Friday, 23 December 2016

"I'm good enough"

The third Blue Bird article from this term reflected on the trip I had to Gaddesden Place RDA. They've recently set up a vaulting group and they are based within the East Region, so going to visit them was a double whammy in terms of being a good Participant Rep for both the RDA committees I'm on! At the time I wasn't feeling too great, but going and working with the children and the volunteers was a pretty good tonic. You can read about it here.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Don't worry, be happy!

My second Blue Bird article was a response to another I read on the site (you can find the link by opening my article below). The author of that article wrote about something which I often have to bring myself up on - enjoying sport. It's a struggle I have all the time - I enjoy winning, but you can't win all the time and there's nothing worse than a bad loser. This is the first of a few articles I will write on trying to find this balance. You can read it here.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Para sport's dirty word

Over the last couple of months I've written a few articles for 'The Blue Bird', which is a website dedicated to reporting on all things sporty at the University of Cambridge. My remit has been to produce work that introduces people to some of the issues in para sport, and so far this term I've done it in a fairly softly-softly fashion. That said, the first article deals with one of the biggest misconceptions around para sport. It might have been a bit unexpected for some, but click here to find out all about para sport's dirty word....

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Yet more dressage!

OK I'm sure you're all getting a bit bored of dressage now, as am I. This will keep it brief then!
A few weeks ago (just before getting pneumonia, in fact) I took part in a fun, low-key dressage competition for members of Cambridge University Riding Club. I was riding my favourite little buddy, Oscar. He's a bit small for me really but I ride him regularly and he keeps me on my toes with his random bursts of mega-pony-speed!
Love this little guy!
The day of the competition was beautiful: crisp, cold (but not too cold) and bright. The horses felt good - if the weather is cold and wet then it's harder to keep them warm and relaxed, but if it's just cold and they can feel the nip it keeps them alert and encourages them to really get the muscles moving so that they step under better. Of course then the main challenge is to make sure they stay warm, so it's either exercise sheets on or keep them moving!
Oscar and his exercise sheet! About a year ago I think.
Within a few minutes of riding it became clear that the weather was cold enough for my legs to protest, so I ditched the stirrups and felt far more relaxed. I'm struggling to ride with stirrups at the moment anyway, and when my legs are cold it's even harder as my legs cramp up even more. Stirrups are great for keeping your balance but not if keeping them makes your seat unsteady anyway - it's not worth it!
The point in the warm-up where we realised that the newer riders didn't know the test - so we did a 'follow the leader' version and I sincerely hoped I didn't go wrong!
The first test was an Intro test - Intro B. Again...! (This competition was actually a few weeks before the most recent one, at a different Cambridge venue, but the whole lung thing got in the way of writing a report.) Although I have done the test a few times, it was still a bit unnerving to ride round and be told, "Lizzie, you don't need a caller for this I'm sure." I mean, as it happened, I did know the test and I didn't forget it, but it's still a bit worrying not to have a caller just in case!
"What is this 'memory' of which you speak?"
The test mostly went OK. Because Oscar is so much smaller than the other horses I normally ride, I sometimes find that when we're in an arena by ourselves I don't know how much to push him to get a really good forward-going action. When we're in a group lesson we mostly just focus on trying to cope up with all the other horses that are a good foot taller than him! I also had to balance my desire for good impulsion with the fact that all the trot would not only be sitting trot but would have to come through my seat without stirrups on (with stirrups you can absorb most of the bounce through your ankles). Anyway, his paces were mostly pretty good and the one biggest mistake (trotting during the free walk!) was totally my fault. There was also a cheeky canter but it was very brief and I very nearly got away with it completely!
20m circle in trot, letting the horse stretch (funnily enough not one of the random unintentional canters!)
After that it was back into the warm-up arena to get ready for the second test (Prelim 7). We'd already had a few canters to get Oscar perked up and warm for the Intro (even though that's just walk and trot) so mostly I just let him stretch and walk to keep warm, with enough transitions and reinbacks to keep it interesting.
And boy was I tempted to jump that jump...
The Prelim test felt a little better, although I still over-egged a few bits where we ended up, for example, cantering instead of walking... Most importantly, we kept the long canters around the arena and through the 20m circles, Oscar didn't spook at anything, and I didn't fall off!
...and a reasonable halt! At least the front hooves are square...
It's the first canter test I've done with no stirrups, and although I can understand why people would think that must be more worrying I actually find it liberating and much less stressful. I think the vaulting has helped me to find my own seat and stirrups just put me off now. Obviously they have their uses but I think for now those will be mostly limited to jumping...
Anyway, results: I won both the tests, so got a couple more rosettes for the collection. I was also awarded the more unusual prize of a trip to Contessa Riding and Training Centre in Hertfordshire for a dressage 'lecture'/workshop. Fiona - who is our brilliant instructor at Springhill Stables, and also the dressage judge for the CURC event - owns a beautiful Spanish horse who is being trained up to be calm and sensible instead of wild and silly, which is what his natural state seems to be! Fiona is getting help with this from a nice chap called Joao who works at Contessa and is a bit of a dressage god. The chance to go and watch him teach and talk about horses was really exciting and not to be missed!
That was last weekend. I'll do a separate post about it some other time (a bit tired now!) because it's worth doing properly as I got some interesting notes, which, coupled with some blurry photos, would potentially make an interesting least it would be a professional's thoughts!

