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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B&W Eventing Reviews Lucinda Grip Corkshell II Winter Breeches by Pikeur

These breeches came as a welcome Christmas present from my OH as I don’t actually own any winter breeches and have been wearing thermals for months – it’s cold on our farm! I’ve been wearing my new Pikeur breeches for the last few days in some very cold, damp and windy conditions; both riding and on the yard.

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The Pikeur Lucinda Corkshell II breeches feature some really interesting tech in the form of Corkshell™ fabric (made from natural cork!), combined with high performance textiles. The resulting fabric is wind and water resistant material helps keep you dry and the corkshell fabric is soft and warm against the skin, but also breathable. The manufacturers claim that the bi-elastic LUCINDA GRIP Corkshell™ breeches allow the rider to benefit from an up to 50% higher heat insulation combined with the best possible breathability for the first time ever.

The low waist fit breeches also offer a full Schoeller GRIPit seat which is really noticeable when riding, but isn’t intrusive when moving in the saddle, it also adds detail which is smart and fashion centric. On the left thigh, the breeches are embroidered with the Pikeur logo. They have a soft ankle cuff and I found the fit is superb and very flattering, despite being slightly thicker than normal breeches. They feel great quality and look really smart, I opted for the black (dark shadow) style as I figure I could get away with wearing these for XC for spring eventing.

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So, the question is do they perform? The answer is a resounding yes! I’m not a big fan of wearing layers of thermals, particularly when schooling and jumping. These breeches kept me warm in some pretty cold winds and sub-zero frosts, but I didn’t feel clammy or sweaty. They were great for yard work and riding and I didn’t return home with pink legs as usual! It’s a shame they aren’t manufactured in beige as I think these would be a massive hit with hunters and those going to winter shows.  The breeches aren’t cheap – hence why they were on my Christmas list! (RRP is £169.95) – but shop around as there are deals to be had. However, they perform so well I think the Lucinda Grip Corkshell II Winter Breeches by Pikeur are worth the expense as they are built to last and make winter riding much more fun.

For more information and retailers click here

Creating memories and chasing dreams…Part I

It’s been a while since I did an ‘about me’ blog. Working in equestrian marketing it is so easy to get caught up in social media and what’s ‘new’, so sparing time to write for myself is a luxury. But today I’ve made the time, basically because this morning has been a comedy of errors (long story and not worth boring you with) … and I thought sod it… write for yourself today Nick and clear your head, talk to your laptop.

While we renovate our lovely barn we have all been living in limbo. Five people all squished into 2 rooms isn’t ideal, such is the joy of temporary accommodation. My ‘it will be worth it’ mantra has now worn itself out and sounds like a scratched record. But we are on the final leg of the journey. I doubt we will be finished by Christmas, but it will be nice to not live out of a suitcase when the time comes. The process has made me value possessions and realise I have so much ‘stuff’, including almost forty boxes of books which will need organising, but wont be thrown away! But when it comes to it, temporary living has made me think about what I really need, and in turn what I want out of life. I’m not going down a heady philosophical route here… just the simple question of ‘does owning stuff give you pleasure or is it just a distraction to life itself and dealing with the grittier aspects of it? Hmmmm…. I don’t think I am at a point to give all my possessions away but it has made me think about what I’ve missed the most and what I have gained by not having it.

As an antidote to not having ‘stuff’ in my life and having very little personal space I’ve appreciated spending time with my horses a lot more. Not that I always didn’t, but I think before they were part of my ‘stuff’ collection and I wasn’t tapping into the fun they give.  This year I’ve not been competing every weekend, but have progressed so much with my understanding and riding itself. I’ve thought long and hard about the whole eventing thing and just found it such a big day out. Logistically organising 3 children, work, my horse, training, paying for entries and then driving myself there, competing alone, getting home, unpacking, making sure homework is done, uniforms are washed, people are fed. I just couldn’t get my head around it. Let alone add the worry of a building project, feeling like I was neglecting my children or note earning to pay for it all… the list goes on.

