Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Back In Tack

On my latest visit to the barn, excitement (or at least spazziness) was in the bitingly cold air. The previous day had been a sunny 40 degrees, but a front had moved in and snow was blowing through the air with considerable force. Perhaps due to the weather, and also due to the recent arrival of an appealing Friesian stallion (dripping pheromones that even Sofie may have taken a liking to), Sofie was a little jumpy. As we struggled through the wind to the barn door, she looked over and saw a real or imagined Something, and became rather high-headed as a result. Once inside the barn, we walked past Zen, the Friesian stud’s stall. Sofie abhors geldings, and looks upon the Gypsy Vanner stallions at the barn with considerable disdain, but I swear she gave Zen the old once-over. I think Sofa may have a thing for black boys…

After a quick brushing, hoof-picking and leg-stretching, I decided to longe the Sofa. She was still jumpy, and her mind was not all there. Looking at her elevated head with just a halter, and her bare back, I decided “Today is not a just-get-on-and-ride day.”

I took her out in the indoor and let out the longeline, and she began trotting immediately. I walked along with her, keeping the circle large and jogging with her whenever possible, so she could go straight. I quickly overheated, so I stopped her and threw my coat off, then turned her to work on the right side. At first I struggled to get her going, and she merely spun around in a continuous turn on the forehand. Finally I got her to start walking, and she went up to a trot. After trotting her a while, I asked for a canter. She took the left lead, so I pulled her down, made sure she was bending right and asked again. She took the right lead! “Good girl!” I exclaimed. She hasn’t used that right lead in a long time! She picked it up several times, only taking the wrong lead once more. I was thrilled. She kicked up a couple times when she went into the canter, but she didn’t struggle or appear lame, and she tried so hard for me. It gave me renewed hope.

Even after longeing, Sofie was still a bit spazzy, and intuition dictated I should ride with a saddle. So, I tacked up for the first time in a couple weeks and mounted up. She was, of course, dead calm, but I was still glad I’d gone with the saddle and bridle. I’d been wanting to try riding her in tack again anyway to see how she reacted. It already felt different for me, being higher up, off her back.

Her straightness was very good initially, with very little meandering. I did some rail work, but many times I turned her off the rail to practice staying straight. I did lots of changes of direction. As we started trotting she was a little above the bit, which wasn’t surprising considering the weather. I pretty much left her alone, did a little trotting and went back to the walk for a bit. I started bending her, finding it was very easy to do circles. I did some halts, most of which were “Sofa square” (only one leg out of place). Her halts are really improving. I also tested the rein-back. She was a bit crooked and her steps were short, but she didn’t set her jaw at all. Then I trotted her for a shorter distance, asking for a bit of connection and softness. She started listening better and began to melt into her nice, open frame. I trotted her both ways and did some turns, and soon she was accepting a steady, light, definite contact. She even started foaming a little. I was surprised to trot past the mirror and see little bits of foam dripping from her lips.

After riding bareback in a halter for a while, then returning to the saddle and bridle, everything flowed. It was all just so easy. It’s clear my skills have grown since I ditched all my equipment and had to focus on my aids and my seat. With a saddle and bridle, turns and circles became simple. Sofie just powered along, steady in her relaxed, balanced frame. I turned her onto the diagonal, put my hands forward, and she lengthened her frame, moving wonderfully forward. At the corner, I sat up and half-halted, condensing her before the next diagonal, when I turned her loose again.

I did that several times, because it was so awesome, along with the occasional circle. Then I started a serpentine, and she was brilliant. Sick changes of bend, and straightness in between, remaining steady in my hands the whole time. She was at her best, because this horse can turn. She is so handy, and when she’s in balance and truly supple, she handles like a dream. I wound up doing a whole-arena serpentine, just because she was so damn awesome. It felt like she could keep going forever.

After all that, Sofie got lots of pats, and we walked. By that time, she was a bit tuckered out and a little lazy in the walk. I could hardly begrudge her a little tiredness after that trot sequence. After making sure she did not forget my leg was there, and doing our transitions (wheee, there were some pretty ones!) and a little more reinback (straightness is improving) we were done! I hand walked her then untacked and put her cooler on. She got a hay snack, and I re-stretched her legs and gave her a light massage. She seemed to enjoy all that.

I’m not sure if it can be attributed to a recent switch to SmartFlex Senior with Devil’s Claw, work in the halter or a combination of many things, but Sofie seems to be doing very well. I was feeling rather discouraged for a while, but I have hope now. All it takes is a ride like this last one to let her talent shine through, and I have reason to believe if I continue improving her fitness and working on the basics (including bareback and bitless riding, which seems an integral part of the big picture), she just may be (within reason) everything I ever thought she could be.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Happy Christmas

This time last year, Sofie was colicking. For reasons we will likely never know, her hormones decided to go insane in the dead of winter, causing a strong heat with painful cramping. She was pretty stoic, never fractious, but no vets were around and it was one of the scariest things I’ve had to deal with. We spent Christmas Eve monitoring her, regularly walking down to the barn, standing outside of her stall and watching her belly clench, with a deep line all along it that would fit your arm. On Christmas, we drove to the only place that was open and spent some time at the Christmas buffet. It was pretty much the worst Christmas ever, except we got through it. I realized I could get through it. Sofie’s gut never shut down, her pain never worsened, and she coped. She got through it like only Sofie can, and she lives on to this day.

This year I spent a much more enjoyable Christmas Eve, grooming and riding Sofie. And when I was leading her out to the pasture, it suddenly occurred to me. One year later, here we are.

Bad Indoor Photos, and Good Ride Recaps

The last couple rides have been quite successful. We’re starting to have our little breakthroughs again, and we can pretty much do everything we were doing before, even with our minimalist approach. Which is all good.

Thursday I changed up my warmup a little, and instead of going right into the trot after walking on a long rein, I picked up the reins and did a little bending work in the walk. Sofie did well with this, and was listening to my hand and bending nicely. This led to a fifteen minute walk warmup. After getting a nice circle in both directions we started trotting. In a slight reversal she was better to the left, at least when bending was concerned. It was hard to keep a consistent bend at first, which is typical for us now. I just worked a little on bending in between straight line work, rail work and transitions. Sofie did well throughout.

Toward the end of the ride I worked on rein-back, something I’m hoping will help strengthen Sofie’s hind end. I’ve never been able to give the “proper” aids for rein-back - using leg as well as a slightly restraining hand - because Sofie would always think “forward” and just blow through my hand if I ever touched her. Recently she’s begun to understand me better, and I’ve been able to cluck to her and have her still go backwards. So as I was asking her to step back with the usual aids - hand and a little seat - I decided to experiment and lightly closed my legs. She rocked forward a little, so I closed my hand again, keeping my leg on, and she went backward! Even better, she seemed to get rounder and use herself more. I praised her, and soon I tried it again. While she did step forward once, each time she listened quite well and I was able to get a very nice, correct rein-back. Using my legs, I could put a little more energy into her backward steps and get her to lift her belly a bit. She was much rounder in front and gave me a very nice feeling. I was super pleased.

Near the end she was much more connected, and she did some very nice, light turns with no issues at all. It was a great feeling.

Saturday (aka Christmas Eve) I found that Vicky had left us a little gift bag of sugary treats for me and Sofie! Sofie’s treats were quickly re-gifted (Sofie doesn‘t do sugar. I, on the other hand, have been mainlining it this holiday season). I did give her a hay snack, though. I’m not that mean. I forgot my watch this time around, so I wasn’t able to monitor how long I rode or how long I warmed her up (note to self: Do not forget watch in future. Watch is very, very helpful!). She was a bit of a grump for whatever reason (although she still did everything I asked with no real protestation, so clearly it wasn’t all that bad). When I first started trotting she was kind of rushing and she was rather stiff. I think maybe my warmup that day was inadequate. She also has no opportunity to run around outside, because the ground is all icy and it’s been that way for the last week, at least.

After the icky warmup portion, the rest of the ride went well. The only slight issues we had were occasional drifting in (which was easily fixed) and some wobbliness when we were supposed to be going straight. The usual suspects. Our transitions were all of nice quality, with only a little bit of a slow response time in one direction. Circles were a bit wonky, but she did do two nice ones for me, which is really all I need. Later in the ride, she was really solidly establishing contact, moving along in a good rhythm. I practiced lengthening and shortening the reins in trot, which she did awesome with, staying really steady. I did some more rein-back work, and discovered that when I do it off the rail, she gets crooked. She likes to swing her haunches left, probably compensating for something. I was able to correct it, and while it took a bit of stopping, repositioning and starting, I was able to get several straight steps from her each time. She should get stronger if I keep up on it.

I finished up with a nice sequence. First I trotted her down the rail on a light rein. Then in the corner I turned her across the diagonal, mostly taking my aids off. She stayed nicely straight, and when we turned the corner I asked her to walk. She made a nice, prompt transition without sticking her head up in the air. Yay! Good girl!

So, my immediate plan is:

-Remember watch (‘cause it’s helpful to see how long I ride, and how long I spend on each part of the ride)

-Do longer warmups

-Do massage/stretching whenever possible

-Perfect the rein-back

-Improve straightness and self-carriage

-Lots of connected transitions

-Don’t forget walk work

-And most importantly, remember to think. Remember to learn. True success, really, is to be kind, and never deviate from that kindness, no matter what happens.

I think Sofie will teach me that this winter.

