Calmer Bites

A few weeks ago I had a slightly psychotic Phoenix on my hands. I think it was the transition from living out 24/7 to living in at night, combined with her getting fitter. I couldn’t fault her behaviour on the ground, or out hacking, or even in the school. She wasn’t spooky or naughty, just hot – like she was on a constant adrenaline high. A good, long workout didn’t take the edge off, so I knew it wasn’t an excess of energy. But she definitely wasn’t her usual self. I did wonder if she was stressed, but channeling it internally, so it came out as anxiety as opposed to bad behaviour.

I thought about calmers, but I wasn’t convinced they were the answer because her behaviour hadn’t changed, or at least she hadn’t become spooky. But I did wonder if she had a bit of a chemical imbalance, akin to people suffering from bipolar disorder. This would explain the uptightness and that a long workout didn’t tire her out.

I couldn’t see what stress factors she had as we’d not competed recently, her diet hadn’t changed and was low in sugars, and she’d seemingly settled into the yard and field happily, which made me wonder if she’d been stressed (perhaps the first week of living in) and the chemical levels in her brain had become a bit stuck at the incorrect levels. I’m sure a psychologist could explain this far better than me, but in layman’s terms that’s what I felt was going on.

I did some more research, and a friend told me about calmer bites. They seem to be a relatively new thing on the market, but basically they contain L-Tryosine which triggers the production of serotonin, which helps stabilise moods. They say it “takes the edge off” a horse’s excitability, which is what I felt Phoenix needed.

I think the instant calmer syringes work in a similar way, but as Phoenix is not the easiest horse to worm, I thought a bite size treat would be more effective – at least she’d ingest more of it! 45-60 minutes after administration, the seratonin levels should increase, and the horse becomes calmer. The effects last for three or four hours and you can “load” a horse with several cookies over a couple of days.

Calmer bites are commonly used the day before a competition and on the morning of to help calm a horse. Or for travelling or clipping. They don’t contain any FEI banned substances so are legal for competition use.

Now, I didn’t particularly want to end up relying on calmers or anything, but I did think that the calmer bites could help reset Phoenix. I tend to think that if a horse is stressed and needs “calming” there is a problem somewhere in their management, diet or training, so by feeding calmers you are not addressing the cause, merely masking it. However, if it would get Phoenix back on track I thought it was worth a shot.

It was a bit of a gamble, as there have been mixed reviews on the calming cookies products (as with any calmer but I think that’s down to the cause as much as anything) but I fed Phoenix a calmer bite twice a day for three days as a loading dose, and definitely found that she was calmer. Probably a better explanation is that she wasn’t on high alert and over reactive to my leg aids, or as anticipative to canter and repeat canters during a schooling session, which made her much more rideable. As she had maintained her perfect manners out hacking and on the ground, I couldn’t say that they had had a positive impact, but I definitely liked her more relaxed attitude towards schooling.

Phoenix had the calmer bites for three days and since then she seems to have remained more level headed, so I think that they will have helped normalise her seratonin levels, which had dropped for whatever reason. The most likely cause I can think of is the transition from her summer routine to her winter routine. Which she seems to have accepted now, as she’s not pulling her rugs onto the floor, tossing hay from her haybar, or spilling her water in the mornings as she waits to be turned out. It will be interesting to see how she transitions next year.

For now though, I’ll keep the rest of the calmer bites and try using them when she’s next clipped to see if it keep her more relaxed, acting as a mild sedative so that she is more accepting of the clipping process.

I would say that calmer bites are not the answer to a horse being stressed, but they could be used as an aid to training. For example, if a horse has had a bad experience travelling then they may be useful the next time they travel to help give them a good experience and overcome their fears. But a horse will only truly overcome their fears by their carer taking the steps to build their confidence during transportation.

The calmer bites I used for Phoenix are made by Equine Science, and can be found on their website.

An Open Letter

To the Riders Trotting Along That Busy Road in the Dark,

Apologies it’s taken me so long to address the situation which took my breath away on Tuesday 18th December, but in order for this letter to be free of expletives the steam had to stop coming out of my ears.