In sum, I just didn’t have the headspace or the capacity to process 3 phases, and try to manage everything else in my life, let alone have the cash to pay for it. To put things bluntly I felt ‘FUCK it where is the fun?’ It’s not to say when things have settled down I won’t return, but for now it’s not the passion it was. I miss XC riding terribly but I don’t miss 4am starts (or earlier), to come home to a messy house 16 hrs later and a to do list that stretches to the moon and back… Some people would say that they will forgo all of that to follow their passion, but with too many plates to spin I personally cant.

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So what do you do when the lightbulb turns on and you realise that you have been stressing out and putting yourself under pressure to do something that just wasn’t time, logistics or money for? You go and start having FUN… and this is what I have been doing!

I have been quietly working away with my good friend Fiona Reddick and also Matt Cox who visits a yard, local to me to train. We have yet to build an arena here so schooling has to either be off site or on hacks, but I think this makes for more focused work and doesn’t sour Wanda. Hacking is very much a big part of exercise for all our horses here so although an arena would be amazing, its a massive expense to legitimise while the build is on.

I was lucky enough to apply and be selected for the British Dressage Suffolk County team and rode in the Inter Regionals at Keysoe in July which was a great experience and really opened my eyes up to a more competitive side of dressage. Out team trainer was the amazing Mette Assounline who I worked with before the competition, again a real eye opener for me, which led to some massive changes in what I could feel and how I approached test riding. We weren’t top of the pile at Keysoe, but Wanda held her own and our team was the highest placed Suffolk team. I also started to tap into the challenges that I wanted to sign up for the emotions I wanted to experience, things that I hadn’t thought about or had the confidence to do as I was so caught up in what I thought I ‘should’ be doing.

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At the end of September, I was lucky enough to ride as a guinea pig dressage test rider at Osberton International Horse Trails. For those of you wondering what small furry animals and dressage have in common, a guinea pig rider, literally rides a judges warm up test. You go in, ride the test under competition conditions, and are marked. The idea is that the judges can then confer, make sure they are marking to the same level and iron out any issues before the main competitors come in.

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A great experience to don tails and ride in a full on setting. As ever Wanda was a superstar and it was great to ride through a test with a few more complex movements, canter serpentines and lateral work. Marks wise we sat in the middle of the class, had we been competing, so I was pleased with that. What I wasn’t pleased with was Wanda breaking free at 4am as I was getting ready to load her, galloping off across a ploughed field and heading across a main, unlit road… with cars. A life flashing in front of us moment when I lost sight of her, then realised a car was heading towards us both! Not ideal but I really had to pull myself together, wipe away the snot and tears, get on with things, throw her on the lorry and drive. For once I had a co-pilot with me… the wonderful Friendsberry kindly loaned from the charity ‘Willberry Wonder Pony’… so with a hug and a squeeze we set off on our 3 hr road trip to do a 4-minute test (nuts eh?). Creating memories and chasing dreams… to be continued!

P.S. While I am here! I am thrilled to announce that our little blog has been shortlisted as a finalist in the Haynet Equestrian Blog Awards 2016. Voting is open now and a final winner will be selected on the basis of votes and a judges decision.

If you have 30 seconds to spare we would love it if you could click on the image below and vote for us…

Our blog started 3 years ago, and has been a great way to share our experiences and news to a wider audience. Personally, it has offered me a change of career and more than that inspired other mum’s to get back in the saddle. We are very proud to be recognised for what we do. #equinebloggingawards

 

The tale of the rag rug… and taking time with horses

A long, long time ago, in a past life, I used to teach art, and make a lot of my own work too. I was quite successful, with pieces in the permanent collection at the V&A and in various private and public collections across the world. I loved it… but it’s a hard career to keep going. You need time… studio and research time to keep the ideas developing. With teaching to earn a living and then having kids and a family to look after I fell out of love with making ‘stuff’. I wasn’t prepared to make generic work that was just a re-hash of what I’d always made. I have a rather belligerent streak that won’t accept anything but the best. So I literally sold off my works, gave away a most of my materials and stopped being an artist (can you stop being an artist?). Either way I didn’t feel I had the time to make art anymore. Horses filled the creative and time void and I got to where I am today, a writing horse owner with 3 kids.