These are from the icky warmup portion, and the quality is quite poor. But here it is, photographic evidence of our mad bareback-and-bitless skills!

Yes, I may have enjoyed playing with "black and white effects" on my computer.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Bareback & Bitless

We’ve been confined to the indoor arena since winter started, and boredom was starting to settle in. Turns out, even a huge, well-maintained indoor with mirrors is still just an indoor. Bleh.

With nowhere to go and not much to do after determining that Sofie, for whatever reason, was not physically okay with cantering, I started to notice some disturbing trends in my riding. I was getting too easily frustrated, too critical. I was getting sucked into the “gotta-be-perfect” dressage mindset that surrounds me at this barn. I regularly ride at the same time as an FEI-seeking rider who expects a lot of their horse, and it’s hard not to be influenced by that. It’s something I will need to continually work on, I think. My corrections were occasionally overreactions, and while I was okay much of the time, I’d have pissy moments and later regret it.

I decided it was time to change it up. I’ve been riding bareback on and off, and I noticed I was always more obnoxious when I rode with a saddle. Without one, I was more easily pleased. It really brought everything down to a simple partnership.

I'd been wanting to try riding Sofie in a halter again, something I hadn't done in a very long time. One day when I brought her in, nobody was riding, and I decided it was time to test her out in just a halter. I had avoided doing it with other people in the ring, just in case the steering went out. So I "tacked her up", which involved merely tightening the halter by one hole, fastening reins to the noseband and putting on my helmet. I left on my snowboots and my blue fuzzy gloves, completing the rednecky ensemble.

Slightly nervous, I mounted up and immediately asked the question "Do we have brakes?" Yup, brakes were there, just as much as usual in fact. Comforted, I let Sofie warm up as usual, working in some turns and changes of direction. Steering was a little wonky, but not too bad. We went up to a trot, and she transitioned right back down without a problem! I think it's helpful that I use a lot of seat in my down transitions, because I've never had a problem going bitless. We finished up the ride just fine, and I was quite pleased at our stripped-down approach to dressage.

I've left the saddle and bridle behind since then, and we've had a couple more good rides. One thing about not saddling up - it saves a ton of time. I could get used to not messing with girth straps, sliders and keepers! I've always wanted to be better at bareback riding, and now that I've finally gotten comfortable enough to do it I hope to continue practicing this winter. I of course don't have a classic dressage position when riding bareback, but it's got to be good for balance and such. As far as bitless goes, I've never been against using a bitted bridle, provided the horse was comfortable with it. However, I think it is good to practice riding with fewer artificial aids sometimes. I may return to using a bit at some point, if I want a little more flexibility with my rein aids. A nylon halter doesn't allow for too much subtlety, and it's sometimes tough to get flexion. An actual bitless bridle might work better, but I don't feel the need to upgrade at this point.

As far as "frame" goes, Sofie maintains a pretty nice, natural frame, even without contact on the reins. She doesn't tend to really hollow out too much, except if something makes her nervous or I sit too heavily in a transition (can't blame her for that one). It is possible to "put her together" a little more in just the halter, and she will stretch into the contact, but she does get a little heavy at times. I tend to alternate between self-carriage work, where I let the reins get floaty and just follow her movement along unless I really need to do a correction, and more "precise" (with air quotes) "dressage-type" work where I attempt to get an actual connection and do circles, leg-yield, rein-back and connected transitions, etc. She does rein-back well in just a halter (actually, that's how she learned it), and while circles can be reeeeally tricky (I often feel like we're fishtailing a little bit, just because of the limited steering capabilities of the halter), we can actually manage some nice, connected transitions in the halter just the same as with a bit.

It's interesting, also, to feel the crookedness in her that I always felt when using a bitted bridle. Sofie has always been "hard" on her right side, and she often needs to be "held" more on the right rein, especially when tracking left. I always assumed it was "deadness" in her actual mouth, but she feels just the same in a halter, so it has to be more of a body issue than just a mouth issue.

Anyway, while I'm going to be working toward hopefully being able to do our nice, vaguely-respectable-looking dressagey type work bitless and bareback, it should still be beneficial as a change-up, and helpful for my seat and fitness. Last time I managed a full hour ride, which is a first!

And it just makes me happy when I set my hands down and she goes trotting down the long side in her relaxed, Sofa-round way with floaty reins and I just post along with her trot even as it quickens, because I'm not afraid anymore.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Three Things

Sofie has a new blanket.

Sofie no longer has a boyfriend. Her relationship with Dillon was short-lived. Dillon, a big, goofy, dumb Quarter Horse gelding, was in love with Sofie. He followed her around, trying desperately to get her to play. He just wanted to play! Sofie doesn’t like to play. She just likes to eat. So her ears were permanently back, and her expression was quite ugly indeed. When he provoked her enough, she’d lunge at him with her teeth out, then go back to simmering and glaring by the hay pile. Dillon would stare at her, clearly perplexed. How could she not like me? Within a few days, she started kicking his ass, and Vicky wisely separated them before Dillon could get himself hurt through pure stupidity. Poor Dillon. Sofie lived alone for a little while then went back out with the mares, and she seems to have gotten over her little wood-chewing phase.

She's clearly not up to cantering under weight right now, so I'm focusing on other stuff for now. Last time I rode bareback and she was very good. We make quite the sight, bopping along next to the 17-hand Fourth Level mare and her rider. :)

Friday, December 2, 2011

Why So Serious?

November was weird. For a while there, I wasn’t having any fun. Everything seemed dire. Just after getting the walk and trot really nice, I tried a canter and we started dealing with tension issues and renewed soreness in Sofie’s left shoulder. There were also incidents, like the day barn employees decided to burn brush piles near the mare field, causing thick smoke in the middle of Sofie‘s living space, that caused me to obsessively worry and not think very clearly.

For several rides in a row, I got bitchy. I picked at Sofie’s inadequacies, and I was rather unkind to her, and unfair. I couldn’t stop myself from picking and complaining, and I felt really badly about it after that fact but then I’d go and do it again. It got bad enough that I considered giving her to someone who might be kinder to her.

At around the same time, we were also dealing with a minor Sofie health crisis. It was a typical Sofa malady, non-dramatic, apparently non-life-threatening, yet somewhat perplexing and worrying. It started the day Annie came out to trim Sofie. The trim went great, and Sofie was very cooperative. As I was holding her I noticed a lump on her neck. I figured it was another kick wound, but then I started finding more. They were small, firm lumps, maybe five of them in all, running down her neck and on her chest. Then my mom noticed Sofie’s face was a bit swollen, right underneath the side pieces of her halter. She had also developed a minor cough the previous day (for Sofie, a minor cough means like one cough during the two or three hours I spend with her on any given day).

We took her temp, which was normal. She was eating and drinking fine, but her eye was dull and she was a bit lethargic. With no major signs that she needed veterinary attention, we asked people to keep an eye on her and left.

The next day, I went out early to check on her. We were both worried, since that facial swelling could’ve interfered with her breathing if it had worsened dramatically. But when I went out to fetch her from the field her face was back to normal, and the lumps on her neck were all gone except for one, and even it had softened to almost nothing. Relieved, I brought her in, planning on just to playing with her a bit. I was massaging her hind end like I typically do when I felt some swelling on her upper hind legs. When I checked, her udder was swollen too, and she also had some edema on her belly. I of course had a minor freakout, then talked to a knowledgeable barn worker (and boarder). She thought that exercise would help the swelling go down, so I hand-walked Sofie in the arena while I called up various vets. Our local vets were both out of town (of course) so I called up the office of another vet we occasionally use (Chiro Lady). Chiro Lady was off that day, but I spoke with another equine vet, Dr. Way. She was super nice and very helpful, hearing me out. She agreed that it was likely an allergic reaction, and said it seemed to be moving through her system normally from the sound of it. We talked about potential causes, and although it had been a week since the brush-burning day and you’d think she would’ve had a reaction sooner, she said not always. She agreed that it could have also been something in the hay, since I hadn’t used any new products on Sofie to bring on such a reaction. Feeling much better, I thanked Dr. Way and got off the phone. I walked and jogged Sofie some more, took her temp again (still normal), gave her an apple and put her back out.

When I next checked on the magical traveling swelling, it was still in the same places, and about the same if not slightly reduced. Her eye was brighter also. After our ride the edema went way down, and it appears her little allergic reaction has run its course with no ill effects on Sofa.

In other (quite possibly related) news, Sofie got herself kicked out of the mare field. They recently added new panels on the run-in shed to make it more enclosed, and Sofie decided to start chewing on the brand new, treated (TREATED) wood. I heard this all secondhand, from Cathy while I was still dealing with the allergic reaction. And I went AHA, THIS must be the source of the allergic reaction!

And then I thought, SOFIE, YOU IDIOT.

I was worried sick about my dumb horse, and then I find out she brought this all on herself! By chewing on treated (TREATED) wood. That stuff has all kinds of noxious chemicals in it, and she decided to EAT it? Ugh. What a moron.

Then a few days ago I went out to the barn, and found Sofie not in with the mares, but in the smaller dirt paddock right out behind the barn with Dillon, Vicky’s show QH gelding. So I went hmm, why is Sofie in with Dillon? I thought maybe someone just forgot to put her out with the mares after she had her breakfast (sometimes they put her in that paddock to get her supplements because it’s empty at night and it’s more convenient that way).

