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.