My kids love art, we make stuff, but I rarely do much beyond domestic alterations and the odd drawing. But tonight a few months ago decided to start making something. It’s for my new home, totally domestic and a bit of a marathon task. I’m making a rag rug. Its huge, its tweedy! I don’t even know if I have the patience to finish it. But as I sat there my mind was made up. I’m in for the long haul.

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I know that making things is really good for my mind and I get a clarity of thought when I’m working away. I was thinking about making a rag rug and working with horses. To start, its hands on, requires an amount of dexterity, knowledge or the ability to work with someone that can impart the knowledge required. But what else is similar? Well there is the time factor, the amount of time invested and how ever hard you try, you can’t make something like a rag rug in a hurried way. It is a slow and thoughtful activity.  Its seems in the equine world there are a lot of riders who seem to be in quite a hurry to achieve an end goal. Maybe it’s this mad rush to feel ‘ready’ for the start of the season, to feel like you are ‘progressing’, getting value from all the time and money invested? Sometimes it seems that everyone is off doing this clinic and that clinic, with multiple trainers, at various venues. Spending a lot of time and money and being very ‘busy’ with their riding.

 

A good thing maybe? Well it pays trainer’s wages and I would never dispute putting the hours in. But it feels to me like fast tracking? A little like the pass your test in 5-days driving school?  Is there another way? Everyone has their own approaches but the more I ride, the more I think that maybe training, learning, improving and goal setting needs to be long term, and subtle not short term. Like the bloody huge rag rug which I hope one day to complete, we all sometimes need to step back, enjoy the ride and slow down.

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I have had and still work with some brilliant trainers. I love the wisdom they impart and the time they selflessly give to help me refine and improve my performance. But I also believe it’s important to take the time to work out things on your own. That wonky arm, the un-level seat, the swinging quarters, the inconsistent contact, the fear of jumping. You can pick your poison… we all have one. I honestly think many of these things can be ‘corrected’ by a great trainer, but they also need homework to get them 100% right. I suppose I’d call it taking responsibility for your own learning and ‘feel’. My most recent discovery has been that I can learn more hacking than in the school – discovered because we don’t have a school at our new farm – so via default I guess. I think being out in the open makes me more aware of my own and my horse’s straightness, and I have a couple of hours to suss out what I want to be feeling, not the frustration of going round and round in circles, literally.

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Everyone has their own ways of working, I’m usually running at warp speed x 10000. But I can’t keep it up. I wonder sometimes if our horses feel the same. They need time too to not only build the strength to perform but also the mental agility to cope with the demands of travel and competing or training. Maybe it’s time for us all to slow down, just a shade, and enjoy what we have. Think long term and not short, appreciate how fortunate we are and enjoy the ride while we can. Think and dream big but appreciate the little steps along the way, bank them in your memory and celebrate them. Just like children growing up, it can all be over in a flash. Enjoy what your horses and enjoy the freedom of riding them. For those that can are very blessed.

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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.

Getting on with it

After a rather flat run at Rockingham where I decided to WD before the XC (Wanda felt off colour and we just weren’t on form that day) I decided to enter my local event Little Downham. I took a less is more approach to training and kept Wanda’s workload limited to short bursts of jumping and flatwork with some hacks and cantering. Basically enjoying her and not putting myself under pressure.  

I felt really positive coming up to the event and quite excited about the opportunity to get out and compete again. My times were really late on Sunday (xc not until 6.30pm) which was a new thing for me and I was a little worried I might just be off the boil or a little nervous. To combat this I course walked on Saturday and met up with one of my sponsors Loren Causer from Lens Vanity Photography who stayed at our house and had a great night in of wine and curry. 

On competition day we had a leisurely breakfast and got Wanda scrupulously clean and polished. It was great to have someone to chat to as it really helped with my nerves; it was also a really glorious day which made things all the more cheery. 

