Tuesday, 31 March 2015

One of the effects of chronic illness

Previous post (wheeling news) was written a while ago and all I did to post it tonight was bung on a paragraph at the end. I'm working on something else which relates more to how I actually feel at the moment.

This post is really for those people who now read this and are expecting me to be in contact, for whatever reason.
Firstly, I just can't. Sorry. I can't do emails or texts or phonecalls to individual people. This is because it costs me SO much to type, or to hold my phone. I can't talk on the phone because my voice has gone. I can't really type because my left hand barely works and I have tendonitis in the right one.
This, except the left hand should be flopping around and the pain should go up my thumb and into my hand and up my arm...
Secondly, I just have nothing to say individually. I don't know what to tell you - whether to say everything is fine or everything isn't. So I just don't tell you anything.

Thirdly, it takes a huge amount of mental/emotional energy, which at the moment just spills me over into seizures and burnout. I can't keep doing that.

Fourthly, please don't contact me about this. I'm OK. The more people contact me, the harder it gets. Trust me to cope and to be in touch when I can. I'm not lonely. I'm only just coping with the social contact I do have. Yes, for a healthy person, that would induce loneliness, but for me it's what I can deal with.
So...those of you looking at this, this is the best I can do to stay in touch for the moment. Sorry. This is what chronic illness looks like.

Wheeling update, inc my first race

First race
I have now completed my first proper race! It was only very short (100m), it was restricted to members of the club, and I certainly wasn't setting any records, but I was still keen to do well (you may have noticed I can get competitive).
We arrived at the club a bit early to 'chair up' and then had a brief bit of time to spend warming up on the track. After last week's session with the unco-operative chair, it felt reeeeally good to be back in one that did fit me properly! I zoomed around the track quite happily, enjoying the feeling of being back in the chair and back on a nicely floodlit track after all those weeks of squinting in the dark and trying to prevent seizures by gazing determinedly away from oncoming bikes (please, cyclists, don't use flashing lights...they're harder for motorists to see, drivers can't judge where you are with them, and THEY GIVE ME SEIZURES!). Fortunately for us, Alice, our fastest wheeler, was off this week with a bad cold, which gave the rest of us a shot at doing well.
It transpired that there would be two separate races and that I would go off in the first, faster race. There were four of us in this race and I was in lane 5 (we each had two lanes to be in in case there were any steering issues!). Having not done a race on an athletics track for a while, and having never done a wheelchair one, I wasn't really sure what to expect at the start. In rowing, they shout the club names and then 'Attention, Go!' I had forgotten that 'Ready, set, go' was a thing, which made me look like a complete amateur but I didn't want to get it wrong and go too soon or too late!
The tension rises...
Anyway, what it really was was 'Ready [move the chair to the line], set [brace and breathe!], <AIRHORN> [GO!].' I focussed on making sure that I had some good deep breaths beforehand, and on keeping my chair nice and straight in the first few pushes. Having two lanes definitely took the pressure off a bit in terms of steering. After the first 10m I could feel that I was ahead, and at 15m I even realised that I'd gone in front of the far more experienced racer on the far right. From then on, I just wanted to make sure I stayed ahead and kept calm until the end - which worked fine! I crossed the line, slammed the compensator on then looked behind to see a fairly comfortable margin. I let the chair drift on (it did about another 50m, which is something of a record for me) then turned back to join the others.
Not that fast, but not bad for a first attempt.
After our race we watched the second race come through and cheered them all, then headed out onto the cycle paths for our main session. I don't fully remember what it was, but I remember feeling that I had wings attached and that I was finally beginning to get the hang of it. After two or three really difficult sessions, where I felt that I had no strength, power or energy, it felt amazing to be moving more smoothly than ever.
True dat.
A week later we were back for longer distances. Alice (Miss Speedy) was back but I was second fastest after her. The session was difficult because it was very wet and our gloves kept slipping on the pushrims (plus it was freezing every time we stopped) but I enjoyed it nonetheless and we all went back a happy bunch. Best of all, when I got back to the track my mum was there waiting with Rosie, who was delighted to see me and got very excited at seeing 'my' new wheels.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

No-stirrups riding - thrills and no spills (yet)!

