I’ve heard the “Keep It Simple, Stupid” motto attributed to a couple of big name riders (Blyth Tait and Carl Hester, for example) and recently I somehow managed to adopt it for a very important day, and it really WORKS, so I thought I’d share the how, and the why, in case it might help anyone else.
I finally stepped my mare Daisy (The Opposition Rose) up to Novice last month. This was a momentous occasion because, well, she’s a homebred, 100% my work, and my pride and joy, and she hasn’t been particularly straightforward, plus this season Life Got In The Way rather a lot (a minor injury to her, then I needed an operation which I’d been putting off for a while, then weeks of sensible enforced convalescence meant time off for us both, then refittening time, followed by a huge House and Yard Move…) and eeeek, the season is nearly gone, we’ve only run twice, better flipping DO something!
Ideally, having done two BE100’s in the Spring, and not gone XC since, I would have entered a BE100+, but that didn’t work out, so I decided to just get on with it and enter a supposed-to-be-nice Novice. There was no point doing the BE100 at Prestwold, since we’ve done it before with no problems, and she now felt pretty competent at that level. So we went to a Bill Levett XC Clinic at Keysoe, primarily to jump a log into water (in case there was one at Novice) as she hasn’t jumped one yet. This plan was foiled by Keysoe having no water in the main water jump with the log drop at that time, in order for them to check the base… oh well.
But we had a lot of fun, she didn’t feel rusty at all, I didn’t have a single anxious moment, she felt fantastic over the jumps, and Bill didn’t say anything bad, so that was reassuring! He is a very good, positive trainer… I would definitely go back, and can highly recommend him.
The videos and photos that my long-suffering boyfriend took – he had to walk about two miles, while feeling dreadful: it was self-imposed (the hangover from hell) but he refused to go back to the lorry! – were very reassuring too. Somehow Daisy seems to have sorted out her dodgy jumping style and was actually BASCULING, rather than jumping with a braced neck and back (in spite of a usually exaggerated release from me) and taking off with both hind feet perfectly together (her habit of taking off split-legged in canter had been worrying me, although she hadn’t been favouring a particular leg, but it leads to skewing and a loss of power off the floor). But now she felt great. Wow. Now THAT’S finally a horse I was happy to take Novice… 🙂
With the house move have come changes. The manège at my new place is not useable at the moment (it’s chock-full of weeds, has major membrane issues, and looks more like a field than an arena) but the Pytchley Monday Country hacking is wonderful and hilly (a far cry from the pancake-flat Fens where Daisy has lived since she was a foal) so we’ve been doing a lot of that. Her fitness has come on hugely, she LOVES the hills and the variety around here. Also, my main field is sloping, so, despairing of the arena, I stuck all my show jumps up on the grass and have been jumping in there occasionally, and we’ve both been dealing with the slopes and the uneven ground. Great practice for events, far better than a perfectly flat arena.
I have totally changed her feed regime too, discarding all other feeds apart from Equidgel (+ a bit of chaff to make it last longer to give the others in the field more time to eat their feeds), and just adding various The Herbal Horse supplements depending on what I think she needs. She is more relaxed and looks far better in herself, on Sport Mix and Digestion Mix, primarily, plus there’s no sweet itch, and no bites and bald patches on her face, either, thanks to Itch Mix. (I’d forgotten about them until a friend mentioned them on her horse, in fact.)
Before the move we had a couple of good jump lessons with Julia Dungworth, who said the first time that I looked ‘floppy’ (argh, the truth HURTS!), and a SJ clinic with Sharon Hunt, who helped me nail the really forward canter that Daisy likes best, and who pointed out that opening all my fingers on landing over fences (a bizarre new habit apparently?!) wasn’t exactly helpful! But she had us pinging round a 1.10 course indoors, and while it was by no means perfect, it showed that Daisy is far more rideable to the bigger fences, and seems to feel that she’s been playing around with 1m high fences for far too long.
Normally my brain is absolutely buzzing with multiple questions and commands every single stride that I ride when schooling or competing. Yes, I am an Over Thinker. Just a bit. So, my internal dialogue goes something like:
“Is she straight? Is that enough energy? Carry the Hands! Is she on the forehand? Look Up! Was that the bell? Sit up but not down. Am I collapsing at the waist? How’s the contact? Where are we supposed to be going? Breathe! Keep my arms soft. Inside shoulder back round the corner. Lift the Sternum. Is she balanced? Engage. Don’t forget to use the outside leg too! Has my seat shifted to the outside? Is that too much bend? What leg are we on?! Organise! Keep her straight. Breathe! Soften the Inside Hand. Leg. Look Up! Are we going too fast? Am I straight? Fingers closed on the reins. Rebalance. What are my seat bones doing? Am I On My Fork? Is she on her inside shoulder? Soften the hands. Keep the Energy Round the Corner! Inside shoulder back. Is she skewing? Am I tilting my head? Breathe! Must weight my left stirrup more to stay straight. Sit up! Where next? Breathe! Are we straight…”
Basically, FAR too much going on up there. I am constantly checking and rechecking and trying to remember the umpteen valuable things I have been told by a lot of very good, patient, experienced trainers, over the years. This, added to “where the hell are we supposed to be going?” becomes too much for my brain sometimes. I turned the wrong way after fence 2 at Gt Witchingham this spring. Completely the wrong way. The course went left, we landed a bit skewed, my brain overloaded and I turned right. Not cool. That error cost us 5 time penalties. Very not cool at all. This little mare deserves better than that. I know.
