2020. The Year of Change.

2020 is coming to a close and whilst 2021 isn’t starting much better, I think it comes with hope.

It’s not been the year that anyone predicted (I won’t go into the details; you’ll find them in the history books in 50 years time) but there have been highs and lows, and lots of self discovery. And it’s worth reflecting upon.

I know the pandemic has hit many people hard, and in all honesty, I’ve been very sheltered from it all. I think it’s a reflection of the company I keep in that I’ve only known a handful of people who have had mild look-after-yourself-at-home cases of Covid. We’ve been careful, but we have a toddler so therefore don’t have a busy social calendar. There’s a few things we’re missing out on; the good friends (you know, the ones you actually miss laughing about nothing with) and family. But can you imagine if this had happened 20 years ago when the Internet was in toddlerhood? We can Zoom to our hearts content.

I’ve now been a whole year in my role as Chief Instructor for a large and thriving Pony Club branch. It wasn’t the year we had planned, but I was certainly kept busy drawing up lockdown activities, jumping through hoops to get rallies up and running with the necessary protocols in place. I now feel like I know the majority of members and have a clearer understanding of them, their ponies and their aspirations. Don’t tell them, but I love this role!

Then my day business, Starks Equitation, had a compulsory hiatus in the spring. Which, whilst I would never have ever considered a six week holiday, was quite enjoyable. It actually gave me chance to do some life and home admin, refresh my professional side, attend some webinars, and enjoy the special time when a 2 year old transitions from limited phrases that only a parent can understand, to elaborate two way conversations (read arguments). This period did make me appreciate my job even more, so I was more than happy to hand over childcare duties and return to work. Since then, my work hasn’t really been affected by the pandemic. We’re outside; the lessons are individual; we can’t get too close to each other; we’re around horses so therefore hands get washed before touching our faces!

If anything, Starks Equitation has benefitted from the lack of competitions and organised rides, and limited social diaries, as horse owners are focusing their energies on their training at home, getting the fresh air and exercise so needed when working from home, as well as the psychological boost that our equine friends supply.

So professionally, life hasn’t really changed much. Personally, it has and it hasn’t.

I think the main thing that 2020 has taught me is how lucky I am. We have a stable family life; few arguments and a big enough house that we can get the desired space we need. We have a garden to make the most of the good weather. We have horses, which is an excellent excuse to get some fresh air each day, as well as giving me some me time. We are financially secure enough that we can purchase equipment for an activity to do at home, or buy a new coat so that we can continue with daily walks in winter.

I’ve never had a huge desire to travel, and yes we missed out on our trip to Austria for my 30th birthday. But it will still be there when we’re allowed to go. And in the grand scheme of things it’s really a first world problem, isn’t it? Whilst it would be nice to have a couple of days away from our house, it’s not a bad house, and not a life or death issue. I’ve learnt that I am really quite contented at home in my own bubble. I knew I was always a home girl at heart, but a lack of social obligations has made me realise I’m more than I realised.

It’s been a life saver having horses to tend each day; a reason to keep going; and also the fact that you will distantly bump into others at the yard, which takes away any loneliness and the change in conversation is refreshing.

I have discovered these last couple of weeks, perhaps it’s my body and brain reaching the end of the year and being reset, that I’m feeling aimless in my riding with Phoenix. She’s working well, but with limited competitions, and the risk of them being cancelled, I’m losing motivation to school her. Instead, I’ve been hacking more, but I do need a change of scenery – to hire a venue to school over a course of showjumps, or to hack on different territory. Yes we can technically still do this, but is it morally correct? And half the fun of these things is going with a friend. Which you can’t. So I’m lacking the enthusiasm to do this. I’ll sort myself out by 2021! I’m enjoying my time with her, which is the main thing.

From a family perspective, I feel like 2020 has drawn us together. There’s more juggling with limited childcare, but we’re more involved with her development, and can see our influences on her behaviour daily. We’re lucky to have a single household slash childcare bubble, which definitely helps relieve the pressure, and again gives variety to conversation. I’ve also found that doing so much online I’m saving quite a bit of driving time, and that is usefully utilised with self-care routines, like brushing my hair properly, exercise classes, booking chiropractor appointments instead of meaning to for weeks. As a result, I feel like my confidence in my self has improved.

