Tuesday, August 30, 2011

What Works and What Doesn't

August is quickly wrapping up. Our move to the new barn was successful, and so far our time here has been enjoyable. We are making new friends, and I’ve learned something, although it wasn’t so much a new something as a something I learned before and kind of drifted away from.

Our rides were mixed, sometimes fun and sometimes overly intense. Sofie continued to not be comfortable with the canter, and when I tried to keep pushing the issue she really regressed. During one ride she started to feel like she did when I first got her, just terribly tense and rushing. I felt terrible, and I was afraid she was breaking down in some way. Usually that has been the case when we’ve had difficulties, but I think this time it was psychological, because the next time she was fine, and has continued to be fine. So I’m giving the canter a little time, and getting back to basics.

When we weren’t struggling with our dressage, we were out on the trails. Despite having many, many onsite trails I decided to try riding her on the road, and it went far better than I expected. We did a couple road rides in a row, and Sofie was quite good. She handled all the footing - grass, gravel and blacktop - and even was brave about three kids walking down the side of the road, a guy power washing his deck, and all kinds of dogs barking. One little fru fru dog even ran up behind her, showing questionable judgment, I thought, and Sofie stayed in halt while the little dog barked at her. She was also barked at by two Jack Russells (OMG so cute!), a Cocker Spaniel, and a Lab. Most of the owners were quite nice about watching their dogs (“Don’t spook the horse!”) and one guy even complimented Sofie as we went back past his house on our way home.

I actually made it as far as the highway, quite an accomplishment. She was pretty good out there, not really minding the traffic, but our second time out it was windy and she got scared. Pretty much everything she saw made her scared, including parked vehicles (not normally an issue). The biggest problem we had was some flapping black material. Something about it just really scared her, and it was a very tense moment when we had to turn around and go back past it. Sofie just stopped and started backing up, not wanting to go near it, and I just hoped she would stop backing up before she got too close to the highway. I got her to go forward, and just tried to keep her going forward without freaking out too badly. She listened to me really well even though she was scared. It was dicey, but I was glad we were able to handle it. I hope to do more road work this fall. I would like us to be more comfortable with it so we can explore even more places.

When I don’t feel like facing death by flapping black things (grin) we can stick to the property and still not get bored. The trails are lovely, most not too challenging, with good footing and minor hills. They range from more open, grassy trails to narrower, more shaded logging roads, all wooded. We did find a couple of more interesting trails, one of which is very narrow, cut through the woods. It goes up and down and pretty much all over the place. Another trail I found has the feel of a cliffside mountain trail. The ledge isn’t super narrow, but it does overlook a very steep drop-off. It’s a cool trail, but I am afraid of heights (and I’ve never had that sensation of looking waaaay down while on a horse, either), so I was a bit nervous. Sofie, of course, didn’t care, and had no idea why I kept making her get away from the edge. She handles everything I get her into.

As we continued down that same trail, it narrowed out and went downhill. I kept her going, even when she stopped, questioning why we really had to keep going this way. Ten feet later, I saw a tree across the trail. Sofie kept going, knowing she could fit under it. I knew I could not, so I stopped her and debated. We couldn’t turn around there. I could’ve gotten off, but I didn’t want to because getting back on would be an issue. So I decided to back her up a little ways and then attempt to turn around on the super narrow trail. Sofie can be really sticky about backing, but in this context she seemed to understand why we were doing this, and she backed willingly up an incline, then used her special trail horse talents to make a really tight turn. Then we headed back. I did not really want to have to go back via the Cliffside Of Death, but I didn’t think there was an alternate route. Sofie seemed to think there was. She headed for a trail. She sees trails that aren’t really trails sometimes, but I realized she actually had found a trail. It went straight uphill. I asked her if she was sure she wanted to go this way, but she was committed, so I got up off her back and we started up the trail. It was steep. Very, very steep. Sofie was breathing hard halfway up it, and she stopped a couple times, probably rethinking the shortcut. But we got up the hill and headed back home.

After some of our recent rides, I had reached a point where I knew something needed to change. Dressage was not working. It was feeling like a struggle. It was eroding our relationship. I had been struggling with depression and uncertainty, and it was creeping into my riding. Instead of feeling better when I was with my horse, I brought all my negativity into her life.

