Friday, November 13, 2015

Introducing my new training tool... Yoga

I'm going to start writing some posts about something a bit different, something I'm quite passionate about alongside dressage training. Yoga.

Immediately a lot people will roll their eyes at the mention of the word, say "I'm not flexible enough", "it's too boring" or "those people are proper weird and spiritual", but I can't even begin to tell you how much it has improved my riding. Well actually, I can, because that's what my future posts will be about!

I've always dabbled in yoga - I've done the odd yoga class at whichever gym I'd be going to since I was fifteen - and had my sun salutations nailed, knowing most of the basic poses. I've also always been quite spiritual, becoming a vegetarian as a way of not putting any cruelty or negativity into my body, and never liking to conform to expectations of who I should be, therefore sometimes being a bit rebellious but only to connect with who I really wanted to be. I've never had a problem with being open-minded either, whether it be for using crystals to help with confidence at competitions or getting tattoos that anchor me even more to what I want to represent as a person. So in a way I guess yoga had always been something I was drawn to, and as I did more gym work I thought myself to be pretty strong at it, though always saw it as a way to do some "easy exercise" if I wasn't bothered to work out properly or was tired. Obviously, I now know, I wasn't doing it right.

I started going to a new yoga centre a few weeks ago because the place I normally did my classes had stopped running. I thought this was terribly inconvenient, as I now had to drive all the way to the other side of town to this new place. It was actually an absolute blessing in disguise, because I walked out of that first class not only feeling useless and weak, but inspired, enlightened, motivated and open-minded. And no, I wasn't hypnotised or brain-washed ;)

There weren't many people in this first class I did (there never is, as they are kept small for individual attention) but I recognised one of the ladies as a cover instructor I'd had once before, who was very good. I thought it strange that she would actually be one of the students along with me. Then the guy next to me said to the teacher that he wanted to try something he saw on YouTube that day, and I thought he was joking when he explained it but then proceeded to effortlessly place himself in a complicated arm balance pose, then push up straight into a handstand, and back down into another arm balance. That might not make much sense when put into simple terms. but believe me it was jaw-dropping strength and control. Then, the same guy started to lead the warm-up - burpees, press-ups and sit-ups. I knew at that point that I should be scared, very scared, at what I was about to endure.

The teacher began by calling out different poses, and we flowed from one to another. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad, I thought, as even though I've never not had the teacher at the front to copy, I still knew the poses. Then, it was handstand time. Not the kind of handstands that you do in school and collapse on the ground afterwards, these handstands were absolutely controlled all the way up, starting with a tuck jump to fold your body vertically up, then the straightening of the legs. No, just no, that was impossible for me.

The rest of the class continued with the theme of my reaction being "are you serious" and the "comforting" awareness of the 60-something year old lady opposite me with what seemed like the strength of Arnie with a body like a feather, able to do every single pose. After an hour and a half, covered in sweat, exhausted and frustrated, I've never been so glad to come to the 'boring' part, the meditation. But no, I'm shocked with my own ignorance once again, as we carried out breathing techniques and chanting. I couldn't believe I thought I "did yoga", because this was the absolute real McCoy and I'm ashamed to say I thought I knew about it before this class.

And that was it, I was hooked. I was brought back to when I was 13 and just started proper dressage lessons with a really good dressage trainer in Sydney, and had that same feeling where I was goggle-eyed at how impossibly complicated it all really was, but I absolutely just had to learn it. The yoga instructor was very encouraging, and it's just enough to believe in yourself that you can master it just like the people you look up to if you try hard enough. I did it in riding, and I know I can do it in yoga now too.

BUT, this isn't just a side hobby for myself, this actually really, really helps my riding. In SO many ways that I never even realised until now. It's not just about flexibility and strength, but I've learnt about mindset, focus and attitude. Subconsciously I've ended up applying it to my sport, passion and career, dressage, and the results have been really remarkable!

Now that I've introduced you to this new topic, my next post will be explaining some things that yoga teaches you that you can apply to riding to make some big differences :)

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Leonie Bramall Clinic - Day 2

The second day of the Leonie clinic brought absolutely stunning sunshine and a perfect 17 degree temperature, which created a bit of a "holiday vibe" and so we sat back and relaxed as we watched the lessons continue.

It was evident that the previous day had just been a warm-up, as it wasn't long until the serious work started in my first lesson with Bertina. We warmed up using my newfound "activating" skills from the day before and they were very effective in getting her quicker and looser. Our work phase consisted of using leg-yield to help introduce half-pass, where she needed more ability to cross and reach out in the sideways movement.

Starting from the corner, we half-passed across the school to just past the centreline and as we neared the end of the diagonal line we did a steep leg-yield the other way off the other leg. So if we half-passed right, then at the end we leg-yielded over to the left off my right leg, then turn right.

The leg-yield needed to be very steep as the aim of it was to increase the flexibility and crossing of the hindquarters. Bettina finds this quite difficult as she is a big mare with a lot of body to move around, but I definitely felt her open up through her body and move with less resistance off my leg after this exercise.

