Monday, 15 February 2016

More dressage with Boysie

Three days after Dressage Cuppers, on the Saturday, I was competing at Milton (College of West Anglia) with Boysie again. I'd ridden him on Thursday at RDA and he'd been going really nicely then. We were doing an Intro test (i.e. walk and trot), and unlike last time we were only doing one test so we had to get it right first time! I'd chosen Intro A, which meant that all three of us from the team competing that day were in different classes. This wasn't why I'd chosen it - I just quite like that test - but it was definitely a good thing nonetheless as it's nice not to compete against your friends if you don't have to, and it made the schedule for the day a bit more relaxed.
Getting mounted for the December competition.
Feeling rather sorry for our super team captain, Kirsty, I had taken it upon myself to organise the team for the morning. This wasn't too difficult a task with only a few of us competing but it still took me nearly a day to put the schedule together for riders and grooms, to make numbers for us to wear, to print off test sheets and put them together with schedules and running orders, to clean tack and pack all my kit, and then to comb through all the rules and regulations to make sure we weren't going to contravene anything! It was all quite an enjoyable task, though, and it felt good to be useful.
The Plan for the first half of the morning.
On Saturday morning, I left home at about 7.30 to get to Peterhouse to pick up Jonny, who would be a groom for the day. After that we had a quick trip up the A14 to Milton and arrived at 8.00. My test was at 9.07, so whilst there was plenty of time to get Boysie brushed down, tacked up and warmed up, there wasn't time to hang around not doing anything at all. Fortunately my schedule allowed plenty of time to get him sorted, even though the loos were locked so that particular bit of the pre-competition ritual had to be abandoned! Kirsty even gave him a beautiful running plait but unfortunately his short and bushy mane doesn't really lend itself to holding plaits...
It looked like this, until it unravelled...
Our warm-up went OK. It was very noticeable that Boysie was a lot more cobbish than all the other horses in the arena, who looked rather fine and much more suited to dressage! On the other hand, Boysie was a lot more settled than most of the other horses, which is a definite advantage to competing 'at home'. I was glad that the test was just walk and trot, as I haven't yet had a chance to canter on him and I don't really like being in an arena with people (and horses) I don't know when riding in open order. At the riding club, we regularly ride in open order but we are also used to co-operating with each other so nobody gets crashed into, and we know which horses are most likely to kick or get upset if another gets too close. Unfortunately the notion of 'open order etiquette' is not always familiar to other riders from elsewhere and it's quite common to be barged all over the place by people who then look at you as if it were your fault!

Anyway, we were second on so shortly after the first rider went out I did a few good transitions with Boysie, gave him a good long stretch in walk, then rode quietly around to the competition arena. The first rider was just finishing off and looked pretty good, but I could only see a small part of the arena from where I was, and I didn't have an especially good view of that part either so it was hard to get a good impression of how her test went. Soon it was our turn to head in. We walked in and then picked up a trot, and did a lap around the outside of the arena, during which the bell went, so then we started.

Trotting down the centre line.

I felt that our entry down the centre line was reasonably straight. Boysie was getting into the corners so nicely that I was a bit worried he'd just hop over the white boards. The bend on the first 20m circle wasn't brilliant, but it's a bad side for both of us so considering that I think it was pretty good. We then had a transition to walk 'for one horse's length' (i.e. 4 steps) before going back into trot. This felt pretty good - we'd practised them, so Boysie wasn't too surprised by what is quite an unusual request, and he stayed nice and active in the walk. There were then two half-circles of 10m diameter in trot to change the rein. I find these a bit easier than 20m circles as you don't have to have such good spatial awareness, although on the flip side you do need to keep the horse balanced a bit better.

Half 10m circle right from E to X

Half 10m circle left from X to B

We then had another good transition to walk and back up to trot, before a 20m circle on the other rein, which felt better than the first. After that there was the free walk on a long rein, which was something I'd wanted to improve from last time. Last time, the judge felt that Boysie stretched nicely but didn't move forward very purposefully. This time, it sort of went the opposite way! Boysie moved forwards beautifully in a very active walk, but could have stretched more - my fault.
Stepping under nicely...

