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.

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