It was 7.45am, dark and dismal, and I was driving along a busy A road which links several villages to a large town. You know where you were, but I’m just filling in the picture for anybody else. It’s a 60mph limit, and a fast road. To my surprise, I could see a long line of car headlights coming towards me. Usually a queue of this proportion is caused by a tractor or cyclist. There was in excess of twenty cars. I spy a couple of floating yellow fluorescent shapes. I slam on my brakes as much as I can with cars behind me, and then see two horses and riders trotting along the road, the first one with their right arm out and closing in on the white line in the road, about to cross the road.

I’m an equestrian myself, so don’t feel that I’m pointing a finger because I’m a selfish townie. I just don’t understand why you felt the need to be riding along a fast road. In rush hour. In the dark.

We were days away from the shortest day, you’d almost made it to the day that all equestrians celebrate.

What was it that was so important you had to hack in the dark? I can take an educated guess that you were minutes away from home. Which means that you set off when it was even darker. I can’t even make your excuses that you’d gotten lost or it had got darker quicker than you thought on an afternoon’s hack.

We’re all in the same boat. We’re all fed up of the endless darkness, but really we’ve got three choices in winter:

  1. Organise our work, or use flexi-time to ride during the day.
  2. Hack at weekends, and use the ménage during the week to either lunge or school.
  3. Don’t like schooling? Either invest in some lessons so you learn to love it, pay someone to school your horse for you, or resign yourself to the fact your horse isn’t going to be exercised during the week.

However, hacking in the dark is dangerous. To you, your horse, and to other road users.

Let me just return to your attire. Hi-vis is very fashionable now, we all wear it – cyclists, joggers, horse riders alike. You had yours on. But it wasn’t enough. I couldn’t see your horses. Well I saw a flash of a stripe on their nose. What if you’d been separated from them? They could’ve been hit by a car! Secondly, I couldn’t see your right hand indicating. You can buy hi-vis gloves, light up whips, lots of gear which would mean drivers couldn’t mistake your use of arm signals.

Have you ever read the Highway Code? Or taken your Riding and Road Safety Test? When you are turning right you should continue to stay next to the kerb, not drift out towards the centre of the road. What if an impatient commuter had roared up the outside to overtake? Splat. That’s what.

I can understand that you were keen to get out of the way of the traffic and off road. But you can’t tell me the traffic caught you by surprise. It was 7.45am. The beginnings of rush hour. If you don’t want to be in that position, don’t hack out at that time of day. In daylight or darkness.

Really I think what angered me the most is that the equestrian world are striving to improve our rights on the road, and respect from other road users. The BHS has its Dead? Or Dead-Slow? campaign, we’ve made Hi-Vis more accessible, comfortable, and fashionable. We’ve reported swarms of ignorant cyclists, and British Cycling is now educating their members. We’re gaining respect, and making the roads safer. And then you come along and ride with total disregard to other road users, and with little regard to your own safety, and ultimately anger and upset the numerous commuters who had to follow you along that dark road. They’d be late to their destination. They’ll moan about “bloody horse riders causing traffic jams” to their colleagues. The next thing you know, hundreds of non-horsey road users have lost all respect and patience for us. And it takes a long time to regain that respect. They aren’t going to slow down for the next horse they see on the road. Which incidentally, is endangering another horse and rider who could be riding in the perfect visibility conditions, modelling so much hi-vis you can see them from outer space, and following the Highway Code to the letter.

You know who you are, please, please, please take a minute the next time you decide it’s a good idea to hack before sunrise on a winter’s morning. Spring and summer will return soon and you can do all the hacking you like then, but for now just leave your horse in their stable rather than put their lives at risk and upset every road user during rush hour. Please. For the rest of the equestrian world’s sake, don’t undo all our hard work at making the roads safer for us to use.

Merry Christmas!

One Year On

Last weekend marked one year since I bought Phoenix so I thought it was a good opportunity to reflect on our journey together so far.