This was the year I started to get ambitious. We were going to get our training together. We were gonna get the basics down. I learned some things in my dressage lessons, and from my watching of other people’s dressage lessons. I worked hard to apply that to Sofie, and it was working to some extent. We were making progress. Then we went lame for a while and had to begin again, and it never quite worked. We had moments of progress, moments of correctness, but we worked hard for them, and it felt like it. I felt like I was fighting. We spent too much time going around with her nose stuck out, fighting my hand. I started to wonder if I was wrong to try and do dressage with her. I knew how wonderful she could be but it wasn’t happening anymore.

Sometime during all of this, I happened to be tacking up Sofie while another boarder rode. Her horse was looking kind of like Sofie, with her nose stuck out and her legs going too fast. The barn owner came by and started giving pointers. I didn’t expect to hear anything worthwhile, but I started hearing things that made sense. She worked on the rider’s position, got her to try some different things. She corrected a bad habit. Then she started to work on the horse. She had the rider stop her horse, back her up and send her back into trot. She repeated the exercise, and the horse came round. She stopped looking pissed off. She was stepping under better than I’d ever seen her, and she had hock action! I watched, and I saw results. I saw correct training.

I tried the exercise on my own that day, and Sofie was resistant to backing at first, so we had some difficulty. But it seemed to work, and after a while she was trotting forward and round, and I sat her trot easily. She worked better than she had been. It still needed work, but it was there.

After that stressful ride when I pushed her into anxiety and rushing, I stopped. I took myself off this path, and I went back to basics. Our basics. I started listening to Sofie again, and I thought back to how I used to ride her. How she taught me to ride her.

The Jesse method doesn’t work. Not for this horse, and I don’t know how much I like it for any horse. It’s too much hand. Too much aid. Entirely too much pressure. I don’t think it’s necessary, and I would rather not ride that way. It’s all about competition, tests and scoring. I may never show this horse, and if I do it won’t be to win.

I’ve realized why I enjoy riding. Why I want to do this. I want to build a relationship. I want to make my horse the best she can be. I want to be happy and ride with joy. I want to feel her moving underneath me, moving forward, carrying herself. I want her to respond to every aid with lightness. I want to do less and not more.

I don’t regret my dressage lessons. I got valuable information from them. I got a better idea of where I can take my training. I got a concept of the basics. I learned new techniques, and I developed a feel for connection and crookedness. I just don’t have to continue on that path. I will take what I learned and use what I can when I ride my way.

My way, my instinct has always been to ride with lightness. Pretty much every trainer who has ever taught me complimented my light hands. I’ve also been told I’m not assertive enough, too passive. I think I’ve come a long way. I’m a lot less meek now, thanks to Sofie. But I don’t want to veer too far from lightness, from compassion. I think that is a mistake.

The last two rides I have gone back to my way. I’ve kept my reins long, just short enough to not be flopping, completely empty. I let Sofie go forward, and I did very little with my hands. I did a lot of releases, stretching my hands forward. And she relaxed and reached down, creating the contact on her own. Trusting. The more I released, the more she relaxed. Occasionally I bent her a little, but mostly I just let her go.

Sofie has come a long way in her tolerance of contact. There was a time when I had to let her go when she was tense or taking off in a canter, or she would get faster or kick out. Now I can actually hold her back, or use the reins to keep her from speeding up in a tense situation. But she still does best with a light rein. Too much pressure just makes her anxious, her head comes up and she gets further and further away from what I am trying to achieve.

I’m going to keep working on the trot-halt-reinback-trot exercise, as I believe it will help us a lot. It has done wonders for the other boarder’s mare. I may also take some lessons from the barn owner. But mostly I’m going to ride on my own. Sofie is a wonderful horse, generous and kind. I enjoy riding her more than any other horse. When she is sound, relaxed and happy, trotting in a field, the feeling I get can sustain me through any dark times we face.

Sofie teaches me everything. From her I can learn what works and what doesn’t, although sometimes it takes me a while to listen. To understand. I wish I was better, but I hope anyone reading this can learn something from my inadequacies. The most important things, I want to emphasize now. The first is: listen to your horse. They will tell you everything you need to know.

