Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Challenges Met [VIDEO]

Rides have been somewhat limited the last couple of weeks due to various factors (COLD, commitments elsewhere, goat kids arriving on the farm, etc.), but I did manage two rides each week, plus a free schooling session to keep Sofa loosened up and exercised.

The second week of February was not all that productive. It got cold, Sofie got stiff, and I got kind of bitchy, to be honest. Everything had been going so well, and each ride had felt like a notable improvement. It was just a little frustrating to go back to inversion, stiffness, clunky, jerky movement and even more wavering on our straightaways. The first ride of the week it felt like she could not walk a straight line. She was just all over the place, and it felt like we had nothing in the way of basics or training to show for all our time together. What I neglected to really notice and appreciate was how willing she was, and how she never got pissy with me even when I got pissy with her. She wasn’t evading or doing anything bad, she just was not physically able to do what I was asking on that particular day. After the ride, I felt badly for not being able to lighten up. My frustrations amounted to a few sharp words and a couple sharp corrections that were borderline “too much”, but it still makes me feel terrible. I know screwing up and being stupid at times is part of being human, but I hate when my humanity pops up at the expense of others, particularly animals. I just need to do the best I can, try to keep a clear head, and learn from it when I do mess up. I’ve gotten better at letting things go after a bad ride, and knowing that I will have other chances to do better.

The high point in the ride was when I decided to stop working on the things that weren’t happening and just went forward. We probably did four or five canters, and she went forward well without bucking or getting mad. It was good for both of us, and I think we had fun with it.

Midweek it was so cold I didn’t ride (and it takes a lot for me not to ride). I rode once over the weekend when the weather was nicer, and we rode outside briefly but had to stop because the snow had gotten really dense. It was just too hard on her to do very much out there. I stopped after fifteen minutes and reluctantly retreated to the indoor (blah) where we proceeded to have a rather mediocre, disorganized, clunky ride. She was still having issues with stiffness, and for some reason I was riding pretty terribly, so we were kind of all over the place with no semblance of connection. Even though we were definitely NOT the epitome of dressage, she still did better in some ways than the previous ride, particularly when it came to walking straight. However the canter (which I sort of knew would be better left alone that day) was pretty bad. I didn’t set her up at all for the canter departs, and although she still gave me the canter (except to the right, at first), it was pretty disorganized. I only cantered her three times for a few strides, but it would’ve been better to leave it alone. I also could’ve had a better attitude. So it was not our best week, but that’s okay.

This past week Sofie has been moving better, but we’ve faced another challenge. Hormones! The B-Gooooood! doesn’t stop her from cycling, it just levels her out a bit to help prevent the cramping that was causing us so much stress. So far it does seem to doing that, but I definitely think Sofa came into heat recently. On Tuesday she was not standing well in the aisle, which usually indicates that her mind is elsewhere. Even with hay in front of her, she started walking off when I went into the tack room. It happened several times, and I got pissed and decided to back her down the aisle to try and instill some respect (not yet realizing it was hormones, because I’m just really brilliant like that). She backed up slowly and heavily, not even looking at me, which pissed me off further, so I smacked her on the chest, trying to get her to pay attention. It didn’t happen, so I backed her some more, brought her forward, backed her, spun her around, etc. for a minute, intermittently smacking/jerking/telling her off. She stood and ate her hay after that, but I knew it was not great of me to have handled it like that, and I made sure to praise her for being good.

When we started our trot work she was moving well, but I quickly discovered she was quite inverted, counter bent and very “locked up” tracking right. The right is her worse side, and we had been making little momentary improvements in her willingness to bend and flex to the right, but on this day her nose was waaaay out and to the left. She was moving forward without stiffness, so I used the opportunity to try and get her to soften. I put her on a circle and sponged the inside rein while trying to keep a connection on the outside rein. I also had to work to keep her from falling in, particularly on one side of the circle. At this stage I’m using a lot of inside leg to get her to carry herself around a consistent circle and not careen in.

