Everyday Blessings

Everyday Blessings

I’ve not blogged for ages as I never felt I had anything to say. This time of year feels a bit blah. Amber lacks sparkle and so do I. Grey, leaden skies, wind and rain, the return of mucking out as the horses are now in, the onset of the annual war-on-mud and riding in the rain.

Weekday riding is often limited to early mornings before work (not very tempting on a cold wet day) or after work in the dark.

Riding feels more a chore than a pleasure and it is very easy to keep skipping sessions. Amber doesn’t mind. It’s meant to be fun, right?

But then earlier this week we lost my daughter’s pony, Ginny. She was only 6 but she had on-going physical, emotional and behavioural issues that suggested some underlying problem that months of investigations and treatments failed to identify or resolve. So we let her go and it broke our hearts.

And also opened my eyes. Having Amber is a privilege and a joy. Whinging about weather is nothing to do with the weather but to do with my state of mind. Most years I drift into a sort of anti-winter funk and stay in it till Spring, joining in with the chorus of dissatisfaction from various quarters this time of year. Well not this year!

Winter is about:

  • Jumping on a surface and indoors.
  • Horses waiting at the gate so I don’t have  to trek up a big hill everyday
  • The smell of fresh shavings
  • Quiet evenings on the yard later on when everyone’s gone home and it’s just me and my horse having a groom in a cozy stable.
  • Arena Eventing
  • Riding at dawn and in the moonlight
  • Hot chocolate in the bath after getting cold and wet
  • Fluffy coats.

Winter is not the dead time after the end of the season. Winter is when I can lay down the groundwork for next season. Where I can work on my limiting factors & weaknesses and build on my strengths.

And when snow stops play then I can just groom, reorganise the tack room, sort out bankings, wash numnahs, clean tack, learn dressage tests, scan the BE 2019 events, plan the season, browse the internet for winter gear, practice pilates and do those 101 odd jobs I never get around to when the weather is better.

Above all, I will try never to forget to appreciate the fact that Amber is fit, healthy and happy. As at the end of the day, nothing else really matters that much

RIP Ginny 2012-2018

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Run free my sweet Ginny, it’s now time to part

You are not gone completely, as you live on in my heart

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The end of my first BE Season….

The end of my first BE Season….

Ok that’s my first season done. 2 more 80T courses at Eland and Kelsall to finish things off. True to form I went wrong on both. Amber jumped 2 fabulous clears. Unfortunately I got us both eliminated at Eland going down the metre steps, and then clocked up a whopping 40 odd time penalties at Kelsall taking an unnecessarily scenic route round the course!

So from one point of view my season has been a disastrous comedy of errors resulting in 7 XC detours and a run past, 3 dressage course mishaps, 1 missed SJ fence, 5 cricket scores and an elimination.

And yet from another point of view my season has been a totally awesome journey of discovery:

  • Discovering that Amber is a XC machine with 5 effortless clears from 6 rounds.
  • Discovering that I can learn dressage tests if I set them to poetry (yes really)
  • Discovering that 80cm fences really do start looking quite small if you do a lot of them
  • Discovering that Amber is actually capable of rideability and adjustability when show-jumping
  • Discovering that Amber really can do dressage with lovely comments all season about how promising she looks.
  • Discovering that I CAN plait (sort of…)
  • Discovering that  Amber LOVES to gallop but does let me ride her too so she always feels safe even when in full flow.
  • Discovering that Amber jumps everything as if we were on the metre course. Unless we are actually jumping a metre in which case she jumps like she’s jumping 1.20!
  • Most of all discovering that this crazy, glorious, insane, wonderful sport is simply the most fun you can ever have on a horse. Fact.

And now for a winter of dressage and show-jumping. But first have a couple of pics of Awesome Amber in her element and one of me looking the way finishing XC feels!

 

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And Now For Something Completely Different…

And Now For Something Completely Different…

Has it really been almost 2 months since I last blogged?! Where is the summer going!! Well there have been a few weeks of same old, same old (Amber over-jumping everything; me getting lost on XC courses at BE events and riding like a nervous novice in dressage tests grrrrrrr)

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But last weekend we tried something new at

http://www.guyrobertsonhorsemanship.co.uk/

I have no interest in Western riding but I do like the overall ethos of Buck Brannaman/Mark Rashid/Guy Robertson etc who all seem to  work much more with the horse’s mind than the trainers I usually use who focus on the technical aspects more. Which I also love but this just adds something else I think.

So Amber and I headed to Yorkshire for a horsemanship clinic.

