This is the season that wasn’t, as far as I’m concerned. But, and it’s a really big BUT (and more of big butts later), Daisy and I have finished the season really fit and well, having improved a lot (albeit not necessarily according to the scores on the doors), and having learnt a lot too, albeit not at many events… we only got to 3! So, this is a horribly long explanation of the year’s doings (and not-doings), and I am offering Gin and Extreme Sympathy to anyone who wades through it. It’s actually the Diary of Trying To Change How A Horse Jumps, which is easier said than done… and to be honest it is probably written mostly as an aide-memoire for me, when I look back in years to come and try to work out why the hell I only did 3 events all season in 2014, on a fit horse who never took a lame step all year… 😉 😉 So, I don’t really expect anyone apart from our biggest fans to read it… yes, Mum, this is all for you! The War and Peace of Eventing (and that’s just our dressage…)
It started okay, in March/April. For XC practice we did the Hunter Trial at Little Downham (Ely Eventing Centre) which is over all the BE fences. (My new thinking is that going and doing a whole round is far better for both of us at the moment than usual XC Schooling, for lots of reasons.) She romped round twice, the 90-ish and 100-ish courses, and apart from jumping the wrong (adjacent, almost identical) fence in one class, which was totally my mistake (walking 2 courses at once & then trying to remember them both is obviously Far Too Much for my brain, and they weren’t flagged off) we had no problems at all.
Then we had two BE runs: first, Burnham Market, where the dressage was a bit exciting, then one totally ignored half halt in the SJ meant that we got too fast and flat for 3 down near the end (argghhhhh), and we had a great fun clear XC to put big smiles back on our dials.
Milton Keynes BE100+ was next. An okay dressage, a good SJ round over bigger fences than she’s jumped in a course on grass before, but with 1 expensive misunderstanding. Working on riding her differently, I sat light where previously I would have driven with my seat, and she didn’t make up the distance I expected her to, which led to her trying to chip one in to the first part of the double, pretty much wearing it, me stopping her (the 2nd part was not jumpable from there, as I was hanging around her neck!) and a hatful of time penalties. Then we calmly jumped through the double perfectly… lesson learnt. She didn’t touch another fence in the entire round. XC she again felt rhythmical and enthusiastic, without being daft. BE100 was just not challenging any more… Novice was next on the cards.
But, huge BUT (yes, that again), the pictures from both events told a story: she was bracing her back in the air and really not using herself properly, not basculing correctly to give herself the best chance of jumping the fences well & cleanly. Novice is the point where they really need to be able to use themselves if it goes a bit awry. Can I be absolutely positive that I will get her to a perfect spot at every fence, without a miss, slip or trip? Err… I wish.
I am pretty brave, but not that brave. This needed sorting before tackling 3’7″ solid fences. Back to the drawing board.
I took her to be guinea-pig horse for an intensive body scan at a Lecture/Demo by world-renowned veterinarian Professor Marie Denoix, for the Equine Sports Massage Association. He ultrasound-scanned her spine from above, detecting old damage to her supraspinous ligament, and suspected kissing spines.
Obviously this was not good news, and all plans to Event were shelved. A few weeks later, X-rays (taken from the side, not above, which show the gaps between the dorsal spinous processes clearly – from above they curve over a bit like the crest of a wave, and can look closer than they actually are) showed that in fact she doesn’t have KS (phew) but the damaged ligament was clear, so she had a couple of mesotherapy treatments, intended to break the cycle/habit of bracing and tension, and some time off. Weeks were passing…
I’d already had a really good think, and totally changed her saddles, switching to WOW, which seem to really suit her. I love them, they are super-comfy for the rider, and it’s a case of anything to keep this mare as comfortable as possible. Two Fairfax girths, a dressage and short stud girth, followed, and ECOGOLD Coolfit saddlepads, with 2 layers of memory foam for supreme shock absorption. Even without the cost of Event entries, this was not proving to be a cheap summer! I’d decided to spend my available funds on things she really needed for her comfort, and on treatments etc, not on entry fees.