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Breaking form

As I briefly mentioned in my recent flurry of dressage posts, I did a dressage competition a few days ago in Cambridge. I entered two tests (Intro B and Prelim 14), riding RDA super-cob Boysie. It was something of a last-minute decision to enter (I made the advance entry with twenty minutes to spare!) and I wasn't sure how I'd feel, but having already missed a jumping competition to my dodgy lung I was pretty determined I wouldn't miss another event.
Often on these dressage days they start with the easy levels and then finish in the evening with international-type stuff, but last Saturday they were only doing Intro, Prelim and Novice which meant that we didn't have to get to the yard quite so early! Olivia was also doing a test on Danny (another RDA horse), but was only entered into the Prelim. Both Danny and Boysie have quite large white patches which needed some cleaning, so whilst one warmed up on the horse walker Gillian, my mum and I set to work with purple shampoo and some rather cold water to scrub them clean - not that they were particularly appreciative!
Not one of ours, and we weren't quite so wasteful with the shampoo, but they did end up a bit purple!
Anyway, once we had a beautiful horse (with a fancy brushed tail, but no plaits in his mane - I can brush a tail but plaits are a bit much) it was time to hop on and warm up. Boysie was feeling a little bit different, as is to be expected. I was carrying my whip just to help with touching it on him to feel the bend, but it was proving pretty difficult to get him to focus on anything else. He didn't really settle in the warm-up, nor did he settle once we got outside to the main arena. It wasn't that he was naughty or even especially on edge, but just that he didn't really settle.
Diva without a cause!
In the test he felt harder to steer than usual, and his head was up quite high which made control even harder. The worst bit was probably a 20m circle with a give-and-retake-the-reins command - I didn't really engage brain enough to keep him on the circle with my outside leg so the second half was a bit too square. There weren't any major disasters, but the whole thing just felt a bit tense and not as accurate or fluent as I wanted. I was pretty disappointed with how it went, and wasn't really surprised when the results came through and I was 3rd. This is the first time I've done a dressage test with Boysie and not won! I was a bit irritated at myself because I knew the test well and I knew I could have ridden him much better. However, it gave me a bit of time to reflect and focus before the Prelim.
The first time I did this test - back in February 2015, riding Ash. I didn't really know much about dressage then...
The warm-up for the Prelim felt a little better. I kept hold of my dressage whip the whole time just to keep Boysie perky - again, I didn't need to use it but he is very aware of when I'm carrying it and it certainly gives him a nice active motion to his paces which lasts beyond me putting the stick down again!
Almost as much of an incentive to move as this bus was back in the summer!
Most of the Prelim test went well. I remembered to enjoy it more, and to focus more, and to help Boysie out more. He felt a bit more relaxed and focussed on the job in hand. However, towards the end of the test, I ballsed up quite massively. The canter sections in the test were quite lengthy and although he'd kept canter nicely on the left rein we weren't so lucky on the right rein. In fact, we broke into trot approximately 50 metres early (instead of completing a 20m circle then cantering down the long side FBM), and it wasn't even a nice trot - very rushed, nowhere near the parts of the arena we were meant to be in, and generally a bit panicky looking! The next move was a long diagonal in trot (HXF) before turning down the centre line and halting. We didn't get very close to H because of the horrible rush in the trot but as we headed up the line to F I mentally reproached myself, gathered things together and regained some control for a reasonable final couple of turns, and an OK halt. See 'getting on with the next bit' at the end of this post!
If you search for 'dressage gone wrong' you find this, and I quite liked the manic look in that horse's eye!
Anyway, immediately after the test I was pretty gutted about the complete fail of a second canter. At least it was towards the end, so any knock to my confidence had limited impact - although to be honest I suppose one thing I did feel good about was the fact that I'd been able to move on mentally quite quickly. It's only at the end of the test - when you can no longer do anything about the marks - that I look back on it and decide how I feel. Anyway, I rode back into the warm-up arena to give Boysie a gentle walk around, answered Olivia's question with, "pretty dreadful!", and pondered whether maybe I should never try dressage again.
To cut a potentially and painfully long story short, it turned out that we came first. This isn't to say that we did amazingly well - our marks were probably about right, and everyone else who entered came within a couple of percentage points. We got a bit lucky, I suppose. Later I discussed it with John who reminded me about the whole pneumonia thing and I realised that actually I could probably cut myself some slack. I feel better about it all now!
With Boysie afterwards.
Now for the 'lessons learned'!
  1. Focus. Pay attention or pay the price. Remember the details all the time. 
  2. Mistakes happen. Once they've happened, let them go. It's not that you forget them. You have to remember them, in order not to repeat them, but they don't define your achievements or your capabilities.
  3. Don't blame your horse. Most of the time, your horse does what you tell him, so check what you're telling him before getting cross. Even if you feel frustrated because you know your horse can do better, remember that, just like us, they have off days. Help him to be good even on his off days.
  4. Winning is great, learning is better, and winning and learning are ideal. 
  5. I am getting better. Each time I compete, I learn a bit more, and get a bit better. Even if it feels like I'm going backwards sometimes, I'm not as long as I learn.
  6. Forget the 'scales of training' (having said that, I will one day write an article on them!). Dressage is about two golden rules: marginal gains, and get on with the next bit. Never forget!  
Good horse!

