Sunday, May 22, 2011

Road Work Ahead

Continuing my plan to make road riding a smaller deal, I rode Sofie out late in the afternoon last week. The weather was being mildly threatening so I walked her a tiny bit in the yard and then went past the mailbox and onto the road. She seemed quite calm, so I figured we could get right to it before possibly being rained on.

There was no activity on the road, and we were both pretty relaxed and nonchalant. We got to the end of the road with no issues, and I decided to push it a little and take the next step on our road work improvement plan. I kept her going and turned onto the next road, which is just a short, straight road before the highway. I had avoided it because the shoulder looked pretty much nonexistent, and I don’t like the sensation of riding on pavement. It’s just a less inviting road than the one we usually ride on. But I was ready to try it.

I discovered, pleasantly enough, that the shoulder was actually sufficient enough to ride on (it helps that Sofie’s base narrow). We didn’t really have wiggle room, but at least we weren’t on pavement. I could tell that Sofie was nervous, but she was really being good for me.

We got a good way down the road before she started to get really edgy. It wasn’t so much being within sight of the highway that bothered her (she gave it a look, but it didn’t stop her in her tracks or anything). The houses are closer together (and closer to the road) on this road, and I think that was a little intimidating for her. She started giving the houses a hard look, and then she went into her “stop and stare” routine. I got her to go forward a little at a time, but she was really rigid and preoccupied with something ahead. I realized there were two kids playing in their yard (throwing a Frisbee and shrieking). Sofie doesn’t really approve of kids, and she definitely does not approve of people in yards (that’s our main issue, not traffic or anything). So I sat there on her, trying to figure out the best way to handle this. I decided not to try to get her past the house with the kids (possibly leading to a major freakout), so, satisfied that she had at least paid attention to me and gone further than she wanted to, I carefully turned her around. Of course, she immediately got really anxious and tried to rush home, so I had to pull quite a bit on the outside rein to keep her from taking off. It was a little tense getting back down that road, but fortunately she did listen to my (shall we say “pronounced”) rein aids and she did not go faster than a jiggy trot/walk. I released when I could but I had to hold her back most of the way. Fortunately she’s gotten more comfortable with contact and I can actually hold her back when I need to without her getting angry.

Once we turned onto our road, she was fine, and I let out the reins and patted her a lot. We made it back and did a little sitting trot in the yard, then quit for the night. I’m proud of us for being able to go further and cope with scary eeeevil playing children (well, I’m not sure how well she coped, but she didn’t kill me so WIN!) and while we are definitely NOT ready to ride down the highway or anything, I think we’ll continue working on this.

The next time I went out it was raining, the yard was squishy, and I figured I had already made enough divots in the barn owner’s yard (as evidenced by her super tactful, way-too-nice hints to that effect). So, back to the indoor it was. Blargh. I was really not thrilled to have to put us back in the box, but it turned out to be a good opportunity to figure some stuff out. Sometimes arena rides are good for that.

Sofie was on a bit of a tear that day and even though I free schooled her she still had too much energy. As a result she wasn’t into flexing, and when I tried to move her off my leg she just went faster. I felt like I was fighting with her, and it seemed like we had absolutely nothing. The only good thing was that she picked up the canter with minimal resentment. I was getting myself into a bad place mentally when my mom showed up. I complained that I couldn’t get her to move off my leg, and she commented that I should try it in walk first. Then she left, and after I thought about it for a minute I brought Sofie down to a walk and tried to teach her how to leg yield. She got it in no time and was moving off my leg in both directions, no problem. I was delighted to have moved past negativity and actually achieved something. By the end of the ride I’d gotten Sofie to move off my leg in all three gaits.

Next time we rode the ground was still a bit too soft, and although the sun was out, the wind was brutal, so we returned to the indoor. I felt like I had been overusing my hands a bit, so I decided to keep my hands quiet and communicate more with leg aids. Sofie, being a smart mare, had really figured out the leg yielding thing, so instead of trying to mess with flexion I just turned her with leg aids and let my hands stay quiet. She did really well with this, and I worked on using leg for turning as well as moving over (both onto and off the rail). I was actually able to move her all the way from the centerline to the rail. I don’t know if we were doing a correct leg yield at any point, but I think there was some crossing over. She wasn’t quite straight, but she lead with her front end, which I think is fairly acceptable at this stage.

At the trot she was quite soft and relaxed, and moved off my leg when I asked her to. She went along in a nice, long frame, and she pretty much went to the contact. I didn’t do any canter work, I just focused on softness and leg yielding. I also was able to ride without stirrups the entire 45 minutes which pleased me. It was just a very nice, relaxed, satisfying ride.

When we ventured back out into the yard I tried to retain some of that feeling, and mainly use my legs for steering. Sofie was more inverted outside, but she wasn’t too bad. I didn’t have to use my hands overly much, and she listened well to my leg which really helped keep her drifting in check. She felt pretty straight much of the time. She seemed in a good mood that day and I really enjoyed our ride.

