That was 2016 – PART 1 Nerves, Internationals and my happy!

I didn’t write a New Year summary of 2015. It was an odd year of uncertainty and worry, trying to get divorced and failing dismally. Just a whole lot of stress on all levels. I stepped into 2016 hoping to be single and back to my old self with the flick of a switch, all those New year resolutions poised and primed. Sadly, it took until February to finally get the divorce settled and signed off and with it a whole load of getting ‘me’ back. I felt like a lost child in those months, a whole load of anxious spouted forth unexpectedly, and a lot of depression too. Not an experience I would like to live out again, the thought makes me shiver. So why share this on a horsey blog? Well it has everything to do with my little horse Wanda. Medicated up to my eyeballs I decided to not follow my doctors’ advice and went cold turkey, desperately trying to find my riding mojo and a focus in my own life, while still being a mum and earning a living…oh and live in temporary accommodation while we built a new home.

Much of this year has been spent training and hacking, I didn’t really feel up too much else. Eventing was just a disaster and either I was poorly, the children were poorly, or something kicked off at home. I totally fell out of love with the sport. I just couldn’t see the point of making myself even more worn out, doing something that didn’t give me a ‘buzz’ anymore. But it’s all worked out well. Taking time out from competing has brought my riding up a level. For sure I could be fitter, stronger and thinner, but that will come. What I have gained by quietly working away with my long supporting trainers Fiona and Matt has been invaluable and reaped its rewards on Wanda’s way of going and what I’m feeling and responding too while riding her. This is the year I ‘got’ the point of it all and those damn stupid dressage terms make sense… ‘over the back’, ‘into the hand’ and the simplest but hardest to achieve ‘straightness’. It’s all had an impact on my test riding which is heading in the direction I want it to follow… onwards and upwards!

I decided to aim for a few dressage competitions and have the odd jumping lesson with Mia Palles Clarke, who again has been a long-standing supporter of what we do and totally ‘gets’ what I want to achieve out of training sessions. We did a few BD competitions, with some success, and then Fiona mentioned that it would be worth aiming for selection to the Suffolk squad for the inter-county challenge. A competition I had no clue about. But with half the year almost gone I decided it was time to take the plunge and focus. It felt like time was slipping away…

Intercountry trials consisted of several training sessions with the fabulous Mette Assouline, then a test riding day, on the basis of that performance the teams were selected. Scoring a PB of over 74% at the test day gave me a place on the squad and we eventually came 9th out of 28 teams – the highest placed Suffolk team that weekend. It was an amazing experience, something I wouldn’t have even dared contemplate at the start of the year, and was a massive learning curve in terms of competitive dressage riding, in a busy atmosphere, during the hottest weekend of the year (with a stomach bug – ewwww)!

It was an experience that rekindled a buzz for competitive riding, and to be accepted onto part of a team was a responsibility I didn’t shy away from but relished.

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The summer was a mix of school holidays, sunshine, building projects, Pony Club and hacking out with the children, so competitions were on the backburner, but again I felt the year passing me by and I looked towards getting out and enjoying Wanda. It was all about the ‘experience’ with my horse and it was intriguing to see my ‘want’ to ride and compete slowly creep back. I think part of my motivation was talking to my dear friend Hannah Francis. She was always one to encourage, uplift, and motivate. Her infectious personality did have an influence on me then and still does today. August was an emotional month for so many of us, I miss Hannah terribly but I always spare a thought for her every time I ride and spend time with the horses. Every time I moan about the mud or the rain or the hard work it all is, I am also equally grateful for being able to own and ride my horses. I don’t think Hannah ever knew how influential she was to me and now by supporting her charity I can pay that back. The Champions Willberry Charity Race in 2017 will form part of that and I hope will be a fitting way to remember Hannah and raise funds for Hannah’s Willberry Wonder Pony and the Bob Champion Cancer Trust.