We only live half an hour away from Little Downham and are lucky that it sits on fenland soil so is always excellent going – despite constant rain the week before. I was also met by my friend Hannah Galley and her mum. I’ve known Hannah for a few years now. She’s due to have a baby in late August so isn’t eventing but is a very keen spectator! 

Wanda is very straightforward to get ready and we were soon on board, with a plan to keep the dressage warm up minimal as it was so hot. She worked in well and had really good focus so I was pleased and quite chilled. Our test went well. It was consistent and accurate, with only a couple of things I felt could have been slightly better. Sadly I scored a disappointing 35 which I felt was a little harsh. However I am fairly good at not dwelling on dressage scores and my main aim was to focus on confident Show jumping and XC. 

Another friend, Brenning, who has a wealth of experience arrived at this point… and Wanda’s old owner, my mum and half of the children at the riding school where Wanda used to live! We had quite a fan club!!! Brenning helped put up some SJ warm up fences and I really appreciated his calm and encouraging approach. We warmed up well, and Wanda felt very much on form which was a positive boost. 

The SJ at Little Downham was proving tricky for many, with a scattering of poles down across the levels. My plan was to ride a nice round. I wasn’t too bothered about the odd pole down; I just wanted forward shots and positive riding. That was pretty much what I ended up with. However, jumping out of the second combination Wanda found the distance a little long and we had a fence down. I panicked and a brain meltdown, turning left instead of right… so time faults as well as 2 down. It was a twisty course… Honest! However, I didn’t do the whole beat myself up thing, I was actually quite pleased. We met every fence positively and band on stride and looking back at the photos I can see how much of an effort Wanda took to jump cleanly.

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At this point my nerves really kicked in. I felt like withdrawing but Hannah was great at keeping me positive and focused. We didn’t have long to get ready which wasn’t a bad thing! I had my new Lens Vanity Baselayer on and we both looked very smart in black and white.

I decided to keep the XC warm up minimal. Two solid fence jumps and an open up canter is all we needed. Again Brenning was a really calming influence and helped me focus on the positive not the negative. 

Before I had time to think I had got to the start box and was trying to turn on my hatcam while Wanda did her usual excited cobby dance. 5,4,3,2,1, go. I was determined to try and ride forward and soon got into a rhythm, in the back of my mind I just wanted a nice steady confident clear.

After about 5 fences I really felt we were in the swing of things, not fast but clear. We went through both waters and jumped a moderate step up and swung left to a plank pile skinny. I think I just didn’t ride the corner positively. Wanda just wasn’t aware of what she had to jump and we had a frustrating stop. Usually I pick up on trickier turns and trouble spots and ride accordingly but I think I lost concentration – something I will need to work on!

We turned and re jumped easily but at this point I did feel Wanda needed to be travelling a little more and she had firm riding and a touch of the whip as we went into the next fence, a downhill drop hanging log. This totally lit her and I think all she needed me to do was say go. It was like a signal to say ‘I’m not nervous, kick on and lets do this’. In the official photo taken over this fence I have my reins in one hand, sitting well back and really riding – I look like I have my mojo back. The next fence Wanda flew and we ate the rest of the course, including a couple of trickier combinations and a large ditch palisade. As I had already had the stop I experimented with our in between fence speed, being softer with my hands so Wanda could really use her neck… and I got a faster Wanda! She also jumped more boldly, out of her stride and most of all it felt easy and fun. We completed with time faults due to the stop but really pleased with ourselves, Wanda barely sweating and feeling really well. Here is hat cam footage of our round https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3oZX6I80Evk

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 So a pretty crap day on paper, not our usual dressage, fences down and a stop XC. But you know what… I feel really pleased with how we did. I’m a very driven and competitive person, I like to achieve and do as well as I can. But I’ve also had a pretty rough time personally and it was really beginning to mess up my riding. I was super anxious and not a happy person. I’ve worked through that a lot and really thought about why I want to compete as ultimately it has to be fun and rewarding or there is no point spending a fortune on it or hours away from my family. All this personal pressure had an impact on my jumping, as I’ve chatted about in previous blogs. I was just riding in a very introvert and over cautious way. This all changed on Sunday, I felt so comfortable on the second half of the XC. I got the buzz back and it was exciting again. Big lessons learnt and I do feel I have a benchmark now for riding Wanda XC. It’s taken me a few rounds to suss the best way to get her travelling and jumping boldly. I can wait to run again and I hope to get some show jumping in so I can practice going out competing and work on my nerves. 