And the other thing is, maybe, even though other people may have more experience, more credentials, and a whole lot of power, they are not always right. Never be afraid to stop listening to them and go your own way. It doesn’t matter what other people think. It only matters how you feel.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Fitness Overhaul

After our somewhat intense ride on Friday I went out the next day to just visit with Sofie, groom her and wash her tail. Then she grazed on the lawn while I finger-combed and fluffed her tail, which looks much better now. I felt like we just needed to chill for a day, and I think we succeeded in doing that.

I rode again on Monday, and there was no threatening weather happening, so we went right to the trail. We explored a new pasture-in-development, getting in a workout in sand. When we cut back across the pasture I had her trot, and THAT was fun...she bounced through the sand almost like she does when we ride in the snow. Wheeeee! After we finally got out of the field (after traversing the entire thing, because I mistakenly thought there was NOT a fence all the way around it!) we went back around the OUTSIDE of the fence and headed to a trail I'd seen the other day that looked inviting. It turned out to be a very good conditioning workout, relatively challenging and hilly, but not horribly so. The downhill got a little steep, especially when she started picking up speed, and then I saw wet leaves underfoot, but she handled it just fine and didn't slip. Then we were well into the woods, where we meandered for a while before finding the entry trail again and going back up the hill. It was a good workout for her - she was puffing as we headed back up. Then we headed back to the barn, as I wanted to do some arena work and surreptitiously watch the lesson-in-progress. We'd already gotten in a nice ride, and I incorporated more trotting into the trail ride, all in the hopes of building fitness.

Back in the indoor, I remounted and started our slightly-dressage-resembling work. There were two lessons going on, so it was nice to see other people riding. Sofie's new friend, a cute little QH mare, was in there too. We worked on not flying around being inverted, and also on not diving off the wall on this one side. And it went very well! She got a little tense at certain moments and inverted at times, but she listened fairly quickly and brought her head down, and she was in a nice, relaxed "frame" the majority of the time. We didn't stay on a circle either, we went along the rail a lot of the time, and she did much better at staying round on straight lines. She was pretty nice and forward, too, and seemed to understand what I wanted a lot better. She seemed to trust my hands, too, so clearly I didn't set her back too far by being a bit heavy-handed the other day. Her walk work was really nice, she was really reaching and maintaining the contact on her own. She looks so pretty when she has a long neck. :) I also did a little work on asking for more energy at the walk, and I actually succeeded a couple times. When I tapped her, she walked more forward and didn't just break into the trot. I think we'll try to work some more on that. She always has a nice swingy walk through her back, but she doesn't necessarily overtrack or anything like that. Not sure how much of an overtrack she's even capable of, but a bit more energy couldn't hurt.

We did have issues with diving off the wall, especially to the right. I think it's a bit of a strength/compensation issue. So I had to experiment a bit with that. I have to try not to hold her up (and I don't even want to 'cause it makes me tired). She gets so heavy on the left rein, which is an issue we need to work on. When it gets really bad I usually try to either lighten her by counterflexing, or else just throw that rein away for a second. I'm trying to teach her to stay on the rail by letting her fall off and then correcting her, rather than trying to hold her all the time. Tapping her on the shoulder seems to help, although it does make the relaxation go away. But, we can't work on everything all at once. And diving off the wall is not cool. I'm sure she'll learn not to do that eventually, especially as she gets stronger. Straightness is an issue for us as well. Sometimes we are so wobbly, it either makes me laugh or just pisses me off. I think the issue is that turning is just so easy for her, she always wants to be turning. And some of it is anticipation. It's just another long-term project.

BUT I was really happy with how the ride went. We definitely made progress, and much of the time we looked pretty respectable. I enjoyed myself, and she worked really well for me. She had a very good attitude and seemed to be trying to get it right. At this point, my focus is on fitness and balance. I'm going back to my old belief that you can't improve the canter by cantering badly. Trot work is the best thing for the canter. There is nothing really wrong with our canter, it's just a fitness issue at this point, and maybe a mental issue as well. She's at a new place, dealing with new footing, and she's not quite comfortable cantering at this point. And I know she needs to be stronger. So we're going to go on longer rides, and do more trot work, and then I'm sure we'll be able to canter with no problem.