Monday, 12 December 2016

Aceing beginner dressage

Now you're an expert (or passable) judge, it's time to learn some little tricks to get the best marks in these early level tests. Obviously this is something I'm still mastering but here I will pass on as much as I have learned so far!
This is not me!
First, accuracy. If you're not sure how Valegro-like your horse is (see above), the main thing you can control is how accurately you steer. If I can get this right (most of the time) with one hand then anyone using two hands should find it quite easy! Some top tips:
  • if the turn is 90° (e.g. turning down - AC - or across - EB - the centre line), you need to leave the track a bit early and look at the marker you're heading towards. Your horse will still be moving forwards, so if you wait until you have hit the marker before you turn, you will end up way off the line and it will be very obvious - especially if you're coming down from A to C, where the judge sits! 
  • When you come towards the end of your change of rein, you can afford to ask your horse to move a little closer to the marker than when you left the track. This is because they will be heading towards a wall or boards which will help give them a boundary to stop them from drifting out. At the same time, a neat and relaxed turn is more important than riding right to the edge, especially if doing so confuses your horse and puts him off balance.
  • So, 90° turn: leave the track early, don't even look at the marker you're coming from, just look at the one you're going to. Let your horse know which way you're heading at the end before you get there.
  • Diagonal change of rein - there are two variants of this; the long diagonal and the short diagonal. In the diagram below, FXH is a long diagonal, and KB is a short diagonal. Long diagonals are easier because the turn is shallower, but both can be approached in the same way. 
  • Diagonal turns - think about your turn early, but you don't need to move on the turn until just before the horse's head comes in line with the marker. This takes some practice, since even when you aren't moving on the turn you should still be preparing it by getting the horse to bend more to the inside much earlier on. Basically, by the time that your body is in line with the marker you should be facing the other marker across the school. This is different to the 90° turns where your body is only in line with the marker when the horse is further out from the track.
  • Ride through X (if it's a long diagonal) but for long and short diagonals you should aim for just short of the end letter. For example, if you're riding KXM you should aim for a metre or so away from M, towards B. That way, your horse's head will hit the track at that point, then you will turn onto the track properly, and your body will come neatly in line with M. Again, this takes a bit of practice but it's a neat little trick. It also helps you to ride into the corner once you rejoin the track, because you will be thinking about pushing the horse over with your inside leg.
  • Circles. All basic level tests will involve circles of varying sizes (although mostly 10m and 20m). Sometimes you do half a circle one way then half a circle the other way, to make an S-shape across the school. Whether it's a full circle or just a half, it should be round! This is tough, and actually the smaller circles are easier because they force you and the horse to be more accurate and more balanced. Practice is your friend, as is plotting the points. 
  • A 20m circle takes place at either end of the school or in the middle. At an end (let's say we're starting at A on the left rein), you should come off the track at A on your bend, touch the track again just the other side of F, continue on the same bend to pass through X, touch the track again just before K, then rejoin the track at A. 
  • Plotting your route between those four points helps a bit, but personally the most useful advice I've been given is to spend the whole time looking directly across your circle (so across the diameter). This helps you to stay balanced and to plot something round instead of wiggly or square-ish. 
Those are the basics of steering. Having said that two-handed steering is easier, it's also important to state that reins are only a small part of your steering (or, at least, they should be!). You can also use your legs, seat, weight and shoulders to help steer your horse. If you want to stay on a straight line, all of these things should be balanced and level. If you want the horse to bend, you can use your hips and shoulders to direct the horse. Be aware that how you put your weight on the horse's back will also have a huge effect on where he goes. Putting it crudely, more weight in your left bum cheek (or left stirrup if that feels easier) will make your horse shift to the left [typo - the horse will shift right, away from the weight! And, more specifically, 'bum cheek' should be seat bone]. You can also open out your hips which brings your lower legs into closer contact with the horse, and if you do this with just one leg the horse will move away from that leg (so you could use your inside leg to push the horse into the corners better).
Coming down the centre line in trot, and preparing to turn right - you can see that my right lower leg has just started to touch Oscar's side. He will also pick up on where the stick is, and where my head is looking. Hips and shoulders are keeping him straight for the time being.
