Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Finally, Photos!

These were taken just recently. As you can see, Sofie has been doing very well and I am so happy with her progress. She was actually having a bit of an off day when these were taken and has been a bit sore lately with the sudden dip in temperatures. But I'm confident we will get through this too. She is still sound at the walk, trot and canter, just a little rough around the edges.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Not a real post, but.....

7 consecutive rides with cantering!!

And Sofie is still holding strong. Today her frame, topline and way of going was the best and most consistent it has ever been at the trot. All I did was maintain an elastic connection and let her go forward, and we had real dressage happening! She did temporarily lose her mind when we worked on the canter (she's not fond of cantering in indoor arenas, and I have never practiced it with any consistency), but I just stayed calm and reminded her to stay straight and calm, and she came back to me very well.

Awesome pony!

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Cantering Into Winter

We did finally get out to an off-site event this fall. A couple of boarders at the barn graciously allowed Sofie to ride along with their horses to a poker run trail ride at the nearby fairgrounds. She loaded up fine, trailered fine, waited patiently to come out of the trailer, unloaded calmly, and she went right to the grass and ate the whole time. I just tacked her up while she ate, then rode her around a little before the ride started. I rode her out to the neighboring fields just to make sure she wouldn't get herdbound, and she did fine.

The ride was quite fun, and Sofie went right to the lead and led most of the way! She loves to be the leader. I was incredibly glad for our gate practice over the summer, because it sure made it easier to sidepass her over to those buckets to get our poker cards! The poker run was quite short so afterward some of the riders opted to go for a second trail ride. Of course I was part of that group. Sofie wanted to lead again, so I had to school her a little bit and convince her that she could be in the middle, since there was no way to pass safely and I didn't want to be passing everyone anyway. She wasn't bad at all though. So much better, in fact, than many of the other horses at the ride! And the people on the craziest horses were of course not wearing helmets. Morons...

Back at home we have been getting out for as many trail rides as possible before winter comes. The fall colors were fleeting, but it's still beautiful out there. We've been on all our favorite trails, including the river trail. She's been happy to go exploring. Her dressage has been excellent. I will sorely miss having our hills to work her on when winter hits. There's nothing like that feeling when she engages and floats up the slope on her circles.

My mom has been joining us for trail rides lately, riding another boarder's mare, Mica. We had a great ride on a beautiful sunny Saturday and did lots of trotting on the trails. When we got to a good place for cantering, we cantered the horses, and the mares got very competitive. Sofie wanted to race Mica! She was determined to beat her, and when I pulled her up she shook her head, clearly frustrated. "I was winning, damn it!"

After seeing how competitive she was, and knowing how well she is doing, I decided to start cantering her more often. I've cantered her the past four rides in a row, and she's done fabulously. The first couple of times I asked for the canter, she was a little tense in the transition, a bit racey, and she threw her head a bit when I kept her going. She's not used to being asked to canter, simply because I don't do it often enough! But she's caught on quickly, and best of all, she has experienced no soreness. She's really in great shape. She feels good, is happy and shows no signs of slowing down.

Today it was quite brisk, but a beautiful day for riding outside. I rode her on one of the easy trails, trotting almost the whole way. Then on the way back, we turned onto the canter-friendly trail, and I asked for the canter. She did a perfect canter depart! She's certainly capable of great canter work, and she's done it before, but usually her best canter departs are voluntary. This was the best involuntary canter depart she's done in a long time! Her canter was very nice and springy, and she kept going when I asked, with no head flinging or resistance. She's starting to accept some connection when cantering, and I can begin to put her together a little more. We have NEVER had any connection in the canter, so that is very exciting!

Her down transition to the trot was not too jarring, and she was willing to stretch down to the buckle immediately after, none of this running around with her head in the air because OMG WE JUST CANTERED. I patted her a bunch, and we walked back to the barn where she got her usual postride massage and stretches.

