Thursday, March 31, 2011

Taking It Outside

Sofamare has become catchable again after her short-lived rebellion. Even after I caught her and took her directly to the waiting veterinarian for her vaccinations (which involves twitching her, as she tends to drag people down the aisle when she sees a needle), she remained catchable. Last time I went to grab her she kind of gave me the grumpy face, and I waited to see if she would walk off. She just stood there, sniffed me, checked me over and stood there some more. Then I had to mess with the halter (it was all twisted) so she waited some more. Grumpy faces aside, I think we're doing alright.

Our last two rides have been outside, and it looks like we'll get out again today before some questionable weather moves in. But before that, we rode once in the indoor on kind of a bitter, cold day. She did well at the walk and trot, and her head carriage was nice for the most part. If I kept a slightly long rein, she stretched into the contact nicely on her own. When I tried to pick her up a bit more, she got a little inverted and didn't quite want to soften, but we worked on that a little. I love her nice, long and semi-low frame, and I'm very happy when she establishes the contact on her own.

She wasn't really off at all in front, so I decided to try the canter again. She picked it up without too much drama (ears back and some hesitation) to the left. She drifted in towards the end of the long side and seemed to be compensating a bit for her shoulder (or whatever it is that has been bothering her, front end wise) but it wasn't a bad canter. She didn't want to pick it up tracking right, but on my second "ask" she picked it up without bucking and maintained it well. After that I worked on getting the trot and walk nice again. She was anticipating a little, but we managed to work through it. It's something we need to practice.

The next ride, we ventured outside. It was a nice day but we proceeded to have a not very good ride. She was rather off in front, which I think contributed to her drifting and not wanting to bend or be round. She wasn't being bad or resisting, she just seemed to be having trouble going round and moving properly. I'm still not sure what her front end issue is. It seems somewhat intermittent, and it doesn't get worse towards the end of a ride. I wish we had a good, reputable equine massage therapist up here. We pretty much only have access to unlicensed people who are a bit...special. If you know what I mean.

Our last ride was much better. I didn't free school beforehand, since she seemed pretty dead calm. Of course as soon as I got her outside, she became very "keen". I was slightly apprehensive about getting on her, but I got her parked at the mounting block and she stood well. She walked around fine and we managed to hold it together pretty well through most of the ride. She was moving much better and seemed rather happy and perky. I opted for more straight lines and worked in different parts of the yard, and she followed my direction well. We did some really nice trot-walk transitions in the early part of the ride. I’ve been impressed with her responsiveness lately. We’ve certainly improved our downward transitional ability!

Out in the yard, she hasn’t been as round as I can sometimes get her in the indoor, but she hasn’t been too terribly inverted, and I think overall she’s improved since I started working on getting her round. She can get a little stiff in her jaw when she’s outside, but we haven’t had too many issues with that. I’m still waiting for the yard to dry out in places, and when it does I’ll have more room to work in some turns and figures, which help with the bending and flexion.

Right now I’ve been doing my circle work in the main flat area in the yard. There’s quite a bit of room there, and I can do a huuuuge circle or even work in some serpentines. I was riding her down there at a trot, when she decided she needed to canter and took off straight up a hill. Just the thing to do when you’re sore in the front end, right? Sofie stumbled a bit in front near the top of the hill, and came back to a trot. I turned her around and went back to what I’d been doing, but apparently she hadn’t gotten it out of her system because she attempted to canter back up the hill. This time I pulled her back to a trot (with some difficulty…hello, concrete mouth) and with some well placed half halts and downward transitions I managed to get her to listen a little better. We still had a few disputes (and one brief canter on a circle…OMG, I love her canter when she‘s bending. It‘s so nice and collected…). Fireball was really in the mood for cantering that day. It’s kind of fun when she gets a little hot, as long as it stays manageable. I like her energy and her sassiness, what can I say?

After her unauthorized canter bonanza, Sofie was a bit anticipatory, and it took a little work to convince her to just walk. After some repetition, she understood and we finished up with a little walk on contact and then a nice, relaxed walk on a long rein. I dropped my stirrups for the cooldown, and we both enjoyed just chillin’. It was a nice way to end the ride.

The next time I saw Sofie she looked a little stiff, maybe because of her insistence on cantering hills. I free schooled her briefly to see how she was moving, and she didn’t look her best but she didn’t look terrible either. Sofa was in a good mood, and she wasn’t giving me the grumpy face, which was nice. I got us ready to ride and we headed outside. She was quite alert once we got out there, but she stood very nicely at the mounting block and even waited for me to find my stirrups (how kind of you, Sofamare!).

She wasn’t really very “off”, just slightly more so than the last ride. She was still pretty willing but a little resistant here and there. It was a mixed ride, with some very nice moments and some disputes. Near the beginning, when I picked up the reins in the walk I could tell she wanted to trot, but she kept walking. I was really proud of her. Then when we started trotting, things got a little interesting. Fireball was apparently still present, and she picked up the canter first over by the barn. It was quite nice and not too out of control, so I let her canter a little ways before bringing her back to the trot with my seat. After that, I worked her in the large flat area, and she tried to canter up her new favorite hill again. I kept her on the circle, and she broke to a trot. Soon she threw in another canter, this time getting a little strong and fast. She was heading in the direction of the snow fence (I dunno why) and I when I asked her to stop taking me for a ride, she got mad, throwing her head and bouncing a little. Once she was down to a walk I adjusted the reins and we regrouped. She continued to be a little weird throughout the ride, trying to break into the canter at times and getting a little pissy here and there. She wasn’t too bad, but it wasn’t our most polished ride by any means. On the positive side, I’m able to deal with her little outbursts now, and I had expected some drama once we got outside. I knew we needed to work on our little control issues, and so far she’s been better than I thought she’d be.

