Boot for me = Boot Camp for Amber

Boot for me = Boot Camp for Amber

Well every day is a learning day. Recently I have learnt that:

  • If you ride Amber in a saddle with a broken tree she will chuck you off. Rapidly.
  • Improve-Your-Seat rider training exercises are no match for a cross chestnut mare.
  • You can walk on a broken ankle. Ish.
  • I am a numpty *

*Well I knew that one already but the particular brand of numptiness-of-the-month was the failure to notice that my saddle was broken. Properly, painfully, jab her in the back when she canters or jumps, broken. Poor Amber. The saddle looks and feels fine the right way up but that is absolutely no excuse and I feel dreadful about it. The pony club drill of checking tack EVERY TIME YOU RIDE has a point after all.

But Amber is now enjoying a temporary spell in a borrowed (gorgeous, beautiful) Equipe I am in a fetching and restrictive boot for a few weeks. Amber has gone on schooling livery with a pro who is giving her the education she isn’t getting from me. I went to see her today and it was inspiring and deflating all at the same time. She moves very well but the feedback was just exactly the same as I have heard over and over again:

She is a talented mare…. BUT

She won’t wait for jumps

She resists the contact

She runs on the forehand

She does not work leg into hand

She is a stroppy madam when put in her box!

But all that can – apparently – be resolved within the 6 weeks the pro will have her. Which I’m sure it can. But then she has to come back to me…. And it is clear that I just don’t have the skill to ride her correctly. God knows I’ve tried to address all those issues: Lessons, clinics, camps and having others ride her. I know what she needs but I am just not good enough to teach her. Or good enough YET anyway.

It was incredible how sweaty she was after 45 minutes today. All her veins were popped out. She was KNACKERED. Not because she us unfit – she is very fit – but because she was being made to use herself properly and she isn’t used to it. I can ride her for hours and she does not break a sweat at all.

Still I need to focus on the positives: She has been checked by a physio and she does not have a bad back. It is easier to resolve a broken saddle than a broken horse. Her uncharacteristically explosive behaviour has an explanation. She is at a fab yard with a fab pro and will – I am assured – be entirely easier when she comes back to me. The pro can teach me too.

And to be fair, if I am going to break bones, January is not a bad time to choose: I get to binge-watch Netflix while someone else rides in the wind and the rain.

Things can only get better……

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3rd Amberversary

3rd Amberversary

82800552_2757091527704244_1228212994270298112_n3 Years…. Time to take stock.

So after 3 years of Amber, where are we?

Rideability

Well this is the area I still feel I struggle most with. And I can’t really see much progress at all really. I can choose a gait but she still dictates the pace on hacks. She hates being left behind. She can take over and launch at jumps. She can rush and be silly. I am better at managing her but I have not changed that part of her and am as far away as ever from the holy grail of ‘complete control of all 4 feet, over all terrains in all gaits at all speeds!’ I think I just ride her better when she is being Amberish and so I can do things I used to not be able to do. But she is no easier to ride than she was when we first started out together. She is probably worse because she is so much fitter and because I have introduced her to XC which she loves and now anticipates.

Dressage

She feels like a completely different horse to the gangly, unco-ordinated beast I first rode but after figuring out where her legs were and gaining some condition in her first 6 months with me, not much seems to have changed since.  She showed flashes of promise at our first camp in September 2017 and intermittently since then but we have never managed to get any consistency. We have also never reproduced work at home in a competition environment. Amber has had dressage lessons where we literally get nothing done at all as she is just not co-operating in any way. And we have had dressage lessons – like the one at camp in 2017 – where she just for some reason relaxed and listened to me and produced lovely work. Like the rideability – dressage is where I feel we are most stuck. Videos from 2 years ago look great. Videos from last week look bloody awful! From an objective point of view, I’ve been scoring 60-65% or 35-40 pens forever. Comments are always the same too: capable horse with nice/correct paces who needs to relax and submit/engage /work over her back/ accept the hand for higher marks. I feel things have been getting better in the past 6 months but not tested that hope out in competition yet!

SJ

Now for some better news. 2 years ago I was trotting round 70s. The SJ in my BE80 year was always pretty wild. And my first BE90 a year ago was a car crash. But over the season she settled and I felt like I was actually riding her more and being towed around less.  Her jumping in clinics can still be a bit yeehaa but I am better at getting her back and reacting to her surges of acceleration more quickly. I know a decent rider would have been riding her like that 2.5 years ago and been jumping 90s back then and be onto goodness knows where by now. But there is no point thinking like that. I am the rider I am and she is the horse she is and we can only progress as fast as this particular partnership allows. A better rider would be in a totally different place with her. But then I also might have progressed quicker on an easier horse. But we are where we are and progress – though slow – is very definitely there.

