Working with a veteran horse

“Had I caused this? Was I not riding her “well” enough? What was I doing wrong? ”

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Lily at her most recent outing- a working hunter class for variety. She loved it!

Having ridden Lily since she was 5 years old you would think I would know her inside out, but over more recent years I have felt deflated when reviewing our progress. Over the last 4 years I have been lucky enough to train and compete two horses, however taking the time to get to know Terry meant that Lily was left on the back burner at times (this did not stop her being the most consistent dressage horse I’ve ever had!). She is a straight forward horse who doesn’t need masses of time in the school, but I felt her suppleness left something to be desired during this time. I was left confused and lacking confidence in my riding.

Had I caused this? Was I not riding her “well” enough? What was I doing wrong?

The reality is that many complex factors influence a horses training and its our job to manage as many of them as we possibly can. Less time for planning and executing productive training sessions can have an impact on any horse. However more sessions isn’t always good and fewer sessions isn’t always bad. Now that I have adapted my schedule for her training (regular pole work/jumping and hacking as well as schooling), she feels much happier and strong in her work.

In hindsight I think I did relatively well bringing her in and out of full work with the resources and time that I had. I now see with training any horse some things get better and some things get worse. And that’s okay. It’s very important however to not allow our perfectionist thoughts lead us to burying our head in sand. Keep sending them forward, keep working on their straightness and suppleness. Don’t be afraid of lateral work!

This year I also feel happier than ever to be aiming for elementary Dressage To Music. Instead of thinking of all the reasons why we aren’t good enough, I’m cracking on with the moves (not being intimidated by them). When I hit challenges, instead of panicking, I will take it as a signal to come back to basics and try again another day.

Coming back from injury

“A few people were so surprised about how positive my thoughts are towards breaking my back, but I was at a point in my riding where I really appreciated being able to hit the reset button”

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For those who don’t know I fractured my spine (L1) at the end of February this year- falling from a horse that wasn’t my own. Was it completely overwhelming and out of the blue? Yes. Was it hard to not be able to take part in the sport that has been part of my life for 12 years? Yes. Was I absolutely fed up for several months? Many times, yes!

 

Although, that being said, it was a lot of other things too. The way it made me stop in my tracks, mentally and physically, was very unnerving and I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. However, I was determined to turn this huge stopping point, into a turning point in whatever small way I could.

 

It was a chance to really look at my habits both outside of and within my riding. Some of the non-riding habits that I wanted to start up included (once I was able to) daily walking and housework. I am a culprit for prioritizing the stable chores over house chores, but I realised from doing a small bit, I felt better for it. It was part of getting my purpose back!

 

In terms of habits in my riding that I wanted to improve on- it was going to be straightness and contact. I was so keen to ride more elementary’s this year but in hindsight I knew I was slipping into bad habits such as ride collection the hand brake on and without prioritising the straightness.

 

During my rehabilitation phase, I did some gentle Pilates classes. I loved it! Not only was it a huge pain reliever for my back it felt like my body was being reprogrammed into having better posture. I even sleep better now because my back is learning this new posture! This had a massive impact getting back onto the horses and I think my seat is better than it has ever been. A few people were surprised about how positive my thoughts are towards breaking my back, but I was at a point in my riding where I really appreciated being able to hit the reset button.

 

Beyond just a reset I was determined to come back better than before (which was a daunting goal to set at the time). Not better in terms of being competitive necessarily, but better in terms of giving clear signals in my riding.

 

When you can’t ride for a long time it puts things into perspective. For me that was realising that all I can do is be the best rider (physically and emotionally) for my horses. Having gone through such a big challenge, I can see that becoming too reliant on outcomes is a slippery slope (that I was on before my fall) and that instead it is the act of being focused on consistent habitual effort that will get you through difficulties.

 

Getting back into competing: Reaseheath BD 4/01/20

 

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Photo credit: Sky Limit Photography

This weekend just gone I competed for the first time in 6 weeks, which may not sound like long time but it was a very purposeful break to focus on training. So it felt like a long time. At my last competition in November I was I was not happy with my riding at all. I didn’t understand why I was doing what I was doing and I felt a lot of frustration. Not at my horse or myself necessarily but at the fact I had lost my way on my dressage journey. So what sort of rider did I want to be?

That’s a good question… predominantly one who puts their basic training first so I spent a lot of the six weeks that followed making sure that I could ride the basics really confidently. This meant riding really good bendy corners, accurate diagonals and 20m circle and FORWARD transitions. Committing to these basics also meant making sure that I was using my seat in the downward transitions instead of my hand which was definitely a bad habit that I had been getting complacent with.