Once again, we had some issues with her not wanting to walk, but we worked through them and she was walking relaxed at the end. We even went on our first trail ride of the year! The trail still has some snow here and there, but it’s not too deep and quite a bit of it has melted down to bare ground. We had a great time on the trail. We didn't go too far (there was more snow further down) but we did do a giant spook at a rabbit (OMG they're rabid, you know) and we went through a HUGE puddle that encompassed the entire width of the trail. Experienced trail horse that she is, she tiptoed around the less-deep edge on the way through, and then we had to turn right around and walk back through it again. The second time she went right down the middle, head low, putting her feet down carefully. At one point she stopped and started pawing at the water, and I, seeming to remember reading something about horses pawing at water crossings before attempting to go down and roll, went "NO way!" and urged her onward.

I'm going out again today, and we'll see how the beast is. Maybe if she's not too sore in her front end, I'll work a little on the canter on my terms. Wow, really, I have those? I also have some video that I'll try to get posted somewhere in here, but I make no promises. I have a model horse show that I'm leaving for in two weeks, as well as all the usual things clamoring for my attention (goats, sheep, baby animals, my television shows, etc.).

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Transition Time

As always, Sofie differs by the day. Our last two rides have been strong, and certainly promising. I’ve been able to walk up to her and catch her two out of the last three times, which is an improvement. There is still some attitude I’m detecting there, and I’m not sure what to make of it, but I know my usual strategy of getting upset and taking it personally is not effective, so I’m working on adjusting my own attitude and finding the positive (or at least the non-dreadful side). I do tend to seek out the worst-case scenario and embrace it lovingly, which is something I’m working on. She has certainly been grumpy before, and we eventually moved past it. There have also been fleeting times when she was totally willing and happy and not having any issues (there really have been, I swear). So I know what she’s capable of, which is why I tend to look for an actual cause rather than sticking a negative label on her fuzzy, two-tone butt.

She’s been making such progress under saddle, which is partly why this is so confounding. Sofie is really learning and moving in the right direction, and she seems pretty happy to work for me. I guess whatever issue she’s having is just presenting itself in a different way this time around. I’m very happy to be having good rides, but it does make me question things when I show up and she doesn’t want to come in. It makes me think I’ve done something wrong, even when our rides point to something else entirely. It’s confusing.

When I went to grab Sofa before our second to last ride I found her lying down in a hay pile (and filthy mud…the hay pile wasn’t big enough. Woops.), so I walked over to see how she would react. When I reached her she stood up, I petted her for a bit and she didn’t walk away. She seemed happy to see me, so I had hope that maybe her cranky phase was over. I cleaned her up a little and put the mounting block outside, as the weather was still nice that day. We were mainly confined to the driveway (I did walk her on the high ground in the yard, but the grass went squish, squish, squish with every step so we had to tread lightly to avoid making holes everywhere), but being outside was still way preferable to the dingy arena.

We did our usual work and were able to adapt to the footing and limited space quite well. She never bobbled, even on the hardest part of the driveway, and she took a nice contact at the trot most times. She bent well and didn’t waver too much when I asked her to go straight away from the barn. Her walk was good, and she didn’t anticipate the trot. She also listened well during the downward transitions. The driveway wasn’t conducive to figures, but as I was trotting her around I did have her do a ten meter right half circle on a slope, just to see how she would do. She was round and bending really well. It was no trouble for her at all. It really showed her progress with bending to the right. I like to keep my figures big, but I think it’s good to throw in smaller turns every so often to test her balance and keep things interesting.

We both had fun on our driveway ride. It was nice to do something different. Sofie seemed happy the whole time. Afterward I led her out to eat a little grass. Sofie had been eagerly looking at the disgusting, old grass that had melted out, and I finally had time for a little hand-grazing.

The next day I came out to find her walking away from me again, which was upsetting. I think the reason I’ve been struggling with this is because I consider Sofie a friend, and she has been there for me when friends haven’t. So I took it a little hard.

Once I got her tacked up I led her into the indoor and decided to set up a couple poles. I hadn’t worked her over poles in forever, but I wanted to do something different to make the arena a little less blah, so I put Sofa in park and grabbed a pole. She seemed interested, and abandoned her stationary position to follow me as I dragged a pole out into the arena. Once I found the right spot I set it down and led her back to the pole heap, where I “parked” her again and got another pole. She followed me again looking very adorable and not at all pissed off at my presence. I guess she is a girl, so she has every right to change her mind every five seconds...

I mounted up, leaving my feet out of the stirrups. It was nice to get back to no-stirrups work. I've been riding outside so much that my no-stirrup work had kind of fallen away, since I'm not confident enough to go without outside yet. Something I need to work on. Anyway, after our obligatory walk-around time I picked up the reins, did a little suppling to prevent anticipation, and asked her to trot. She went around to the right with nice energy, and I felt a good, positive connection going on. It was just one of those rides where everything was pretty easy, and it seemed like we knew what we were doing. I was able to keep her on the rail, and we had a nice dialogue going. After I asked her to walk I felt the exertion of going back to no stirrups, but I still felt balanced without them.