Next was Chad, which was REALLY hard work. Leonie used our white arena boards to create a small square in the corner of the arena, about the size of an 8-10m circle. You know Leonie means business when she gets out any props or equipment!

The exercise was to travel in a circle inside the square, making sure to reach each side. It is actually very difficult to follow the circle line staying on the track of the square, as it requires so much control to not step on or over the poles/arena edging so you tend to do a smaller circle to feel safe. But the point is that you are able to ride the shoulders on that line with a straight head and neck, and be able to push the hindquarters in so you are in travers.

It is too easy and false to create a travers feeling by pulling the head and shoulders in and letting the quarters fall in as well. This makes the horse use its strength incorrectly by falling through its outside shoulder and doesn't challenge its suppleness. We have to focus on keeping the head, neck and shoulders being super straight in front of us, riding forward around the circle (or down the long side or diagonal line for half-pass) and the hindquarters travelling forwards on the inside track of the front feet.

I did this in canter with chad to improve the pace and his ability to sit instead of scrambling along. The temptation to just make the circle smaller is huge, as you hardly trust yourself to keep the horse inside the square if you go so close to the edge, but this is what challenges your control and how much the horse is on your aids. It really helps him use his hind legs to push around the turn, as I couldn't use my reins to make any adjustments as his head would turn in too much and he would fall out through the shoulder and I would lose my precision control. This exercise makes you so aware of how you ride the back end to control the front, as if you even slightly try to correct the front, you lose everything.

We used the same small square for Seb too, but this time in trot. As Seb is a older and tends to be a bit lethargic, I'm always trying to make him quicker and sharper. By doing this traverse exercise in the small square, I had to make sure he stayed really in front of me or I simply couldn't keep him straight. If he fell at any point behind my leg and pulled himself around rather than pushed, I couldn't get the control I needed for the precision of the exercise.

Seb developing his trot after using the "square"
So it was super hard work to get him really active and powering around the small circle, but he was in a position that I was really able to influence his body and actually create something, rather than him just moving in a straight line or in a shoulder-in/travers down a long side where it's so easy for the energy to be lost out through a shoulder or a hind leg.

When I moved out of the circle to continue the activated trot around the arena, he felt absolutely amazing and just powered around with ease. If he started to lapse and fall behind me, I would just go back into the square and pick him back up with the travers on the circle and the engagement would come right back.

I found this such a great exercise for the horses and it is so easy to adjust it to the horse's needs. It fixes so many problems, it just depends what you focus on while you're doing it.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Leonie Bramall Clinic - Day One

Training with Leonie 5 years ago in Germany
If you're a regular reader of my blogs (especially the Teen Dressage Dream blog), you will need no introduction to Leonie Bramall. Leonie is the one and only trainer that I have kept through my journey since I was 15, when I first went to Europe to ride and trained with her in 2009. Since then, I have been backwards and forwards to Germany for my essential dose of "Leonie training" whether it be for a weekend, a couple of weeks or 4 months. Leonie and her partner Volker bred and started my two younger horses, Bertina and Chad, who I bought when they were 3 and so have always tried to do them proud with their babies. Leonie also helped me with Seb in 2012 when I was finding him virtually impossible to ride and train, and within 3 months she had me out competing in Germany getting scores in the high 60s%. However, after hitting a few bumps in the road and being sent off track, I haven't been back to Germany to train properly in well over a year.

So you can imagine the apprehension I was feeling when I arranged for Leonie to come over to the UK to do a clinic, where she would also be teaching me on Bertina, Chad and Seb. The amount of respect I have for Leonie is huge, so it really meant a lot to me that she was happy with how the horses were going. Luckily, they have all been going better than ever and I am really happy with how I'm riding and training, so all I could do was hope for the best!
Quite a contrast to be training on a gorgeous Autumn day
at my own yard in England! Pictured here is Shaun Mandy
on his lovely "Poppy"

I needed not to worry, as Leonie was very pleased with all of the horses and understood that Chad and Bertina wouldn't be as far on as they could be because of heading off-course during the past couple of years and not having consistent training. I was particurly chuffed with Seb, as she helped me so much with him and he has been the hardest horse I have ever had to ride, and over the weekend it was a case of "ok that's all great... what do you want to work on?". I never ever thought I'd hear Leonie say those words to me, as we've usually got A LOT of things that need to be fixed!

So the first day of lessons was on Friday evening, just after I had brought her home from the airport. The lessons started off fairly simply, just addressing a few basic issues and principles. All 3 of the horses could have been a bit more forward and looser in their bodies, so from the beginning in the rising trot she had me using my "rise" to urge them forward, and squeeze with my calf while my seat was out of the saddle. Without losing the connection with the rein, the energy created from your legs gets pushed up through your body and flows forward into the rein contact and helps the horse flowing forward without any restriction from your rising trot and prevents an inconsistent rein contact as you move your body up and down.