Nope. Apparently Sofie was chewing wood excessively, and wouldn’t stop, so they had to put her in with Dillon, who has an old, regular three-sided run-in with no new, yummy panels. And she’ll have to stay there until the grass comes in, at which time they will attempt to let her be with her friends again.

At first I was upset about this, too. I was happy with her living situation. She had friends, she was happy, she had a big field to be in and a long walk to the water from the shed. Sofie doesn’t like geldings, and I don’t like that paddock. It gets really muddy sometimes, and it’s not as big as I’d like and it’s just kind of…bleh.

But I think it’s going to be okay. On the way home from the barn that day, my worrying kind of reached critical mass, and I was tired of it. So I went home, and I pretty much assumed Sofie would be fine.

So far, so good. We had a nice ride in the newly-dragged indoor the other day. Our straightness wasn’t too horrible, and she was willing, not crabby. She started out a little high-headed, but I just left her alone and she soon started reaching down.

I think I really needed to just chill and not take everything so seriously. If it’s not fun anymore, there’s something wrong. I hope not to get into that place again, but I know I probably will. I just hope I’ll remember what I’ve learned.

Yes, Sofie has limitations, and that can be frustrating. But we also have a history, and I enjoy having a horse I can just do whatever with. I can ride bareback. I can ride her down the road, cross the highway and go exploring. I can drop her lead rope, and she’ll stand wherever I put her while I close a gate, find my glove that I dropped or change clothes. I can do stupid things like crouch by her legs when I groom her, or squeeze in between her and the wall, because I know her and I trust her by now. And that matters to me.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Start Of Winter Rides

The winter has been mild so far, with cold temperatures but little snow. I’ve been riding mostly in the indoor, but I did get out on one clear, cold, slightly blustery day. Sofie was a little silly and spooky on the trail, but we wandered around the valley and the surrounding area. I did a little dressage work in the valley, which went nicely, and once again I had her canter for a short distance. I also stayed on her back when we rode down the hill to the valley, and she managed. By the end of the ride I felt that I’d tested her and definitely stretched her, but not to the point of overkill. I wanted to give her a definite workout that day as I didn’t anticipate getting out again for three days.

The weather turned out not to be hideous that week, so after giving her the customary day off I enlisted my dad to take me out there again. I had been on the fence about going, but I was glad I did. It was a cold day, but I felt happy being at the barn and when I walked out into the field to catch her she looked up and started walking up to me. We met halfway and she was very sweet, sniffing my hands and definitely warming the atmosphere. I don’t know if she just wanted to go in the barn for a while, but it was still very touching.

I needed to be efficient with my time that day, so I did a quick grooming and made it a bareback ride. I feel very comfortable on her bareback by now, and we did our usual walk-trot work without a problem, occupying the indoor with the 17-hand Fourth Level horse and looking very scruffy and lighthearted in comparison. I only had time for a half hour ride, but Sofie did everything I asked and remained pretty agreeable, only showing a little reluctance when cued to trot. I’ve learned how to post bareback, which is helpful, but my butt bones landing on her spine will probably never make her react with glee. It was a productive ride, at least enough to get her creaky self moving, and I enjoyed seeing her that day.

She had two days off before our next ride. The day was nice enough that I would’ve ridden outside, but burning brush piles were making the air smoky and I didn’t particularly want either of us breathing that in. So, back to the indoor it was. I saddled her this time, wanting to have more freedom with speed and the ride’s duration. I did ride without stirrups for almost the whole hour, though, and I felt quite balanced (and not fatigued).

The ride started out quite well. She stayed on the rail nicely without needing too many reminders, and she was far better tracking left, not trying to dive off the rail. Our straightness was good (for us) and when I practiced picking up the reins she stayed steadier. At the start of trot work, she was a little inverted (better tracking left, worse on the right) and she wasn’t paying attention in the down transitions (and was definitely inverting during them). I did some fairly rapid walk-trot-walk transitions, and tried to keep her connected, and she improved. We had some nice transitions, and she was rounder in the trot.

Once I got her all warmed up and going nicely, I decided to test the canter. I knew it would ruin what we had, but I was curious to see if she would pick it up in the indoor (and if it affected her soundness). So I rode her a bit more forward and asked for the canter. She did an almost-depart, so I praised her and tried again. On the third try, she picked up the canter and kept going for several strides before breaking to the trot. I was satisfied with that effort, so I began attempting to relax her again. She settled down pretty well right after she came back to the trot, but for a while afterward she intermittently inverted, rushed and became defensive. I had trouble settling her and getting her to really relax. She would come round and then start anticipating the canter and throw her head up. Her back would be stiff as a board, too. It was frustrating, and I did get a little grabby with my hands a couple times (and grumble to her also). I’m not entirely happy with how I reacted, but I wasn’t too unkind to her and I did eventually get her settled. It’s annoying when she gets so tense and anticipates like that, but it’s just something we need to work on and we will probably get past it in time. Next time I will not succumb to frustration, and I’ll try to remember to relax her by patting her neck.

As I wrapped up the ride, Sofie gradually regained her relaxation and roundness. She did have some crabby, defensive moments, particularly through this one corner, tracking left. It’s possible that her shoulder was a little ouchy at that point. I don’t know if she’s ready to canter at this point, but that’s why we test these things out. I will have to see how she is next time, and we may stick to walk-trot work for a while longer. I’m definitely encouraged by how we started and ended the ride, though. I finished up with some nice transitions and halts. She was reaching nicely into my hand, and she trotted through the “crabby places” without a fuss.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Winter Wonderland Trail Ride

I have fallen behind on updates, mainly due to recently finishing up my novel (328 pages and three years later, it is done!), a huge accomplishment for me that will hopefully lead to very good things. With nothing too exciting happening in Sofieland, I focused my writing time on wrapping up that extensive project.

Winter has commenced here, and we’re holding up well. I was out at the barn on the day of the first snow storm, a truly nasty weather event. En route to the barn we began to see snow-covered vehicles and over the next hour the sleet snow fell harder and harder. Knowing we needed to get back on the road ASAP in order to hopefully make it home, I made it quick. Happily, Sofie was snug and happy in the back of the run-in shed, sharing a section of it with her buddy Nakota, who protected her from drafts. She seemed happy to see me but hated walking through the sleet, pinning her ears and tucking her head into her chest as it hit her in the face. We hurried to the barn.

Once there, I quickly threw on her cooler, picked out her feet and bridled her. I then went for a half-hour bareback ride in the indoor, just enough to get her moving. My bareback capabilities have definitely improved, and I was able to do my typical walk/trot work and feel quite secure. The only other souls at the barn that day were a rider with a horse at Fourth Level and her trainer who are preparing for a Steffen Peters symposium, which somewhat underscored our dedication to our pony.

Sofie has been a little off lately, somewhat stiff and maybe a little sore. No head-bobbing, real resistance or serious short-striding, so we’ve just kept bobbling along. It appears to be a left shoulder issue, which is unsurprising given her recent hematoma. When I stretched her front legs recently she had less range of motion on the left. Also, when I ride her she has been bending and going round better to the right. Tracking left, she wants to fall in off the rail and has a harder time relaxing and stretching. She seems to be doing better lately.

A few days after the snowstorm, it was beautiful, sunny and in the mid-fifties. There was a few inches of snow on the ground at the barn, making everything very pretty. We were fortunate enough to be able to ride with Cathy and Nakota and I looked forward to a pleasant ride. We started out in the indoor, and I slowly warmed up Sofie while Nakota moved around quite energetically. Sofie was still a bit off but she was willing and reasonably forward. After just a bit of trot work we ended with a nice, connected transition, and then we headed for the trails.

I took a moment to test our straightness in the fresh snow (confirming that yes, we do not have straightness), after which Cathy caught up to us and we rode over to her property. We were sure to encounter broken branches and keeled-over trees, which did not concern me at all since Sofie loves to bulldoze her way through trees. We soon came to a down branch on the trail. Psssh. We walked right through the thing.

I only had to dismount on the hill down into the valley. Sofie seemed to handle it fine when my additional weight was out of the saddle, and I remounted and we carried on. The valley was gorgeous as usual, but we had plans to check out a new trail, recently finished by Cathy’s husband, who is responsible for our awesome trails.

At the start of the new trail we passed a huge, lovely maple and continued on into the woods. The trail rose up and we rode along the slightly rolling terrain, looking all around at the surrounding forested peaks and valleys. It was really stunning, the perfect spot for such a trail. I absolutely loved it from the start. I was especially happy that there were no steep hills, and Sofie seemed happy too, given the many little trees that had bowed under the weight of the snow and were just waiting for her to walk through. We dislodged a lot of the trees, which popped right up, fortunately not striking Cathy or her horse (Sofie walks fast, so Nakota usually trails behind a bit).