She was bobbling to the left at a trot, so we didn't do to much in that direction. She was much rounder, though, and not all tense and inverted. Our downward transitions were much better, and I felt like I had half halts, which have been harder to do without stirrups. She had plenty of energy at the walk and did not anticipate the trot. Our rein backs were a little relucant and wobbly but not bad. And the pole work proved rather fun. She didn't pick up her feet quite enough over the larger pole, but she was much more willing to actually go over the poles than she has been in the past. She used to hate pole work, and this time she didn't seem to have an issue with it.

All in all, it was a very productive ride. She is so much rounder than she ever has been, it's pretty great. She's really learned a lot in a short time. Riding without stirrups is the best thing I've ever done. I'm so much better off now as a rider. I have built strength and balance, and I feel totally comfortable without stirrups now at the walk and trot. Sofie is learning how to be round and taking steps toward a better balance, which she has needed for a long time. All very good things.

Her resistance to being caught is not great, but I'm finding it's not the end of the world. I don't consider myself entirely blameless or anything, but I also can't beat myself up for not being perfect. This phase may be due in part to my asking her for more. She may not be entirely on board, and maybe she would rather hang out with her friends than come in and work. It's spring, and everybody's in transition. Things have changed, in more ways than one. The work is a little harder, but she needs the work. She's moving in a much more beneficial way now. I've started praising her more, which I needed to do, and maybe that will help over time. All I can do is enjoy what goes well, and try not to get too focused on what goes badly. Maybe it's not the end of the world if she doesn't want to come in some days. Maybe it's just another thing we need to work through.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Looking Up?

Last post left off with me wondering what was up with Sofie’s sudden, negative attitude towards coming in. This continued on into Saturday. When I went to catch her she only moved about five feet away, though it seemed like that had less to do with her accepting my presence and more to do with her understanding that if she didn’t let me catch her I would make her work, and then catch her anyway. The look on her face was really disheartening. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her look that unhappy to see me. Sofie is not an enthusiastic, golden retriever-ish horse by nature, and she is prone to unenthused, slightly grumpy faces, but usually when I go out to catch her she seems relatively happy to see me. This new development was rather depressing for me, especially after my recent post in which I wrote about how "our relationship is the most important thing, gotta preserve the relationship, be friends, etc. etc.". It just kind of sucked because I felt like we were friends, and then all of a sudden my horse seemed to pretty much hate me. Yeah...obviously something went wrong.

Once I got her in the aisle I went to work pulling loose hairs out of her, then worked on massaging/stretching her hopes that it would help take some of the nastiness out of her expression and make her feel better. I noticed while I had her in the aisle that her left stifle seemed to be clicking when she shifted that leg. It sounded like something was out of alignment for sure, although it didn't seem to be be bothering her. She was able to pick up both hind legs for me to clean her feet, it just seemed like it was taking a little extra effort for her to shift that leg. She wasn't really off in motion, either, so I went ahead and tacked her up.

I had decided to ride in the indoor since everything was really squishy outside, plus I was hearing thunder. I had just gotten her in the indoor and was in the process of tightening her girth when the rain started pouring. Sofie got scared and started walking off, so I grabbed the reins and walked with her. I just led her around and rubbed her neck occasionally until she relaxed enough to stop and stand while I tightened her girth. Then I walked her a little more. She was still tense, but I figured I'd get on and just ride. She stood at the mounting block and I put my feet in the stirrups (I'm not that brave) and let her walk on. We were both really nervous (all my muscles were wobbling) and we both spooked at something (she spooked at a scary door, and I spooked at her spooking), but I took some deep breaths and used the time-honored neck rubbing technique to help her relax. She walked until I told her to trot, and she started out in a nice, long frame at the trot, reaching into the contact really nicely. I was super happy with that. We went on to have a good ride, nothing fancy, but we did fairly decent walk and trot work in both directions, and we weren't horribly inverted. I was glad I was able to deal with her being tense (it's always good practice for if we ever go somewhere, I figure). For me to be able to walk her around like that and then get on without being afraid is a huge accomplishment. And I was proud of her for trusting me and listening to me when she was nervous. Regardless of our recent issues, I had hope that things might improve after that ride.

To be continued...when I have time!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

New Attitude

There’s been a shift in Sofie’s attitude that happened within our last few encounters. She hasn’t become terribly resistant under saddle, but she is reactive during grooming, which seems to suggest soreness. She is not lame or even off, really, but I think she’s communicating soreness. She’s reacting to pressure on her chest - a usual hot spot for Sofa pain - and seems to have some right side sensitivity as well. And the main thing is that she’s started not wanting to be caught, which is disheartening. She was hard to catch when I bought her, but I’ve pretty much been able to walk up to her for quite some time now, with a few random exceptions. But on Saturday when I went to get her she kept walking away, so I went with my usual tactic of sending her away (the “join-up” theory, as well as the “make their little game un-fun” theory). She was pretty determined not to be caught, and even kicked at me. Twice. I made sure she knew that was not remotely okay, and I think she got the message because she hasn’t done it since. Eventually I was able to catch her and I managed not to hold a grudge or go OMG my horse hates me! which was good, ‘cause that would have been kind of pointless at that point.