Also, due to an expensive clinic I was going to partake in being cancelled, I can now take a lesson or two with Jesse! Another reason to get us in shape!!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

First Week

Our first week at our new home came and went, and it went very well indeed. Sofie has settled in beautifully, and I’m really liking it there. She is out with the mares now, and the sparseness of the grass forces her to actually move around while searching out the best grass. She looks good, and she seems so happy. The herd introduction was handled very well by the barn owner, and Sofie hasn’t gotten even a scratch on her so far.

The turnout seems to be making a difference already. She is warming up so much easier that she has been this year. Before she was taking longer and longer to warm up (sometimes it took just about the whole ride before she loosened up and stopped being cranky), and I was very concerned. I had hoped the turnout would help, but I wasn’t too optimistic since Sofie just doesn’t self-exercise. I’m very happy with the turnout situation for her. I’m hoping it will really help preserve soundness over the long term. It certainly is helping now. Even without free schooling (it is prohibited in the fancy arena with the mirrors) she’s doing fine, mentally and physically.

We’ve been slowly exploring the trail system, the facility itself, and we’ve actually gone on some long rides. Before, an hour ride was about as long as we ever did, and the more typical session was 30-45 minutes. Here, we have many more riding options, which makes it easier (and almost necessary) to stretch things out.

Our first couple rides started in the indoor, then I went on a short trail ride. It didn’t take long for me to get sick of the indoor (it’s gorgeous, but it’s still a boring indoor), so I began doing our dressage work outside, either in the neighboring boarder’s dressage arena or just on the unoccupied front yard area. Sofie seems to do much better outside, and it’s just nice to be out. She was a little nervous at first in the dressage ring in this new random place, but she listened well and we actually got some productive (for us) work done in there. We then rode the trails for quite a while, and she was solid, apart from spooking at a dead stump with holes in it (it has EYYYYYEEEEES….) and a few dead tree limbs here or there. She has never liked tree carnage. Also, when it was time to find our way home, she kept trying to go off onto different trails that I knew would not get us home. So I made her go my way, all the while thinking “Geez, maybe I’m totally screwed up and she’s right!” But my way actually did get us where I wanted it to, so then I got to make fun of her for her superior trail horse home-finding skillz. Then we did some work in this nice little valley, since Sofie was being obnoxious about going home, so of course I had her do more work before letting her do so. She was very fast and fairly strong, but she was actually not totally out of control or breaking into the canter, which was nice. So then I had her canter away from home, just experimentally, and she then became VERY strong. I was literally standing up in the stirrups and hauling on her to get her to stop. So then we tried THAT again, and it went better, so then we went home.

When we did get home I decided to ride her a little in the indoor, so I could see what she looked like in the mirrors (bad idea). We were both tired by that point, so we basically just raced around with our nose stuck out looking terrible. BUT because we looked so bad, we got a free mini-lesson from the resident dressage trainer, because apparently he saw us and was like OMG NOT IN MY BARN. And I felt marginally better about ourselves, because it took like two minutes and some minimal adjustments and we were going nice and round and looking very nice. And I got some good tips to help us along, so it was probably worth it.

We had a very nice ride midweek. I worked her out in the front yard area and tried to work on the stuff that Jesse had me do in my mini-lesson, and it took a while, but eventually she got round and we finished up very well. We also did a bit of canter work, which went well. After we finished up we went on a trail ride, which was very fun. I tried a new loop, so I didn’t have to come back the way I came. After I was done I turned her out with the mares and watched her for a bit. I was so happy to see her out there enjoying herself. I just felt very positive that day.

Yesterday I went back out, and Sofie seemed to have enjoyed our ride also, as she looked up when she saw me, turned and waited for me to come get her. She seemed happy to see me, and I tacked her up leisurely while surreptitiously watching an upper-level lesson. I’d had a tough couple of days, and I was really looking forward to getting outside and riding. I mounted up, headed straight for the trails, aaaaaannnd, huge thunder happening, rain threatening, sky darkening. So I stayed in the front yard area for about 30 seconds until the rain started, and then I went to the indoor. It proceeded to pour rain and occasionally thunder was heard. So I had to ride inside, and Sofie was unnerved by the weather, so she was kind of inverted and all over the place. And while mirrors are a good training aid, they are also not kind to us.

