Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Bad, bad blogger.

I can only apologise. I am thoroughly useless and I don't mean to be, but my life is rather insanely busy at the moment. It is no excuse, and I shall endeavour to do better, as I have SO MUCH to tell you all. Lots and lots of things have changed!

Having had the saddle refitted, everything was going well and Echo was coming back to her previous form. I had an awesome lesson with Andrew Day, a dressage rider and trainer who comes regularly to a nearby yard. It was Echo's first experience of working away from home and she was an absolute angel. The lesson was truly inspiring and in more ways than one; it was at a yard that I was at years ago, and I decided while I was there that it would be a perfect place for me to keep Echo now. So I moved her! It sounds like a rash decision, but I was becoming increasingly frustrated by the state of the surfaces in the arenas at the place she was at before. The indoor was too hard and dusty, the outdoor too wet in winter and too hard in the summer; the woodchip was too boggy in winter and the small sand school completely unrideable due to its depth. I found I was not allowed to ride in any of the fields and was finding it difficult to find anywhere to school her at all. Since dressage is my main interest, it seemed ridiculous to pay so much money to have a horse in a place where I could not ride easily.

The new yard is very different; there is a 60 x 20 sand and rubber all weather arena with floodlights, she is in a 12 x 12 stable with ad lib hay and 3 feeds a day and she has individual turnout, with hay provided in the field. She has been there for just a week and a half and I am already noticing some changes in her. Not all of these changes are good, I have to add, as due to further saddle issues (I'll say mroe about that later) I have not been able to ride her since she moved and so this added to the increase in feed and decrease in turnout time is making her a bit ratty! However, some interesting changes have occurred. She always used to have filled legs at the old yard if she had not been ridden for a day or two. I was alarmed at first, but they went down completely after exercise, so I came to accept it. However, since moving, her legs have not been filled at all, despite not being worked for over a week. I have no idea why this would be. Any ideas?

The other change is in her body shape, which I think must be due to the increase in feed. She has never wintered very well and is prone to losing weight over the colder months; though it might make her a little more lively, which I discovered by the enormous buck she performed on the lunge yesterday, she looks extremely healthy and I look forward to a winter where she does not have to be on Blue Chip.

However, the saddle is a nightmare. I had the gullet changed from a wide to a medium, as it was too low on her withers before and the saddler wanted it to sit higher. This worked for a while, but then she started doing something really odd with her back when I got on, as if she could barely move her hindlegs. She would loosen up enough for me to ride her eventually, but she was uncomfortable, so I got off. I had her back checked and there was nothing muscular wrong at all. She is sound on the lunge and happy to work long and low and in side reins. What was also interesting was that when I was riding her, she seemed most uncomfortable in a higher carriage; when she was long and low, she felt as if she could move through her back but as soon as her head came up, she was unhappy. This seems to suggest a saddle issue, so I have been in touch with my saddler again.

The saddler has suggested that I should change the gullet back to the wide and use a thick numnah again, to see whether this works. If she is still unhappy, he will come out and bring a medium/wide gullet and a few saddles, so we can work out what's wrong. It is mighty infurating. If I had ever ridden her bareback, I would do that for a bit now, but having never got her used to it before, the size of that buck yesterday somewhat stops me wanting to try it for the first time right now!

There are other big and exciting plans on the horizon, which I will tell you about as soon as things are confirmed, but they involve a rather dramatic change in lifestyle for both Echo and me... but more about that another time!

p.s. - more on the Andrew Day lesson to follow too.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Goals for October

I have been inspired by various bloggers to also use this blog to help me keep a check on how things are going. I love reading back over some of the earlier posts and looking at the earlier photos and videos, thinking about how far we’ve come. But as well as this, it would be good to be able to set out goals and assess them at the end of each month, keeping a record of our progress.
So – here goes.
• Bring Echo back into regular work
• One more massage session
• Lunge her at least once a week in the chambon to work on her stretching, particularly on the right rein
• Work at least 15 minutes in each session long and low, between periods of greater collection – not including the free walk for 10 minutes at the beginning and end of each session
• Work on ‘uphill’ upward transitions form walk to trot and trot to canter
• Spend at least 5 minutes of each session concentrating on my position and flexibility in the saddle
• Do at least one session of pole work to engage her hind legs
• Hack out – in company and alone
• Have a lesson
• One session of jumping – working on getting a good stride in approach

Obviously, some of the more athletic exercises here will need to be later on in the month, as she has lost some fitness in the last few weeks. As I write this, I’ve realised that this is more of a training plan than a set of goals. Perhaps that is one of my problems – maybe I am too focussed on WHAT I will be doing rather than what I want to ACHIEVE… Perhaps I need to concentrate on what my training objectives are first, then come up with the exercises afterwards. This is something I was taught very early on when training to be a teacher – I guess it follows that it would apply to teaching my horse too. Definitely worth thinking about.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Where we are


I don’t think I ever showed you this picture – it was taken when I was warming up for the final dressage competition in the series. A friend of mine had got her husband to come and take some photos of her riding her new horse, and she leant him to me for a few minutes. I fell in love with this photo when I saw it – Echo looks like she is really stretching and it’s like she’s floating. It has however, made me think about how much work we need to do to get back to where we were before the soreness. It’s a good job I love schooling so much!

The saddler came out today and now, at last, I can ride my horse again – AND it didn’t cost me a fortune. He had a look at the saddle on her back with no numnah, and thought that it didn’t look too bad. However, he agreed that the muscle wastage behind the right wither is most probably due to the saddle pinching and making her unable to move that shoulder properly. He said that the saddle was not sitting correctly at the back, and was probably moving around too much, making her back sore. He also said that when it was up at the back, it would be too low at the front, causing it to pinch her. He changed the gullet from a ‘wide’ red gullet to a ‘medium’ black one. This means that it sits higher at the front and therefore sits level on her back.

I rode her in walk and trot with no numnah and he was happy that the saddle was no longer moving about. He also complimented her lovely forward-going paces, so that made me very happy. He said that she certainly isn’t lame now, and that I should ride her with a much thinner numnah now that the gullet is narrower. This has now been arranged, so when he left I was able to ride her properly – for the first time in a month!

I’ve been lunging her in a chambon for the last couple of days and been noticing some interesting things. On the left rein, she responds well to the chambon, lowering her head correctly in walk and trot, and a little in canter. However, on the right rein, while she’ll lower her head in walk, she really fights the chambon in trot, as if she is really not able to stretch her back and topline in that direction. It is interesting, as that’s the rein that she struggles to take a contact properly on when ridden. Even though I can ride her again now, I think I’m going to do some work on lunging in the chambon still, as I think it would be really good for her to work on stretching those muscles. I also alternated today when I was riding, between asking her to carry herself normally and asking her to work long and low. She is better at doing it when ridden on the right rein.

I am going to keep this stretching work going for a little while, and gradually build up to asking her to carry herself higher in front. I am also going to get her massaged again next weekend, just to iron out any stiffness as she comes back into work.

I was certainly relieved that a simple change of gullet was all that was needed this time round – I had nasty visions of having to fork out for a new saddle or, even worse, the saddler not having anything suitable and having to think again. Fingers crossed, it’s now sorted and we can get back to having fun again!

Thursday, 1 October 2009

One step at a time...

We are half-way there...I hope. Last week, Echo had a sports massage and Clare found that she was very tight in her shoulders and as a result has become quite tight in the under side of her neck. At first I thought this was a bit odd - she always works in an 'outline' (for want of a better word!), and I couldn't understand where this muscle has come from. However, if she's uncomfortable all the time in her shoulders and withers, then she would be holding her head up a little just to prevent stretching that muscle. She's done no work for several weeks now, so all I can assume is that it's from general discomfort in the field.

The sports massage looked amazing - I was, in fact, rather jealous. I have experimented with Bowen and McTimoney specialists in the past, but I really don't think there's any substitute for good old-fashioned massaging of the muscles. If I had a tight back or neck, I would want someone to properly manipulate the muscles, hands-on, releasing the tension and freeing up the movement. I'm sure that the more alternative methods work for some people, but I kinda like to see what I'm paying for!! Echo absolutely loves it too - she blows her nose, lowers her head and blinks a lot, apparently all signs that she is releasing the tension and build up of toxins in the muscles.

