A Change of Lifestyle

One of my client’s ponies has always struggled with her weight. She has too much of it!

They were doing everything right; soaking her hay, minimal hard feed, exercise, restricted grazing, but after an injury and enforced rest over the summer this plump pony was even plumper!

We started her rehab, and although she started to lose a bit of weight but then she plateaued and as winter approached it was a stalemate. Something had to change before spring, when she might actually explode on the sugary grass!

The mare needed more exercise; canter work specifically but in order to do that post injury she needed a different arena surface to work on, and it being winter they needed more dark evening friendly facilities. So they found another yard, with an arena that wasn’t as deep as her current one, and with very good floodlighting, which meant she could be ridden every evening, and the work could be faster and more intensive. More polework and jumping could then be reintroduced. With faster workouts, and more frequent ones, she will increase in muscle tone, posture, and burn off fat.

Her routine was also changed as they went onto a DIY yard, so she was turned out earlier in the morning and caught in later. This totals an extra three hours out in the field. This might not be so great in spring or summer, but on a winter paddock it’s three hours more of wandering around, nibbling at grass, rather than those three hours spent stationary, demolishing a haynet. This means she requires less soaked hay as her nights are shorter, and I think it’s had a surprisingly strong effect on her losing weight.

With the change of yard there is of course a change in the hay and type of grass in the paddocks. The grazing is slightly poorer, but this suits a good doer, and has a higher percentage of grass in it rather than her previous field, which had a lot of clover in. Clover is rich in nitrogen and very fattening. I think this will have more of an impact in the spring and summer. I think the hay the little mare is now fed is of a similar nutritional value to before, and it is still soaked overnight so I don’t think the forage has affected her weight.

In the two months since moving to their new yard, the pony has become much fitter, improved muscle tone, and has improved in posture, which will hopefully mean that she is less likely to injure herself. Her good muscles have improved, so she has a topline. The weight has literally dropped off her; she’s gone from the bottom hole on each side of the girth to top hole and it still being loose!

Before Christmas…
… today.

I find it amazing the way a couple of changes – increased workload and reduced time chomping in the stable – have had such a huge impact on this mare’s weight. I feel much happier heading into spring with her and less concerned about laminitis, as I feel we will be able to control her weight more easily. I also think that she will be finding the ridden work far easier carrying less weight,which will only improve her performance.

It does make you realise that if you struggle to get the weight off your horse then increasing workload and increasing turnout on minimal grazing but plenty of space, is paramount to the weight loss journey.

Arc of Poles

I only ever blog about exercises or lesson subjects which I feel have gone particularly well, would benefit others, and require a more in-depth explanation. A few of my clients will recognise this exercise from the last couple of weeks.

Riding trot and canter poles in a straight line is fairly, well straightforward, but putting them onto a curve makes it trickier, and is useful for highlighting a horse’s strengths and weaknesses. Using a twenty metre circle, I laid three or five trot poles on the curve, with the middle of each pole the correct distance for that horse’s working trot.

Firstly, I like to work a horse on both reins over the curve of poles. Having to increase the cadence of the inside hind requires a greater degree of balance, and if a horse finds this difficult then they may well drift out on the curve. At this point, it is really useful to compare the two reins to see if one is significantly easier than the other. Riding the curves and exaggerating the stride and push from the inside hind starts to improve the quality of the trot around the rest of the arena, and circles feel easier and more balanced.

I like to use the poles to improve medium and collected trot, by riding a smaller and larger arc. The poles encourage the strides to be adjusted and consistent over the poles, whilst the engagement of the inside hind leg encourages a lightness of the forehand. I used this exercise to good result with a duo, which really helped the balance of their medium trot and for the first time my rider felt the lengthening of her mare’s stride without an increase in speed or loss of balance onto the forehand.

For those horses who tend to fall into their inside shoulder on circles raising the inner end of the pole can really help them. If they have to lift their inside foreleg higher over the raised pole then they are less likely to load that limb. It almost acts like a jack, propping up the inside shoulder. The horse will feel more level, with vertical balance, as a result, and is then able to give a more through bend around the rest of the arena.

