Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Canter On!

Somewhat belated Sofa Christmas photos that we took for my Christmas card...

Our recent rides have gone really well. We’ve been making some steps toward where we need to be, and though we still have a long way to go, I’m feeling more confident that we will be able to get the basics down. I really just want to have speed control, straightness/bend, self carriage and connection, and get her to use her hind end properly. I want her to be light and happy and use herself better. For a while I’ve been wanting our work to be more correct, and now that I’ve been taking lessons from a dressage trainer who knows what they’re doing, I feel like I have a better idea of what we need to work on.

Two days after Sofie’s colic, I rode her briefly at a walk, not really asking much since she was quite stiff. We did more trot work during the next ride, and she was still stiff (from not having her super-ultra joint supplement), but fairly agreeable (ears back at times and not the happiest expression, but not actively protesting and doing everything I asked).

The next day I was planning to go ride Choo-Choo, but I was still pretty dead-tired from the colic episode, and I just didn’t feel like going all the way to the Equestrian Center and working on dressage. The weather was absolutely beautiful, and I really wanted to ride Sofie outside while I had the chance. I wasn’t sure whether I should ride her through the snow, and I was a little concerned that it might adversely affect her, but I decided to just evaluate her and decide. She moved out quite a bit in the trot when I free schooled her, spazzing a bit when she heard the Ferrell Gas man pull up in his huge truck and start clanking around the barn. She continued to be rather high-headed and alert in the aisle (she was off her SmartCalm at that point too), and I had no idea how much (or how little) she was going to listen to me when we got outside, but I wanted to ride outside, so I tacked her up and went for it. She walked along fairly well, and we headed in the direction of the trail. I wasn’t sure how she would be on the trail, but I decided to take her on the trail anyway, since we were by the trail entrance. At the last minute, she decided she needed to get away from the scary corner, and went sideways, trying to avoid turning onto the trail, but I kept her going forward.

We headed down the trail. I sat on a very, very “keen” (a nice, subtle way of saying “might take off at any moment”) Sofa. Her head was up, and she was looking around at alllll there was to look at. The wind gusted through the scary, scary woods, fueling her “keen” state of being. Wind doesn’t scare Sofie, unless she’s looking for an excuse, which I think she was at that point. She started trotting, and I let her trot for a little bit, eventually pulling her down. She held it together pretty well until we turned the corner leading past the gelding field fenceline and into the woods. She started trotting again, and soon she made an effortless transition into the canter. I pretty much just sat there, going “Hey, this is fun!” I mean, there is nothing more fun than cantering through the snow. I was having a great time as she cantered on. Gradually I realized we were heading into the woods, and she was still cantering, showing no sign of slowing down. “Hmm,” I thought, “Perhaps I should see if I have brakes.” It took a few pulls to get her down to a trot and then a walk, but I was successful.

Then I started thinking about how we had to turn around eventually. “If she was that forward heading away from home,” I thought, “I hope she doesn’t take off when we turn around, because I don’t really want to find out how fast she can go.” I also quickly debated how soon to turn around, and decided that I could prolong it, but that would only give her farther to run. I opted to turn around right away, since she was now walking calmly. Once we faced in the direction of home, I left the reins loose, and kept my seat as quiet and relaxed as possible. She was very good, much to my relief. She did break into the trot a couple times, and I quickly brought her back down before she could start cantering with no warning or obvious transition, which she’s shockingly adept at. I could tell she was having to work to walk through the snow, and I knew she was thinking “You know, with a little more momentum I could have us back home in no time.”

We got back to the yard and I rode for a few more minutes, working just on walk/trot and flexion and listening to me. She was quite good overall. My mom came out of Judy’s house towards the end of the ride and told me how they’d been watching us out the window and had seen Sofie take off in a canter and then accelerate to a hand gallop (Sofa doesn’t gallop) and disappear into the woods. “I was hoping you had the situation under control,” she said. “I figured if you didn’t come back in a few minutes I was going to have to go see where you ended up.” I wasn’t aware that she’d been “galloping”, since it was so smooth and elevated and round (she was going through snow, after all. Snow = instant awesome Warmblood gaits), so it was interesting (and entertaining) to hear about it from her perspective. It was definitely a fun ride, and it was good for us to just get outside and go a little wild. I was happy to be out there enjoying my horse, who has made me afraid at times but also taken away a lot of my fear.

Back in the arena, I kept working little by little on flexion, listening to me, bending, rein-back and trot work. The weather continued to be freakishly warm, and quite a bit of Judy’s yard melted out, then froze solid when the temperature dropped. I still managed to get another outside ride in, though. The ground was like concrete but there was no ice (except a couple very avoidable patches on the driveway), and the day was cold but not windy, so it was doable at least for a light ride. Sofie was very careful on the hard surface, only thinking about breaking into a canter once (and she was easily dissuaded from that idea). I used the opportunity to work on flexion outside, as well as the big one, listening to me. I had to use strong rein aids in most of the downward transitions, when she wanted to just keep trotting and was tuning me out. I don’t like having to do that, but the alternative is letting her run the show, which I’ve been doing (in varying degrees) for too long. I haven’t been getting upset or feeling like I’m hurting her when I make a strong correction, though, which is helpful, since I’m not being abusive or unfair and I don’t need to give myself a hard time over it.

The ride was kind of rough at the edges, but she went forward when I asked, didn’t balk at any point, and eventually listened to my hand. She even flexed a bit at the trot in both directions, but I kept any bending work to a minimum on that frozen surface. Although the ride was a bit rough, she really did a great job on challenging footing, and she showed improvement in some areas we used to struggle with.