I’m not about to just blame this on attitude, since I’ve learned (repeatedly) that what seems like a training issue is often physically (and problematically) based. There’s got to be a reason for a horse to resist something all of a sudden. Obviously there’s the probability of pain being involved. Her reactivity to grooming indicates soreness, as does that front end “thing” I’ve been feeling for a few weeks. She tends to get sore shoulders from pulling herself around with her front end, which is one compelling reason why she needs to learn how to carry herself properly.

I also know that I have been asking for more as of late, which could lead to a little resistance. Having to work a little harder may have brought on a little soreness. I’m not sure it can be avoided in this case. She has issues, and while this work is good for her (as evidenced by a glowing review from a hard to please Annie when she last saw her), she’s having to stretch herself, and start to use muscles that have been long neglected. I certainly can’t blame her for not being entirely on board. I also don’t want to use her physical problems as an excuse for everything I don’t like. It’s true that a lot of her issues stem from her hocks, etc. but that doesn’t mean I should always rule out other potential causes. And I need to look to myself as a trainer to make sure I’m not a problem. Although I’ve been doing a pretty good job, I have struggled with attitude problems of my own, which I’m sure could be a factor. I have also known for a while that I have been a little stingy with the praise. I just get too focused on the things I’m working on, and I’ve neglected to speak up or reach down to rub her neck when she’s good, both of which she really appreciates. I haven’t been too much of a hard-ass, but I need to do better.

Finally, I think hormones might have been a contributing factor. It seemed like she was in heat last week, and she was definitely feeling it on Saturday. All the mares seemed to have lost their brains a little that day. I will be considering all the factors and working to be more generous with the praise, and we'll see if this little baditude clears up. I think it will.

Saturday’s ride was actually okay. Our walk work was a lot better, and she only broke to the trot a few times. I played around with picking up the reins and putting them down and rode without stirrups the whole time, so I felt like we had a somewhat productive ride. She seemed a little sore towards the end and we still had issues with straightness and the left side, but I was happy with her improvement in the walk. She did get gnarly in the trot a few times, particularly near the end of the ride. I rewarded more than I had been, so I was happy that I’d made an improvement in that respect.

She walked away from me again on Monday, but with less determination and no kicking. It didn't take me long to catch her, so that was at least a little better. It was a stunningly beautiful day, and I really wanted to ride outside, but I didn't know how the footing was. I was undecided as I tacked her up, but I quickly determined that I COULD. NOT. Ride in the indoor. I just couldn't. So we went outside. I figured I'd just walk her at first, and if the footing wasn't good then we'd just walk. But the driveway was mostly melted out, and when I rode her out into the snow I found that the footing was really pretty ideal. We really lucked out with that. I rode her all over the yard, and she was really good. Unsurprisingly, her jaw was a bit locked, but I just worked on it and it got better. She didn't drift badly at all and she wasn't barn sour. I love it! She went where I asked her to go and seemed pretty content. I think we were both really happy to get outside.

I've said it before, but I will be SO happy when we can ride outside consistently again. It's so nice to have room to work. I did some work on the free walk to working walk transition, and Sofie did well with not anticipating the trot. For my main trot work I put her on a huge circle (I like to make my circles waaaaay huge. Yay for large circles! The benefits of bending without the strain of a tiny little figure!) and worked in both directions. She was awesome, bending pretty evenly in both directions and maintaining her speed around the circle without falling and drifting very much. I felt the benefits of my stirrupless work in my stability. I didn't feel all over the place like I sometimes do when we're working outside, and especially in the snow.

She snuck a canter in once in her favorite spot to pick it up, so I kept her on the huuuuge circle and asked her to keep going. She broke to a trot ("Nah, don't wanna canter anymore. You ruined it for me with your enthusiasm.") so I tentatively put my outside leg back, all the while thinking "I wonder if she'll buck. Eh, probably." I could tell she was strongly considering it, but she decided to just pick up the canter without any issues. She drifted out a bit on the circle (I need to learn to keep my outside rein in the canter and not just try to steer with the inside rein) but she was bending and round in her neck. It was very nice, and drama-free.

We've really come a long way in our work outside. The barn sourness is no longer an issue (I even tested it by asking her to trot right by the barn, and she trotted away willingly!) and I'm definitely feeling confident that we can learn to bend flex and go relatively straight out there. I think we'll be able to present a pretty nice picture with some work! My mom was watching the ride, and she said we both looked good. According to her, Sofie was bending well, and she told me my contact was 100 percent improved from last year. All good things! I can definitely feel an improvement from the rather sloppy, disorganized, haphazard way we were going around even last fall. Apart from that, it was just such an awesome day to be riding. At one point I had halted her and I just sat on her for a minute, reveling in the sun and the light breeze. I could've stayed there all day.

Tuesday I went to the barn with a friend. Sofie actually didn't walk away from me when I went to catch her. She might've thought about it, but still, I'll take it. We rode outside again, and I didn't worry too much about "working" since it was really sloppy out and she'd done a lot the previous day. She resisted going into the trot a little the first time I asked, but that was all. We mostly walked around, with a little trotting and cantering (because we just can't help ourselves, apparently). She went through puddles and negotiated the mud and sloppy, melting snow like an ATV.

Saturday, March 12, 2011


Last post I detailed my big, lofty (for us) long term goals for us. Obviously we’ll be chipping away at those for quite some time, and little accomplishments will need to happen along the way as we piece together some semblance of a connection.