Raising the poles helps strengthen and increase the suppleness of the inside hind leg. It is also very beneficial to improving the stability of the pelvis because of the increased range of movement in the hips, so is very useful for horses coming back into work, mares after a pregnancy, and those with hindquarter asymmetry and muscle atrophy.

Next up, is canter poles, which is very useful for reinforcing a three beat rhythm, increasing the cadence of the inside hind, and creating a more uphill canter. A lot of horses will jump the raised poles, or try to canter a straight line across the poles. However, once the horse relaxes through their rib cage, they will find it easier and be able to maintain their curving line over the poles.

I find this exercise very useful for improving a horse’s vertical balance so that they feel more level, strengthening and suppling them, and getting them to work into a even contact with a bend throughout their whole body, which improves their general gait in terms of stride length, cadence, engagement of the haunches and lightens the forehand. Plus, it’s a fun exercise for both horse and rider!

Stepping It Up

I did quite a lot of adventuring in the autumn with Phoenix, of all disciplines to give her more experience, but the wet ground cut it short and with Christmas getting out and about went on the back burner a bit. I don’t think that’s a bad thing though, as it gives you time to focus on stepping up a level. Which is what I’ve been doing.

The flatwork side of things I’m slowly introducing novice movements, letting Phoenix think that they’re her idea. Medium trot is coming along nicely, she reins back well, direct transitions between halt and trot are sussed. It’s the dreaded walk to canter which keeps upsetting our canter work which is holding us back at the moment.

On the jumping side, I’ve done a lot of work on the canter and just before Christmas jump schooled her at a lovely, local venue. Through the autumn she was doing the 70cm and 80cm class so that she had a warm up before her level of jumping. However, now a 70cm course involves speed as she overreacts to my aids and is overly confident. Sure she goes clear, but it doesn’t feel controlled or like I have any say in how we go. In December, after jumping a course of 80cm I put the jumps up to 90-95cm. Then, it got interesting. Phoenix backed off the jumps, not enough that it all went wrong, but she had to think about the fences, and then she let me help her out. I could balance the canter and apply the leg on the approach. There were a couple of green errors, a pole down, the odd stop when she didn’t quite have the right canter and take off spot. But nothing unexplainable, and I found that I preferred the feel I had around a bigger course. It was time to step up a level!

With Christmas and the EHV outbreak over, I’m planning Phoenix’s adventures over the next few months. We’ve entered a combined training in a couple of weeks – a pre-novice dressage test and 85cm course. But the next showjumping competition I have in the diary has classes of 70,80,90cm. The first option is too simple for Phoenix, but the 90cm seems like such a jump up. I mean, she’s only jumped a couple of courses at that height non-competitively. Would I be throwing her into the deep end and creating a problem for myself if she scrambles round and loses her confidence?

When I take Phoenix jump schooling I try to go with a companion who will push me without pressure. Who will encourage the jumps to be raised appropriately, but doesn’t apply peer pressure to push us beyond our limits. I think this is really important for ensuring sessions are positive, confidence building, yet progressive.

For some reason, the 90cm class seems more daunting than when I entered Phoenix into her first 80cm. Perhaps it’s because I’ve not regularly jumped her at that height or higher, or perhaps it’s because it’s been almost four years since I was seriously jumping with Otis. And that was completely different: I was younger, had less to lose if it went wrong, was much more confident, knew Otis inside out, etc. I think there’s an element of my nerves as much as anything.

I want to step up a level with Phoenix, so before I made a decision, I decided to take Phoenix schooling again, with the aim of testing both of us around a bigger course to see how she coped and whether I felt that I was ready to give her the support that she needed round a bigger course. After all, it’s counter productive to wing it and get around a course by the skin of our teeth, than to give ourselves another few weeks of schooling at that level. Phoenix warmed up a little wildly over some smaller fences, doing her usual trick of ignoring my half halts and balancing aids and rushing to the fences. So after riding a course of 80-85cm, we built the jumps up so that they were 95cm high and the full width.