2020. It’s had it’s ups, although it may be hard to find them sometimes, and has taught us much about ourselves. So before kicking 2020 out the back door on New Years Eve, remind yourself of the positive memories it’s given you.

If it’s taught us one thing, it should be this:

Leisure (1911)
W.H. Davies
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?-

No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows:

No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass:

No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night:

No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance:

No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began?

A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

Keeping the Momentum Going

This year has been very stop start for a number of reasons, mimicking the stop-start of Phoenix’s cross country training the last couple of years.

I was determined this spring to improve Phoenix’s cross country CV with regular training outings and her competitive debut. Covid had other ideas, but since being released from lockdown I’ve made a concertive effort to get her out and about.

We went to an arena cross country lesson in June, which was full of suspicious health and safety checks at each fence before flying them the second time. She wants to do it for me; but equally wants to make sure she’s read the question thoroughly and risk assessed. Then I took her to a local schooling venue with a friend and had fewer stops, but upon reflection, I realised that I was starting to expect the first stop, and at times froze and became passive on the approach. No wonder she was suspicious of the jumps!

I gave myself a kick up the bum and went to another venue a few weeks later with another friend. Again, better. I actually rode positively to the fences and Phoenix took more of it in her stride. Interestingly, ditches and steps were becoming easy and Phoenix was no longer spending minutes tottering on the edge before committing to navigating the obstacle. Water was also becoming less of an issue, with her trotting through happily. Canter was still out of her comfort zone, but I wasn’t overly concerned about this as she just hadn’t quite worked out how to move through water. Towards the end of this session I felt like I was starting to jump out of a cross country canter rather than showjumping into each fence.

We were making steady progress, but when you’re on your own it’s very easy to sit within your comfort zone, and work your way up to doing a jump. Which of course you can’t do at a competition. Realistically, I needed to start looking at going to a competition. But I’m reluctant when there’s such a high risk of either a cricket score or being disqualified.

Next up, was riding club camp. Where we had a good cross country session, where Phoenix had jumped some meaty fences and grew in confidence. I of course had some tips to take away – mainly that I shouldn’t hesitate with the leg or hold back with the hands. Even if my brain was reluctant to commit until Phoenix did! Keeping my upper body back would save me.

What I actually realised this summer is that the motivation to go cross country schooling comes from making it a social event. Yes of course, we aren’t supposed to socialise currently but there’s less than 6 of us and we can’t get much closer than two metres whilst mounted, so we’re as low risk as you come. Going schooling with someone, who doesn’t have to be working on the same trajectory as you, gives you some support. And encouragement to challenge yourself with a slightly bigger obstacle, or trickier line. They can provide a lead if needed, or you can discuss and feedback on performance and how to improve. I think ultimately, that the attraction of going out with friends is the ulterior motive for getting out and about.

So when a friend spoke about forming a WhatsApp group of those who want to keep up the momentum of cross country schooling during winter, I realised that whilst I rarely feel a desire to go cross country in the winter, it’s exactly what Phoenix and I need. I need to keep the ball rolling with her cross country so we don’t go back to square one next spring. And there’s no reason to regress with so many arena cross country venues available to hire.

Today we had our first cross country club lesson. We’re all at different levels, but as I joked with our instructor “a good coach can manage several different levels of abilities within the same lesson”. Which doesn’t make it any easier! Phoenix was awesome. She took on the various step and jump combinations; skipped over the ditches; took on some trickier lines and flew over the couple of BE100 fences I aimed her for. I need to push with the height as it’s nearing the edge of my comfort zone as well as Phoenix’s. But equally I don’t want to just face Phoenix at huge meaty jumps as she could easily tire, make a mistake and lose confidence. But adding in the odd fence challenges us both. I felt she tackled these more easily than only a fortnight ago at camp. My job, when approaching these, is to keep riding forwards, straight, and keep my body balanced so I don’t inhibit Phoenix at all. She can get a little deep if necessary, but ultimately she is able to work the question out herself.