...but not quite stretching down as much as we could.
Finally there was a trot transition and a change of rein across the long diagonal MXK before turning down the centre line at A, walking at X and halting at G. We didn't manage a square halt but it was a very quiet and still halt, which is something Boysie struggles with, so I was really pleased. I gave him a big pat and a hug then we walked out of the arena in a much nicer free walk than we had achieved in our test!
Slightly blurry pat at the end. This time a quiet halt, next time a square one!
Leaving the arena on a long rein.
After this, we headed back into the warm-up arena to give him a bit of a stretch and a cool down before going back to his stable. I had the option of doing another test on him (since one of the original four Cambridge riders had withdrawn and I could have her spot), but I decided not to in the end. Partly this was to save money (!) but also I felt that the first test had gone well, so there was no need to do the second one just for the sake of it. Usually I'm all for taking opportunities, but I couldn't really afford to pay two entry fees and I was happy with what we'd achieved.
Neither me nor Boysie is much good at getting bend on the right rein.

The bend looks a bit better from behind!
About to trot across the long diagonal, MXK

Long rein reward at the end of the test.
Anyway, after that it was time for me to untack Boysie, give him a rub down, pop his rug on and let him have his hay! He was particularly impatient for the last bit... Then it was off to watch Penny warm up on Dan. Unfortunately we were chatting so much that we missed her leaving the arena, meaning that we only got round to the competition arena in time to see her walk out, which was a bit of a shame. They were running early, which is so unheard of that we hadn't anticipated it! However, Penny was really pleased with her test, and from the warming up that I saw them doing I felt certain that they would have really impressed the judge - Dan looked so relaxed and focussed with Penny.
Beautiful Dan with his bounty!
Tamsin was riding in the fourth class and was pretty much ready to go, so we had plenty of time to sit and watch the riders in the third class. It was pretty chilly but we cuddled up with blankets, flasks and snacks and it was actually really nice just to sit back and relax. Soon, results were out for the first few tests. Penny came second in her class by a tiny margin (just 0.22% between her and first!) and beat the rest of the field by several percentage points. She was justly pleased with this excellent achievement. Boysie and I had managed another win, with a small improvement on last time's score - 68.28%, up from 66.08%. I was pleased that the collectives score also increased from 65 to 68. With my new rosette in hand I went to show Boysie what a good boy he'd been, but he was, as usual, more interested in his hay!
Me and Penny celebrating and cuddling up for warmth!
I was not very good at the 'A Level results day' face.
Attempting to get a nice picture with Boysie in the presence of his haynet...
The final CURC rider for the day was Tamsin on Shadow. They've worked really well together before, and were entering a Prelim test (one level up from Intro; involves canter as well as walk and trot). Unfortunately, this wasn't really their day, and the fact that the wind was now picking up enormously really didn't help. Shadow warmed up beautifully in the indoor arena, but started spooking in the outdoor arena. Tamsin sat perfectly calmly and rode him through the spooks, including a rather exciting and unexpected burst of canter during the trot down the centre line at the beginning. She settled him to perform the next few moves without trouble, but then he spooked again and ended up outside the arena having leaped over the boards. As soon as Tamsin got him back in the ring, the wind blew most of the boards at the 'C' end of the school over completely, so the judge had to ring the buzzer to pause the test whilst the boards were put back in place.
Tamsin and Shadow trotting around the arena before starting their test - little knowing what awaited them...
The judge kindly decided that Tamsin should be allowed to continue the test despite technically leaving the arena, which could lead to elimination. I felt this was definitely the right choice. It was plain to all that Tamsin was riding exceptionally well and that it wasn't her fault that the horse was nervous - in fact, Tamsin was keeping him very calm, considering the gale blowing around them! Anyway, the boards were replaced and the judge returned to her little box and Tamsin (and Kirsty, who was calling) awaited the bell to inform them that they could restart. As if enough hadn't gone wrong already, when the bell did come it absolutely terrified Shadow, who bucked and then had a 'mini bolt' before Tamsin very nonchalantly took back his attention. They completed the test without further issues (in fact, it was a really good test after that point) which demonstrates Tamsin's skill and confidence as a rider.
Considering the nightmare conditions that Tamsin had to deal with (nobody likes the arena to be blown over during your dressage test), she still did exceptionally well and took home a 6th place rosette, meaning that we'd all been placed (i.e. top 6) and we all had pretty ribbons to take home!
Penny, me and Tamsin - all safely in one piece!
By the time I got home at about 1pm I felt as if I should be heading to bed soon. It was a really enjoyable morning though, and although it was a shame not to have the whole time there it was also noticeably more relaxed with fewer competitors!
With grooms du jour, Jonny (far left, looking scarily like John in a blue Peterhouse rowing top, dark tracksuit trousers and a dark hat) and Helen (far right, not looking anything like John!).
Across both of the tests I rode last week, I've realised that I need to work more on getting an active, loose and free-flowing walk, and on encouraging the horse to stretch more. With Boysie, I also need to work on suppleness - not a big surprise! He's very young still so he will be improving all the time, which is really exciting for me when I'm riding him. Hopefully we will improve together!
<3 :)