I asked her to canter several times, and she listened great, only needing a touch of whip once. She only bucked once and her attitude was greatly improved. She was quite responsive and willing. It was so nice! It’s great to have the confidence to ask for the canter, and she’s finally starting to let go of her bad attitude.

I had thought about chickening out and not going on the road, but when I was done in the yard I decided to ride down the road after all. But I turned right at the end of the driveway instead of left, which is the way I usually go. I thought it would be good practice to ride her in a place she’d never seen before, and I wanted to try something new. Sofie was a little apprehensive once we left the border of the yard behind and she had a brief startle (which really helped me stay calm) but we got past the first house without incident (that’s another reason I hadn’t gone that way before…another boarder had a bad experience when she rode past that house and a dog started barking and jumping against the door, but the dog didn’t make a peep when we rode past). She was really good as we went further, although I could tell she was a little like “This isn’t where we ride. Are you sure about this?”

The road wasn’t too bad to ride on, and the shoulder was decent. We went a good ways down before I elected to turn around. I could hear guys working on a car up ahead and they weren’t easily visible due to thick tree growth. What with Sofie’s propensity to wig out at people in yards, I didn’t feel like riding her through a freakout on our first time down that part of the road. In the future I know I will have to deal, but I want to get a little more road mileage first.

The ride back was uneventful. Once back in the yard I congratulated us on another accomplishment. All the variety made those rides very fulfilling and I’m glad we’ve been able to expand our trails. I hope to keep doing so. It makes our time together much more interesting, and “interesting” is kind of our thing.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Things That Prevent Me From Blogging

I have been critically short on time for a while now, and my blogging has declined due to many commitments and distractions (some pictured above). What writing time I have has been devoted to my novel lately, as ideas are flowing and my brain has unlocked, leading to real progress on that front.

Sofie is fine. She is a source of comfort and enjoyment, always there when I need her. Whether she gives me sweetness or attitude I enjoy her company.

Her hematoma remained for so long that we had the vet out to lance it, but on the day he came out it had finally started to go down on its own (what timing). I guess she didn’t want him to have to poke a hole in her. It’s gone away completely now.

After close to five months of uninterrupted riding, Sofie started to look stiff in her hocks. She was having a harder time under saddle and looked uncomfortable when she trotted, so I decided to give her some time off. I hand walked her outside and incorporated groundwork, which we needed a bit of a refresher on. I didn’t mind the downtime and she stayed cheerful throughout. It wasn’t a bad flare-up; after only a little over a week I went out to catch her and she was in a mood. She turned her butt to me, so I smacked her with the halter and she proceeded to walk all the way to the end of the field. When I caught up to her she still didn’t want to be caught, so I started moving her around. She cantered with no issues, and even whipped around (at a canter) and nailed one of her mare friends in the side. Clearly she was mad that I kept pursuing her and decided to take it out on Jessie. I decided that if she could do all that she could definitely handle being ridden!

I was able to ride three times last week. Our bending skills are a little rusty but overall we’re not doing too badly. The first day I rode Sofie had lots of energy. I started out in the indoor for a few minutes as she seemed a little spazzy, and she was pretty inverted in the walk. When we started trotting she felt pretty nice, and she popped into a nice little canter (tracking right, too) all on her own. So I asked her to canter once, and she did it with her usual complaints (a little bouncing around and rrrrrr). She really wanted to go outside, and kept drifting toward the open gate as if magnetically drawn. I was not at all convinced we weren’t about to have an “interesting” ride, but I wasn’t about to stay inside any longer so we headed out. Sofie was quite good outside, even with her energy and enthusiasm. She seemed happy to be out, and apart from quite a few unplanned canters, she listened well. I was pleased that she never got really strong, and even when she went into the canter, I never felt like she was running off. We finished up the ride by going down the trail, where I included some trot work. She picked up the canter once, and when she broke to a trot I asked her to canter again. She went into it with no issues. It was definitely not a “polished” ride, but I had a lot of fun with it and I think Sofie did too.

The next day I returned to see how she was doing. Sofie was slightly off, nothing major, so I rode again. I think she was a little sore, as she was grumpy about trotting, so we did mostly walk work. We didn’t accomplish anything exceptional, but she got exercised, I got to ride, and we got to practice working with distractions. The barn owner was working on loading her horse, which makes Sofie anxious. I rode her within sight of the trailer and worked on turns to keep her more focused. Sofie tensed up a few times but she stayed with me.

The next time I rode the barn owner wound up loading her horse again, and Sofie was a little spazzed out about it. We actually had a couple spooks, and she was on edge for most of the ride. So we had a few unplanned canters, but we held it together pretty well.