XC

I first jumped a 90cm XC fence on a Gemma Tatersall camp in September 2017. Over 2 years ago. But that was 1 fence at a time. And they were easy fences. I am still jumping 90 but I am jumping full BE90 courses with very generous use of the brush rule, technical lines, skinnies,  combinations. I am also less of a passenger and more of a rider. So another place where progress is definitely happening. Having said that, I jumped lines last winter I would not want to jump now. So how XC will pan out over winter and into next season remains to be seen. BE90 was such a big step up for me that I may be there for quite a while!

Overall

It is hard not to be frustrated by this review. I don’t feel I have got very far in the 3 years I have had her. But I guess we are learning together so things will inevitably be slower. I can imagine getting another horse and starting out pretty much where me and Amber already are because 80/90 courses look manageable now. With Amber I had to start at 50/60 because I had never jumped higher than 70 and that was on a pony I had taken up to 70 from cross poles. I was basically a very novice jumper when I first got Amber. And she had never show jumped either. Green on green was never going to be the quickest way of making progress.

It depends what point of view I take: As a rider, I have gone from 70cm unaffiliated on an easy pony to BE90 on a challenging horse.  I have gone from being towed around to actually influencing my horse. I have started riding in an outline for the first time ever. So I as a rider have improved a lot over the 3 years. Amber, on the other hand, is still only using a fraction of her ability. So I have done a pretty rubbish job pf producing her. But I am not really trying to produce her, I am trying to get as good as we can be together. I will always be the limiting factor in our partnership and I guess that does not really matter.

Groundhog Day?

Groundhog Day?

Gosh where has the rest of this year gone? I only post when I feel I have something to say  and over the last 4 months, every time I have thought about blogging I have just felt like nothing has changed, nothing has happened so there is nothing to blog about. This reflects how I feel about my riding in general  – I feel like I am stuck in old familiar patterns and I am just going round and round hearing the same things again and again, struggling with the same issues and, despite trying my best, still making the same mistakes over and over. Every time I considered writing about something like – say – Amber being too forward, lack of consistency in dressage, my fears of jumping and hacking, Amber not  being ride-able and adjustable enough, me over-relying on my hands, my need for better balance and an independent seat etc etc, I realised I had already written about that. Often more than once. So the blogs themselves reinforce that sense of stuckness – Blogs 2 years ago are about the same issues that I had last week!

So why am I bothering writing at all? Well I use blogging to track progress over time. I use it to get my head round issues and to identify things that are either blocking my progress or helping me. And this feeling of stuckness is the thing that is most on my mind right now, so I decided to blog no matter what. To just start writing about how things are feeling and see if anything useful emerged from forcing myself to reflect.

So what are the issues? Well, Amber locks on and launches and does not jump out of a nice canter rhythm. Except sometimes she does. And each time she does it is a bit better than the last time she did. And each time she locks on and launches it it is less bad than it used to be. I am scared of jumping  and hacking, and those fears re-surface every so often. But the things I’ll jump when scared are bigger than they used to be and the things I’ll jump when confident are much, much bigger than they used to be. Amber is inconsistent in dressage. But her good work is better than it used to be and her poor work is less bad than it used to be.  I am too handsy and lack balance. Well yes I am and I do. (I suspect those things just may be linked!) But I know I need a better seat and I am working on it. And 3 out of 4 ‘aint bad!

I guess what feels like a circle is more like a spiral. We are both orbiting the same set of problems because her character is her character and my limitations are my limitations. She will always be enthusiastic, onward bound and ginger! (Photo evidence above!!) I will always be slightly nervous, wonky with deeply ingrained riding faults that are  improving slowly but won’t just vanish entirely. Each time I am on the riding badly/going badly side of the spiral I feel like I am getting nowhere, but each time I spin round to going well/riding well we have moved on from before. The highs are higher and the lows are less low. So in that sense I am not actually stuck at all. I just need to keep doing the work, keep aiming to improve and not lose heart.

 

 

Positive or Pessimistic Mental Attitude: My Choice.

Positive or Pessimistic Mental Attitude: My Choice.

Once upon a time my aim was to survive a BE.  Then it was to get a DC. But while I was ecstatic after my first BE and my first DC, neither of those events were exactly models of good horsemanship. Kelsall BE80 was a wild SJ ride and a very slow XC. Somerford was a point and pray course. And my dressage scores for both were in the high 30s/ low 40s.