I kept working at it for probably at least ten minutes, and she was not unlocking. Eventually I needed a response in the right direction from her, so I physically pulled her nose around to the right, just for an instant. Then I released, and she actually lowered her head and softened for a couple strides before inverting again. After that, she began to respond better to my aids, and she gave me glimmers of softening and rounding. I did employ my unlocking, head-pulling-around technique a few more times when she needed a reminder. It’s not exactly pretty or great classical dressage, but I think it’s kinder to spell it out for her when she really needs to unlock and soften rather than wear her out doing fifty million circles. I didn’t have to use much pressure, and I released quickly, never holding her head in place. It worked really well for her.

At some point I was particularly satisfied with a circle we did and I let the reins out, did some stretchy trot and then let her walk. When she came down to the walk I could feel right away that she was tired (not surprising, given that she was trotting forward, continuously and on a circle for a definite while). I was breathing fairly hard myself, so we both had a nice walk break, and then I picked her back up and trotted to the left. She was solid, giving me a good feel in the reins and moving out without complaint. I trotted a bit to the left and then turned onto the diagonal. I wanted to finish up tracking right. As we approached the corner I thought, Let’s just turn right and not change anything.

She went through the corner, now tracking right, feeling soft and reaching down into the contact. We kept going once or so around the arena (with me exclaiming “Good girl! Good!” and the like), and she was lovely, enormously improved from where we’d started. I let the reins out, stretchy trot, free walk, big pats, a rein-back and spin-on-the-forehand for the camera and we were done. I was very happy with what we’d accomplished, and how I handled her initial resistance and made something good happen.

My dad was there during this ride, and he took video (thanks, Dad!), which I will now share. I feel really good about the video and what it shows. You can see that we’re not perfect, but you can see how we started out and where we ended up. I feel like we’ve made some progress on our bending and straightness, and she’s moving quite well, tracking up or nearly so in the trot. The improved frame she’s in would be considered a more “open” frame, apart from the moments of her experimenting with lowering her head, but I’m fine with that.

(Keep watching ‘til the end to see our awesome rein-back and reining-infused turn on the forehand!)

On Wednesday I was at the barn twice, very briefly, picking up and dropping off my riding stuff before and after my lesson. I looked in on Sofa each time, and she was standing right by the gelding fence. Both times. And I don’t think she moved during the three hours in between my visits. Oh, hormones…

Friday I finally got back to the barn with the time to ride. There was a cold, wickedly strong wind going that day, and when I free schooled Sofie she was bananas. She took off running, and ran, and ran, and ran. She really built some speed, and threw in the occasional sudden stop or change of direction, along with her Warmblood Trot (sometimes it’s an Arabian Trot, but only if she lifts her tail waaay up, which she does sometimes when she’s feelin’ good). I watched, amused, and took a few videos with my phone until she was calm and willing to walk.

Her brain was still not all there, and she moved from her appointed position a few times, but I handled it much better than the last time. I calmly moved her back when she stepped forward, gave her hay to help her stay in place and worked to get us ready to ride so she didn’t have to stand too long. It worked much better than making it a big “thing”, and we both stayed calm and happy.

I wasn’t sure how our ride would go, but Sofie walked calmly on a long rein, unbothered by the roaring, door-slamming wind (goooood hormonal Sofa). We did have issues with her wanting to drift in off the rail on one side of the arena (I think because she was hormonally challenged anf herdbound) but I just moved her over, and over, and over. After our free walk I picked up the contact and worked on our connection on a circle. She responded to finger pressure on the reins, and I just played with the bit while using my inside leg to get her bending properly. I worked on both sides, and it felt like we had a good connection. It was really nice to just do some nice, quiet work with her listening and willing.

After getting the walk really nice we went into the trot. The trot work was quite good; tracking right, she was much improved from the beginning. She still wanted to fall in and needed quite a bit of support with the inside leg, but she wasn’t inverted and she responded to my hands when I asked her to flex and soften. I was very happy with that. She was not as good tracking left, possibly because of being in heat or maybe just because she likes to switch up her bad side to keep things interesting. She went forward well and was surprisingly willing. She did think about being pissy a few times, particularly when I clucked to her right by the door that leads to her friends (oh no I did-n’t. All she really did was slow down, twist her head back a little and make a face, which I pretty much ignored, and she got over herself quickly. Note to self: It really does work better to finesse stuff whenever possible.