Clare agreed that all the signs in her muscles are that the saddle has been pinching her, so I am really hoping, with everything crossed, that this was the cause of her not feeling right when I last rode her. She has had the last few weeks completely off and I have just managed to get my hands on a chambon, so I can get her to stretch on the lunge. It will also mean that I can lunge her for a day or two before the saddler comes on Saturday expecting me to get on this wild beast! She has been extremely bored recently and thunders across her field, bucking and squealing whenever I turn her out. She has definitely developed a good height to that buck of hers, so I think some lunging before mounting will certainly be in order!

My only worry is that in not working for the last few weeks, she will have lost some of the muscle that was causing the problems with the saddle - but I guess we'll just have to see with that. I can't wait to ride her again - it's been too long! If all goes well, I'm hoping the saddler will be able to just change the gullet in my wintec saddle and all will be lovely and rosy. I am very much hoping that what looked wrong in her hindlegs was simply a result of the tension in her back and that there isn't any other issue to deal with.

Saddler comes on Saturday, so fingers crossed!

Monday, 14 September 2009

Some time out...

There really is nothing like horses for bringing you back to earth with a thump. I had a fantastic summer - both travelling and then with Echo, winning the dressage series, competing in our first tiny showjumping competition, and gaining a lot of confidence hacking out together on our own. I have many plans for the autumn and winter - a dressage lesson with a Portuguese rider, cross country schooling, perhaps a couple of winter dressage competitions... But Echo isn't quite right.

She had just under a week off while I went back to school and was insanely busy - then when I rode her next time she just felt a little odd. She still worked hard, but didn't feel as if she had the power in her back end at all and i couldn't get her to lift her front end whatsoever. We had been getting much much better at this, so I was a little surprised. When I asked her to leg yield on the right rein, she dropped my contact, contracted her neck and found it really difficult to move sideways. Not good.

I got off and lunged her, so that I could have a decent look at how she was moving. I couldn't really see anything wrong in her movement, but she was having trouble pushing off into trot from her left hind. The yard manager had a look at her back and thought it felt rather sore, but he was really digging, and when I ran my hand along her back she didn't react at all. He also pointed out that the grease on her numnah was rather unevenly distributed. I had been planning to get the saddler out for a while, so this made sense.

I gave her a week off, just in the field, hoping that this would help, then got my instructor, John, to have a look at her on Friday. I explained the transition thing in the left hind, but...as you'd expect...she didn't really do it then! He said that she looked fine behind, but was very tight high up in her left shoulder, and this is preventing her from moving correctly. He felt up and down her back and shoulders and said that her shoulder was rock solid and that was causing tension and soreness further down the back. He said that I should get her treated by a physio, then get her saddle checked. In the mean time, he suggested that I lunge her in a chambon for a few days, then ride her with more bulk under the saddle.

I don't have a chambon, so I decided to lunge her on Saturday just to have another look. It seemed to me that she was struggling with the left hind again. So difficult!! With my very limited knowledge of the horse's anatomy, it seems as if there is something not right in the stifle. However, it doesn't seem to bother her except for the transition into trot. I have no idea whether this might be being caused by the saddle and the shoulder tightness, or whether it's something different altogether.

It does make sense that her shoulders would be sore - I have been asking her to carry herself in a much more uphill position, and if her saddle is tight at the front, which the grease marks would suggest it is, then this would probably accentuate the problem. Also, we have been jumping more, which is probably putting more pressure on this part of the saddle. She has had that saddle for a year now, and has definitely changed shape, so the chances are that this is causing her some pain. It's infuriating that you have to wait until your horse is in pain to know these things though. The saddle looks to me like a pretty good fit, but then I have always been bad at judging this!

So - where to go next? I am going to rest her for another week, as I can't get the sports massage therapist that I use out for a few days. I will get her treated and those muscles eased off, then get the saddler to come and look at the fit of her saddle (fingers crossed it just needs a few adjustments...) and if she still doesn't look right behind, after all that, I will get a vet and see if we can look into the problem a little more closely. Since it doesn't seem to be causing her pain in general, and it is possible that its related to the saddle, I think its best that I get these things sorted first - sort of trial and error I suppose!

In a selfish way, it's much better that it is happening now, as I'm back at school and I have very little time during the week to ride. It is, however, very annoying, as we were just getting going after the long break at the beginning of the summer.

Fingers crossed that it will all be sorted by a massage and a saddle tweak - I'll keep you posted about how we get on!

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Clear Round!


We went clear! Had two gos at it and second time we went clear. She was so bold and forward going - couldn't have asked for more. Just trying to remember when I last jumped a whole course of jumps and I think I was 15. That's 12 years ago. Plenty more to come - how exciting.

Friday, 21 August 2009

A few things...

Tomorrow we jump. Only a little clear round course of about 18 inches-2ft, but it's a start. It is therefore very likely that my next post will be dominated by that and I won't get a chance or have the inclination to write about how well Echo is going on the flat at the moment - actually, just in general really.

After my lesson on Tuesday, I schooled her for all of ten minutes the next day. It was absolutely scorching weather, but she felt soft, willing and light in my hands. We walked, trotted and cantered on both reins, then I decided to go for a hack. We haven't hacked out for months, but I think she was so unbelievably grateful to not be working hard in the school, that she didn't even think of messing around. We went out onto the heath and got into the shade of the forest, where we were able to have a lovely long canter. I'm usually a real wuss about cantering her out on my own, but she was a star and seemed to really enjoy it.

Yesterday was a schooling day, so we worked hard at getting her to carry more weight behind and lift her forehand. I have noticed a real improvement in this - possibly because she has grown a little and is no longer quite so croup high. As John was so complimentary of our improved canter, I thought I would start challenging her a little in this pace, so yesterday I introduced a little counter canter. She did it fairly well, although every stride it felt as if she was asking me, 'Are you sure? You really want me to canter on the wrong leg?' It was quite hard to keep her going, but the balance began to improve. What I did find, however, was that her trot after the counter canter felt quite long and stretched out. I remember from the pony that I used to compete, that counter canter always improved his trot, making it much more through and springy. Maybe Echo just isn't balanced enough at the end of the canter, through the transition.

Today, I couldn't quite decide what to do. I am trying to vary her work as much as possible, but as I had jumped Tuesday, hacked Wednesday, schooled Thursday, and am jumping tomorrow, I was at a bit of a loss. The decision was somewhat made for me, as it was very windy, therefore no hacking, there were lessons in the woodchip, therefore no jumping, so schooling it was. I'm glad I did actually, as she felt really good. I worked on some leg-yielding in trot for a while, then worked for a while on some walk to canter transitions, then lengthening and shortening the canter strides. I asked for walk to canter at one end of the school, cantered a collected(ish) circle, then asked for more lengthened strides down the long side, before asking for her to collect again at the other end. I find it quite hard to get her back from a more medium canter to a collected, as she naturally wants to fall into trot. It felt like quite a useful exercise, though, so I may practise that a few times.

As the jumping tomorrow is in the showjumping field with the posh showjumps, I thought I had better walk Echo round it a few times, just to make sure there were no monsters lurking behind the jumps. She was very quiet actually, and as there was a very small jump in there, I popped over it a couple of times. She cleared it both times, but I didn't manage to get a great stride into it on either approach. Determined to end things on a good note, I took her into the woodchip, which is the warm up area tomorrow, and there was a nice little straight bar of about 2ft 3 set up. We cantered up to it and about 3 strides away I knew that we were spot on - see - I'm learning! It felt great, so I stopped there. I'm now very excited.

To cool Echo off, I walked her through the cross country course, although I couldn't resist galloping up our usual steep hill - it was just too inviting! I must walk up it a couple of times soon though, as she is starting to anticipate the gallop.