I've had a bit of trouble recently with a patella subluxation (= kneecap partially dislocating). It's pretty sore and makes the leg quite unstable, but I've managed to go riding and wheelchair racing and to do a nice long erg, although perhaps I shouldn't have done the erg!

No stirrups canter!

At riding, it was suggested that I ride without stirrups so that my bad leg could stretch out and not lock into place. This worked pretty nicely - my leg was still quite painful but less so than if it had been held in place by the stirrup. It also meant that I had no option but to sit to the trot instead of rising, which again was more comfortable for the knee. At first I found it harder to stretch down and relax than I had anticipated - I think I was nervous about my knee hurting more and tensing up as a result. After a bit I started to relax more, and even managed a canter by the end! It was quite a brief canter (Rolo noticed a saddle on the ground and, obviously, being a horse, was terrified by it) but it was the first time I'd cantered without stirrups since I was about 13 so I enjoyed it. Cantering is actually a lot easier than trotting when you don't have stirrups but I we'd run out of time so I didn't get to prove this anymore! 

Dan successfully negotiating the scary little colourful blobs.

The next week my knee still wasn't much better (in fact I think it was worse) so I rode without stirrups again. Instead of Rolo I was riding Dan, a new horse who is fun to ride - he's very responsive to some things (especially any command telling him to go or to go faster!) and he bends nicely, so will be good at dressage once he's a bit more used to it. He's still quite young though, and hasn't been used for RDA before, so there are some things that we're teaching him. For example, earlier this week our group was practising an event called the Countryside Challenge. This is basically a kind of obstacle course with various different tasks for the rider to do. There's no time limit - you're just judged on how well you ride (I think. I don't fully know but I am fairly sure we don't get timed!). The various different tasks require the horses to be a bit brave when they see weird equipment set up.

Getting Dan used to shiny poles and colourful balls.

All of the horses apart from Dan had done this before and didn't bat an eyelid. Dan was actually pretty well behaved, but there were some things which clearly bothered him a bit. We spent ages and ages going backwards and forwards through the 'balls gate' (two plastic poles with baskets attached; you have to transfer a ball from one basket to the other while the horse stands quietly in between the poles) because these were bright, at eye level, and contained interesting round shiny things. When I dropped the ball in the bucket the noise was enough to scare him a bit, so we gave him plenty of time just to sniff inside the bucket, establish that there was (sadly) no food, realise that the balls weren't going to spring to life and hurt him, and get him used to the noise so that he didn't look like a big hairy wimp. After quite a bit of intense work on that one thing he became calm enough to stand there while I wobbled around on top, so as a reward we went to go and look at the other obstacles for a bit.

Brave boy!
After the instructor had decided that we'd done enough obstacling for one day, most of the bits were put away and we spent more time doing our normal riding session - trotting individually and as a ride and going over trotting poles. This was where I very nearly came a cropper!

The offending poles!
Trotting poles are just normal jump poles placed on the ground quite close together at regular intervals to encourage the horse to think about where he's placing his feet in trot and to get a nice regular pace from him. Dan was doing reasonably well over the poles (when I wasn't confusing him by steering him badly!) until the penultimate set we did - then he got a little bit excited at the last one, possibly because that time there was no-one in front of him so he thought 'woohoo! Let's go!'. On that occasion he clearly thought twice about it and just trotted neatly to the back of the ride.

This is what control looks like...
The next time round was different...

We trotted up over the poles, which finished quite near the A end of the school. The idea was to trot over them then turn left at the top, trot down the long side, and halt around C before going into trot again to go over the poles again. This had worked beautifully the first time, and the second time, then on the third go round Dan and I messed it up a little - he saw poles and got VERY excited and thought this must SURELY mean jumping and canter! Jumping and canter were not quite what I had in mind, so I was a bit surprised when he suddenly broke into canter on a very sharp turn which nearly had me on the ground. There then ensued a brief period (which felt very long to me!) of Dan careering around the school in a very lurchy, changey-directioney canter, with people trying to catch him, me alternating between trying to stop and merely being content with staying on board, and him charging at various other horses, walls, bits of equipment, etc...