I worked on lots of things. I worked on trying to get her to be round, which wasn’t happening. I worked on the canter, which really wasn’t happening. She just seems really nervous about cantering in the indoor, and all I can think is that the slightly deeper, soft footing makes her uneasy because she’s more used to hard footing. So she keeps rushing in the trot instead of just taking the canter nicely, which she’s never done before. And I HATE when horses rush into the canter. HATE IT. So it’s rather disheartening that we’ve lost our ability to do a nice canter depart. She’s had the same issue outside at this new place, but we’ve made some progress outside, and I actually have gotten her to do a nice soft depart. But the indoor…ugh.

So the canter was terrible. She wouldn’t stop rushing into it, and she leaned in horribly when she was cantering. And after the canter work I did, she was really anxious, and her head was way up, and she was just flying around, totally freaked out. So I had to get her to stop rushing, and I probably used more hand than I should have, so after a while she was just a total mess. It wasn’t entirely my fault, but I did screw up and make it worse. So I was kicking myself. I’m hoping we didn’t lose too much trust.

The only positive is that after totally screwing her up, I did manage to fix it, and I did it on my own, with no one helping me. I got her to relax and come round, in both directions pretty consistently. She started to seek the contact and move around without rushing. It wasn’t totally consistent, as I also had to work on other issues, like her falling off the rail and not listening to my leg telling her “over”. But I think we got some productive work done. I’m hoping I didn’t just make her hate me, at least. She never got mad at me, and she wasn’t lame, so I don’t think it was a total disaster. I wasn’t abusive, I was just not in the right frame of mind, and I could have done better. I’m hoping she will still be my friend. After I got off, I was just so tired. I don’t even know how long I rode in there, but probably more than an hour. The storm was over by then, and I went outside, mounted up and went on a trail ride, because that was all I really wanted to do. She seemed happy on the trail, and we had fun splashing through water, seeing new things, and making the geldings gallop around like crazy when we rode by them. Sofie never spooked.

I suppose I am learning. All the time. I guess it is good to push ourselves. I wanted to get us into shape, and the fact that we can stand up to a long ride is a good thing. I mostly did trot work, and I didn’t push the canter since it wasn’t working. I think we’ll be alright. The work is, or can be, a good thing. We should be able to bend and be round in both directions. There is no reason why we shouldn’t be able to go straight and not waver all over the place. We should even be able to canter well, eventually, if I do enough good trot work and build up her strength. I just have to be careful to stay positive with her. I have to stay out of that grim mindset, because I hate it. We should be able to sustain our relationship even while pursuing my training goals. That is the most important thing.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

A Good Move

Well, that went a LOT better than I expected!

We got to Judy's early enough so I could ride before Sofie's ride got there. Sofie was quite calmed by the heat and not entirely thrilled about going for a ride, but we did our thing and the exercise was probably good for my nerves. Right after we finished up I saw the trailer pull in, so I led her straight to the barn and untacked her while the ramp was lowered and paperwork was signed. Sofie was still nice and calm, and didn't seem to suspect anything of us. I was so nervous. I just don't "do" trailers. I've never gone to shows or anything like that, and I had a bad experience when we hauled a weanling who had a fit in the trailer and managed to split her forehead open. Sofie didn't have trailering issues, to my knowledge, but still, it had been a long time since she'd gone anywhere. And I knew she really liked it at Judy's so I didn't know if she'd willingly leave. And I worried my nerves were going to affect her. But this was something I really needed to prove to myself that I could do. So I led her up to the ramp and I walked up into the trailer. Sofie didn't follow me right up, but she didn't pull back or try to go off to the side, so I just waited for a minute, and then she walked right up the bouncy ramp without hesitation. I took her all the way into the trailer and the woman who was hauling for us closed the divider as I slipped out. Sofie got a little high-headed at that point, but she didn't seem too stressed. So we finished loading up all our gear, said goodbye to Judy and then we followed Sofie out of the drive. Sofie's best mare friend, Piper actually ran up to the fence and called to her as she left (Piper actually looked more upset than Sofie).