I'm having such fun with my awesome horse at the moment - I don't want the summer holidays to end now! Only one more week of freedom... :(

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Jumping

Had a lesson with John today - at last! It's been rather a long time. I was really pleased with how Echo went and as usual, it left me with plenty to think about. I wanted to jump, so we just got warmed up on the flat to begin with. He thinks her canter has improved, so that's good news and he also said it looks like she's starting to think about lifting her front end and I must really encourage that. He said I mustn't become 'outline-obsessed' and see it as more important that she lifts herself up off the forehand at the moment - if I concentrate too much on her being round, she'll go too low. I was pretty happy with some of her flat work today.

I like the trot in this picture - the carriage is really starting to improve:



I also like how bouncy the canter looks here:



We started the jumping with just a little cross pole in trot:



although he quickly said that trot is not the best pace for her to jump from - she's actually much more balanced in the canter. He soon established what my main problem is. I find it impossible to tell what a good stride into the jump is. I literally have no idea whether we will get over the jump properly until I am one stride away - sometimes not even then. He said that I can't expect to be able to do this, as I've never done it before. However, I have to do something about the stride on the way in, that way I will learn. Apparently!



He also said that I don't actually look AT the jump - I only look in the DIRECTION of it - very different things. On the way into the jump, I look at the line that I think I should ride - looking into my corner first, then making sure I'm heading straight to the fence. He said I must absolutely not do this - if I focus closely on the jump, I will ride the best line to it naturally. If I fix my eyes on the jump, looking at it, I can then adjust the stride to what I see. I absolutely whole-heartedly believe him, but years of riding school lessons teaching me to ride into the corner and go straight to the jump are quite hard to un-learn. I found myself naturally looking at my line rather than at the jump, then just riding forwards in the hope that Echo would sort herself out over it. Didn't work. Here is John despairing of one attempt:




We had a little chat and he reminded AGAIN what I needed to do:



However, when I did get it right, it felt great. I felt like I was able to change her stride and get her to lengthen into the jump so that we hit it correctly. It was about 50% of the time that I managed this. It is something that I really need to work on.



I did, however, ask John whether he thought it was a totally ridiculous idea for me to attempt the clear round at the tiny showjumping competition on Saturday. He said it was a good idea and that I should do it. Eek! Part of me was hoping he'd say, 'No - you're nowhere near ready for that!' Well - I'll have a go; it'll just be to get her some experience and it might even be fun!

Sunday, 16 August 2009

We Won!!

Right - so Echo is back in work at last, after having the best part of 6 weeks off, and today we won the last of the dressage tests in the in-house series! I am very proud of her, as we were very rusty when we started again. I had about a week to ride her, then I went on holiday again and we've just had the last couple of days to prepare.

Backtracking a little, I have been a little busy over the last few months! As most of you know, I am a teacher and this year I marked GCSE exams on top of my normal workload. When everyone else was winding down for the summer, I was slogging away, trying to get my quota done each day. It wasn't particularly fun, but it paid pretty well and meant that I could then go and do what I had been planning for months - a cycling trip across Spain. My boyfriend and I flew with our bikes to Bilbao, then cycled across the north of the country, arriving in Santiago de Compostela. It was a tough journey and definitely more of an adventure than a holiday, but it was absolutely amazing.

When I got back from Spain, I took part in the London Triathlon - again - an amazing experience. I used to run a lot, but since getting an injury a year ago, I haven't been able to run nearly as much as I wanted to, and as my boyfrined is a cyclist, I got into doing a bit of both. The swim was rather unpleasant - 750m in the Thames, but I loved the whole thing and am definitely going to do another one. So - since then, I have been able to ride Echo (except for the week on holiday - almost entirely relaxing, I promise!) and try to remind her what this dressage thing is all about. It took a couple of days, but she got the hang of it quite quickly. While I was away, a girl from the yard rode her. She's a very good rider and will have made her go nicely, although I had to remind her of a few manners when I got on again!

I feel as if we have gone back a step to some extent, as I was really working at getting her to lift her forehand before I went away and now it's more about getting a decent bend and getting her soft through her body. There is certainly some improvement here, but she was going extremely well before and it's a little frustrating to be back a step or two. However, she was great today and tried very hard. She was quite stiff to begin with in the warm up, and was being quite resistant on the left rein - I had to do lots of lateral work and loads of transitions to get her beding round my leg and using her back end. It was extremely hot and she felt a bit sluggish - she moved off my leg, but she just felt heavy. I don't blame her - it was boiling!

We had to wait a little while before going in as it was 'open order' and lots of people were ready all at once. The other thing is that it was in the indoor school and you have to trot straight in onto the centre line and start the test - going from the light to the dark makes Echo really back off my leg and she tensed up immediately when we went in. The test was fine - it was BE 102 and has a few odd moments, such as giving and taking the inside rein for 3-5 steps in the canter. It also gets you to make a transition to walk for 3-5 steps across a diagonal. I got a bit confused and walked for 3 strides, which is apparently different to 3 steps. Oops... She broke into trot on the first canter when I half-halted - I hadn't realised quite how responsive she'd be heading towards the door! Other than that, I was pretty happy. She was quite tense and it certainly wasn't our best example of what we can do, but all things considered, I was very pleased with her.

The dressage competition was marked on the best three tests over the series, so some people have done them all, whereas I have only done three. We won all three, meaning that I won overall and we also won 'best turned-out' which was very nice! We got a pretty red rosette and a free lesson with John - so that's awesome! I actually have a lesson with John on Tuesday and thought we might jump in that. I have a slightly crazy idea that I may do a clear round class at a competition being held at the yard on Saturday...but I'll see how the lesson goes first! I really wanted to do one this summer and the clear round is absolutely tiny - we could easily trot them if necessary. I'll see... I'm also planning to have a cross country lesson at some point. I'm not going to neglect the dressage, but I want to make use of the good weather and the light evenings while we have them! Plenty of time for dressage when we are confined to the school over the winter.

Anyway - here are some pictures from the last couple of days and some of the show today. If I can upload it, there is also a bit of video of the end of our test. You'll see what I mean - it's not BAD, just could be better!!











Tuesday, 28 July 2009

...months...

Woah - it's been months. If anyone still comes here to check if I have finally got my ass in gear and written something, I am terribly sorry for the long wait.

What have I been doing? Not riding - that's what! After the two dressage competitions, I had to put the riding on hold a little, as I was examining GCSEs and then cycling across Spain! Echo also had a bit of an accident in a thunder storm, breaking through her fence and cutting her face quite badly above her eye. She had to have stitches, but it's almost healed now. She has to wear one of those funny fly masks in the field, but she's got used to that now.

She's back to her summer escape routine too - they've had to secure her field with more electric fencing and she stands by the fence looking cross that she can't work out how to get through it!

I lunged her yesterday after nearly 5 weeks of no exercise and she was great - I was expecting all sorts of handstands, but I think she was just so relieved to be doing something that she was on her best behaviour. She responded to every voice command and was an angel!

I am helping my parents in the chaos of their house-move for a couple of days, then I should be able to get going with the riding again. Except for a week in Cornwall! We have a dressage competition at the end of August, so we're going to have to get some serious work done - it's the last one of the series and we've won two so far - if we win a third, I think we'll have won overall. Very exciting!

Will be back to proper posting soon I promise.

Monday, 25 May 2009

Win Number Two!

Echo was awesome on Sunday - really really good - and we won!! Monday was a little more tense, but she still behaved beautifully and we came 6th in a bigger competition, against stiffer opposition and in a new place. So impressed with her - clever pony. Yay!!! Will post properly about it asap.

If it works, here is the video of Sunday

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Practice makes...perfect?

I have two dressage competitions this weekend. I wouldn't normally do two shows in two days, but as they're both being held where I keep Echo and chances to compete are few and far between, I thought it probably wouldn't hurt.

We are desperately practising being precise now - I find it really hard to ride her well in a test, maintaining her way of going and getting her best movement, partly, I think, because I don't usually ride to markers. I make a transition when I have achieved what I wanted to in the previous pace - for example, I would never make a transition to canter if the trot wasn't going forward and supple first. In a test, however, you've just got to do it, and it can feel horrible at times.

I also find that she gets really heavy in my hand during a test, going onto her forehand. How I tried to get around this yesterday was to ride a couple of movements from the test, then get her back up again by riding on a circle. I don't really know how to fix it when in the middle of a test.

