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.

No comments:

Post a Comment