Accuracy at markers in terms of transitions is a little harder than steering. You need to be very prepared, and it's only through getting to know your horse that you know how soon you need to prepare him to go up or down a gear. Some horses need very little encouragement to get faster - or slower! - whereas some need a bit more help. It's worth considering that most horses at most competitions will be a little bit sharper than usual, so they may well respond to you more quickly - especially if it's a venue that is unfamiliar to them.
Potentially leading to this...
To get your horse's attention before getting faster (e.g. halt to walk, or walk to canter), you can shorten your reins, lighten your seat (clench your buttocks and you'll get the idea!), bring your lower leg into closer contact with the horse, give a half halt (which is basically all of these things brought together), and speak to them. Generally in BD you're encouraged not to talk to your horse as it isn't allowed in able-bodied competition, but it's fine in RDA so I use it all the time - it helps that Boysie and Rolo will respond to a click of the tongue as well as a nudge with the heels!
Click the tongue, then sit and relax to the movement. See how much my left hip goes up and down.
To slow down, don't just heave on the reins. If you do this, the horse will stick his head in the air in protest, and rightly so - it's not nice for him, and it won't get you good marks in dressage either! Use the half halt again to prepare the horse for something different happening. Get his attention with your hand(s), sit up tall, keep the lower leg back, then open the hips to close the legs around him. Generally we think of 'go' as 'kick' and 'stop' as 'pull the reins', but I get my smoothest 'stop' transitions when I put the legs around the horse and relax the rein.
The free walk is a great way to get points. Like everything else, it takes practice to get it right so don't just assume that the walk will be easy. The reason it's so important is that the mark you get for it is doubled in many tests, making it more important than any other movement. It's also important because it teaches you how to keep your horse relaxed and free, which is vital for dressage and also for welfare. The free walk is generally performed across a diagonal - sometimes long and sometimes short.
A nice free walk.
Here are some top tips:
  • Get yourself onto your line before you lengthen the reins
  • Once you're heading straight across the school, gradually let the reins slip through your fingers. This is far easier with normal reins than bar reins! 
  • Keep the walk active - imagine you're pushing off a swing but don't overdo it. The horse shouldn't dawdle; the steps should be long and active.
  • The horse should stretch his head down to seek the contact. If he's reluctant to lower his head, give him a little rub on the withers. It's very calming and a useful trick for all sorts of situations!
  • Try to sit as level as possible - you won't be able to use your hands to steer so easily and if your horse drifts about you're in trouble. 
  • Gather up your reins before returning to the track. Often you will be asked to move up into trot or canter shortly afterwards, so you should be ready to ride the next movement.
Ready for anything...
There are two thoughts I'd like to leave with you, both of which are, I think, more crucial to dressage than pretty much any other equestrian sports (with the possible exception of vaulting, which is marked in a similar way). These are the principle of marginal gains, and the principle of getting on with the next bit!
Marginal gain #1 - nail the trot down the centre line. Look above the judge's head and s/he won't put you off as much!
Marginal gains
Made famous by British Cycling, this is the idea that tiny improvements amass to have a dramatic impact upon the final result. It's simple, right? But very effective! This year, to my immense surprise, I won the biggest dressage class at the RDA National Champs. It wasn't that anything I did was particularly amazing, but looking at my scoresheet I realised that I had just been able to raise every mark by 0.5 or 1.0 - and that made all the difference.
From here.
Get on with the next bit!
I'm sure I could think of a natty phrase to describe this too - maybe 'movement isolation marking' - but 'get on with the next bit' sums it up best. In dressage, you get some marks for how you perform throughout the test (the collectives), but the majority are awarded for specific movements. If you do one great movement, you get a great mark. If you balls something up entirely, you get a less good mark. If the next bit is better, you get a better mark. The bad mark for your bad bit only affects that one bad bit, unless you freak out and panic and let a wobble affect your next move.
I need this...!
Just two days ago I had a test like that where, towards the end, I messed something up badly. It was meant to be a 20m circle in canter followed by cantering the long side and trotting at the other end, but we broke canter when still on the 20m circle, then tore down the long side in a horribly rushed and unbalanced trot. For this we were generously awarded a '4' ('insufficient' - could have been far worse!) and it made my entry to the next move (a long diagonal in trot) a bit wobbly, but as soon as I got on that line I got my s*it together and controlled the horse again, meaning that we got a 6 on that bit.

