Life After Lockdown

Now that everyone is charging out the starting box as the restrictions on lockdown are being eased I’ve been pondering about how lockdown has changed us. What have we learnt from being forced to strip back our lives?

I think big office based businesses will change dramatically as they have experienced working from home, so will now have to offer more flexible working hours. Those who travel internationally for work, such as my brother, will have learnt to do much of their work remotely so I’m sure will continue to do as much as they can from base as whilst training an Australian company over Zoom may mean that you need to be in the office at 6am, it does at least mean you can sleep in your own bed that night. Both these factors will have a knock on effect on the environment with less commuting and fewer flights. Which I think will also change business dynamics.

But what about the smaller businesses or sole traders? I think they will come out of lockdown more resilient, with more strings to their bow, and have a better back up plan for the future – be it a planned period off work for scheduled surgery or the like, or nature preventing work taking place, for example. Shops have learnt to sell online, service providers have learnt to think outside the box. I for one never dreamt that there would be a market for remote riding lessons.

Socially, how are we changing? Well I think everyone is realising what activities they miss partaking in, and who they miss seeing, the most. When we’re set free I think people will be more selective about the groups or clubs they attend, and will limit themselves to fewer outings a week. From a parents perspective, an online catch-up is very appealing as I don’t have to worry about childcare. And I can also sit in my lounging clothes, and with no commute my social evening can start at 7.30pm rather than 8.30pm. Of course there’s no atmosphere, but if you’re wanting a chinwag then you can easily create an atmosphere by synchronising rounds of drinks. I don’t think Zoom quizzes or get-togethers will replace “going out out” to quote Micky Flanagan but they’ve definitely become a viable option in the social calendar.

Then of course are the changes lockdown has made to us as individuals. I feel that I’ve done things I’d have never thought I’d try during lockdown, and enjoyed doing unexpected things. I’m a workaholic and I would never have considered taking two weeks off work, let alone two months. Of course it hasn’t meant that I’ve lounged around on the sofa all day. I had a good clean and sort out of the house, filled the garage with things to take to the charity shop and tip, blitzed the garden, applied for planning permission, made my own fly spray, finished puzzle books which have been kicking around for years, tuned my harp, caught up on my reading, re-laid the loose bricks in the garden wall (with cement), replaced the toilet seat, repainted the porch. I’ve enjoyed turning my hand to the unusual tasks, but what surprised me most was actually how much I enjoyed our Groundhog Day. Up at 6.30am, a couple of hours at the yard riding and doing chores, then entertaining the toddler until a family lunch, cooked by my husband. Then more playtime with some jobs squeezed in around teddy bears picnics, before afternoon horse chores, toddler dinner, bedtime, my dinner, and some jobbing before bed. It’s been comfortingly familiar, and enjoyable, with enough variants that I can just about distinguish between days. Really, it feels like the summer holidays of childhood; when the days drift by hazily blending into one. Time seems to stand still, yet it’s flown by.

Of course I’m one of the lucky ones; we have a house and garden which gives much more variety to play than a flat, and we’ve not had the financial worries of some families. Yes, we can’t live this way indefinitely but it’s fine for the moment. And most importantly, we enjoy each others company.

Which led me to a quandary at the beginning of the week. Of course I don’t want lockdown to continue forever, but do I want to return to life in the fast lane? As clarifications were made within the equestrian industry as to the do’s and don’ts, I started to feel this pressure. Social media was full of venues advertising hire, coaches advertising lessons. I need to be eased gently back into training and going out so that I can plan trips sufficiently and get the most out of them. Equally, most of us have been doing less riding, or less jumping and fast work, than pre-lockdown, so we have to consider our horse’s fitness too. I thought Tweseldown made a very good statement that they would not open for a couple of weeks because everyone should start jumping and fittening their horses prior to hiring a cross country venue. It’s true!

What I realised is, that I’m selfish. I want the calm, family time that comes with lockdown, yet I yearn for the satisfaction of teaching and freedom to enjoy the fresh air and countryside.

I can’t return to full work yet as I don’t have childcare, so I have decided to start doing a handful of lessons each week, and during this transition to work, I am trying to work out how to reorganise my life to accommodate the best of both worlds. Since returning to work after maternity leave, my workload has grown and diversified in ways I never imagined. I lost a bit of control and ended up doing some sort of work every day. Which happens to all self employed people. Now is my chance to take back control. Rearrange my working week and as I start to book things in, remember to keep to my days off! It’s not that I will get rid of work, merely consolidate what I have and use my time more wisely. The same can be said for planning my weekends and down time. For if nothing else, lockdown has taught us about time and making it quality.

Should We Be Riding?

Since lockdown began and normal life ceased, I’ve been plagued by all sorts of emotions regarding riding in “these unprecedented times”.

Many people I know have decided not to ride, many have decided to continue, and many have had the decision made for them by livery rules. The pressure not to ride comes from the British Equestrian bodies which are strongly advising horse owners not to ride so as to not add to the burden on the already overstretched emergency services. Fair enough, and the pressure will have been removed immensely by the cessation of organised equestrian competition. Paramedics and ambulances are usually present at events, so by cancelling our spring programmes we are freeing up personnel and vehicles without any accidents even happening. Let alone the beds we’re not occupying with injured riders.

