Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Back In Tack

On my latest visit to the barn, excitement (or at least spazziness) was in the bitingly cold air. The previous day had been a sunny 40 degrees, but a front had moved in and snow was blowing through the air with considerable force. Perhaps due to the weather, and also due to the recent arrival of an appealing Friesian stallion (dripping pheromones that even Sofie may have taken a liking to), Sofie was a little jumpy. As we struggled through the wind to the barn door, she looked over and saw a real or imagined Something, and became rather high-headed as a result. Once inside the barn, we walked past Zen, the Friesian stud’s stall. Sofie abhors geldings, and looks upon the Gypsy Vanner stallions at the barn with considerable disdain, but I swear she gave Zen the old once-over. I think Sofa may have a thing for black boys…

After a quick brushing, hoof-picking and leg-stretching, I decided to longe the Sofa. She was still jumpy, and her mind was not all there. Looking at her elevated head with just a halter, and her bare back, I decided “Today is not a just-get-on-and-ride day.”

I took her out in the indoor and let out the longeline, and she began trotting immediately. I walked along with her, keeping the circle large and jogging with her whenever possible, so she could go straight. I quickly overheated, so I stopped her and threw my coat off, then turned her to work on the right side. At first I struggled to get her going, and she merely spun around in a continuous turn on the forehand. Finally I got her to start walking, and she went up to a trot. After trotting her a while, I asked for a canter. She took the left lead, so I pulled her down, made sure she was bending right and asked again. She took the right lead! “Good girl!” I exclaimed. She hasn’t used that right lead in a long time! She picked it up several times, only taking the wrong lead once more. I was thrilled. She kicked up a couple times when she went into the canter, but she didn’t struggle or appear lame, and she tried so hard for me. It gave me renewed hope.

Even after longeing, Sofie was still a bit spazzy, and intuition dictated I should ride with a saddle. So, I tacked up for the first time in a couple weeks and mounted up. She was, of course, dead calm, but I was still glad I’d gone with the saddle and bridle. I’d been wanting to try riding her in tack again anyway to see how she reacted. It already felt different for me, being higher up, off her back.

Her straightness was very good initially, with very little meandering. I did some rail work, but many times I turned her off the rail to practice staying straight. I did lots of changes of direction. As we started trotting she was a little above the bit, which wasn’t surprising considering the weather. I pretty much left her alone, did a little trotting and went back to the walk for a bit. I started bending her, finding it was very easy to do circles. I did some halts, most of which were “Sofa square” (only one leg out of place). Her halts are really improving. I also tested the rein-back. She was a bit crooked and her steps were short, but she didn’t set her jaw at all. Then I trotted her for a shorter distance, asking for a bit of connection and softness. She started listening better and began to melt into her nice, open frame. I trotted her both ways and did some turns, and soon she was accepting a steady, light, definite contact. She even started foaming a little. I was surprised to trot past the mirror and see little bits of foam dripping from her lips.

After riding bareback in a halter for a while, then returning to the saddle and bridle, everything flowed. It was all just so easy. It’s clear my skills have grown since I ditched all my equipment and had to focus on my aids and my seat. With a saddle and bridle, turns and circles became simple. Sofie just powered along, steady in her relaxed, balanced frame. I turned her onto the diagonal, put my hands forward, and she lengthened her frame, moving wonderfully forward. At the corner, I sat up and half-halted, condensing her before the next diagonal, when I turned her loose again.

I did that several times, because it was so awesome, along with the occasional circle. Then I started a serpentine, and she was brilliant. Sick changes of bend, and straightness in between, remaining steady in my hands the whole time. She was at her best, because this horse can turn. She is so handy, and when she’s in balance and truly supple, she handles like a dream. I wound up doing a whole-arena serpentine, just because she was so damn awesome. It felt like she could keep going forever.

After all that, Sofie got lots of pats, and we walked. By that time, she was a bit tuckered out and a little lazy in the walk. I could hardly begrudge her a little tiredness after that trot sequence. After making sure she did not forget my leg was there, and doing our transitions (wheee, there were some pretty ones!) and a little more reinback (straightness is improving) we were done! I hand walked her then untacked and put her cooler on. She got a hay snack, and I re-stretched her legs and gave her a light massage. She seemed to enjoy all that.