Moral of the story: one move is one move, and one mark is one mark. It doesn't affect your next mark unless you let it.

The final part of how to ace a beginner dressage test is how to do a good warm-up. This is covered in a separate post, here!

Warming up for dressage

One of the things we don't always think about when it comes to riding a dressage test is how to warm up. There are various rules of etiquette involved here, as well as some guidelines for what you want to get out of your warm-up. First, the etiquette:
  • Golden rule: when there are other riders and horses in the warm-up arena with you, you should always pass left to left. This means that if you are riding around on the left rein, you can stay on the track, but if you're riding on the right rein and meet someone coming in the opposite direction, you should take the inside track.
  • Avoid passing too close to horses you don't know. Even the best-mannered horse can kick, and you never know what the other horse is like either! 
  • Unless it's very quiet, don't walk on the outside track. The outside track is for people who want to trot or canter. These faster paces take priority, but there's always confusion when someone is cantering on the right rein and someone else is walking on the left as to who should be on the inside track. Strictly speaking, it should be the person walking, but don't bet on the other rider moving out of your way!
  • Don't halt on the outside track. It's discourteous and dangerous. If you can, try not to halt on the main lines across the school either. You can practise halts in all sorts of places, which do not have to include anywhere on the centre line!
  • Don't be a maniac. At all times, look out for other people and horses, including any trainers on the ground. Even if you're in the right, keep calm and make way for others. Often horses who are in an unfamiliar place will be on edge and may misbehave; it could be your horse one day so be flexible and help out a fellow rider!
Warming up at Hartpury
As for what you want to achieve from your warm-up (apart from not causing a diplomatic crisis with any other riders), here are my main pointers:
  • The point of a warm-up is to make yourself prepared to go out and compete. This should always be at the front of your mind.
  • From the beginning of the warm-up, you need to be relaxed, confident and communicating clearly with your horse.
  • Start out in walk. Do quite a bit of walk, on both reins, to loosen your horse off, especially if he has been in a horsebox. Keep your reins fairly long and your seat light and relaxed, especially if your horse is a bit on edge.
  • Keep your horse's attention by doing lots of transitions (walk-halt-walk), turns and some lateral work. 
  • Next, go up into a nice working trot. You use the walk to loosen the horse, and the trot to warm him up properly. Again, keep him listening - do transitions and changes of direction. Try asking him to collect and lengthen the trot, and make sure you ride on both reins.
  • Go back into walk for a quick breather before beginning some canter work. Even if your horse is very fit, there's not much point overdoing the canter work as it takes some of the 'sparkle' away from the canter in the test. Try to get a decent long canter in on both reins as well as doing yet more transitions and turns. The canter is good for getting his attention and for helping you to settle down too!
  • If there are any specific parts of your test that you would like to practise, now is the time to do it. Of course, you won't have entered a competition without ensuring you can ride your test already, so this isn't the time to learn it! I like to do some of the trickier turns and transitions. Don't just run through the whole thing or you'll bore your horse to tears. 
  • Once your horse has worked in all the relevant paces, keep him relaxed but listening. I like to do some rein back, which brings the horse on his haunches and encourages him to work effectively from the back legs. It also gets them listening and more alert - so it might be one to avoid if your horse is particularly highly-strung! Long rein walk is also a good one.
  • By the end of your warm-up, your horse should be attentive, moving with relaxed energy, and warm but not tired.
Warm-up dos and don'ts!
  • DON'T settle for mediocre paces. Your walk isn't just your rest between trot and canter - it will be awarded marks too, so make sure you're getting the most you can!
  • DON'T wear your horse out.
  • DON'T just go round in endless 20m circles.
  • DON'T expect to learn your test in the warm-up, or to teach your horse something new in that time. It isn't fair and it won't work!
  • DON'T ride into anyone...
  • DO plenty of transitions
  • DO lots of turns and circles, but think and plan ahead - you need to avoid other riders, and you need to ride your moves as if you were in the test, i.e. with plenty of preparation! 
  • DO lateral work and rein back
  • DO work in all paces on both reins
  • DO use the quarter line if it is safe to do so (i.e. a few metres away from the track on the long side - it helps you assess your straightness better)
  • DO practise collecting and lengthening
  • DO let your horse stretch, ideally in all three paces
  • DO push the horse into the corners
  • DO focus on quality over quantity (5 minutes of excellent trot work is better than 15 minutes of less good work)
  • DO practise halts!

Become an armchair dressage judge

This is something of a follow-on from 'Beginner dressage - Part 1' - so start with that. I realised that before I wrote about my most recent competition I should probably clear up a few bits of terminology, so, for those of you who have not had the pleasure of doing stressage dressage, read on for a brief introduction and explanation! By the end of this post, you too could be a dressage judge. 😉
Stephen Clarke looking serious!
Here in the UK we mostly use British Dressage set routines for mainstream competitions (RDA events tend to use their own tests). These range in difficulty from Intro to FEI international tests (the Prix St George, FEI Intermediate 1 and 2, the Grand Prix and the Grand Prix Special). In a way that only a sport which has had to add easier tests more than once could manage, the levels are named like this:
  1. Introductory
  2. Preliminary
  3. Novice
  4. Elementary
  5. Medium
  6. Advanced Medium
  7. Advanced
  8. FEI
FEI para tests fit in somewhere between Novice and Advanced Medium, so actually the first dressage test I ever did - nearly two years ago now - is still the hardest set routine I've had to do. That was the 'FEI Para Equestrian Grade III Test 31', which, like Prelim and up, had walk trot and canter, but also had medium trot and a sneaky 6-second halt in the middle.
First dressage test!