For some reason I had decided (while worrying whether she was ready for Novice yet, the night before) to Keep It Simple, Stupid, to focus on only two things while riding. So the mantra was the absolute basics:
That was it. I just kept saying them to myself, repeatedly, and not giving any of the other commands or concerns a moment of airtime in my head. Funnily enough, all the other things seemed to fall into place because I concentrated on those two key ones. Apparently my body knows how to ride, more or less, as long as I let it…
No arena schooling at home means our dressage isn’t improving that much, but at Prestwold Daisy was sweet and settled, by far the best she has ever gone in a test. She stayed soft and let me ride her throughout, and we had no exaggerated spooking in the canter work (one of her specialities). I was very happy with it, so the mark was immaterial (although in fact it was 35, not bad considering I did the trot to walk transition at totally the wrong marker, and also fluffed up the extended walk by clucking at her, which means Trot, of course). The video of the test is HERE if anyone wants to see it.
Over to the SJ. I’d decided to dispense with a martingale for both jump phases, having come to the conclusion that if she’s chucking her head up against my hands, I must be using them too much for her liking, so I need to cure the symptom, not mask it, i.e. find other ways of rebalancing/steadying her… but of course that is easier said than done. This could be interesting.
It’s never a bad thing when someone tries to buy your horse in the warm-up. For some reason my ‘eye for a stride’ totally deserted me as I strove to keep the canter big and powerful (I guess I was overdoing it) and I saw a horribly long one to a decent oxer (to which Daisy, characteristically, said “YEAHHHH”… she loves a flier) followed immediately, because I knew I shouldn’t do that again, by a horribly deep one (which made her very obligingly turn herself inside out to clear it) before managing to remember my mantra, manage to get a good canter and see a normal stride, from which she again pinged the fence (which by then someone’s helper had made bigger) beautifully.
At this point the father of one of the other competitors exclaimed “You made that look exciting.” In retrospect I have realised that this probably wasn’t a compliment, and that what he really meant was “I can hardly flipping wait to see what distance you put her on next, what on earth she does with it, and how long she can ‘take a joke’ for.” (I am nothing if not a realist!)
He asked whether she was for sale, and when I said “No, she’s homebred, there’s not enough money in the world” he laughed and offered to throw in his daughter and the dog. Great bartering tactics there. He must really want her. 😉
I decided that was enough warming up, as Daisy was trying very hard. As we went up for our turn, the Would Be Purchaser said, “If it doesn’t go well in there, come and find me.” I strongly suspect that he expected me to see 10 horrific strides on the trot until Daisy said “Errr, jeeeez mother, jump it on your own then”, at which point I’d burst into tears and be happy to give her away. Fortunately I am made of sterner stuff.
The rider before me had a horrible time. The sloping arena there raises the difficulty, and last time at Prestwold Hall we’d had 2 down at BE100. Clears are hard to come by. Plus, this was the first ever full length Novice sized course we’d jumped. Okaaaay… nothing like (im)perfect preparation.
Fortunately, my new simple mantra was running through my head on a loop. SIT UP. RIDE FORWARD.
Well, it seriously worked. I didn’t see a single duff distance (wow, not sure how THAT happened, but I’ll take it), and Daisy jumped her little socks off (my previously casual mare was suddenly very careful.) She breathed on the penultimate pole behind, but it stayed up. Phew. A clear round.
Hang on, I need to hear that again. A clear round. At our first Novice. On an undulating arena. With no bad strides at all, no eeeeek moments. Clear. HERE‘s the evidence. It wasn’t perfect, it was a bit quick and we had to go back to trot a few times to get onto the right leg (the flying changes are a work in progress) which looks very unprofessional, but we were CLEAR. Yaaaay!
Lots of patting and polos, and getting my breath back. (I still need to remember that part. Too much breath-holding in the SJ is not good.) On to the XC.