If 2016 was about learning and gaining new experiences, then riding as a guinea pig dressage test rider at Osberton horse trails was one to remember. At FEI level eventing dressage judges have a ‘warm up rider’ so that they can address any marking or tech issues before the competition commences. Although I didn’t ride competitively, it was a fantastic opportunity to learn a slightly more complex test and to ride on grass, in tails in an international environment. Wanda managed to disgrace herself by escaping at 4am as we were about to leave… then galloped across a ploughed field and onto the road. Not one of our best 2016 moments! Literally cold hosed off and thrown on the lorry, we made the trip up, accompanied with FriendsBerry from the charity Hannah’s Willberry Wonder Pony as our lucky mascot. I usually drive myself and compete alone, so it was a case of arriving, throwing chalk powder at Wanda’s legs to cover the mud and getting on with it. Although I wasn’t completely satisfied with my test (I rarely am), we scored well and I was particularly pleased with the way that Wanda settled and focused. An amazing experience, despite all the drama beforehand! This was a warm up to our first International competition, again a new experience for both of us!

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I had read about the Senior Home International on the BD east newsletter, they were looking for some novice riders and to be fair I hadn’t much of a clue what was involved when I emailed Kathrine, the regional rep, to apply to ride. It was a good feeling to get a bit of the brave me back, id lost my ‘give it a go’ and I felt it was returning. All very last minute, but I was accepted onto the Eastern squad, riding against teams from the rest of England, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland at a three-day competition at Sheepgate. I was made to feel so welcome by the team members. Eastern BD has a great team camaraderie as well as some superb coaching and volunteer support. They all work tirelessly to promote the sport in my region and the East is a very strong community because of it. All I can say is, at these sorts of higher pressure competitions, teamwork and support is everything. From helping each other sew on George’s cross flags onto saddle cloths, to killing the time between tests, to giving sympathy if things don’t go to plan, but also building you up to kick ass in the next test… without the good teamies you are sunk. I was riding 3 tests, a warm up on the Friday (we came 9th and I was happy with a top 10 in tough competition), then championship classes over the weekend. I could not have predicted how well we did, coming 2nd in the first test, 4th in the second, and 4th overall in my section, just a smidge off a bronze placing – sadly the M judge wasn’t keen on our test. What can you say other than, that’s dressage and I will take into account the comments and learn from them. Fighting talk eh? Yes, we were back in the game, the black dog had left the room!

I learnt so much from that weekend, how important the support of your friends around you is, and how fun, enthusiastic and friendly my regional riders are. These are people who have fun, party but are seriously focussed on their horse’s welfare and wellbeing, as well as riding very competitively. I have to admit my eyes were opened…and my perceptions of what ‘dressage riders’ were like were crushed.

An intense 2 weeks of competition rounded up with a 9th placing at our first Petplan Novice Festival, a worthwhile trip out, and a great benchmark for moving up to Elementary in December, which we did in style winning our first competition (and the Novice that day too), topped off with a mention in Horse and Hound. Our plan is to move up to Medium in 2017… no more messing about and waiting for the right ‘moment’. I’ve come to realise that there is never the right time to do most things, and that it’s easy to procrastinate, delay or just not try. With three children to look after and a job, my life is busy but I’ve also learnt that I need to do things for myself too. I can’t do everything I want but getting out and competing is a buzz. It makes trogging about in the mud and cold worthwhile, and I now enjoy the sparkle, which makes me happy, and not debilitatingly anxious. The biggest lesson I’ve learnt this year… is to grab every opportunity with both hands and not to be afraid of going out of your comfort zone, just put the work in to make it happen. But more of that in my next blog… an experience that literally made my heart almost burst with pride. But for now, can I wish you a peaceful New Year, stay safe, be brave and enjoy xx.  

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You cannot be serious…

I’m writing as what has possibly been one of the most stressful weeks of my life draws to a close. To be fair it has been a pretty rough few months. Like many, I will be glad when the days get longer and warmer as we know how much a difference that makes.

Amongst other things I have had some pretty heated arguments with my OH, which has left me in a bit of a spin. I am sure I’m not the only one who has had heated words about the time spent with horses and the financial & family implications this has. I hasten to add this wasn’t the whole reason for our argument but it was one area which came up in our heated exchanges. Familiar exchanges like ‘the horses were here before you came along’ vs. ‘your family should come first’, ‘my horses need me to care for them properly’ vs. ‘how much are they costing you’?

I am sure that many of you reading this have heard some or all of these comments at one point or another. It led me to wonder if other sports are the same. Do keen amateur tennis players get accused of spending hours playing, go golfers get chastised if they spend literally thousands on kit? I can’t give an answer to this but it would be interesting to know. I think anyone owning a horse accepts it as a lifestyle decision; it just happens that the rest of their families have to go along with it too.