The last couple rides have been mixed, as always. On Tuesday she walked toward me when I went to catch her and seemed happy to see me. Her attitude was good, except for a few instances of getting pissed off at the trot. We’re still dealing with a little front end unsoundness, which makes things harder, and I suspect it contributes to her little displays of resentment. We haven’t cantered, but we’ve been able to get some work done at the walk and trot, and she doesn’t seem to worsen with work, so it appears we’ll be able to keep riding until I hear otherwise from her.

I’ll be very happy when the footing allows us to work outside again. Tuesday was lovely, and we went outside for a short time but discovered that the footing was not good for anything above a walk. It wasn’t great for a walk either, but Sofie was being careful and we both enjoyed our time outside. The yard is mainly melted out, but the ground is hard and an inch of rather wet snow had fallen, leading to slickness. There were also patches of glare ice, as I realized when I looked down and saw a Sofie hoof print that had uncovered such a patch. After that I decided to head back to the barn, but we were down in a valley and needed to walk up a small hill to get where we needed to go. I could feel her moving very carefully up that hill, like I do when our paths at home turn into glare ice. She did a great job on that footing, never being stupid or sliding at all. Good Sofa! After I picked the ice balls out of her feet (yeah, I’m sure that really helped her negotiate on the ice and slippery snow, eesh) we went into the arena to do some actual trot work.

We have made definite progress in some respects. Her right side is vastly improved. Not so long ago, she was way inverted tracking right at the trot, and I had to work to get just a moment of reluctant flexion from her. Now she’s moving with her head lower, taking a contact and responding to my aids. Apart from some falling in and the occasional return to inversion, her right side is really nice. I guess it proves we can make progress on our training issues.

Her left side, which used to be pretty decent, is bad. I’m not sure why it’s gotten bad, although I think it may have to do with her improvements on the right, as well as this shoulder soreness thing. She’s going around inverted tracking left, with a tight neck and she’s reluctant to come round and flex. She also seems to be having an issue going straight, and sometimes it feels like she’s twisting her front end to avoid really weighting her right shoulder. The left is going to need some work, as I’d like, ideally, to have two fairly even sides. But I have to be sensitive to how she’s feeling, and little things are telling me that she’s sore right now. I think we can still work on things and make progress, I just need to be careful with her.

On Tuesday I avoided circle work, and opted for random, diagonal type turns instead. She did well with the change-up, and the turns seemed to help her round and flex in both directions.

Our main issue that I need to address is anticipation. I’m not sure if I’ve been overdoing the trot, or making things too predictable, but during our walk work, she’s been breaking into the trot. A lot. It’s frustrating, although I suppose it’s better to have her thinking and trying to do what I want than have her totally tuned out and dull. She really seems to be anticipating a lot, really over thinking things, and I’m not sure how to get her to relax and wait for me to tell her what to do. It’s something I’m going to work on. I need to get her to stay in the walk and wait for me to tell her to trot, and I need to work on picking up the contact, because that is a major hole in our training. She’ll be in a nice, relaxed free walk, and when I pick up the reins, she will inevitably invert, counterbend, fall in, lose her rhythm a bit, or all of the above. It’s obvious she’s over thinking it, so I need to really practice the transition from free walk to working walk. I need to pick up the reins and put them back down without asking for the trot, and repeat as necessary until we make some improvement.

I started working on this last ride. Neither one of us were in a great mood (she actually didn’t want to be caught for the first time in a long time, and she had a poor attitude and was girthy. She was pretty good during the ride, especially to the right at a trot. I did struggle a bit to keep from getting frustrated when she repeatedly broke into the trot, but I managed to avoid getting into a bad "thing" with her and after working on picking her up and then letting the reins out (repeat, repeat, repeat) we did manage some nice walk work. I felt good about what we accomplished. I think this is just something we need to work on. I've known for a while that I needed to work on this, and it's gotten to the point where I could no loner ignore it and move on to funner things. I think Sofie picked up on the fact that I liked being able to do trot and canter work (after periods of her barely being able to move at a trot, and definitely not wanting to), and she's just trying to do what she thinks I want. She's not really being bad. Her moments of baditude are few and far between, and she's trying to cope with this new stuff I'm asking and her own issues. I really need to respect her for trying, and recognize that she is trying, rather than getting frustrated when certain aspects of our training just feel so...not there.

We'll work on it, and we'll get there, I think. I thought it would take for-freaking-ever to get any improvement on the right side, and we totally have it already. Now we just have to work on this other stuff, and slowly put it together. And as the supposedly superior, thinking being on this team, I need to be patient, fair and encouraging, rather than sliding into perfectionism and frustration. Because when I look back at where we've been, I can see that she is really working for me, regardless of how good or bad I am.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Two Years, and Goals

Two years ago I met my horse for the first time. She was obese, with rolls of fat you could grab with your hand. She stood short legged and long backed, with a massive front end, and she sported an impressive underneck, the muscle rigid and very well developed in all the wrong ways. Her feet were awful looking, overgrown and cracked from months of neglect. She was hard to catch in a small square paddock, and pushy on the ground. Her attitude was indifferent and somewhat pissed off. She moved beautifully, and I tried her out in a potato field covered with crusted snow. I loved riding her. We went home and we researched, called farriers, and agonized. There were a lot of questions, a lot of reasons not to get her. I couldn’t not get her. There was something there that made that impossible.

A lot has gone down these two years. There was a lot we had to learn about her. There were her feet, worse than we thought. Her body, her hocks, her hormones. There have been times when I thought she would never be right, and each time we’ve found a way to manage her problems. I am so thankful for that.