The overall aim of the weekend was to work on confidence (the horse’s confidence in you and in general), control (being able to control the horse’s body and life so you can move in any direction at any gait or speed) and purpose: motivating the horse by making the work feel important to him or her. Giving the horse a job.

We did 4 sessions of 2 hours each which all aimed to achieve 1 or more of those aims above.

Session 1 was groundwork.  A key message was being particular about what you want. At any given moment a horse has a job to do. That job might be standing patiently in her own space while you talk to someone. (Or examine a fence, or doctor a cow, or look at a map). So lesson 1 in session 1 was ‘parking’ your horse. Some found this harder than others! Amber was pretty good at ‘parking’ as she used to be terrible at it and necessity meant I had to teach her to stand still. But a timely reminder that a lot of horses lack basics like this and are forever nudging you, stepping away or into or over you, wandering off in search of grass etc. The ground work then moved on to leading with the horse mirroring your feet. You move, they move. You speed up, they speed up. Stop dead, they stop dead. Walk backwards, they back up too. All with a float in the lead rope. Then we worked on backing up in straight lines and circles, figure eights. Then yields – hind and front quarters and rib cage. So by the end of the session the horse moved in any direction off soft cues which was aimed at establishing both leadership and control.

Session 2 was ridden in the arena and continued the theme of control. But first came getting on. The horse’s job was to pick you up from the mounting block or fence or wherever. So you’d stand where you could to get on and they would position themselves next to you and stand still till you were on board, however long you chose to stay on top of the mounting block or fence first. Again something Amber used to be appalling at, riders having only ever been legged up as she was trotting off down the road in her formative years!

Once we were on board the focus was on clarity and precision eg cue the horse to stop as the front inside foot leaves the ground and that foot should then land and stop. The transition should be both instant and smooth. Another good exercise was 2 trotting poles parallel to each other a horse’s width apart over X. Trot a figure 8 passing through the poles each time in walk. You needed to be completely straight through the poles then change bend as you left the poles. Smooth and instant transitions to walk as you enter the poles and back to trot as you leave. The repeat with canter-walk transitions. And if your horse starts anticipating the left lead (for example) go right. Then it was walk-trot-canter-trot-walk transitions in a straight line transitioning at cones spaced fairly close together and choosing which canter lead you wanted each time. Basically complete control over hindquarters, ribs, shoulders, head and neck, gait and speed!

Session 3 was with obstacles – putting the precise body control into practice with things like bending in and out of cones, side passing over things etc. This began to build the horse’s sense of purpose. Ie the horse recognising these movements aren’t random or pointless – there is a job to do. And finally cow working to further build the sense of purpose.

Amber has only seen cows once when we were followed by them on a hack and they freaked her out but I think all the previous work over the weekend meant she was curious not fearful, confident in me and task focused! So she was brilliant. Went into a herd, cut one out, guided it into the arena and then in a team with another horse we were guiding it round cones in a figure of 8 and finally penning it. If it made a break back to the herd Amber had to canter after it to head it back and she totally got it! She was alert, focused, willing and calm. A lot of fun.

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Overall the exercises seemed to be about getting Amber to feel confident in my leadership (through clarity and consistency) to be accurate in her movements (through being very particular about this – not accepting a 3 stride delay before halting or leaning into the bit or being sluggish off the leg etc) and having a sense of purpose by being focused and task oriented. The cow work gave ME a sense of purpose which communicated itself to her. But you can communicate a sense of purpose just by the focus and commitment you feel about a task. As Guy said to someone who’s horse was slow off the leg ‘imagine you’re on a level crossing and a train is coming’. The horse moved!

I’m want to be an event rider not a cowgirl and I am not  interested in Western riding but this sort of work feels really useful for any horse in any discipline, so I will definitely be going back one day…… and next time I meet some cows out hacking hopefully it will be a little less, erm… interesting than it was the last time!!

Happy Birthday/Jumperversary!

Happy Birthday/Jumperversary!

A year ago today I decided to celebrate my birthday by jumping Amber for the very first time. She wasn’t very straight but she was very keen!

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Since then it has become clear that she is born to jump. She’s built for it and she absolutely loves it. The only issue is riding her power and her enthusiasm. Amber jumps 80s like they are 120s and 100’s like they are 140s!

She locks on and launches, just running through the bridle. In our BE80s we have generally jumped clear till 2/3rds or 3/4s of the way round the course but by then she is running on and flat and we have had a couple of poles in the 1st 2 events of the season. She did jump clear (yay!) at Speetley but I think we were lucky! And it still took me half a lap to pull her up afterwards!