After a little internal debate I decided to canter her. I wasn’t sure how she would be, but I expected at least a little bucking/balking/fire breathing, given her hormonally challenged status. I didn’t have a whip on me either (I had decided against carrying one after her pre-ride craziness), and I like to have a whip available for corrections at this stage, but I decided to go for it. She did pretty well. She bucked mildly a couple of times, but I wasn’t at all unseated and it doesn’t bother me now. We still need to work up to cantering through two corners (and eventually the whole arena), as well as improve our steering. We also need to learn to move off my leg, not lean in, and carry ourselves properly through corners, because we can’t always just pick up the canter at one end of the arena and break into the trot before the next corner, no matter how attractive that option might be. In time, Sofa, in time.

I ended with a really good spin-on-the-forehand to the right! Yay Sofa! I was really proud of her for doing so well for me, even when she probably would have rather been staring at the geldings. We may have our challenges, but rides like that keep us going, because we know we can meet them.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Escape From Hormonal Hell

We did it. Or rather, our new favorite supplement, bearing the colorful name of "B-Gooooood! (Or B-Gone)" did it. Last Sunday, the week Sofie was due to come back into heat began. We kept an eye on her all week, and she had no issues. None what-so-ever. Talk about a huge relief. I'm just so happy we have a way to manage her hormonal issues, without spaying her (which we can't afford) or dealing with synthetic hormones (I don't relish the idea or the reality of Regumate, oh, and we can't afford it). This supplement is herbal, it's not going make her fat or screw her up in any way, she likes it, she'll eat it, and it's reasonably affordable! I realize that we still don't know WHY she was in hormonal hell those last two heat cycles, but I feel pretty confident that nothing is drastically wrong with her. If she ever became aggressive or studdish, or was coming into heat every two days, then I would worry about cystic ovaries or tumors, but for right now I'm really enjoying not worrying.

We've been keeping our regular riding schedule going, and I think we're both pretty happy with our interactions. On Thursday we rode with a friend and her mare, who lives with Sofie. Sofie loves her, but the mare is dominant and can be kind of a bitch. Sometimes it's not terribly fun to ride in a small indoor with her, since quarters are close and I seriously respect the damage she could do with those hind feet (one of the mare's finest talents is kicking). But the mare was quite good, and we actually managed to get through the ride without seeing her butt way too close and personal! It was very nice. Sofie is getting used to riding with other horses, I think, since I've been riding with other people this winter. She tends to get a little defensive in the indoor when there are other horses around, I think because of the smaller space. But she's doing better.

She was stiff, but quite cooperative. I rode without stirrups for a while, hoping to not pick them up for the entire ride. I did more trot work without stirrups, and even some circles, but eventually I had to pick my stirrups up because my muscles got completely fatigued and I couldn't maintain my seat any longer. I was just all over her back, and she was not impressed. After that I did some more circle work, trying to get a fairly decent circle both ways without a lot of falling in. It's difficult for her, and there's only so much I can do before I have to move on to something else to spare her joints. Sometimes I just have to work at it until I get a little right flexion (the right is her worst side) and then give the reins and let her stretchy trot around on the rail. She likes stretchy trotting, and she goes pretty forward too. It's a nice reward for her, and still good exercise.

I did a little forward and back work in the trot, testing to see if we still had half halts (we do, yaaaay!). I played a little with rein-back, and she only got sticky about going backward when my mom came to watch, but she soon unlocked and did it beautifully again. By that point she was feeling a little less fluid in her movement, but my mom commented that she looked really good. That was nice to hear. It's so hard to tell sometimes, because I can't see how she looks, I can only feel how she feels. And sometimes she feels a little weird. We did more reining spins too, hehe.

Saturday I rode outside, and we had a great time. We worked on going straight (I felt like we were doing great with that, but the tracks don't lie, and we were really NOT straight. Oh well, we're still less un-straight than we used to be, I think!), we worked on our half halts (I LOVE having half halts!!! I cannot stress how much I freaking love having half halts!) and we worked on our rein-back a little bit. I actually rode her up beside the windows on Judy's house so I had mirror-type things, and I actually got to see how pretty she looks with her poll bent and her nose not stuck way out in the air. She backed up fairly well (she actually did better backing in deeper snow, which makes NO sense, but whatever).