At the end of the trail, with no leaves on the trees, Lake Superior is visible on the horizon. We took that sight in then backtracked to check out another new trail loop. Foiled by trees that were a little bigger than I wanted Sofie crashing through (though she undoubtedly would’ve done it anyway), we turned around and began to head home. In the valley, I could not resist doing a little dashing through the snow, and Cathy was not in a rush to end the ride so I trotted around for a bit. Sofie’s balance was decent, but I didn’t worry about doing any training. I just wanted to ride and enjoy myself. Trotting through a nice stretch of openness, I encouraged Sofie to pick up a canter, and she did. We enjoyed a lovely canter through the snow, and then, satisfied with the fun we’d had, we finished walking home. Once there, Sofie got an apple (definitely her favorite part of the day) and went back outside to enjoy the rest of the sunny weather. I’m so glad we got another trail ride in! It’s wonderful to get out there and ride, especially with friends.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Proof of Progress

I feel as though we have really progressed in the last couple of months. We’ve found our way to something that resembles actual, correct, beneficial dressage, and we have been reliably achieving our new standard of work in different places and situations. Sofie’s soundness is holding up to walk/trot work and moderate trail rides, and she seems comfortable going round. She appears to be finding a new balance and is reverting less and less to her old, inverted posture.

We had one indoor ride last week. Sofie started out dead-sided and unresponsive, and I actually had to kick her a few times, which I do not like doing. I’ve ridden way too many insensitive horses in my life, and I never want her to end up that way. She was also being a bit obnoxious and falling in off the rail despite reminders. So I grabbed a whip for the first time in a while. Predictably, a few taps started her racing around the arena, and I had to drop it after just a few minutes. With Sofie paying attention, I worked on getting us both settled and getting myself in a better mood. After the icky warm-up phase, the rest of the ride was actually very good. Once we got over our issues, Sofie flowed around a big circle, soft and light in her balance, and stayed round, moving down the rail in a nice rhythmic trot. Transition work went fine, and I experimented with shortening her stride and putting her together a bit more. Pretty much everything we worked on was a success, and we finished up much happier.

We’ve gotten back out on the trail since then, going solo one day and with Cathy and Nakota last weekend. Going down hills is still not Sofie’s favorite, but in order to expand our trail possibilities I’ve had her go down a few of them. If she seems to be having trouble I get off and lead, which seems to help. I revisited The Shelf, coaxing Sofie down the long, gradual hill only to find out that The Shelf is even more terrifying without leaves on the trees! Like, wow, I can see alllll the way down now… I just clutched her sides with my legs and went into a slight fetal position while she walked on, unimpressed by the steep dropoff, going “Jeez, YOU wanted to come here!”
On our way home, we went through the valley and I tested out our dressage work there. It was marvelous. She was SO good.

I rode twice on the weekend. On Saturday Cathy and I went for a short trail ride around the property before a barn Halloween party (a full report will be forthcoming in another post!). The weather was lovely, and we had a nice, easy ride. Back in the yard, I did a short dressage session. Sofie was a bit distracted, and not quite listening to my downward transitional aids, but not bad. After going through our little repertoire I took her inside to get her ready for the costume contest/horse parade.

Sunday Cathy and I rode again. It was a cold, bitterly windy day, but I had a video shoot planned so I wanted to get out on the trail (her dressage is always better after a trail ride). So, out into the wind we went. Sofie was nice and calm until she saw Something (most likely a chipmunk, OMG) in the bushes and threw down a fairly dramatic Sofa spook. From then on, she was nervous, especially when we began to hear Cathy’s husband on his lawnmower. Unbothered, I made us forge ahead, and Sofie went on, head high and eyes big. She walked super fast the whole entire way through the woods. Occasionally I’d stop her so Cathy could catch up on her non-freaking-out horse, and Sofie would toss her head and back up before surging on. We had a few moments where calmness started to come back, but mostly we were a bit nutty. I think it was the residual effect of the party, myself…
Heading out of the woods, we were walk-charging along when all of a sudden Sofie’s head flew up and she took off trotting down the trail! Hmm, I thought as I grabbed a rein and began pulling her down. I do not know what she saw, heard or imagined, but it was surely terrifying enough to provoke a Sofa bolt. According to Cathy, she also jumped, too, but I was unaware of any sensation of real altitude, so it must have been a Sofa jump at any rate.
Once we got out of the woods and on the trail home, she finally relaxed and walked at a normal speed with her head down. Back at the barn, Cathy went inside like a smart person, and I, freezing and seriously doubting my ability to get Sofie round and decent-looking on that particular day, headed out to the field I’d chosen for the video shoot. “I’m gonna go….try to make dressage happen!” I chirped to Cathy before we parted ways.

I had no expectations. I had a feeling we were going to get some real mediocrity on camera, but I rode her out to the field (immediately sending her into the trot because I was freaking freezing and needed to warm up). I did a little trot work out there, trying to see what we had. She was a little hard mouthed and stiff and a little too fast, but she was much better than I thought she would be. The shoot began, and I went back and forth, trotting straight and bending lines, walking, backing, free walking, giving the reins forward, stretchy trotting and halting.
I rode for what I thought was a few minutes, and Sofie started to get dull and I could tell she was getting ouchy, so I ended things and walked over to my dad. “How long did it end up being?” I asked cheerfully.
Turns out, nearly seven minutes!! Uh, not gonna work. I started to get upset, as I had really screwed up. I needed no more than five minutes of footage, and there was no way to edit it down because in this particular instance, I needed a disc with one continuous clip on it that was the correct length. I reviewed the footage, and quickly found that Sofie didn’t fill the frame enough. There were also some stumbles and missteps (I’d felt them while riding). As much as I hated to do it, since the footage I saw looked quite decent, I told my dad to delete it and we’d start over. I was not optimistic that we’d be able to get anything good on camera, especially now that I’d used up seven minutes and I knew Sofie was getting tired. But we had to try again.

The second attempt was quickly scrapped when Sofie had a crabby moment. She was getting a little tired of going around in a dressage-y way, and I was sure her hocks were a little sore from all the rushing and being tense and jumping on them. So I started the third take, and just tried to ride lightly and keep her going.
Being filmed is a little bit different than regular schooling, especially with no room for editing. I was conscious of the camera, and I tried to keep everything steady and nice, with no tripping or bobbling. And Sofie was a little tired and a little clunky-feeling at times, but she stayed round almost the whole time and did everything I asked without resistance or mistakes. She didn’t refuse to back up, she didn’t hollow too much in her transitions. She didn’t trip over anything. I wasn’t sure how it would look, since she felt a little jerky to me, not her smoothest, not at her best. But I knew it was a decent try, and I was proud of us for being able to do that.

Not the brightest or the best at keeping track of time, I nearly rode overtime again. Fortunately, my dad ceased filming at four and a half minutes (after his nifty little hand signals at the two and three minute mark just went right over my head). I dismounted, and took a moment to look at the footage, even though it was pretty much the best we were gonna get. And it was quite nice. Sofie was moving well, tracking up nicely and she was quite round. Her free walk looked great, and her trot work looked relaxed and fluid. She didn’t show any trace of soreness, which was great to see. It looked way better than it felt, and I was very happy because it was a good representation of how we’ve been doing recently. She’s such a different horse now. I am very proud of both of us.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Three Solid Rides, and a Lumpy Sofa

This week the weather has been overtly cold, windy and rainy, which makes life at the barn somewhat more frigid. I seem to be refusing to adjust to the seasonal change, and am still insisting on wearing my summer (i.e. THIN) riding pants and my little clogs, though I have conceded to wearing turtlenecks and occasionally a winter coat. Apparently my top half can adjust, but my lower half is stuck in summer?

The barn in tolerable, once you adjust to the walk-in freezer effect. Going out to fetch my pony can be rather miserable, depending on the wind velocity/direction. One day when walking Sofie in, the wind was in our faces, blowing me around so I couldn't walk a straight line and throwing snow/sleet/rain at us! Sofa tucked her face into her chest (rollkur!) and glared out at the weather as I hurried her along.

We were pretty much stuck in the indoor this week, as it was either too cold/windy/rainy to make venturing out a profitable experience. Of course, now that we have a gynormous indoor with good footing and mirrors, that is not such a bad thing. However, I still prefer outside. I will ALWAYS prefer outside.

On Sunday, Cathy (who doesn't spell her name with a K, I finally figured out) showed up just as we were getting ready to start, and she joined us in the ring with her mare a little later on. We warmed up along the outside track, doing our usual corrections and being stiff and creaky at first. She wasn't too bad, though, considering the cold. Starting to trot, I think she was a little reluctant in the first transition, but she was soon trotting around nicely, only bobbling occasionally. She was staying reasonably straight and was pretty round, with occasional lapses. All in all, pretty much a steady, decent ride!

Tuesday was annoying varied, weather-wise, with cold rain and sun mixed. I attempted to ride outside at the beginning, but was thwarted by rain. So we went back in, and had another good, productive ride. Other than the usual straightness reminders, and slight stiffness/bobbling, she did really well. She was round at the trot, bending both ways and just going along nicely. She did not want to back up at first, but got lighter after a few repetitions. During the ride, I noticed that she was not staying round in all her transitions, so I decided to try and fix that. She stayed nicely round at the trot, and was steady in her walk-trot transitions, but in her trot-walk transitions she momentarily raised her head. So, I put her on a slightly long rein, and tried to use light aids and do gradual, soft transitions. And after a few tries she got it, and we did many nice transitions in a steady, strechy frame! Good girl! I got off after that was accomplished, and we went outside to try and make the most of a brief sunny spell. I went on a short (very short) hack before turning around when it looked like it was going to rain. But it didn't rain, so we did a little work on the flat, grassy area. Sofie was forward (yay outside!) and nicely round, stretching to the bit. We went successfully through the Bad Corner, and did some nice turns. She was so supple and bendy! We ended with a successful straightness test (trotting her away from the barn, I took all my aids off and she didn't waver! Yay!).

