If you’d told me years ago that I’d ever have a fit, sound, keen event horse, my own transport, and money to event, but that I wouldn’t be out eventing, I would have thought you were stark raving mad. But with age and experience comes a little sanity…
Firstly, I haven’t lost my bottle. Or my enthusiasm. I still love the sport, and NOTHING feels like going XC (I suspect nothing ever will.) But if I have learnt one thing over the years with horses (other than ‘”they’re all heartbreakers, eventually, but they’re worth it”) it’s to listen to my instincts, and this spring, they were definitely saying “Ermmm…” every single time I considered doing a BE entry for myself and Daisy (which was often).
Also, a very wise friend has a saying that goes: “Never try to teach a pig to sing, it just wastes your time and annoys the pig”, which kept running through my mind with annoying regularity. I’ve taken various horses up the levels without ever crashing and burning, I have a fair clue of what I’m doing, and I haven’t ever had misgivings like this before.
We’ve done enough BE100s that they are feeling easy, and a bit boring. At the end of last season I stepped us up to Novice, and first time out she went double clear, at Prestwold Hall, trying incredibly hard round an undulating, pretty tricky SJ and sailing around the XC with clear enthusiasm and growing confidence. Great. Much excitement.
Then we went to Moreton Morrell, and had a very ropey SJ round, with a few poles down, not enjoying the going on the all-weather surface at all. The XC course was lovely so I decided to run, and our XC was clear, but it didn’t feel particularly easy or fun… because of the SJ I think, but I am not 100% sure. Always so many variables.
This mare is very keen and loves her jumping. Her go-to response to any situation is to accelerate, and then cope as she goes – so, if she’s worried by a question, she’s pretty much guaranteed to throw herself at it. Literally. Generations of Trakehner “charge the bayonets, charge the cannons” breeding has come out in force, maybe? It wouldn’t really occur to her to stop. This is of course absolutely great for a xc horse, as long as it’s allied to a sensible brain (yep), athleticism, and good jumping style. Ah. There’s the rub.
She doesn’t use her body correctly over a jump. She has scope (I have no idea how much, yet… I have never asked a huge question of her, but a decent 4’ish spread is not a problem), she gets her knees up, she doesn’t have absolutely terrible style, she’s not the sort that makes me think “Holy crap, it jumps like an effing wheelbarrow, never aim it at a fixed fence again”, but she’s not a natural at the copybook ‘arc of the dolphin’ bascule. She tends to tighten her back and hollow, bracing her back, flattening in the air, in spite of a very giving hand. She often takes off split-legged, leading to a loss of power off the floor, and sometimes swings her front end to the side over the jump, leading to me leaning the other way to try to counterbalance her in midair.
At BE100 it’s been okay, but a couple of times on the Moreton Morrell course it felt, frankly, bad. She warmed up well for the XC, and jumped the first fine, but felt a bit impressed by fence 2, a weird ‘slightly sucking back mentally while still powering forward in the last few strides’ feeling, which she hadn’t done for years. The middle part of the course was okay, although she got a bit of a shock at the drop hedge and nearly dropped down onto it, so I rerouted to the long route. She was getting a bit carried away as we went on (as they can) and then she rushed to the step up, bounce over pallisade and run down to skinny brush. We fluffed the step a bit, possibly because of the rushing, so she got up it with legs absolutely all over the place, and it felt as if her belly was on the floor. Like sitting on a very large spider. She surged on, and as we took off at the pallisade I had that awful “oh SHIT” feeling but she got her knees up and somehow slithered over it clear, and ran down keenly to jump the brush fine. Big pats, big breath out… we are still okay. Still upright, still together, still clear…
She jumped the next two simple fences fine, but the fish in the water a few fences later got a similar worried/messy/slithery treatment, and at the simple spread afterwards she did something most odd with her legs a stride or so away, still rushing forward but going back to a trot/tranter… a conflicted horse if I ever felt one. Luckily I had seen a good spot and we met it, and she cleared it fine. I gave her a lot of praise, we cantered up the hill, and met the last fence perfectly, jumping the ditch/brush very nicely… phew. Clear, and at least we finished on a good note, but the old saying ‘clear’s clear’ has never convinced me. This hadn’t felt like a comfortable, easy, fun clear. It wasn’t good enough.