Once again, I freaking LOVE having half halts. I trotted her through some places in the yard where she likes to get quick and take over, and although she was still getting crooked and wanting to drift, she maintained the trot and I didn't fear for my life. Life is so much better with half halts!

At one point we did have an unplanned canter, but I kept her on a circle so at least I was dictating where she went, and it wasn't too out of control, just a product of the momentum she needed to get her through the snow. A bit later I was trotting her along a nice stretch of deep snow, and I decided to canter her. I didn't really ask for it (didn't have to), but I eased up on my half halts, thought about closing my leg on her a little bit and she went into the canter. Actually, it may have been more of a Sofa gallop, truth be told. Anyway, it was fun. There's nothing more fun than cantering through the snow! We cantered a fair distance, and I incorporated a turn at the end. After that I didn't do too much more, and I ended with a little rein-back and some spins-on-the-forehand on a shallow patch of snow.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

It's all good...

Miss Sofie has been doing well. We’ve had a couple of chances to ride outside, a nice break from the monotony of arena work (although our arena work is kept interesting and stimulating by our quest for low level dressage correctness). I’ve opted to keep our snow rides on the short and easy side, limiting them to half an hour. The snow is not too dense but it does get fairly deep in places (easily up to a short-legged Paint pony’s knees), and even fairly shallow snow is still challenging to walk through. Last year we overdid our snow rides a bit, which contributed to Sofie’s hocks flaring up in a big way, putting her out of commission for five weeks. In no way did I want a repeat of that.

The opportunity for our first snow ride presented itself last week. No one showed up to ride with us, and it was a pleasant day, so I eagerly left the arena behind. Sofie listened very well, not taking over too much or rushing and drifting too dramatically. We just did walk/trot work (except for two unplanned canters, wheeee!) and went partway down the trail, which turned out to be interesting. There was serious drifting, so poor Sofa had to work hard to get through the snow. We persevered and found better footing, until we hit yet another major drift. It seemed there was a frozen layer somewhere in the two feet or so of snow, because as Sofie walked through it I kept hearing BOOM CRACK and similar noises. It sounded like she was walking on a frozen pond and breaking through the surface. Sofie just put her head down and picked her way through this strange and challenging footing. Good mare. Then we had to turn right around and go back through it. CRACK BOOM CRACKLE Sofie sigh.

Next time we were back in the indoor, and Sofie felt quite stiff and clunky at the beginning, probably the result of the snow workout (as well as an out-of-control free schooling session earlier in the week when the Sofa cantered almost nonstop for half an hour). She eventually worked out of her stiffness and we had a decent ride.

I went to the barn on a ridiculously gorgeous Saturday and we rode outside. It was so awesome to be out in the SUN, and I noticed an improvement in her listening to me. We had actual half halts, even when she was charging through the snow with quite a bit of momentum on her side! It is NICE to have half halts, let me tell you. Her straightness seems to be improving, we had a few instances of an actual semblance of bending, and her rein-backs, which I thought would be terrible (considering backing in the snow must be challenging) were awesome. It was a great ride. We did have one unplanned canter on a right circle, but it was extremely round, collected and awesome, so I'll take it.

Our last ride in the indoor, we dealt with some stiffness, some hardness on the right side of her mouth (not new) and some crankiness in the trot work, but we still had a good ride. We played with half halts and transitions in the trot, and I did some circle work both directions, just enough to get her a little more supple. Her circles ARE improving to the point of at least being a semblance of a circle. And I'm getting moments of roundness and bending. It's definitely a start in the right direction. We did a little work up the centerline, and our straightness is definitely improving.

Our rein backs continued to be awesome, with softness, flexing at the poll at moving backward with an actual forward desire! We also played a bit with turn on the forehand, since I randomly halted Sofie somewhere in the middle of the arena, and she, completely voluntarily I might add, spun around on one front leg, building speed to the point where it was reining-esque! So I played around with it, and we got some really nice turns.