I now feel that the way I ride is more important  than what I ride over, or the score at the end, and I am becoming increasingly critical of how I am riding.

I decided to book in a few extra lessons to try and sort things out. I booked a dressage lesson with a new  instructor and asked her a million questions about how to improve my marks. To which she eventually replied ‘you know you just need to ride her better!’  Haha. Yes well there is that….

I then had a jumping lesson and kept missing the stride and as the fences were big and tight, I kept putting Amber in impossible positions and forcing her to stop. “It’s actually good that she is stopping’ my RI said, ‘you can’t always rely in her to rescue you.” True and helpful but the repeated failure was very demoralising and I got frustrated and upset.

My RI said I need to stop looking ahead to where I want to be and start looking back to how far I have come. Which I know makes sense but is something I am finding very hard. Because when I look back, instead of being pleased at my progress I am instead embarrassed about how bad I used to be! I see memories pop up on my FB timeline and wince at videos I was once proud enough to post.

Perhaps it will always be like that?  Will I look at my current videos one day and wince at them too? Probably, because for all my posts on ’embracing failure’ I still don’t. Which is ridiculous. No-one was born knowing how to ride. We all have to learn and we all have to go through all those stages of learning: the wobbles, the falls, the confusing cues, the flappy legs, the getting ahead or behind the movement, the staring down at fences or ditches, the dodgy lines and the missers. EVERYONE. Even Carl Hester used to be bawled out for being too ‘handsy’.

But that acceptance  is definitely still a ‘work in progress’ and in the meantime I have been working harder then ever on position and balance etc. I felt I was improving and that Amber was going well so I entered Stafford BE hoping to finally, FINALLY nail the dressage. And I thought I had until I saw the score. I literally came out grinning thinking YES! Hurrah!!! And it was a flipping 39. Not scored worse all season.

A load of ‘other’ stuff also been going on for a few weeks too – mainly an impending tax bill I could not pay because of unpaid debts owed to me. So all that was extremely time consuming and stressful to try and sort out. Not to mention massively adding to the ‘how-can-I-afford-this-eventing-malarkey’ guilt. All in all I was in an exceedingly dim frame of mind when I rolled  up to Frickley BE90 on a baking hot and humid day.

We were meant to be travelling up the day before so I could do my usual extended course walk as I find navigating so hard. But I felt it was too hot to travel so we had to go early  morning instead. When we arrived to walk the XC we discovered it was really twisty and counter intuitive and I only had time to walk it once.

So by the time I got on for dressage, I was in a total downward spiral mentally. Not adequately prepared, not motivated and generally wondering why I do a sport that is so time consuming, stressful and basically faffy. Not to mention expensive.

Amber was fine in the dressage but I just assumed it would be another awful score anyway so was unable to feel happy about it. Then she was a nightmare in the SJ warm-up, just accelerating towards the fences. It’s a vicious cycle – if I am mentally low then I am more nervous as my confidence comes from positivity. So I was too scared to jump anything apart from a x-pole in the warm up and I found myself near tears and considering withdrawing. Stupid, ridiculous stuff was running through my mind like maybe the universe was telling me I was going to have an accident etc. Fortunately I managed to take myself off to a shady spot to give myself an almighty kick up the backside. I realised I had a negative loop in my head on auto-play and I needed to change the tape. So – deep breath – focus on the RIDING. Ignore the doom and gloom voices focus on riding forwards & letting her travel, on looking ahead, keeping my body back and making sure that I kept my leg on even when re-balancing or slowing her so she kept engaged behind.

And then the round in the end was fine. She had a pole at 3 when I buried her (again) but instead of compounding the error and riding more tentatively to try and avoid mistakes, I corrected it and rode ON. And she cleared the rest easily, in the time and in control. Hurrah!!!

It felt the best round we have ever jumped in competition and suddenly things felt ok again. I kept my focus on the reality out in the real world and not the imaginary negative world of failure, poor conditions, other uncontrollables and accidents in my head. She flew round XC clear and IN CONTROL!  Woop woop!! Nothing beats demons like an exhilarating blast across country!! They should prescribe it on the NHS.

Had a very Amberish couple of moments: One when we had to go into some woods and turn sharp left up a hill, But there was a novice fence in her eye line ahead in the woods, which she locked onto. NOOOOOOO AMBER!! And again when there was a trickle of a stream we had to cross which I assumed she would run through but in fact jumped massive over. But we survived. Had some time pens but that is fine. I know the speed is there when I want it but I am focusing on control at the moment. So actually a very pleasing outing in the end. AND a respectable if not spectacular dressage score after all! And since then we have also scored a PB of 33.25 at a practice event at Eland. Getting nearer 30 finally.