Being prelim tests, they are not particularly difficult, but I am finding the precision really challenging - it's definitely something I need to work on. This evening when I ride her, I will practise making transitions at particular markers and changing the rein when I have to, not just when she's ready. I don't want to practise my tests too frequently, but I need to get my accuracy problems sorted.

On a completely different note, I am really suffering with my back at the moment. I find that after doing any work on collection with Echo, my lower back really hurts. I'm sure my position is not what it should be. My best friend is a physio and she suggested that I might be tilting my pelvis too far forward and I should think about keeping it in balance when I ride, but it is really quite sore today. No sitting trot for me this evening!

Monday, 11 May 2009

Question: What's the difference between John Whitaker and me?

Answer: Nothing.
Not a joke - this is what John (my trainer, not Whitaker - now that really would be a compliment!) said to me in my lesson on Saturday. It made a lot more sense than it would at first appear, and I shall try to explain what he meant!

I really wanted a jumping lesson on Saturday, as we had had a few problems last time we jumped, mainly because I panic two strides out from a jump and lose faith in my striding. I do the worst possible thing, which is to totally drop Echo and hope that she sorts it out for herself. I know it's not an intelligent thing to do, but I find it really hard to stop.

There was a competition going on in the woodchip arena, and it was too hard to jump anywhere else, so we had to make do with the outdoor school. I told John that I'd been hoping to jump and I explained my problem and he made it all sound very simple.
John: How many steps do you walk up and down in a day?
Me: Lots - probably about 200 (I'm a teacher and there are lots of stairs...)
John: Right - and how many of those to you trip over?
Me: None (usually)
John: Okay - so you don't have a problem seeing a stride - you just aren't sure that you can adjust HER stride in order to get onto the right stride.
Me: Oh.

He went on to explain that people are always taught to jump, being told that ordinary people will never be able to see a stride. This makes people believe that only the best riders can see strides into a jump. He said that there is absolutely no reason why John Whitaker can see a stride into a jump and I can't - we are both human and will have similar level of intellect (he even went on to say that mine is probably higher as I am a teacher, but I'm not convinced!) If he can learn to see a stride, then so can I. Apparently, what I need to do is be confident that I can adjust Echo's stride length in order to get onto that perfect stride.

So, armed with the knowledge that I can be like John Whitaker, we began to work on lengthening Echo's canter stride - and promptly realised that I am not very good at collecting the canter - so I won't be able to lengthen it. What followed was a lesson in bringing her shoulders up and engaging the hindlegs properly. We started in the canter and then progressed into the trot. My problem was that I use too much inside rein, and so I get too much bend, rather than enough engagement of the inside hind. She did show moments of lifting the front, but I was rather slow at responding to it and giving accordingly, which was very frustrating.

We moved into sitting trot and worked on the same thing. It was absolutely exhausting - I was bright red and puffing at the end, but I really felt like we were starting to push for the next level, which was a good feeling. I worked on the same principles yesterday when I rode, and the canter was starting to feel really good - she felt like she was really pushing upwards - only for a few strides, but it was something. I was also really working on making sure that I reward her properly when she does what I want, as she is very quick to learn things - including the wrong things!

What I hope to be able to do this week, is start to change the length of her stride. I was doing it in the walk yesterday, shortening the stride but keeping the rhythm, then pushing for extended walk in the same rhythm. This was very effective - I just need to work on it in the trot and canter, as unfortunately we can't jump from walk! It's an ongoing process - and a very interesting one at that.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Back in the game

Sorry for the length of time it has taken me to write about the dressage competition – and thank you for all of your lovely messages of congratulations. I was so impressed with Echo that day.

She was great to plait – I think she just fell asleep – and I managed to get my number of plaits down from 33 last time to 17, without them looking like golf balls – so I was happy! I didn’t wash her again, as I did all of that a couple of days before. As you can see from the photos, she wasn’t spotless, but she looked very smart.

I got on to warm up about 45 minutes before my test time, as I like to work in walk for at least 20 minutes at the beginning of a session – if not more – as it gets her much more obedient to my aids. I worked her as I normally would, but I was obviously a but more tense than usual. Still, she warmed up well and felt like she was bending nicely to the right, which always feels like an achievement!

When I went up to go in, at the time I was supposed to, I found that they were running late and I had about 15 more minutes. No!!! Nothing like timing your working in perfectly, then having to hang around spoiling it all for ages! The area they had assigned to working in was far too deep, so I didn’t go in there. Instead, I went up into a field to do a few more transitions. Echo’s never been ridden in there, so was on her toes, but I was single-mindedly bent on getting her hind-legs active and nothing else, so she had no choice but to behave!

The annoying thing about the test was the fact that I had to trot through the doors of the indoor school and go straight onto the centre line – she had no chance to have a trot round the edge to get used to it in there first. Bless her, her centre line was lovely – very straight and we got an 8 for it. Her track left was also really good, as she bent beautifully and felt very powerful. In fact the first third of the test felt great and we got mostly 7s with a couple of 8s. All good.

Started to a go a little wrong when we did our first canter. The transition and the 20 metre circle were great, but as I came out of the circle and had to canter to the corner, towards the (open!) door, she spooked at some sun beams making patterns on the floor. She jumped away from the track and so to correct it, I clamped my inside leg on. I managed to stop her coming off the track too far, but she shot off down the track and there was no way we were going to get a nice transition to trot in the corner. I finally hauled her back into trot at A, (where I was supposed to walk) and finally got walk in the next corner, where I had to start my free walk to B. Threw the reins at her and got a half-decent free walk – thank goodness. I was able to get my act together after that and rode the rest of the test correctly, albeit a little rushed after that. I did have a few issues getting a halt transition at G – thought she was going to trot right into the judges!

Given the circumstances, she was brilliant and it was great experience. I need to practise riding a little more precisely and getting my turns sorted in a small space. I also need to remember to not get flustered and mess up the rest of a test after something goes wrong. So easy to say, but SO difficult to do! We got 68%, which I was delighted with. But no rosette!!! I couldn’t believe it. They are giving rosettes to the overall placings at the end of the series of competitions. Talking of which, the next one is 24th May, so I had better get practising. I’m having a lesson with John on Saturday, which I really looking forward to – feels like I haven’t had a lesson for ages.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Well look who went and won!!

Proper post about the competition will follow, as I am in a real hurry, but Echo was a star and she won!!! Not by loads, but we had a few 'interesting moments' so I was impressed that we came first! Here are some of the pictures. The screen on the camera was broken, so they were taken without the person being able to see anything on the screen, but they are ok. Also, the light in the indoor was awful and the door was open (one of the causes of the 'interesting moments'!) so the quality is not great. My friend took a video of the test, so I hope I'll be able to upload that when I get it.

Proud of my pretty pony today - she was awesome.








Thursday, 23 April 2009

Dressage - at last!

Well, Echo and I are taking part in our first dressage competition on Sunday and...I'm really nervous! I'm also really looking forward to it, but it's so long since I've ridden a dressage test and so I'm bound to be a bit rusty.

I've practised it a couple of times and there's nothing difficult in it. In fact, that's almost the problem - there's a lot of trotting round the outside of the arena and we don't tend to do much of this in our schooling. When I was practising it, I found Echo wanted to do shoulder-in or leg-yielding or something - she isn't used to having to trot the length of the arena just...straight! So we've been working on this, and we've been working on changing the rein through two half 20 metre circles. Unfortunately, the test asks for it from the left rein to the right rein(our more difficult rein...) and so getting the right bend is a little tricky, but we'll be ok!

I rode her last night and she went really well. It was interesting actually - she had been going quite averagely for the first 20minutes or so - not doing anything wrong, just not bending that well and not really using herself. Then she just suddenly seemed to click. I did one halt to trot transition and she was like "Oh...I get it - weight on the hind legs - why didn't you say so!?" Technically, I think I had been saying so.

