Monday, October 31, 2011

Proof of Progress

I feel as though we have really progressed in the last couple of months. We’ve found our way to something that resembles actual, correct, beneficial dressage, and we have been reliably achieving our new standard of work in different places and situations. Sofie’s soundness is holding up to walk/trot work and moderate trail rides, and she seems comfortable going round. She appears to be finding a new balance and is reverting less and less to her old, inverted posture.

We had one indoor ride last week. Sofie started out dead-sided and unresponsive, and I actually had to kick her a few times, which I do not like doing. I’ve ridden way too many insensitive horses in my life, and I never want her to end up that way. She was also being a bit obnoxious and falling in off the rail despite reminders. So I grabbed a whip for the first time in a while. Predictably, a few taps started her racing around the arena, and I had to drop it after just a few minutes. With Sofie paying attention, I worked on getting us both settled and getting myself in a better mood. After the icky warm-up phase, the rest of the ride was actually very good. Once we got over our issues, Sofie flowed around a big circle, soft and light in her balance, and stayed round, moving down the rail in a nice rhythmic trot. Transition work went fine, and I experimented with shortening her stride and putting her together a bit more. Pretty much everything we worked on was a success, and we finished up much happier.

We’ve gotten back out on the trail since then, going solo one day and with Cathy and Nakota last weekend. Going down hills is still not Sofie’s favorite, but in order to expand our trail possibilities I’ve had her go down a few of them. If she seems to be having trouble I get off and lead, which seems to help. I revisited The Shelf, coaxing Sofie down the long, gradual hill only to find out that The Shelf is even more terrifying without leaves on the trees! Like, wow, I can see alllll the way down now… I just clutched her sides with my legs and went into a slight fetal position while she walked on, unimpressed by the steep dropoff, going “Jeez, YOU wanted to come here!”
On our way home, we went through the valley and I tested out our dressage work there. It was marvelous. She was SO good.

I rode twice on the weekend. On Saturday Cathy and I went for a short trail ride around the property before a barn Halloween party (a full report will be forthcoming in another post!). The weather was lovely, and we had a nice, easy ride. Back in the yard, I did a short dressage session. Sofie was a bit distracted, and not quite listening to my downward transitional aids, but not bad. After going through our little repertoire I took her inside to get her ready for the costume contest/horse parade.

Sunday Cathy and I rode again. It was a cold, bitterly windy day, but I had a video shoot planned so I wanted to get out on the trail (her dressage is always better after a trail ride). So, out into the wind we went. Sofie was nice and calm until she saw Something (most likely a chipmunk, OMG) in the bushes and threw down a fairly dramatic Sofa spook. From then on, she was nervous, especially when we began to hear Cathy’s husband on his lawnmower. Unbothered, I made us forge ahead, and Sofie went on, head high and eyes big. She walked super fast the whole entire way through the woods. Occasionally I’d stop her so Cathy could catch up on her non-freaking-out horse, and Sofie would toss her head and back up before surging on. We had a few moments where calmness started to come back, but mostly we were a bit nutty. I think it was the residual effect of the party, myself…
Heading out of the woods, we were walk-charging along when all of a sudden Sofie’s head flew up and she took off trotting down the trail! Hmm, I thought as I grabbed a rein and began pulling her down. I do not know what she saw, heard or imagined, but it was surely terrifying enough to provoke a Sofa bolt. According to Cathy, she also jumped, too, but I was unaware of any sensation of real altitude, so it must have been a Sofa jump at any rate.
Once we got out of the woods and on the trail home, she finally relaxed and walked at a normal speed with her head down. Back at the barn, Cathy went inside like a smart person, and I, freezing and seriously doubting my ability to get Sofie round and decent-looking on that particular day, headed out to the field I’d chosen for the video shoot. “I’m gonna go….try to make dressage happen!” I chirped to Cathy before we parted ways.

I had no expectations. I had a feeling we were going to get some real mediocrity on camera, but I rode her out to the field (immediately sending her into the trot because I was freaking freezing and needed to warm up). I did a little trot work out there, trying to see what we had. She was a little hard mouthed and stiff and a little too fast, but she was much better than I thought she would be. The shoot began, and I went back and forth, trotting straight and bending lines, walking, backing, free walking, giving the reins forward, stretchy trotting and halting.
I rode for what I thought was a few minutes, and Sofie started to get dull and I could tell she was getting ouchy, so I ended things and walked over to my dad. “How long did it end up being?” I asked cheerfully.
Turns out, nearly seven minutes!! Uh, not gonna work. I started to get upset, as I had really screwed up. I needed no more than five minutes of footage, and there was no way to edit it down because in this particular instance, I needed a disc with one continuous clip on it that was the correct length. I reviewed the footage, and quickly found that Sofie didn’t fill the frame enough. There were also some stumbles and missteps (I’d felt them while riding). As much as I hated to do it, since the footage I saw looked quite decent, I told my dad to delete it and we’d start over. I was not optimistic that we’d be able to get anything good on camera, especially now that I’d used up seven minutes and I knew Sofie was getting tired. But we had to try again.

The second attempt was quickly scrapped when Sofie had a crabby moment. She was getting a little tired of going around in a dressage-y way, and I was sure her hocks were a little sore from all the rushing and being tense and jumping on them. So I started the third take, and just tried to ride lightly and keep her going.
Being filmed is a little bit different than regular schooling, especially with no room for editing. I was conscious of the camera, and I tried to keep everything steady and nice, with no tripping or bobbling. And Sofie was a little tired and a little clunky-feeling at times, but she stayed round almost the whole time and did everything I asked without resistance or mistakes. She didn’t refuse to back up, she didn’t hollow too much in her transitions. She didn’t trip over anything. I wasn’t sure how it would look, since she felt a little jerky to me, not her smoothest, not at her best. But I knew it was a decent try, and I was proud of us for being able to do that.