As the easiest BD level, Intro tests only involve work in walk and trot. There's no lateral work, but there are some other little bits that make life a bit more interesting, such as changing the rein across the middle of the school (i.e. B to E or E to B), half 10m circles in walk, and moments of transitioning from trot to walk for 'one horse's length' then back to trot straight away. Like all tests, there is a free walk on a long rein (when the horse should stretch his head down but stay active), and the dreaded entry and finish along the centre line facing the judge directly.
From Prelim level up, the tests include canter work too, but it's generally quite straightforward canter work which only requires you to canter around the edge of the school or on a 20m circle. That said, sometimes it's harder to keep your horse collected and balanced if you're cantering a straight line of 40m or so, so even though it looks more straightforward it doesn't necessarily make it all that much easier to ride than something more interesting!
At all levels, you have to show that you can ride accurately to and between markers. There are several markers around the edge of the arena, as well as 'invisible' ones down the middle. Turns and circles can't just be done anywhere, nor can changes of pace - they should all take place precisely where it says in the test. Sometimes it asks for something between markers, which makes life easier, but otherwise the change of direction or pace (or both!) should happen as the rider's body is in line with the marker.
So what is the judge looking for? Well, they want the horse to be straight when on a straight line, to have suppleness in the body during turns (and equally supple on both reins), to accept the bridle and the rider's contact, to move freely and rhythmically in all paces and during transitions, to work over the back and through the neck (so with the powerful hind quarters driving, and not leaning on the forehand), and generally for this beautiful ideal horse to be consistent too! As for the rider - the rider gets marks for their position on the horse, for how they use the aids and how these affect the horse (i.e. hands, legs, seat, etc.), and for the rider's general skill and accuracy.
If you see a horse who is racing around with his head up high, then he might be better suited for jumping than dressage! Conversely, sometimes people try to ride their horse into too much of a contact, and seeing a horse's neck being overbent so that his chin comes towards his chest is as much of a fault. A horse and rider combination that makes everything look active but relaxed is the ideal. The horse should go into the corners unless on a circle; seeing a horse do this correctly gives a far better impression as it builds time and space into the routine, as well as emphasising the difference between riding on a 20m circle and riding around a corner (which should be more of a square).
It's Stephen Clarke again!
Overall, the impression should be that the horse is relaxed, that he responds to the rider's aids promptly, that he will move forwards evenly and engage in downwards transitions (i.e. getting slower) without dropping off the energy. It's a bit like being able to switch from tango to quickstep and back again in the blink of an eye!

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Preparing for Para-Christmas!

