to have going on. She stood for a while, super tense, but not moving her feet. But the random gunfire/whip cracking noises did get to her, and she took off down the aisle (at a walk) not once but TWICE. So I led her up and down the aisle, and then finally took her back into the arena. I kept her on the lead because I wanted to see if she would listen to me, and I figured WTH, I might as well take advantage of this spazzy opportunity and practice for Wednesday.

She did trot past me a couple times, but for the most part she was pretty good and she listened to me. She actually licked and chewed one time after I stopped her and backed her up to refocus her. I was quite happy with how we were able to deal with her royal spazziness, and I took it as a good sign for our trip to the Land Of Dressage Queens.

We got her tacked up, and I mounted up in the indoor, figuring I could go outside later if she settled down. It was raining on and off, anyway. My mom left for Judy's house, and I walked Sofie around on a long rein, working on what we always work on (Not Falling In). She wasn't listening terribly well to my leg, and I didn't have my whip, so I devised a system of taking my leg off and lightly slapping her side, so my boot made a bit of a noise. It seemed to help her listen, and she started to move off of lighter aids. She walked around for a while before getting nervous enough to trot off. I started moving her out at the trot after that, and she did fairly well tracking right, moving forward in an inverted way. Tracking left, she felt really "off". There was a definite hitch in her gait, but I kept working her because I thought she would work out of it.

After a while, she started feeling more "off", and she seemed to be head-bobbing at the trot. I had to trot her a few more times before I could be sure of what I was seeing and feeling. Yup, I saw her head moving, and I felt it in my hands. I got off and jogged her in hand, and she still head-bobbed, which was just REALLY freaking great, considering this horse doesn't go lame. She gets short-strided and reluctant and MAD, but she hardly ever goes lame, and she had never been this bad. She had head-bobbed VERY subtly a few times before, but never to the degree that I could see or feel.

So, freaking out, I led her up to Judy's house and called Mom out. She checked Sofie's legs and feet, nothing incriminating. She watched her jog, and said it looked like a right front issue. She had told me that Sofie looked a tiny bit off during my ride on Thursday, so we checked her legs again, not finding anything. She asked me to ride her so she could see her under weight, and I rode her around at a walk outside. She looked fine, and the consensus was that it was an arthritic Something, not a catastrophic tendon injury Something, so I kept riding, just at a walk, although Sofie interjected a few trots (she was all WTF is your problem? We're outside! Outside we go fast!). Her outside trots were okay, but they were also less forward than what she'd been doing in the indoor. After I got done riding, I moved her around the arena a bit more, and saw that her left hind (the leg she's been having trouble with since July) looked quite stiff. I was sure that was the cause of her lameness. It all made sense, considering that had been her "bad" leg for quite some time, and she'd felt worse tracking left at the trot. And if she had an issue with her right front (a sore shoulder or some other "overuse" ache or pain), it was probably a result of overcompensating for the left hind on the trot diagonal.

So we put her on bute and doubled her SmartCalm (preparation for the trip that was most likely Not Happening) and decided to check on her the next day.

So today we went back to the barn, and I immediately started moving her around in the outdoor. She looked stiff, but not horrible (she's looked much worse on occasion). Her tail was swishing quite a bit, though. It was not a happy tail, and her expression was not great. It took her a while to warm up, but eventually she started to look better and she cantered a few times (once on her right lead. It was a lovely canter, but she kept her left hind as straight as possible and I could almost see it zinging at every stride, like Ouch, ouch, ouch, OUCH).

She was tight through her left thigh muscle, and there was a bit of heat in her left hock. So, I was right with my diagnosis. Hocks, as usual. I'm glad for that, since it could be much worse.

In the end, I knew there was no way we were going to the Land Of Dressage Queens in two days. I could have shot her up with tons of bute and once she got there, she would have been sufficiently revved to do whatever I asked, but I can't sacrifice a month of riding just for an hour lesson, and I won't sacrifice my horse's comfort. I won't put her on a trailer to stiffen and tense up, then take her to a new barn and ride her in a lesson that will undoubtedly stretch on for more than an hour, and push her to engage and do more and better (I know dressage people, and they have a hard time stopping). I know this horse, and if I take her to a new place she will undoubtedly be full of adrenaline, and she will overdo it and she won't feel it until it's too late. She's not in terrible shape, and if I work within her limits, I should be able to keep riding, at least until the nice weather goes away. There's no telling what will happen. She may go back into flare-up mode. But I can't knowingly overwork her when I know she isn't 100 percent.

It's disappointing, but I have to do what's right for Sofie. This may be for the best, anyway. We may be able to practice trailer loading now, so I can actually be more comfortable with it. If we don't get snow in November (like last year) and Sofie gets through this flare-up, we might be able to go later in the month. Or I might be able to hire someone to haul her in the dead of winter when we're bored out of our minds anyway. I have to believe that we'll have opportunities.