As the argument simmered, and the ranting stopped the conditions were laid down… one got me thinking… ‘I don’t think you should take your competing so seriously’. It was one of those statements that made the conversation that followed blur as I pondered over what was actually being said.

Taking it too seriously. What did he mean? Have I been just a little too fastidious mucking out? Was the yard just too clean and tidy, my tack always grease free and shiny, the horses polished for just too many hours a day? After some introspection and a few more choice words I got to the point. It was all about being slightly more casual across the board. Enjoying my horses but not letting their upkeep become a mountain of work, having pleasure in my chosen hobby and above all heading out with a competitive frame of mind not a stressed one.

I have been mulling this over all week. It’s true I work hard to make sure everything is tip top. I don’t feel right cutting corners; I have really high standards and don’t stop until the job is done. But does my riding and enjoyment suffer because of this? I think the answer is possibly, but the jury is out for now as it is something I am mulling over (I overthink things too which is another flaw). The question is do I need to spend hours when things can be done well, leaving me time for a family life outside of the yard? Can I go to competitions not feeling like it is all that matters? Can I not beat myself up if I can’t make a training session as planed? I wonder if I am alone here?

From what I can see it seems that appears amateur riders are taking a more ‘professional’ or absorbed approach to their training, their kit, performance and how they care about their horses. In many ways this is a positive thing, there is nothing wrong with putting the effort in. But at what cost, both financially and in terms of personal pleasure? I’ve spoken to a few riders recently who are really concerned about competing, beyond what I would call normal pre competition nerves. Some are putting massive training pressures on themselves and getting frustrated when they feel things aren’t progressing. Others who are doing without to spend a fortune on kit that in honesty isn’t really going to improve performance, or comfort but they feel they need it to compete well. Don’t get me wrong, I love beautiful kit and will never scrimp where safety is concerned but getting into debt over a hobby just adds to the pressure to perform.

So where do I go from here with the season looming? I’m not really that sure. I think I need to edit things down. Look for what’s important to me, the fun stuff, the things that put a smile on my face, make me LOL with big fat capitals. Above all just enjoy my little horse; she’s there for me as much as I am there for her.

And above all just chill out… you cannot be serious? Erm… yes I can!

See you in the start box

Xx

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2014 – A year of almosts, learning and finding my XC mojo

Our eventing season came to an abrupt end a couple of weekends ago as our lovely lorry suffered an electrical malfunction, which proved to be something more than I had realised and meant I wasn’t able to have my last run, and a Novice spin at Oasby.

Disappointing times but I will come back next season raring to go and sometimes these things just happen. After a hectic couple of weeks of work, poorly children and general crazy times I’m quite glad to be sitting on the sofa for a few minutes before evening stables, having a little recollect over our season. It has flown by way too fast!

Our season started indoors with great clears at JAS and JT 100 competitions. Not in the top ten but really pleasing style marks and really positive feedback at our first time running in these classes which Wanda loved jumping. We will be back next year and riding much faster!

With a wet spring we only had time to XC school once before having an easy start at Iselham round the 90. We needed headlights for XC but came a credible 9th with time faults as I took things easy in the failing light. Isleham pulled out the stops and while other events were cancelled they ran on near perfect ground – such is the joy of well drained fenland!

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Next up was a wet Gt Witchingham, again spinning round the 90, frustrating time faults that knocked us out of the placings after a consistent double clear. The time issue was to be the focus of my season, at times frustrating but I’ve learnt so much by tackling this head on, getting the right advice and just kicking on. I have to thank my trainers and friends who have given me lots of invaluable advice.

As I felt it was time to upgrade we had a run round Burnham Market 100 and produced a great double clear and 33 dressage and 1.6 XC time to come 8th. It really felt that we had learnt how to sort out our speed and I rode so confidently XC.

Following this we went to Milton Keynes, again in the BE 100. Again a 33 dressage, one down SJ and clear XC but my nerves set in and we got 14 time faults. A real disappointment but as I’ve written in previous blogs, my personal stressed had a real impact on my confidence and ability to ride forward. This came to a head at Rockingham. I was second after the dressage on 30.5 and had awful nerves before the SJ. This was the first time I had been photographed by Lauren Causer, one of my sponsors and I really appreciated her kind words that day. I just wasn’t in the zone and decided to withdraw after having two show jumps down. Wanda felt flat and so did I. It was such a great event with a brilliantly built XC… we will be back in 2015.