But should we be stopping riding altogether? In Spain and Italy the government have banned it. So we are lucky. At the moment!

The biggest question I’ve been pondering these last weeks is the psychological effect being told not to ride because of unnecessarily pressuring the emergency services will have on riders. I mean, do you get on your horse to go to the school for a flatwork session and think “I might fall off today and need an ambulance.”

I hope you don’t, and if you do I question whether you should be riding at all. But now, everyone is ultra aware that there is a risk to horse riding and it could happen to them. Of course, you do get those freak accidents which happen in the arena during flatwork, but they are exactly that – freak. You could have a freak accident getting out of your car, or carrying something upstairs, or doing the gardening.

I wonder how riders, particularly the less confident and more insecure riders, will be after this is over. Will they ever get rid of that niggling thought? Will there be a sudden decrease in leisure riders jumping and competing? Although this wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing in that I often see riders competing at the top edge of their ability, which is more risky. But I think it will be a bad thing for the less confident ones. Will some people give it all up as a result of the Covid pandemic?

Of course I’m not advocating that life continues as normal, I just wonder what the net result of this new line of thought is.

I think everyone has to balance out their needs, their horse’s needs, and being sensibly safe, when they come to their own decision.

One big factor, which my GP friend said to me about the emergency services issue, is that if you continue to ride, or do whatever sport or DIY you want to, and take risks then you have to accept that the level of care you will receive will be below the usual standard. It might be that you have to wait longer for an ambulance. After all, they need thorough disinfecting after transporting a potential Covid case, which takes time. Or your injury or treatment might be managed at home, when in an ideal world you should be in hospital. So you have to accept a drop in the level of care you will receive. However, you could have just as serious an accident climbing up 25′ ladders to clean the guttering which you are doing instead of riding your horse.

Start by evaluating your horse’s needs. If they are fit and ready for the competition season you can’t just turn them away. They might do themselves an injury in the field burning off excess energy, or injure their handler because of said excess energy. If they are a horse currently in rehab then is it detrimental to stop halfway? If they suffer with weight issues coming out of the winter are you risking obesity and laminitis by stopping riding them? Do they have a previous injury which actually benefits from steady exercise to maintain muscle tone and strength? If the answer to any of those is “yes” then exercise needs to continue in some form or another. Additionally, take into account your horse’s nature. Are they a mature, sensible horse used to being ridden, used to their environment, or are they flighty, spooky, unpredictable? If they’re the latter then there is obviously more risk involved in each ride. But that goes for your ride in February as well as April!

Now let’s look at you. Do you have a lot of exterior stress in your life and need to unwind by riding your horse? Do you struggle with your fitness which would benefit from continuing to ride? Do you suffer from depression, and without riding need to resort to increased medication? If the answer is “yes”, then you need to try to do some form of riding for your personal well-being. I would add here, that if you regularly fall off then you want to assess the reason (if you tend to fall off jumping then remove jumping from the equation) and try to avoid it.

Once you’ve assessed yours and your horse’s needs, you should be able to come to a mutually beneficial arrangement which keeps you both happy and healthy. My decision, and how I have come to it is as follows: Phoenix is better in consistent work, so continuing to work her is beneficial. It’s spring time, and she would get too fat if turned away. I don’t think she’d become rude and bargy if not in work, but with a toddler around I don’t really want to try it out. I am now looking after a toddler 24/7 and for my sanity I need some time in the saddle. I also want to keep a reasonable level of riding fitness ready for returning to work, so need to consider this. Phoenix is now working in the school under saddle three or four times a week. She is lunged once or twice, either in the school or the field. I’m not jumping her under saddle because it’s unnecessary at the moment, but I am lunging her over poles and little grids to provide variety to her work. Phoenix will hack alone, but until they’re turned out 24/7 and the north wind disappears, I don’t think it’s sensible to hack her because she is not as relaxed and the risk of finding gremlins in the hedge is higher. But I usually finalise my solo hacking decision when I’ve checked the actual weather and felt how coiled a spring she is, so in reality this hasn’t changed much from normal. I don’t think we should hack in company unless we’re from the same household because there’s no way we can stay two metres apart. Having said that, last weekend I was desperate for a hack, so went out with a lady who I see from a distance at the yard each morning. And kept our distance. So reducing the risks of Covid whilst giving myself a much needed time out. But I can’t see that happening again in the near future.

This arrangement and routine seems to be working well, and Phoenix is definitely benefitting from the increased routine and consistency. Plus my morning pony time sets me up for all the thrills and spills a toddler in potty training throws at you!

I think it’s important to know your horse, and what will keep them sensible. Some horses need a canter in the school to warm them up, particularly veterans, and others need a steady canter to get their brain engaged and eliminate any tension. So you need to work out what level of work your horse needs to keep their bodies and minds healthy. I’ve heard of some yards banning cantering at all, which is all very well but I’d be concerned that the horses would maintain a relatively good level of fitness, but not be able to release their tension and energy through canter so could become explosive when cantering is permitted or when the bottle of pop is shaken and the lid opened…

The way I see it, for myself, and for any clients who I’ve discussed exercise programs with, is that you have to think of your riding education like a growing tree. Usually, we are focused on growing upwards, with a few willowy branches going out to the side. Now, we are going to focus on increasing those branches. Growing more of them, and strengthening them. Our tree will become denser and stronger as our skills develop, knowledge increases, and foundations for later work is built.