Switching her to the new Equidgel feed seemed to calm her tummy, making her happier to saddle and girth. She lives on a grain-free diet and has been scoped clear for ulcers, but it still made a big difference.
After the treatments, I tried a new dressage instructor, as my beloved long-term instructor is in Germany and doesn’t come over very often, and I felt I was slipping into bad habits in my posture, and desperately needed a pair of eyes on the ground. Despite initial misgivings, I gave it a good go, 5 hours, before despairing of the contradictory comments and advice. One week we had a stern “this horse has no mouth” and the next a flattering “this horse has a lovely mouth”, for example. The instructor (BHS registered) was good at correcting me, for instance in my straightness, which I 100% need, but her ideas of when the horse was going well were unfortunately not the same as mine.
From my long-term trainer’s system, and from lessons last year with Sharon Hunt (unfortunately not close enough to me for regular sessions) I am pretty positive that my ‘Eureka, that’s the feeling I want’ moments are the right ones. Sharon always said “YES! Now ride forward more” at exactly my “Ah HA” moments so I knew I wasn’t miles out in my ‘feel’. Unfortunately the new instructor yelled “NO!!!” at exactly those same moments. When I asked what was wrong, she said the horse was diving onto its forehand. It wasn’t… it was reaching forwards and downwards to the bit as it started truly swinging through… a great feeling. This is the feeling I work toward, the moment when the horse starts really working correctly, and you can ask for more impulsion and a bigger step.
This was, as you can imagine, Very Confusing. I kept persevering but eventually the complete contradictions became intolerable, and when she rode Daisy, briefly, once, she did all the things she’d been expressly telling me NOT to do, so I gave up on that one before an damage could be done! But the improvement in my straightness (thanks to a few McTimoney Corley sessions too) definitely helped, and the flatwork was definitely improving, especially because of The Herbal Horse Calmer I’d put Daisy on to try to eradicate the extreme, silly spooking in my arena.
I’d shelved the jumping for a while till she was working over her back better on the flat, and then had a couple of jumping sessions at home, where she really impressed me. The fences were getting bigger and she was using herself far more correctly. We were getting somewhere! I contemplated which BE events to enter in the next few weeks…
The next day we had a family outing to Pleasurewood Hills which involved me going, most unwisely, on a couple of innocuous-looking rollercoasters. It felt fine at the time. The next morning.. Arggh. Excruciating. Agony. The damage done to my back – which had been good for months before that day – and my neck put me out of useful action on a horse for a while.
A fit, sound, raring to go horse, with a crocked jock. Imagine the frustration. Better that way around, mind.
After a few weeks of recuperation, my back and neck reluctantly gave up giving me hell, and I felt a lot better.
Burghley loomed. It’s one of my busiest weeks of the year: I organise the ERA Riders’ Dinner and cover the event for ERA and e-Venting. I barely have time to ride, as I drive back and forth every day. I thought I’d get Burghley out of the way and then immediately crack on with my fitness and with competing: I’d have all of September and October, so we could probably do 5 events or so if I got a shifty on.
The Burghley Lurgy struck me down 2 days after the event. You couldn’t make it up. It wasn’t quite full-on man-flu but it was an absolutely disgusting heavy-duty sinus and chest infection. I felt like death warmed over and could barely do my basic yard jobs (5 horses here), let alone get some proper work into Daisy. It hung on to me for grim death for about 3 weeks. Friends who had also been at Burghley were going through it too. Misery loves company, and we sympathised about the 3-day excruciating ‘snot headache’ and other charming side effects of the Lurgy From Hell.
Finally it shuffled off to make some other poor sod’s life a misery. I had tried very hard not to give it away – I became a hermit for 3 weeks because of it – but it was such a nasty one it probably flew 1/2 way around the world and mutated into ebola.