At that point in the season I called in the help of Jo Davies, a sports psychologist, who helped me with my anxiety and worries. She gave me some great tips to combatting performance nerves. My nerves nearly reared their ugly head at Little Downham BE100. After a disappointing 35 dressage, 2 down SJ and SJ time I could have easily gone home! Thanks for my friend Hannah Galley who had come to support me and help out I did make it to the XC start box and set off. A really silly rider error stop was not what I needed to add to the cricket score but it made me so frustrated I then rode one of the best XC rounds I’ve ever ridden and came back understanding a lot more about what makes Wanda tick – essentially to just get on with it, let her use her neck and kick on!

Mid-season I had a couple of XC schooling sessions with the lovely Bill Levett who really helped me learn how to get the best out of Wanda. I really did appreciate stepping up a gear at Calton, jumping some of the biggest hedges I think both of us had jumped before, and again Wanda making light work of it.

A confident run at Buckminster followed with a 31 dressage, one down SJ and clear XC. Again the time faults crept back but I did feel like the jumping was getting easier and the whole day was great fun, wonderfully assisted by my friend Rosie Lloyd. At this point I had made a conscious decision to just go out and enjoy my eventing… it was a case of enjoy it or maybe look towards doing something else. I can safely say after this run although I was still getting nervous my ability to deal with anxiety and nerves was improving.

Carlton followed, a rather poor dressage, show jumps down but clear XC. Frustratingly again not consistent in all phases but definitely getting used to preparing, warm ups, focus and trying to get the best out of Wanda. Sometimes eventing feels like spinning plates, this year more than ever, but I do think my knowledge and feel of how to keep all those plates up there has really developed. As has my XC riding. I’ve realised that as much as I enjoy dressage and love a good show jump, particularly over a technical course what really thrills me is a technical and bold XC course where I have to think fast and rely on my instinct to get the best out of Wanda and have a really rhythmic round. It’s quite an art and only one that can be achieved with miles on the clock. This is something I feel I’ve really got to grips with this year. I have been very grateful to my trainer Val Gingell who has really got me working hard with exercises that make both myself and Wanda think, technical lines and forward riding, all on grass and in all weathers. In sum, some of the best training an eventer can have. I owe her a lot. She trained me as a junior rider over 20 years ago and has never given me poor advice. She really has been pivotal in my return to eventing – not least for recommending I went to view Wanda when I was struggling to try the right horse to event.

We stepped down a level for the BE90 RF at Milton Keynes in August. I knew that it would more than likely be important to get a good dressage score and I really trained towards this with the help of the very patient Matt Cox. I don’t really know what happened that day. My test was consistent and accurate, some parts better than others. But I scored an awful 38. Very annoying and I felt it wasn’t that reflective of the test. The judge seemed stuck on 6’s and marked harshly across the board. It was equally frustrating as Wands jumped a foot perfect double clear. Another ‘if only’ moment and 2/3rds perfect. So no Badminton Grassroots for us, but a really fun day and again a re-affirmation of how much I love riding Wanda XC.

To finish the season off I decided to do Burnham Market 100 again. I love the environment and course building there so thought I’d give it another bash. Sadly I was subject to a really nasty chest and sinus infection (aka the Burghley Flu) which went on to last for 5 weeks and two courses of antibiotics… then spread to the rest of the family. On the whole I don’t like to withdraw from events unless I really have to but there was no way I could have driven for 2 hours to compete on my own. Frustrating but the right thing to do.

Which led me to Little Downham, back to my local event to try a 100+. It was a delight to learn a Novice dressage test – at last something to ride. I was really lucky to be helped by my friend Fiona Reddick who gave me a great judge’s perspective on riding that test. I have to say I was getting paranoid about my dressage ability – Wanda is always consistent and things went a little askew this season. The test rode so well to sit in 3rd with a score of 33. I had taken a lot of time to break down the test and knew it inside out. I also think I had started to gain my core strength back and now I’m riding with a lot more strength. In addition, I’ve had the amazing support from a new sponsor Stephanie Pittam from Cambridge Equine Osteopath who has been treating both me and Wanda.