The last two rides were excellent. Well, excellent relative to our standards, but excellent nonetheless. I started carrying a dressage whip so I could reinforce my leg when necessary (and not fall into the trap of nagging her, rather than risking a confrontation). I tapped her behind my leg early on in the ride after I asked for a more forward walk and she failed to respond, which sent her into a trot. It took some convincing for her to come back down to a walk, and she continued to have lots of energy throughout the ride. She moved more forward than she has all this winter (except on the trail, heehee!), and her ears were moving back and forth, instead of sullenly back like they have been. She just felt really good. I mainly rode on the rail, but I also incorporated some circle work, and she flexed a bit at the trot, accepting a steady contact and circling fairly well. She’s not able to perform a full circle without some falling in or drifting out, but I’m not too concerned about it being perfect. I don’t want to overdo the circle work and make her sore. I’d rather just work on it a little at a time. Eventually we’ll get there.

The latest ride was pretty awesome. When I say awesome, I don’t mean anything perfect, sunshine-and-rainbows or attitude free. It was an awesome ride relative to us, and our issues, and it was an awesome ride for me and my confidence.

So, I warmed her up at a walk, letting her stretch and moving her off my inside leg when necessary. She’s typically light to lateral aids, though we haven’t done any official leg yields with straightness and crossing over and stuff like that. After a few minutes I picked up a little contact, and worked on flexion, with the idea of preparing her for the trot work. It worked well; she accepted a steady contact throughout the trot work, with a little flexion here and there. She wasn’t as forward as she had been the previous ride; she was a little stiff. But she worked well and agreeably for the beginning of the trot work.

After a while she started to feel a bit less willing - she was still doing everything I asked, but her attitude was a tad bit resentful. I used my voice a couple times, clucking to her when she needed to go forward a bit more, and that put her ears back right away. For some reason, although I frequently use voice commands when I free school her, she really doesn’t like it when I incorporate them while I’m riding. I’ve been slowly phasing in little clucks when I ride, and she invariably puts her ears back and makes a face when I cluck to her. Gradually I’ve realized that she never really escalates her displeased behavior, so I’ve stopped being intimidated.

At one point I clucked to her as she was trotting, and she got upset and revved up a bit, like she was thinking about cantering. I thought about asking her to canter, and she decided to canter, throwing her head around and generally acting like she wanted to stomp me into the ground. Halfway down the long side, she broke into a trot, and I put my heel into her side and went “No, you keep cantering!” She picked up the canter again, still giving me considerable attitude, but she didn’t buck. She cantered straight into the corner, and I stopped her just short of the blue barrels and gave her a long rein.

I had been thinking about asking her to canter in the indoor, ever since the hormonally driven crazy psycho day when I found out she could indeed canter in the smaller space in balance. She’s been moving better, she’s sound right now, and I was finally confident enough to commit fully. After a walk break, I did some more trot work, and then I sat down, put my outside leg back and kissed to her. She took the canter instantly, and I felt a lot of energy, though some of it was distinctly tainted with baditude. Her canter still felt kind of “wild and western”, a little crow-hoppy, a bit all over the place as she made sure to tell me where I could go. But still, things didn’t escalate, and I never felt afraid or in danger of being thrown. I felt confident, fearless. I felt like a cowgirl on my bitchy, opinionated little Paint mare who is the best thing that ever happened to me.

After our canter, I let the reins out to the buckle and she powered along in the trot, stretching down consistently, even when I had to make a steering correction. After a little more trot work, I walked her on a long rein until Annie showed up to trim her feet.

So, for the first time since June of 2009, we cantered fully by my choice. After Sofie’s feet got fixed, and we discovered all her compensation issues, I got into the habit of letting her canter when she wanted to, figuring she knew what she could handle. Eventually I lost my nerve, and I couldn’t even think about asking her to canter without becoming anxious. At the end of our one and only lesson with Idiot Trainer (just before Sofie’s hock arthritis was diagnosed), I asked her to canter without conviction, while leaning forward, too scared to think or ride properly, knowing I made the wrong decision. She didn’t canter. She kept trotting, and eventually kicked up with both hind feet, saying “Enough.” After that, it took me a long time to get confident enough to ask again. In the fall, I started to ask for the canter, making sure to set myself up for success.

So it takes time. I don’t like to rush myself, or my horse, and I don’t see anything wrong with that. We may have very little in the way of correct Dressage with a capitol D, but we started with a lot of issues, we’ve had a lot of setbacks, and we have something to show for our time together.

I have made mistakes. I let her take over a bit at times, and now I’m in the process of retraining her. Is she always happy with this new development? No. She doesn’t like being told what to do, and she’s a bit set in her ways. But I’m working to teach her what I want and need the best way I can, and she’s learning.

I’m excited to keep working on the basics, and now the canter. We need to work on the right lead, and make sure she uses herself evenly instead of always taking the left lead. We need to work to extinguish her bad reaction to voice commands over time. I need to establish steering at the canter (I was pretty much concentrating on staying on, and I didn’t think to steer, so she kind of cut in).

I’m amazed at how fearless I’ve become, and how capable I feel. I tend to be rather fearful by nature, and I’ve struggled with my confidence on and around horses for a long time. I used to panic at any slight hind-end bounce or baditude from Sofie. Now I’m able to ride through it and even enjoy it. I love this feeling.

1 comment:

  1. Funny how you mention galloping was smooth. Indigo has a very short stride being the size she is her canter was never very smooth and no matter how collected she was you always have to work to keep your butt from bouncing out of the saddle but her gallop, wow I could sit that every day.