So, back to the drawing board. Yes, I’m an over-thinker. Yes, I am fully aware of the dangers of XC. I know and totally accept that far more experienced and accurate riders, far better riders than me, have died doing this. So, I take this very seriously. I love eventing, I love XC, but I have nothing to prove to anyone, and I don’t have a deathwish, for me or my lovely horse. But BE100 isn’t enough any more (she’s unlikely to ever be Dressage Queeny enough to do well at the lower levels!), for either of us.
So, this year it’s been all about the not-competing. Is it possible to teach this pig to sing, or will it just annoy the pig? Can I get Daisy using her body better, make her more comfortable, so she’ll round her back and neck and bascule properly? Previously she hit the odd high note, an occasional very very special feeling which made me think “WOW, that felt great, this mare really CAN jump” and renewed my optimism, and I absolutely don’t want to sell her, and am willing to give it everything I can.
In spring I had Rob Jackson ‘the Horsebackvet’ come out and treat all of mine. He’s expensive but worth every single penny. I have had lots of people work on my horses (and myself) over the years, and I particularly rate certain ones (McTimoney Corley in particular), but Rob is something else again. He only concerns himself with spinal/skeletal issues, he watches the horse walk and trot in hand in a straight line and turn in small circles, and he gets to work, zeroing in on problem areas. He detected Daisy’s chronic problem area immediately and said that he thought he could change the angle of her pelvis. Wow. Okay… I have been working on that for literally years, trying to get her to bring her hindlegs more under herself.
He treated her, some specific very high leg lifts and holds, that sort of thing… and the difference was immediate. She stood over a smaller area, straight away, and her loins looked more rounded, not as flat.
I gave her a few easy days and then started gently riding again. I was very aware that such radical changes could mean weaknesses and problems with soft tissues that have been compensating for years, and I am mortally afraid of breaking this mare. So, perhaps I was over-cautious, but I thought it was worth it.
On the flat she felt like a different horse. The things she struggled to do before, round her back, soften at the jaw and poll, were there. Instead of asking repeatedly for her to soften, and losing it the moment I softened even the teensiest bit to reward her, it was far easier. She was a pleasure to school, and looked like a different horse.
I waited a long time to jump her. My school at home needed a full refurb (which we did later in the summer) so there wasn’t much incentive to jump on rock hard clay in the fields or a thin layer of sand over bricks in the school! But when I finally did, the far better canter, the softer neck, and the back which could now bascule, all made a big difference.
I had to have Rob out again a few months later, because she started feeling difficult again. He usually doesn’t expect to have to revisit a horse, he is not one of those ‘have to keep coming back because it keeps putting its pelvis out’ sort of practitioners, but when he saw her move the second time he again zeroed in on a specific area that needed treatment, and did so. Again, a dramatic change immediately.
I went for a second lesson with John Thelwall the week after, and we did multiple small bounce exercises, and then an upright. She didn’t rush through the bounces (as I had expected, as the old version of her would have done!), just skipped through very happily, maintaining a good rounded canter, and when we jumped the upright at a decent height she basculed properly and, literally in midair at the top of the jump, I suddenly thought “I want to go eventing!” This, THIS was the feeling that had been missing. When a horse jumps like that, you feel confident that it will cope even if things go a bit awry.
It’s too late this season to try to get anything useful done, so I am going to keep her in work all winter, hopefully get her consistently using herself correctly, and hope to take a transformed horse out eventing next season… here’s hoping!
The singing pig is currently practising her scales… watch this space.
I must say big BIG thanks to my lovely supporter The Herbal Horse for generously sticking by me even though I haven’t exactly been out and about covering myself in glory this year (at all). My horses look amazing, Daisy even has a full mane and tail – her sweetitch has been held totally at bay by Itch Mix and a fly rug. I have used Calm Mix where necessary (it’s miracle stuff, just takes the silly/dangerous overreactions away, I wouldn’t be without it on the yard), and Immune Mix has cleared up any minor problems they had, and helped the new mares with their transition to living here. My lovely new ex-racer is on Farriers Mix and her rather typical TB feet are improving immensely. The Herbal Horse range consists of really efficacious products which I rate hugely (and happily buy myself.)
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