The 50 Year Old Beginner

The 50 Year Old Beginner

4 months on and Amber remains lame, so I have missed the whole eventing season. The main idea behind getting Toby was to make sure that when Amber returns to work, I am ready to get cracking with her immediately. But she has other plans. And I have discovered that while I could just about ride Amber, I can’t really ride other horses. Well I can ride them but I can’t ride them. I am a passenger, or even a hindrance. Far from improving myself for Amber’s eventual return to fitness, I feel further away from being back in a start box, on her or any other horse, than ever.

I can’t work out if that is because my standards are higher now and I am more aware of what I don’t know. Or whether getting used to a new horse after several years learning to cope with Amber is a tricky adjustment for anyone. Or whether I am really just a bit rubbish and Amber filled in the gaps for me by being awesome. The bottom line though is:

  • Toby is a lovely, uncomplicated, sweet horse and I can’t yet ride him in a straight line, or in a decent rhythm or with much balance. So, not surprisingly, he rarely works over his back correctly or approaches fences straight or with a decent canter.
  • I am used to Amber towing me in so I am not positive enough with Toby. He therefore does not jump confidently as I faff about on top, not committing to the fences.
  • This is only an issue with me on him! He jumps fine with others on board.
  • I can’t ride Dolly effectively either even though she is in the form of her life at the moment with Katie.

Sigh

It is sometimes tempting just to set my ambitions lower. Accept that I have no natural talent and just have FUN. Toby is so much fun. He is safe, forward, willing, kind, genuine. A true go anywhere, do anything horse. We have had a ball all Summer: farm rides, XC schooling, camps, clinics, hacks. I discovered that I actually do like hacking. I just don’t much like hacking AMBER. Toby, on the other hand, is a dream to hack. So why not forget about trying to ride well and just enjoy my lovely young horse.

But, above all else, I want to be a good rider. I don’t even care if I don’t compete. I want to be good for its own sake. I want to improve horses, not get in their way. I want to feel competent and skilled, not disorganized and unco-ordinated. I want to be able to produce a calm, happy, willing, well-schooled, confident horse.

So my plan C, (or are we on D, E, X now??), is to finally LEARN TO RIDE. I am having school master lessons at Ingestre. I am having biomechanics sessions on Toby. I am still plugging away at Dressage Rider Training and Noelle Floyd Masterclasses. And I am getting as much saddle time as possible to practice. It feels like I have taken about 100 steps backwards but hopefully this is going backwards to plug some gaps in my foundation in order to move forward again. One day. The saying goes: When the student is ready, the teacher appears. Whether Toby will be my future eventing partner remains to be seen. But for now he is my teacher and I am trying to be a good student. I’m certainly a committed one, if that counts for anything.

Anatomy Of Anxiety

Anatomy Of Anxiety

So turns out I have not come through the Amber-Chucking-Off experience unaffected. I thought I had because when I rode Amber again I felt relaxed. But it turns out that my brain is not logical! So rather than being afraid on my crazy orange beastie who actually did throw me off, I find I am afraid on all other horses instead. Including my rather lovely new one – Toby. A sale project and stop gap while Amber is out of action.

I am a Clinical Psychologist and I offer Rider Confidence Coaching to other people. So I really ought to be able to sort this out. So I have decided this blog is my homework….. To remind myself that I understand what is happening and I have the skills and the tools to deal with it.

So what is anxiety?

Well anxiety is the biological response to a perceived threat. Our clever neo-cortex  is the newest part of our brains and we like to think this logical, thinking brain is in charge. But it is overlaid on top of a much older emotional brain which includes the amygdala. The amygdala acts as a threat alert system. When it perceives threat it fires off warning signals all around the body: blood is diverted from the brain and gut to the major muscles so you can’t think straight and feel sick. Heart rate goes up to supply more oxygen to those muscles and hormones pour out to prepare you for fight or flight.

The problem with this emotional brain is that it has a mind of its own. You can’t tell it what is and is not a threat. And for whatever reason my amygdala is seeing threat EVERYWHERE. There is a bird in that tree – THREAT. There is a horse about to pass us – THREAT. There is a puddle across the path -THREAT. Toby looks at something -THREAT. Toby loses balance for a moment – THREAT. Toby jogs -THREAT. Etc etc.