Surely that’s got to be IT for crap excuses/timing this year, I hear you say? No, believe it or not, there’s more.
After hobbling around like a fairly useless cripple while my back healed, and my lurgy made me feel like an animated corpse, probably comfort eating for 10 because of feeling so rubbish, and suffering from the Distinct Lack of Eventing in my life, I discovered to my absolute horror that I’d had a major major weighing-scales malfunction.
I have snazzy, all singing, all dancing, digital scales. They even tell me my body fat percentage. I am vigilant – I weigh myself at least once a week, often daily if I am going through a particularly paranoid period. They had been telling me that I was still an okay weight & percentage. Honestly, they had. As had my clothes.
My boyfriend distrusted them, and bought a pair of bog-standard analogue scales. I idly stepped onto those one morning and got the shock of my life. HOW MUCH??? No, surely not, Nooooooo… there was something WRONG with the new scales. There HAD to be. Erm, no. They were showing clearly to the right of TWELVE STONE. OMG. I was a stone and a half heavier than I’d thought I was. Seriously. Arghhhhhh. You could have heard my dismayed screech all the way to London.
No WAY was I subjecting Daisy to carting my fat backside cross country when I weighed well over 12 stone stark naked. My ‘fighting weight’ is about 10 stone, that’s where I’m happy. My WOW saddles, although perfect in every other way, are not exactly light. Fatso me + saddle + my kit was probably 14 stone. Daisy is 16.1 and not exactly a blood weed, but she is not physically perfect. I know about her SI/pelvis issues, her back problems, her boxy front foot… and no WAY was I risking breaking her down because I’d stupidly put on over a stone without realising.
This probably sounds like Just Another Excuse to avoid eventing, but it really wasn’t. I adore this horse and will be grief-stricken if I break her down. There’s always next season, but only if you still have the horse(s) for it!
I started trying to lose weight, but went through that typical Beginning of Diet thing where all you can think about is food and how hard done-by you are for not being able to eat 18 bars of chocolate a day and have the figure of a supermodel.
Nothing shifted. I started running. Nothing shifted.
I gave myself a kick up the bum and went for a jumping lesson, which was good. The instructor, Tina Ure, whose judgement I really trust, could see a definite improvement in the mare’s style over a fence, and her general attitude (far more rideable), so that was great news. I came away with lots to work on, including the new warm-up regime (which I am definitely sticking with!)
The Herbal Horse Calmer I’d been trialling was really really working. Instead of spooking like a total idiot and looking for trouble all the time, both out hacking and in my arena at home (as previously described HERE), she was a lot saner and more amenable, but still bright as a button. We were, finally, Really Getting Somewhere.
The end of the season was suddenly looming. Oh crikey, maybe in the two weeks left I could shift some weight and just get a couple of BE100 runs in…?! The scales had started being a bit less shocking every morning. It was working, finally.
I had assumed that I’d be able to get into Oasby on a late entry. Nope, big mistake, it was totally full up with a closed Wait List. All the other events were too far away.
Norton Disney, the last gasp of the season, was the only option. It’s only 50 miles from me and a lovely event with super xc tracks, and very flat, so no lugging me up hills. For my own sanity and that of my mare, who I suspect was starting to question the whole point of her existence, I entered.
We went to Little Downham (Ely Eventing Centre) for their autumn hunter trial, over the BE fences. I walked the ‘Intermediate’ and ‘Open’ tracks together, as I had in the Spring (when I went wrong and jumped the wrong fence during my first round). I don’t learn, apparently.