I was very pleased with how she jumped. Of course, it wasn’t perfect, she got a bit fast and flat on a related distance and took down the back rail, and we ended on a half stride to the final jump so just brought it down. But she felt powerful, confident, and jumped the height with ease, they were just errors which won’t happen with more experience. And when I rode the fences we’d faulted at again, she jumped them easily. So, decision made, we’re doing our first 90cm class at the end of the month, which should be fine with a warm up competition in the meantime. Wish us luck!

I Blame the Mud

Personally, I lay all blame squarely on the mud for this subject, but I have to say that I’m so proud of my clients, and pleased to have such a good bunch who listen closely to what their horse is saying and so averts a potentially expensive and time consuming treatment and rehabilitation programme.

On an aside, I’ve have several clients who have been on long term rehabilitation programmes for their horse’s injury, which in some cases their horse came to them with, and they are coming through the other side. One lady proudly told me that the physio feels that her horse no longer needs treatment to mend her long term problems, but now needs treatment to maintain her excellent muscle tone. Just like a normal horse! Another lady was told that her horse is moving well, and has better muscle tone than previously so it’s time to crack on and work him that little bit harder so that he starts to develop this muscle. I’m so pleased when I hear this positive feedback from physios. My riders are doing the right thing!

Back to my initial subject of listening to your horse. In their first lesson back after Christmas, one of my riders had a problem jumping. Her pony jumped beautifully over some smaller jumps, especially as we were working on jumping a tarpaulin. He did give a couple of bucks on landing when he basculed particularly nicely, but this isn’t uncommon for him. However, he jumped very erratically over some 90cm fences, even stopping. This is well within his comfort zone so I felt it was odd. We discussed the oddness, but he felt fine to his rider so we decided to monitor it.

The following week, I built a simple grid. If he’d lost his confidence, although I couldn’t work out why, this would help. They flew the grid at 80cm, although he wasn’t happy turning left after the grid and was marginally better with a right canter lead approach. Again, this isn’t unusual with his way of going. But as soon as I put the jump up a notch he threw in the towel. We reverted to the lower grid and just popped him through to finish on a positive note. As I couldn’t see any lameness or sign of soreness, my only suggestion was that he saw a physio or chiropractor in case he’d tweaked something and flatwork and low jumping didn’t affect it, but the extra effort of a bigger jump caused a twinge.

Anyway, she booked the Mctimoney chiropractor and just lightly rode him in the interim. I had feedback from the treatment yesterday – a slightly tilted pelvis, but more interestingly, a pulled muscle between his ribs and pelvis. Possibly due to careering around a slippery field. Which would explain everything. Thankfully, this pony doesn’t need any more treatment, just an easy week building him back up. But his refusing and erratic jumps could so easily be misinterpreted as naughty behaviour and disciplined, or ignored for a few weeks. Whereas by paying close attention to what he was telling her, my rider averted any major incident, either by his behaviour escalating so that it was dangerous, or by his injury worsening or a subsequent injury occuring from him trying to protect the pulled muscle.

Another rider had something similar just after Christmas when I noticed her horse’s right hind being slightly short in stride length, and not picking it up as much as usual. I was riding him and wasn’t happy with the trot, although I hadn’t noticed it in his walk around the tracks to warm up. He wasn’t lame to the bystander, but it wasn’t normal for this horse. I text my client to tell her and she immediately contacted her chiropractor, who came out a couple of days later and found a very sore fetlock and tight muscles all over – again, she put it down to field antics, but this time suggested that it happened because the mud is so claggy, he literally left a leg behind whilst showing off and wrenched it. But because his owner acted swiftly he only needed one treatment, and was completely recovered within a week.

So you can see why I’m blaming the mud! My final casualty to it felt off in walk when I hacked him. Not lame, although he definitely wasn’t comfortable in trot, but wobbly and uncoordinated. I reduced his work to walk only on as flat a ground as I could provide until we waited for his chiropractic appointment. By walking him out in a long and low frame he started to feel much better, more together and stronger. I did find that he was leaning on the right leg though, so much so that his winter coat was rubbing off with friction. Initially I thought it was something I was doing (moving my leg excessively etc) but after paying close attention to the matter, I felt that he was pushing right as he walked, so pushing into my right leg. His treatment showed very tight, sore muscles over his hindquarters and lumbar area, which ties in with slipping in the field. Hopefully he won’t do anymore field acrobatics, and I can start to build him up again, although I’ll be limited with the lack of dry bridleways!