Not the brightest or the best at keeping track of time, I nearly rode overtime again. Fortunately, my dad ceased filming at four and a half minutes (after his nifty little hand signals at the two and three minute mark just went right over my head). I dismounted, and took a moment to look at the footage, even though it was pretty much the best we were gonna get. And it was quite nice. Sofie was moving well, tracking up nicely and she was quite round. Her free walk looked great, and her trot work looked relaxed and fluid. She didn’t show any trace of soreness, which was great to see. It looked way better than it felt, and I was very happy because it was a good representation of how we’ve been doing recently. She’s such a different horse now. I am very proud of both of us.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Three Solid Rides, and a Lumpy Sofa

This week the weather has been overtly cold, windy and rainy, which makes life at the barn somewhat more frigid. I seem to be refusing to adjust to the seasonal change, and am still insisting on wearing my summer (i.e. THIN) riding pants and my little clogs, though I have conceded to wearing turtlenecks and occasionally a winter coat. Apparently my top half can adjust, but my lower half is stuck in summer?

The barn in tolerable, once you adjust to the walk-in freezer effect. Going out to fetch my pony can be rather miserable, depending on the wind velocity/direction. One day when walking Sofie in, the wind was in our faces, blowing me around so I couldn't walk a straight line and throwing snow/sleet/rain at us! Sofa tucked her face into her chest (rollkur!) and glared out at the weather as I hurried her along.

We were pretty much stuck in the indoor this week, as it was either too cold/windy/rainy to make venturing out a profitable experience. Of course, now that we have a gynormous indoor with good footing and mirrors, that is not such a bad thing. However, I still prefer outside. I will ALWAYS prefer outside.

On Sunday, Cathy (who doesn't spell her name with a K, I finally figured out) showed up just as we were getting ready to start, and she joined us in the ring with her mare a little later on. We warmed up along the outside track, doing our usual corrections and being stiff and creaky at first. She wasn't too bad, though, considering the cold. Starting to trot, I think she was a little reluctant in the first transition, but she was soon trotting around nicely, only bobbling occasionally. She was staying reasonably straight and was pretty round, with occasional lapses. All in all, pretty much a steady, decent ride!

Tuesday was annoying varied, weather-wise, with cold rain and sun mixed. I attempted to ride outside at the beginning, but was thwarted by rain. So we went back in, and had another good, productive ride. Other than the usual straightness reminders, and slight stiffness/bobbling, she did really well. She was round at the trot, bending both ways and just going along nicely. She did not want to back up at first, but got lighter after a few repetitions. During the ride, I noticed that she was not staying round in all her transitions, so I decided to try and fix that. She stayed nicely round at the trot, and was steady in her walk-trot transitions, but in her trot-walk transitions she momentarily raised her head. So, I put her on a slightly long rein, and tried to use light aids and do gradual, soft transitions. And after a few tries she got it, and we did many nice transitions in a steady, strechy frame! Good girl! I got off after that was accomplished, and we went outside to try and make the most of a brief sunny spell. I went on a short (very short) hack before turning around when it looked like it was going to rain. But it didn't rain, so we did a little work on the flat, grassy area. Sofie was forward (yay outside!) and nicely round, stretching to the bit. We went successfully through the Bad Corner, and did some nice turns. She was so supple and bendy! We ended with a successful straightness test (trotting her away from the barn, I took all my aids off and she didn't waver! Yay!).

Thursday we did not venture out, but we made the most of our indoor ride. It was definitely a solid ride throughout. She would occasionally fall in off the rail, but not too badly. She is maintaining her straightness for longer periods of time, so my corrections appear to be working. I try to “correct and release” rather than “hold”, which is not a great trap to fall into. I want to preserve her lightness and forward initiative!

Her trot work was nice, and she was able to pretty much just go around the rail at a nice, soft tempo, nicely, consistently round. When she occasionally pops above the bit I can now half halt and get her to soften while tracking straight. Before I would have to turn or circle to get her round. She is way more trusting of my hands. With a little bit of vibration on the reins, she goes back to being round. Very cool.

We were working around an upper-level horse and rider who were in a lesson, so I made sure to stay out of their way as we went along in a vaguely dressage-y way. This meant an occasional unbalanced turn (emphasis on “get the hell out of the way!” rather than “make sure our shoulders are aligned”), but no big deal. We did some transitions, but mostly steady trot work. Turns were successful both ways, and our straightness was decent, with only occasional drifting or wobbling. Eventually I tried circles both ways. I made them smaller than usual to test our bend and balance, and they worked out quite well! She listened to my little steering adjustments, and according to my mom who was watching at that point, Sofa looked round and expressive! Really, my little arthritic paint mare, expressive?! How nice!

In addition I did a few rein-backs (heavy and resistant at first, but subsequent improvement) and I worked a little on turn on the forehand. She did very well with that, very stationary in front, still a little quick and spinny with the turns but I don’t really mind that. Nearly done, I tried some halts on the rail. She was nice and balanced in the walk, and her halts were all "Sofa square" (square in front with only one hind leg back). Then we actually got a legit square halt! I was amazed. I got off to reward that, dismounting on the off side since we were too close to the wall for me to swing off on the "correct" side. I managed to dismount without a problem, despite having no muscle memory for dismounting on the "wrong" side. And with that, we were done! It was the best, most "trained-feeling" ride we've had in a while. I just felt like she was actually trained! How novel, I know right?

Then on Saturday, I brought her in and noticed this:

"What happened here?!"

Yes, I discovered a soft, puffy place on the point of her shoulder, which is draining down into her chest. Another hematoma, Sofie? I have no idea how she gets herself into such trouble. She is not an aggressive or alpha mare. I mean, she's Sofie! How she gets herself beat up is beyond can you not love that face?! She must've mouthed off to the wrong mare...