I feel so back in the game and happy again. All thanks to my lovely horse and very supportive friends, trainers, sponsors and family. Very very blessed 🙂

Lovely photos courtesy of  Lens Vanity Photography

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Focus on Regional Dressage

With the eventing season almost upon us I have been to some JAS and JT competitions and a little bit of show jumping but have also had several British Dressage competitions so that I can begin to focus on the BD regionals at Addington on 16th February.

I’ve found my last few tests really hard to ride. They haven’t felt that fluid or very comfortable to ride. I have had mixed marks as well from the low to very high 60s. I can’t quite pinpoint exactly why my marks are erratic apart from lack of test riding. My last BD competition was in November 2013, just before my hacking accident. I then had a gap of over 2 months without a dressage run. My work on the flat at home has really improved and I know Wanda is going well.  However, it all goes out of the window when I ride a test. When I showjump of XC I’m able to make small changes and I think well ahead and react. This doesn’t seem to happen in the Dressage arena.

With this in mind I’ve been thinking about ways to up my game for the regional dressage championships next weekend. As well as a training session at home I will also be meeting my trainer Matt Cox at Keysoe to run through my test on a 20x60m arena and start to unpick and improve areas that are problematic. So basic training and run throughs.

In addition I’m working a lot on the test in my mind, really visualising it and riding it in ‘my mind’s eye’. This technique was introduced to me by Jo Davies, a sports psychologist, who gave a talk at our yard last weekend. By mirroring the sensations of riding a test or a course, even off the horse, you can improve the way you react to stress and the competitive environment. Although I wouldn’t say I was nervous when I ride a dressage test I do get quite tense in my shoulders and over ride. I hope that by working on my mental preparation I can get through this issue.

I’m also working out how I can improve my shape, mainly circle, riding. With this in mind I decided to do some pole work with Wanda today, working on the curve instead of on the straight. We set up 3 poles in the corner of the arena, with the centre of the pole to centre of the next set at 3m.

After warming up on the flat I trotted over 2 poles set at 4 canter strides to get her working over easy poles before the curve. I then worked over the curve in trot. The circle I rode was about 15m diameter. For a relatively simple exercise it’s not that easy! You can’t approach the first pole straight and it really reveals horse and rider imbalances. I asked our groom Coco to take a short video which I’ve uploaded here. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6P811oyBko8&feature=youtu.be

It shows how Wanda is inclined to want to put in small strides rather than stretch in trot, and how her left canter is more consistent than her right. However, I sit badly to the left (old riding injury) and have a weak right leg. You can see on the right rein we had to work harder. Because of both of our imbalances we were inclined to cut the corner of the circle and Wanda falls onto her right shoulder. To counteract this I placed a cone just after the first pole and really focused on supporting her with my inside leg. This worked well. I have a long way to go with my riding but 7mth on after baby I’m feeling a lot stronger.

Following these exercises I did some straightness work, turning onto the centre line, transitions on the centre line and such like. In all, a really good workout with variety to keep Wanda interested. Next week we will jump her and add some fences as part 2 of the curve and possibly curve bounces.

This weekend the weather reports look grim so I’m not up to much apart from a training session with Matt on Sunday, then its head down next week as we get Wanda polished and preened for regional’s. It’s a really exciting time for us both and hopefully my work will pay off 🙂

Jumping and trying to do it with Style

As I’ve been doing quite a lot of dressage training recently I have tried to focus on jumping over the past week as without realising the new eventing season is quickly approaching.