Apparently this is good camel riding technique. It is not so good on a horse. And no I don't have any pictures of me dashing around the school out of control - funnily enough, my boyfriend decided not to photograph that bit!
Eventually one of the helpers managed to catch him, which was just at the point when I was considering bailing out as the easier option. To be completely honest, I was pretty frightened because when you don't have stirrups you don't have that security and stability that they give you, and as I only had one hand on the reins that really left me with only one limb with which to try and calm him down again! I was therefore very relieved when he had safely stopped and I was still on board - shaking, ever so slightly teary, resisting the urge to swear like a sailor and generally thanking God that I wouldn't have to make another trip to A&E... The lovely RDA volunteers looked after me, helped me through those first wobbly moments as I got my breath back, and congratulated me on clinging on!

I wonder if I could persuade people that my moves were deliberate if I aced the landing?
After that I walked him around quite loosely on the leading rein, which was really about all I felt up to at that point. I'm not scared of Dan - he didn't do it maliciously, he just got excited and then I think he scared himself a bit. This is what horses are like and if they were totally predictable all the time the sport would be very boring and not really worth doing. Riding is challenging and I want to be challenged in order to get better. That wasn't quite the challenge I would have chosen but on the other hand I'm ranking it up there with the most difficult things I've ever had to do - not just on a horse, but possibly ever! For anyone reading this that hasn't ridden a horse...the only way to understand is to try it. Anyone that has done some riding will appreciate that riding with one arm and effectively no legs is tough enough anyway, but when you're disabled and on an out-of-control horse that you don't really know it's quite a challenge. Even if I'd fallen off eventually, I think I would have felt good about clinging on for a bit of the time - but I must admit I'm very relieved that by sheer obstinacy I didn't have another big thud!

Control is a wonderful thing.
 The experience has made me feel a little bit nervous, but at the same time I believe that experiences like these make you a better rider, and you can learn from them. I should have realised that Dan would need a bit more of a check on him as we went over the poles, since he'd been a bit too forward the time before. I should have tried to react differently to prevent him getting to that stage at all. Obviously I hope I won't be in that situation again but I can't realistically expect that if I carry on riding I'll never fall off a horse again - that's just not how it works (or at least not if you're pushing yourself properly). These situations are never pleasant but they can teach you a lot about yourself...
'Spirit of adventure' and 'determination' will prevail!
So, my next riding session will be a new experience for me - I'm going on the lunge rein with the university club. This is essentially like being on a giant dog lead and going round in circles. The pressure of steering is taken off you, and instead you work on your body, legs and seat. Since I can't really use my hands normally anyway, I think this will be really beneficial for me, and I'm hoping to learn a lot that I can use to help myself control horses with the RDA. Also, the session will be on my birthday so I will have to have a good time!

Monday, 16 March 2015

Another wheeling update

Tried another chair at wheely racing tonight. It was agony!

I now know just about enough to appreciate a few more things about racing wheelchair design. The chair I used tonight was smaller than the one I normally use in terms of overall length. It was also substantially lighter, which definitely made the steering much easier.

Unfortunately, the frame wasn't quite the right size for me. I fitted in the seat, although the back of it was very loose so I tipped forwards a lot, which put me in a bad position for pushing and has also resulted in what I can only describe as welts on my legs, where the sides of the cage rubbed them. Ouch! The foot plate was also quite wobbly because it was just hanging down from a fabric strap, so I couldn't really get myself into a secure position (unlike the chair I usually use, where I can get nicely wedged in). There was a useful strap to stop me falling out of the chair when I leant forwards which went over my legs and supported my chest, but I found that when I leant that far down I couldn't actually reach the wheels (they were behind me because I was still falling forwards too much) and, even more annoyingly, the added weight made the frame press down onto the wheels so that all my effort was immediately wasted.

Basically, I was completely the wrong shape and weight for the chair and as a result I had a really difficult session.