We hit a low point a few months ago when she literally pinged me right out of the saddle and I was told I needed to work on ME to be able to ride her. I have got away with poor riding for years because I have ridden easy horses and have never done anything either big or technical! That won’t do for Amber. Cue pilates, core work, lunge work, lessons on other horses and practice, practice, practice. I thought we were improving then we hit another low point at camp and I was advised to send her away because I simply was not up to the job of educating her properly. On both of those occasions I felt defeated and hopeless. And both times gave serious consideration to letting her go to a pro for a while.

But the eventing season was about to begin and having worked all winter towards eventing her this season, I was not about to send her off just now. 3 events later and I am having the most fun on a horse I have ever had. The 4 steps forward 3 steps back of the off season have been replaced with Amber being generally awesome during all 3 events.

Me – not so much – but she is doing her bit which is the main thing. I can work on me! SJ faults have gone from 12 to 8 to 0 in the 3. No XC faults in the first 2 events and a silly rider-error for a run past in the 3rd. (Let’s not mention dressage though….)

She is brave, bold, enthusiastic and she gives me so much confidence because I just trust that she will always jump what she is presented to. Always. She just never says no!

Today I celebrated my birthday/jumperversary with another jumping lesson.

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She was great and looking back over the year, I am proud of what we have achieved. Sure, a pro rider would be far further on but I’m in no hurry. I am not ready to step up to bigger tracks anyway even if she is! So we will just continue taking the slow and scenic route. Here’s to year 2 of our jumping adventures.

Living the Dream

Living the Dream

I did one unaffiliated ODE in the late 1990s. My pony, Rupert, galloped out of the dressage arena. Eliminated in dressage! Quite an achievement!! But it was a ‘taster’ day so we were allowed to continue. He flattened the SJ then flew round XC and that was my foray into eventing over for a couple of decades…

Spin on to the 21st Century and I revived my eventing dream by buying a gorgeous ISH called Thyme. She was lovely: bold, sane, easy as pie to ride. It was all looking very promising. But I was also working for the NHS while trying to set up a new business, had young kids who had lost interest in horses and who had super active social lives of their own.  Not to mention a birthday party to go to pretty much every weekend in those primary school invite-the-whole-class days. The stress and guilt of the time and cost involved became overwhelming and I decided to just quit horses altogether. Sold Thyme and everything else down to the last hoof-pick. And that was that. Or so I thought….

About 18 months later, 2 of the 3 kids decided they wanted riding lessons. And then a pony. I resisted for about a week (!) then we went pony shopping. And while searching for a pony for them I stumbled on a gorgeous 3 year old Fell pony called Cally. Well if the kids are going to have a pony I needed something to do myself. Cally was fabulous. So easy, so willing.

Over the previous few years I had developed a fairly paralysing fear of jumping. Even just looking at jumps made me sweat and feel sick. So even though I had a super pony, eventing seemed further away than ever. But Cally was so honest and easy that slowly I regained my jumping wings. X-poles, mini jumps, logs then eventually 60cm and up. So 18 months after Cally’s arrival in my life I entered a 70cm Hunter Trial at Eland Lodge thinking: 70cm? I can jump 70cm!! That’s only a few inches above my knee.

I went to practice on the course beforehand with a friend and stared at the jumps in terrified disbelief having discovered that there is a world of difference between narrow, 70cm portable XC fences at home and wide, solid, well dressed fences at an event. And I discovered the ‘brush rule’. The idea that the top 20 cm of brush somehow does not count as horses can hit it without harm. That made absolutely no sense at all to me. I mean why not just have the ‘pole’ rule in show jumping and stick a 90cm fence in at 70 which you can knock the top rail off without penalties…… Talking of which, in what way is a fence at an 80T event that is 120cm wide at the base, 90 wide at the top, 100cm high including 20cm of brush or has a drop of 120 an ‘80cm’ fence….

Most sports/tevents like to big themselves up – My son attended a Chess tournament with MEGA and GIGA Finals (2nd & 3rd rounds). Football switched from Divisions 1 & 2 to “Premiership” and “Championship” divisions. Meanwhile  equestrian sport seems to take a perverse delight in understatement – ‘Novice’ eventing, ‘Elementary’ Dressage and ENORMOUS great ’70cm or 80cm’ fences.

But I digress….. I had my lovely friend with me that day at Eland who assured me that the fences she was pointing me at really were in the 70cm HT. I refused to believe her. The weird green baize thing? No way! The box? Absolutely no way!! The corner? No f-ing way!!! But she would not let me go home without jumping them as I was already entered into the HT 2 weeks later.