I learned how to manage her, and I learned about all the different aspects of owning a horse. I was able to get into a barn that has all the facilities we need, a small herd of mares that Sofie gets along with, and most importantly, it feels more like a second home than a barn. I learned from Sofie’s team of professionals, particularly Annie, our trimmer who has always been there for Sofie when she needed her the most.

I learned how to deal with a horse on the ground, and became more confident handling Sofie. She made me afraid of her at times, but eventually she helped take away my fear. Neither of us are competitive or brilliant at what we do, but we complement each other well. We accept each other and our flaws, and we learn together, a little at a time. I appreciate who she is and I love riding her. I would rather work with Sofie than any other horse I’ve ever ridden. I don’t know how she feels about me, but I hope she enjoys (or at least doesn’t mind) working with me. I think we have a bond, and that feels good.

Two years ago I found a horse who was basically ignorant, and carrying a lot of baggage. Pain had shaped her all wrong, and her mind was all over the place. I was struggling with confidence issues, issues with perfectionism and I was easily reduced to an emotional mess. Two years later, we are both better for our time together. We’ve achieved a lot, considering where we started from. Now I want to continue our improvement. My dressage lessons have shown me what I need to work on with Sofie, and where we need to go. I think we’re both ready to step it up a bit.

I have three goals for this third year together.

1. Install The Basics. I have a better idea of what I’m doing now, and I want to get the basics down. I want a connection, bend in both directions, improved straightness. I want to work toward getting her off her front end and onto her hindquarters, and I want to maintain and improve her responsiveness. Basically, I want to hone all the little aspects of our work and make positive improvements until she looks and moves like I know she can.

2. Ride Off Base. I want to have her trailered to another location and ride her there, because I want to prove to myself that I can do it, and I would like to know I can take advantage of opportunities such as clinics in the future. I don’t yet know when we will be able to pull this off, but I’m really hoping to do it.

3. Be Happy. The most important thing to me is our relationship. Sofie is always there for me, and it’s wonderful to know that. I consider her my friend, and I want to keep our relationship as strong as possible. I need to keep her best interests and limitations in mind during our training, and I need to approach our work with a positive attitude. Dressage is good therapy for her, but I need to praise her often and always try to be fair. I want us both to like what we do, and I think that ideal is definitely possible for us.

Thank you to all the people who have helped with Sofie and gotten us where we are today. And thank you to my readers and followers. I never anticipated anyone who wasn’t directly related to me would be at all interested in my work and progress as a bottom-feeder in dressage, with a talented but challenged horse. I’m looking forward to sharing our journey this next year, and beyond.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Our New Favorite Things & More

I finally have an actual reasonable chunk of time to sit in front of my computer and get things done that need getting done. YES. So I should hopefully be able to formulate a decent post. My blogging has kind of fallen by the wayside lately. I've barely had time to document our rides. But today I have time to write, and I have actual images to liven things up! I know, wow.

Firstly, Our New Favorite Things.

B-Goood! (Or B-Gone), our new favorite supplement that keeps hormonal hell at bay. The bucking horse on the label cracks me up. Looks like someone I know…

I officially retired my much-loved synthetic field boots that have been steadily falling apart since last March. I put it off for a long time, partly because those boots fit me perfectly and they didn’t require special care, which rendered them fully awesome in my book. And also, I hate shopping for shoes or boots. It’s difficult to find stuff that fits. It’s ridiculous. But I found some boots I wanted, and my local tack shop was nice enough to order them in a couple sizes for me to try. They’re Mountain Horse non-special winter dress boots, and they’ve been quite nice. They don’t fit quite as perfectly as the synthetic boots, but I didn’t want a super-tight fit as I have been known to forget my riding pants, and have to ride in sweatpants. It happens.

Our most recent purchase was a new girth. I’ve known for a while that Sofa’s 48 inch Wintec girth was a bit long for her, particularly since she’s gotten in better shape. I had been thinking about getting a shorter girth for a while, I liked the idea of a cord girth, and my mom found such a girth on special for $12 in a catalog. So she ordered one, and I tried it out on Sofa. I really like it. It’s comfortable, breathable, and she doesn’t get all sweaty underneath it (that was always an issue with the Wintec girth). The 44 inch length is better for her, and it really seems to be doing a great job of holding the saddle in place. The saddle doesn’t seem to go “off to one side” anymore. It’s staying in place even when we work on circles and I have to use one leg pretty heavily. I know we’re not straight, and it doesn’t affect the saddle. Love it. As a bonus, pretty much everyone who sees it comments on the girth, since it's not exactly a common sight anymore. I'm not sure why cord girths fell out of favor (probably had something to do with all the synthetic/nylon/rayon girths that came on the scene), as they're cheap and they work great. But I have seen pictures of Reiner Klimke on Ahlerich, IN the Olympics, using a cord girth. And if it was good enough for him, then Sofa and I are more than happy to be seen in, ahem, cords.

Sofie has been a sassy, smart little mare. She’s been tearing around the arena during our free schools, bursting with all the energy she doesn’t expend on her own time. It’s fun to watch her play around. She starts out looking somewhat stiff, and then her energy builds and she starts galloping around like a maniac, and doesn’t stop for a while. Then she slows to a trot or a walk and blows, like “Whew! That was good” then goes back to looking like her normal, slightly arthritic self. I really need to get some video of her free schooling antics. I have some on my cell phone, but I have no way of importing it to my computer.