The build up to this first competition after a small break was challenging, because even though I didn’t want to, I could feel myself putting pressure on myself to show off all of my training improvements. When I know that in reality it takes time for these improvements to carry over into competition. On the big day I felt surprisingly good. I felt ready to test what I had learned but the pressure on myself had lowered after having a bad ride the day before. On the plus side, this ‘bad ride’ did give me that perspective to really focus on myself and have small realistic goals. Goals such as: get through the test in a forward rhythm with sweeping lines.

The warm up was amazing and has given me hope for the season ahead. He was happy to work in front of me and push from behind into a more even contact. However in both tests, I’m not sure if its my tension (it probably is!) or just the new environment but I feel like I lose a lot of the connection when I go into the test. I’m just quietly confident that the secure connection we were able to find at times in the warm up will just get more and more until that is the norm for us. Although that is just me trying to put my optimist hat on…

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Photo credit: Sky Limit Photography

 

I came away feeling a large sense of achievement regardless. In the first test I was relatively pleased with almost 62% because there were a few mistakes where I was rushing him so it could have well been closer to 65% without the 4’s. In the second test I felt happy with the marks (67%) but as it was a very strong class I was quite near the bottom of the pack. It was somehow easier to put where I came in the class into a good light this competition compared to last. I think it has a lot to do with my understanding of the horse and nailing the basics!

Taking a break from competing

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Photo from our recent arena hire where I am almost smiling

Recently I had a tough day at a competition where I felt nothing was going right. It was one of those days where its feels so hard to be confident because the work I had done home just seemed none existent. In all honesty it left me feeling disappointed in myself as a rider- and the worst part, I had no idea why what I was doing felt so wrong

So one 59% score later- which was generous in my opinion, I was left feeling deflated but as time passed I realised, this could be a wake up call. I needed a change… A new plan.

As a person, I like competing regularly because I tend to get nervous and so the more competing becomes routine, the more relaxed I feel (alongside other confidence building techniques). However, if my training was not going well and I was still aiming to compete as regularly once a month, where did that leave me…

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Yes regular competing can be a good thing but sticking to a time line so rigidly doesn’t always help! It was a learning curve for me to accept that when we hit a challenge in schooling, spending more time on training for a few months makes more sense than ploughing on with the competitions when we weren’t ready.

I now see that there are many ways of putting a bit of pressure on myself regularly, so that I can dealing with my nerves in a way that is separate to a competition. This is part of my plan. These methods of putting on pressure will include firstly, having a go at online dressage so I push myself ride a planned warm up and do a test at home . Another way of doing this includes arena hire- so getting out and about without as many ‘uncontrollables’ as a competition. If our training withstands these challenges, then this means competing is more likely to be confidence building than confidence knocking. Although when it comes down to it there will always be things to knock your confidence at a competition because there is no such things as perfect conditions. As a result, part of my plan is also being realistic and building resilience.

I write this with the hope that some people will relate to it. However, everyone has a different way learning and competing so some people may not feel they need a break. Although if you do feel stuck in rut, pause for minute and think do I need one and if so what is my plan. Whilst it was a difficult day when I realised something had to change, I now feel excited for my next competition rather than dreading it! So in a strange kind of way I’m glad I went through this bump in the road and I’m hoping it will prepare me for many more bumps in the future!

BD Camp and Compete at Vale View with Sophie Wells

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Day 1 Friday

We arrived with Terry at 4pm and tried our best not to be overwhelmed by the facilities too much! Permanent stables and indoor and outdoor arenas as far as the eye can see. We had fish and chips in the cafe to meet everyone and then an early night ready for the 8am lessons

Day 2 Saturday

Early morning wake up to feed Terry and make sure he was comfortable. He gets a bit stressy when he stays away so luckily we found a place to graze in hand so he would relax and then decide he is also happy to eat the hay in his stable!

Lessons with Sophie Wells started at 8am and it was an honour to sit and watch them. I was a little star struck to be honest I couldn’t believe it was ‘the’ Sophie Wells. She was very precise and disciplined yet she also really wanted to encourage the riders when they did well. This cultivated a very positive learning environment. In my lesson, we worked on making sure Terry was forwards but not falling out of the shoulder. The canter was especially interesting because once I got him forward enough, more forward than I thought he was actually able to balance on his own!

From 4pm onwards all of the riders had test riding opportunities. I chose N37A as it was the harder one of my two tests. It went so well! He warmed up like a dream accessing some of the work from the mornings lesson. We got 67% and all 7’s for our canter work. I was thrilled especially considering over the last month I had lost a lot of confidence and was just meandering around the Petplan test just trying to get through it. In the evening we had another beautiful meal and a BD rules/stewarding quiz!