I found this really helpful with all the horses, and you can even move it into the sitting trot, where you can imagine that your "rise" every second stride the horse takes, just like the rising trot, and automatically your hips thrust them that bit extra forwards along with the squeeze of your leg. If the horse gets really stuck behind you, the worst thing you can do is clamp down and drive more, as it just shuts them down. You need to get away from their body to urge it to open up, so even if you're doing sitting trot you can just rise out of the saddle for one stride only, and give an almighty squeeze with your legs as you rise up, and that surges the horse forwards and through over its back. Then continue sitting and go with the motion, carrying that energy you just created forwards. It is essential that the rein contact remains the same as you do this, however, otherwise you're pushing them into empty space and they can't carry the connection forward.

In the canter, a similar principle can be applied in the way that if they are getting stuck in their back and cantering too much "up-and-down", you can canter like a show jumper and rise up and down in the rhythm of the stride to push them forward and open up. This is especially effective in the warm-up if you can start cantering early on, as often this will improve the trot for particular horses. 

While sitting in the saddle in the canter, if you time your "driving" aid of the seat with the moment the outside shoulder lifts up off the ground, and imagine that you're pushing the legs further forward with each stride, the canter 

Monday, September 21, 2015

Recap of a Busy Competition Season

As I sit here and remember everything that has happened since my last post, I realise how fast time flies and how much one can achieve in only just a couple of months! 

In July I competed in two internationals, representing Australia for the first time ever as a senior rider! I did the Small Tour classes (PSG and Inter 1) on Seb at Hickstead CDI and Hartpury CDI. The experience was amazing and I actually didn't do too badly.

At Hartpury I finished near to the bottom of the class on the first day in the PSG, then on the second day I improved to get into the top 15 places in the Inter 1 to qualify for the Inter 1 Freestyle, and in the Freestyle class I just scraped into the top 10 placings to get into the prize giving. I honestly couldn't have asked for a better result and was so chuffed that I was able to improve every day and not put shame on Australia! At Hickstead Seb and  I got 4th in the Inter 1 with an improved score from Hartpury which again was a great achievement. It's all about taking small steps towards where you want to be and only competing against yourself and knowing what you can achieve.

So another exciting thing that happened last month was that Chad WON the Open Elementary Regional Championship at Addington which meant a qualification through to Nationals! The lead up to the competition is quite a funny story actually... Basically I didn't feel like Chad was on form. I was trying all sorts of cross-training to help him feel stronger in his work but it felt like we were stuck in a bit of a ditch that only time could help us out of. However we didn't have any time, as Regionals were happening right then. I said to mum I really didn't think it was worth the hassle of taking him (he was on super early and Seb was on at 6.30 in the evening and we were only travelling in for the day) because he would probably come towards the end of the class and I didn't want to present him as he was because I know he could do so much better than that.

Well, mum wasn't having any of it and said I had to go. And we don't argue with mum. So I was up at 3am bathing him before we left as he was still covered in mud from the day before, and we headed off at 5.45am. Maybe it was the fact I was zombie-tired, or that I really wasn't expecting great things at all, but it turned out that Chad did the test of our lives and felt absolutely incredible! I still didn't expect to actually win though, I just was proud of my test. Winning a Regional wasn't even something I had in my eye-line as a goal yet! So when I saw that I won with over 72% I was over the moon.

The Nationals were this weekend just gone, and again I was so in awe of the fact I was actually there, I think Chad could have gone around on his back legs and I still would have been chuffed to ride in that arena! However, it was a morning where everything that could go wrong, did go wrong, and was all extremely rushed to make the 7am arena familiarisation and then be ready to be back into the warmup an hour later plaited and ready to compete, so we only ended up with 10 minutes of a warmup before we were forced kicking and screaming (not really) into the arena.

I have to say I was really pleased with what Chad gave me, he stayed with me most of the way and the only thing that brought us down was that it was like hauling back a steam train to get him to halt, and our rein back took about 5 hours to achieve. Apart from that he felt great and we managed a 69.75%! Still no where good enough to get a top 10 place, but hey, I RODE AT NATIONALS!!!

Now its time for a bit of chill time on the competition side of things and get stuck into training and preparing for next season. It all kicks off with my amazing German trainer Leonie Bramall visiting us next weekend to do a clinic, which I can't wait to post about!

Bertina in a June/July edition of Horse and
Until then, happy riding :)

Chad in an August issue of Horse and Hound

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Seamless Changes of Direction

One of the best things about riding the lower level tests with my younger horses is it makes me take more notice of the very basic things that I may take for granted when riding at the advanced levels and it prevents me from overlooking the basic training and become preoccupied with riding movements. One basic principal I've found to be extremely important recently is having the correct inside leg to outside rein contact. Without establishing this connection correctly, changing direction with half 10m circles or serpentines can be a nightmare.