I decided to enter a British Eventing Jump Training (JT) competition which was held at Houghton Hall at the weekend. I hadn’t jumped in one of these types of competitions before so it was a new thing for me. Primarily I wanted to jump a couple of rounds at about 1m and as the competition has a large training element it seemed ideal for us both.

As a tune up to the competition I took Wanda to Waresley Park to jump a couple of rounds on their lovely outdoor school.  I had decided that I needed to school over some larger courses to prove to myself I was more than capable of dealing with the weekend’s event. As usual Wanda was firing on all cylinders and jumped two lovely rounds, a warm up of 95cm and then at around 105-115cm.

It was really useful to test ourselves over a whole course, with tricky turns and combination fences.

Coco, who helps us out with the horses came along to help with fences and we had some fun playing with my new hat cam which wobbled a bit but footage can be seen here. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b6pQn4NElx4

Here are a couple of pictures from the day – lovely Wanda making a real effort!

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We felt really well primed for the weekend’s competition. We had late times so I had a busy morning doing all the family stuff… swimming lessons, washing, cooking and mucking out.

The venue for the competition was Houghton Hall, about a ½ hr drive for me so really helpful. The venue has recently

had a massive facelift and was ideal for this sort of training competition as there is plenty of space and good quality surfaces.

The first part of the competition involved an explanation of the structure and a course walk with Tiny Clapham who was one half of the training team. Although I had show jumped a lot as a junior it was a useful experience to walk with a pro and consider lines, environment, distances and types of fences.

Following this we had time to tack up and warm up on the flat using Houghton’s huge outdoor arena. In Jump Training competitions you then have an allocated time for a guided jump warm up which was led again by Tiny. I have been lucky enough to have been taught by Tiny before and find her style really suits the way I learn and ride, so it was a really confidence giving experience and set me up well for the main phase of the competition.

The jumping round phases were led by Antonia Brown who was a new trainer to me. She invited us to jump the course, starting in our own time. I was a little nervous but once I’d started my nerves disappeared as I focussed on the course. Wanda jumped so boldly and I was really thrilled with my round, also considering I’d jumped one competitive round since last October!

I pulled up Wanda to have a break and a chat with Antonia. She gave some really positive feedback and I was quite proud of what we had already achieved. We spoke about how I gradually rode with more weight forward in my shoulders as the round progressed. Something I was aware of but still useful to note and definitely an area which I want to work on. I do attribute this to a lack of core strength post baby. I simply get tired and loose a bit of balance.

With this in mind I set off on round 2 of the course. This time I tried to ride with a light seat and softer, lighter shoulders. This technique really worked and I jumped even better than the first round… However it was not to be! Turning into the penultimate fence I remember feeling really tired and maybe didn’t ride such a balanced turn. As a result I really missed my striding, lost concentration and knocked the planks down. So disappointing after such great rounds and I felt I’d really let my little horse down.

Even more frustrating was looking at the scores and realising I had scored 8.5 out 9 out of ten for many elements and was lying on a very good style score of 18, but with an added penalty of 4 for the knock down. Sadly this knocked us out of the top qualifying 5, but within the top 10.

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I left home feeling very pleased with the day and our performance. We ended up jumping two really great, confident rounds which has set us up well for the start of the season. I’ve also got some really useful pointers to work on and have set about improving my core and cardio fitness. Id also personally like to thank the BE trainers Antonia and Tiny and the wonderful team at Baileys that Support and make this happen. This weekend sees Black and White Eventing travelling to Bury Farm in Buckinghamshire to jump in the Baileys / BE JAS 100. This is a combination of show jumping and arena XC. Another challenge for us both 🙂

Photo Courtesy of Baileys
Photo Courtesy of Baileys

All smiles at Burnham Market

 I decided that I wanted my 3rd event back to be at 90 level so I could work on my speed and larger, more technical xc.

We headed off to Burnham Market in Norfolk, a really lovely venue set in rolling hills on old turf.

As expected Wanda warmed up for here dressage very well, although slightly sharper than normal as she had just been clipped out and there was a cool breeze. Our test was ok, although I have to say I wasn’t entirely happy with it. Since having my baby ive found Im so weak in my core that its hard to ride as strongly as I want to. It felt average and I was quite annoyed at myself.