Day 2: Sunday Competition day!

The best part about this camp had to be the support in the warm up. I know realise how much my nerves were preventing me from riding forward. Having someone give you those pointers in the right direction was a big part of the confidence boost I received this weekend as was being able to compete at the same venue where I had a lesson the previous day. In my first test he was annoyingly spooky especially at a particular sandbag (it was longer than the others!). Some beautiful forward work meant he got loads of 7’s but also a 3.5.

The second test was much better with only a few wobbles. I was really pleased with the give and retakes as I had always found those difficult in the past. He was more forward and straighter, they were so much better. With all the scores being a lot lower in that class I finished on 62.8 and 6th out of 14. A bit of a disappointing score but all the scores were low compared to the first class and I know what I need to work on!

Sheepgate under 25’s dressage championships: sun, scores and sitting up

 

Photo credit to Hoofprints Photography

Sheepgate under 25s is one of my favourite competitions. They put on a great show and the standard is so high it makes me.want to up my game and I try to keep that inspiration in mind during the winter months!

We decided to do 4 tests over two days so a team test and a warm up before each. I kept my warm up roughly the same for all of them but with differing lengths. So stretching in all paces foe the first half and the spiralling out on a circle with transitions (trot walk trot and trot canter) to work on reactivity at the end. See my Facebook or instagram pages for the scores from each test.

I think in all of the tests throughness and bend were what we needed to work on but as I said in the previous blog he had come so far since last year overall I was pleased with all of the tests. With my highest Novice championship score to date on 67%. Sadly due to lack of bend mistakes started to creep in and I was really gutted to be making mistakes in the team test. I did feel like I let my team down.

The learning from this show was massive. My transition work helped him to be more uphill and we were definitely getting some.really good moments. I just know now that it is confidence in my judgement that will improve consistency. If I’m hesitant, he isn’t getting clear black and white signals from me. If I believe in my training enough to see it through, I can then reward him. A highlight of the show was getting 2 x 7s for my riding when I focused on pushing my hands forward and away from me. I thought if that is all I achieve, it will be a personal win for me, I didn’t think it would be a big enough difference for the judges to actually notice! It was also really nice to a few days break away from my masters dissertation.

Trailblazers Elementary Championships with Terry

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Photo credit to: Hoofprints Photography

Day one

I was feeling quite excited about my plan of using the quieter warm up for anyone who knows Stoneleigh there is an arena to warm up that is a bit further away and quieter. It used to be that you couldn’t move up to the quiet to main warm up until it was 10 mins before your time to keep it less busy but this was not the case this year. However for one reason or another (which I am not arguing against) they said they didn’t want people warming up down there for safety reasons.

So we timidly approached the big busy warm up. Which was hard. Very hard. I knew I was very physically anxious but at the same time I felt prepared to just get on with it because it is what it is and we have a job to do So I had my warm up plan but eventually ditched that and just weaved in and out of the horses to check we had bend. It was testing that’s for sure but once we were in canter we both breathed out. The test first day was really good. I was kind to myself and focused on my training for each move as opposed to thinking it was the end of the world as soon as something went wrong.

Day two

This is where it got a bit tougher. The training issues were the same really. It’s getting my inside leg on both reins that was tough and he was just holding his neck and body so tight that anytime I asked more of him he just got tighter. I think because it was second day, he was feeling the effects of the day before… so was I. The actual test started off okay but he was really tense in the halt before the free walk and. Then walk to canter it just blew his mind a little. He became very tense and not wanting to go forward so in the end I retired. Which at the time was disappointing but I felt these were training issues we weren’t necessarily going to get the other side of when we were both worked up.

Reflection on this show

This now links in to what I learned the hard way from this show. How you put pressure on when you and your horse are nervous has to be done in a gradual and confidence building. I feel that the natural reaction when you are lacking confidence is being flooded by negative thoughts and the perfectionism because you are clinging on to those results/outcomes. And on top of that you want the outcomes to be good immediately because that’s how the dopamine reward system works, we want instant gratification. In reality this has the opposite effect due to overwhelm and impatience, which damage your confidence.

The better thing to do is be kinder to yourself and your horse. Make it feel as easy as possible and only ask for extra once you have this foundation. Its often the same for any task we find stressful, we want immediate good results and this leads to a cascade of overwhelm and pressure. However in this case taking a step back, can lead to small steps or building blocks of confidence where you focus on the small amount of things you can do and it builds momentum. Instead of all the worry that comes when you think of what you can’t do.

There’s always more than the score: Field House BD Novices

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So, here’s the scores…

Novice 23: 67% 1st bronze

Novice 37A: 60% 2nd bronze

 

Here’s the ‘more’…

 

If I really put this day into perspective, I am amazed at how far I have come since starting BD.