Often we think the horse is pushing into our outside rein and soft on the inside, but 9 times out of 10 if you change direction you will find that as soon as you ask for the old inside rein to become your new outside rein, and want the new inside rein to be soft, things don't quite go to plan. That awkward feeling down the reins, the head coming up and back at you, the horse's body feeling like a twisted plank... Just not nice! Then it takes another half a circle to get the horse back to feeling nice on the new rein, which unfortunately in a test is just not good enough.

Make sure both reins have an even softness for the horse
to willingly move forwards into
So I have a little tip to rectify this, and to get higher marks for every change of direction and serpentine in your test...

Make sure that when you achieve the outside contact, it isn't rigid and the horse isn't leaning on it. You should have a predominantly even feel down both reins but just slightly more of an inside leg/outside rein contact. If you lock your outside hand down to achieve this, when you change direction the horse is going to find it hard to suddenly release his mouth to that constant pressure when you want it to become a soft inside rein. Encourage the horse to move into a steady, yet soft outside rein which you could ask to flex to the outside with at any moment without any resistance.

Likewise with the inside rein, make sure the horse isn't just dropping away from that rein pressure and leaning into your outside hand. Always have a consistent, elastic contact with the inside rein that is able to yield when appropriate, but mostly stays in contact with the mouth. That way, when you want it to become your outside rein, the horse is already familiar with the pressure on that side of his mouth so won't resist or get a shock when you suddenly want him to push into it.

I like to think that you just create softness to the inside in order to make the horse more open to receiving a contact on the outside rein, one which as a rider you must keep soft, and secure for the horse to relax his mouth to.

The result is a constantly even, soft contact through both reins with seamless changes of bend and flexion with each change of direction. This also helps the horse to stay straight, as it prevents them from falling out through the shoulders and their hindlegs stepping crookedly away from the hoof print of the front hooves, a fault partly caused by uneven rein pressure which can block the hind leg from stepping directly through underneath the horse's body.

Hope this helps some of you get higher dressage scores, or even makes you think twice about how even your rein contact is between the left and right rein.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Rider Imbalance and Weaknesses

I really must remember to write my blog post ideas down - I think of so many throughout my day working with the horses and teaching, then when I sit down to write my mind draws a blank. But now I'm forced to start remembering as I'm on a day off, stuck in my boyfriend's house waiting for him to get back from teaching a circuit class which I'm far too hungover to participate in. So this is my attempt to do something more productive than watching Sunday Brunch.

My teaching has increased quite a lot recently and I'm noticing that a lot of people have the same weaknesses in their body that creates unevenness in the horse. The most common problem (and one I too am guilty of and am forever working on fixing) is collapsing the right side of the upper body and having a weaker or ineffective left leg. Of course not everyone has this problem, and everyone has their own history of injuries and body weaknesses, but this one in particular I feel will speak to a lot of people.

I can only assume that our horse's natural weaknesses (stiff to the left, curling on the right) leave us riding like this, and so a cycle is created where they push us into this unbalanced position so they can avoid using themselves properly. It is up to us, the riders, to strengthen ourselves to resist the horse's imbalance and train them to work correctly and evenly. The more aligned and symmetrical we are in terms of strength in our bodies, the more we will be able to recognise the weaknesses of our horse.

So how do you know if you're weak in a particular area if all you've ever known and felt is what your body is like now? Try these really simple exercises:

- Side Stretch: Simple reach one arm overhead and stretch to the opposite side to stretch out the side of your torso, where your oblique muscles are. Stretch to both sides and feel if one side feels tighter than the other. Because I can collapse my right side, I know that side will always be tighter because the muscles are used to being held shorter.

- Side Plank: Lie on your side with knees straight. Prop yourself up on your elbow and forearm and lift your hips up to form a straight line from ankles to shoulders. You can hold it for however long you want (or can!) but after about 30 seconds you should be able to feel a slight burn, one side perhaps more than the other. The side you sooner feel more burn will be your weak side, which means you need to do some work to strengthen your obliques and perhaps your lats and lowers trap muscles on that side.

- Single leg squats: Simply squat down on one leg while holding the other one off the floor, knee bent. Do a few on each leg and feel which one struggles more.

By trying these exercises you will bring awareness to areas of your body that might be failing you when you ride. Even simply being aware of your weaknesses will help you understand why your horse is uneven or falls/drops to one side. If you're determined enough to fix it, you can do some research on strengthening exercises (but make sure your technique is correct or else you will be doing more harm than good!), start going to pilates classes or do a few personal training sessions (if finances allow) and explain to him/her what you feel your weaknesses are and they will help you fix them. Or of course book a lesson with me and I will go through with you what to focus on and think about when you ride to help even you up!

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Update time!!

And my room is still in that state of mess 4 weeks later
 after being painted
Surely it hasn't been nearly 4 months since I last posted?! The time does fly when there's loads happening, huge apologies for those patiently waiting for me to post again. I've been busy with Premier Leagues, qualifying all the horses for regionals, increasing my teaching, and excitingly now have a boyfriend to throw into the mix of it all! Oh and I even managed to paint my room amongst all this... it's not finished yet, but my creative outburst is over and I don't have time anymore.