Thursday we did not venture out, but we made the most of our indoor ride. It was definitely a solid ride throughout. She would occasionally fall in off the rail, but not too badly. She is maintaining her straightness for longer periods of time, so my corrections appear to be working. I try to “correct and release” rather than “hold”, which is not a great trap to fall into. I want to preserve her lightness and forward initiative!

Her trot work was nice, and she was able to pretty much just go around the rail at a nice, soft tempo, nicely, consistently round. When she occasionally pops above the bit I can now half halt and get her to soften while tracking straight. Before I would have to turn or circle to get her round. She is way more trusting of my hands. With a little bit of vibration on the reins, she goes back to being round. Very cool.

We were working around an upper-level horse and rider who were in a lesson, so I made sure to stay out of their way as we went along in a vaguely dressage-y way. This meant an occasional unbalanced turn (emphasis on “get the hell out of the way!” rather than “make sure our shoulders are aligned”), but no big deal. We did some transitions, but mostly steady trot work. Turns were successful both ways, and our straightness was decent, with only occasional drifting or wobbling. Eventually I tried circles both ways. I made them smaller than usual to test our bend and balance, and they worked out quite well! She listened to my little steering adjustments, and according to my mom who was watching at that point, Sofa looked round and expressive! Really, my little arthritic paint mare, expressive?! How nice!

In addition I did a few rein-backs (heavy and resistant at first, but subsequent improvement) and I worked a little on turn on the forehand. She did very well with that, very stationary in front, still a little quick and spinny with the turns but I don’t really mind that. Nearly done, I tried some halts on the rail. She was nice and balanced in the walk, and her halts were all "Sofa square" (square in front with only one hind leg back). Then we actually got a legit square halt! I was amazed. I got off to reward that, dismounting on the off side since we were too close to the wall for me to swing off on the "correct" side. I managed to dismount without a problem, despite having no muscle memory for dismounting on the "wrong" side. And with that, we were done! It was the best, most "trained-feeling" ride we've had in a while. I just felt like she was actually trained! How novel, I know right?

Then on Saturday, I brought her in and noticed this:

"What happened here?!"

Yes, I discovered a soft, puffy place on the point of her shoulder, which is draining down into her chest. Another hematoma, Sofie? I have no idea how she gets herself into such trouble. She is not an aggressive or alpha mare. I mean, she's Sofie! How she gets herself beat up is beyond can you not love that face?! She must've mouthed off to the wrong mare...

Her last hematoma was late winter/early spring, and it wound up being a rather large, very firm mass between her front legs. It took at least six weeks to go away, disappearing, coincidentally, right when the vet came out to lance and drain it ("No one's going to stick a big needle in me!"). So this time when I found her lovely lumps, I just casually remarked "My horse is lumpy" and kinda shrugged. She has gotten so many cuts, abrasions, lumps and various little, non-dramatic injuries that I have become incredibly blase when they show up. She runs through things, she gets sore and cranky sometimes...and she's still okay.

We did go for a ride (with my friend and her matching, Sofa-colored gelding!) and finally, we had outside riding weather! Sofa was stiff, so we went on the trail to loosen her up. I was enjoying just trail riding, so we went on, first on flat ground and then, for a change of pace, we went down into Cathy's land. I deftly found us a nice steep hill to go down (my friend was less than thrilled, especially when I told her, after the fact, that I in fact had never been down that particular hill before) but I got off and led Sofa down it and one other hill. She seemed to handle the terrain fine, and we kept it relatively easy, walking much of the time. I think we all enjoyed getting out. I did trot her a little bit in the valley and the front yard area, just to test things, and she was good. She was a bit stiff, and not as into bending, and at the end of the ride she was kind of dull and resistant, but nothing bad. I didn't worry about it, and chose to just work her lightly at the trot for a few minutes. I figure getting nailed in the shoulder might account for her slighty reluctance! We'll see how she is tomorrow.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Plans for Now and Later

I’m happy to report that Sofie is feeling better, and her soreness seems to be manageable at this point. She warms up a little cranky, but with light aids and encouragement she is able to work out of it. I’m optimistic that we will be able to keep riding through fall without interruptions, and I came up with a plan to preserve her soundness and keep her going through this ouchy phase.

Going forward, the new plan is:

-No hills (slightly uneven ground is fine, as are teeny tiny slopes. Perfect flat ground is not important, just no major hills until she’s no longer sore)

-No cantering (until she offers it without getting angry/defensive/upset!)

-Limit circles, more straight line work (some turns are fine - and necessary - but no excessive bending!)

-Lots of rewards! I will be super nice, kind and encouraging. I will be respectful of the effort she makes even when she’s not at her best. It really makes a difference.

Last Sunday I rode with Kathy, my main riding friend at this barn. We started out in the indoor for a few minutes as Kathy finished up her canter work, and Sofie was moving fairly okay but was defensive when asked for the trot. I just did a few transitions, and trots on long straight lines. Sofie wasn’t really round but she wasn’t too inverted, and I felt she was “Sofa round” and doing a pretty good job considering the insubstantial warm-up. I did trot one big circle, just to find the balance and connection, and then Kathy was ready to go so we headed out. The ride was nice, and she seemed to enjoy herself pretty well. I did have to get off and lead on one downhill that was steeper than I thought. She was definitely not comfortable on the hills, but the ride was pretty low-impact. On the way back we rode in Kathy’s dressage arena for a minute, as I wanted to see if Sofie was doing any better in the trot. She was still cranky in the trot at first - pretty much letting me know she was sore, and I’d better not ask her for too much or she might have to do something about it! She doesn’t really want to be crabby, she’s just trying to cope with her situation. I’m glad she communicates, as I don’t want to overdo it when she’s hurting. We did a little walk-trot work, and she listened well and did good transitions and was reaching into the contact pretty nicely. She was Sofa round, at least! The corners seemed easier, too.

The next ride was when I started to really implement my plan. I used our trail ride as a warm-up, and chose the trail near the barn, which is pretty flat and not too long. I walked her most of the way, testing out the trot a couple times. She went into it with no crabbiness. I practiced our leg yielding along the way, and then we came out of the woods and headed back toward the barn. I had planned to ride in the front area, but we passed an empty pasture that looked inviting, so I turned her through the gate and headed for the flat areas. She was rather wobbly, not wanting to go straight when we turned away from the barn, but she improved as we went along. After a little long-rein walk work I had her pick up the trot. Sofie was nicely forward and pretty willing. She only rushed a little bit (we once did canter work in this field). Her ears went back a few times, when I asked for a bend or just when she anticipated something, but she felt much better than the previous ride. She was moving fine, listening well and we could pretty much go around reasonably straight and at least Sofa round, if not better!

I did plenty of straight lines and some bending, just to keep her round and balanced. She was a little unbalanced tracking right, of course, not quite aligned in her shoulders at first. But with a little bit of work she really improved, until I trotted her away from the barn, making a half circle, and she really softened, moving light and balanced, with the proper bend and without falling in at all! It was really nice.

With that accomplished, I wanted to do a little work in the far corners, which was a little challenging for her as it meant turning while heading slightly downhill. The first couple times she rushed it a bit and popped her shoulder the wrong way. I got her listening and fixed it tracking left, and we got a good corner! So then I just needed a decent right corner. I trotted her toward the corner, telling her “If you do a good job, you’ll get to be done!”

I didn’t expect anything, of course, but it was almost like she listened because she slowed down, balancing on the downhill and bending slightly right through the corner! She then continued straight down the fence line, still in a nice rhythm and balance. Yay! She got major praise for that, and we walked. I was true to my word (well, almost) and we were done except for turning around and practicing walking straight, away from home, on a long rein. She was a little wobbly at first but much better than before, and when I got several straight steps in a row we were done!

I dismounted, petted her and while I was standing with her I looked around. It was really beautiful, with the pastures bordered by autumn leaves and the sky a deep, reserved blue with almost purple-tinged grey clouds. It was one of those perfect rides, and I felt like I had been good and fair to my horse, and she just did a great job. There’s nothing like that feeling.

It's been so beautiful at the barn lately.

Our latest ride was also good. She came into the barn and was noticeably off when she first stepped onto the concrete aisle (not the first time she's had a few hobbling steps on the concrete). She definitely needed to get out and move, so we set out for Kathy's dressage ring. Sofie was slow and creaky at first but happy to go down the trail. I walked her at first in the dressage ring, eventually moving up to trot work. Sofie was a bit cranky about going into the trot and bending in the corners, but I just rode lightly and gave her lots of encouragement. She seemed to realize it was okay and we got some nice little trot work done. She found a rhythm that worked for her and we did some transitions, halts and a few turns/diagonal thingies (isn't that just a great descriptive term for EVERYTHING?). I'm not sure what happened, if all the leg yielding and working to keep a consistent bend on a slope was actually beneficial, or if I just have a better understanding and feel for the aids, but corners are SO much easier for us now! Before she was rushing, counterbending and not aligned in her shoulders, so our corners were really bad, but now I just half halt a bit, and use inside leg pressure, plus inside rein close to her neck, and outside rein slightly away from her neck. Once we have the bend, if she drifts out too much I just turn her with my outside aids. OMG it is SO much nicer, and easier now!