She suddenly became flexible in her bend - she felt like plasticine - it felt as if I could have coiled her round my inside leg if I wanted to. She remained quite heavy in my hands, so I constantly had to remind her to keep her carriage up, but through her body felt fantastic. I've been doing quite a bit of sitting trot recently and it seems to have really helped with engaging her hind legs. I can't decide whether or not to do sitting trot in the test on Sunday. Really, at prelim level, I would expect to do it in rising trot, but I definitely get a more uphill, powerful, connected trot when I'm sitting. I guess I'll see how she feels when I warm up.

One last thing - as I'm hoping to do a few shows this summer, I thought it was about time I got my lovely riding boots fixed. They've been sitting in a cupboard with broken zips for the last year, but I have now had them mended and I rode in them last night. It doesn't make sense to me that a pair of boots can make a difference to the way one rides, but I could put money on the fact that I rode better last night in my Cavallos than I do in my yard boots and chaps. I really don't know why this would be though.

Wish us luck for Sunday - I can't ride on Saturday, which is annoying, but it might mean she's fresher. Sunday morning will be spent washing, trimming, plaiting and generally getting organised. I shall endeavour to take some photos of the day too - and if at all possible, I'll hijack someone with a video camera for the actual test.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Look what we jumped!!!


May not look huge, but definitely the biggest we've ever jumped. And it was a straight bar - only jumped cross poles so far. Felt lovely. Proper post to follow - moving house - all very hectic!!!

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Exciting Stuff!!

Echo went beautifully today - I was so impressed. I had to ride really early as I had a busy day planned, and I can conclude that Echo is most definitely a morning person. We did lots of work on being bendy and that seems to be really helping, as I am able to ride her much straighter as a result. I need to do some work on her right rein canter transitions, as these were a little scrappy, but she had a lovely contact in my left rein after a while and was really bending through her body. My only criticism is that she got quite deep in her carriage through the session - I was able to bring her front end up most of the time, but I think she just got tired and couldn't maintain it after a while.

There are some exciting things happening. Having decided that my summer goal would be to compete in a little showjumping competition, today I saw that the yard where I keep her is going to start a summer dressage series, having monthly competitions ending in a championship that takes your best 3 scores through the series. It's only 'in-house' so it won't be a big thing, but we have lots of liveries now, so should be fun. The other thing is that it is the British eventing tests, which I don't know, but I'm sure they must be fairly similar to the British Dressage tests. I guess to do a prelim level I would have to do an Intro level BE test - not really sure yet. Anyway - it's a chance to dress up, practise our test-riding and have some fun, without the stress of travelling to a show yet, so I think it's a very good thing.

So lots to look forward to! I'm going away next week, taking a school trip to Ireland, so won't be able to ride Monday to Friday. I have been very brave and said that a friend can hack Echo out a couple of times if she wants. I 'ummed and aahed' about it for ages, but she's a very considerate and experienced rider, and has just had to retire her horse, so has no one to ride. She has trained young horses, so knows all their quirks, and is much braver than me out hacking! I think they should have some fun. I am trying not to be too much of a neurotic mother about the whole thing, so have only given her a few instructions - like keeping her off her forehand in trot and not allowing her to rush. It'll be good for Echo to have another rider on her and I think my friend will really enjoy her. She's had an ancient riding school pony on loan for the last year and, though lovely, she is an ancient riding school pony nonetheless and I think Echo will be a bit of a treat!

I've been consulting my favourite training book and I think it's time we did a bit of gymnastic jumping. I think it would really help her strength and agility to do a few short grids, and also help my ability to ride her positively towards a fence. It will also be the beginnings of riding a course, so is a step (or a jump! oh dear...) in the right direction. I thin next time John is around, I will see if we can do a bit of this in my lesson. Don't think I've jumped a grid since I was about 12, so I'll need a bit of reminding!

I'm SO excited about my horse right now!!!!!

Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Back to it

Well, Echo came back into work on Sunday after over three weeks off. I knew that she would be a little rusty, but it's always a shock to get on after a break and find that a) I no longer know how to ride and b) that my horse has forgotten what it feels like to carry a rider. I don't know what happened, but when I got on on Sunday, she did this weird humpy thing with her back, bringing it right up and hopping with her back legs. I got off and lunged her but she did the same thing in trot on the lunge too. My friend suggested I checked her back for any soreness, but there was nothing. So, having trotted and cantered on both reins on the lunge, I got on again. She still felt a bit odd, but certainly wasn't lame, so I worked her through it and she seemed fine after a while.

I don't really know what happened - possibly it's due to not being ridden for a few weeks and she was feeling a little cold backed; or there is the fact that she is coming into season and could have been feeling a little sensitive; or my horse is just odd! Either way, we eventually got there in the end, as to begin with she was completely ignorant to my aids. She seemed to have forgotten what my weight aids were and she had also forgotten that I had a left leg - she was all over the place - falling out to the left and was about as straight as a banana. Oh the joys of horses having time off!

However, yesterday she was great and she started getting much straighter. She is actually much better in my left hand than she was before the time off, so that's been a good thing. She started to feel really good in trot today and I was really pleased with how she was going. Today, my friend brought one of her horses over to the yard and we went out for a hack. I was a little apprehensive, as her horse can be a little crazy, and as Echo hasn't hacked out for over a month, I was worried that they'd be hooligans together. However, I couldn't have been more wrong - Echo's behaviour was absolutely exemplary. She led most of the way, only going behind when we trotted and cantered, as my friend was worried that her horse would buck and prat around behind her scaring her otherwise. This worked really well, as both horses were obedient and steady. It was really nice actually - a lot of the horses at our yard tend to race off in canter, meaning that Echo gets all on her forehand when she's out with them. Because my friend is really conscious of her horse's legs (just recovering from an operation) she was lovely and steady and I could keep Echo up in front. My kinda canter!

She was pretty tired at the end - we were out for well over an hour and I had schooled her first. It'll do her good though - she loves being in work and is at her happiest when being worked hard. At the end of our ride, I took Echo up to my friend's lorry while she was untacking her horse and getting him ready. While she was doing her stuff, we had a little play, going up and down the ramp and eating polos (Echo - not me!) at the top. It was really relaxed, so will have done her lots of good. Overall, I was really impressed with her today - proud of my little horse!

She's going to have tomorrow off, then I hope to jump on Thursday - I have set myself a little goal to do a clear round jumping class at one of the shows held by my stables by the end of the summer. I'm hoping to do some dressage too of course, but that is very dependent on other people and their transport, so it's a bit out of my hands. Jumping, however, there is lots of, so this can be my short term goal. I'm looking forward to it. We have, of course, only ever jumped a single fence, so we have some work to do.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Update

Sorry for the lack of posts recently - work has been pretty crazy, but fun! Echo is fine, just a bit bored as I haven't been riding her enough. However, I break up from school at the end of this week and intend to do lots and lots of riding.

Something a bit exciting - I may have sorted a way to get us out into the big wide world soon. I don't want to say anything definite yet, as I know from experience that I can't bank on these things happening, but it is a distinct possibility. Woohoo - dressage here we come!

Easter will be pretty hectic, as I'm taking a school trip away and am moving house (which is very exciting!!) so getting Echo out to places may not happen just yet, but things are all starting to slot into place.

Normal blogging will resume as soon as possible!

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Yay!!!!

I had a lesson with John today. For a change, I was actually well organised and well warmed up by the time of the lesson, so we could get straight on. He watched us walk and trot on both reins and then do a walk to canter transition on each rein. He didn't actually say very much, which is usually quite a good sign! He seemed pretty impressed with how she's improved, particularly on the right rein.

He did notice that in our canter transitions, she tends to fall to the inside, sort of jumping inwards into canter, rather than pushing out into the outside rein. To work on this, he got me to work in trot and come down the three-quarter line, leg-yielding towards the track. When I got to about half way between the 3/4 line and the track, I had to ask for canter, while still leg-yielding to the wall. It didn't sound that hard - I've often leg yielded in trot to the wall and then cantered on the track - how hard could it be? Very hard! I was so mal-coordinated! It's one thing being able to use the wall to help, but asking for canter while still leg-yielding was really really difficult! I also realised that it is probably me that makes her throw her weight to the inside in the transitions, as when I was asking for them in the leg-yield, that was exactly what I was doing with my body - it was more exaggerated as she was moving sideways. When I actually sat up and asked for the canter transition up from my inside seatbone and held it in the outside rein, it was lovely!

