Riding Camp

In recent years horse-loving adults have been taking a leaf out of their kid’s books, and started going camping. It’s like Pony Club camp, with as much fun, and more alcohol.

My riding club runs a summer camp as well as dressage and showjumping mini camps during the year, but this year was the first that I managed to go. I wasn’t sure about going until after Easter, when I’d got on top of Phoenix’s tension issues, but I decided it would benefit both of us.

Camp started for us on the Friday morning, with a jump lesson. We were with the green horses, and Phoenix was one of the most experienced horses, but this suited us both as I was definitely uptight and unsure of how she’d behave at a busy venue. I wanted a quiet, calm lesson to settle us both. The lesson focused on quietly approaching small fences in a steady rhythm, and calmly riding away. Phoenix was great, and it did the job of setting us up for the weekend.

I spent a lot of time in the run up to camp worrying about how Phoenix would cope with being stabled and ensuring she ate sufficient forage. I was really pleased that she seemed to settle immediately into the stable, and started munching on her haylage. I planned to hand graze her as much as possible, but the fact that Phoenix was so chilled definitely helped me relax.

Our second lesson, on Friday afternoon, was flatwork. We worked on shoulder fore in trot and canter, and I felt that Phoenix had an epiphany on the right rein: riding right shoulder fore really helped her uncurl her body and improved her balance on right turns. She had previously been resisting my attempts at creating right bend and scooting forwards in panic as she lost her balance, but she seemed to thrive off the challenge of shoulder fore, even managing it in canter to my surprise.

I was up at the crack of dawn on Saturday morning so had the pleasure of waking up the horses. It was cross country day, and I was thrilled with how Phoenix took on each challenge. Considering that she’s only been cross country schooling twice and seen some rustic fences on sponsored rides. We had a few stops, but it was as though she needed to study the question as when I re-presented she locked on and flew it confidently. We focused on Phoenix not rushing or panicking over the jumps to build her confidence. I wanted her to have a positive experience, and then I can develop her confidence over steps and through water over the summer. Phoenix was the bravest of our group too, getting up close and personal with the life size model elephant!

I spent most of Saturday afternoon hand grazing Phoenix and chatting to friends. The part of camp that I was most enjoying was the uninterrupted time I had with Phoenix. I wasn’t against the clock, or distracted by my little helper. I felt it really helped us bond. She’s still very aloof, which made the little nicker she gave every time I came into sight much more rewarding.

Our camp also had the weighbridge come, which I found useful for getting an accurate weight for Phoenix for worming and travelling. She weighs 495kgs, which I’m happy with. There were also off-horse Pilates sessions we could join in. Under the impression that it would be a light workout to take into consideration how much riding we were doing over the weekend, I signed up for two sessions. A minute into the plank I was regretting this decision …

On Sunday morning we could choose our lesson format. I opted for another showjumping lesson as I felt that was most beneficial to us. After all, I have regular flat lessons and have a progression plan in that area, and with a showjumping competition on the horizon, my choice was obvious really. Phoenix jumped the course confidently and boldly over all the fillers. It was the biggest course I’d jumped her over without building it up gradually in height and “scare-factor” so I felt it was a good test for her, and a positive note to end camp on.

It’s easy to see why adult camps are growing in popularity; I felt I came away from camp feeling like I had a better relationship with my horse, with a few new exercises to work on, and some new training goals. It was great being surrounded by friends, getting support, encouraging others, and putting the world to rights over our banquets (that’s the only way to describe the quality of the catering!).

I’d better start negotiating childcare for next year’s camp!

Walking The Course

This has come up a couple of times this season, but unfortunately it keeps going to the bottom of my blog list.

So often when riders walk a course, especially eventing when there’s two courses to remember on top of a dressage test, they focus on remembering the order of the jumps and where they’re going. Sound familiar?

Inexperienced riders rarely pay enough attention to the tactical aspects of riding a course. Yes, they’ll think about which fences their horse may dislike, or the gear that they need to approach a jump in, but what about the factors on course which you can’t influence so easily?

Firstly, the ground and way of going. Yes, you can’t change the fact it’s rained and the ground is soft, almost deep. But when walking the course you want to take the ground conditions into account. It may mean you ride a wider turn so your horse is less likely to slip, or if you know your horse finds one type of going easier than others you adjust your riding to best suit them. For example, accept some time penalties and take a steadier canter to help your horse out. You also want to consider the running order. If you are running towards the end of the day you should be aware that the course could become churned up and deep in places. So adjust your lines to take this into account.

Terrain. Some events have more undulating terrain than others, but as you walk the course you should be looking at all the twists and turns of the ground, and plan your ride so that you take the route which will enable your horse to stay most balanced and rhythmical. For example, a jump may be positioned at the edge of a hollow, so depending on how your horse copes with downhill, you may want to ride a longer line to the jump to give them more time to rebalance the canter after the downhill slope. Whether you are jumping uphill or downhill will also affect how you ride the fence. Going uphill you may need to put your foot on the accelerator a bit more, particularly if it’s towards the end of the course. Going downhill, you’ll need to ride a smaller canter to help keep your horse balanced and off the forehand, which will affect their take off point. Incorporating the terrain into your tactics for riding the course can make all the difference to going clear or picking up penalties as your horse will be better placed to jump confidently and successfully.