Saturday, 13 February 2016

Cuppers Take 2

Roughly a year ago, I took part in my first ever dressage competition. It's been interesting for me to look back on it all and to remind myself of how it felt. Since then, I've competed at much bigger and more nerve-wracking events, and I'm a lot fussier with myself now. I'm slowly learning what the judges are looking for, and what I can do to improve my score. I'm learning how to use my body to influence the horse in a positive way and I've also started to learn to love dressage as an activity in itself!
At my first dressage competition (riding Rolo).
Last week, I took part in Dressage Cuppers, which was one of my first two competitions last year (Cuppers being a type of inter-college competition run in almost all sports at Cambridge). I also rode in a separate competition at Milton, but that's the topic of another post. In last year's Cuppers, I rode Ash in the Intro test, which is just walk and trot. Despite being the only disabled competitor, I was probably a bit more experienced than a lot of the others from having ridden as a child. I didn't really get Ash moving forwards very well but then I hadn't ever met him before so I had no idea what he was like! Although he wasn't very forward (at the time, I've since seen a very different side of him) we were pretty accurate and we ended up in first place.
With Dominique and Kirsty (CURC RDA helpers) and Ash.
This year, I was riding Oscar for Cuppers. Oscar is quite similar to Ash - they're both quite little ponies, and both can take a bit of time to get going but also have a hidden extra gear in which they just go slightly mad! I was riding a Prelim test, which involves walk, trot and canter, and I felt that Oscar was a good choice for this as his small size means that cantering accurate figures is a little bit easier for me steering-wise. The day before, in our team training session, we'd had a chance to run through the test and it was fairly straight-forward, with nothing too traumatising to worry about. For that, I'd been riding a horse called Buster, who is about as different to Oscar as a horse can be - massively taller (by about four hands, which is 16 inches), a gentle giant, and reasonably sensible instead of rather flighty! Buster is lovely to ride but at the moment I don't feel that I ride him very well - I find his trot and canter quite difficult to sit to as they are so much more relaxed in rhythm than I am used to. I'd like to ride him more in training and then maybe do a competition with him. A goal for the future!
Me on Oscar (in the middle) at our Christmas jumping competition.
Anyway, Oscar and I had lots of time to warm up before heading over to the other arena for our test. To start off with, there were five of us warming up in open order. I was quite happy with this but after a while we changed to closed order so that everyone had an opportunity to get a decent canter in. The problem with this was that, with the ride continuing to trot, Oscar caught sight of a disappearing end of the line from across the school and would practically gallop around to catch up with them, which was a bit unnerving!
Working in closed order; Oscar and I are at the back.
Apart from that, though, he was going pretty nicely. We changed back into open order and the first pair went in. We did lots of trot-halt-trot transitions, and some rein back, turn on the forehand, shoulder in, and leg yield (or at least, we made a reasonable stab at them all). I was conscious that I didn't want to tire him out too much, not only for my own test, but also for Helen who was due to ride him later in the competition.
Working on turn on the forehand last summer.