I actually feel very grateful to have clients who pay so much attention to changes in their horse’s behaviour and try to find out why before labelling the behaviour as naughty. I’m equally grateful that they respect my opinion, based on observations and feelings from the saddle. Of course, I’m not an expert in this area but I like to think that I know these horses well enough, and have a good relationship with their owners, that when they aren’t themselves yet look normal from a distance, we can have a conversation about the different possible causes (be it back, saddle, bridle, teeth, feet) and can investigate them. Then between us we can nip any issues in the bud, get them treated before secondary problems develop, and with the minimal disruption to their activity plan.

Biosecurity

“Not again” is the thought going through my head this weekend as the equine world reacts to the news of an EHV outbreak at a competition venue. Last year, it was the flu outbreak, this year EHV. The reaction has been strange this time round. Last year I felt there was a very panicked, almost hysterical air. This year there has been a more prompt, and complete, response from training and competition venues in the area or with links to the infected venue, but the general equine population seems to be more confused – some are taking extreme precautions, others are continuing as normal.

Perhaps it’s because Equine Herpes Virus is less well known than Equine Flu, or perhaps it is the fact the flu epidemic was in random places, so very difficult to contain or predict it’s movement – an attack from all sides, so to speak. Perhaps it’s because everyone knows the drill for lockdowns. Or on the flip side, people are fed up of stringent checks.

EHV is always mentioned in stable management training, within the subjects of vaccinations and breeding, but I’ve only a sketchy knowledge of this often fatal virus, so I’ve found a much better article about it, which you can read here.

I’m not going to start telling everyone what you should be doing, in terms of hacking, travelling or yard lockdowns. After all, that depends on your location, proximity to the outbreak, disciplines, size of yard, facilities, and risk category of horse.

But I think it’s worth discussing biosecurity measures, which in all honesty, often become slack because they are quite laborious and time consuming.

Firstly, there is the basic yard hygiene of ensuring that each horse has their own grooming kit and feed and water buckets, and avoid sharing rugs, tack and protective equipment as much as possible. Wash out buckets daily, clean grooming kits regularly, wash saddle cloths regularly and don’t share them between horses. The same goes for rugs. Daily procedures like this take very little time and will stop any diseases passing between horses from indirect contact. In particular, not sharing grooming brushes or rugs or numnahs reduces the spread of skin infections, such as ringworm.

Of course horses on yards will have nose to nose contact with their field and stable companions and neighbours, but this can be minimised by putting inner electric fences round fields so that horses can’t reach each other (unless they are half giraffe!) and by not having grills between stables you can reduce direct contact between horses, which will reduce the spread of illnesses.

Washing hands when you leave the yard is a basic hygeine procedure from a human point of view, but it will also stop the indirect spread of disease when visiting other horses. I keep hand sanitiser in my car for this very purpose.

What other basic biosecurity measures can you take without disturbing your daily equine routine? When we’re all out at competitions and clinics as normal, do you let your horse sniff unknown horses? Personally I don’t. I keep a slight distance and avoid letting Phoenix touch noses with any horse from a different yard, even if I know their owner. Of course, it’s not going to stop the airborne spread of illnesses, but stopping direct contact will reduce the risk. And of course, using your own equipment and providing your own water will reduce the risk further.

Finally, you should take your horse’s temperature on a regular basis to establish what is normal for your horse so that you can quickly identify when they develop a fever. I remember when we had strangles on the yard when I was young one of the riding school ponies had strangles but his temperature was the normal 100F. But his baseline temperature was 98F, which meant he could easily be overlooked as healthy when he was actually very ill.