You can’t change the fact that threat alerts will be triggered. But you CAN control how you respond to them. We are programmed to respond by fight or flight and my default is always Flight, AKA avoidance. So the process goes:

ME: I think maybe I will canter.

AMYGDALA:  Sees canter as a threat. Releases the THREAT alert.

ME: Just the thought of canter is making me feel sick and scared so I won’t canter after all

AMYGDALA- Good decision. Threat alert switched off.

ME: I feel much better and decide I am ‘not ready’ for canter yet.

In this scenario – which is repeated with lots of other horsey related activities, the amygdala fails to learn that canter is within my abilities, that nothing bad is going to happen, that Toby is a safe and willing horse. So next time I think of canter (or anything else that scares me) the same thing happens again.

So what can I do? Well that is simple enough. JUST DO IT! If you know that the problem is a faulty alert system and not that you are overfacing yourself or your horse, JUST DO IT. Take a deep breath, find some mantra that makes sense to you and bloody get on with it. Key bit though – you have to stay with it long enough for the anxiety to drop before you stop. Basically the process of your anxiety dropping WHILE you are doing something you find frightening rewires the amygdala. So next time you come to do that activity the intensity of the fear is much lower and drops much more quickly. Till eventually you no longer see the activity and threatening at all.

So today my lovely friend gave me a kick up the arse and I went to Somerford on Toby to do the farm ride. And spent a good  couple of hours rewiring my brain. Started the ride feeling sick with fear. Mid way through felt mildly tense. Then started feeling relaxed. And finished up feeling elated. Hurrah – Step 1 on the road back to confidence ticked off. Thanks Toby. You aren’t Amber but you are pretty cool too!

Corona and curve balls

Corona and curve balls

A Chinese curse goes: “May you live in interesting times”. Well these times are certainly interesting. Having horses has been a huge blessing at a time when life is so surreal. In a changed world, the horses offer reassuring continuity. Covid may be spreading and altering every other aspect of my life, but Dolly still drinks my coffee, covers herself head to toe in poo every night and hacks out like a 15 year old schoolmaster. Amber still nickers for treats, enjoys a scratch and pulls bitch-face expressions at me if I get too near her food!  Life at the farm feels more or less normal and is helping me stay sane inside insanity.

But sadly Amber is also lame. She had been going well on the flat, but I popped a cross pole and she landed then promptly decked me. Just like at Somerford. Amber may be challenging to ride at times but she is not a chucker-offer. So clearly something was wrong and a lameness work up and nerve blocks confirmed right foot pain. Same place as the injury in September when she twisted a shoe off in the field. Xrays suggest tendon damage and she needs an MRI to assss the extent of the damage  but with lockdown, that has not been possible. It seems likely that the September injury, the uncharacteristic behaviour in January and now lameness are all related to what may be a serious injury involving a long lay off. Or even a shift from jumping to ‘the dark side’ aka stressage.

Talking of which, just before she went lame we entered some E-Rider dressage tests. We scored a PB of 67.34  and had some lovely comments about her potential and our partnership. Getting the sheets through the post after she went lame was bittersweet. But is was lovely to see that we were finally shifting away from low 60s scores and heading nearer that 70% 30 pens barrier. I could just about imagine getting quite into dressage if I was not so utterly rubbish at it so we may yet make a dressage partnership! If not, then she has a home for life with me anyway. The mare who no-one wanted will never be unwanted again.

 

Brain Training

Brain Training

So Amber came back from the trainer wired and wild where jumps and poles were concerned, which wasn’t exactly my hoped for outcome …..  the basic conclusion was that she is not suited to an amateur and should either be competed by a pro to add some value before selling on as a more established horse competing at a higher level, or kept permanently on schooling livery on a pro’s yard to be ‘kept sweet’ so all the education that was put into her over the 8 weeks didn’t just unravel again.

