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?