Her last hematoma was late winter/early spring, and it wound up being a rather large, very firm mass between her front legs. It took at least six weeks to go away, disappearing, coincidentally, right when the vet came out to lance and drain it ("No one's going to stick a big needle in me!"). So this time when I found her lovely lumps, I just casually remarked "My horse is lumpy" and kinda shrugged. She has gotten so many cuts, abrasions, lumps and various little, non-dramatic injuries that I have become incredibly blase when they show up. She runs through things, she gets sore and cranky sometimes...and she's still okay.

We did go for a ride (with my friend and her matching, Sofa-colored gelding!) and finally, we had outside riding weather! Sofa was stiff, so we went on the trail to loosen her up. I was enjoying just trail riding, so we went on, first on flat ground and then, for a change of pace, we went down into Cathy's land. I deftly found us a nice steep hill to go down (my friend was less than thrilled, especially when I told her, after the fact, that I in fact had never been down that particular hill before) but I got off and led Sofa down it and one other hill. She seemed to handle the terrain fine, and we kept it relatively easy, walking much of the time. I think we all enjoyed getting out. I did trot her a little bit in the valley and the front yard area, just to test things, and she was good. She was a bit stiff, and not as into bending, and at the end of the ride she was kind of dull and resistant, but nothing bad. I didn't worry about it, and chose to just work her lightly at the trot for a few minutes. I figure getting nailed in the shoulder might account for her slighty reluctance! We'll see how she is tomorrow.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Plans for Now and Later

I’m happy to report that Sofie is feeling better, and her soreness seems to be manageable at this point. She warms up a little cranky, but with light aids and encouragement she is able to work out of it. I’m optimistic that we will be able to keep riding through fall without interruptions, and I came up with a plan to preserve her soundness and keep her going through this ouchy phase.

Going forward, the new plan is:

-No hills (slightly uneven ground is fine, as are teeny tiny slopes. Perfect flat ground is not important, just no major hills until she’s no longer sore)

-No cantering (until she offers it without getting angry/defensive/upset!)

-Limit circles, more straight line work (some turns are fine - and necessary - but no excessive bending!)

-Lots of rewards! I will be super nice, kind and encouraging. I will be respectful of the effort she makes even when she’s not at her best. It really makes a difference.

Last Sunday I rode with Kathy, my main riding friend at this barn. We started out in the indoor for a few minutes as Kathy finished up her canter work, and Sofie was moving fairly okay but was defensive when asked for the trot. I just did a few transitions, and trots on long straight lines. Sofie wasn’t really round but she wasn’t too inverted, and I felt she was “Sofa round” and doing a pretty good job considering the insubstantial warm-up. I did trot one big circle, just to find the balance and connection, and then Kathy was ready to go so we headed out. The ride was nice, and she seemed to enjoy herself pretty well. I did have to get off and lead on one downhill that was steeper than I thought. She was definitely not comfortable on the hills, but the ride was pretty low-impact. On the way back we rode in Kathy’s dressage arena for a minute, as I wanted to see if Sofie was doing any better in the trot. She was still cranky in the trot at first - pretty much letting me know she was sore, and I’d better not ask her for too much or she might have to do something about it! She doesn’t really want to be crabby, she’s just trying to cope with her situation. I’m glad she communicates, as I don’t want to overdo it when she’s hurting. We did a little walk-trot work, and she listened well and did good transitions and was reaching into the contact pretty nicely. She was Sofa round, at least! The corners seemed easier, too.

The next ride was when I started to really implement my plan. I used our trail ride as a warm-up, and chose the trail near the barn, which is pretty flat and not too long. I walked her most of the way, testing out the trot a couple times. She went into it with no crabbiness. I practiced our leg yielding along the way, and then we came out of the woods and headed back toward the barn. I had planned to ride in the front area, but we passed an empty pasture that looked inviting, so I turned her through the gate and headed for the flat areas. She was rather wobbly, not wanting to go straight when we turned away from the barn, but she improved as we went along. After a little long-rein walk work I had her pick up the trot. Sofie was nicely forward and pretty willing. She only rushed a little bit (we once did canter work in this field). Her ears went back a few times, when I asked for a bend or just when she anticipated something, but she felt much better than the previous ride. She was moving fine, listening well and we could pretty much go around reasonably straight and at least Sofa round, if not better!

I did plenty of straight lines and some bending, just to keep her round and balanced. She was a little unbalanced tracking right, of course, not quite aligned in her shoulders at first. But with a little bit of work she really improved, until I trotted her away from the barn, making a half circle, and she really softened, moving light and balanced, with the proper bend and without falling in at all! It was really nice.

With that accomplished, I wanted to do a little work in the far corners, which was a little challenging for her as it meant turning while heading slightly downhill. The first couple times she rushed it a bit and popped her shoulder the wrong way. I got her listening and fixed it tracking left, and we got a good corner! So then I just needed a decent right corner. I trotted her toward the corner, telling her “If you do a good job, you’ll get to be done!”

I didn’t expect anything, of course, but it was almost like she listened because she slowed down, balancing on the downhill and bending slightly right through the corner! She then continued straight down the fence line, still in a nice rhythm and balance. Yay! She got major praise for that, and we walked. I was true to my word (well, almost) and we were done except for turning around and practicing walking straight, away from home, on a long rein. She was a little wobbly at first but much better than before, and when I got several straight steps in a row we were done!

I dismounted, petted her and while I was standing with her I looked around. It was really beautiful, with the pastures bordered by autumn leaves and the sky a deep, reserved blue with almost purple-tinged grey clouds. It was one of those perfect rides, and I felt like I had been good and fair to my horse, and she just did a great job. There’s nothing like that feeling.

It's been so beautiful at the barn lately.