Lest this should sound like a moan, it was also a really useful session. The frame rubbed on the wheels whatever position I sat in, so I was still having to push against a lot of resistance. This was exhausting but really, really good practice and great for building up the power in my feeble little arms. It's not something I particularly want to repeat (certainly the skin on my legs won't thank me if I do!) but it was good for me to do the entire session even with that resistance - it proved that I was mentally tough enough, even though I was going twice as slowly as usual (sob), and it gave my arms a really decent workout. Also, since we did a timed 1k, it has set me with a benchmark time that is so ridiculously slow that I am too embarrassed to record it here, but am confident that I can easily beat it next time!

Really looking forward to getting everything sorted as the right size for me. Then I will have no excuse, and will have to be unstoppable!

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Wheeling update

So, things have been moving a bit on the wheeling front.

1) I've started pushing myself more in my normal wheelchair, Sopwith. This has resulted in some damage to my right hand (photo below - hopefully far down enough that if you've just come to this page there is time for this warning that it's not a pretty sight!). Basically, a part of the tyre is sharp enough to cut my thumb quite a bit, but it doesn't hurt as much as it looks like it should. I've also wrapped up my left wheel's push rim in tennis grip so it is now both ridiculously bright and a bit grippier, which makes it easier for me to push with my bad hand. Instead of actually having to grip the push rim, I can now just slam my hand in the rim's general direction and hope for the best - it seems to be working so far! I am now able to push myself further distances than I could before a couple of months ago, and I can also do hills with a bit more success. I'm hoping that this improvement will also translate into my wheelchair racing sessions, where I'm just about keeping up but definitely struggle on the hills. I'm also enjoying the higher level of independence from being able to push myself. Walking even with crutches is really difficult at the moment because my left kneecap keeps slipping out of place (it is quite painful) so being able to push instead is really useful.

After about 20 minutes of pushing.
2) I've sort of convinced myself to buy a racing chair..............!
This is a big deal; they're not cheap, so I'd like to explain why I want to buy one. This is as much about me figuring out what's going on in my head as anything else, so sorry for putting it out here in the public domain, but hey if someone else sees it and also decides to treat themselves to a racing chair then it'll be worth it!

This is the model I'm getting, but there will be some variation and I haven't decided on a colour yet.

I hope that I will soon be selling my oboe, Horatio (yes, really!). I can no longer play it. My joints in my arms and my hands are too badly damaged, and the nerves going down my arms fail and cause me to drop it, which could damage the instrument and, from my own perspective, is always extremely painful. I don't want to damage the instrument (it's a beautiful thing) and I've only kept onto it this long out of sentimentality. The thing is, though, that oboes are expensive and I'm hoping that what I gain on that will cover the racing chair. I had thought that I might save the money, but to be honest there's a big part of me that wants to buy something significant with the money. This is because, until my arms decided to give up, I was on track to become a professional oboist. If you'd asked me where I thought I'd end up when I first came to Cambridge, I would have said that I planned to get my degree then go to postgrad music college and then join an orchestra and go professional. I had decided against taking up my undergrad music college offer in favour of a more academic degree at Cambridge, and my teachers at my junior conservatoire not only supported that but actually initially suggested I do the academic route first. Anyway, that life isn't an option anymore. I can't play the oboe or indeed any instrument for long enough to be a professional. I still love music and will sing and compose for as long as I can. I can even play a little bit, but I can't play it like I used to. The idea of not being able to play an instrument when that was what I expected to spend the rest of my life doing - both for the love of it and as a paying career - has taken me some time to adjust to.

I'm still not sure what to think about it because now I just don't know what to do with the rest of my life. All the time that I was growing up, I was going to become a professional musician. Now that I can't do that (or at least I can't be in an orchestra) I don't know what to do. It's like having someone who was destined to become a great athlete who then loses both legs - except that in that scenario, there is still Paralympic sport. There is no musical equivalent to that; certainly not at a professional level. I have lost the career I wanted because I am physically incapable of playing my instrument. I feel that all the orchestral and instrumental work I did when I was younger have gone to nothing. I also know that this isn't really true - all music is good for the soul, and my experiences as a young oboist were really formative and helped inspire the love of music which still governs my life - but it is quite a bitter pill to take when I see the people I grew up with playing in professional orchestras. I feel as if I have failed massively, and I even resent my younger self for being a better musician than I am now (again, this isn't really true - I was definitely better at instruments then than I am now, but I know I am a wiser musician now).