That triggered a couple of days of sobbing, soul searching and a roaring return of my ‘I am not good enough for this horse’ confidence crises. But I have known for years that I am not good enough for her and have made my peace with that. She’d obviously do much better in a more experienced home and I’d probably do rather better with a more experienced horse. Green on green is never a great plan. But the bottom line is I adore her. She’s my partner and my pal. So I’m certainly not selling her. And I have horses in my life to have horses in my life. My every day life. Not just for weekends and holidays so having her on full schooling livery would not suit me either.

So she’s going nowwhere. And I am going back to the drawing board to try and find a way forward for us both.

The C word has obviously thrown all plans into chaos but thank God for horses because I can still see her and still ride. 

To fill the clinic, camp and lesson vacuum I have downloaded Noelle Floyd’s Equine Masterclasses and resurrected Nicola Smith’s Dressage Rider Training online programme. So each day sees rider workouts in the front room and Rideability 101 in the arena or the farm fields.

And if I do have to be confined to barracks well now is a good time, because I need to find a way (again) to ride. I can’t dominate her. I can’t boss her. I have to find another way at the same time as recognising that I DO need to be able to direct her. I personally react better at work when I understand what I have to do and am guided politely towards doing it than I would be if people just shouted at me or pressured me. I think Amber is the same. Plus, the fact is I am simply not a good enough rider to dominate her. I can’t cope with her tantrums and  I can’t hold her if she wants to go. So I have decided to keep trying to use my brain to influence hers. Mainly because my brain is better than my unskilled, wobbly body and Amber’s brain is more amenable to my control than her wayward, forward body!

And step one of ‘brain training’ is to go back to basics and make things very simple and obvious and then add complexity 1 small step at a time. So I have spent a few weeks going right back to Rideability 101 trying to re-embed her obedience chip. Endless poles in walk and trot till she stopped rushing and could pop through raised poles, on a bend and on the buckle without changing rhythm. This week I have been able to extend and collect the canter in a big open field with slight shift in weight and half halts. I can halt -canter- halt. I can canter 5 strides, trot 5 strides, canter 5 strides. So surely we were ready for canter poles?

Today I decided to find out:  During one of Amber’s early introductions to canter poles she attempted to jump them all in one go, landed in the middle of them and took off galloping for several laps of the arena. It was not the best learning experience for her. My fault totally of course but I was a guinea pig rider having a free assessed lesson by someone very experienced wanting their coaching qualification. When she put out the poles I thought ‘help that could go wrong’ but also felt that arguing with her might look bad to the assessor so I just decided to do as I was told. Which ironically then looked a hell of a lot worse to the assessor but hey ho.

I discovered then (and many times since then) that Amber’s default position to anything in life that she is either keen on or unsure of is to launch herself at it with total commitment. Either in a YIPPEE – LET’S GO way or sometimes in an ‘EEEEEK – CLOSE EYES, ENGAGE TAKE OFF GEAR, LAUNCH’ kind of way. The latter is what sees her taking out strides and jumping 3 times the height she needs to. (Which was fun (not) when we were first learning to jump into water!!)

Krissie-68

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We have done countless hours over the past 3 years getting her comfortable and confident around poles so that even though I still have Amberish Yeehaa moments, we have not had anxiety driven launch moments for a long time. Until I tried to pop her over a X-pole just before she came home and she grabbed the bit and accelerated. Again and again. Sigh. Since getting home I have discovered that she launches at trotting poles too, never mind canter poles.

But with my weeks of rideability 101 work in the bag I felt ready to try again. So today I put out 2 poles 72 feet or 8 strides apart. Popped up to canter on a small circle from walk then approached pole one. WHOOSH she took off. She did the ‘8’ strides in 6 and that was trying to collect! The words of various trainers ran through my head – move the bit, body back, half halt, make her listen, she needs to wait. Tried all that. 6 strides. Circled before to get a good rhythm and then tried to lock that rhythm in– but she launched the instant she saw the first pole until she was over the 2nd. So I came to halt, and sat in defeat staring at her beautiful neck and thought WHY? If I can collect and extend when the poles are not there, then why won’t she do it when they are. Why do the poles make so much difference?

I decided it’s not an obedience or communication thing. She undertands the aids to collect and listens to them. But learning is situational. Horses don’t generalise very well so for whatever reason she thinks poles = acceleration and speed. So was it a fear thing? Well no because she could happily walk over, trot over and stand astride the poles. But maybe it started as a fear thing and has become a learned behaviour? Basically a habit that she now thinks is the ‘right way’ to canter over poles or approach jumps.

