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!!
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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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Aston Le Walls BE90

Aston Le Walls BE90

“ Control the Controllables”

Unfortunately Amber was not one of the controllables today!

But let’s start at the beginning: This was my first BE90. So I was nervous but after an awesome Fab Feb full of some really challenging clinics I actually felt ready. There was no reason why any of it should be a disaster. We have worked very hard on our flat work, she has been so much more rideable show jumping and she’s been doing plenty of big and technical XC lines. We were good to go.

It started fairly promisingly with a calm dressage warm up. She was actually listening, relaxed and engaged. That’s a first! And the first half of the test felt really nice. She felt calm and relaxed. Then in the 2nd canter something spooked her. And after that she was just a little bit tense so we had a break in the canter, a late transition to trot, a jog in the walk, a poor final centre line. All of which will have been very expensive. No test sheet but I am hoping that it was basically very good (for us) and then very bad! Leaving us on a disappointing 40 overall. But my dressage instructor has told me not to worry about scores at the moment– we are looking at direction of travel and a very good then very bad set of marks is far better than a blah set all the way through. I know we are not yet consistent but it’s looking promising…..

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So now for the fun bit. SJ & XC on a calm, relaxed & listening Amber– no worries. This will be a breeze.

Ha bloody ha…..

Somehow between the dressage ending and me heading to the SJ warmup Amber morphed into Crazy-Orange-Beastie mode. I went down to the SJ warm up in a snaffle as I have been riding both SJ and XC in a snaffle all winter. But as soon as we hit the arena she was absolutely bonkers. And I had no idea what to do about it. I was in theory focusing on getting her into a nice rhythmical balanced canter. Show jumping is just dressage with obstacles and all that. But she had other ideas and every canter just turned into her bogging off with me. So I tried to canter-halt-canter-halt to get her listening. But that didn’t help much. So I tried to pop a X Pole which she ballooned. So I went back to the lorry to put her in a gag bit. Which meant I could stop her better but as soon as I released the brakes she tanked off again. Jumped the X pole a few more times but she never settled so put her at bigger fences but she ballooned all them too. So I just crossed my fingers, rode in and flattened the course! It was a total car crash. By far the worst round we have ever jumped in training or competition. Plus she was jumping so extravagantly that my saddle slipped on landing from fence 3 and I was almost off and had to do the rest of the course sideways. Not our finest moment. 16 faults and 12 time pens from circling to try and settle her. And get my stirrups back. Thanks  for that Amber!!!

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Really not sure why that happened to be honest.  But looking at the video (and no I am not brave enough to post my humiliating car crash of a round anywhere….) I think I was too afraid of her galloping on that I did not have my leg on at all. The round went a bit like:  jump – land – bog off, come back to trot, oh no there’s another jump, kick on, flatten it,  land, bog off, come back to trot. Repeat. It was embarrassingly awful. I wonder if I had kept my leg on and ridden forward she might have eventually settled into a canter rhythm. But she just was not rideable. Not by me anyway. Back to the drawing board!

I went straight down to XC after SJ and she was jogging and excitable but thankfully once we were out on the XC she felt great. She seemed to be saying FINALLY I get to gallop and jump. Why can’t I do this ALL the time?!  It was my first BE90 so there were a few questions – related distances to skinnies, a jump into space on the brow of a hill. Nothing too terrifying. But she did have a stop at the water which is about the only thing she is a little wary of. On the approach there was a fairly sizeable hanging log which looked like it went straight into the water so she decided she needed a look at that. But she popped it 2nd time and flew everything else.

And I did not go wrong! In any phase!! HURRAH. Now that is a triumph in itself.

So yet another cricket score.  But in the words of Matthew Syed the key to success is a progressive attitude to failure. Failure is our greatest teacher – providing the information you need to improve. As long as you embrace it as an opportunity to learn.

Well my fledgling BE career is giving me a LOT of failure practice…… which is good, right?!

I can only be as good as I am.

I can only be as good as I am.

So positive 2019 is going well. PMA and Power-posing (yes really!) has seen me throw myself into clinics without the usual semi-apologetic “Amber is a good horse with a numpty rider” introduction and the preparing to fail “we aren’t very good at steering” excuses. Instead I act as if I believe I belong on her. The difference is striking and suddenly we have gone up significantly in terms of size and technicality of the lines we are jumping.

I was buzzing the first few times out – ecstatic at what we were achieving. But recent clinics and a BE training day left me feeling surprisingly deflated and frustrated and I could not work out why. Until it occurred to me that pretending to be a confident and positive rider helps to a degree but does not actually make me more skillful that I truly am!

We were jumping angles, a ski-jump to a weird mushroom thing, a skinny out of the water, trebles on a curve, a skinny to a corner etc etc. We had a couple of stops as Amber was confused about the questions being asked. Seeing and maintaining a line through a set of spooky obstacles was just a step too far to get right at the first attempt on every line. Amber, bless her, jumped her heart out  and we did the whole course/ the various lines without mishap in the end. So really it was a great learning experience for both of us. But I am riding at the absolute limit of my ability so I am making mistakes which is proving to be mentally testing. Those ‘I am letting my horse down’ feelings are back.