Last year Christmas was rather fraught because my little niece was so sick in hospital, but all being well this year's Christmas should be rather nice. I'll have both of my brothers at home with me and my mum, as well as their respective partners, the baby and the dog! Only John will be missing but I will see him afterwards at New Year. I'm looking forward to it but there are also a few things I'm anxious about. I've been thinking about how I'm going to handle it, and in the process I've discovered that a lot of people with chronic illnesses get nervous about things like Christmas. The problem is that you're meant to have a lovely time and so is everyone else - but if you get tired easily, or you can't cope with the conventions or traditions that your family observes, then the problems you may experience overshadow the general merry spirit. This year, I'm going to do things a little differently.
All the rest of my photos are going to be cheery after this one, even if they're not completely appropriate!
First and foremost - Do not feel guilty. It seems ungrateful to find elements of Christmas difficult. I know my position could be worse. I could be homeless, I could be stuck in hospital (fingers crossed that won't happen!), I could have nobody to be with, I could have no heating, and so on and so forth. However, being prepared for the fact that Christmas isn't all just fluffy reindeer with glittery flying snowmen friends is just sensible. So, if you find Christmas difficult for ANY reason, don't feel bad about it! First time without someone you loved? Hundredth time without them? Concerned about feeling ill on the day and letting people down (this is my biggest fear)? OK, these are valid concerns and you're allowed to break out of the enforced jollity for as long as it takes to plan and carry out a bit of self-care. As much as anything, I've written this paragraph to convince myself...
and if I'm not miserable about Christmas then Rosie certainly shouldn't be!
So, fatigue is always my biggest weakness. Throughout the days that the others are here, I need to be able to retreat to my bedroom to rest whenever I need to, whether it seems acceptable or not. To do this, I need to make sure I don't feel guilty about it. Rest is a simple thing that makes a huge difference: if I rest properly, I feel OK; if I don't rest enough, I feel dreadful. Also, 'rest' for me isn't the same as other people's rest. Other people can rest by watching television together, but for me it isn't restful to be in a group because there are inevitably conversations and so on which are really tiring for me.
Food is next. It's common at Christmas to eat a massive lunch and a much smaller tea, but this doesn't work for me. I need a big evening meal to keep my pills down overnight, so I need to think about portion sizes all day. I also need to eat regularly enough to stave off migraines - so any delay to meal times (because of things not being cooked yet, or because of having to wait for the baby to wake up, or whatever) is something I need to be able to deal with. Again, it comes down to not being afraid to do my own thing.
So hungry you could eat a horse...
I'm concerned about the expectations others will have of me. We are quite an active family. My brothers and their partners will want to go out and do a lot, and I won't be able to keep up. I won't even be able to stay up and talk to them from the sofa all day. Whether this is a big deal for them or not, it makes me feel pretty rubbish. Years ago (many years ago!) I would have been joining them and I wish I still could.