What I then found difficult, particularly on the right rein, was maintaining the sideways movement in the canter. The first step was nice, then she would fall right again. It took all my powers of coordination to really keep my inside leg on to keep her travelling sideways. He definitely knows how to get me using my little brain. However, the really good bit was the trot after I had done this exercise. Because I had actually used my inside leg and my outside rein properly through the movement, I had this lovely, powerful, swinging trot and I just wanted to hang on to it for dear life!!

Then the even better bit was what John said at the end. For quite a while, my goal has been to start taking Echo to some dressage shows in the Spring. Today, at the end of my lesson, John said that we are ready to do our first test now. I was so chuffed - having got to know him a little over the last year of having lessons with him, I'm pretty sure that he wouldn't say that lightly. It feels like when we get it right, we can really get it right and it's so much fun! I came out of the lesson beaming. I don't yet have a show to go to - in fact, there's an awful lot of preparation work to do first, as she hasn't ever been ridden away from home. However - that little comment just gave me the confidence and boost to the self-esteem that I really needed. I can't wait!!!

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Blast from the past


The lady that I bought Echo from came to see her earlier this week. I have difficulty explaining who she is, as she didn't exactly breed her - at least, not on purpose! She bought her horse, Pebble, a lovely coloured cob-type mare, then found out several months later that she was in foal. Echo was born a month or so later and I bought her as a yearling. The last time she had seen Echo, it was as a rather scared little yearling climbing anxiously onto a trailer. She has of course seen photos and been kept up to date with our progress, but I knew that it would be very different for her to actually see her in person.

It was quite emotional actually - she seemed very happy with how Echo has turned out and was struck by how similar she is to her mother. Her mother has more white on her face, but other than that, their heads are almost identical. Pebble is a little lighter in her colour and very slightly heavier in her build, but the likeness is uncanny - part of the reason why she named her Echo in the first place, I think!

I rode her for a little while at first; the indoor was being used, so I had to go in the woodchip arena, which is not very easy to ride in, being on a slope. She had gone so beautifully the day before, but then seemed to have forgotten it all again when I got on that day. It's so annoying when that happens! She went quite nicely - she wasn't bending as well to the right as she has been the last couple of times, and she was a little sharp as she always is in that arena, but she didn't put a foot wrong really (I'm just a perfectionist!!).

Sue then rode her, which was so lovely to see - I genuinely don't think I've ever seen someone so thrilled to be on a horse before! Echo went really nicely and I was extra proud of her, as she has only ever had one other person sit on her once before. She dealt with it very well and trotted around beautifully - very clever pony.
I'm having a lesson with John on Sunday, so I will report back soon! I might have a little jump tomorrow - I haven't jumped since my last lesson and I feel like a change - it's so nice to be able to mix things up like this now!

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Ouch!

I worked myself super hard today. And Echo, come to think of it! It was such a beautiful day and I really wanted to go for a hack, but there was no one around to hack out with, so I went in the indoor school. I decided to mostly focus on myself for a change, making sure that my position was right and that I was sitting straight. I get slack with these things, having lessons so infrequently.

I even rode around with my whip behind my back, threaded through my elbows, like the picture of Pippa Funnell on her book about flatwork! It was good actually - I had Echo on the right rein, to try to get maximum benefit for her out of the exercises too. After warming her up, I took my stirrups away and rode the rest of the session without them - It really makes me think about the flexibility in my hips abd lower back, riding without stirrups - it's so good for you!! She felt amazing: she was bending really well to the right, although I was having to really work with my legs and my seat to hold that bend. My right leg tends to come forward so that when I ride her to the right, she then hangs on my right side, as it is so stiff. As soon as I started to loosen my right hip, she found it much easier to bend to the right.

I then practised some walk to canter transitions - also on the right rein. We kept getting the wrong lead, but by really concentrating on my position and how much leg I was using and in what places, I was able to get some good ones in the end. Not having stirrups meant that I was able to get her really 'through' in the canter, and she felt like her whole neck came up by about 6 inches. When I get it right, she feels like she has so much potential - I think I should try to get it right a little more often!

We were both exhausted at the end, so rather than walk her in the school, I thought I'd go for a little walk out on the heath. It was the first time I'd been out since getting scared a couple of weeks ago, so I'm really glad I did it. Because I had been riding her so strongly forward from my leg in the school, I continued to use my legs a lot out in the open too, so she was a lot more relaxed. I've found that this is the case recently; I need to ride her in the school for a bit, in order for me to really ride her. When we go straight out on a hack, I find that I tend to sit there like a lemon, which means that she takes charge more and ignores me - as you'd expect - with a lemon for a rider!

Got back to the yard and went to get off and realised that I might have overdone the whole sitting trot with no stirrups thing - my back feels like I've been doing back flips. It's a good feeling though, when you ache after something has gone well - rubbish when you ache and haven't even achieved anything!

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Fear

I was never a particularly fearful child. I loved exciting rides at the fair, I loved my dad driving fast, the feeling of nearly being out of control was exhilarating and liberating. When I got into riding, I loved to go fast. In fact, the memory that prevails of my riding experience is the time that I went on a beach ride with my riding school. It was an evening ride and there seemed to be loads of us. We travelled down to Littlehampton to ride along the beach and my mount was to be a little dark bay mare called Cadbury, who I had never even sat on. It didn't bother me; I have never forgotten the wild, intense joy that felt as if my chest would burst, as I thundered across the open sand. There was no fear of not stopping - the ponies would tire long before the end of the beach and I can honestly say, no feeling has ever come close to rivalling that adrenaline rush.

Summer days were spent working endlessly at a local riding school, loving the ponies as if they were my own, riding bareback to the field, boasting of heroic acts of horsemanship required to stay on the 'ginormous' buck that a particular pony had put in; I used to jump without stirrups, without reins, holding a cup of water in each hand and with my eyes shut; I would vault on a pony while it was cantering and leap from my mount in order to win a race of some sort. I have nothing but fond memories from this time.

I can tell you the exact day that this changed. I had never had a pony of my own and had instead relied on free rides provided in return for long hours as a helper at a local riding school. However, when I was about fourteen, my parents had a little more money; they were certainly not rich, but had a little more than when I was a small child. To this day, I don't know how I managed it, but I eventually persuaded my dad that he should buy me a horse and that I had found a horse that I liked. I think by actually saying HERE is a horse I want to buy rather than the hypothetical 'can I have a horse?' was what worked. Essentially, I put him on the spot. I tried this horse out a few times and was adamant that I wanted her. Within a few weeks, she was mine.

I don't think I could have picked a more unsuitable partner if I had tried. I was a confident rider, but I rode Fell ponies and Section Ds, not six year old flighty thoroughbreds. I should have bought myself a sturdy pony with a leg in each corner, but I ended up with a mare with serious and dangerous psychological problems. I bought her from a dealer that my friend worked for, thinking that it would be OK, because I sort of knew him. It wasn't. The first time I rode my beloved new horse, she planted herself solidly in the arena and refused to move. It was the strangest experience - she actually didn't seem able to move. Here I was, proudly mounted on my brand new horse, the envy of all the helpers at the yard, and she was planted - rooted to the spot. We tried everything - I coaxed, I kicked, I got someone to lead her, I got her fieldmate out to lead her in front, but nothing worked. She wasn't going anywhere. Getting upset by this point, I kicked again and smacked her a few times. The rest is a bit of a blur. I remember her running backwards, I sort of remember her rearing and I remember hitting the floor, with my horse falling on top of me.

I won't go into the rest of the details, as the 'Hattie experience' could fill a whole post of its own, but it was on that day that I realised that, no matter how good a rider you are, no matter how well you can stay on to 'ginormous' bucks, the horse can always win. The horse is always stronger and if he really wants to, he will get you off. This was a devastating revelation; my first moment of understanding that I was not invincible and that riding was a dangerous game. The next time I rode her, with the dealer there who had sold her to me, sealed my fears. I was so tense that I must have clamped up the moment I got on. Hattie proceeded to gallop flat out around the school, feeling very much as though she were going to jump the fence at the end and take off down the road. I had no idea what this crazy animal would do and that has ingrained in me a deep-rooted feeling that I can never know what these animals will do.