A year ago or so ago I wrote that I felt I was 6-8  weeks away from it ‘all coming together’. Then this month at a clinic at Somerford my instructor said ‘you really aren’t far away from it clicking and coming together.’

Wait, what? I am STILL 6-8 weeks away….. but I  have improved a lot since then. So what does ‘it all  coming together’ even mean?

Well I guess it means that the specific thing I am struggling with right now will ‘come together’ so something that is currently in the Learning Zone near or on the edge of my ability will slip into the Comfort Zone. But then something new will be a struggle. So as long as I am trying to improve I will always be in that frustrating place of struggle, mistakes, and crises of confidence. The Learning Zone is an uncomfortable place to be!

Thinking back to a year ago, I was trying to steer Amber around a simple course of jumps in some degree of control – struggling with her running on or breaking to trot. Now I am struggling with finding technical lines and holding her on them over spooky fences! A year ago I was trying to get Amber to canter on the right leg and move in a vaguely straight line. Today we are working on her being consistently engaged, relaxed and rhythmical. Those are not the same places.

So yes I needed to get better at being positive but I also need to recognise that confidence does not mean not making mistakes anymore. Quite the contrary – I need confidence to ride at a level where I will make mistakes. To strive to always be in that scary and frustrating Learning Zone, working on what I find hardest. And once I have mastered that, to move onto the next challenge. And the next and the next. Because I guess if it feels easy then I am just not challenging myself enough!

What I need to let go of is the impatience and the frustration about how long it is taking to truly improve. I can only be as good as I am so that just has to be ‘good enough’.

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Fake it till you make it

Fake it till you make it

I recently had a lesson with Nicola Wilson, eventer extraordinaire. During it we had to canter a bend over a pole, get straight to a set of canter poles and ride another bend to finish. Amber maintained balance on the bend and popped through the poles in a lovely rhythm and with good athleticism.

“You enjoyed that didn’t you” said Nicola. I beamed in response. But then my bubble was burst….

“You were enjoying your moment of triumph so much that you forgot to ride the 2nd bend” she said.

She was absolutely lovely and could not have been kinder or gentler in her feedback but she was spot on. I was stuck on being pleased with myself and literally forgot to keep riding.

Reflecting on the lesson I realised this is a problem I have a lot of the time. Frankly I find myself so surprised to be doing it at all that I don’t realistically aspire to do it well.

This attitude has been with me all my life. I did an ironman in 2011 and I chose to do it on a bright pink bike complete with a set of pink furry dice. This was partly because I like pink. But a more subtle message to the world was ‘I am not really taking this too seriously’. Which is bullshit. No-one trains that hard for that long to do something that challenging without taking it seriously! And it is also pointless because frankly The World has better things to worry about than what colour bike I ride. Or indeed whether I complete an ironman or fail to get round.

In retrospect I can see this as a defence against failure. If I make light of the event, keep my expectations firmly in check and ride a silly looking bike then perhaps falling flat on my face won’t hurt so much?

The trouble is that I have internalised this expectation to fail. I ride dressage tests hoping to avoid mistakes instead of riding to demonstrate Amber’s balance, rhythm, straightness or accuracy. I ride fences thinking ‘phew’ after every fence instead of focusing on the one coming up. And, as I did in the lesson with Nicola, if I ever do something well I am so surprised at myself that I inevitably fluff the next bit!

I simply don’t believe I belong in the eventing world at all, never mind on the podium. Last season I never plaited up. At the time I believed this was because I can’t plait for toffee and figured bad plaits look worse than no plaits. But I could LEARN to plait. So perhaps subconsciously my au naturel look is the horsey equivalent of the pink fluffy dice. My tacit acknowledgement that I know I don’t belong here so I need not look the part?

My friend is the opposite: she comes from the background of elite sport and no matter what she enters she is riding to win. Even if the idea of winning that particular event is bordering on delusional. But it makes her 100% more focused and positive in her riding than I am.

This attitude affects everything about my riding. Amber oozes class and credibility in precisely the ways I do not. I never set out to buy a horse like Amber and would not have dared have her had I known how good she is. But why not? After all plenty of riders buy fantastically well bred horses with great ability and I don’t judge them for that. But I have spent 2 years believing I am not a good enough rider for Amber. Believing she is wasted with me, is far too good for me. I adore Amber and she is with me for life so I accepted long ago that I had a responsibility to learn to ride her. But actually it goes further than that – I need to accept that she and I are partners. That I DO belong with her and on her. I DO belong at One Day Events. We are not just making up the numbers while enjoying a nice day out but are there to compete for placings.

I work hard, I  am determined and driven. And I do care. Very much.

So here is my 2019 NY resolution: I am hence forth banned from using a defence against failure that pretty much guarantees I will not succeed! After all in the words of Henry Ford: “If you think that you can or you think that you can’t, you are usually right.”

So I will enter events aiming to pull out a peak performance and to compete for placings every time. I will stop feeling apologetic if I mess up and start feeling bloody annoyed instead. I will never again express any doubts about my rightful place as Amber’s rider and our rightful place at ODEs. After all with a jump as effortlessly joyful as this, there is nowhere better  for us to be!

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Oh and I guess I’d better learn to plait 😉