It has helped both of us no end and more importantly I am starting to iron out unlevelness which has been really problematic for some time.

I have been really lucky throughout the season to be supported by the team at Forelock and Load who have been superb cheerleaders and always ensuring we look so smart. Lauren from Lens Vanity Photography has been amazing, capturing some classic eventing moments that are a delight to re-live. Sarah Skillin from Equiexcel has been an amazing support, helping me develop my website and integrating the social media within it. More recently Hawkins Organic has been supplying us with superb naturally sourced grooming products which are always a real treat to use. On top of all of this I’ve launched a new project www.thebituk.co.uk . The Bit UK is a country and equine lifestyle and fashion online magazine. Our little team have been thrilled with the success of this site, already being featured in our web hosts global marketing campaign and receiving over ten thousand hits per month.

I digress from the main theme of this blog… the eventing! I think 2014 has been the year that I discovered that I never really forgot how to ride XC, I just needed mileage and to have the balls to kick on. I have confirmed what an honest little horse Wanda is and the braver I get, the bolder she becomes. I firmly believe that we have a really solid working partnership now and will undoubtedly be able to get all those plates up and spinning in 2015. I’ve also got a couple of other exciting projects in the pipeline so next year is destined to be full on and very fun!

At this point I’d like to thank all my family who support my passion. My children for their well wishes before I leave to compete and understanding when I am away competing, my partner for very rarely complaining about the long days and early starts, my parents for helping me fund everything from bedding to feed and upkeep of our lovely farm. A special mention to my friends who come along and support or groom, again you know who you are and I appreciate every minute of help – its so hard to get out eventing when you have kids so any help is very much appreciated. Most importantly I want to give Wanda the biggest pat possible. She has helped me turn my life around. Without her my life would certainly be different, maybe less hectic, but not as fulfilled as it is today.

Putting on the emotional handbrake

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At Milton Keynes BE100

I’ve been quite tardy about blogging here for the past few months. It really does seem that life, work and babies have taken over (note that I include horses in the ‘life’ bit as they are a major part of that). I’ve also been writing a bit for Eventing Worldwide and a new project which hasn’t been formally launched yet. 

Eventing wise we had a great run at Burnham Market, My first BE 100 this season to come 8th which I was thrilled about as it was very competitive. Six days later we ran at Milton Keynes and I really struggled with nerves, but still got a double clear; although a load of time faults which knocked us out of contention. Following this we went to Rockingham, an improved dressage (lying 5th), but a very flat SJ round, on holding ground to have 2 down. Wanda felt very low that day and not her usual uppity cob character so we decided to withdraw from the XC as it was up to height and I was concerned she wasn’t on peak form. Within a day she was back to her old self but I’ve been unpicking our performance a little to work out why I haven’t been so confident of late. I’ve written a lot of detail in an EWW blog which will be published soon so won’t cross over into that, but in sum I think my private life as really had an impact on my riding and enjoyment of eventing.

I’ve been trying to get divorced for the last 3 years and it really has taken its toll on me emotionally and physically. I just feel worn out. Add to that raising 3 kids under 6, and one who is 10mths plus work and I’m pretty frazzled. But riding is my sanctuary and it’s not something I’d give up lightly; although things did get that bad a few weeks ago I thought I might need to. 

So how do I work through this? Well I had a little break from riding Wanda for a couple of days last week and headed off to Badminton Horse Trials to meet some friends and also spent the weekend reporting and blogging in the media tent. Possibly the most tiring thing I’ve done in a while but somehow it really restored my batteries and made me realise just how much a big part horses play in my life. 

I’ve also been having some help from Jo Davies, who is a sports psychologist. www.jdpsychology.co.uk Over the phone we have talked about my nervousness and confidence issues, developing some really tangible ideas that I can use when out competing. I really want to knuckle down and work through these ideas as I feel very positive that they will help to make my eventing so much more stress free. 

Today I’m back in the saddle after my mini break and decided to have a little jump and see how I felt. After one or two pops I was really back into the groove. So much more relaxed and Wanda was really taking me into the fences. I definitely didn’t have the handbrake on. For the first time in a little while I had a real sense of achievement and a little high. I’m hoping this isn’t a false dawn but today was a good one and I’m now getting excited for our next event at Little Downham. Hopefully I will be Kicking on!

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At Rockingham. Photo by Lens Vanity Photography