I’m not sure if it can be attributed to a recent switch to SmartFlex Senior with Devil’s Claw, work in the halter or a combination of many things, but Sofie seems to be doing very well. I was feeling rather discouraged for a while, but I have hope now. All it takes is a ride like this last one to let her talent shine through, and I have reason to believe if I continue improving her fitness and working on the basics (including bareback and bitless riding, which seems an integral part of the big picture), she just may be (within reason) everything I ever thought she could be.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Happy Christmas

This time last year, Sofie was colicking. For reasons we will likely never know, her hormones decided to go insane in the dead of winter, causing a strong heat with painful cramping. She was pretty stoic, never fractious, but no vets were around and it was one of the scariest things I’ve had to deal with. We spent Christmas Eve monitoring her, regularly walking down to the barn, standing outside of her stall and watching her belly clench, with a deep line all along it that would fit your arm. On Christmas, we drove to the only place that was open and spent some time at the Christmas buffet. It was pretty much the worst Christmas ever, except we got through it. I realized I could get through it. Sofie’s gut never shut down, her pain never worsened, and she coped. She got through it like only Sofie can, and she lives on to this day.

This year I spent a much more enjoyable Christmas Eve, grooming and riding Sofie. And when I was leading her out to the pasture, it suddenly occurred to me. One year later, here we are.

Bad Indoor Photos, and Good Ride Recaps

The last couple rides have been quite successful. We’re starting to have our little breakthroughs again, and we can pretty much do everything we were doing before, even with our minimalist approach. Which is all good.

Thursday I changed up my warmup a little, and instead of going right into the trot after walking on a long rein, I picked up the reins and did a little bending work in the walk. Sofie did well with this, and was listening to my hand and bending nicely. This led to a fifteen minute walk warmup. After getting a nice circle in both directions we started trotting. In a slight reversal she was better to the left, at least when bending was concerned. It was hard to keep a consistent bend at first, which is typical for us now. I just worked a little on bending in between straight line work, rail work and transitions. Sofie did well throughout.

Toward the end of the ride I worked on rein-back, something I’m hoping will help strengthen Sofie’s hind end. I’ve never been able to give the “proper” aids for rein-back - using leg as well as a slightly restraining hand - because Sofie would always think “forward” and just blow through my hand if I ever touched her. Recently she’s begun to understand me better, and I’ve been able to cluck to her and have her still go backwards. So as I was asking her to step back with the usual aids - hand and a little seat - I decided to experiment and lightly closed my legs. She rocked forward a little, so I closed my hand again, keeping my leg on, and she went backward! Even better, she seemed to get rounder and use herself more. I praised her, and soon I tried it again. While she did step forward once, each time she listened quite well and I was able to get a very nice, correct rein-back. Using my legs, I could put a little more energy into her backward steps and get her to lift her belly a bit. She was much rounder in front and gave me a very nice feeling. I was super pleased.

Near the end she was much more connected, and she did some very nice, light turns with no issues at all. It was a great feeling.

Saturday (aka Christmas Eve) I found that Vicky had left us a little gift bag of sugary treats for me and Sofie! Sofie’s treats were quickly re-gifted (Sofie doesn‘t do sugar. I, on the other hand, have been mainlining it this holiday season). I did give her a hay snack, though. I’m not that mean. I forgot my watch this time around, so I wasn’t able to monitor how long I rode or how long I warmed her up (note to self: Do not forget watch in future. Watch is very, very helpful!). She was a bit of a grump for whatever reason (although she still did everything I asked with no real protestation, so clearly it wasn’t all that bad). When I first started trotting she was kind of rushing and she was rather stiff. I think maybe my warmup that day was inadequate. She also has no opportunity to run around outside, because the ground is all icy and it’s been that way for the last week, at least.