One of those things oboists get touchy about.
Anyway, enough of that. Basically, I want to make sure that the money goes to something significant; something that I can use to embrace my new life. When I first thought of selling my oboe, I wondered about buying a rowing boat, but to be honest the racing chair is a slightly more practical option! To me, the oboe is a symbol of things I can no longer do. If I buy a racing chair, I have a symbol of things that I now can do that I would never have done before. Because of this, I'm now excited about selling my oboe, although there is inevitably a huge amount of regret as well - just regret that I know will never get any easier because my situation is never going to change, so better just to let it go now and make the best of the new situation. I think that a new chair is the best step I can take there. I'm now just trying to decide on the colour - but it will be something BRIGHT and CHEERY and HAPPY and POSITIVE!
and possibly something that glows in the dark.
3) I've also decided to enter some competitions, which will take place in May-July. All the more need to get training!

4) I'm gradually getting a bit more used to this whole wheeling thing. Sometimes I even get the impression I'm getting moderately proficient. For a beginner, anyway!

Right, I'm sure I was going to talk about some other stuff, but I'm now reaching my computer limit for the day so will sign off here. Cheerio.

Disability Life Hacks has moved!

Disability Life Hacks now has a dedicated website, and you can find it here.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Disability Life Hacks - Part 1: Eyes and computers

Welcome to my first Disability Life Hacks post! I want to address some of the things that no-one tells you when you're disabled; they just let you find things out for yourself. This post is going to focus on eye problems (and will also, therefore, explain why I can't promise to post every single day or even on a vaguely regular basis). Future Disability Life Hack posts will cover issues with taking part in sports, using mobility aids, and making life around the home and out and about easier.

So, Part One:
How to use a computer when your head and eyes want to give up.

This will be quite a short post becase even though it's the middle of the day and ostensibly the best time to be using a computer, I still need to write it in several stages without really looking at the screen, and that takes time...

Eye problems associated with EDS are common - 80% of the eye is made up of collagen, that magical protein that EDS-ers find so hard to produce properly. All sorts of problems can occur. The ones that most affect me (so far!) are myopia, glaucoma, iritis, dry eyes, photophobia, lens subluxation and astigmatism. These problems combine to make using a laptop or even a mobile phone quite difficult. Here are some ways round it that I've found helpful.

The f.lux software is probably the single greatest thing I have ever downloaded onto my computer. It is designed to help people sleep better: using a computer late at night floods your brain with blue light from the screen which prevents your brain from realising that it is night time. You tell f.lux where you live, and as dusk draws on it automatically dims your screen and makes it appear more yellow.

F.lux settings

This doesn't just help you to switch your brain off at night time - it also helps me to use the computer a bit longer without the glare and the sharply contrasting colours many websites use affecting my eyes and my brain. I can turn up the 'yellowness' of the screen during the day so that if I'm struggling more than usual I can have a gentler screen to look at. Photophobia, which is quite common in EDS, can be managed if not eliminated by this software. I also have a similar version for my Android phone called 'Twilight', which works in exactly the same way and helps me to be able to look at the screen for long enough to be able to check the time without causing five minutes of blindness and pain!

Twilight settings
Special fonts
There are various fonts that have been developed for people with disabilities that make it easier for them to read large quantities of text. Many of these are intended primarily for people with dyslexia, but although I don't suffer from dyslexia I have found them really useful. A quick internet search will help you to find a few different types. You can download the software for a font (often for free) and install that into your web browser, or you can download a specific browser which automatically puts all websites into the special font. One that I used on my old phone (and iPhone) was a browser called 'OpenWeb'. The image below gives you an idea of what the fonts often look like. They make it much easier to read large amounts of text without squinting at a screen.

OpenWeb browser on an iPhone
Computer settings
Play around with your settings - make the mouse bigger and black with a white surround (shows up better on pale backgrounds, i.e. most websites and documents); sacrifice a bit of sharper resolution to make icons and text boxes bigger; adjust the colour settings and change the background of windows (e.g. My Computer/My Documents and equivalents) so that they aren't white and glaring; use reading software and reversal of colours (e.g. pale text on dark background); and search online for more ways to make your computer more visible to you. There's a very handy guide to making these changes written by the BBC here.