So what can I take from all that?

  • Negativity is toxic. Utterly toxic.
  • It is also self inflicted. There is no need to get lost in an invented world of problems and issues.
  • And crucially it is reversible. No matter how lost in my own head I am, I can turn it round.
  • Mistakes and dodgy riding is inevitable. Getting down on myself about it is not.
  • Amber is very forgiving! I should take a leaf out her her book.
  • The best advice is sometimes the simplest. I just need to ride her better. And I will.
  • Eventing is the best anti-depressant, stress busting, life re-affirming activity there is! Especially on the world’s most awesome XC horse!!
Help I Have No Brakes!!

Help I Have No Brakes!!

This month has seen us take on the challenge of the Arena Eventing course at Chatsworth and a terrifying BE90 course at Somerford. The good news is Amber attacked everything with her usual confidence and enthusiasm. And the bad news is, well, Amber attacked everything with her usual confidence and enthusiasm!

We managed to get round at Chatsworth with just 4 jumping faults when she rolled a pole. Then we scraped a double clear at Somerford. My first BE DC!!!! But I was lucky to not exit the arena at speed over the metal barriers at Chatsworth and end up in the river, or to fall off at Somerford during a death defying headlong stirrupless gallop down a steep slope after a fence on the brow of the hill. So the score lines do not really tell the story of either day.

I am embarrassed to say that my frequent comments along the lines of ‘will you bloody slow down’ were apparently clearly audible to others. Sadly Amber does not speak English. She does not listen much to bits either. Not when I’m riding anyway. This is a horse who literally jumps any fence that passes her eye line. I have frequently found myself hurtling towards a fence I hadn’t even noticed before she did. “NO AMBER NOT THAT ONE!!!!”

So mixed emotions about our progress really. I keep veering from ecstatic “I HAVE RIDDEN AT CHATSWORTH!! I WENT DC AT SOMERFORD!!!’ to very despondent ‘I can’t ride my horse. I am a total bloody liability out there’.

So I need to take a deep breath and find the middle ground:

It is not okay to be carted. It really isn’t.  It’s bad training for her and it’s unsafe for me.  So I need to take that seriously and find a solution. AND ALSO I am slowly but surely getting there with her. At Somerford she jumped a calm, controlled SJ clear which was 100 X better than our car crash at Aston Le Walls. And at Eland we also jumped clear XC near the optimum time in a round that felt very controlled.

Plus

  • I jumped a freaky fence into space onto a slope and lived to tell the tale. (Last year I trotted anything steep, even without jumps in the way)
  • I jumped a skinny after a table at the bottom of a hill (over winter I rarely made skinnies as I appeared incapable of steering Amber in a straight line).
  • We made it safely over all the related distances. (Over winter Amber never knew where to go after the first part as I appeared incapable of looking at anything except the great big scary fence in front of me! So we usually fluffed the 2nd or 3rd part of the line)

All in all my seat is better, I look ahead better, I regain balance over a fence quicker, I set her up better.

On the other hand I have a LOT of work to do on brakes and gears. I need to look at how she is bitted.  More importantly, I need to get better at riding her! I need more rhythm, more core strength, more balance, more thinking ahead, more effective aids, a better position, better communication with her. And most importantly of all, I need to put in the schooling to give me the control that is still sorely lacking in some situations. Hopefully next time out will be a rather calmer experience!

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Highs and Lows and Highs…..

Highs and Lows and Highs…..

Well this horsey business is a roller-coaster isn’t it! One minute you are on top of the world and the next you are (literally) flat on your face in mud.

This month started with Eland BE90. Amber was AWESOME. She slipped 3 times in the dressage and I over-rode for a silly pole SJ but flew the XC with just 2 time pens. She did not hesitate at a thing and could have gone round 3 times. Woohoo. It was just brilliant. And has answered my ‘should I event her barefoot’ question. (No.)

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Then 2 weeks later it was time for Bradwall BE90. Storm Hannah hit and the conditions were HORRENDOUS. Relentless heavy rain, strong winds, the odd flurry of hail. I sat in the lorry staring gloomily at horizontal rain pondering my options. A friend updated FB: “I’ve been eliminated in the SJ and am waiting for a tractor to tow me off.” A teenager from my yard finished, was shivering like a whippet and withdrew her 2nd horse. What to do? But in the end I decided that dealing with adverse conditions is part of eventing. I did not want Amber to have a negative experience but how would I know how she would cope unless I tried? I’ve ridden in clinics in worse conditions (possibly), my manta being: if they’ll teach in it, I’ll ride in it. So I needed to just get out there and do my best. And Amber needed to suck it up and listen to me regardless of the weather. And, bless her, she did.