There's a few things I want to write about but I will separate them into different posts and leave this one as a quick recap so you guys can catch up with whats happening.

Seb at Addington
I've done 3 Premier Leagues so far: Keysoe, Addington and Wellington. I was meant to go to Somerford but the horses got hit with a bit of a respiratory problem (an upcoming post) so sadly I had to withdraw. I've taken both Seb (PSG/Inter1) and Bertina (6 yr old YH) to them and I really am so proud of them both, and myself for even getting back out there to these bigger competitions without crumbling. Seb has come top 10 in most of his classes, all of which have been super competitive and I feel so privileged just to stand among the placings with some riders that I really respect and admire.

At my first Premier League (Keysoe) in 3 years, it was so daunting to walk into a warm-up ring with all the big-wigs. It really intimidated me on the first day, but I was so angry with myself afterwards that I let it affect my warm-up so on the second day I was able to mostly ignore everyone else and we did a better test. Since then I've been fine warming up with lots of people riding around and watching, so I'm glad that's sorted!

Bertina has really exceeded my expectations with how she's performed at the bigger competitions. It's almost like she knows its important and really steps up to the mark. She's been doing the British National 6 year old class to try and qualify for Hickstead, and this weekend just gone she managed to do it at Wellington! She placed 3rd with 7.6, so now she can come to the Hickstead CDI with Seb and I (yet another blog post to share the news of my international debut for Australia!) to compete in the National final for 6 year old horses.
Bertina at Addington

We also did our first FEI 6 year old test, but for some reason she wouldn't walk. So despite getting our half-passes and flying changes (a bit messy though), we got a rubbish mark because of the walk and therefore general impression as she showed tension. I've got another chance to qualify for the FEI test for Hickstead CDI at Hickstead Premier League at the end of this month, so I'm just going to practise the hell out of the test to get it as good as I can.

Aside from all the Premier Leagues, Chad is qualified for regionals at Elementary/Medium level, Seb is qualified for PSG/Inter 1 level, and Bertina has just a couple more competitions to qualify for Novice/Elementary. She had a slow start because she sliced her coronet band in the paddock so needed 6 weeks off to let it heal.

I'll be back in the next few days with my first proper post so stay tuned :)

Friday, February 27, 2015

The Huge Benefit of a Consistent, Systematic Warm-Up

The competitions for 2015 have begun, and with quite a bang I must say! Just a quick recap of my results for this month:

6th Feb: 1st in Elementary 53 with 71% on Chad at Summerhouse

12th/13th Feb: Winter Regional Champs at Addington, Chad 6th in Elementary Open with 69.4%

19th Feb: Seb at Solihull got 73.7% in PSG and 69.7% in Inter 1 - his highest scores ever!

26th Feb: 1st and 2nd for Julius in the PYO class at West Wilts doing PSG and Inter 1 (his second ever), with 67.9% and 67.5%, again personal bests for him!

I really must admit I have never had such a good competition record, and putting all the hard work and hours of training aside, there is one thing I feel which has been absolutely fundamental to the success - a systematic and familiar warmup.

I have learnt from Emile that every time I ride Seb, I must start in exactly the same way. I have weekly lessons with him, but quite often I'll have to ride Seb without Emile there so he will tell me to always start how we do in the lessons. First quite steep leg-yielding in walk to get his joints and limbs moving, then easy forward trot around the edge of the arena, then trot leg-yields across the arena, some shoulder-in down the long sides, then canter leg-yields and shoulder-ins.

Seb is now 100% familiar with that routine and warmup, so when we do it he is confident, able to do the things that loosen his body up, and affiliates the routine with work-time, switching his brain on to me and starts to listen. When the warm up is finished and I have worked him through into both reins and reacting equally well off both legs, I can pick whatever movements I want to work on and he is ready for it. Often I will do canter half-passes, then to pirouettes or tempis, then some trot shoulder-in and half passes and finishing with medium/extended trots. Of course we don't do all of that every day though, sometimes only bits of it and sometimes we might cover all of it.

When I took Seb to Solihull Emile was able to stay and help me warm up which I was hugely grateful for, and he made sure I changed absolutely nothing - that I did exactly what I had done at home. It made a seriously huge difference. When Seb got a bit full of himself and opinionated (as he can be when competing), I strictly reinforced the exercise we were doing while warming up and he very quickly realised that we weren't doing anything different to every other day, and he went exactly like how he went at home. It was amazing.

Chad at Regionals - saved by the familiarity of
our warm-up!
The same result occurred with Chad at Regionals. I had been doing the same warm-up with Chad as I had been doing with Seb (except taking a little longer to get him unlocked and with a lot more leg-yielding) and planned to do that at Regionals too. I was running really late for my warm-up though because of traffic, so I didn't have long at all to get him set up for the test. I kept to my plan of doing what I did at home though, just being a bit more assertive to get the result quicker. Goodness I'm so glad I had that plan because it really did save me. Chad had never been to Addington before and was quite on edge and hardly listening to me, but as soon as I started my leg-yields and shoulder-ins it was almost like he said "ohh is this all we are doing here? This stuff again? Oh ok, I can do this" and he went like absolute magic.