The weather conditions. One of my lasting memories of eventing Otis is when we were going cross country at 4.30pm in September. Invariably we’d been delayed, so it was after 5pm, and I was galloping up the hill directly into the evening sun, with a large table at the top. God knows how I managed to get over it as I was very disorientated and nearly steered into the hedge, but Otis got me out of trouble, as always. I hadn’t clocked the impact of the setting sun on my ride, and after that event I was always much more considerate of where the sun would be when I would be jumping, rather than where it was when I walked the course. It’s the same with shadows; if a jump is under some trees, check where the shadows are going to be. It takes horses eyes longer than ours to adjust from light to dark, so again you’ll need to adjust your riding line or gear in order to give your horse the best chance of seeing and judging the question. Equally, if it’s raining or windy, you’ll firstly be questioning your sanity, and secondly, need to adjust your riding whether you’re cantering into the rain or wind, or away from it, as your horse will find it harder when against the weather so will need more positive riding from you.

My challenge to you is the next time you are at a competition, or cross country schooling, to start to take into account the weather conditions, terrain, ground, and shadows, as well as trying to remember the order of the jumps. You should start to feel that although you are making more micro adjustments to your canter, and riding less direct lines, your round will flow more and the jumping efforts seem easier.

Confidences

I`m sure you all know what I`m talking about – confidence is the belief in yourself that you can do the set task. We all know someone who is nervous, or at the other end of the scale, cocky.

I think that if you`ve never lost your confidence, or you`re lucky enough to be a very confident person, then it can be difficult to understand the fragility of confidence.

If it is you who is lacking in confidence and have decided to do something about it then firstly – good for you! It takes a lot of bravery to do something that scares you. Which is why you will never catch me going pot-holing in small, pitch black tunnels …

Secondly, it`s good to have a support group, and a confidant; so have a think about your friends and colleagues before deciding who you think would be the most positive about your journey. They don`t have to be your best friend, as sometimes it`s easier to talk to people who don`t know you so well, but you should want to see them regularly, and possibly so that they can see your achievements in the flesh.

Once you have your support group you can start to plan how you are going to become self-confident. Try making a series of baby steps, or targets, that all seem achievable individually, and work together to make a bigger goal. Then decide how you are going to go about these targets.

If it`s a physical activity, or one that involves you being in the spotlight, then it might be best to perform at quiet periods. For one of my clients this has made a huge difference to her riding. Previously her lessons were early afternoon, but the yard became fairly busy and she became worried about the activity distracting her horse, herself, and then people watching her. This meant that I ended up doing most of the riding, the lessons finished early, and she didn`t get much from them. So I offered to do an early morning lesson. The yard is quieter, everyone`s going about their own business so not observing, and both she and her horse are benefitting hugely from fewer distractions, and making great progress.

I think once a method, or approach, has been found that suits you it should happen every time, and become a ritual – e.g. if it`s riding that worries you then perhaps lunging for five minutes, or having a friend sit on top for five minutes, or even riding with someone in the arena with you, can make all the difference and you start to feel at ease before you even sit on. When you`re ready, you can always cut short one of your pre-ride routines, and push your boundaries one at a time (like sending the person in the arena into a corner, and then the other side of the fence, and so on).

Although it`s hard, the important part of building your confidence to continuity. I know some people who always feel nervous if they haven`t ridden for a while, so it`s vital that you make yourself do it regularly. booking lessons or time with a friend can help, as it gives you an allocated slot so you can`t procrastinate or, my favourite excuse “I ran out of time”.

Even with the nerves, it`s important to repeat the exercise until you feel you can do it in your sleep. Then, you`re ready to take the next step. There`s no point running before you can walk. This is where it`s so important that bystanders are supportive, and don`t question why you are still doing the same thing you did a month ago. Does it matter if you are? And if baby steps of progression are made then you should emphasise them and celebrate – it gives you that boost to do it tomorrow!

I`m digressing.

What I really want to say is that I admire those who are willing to try to overcome their fears – isn`t there a saying “do something every day that scares you”? – and I get so uptight when others seem ignorant to their journeys, and are unsupportive. Everyone is an individual and if they lack confidence then help them sort themselves out. Likewise, it can be very easy to forget that someone who seems confident on the outside, might be a good actor, and is actually a trembling wreck inside; so seemingly harmless comments or jokes can have a devastating impact on someone`s self-esteem. Usually you can spot this by their changing body language or habits. For example, why has the confident horsewoman suddenly starting exercising their horse early in the morning, or late at night?

On a lighter note, I used to be so terrified of speaking in front of people (despite my Mum`s attempts at putting me forward for public speaking competitions) that when I started teaching my mentor had to leave me in the indoor arena with my pupils (who were all kids) so I could find my voice, and then she would creep into the viewing gallery to eavesdrop on my teaching. Even now, if I think someone is listening critically to me teach I clam up and become a mute. This makes me really reluctant to take my next BHS exam even though part of me is desperate to take it, as I`m sure I`ll forget to talk. But then I probably just need a good kick up the bum. Speaking in front of an audience is a fear I`ll have to face next April as, in the interests of equality, I have been told that I need to make a speech at the wedding reception. Perhaps I could call in sick …

But that`s my little story of building my confidence, and it does show that it`s a fragile emotion – unfortunately those gremlins in your head which tell you you`re useless are very persistent – , which I think makes me aware of the problems people face when going down the same road. I love it when clients tell me they`ve repeated the lesson exercise without me, or taken their stirrups away, or hacked on their own. Take tonight for instance, I was sent a video from one of my clients of her sister having a canter in the arena. I`ve taught this nervous sister for months, and she`s been adamant she only wants to trot, despite being more than capable of doing some cantering. So I introduced a couple of little jumps and “Oh dear, we got a stride of canter between those jumps” but cantering was still a no-go area. My aim was to expand her repertoire, improve her balance over poles, and provide some light relief for the pony. She would do it in her own time, I said, and it`s better to provide her with the right tools and ensure her trot is secure and she is confident there and then all of a sudden she will ask to have a canter. And she did!