She's been a very sound, very happy, snuggly horse lately, and I feel so grateful. I feel like she is actually going to be okay, like we've maybe gotten through the worst and that she will come out of all this on top and stay strong for the long term. Regardless, I'm very happy enjoying my horse in the here and now.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Awesome Rides

After a summer of nonstop trail riding, the transition to fall weather (cold nights, actual rain, stiff winds) has left Sofie feeling sore on hills. I'm not sure if it's shoulder or hock related, but I have a feeling it's in the shoulder, as she is definitely not into going down the steep hill that leads to the majority of our trails. She has not flat-out said NO, but she is weaving, pulling to the side and stopping. All this says to me "No more hills!" So we are taking a break from hills.

That leaves us with the trail loop near the barn, the parameter trail, the front yard area, Cathy's outdoor dressage ring and a couple wooded areas. Oh, and the indoor (blargh). Limited (now that I've gotten spoiled) but workable. There are at least a few good places to do dressage. And lately dressage has been where it's at.

Even as she was showing signs of "hitting the wall" on the trails, Sofie was doing some of her best work ever in the valley. On the tail end of one ride, we did our oft-practiced circle exercise on the slope, and she freaking nailed it to the wall. Her bend was consistent, her balance was great on the downhill side, and when we came back uphill, I brought myself up and squeezed with a lifting motion on her sides each stride. And she lifted, lifted, lifted til she was floating. I don't think she's ever been quite that elevated. The reins were soft as strings but not limp; the connection was true. I got actual chills. It was awesome.

On the day I declared a moratorium on trail rides, I took her to Cathy's dressage ring on a rather lackluster whim. Not expecting much, I picked up the reins and moved her up to a trot, and she just went straight to work. She was "with me" the whole time, super responsive, and the corners that used to give us so much grief were easy breezy. She molded to my leg and rein aids, transitioned readily, and all our work (I made up a little dressage test as I went along) flowed very nicely. I even played with some trot leg-yield.

Due to my work schedule, I rode her both yesterday and today. The weather has been shitty, but we lucked out with a window of opportunity for yesterday's ride. Of course I took it outside, and we rode the one trail loop with our favorite trail buddies, Janet and her young gelding Apollo.

The horses in the far-reaching fields had been moved closer to the barn due to the weather, so the fields were unoccupied. I jumped at the chance to add some variety to our schooling and picked a nice little field with rolling terrain and nice views. We practiced working our gates, except the thing was too heavy and I couldn't push it over on horseback. I kept pushing Sofie farther away from the gate (hand-yielding?). I dismounted and opened it from the ground.

Back in the saddle, I sent her out on a long rein. She was very forward and feeling good. It was a cold, breezy day, a happy day for ponies, even old arthritic ones. As we moved up to a trot she was rather inattentive at first, but I was patient with her and she soon began to actually bend and balance. We had one short canter up a hill, but the rest of the time was spent mainly trotting, with some walking and some work on sidepassing.

It was a great ride. She did not feel at all like she was in flare-up mode. In the past she has been short-striding and feeling awful, but she is so much more stable now. She had a ton of energy and was very forward, balancing over hills and dips with very little rein pressure. I will always adore her self-carriage and natural talent for this sport.

She did great with her sidepassing, and seemed to be really catching on. We called it a day.

Today I was exhausted after a hard day at work, but I still managed to ride decently. A recent chiropractic adjustment has really helped me sit straighter in the saddle! I opted for a bareback ride today as I lacked the energy to tack up, and since we were stuck in the indoor I also rode Sofie in her halter. Might as well see if we could still do it without the "technology"!

It turns out we could! Sofie still felt awesome today. She was moving out beautifully at the walk and seemed happy to be working. Her first rein-back was powerful! She really sat down and moved backwards. At a trot, she was exceptionally forward. Her self carriage was excellent, but she was eager to seek out an honest connection. When I offered her contact she went right to it and stayed there! At times she was almost a little too heavy in front, the connection was so solid. But it thrilled me that she's trusting my hands so much.