After the icky warmup portion, the rest of the ride went well. The only slight issues we had were occasional drifting in (which was easily fixed) and some wobbliness when we were supposed to be going straight. The usual suspects. Our transitions were all of nice quality, with only a little bit of a slow response time in one direction. Circles were a bit wonky, but she did do two nice ones for me, which is really all I need. Later in the ride, she was really solidly establishing contact, moving along in a good rhythm. I practiced lengthening and shortening the reins in trot, which she did awesome with, staying really steady. I did some more rein-back work, and discovered that when I do it off the rail, she gets crooked. She likes to swing her haunches left, probably compensating for something. I was able to correct it, and while it took a bit of stopping, repositioning and starting, I was able to get several straight steps from her each time. She should get stronger if I keep up on it.

I finished up with a nice sequence. First I trotted her down the rail on a light rein. Then in the corner I turned her across the diagonal, mostly taking my aids off. She stayed nicely straight, and when we turned the corner I asked her to walk. She made a nice, prompt transition without sticking her head up in the air. Yay! Good girl!

So, my immediate plan is:

-Remember watch (‘cause it’s helpful to see how long I ride, and how long I spend on each part of the ride)

-Do longer warmups

-Do massage/stretching whenever possible

-Perfect the rein-back

-Improve straightness and self-carriage

-Lots of connected transitions

-Don’t forget walk work

-And most importantly, remember to think. Remember to learn. True success, really, is to be kind, and never deviate from that kindness, no matter what happens.

I think Sofie will teach me that this winter.

These are from the icky warmup portion, and the quality is quite poor. But here it is, photographic evidence of our mad bareback-and-bitless skills!

Yes, I may have enjoyed playing with "black and white effects" on my computer.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Bareback & Bitless

We’ve been confined to the indoor arena since winter started, and boredom was starting to settle in. Turns out, even a huge, well-maintained indoor with mirrors is still just an indoor. Bleh.

With nowhere to go and not much to do after determining that Sofie, for whatever reason, was not physically okay with cantering, I started to notice some disturbing trends in my riding. I was getting too easily frustrated, too critical. I was getting sucked into the “gotta-be-perfect” dressage mindset that surrounds me at this barn. I regularly ride at the same time as an FEI-seeking rider who expects a lot of their horse, and it’s hard not to be influenced by that. It’s something I will need to continually work on, I think. My corrections were occasionally overreactions, and while I was okay much of the time, I’d have pissy moments and later regret it.

I decided it was time to change it up. I’ve been riding bareback on and off, and I noticed I was always more obnoxious when I rode with a saddle. Without one, I was more easily pleased. It really brought everything down to a simple partnership.

I'd been wanting to try riding Sofie in a halter again, something I hadn't done in a very long time. One day when I brought her in, nobody was riding, and I decided it was time to test her out in just a halter. I had avoided doing it with other people in the ring, just in case the steering went out. So I "tacked her up", which involved merely tightening the halter by one hole, fastening reins to the noseband and putting on my helmet. I left on my snowboots and my blue fuzzy gloves, completing the rednecky ensemble.

Slightly nervous, I mounted up and immediately asked the question "Do we have brakes?" Yup, brakes were there, just as much as usual in fact. Comforted, I let Sofie warm up as usual, working in some turns and changes of direction. Steering was a little wonky, but not too bad. We went up to a trot, and she transitioned right back down without a problem! I think it's helpful that I use a lot of seat in my down transitions, because I've never had a problem going bitless. We finished up the ride just fine, and I was quite pleased at our stripped-down approach to dressage.

I've left the saddle and bridle behind since then, and we've had a couple more good rides. One thing about not saddling up - it saves a ton of time. I could get used to not messing with girth straps, sliders and keepers! I've always wanted to be better at bareback riding, and now that I've finally gotten comfortable enough to do it I hope to continue practicing this winter. I of course don't have a classic dressage position when riding bareback, but it's got to be good for balance and such. As far as bitless goes, I've never been against using a bitted bridle, provided the horse was comfortable with it. However, I think it is good to practice riding with fewer artificial aids sometimes. I may return to using a bit at some point, if I want a little more flexibility with my rein aids. A nylon halter doesn't allow for too much subtlety, and it's sometimes tough to get flexion. An actual bitless bridle might work better, but I don't feel the need to upgrade at this point.