I stopped worrying that I’d make a fool of myself and started worrying that I’d die. Literally. We jumped most of the jumps and my overwhelming feeling at the end was relief to still be in the saddle at the end. And then Cally jumped round the HT with just 2 stops and I felt on top of the world. We did a few more 70s and she jumped clear every time after that first time. And suddenly the world of eventing seemed within reach after all those years. So it was time for an event horse and along came Amber…… And now here we are living the dream.

Dreaming it is easy and inexpensive. Living it is hard, hard work and costs about the equivalent of a new car every year. (Don’t try to add it up. It is too scary). The journey can be disheartening, exhausting and terrifying.

However, if you had asked the 12 year old me to describe my perfect life, this would be it. I have an awesome horse. My daughters share my passion and have 2 great ponies. I have transport and enough time and money to pursue this crazy eventing adventure. And I am fit and healthy enough to do it too. I am incredibly lucky. It could all be taken away in a heartbeat: Illness/injury (human or equine), change in circumstances, loss of nerve.

It is very easy when faced with set-backs, silly errors, poor performances, early mornings, misbehaving horses, falls and injuries, rubbish weather, endless lost shoes, haemorrhaging costs,  lack of time and sleep  and crippling nerves to wonder why the hell I do it. Why I put myself through it.

Then I have days like Somerford BE80T that remind me why. An average dressage but a fair reflection of where we are, an ok SJ with 2 poles – again a fair reflection of where we are. Then it was time for the XC and I had the privilege of riding the boldest, bravest most enthusiastic XC horse I have ever ridden. From the moment we left the start box and I felt her surge forward into her huge ground covering canter, locking onto Fence 1 from 15 strides out and there was never any doubt that she would jump whatever she was presented to. She would take it all on with enthusiasm and complete confidence. I went the wrong way twice which is annoying but we had no jumping faults and would have been within the time had it not been for my random diversions. What a horse. She is just utterly magical to ride. If only I could bottle the feeling of gratitude, exhilaration and pure joy that Amber gives me. Eventing may be expensive. And you may have to earn these wonderful days with blood, sweat & tears. But the utter joy of it is absolutely priceless.

 

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Jump Camp!

Jump Camp!

Question: How do you de-train a horse in 6 minutes

Answer: Take it round a XC course at an ODE…..

This week has seen me return to Somerford for a jump training camp to prepare for Somerford BE in 2 weeks. I was last there in September and the show jump trainer recognised me. Or rather Amber. “I’ve taught you before” he said. “I liked your horse”. He also reiterated his offer to train and compete her for me. He then added “Gemma liked her too” – Gemma being the queen (or at least princess!) of Badminton, Gemma Tattersall, who was instructing on the XC course on the same camp.

My pride in awesome Amber’s awesome fan-club soon turned to embarrassment when it became clear that Amber has turned into a crazy, wild, big orange beast since the Kelsall ODE. It’s as if she now just thinks any jump is the cue for great excitement and high speed!

A sweaty, stressy hour followed which included Amber jumping a random Oxer that happened to pass her eye line which was not remotely where I was heading. Oops.  She also launched herself at every fence and bogged off after every landing. Oh dear.

After that he said that not only would he be happy to train her but I really ought to send her away. If not to him then to anyone who could ‘educate her properly’. Ouch.

It was perfectly fair comment – and after our combined display of rude horse plus ineffective rider I could only agree. But it still left me feeling disheartened and useless. I SO want to work with her myself and not send her away. But not if I am going to ruin her.

Next up was XC with a trainer I have used many times before who has seen the many-faces-of-Amber. So I asked for an honest opinion: Send her away or keep on taking the slow and scenic route. (Or perhaps that’s the slow and ugly one??)

She could see his point of view but she also feels there has been real progress and a snapshot lesson is not representative of where we have come from and what we have achieved. So basically it’s an option but not (yet) a necessity for safety’s sake. Plus I’ve got very good help on my yard too including the option of Amber having some schooling which we have been doing on and off anyway. Maybe we need that to be more consistent for a few weeks  till she settles again.

She also said Amber strikes her as the kind of mare who is quite particular about who she will let ride her. And she has decided for whatever reason that I am acceptable. This echoes the horsemanship  clinic I hosted in the summer. The trainer was doing some groundwork exercises and used Amber to demonstrate one. Amber was very unimpressed and pulled a series of her best bitch-face expressions at her. Then I took over the reins to repeat the exercise and her expression softened immediately. The trainer said Amber was quite clearly saying “Sod off you’re not my human” then “THIS is my human”. So we may not be a great match on paper, (green on green = black & blue and all that) but I adore her and she seems ok with me so I guess we will find a way to make it work….