 

I used to be intimidated at the thought of doing a BD affiliated Prelim, and always wondered how an earth I would feel confident at Novice and above. It seemed so out of reach. However, I have now done many BD Novices and this would be the first time I have done two in one day with my Irish boy Terry.

 

In our tests, he has not always stayed forward and supple to the contact but we had got a fair few Petplan scores this year which I was really proud of. Today was meant to be the day we achieved our final two scores for a second area festival.

 

The first test went really well, possibly one of the best Novices we have ever done. Still tight over the back at times but our good parts were rewarded with 67% and a win in the bronze section. After a year of just scraping 62%, I will definitely take that

 

The second test was N37A which is a bit harder but I really enjoy riding it. I find the 10m circles help to keep him connected and I enjoy riding counter canter. That being said in the actual test we broke into canter in one of our trots and he was quite tense throughout. Finishing on 60% was not ideal because it means we just missed out on finishing our qualification.

 

Whilst not getting the scores I wanted put a bit of a dark cloud over the day, I wanted to keep in mind all the things I learned from that competition. This is because in terms of test riding and him responding to me it is some of the best riding I have done.

 

No matter what happens, the feeling of a bad score or not getting placed (or insert outcome x here) will last for a few days at most but, a consistent commitment to developing your horse and your training goals will last for your whole riding career.

BD Novice Petplan dress rehearsal with Terry: nerves, selfies and assertiveness

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So, we arrived at our first BD affiliated competition in quite some time with the birds tweeting and a feeling of hope (this is meant to be enjoyable after all!). I was looking forward to taking him out as training has been phenomenal.

However, when we got into the warm up and he was really holding his back tightly and tense. I tried to focus on everything I do at home to get him to relax and be more supple and it helped… for a short time. If horses get very near to Terry he can get quite tense. He leans towards the thoroughbred side of the Irish sport horse breeding to be honest. He is also chestnut. Enough said. He is one sensitive boy!

As I came into the arena, I was struggling to get the trot I wanted, then the writer told me to go inside the boards (as opposed to around the edge) and I felt muddled. Obviously, interruptions can always happen I just need to get better at dealing with them. I tried our little techniques to get him in a good trot but to no avail! I kept questioning: what was wrong with me? what’s wrong with him?… instead I should be asking how questions. How do I get him to listen? How do I give him confidence? How can I sit better? We ended up with a messy test where I was riding him forward at all costs and driving him on to the forehand at times.

Even still we got 64.79% and 2nd in our section. 10th in a big class with professionals. I was quite upset when we finished but quietly pleased that I was able to ride more assertively. We now just need the consistency of contact we get at home and we will be golden. Back to the drawing board it is… only two weeks until the big day (the petplan area festivals that is!)

Dressage to music: I thought having dance lessons as a child would give me an advantage…

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Last weekend (6/05/19) as some of you may know I had a go at dressage to music for the first time and to be honest I didn’t expect to be as nervous as I was (I had proper butterflies for the first time in a while)! I thought having dance lessons as I child might give me an advantage but all it achieved was bringing back memories of the fact I wasn’t very good at dancing. Counting the beats, knowing when to come in and being graceful all at the same time…

That being said I always loved the performance side of it. Doing the dressage to music took me right back there. So, it was all worth it and as soon as I did my first canter transition, I was smiling away and actually breathing! The music for Lily cob is a medley of sassy and punchy pop songs which I love. Yes, by all means it was not perfect, and Lily has not been doing masses of flatwork training recently so she was a bit tight over her back and a not quite into the contact at times but Sunday wasn’t about that. It was just about finding our way.

There were times in the warm up where I lacked confidence in our training (I haven’t had a lesson before Hartpury because I have been focusing more on Terry) and I started to feel my breathing shorten. I think the lack of confidence also came from doing a freestyle test where there is a lot of uncertainty. What if the music doesn’t play, what if I go completely wrong and get lost and the music is still playing?

In the end I had to take confidence in where we were that day. Yes, our lead up to it wasn’t ideal but I know her well, I know how to get the best I can out her and I know what to work on after the show. Whilst we won on 68% there was definitely some other triumphs in there. Firstly, I was a little ahead of my music so improvised by adding a circle (anyone who knows me knows that I struggle with thinking on the spot!) And secondly I tried to avoid the temptation to ‘train’ in the warm up (new and challenging work should be done at home and if you are struggling with something at the competition you have to work with what you have on that day- don’t get frustrated if you don’t have your ideal ride).

Anyone who is doing their DTM for the first time I would love to know how you get on and what you found challenging about it.