Initially, I didn’t think there has been a huge change in her physically. I mean, she’s put on muscle, but she’s not grown taller or bulked out like a youngster does. If anything, she’s a leaner frame, and less barrel shaped. Having said that, due to the fact she’s now fully clipped and had her mane pulled, she’s almost unrecognisable to the bystander.

So what have we achieved in the last twelve months? Quite a lot really I think.

To begin with, she’s done some travelling to clinics, competitions and lessons, and has progressed from cautiously edging up the trailer ramp, to almost running me over in her excitement to get loaded. She travels quietly and calmly, and has excellent manners both in the trailer and away from home.

I did quite a lot of groundwork for the first four months with Phoenix. Initially, she couldn’t canter on the lunge, and was quite unbalanced. Here’s two photos to compare the changes in her trot from the lunge. Her trot now is more uphill, and whilst the photos don’t really illustrate it very well her hindquarters are more engaged so her trot has a slower tempo whilst maintaining the same level of energy. Her back and topline also looks much stronger now. Now on the lunge she’s proficient at raised poles, canter and is developing a range of trots in preparation for Novice level.

Phoenix had been introduced to poles before I bought her, but hadn’t really done any jumping. I started with some jumps on the lunge, and since then she’s really taken to it. I only jump a couple of times a month, but she’s now confident with fillers and showjumps up to 85cm, enjoying it and showing a good technique. I had a jump lesson a couple of weeks ago, where we had very positive feedback and she jumped very well, growing in confidence over the related distances and fillers. Unfortunately, there aren’t any photos because it was pouring with rain. She’s also been cross country schooling, which again was a positive experience for her. Next year, my plan is to build on her competition experience over showjumps, and to do more cross country with her, on sponsored rides and training, in preparation for a hunter trial in the autumn. Weather dependent, of course!

In her ridden flatwork, Phoenix has gone from being a bit tucked in in her head and neck, and with quite a choppy trot, to carrying herself in a longer frame, in self carriage and with more impulsion from behind. Unfortunately there aren’t any recent ridden photos – I’m sure you’ll see some soon. She’s been to some dressage competitions, and definitely has the talent to succeed here. Marks have been high, with some low due to her greenness, and excited anticipation. This is an area we’re currently working on. She’s rather fresh at the moment, but after ten minutes work will settle into a lovely trot and work beautifully. Then I walk and give her a breather. Unfortunately, she then anticipates canter so it takes another ten minutes to re-establish the trot. On a positive note, the canter to trot transition is much calmer and more balanced, so we are getting there slowly! I’m looking forwards to cracking this as then we can move up a level and develop her lateral work, because the moments of good work are really good! She’s teaching me a lot, as I’ve never ridden a horse where I have to sit quite so quietly and have such minuscule aids. The slightest aid can get a huge reaction, so I’m on a learning curve (especially while she’s so lively) to stay relaxed whilst sitting quietly, and trying to remember not to back off my aids when she gets tense or scoots off as that makes her even more sensitive to the aids. For example, when she tries to rush in the trot it’s tempting to sit even more lightly. But that means I can’t use my seat without her acting like I’ve electrocuted her. I have to remember to keep sitting into her and trust that she will relax in a few strides. Then I can use my seat to half halt effectively.

Other experiences that Phoenix has had, and accepted, over this last year, are clipping, babies, pushchairs, massages and bareback riding. Clipping is still quite a stressful experience for her, but everything else she’s taken to like a fish to water.

Phoenix had done a fair bit of hacking before coming to me, and I don’t get her out as much as I’d like, but she’s brought the fun back into hacking for me. I hadn’t realised how on edge hacking spooky horses had made me last year. Now, I’m finding our hacks very relaxing and fun, either in company or on our own, especially as she’s so well mannered in open fields and is rock solid on roads. I’m looking forwards to doing some sponsored rides next year, especially as Otis had a lifetime ban for his continuous airs above the ground on these rides.

Looking back, I think we’ve made a solid start to our relationship and journey together. We’ve made a good start to all areas of leisure riding, and whilst we may not be perfect yet, a solid foundation is being built, so that hopefully we have a successful competitive career, whilst having a lot of fun. Phoenix is everything I wanted from my next horse, so I’m glad I took the gamble and bought her without trying her myself and before I was supposed to be purchasing. I’m really excited to see what the future brings for us.