From the BBC website
Being sensible
That advice about taking regular breaks away from your computer, looking away and focussing on something in the distance, and generally limiting the amount of time you spend using your computer is all the more vital if you have trouble with your eyes. You can set alarms on your phone or on a website if you think you won't remember to take a break. There are some ideas of apps you can use here, but a regular alarm clock will do just as well. Have a good amount of time looking out of a window into the distance, then at each shoulder (which can only get so far away from your eyes, so force you to look at something close), then let your eyes just drift in and out of focus. Don't forget to blink properly too. The two most important things are to take plenty of breaks and to be realistic in how much time you can spend per day looking at a screen. In the course of writing this article I have taken about 20 breaks so far, and have also just about hit my limit of how much computer time I can cope with in a day - and that's OK!

I'm just resting my eyes...honest...
And, speaking of rest, that's all my eyes can deal with for now. Cheerio!

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Inaugural dressage competitions!

Since last time I have competed in not one but two dressage competitions! This is exciting because before two weeks ago I had never even done one dressage test, so it's been quite a steep learning curve. Here's how I got on...

Competition 1 - BD Para-Intro Dressage, Cambridgeshire College

This competition was specifically a para-equestrian event. There were five of us competing, of whom I knew two from my RDA group (so was rooting for them!). Two more came from a different RDA group. We were spread across three different grades (II, III and IV) but our scores would be compared across these grades.
Trotting past the judge.
I had hoped to be able to ride twice, but the test ended up clashing with a concert I had to sing in in central Cambridge, meaning I would only be able to ride once. When I got there, all togged up and ready to go, I found that they were running 40 minutes late - a backlog that they hoped to address in the interim but which did not diminish as my time to ride approached! This was quite irritating as it definitely meant that I was slightly rushed in my head, and found it harder than I would otherwise have done to get my mind on the job and just focus on the task in hand.
Unflattering concentrating face!
We got a bit of warm-up time, so I mounted Rolo and took him to the outdoor school for a gentle trot round. Unfortunately, he objected violently to something in the hedge alongside (I think a bird moved...) and we had an exciting cantering sideways and leaping in the air incident! Fortunately, unlike my previous experience of terrified horses, he calmed down very quickly and it didn't knock my confidence. As soon as we could, I was allowed into the indoor school where the test would take place. I had a bit of time just to walk and trot him around and do some halts to check that he was listening. Then the judge told me she was ready and it was time to be off!
Bit wonky down onto my bad side
I had a caller to remind me of the course even though I knew the test off by heart, because I felt that for my first test it would be sensible to have that safety net in case the nerves made me forget what I was meant to do. Most of the test went pretty well - Rolo moved really nicely and I was really focussing hard on putting into place all those things we'd worked on in practice, especially allowing myself to bend more when on the left rein (my bad side). The canter transitions were smooth but one transition down to trot was pretty terrible (it was too late) and I did get penalised for that!
Canter just before the downward transition that did actually go OK...
The halts were good although I probably allowed Rolo a bit too much rein, because he lifted his head up and had a little look around which he shouldn't have done. I still think that that was preferable to him deciding to fight against a tight contact and walk sideways, which he'd done quite a bit in practice, but I suppose there must be a middle ground somewhere where I can keep his attention and have him standing in a nice square halt. Something to work on, anyway!
Coming to a slightly fidgety halt.

After the test, the judge popped out of her box to come and give me some face-to-face feedback. I wasn't expecting this, but although it made me even later for my concert it was REALLY helpful to have feedback whilst still sitting on the same horse I'd used in the test. I had a go at learning how to steady his trot better (which can be quite rushed after the excitement of a canter) and also at using my hips to turn him more when my arm can't. This is an interesting one which I will definitely be experimenting with some more - I have a lot of pain in my hips so I don't know if I'll be able to do it all the time just yet but it would be good to strengthen them up and as I have very good mobility (too good!) in them I should be able to do it. It's really helpful to have a way to turn him that isn't just relying on one arm (which can get stiff). It also reminds me to turn my left arm in instead of just leaving it dangling.
Turning on this rein is really easy - I'm not so good on the other rein!
Because I didn't have a proper grading, I couldn't be officially placed. However, had a grading come through for me I would have come second out of five, which I was really pleased with - especially for a first try! Despite the fact that I was taking part 'hors concours' I was still given a rosette, which made me feel better about the whole grading fandango. It also gave me the confidence to want to do more, and 9 days later I found myself in my second ever dressage test...