Eventually I worked up to a full trot circle (tracking right) which came out well, so we rode home under a slightly threatening (but lovely) sky. I considered going in the indoor to finish up, but it didn't start raining and it was too nice outside. So, we rode in the front yard area. I took the opportunity to test out our newly impressive cornering skillz in this one corner that Sofie does not like for whatever reason. I'm not sure if it's because the ground is slightly uneven/rocky, or just...because. But in the past it's been pretty impossible for me to get her to soften and bend through the corner.

Sofie was happy and much more forward (yay!) and we practiced going away from the barn and being straight, with success. Then we tackled the Bad Corner. The first time through, tracking right, we didn't quite get our bend right, but it was in no way horrible. I turned around, and we went back through tracking left, which went well. She stayed straight as we continued on, too! So, we turned right and went back through. And we did it! Not a perfect corner, but she wasn't rushing, wasn't counterbent and was actually straight with maybe a hint of proper right bend! Yay improvement! After that we kept going straight, and I trotted her around for a few more minutes. Sofie was moving well, and reaching very definitely into the contact (she was almost slightly heavy!). We did some straight lines, some turns, and we might've gone back through the Bad Corner just for fun. Our steering was excellent, she was round and everything was good! We ended trotting away from the barn, and I took my hands and legs away from her and she stayed straight! We ended right there because she had done everything so well and I was so pleased with her. What a good Sofa!

I'm so happy that she's been able to keep going, and that she can still have her exercise. I feel like the work we've currently been doing is very beneficial, and not too stressful. I've also gotten myself together, and I am proud of how I've treated her in our last few rides. I have been truly supportive, encouraging and fair, and I can tell it has made a huge difference in her willingness. I've not always succeeded in the past. I have let my emotions overflow, I have gotten pissy with her and I've even yelled at her and jerked her in the mouth. She doesn't deserve that, and I can't believe I ever did that to her, but she forgives me all that stuff and just keeps teaching me things. And recently I've realized how important that is to me. Other stuff, not so much. So from now on, I will be kind, and I will be fair to her. I will be that person for her, because if I know I was good to her, everything else in my life just seems more manageable. She is there for me, even when others aren't. She deserves nothing less.

I also hope to manage her condition better, and preserve her soundness. I will no longer overwork her when she's at her best. I hope to be more reasonable with cantering, circles and long rides, and avoid the crash that happens when she hits her limit. My thinking being, if I am careful with her when she's sound and able and ready to do anything I ask, maybe I can extend those times when she's feeling good and everything is great. I went a little overboard with the two hour rides, cantering and bending work this fall, mainly because I was excited to be at this barn, and we both enjoyed getting out to see everything. I love exploring with her, and I love cantering with her. But I think moderation is called for in this case. I'm sure she will have soreness, no matter what I do, and she will not always be sound, but we can sure try.

When I was feeling discouraged, I looked back at my calendar for this year, where I mark all our rides (and any downtimes). And I was surprised to see that, this whole year, she only had one week off from riding in May, and two weeks off at the end of June. Other than those minor interruptions, I've ridden her every other day, all year long. True, there were some times when she was sore, short-striding and all we could do was light bareback rides, but I was still able to ride. She used to routinely need a month off from riding every three months, so it seems she is improving. And if I manage her correctly, she may do even better in the future.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Rides, Hoof Photos, Soreness and Luck

This will be a long post, as I have a lot to cover.

Sofie is starting to get sore. I can tell in little ways, like when she actually puts her ears back when semi-resisting going down a hill (the only way to the valley and the lovely continuation of our trails). She's not lame or anything, but little things about her demeanor and performance just say "OUCH".

I had the first inclination that she might be a little overworked when she bucked in the canter and then veered sharply toward home. But that was at the end of a two-plus-hour ride, so I didn't know if it was just fatigue or if all the work we'd been doing was starting to catch up with her.

I brought my dad out to the barn to take some video of us, since things had been going so well. My plan was to have him take some canter video in the valley, so I could then pull some stills and have some lovely canter shots! Very nice plan, however, we waited just slightly too long to get him out there. I could kinda tell Sofie was not right, after hacking over and doing some more walk work in the valley, but I put her into the trot to see what would happen. Her ears went back, and she started rushing, legs just flying around as she veered back and forth, feeling extremely tight and upset. She broke into the canter of her own accord at least once, and just had trouble getting settled in the trot. It felt, to me, like she knew what I wanted and she really wanted to do what I wanted, but it hurt and she was anxious and a little angry at the same time she was trying so hard to do the right thing.

Since my dad was there, and she wasn't head-bobbing or anything, I rode her in the valley for a little bit (no more than ten or fifteen minutes, I would guess) and coaxed some passable trot work out of her, plus a few canters (a couple that were pretty short-lived, and a couple longer, straight-line canters). She was incredibly good and I think it's a testament to our journey and our time together that she was willing to do that for me.

Once I'd gotten my little bit of canter video, I stopped, petted, hopped off and quickly reviewed it (her canter looks beautiful, even though she's not at her best! What a good girl). Sofie stood rather impatiently, tossing her head a little bit, either due to lingering discomfort, or maybe she just wanted to get moving again. Possibly a combination of the two. I remounted and headed off for the trails. I figured I would just do an easy, walking trail ride, then head back.

The trail ride was lovely, and I stared at the brilliant fall colors with Sofie walking easily along. We headed home through the valley, and she was rushing a bit in the walk, thinking about either going home or cantering. I realized I had neglected to do very much walk work in the valley, and it was bugging me, so I turned her around and did some work on easy walk circles, just trying to get her listening to my aids, not drifting too badly, and I wanted her shoulder aligned properly. It took some work, but she improved in the walk. So I asked her to trot, just to see how she was doing (and to school the trot without cantering, which we had, uh, also neglected to do in the valley!).

From the beginning she was very much improved in the trot. She was trotting steadily without the earlier anticipation and ouchy, pissed off edge. She was doing so well that I got sucked into working on our dressage (of course) and did some turns and circles, with emphasis on getting her shoulder aligned. She had some difficulty in the usual spots (mostly slight downhill slopes) but she did great! She worked happily, too, until I did a few turns in a row down a slope, working on the balance. After a few of those she put her ears back and slowed in the trot, like "Enough." So I did one more turn, got what I wanted, halted, patted her and quit. I was encouraged by her (mostly) cheerful trot work after the longer warm-up, but I had already figured out that I probably needed to scale back our rides even more.

With plans to scale back on our riding, I decided on a trail-only ride. I wanted to practice riding on the road, so we could hopefully find other trails and meet new people (all that good stuff). First, though, I went on a short ride around the perimeter of the property with a girl who recently moved her horse to the equestrian center. She has a rather different riding background and she tells some very interesting stories! I enjoy her company. After we parted ways, I went on with my plan to ride down the road.

Sofie was wiggly at first and a little obnoxious about leaving home. We were both a little tense on the road at first, and I had to hold her in place and keep her from drifting onto (or off) the shoulder. However, she went past two barking dogs in the very first yard without spooking and we kept going without incident. We only had one tiny spook, and a couple times she stopped and stared ahead at something. Once it was because she saw two very large black Labradors. Once I figured out their yard was fenced, I asked her to walk on and she did (I was glad they were inside a fence, otherwise I might’ve turned right around!). The dogs barked, but Sofie was unimpressed (“Uh, they’re inside a fence, who cares?”). The owner of the Labs also commented on how beautiful Sofie was. Team Sofa! I should sell T shirts…

We got to the end of the road, where we wandered past the big “Equestrian Center this way!” sign. I was apprehensive, but I decided to practice crossing the highway. I halted her across from a driveway, and waited for a break in traffic. I was really nervous, but Sofie was so good. She went across the highway with no problems and kept going, down the driveway and into a junky-looking storage yard full of trucks, trailers and scrap metal. She took a look at a couple things but bravely walked on as I looked for a place to ride. There was no one around, and I knew of a trail somewhere in that area, so I was in the mood for exploring. Besides, we were over there now, so why not?

At the edge of the storage yard, I saw a space between the trees, and rode through it. I quickly found an actual trail, the long grass flattened by ATV traffic! The trail was nice and straight, flat, with good footing. Some of it was more wooded and closed in, and then occasionally there was an open area from which I could see the highway. The trail did lack the pristine beauty of the trails near the barn, but it was a refreshing change of scenery and it’s always fun to see something new. I’m pretty sure it was an actual trail, and that I wasn’t just trespassing the whole time, although at one point the trail went right past someone’s house! (Thank goodness they weren’t home! Otherwise, awkward…)

Speaking of awkward, at one point the trail passed this pile of junk - old mattresses, bulletin boards and sheets of metal, all shot up full of holes. On the ground, about five million shells. As we walked through there, I looked around, thinking “Hmm, I’m riding through an area where rednecks come to shoot at things…THIS is smart!” It was kind of funny, really. No rednecks appeared (WIN!) so we kept going, enjoying a brief canter through an open stretch. We followed the trail until it opened up to another road, two miles from the equestrian center. I didn’t feel like going further, so we turned back.