Watch this space!

Four Faults

I’ve got a little anecdote to cheer you up on a dreary Friday.

You know those lovely properties with long drives and electric gates? Well it’s not a problem entering, you just hop out and type in the code then the gates open and you drive out. When you leave, the gate sensors recognise you’re a car a open automatically.

However, when you’re on a horse, it’s a different story. For some gates I’ve had a little key fob which I just press to open the gates. Some I just get on after going through the gates. For others I have to rely on being let out and then just get off to key in the code and get back in. One horse I walk right up to the keypad, lean down to enter the number, and hope no cars roar up behind us on the road!

Last week, I saw the nanny in the house before I went to tack up one of the horses I ride out. I asked her if she could let me out when I had gotten onto the drive. Or avenue, as it it lined with trees. However, as I was tacking up I decided to swap the stirrups over as I hadn’t been able to get them just right. This took me a few minutes and as I let myself out of the stable block onto the drive, I could see the large iron gates were already open.

The horse I was riding is lovely, but on the way out on hacks his mind does tend to be on his stable and dinner. When we’ve had a trot and canter he’s up for it. Anyway, we ambled down the drive and, when we reached two thirds of the way down, the gates slowly started to creak shut!

With a couple of pony club style kicks, we broke into joggy trot, closing in on the gates… as they closed just in front of our nose!

“That’ll be four faults for a refusal!” shouts this voice behind me, accompanied with a laugh. Two gardeners had put down their tools to watch me race to the gates! The rather portly one, still laughing, made his way slowly to the large iron gates. Of course, he couldn’t open them from the inside but somehow (and I repeat somehow) he squeezed between the wall which the gates are affixed to, and the wooden fence bordering the property, and went round to the other side of the gates, and typed in the code to let me out. And let himself back in in the process.

I’m glad I provided them with a couple of laughs, but I’m also very glad they were there because I don’t think I could face the embarrassment of going back to the house to ask to be let out!

Hopefully soon I’ll have authorised access to open the gates from my phone, which will make life far less complicated. First world problems, eh?

Two Years

It’s been two years since the vet told me Otis would never jump again, and a year since I stopped fighting and admitted his retirement. I’ve stopped choking up about it now, and am just glad to see him a few times a week in the field; happy, healthy (except for the dodgy foot), and enjoying equine company. Things happen for a reason, and if my riding time was cut short with Otis, it was so that I got to meet Phoenix.

I saw her advertised as a five year old two and a half years ago. If I’d had the gift of foresight perhaps I’d have bought her then. But I wouldn’t have been able to devote as much time to either her or Otis, nor had my time with Matt and won the dressage championships. Things happen for a reason, but I’m very happy with how well Phoenix is fitting in with my lifestyle and how she is everything I wanted from my next horse but highly doubted I’d find.

After almost a week off over the bank holiday weekend, she was foot perfect in the arena, producing some of her best trot work. I can feel the improvements in her every day and she tries so hard to please. The following evening she and I went for a lovely peaceful hack on our own, and it began to feel like hacking Otis. At one. Except for the levades before a canter. You don’t need to learn that Phoenix!

Then yesterday we boxed up for some showjumping practice. She didn’t even hesitate as we walked up the trailer ramp, and travelled perfectly. Once there, she was a total pleasure to unload and tack up, then waited patiently while the baby had her food.

Last time, Phoenix had been very wary of the water tray and I hadn’t made an issue of it, so this time I led her over it a few times before mounting and walking over it. Once I’d ridden over it twice, she understood. She cantered over it as part of the course, and maintained this confidence when I made it into a jump.

With the other fences, I build an array of sizes and for the first time placed fillers under some jumps. After a couple of warm up fences I took her round akin to a competition. She felt confident and calm; was very rideable around turns and followed my lines. She had a couple down but that was due to babyness – her canter isn’t that established so she can’t adjust it to reach the fence perfectly, and then needs some practice in getting herself out of trouble.