Our latest ride was also good. She came into the barn and was noticeably off when she first stepped onto the concrete aisle (not the first time she's had a few hobbling steps on the concrete). She definitely needed to get out and move, so we set out for Kathy's dressage ring. Sofie was slow and creaky at first but happy to go down the trail. I walked her at first in the dressage ring, eventually moving up to trot work. Sofie was a bit cranky about going into the trot and bending in the corners, but I just rode lightly and gave her lots of encouragement. She seemed to realize it was okay and we got some nice little trot work done. She found a rhythm that worked for her and we did some transitions, halts and a few turns/diagonal thingies (isn't that just a great descriptive term for EVERYTHING?). I'm not sure what happened, if all the leg yielding and working to keep a consistent bend on a slope was actually beneficial, or if I just have a better understanding and feel for the aids, but corners are SO much easier for us now! Before she was rushing, counterbending and not aligned in her shoulders, so our corners were really bad, but now I just half halt a bit, and use inside leg pressure, plus inside rein close to her neck, and outside rein slightly away from her neck. Once we have the bend, if she drifts out too much I just turn her with my outside aids. OMG it is SO much nicer, and easier now!

Eventually I worked up to a full trot circle (tracking right) which came out well, so we rode home under a slightly threatening (but lovely) sky. I considered going in the indoor to finish up, but it didn't start raining and it was too nice outside. So, we rode in the front yard area. I took the opportunity to test out our newly impressive cornering skillz in this one corner that Sofie does not like for whatever reason. I'm not sure if it's because the ground is slightly uneven/rocky, or just...because. But in the past it's been pretty impossible for me to get her to soften and bend through the corner.

Sofie was happy and much more forward (yay!) and we practiced going away from the barn and being straight, with success. Then we tackled the Bad Corner. The first time through, tracking right, we didn't quite get our bend right, but it was in no way horrible. I turned around, and we went back through tracking left, which went well. She stayed straight as we continued on, too! So, we turned right and went back through. And we did it! Not a perfect corner, but she wasn't rushing, wasn't counterbent and was actually straight with maybe a hint of proper right bend! Yay improvement! After that we kept going straight, and I trotted her around for a few more minutes. Sofie was moving well, and reaching very definitely into the contact (she was almost slightly heavy!). We did some straight lines, some turns, and we might've gone back through the Bad Corner just for fun. Our steering was excellent, she was round and everything was good! We ended trotting away from the barn, and I took my hands and legs away from her and she stayed straight! We ended right there because she had done everything so well and I was so pleased with her. What a good Sofa!

I'm so happy that she's been able to keep going, and that she can still have her exercise. I feel like the work we've currently been doing is very beneficial, and not too stressful. I've also gotten myself together, and I am proud of how I've treated her in our last few rides. I have been truly supportive, encouraging and fair, and I can tell it has made a huge difference in her willingness. I've not always succeeded in the past. I have let my emotions overflow, I have gotten pissy with her and I've even yelled at her and jerked her in the mouth. She doesn't deserve that, and I can't believe I ever did that to her, but she forgives me all that stuff and just keeps teaching me things. And recently I've realized how important that is to me. Other stuff, not so much. So from now on, I will be kind, and I will be fair to her. I will be that person for her, because if I know I was good to her, everything else in my life just seems more manageable. She is there for me, even when others aren't. She deserves nothing less.

I also hope to manage her condition better, and preserve her soundness. I will no longer overwork her when she's at her best. I hope to be more reasonable with cantering, circles and long rides, and avoid the crash that happens when she hits her limit. My thinking being, if I am careful with her when she's sound and able and ready to do anything I ask, maybe I can extend those times when she's feeling good and everything is great. I went a little overboard with the two hour rides, cantering and bending work this fall, mainly because I was excited to be at this barn, and we both enjoyed getting out to see everything. I love exploring with her, and I love cantering with her. But I think moderation is called for in this case. I'm sure she will have soreness, no matter what I do, and she will not always be sound, but we can sure try.

When I was feeling discouraged, I looked back at my calendar for this year, where I mark all our rides (and any downtimes). And I was surprised to see that, this whole year, she only had one week off from riding in May, and two weeks off at the end of June. Other than those minor interruptions, I've ridden her every other day, all year long. True, there were some times when she was sore, short-striding and all we could do was light bareback rides, but I was still able to ride. She used to routinely need a month off from riding every three months, so it seems she is improving. And if I manage her correctly, she may do even better in the future.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Rides, Hoof Photos, Soreness and Luck

This will be a long post, as I have a lot to cover.

Sofie is starting to get sore. I can tell in little ways, like when she actually puts her ears back when semi-resisting going down a hill (the only way to the valley and the lovely continuation of our trails). She's not lame or anything, but little things about her demeanor and performance just say "OUCH".

I had the first inclination that she might be a little overworked when she bucked in the canter and then veered sharply toward home. But that was at the end of a two-plus-hour ride, so I didn't know if it was just fatigue or if all the work we'd been doing was starting to catch up with her.

I brought my dad out to the barn to take some video of us, since things had been going so well. My plan was to have him take some canter video in the valley, so I could then pull some stills and have some lovely canter shots! Very nice plan, however, we waited just slightly too long to get him out there. I could kinda tell Sofie was not right, after hacking over and doing some more walk work in the valley, but I put her into the trot to see what would happen. Her ears went back, and she started rushing, legs just flying around as she veered back and forth, feeling extremely tight and upset. She broke into the canter of her own accord at least once, and just had trouble getting settled in the trot. It felt, to me, like she knew what I wanted and she really wanted to do what I wanted, but it hurt and she was anxious and a little angry at the same time she was trying so hard to do the right thing.

Since my dad was there, and she wasn't head-bobbing or anything, I rode her in the valley for a little bit (no more than ten or fifteen minutes, I would guess) and coaxed some passable trot work out of her, plus a few canters (a couple that were pretty short-lived, and a couple longer, straight-line canters). She was incredibly good and I think it's a testament to our journey and our time together that she was willing to do that for me.