Big biosecurity steps to take is disinfection, which should happen all the time, but often people get complacent. For example, when a horse leaves the yard their stable should be disinfected before another horse moves in, in case the previous horse was a carrier of a disease and passes it onto the new occupant. When a new horse arrives on a yard they should be isolated for two weeks. Proper and correct isolation means a separate stable block, handlers washing and changing clothes between caring for the new horse and the rest of the yard, separate mucking out equipment, separate brushes, rugs etc. You should even burn the muck and bedding, keeping it separate from the main muck heap.

If you hire a horse box it should be disinfected before and after use, so check with the company you are using that this is their procedure.

Now that there’s a higher risk of disease, it’s time to step up the biosecurity measures you take on a daily basis. Change clothes and disinfect footwear when leaving the yard, reduce the number of different yards you visit – a farrier may want to reschedule his clients so he minimises the number of yards he visits in a day, and if you’re going to see a friend and their new horse it might be worth postponing a week or two. I will be having numerous changes of clothes each day for each yard and having a portable boot wash so I can dip my boots in disinfectant when I leave a yard.

Like with anything, it’s important not to panic, but to be sensible; don’t go anywhere unnecessarily, or to heavy traffic areas, and maintain daily hygeine procedures.

I found this useful website about equine biosecurity from the British Equine Federation.

Containing The Excitement

I’m working separately with two teenagers at the moment to try to retrain their (funnily enough, both) mares so that their jumping isn’t so fast and furious. Both horses are experienced jumpers, but very quick in the air, and very fast on the approach.

Now, I don’t think you’re ever going to completely change a horse’s way of jumping, in that some have more scope than others, some prefer a slower, more collected canter approach, and others like the leg applied on take-off more than others, and so on. However, correct training can enhance a horse’s jumping technique, and there are lots of exercises to help correct undesirable jumping behaviours. I don’t expect either horse to stop being forwards to a fence, but I aim to have them politer and steadier on the approach so that it is safer and less hair-raising for their riders.

With one mare, I started off with a pole on the ground between two wings and incorporated it into their warm up. I had my rider walk and trot over the pole, using it within circles, and basically doing flatwork around the pole, going over it every so often calmly, and when it’s least expected. This takes away the novelty factor of jumping and poles, and reduces the amount of repetition and so stops her anticipating jumping.

Initially, she made quite a thing about the pole, jumping it and cantering off. So we repeated the calm and quiet approach, with my rider staying positive but neutral. She just went with the pony over the jump before calmly slowing her down. Then there was no negative connotation between the rider and the jump.

What I liked about this mare, and I don’t know her very well, was that she was very obedient to her rider’s downward aids. She was happy to let her rider influence her. I did think that her jumping was almost a bit panicked, so I hope that by slowing her down she learns to read and understand the question, so begin to enjoy jumping more. The important thing though, is that she was willing to work with her rider, and seems to become steadier each time.

I built the jump up slowly, and we focused on my rider aiming to trot the approach to the jump by half halting strongly until a couple of strides out when the hand is softened and the seat and leg tells the horse to go and jump. After the jump, my rider had to sit up quickly and ask the pony to come back to trot.

We varied this basic approach by using circles on the approach, transitions to walk (a good exercise was trotting towards the pole on the ground, walking over the pole, and trotting away), and varying the length of the approach. She started to listen to her rider and stayed in trot until a couple of strides off the jump, and was fairly quick to trot again after the jump. I emphasised to her rider that she shouldn’t interfere on the last couple of strides so that her pony could sort her legs out. The pony should be at the tempo and rhythm set by her rider on the approach and getaway, but ultimately they have to jump the jump so shouldn’t be hindered.

The other mare will jump an exercise very calmly the first time, but then she gets over excited and gets quicker and quicker. So I change the exercise promptly, only doing each level once or twice – making a cross an upright, or changing the rein, adding in another element etc. And my rider tries to keep the trot and rides a circle or two, or three, on the approach until the mare stops anticipating the jump. The circle shouldn’t be too close to the jump that the pony thinks she is being pulled out of the jump, and it should be planned by the rider. Using a combination of changing the exercise and using numerous circles on the approach we managed to get a steadier approach, but there was a fine balance between containing the excitement and not frustrating this mare as she then has the tendency to explode and go even faster to the jump!