She's starting to "get" the sidepass. I've found it helpful to use some of Clinton Anderson's methods. When sidepassing to the right she wants to totally leave her hind end behind, and the only thing that works is to overbend her neck to the left, slow down her front end and move her hindquarters around so she gets the idea that they need to come along too! It's so not proper dressage, but it's really helping her understand. Sometimes I also sidepass her when she's facing the wall, so she gets the idea a little easier. We've struggled with this before, and I was unhappy with how demanding I was being, so I'm making an effort to be more encouraging and patient with her. She's doing an awesome job and trying really hard. In the last couple of rides we've gotten some really nice steps of sidepass, where I was able to let her neck go straight and she moved over, soft and slow, but definitely sideways! She just has a hard time going to the right because of her weaknesses. But I think it's good for her to learn, as long as I don't expect perfection right away.

I was really happy to see her eye in the mirror while we were working on this. She was never upset or fearful. The look in her eye sometimes said, "I'm really trying, ooof, this is hard!" but she never looked uncomfortable or stressed. This tells me that my minor transgressions haven't adversely affected her, and on the whole, our relationship stands strong. Which is exactly what I want. I couldn't be luckier.

Monday, September 3, 2012

A Dilemma

This year has been a banner year for the Sofa and I. Our relationship has hit a very comfortable point, we trust each other, and she will pretty much do anything I ask (as long as the request is reasonable). I have confidence with her, on the ground and under saddle. Three years ago, I would never ever ever have ridden bareback outside, in the woods.

Health-wise, she is doing fantastically well. I had x-rays done on her this spring (just two films of the right hock, as sadly, Dr. Aho will not let me work off his services) and the fusion seems to be progressing as it should. It is still a very ugly joint, to be sure, but to this day she has never had any heat or swelling in her hocks, and she has not had a significant lameness episode in more than a year. When she was first hit with the arthritis diagnosis, she would require a month off from riding every three months. After a while, that was down to only a few weeks off a year. And this past year she has had no time off (other than her normal days off, as I ride every other day).

She loves being out in the field with her little mare group. She's happy, shiny and beautiful. I feel good seeing her out there and knowing she's living a good horsey life. She seems to enjoy her trail rides, and she really is a phenomenal trail horse. I try to keep our brief dressage wanderings free from drudgery, and sometimes we can even find some brilliance.

She still has soreness here and there, but she's had none of the short-striding, gimpy horribleness of the summer before I moved her. She's striding out and almost tracking up at the trot when she gets going.

I've been managing her more carefully this year than I have before. In the past, we would push through everything and go go go until she "hit the wall" and began displaying signs of soreness. I became dissatisfied with this approach, so after this spring when her abrupt introduction to the trail caused issues, I started being more careful. I must push her to some extent, of course, but I began paying attention to how many hills I rode in one day, and alternating hilly rides with lighter, "lazy bareback ride" days to give her a chance to recover. I went back to my old standby of letting her decide how much she wanted to canter (mostly). I stretch her before and after every ride, and she gets a massage as needed. I've learned the trails, and there are a few I just avoid because they are too steep or too whatever. Our dressage work is typically brief, just ten or twenty minutes in a field in the middle of a trail ride. Interestingly enough, as much as I worried about the hills and their effect on her, she is often sorer after a "dressage day" than she is after even a rather demanding trail ride! So while I pay attention to how well she is handling the hills, I don't fret anymore about trail riding her.

Yesterday I took her out on a ride, and we meandered through a neighboring field to warm up. Sofa was happy to be exploring, and the reins lay loose at her neck while she strode out. I wanted a bit more of a workout for her that day (a slight downside to the kinder, more reasonable approach to riding is that she isn't in killer shape! Oh well...) so when we found a suitable place for cantering I took her up to a trot and suggested a canter. She cantered (not entirely happily, I must admit. I ask her so rarely that when I do, I typically get the "WTF" response) in her typical Sofa way, boinging around and head-flinging suggestively ("I could buck, I COULD"). She has gotten me up out of the tack before (recently when I was cantering her bareback she did that to me and I wound up on her neck. She stopped and let me get my seat back. She's not really a badass) but fortunately for me I had just spent the previous afternoon riding a hunter/jumper Quarter Horse who was a very "downhill" mover and a puller. So I just thought "UP, BACK" and stayed strong in the saddle. After a couple more haphazard canters we went on with our ride, with her jigging and blowing and anticipating the canter (she turns into a barrel horse when I ask her to canter because, once again, we hardly ever do it).