Once I'd gotten my little bit of canter video, I stopped, petted, hopped off and quickly reviewed it (her canter looks beautiful, even though she's not at her best! What a good girl). Sofie stood rather impatiently, tossing her head a little bit, either due to lingering discomfort, or maybe she just wanted to get moving again. Possibly a combination of the two. I remounted and headed off for the trails. I figured I would just do an easy, walking trail ride, then head back.

The trail ride was lovely, and I stared at the brilliant fall colors with Sofie walking easily along. We headed home through the valley, and she was rushing a bit in the walk, thinking about either going home or cantering. I realized I had neglected to do very much walk work in the valley, and it was bugging me, so I turned her around and did some work on easy walk circles, just trying to get her listening to my aids, not drifting too badly, and I wanted her shoulder aligned properly. It took some work, but she improved in the walk. So I asked her to trot, just to see how she was doing (and to school the trot without cantering, which we had, uh, also neglected to do in the valley!).

From the beginning she was very much improved in the trot. She was trotting steadily without the earlier anticipation and ouchy, pissed off edge. She was doing so well that I got sucked into working on our dressage (of course) and did some turns and circles, with emphasis on getting her shoulder aligned. She had some difficulty in the usual spots (mostly slight downhill slopes) but she did great! She worked happily, too, until I did a few turns in a row down a slope, working on the balance. After a few of those she put her ears back and slowed in the trot, like "Enough." So I did one more turn, got what I wanted, halted, patted her and quit. I was encouraged by her (mostly) cheerful trot work after the longer warm-up, but I had already figured out that I probably needed to scale back our rides even more.

With plans to scale back on our riding, I decided on a trail-only ride. I wanted to practice riding on the road, so we could hopefully find other trails and meet new people (all that good stuff). First, though, I went on a short ride around the perimeter of the property with a girl who recently moved her horse to the equestrian center. She has a rather different riding background and she tells some very interesting stories! I enjoy her company. After we parted ways, I went on with my plan to ride down the road.

Sofie was wiggly at first and a little obnoxious about leaving home. We were both a little tense on the road at first, and I had to hold her in place and keep her from drifting onto (or off) the shoulder. However, she went past two barking dogs in the very first yard without spooking and we kept going without incident. We only had one tiny spook, and a couple times she stopped and stared ahead at something. Once it was because she saw two very large black Labradors. Once I figured out their yard was fenced, I asked her to walk on and she did (I was glad they were inside a fence, otherwise I might’ve turned right around!). The dogs barked, but Sofie was unimpressed (“Uh, they’re inside a fence, who cares?”). The owner of the Labs also commented on how beautiful Sofie was. Team Sofa! I should sell T shirts…

We got to the end of the road, where we wandered past the big “Equestrian Center this way!” sign. I was apprehensive, but I decided to practice crossing the highway. I halted her across from a driveway, and waited for a break in traffic. I was really nervous, but Sofie was so good. She went across the highway with no problems and kept going, down the driveway and into a junky-looking storage yard full of trucks, trailers and scrap metal. She took a look at a couple things but bravely walked on as I looked for a place to ride. There was no one around, and I knew of a trail somewhere in that area, so I was in the mood for exploring. Besides, we were over there now, so why not?

At the edge of the storage yard, I saw a space between the trees, and rode through it. I quickly found an actual trail, the long grass flattened by ATV traffic! The trail was nice and straight, flat, with good footing. Some of it was more wooded and closed in, and then occasionally there was an open area from which I could see the highway. The trail did lack the pristine beauty of the trails near the barn, but it was a refreshing change of scenery and it’s always fun to see something new. I’m pretty sure it was an actual trail, and that I wasn’t just trespassing the whole time, although at one point the trail went right past someone’s house! (Thank goodness they weren’t home! Otherwise, awkward…)

Speaking of awkward, at one point the trail passed this pile of junk - old mattresses, bulletin boards and sheets of metal, all shot up full of holes. On the ground, about five million shells. As we walked through there, I looked around, thinking “Hmm, I’m riding through an area where rednecks come to shoot at things…THIS is smart!” It was kind of funny, really. No rednecks appeared (WIN!) so we kept going, enjoying a brief canter through an open stretch. We followed the trail until it opened up to another road, two miles from the equestrian center. I didn’t feel like going further, so we turned back.

I did a little trotting in the open area. Sofie was rushing and not listening to half halts, so we had to work on that a little. I wound up turning her around, just to test the forward heading away from home. She was VERY wiggly, swinging back and forth, which was a bit obnoxious. I kept her going in that direction until I was satisfied with her straightness, then turned back toward home and worked a little more on trotting (and listening). She was heavy and the straightness wasn’t there, so I decided to do a tiny bit of circling work, just to get her balanced. We found an area with a very slight slope and did several circles in each direction. At first, she was heavy, not listening to my seat and needing a lot of hand. She fell out of balance on the downhill slope and popped her shoulder the wrong way. But after a few repetitions she became light, and maintained her rhythm all around the circle. With inside leg at the right time, and a little support with both the inside and outside rein, she kept a fairly consistent bend around an entire right circle. Happy and pleased, I rewarded her and headed back home, walking the rest of the way. I think it’s good to do little bits of dressage work in different places. I’ve always liked short sessions, and it’s especially important to keep it brief when she’s sore.

We found our way back to the highway, and crossed with no issues. As we started walking up the road to the equestrian center, a car pulled onto the road with two little girls inside. They obviously wanted to see the horse, so their dad stopped the car, I stopped the horse, and they just watched her for a minute. Sofie stood well (though obviously wondering why we were just standing there). They thanked me and drove off, and Sofie and I continued on our way back to the barn. She ignored a barking Cocker Spaniel that ran across the yard toward us (it wouldn’t come within twenty feet of us, though).

When I got back to the barn driveway, I dismounted. My ass was tired, Sofie was tired and I figured I’d walk her the rest of the way. While my “light trail ride” was still a long ride by our standards, it was mostly straight line walk work, so I felt I succeeded in my plan. I also quit when we got back, rather than doing “just a couple trot transitions” and getting sucked into another dressage session.