The test itself was OK. I was a bit disappointed afterwards, because I felt that I had not really kept Oscar's head in the right place relative to his body, and because the long rein free walk was dreadful - although he'd been great at that in the warm up, it was a bit unfortunate that we were doing it towards a bunch of his mates in a paddock alongside the arena! He didn't really get his head down much (also partly because bar/ladder reins are a nightmare for this), we didn't go in a straight line, we didn't march on much, and all that could be said that was good about it was that somehow we left and joined the track at the right places. Other than that our only major mistake was that as I was trying to get him to trot a bit more actively we accidentally went into canter - the comment on my sheet was 'broke canter' and at first I was annoyed at that as I knew we'd performed the lengthy canter sections without breaking into trot at all, but then I looked more carefully and saw that it said we'd broken into canter when we were meant to be trotting...fair play!
Before starting the test - I love how Oscar is so tiny that all you can see of him is one little ear!
After my test, I helped Helen with swapping tack around as for some reason she didn't fancy trying the one-handed reins... Then I did a bit of calling, which I really enjoy. It's like coxing, but for horses and riders - basically just another opportunity to shout instructions as loudly as possible. There's a bit of an art to it. You have to judge when to tell someone what to do, and as you're only allowed to say what's on the sheet you can't keep reminding them or phrase it in a more comprehensible way. You definitely can't start shouting coaching instructions, unlike in coxing. It takes good knowledge of how to ride a test, because you need to know when to tell people to make a transition (e.g. walk to trot), or to turn. Too late and they'll already have gone past; too early and they might forget it or get confused and try to make the change too soon. It certainly isn't something you can just start doing without having ridden a few dressage tests yourself!
With my as-yet-unpatented Whip-Holding Device (aka a bit of elastic).
Helen's test on Oscar was absolutely beautiful. She looked fantastic on him and he went really, really nicely for her. She was doing the Intro (walk and trot) test that I did last year, and I strongly suspect that she got a higher mark than I did, as it looked wonderful. Slightly annoyingly for me, she demonstrated a perfect free walk on a long rein, proving that it could be done! Her final halt was also lovely and they made a very effective pair.
Helen looking gorgeous on Oscar (look at that square halt!)

Anyway, final results. There were three levels of competition (Intro, Prelim Restricted and Prelim Open, getting harder). I was in the Prelim Open competition, which was the largest group. I was really glad that Helen won the Intro class, as she had looked absolutely fantastic. Kirsty, who hadn't competed this time, read out the rest of the results. She got through the placings (first to sixth) in my class, then presented the other riders in my class with Highly Commended rosettes. At this point I was sitting in my chair feeling a bit sad that I hadn't done any better. I hadn't really seen any of the others ride their tests, because I'd been busy with Oscar. I knew it was very easy to be beaten by them all as they are all very talented riders, but I was a bit disappointed that I hadn't done better, and I was certainly wallowing in a bit of the self-pitying, "Maybe I should give up riding as I'm clearly not as good as I hoped I was." However, this disappointment turned into relief when Kirsty suddenly spotted me sitting looking rather downcast, and realised she'd forgotten to give me my second place rosette...
In addition to my blue rosette, I was also on the (joint) winning team (out of three...), so we got a medal too!
 All in all, it was more good experience and I've come away feeling both that my placing was good and that I've still got stuff to work on - which is a perfect end result.
All of us!