The double took a couple of tries to perfect. I needed to adapt my riding as I kept forgetting I didn’t have the power in the canter. She needed to travel more than I initially thought. But she tried, and put in a long jump over the second element until I got my act together.

I wanted a horse who was well behaved to take out, and she definitely is. She’s patient with the baby; waits quietly on the yard if I have to go and feed or change her. Doesn’t spook at the pushchair, and ignores the crying. To handle, she’s perfect; I’d happily let a child groom or lead her. With assistance of course! And most of all, I feel like I have a relationship with her. She trusts me, and I know exactly what makes her tick, and how to instil confidence in me.

I just feel very lucky that I’ve had ten years of education with Otis, and learnt so much from him, whilst enjoying every minute, and now I can take my knowledge and impart it to such a worthy successor.

Change of Perspective

More and more I find myself looking at horse riding and equestrianism from a parent’s perspective.

I think there will be a lot of pressure on Mallory to learn to ride. People will presume that she loves horses and is good at riding because I do it for a living. I’m determined not to push her into horse riding. Of course, she’s already having plenty of exposure to horses and already smiles in pleasure when one breathes gently over her. She strokes their noses and wraps her fingers around their manes. I sit her on them, but I fully intend to be led by her. If she wants to have a ride then I will arrange it, and happily teach and encourage her. If she is serious about learning to ride then that’s the road we’ll take.

The way I see it, if Mallory is into horses then we’ll have plenty of mother-daughter time. If she doesn’t, she can have father-daughter time while I have pony time on my own!

Let’s assume she does take up horse riding. What do I want her to achieve with this hobby?

It would be fantastic if she was the next Nicola Wilson, Charlotte Dujardin or Jessica Mendoza. And if so we’ll support her on her competitive journey. But if not, she’ll be just like the rest of us.

I want horses to teach her respect for others. To care for an animal and the responsibility which comes with it. I want her to benefit from the exercise involved in caring for horses and riding; to get the fresh air and keep fit. I want her to find a best friend in an equine, to help keep her sane during her crazy teenage years when she won’t want me so much. Horses will also allow Mallory to meet and socialise with people from all walks of life: and the ability to strike up a conversation with anybody is a very useful skill.

I don’t mind whether Mallory wants to jump bigger and wider than is good for my heart, or wants to piaffe down the centre line. She can choose to compete, to ride for pleasure, to hack, or to jump. But most importantly I want her to be confident and enjoy herself. And I think that’s my job as a parent: to nurture her (hopeful) love of horses and enable her to enjoy them in the same way I do. If she’s happy, confident, understanding and respectful to horses, and achieves her own aims – be they cantering across fields or competing under the GB flag – then I think I’ll have succeeded as a parent.

Phoenix’s Progress

It’s been a few weeks since I updated you on Phoenix.

We did very well at our first competition, so I decided to keep the ball rolling and enter another dressage competition at the same venue three weeks later. The blips in our first competition were due to her competition inexperience so I felt she needed her horizons broadened.

The second competition had far better trot work: more consistent and relaxed but unfortunately the canter work didn’t reflect her recent canter work at home. I was really disappointed about that, but then had to remember that we scored highly for the transitions, an area I’d really been focusing on. After all, it’s one big learning curve for her.

Since then, we’ve had a a quiet couple of weeks. It’s continued to be scorching hot and the ground hard, so hacks have been mainly walk with the odd trot in the woods where the ground is softer with mulch. I’ve been hacking in the jump saddle to help her acclimatise to it, as she wasn’t convinced by my change in balance when it was first fitted to her. Now, I’m pleased to say, she’s as comfortable in that as she is in the dressage saddle.

Phoenix has really proven herself to be excellent to hack; she took some persuasion to cross the narrow byway bridge a few weeks ago, but now she’s got it sussed and confidently leads over it. Last week she waited at traffic lights and walked through some roadworks without batting an eye. I feel that our relationship has become stronger so I can push her out of her boundaries and she trusts me more. When the ground softens I’ll be able to test her in an open field, and go on a sponsored ride, which whilst I’m disappointed I’ve not been able to have a good canter out on a hack I know that this foundation work is excellent for both her manners and our relationship.