The one horse I haven't quite managed to forge a consistent warm-up with is Julius, because he kind of changes how he feels every day. Some days he may just need loads of transitions, and the next he will need to do a lot of shoulder-in and travers. I really felt the disadvantage of not having my "go-to" warm-up when I competed him on the 26th, as he went a bit inside of himself and lost confidence from being in a different environment. I felt that if I had some exercises he knew so well and exactly in which order, he would have started to listen to me and get his confidence back quickly to start working properly for the test. Instead, I had to pull every single tool out of my box, swiftly chucking each one away as it proved unsuccessful. Eventually we managed to pull something together to create a couple of decent tests but I do feel we can do a lot better.

So my advice to those that go out competing and want to feel more confident in their warm-up and therefore through their test, is create a solid warm-up you can ride through every day and make sure your horse is 100% confident with it. Guaranteed when the outside factors like a different environment, other horses, nerves, time-pressures, etc. come in, you have a fix-all tool in your tool box that brings your horse back to you and the job at hand.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Key to a Locked Jaw

This week I've been focusing on a particular theme when riding. It has been helpful in itself to simplify things down to one key area, which was the relaxation of the horse's jaw. We know that the horses mouth should be relaxed and chomping/salivating, accepting the bit without tension. But when was the last time you really checked how relaxed his jaw and jowl is in response to your rein pressure? When you ask for flexion left or right, how quickly and easily does he react to that pressure down the rein? He should easily turn his head at the poll left or right, but if you have to pull harder to get him to respond, the bit pulls through the mouth too much and the whole neck has to bend just to get some sort of movement, he isn't truly relaxed in his jaw.

I was brought to this seemingly obvious, but difficult, realisation when I took Bertina (6 yrs old by Dancier) for a lesson with Emile (Faurie). She does have a difficult mouth, I never really knew why exactly but I knew she would always lock against me whenever I asked her something. I usually worked through it but without knowing exactly what the problem was. When I started my lesson with Emile, I thought she was nice and round and soft in the neck - a good start. However he immediately told me to halt, and her jaw locked and neck stiffened when I did. He knew it would too.

He explained to me that the softness doesn't come from the neck muscles as such, it starts with the mouth. He showed me that I could make her as deep as I wanted, but she would only come behind my contact (still with a locked jaw) and not be through. The key was to flex slightly in the halt, focusing on how she felt in the mouth, and massage the corners of her mouth (I've heard people say that a thousand times but admittedly only truly understood the meaning of it then!) until she gave and I could walk her forward into that soft, elastic contact that we all so desire.

That is the first step, achieving that contact in halt. The it can be moved on into walk, trot and finally canter. And what happens when the horse relaxes the jaw, is that they stop pulling or resisting the reins and balancing on the hand for support, and start to use their hindquarters to propel themselves forward in their own balance and therefore have self-carriage. It is essential that when the horse does give in the flexion/softening of the mouth, you push the horse forwards to create more energy for a better connection. And then, the elastic yet constant contact is needed for the horse to stay connected to the bridle, allowing the hind legs to push through into that soft mouth you've just created.

I feel like this is like rocket science to explain written down, but honestly it is quite simply all about the connection. The hindquarters are engaged and pushing the horse through over the back and into an elastic connection with the rein, completed with a soft, relaxed jaw that willingly receives positive pressure down the rein. The horse will then salivate and get a foamy mouth, which is either closed or quietly and inoffensively playing with the bit. Basically what happens when this connection isn't created, you will find that when you come with your leg it is received with tension in the mouth and a pulling/resisting horse, often with its mouth open.

Or, on the other side of the scale, when you come with your leg, you receive nothing in the hand and the horse ignores you resulting in what we call "the lazy horse". In my experience of training "lazy horses" and teaching riders who struggle to get their horses to go forward, all that is needed is some connection down the rein so the rider's leg aid can be received and answered. Too often riders throw their reins at their horse and kick, kick, kick, thinking that because they aren't pulling the horse is going to go forward. This is not the solution, and as strange as it feels for the rider to take up the rein and hold a contact on a horse that doesn't go anywhere, as soon as they start to communicate with the mouth and create relaxation, they are amazed at how freely the horse can swing forward without much leg, only by keeping that soft, communicative contact down the rein.

After this lesson with Emile when all of this stuff dawned on me, I applied it to the other horses and in particular Julius, one of the Small Tour horses. Good Lord did it make a difference with him! He has always had the weirdest contact ever, mainly because everything he knows is what I've taught him since I was 15 so theres plenty of wrong lessons he's had to learn. But just by releasing his jaw (trust me, it felt impossible for the first couple of days) he is now consistently starting out his session soft, through, not pulling or resisting, and we are banging out our movements like clockwork. Miracles can happen!

So readers, next time you ride your horse, just take a moment in halt to feel how he is in the mouth and jaw. You may be surprised... I certainly was!