Competition 2 - Cambridge University Riding Club, Dressage Cuppers

As a graduate of Cambridge, I've been aware of Cuppers competitions for a long time. They are basically a way of facilitating inter-college sporting competition, and almost every sport will have some form of Cuppers matches. With the riding club, these take place each term - the gymkhana was last term (one for me to look forward to next year); dressage was this term; and showjumping will be next term (hopefully they'll let me go round one-handed!). Usually, graduates of a college are not allowed to compete in these events unless they are still a member of that college (e.g. studying for a Masters or PhD), but as an alumna I was eligible to compete in Cuppers Dressage. Hurrah!
All of us!
This was my first event with CURC and, having not had any lessons with them either, this meant that I was going to ride a horse that I had never met before, in a brand new setting. Fortunately, members of my RDA group are extremely lucky that they have a number of riders from CURC who come to the RDA to help out. In particular, Kirsty has been very helpful in getting me involved with CURC - she plotted and planned to get me a pony who would be suitable for me, she went through my test with me and told me all the things the judges would look for (I am such a beginner to dressage that these things are a mystery to me!), she took my stirrups to the stables and sorted my reins for me so that I could cope with the tack, and was generally just really helpful on the day. I couldn't have done it without her or two other helpers, Dominique and Tess. Nor could I have done it without my mum, who had planned to come up to Cambridge to take me to a neurologist appointment and ended up taking me to Cuppers too!

Riding Ash, with Dominique (left) and Kirsty (right)
Anyway, I knew that I was going to ride a little pony (13.2 hh - a whole hand shorter than Rolo, and considerably shorter than Victor) called Ash. On meeting him, it became apparent that he was a beautiful roan with a very kind temperament and just enough oomph to get going. I had chosen to ride the simpler of the two tests (walk and trot only, instead of walk-trot-canter) because I knew I wouldn't have quite the right reins and didn't fancy careering around a school in canter with no control and on a pony I didn't know. Ash was a little reluctant to get going to begin with (it was rather wet) but he soon warmed up and got going.
From this angle I actually look quite a good size for him - which brings home my lack of height!
After a couple of photos of us all (in which I look comically small on Ash) it was my turn to ride. Again, I was going first, and again, I had to dash off afterwards (this time to the hospital; much less fun than a concert). I had a caller (Tess) who was nice and clear even in the wind of the outside school. The school was quite a bit smaller than the one I have grown used to at the RDA, which made the test a bit more panicky as all the markers loomed up much more quickly than normal! However, Ash went very nicely and the mistakes I made were definitely my fault and not his.
Trotting down the centre line.
All in all I was quite pleased with how the test went. It was a bit tricky with the reins and I felt that I didn't get him going forward quite as much as I would have liked, but I did feel that it was at least quite neat. It was challenging to ride a test on an unknown horse with so little practice, but I think it was really good for me to take on that challenge. I'd like to do it again (several times!) so that each more I can demand a bit more of myself to get more out of the horse. All in all, though, I felt pretty pleased with how Ash and I performed and I gave him lots of hugs for being such a good boy.

What a lovely little chap!
Whilst at the hospital I received a number of messages from Kirsty informing me that I had won a medal for having the highest score in the walk-trot test, and a rosette for being on the team with the highest overall average score (a lot of that was down to Kirsty herself, who scored a monstrous 73.75 and came top out of all the riders on any test). My rosette count (not including those I won in gymkhana games in much earlier years) therefore tripled on Thursday when I picked up my BD Para-Intro rosette and my CURC one. They look pretty good and I can't wait to have the chance to win more!
A good use for the corkboard!