We got to the valley and I decided to do a little trot work there (just to reiterate that WE DO NOT ALWAYS CANTER NOW and please put your head back where it ought to be, kthanx). I was expecting a bit of the crazies, but Sofa was surprisingly sanguine. I put her on a huge circle for one of my favorite exercises, the large-circle-on-a-slight-slope. We've been struggling with this one all year, but recently, probably owing to my freaking sitting up and getting off her forehand we've fared better.

I rode her around the circle, toward the downhill grade, and she was in a reasonable nice balance. I felt her start to slow down and shorten her stride (she has finally figured out it does not work to run at a slope), and I sat up (up, UP) and gave her a little support up front. She sped up slightly on the slope and needed a bit of half-halting, but damned if she didn't keep her bend all the way through and not come slamming down on her forehand at the end, all strung out and floppy. That was awesome! Best circle ever.

We walked on a long rein, and I moved her over to the other side of the valley for one more little trot session. This time we started out heading toward home, in one of the places-where-she-likes-to-canter, but she didn't anticipate. She went forward in a nice (not crazy) trot, and when it came time to turn her back around, I sat up and half-halted, and she compressed beautifully, supple as all get-out, and flowed through the turn.

This was one of those times when your horse is just ON, and you have a really honest connection. "The contact to the bit should be elastic", oh yeah, we had that. It was siiiick. Dressage people will know what I'm talking about. That is the only reason we do this stuff, right there. Those moments of connection.

We went on Sofie's favorite trail as a reward, and she was still quite happy to move. She was pretty pumped up and would occasionally break to trot, but a finger touch on the reins brought her back. She was really on.

On the way back home, I let her open up through the valley, and she cantered all the way through and up to the first small hill (no head flinging, of course, because this time I let her). She dropped back to a walk until the base of the big hill that leads out of the valley. And she leaped into a gallop (or at least a Sofa gallop. Whatever, it was pretty power-packed!) and charged up the hill, while I tried to get up off her back (two-point, you are a heartless bitch). At the top of the hill she came back down (runaway she is not) and we walked home. I'm glad I let her fly, and I'm glad she still can.

Which brings me to my dilemma. I had a goal, this year, of taking Sofa somewhere off the property for a trail ride, schooling show, or whatever. Just an off-site ride. That's all I wanted. Things have gotten in the way of that (mostly not having anyone to haul for me). But I may have a chance, in a couple weeks, to go on some super nice trails in an annual trail-riding event called Sally's Ride.

I want to go. So badly. But I'm afraid it may not be in Sofa's best interest.

For one thing, the trailer ride is long. Up to an hour each way maybe, I'm not sure. But it's longer than the two trailer rides we've had to do to move her to new boarding barns. Those were only like ten minutes.

I hate trailering and it worries me, but that's not really the issue. I know she would do fine. The issue is the length of time she'll be standing in the trailer. I worry she'll stiffen up. And then, once we get to the trailhead, she'll undoubtedly be excited, so I'm concerned about her overdoing it.

The length of the ride is an issue too. The shorter trail is eight miles. My "big rides" are probably half that. It's not all flat either, there are some hills and varied terrain. All of which adds strain.

I'm concerned that, with the excitement of the new place and all the other horses, Sofie will overdo it. And she won't feel any pain until it's already too late. Especially after this latest ride, it's becoming clear to me. Sofie has a big heart and she is a trier. She pushes through. When the going gets tough, she goes faster. She won't stop, she'll keep going.