Let’s say that you are currently working towards Novice level dressage. You can continue to develop the movements you have already introduced, but it wouldn’t be wise to introduce a new movement or concept. Instead, look back at your last prelim tests – was you free walk as good as it could be? Could you improve your centre lines? The answer is most likely “yes”, and if not I’m sure you can find a couple of movements which only received a 6 instead of a 7. Spend a week focusing on those movements to make those branches more robust. Then when you’re allowed, they will grow upwards more easily. For example, giving and retaking the reins is a weak spot of Phoenix’s, so I have been working on her maintaing her trot rhythm and balance whilst I give either the inside rein or both reins, and extending the amount of time I am giving the reins. Another area to improve could be your sitting trot, or your transitions. Think of developing and improving your current level of work rather than stepping up a level.

You can also use this time to practice a new skill, such as long reining, or to spend the time improving your lunging technique, which will help keep both you and your horse fit, provide variety to the workload, and improve your knowledge and understanding.

So whilst I’m very much leaning towards continuing to ride in a sensible and safe way; developing current knowledge and ability rather then stepping up, I think it’s important to consider how your actions are viewed by external people. That doesn’t mean the keyboard warriors who aren’t riding, either because their yard has stopped them, or through their own decision (they can get off their high horses and support those who can ride because yards are permitting it or their horses are sensible instead of going green with envy). I mean the non horsey passers by. And let’s face it, there is increased pedestrian traffic at the moment. Does it really look good if there’s three or four of you hacking out together? Does it look good that walkers see you jumping? Not really, in either case. I think if we want to continue to have the ability to ride we need to be seen to be obeying social distancing guidelines and to being precautionary in our activities.

Life Under Lock and Key

It’s been almost two weeks of lockdown in the UK. It’s a strange new normal that I’m starting to accept.

When lockdown was announced I wasn’t hugely surprised, and in many respects it made some decisions for me; there was increasing talk about whether it was ethical to ride horses or teach and risk needing the emergency services. Childcare had stopped and I hadn’t worked out that logistical problem yet.

The first week went quite well; it was like Christmas but with better weather. It was a novelty, and actually time to take a breather and do some life admin. I planned some big jobs to do, and settled myself for some family time.

By the end of the second week, however, it’s beginning to feel like Groundhog Day. Each day Mallory and I go to the yard, ride and do chores like feed the chickens. Seeing very few people, but at least getting our exercise, fresh air, and sense of normality. I’m not sure Phoenix is as pleased about this as me, but her flatwork is coming on in leaps and bounds! Then we go home mid morning; lunch is as 12, and the afternoon is divided between playing, being in the garden, drawing, helping with jobs before tea and bed by 7. Then I can get some other jobs done.

There’s no way of distinguishing between days and it’s so easy to fall into a slump of depression and lose all motivation. After all, what is there to aim for if there’s nowhere to go and no one to show it to?

It’s looking increasingly likely that lockdown will be extended next week, and as I highly doubt kick-starting the equestrian industry will be high on their list, so I won’t be going back to work anytime soon. There’s nothing I can do about it, so there’s no point getting stressed about the situation, so I’ve accepted it.

But I do need to make some changes to help me cope with this new normal. Firstly, I need to differentiate between the days more, to better document the transition of time. I’m using Phoenix’s work to help. Polework on Tuesday, lunging on Wednesday, for example. Then I’m going to go back to doing Pilates on Mondays via video link. And find some other activities to do at home on specific days. And create a list of jobs around the house – those which are usually overlooked, and deemed unessential to fulfill my need to be productive. Then I have a few ideas for Pony Club – of activities the kids can do at home, of stable management lectures we can do remotely, and am rolling those out steadily. I’m completing my quiz and puzzle books, sorting out photos on my laptop, and reading the pile of books by my bed. I’m going to use this time to organise myself, as well as enjoy the time spent dressing up as superheroes, building Duplo, listening to Mallory’s echolalia expand her vocabulary as we count snails and pick daisies in the lawn.

And most of all, appreciate the fact that I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m on lockdown with people I love and like spending time with, we have a garden to escape from the indoors, we’re financially stable for the time being.

Workwise, what’s the plan? Who knows. The BHS is permitting remote teaching if a strict set of criteria are met. Which means that only a handful of clients qualify for it. There are the BHS Challenge Awards which can be taught remotely. However, the vibes I’m getting from everyone is that no one knows what the short term future holds, so are reluctant to commit to anything. Plus there is the uncertainty of job stability and finances, and the questionable moral of riding at the moment. I’m at the end of the phone to all my clients though, and am happy to put together exercise plans.

However, I can’t not have an income long term, so I need to think of alternative ways to earn money while this new normal continues. If not, I might actually get to the bottom of my job list and clean my car!