I was a little emotional during the drive to the new barn, but Sofie trailered well. We were fortunate to be able to find someone with a nice stock trailer, so she was able to be loose in the trailer, which seems to suit her. She moved about and looked around, actually putting her head down some of the time! When we got to the new barn and she started to smell the horses she became excited and the head came up. I started to not look especially forward to the unloading process, but Sofie was actually very good. She listened when she was told to wait, and she came out of the trailer calmly. She wasn't quite sure how to get back down the ramp (I'm not sure if she had ever even dealt with a ramp before), so she jumped down. After that I decided to lead her around, since she was actually not freaking out/spinning/dragging me around. So we went all over, checking out the round pen where she would spend her first few days, and looking at the minis, which were slightly alarming at first but then not so much. I showed her the barn, which was rather big and different but still to her liking. Then we went in the (freaking gorgeous) indoor arena to get our introduction to mirrors! And...apparently we don't care about mirrors!

We spent some time in the indoor, and then I took her back outside and we decided to try and give her a bath since she was all sweaty from the ride (both of them). We had only recently conquered the hose (we used to not stand for it), but I halted her and we turned on the hose. And she stood like a rock, totally fine, happy even. After a while I let her graze, and she was even happier doing that. I just couldn't believe she was actually standing. I thought for sure she would regress, at least temporarily. It was such a big change for her, and she handled it fantastically.

After she dried off I put her in the round pen, where she ate her hay, tried out her shelter, and once again was totally fine. I knew she had come a long way, and I knew we had a much better rapport than we had before. I just never expected her to just be okay. It was such a relief, and just...amazing.

The next day we went out again, and she was still doing just fine in her round pen. She seemed pleased to see me, and she did pretty well standing in the barn. She was not entirely stationary, wanting to look at things, but she was still nice and relaxed. I got her tacked up and we went for our first ride in the new place. I wasn't quite sure about the weather and I was a little nervous, so we started out in the (freaking gorgeous) indoor. She got a little nervous when she heard someone yelling at a misbehaving horse, but she did stand and I did manage to mount up without incident. We just walked around for a while, doing our extended, somewhat bobbly warmup. Then we took it up a trot and started cruising.

I. Love. That. Indoor. First of all, it's massive. 200 by 100 feet! There are actual mirrors, so I can actually see what I'm doing! And it's groomed, watered and actually maintained. It's amazing. LOVE. IT. And Sofie seemed to love it too. She was able to really open up, and we did our straight lines and generous, sweeping turns. She was inverted at first, but I didn't worry too much about it. I wasn't going to sweat it on her first ride in a new place. I just worked in some turns and lightly asked for flexion, then released. And when I released she really relaxed and lowered her head, and then pretty much stayed in a really nice, open frame the rest of the ride. I was able to see what she was doing in the mirrors (love the mirrors!) and she actually looked really pretty once she relaxed. She was really moving forward, just cruising along, and she was happy. She was actually dripping foam (without being pulled in or nagged, I was pretty much doing nothing with the reins once she lowered her head). We did a couple canters, which weren't too great as she kind of wanted to run into them. Not sure if she felt unsure in the footing or what, but I just kind of left it alone after that, and we'll work on it later. I was mostly happy about the nice trot work she was doing.

After a while I decided I really wanted to go on a trail ride, so I got off, tightened her girth and got my mom to hold the stirrup on the other side so I could mount from the ground. Then we headed out. She was very good about leaving the barn and going out on a new trail in a new place, maybe slightly hesitant, but she went along with my request. The only issue we had was a terrifying junk car in the woods. OMG we do NOT approve of junk cars in the woods. We stopped and stared, and thought about going backwards but then we were courageous and we went past it. We also do not approve of sheet metal in the woods, although we do not hate it as much as junk cars. Basically, we don't approve of garbage in the woods. At all. Someone should do something!

We just went on a short ride, as I didn't want to overdo. But there are soooo many nice trails. There's an especially inviting, wide, grassy trail that would be great for cantering...we are going to get in shape, that's for sure! We could ride all day here. I was just thrilled with how good she was. I mean, how many people go on a solo trail ride their first day at a new barn? But that's how we roll. I'm so happy with my horse, and I'm glad we chose this barn. I think we're going to have a lot of fun here.