As far as "frame" goes, Sofie maintains a pretty nice, natural frame, even without contact on the reins. She doesn't tend to really hollow out too much, except if something makes her nervous or I sit too heavily in a transition (can't blame her for that one). It is possible to "put her together" a little more in just the halter, and she will stretch into the contact, but she does get a little heavy at times. I tend to alternate between self-carriage work, where I let the reins get floaty and just follow her movement along unless I really need to do a correction, and more "precise" (with air quotes) "dressage-type" work where I attempt to get an actual connection and do circles, leg-yield, rein-back and connected transitions, etc. She does rein-back well in just a halter (actually, that's how she learned it), and while circles can be reeeeally tricky (I often feel like we're fishtailing a little bit, just because of the limited steering capabilities of the halter), we can actually manage some nice, connected transitions in the halter just the same as with a bit.

It's interesting, also, to feel the crookedness in her that I always felt when using a bitted bridle. Sofie has always been "hard" on her right side, and she often needs to be "held" more on the right rein, especially when tracking left. I always assumed it was "deadness" in her actual mouth, but she feels just the same in a halter, so it has to be more of a body issue than just a mouth issue.

Anyway, while I'm going to be working toward hopefully being able to do our nice, vaguely-respectable-looking dressagey type work bitless and bareback, it should still be beneficial as a change-up, and helpful for my seat and fitness. Last time I managed a full hour ride, which is a first!

And it just makes me happy when I set my hands down and she goes trotting down the long side in her relaxed, Sofa-round way with floaty reins and I just post along with her trot even as it quickens, because I'm not afraid anymore.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Three Things

Sofie has a new blanket.

Sofie no longer has a boyfriend. Her relationship with Dillon was short-lived. Dillon, a big, goofy, dumb Quarter Horse gelding, was in love with Sofie. He followed her around, trying desperately to get her to play. He just wanted to play! Sofie doesn’t like to play. She just likes to eat. So her ears were permanently back, and her expression was quite ugly indeed. When he provoked her enough, she’d lunge at him with her teeth out, then go back to simmering and glaring by the hay pile. Dillon would stare at her, clearly perplexed. How could she not like me? Within a few days, she started kicking his ass, and Vicky wisely separated them before Dillon could get himself hurt through pure stupidity. Poor Dillon. Sofie lived alone for a little while then went back out with the mares, and she seems to have gotten over her little wood-chewing phase.

She's clearly not up to cantering under weight right now, so I'm focusing on other stuff for now. Last time I rode bareback and she was very good. We make quite the sight, bopping along next to the 17-hand Fourth Level mare and her rider. :)

Friday, December 2, 2011

Why So Serious?

November was weird. For a while there, I wasn’t having any fun. Everything seemed dire. Just after getting the walk and trot really nice, I tried a canter and we started dealing with tension issues and renewed soreness in Sofie’s left shoulder. There were also incidents, like the day barn employees decided to burn brush piles near the mare field, causing thick smoke in the middle of Sofie‘s living space, that caused me to obsessively worry and not think very clearly.

For several rides in a row, I got bitchy. I picked at Sofie’s inadequacies, and I was rather unkind to her, and unfair. I couldn’t stop myself from picking and complaining, and I felt really badly about it after that fact but then I’d go and do it again. It got bad enough that I considered giving her to someone who might be kinder to her.

At around the same time, we were also dealing with a minor Sofie health crisis. It was a typical Sofa malady, non-dramatic, apparently non-life-threatening, yet somewhat perplexing and worrying. It started the day Annie came out to trim Sofie. The trim went great, and Sofie was very cooperative. As I was holding her I noticed a lump on her neck. I figured it was another kick wound, but then I started finding more. They were small, firm lumps, maybe five of them in all, running down her neck and on her chest. Then my mom noticed Sofie’s face was a bit swollen, right underneath the side pieces of her halter. She had also developed a minor cough the previous day (for Sofie, a minor cough means like one cough during the two or three hours I spend with her on any given day).

We took her temp, which was normal. She was eating and drinking fine, but her eye was dull and she was a bit lethargic. With no major signs that she needed veterinary attention, we asked people to keep an eye on her and left.