In the last third of the lesson we treated it as a competition by stringing some fences that we hadn’t yet jumped, including the water complex, so mimicking the competition environment. Overall, I was pleased. We stopped at the second fence, but I was slightly worried about it and I didn’t feel that Phoenix had quite gotten into her stride, still with her mind on her group of friends behind us. But she did it the second time and then flew over the next few questions, albeit feeling slightly tired by now. However, she stopped at the simple tyres just before the water. Once over it, she cantered boldly through the water. The next fences were great, but she stopped at the other jump going into the water, and then she ran out of steam at the final one before jumping it second time around.

On paper, it doesn’t sound great, but I think it was tiredness kicking in for the last fence, partly my fault for the first one, and the distraction of the water just behind the jump which caused her to have a closer inspection of them prior to jumping the other two. So after a long breather, I finished our session by jumping both jumps into water and the final hanging log. She cleared them all easily this time, so I felt we’d consolidated the subject of jumping towards water.

Overall, however, I was really pleased with Phoenix’s development across country, feeling that the stops we have are fewer, and more excusable. Plus, once she’s assessed, she is very willing to take on the challenge, and has learnt the lesson.

We’re going to try to have monthly outings to practice our cross country, either in an arena or out in the open when possible, using our group to encourage and support each other, as well as motivating us in the depths of winter. It has definitely motivated me to look at some hunter trials this autumn, and hopeful for our one day event debut next year.

I think it’s easy to underestimate the benefits of a supportive social circle, even if you are focused and ambitious, with our hectic lives, but actually it’s your horsey friends who help you achieve your dreams, no matter how diverse the dreams are within a friendship.

So if you’re struggling to find the motivation to develop your riding definitely find some friends with similar ambitions to egg each other on. We’re all on different journeys, but we can all help each other reach our destinations.

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!

Best of Friends 

A horse’s memory is fascinating. How much do they remember? Do they remember people, horses, places? Can they remember their early life? 

Matt has been owned by Mum and me for thirteen years. He’s had various friendships with geldings of a similar age and then Otis came along. For two years they lived together in a large herd, often not spending that much time together in the field, but coming in together, being stabled next to each other, and sharing me. 

Otis, I’ve had for nine years. He spent between the age of eighteen months and four years at the same yard as Matt, being friends. Sort of.

Then for the last six and a half years Otis has lived in Berkshire, away from Matt.

When we brought Matt to boot camp in September I wondered how the two would get on. What I didn’t expect was for Otis to hear my footsteps, whinny to me, and then Matt whinnied in recognition. Was Matt whinnying to anyone because he was in a new place? 

I led Matt over to Otis’s stable and they sniffed each other before I tied Matt up and left them companionably. Both boys are friendly enough, but Matt will squeal and strange horses and usually give a kick out if they get too close behind him. Matt did not squeal at Otis, nor put his ears back. 

Each day Otis was on box rest and I brought Matt in he whinnied to him. I’m sure you’re probably thinking that he’d whinny to anyone who came into the barn, but he didn’t. He only neighed to Matt. He also got quite upset when Matt was turned out, whinnying and bucking in his stable. Not a behaviour exhibited when any other horse left the barn. 

Otis is a cuddly horse, but Matt can be quite stand-offish, except for the fact that whenever I remove their rugs they are all over each other like bees to flowers, grooming each other frantically. 

I can even tie them to the same string so they can groom while I brush their legs. The other day they had a bit of an argument because Otis wanted his left side itched and Matt refused, which resulted in Otis turning his back on Matt, who looked marginally put out. 

I’m convinced they remember each other from Wales. It’s like they’ve never been apart; still lead together nicely, call to each other, and act like best friends. I’d love to put them in the same field but with Otis’s rehab I don’t want to risk them playing too much. Perhaps when Matt comes back to prepare for the champs… 

Maybe their bond is so strong because Otis knew Matt at a key time in his development – a youngster in a big herd needs an older brother. After all, he’s spent more of his life without Matt than with him. And perhaps Otis is the only vaguely familiar face to Matt at a new yard, which is why he’s latched onto him so much? Or maybe the fact I look after both of them means they’ve accepted each other as brothers?