On Thursday Sofie was intermittently off. I felt the same front end thing I’d been feeling during some of our recent rides. She didn’t seem reluctant or uncomfortable, so I kept riding for 45 minutes, sticking to walk and trot work, and she didn’t get any worse. She was a bit inverted and a little reluctant to flex at the poll, so I just worked for small moments of flexion, rewarding when she softened. I wasn’t concerned with her being perfect on that day. It was a good ride, nice and quiet, with some good moments. I was happy that I was able to work within her capabilities, and I finally rode without stirrups for the entire ride! I felt totally comfortable at the trot, both posting and sitting, and I rode out a few silly little Sofa spooks. I’ve only recently gotten back to riding without stirrups after losing my confidence due to my bad saddle, and it feels good to be working on my seat. I’m not yet ready to canter without stirrups, as we don’t yet have a totally confirmed canter depart (in other words, we haven’t quite gotten the bucks out yet!). But it’s definitely a step in the right direction, and I'm proud of myself for working through my initial reluctance.

On Saturday when I arrived another boarder was tacking up her horse for a lesson. I quickly realized I needed to free school my beast, and asked if she could wait for a minute while I ran my horse around. She said yes, so I grabbed Sofie's halter, went out and grabbed Sofie and hustled her into the indoor (with her looking at me like "WTF what's your hurry?"). She trotted around for a minute, looking perfectly calm. Yeah, sure, Sofa. I asked her to canter a few times, and she picked up the canter right away but didn't hold it for long. I still wasn't convinced. I asked her to canter again, using body language (I jog along with her and then do a "canter depart", I'm sure it's quite a sight to see). She looked at me as I popped into the "canter", and she lept into the air, striking out and stomping with her front feet, like "You call THAT a canter depart?! I'LL show you a canter depart!" After that she did not stop cantering for a while, except to do a little crazy-eyed, inverted POWER TROTTING. She also did a couple abrupt stops in the corners, and at one point she did a rollback at top Sofa speed. It was pretty nifty. I think it would be awesome if I could teach her to do a full reining pattern, totally free and just from body language. Wouldn't that be cool?! I actually think I have a better chance of getting her to do a reining pattern that way than with me on her back...

Finally she was able to stop, and I led her into the barn where the other lady was still waiting patiently for us to clear out of the arena...thanks, we appreciated it! It really is imperative that we free school before I ride. Fireball still had energy, but it was not overwhelming and we had a good, productive ride. We worked around the other horse and rider well, once I figured out how to pass left to left (it's hard for some people, namely ME...). I did work without stirrups, though not for the entire ride, and I still felt very comfortable without them, although I haven't yet developed enough strength to be able to half halt effectively without stirrups. I'm hoping this will improve over time. I did have some minor issues with her breaking into the trot, but it wasn't too bad. She responded to a fairly light hand, and I didn't get frustrated.

Sofie was moving better, and I didn't feel her front end issue very much at all until the end. We worked mainly on flexing at the poll and responding to my aids. She isn't coming round consistently yet, and she often doesn't maintain it for too long, but I can definitely feel progress in that area of our work. I've been staying patient and asking lightly, and she is responding. She did go around with her head up and her nose out some of the time, and she did stick her head way up a few times, but there were also times when she responded to my hand and went round, and when I release and praise she tends to seek the contact even more. I'm not concerning myself with trying to force her to stay round, because I figure she's spent almost nine years of her life being inverted and having no clue about using herself and being round. It's going to take time for her to really become comfortable with this new thing I'm asking, and it's going to take time for her to understand it. I'm happy with the moments of improvement. They do count for something! I feel like she's really starting to get it, and that's exciting.

Our right circles were better. She didn't have very much bend going on, but she didn't fall in hardly at all on most of them. And at one point she did a really nice circle to the right. She was bent, and round, and it was just a super nice effort. I did a couple circles in a row because it felt so nice, and then I let the reins out and she stretched confidently, right into the contact.

I had planned to leave the canter alone for a while, but since she was doing so well I decided to do a little bit. Sofa was not particularly happy to go into the canter, and when I first asked for it I got a sizable Sofa buck. I didn't have enough weight in my heels, so I wound up out of the saddle, standing in my stirrups. Fortunately, she stopped at one buck, otherwise I would've stopped at the arena floor...I got her into the canter and did one more depart after that. She threw in another buck at some point, and when I brought her down to the trot the other woman in the arena said "I'll just be over here until you finish cantering." I assured her that I was done. I really wasn't that out of control, but apparently my beast looked like she was. Ah, well, at least we provide the entertainment. It's really amazing to me how I'm able to laugh and enjoy myself while my horse is being a beast when I used to be so afraid. It's so much better this way.

We did a little rein-back for the first time in a few rides, and it was a little sticky but not too bad. And our spin-on-the-forehand to the right is confirmed! I randomly asked for it, and she gave it to me without hesitation. It's so fun to spin around like that. When her hocks fuse, I'll have to see if I can learn how to do a proper reining spin!

I rode for around 45 minutes, and her shoulder issues didn't show up until the very end, when she became kind of gnarly, slow and reluctant in the trot. So I wrapped up the ride. Her legs are fine, and I've been doing front leg stretches with her, as well as massage. It doesn't seem to be getting worse, and I think it's just a typical Sofa overcompensation "thing".