I proceeded to jump fences 1 and 2 of the lower class, switched obliviously to 3 and 4 of the bigger class (BE100 fences) and then back to the rest of the lower class, without realising. Oopsy. Fence 4a b was a pair of the former Pink Corner of Doom, our previous nemesis, which was now painted orange. I might have over-ridden it a bit but the good news is that Daisy jumped it well… in fact she jumped everything I pointed her at, keenly but sensibly, in far better style, and didn’t touch a fence. She didn’t hesitate for a moment at the 3 waters or the ditches, in spite of not having gone xc since April. It was fantastic fun and she was clearly delighted to be out again. The only problem of the whole day was the big fat E due to my memory blip. She’d gone so well that I scratched from the other class, no point running again, especially as it would have been too close together this time, only about 20 mins apart. I was very happy with that as our XC prep.
I went and walked the Norton Disney XC track the day before, as my times were early and fairly close together. It was very cute and beautifully built, but did not look like a challenge. I know this is a dodgy area for me: I had to try to respect the course even though I was absolutely itching to do the Novice.
I was ridiculously excited about Eventing again. Also, something I haven’t told anyone before (including Daisy), I’d decided that day was going to be ‘make or break’ day in one big respect: if she didn’t impress me enough in at least two of the three phases, I was going to seriously consider a different career for her. The show-jumping in particular – she needed to TRY, to show me that she actually cared enough about not wanting to bash the poles. If I did my absolute best and we still had a few down, that was going to be that. Gulp.
We got there in perfect time, and she warmed up really nicely for the dressage. I got some great stretching, some good lateral work, she was moving on and coming back without arguing, and feeling really good.
Huh. What do they say, ‘we won the warm-up’? We went over to the arena and she tensed up and was staring at the sun shining on the white board in the corner near the judge’s car. Not terrible, not ‘dive away from the terrifying thing and hold your breath for good measure’ spooking, but enough tension to mean that she tightened her back, and I never really got her truly through again.
I was so busy trying to get the canter right that I forgot about the downward transition at K and did it almost at C, throwing marks away. Argh. There were glimpses of good bits, and it was at least all happily forward and in a decent rhythm, but it wasn’t truly secure from leg to hand. We got some 7s, and the FWLR was really good, and a 7 for my riding, so that was something. The score of 39 was fair enough. If she’d stayed relaxed and let me connect her… oh well. if IF IF. It wasn’t terrible, by any means, but it wasn’t as good as it should have been. Lessons learnt. But… arghh.
A quick tack change and we went over for the SJ. Huge thanks to the lovely person (someone else’s helper, as I didn’t want to ask my very lame boyfriend – lameness nothing to do with a horse, I hasten to add – to walk another 200 yards, since I wanted pics/vids of the XC too!) who put the parallel down so I could start over it, according to my new warm-up regime.
I had been practising majorly over-exaggerating the midair release to try to show her that she can take all the rein she wants and use her neck and back, which seemed to be working… but it’s a fine line, as she can accelerate on landing if I don’t regain the contact in time.
I hadn’t walked the course but had time to watch a few. The distances all seemed to be good. We jumped the parallel well a few times, then turned to come to a bigger upright. The person in front of me had it down and I had to circle away, and somehow killed the canter, came in again, got too deep and she hit it hard in front and took it with her. Oops. Kicking myself, I came again, got a much more positive canter to a good spot, and a much better jump at it. Once more over our pet little parallel would do. I didn’t want to ask a stranger to do a fence for me again, and hoped we didn’t need to do a larger one, even though the ones in the ring were about a foot bigger!
HERE is the video of our SJ.
I am pretty proud of this round, it’s by far the best we’ve done. She didn’t touch a pole, she listened, she didn’t run past my distances, and she really really TRIED not to touch the fences. She went disunited twice but she calmly changed behind when I asked, without tensing up, and jumped the next fence well. I remembered to keep breathing, to stay calm, not to get carried away, and to keep softening the reins, which she likes… well, I remembered 99% of the time. The last fence was an upright towards the collecting ring, which I thought probably had our names all over it, as they say, and I over-rode it quite horribly, trying to stop her from flattening. I was still holding on the take-off stride, argh. But, all credit, she jumped it well and cleanly from a good place, in spite of me. She didn’t hollow against my hand (as would have happened before). It’s by no means perfect but it is a huge improvement, so I’ll take that. CLEAR! 🙂 🙂 🙂 Whoo and indeed hooooo. Hooray, in my head she was still an event horse! 😉 😉
On to the XC. If we had a problem I thought it would be at the corner, fence 5, but in fact she did a great job there and stayed perfectly straight. Ditto at all the skinnies.