Whatever it is, I find it really interesting and would love to know about any studies that have been conducted into this area. I’ve heard of mares being reunited with their grown up foals and not showing any recognition, and also of horses recognising old stable mates at shows. 

Matt will go back to Wales in January, and I’m starting to feel sorry for splitting them up. I think Otis will really miss him, but hopefully having me all to himself will help. Likewise I hope Matt reintegrates with the herd and forgets about Otis because I’d hate to think of either of them pining for the other. 

Seeing them together, and knowing that they have a long term friendship also makes you wonder the long term negative effects of individual turnout, and the benefits of keeping horses in small social groups.

Vetting Riders

I see a lot of adverts on social media from people either looking for a sharer for their horse, or looking for a horse to ride.

It`s at that point I realise that I`m very fussy about who rides my horses, and always have been.

I guess I wasn`t so bothered when I was younger, and loved swapping horses, but as soon as I was responsible for the schooling and education of my horses I was suddenly terrified that a single moment of bad riding could undo all of my good work.

With Llani, I was interested in other people riding him to broaden his horizons and get him used to different styles. However, with Otis I still consider him too precious to put up for share, or to let anyone ride him without my close supervision. Not that he would ever do anything to hurt anyone, but he`s not used to novice riders and I know it would worry him, even if he didn`t react. Plus, Otis is extraordinarily bouncy, so even experienced riders can struggle to follow his movement. I know now that minutes of pootling along with a different rider will not stop Otis performing at elementary level, as he can differentiate between different riders and with me being the main jockey he won`t slip in his standards.

That being said, if I knew someone in the position of needing a ride I would consider letting them ride Otis, or if I had another horse. One of my favourite memories is when two sisters came to my rescue.

It was a few days before Otis and mine first ever one day event and the silly pony managed to get rope burn around his left hind leg. Something to do with scratching his ear whilst tied up and getting tangled up with his lead rope. As he was still not sound forty eight hours before the competition, I had resigned myself to withdrawing.

However, my luck was in. I was supposed to be going to the event with our yard manager, her husband, and another livery – a girl slightly older than me. She and her sister approached me and offered to let me ride their other horse at the event. I was thrilled, I had been so excited about going and had been struggling to hide my disappointment.

Anyway, that day was Friday and I was working all day Saturday, before the competition on Sunday. The girls were really kind and after they`d ridden Saturday morning groomed their little black Welsh cob (just my cup of tea!) and cleaned his tack for me, so I didn`t have too late an evening.

So the next morning I loaded this cob on the lorry and tried to find out as much about his as possible during the journey. Once there, I had a long dressage warm up and I remember I struggled to get to grips with him. I`d almost given up and accepted I wouldn`t get a very good score as I couldn`t get him forwards and accepting the contact. As the rider before me went in, I set off for another trot. And I got it! We clicked suddenly, and I didn`t stop for breath before my number was called, and kept him together for the test.

I remember being quite happy with the test, and then started to relax for the showjumping. Again, it took a few warm up fences to get used to him, but we jumped clear.

Then, in my borrowed cross country colours, we set off for the final phase. I think he was tired by now, as even a 2`6″ ODE was a lot of a horse who was only really in light work, but he gave everything a shot and didn`t refuse anything, we just had numerous time faults as we trotted through the finish line, before collapsing in a heap!

I was thrilled to have actually competed, and this little horse had tried his heart out for me, despite not knowing me from Adam, and given me an excellent taster for eventing. Obviously we weren`t placed, but I did find out that our dressage score was a personal best for this pony, even with his usual riders.


These girls were really generous in letting me borrow their pony, and I like to think that if the shoe was on the other foot I`d do whatever I could to help them, or others in that position, out.

Every so often I see this little Welsh cob, now in his twenties but still full of life, and I always reminisce about my first ever ODE.