I did a little trotting in the open area. Sofie was rushing and not listening to half halts, so we had to work on that a little. I wound up turning her around, just to test the forward heading away from home. She was VERY wiggly, swinging back and forth, which was a bit obnoxious. I kept her going in that direction until I was satisfied with her straightness, then turned back toward home and worked a little more on trotting (and listening). She was heavy and the straightness wasn’t there, so I decided to do a tiny bit of circling work, just to get her balanced. We found an area with a very slight slope and did several circles in each direction. At first, she was heavy, not listening to my seat and needing a lot of hand. She fell out of balance on the downhill slope and popped her shoulder the wrong way. But after a few repetitions she became light, and maintained her rhythm all around the circle. With inside leg at the right time, and a little support with both the inside and outside rein, she kept a fairly consistent bend around an entire right circle. Happy and pleased, I rewarded her and headed back home, walking the rest of the way. I think it’s good to do little bits of dressage work in different places. I’ve always liked short sessions, and it’s especially important to keep it brief when she’s sore.

We found our way back to the highway, and crossed with no issues. As we started walking up the road to the equestrian center, a car pulled onto the road with two little girls inside. They obviously wanted to see the horse, so their dad stopped the car, I stopped the horse, and they just watched her for a minute. Sofie stood well (though obviously wondering why we were just standing there). They thanked me and drove off, and Sofie and I continued on our way back to the barn. She ignored a barking Cocker Spaniel that ran across the yard toward us (it wouldn’t come within twenty feet of us, though).

When I got back to the barn driveway, I dismounted. My ass was tired, Sofie was tired and I figured I’d walk her the rest of the way. While my “light trail ride” was still a long ride by our standards, it was mostly straight line walk work, so I felt I succeeded in my plan. I also quit when we got back, rather than doing “just a couple trot transitions” and getting sucked into another dressage session.

Sofie had an appointment with Anne, our trimmer, so I rode again the next day. I didn’t have a whole lot of time, so I hacked over to the valley. Sofie was pretty willing, but she did resist going down the semi-steep hill that leads to the valley. Once there, we did a little dressage work, and she was heavy and running on her forehand at first, but willing to move forward. After a few firm half halts, she figured it out and I got some nicely balanced turns out of her. She stayed fairly straight throughout and was nice and willing. I did only one brief canter (she kicked up a little behind but her canter was quite nice) and quit shortly thereafter, happy with her cooperation. We then went on a very short hack before riding back to the barn to meet Anne.

Anne was awesome, as usual, and Sofie’s feet look great! Anne was particularly happy with her frogs, which are more robust than ever since the move. But, she thought Sofie was too fat (she almost always says that) and actually thought she had gained weight since she’d last seen her! I disagree, but I’m not too worried about it. Sofie is in no way obese, and her diet is very reasonable. And reducing the intensity of our rides is definitely a must, as Sofie was clearly uncomfortable and having trouble holding up her back legs. I am very grateful that we have a trimmer who understands Sofie’s issues and is never abusive to her, even when she’s not totally cooperative. It means a lot to me that she is kind to Sofie.

Sofie's left front, side view.

Sofie's toesies!

Sofie and Anne.

And finally, I just want to say that I am grateful for the luck we have, and our time together. We may have our struggles, limitations and worries, but in light of Gogo's pending euthanasia (it may have already happened as I write this) I know I am so fortunate to still be able to ride and spend time with the mare I love. I feel for Andrea in this time, and I sincerely hope she will be able to move forward and continue to inspire and educate us, because we love reading her blog. Gogo was lucky to have such a dedicated horsewoman. It breaks my heart that after all her careful management, and everything she did to help her horse, it didn't work out in the end. I don't know why things happen the way they do, but the best we can do is move forward and try to live (and love) as fully as we can. The lesson I took away from this is to make sure and love my horse, and be kind to her always, because I am lucky to have her. I want to make sure and earn that privilege, from now on.

I am so sorry, Andrea. But I thank you for that lesson.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Listening Skills

We have been really fortunate to have lovely fall weather all this week. Last week, though, we did have a few days of heavy rain, wind and cold. Sofie fared well, and I didn’t have to worry about her being brought in and stuck in a stall. I ventured on a very cold, windy day (with on-and-off rain persisting), and was reminded just how cold this barn can be. The place is a wind tunnel, which makes things nice in summer heat, but in the past I’ve only ridden there in the winter so I know how cold the place gets. The barn itself was warmer than usual, due to body heat from all the horses that had been kept in (including horses that are usually outside, like Vicky’s broodmares and her stallion).

Sofie was outside with five other mares, and they were all in fine spirits. There was plenty of hay right inside the shelters, so they could get out of the wind and stuff their faces, which Sofie was busily doing. She looked rather concerned to be taken away from her hay pile, but I assured her it would still be there when I took her back.

Unsurprisingly she was kind of stiff, and had a little trouble holding her back feet up for cleaning. I did a little massage and got her ready for an arena ride. We walked for a while and worked on our typical stuff (not falling in, etc.). The early trot work went quite well. She had her nose out at first but relaxed and started to round pretty quickly. She felt pretty flowing and even. Unfortunately, the canter work didn’t go so well as she reverted back to tension and rushing. We blew quite a few canter departs, as she just started running in the trot and threw her head straight up in the air in alarm. With some work I did get her to start taking the canter, and once we got one depart she didn’t blow any more departs, except when I tried to get her to pick up the canter in a corner, forgetting I always ask her when she’s going straight. After a few unsuccessful tries I compromised by asking her right after the corner, on the long side, and she picked it up.

After that I didn’t do any more cantering, and I finished up by reestablishing the relaxation and correctness in the trot. At first she was inverting and rushing at times, but then she got the concept (or realized she was tired) and went around in a nice tempo, consistently, definitely round, light and needing hardly any aid to keep her there. She was almost a bit on the slow side, and she was starting to feel just a tiny bit off, which was magnified when she went over trotting poles. I wrapped up the session, massaged and got her ready to go back outside. She was standing a little narrow behind, but she seemed okay until I led her down the aisle. She was noticeably off in her first steps on the concrete, and I was concerned. She did walk out of it, and seemed fine when I turned her out. She went to get a drink and was tracking up normally and looking good, all things considered.

The ride went very well, much better than I would have expected given the cold and wet weather, which usually aggravates her arthritis. If I had it to do over I would probably make that ride a walk/trot ride, as I think we could have accomplished a very nice workout that was easier for her to handle. I probably should not have schooled the canter quite as much, given that it wasn’t working (and there was probably a reason for that). In the end it was an hour ride (a short ride for us at this barn), and I didn’t think it had been too detrimental, but I would have to wait and see.

The next time I went out it was a perfect, beautiful day. The mares were way out in their second field, and Sofie was lying in the sun. She got up as I approached, and seemed happy to see me, turning around to face me and moving a bit closer. She was friendly and sweet and very mellow. In the barn she stood very calmly, even with multiple people and horses around. She picked up her feet well and seemed less stiff.

I was lucky enough to go on a trail ride with three other riders, plus one girl’s boyfriend who rode along on his bike with their two dogs. Sofie was the lead horse most of the time and got lots of exposure to dogs and bikes! She was very good and never spooked, and after a while she even stopped eyeing them apprehensively when they’d suddenly appear. I was very proud of her. It was fun to ride with other people, and hear stuff about their horses and riding backgrounds. I also learned how to find the cliffside trail I rode on one day and haven’t been able to find since. We took a nice route around Vicky’s property and through the woods. Sofie was all excited when we passed through the valley, but the other riders were walking only so we waited to do our cantering.

When the others headed back I wasn’t ready to quit yet, so I said goodbye to them and stayed behind with Sofie. She was good about leaving the other horses, and we set out for the cliffside trail (otherwise known as The Shelf). Now that I knew where it was I really wanted to ride it again.

Sofie was a little reluctant on the initial downhill that leads to The Shelf, but it’s not steep and she seemed to do better as she went along. There were a couple of insubstantial fallen trees, which we skirted or just went over, and then the trail turned from basic logging road to The Shelf. It is truly beautiful, a fairly generous ledge that overlooks a long, steep dropoff on one side, higher ground on the other, with rich forests all around. The fall colors haven’t come in there yet, and it’s still very green, but I intend to go back later this fall. It’s easily one of my favorite trails.

After that I wasn’t quite ready to head back to the valley, so I found a random trail (or semi-trail - it was really more of a footpath) and decided to take it. I figured it might dead-end, but then we could always turn around (and practice actually waiting and LISTENING to me instead of just taking over). It was a nice enough trail, and I enjoyed it, but it did come to an end. I wanted to be methodical about turning around, and plan out our turn, so I backed Sofie up a few steps and then asked her to move her butt over. In theory, she would then have a nice place to make a reasonable (not spine-crunching) turn. However, true to form Sofie decided to Just Take Over. She blew through my aids, walked FORWARD (not even turning around!) and straight into a tree. She wound up with her head up against one tree, and her butt resting on another. Stuck between two trees. “Well, maybe now she’ll actually WAIT and look to me for leadership and to get her out of this,” I thought.

Nuh-uh. Sofie turned slightly, just enough to get herself un-wedged, and kept going forward, straight into two maple saplings! These were not little tiny baby trees, but actual, tall-ish, skinny but not insubstantial TREES! And she literally walked straight into them, flattening them! She kept walking, with the trees now underneath her, until she was all turned around and back on the trail heading home. All this time, I of course had been hauling on her, trying to get her to freaking STOP running into things and running over things and Just Taking Over! None of which she listened to, of course. I finally stopped her and semi-yelled “No! You cannot just take over and bulldoze your way through everything!”