Monday, 8 February 2016

Work, worry and wishes

Now that I'm not a PhD student anymore, I've had to think about cash. This isn't particularly easy. Whilst I want to work, there are various things which limit my ability to do so. For example...
  1. fatigue - I wouldn't be able to work 9-5 five days a week (or, probably, any day). Equally, a job which only offered a couple of weeks off a year would just destroy me.
  2. concentration - I need a job which is interesting and varied at all times (if possible!) because my attention span is pretty abysmal. Working directly with other people is preferable as, although I find social interaction exhausting, I do find that it helps me to keep going during the day.
  3. accessibility - it needs to be a job that I can do from my wheelchair, and that I can reach relatively easily from the flat. The wheelchair cuts out an awful lot of jobs, as does the fact that, because of fatigue, I cannot travel far (e.g. to London, which is at least a 20-minute trip to the station on top of an hour on the train).
  4. unpredictable health - I ideally need a job which is quite flexible, as I have some days which are far worse than others. In addition, I regularly go to hospital appointments during the week. 
  5. manual dexterity - lots of interesting-looking jobs require skilled hands. Strictly speaking, mine are pretty skilled, and I have a lot of letters after my name to prove it. On the other hand (lol) they are extremely shaky because of all my meds, so although I have highly-trained hands, I don't have hands which work properly right now.
  6. communication - most of the time, I do OK with this, but given my hearing difficulties I often find that I'm really struggling to keep up with what is going on. When you add this to the fact that my brain moves slowly because of fatigue + medication + bipolar disorder, it makes communicating very difficult, because it can take me quite a long time to decode even a very simple sentence in my head and work out what it means. 
  7. clothing - this may seem like an odd one, but what I wear has an enormous impact on how I feel. Usually, I wear clothes which don't restrict my movement - either thin and flexible leggings or loose trousers, and comfy t-shirts and jumpers. Some bendy types like to wear tight clothes to help keep their joints in place, but I don't find that this works for me, and instead it makes me feel really stiff and uncomfortable, and it massively aggravates the pain. Unfortunately, most of the time loose clothes aren't seen as being particularly smart, which means that dressing appropriately for work can be a pain. Being in a wheelchair just adds an extra layer of difficulty to finding the right clothes.
    Apparently, someone thought this was a good idea.
  8. I have various illnesses which are problematic on an Occupational Health Questionnaire. They ask about everything and it took me AGES to fill it in. I now have worries that they're going to tell me I'm not fit to work anyway (and doubtless the DWP would disagree and not give me ESA or anything - what does one do when one falls through the gap, I wonder? Hopefully I won't have to find out).
  9. experience - it turns out a degree from Cambridge does not count for much if you don't have a more relevant qualification which is equivalent to the exams you took at the age of 15. Bitter? A little bit. I know I could go for a job which would need a degree, but then all of points 1-8 above would work against me. I know that not having specific training can be a drawback, but I also believe that I am intelligent enough to pick up new things pretty quickly.
With all of this in mind, I've been job-hunting. Mostly, I've looked at Teaching Assistant posts in various state schools in and around Cambridge. I had one pretty bad interview (although it was a very interesting day in a school solely for children with special needs), one rejection on the basis that I don't have much experience (true!), and a third school which has offered me a job, subject to the standard satisfactory references and DBS check - hooray! Oh, and I need to pass the Occupational Health assessment (which is by no means a given. See points 1-8 again).
Here's a taste of what you get when you google 'Occupational Health.' It does not fill me with confidence.
However, fingers crossed, I will be starting at my new school in a few weeks, and I am genuinely quite excited about it. I will be working to support the learning of young people with Special Educational Needs. This is something I'd be interested in doing as a career, so it'll be excellent experience for me, as well as an opportunity to see what it is like on a day-to-day basis. Although the school is a secondary school, I am also going to spend time in a local primary school next week, observing Year 5 and Year 2 lessons, to gain more experience and, hopefully, some skills and knowledge.
But what of my list of things which make it hard to work? To be honest, I am a bit worried about some of them:
  1. fatigue - this is likely to be the most dangerous aspect. The school day for me will finish at about 3pm. This is nice, as it will give me time to get back and feel that I have quite a bit of afternoon. It starts early, but as long as I get to bed early I hope that I can deal with that. I am thinking that I might have to give some things up, or at least take on fewer responsibilities - we shall have to see how it goes.
  2. concentration - this is one I'm not worried about. I'm excited about going back to school and learning or revising some interesting stuff! I'm also really glad that my job will give me direct contact with people all the time.
  3. accessibility - well, the site isn't brilliantly accessible for wheelies, but at my interview they were very happy to plan a timetable for me which would only involve going to wheelchair-friendly classrooms. They're also trying to make their buildings more accessible, so perhaps my presence will help them along! This is a classic example of how somewhere which is physically inaccessible can be made more accessible just by having a flexible and 'can-do' approach from other people.