So, anyway. Things are good, and I'm very happy. AND, I finally got a decent conformation shot of the Sofa! She's been looking really good, and I wanted to get an updated conformation shot. We've all seen the results of trying to pose Sofa (and the results are never pretty), so I decided to try to get a shot of her standing in the aisle, where she actually stands naturally and doesn't protest our picture-taking attempts by making herself look like a conformational trainwreck. This new strategy involved me standing in the office and taking the picture through the doorway, but it worked quite well.

Thursday, March 3, 2011


Every ride is a collection of moments. Good and bad moments, moments of breakthrough, moments of failure. Moments of connection, softness, bracing, struggle. It’s all just many moments, and you can choose to align them many ways in your head to determine the outcome, or your attitude towards it.

Each ride lately has been different. The things that happen well and the things we fight for always differ. Sometimes a ride stands out clearly in my head as “a good ride”, with no need for dissection or second guessing. Other times our successes are not so clear, and the feeling I got during the ride varies so wildly that I go back and pick it apart - “This went well, but that wasn’t happening, and why did I do that?”

The last few rides in February were somewhat mixed but in no way disastrous. On the 22nd I started our ride outside, where I tested our steering capabilities as I maneuvered Sofa around the little patches of ice out in the mainly melted-out yard. The ground is still too hard for real work, but it was okay for some trotting. I worked on trotting her toward The Place Where We Like To Canter, as we need work on not drifting and listening to my half halts. She wasn’t listening, so I had to get up in her face and at one point she completely set her jaw, developed a raging case of Concrete Mouth and Brick Wall Neck, and threw her head to the side with her mouth open against my hand. It’s going to take some work to get her listening out there at the trot and eventually the canter, but we did finish with improvement.

In the arena, our rather intensive bending-to-the-right session seemed to have been advantageous, as she continued to show improvement tracking right. She was softer and more willing to flex at the poll, which was promising. Her left side was actually worse at times. I worked a bit on flexing and trot circles but didn’t drill it too much. I also worked on the canter, and I kept her going all the way around the arena for the first time. She needed some encouragement to keep cantering through the corners, and I resorted to nagging to keep her going, but it was a good start. She tends to fall in when left to her own devices, and some support with the inside leg, as well as my keeping contact with her mouth seemed to help her negotiate the corners. It was fun to canter all the way around the arena instead of just down one long side. Sofa didn’t quite share my enthusiasm…

The next couple of rides were unfortunately tainted by my inability to deal with some major, seemingly unrelenting stress (NSR - Not Sofa Related). I was just way stressed out, and I took it out on Sofie. The first ride wasn't too bad, we just struggled with bending and flexion, and cantered around on our forehand, and I spoke sharply a couple of times. The next ride, though, fell five days into my week from hell. And I didn't free school, because someone was in the indoor, and by the time they got out of the indoor, I was already tacked up. And Sofa hadn't been exercised in two days, so she was understandably energetic. I knew I was worn dangerously thin, running on nothing, and I knew I had been lashing out at anything or anyone who remotely annoyed me. I knew I needed to watch myself. And I actually held it together really well for most of the ride. We walked on a long rein, played with flexion, trotted and cantered. The canter was awesome, holy crap. She just had so much energy that had not been expended by racing around the arena on her own, and she barely even thought about being mad or reluctant. We cantered all the way around the arena, and it was just awesome, so nice and forward, uphill and bounding. It was FUN.

After that, the ride took a bad turn. I didn't want to overdo the canter, as she had been feeling a little off in front, and I also mistakenly thought I'd been riding for longer than I had. So I tried to wrap things up with some walk/trot transitions, and she would not walk on contact. She kept breaking into the trot, over and over, and I got frustrated. I muttered negativities to her, and twice I jerked her in the mouth (once while yelling at her). It was not good, and there's no excuse for that. Ever. The only good thing I can say about it is that I really don't think I'll do that again, because it made me feel like shit for days afterward, and as soon as I got off her I cried. Our relationship isn't ruined, and she's still there for me. She's so good that way.

After my little outburst I attempted to wrap up the ride, and succeeded in getting some nice trot work where she was experimenting with a lower head carriage (even going behind the vertical at times, which made me nervous). Eventually she did walk on a long rein, and then on contact, which was a small positive. I was feeling horrible about how I treated her, and I was also anxious about her going behind the vertical and losing momentum in the walk. But it was over, and we had other chances ahead of us to do better.

Our last ride was really good. I was relieved that she didn't seem to hate me or even distrust me. She got to run around in the arena, and buck and try to kick me in the head (from far away, mind you, and she got growled at for sure). We had a nice walk warm-up, and I did a little work on serpentines to get her loosened up and bending. We went to the trot and worked on softening, and she was good, inverted at first but tentatively responding to my hand without my having to resort to head-pulling-around tactics. The canter was okay. She was a little reluctant to go into it, and a little pissed off. But we cantered to the right (still not on the right lead, ergh), and even tried counter-cantering through corners, which we managed handily. We went around the arena to the left, until she thought about bucking, twisted her front end and aggrivated whatever vague front-end issue she has going on. She was off for a few strides, but she improved. I chose not to canter her any more that day, and worked on the walk and trot instead. And she was great. She maintained her gait with my legs loose at her sides (the same was true in canter) and responded to light finger pressure, flexing and coming round. She was just really, really nice and soft. It was pretty freaking great.

She was still a slight bit off, so I ended the ride and took her outside for a little hack around the yard. She walked around on a long rein, relaxed and happy.

So it's always interesting, never perfect. But I think we're on the right track. And I think we're getting somewhere.