When I worked for David for two years, you would think that riding every day as my job would cure me of my fears; in fact, I think it ingrained them even deeper. I was desperate to be fearless, but every time something scary happened, I felt this wash of terror and it was totally irrational. When I became a better rider, I started to get offered the ride on some of David's better horses, but I couldn't do it. I rode one of them once - one that David has since competed to advanced level. It would have been a fantastic opportunity, but I was utterly rigid; the moment I got on him and couldn't do anything. My body went into meltdown and I was terrified. I couldn't even have told you what I was scared of happening. For me, my fear is not that easy to pinpoint - it's more of an instinct that I can't control.

David found it funny. I was labelled a 'wimp' and he just let me get on with it. His wife, Serena, took a slightly more philosophical approach and told me not to be ashamed of it, and that I should just do what I'm comfortable with. If I don't like riding hot horses, then I shouldn't ride hot horses - simple as that. But there was a part of me that still couldn't help feeling embarrassed by my inability to conquer my nerves.

When I bought Echo, I had really mixed feelings. I had been given a coloured cob to train by David and Serena, and we had done very well. When I am confident, I am capable of riding reasonably effectively. I bought Echo because I had loved this cob so much and thought that she was the type of horse I could train myself. Interestingly, I had never been too worried about backing the young horses at David's. This could be because I only ever had to do the initial work - the backing and first riding. There was very little expected of me, other than to do what I was told. I also found that horses, when started correctly, are usually very obliging in the first few rides. If they are going to act up, it is usually when they have worked out what is going on and I rarely kept the horse for that long.

When it came to teaching Echo to be lunged at David's, I was really nervous. She was my responsibility. The future of my riding career rested on what I taught her then and that thought terrified me. David saw me with her on the first day there and said, 'You'll never ride that horse.' This had a strange effect on me: on the one hand, I was crushed - perhaps he was right... But on the other, I was incensed. I WOULD prove him wrong - no matter what!

Again, the first few times riding Echo I was fine - I knew the processes, I had someone helping me and I felt safe. What terrified me was the next stage - the riding free - the combating of any problems I was faced with. Was I up to it? What would happen if I mucked it up? This was my horse - I would have to deal with it. None of these were gripping fears, but were certainly concerns at the back of my mind.

So this post is about fear. About my fear that engulfs me at certain moments when I am on a horse. Ever since Hattie I have been nervous of hacking; nothing specifically happened with her out hacking, but it goes back to that feeling that ultimately, no person can ever be totally in control of a horse. It all seems more real and worrying when out in the open countryside. I am a self-confessed control freak and I don't always know what my horse will do.

Last week, I took Echo out for a wander around the cross country course to cool down after a particularly intense schooling session. She had not gone well and I was feeling angry - not at her, but at myself. We got into the woods at the end of the main route in and Echo was striding out nicely. Starting to relax, I began to enjoy myself and forget the irritation of the schooling. We had just turned a corner, when I felt Echo go rigid and shoot forwards from under me. I took a stronger contact instinctively, and tensed up myself. I turned round to see what it was and realised that a big German Shepherd (belonging to the yard owner) was wandering around in the trees. I relaxed; of course this would scare her. However, she didn't relax - she got even more tense, feeling like a coiled spring beneath me. I turned her, so that she could look and see the dog, but she obviously couldn't - she could only hear him rustling.

It's at moments like these that I realise that my horse doesn't totally trust me. All those lovely idealistic perfect horsemanship books say that the horse turns to you to be the leader at these moments, but nothing I could do would get through to her. When I turned her back to the track to walk on, she had wound herself up so tightly that she felt as if she was going to explode. This is when the wall comes down. I freeze - I don't know what I'm scared of - it's probably a combination of things, but my vision goes blurry and my heart races. I become utterly focused on what the rigid quivering horse underneath me is thinking and I can't make myself ride through it. So I jumped off.

The moment my feet touched the floor, I was deeply ashamed of myself and thoroughly angry and my complete ineptitude. Furious, I tried to lead her forward, but she was now even more wound up than before. Believing that I had been wrong to admit defeat, I went about trying to mount again, but she was now spinning round in circles, probably trying to get away from this crazy woman clinging to her side! I had just got into the saddle, when I realised that in front of us was a big group of people cross-country schooling, going fast up a hill and over a jump. By this point I couldn't cope. Anticipating her reaction, I jumped off again and led her back the way we had come. She pranced at my side like a stallion (although I couldn't help but admire the elevation in her hock action!!) and I raged silently to myself. Why was I so stupid? Normal people wouldn't have got scared. I am such an idiot.

By the time I got back on, halfway back to the yard, I was in despair. Perhaps I didn't deserve a horse like Echo if I couldn't even stay on her when I got tense. How will I ever take her to a show if I can't ride the moment she gets upset? Theses were the thoughts running through my head as I returned to her stable.

It was interesting, then, to listen to John talking to one of his students about fear at the weekend. He claims that he is not naturally the bravest rider, though he has competed in major 4* events. I asked him how he managed it and he said by working at it. He said something that I have been thinking about ever since: a brave rider is not one that doesn't see the danger. I can't remember the exact wording of the second half of the sentence, but it was something along the lines of 'it is somebody that works to get around that danger'. He said that it isn't wrong to be scared. He also said that I shouldn't be angry with myself if I have to get off - if that is what I need to do in that situation.

I really don't know. I look back with such fondness at the time when I was a gutsy kid, up for anything, but when this fear hits me, it is as if a cloud has descended and I lose control of my limbs and my breathing. It doesn't happen often, but fear is a funny thing and I wonder whether there really is any way of combating it, or whether I will be haunted by it for life.

Saturday, 31 January 2009

No negativity here, thank you!

I went out last night. Now, I'm not a big drinker, but I had a couple - enough to make me a little on the groggy side this morning. Then I got a phone call asking if I wanted to take someone's slot and have a lesson with John and I said yes, probably unwisely! It didn't give me a great deal of time, as I had a couple of things to do beforehand. I got to the yard about 20 minutes before my lesson was due to start - had to groom, tack up and warm up in that time. It was never really going to happen.

I rushed to get ready, rushed to get on and rushed down to the arena. I wasn't able to ride indoors, as I had hoped, because there was a riding school lesson in there, so I had to go in the woodchip arena. This is surrounded by horses being turned out and is exposed, so the freezing wind was whipping across it. Nice. It was OK, I was on and there just as the previous lesson was finished, but I didn't have my head on or my thoughts in place, added to the slightly shaky feeling from last night.

Because I was on edge, Echo didn't really settle and I wasn't any good at sorting it out. I had a real strop, stopped and said, "I can't ride today!" Oops - wrong thing to say, and I knew it as soon as I said it! He told me that it was pointless to have that kind of attitude - it doesn't get you anywhere. He said that if I tell myself I can't ride today, then I won't be able to ride today - simple as that. He said that any negative statement must have a comma at the end and be followed by a solution. He's said it before to me: "There are no problems - only solutions." That's all very well, but I couldn't think of any solutions today. She wasn't actually going that badly - I just couldn't get her going any better.

John seemed to sense that half an hour was not going to be time to get things going in the direction they should, so changed the tactics. He put three poles together on the floor between a pair of wings and got me to trot over them. It was strange - she kept jumping them from miles away, leaving me behind and launching herself over them. He put it up to a cross pole fence and asked me to still trot into the jump, without thinking about jumping it. The problem was, two strides out from the jump, I froze and stopped riding. This was throwing her, as she didn't know what to do. Once I started actually keeping her together and riding through the fence, forgetting it was there, she was great.

He then got me to come over it in canter and we both find this much easier. John said that she was poking her nose out a bit on the approach and that I should hold her together right up to the fence. It was great on both reins and we stopped there. He seemed quite impressed with her attitude to it. She is absolutely one of the nicest horses to jump that I have ever known - she doesn't rush into the fence and she doesn't rush away from it - it is as if she is cantering a 20 metre circle that happens to have a jump in the middle - I love it! When we had finished he pointed out that I have to stop making excuses for myself; by telling everyone that I'm rubbish at jumping, I am making it much harder for myself. I'm not experienced at jumping, but I can do it, and he even said that she's a natural. I feel like I should whisper that, in case it isn't true, but actually she really does enjoy it and so do I. Never thought I'd say that!