I had decided to be a bit daring, to turn in closer to things, let her run a bit more, not to do quite as much setting up as before, and see what she was made of. Subconsciously I guess, with hindsight, I was trying to make it a little more tricky, to see how she would cope, because the fences weren’t as big as I wanted to be jumping.
The answer was: she coped really really well. I was also trying to do what I had done in the SJ, over-exaggerate the ‘give’ in midair to really encourage her to use herself more and not to jump tensely.
Everything was going great. We were having the most amazing fun. She was looking for her fences, locking on, keeping her rhythm, meeting them well, jumping clean and straight, and absolutely loving it, making it feel very easy. I was relaxed and happy, grinning like a loon the whole way round. Too relaxed, apparently. We turned for home. Just 18 and 19, a stride apart, slightly offset but both of them about 20′ of log to aim at, and then 2 easy fences, to finish. We came quite strongly to 18, and I saw a good positive shot in at exactly the part of the first log I’d intended to jump.
Sometimes she takes off well but dives hard right in the air. She hadn’t done it ALL flipping day, or at home in the last week or two, so my guard was right down. We took off okay and were both definitely looking at the next fence, 8 yards away, as the photo proves… but somehow she landed veering right, away from the fence.
The photos tell the story… but odd as it sounds, she really didn’t jink, she did not deliberately avoid the fence. I know that sounds like the craziest let-off excuse on the planet but it honestly did not feel like a naughty run out at all… I know exactly what they feel like!
Of course, if it had been a skinny, I would have ridden a lot less trustingly, channelled her far more… and I’m sure it would have been fine.
I was smiling wryly as I circled to jump fence 19, which she did without a moment’s worry. Even the commentator said, at first, that she thought we’d gone the long route… but the Fence Judges quite rightly thought that I had intended to go straight, so 20 penalties it was. Infuriating, but at least it wasn’t on a day when we’d led the dressage (which is Eventing All Over). We weren’t going to get a rosette anyway. Also, it was better than having a misunderstanding in the other direction and both ending up on the floor for our errors!
She jumped the last 2 perfectly and finished very pleased with herself. I was of course kicking myself for not riding more protectively at those 2 simple logs, but so it goes. One moment’s total trust at exactly the moment she needed to stay straight and NOT drift right!
But I had to be happy with how she had felt for every other second of the round. I really couldn’t fault her, anywhere at all. She’d been an absolute pleasure to ride and made it feel incredibly easy. Definitely ready for the step up… how I wish it was the middle of the season now! The photos show a much better style over the fences, jumping in better relaxation rather than braced. Mission, in that respect, starting to be accomplished…
So, since she has had a very light year, she’ll be staying in work and we’ll try to get a lot more arena experience, to come out next season with all guns blazing, hopefully totally secure on the flat, and with even better style over the fences. Loads to work on, but loads to be very happy about, in spite of the rather forgettable scores on the doors this year. I haven’t lost my faith that she WILL go on to bigger and better things!
Thanks for reading this marathon, to anyone who got this far.
And a genuinely HUGE thank you to everyone who has helped this year… my lovely boyfriend for photos, videos, and patient pole-raising and occasional pole-picking at home, my lovely sponsor The Herbal Horse, for the magical Calmer that makes her sane, Equidgel for their fantastic products, and my friends who gave advice and encouragement (sometimes of the pointy-boot variety) when I needed it. Next season we intend to do a lot better to reward you!
Photos and videos by James Trembecki apart from 3 Pro prints taken at Norton Disney, paid for and used with permission, by Julia Shearwood photography.