Sofie had an appointment with Anne, our trimmer, so I rode again the next day. I didn’t have a whole lot of time, so I hacked over to the valley. Sofie was pretty willing, but she did resist going down the semi-steep hill that leads to the valley. Once there, we did a little dressage work, and she was heavy and running on her forehand at first, but willing to move forward. After a few firm half halts, she figured it out and I got some nicely balanced turns out of her. She stayed fairly straight throughout and was nice and willing. I did only one brief canter (she kicked up a little behind but her canter was quite nice) and quit shortly thereafter, happy with her cooperation. We then went on a very short hack before riding back to the barn to meet Anne.

Anne was awesome, as usual, and Sofie’s feet look great! Anne was particularly happy with her frogs, which are more robust than ever since the move. But, she thought Sofie was too fat (she almost always says that) and actually thought she had gained weight since she’d last seen her! I disagree, but I’m not too worried about it. Sofie is in no way obese, and her diet is very reasonable. And reducing the intensity of our rides is definitely a must, as Sofie was clearly uncomfortable and having trouble holding up her back legs. I am very grateful that we have a trimmer who understands Sofie’s issues and is never abusive to her, even when she’s not totally cooperative. It means a lot to me that she is kind to Sofie.

Sofie's left front, side view.

Sofie's toesies!

Sofie and Anne.

And finally, I just want to say that I am grateful for the luck we have, and our time together. We may have our struggles, limitations and worries, but in light of Gogo's pending euthanasia (it may have already happened as I write this) I know I am so fortunate to still be able to ride and spend time with the mare I love. I feel for Andrea in this time, and I sincerely hope she will be able to move forward and continue to inspire and educate us, because we love reading her blog. Gogo was lucky to have such a dedicated horsewoman. It breaks my heart that after all her careful management, and everything she did to help her horse, it didn't work out in the end. I don't know why things happen the way they do, but the best we can do is move forward and try to live (and love) as fully as we can. The lesson I took away from this is to make sure and love my horse, and be kind to her always, because I am lucky to have her. I want to make sure and earn that privilege, from now on.

I am so sorry, Andrea. But I thank you for that lesson.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Listening Skills

We have been really fortunate to have lovely fall weather all this week. Last week, though, we did have a few days of heavy rain, wind and cold. Sofie fared well, and I didn’t have to worry about her being brought in and stuck in a stall. I ventured on a very cold, windy day (with on-and-off rain persisting), and was reminded just how cold this barn can be. The place is a wind tunnel, which makes things nice in summer heat, but in the past I’ve only ridden there in the winter so I know how cold the place gets. The barn itself was warmer than usual, due to body heat from all the horses that had been kept in (including horses that are usually outside, like Vicky’s broodmares and her stallion).

Sofie was outside with five other mares, and they were all in fine spirits. There was plenty of hay right inside the shelters, so they could get out of the wind and stuff their faces, which Sofie was busily doing. She looked rather concerned to be taken away from her hay pile, but I assured her it would still be there when I took her back.

Unsurprisingly she was kind of stiff, and had a little trouble holding her back feet up for cleaning. I did a little massage and got her ready for an arena ride. We walked for a while and worked on our typical stuff (not falling in, etc.). The early trot work went quite well. She had her nose out at first but relaxed and started to round pretty quickly. She felt pretty flowing and even. Unfortunately, the canter work didn’t go so well as she reverted back to tension and rushing. We blew quite a few canter departs, as she just started running in the trot and threw her head straight up in the air in alarm. With some work I did get her to start taking the canter, and once we got one depart she didn’t blow any more departs, except when I tried to get her to pick up the canter in a corner, forgetting I always ask her when she’s going straight. After a few unsuccessful tries I compromised by asking her right after the corner, on the long side, and she picked it up.

After that I didn’t do any more cantering, and I finished up by reestablishing the relaxation and correctness in the trot. At first she was inverting and rushing at times, but then she got the concept (or realized she was tired) and went around in a nice tempo, consistently, definitely round, light and needing hardly any aid to keep her there. She was almost a bit on the slow side, and she was starting to feel just a tiny bit off, which was magnified when she went over trotting poles. I wrapped up the session, massaged and got her ready to go back outside. She was standing a little narrow behind, but she seemed okay until I led her down the aisle. She was noticeably off in her first steps on the concrete, and I was concerned. She did walk out of it, and seemed fine when I turned her out. She went to get a drink and was tracking up normally and looking good, all things considered.

The ride went very well, much better than I would have expected given the cold and wet weather, which usually aggravates her arthritis. If I had it to do over I would probably make that ride a walk/trot ride, as I think we could have accomplished a very nice workout that was easier for her to handle. I probably should not have schooled the canter quite as much, given that it wasn’t working (and there was probably a reason for that). In the end it was an hour ride (a short ride for us at this barn), and I didn’t think it had been too detrimental, but I would have to wait and see.

The next time I went out it was a perfect, beautiful day. The mares were way out in their second field, and Sofie was lying in the sun. She got up as I approached, and seemed happy to see me, turning around to face me and moving a bit closer. She was friendly and sweet and very mellow. In the barn she stood very calmly, even with multiple people and horses around. She picked up her feet well and seemed less stiff.

I was lucky enough to go on a trail ride with three other riders, plus one girl’s boyfriend who rode along on his bike with their two dogs. Sofie was the lead horse most of the time and got lots of exposure to dogs and bikes! She was very good and never spooked, and after a while she even stopped eyeing them apprehensively when they’d suddenly appear. I was very proud of her. It was fun to ride with other people, and hear stuff about their horses and riding backgrounds. I also learned how to find the cliffside trail I rode on one day and haven’t been able to find since. We took a nice route around Vicky’s property and through the woods. Sofie was all excited when we passed through the valley, but the other riders were walking only so we waited to do our cantering.