Feeling a bit fed up I headed out to walk the XC. I wouldn’t rate it as a first 90 course. There were 7 combination fences and some really nice natural permanent ones. I really liked it and it was good to have some hills and good galloping stretches. On the way back to the lorry I checked the scores and to my surprise I had scored a 28 in the dressage and was lying in second… that will teach me to get annoyed with myself!

The showjumping was twisty, up to height and a really quality course to jump. Wanda warmed up well, getting quite excited as she really does enjoy her jumping.  My game plan was to ride a forward round, positive shots in, asking for changes (which we had been working on at home) if required. Ive also got a tendency to sit left and drop my left hand so Im constantly battling with that so I can make Wanda as balanced as possible. From fence 1 Wanda and I jumped a really confident round. Positive work although we sadly had 2 fences down. I also made the stupid error of turning left instead of right into the last line of fences – a definite ginger moment! To be honest though I was really pleased with my round, I rode positively and Wanda jumped well… I just need to manage to engage my course remembering brain with the part of my brain that works on what im feeling and reacting to when jumping my horse.

Next up was the XC… In true Nikki style I was a bit nervous. I don’t do waiting  around very well and I get really restless. Thankfully I was able to change boots and clothing and was soon making my way up to the xc start. Wanda decided to get quite excited at this point and we had lots of propping and sideways action in the start box which always makes me laugh. She was an absolute delight to ride round. Dealing so well with the combination fences and jumping more boldly every time we run. She really instils confidence in you and I always come back with a big grin.

Sadly we picked up a few time faults xc and with our sj fences down we were out of the running for top 10. However, we had such a great day out and I think our performance was greatly improved. Not a great day on paper but we gained a lot of experience. We are looking forward to eventing at Brooksby Melton this weekend in the BRC BE80T Championships. At this event I’m blogging for BE so look out on their website http://www.britisheventing.com/ for updates and information about the competition.

Back to Jumping – another 4 weeks until my first event.

I am a great one for setting myself challenges and so my next focus was to prepare for and enter a BE event. Milton Keynes was 4 weeks away and so this was my aim. I decided to step back a gear and train to do the 80T. I wanted a no pressure event where I could have fun and get back into competing on grass and riding XC. Luckily as Wanda was fit and is such a joy to jump I was able to start back jumping and was surprised at how well things went. I have to say that there was sometimes the odd day where I rode terribly and felt really worried I might never be able to event again but on the whole my riding got better with every session. I don’t know if I should attribute this to the horse (who is a total gem) or maybe because I rode and competed quite extensively as a junior and YR so there is some muscle memory stored way back in my mind! I was also lucky enough to come and train with Tina Ure at Little Downham and really benefitted with her tuition. She has really helped me with my confidence and understanding and I feel that I thrive on her approach to XC training.

We had a good run at MK (31 dr and double clear but with time faults as I was very slow xc) and came 9th. A great start to our season… In August! My next plan was to compete at Keysoe, again in the 80 so I could nail the xc speed and also work on a more forward rhythm in the SJ. I also train with Val Gingell who is very local to me. We worked a lot on jumping on grass in a more forward canter so that Wanda begins to take bolder shots into fences, riding quietly but positively through combinations and dog legs so that I kept a consistent and balanced stride length. Again I really enjoy Val’s lessons. I’ve worked with her since I was about 15 and I really have never been given bad advice by her. She makes both horse and rider really think and I enjoy this more cerebral element as it keeps me on my toes.

At Keysoe my dressage was not up to its usual standards and I scored 35. Still 5th in my section and a  fair mark for the test I rode but disappointing.  On the upside my SJ went very well and I went clear. I was under strict instructions not to hang about XC and was really thrilled with Wandas performance. She really loves her XC and for our second event back we felt really smooth and confident. To my amazement we actually ended up winning our section and qualified for the BRC champs in September. We also got a small write up inHorse and Hound 🙂

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