I’ve taken the opportunity to introduce lateral work on our walk hacks, zigzagging along the road and field. Phoenix is definitely understanding the idea of sideways, and is maintaining her rhythm and balance as she leg yields in walk nicely.

Unfortunately the sand arena has become very dry and deep. Sand is usually a good surface to work on, but when it’s dry it is very hard work for the horses. This means, especially when it’s very hot, I’ve been doing a lot of walk work in the school and riding field. Transitioning between free walk and medium walk, working on getting more of a stretch. Halt transitions, and decreasing circle sizes. Yesterday I was playing around with turn around the haunches and turn around the forehand, as well as some leg yielding on the slope. Recently, I’ve done very little canter work, pole work and jumping in the school as I don’t want to risk her legs as she develops muscle and tendon strength. After all, she’s building new muscle and fitness which she’s never had before so I don’t want to make it harder for her.

Last week Phoenix had the week off because I was teaching at Pony Club camp, but when I rode on Saturday we picked up exactly where we’d left off. Having a horse who didn’t need a full daily workout was one of my main criteria, and this is the first time she’s had a week’s holiday, so I was really pleased she’d proven herself to me in this way.

The following day we hired a showjumping course. Bearing in mind that I hadn’t jumped her for eight weeks, Phoenix jumped everything perfectly. We didn’t jump too high because of the heat and her lack of jumping fitness, but she ignored the fillers, and jumped more solid fences, and less inviting fences than before.

Hopefully with this week’s rain I can start doing more pole work and jumping at home with Phoenix, as I really want to get back to improving the canter and jumping. But the weeks of walk and trot work hasn’t been wasted as we’re closer to perfecting the core basics, which will help all her future work.

This week Phoenix also had a massage. I felt she’d been tight for a couple of weeks. A combination of working harder, increased muscles, and the ground conditions I think. Anyway, she thoroughly enjoyed her masssge, which found some tight spots in her shoulders (which have bulked out a lot) and over her hindquarters, which is just because she’s using them more and has bigger muscles there.

I’ve not got any more competitions lined up. You never know, the ground might improve enough for us to go cross country schooling! But I’m keeping my eye out for some clear round showjumping as I feel that now she’s ready to jump some small courses in more of a show environment. If I can’t find anywhere, then I’ll hire the showjumping course again. Then I think in September we’ll try another dressage competition when hopefully our canter won’t let us down!

Phoenix is still barefoot, and coping really well. My farrier was pleased with her feet when he last visited, only needing to shape them slightly. I feel she’s really changed shape as her fitness has improved, so I’m keeping an eye on the saddle fits and making sure that as soon as I feel any tightness in her ridden work I get her massaged so she is most comfortable and able to perform to her best.

Phoenix’s First Party

Last weekend I took Phoenix for her first dressage competition. She’s worked well when we’ve had lessons at other venues so I felt the time was right to get some competition feedback. Plus, the venue was only a few minutes from the yard, so it would have been rude not to.

Our canter is still a bit rushed and unbalanced so I decided to enter the Intro test, and then the Prelim as I thought she would benefit from seeing the arena and white boards twice in quick succession. I felt I should disregard the canter movements in as much as if I got the correct lead, maintained canter on the circle and trotted at the right place it would be an achievement. But I shouldn’t lose sleep over those movements and subsequent low marks.

Phoenix warmed up in the large indoor arena, complete with mirrors and numerous other horses, beautifully. She was relaxed and focused on me. When she relaxes she allows me to bend her with my legs so we did plenty of circles and she felt really settled. I’d put a green ribbon in her tail as she’s still a bit worried by other horses, especially if they canter up behind her or the rider is carrying a schooling whip. I also wanted to hint to the judge that she was new to this game!

When we were called for our first test I had to be led into the arena as Phoenix was busy gawping at a couple of signs, the judge’s car, everything. I walked and trotted her round until the bell; we were mainly using the inner track and were cautiously eyeing up the white boards and shadows from some overhanging trees. Thankfully though, once she’d passed each “monster” she paid less attention to it. Which shows that she just needs her horizons widening.

