In spite of my Big Plans (written in pencil) to actually Get Somewhere this season, we’ve had a quiet few months – after two promising runs this Spring – due to Daisy slightly tweaking a leg when slipping over, and I had to have abdominal surgery to have a troublesome ovary removed, which took far longer to recover from than I expected. Worried about pulling my internal stitches and delaying my recovery (which 2 of my friends, who have had similar surgery, managed to do) I obeyed the ‘NO lifting’ rule for as long as I could, didn’t ride for 2 1/2 weeks, and stopped all core work… and now I am paying for it, because my core muscles have gone on holiday and when I tried to do a sit-up the other day I couldn’t get off the floor, to my horror!
Before the op, we had another couple of sessions with ace dressage supremo Peter Shaw, who was back over from Australia to do Ground Jury duty at Houghton Hall. Again he worked his absolute magic, and my mare is, finally, finally, after literally years of me working at it, and sometimes almost despairing, starting to get the idea. She is transformed, she will soften at the jaw and poll and work correctly, rather than resisting and arguing. Anyone who has followed our progress (and probably wondered why the hell I couldn’t get this mare on the bit) will see the transformation! So, although we hadn’t jumped a fence for months, our flatwork fitness was fairly reasonable. Aiming to get the show back on the road before this Eventing season is gone, I jumped a few things at home and then booked up for a lesson.
Last year I was the winning bidder for a lesson with 4* rider Julia Dungworth (née Crowson) in Claire Lomas’ Fundraising Silent Auction, and I finally had the opportunity to take the lesson last week. Julia was very patient about the delay, saying that there was no time scale on it, very fortunately.
Usually I am totally organised about outings like this but things conspired against me. As I loaded my tack into the lorry I noticed that my WOW jump saddle had popped apart a bit at the back. I wasn’t thinking clearly and couldn’t remember where the alan key was to fix it, so grabbed my back-up saddle, an ancient Swain that I had reflocked recently for Daisy. In the confusion of swapping short girth for long, different saddlepads etc I managed to forget the breastplate, which meant… no martingale, which I didn’t notice till I arrived at Julia’s base near Wittering.
Normally I would have asked to borrow a breastplate, but I decided that Daisy chucking her head up on the way to fences was a symptom of me using my hands too much to prevent her from rushing, and that rather than trying to prevent the symptom with a martingale, I should instead aim to address the root of it, i.e. not use my hands! So I tacked up with no martingale and headed on down to the arena.
First good thing: the arena at Grange Farm is huge. I think sometimes working in a small arena can disguise certain problems that then show up when jumping a course in a field, and I was very happy to have our faults laid totally bare for expert troubleshooting!
Julia’s way of teaching really suited me (and I can’t say that of all instructors, unfortunately). She was encouraging but also had no problem with telling it how it is, which is exactly what I need.
She watched us warm up, then we worked over a single pole, and progressed to a grid which was gradually built up. A pole to X pole, then 1 stride to upright, then 2 strides to oxer.
Julia noticed that I try to do too much, and said that I need to sit there and do nothing (very difficult!) and let the mare make the mistake if she is going to.
The interesting thing was that D was making a much better shape over the fences in the grid, and giving me a far better feel, than she usually does. Was that the different saddle, the lack of martingale, or something I was doing, or the distances? So many variables. I really can’t be sure and I definitely need to go back for another troubleshooting lesson and see whether Julia can advise! A good pair of eyes on the ground is absolutely invaluable.
We progressed to the grid followed immediately by a whole course; two of the uprights in the course had V poles on them. This was really good for us, and showed up D’s bad habit veering to the right as she is landing… and the fact that I let it happen!!! Cue: a bit of a mental sort-out.
Also, sometimes I was killing the power round the corner, trying to make everything ‘nice’… in fact the ‘nice’ canter is never powerful enough, I have to keep the energy to get the good canter to jump from. Easy to forget when concentrating on so many different things.