After working in the yard for a while I decided to try riding down the road. I had been really nervous about riding on the road, and I’d been waiting for the perfect time when Sofie was calm, there were no foreseeable distractions, and it was 90 degrees, but I just decided to go for it. Our first road ride of the year went very well. It was a Saturday, so people were home and dogs were out, but we had no mishaps. There was a man watering his lawn by the first house we passed, and I knew Sofie has a thing about water spraying (at least, she doesn’t like oscillating sprinklers and you can’t bathe her with the hose). I was not ready to deal with her potentially being stupid, so I asked her to counterbend so she was looking the other way. I was dubious that it would work, but it totally did, so that was nice. The man with the hose also noticed us and told his dog to stay, which was nice also. We only went to the second house and then I turned around, figuring it was a good start. On the way back I let her look at the man with the hose, and she didn’t even care. I guess ten foot stream of water = okay, spinning water that makes a ch ch ch sound = not okay. Hmm.

Today I got to the barn at around 11, and I only had about and hour and a half before I had to get somewhere else. I really wanted to ride, so to save time I just brought her in, gave her a quick brushing, cleaned her feet and then tacked her up. I did not free school, and I fully expected her to be a leetle crazy but figured I’d just deal. Sofie looked really thrilled to be getting ready to ride again, but I didn’t take her overwhelmingly “meh” demeanor personally.

My prediction of high energy levels turned out to be right on. She was pretty full of it! She was not listening terribly well to rein aids and her walk was quite forward, almost a little rushy at times. I tried to work on softening her up but I wasn’t really getting anywhere, so I started my trot work to try and let some energy out. I first asked for the trot in one of her “grumpy places” in the yard, and when she gave me attitude I tapped her with the whip, which prompted her to pick up the canter. She did that twice in succession. I didn’t really mind, because her canter was nice, she didn’t buck, and at least she picked it up in response to something I did, instead of just because she felt like it. Progress!

After that we bombed around for a while, not listening too well but not being completely out of control or anything. She took off a few times (at a quickish canter, which is about as fast as a Sofa goes) but I didn’t fear for my life, and what’s really nice is even when I was having to pull on her, she didn’t get mad and fling her head or kick out like she used to. I had to do a fair amount of hand riding, which I don’t love having to do, but it’s nice that she’s able to tolerate that now. I used to just kind of let her go and then softly bring her back, and now I can actually hold her back somewhat. She did listen to my half halts really well at least some of the time (she did a lot of breaking into the trot, and I was able to bring her back with just seat a few times), so although it was a bit of a wild ride, we did have good moments. And I’m not afraid of her anymore, which just makes things so much easier.

I had hoped to ask her for the canter outside, and I did do that. I asked her to pick up the canter heading away from the barn, and I reinforced with a tap right away when she started to give me attitude. She picked it up pretty nicely, with just a couple bucks, and she maintained it well. I still need to work on confirming the canter (I still need to work on a LOT), but it’s a start! I’m looking forward to doing more canter work this year on my terms!

After all that I knew I needed to get her to calm down a little. I worked on just walking for a bit, but she still had too much energy. She wasn’t really bending either, so I decided to try and do some trot circles. I started out tracking right and Sofie quickly remembered how to bend and lower her head. She even did a pretty good job of not falling in, and she was so nice and relaxed! It’s nice to know she still has it in her. Our left circle was pretty rough at first (she was thinking about cantering) but eventually I got at least a partial circle that was round and properly bent.

With that accomplished I briefly debated whether I should ride down the road again. I wanted to, but I figured I would need to have a death wish to do it when Sofie was so high-energy. But it was Monday morning, so there would be no distractions at least…in the end I just went for it. Sofie was very good. She thought about being stupid a few times (the worst being at the beginning of the road ride, and it was fairly minor) but she stayed nice and straight throughout most of the ride and she cooperated very well with my wishes. She was really amazingly good considering how snazzy and wired she had been in the yard. She was actually quite relaxed on the road at times! I pushed us both and went all the way down the road. Sofie got a bit wiggly towards the end but didn’t pull anything obnoxious. I was really proud of us both.

I didn’t make it a goal because I wasn’t sure if I was up to it, but I’d like to get us more comfortable on the road this year. Sofie is pretty good on the road (she’s never done anything really drastic that I couldn’t handle, even when something really got to her) but she’s not what I’d consider super reliable. I also need to expand my confidence, because I’d really like to expand our trail options. And I’ve realized that if I want her to be better on the road, I need to try and ride her there every time, until it’s no big deal. One road ride every few weeks isn’t going to make her more reliable. So I went down the road these last two times to prove to myself that I could. And every time I’m able to ride Sofie when she’s spazzy or energetic or whatever, I build confidence that I can handle whatever happens. I’ve come a really long way, and while we still have a lot of work to do, I’m confident that we are headed a good way.