I was fairly happy with the test. She was tense for most of it, but not as tense as she can be as I could still apply my leg, but we had moments that felt fabulous – on par with her best work at home. Her trot circles were 50% beautiful and 50% tense. She did relax more towards the end of the test and I was really pleased with her walk work, and she showed that she was settling into work by stretching down in our free walk.

My score sheet was very positive. The judge marked in an encouraging way, saying what a lovely horse she was with so much potential. We just need to eradicate the moments of tension. There was quite a range of marks: from 8s for my walk circles, halt and rider collectives, to 5.5 for a walk-trot transition. All the comments were what I expected, and in line with her stage of training, and I definitely felt that I hadn’t produced our best work. But we will I’m sure when she’s got a few competitions under her belt.

Anyway, I was really pleased with a score of 73%, which was enough for first place!

The second test was better. It was a complicated prelim with lots going on, but Phoenix was less looky around the arena – she didn’t need to be led in this time – and overall I felt she was tense for less of the time. Our canter didn’t score highly; I was pleased with the left rein but the right she was falling in, looking at the reflection on the judge’s car, so did a great motorbike impression. Again, there was a range of marks and her walk scored 8s again. The trot work was predominantly 7s and 7.5s, depending on if she lost her rhythm.

I left them: happy with how Phoenix had performed, and confident in how to improve her way of going for future tests. I felt she’d had a positive experience at her first competition. I didn’t expect, however, to win the prelim test with a score of 70%!

Out of the restricted sections now, we’re going to have a nice week of hacking before getting back into the swing of things. Practising steadying and relaxing the trot after canter work (Phoenix likes to keep cantering once we’ve done it once!), and working on those transitions, especially the halt, to begin with. Then we’ll find another competition to go to, for more experience.

Hacking To Shows

Yesterday I took Phoenix to her first competition (blog to follow) but I hacked there. It would’ve been rude not to; the venue was a ten minute walk away from our yard.

Anyway, it brought back memories so I sent a request to Mum to dig through the archives to find some photos from when we used to hack to shows.

It was strange getting changed at the yard, tacking up and feeling very posh hacking along the road. It did save on the warm up though, and it was a lovely way to cool Phoenix down afterwards. Not that either of us cooled down much in this heatwave!

I met my groom/photographer/chauffeur/babysitter there with water (or milk) for all of us before cracking on with the competition.

Years ago very few of us had trailers so we would either hack to shows or club together and hire a lorry. Our first show we took 9 ponies in a huge livestock lorry. They travelled in threes with a partition separating the trios – it’s a good job they all got on well! It was great fun everyone going together because you always had a group of supporters and there were plenty of Mums to do up gaiters at the last minute or older teenagers to give you ringside advice.

I remember at one show I was taking a friend’s pony and I wanted to do the 2’9″ jumping class. But Mum wouldn’t let me as it was “too big” (even though my jumping had improved massively since riding this mare) so my friend, who was a bit older, just slipped into the secretary’s tent and entered me for it!

Mum usually took on the role of Yard Mum, filling the car up with haynets, tweed jackets, grooming kits, water butts and buckets, headcollars, and rugs if rain threatened. She would meet us at the venue and we’d find somewhere to tie up (Mum would’ve brought baling twine too) for the day. We would be there for the first classes and then stay as long as we could, usually hacking home in smaller groups as our classes finished. We usually did the Mountain and Moorland, a working hunter class, and at least one showjumping class. Sometimes we did five classes! There was usually a clash which would involve one of us dashing between arenas to inform the judge that someone would be late.

It was a long day, but always a lot of fun!