Finally, a really important one: I was leaving my corrections far too late. I need to be really strict with myself, sit up immediately after a fence, and get organised asap. If we’re on the wrong leg, sort it. Don’t go on for a bit, then try to sort it out on the way to the next fence. This seems really obvious to an onlooker, of course, but is a terrible bad habit and I definitely needed pulling up on it again!
What was supposed to be the final jump of the day, an upright at the end of the course, I saw a beautiful stride to, left her alone as instructed… and she hit it pretty hard. This happens at home and I can’t work out why. When I make it difficult she makes an effort, when it’s all perfect she almost waits for me to do something. Big lesson learnt there. So, we jumped that one again… I didn’t get quite such a perfect approach but she made a much better effort. Interesting. Obviously I need to get better at leaving it to her, so that she learns from it. And work on the consistency, big time.
The chat at the end of the lesson was very enlightening. Apparently I look “floppy” (I hadn’t mentioned my surgery – I wasn’t going to come out with excuses!), and I obviously look worse than I feel… duly noted (planking and sit-ups have been resumed, in earnest!) and I am a bit too soft and undisciplined. It was good to have this pointed out by a totally new pair of eyes, and exactly what we needed.
So I went off with a new mantra: My job is to keep the mare (and myself) STRAIGHT and try not to do anything else, really. It was a really good, useful lesson, I have lots of homework (which I always appreciate) and will definitely go back for more. If you’re anywhere in the area, I’d recommend Julia hugely.
The first test was at Great Witchingham BE100 on Sunday, our first event since the spring. D warmed up beautifully for the dressage but then tensed up when we went up near the hedge to enter the arena. I am sure it wasn’t me as I’d already decided this wasn’t a competitive outing. Her head came up, she eyed the hedge suspiciously… any excuse for a bit of tension. I then got into ‘trying to manage the situation’ riding, rather than being able to do our best, and the half-halts weren’t exactly getting through, but I did at least keep it forward and energetic and pretty accurate, and didn’t attempt to strangle her with tension in my arms! We started with 7s, went down to some 6.5s and 6s, and then up to 7s again, for 34.8, our best at the level. It could easily have been so much better (she was too tense to stretch down in the FWLR, for example), but at least it was a major improvement, and the judge’s comment “Honest horse with evidence of correct training. For me needs to show more relaxation and swing for the higher marks” was spot on.
On to the SJ. I put the martingale on very loose, just in case… I probably shouldn’t have had it at all, though. We had a reasonable warm-up over a few fences, D feeling keen but not too daft (big thanks to Emily Lochore for being absolutely lovely about me asking to tag along behind her and borrowing her helper!) Although our round wasn’t perfect by any means, and I still felt a bit floppy, D only lightly tapped one down behind, and that was at the only fence at which I hadn’t really got organised well before, due to landing on the wrong leg and a fluffed flying change I think, so I was still trying to make adjustments on the way to the fence. My fault, then. Oddly, it’s the only fence I manage to have a good leg position over (in the pro photo), obviously that doesn’t help much then! 😉
Otherwise she really tried and was giving them a fair bit of air, and didn’t touch another fence, which was very pleasing. I think her style looks a bit better in the photos, softer over her top line, even if mine is rather suspect!
I’d decided not to run XC, in spite of it being a very nice inviting course, being suspicious of our fitness (it’s not fair or safe to take her xc if I am not 100% yet) so I am looking around for another BE100 or 100+ to run at. I had no luck getting onto the Little Downham Wait List, unfortunately, so am trying to decide where to aim for next, with a major house and yard move looming… eventing might be a bit tricky to squeeze in. But, onwards and upwards. If we go well enough at the next one or two, I am still hoping to step up to Novice this season, finally… exciting times. And if I can get the work in the test anything like as secure and relaxed as the work outside, we might even be in the very low 30s, or, gasp, 20s… you’ve got to have a dream…! I keep the faith with this mare as I really do believe that she’s still hiding her light under a bushel and is capable of bigger and better things. Maybe I’m deluding myself, but it keeps me happy and her spoilt rotten!