Who knows how horses  and process stuff or how she could believe that despite me hauling on her reins she is supposed to be tanking through the poles like a loon. But I swear the more I tried to slow her down the more annoyed she got with me. She was more or less shouting ‘what! I’m doing exactly what I am supposed to do. What’s your problem’.

So how to tell her that I did not want that? That I wanted her to be calm, slow and responsive? I decided to walk over the first pole and halt. Then trot and halt. Then canter and halt. Repeat 3 times and on time 4 I just allowed the canter to continue. 4,5,6,7, 8!! Hurrah – lovely, calm, pingy canter. 8 rhythmic 12 foot strides. And no arguing. Repeated the canter – halt a couple of times so she was never sure if she was carrying on or not. Pinged through one more time and ended there with a huge grin and a tearful cuddle. (Yes I’m pathetic.)

Such a small achievement. But in the context of our 3 year struggle I feel like it’s HUGE! So we might hit dead ends, take detours and we will certainly be limited to my pace not hers, but we will get there. ‘There’ being where-ever we end up which will be a lot further on than ‘here’. And we will have a lot of fun on the way.

Back On Board

Back On Board

22829732_1988473947835060_5121713589702021186_oOk so I got chucked off Amber twice in the warm up at Somerford and broke my ankle. Turned out her saddle air bag had deflated and the saddle was jabbing her in the back, so fair enough. But in the meantime I have had 7 weeks of not riding her while she was sent to bootcamp.

I spent a fair chunk of those 7 weeks replaying the falls – or more to the point the ‘what the hell is happening’ moments before the falls when Amber behaved totally out of character. I have had her for 3 years and logic would dictate that 3 years of non-bronccing Amber would outweigh a few seconds of bronccing Amber – especially as there was a reason. But there was an unavoidable psychological phenomenon at play called the recency effect. Which basically means that the most recent thing to happen is given more weight and importance in our minds than older information/experiences. A reason why ‘finishing on a good note’ is just as important for riders as it is for horses and why the ‘good note’ should be a good FEELING not just a correct response.

Anyway the recency effect has meant that everytime I have thought about riding Amber I have experienced anxiety which has led to another unavoidable psychological phenomenon of ‘mood congruent memory’. Basically when we are sad we remember other sad things, when we are angry we remember all the other things that have wound us up. And when we are anxious about riding our horses we remember all the other times we have felt anxious on a horse.

So anxious feelings lead to anxiety provoking memories which lead to more anxious feelings etc etc. And far too much time for that all to play out.

Into this unhelpful mix was added the feedback from the trainer which was essentially that Amber is very difficult to ride, headstrong, overly brave, opinionated, very sensitive and really not suited to an amateur at all.

Now this is not really news. I realized a long time ago that Amber is talented, brave, strong, opinionated and ginger! So I needed to seriously up my game if I was going to keep her. And a long time ago I made the choice that for better or for worse, she is my horse, I love her and I am going to stick with her. I just need to learn to ride her.

But that conversation in that frame of mind left me 90% convinced that it was time to sell on. For both our sakes. Only every time I considered actually putting her up for sale I’d start crying! Plus I was aware of the recency effect and realised that now is not the time to make decisions. I needed to get back on her and see how things felt once we were back out there having fun together.

And today I rode! I used an old Mark Rashid mantra: turn your fear into gratitude. I focused on how incredible it is that strong, athletic, powerful horses let us climb up onto them and ask them to do things for us that are of no benefit to them. And that mostly they co-operate. I also used Tik Maynard’s philosophy of approaching your horse with softness and politeness, always ask nicely and saying thank-you. Mental approaches that – along with mindfulness and breathing – allowed me to feel confident getting on her. And once I was up there it was like I’d never been away. She was relaxed, she was listening, she was obedient. For flatwork anyway. Jumping was another matter…… But we have sorted that out before and can again.

The most important thing is I now have a new ‘most recent ride’ and it was one that left me happy. And brought back all those other happy memories of happy times on my amazing horse. Onwards and upwards…..

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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