When the others headed back I wasn’t ready to quit yet, so I said goodbye to them and stayed behind with Sofie. She was good about leaving the other horses, and we set out for the cliffside trail (otherwise known as The Shelf). Now that I knew where it was I really wanted to ride it again.

Sofie was a little reluctant on the initial downhill that leads to The Shelf, but it’s not steep and she seemed to do better as she went along. There were a couple of insubstantial fallen trees, which we skirted or just went over, and then the trail turned from basic logging road to The Shelf. It is truly beautiful, a fairly generous ledge that overlooks a long, steep dropoff on one side, higher ground on the other, with rich forests all around. The fall colors haven’t come in there yet, and it’s still very green, but I intend to go back later this fall. It’s easily one of my favorite trails.

After that I wasn’t quite ready to head back to the valley, so I found a random trail (or semi-trail - it was really more of a footpath) and decided to take it. I figured it might dead-end, but then we could always turn around (and practice actually waiting and LISTENING to me instead of just taking over). It was a nice enough trail, and I enjoyed it, but it did come to an end. I wanted to be methodical about turning around, and plan out our turn, so I backed Sofie up a few steps and then asked her to move her butt over. In theory, she would then have a nice place to make a reasonable (not spine-crunching) turn. However, true to form Sofie decided to Just Take Over. She blew through my aids, walked FORWARD (not even turning around!) and straight into a tree. She wound up with her head up against one tree, and her butt resting on another. Stuck between two trees. “Well, maybe now she’ll actually WAIT and look to me for leadership and to get her out of this,” I thought.

Nuh-uh. Sofie turned slightly, just enough to get herself un-wedged, and kept going forward, straight into two maple saplings! These were not little tiny baby trees, but actual, tall-ish, skinny but not insubstantial TREES! And she literally walked straight into them, flattening them! She kept walking, with the trees now underneath her, until she was all turned around and back on the trail heading home. All this time, I of course had been hauling on her, trying to get her to freaking STOP running into things and running over things and Just Taking Over! None of which she listened to, of course. I finally stopped her and semi-yelled “No! You cannot just take over and bulldoze your way through everything!”

After which I sat there for a second, on my now-stationary horse, and relented slightly. “Well, you CAN, but you shouldn’t!” I said, and then I let her walk on, shaking my head, laughing a little and petting her because really, what else can you do with such determination and ingenuity? She really is remarkable. Whatever situation I get us into, she gets us out of, crashing through anything in her way, regardless of whether I deem it a reasonable course of action. She is tough, and she always chooses to move forward in a challenging situation.

When we were done crashing out of the woods, we walked back to the valley for some real work. The super-long trail warm-up seemed to have worked well, and she moved into the trot with no real issues. The trot work wasn’t as super-terrific as it had been the previous time we worked in the valley, but it took very little time for me to get her going okay, and she was pretty consistently okay for much of the ride (by okay I mean not too inverted, not flying around and fairly easy to bend or correct, all good things!). We moved into the canter, working on straight (and VERY forward) lines. She went into it well, but was getting a bit too fast and strong, so I opted to do some departs on a circle to get her more collected. So we did more of our bending trot work, which basically involves trying to keep a consistent bend and tempo on slightly uneven ground. It’s difficult for her to balance on even a slight downhill slope, so I’ve been working on helping her learn to control her speed and not throw her shoulder too much. It’s difficult but beneficial, as most of our riding places are not perfectly flat.

So I worked on getting decent trot circles, and when I had her “together” I would ask for the canter. It worked pretty well. She listened well to my canter aid, though she was a bit defensive and upset at first when I asked her on the circle, probably due to having to engage more. Her canters were more collected, though. She was only able to keep the canter for a few strides, but I wasn’t concerned with the duration as much as the response.

After getting several nice canter transitions from her, I asked again, and she bucked once in the canter. I was thrown forward a bit but she didn’t buck again, so I wasn’t further unbalanced. When I put her back into the canter she started pulling and drifting sharply to the right, up the hill toward home. I pulled her head around with the inside rein, and she stopped. I knew she’d had enough, so I put her on a straight line and trotted her. She picked up the canter all on her own, and then I stopped her, got off and led her home.

A lot of my training has focused on getting Sofie listening. I want her to move forward when I ask, but also wait for me and not go rushing off. I have worked to be able to control her movement, and actually put her together for short periods of time. I am pleased to be able to half halt her, get my canter departs and correct her when she drifts or pops her shoulder. I feel she listens a lot better than she did in the past, before I started actively working on these issues.

We train our horses to listen, but often it is equally important to listen to the horse. To hear what they are saying. Riding is difficult, and fascinating, because we cannot communicate with words. Horses can learn certain words, for sure, and even phrases, but for the most part we use our aids. Shifting weight, squeezing (or kicking) legs, a touch on the reins. That is all we have to communicate some pretty complicated stuff. It’s amazing how horses can learn to understand.

Horses don’t have words, so we have to pay attention to their behaviors, their way of being. Sometimes the signs are subtle. Horses can be very brave, and generous. Sometimes they can be going along fine until it becomes too much, and that’s when they kick out, or stop, or bolt. You have to know your horse, and realize when they are trying to communicate something.

In Sofie’s case, she has an underlying, chronic physical condition. She does a lot for me, and sometimes she is so tough that I forget her issues, and I overdo it a bit. It’s hard to balance it sometimes, because I always try to do as much as she is able when she’s sound, both for her health and my enjoyment. There are times when she can do anything, and times when she just breaks down and says “I can’t”. When she’s in pain, she does put her ears back, balk or kick out. If she didn’t do that, I wouldn’t know to stop riding her. She really would break down. But some people don’t seem to get that she has a reason. Some people think she’s just a bitchy mare. They probably think I’m a sucker for going along with it. But sometimes you just have to be strong, and listen to your horse.