After which I sat there for a second, on my now-stationary horse, and relented slightly. “Well, you CAN, but you shouldn’t!” I said, and then I let her walk on, shaking my head, laughing a little and petting her because really, what else can you do with such determination and ingenuity? She really is remarkable. Whatever situation I get us into, she gets us out of, crashing through anything in her way, regardless of whether I deem it a reasonable course of action. She is tough, and she always chooses to move forward in a challenging situation.

When we were done crashing out of the woods, we walked back to the valley for some real work. The super-long trail warm-up seemed to have worked well, and she moved into the trot with no real issues. The trot work wasn’t as super-terrific as it had been the previous time we worked in the valley, but it took very little time for me to get her going okay, and she was pretty consistently okay for much of the ride (by okay I mean not too inverted, not flying around and fairly easy to bend or correct, all good things!). We moved into the canter, working on straight (and VERY forward) lines. She went into it well, but was getting a bit too fast and strong, so I opted to do some departs on a circle to get her more collected. So we did more of our bending trot work, which basically involves trying to keep a consistent bend and tempo on slightly uneven ground. It’s difficult for her to balance on even a slight downhill slope, so I’ve been working on helping her learn to control her speed and not throw her shoulder too much. It’s difficult but beneficial, as most of our riding places are not perfectly flat.

So I worked on getting decent trot circles, and when I had her “together” I would ask for the canter. It worked pretty well. She listened well to my canter aid, though she was a bit defensive and upset at first when I asked her on the circle, probably due to having to engage more. Her canters were more collected, though. She was only able to keep the canter for a few strides, but I wasn’t concerned with the duration as much as the response.

After getting several nice canter transitions from her, I asked again, and she bucked once in the canter. I was thrown forward a bit but she didn’t buck again, so I wasn’t further unbalanced. When I put her back into the canter she started pulling and drifting sharply to the right, up the hill toward home. I pulled her head around with the inside rein, and she stopped. I knew she’d had enough, so I put her on a straight line and trotted her. She picked up the canter all on her own, and then I stopped her, got off and led her home.

A lot of my training has focused on getting Sofie listening. I want her to move forward when I ask, but also wait for me and not go rushing off. I have worked to be able to control her movement, and actually put her together for short periods of time. I am pleased to be able to half halt her, get my canter departs and correct her when she drifts or pops her shoulder. I feel she listens a lot better than she did in the past, before I started actively working on these issues.

We train our horses to listen, but often it is equally important to listen to the horse. To hear what they are saying. Riding is difficult, and fascinating, because we cannot communicate with words. Horses can learn certain words, for sure, and even phrases, but for the most part we use our aids. Shifting weight, squeezing (or kicking) legs, a touch on the reins. That is all we have to communicate some pretty complicated stuff. It’s amazing how horses can learn to understand.

Horses don’t have words, so we have to pay attention to their behaviors, their way of being. Sometimes the signs are subtle. Horses can be very brave, and generous. Sometimes they can be going along fine until it becomes too much, and that’s when they kick out, or stop, or bolt. You have to know your horse, and realize when they are trying to communicate something.

In Sofie’s case, she has an underlying, chronic physical condition. She does a lot for me, and sometimes she is so tough that I forget her issues, and I overdo it a bit. It’s hard to balance it sometimes, because I always try to do as much as she is able when she’s sound, both for her health and my enjoyment. There are times when she can do anything, and times when she just breaks down and says “I can’t”. When she’s in pain, she does put her ears back, balk or kick out. If she didn’t do that, I wouldn’t know to stop riding her. She really would break down. But some people don’t seem to get that she has a reason. Some people think she’s just a bitchy mare. They probably think I’m a sucker for going along with it. But sometimes you just have to be strong, and listen to your horse.

This week when she bucked, she immediately stopped when I got off balance. She had no intention of throwing me off. When I kept her moving, a little slow to realize what she was telling me, she tried again, using a different tactic since bucking hadn’t worked. She went forward, too forward, pulling toward home. This was at the end of a ride that lasted at least two hours. She had worked hard for me, and she just got tired and sore. I listened.

Sofie is tough. I’ve been working her pretty hard, exploring all these new trails and doing dressage, which can be strenuous as we try to get it right and get balanced. Sometimes I ride a little too long or hard, not through any malice but just because I get so involved and she’s so willing. She guts it out and hangs in there for me the same way she bulldozes trees on the trail. We still have some work to do before we get it totally right, but I think we’re both doing a good job of listening.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

A Great Ride

After our recent progress, I made it out to the barn on a gorgeous fall day. We have been having a lot of rain here, but I was lucky enough to get a good riding day in there. After setting out my stuff I went out to find Sofie, and when I got to the mare field I was amazed. It had been cleaned and dragged, and the old tire feeders had been removed. It looks awesome! After admiring how nice it looked, I slowly realized there were no horses, and I looked around, wondering “Where the heck did Vicky put the horses?” Then I realized they must be in the field directly behind their usual area, so I started off in that direction and I saw where the gate had been opened. As I got closer I saw the mares, way off in the far corner, looking very happy! Sofie looked up and saw me, acknowledging my presence before going back to grazing. When I was within ten feet, she picked her head up again and waited for me. I gave her some hugs and loves before haltering her and heading back to the barn. Of course, the other mares decided to take off and come flying up behind us, but Sofie didn’t get too concerned with their craziness.

The second field is pretty grazed down (the geldings were on it for a while), and it’s so nice for them to have a little more grazing and even more room. They have so much space! I love it!

Sofie was moving fine at the walk, so I groomed and tacked her up, then we headed outside. I was not going anywhere near the indoor on such a fine day! I decided to ride over to my friend Kathy’s place. It is adjacent to Vicky’s property, and she has land with many trails and an outdoor dressage arena, all of which are open to the boarders at the equestrian center. I definitely wanted to ride in the valley behind her house, but first I went on a trail ride in the woods. Sofie was pretty high-energy, definitely thinking about her canter departs! She did listen well, though, backing up very nicely when I had to turn her around to avoid a steep downhill. On the way to the valley I did some back-and-forth leg yielding and walk-trot transitions. She listened well to my seat even when traveling slightly downhill. I did one canter on the trail, and she didn’t quite want to come back to trot! But I had her walk as we reached the valley.

It really is a beautiful area. It’s becoming my new favorite place to ride. There is plenty of open space, with little slopes to help challenge and balance Sofie, and it is bordered by trees, with the occasional tree to ride around. When I first rode through there I thought to myself that it would be a great place for cantering, and we’ve done enough cantering there now that Sofie comes in rarin’ to go! She definitely knows the plan. I actually have to work more on half halting and getting her settled in the trot before cantering, as I don’t want her anticipating or being too crazy.

So we entered the valley, and Sofie immediately took off in a flying trot, head up and ready to go. I brought her back and did some transitions, backing her up before trotting again. It took some half halting to settle her, and for a few minutes she kind of went back and forth between rounding nicely and throwing her head up while rushing forward. But she began to understand, and eventually we were on a circle tracking right, and she was balancing on the slightly varying slope, listening and engaged. She was very round, really reaching down and filling my hands, establishing and maintaining a positive, definite contact. It was like she really got the concept, and she understood that I didn’t want her to just run, I wanted her relaxed and round. She kept her rhythm, not speeding up, and bent from my inside leg, really engaging and rounding through her topline as I asked her to move away from my leg, just slightly, as she went up a small hill.

It was just an awesome feeling. She hasn’t been that engaged in a long time. I felt like she was really understanding me, and I could tell she just looked beautiful. She really can look nice if she’s not tense or unsound! As I rode around on the circle, spewing “Good girl!” pretty much the whole time, I noticed my friend Kathy standing up by her house watching. I think she called out “She looks great!” or something, and I finished up one final circle and then walked Sofie up to say hi to her. I was pleased that someone had actually witnessed us at our best (too often, we look entirely questionable when people are around). We chatted for a bit, and Sofie stood well but occasionally tossed her head, bending her neck low and clearly saying “When can we stop standing around and go CANTER? I was a good girl!!”

Soon we did turn around, and I located the spot where I wanted to pick up the canter. So I circled around, trotted and asked for the canter. Bang on, solid transition and nice canter. We came back to trot, and I did more half halting, and once she was listening reasonably well we picked up the canter again. No hesitation! Once again, we calmed ourselves and then went back to canter. Sofie was quite forward this time, and a bit strong. I attempted to bring her back before we ran out of field, but I had been holding her back a bit too much and she shook her head a little, like “Stop holding me back!” So I eased up, and she made the turn at the end of the field and headed back across the open expanse of grass. I just let her go, and she gradually accelerated to a Sofa gallop. She doesn’t really know how to gallop, a fast canter/hand gallop is about the best she can do. But that’s plenty fast for me, and I enjoyed just riding her full out. She came back to me easily, having gotten that out of her system, and we walked, all forward and snorty ‘cause we went fast. After a breather I finished up with a little more trot work. I always want to end on a controlled, reasonable note. More half halts, and we did some nice trot/walk transitions with a little bending as well. She was good, and I dismounted and led her home. I was so happy with her. I absolutely love her when she works like this. There’s nothing better. We work so hard just building back up to that point after she has time off, and sometimes it’s a little discouraging. But I feel like I know what I’m doing a lot better, and I think the retraining process will be easier in the future. I have a method that works for her, and I have been much more encouraging and supportive as of late. I hope to keep that up. I must keep that up. She does so much for me, even when she is stiff and sore. And when she is feeling good, that’s when it all comes together and we enjoy the hell out of it while it lasts.