After my lesson, I watched a couple of others. It was really interesting to see how negativity seems to blight so many peoples' aspirations. One girl is going to an indoor eventing competition tomorrow and the fear of going is making her physically sick. She doesn't think that she will be able to 'support' her horse in the ring, as she will be so nervous. Thinking like that is definitely not going to help. Funny that I can immediately recognise it in others, but still do it myself. Another rider who is incredibly talented in lots of ways, has told himself that he can't do flatwork. He can't tell which trot diagonal he is on and refuses to believe that he could learn to. It was only when John explained to him how important it is for the horse's well being that we trot on the correct diagonal, that he started to consider it. He seems to have a block in place with his flatwork that makes him believe that he can't do it.

So the lesson to be learnt from today is that I can do it. I can get Echo to bend correctly to the right, I can get a good left rein contact, I can get her weight onto her hindlegs and her forehand up, and goddammit I can jump too! Feeeeell the positivity!

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Much better

She wouldn't look at the camera though - something was obviously much more interesting at the other end of the yard!

While I'm adding photos - thought you might like to see Echo's little brother Jeff in his smart new Christmas jumper that stops him gettting chilly and wet at the yard.


Cruelty

Echo didn't go so well yesterday and I ended up feeling really angry with myself - I will write about this another time, as it requires some thought and some soul-searching. However, I wonder whether I am too mean to my horse...

She was stubborn and difficult to ride yesterday. I don't think it was me, as I actually started out feeling really positive and calm. She is a mare, however, and is prone to stroppy days every now and again! She was quite hot when I finished, and as we are soon to be visited by the lady that bred her, she is in need of some tidying up. So...I pulled her mane when I got back. I find it really hard to bring myself to pull her mane - she doesn't particularly mind it, but something of the silly sentimental passive animal-lover in me niggles at the back of my mind telling me it's cruel. I need to toughen up! I would never have thought that when I was working with dressage horses!

Usually, she has gone so well, that I think it would be mean to repay her with a mane-pulling session - yesterday, I wasn't feeling so compassionate! She fidgeted for a little while, and she doesn't much like it being pulled at the top, by her ears, but she now looks a hell of a lot better. I know there are all sorts of more 'humane' methods of tidying a horse's mane, but you must understand, my lovely horse has a big chunk of cob blood in her, therefore has a mane that somewhat resembles a Thelwell pony when it's natural! I hope to go to some shows in the spring, so for the purposes of plaiting, had to do something to thin it and shorten it.





I feel like perhaps I am trying to convince myself here, that I did it for her own good rather than to get her back for being naughty. I hope you don't think I am too mean to my horse! I will post a photo of my efforts soon, to show the improvement.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Counter-bend and Caprioles!

I chickened out! I didn't have the jumping lesson in the end, but I did tell John at the end of my lesson that I would like some help with the jumping, but that I'm not interested in jumping enormous fences or anything; I really just want to be able to pop over a few jumps every now and then and for it to build Echo's strength and suppleness. It also provides a relief from the schooling, without having to go out for a hack. It has been decided that we will spend ten minutes or so at the end of my next lesson on jumping. I have warned him of my lack of natural ability!

My lesson was good - it felt positive and John said her walk had improved and that her carriage was much better. Good news. He watched me walk, trot and canter on both reins and said that the bend is definitely improving to the right. However, we worked for a while on the left rein, which I found really useful. He asked me what her inside hind felt like. I had to think about this, as I confess that I'm not always 100% tuned in to every part of my horse's body! Once I'd got my head round it, I realised that she didn't feel like she was totally engaging the left hind. John pointed out that she is hitting the floor with her foot as it is travelling backwards rather than as it's coming forward. If I can get her taking the step right as she's reaching forward, her hindlegs will carry the weight much more successfully - at the moment they are a little out behind her. Interesting, but quite hard to fix. I realised that I needed to use a lot more energy in the trot, really asking her to reach under and carry herself. The trot definitely improved.

We went onto the right rein and worked on getting a good right bend - he actually pointed out that I am asking for too much bend. I have it in my head that I have to bend her to the right, and then I get too much, so she's bound to fall out through the left shoulder. When I corrected this with my left hand, I was then able to put my inside leg on and push her into the left contact a little more. It really was only a little more - the problem is not yet fixed, but it was a start. He also got me to trot her on the right rein, but with a left bend. I found it much easier doing it this time, than when he made me do it before, as I have taught her to be more obedient to my directional aids from my legs and seat. She finds it really hard maintaining the bend, but then, when I put my inside leg on and ask for the right bend, she does it correctly and it feels like such a relief!

The canter work was quite brief, but wonderfully self-explanatory. I did a rubbish transition first of all - and guess what? I got a rubbish canter! He made me slow down the process of the transition, by establishing the sitting trot first, then ensuring that I have a good outside contact and am not in the middle of a turn, then asking for the canter from my seat. Abracadabra - a good canter is the result. It's irritating when the answer (and the mistake) is so simple! In the theme of transitions, he also got me to work on my walk to trot transitions. She often jumps into trot from walk - particularly on the lunge - and I always assumed it was to do with her being weak behind. However, he got me to really think about my timing in the transition - and to ask her with my seat and support her with my legs to get her hindquarters really engaged. It isn't perfect every time, but it definitely reduces the jump up into trot.

Since the lesson I have been hacking a couple of times and Echo has seemed to enjoy herself. The cold weather has made the ground pretty hard, but there are still sandy tracks in the forest which you can trot and canter on. Echo rather disgraced herself on one of the occasions though. I took a friend hacking who has not ridden for many years. She borrowed one of the riding school horses and we went off for an hour's wander on the heath. It was a very cold day, and I half thought about riding Echo in the school for a few minutes first, just to take the edge off her, but she had been so good last time I went, that I thought it was probably unnecessary. Bad decision. She was on her toes the whole time; spooking, jumping, grabbing the bit in trot and refusing to slow down... not really the Echo that we all know and love. She settled eventually and I suggested that we have a little canter up a short slope - that way, I thought, if my friend was unhappy cantering, it would be over very soon and being on a hill it wouldn't be too fast. The opposite in fact! Echo started to canter, then started doing a sort of rocking horse canter, then she stopped dead and bucked. Poor girl, my friend nearly ran into the back of me, got very close to Echo's back feet when she was bucking, and generally didn't know what the hell had gone on!


It's so weird - she has these funny episodes in canter when out hacking - it's as if she gets herself in a tangle and just strops because she can't do it! Holding my head in shame, I apologised to traumatised unhorsey friend and arranged to go out for a long hack the following Sunday with my usual hacking buddy, to dust off the cobwebs and find some tracks for some good long stretches. She was an angel for most of the ride - it was a beautiful (but freeezing) day and I had ridden Echo in walk, trot and canter on both reins before setting out, so she felt relaxed and confident. We led the whole way, as my friend's horse was feeling particularly ploddy that day, but she strode out and was calm. She was, however, very ignorant to my half-halts, so I made the most of my friend falling behind, by regularly stopping her and then walking on again. Eventually, she came back to my aids and was then much more relaxed in trot, as I actually had control of the pace in trot. We had a couple of long canters - the first was awesome - up a hill, steady, powerful, calm...the second started off like that, but I don't know what happened halfway through. I think she might have heard the other horse's hoof beats a bit louder behind her, but she suddenly leaped into the air (doing a good impression of a capriole!) and shot off for a few strides! Echo never does this! She is obviously feeling very well at the moment.

I wasn't particularly worried by that behaviour - I would rather she leaped and ran for a few strides than she stopped dead. I have always preferred a horse that bucks to one that backs off or rears - always best to keep the forward momentum, I reckon! We haven't had another chance to hack recently, but the schooling has been going nicely! Talking of which, I should go and ride now...

Daily adventures while training my young horse.