This week when she bucked, she immediately stopped when I got off balance. She had no intention of throwing me off. When I kept her moving, a little slow to realize what she was telling me, she tried again, using a different tactic since bucking hadn’t worked. She went forward, too forward, pulling toward home. This was at the end of a ride that lasted at least two hours. She had worked hard for me, and she just got tired and sore. I listened.

Sofie is tough. I’ve been working her pretty hard, exploring all these new trails and doing dressage, which can be strenuous as we try to get it right and get balanced. Sometimes I ride a little too long or hard, not through any malice but just because I get so involved and she’s so willing. She guts it out and hangs in there for me the same way she bulldozes trees on the trail. We still have some work to do before we get it totally right, but I think we’re both doing a good job of listening.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

A Great Ride

After our recent progress, I made it out to the barn on a gorgeous fall day. We have been having a lot of rain here, but I was lucky enough to get a good riding day in there. After setting out my stuff I went out to find Sofie, and when I got to the mare field I was amazed. It had been cleaned and dragged, and the old tire feeders had been removed. It looks awesome! After admiring how nice it looked, I slowly realized there were no horses, and I looked around, wondering “Where the heck did Vicky put the horses?” Then I realized they must be in the field directly behind their usual area, so I started off in that direction and I saw where the gate had been opened. As I got closer I saw the mares, way off in the far corner, looking very happy! Sofie looked up and saw me, acknowledging my presence before going back to grazing. When I was within ten feet, she picked her head up again and waited for me. I gave her some hugs and loves before haltering her and heading back to the barn. Of course, the other mares decided to take off and come flying up behind us, but Sofie didn’t get too concerned with their craziness.

The second field is pretty grazed down (the geldings were on it for a while), and it’s so nice for them to have a little more grazing and even more room. They have so much space! I love it!

Sofie was moving fine at the walk, so I groomed and tacked her up, then we headed outside. I was not going anywhere near the indoor on such a fine day! I decided to ride over to my friend Kathy’s place. It is adjacent to Vicky’s property, and she has land with many trails and an outdoor dressage arena, all of which are open to the boarders at the equestrian center. I definitely wanted to ride in the valley behind her house, but first I went on a trail ride in the woods. Sofie was pretty high-energy, definitely thinking about her canter departs! She did listen well, though, backing up very nicely when I had to turn her around to avoid a steep downhill. On the way to the valley I did some back-and-forth leg yielding and walk-trot transitions. She listened well to my seat even when traveling slightly downhill. I did one canter on the trail, and she didn’t quite want to come back to trot! But I had her walk as we reached the valley.

It really is a beautiful area. It’s becoming my new favorite place to ride. There is plenty of open space, with little slopes to help challenge and balance Sofie, and it is bordered by trees, with the occasional tree to ride around. When I first rode through there I thought to myself that it would be a great place for cantering, and we’ve done enough cantering there now that Sofie comes in rarin’ to go! She definitely knows the plan. I actually have to work more on half halting and getting her settled in the trot before cantering, as I don’t want her anticipating or being too crazy.

So we entered the valley, and Sofie immediately took off in a flying trot, head up and ready to go. I brought her back and did some transitions, backing her up before trotting again. It took some half halting to settle her, and for a few minutes she kind of went back and forth between rounding nicely and throwing her head up while rushing forward. But she began to understand, and eventually we were on a circle tracking right, and she was balancing on the slightly varying slope, listening and engaged. She was very round, really reaching down and filling my hands, establishing and maintaining a positive, definite contact. It was like she really got the concept, and she understood that I didn’t want her to just run, I wanted her relaxed and round. She kept her rhythm, not speeding up, and bent from my inside leg, really engaging and rounding through her topline as I asked her to move away from my leg, just slightly, as she went up a small hill.

It was just an awesome feeling. She hasn’t been that engaged in a long time. I felt like she was really understanding me, and I could tell she just looked beautiful. She really can look nice if she’s not tense or unsound! As I rode around on the circle, spewing “Good girl!” pretty much the whole time, I noticed my friend Kathy standing up by her house watching. I think she called out “She looks great!” or something, and I finished up one final circle and then walked Sofie up to say hi to her. I was pleased that someone had actually witnessed us at our best (too often, we look entirely questionable when people are around). We chatted for a bit, and Sofie stood well but occasionally tossed her head, bending her neck low and clearly saying “When can we stop standing around and go CANTER? I was a good girl!!”

Soon we did turn around, and I located the spot where I wanted to pick up the canter. So I circled around, trotted and asked for the canter. Bang on, solid transition and nice canter. We came back to trot, and I did more half halting, and once she was listening reasonably well we picked up the canter again. No hesitation! Once again, we calmed ourselves and then went back to canter. Sofie was quite forward this time, and a bit strong. I attempted to bring her back before we ran out of field, but I had been holding her back a bit too much and she shook her head a little, like “Stop holding me back!” So I eased up, and she made the turn at the end of the field and headed back across the open expanse of grass. I just let her go, and she gradually accelerated to a Sofa gallop. She doesn’t really know how to gallop, a fast canter/hand gallop is about the best she can do. But that’s plenty fast for me, and I enjoyed just riding her full out. She came back to me easily, having gotten that out of her system, and we walked, all forward and snorty ‘cause we went fast. After a breather I finished up with a little more trot work. I always want to end on a controlled, reasonable note. More half halts, and we did some nice trot/walk transitions with a little bending as well. She was good, and I dismounted and led her home. I was so happy with her. I absolutely love her when she works like this. There’s nothing better. We work so hard just building back up to that point after she has time off, and sometimes it’s a little discouraging. But I feel like I know what I’m doing a lot better, and I think the retraining process will be easier in the future. I have a method that works for her, and I have been much more encouraging and supportive as of late. I hope to keep that up. I must keep that up. She does so much for me, even when she is stiff and sore. And when she is feeling good, that’s when it all comes together and we enjoy the hell out of it while it lasts.