Monday, February 2, 2015

Great Weekend Despite Disaster with the Lorry!

My weekend started with a disaster on Friday with my lorry. I was heading up to Emile's to pick up Seb to take home to ride him in different arena as a practice for a competition on Thursday - he can get spooky when he hasn't been out somewhere different for a while. As usual, I was in a rush to leave and jumped in the lorry without checking everything was close properly. The one time I forget to check just HAS to be the time that the loading ramp on the side wasn't locked in.

About 5-10 minutes into my journey I heard a bang. I looked around in all my mirrors but didn't pick up on what had happened until the fallen ramp which had been dragging along the road, had smacked into a telegraph pole as I drove past. The force took the ramp clean off and it flew into someones fence!

I was absolutely mortified, and even more embarrassed to have to drive a lorry with a big hole in its side with the destroyed ramp shoved in it. And now the lorry sits in its spot next to the barn with its damage right there for all to see. I have even had the builders make fun of me, yet no one seems terribly surprised that such an incident could happen to none other than myself! So now we are tracking down a temporary lorry to use for a competition this Friday and Regionals at Addington next week!

Thankfully, I had the most amazing Saturday to more than cheer me up. I had a ride-teach-ride-teach system going on, which I found was a lot of fun. I taught mostly new clients which is always exciting because everyone has a story behind their riding passion. Whether it's teaching an 8 year old to get her pony on the bit for the first time, or for someone to feel just a few strides of a movement where they can't help but say "wow" because they got a good feeling, it is the most rewarding thing I've ever experienced. I now can hardly believe I was so afraid of teaching, and it goes back to what I said in my "Fear of Failure" post that just as there's a chance of getting it wrong, there's a chance of getting it right. With teaching, the fulfilment of getting it right far outweighs the fear of getting what you're teaching wrong.

Since last weekend I've had a sprained wrist (from none other than playing a spot of squash!!) so have been a little bit useless on the chore side of things around the yard, but on Sunday it felt quite a bit better so took off my bandage and wrist support and gave all the horses a good bath. I got a girl in to clip them as they needed doing but I couldn't hold the clippers, so now they all look gorgeous and shiny with their new clips and glossy clean coats! So satisfying :)

Competitions start again this week so myself and the horses are working hard on general suppleness and way of going to aim for good solid 7's in our tests, nothing too flashy, just correct, soft work. It's all going to plan so far (for once!) and the horses are feeling great so fingers crossed I didn't just jinx myself and it stays that way!

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Making Schooling Sessions More Productive

We've all been told to have a plan in mind for each time we take our horse to the arena for a schooling session. Personally, I've never been able to do that because every time I think about what I want from the horse that day and how I'm going to achieve it, its like he reads my mind and says "LOL! That's what you think..." and its always a horrid session from start to finish.

Whilst I'd been having some difficulties in training overall, I started to think about how I should approach my sessions on a daily basis to achieve more consistent success. What are just one or two things I can do with every horse that can help make each session productive?

Firstly I found that we can't tell the horse to feel like this or that on any particular day, we need to listen to how he tells us he's feeling and that will determine what kind of session it will be. Where I went wrong is where one day the horse would be fab, and I finish the session super happy and excited. The next day, I go out there and do exactly the same thing with them so I can achieve another good session. Seems logical, right? Wrong. A horse can wake up on the wrong side of his stable just as we can our bed so he may be feeling particularly uncooperative or distracted. He may be sore from working so hard the previous day so will feel stiff and needs to do a lot of stretching. He might not have gone to the field the day before so he will feel fiesty and spook a lot. We just don't know. And so we need to listen and adjust.

This horse Seb can feel awful in a test
if you push for too much. Aiming for no
mistakes is what gets this horse marks!
Secondly I've been told recently by my trainer Emile to ride for the horse we have, not the horse we want. Obviously in the cases of the talented young horse we can make them feel like that amazing Ferrari and push them further, but with our older or more ordinary horses, there is only so much they can give us. I have two older horses at PSG/Inter 1 level, and I so often make the mistake of thinking "oh they need to be more supple in the body, take longer strides, need more cadence..." etc. While it's good to aim higher, these horses are never going to feel like my ideal small tour horse and the more I try to change their way of going at this late stage, the further backwards I'm going to get. Emile has taught me to focus on just riding for points in the test. They can get no less than a 7 if they do the movement correctly and harmoniously so then I'll have a +70% test. 

It reminds me of a recent time I got over 68% in a PSG with Seb. I was extremely late to a competition after finding out my grandad had died just before we left the yard, so as well as only getting 10 mins to warm up I was also feeling pretty despondent. I just thought "well, not much I can do here, lets at least make it look pretty" and to be honest the test felt awful - he wasn't taking me forward enough and was slow to react to my leg, yet he did all the movements made no mistakes and it looked harmonious. Therefore, 68%. I wasn't complaining so much about how gluey he felt after I saw the score!