So I'm not sure what to do. Do I really want to jeopardize everything we've worked for this year? Sofie is healthy and happy. I don't want to break her down, and I'm afraid she will break down if I attempt this.

I have the chance to borrow a friend's horse and go on the ride without Sofa, but her mare is not a good fit for me and I've yet to try her gelding. Do I take another horse and spare myself a lot of stress, but potentially have less fun on the ride because I'm not on my girl? Do I take Sofie and turn back partway through? Or should I try to get a ride to a trail that's closer, where I have more control of the situation?

What do you guys think? Any ideas?

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Long Overdue Update

Almost two whole seasons have gone by and I haven’t updated the blog. It‘s sad that I haven‘t kept up on it, but priorities have to be made and some things don‘t quite make the cut. But Sofie is still very much alive and well, and things are going well for the two of us.
On the me front, I got my drivers license in May (after a year of practice, and many tears), and around the same time I got a job at the barn where I board Sofie, thus allowing me to work off my board, a very welcome financial boost. Aside from that, I love my job. I love the physicality of it, I love being around horses and feeling like I’m part of something. I also love that after a particularly grueling day I can walk around to the mare field and hug on Sofie for a while before I drive my hour commute back home to deal with my other responsibilities (and more hungry animals). Yes, it’s exhausting at times. But I’m so happy with how things have worked out. I’m really lucky.
As spring began we hit the trails as soon as possible. But while Sofie was very happy to get out and go down the trail, we overdid it on the first outing and she was hit with subsequent soreness. I feared the worst, but with a gradual introduction to the hills and harder footing she began to get stronger. Even though I rode her all winter, she was still in very “soft” condition and she was not fit for the demands of trail riding. Within a few weeks she strengthened, and her jiggly flab began to resemble actual muscle.
She experienced very little soreness over the summer, and we spent many afternoons trail riding, mainly solo outings, occasionally in company. I rediscovered a lovely trail I’d only ever been on once last fall, and I learned of a river trail that connects to Cathy’s land. Of course I had to try it, so on my birthday I went for it, bringing along a very intrepid re-rider on her young, green horse. The trail began with a very long, fairly steep descent (why I’d never explored it before) and once we got on the other property, the footing was fairly rocky but nothing that good rock crunchers couldn’t handle. Soon we came to the best river vista, and an unexpected challenge, a wooden bridge! I wanted to see if Sofie could do it, so I encouraged her and pushed her closer, but she got within a couple feet and wouldn’t go any further. I hopped off to see if I could lead her across, and she followed me immediately. She just didn’t want to be the one to test its sturdiness. I didn’t bother informing her that I weigh a fraction of her 900-some pounds, so the bridge failing to crack under my weight was hardly a guarantee, but it was touching nonetheless.
We returned to the river trail several times after that, and each time I was able to ride Sofie over the bridge with no problems. After the first few rides I started putting front boots on her, since she wasn’t totally comfortable on the rocks, and I had a pair of boots that I had never even used due to the lack of rocky trails. So I started using the boots on the river trail and on the road, and she loves them. All other times she is barefoot and her feet are looking better than ever. Even her tricky right hind, which used to slant wierdly, is looking like a normal foot.
We’ve enjoyed many trail rides over the summer. I can probably count the arena rides we’ve had since the snow melted on one hand. I do still enjoy dressage, but bits and pieces of training - usually on the way home from a trail ride - are enough for me. I like to stop in the valley after a trail outing, fitting in a ten-minute session - just long enough to accomplish something - before heading back to the barn.
I’m piecing together the fundamentals of dressage over time, acquiring the muscle memory to achieve an honest connection. Trotting on the trail, practicing transitions and bend, is where the concepts I’ve read over and over really seem to fall into place. It doesn’t seem to matter how often I am told to sit up when I ride, I never really “got” it until recently when I was working Sofie on a large circle, placed upon a slight slope. It’s a challenging exercise for her, and it really seems to help with her balance on hills and in general. I was riding her down the slope, half-halting and trying to help her keep her balance, when I started to hold myself up taller. As if by magic (really? Who knew my horse was actually affected by my weight distribution and posture?!) Sofie seemed to attain her balance so much easier. Now I think of sitting up as part of my aids (for a transition, or a bend, or whatever) and it’s becoming almost an automatic.
Riding bareback through woods and up hills. Learning to work a gate on horseback. Surviving exploding ruffed grouse and (horrors) deer. Crossing bridges (both the real, suspended-over-the-water kind and the fake, arena-trail-class kind, which proved way more challenging). Sticking a spook that took us all the way across the driveway. Making mistakes and learning from them. Always having another chance.
The barn is a wonderful place to be. Recently, after being drenched to the skin by a downpour as I fed the horses, I was driving the big water truck (I will always take any chance to drive the big water truck) when I saw a rainbow stretching across the horizon over the far horse pasture. Even though I haven’t achieved my goal of taking Sofie on an off-the-farm outing, I have to admit I’m incredibly lucky to be where I am.
I’ve made my mistakes with Sofie, and I struggle with that all the time. I struggle with the knowledge that I have invoked suffering in any living being, let alone one who means so much to me. But the fact that remains is that she is still there, beautiful, healthy, and able, still, to do so much. And when I go out to bring her in from the field, her head pops up when she sees me, sometimes from very far off, and she’ll watch me come in. When I draw near she’ll look up again, sometimes taking a step or two toward me, and she’ll sniff me and let me rub her neck, and occasionally there will be annoyance in her eyes, but mostly, now, there is contentment. She is happy, and I know she loves me, and in that moment I am able to admit that perhaps I have earned it.
On a ride last week, it started raining just as I headed out, but I declared that we were not riding in the arena for the second time in a row. Sofie was a pretty good sport, despite her strong desire to keep her face rain-free. On our way home, I let her trot, and she moved into overdrive. I held her back until we got to the final hill, and she charged up it at a strong canter. I was up in two-point, following her motion, with wet reins and a lock of her mane in my hand, looking up through raindrops at the trail home. Somehow it was magical, and I was an eventer on the Rolex course in that moment, exhilarated.
I love my mare.
Conformation update. Please avert your eyes from the excess fat...
THE FEET! This is what I am most excited about. Photo taken four weeks out from a trim. LOVE. IT.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Life Rushes On