  4. unpredictable health - after fatigue, this is probably my biggest worry. I just hope that things will be OK. During a tour of the school (given by an existing TA), I learned that my line manager is very well-liked and respected for her fairness and kind nature. I really hope that this will turn out to be the case should I need some time off.
  5. manual dexterity - apart from whatever may be in store for me in lessons across the whole of the secondary curriculum, and a little bit of writing, this shouldn't be too much of a problem. Hopefully there won't be too much writing as shaky hands which cramp quickly aren't ideal!
  6. communication - this is most likely to go wrong if I get too tired. It's a paradox that social interaction makes me more tired, but that it also keeps me going - i.e., whilst I'm with people, I feel energised, but afterwards I feel completely exhausted. Hopefully this will mean energy at work and flopping at home.
  7. clothing - I must be one of the only people so obsessed with an institution's dress code! I've spent a bit of time going round charity shops looking for suitable clothes - i.e., things which are smarter than anything I normally wear, but that still allow movement (especially upper body), and which are comfortable for sitting in a wheelchair (not all trousers are) and which won't get caught up in my chair (there seems to be a fashion for cardigans which don't have buttons, and since anything trailing in a chair automatically winds itself around the wheels or pushrims, I don't see this working well). It's actually quite nice to buy some new clothes which will, with any luck, serve me well in the future.
  8. OHQ - well, I filled it in honestly - not disguising or concealing any of my conditions, but also stating that I felt that I could cope. Fingers crossed it'll pass. If not I'll have to think again. I've been asked to go to an assessment in a week's time so we'll have to see how that goes. I'm hoping that I will be able to get something useful from it too, such as extra help with accessibility at work and perhaps some help for funding transport.
  9. experience - well, I have to say that I gained a lot from the interview which went badly. I've learned more about the issues which may arise when dealing with SEN children and about how to deal with these issues. I've also learned some of the nuances of the TA's role, which I don't think I really appreciated before. Although I don't have much experience of working in an SEN-TA role, I'm glad that they felt I had enough experience and enough nous to learn quickly and become an asset to the school. Hopefully!
For now, I'm letting myself be cautiously excited. I've planned out a new weekly and monthly budget which will allow me to put aside money for those weeks when I'm not earning (school holiday). Although I'm not going to be earning huge amounts, it looks really good to see money going in again! As well as some new clothes, I've bought myself a couple of little pots in Tesco so I can take snacks into work which will hopefully keep my blood sugar and salt levels on an even keel. I've bought a book on Specific Learning Disabilities and a book on the TA's job, and I'm learning a lot from them. Today I had a 'practice drive' to the school during rush hour to see what the traffic might be like (actually, far better than anticipated) and to take in my documents for the DBS check. I'm also in the process of setting myself a plan whereby I will ease myself back into waking up at the right time each day and getting a decent balance between activity and rest, so that it's neither a big shock to the system when I start working, nor a case of being exhausted before I begin. This week, I'm going into a nearby primary school every day to get some more experience with younger children and to have a crack at working again. It'll be unpaid, but very interesting and I've really enjoyed the first day!
One of the best things about having a job is that I just feel a lot better about myself. Last year, when I wasn't working for so much of it, it felt like a bit of a cheat to say that I was studying for a PhD. Now, I know that I can be proud of the answer I give when people say, 'so what do you do?' It should be enough for me to tell them, 'well, I'm disabled and that makes work very difficult.' However, people don't want to hear this. If they press me on why I've taken on a job which is not very well-paid nor very senior, I shall explain that disability can have that effect through the simple necessity of these being the only realistic options. I'll also know that I'm finding out what I can and can't do. Most importantly, I feel that this is a really worthwhile job. I have no interest in doing anything commercial. Maybe it's trite, but I want to help people, and a part of me feels that I have a duty to do so. There are plenty of ways to help people, and we just have to play to our strengths. I suppose I'm still finding out what my strengths are, but I hope and believe that they will involve trying to make the world a friendlier place for young people with disabilities.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

I talk to The Blue Bird

Recently I've had an interview published in 'The Blue Bird', which is essentially Cambridge's online sporting newspaper. The interview covers EDS, how I got into rowing, wheeling and riding, the help I've been given by CURC and the RDA, the support I received whilst a student at Peterhouse, access to disability sport and around Cambridge in general, what the university could do to improve access to disability sport, and the impact upon perceptions of disability after the 2012 London Paralympics. You can read it all here!