I’d liked the course when I walked it early that morning (having given myself permission the night before to wimp out if I walked it and didn’t think we were up to it, in fact I thought it was great, perfect for her). There were just a few bigger fences, including fence 4 (a curving brush parallel), and a decent table as the penultimate fence. Some nice technical questions too: a double of skinnies with a 90 degree turn between, a mound with palisade on top, down to a brush corner, a roll top just before the slope to the water, and, a couple from home, 2 steps up on a bounce distance, with one short curving/angled stride to a skinny house. Separately numbered.
Gulp. Tricky. It looked perfectly doable, IF she was ‘in the zone’. Bear in mind that this is the mare who put me straight over her shoulder spooking at a fence that wasn’t even on our course, at Keysoe. And managed to nearly head-butt the right hand flag of a step up, shooting sideways away from a log, at Shelford Manor. And left a front leg totally on the floor, slithering over the fence on it and depositing me on the floor, at our first BE100. And landed travelling so far to the right at Norton Disney last year that she managed to totally sidestep a fence about 15′ wide, a stride away. When she’s ‘on it’, she’s great. When she has a sideways or argumentative or doubting moment, (usually nothing to do with the fence in front of her) it can be very dramatic very fast, and this combination would test her to the utmost. We’d never done anything like it… hmm. I decided to see how she was going, and to take the long route there if she was feeling wobbly or not giving me a great feeling.
We had a good warm-up, and were off. The first fence was a nice small hedge and she added a stride to it, most unlike her, so I realised I had come out of the Start Box too quietly, kept her turned off too much. Lesson learnt for next time! I pushed her forward on the way to the next fence to wake her up a bit, as I really didn’t want her doing that to a decent hedge with a drop. I needn’t have worried, we got a great shot to it out of her stride, she gave it an extra foot and FLEW it (great pics, big thanks to ES Photography.) The third was a cute pheasant feeder, then a long curving line to the biggish brush parallel, which had been causing some problems. Wow, she really impressed me, she saw the bigger fence and took it on with gusto, and gave it what felt like an extra foot or two. She was straight and committed at the skinnies, far too keen up the slope to the palisade (ignoring my half-halts) but then very honest and careful and got us both out of jail at the palisade from a deep spot in trot, and great at the brush corner which followed (where I felt all disorganised all the way downhill to it, but instead of going to the hand to try to organise things and add a stride, as I desperately wanted to do, SIT UP and RIDE FORWARD saved the day… leaving her rolling to it was far more to her liking and definitely the right thing to do), video HERE of that bit. She was good to the log and through the water, fine over the parallel off the turn out of the woods, and through the coffin (again, my new simple mantra helped a lot), perfect through the hedges on a right angle round a corner and the offset double of roll tops (last year’s diving-sideways-in-the-middle-of-something-similar mistake was definitely overcome), and absolutely brilliant at the steps to skinny… I elected to go straight as she was feeling so great, and I was still slightly in the back seat making adjustments to the line as she leapt unhesitatingly over the house, good girl! She sailed the table out of her stride, giving it extra height for good measure, and jumped the final steeplechase fence beautifully. Wow. I was SO chuffed with her. Apart from that one approach to the palisade on the mound, when she got a bit arrogant and ignored me (and got a shock when she got there) she had been attentive, straight, careful and keen (but not rushing) to get to her fences, and felt exactly how I like them to on the XC.
I hadn’t hurried at all, I had just wanted a good confident round in a nice rhythm. Mission accomplished, so I wasn’t worried about the time penalties (15.6), which took us well out of the placings. She will be faster as I feel confident about letting her bowl on more… I didn’t want her getting intoxicated by speed and adrenalin at this stage!
I could not have been more delighted. She’s been a funny one to produce, both physically and mentally difficult at times, and to have her really get into the zone and love every second of her first Novice was such a pleasure. She made it feel small and easy, which I hadn’t expected at all.
Plus, we had a spangly BE point to her name for a Double Clear… wow. That was the icing on the cake. I have no idea what has made it all come together, finally – the hillwork that has strengthened her up, the saddles (she has two WOW saddles now, they are blissfully comfy for both of us, and infinitely adjustable so that her slight imbalances can be accommodated), the dressage training from Peter Shaw which made such a huge difference, the different diet, the treatments from Sharon Hunt’s cranio-sacral osteopath Robert Rogers, the rider keeping it simple on top… who knows?!
Burghley got in the way next (I was busy there for 5 days, both behind the scenes and reporting for e-Venting) and then I didn’t get into the next two events I had tentatively planned on doing (I hadn’t dared tempt fate by entering for another Novice before getting the first under her belt) but I have entered a couple more and hope to do 1 or 2 after that before the end of the season, weather permitting. If she carries on as well as she did, my high hopes of her (which must have looked totally delusional to many, I know) might well come true. I just have to remember to keep the multiple jostling commands in my head down to the simple two that I have settled on… they seem to do the job perfectly. 🙂
All jumping photos from the event by kind permission of ES Photography.