I haven’t posted in forever, but I’ve been riding regularly, and Sofie’s doing well. We’ve gone out on a few trail rides, both alone and in company. The footing is changeable, especially on the driveway, and last time we ventured out we had to walk across a patch of glare ice. Not advisable, but Sofie is very surefooted on ice and she did just fine.

Mostly we’ve kept to the indoor, and I’ve kept up my bareback riding. Sofie has learned to back up with more impulsion, and she stays straight much of the time. She’s sitting better behind and rounding throughout her body. She’s especially good at it when we ride bareback with just a halter, and I can really feel her lifting her back and using herself. I’ve done a little bit of leg yielding at the trot as well, which is a fun exercise. I’m hoping to improve our leg yields as we’ve done with the rein-back.

Sofie has been staying round pretty consistently, and she seems in a nice frame of mind. As long as I don’t overreact and expect her to be round every second, she does very well. Overreactions never help, I’ve found. If she’s allowed to pick her head up when she loses balance or is a little stiff, she comes right back to me. On the unfortunate occasions when I forget how best to ride her, I always learn and return to the barn with a better attitude.

I’ve been doing leg stretches before and after I ride, as well as back and butt lifts. She’s not fond of those, but she is responding better and it seems to be helpful. I was able to free school her for the first time in months the other day. No one was at the barn, so I let her loose in the indoor for a few minutes after a ride (horses aren’t supposed to be loose in the indoor…shhhh. They do let the minis out in the arena, though, and Sofie is hardly the type to shatter the mirrors with her crazy antics. Anyway, I cheated). I wanted to be able to visually evaluate her after her injury (more on that later), so I had her walk and trot both directions. She was perfect, of course, remembering all her previous training and going right on the rail, calm and steady. And I was happy to see that she looks more balanced and muscled.