Edward, my brother, wearing a cushion on his head, with a rather bemused Rosie.
I'm also worried about various things flaring up over Christmas whilst the GP surgery is closed. There are various conditions (such as iritis/uveitis) for which I can't really keep medication in stock. If one of those comes up, I need to decide whether it's severe enough to go to hospital, because that's basically the only option other than wait for the surgery to open again. In the case of uveitis, that's an easy choice - I can only get the medication for that from hospital, after all - but what if my lung flares up, or I can't keep food down?
When most people think about preparation for Christmas, they think about sending cards, buying and wrapping presents, getting food ready, and what might be on TV. Here are the things a spoonie needs to think about, and how you can tackle them:
  1. Medication. Have you got enough?! Have you got more than enough? Have you got every type of medication you think you could need? The key to this is preparation. If you haven't already done it, act NOW to get as much medication as you can.
  2. Have you got enough safe food and drinks? Is there anything you have to ensure you have in because running out of it would cause you major problems? Make sure you buy extra when you do your grocery shopping.
  3. Most spoonies don't have a huge disposable income, so making/writing/sending cards and presents is a good idea, but takes a lot of prior planning.
  4. Christmas shopping has to be done in stages. If you, as a non-spoonie, feel exhausted after a busy day out shopping, imagine how it feels when you start out feeling that bad (every day). If you want to go out and buy presents for people, you need to accept that it will take multiple trips!
  5. If you're going to stay with someone else (family or friends), let them know what you think you're capable of. If they know in advance that your energy is very limited, they will know not to expect you to play games all night, or to spend hours peeling sprouts.
  6. Since Christmas does sap your energy a bit, it might be a good idea to sort some of the smaller decisions out early. For example, pick out some outfits and put them aside so that over the busy, tiring days, that's one less thing to think about.
  7. Keep going out if you are able, even if bundled up and not under your own steam. A bit of fresh air around the gills works wonders.
  8. Christmas parties - nightmare! I'm only going to one (maybe two at a push), which would be one more than last year. Remember that parties are meant to be things that make you feel happy and feel better about yourself. If you are dreading it because you know it will make you feel dreadful, then don't go! It isn't compulsory! And if it is compulsory, then it doesn't sound much like a party...
  9. Decorate. I love Christmas really. I'm not a grouch or a Scrooge; I love it as a religious festival and I love seeing family and friends more, having special food, giving and receiving presents, and so on. Most of all, I love the decorations. I like the lights, the glitter, the tasteful and tasteless decorations! Being a spoonie doesn't mean I can't enjoy a bit of glam. This year I will have wonderfully tinselly crutches and wheelchairs. I want fairy lights on my chairs. I'm going to look like the personification of Christmas. The fact that I can't stay awaake for much of it is irrelevant!
Have a very lovely Christmas. Here's a photo I took a few years back of an alarmed reindeer to see you on your way.