The XC session was ok. Not great but ok. And in the meantime back at home we have started walk-canter transitions and she is getting so much better in her flatwork. I struggle to believe in our progress myself at times but I mustn’t lose sight of the fact that she has often been rideable and adjustable recently. Not reliably, but pretty often. Including jumping courses out of a nice relaxed canter rhythm.

So as long as we are making progress I think that’s ok. If I decide I will ruin her or I will get hurt then it will be time for a re-think but for now we’ll just keep on keeping on….

Butter wouldn’t melt….

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Amber The Event Horse: Kelsall BE80

Amber The Event Horse: Kelsall BE80

30419903_1644750595607453_1955091924504804563_oWell it’s official. I wasn’t eliminated, I have a score (albeit rather a big one!!) therefore I have successfully negotiated a BE Event with my awesome orange pony-partner. I am, she is, we are EVENTERS. Woop woop. I am so happy with her I could cry. In fact I have. Alongside the silly grin that keeps breaking out over my face.

Her dressage was as good as I could expect it to be really.

She did nothing wrong and our marks ranged from 5.5 to 7.  (The judge described her as a ‘smart horse’ which I assume refers to her innate qualities and not my imperfect turn out skills – she only has half a mane after a winter of full necked rugs and she wasn’t plaited. And she bathed in mud all day yesterday!) So anyway, SHE did nothing wrong. Her ditzy driver however did go wrong. TWICE. Quite impressive especially as the only course error I made was getting to the final centre line. (Yes wrong at the same place. Yes twice).

Then show jumping – she was forward and keen but not totally out of control which is always nice. She had 4 faults. Her ditzy driver however went wrong. Argggghhhhh. I was setting her up nicely for number 8 as I went merrily past number 7 and had to circle back. Oh dear. Still we were never going to trouble the leader board anyway and so I was far more interested in how she went than where we came. And she was great.

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That meant the dreaded XC was up next. And I was absolutely terrified.

My confidence about doing this was at a high after a great XC clinic last week. Amber was amazing as ever. Bold, honest and jumping HUGE – youtube clip to demonstrate!

And then I walked the course. Jumps seem a lot bigger when you aren’t looking down at them from a 16.2 powerhouse of a horse! I felt sicker and sicker as I went past number 3 (huge table), number 5 (weird pink thing), number 7 (big hanging log downhill), numbers 9 & 10  (skinny related distances), number 14 (ski jump), number 19 (huge brush with a drop the other side). Oh bugger.

I went home, poured a huge glass of red.  Then went to bed and tossed and turned all night, waking up before 5am feeling sicker than ever. I just could not see how Amber would jump them all – never having seen any of them before. Just 3 stops and we would be out.

She was completely wild on the warm up. I jumped one log and she tanked off on landing so I decided to leave it and just walked her round. Nerves were not improved by a 40 minute delay on the course when a rider came off. Then another 10 minute course delay a few horses later. Sobering reminders of the stakes we are playing with in this game. By the time I was walking over to the start box I had pretty much decided I was never, ever putting myself through this again. My aim to not be eliminated had morphed into a simple wish to come home safe.

And then my awesome horse just took off and flew everything as if she has been doing this all her life. Not one moment of hesitation or doubt. It was very clear pretty quickly that she was going to jump whatever she was presented to.  All I had to do was get her in front of each fence vaguely straight! Not that that was entirely straightforward! She was very, VERY keen. I did a fair amount of trotting into things, especially downhill as she was not wearing studs. The time was irrelevant today.

First BE80 and no XC jumping faults! I am humbled and amazed by this horse. And I can’t wait for our next run! So it looks like I will be putting myself through it again after all!!

I enjoyed it more than Weston Lawns and I honestly think Amber did too. There was plenty of energy and spirit around but no chaos and carnage! She was lively and somewhat challenging to contain but there was no sense at any point that she was sterssed/overwhelmed. Quite the opposite – she seemed to be having a whale of a time! What a relief. Sunshine helped too of course….

Photo creds to the awesome Aisa Wright of Thorncliffe Equine Transportation. When I booked horse transport to take me to and from Kelsall I did not realise I was also getting a super-groom, sports psychologist and photographer. She could not do enough for me all day. Even had a spare bobble when mine snapped just before the XC! If you ever need anyone to safely transport you and your horses and then also entertain and look after you all day then head over to https://www.facebook.com/thorncliffeequinetransporation/

You just could not be in kinder, calmer, better hands. AND it was cheaper than a self drive box would have been!!!