I recently started cantering on her again as well, bareback in a halter, of course. She’s been much better about going into the canter, which makes me think that my riding was affecting her before. My position tends to be more balanced when I’m riding without stirrups (or a saddle). In any case, it’s been nice. We still don’t have a right lead (we may never again have a right lead) and Sofie’s been a little disgruntled about the whole thing, but she hasn’t gotten sore. She’s been picking up the canter within a few strides, and holding it for at least a third of the long side. Her head does come up, and she’s still not entirely sure about cantering in the indoor, but it’s still a big improvement and I think in time we’ll be able to do even better. She hasn’t kicked out, thrown her head or done any other potentially unseating things, and she’s calming down quickly after coming back to trot. Instead of throwing her head up and rushing, she’s actually stretching down right away.

I’ve cut out cantering for now, as last Monday I discovered a rather large scrape on the inner part of her left hind, above the hock. Most of it is just hairless, but there’s a small chunk of hide missing in the center. None of us have any idea how it happened. She was never lame but was pretty sore at first, and her leg was stocked up because she was constantly resting it and not moving around. Fortunately it is not a puncture, and there was nothing to stitch so veterinary attention was not needed. We cleaned the wound and have been treating it with Vetricyn, and she’s already feeling better. We also went out to check on and exercise her five times last week to help keep the swelling down, so I got to see her a lot.

I stopped by late on Friday night (we were in the vicinity), sprayed her wound, cleaned her feet and did the short version of tacking up (helmet on me, reins on her halter). I hopped on for a few minutes, and without even a real warm-up she did nice transitions and rein-back and was basically a gem.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

All Or Nothing Winter

I am in the midst of preparing to submit my novel to literary agents (an arduous and emotional process, at least the way I do it), so I have fallen behind on Sofa updates. She continues to do well, with some very good rides in the recent past. We seem to be stuck in an “all or nothing” winter, consisting of temperatures in the teens with snowstorms that give way to 40 degree weather, snowmelt and distinctly springlike conditions. All this cold, wet, warm, changing weather can be tough on arthritic joints, and she has had a few stiff days. But on the good days, the warm days, Sofie is at her best.

On the last day of 2011, we rode with Cathy and Nakota. It wasn’t overly warm or sunny, but it was clear, the footing was fine and we were both craving a trail ride. I had planned on riding outside that day anyway, but getting to ride with someone was a bonus. We rode over to Cathy’s land, passing through the valley and heading on into the woods. Sofie handled the hills well on the way in and out of the valley and we enjoyed a nice, relaxing ride.

The next week was a little discouraging as Sofie was faintly “not right”. She wasn’t lame and she wasn’t angry or upset, just a little sore. I switched back to riding bareback and was amazed by how much I’d lost my seat in just a couple rides with a saddle. Fortunately I recovered my balance partway into the ride and stopped flopping around on poor Sofie’s back. I kept practicing and improved Sofie’s steering in the halter. We were even able to do nice circles that way. I also kept up on our rein-back, which is coming on well. I did have periodic issues with her getting crooked, but she was also powering backward with a little more energy and not dragging her feet so much. I worked on the crookedness when it showed up, and lately she’s been backing straighter.

Sofie got her feet trimmed on the 7th, which was her worst day in a while. She seemed to be moving fine when I rode her, and I gave her a light workout so she would hopefully be loosened up but not fatigued. Even so, she was a real jerk for Annie. She seemed to have trouble standing on three legs and did a lot of snatching her feet away. She’s never terrific for the farrier, which I think is partly because of her soundness issues and partly just attitude. Still, I was not happy with her. I also began second-guessing how I’ve been managing her this whole time, based on some things I’ve read. I started thinking about the cantering we’ve done, and the hill work, and how I always seem to overwork her through sheer enthusiasm when she’s feeling good. I was feeling pretty bad about it all and wondering, once again, if it was best for her.