Julius, as an older horse, is very set in his way of going -
i.e not very supple! However working on engagement and the
uphill balance is productive training for him and allows
us to execute all the high-level movements.
Even yesterday I had a pretty unproductive session on Julius my other small tour horse, because I decided he needs to bend more through his body. Well, Julius manages to move sideways easily without putting much bend in and still gets a 7 or 8 in his half-passes, so he couldn't understand why I wanted such unnecessary suppleness. Sure I got him more supple, but he still does his movements the way he's always done them, and thats something I probably won't ever change, so it was pretty pointless really. What I should really concentrate on him is keeping him swinging over the back and engaged, because he has a tendency to lean on the hand and bounce his bum up. That is something I can work on to improve him. The bend through his body? Not as important. But for another horse, maybe very important. It's all about priorities!

Monday, January 26, 2015

Fear of Failure

I've been in a bit of a hole lately. As we all know, motivation peaks and troughs and when its high we find it hard to believe we were worried about anything beforehand, but when it is low it feels like the world is ending and we don't know how we will get through... Well, at least in my case it does. But I'm just a bit extreme like that.

I've become fed up of my periods of low motivation getting me down. Horses and my career is all I have, there is no plan B, nothing to fall back on, because I once read that if you have a plan B, you'll need it. If you don't, then you'll just have to be successful, won't you?

The downside of that is that I can get too emotionally attached, so a bad day of riding can affect everything else, which snowballs the low mood. So firstly I decided I need some other interest that can help me clear my head... Still trying to think of something. Secondly I thought to lessen the troughs of low motivation by understanding what causes it, and what is different when I feel high in motivation.

After a lot of thinking, it seems that a fear of failure is holding me back from achieving anything. As a typical perfectionist and high achiever, I'd rather stick my head in the muck heap than fail at something. However what I'm seeing now is that by holding myself back from so much, I'm not high-achieving at all - I'm achieving nothing, hence the crappy mood and feeling of getting nowhere. I'm not fuelling myself with the thing makes me truly happy and motivated by nature: Success.

I stopped writing because I was scared to write down the truth for fear of being judged, and since the essence of my writing is my honesty and blatancy, I felt no point in it if I had to write about boring stuff no one could really take an opinion on. If I look back to my better, most successful days (personally), I was smashing out blog posts full of raw feelings and material people could relate to, which was what made it worth reading. That was back when I didn't fear much. When I was a teenager I felt the world was at my feet and anything was possible, so a bit of judgement wasn't going to stop me. I would love to get back to that place, so I need to not be afraid of writing. It petrifies me to even put up this post because its showing my vulnerability, but really I know that a lot of people go through this and at the end of the day, I want people to see they aren't alone and even the people that appear to have so much going for them can feel worthless inside, so never judge a book by its cover.

I haven't done much teaching lately because I lost my confidence and felt I didn't know how to teach and felt bad taking people's money. I stopped putting myself out there, as if I didn't teach then I couldn't disappoint anyone. Then I started teaching a couple of lovely ladies because they approached me for a lesson. I started a new slate, stopped overthinking if I was "teaching right", forgot what I was told in my UKCC training, and just HELPED them have a positive ride. They absolutely loved their first lesson, and I saw that that's all it is - helping people. I mean seriously, I have had SO much training in different countries and have a lot of knowledge, so all I had to do was pass it on. They come away from their lessons feeling uplifted and confident in what they are doing with their horse, and I get inspired by these people that love their horses so much and truly do it for fun - something that can get lost in all the pressure of being a professional. I captured that feeling of content after teaching them and made a mental note that it was a feeling that motivated me, so before I could hide away again I put up a few teaching ads on some Facebook groups. The response was certainly unexpected. I had put up ads before in tack shops, feed stores, tried to spread the word on Facebook, but wasn't getting anywhere. But for some reason, this time, it worked. I have now booked 6 lessons in for this week. Normally, this would petrify me, thinking that I had to satisfy all these people to get their money's worth. But instead, I'm excited to meet these new people that live around me and can't wait to help them with their horses. I guess it's all about perspective - how you look at these situations  determines how you feel about them.

So obviously competing is a nightmare for me. Strangely, once I leave the gates for the competition, I'm fine. The horse is plaited and on the lorry, everything is organised at home, and I can just focus on riding my tests. It's the days before that are the hardest. The training sessions in the lead up to the day, where I put so much pressure on myself and the horse to get things right at home first because I think if I can't do it at home then I won't get anywhere near doing it right at a comp. Sure, a lot of the time the horse isn't ready, but people still go out anyway and do it. But again, you'll sooner find me with my head in the muck heap than going out there in front of people feeling like I have no idea what I'm doing. The only solution to this is just to push myself out of my comfort zone and go to the damn competition. Sure it could all fall apart and I would fail, but my success would be the fact that I actually went. And just as there's a chance of failing, there is also a chance of winning, and it's up to me which one I focus on.

If I can carry on sorting these little (?!) issues out, day-to-day motivation will be a lot higher I'm sure!