A hail-storm hit as we warmed up for dressage but despite that she rode a calm(ish) obedient(ish) test. She was not straight as she kept bending her head and body away from the wind but I’ll let her off that. It was a 39.8 – so not a good score  – but I was thrilled with her attitude which was kind of resigned and accepting as opposed to having a tantrum or freaking out.

So onto show-jumping which was where my day ended when I tried to play safe at the last fence and held her for an extra stride. Which meant she hit the churned up rubbish in front of the fence, lost her footing and skidded in. She made to jump anyway so I went forward then she sensibly changed her mind and I  toppled down her neck.  The most ridiculously unnecessary fall. So mad with myself. I spent all evening beating myself up about a) taking her in the first place and possibly knocking her confidence and b) stuffing it up and knocking mine!

Then I re-read the ideas around embracing failure: If I ride to my limits then I will sometimes mess it up. And I will learn from that and get  better. The only way not to fail is to never try anything hard. And actually I discovered that Amber is pretty robust in bad weather which is useful to know.  And seemed totally unconcerned by the skid or the unplanned dismount. Plus I learnt that if I try to play it safe, I interrupt the flow, overthink things and make a hash of it. Tentative and hesitant riding is not the way to go. So that’s another mistake I’ll know not to make again.

Straight after Bradwall it was the pairs HT at Eland Lodge over the BE80 course. What a difference a day makes! The sun was shining and we were eating ice creams in t shirts. The twins entered on their matching white ponies and they looked great. Even better, they rode great too! Dolly led Jenny round and both jumped confident clears. Dolly acts way older than her tender years! She is a real old soul. She is just so brave and bold.

So we are back on top of the world again. For now. But one thing for sure is that horsey fortunes are as fickle as the British weather. And to enjoy the sunny uplands we have to do a lot of hard, hard work in the rain. But that is what makes the successes all the sweeter.

 

 

Keeping it real

Keeping it real

The law of averages dictate that most of us, most of the time, in most things, are – well – average. In every competition there are a small number of people who place and a far larger number who don’t. And in every competition there is someone listed last and people who don’t  actually score at all due to elimination. Being dead last seems pretty undesirable for most people. But for every first place there is a last place and a whole bunch of in-the-middle-somewhere places and a fair smattering of ‘it really wasn’t my day’ non-placings.

However if you enjoy insta and FB and spend Sunday evening catching up with equine news of friends and friends of friends you might be forgiven for thinking that everyone smashes it all the time. Everyone except you.

Don’t get me wrong – I love it when people share their achievements with their friends on FB. I love seeing the reports and the photos. Other people’s achievements are inspiring and it’s great seeing friends doing well. And I am also not suggesting that people should post about their disappointments if they don’t want to. People use social media however they want to.  But it IS worth bearing in mind that when you read social media that for many people insta and FB are the modern day equivalent of the holiday photo album: we show pictures of smiling kids, spectacular scenery and sunshine. We edit out the tantrums, the projectile car sickness episodes and the sunstroke.

I have twin daughters and it so happens that sometimes one or other of them is having a run of great form and good luck, or  of poor form and bad luck. And every so often one’s purple patch just happens to coincide with the other one’s doldrums. And yet I see the effort they both make day after day, week after week, month after month. So one Sunday when one had had a great day and the other hadn’t I wrote a FB post which seems to have resonated as it was widely shared. So I have reproduced it below.  I choose to post the good, the bad and the ugly but that is only because my blog is my story and I want it to be a complete record of where I came from and where I eventually get to.

But no-one is obliged to post anything if they don’t want to and many understandably choose not to post when things have not gone well. So it is important to remember that you are seeing a small selection of the weekend events and not to compare your own messy, frustrating, up and down equine life with other people’s highlights.

I wrote:

I would like to offer a shout out to all those who did not have a great day. Who have worked just as hard, are just as committed, spent just as long schooling, fittening, training, bathing, plaiting, preparing and psyching themselves up. Who tried just as hard. To jump clear and place, everything has to go right. To fall flat on your face (metaphorically or literally) can happen in any one of a dozen ways. So for those who had run outs, refusals, poles, falls, eliminations, errors of course, time penalties or ponies who stopped to wee in the middle of a round (been there!!) it doesn’t matter. You are all awesome to be out there competing in the sport we all love. You care for your horses and ponies, you train hard, you are brave, focused, tenacious and dedicated. And your time to celebrate will come!

Happy horsing everyone. However it is going right now.

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