Here are two photos from 2003 when three of us hacked five miles to a show. I think it was the first show that I hacked to. We left the yard at 7am, show shirts and jodhs under our jeans and jumpers; headcollars over our bridles like trekking ponies. Our Mothers drove behind. We arrived at the venue just after 8am, only to find that we were the first to arrive and the farmer hadn’t even taken the sheep out of the field! So after phoning the secretary and waiting for the sheep to be removed we tied up on a fence line and let the ponies graze until the show began. I’m on the grey, Partner, who I had on loan. I lovesd that pony! Initially I couldn’t jump him as he’d just run out but after two of the older girls shouting at me in the cross country field I manned up and got bossy! The smaller bay is Billy, who was my favourite riding school pony. Last I knew he was still going strong in the riding school. The bigger bay is Dan, who I loved to ride a couple of years later. He was considered unrideable and the older girls spent a whole summer breaking him in. He had an almighty buck in him though – I came off him several times that way.

These photos were taken in 2004, when eight of us hacked to a show. I think the most that ever went was twelve, which certainly filled the lanes! Although, when we hacked into town for the Boxing Day Meet there was closer to twenty of us!

Squiggle, the large grey, and his best friend Bisto, the large dark bay, led the group. I never liked riding Squiggle, who lived up to his name and was very wiggly to ride. I rode him a lot when I was backing Matt. Now, I’d like to see what tune I could get out of him with more experience but he’s in the field in the sky. I loved riding Bisto, who was a horse as opposed to a pony and you had to ride like a grown up! She did make my triceps ache though, I remember.

I’m behind on the chestnut mare, Llynos, who was a friend’s pony and a lovely jumper. She really built my confidence up while I was backing Matt. Next to me is Aries, who was slightly crazy but I loved to jump him when I was about fifteen/sixteen. He used to trot or canter sideways very slowly towards a fence and then you’d straighten up and he’d gallop over the jump, before you had to collect him and go sideways to the next fence. He was the first pony I jumped 3′ on. When his owner was at university I used to ride him weekly and got a lot of enjoyment out of getting him straight when jumping or doing trotting poles!

Behind us is a black pony, Jack, who was very sensitive. The first time I rode him was when Partner was lame and the yard was on lockdown with strangles. I didn’t want to ride boring old Gypsy in my lesson so jumped at the chance when my friend offered me Jack. Last I knew, he was enjoying his retirement in the field behind her house, in his early thirties. He is Dan’s half brother.

Next to Jack is Geraint, the chestnut. He is Llynos’ half brother and was such a thug! He was best friends with Matt and used to follow me down the field when I caught, before barging past me at the gate. To ride, he was very bargy and just used to run through the hand. Again, now I’d like to see how I got on with him. He could go nicely on the flat and when he coordinated his legs he could jump pretty well too.

You can see Dan behind Geraint, and to his left just the black nose of Bubbles is showing. She was Jack’s Mum and quite crazy to ride. In a similar way to Aries, she’d gallop over jumps. She could jump the moon though, and had a dead mouth. We were forever trying out different (strong) bits in an attempt to slow her down. When excited, she used to jog on the spot and she had the most uncomfortable saddle! Like sitting on a brick – you can only imagine the moans when she was jig jogging along! I first rode her when the yard had strangles too. This was before Partner went lame – Mum had offered him for school use so lessons could continue and in return I got to ride Bubbles. Partner’s rider booted him into canter and promptly fell off if I remember correctly.

The other side of Dan is a dun, Sandeman. I didn’t ride him until I was fifteen or sixteen. Again, he was a horse not a pony. Very forwards, and frequently bounced one stride doubles. At one show, he jumped out the ring! Mum always remembers when I hacked him with her and I refused to let him gallop up the canter track. She says he looked like a charger. I won that battle! He’s another horse I’d like to try again now I’ve got more experience.

Finally, was little Jet, who still looks great in his twenties. Mum and I loaned him when I was eight and he was very tolerant, especially as he was only young at the time. I don’t think my feet passed his saddle flaps! Mum’s friend loaned and eventually bought him – he’s a real all rounder and tried his best at everything!

Somehow I’ve digressed from the main point of this blog, but memory lane has been very therapeutic!

Hacking to competitions is rarely done now – definitely a sign of the “good old days” but I have many happy memories of hacking excitedly at dawn to shows, cheering each other on all day then wearily traipsing back. Usually too tired for talk, but reliving each moment before turning our attentions to our sore bums and the bath we would have when we got home.