Two days later when I showed up it was gorgeous and sunny. A prime day for an outside ride. Sofie seemed happy to get outside, and we hacked over to Cathy’s place. I rode her in the valley, intending to just do some walk and trot work. She was quite energetic but very responsive, coming back to walk from just a seat aid. I did mostly straight lines, with a little bending work here and there. Her head was up but I wasn’t concerned because she was power-trotting through the snow and definitely using herself. Apart from just making sure the basic response to my aids was there, I mostly just rode around the picturesque snowy setting, grinning and enjoying myself.

Sofie, somehow magically recovered from her stiffness, was also enjoying herself, so much so that she burst into a canter without any prompting. In fact, we had four unplanned canters, each one more energetic and wild than the last. The one time I actually asked her for the canter (heading away from home), she accelerated to a Sofa gallop and was practically leaping through the snow. I saw the trees approaching fast, and knowing Sofie’s proclivity for trailblazing, I leaned back on the outside rein hard. Not wanting to stop, Sofie put her head down, pitching me forward, and stomped with her front feet several times. I was thrown up on her neck, but she stopped before I could go any further. The good thing about Sofie is she knows when to stop. After one more (slightly less out of control) canter, we went on a short trail ride and turned back. I did a little walk/trot work in the valley, and when that went well I took a second to admire the scenery. Then we went back to the barn.

I fully expected Sofie to be stiff and ouchy the next time I rode. I figured her craziness would surely have a negative effect. Once again, it was warm out, if not as sunny as the previous time. I tacked her up again, and we headed outside. Sofie was definitely alert, and she seemed every bit as energetic as she had been. I rode her across the driveway to the shorter, flat trail on the barn property, and decided to turn onto the wide, grassy lane where we like to canter. Once there I tested out the trot, and Sofie was definitely “up”. So much so that I didn’t canter her right away. I wanted to establish that she was listening to me before we went racing off. So I rode her down the trail and back, and only then did I ask for the canter.

When Sofie is “on”, the canter depart is an effortless thing. It’s really more of an “allow” than an “ask”. I just let her go up front, and think about sitting and raising my outside heel. It’s a real treat, those rare instances when it just works, effortlessly, and this was one of those times. I thought she might take off, but instead she went into this incredible, perfectly rhythmic collected canter. I haven’t felt her do one this nice in a long time. She never sped up, and she was straight through much of it. She was round, the contact was light and she just felt awesome. She’s always been capable of this, but it doesn’t always happen that way, what with her soundness issues and our general cluelessness. I was so impressed that I didn’t do any more canter work that day. So she got lots of praise and she got to walk back to the barn. I’d done everything I wanted outside, so I figured I’d finish up in the indoor, where the footing was better.

As it worked out, I got to ride at the same time Jesse was working his Friesian stallion, Zen. He hadn’t been ridden with a mare in the arena before, but he was a very good boy. I did my part, and gave him plenty of space at first (easy enough in such a big arena). Sofie, of course, couldn’t care less (although I think she does have eyes for Zen over the other stallions we’ve encountered). Zen is beautiful, and I love watching him, so it was fun to be in the arena with him. Sofie was exceptional, doing pretty much everything right. Her trot work was super nice, she was steadily round, and her transitions were lovely. It was a very productive day. It’s nice to have rides like that. Reaffirming rides.

I have a little more faith in Sofie now, and in my own ability too. There will always be difficulties, but Sofie is doing better than ever. She will have her sore days when the weather fluctuates, and sometimes I will push her a little too hard, but she will recover. The fact that she had one of her best days ever after a wild ride of plunging through the snow is heartening. It shows me I’m not destroying her, as I feared. Her balance is better than it’s ever been, and she’s learning to carry herself and move in the best way possible. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, of course, but I think I’m getting somewhere with her. There is no way of knowing if I should have done things differently. There are never any guarantees. But if I’m lucky, Sofie will be around for a long time, living mostly pain-free and able to move like I know she can.