The next day, I went out early to check on her. We were both worried, since that facial swelling could’ve interfered with her breathing if it had worsened dramatically. But when I went out to fetch her from the field her face was back to normal, and the lumps on her neck were all gone except for one, and even it had softened to almost nothing. Relieved, I brought her in, planning on just to playing with her a bit. I was massaging her hind end like I typically do when I felt some swelling on her upper hind legs. When I checked, her udder was swollen too, and she also had some edema on her belly. I of course had a minor freakout, then talked to a knowledgeable barn worker (and boarder). She thought that exercise would help the swelling go down, so I hand-walked Sofie in the arena while I called up various vets. Our local vets were both out of town (of course) so I called up the office of another vet we occasionally use (Chiro Lady). Chiro Lady was off that day, but I spoke with another equine vet, Dr. Way. She was super nice and very helpful, hearing me out. She agreed that it was likely an allergic reaction, and said it seemed to be moving through her system normally from the sound of it. We talked about potential causes, and although it had been a week since the brush-burning day and you’d think she would’ve had a reaction sooner, she said not always. She agreed that it could have also been something in the hay, since I hadn’t used any new products on Sofie to bring on such a reaction. Feeling much better, I thanked Dr. Way and got off the phone. I walked and jogged Sofie some more, took her temp again (still normal), gave her an apple and put her back out.

When I next checked on the magical traveling swelling, it was still in the same places, and about the same if not slightly reduced. Her eye was brighter also. After our ride the edema went way down, and it appears her little allergic reaction has run its course with no ill effects on Sofa.

In other (quite possibly related) news, Sofie got herself kicked out of the mare field. They recently added new panels on the run-in shed to make it more enclosed, and Sofie decided to start chewing on the brand new, treated (TREATED) wood. I heard this all secondhand, from Cathy while I was still dealing with the allergic reaction. And I went AHA, THIS must be the source of the allergic reaction!

And then I thought, SOFIE, YOU IDIOT.

I was worried sick about my dumb horse, and then I find out she brought this all on herself! By chewing on treated (TREATED) wood. That stuff has all kinds of noxious chemicals in it, and she decided to EAT it? Ugh. What a moron.

Then a few days ago I went out to the barn, and found Sofie not in with the mares, but in the smaller dirt paddock right out behind the barn with Dillon, Vicky’s show QH gelding. So I went hmm, why is Sofie in with Dillon? I thought maybe someone just forgot to put her out with the mares after she had her breakfast (sometimes they put her in that paddock to get her supplements because it’s empty at night and it’s more convenient that way).

Nope. Apparently Sofie was chewing wood excessively, and wouldn’t stop, so they had to put her in with Dillon, who has an old, regular three-sided run-in with no new, yummy panels. And she’ll have to stay there until the grass comes in, at which time they will attempt to let her be with her friends again.

At first I was upset about this, too. I was happy with her living situation. She had friends, she was happy, she had a big field to be in and a long walk to the water from the shed. Sofie doesn’t like geldings, and I don’t like that paddock. It gets really muddy sometimes, and it’s not as big as I’d like and it’s just kind of…bleh.

But I think it’s going to be okay. On the way home from the barn that day, my worrying kind of reached critical mass, and I was tired of it. So I went home, and I pretty much assumed Sofie would be fine.

So far, so good. We had a nice ride in the newly-dragged indoor the other day. Our straightness wasn’t too horrible, and she was willing, not crabby. She started out a little high-headed, but I just left her alone and she soon started reaching down.

I think I really needed to just chill and not take everything so seriously. If it’s not fun anymore, there’s something wrong. I hope not to get into that place again, but I know I probably will. I just hope I’ll remember what I’ve learned.

Yes, Sofie has limitations, and that can be frustrating. But we also have a history, and I enjoy having a horse I can just do whatever with. I can ride bareback. I can ride her down the road, cross the highway and go exploring. I can drop her lead rope, and she’ll stand wherever I put her while I close a gate, find my glove that I dropped or change clothes. I can do stupid things like crouch by her legs when I groom her, or squeeze in between her and the wall, because I know her and I trust her by now. And that matters to me.