With both mares, I’ve found that avoiding simple jumps helps slow them down and get them thinking about the obstacles. This week, I built a grid of one pole and a canter stride to a small upright, then one canter stride to a cross. I had my rider walk over the first pole, then ride forwards to the little upright. I was really pleased that the pony walked happily over the pole and my rider could then ride positively to the jumps, instead of having to restrain the mare. We only did this grid twice because she jumped it so calmly and quietly. I want to build up to trotting over the first pole and then calmly cantering the grid.

When working with a horse who tends to rush fences it’s important that the rider has an unflappable demeanour, and a strong core so that they can hold the horse together before and after jumps, yet calmly stay in balance over the fence and don’t pull the horse in the mouth or get left behind in the air.

It can be difficult to retrain a horse to jump, but with a consistent approach of calm, quiet riding and using a variety of approaches to keep the horse focused on their rider and not rushing to the jumps. I also find that not repeating exercises too often, and returning to flatwork for a few minutes between jumps to resettle the horse has beneficial effects. As a horse starts to slow down and keep a more rhythmical approach to a jump their bascule will improve as well, which will help improve their posture and muscle tone, so making their jumping easier and prolonging their working life.

Instant Feedback

One of the most useful tools I took away from the Franklin Method clinic I attended in November was riding with resistance bands.

I find myself repeating the subject of not giving the outside rein away to all of my riders, but for whatever reason, my teaching isn’t as effective as it could be. I’ve worked on different explanations for the importance of supporting the outside shoulder, using that rein to bring that shoulder around the turn, and for preventing an over-bend in the neck to improve the bend through their barrel. I’ve explained about a positive inside rein, thinking of opening a door away from you rather than bringing the hand back towards your stomach to help maintain impulsion and balance. I’ve used exercises like turn on the forehand and discussed the biomechanics of the inside hind to help riders understand the importance of keeping the outside rein. I’ve used the exercise of carrying the whip horizontally over the index fingers, which helps riders see their outside hand creeping forwards on turns, but it seems to be limited to just acknowledging the movement. My riders all understand what they should be doing and why, but breaking any bad habits is easier said than done.

When I did the Franklin Method clinic we rode with resistance bands around our lower arms. The resistance bands were the lightest option, and were placed around the wrist just above the cuff of the gloves. The purpose in the Franklin Clinic was to ride keeping the hands apart so that the slack was taken out of the band. It wasn’t to force the hands out into the resistance of the band and create tension in the shoulders and arms, but to keep the hands a consistent distance apart.

The result of keeping the hands five inches apart, where there’s least pressure on the bars of the horse’s mouth, is that as you turn your horse you keep the hands working as a pair, akin to carrying a tray (you may have heard that analogy elsewhere). If a rider tends to bring the inside hand back and let the outside hand forwards on turns, they will instantly feel pressure from the band.

I liked how the band provided instant feedback to a rider when they let their outside rein creep forward, or even if they were dropping a hand, or holding it further back, regardless of whether it was the inside or outside. Usually I find that a rider will acknowledge that their hands are asymmetric or wander forwards, but only become aware of it when the hand has moved to the extreme and is now ineffective.

But it’s no good correcting an error once it’s gone wrong, you need to correct at the first deviation in order to retrain the muscle memory and to improve the subtlety of the aids to control the horse. The bands gave an earlier signal than visually seeing the outside hand, or me reminding them not to move it.

After the Franklin Method clinic I found a light resistance band at home, and went armed with it to my next few lessons. I had all my riders ride with it during their warm up focusing them on their hand position, make them aware of discrepancies between the reins, and to improve their outside rein contact. All of my riders realised that their hands moved more they thought. It encouraged more use of the seat and leg aids, as well as creating an even, more consistent rein contact.

The difference in the horses was amazing; they moved straighter, started to use their inside hind leg, carried themselves better and were stiller in the hand and taking the contact forwards happily because as soon as the rider’s outside hand started to creep forward they felt pressure on their wrist so corrected themselves. Having a band is an easy accessory to keep in your pocket, and means that riders can practice riding with the band in their own time so will improve their hand position more quickly then having me cue their corrections and then them self-correcting on their own once their hand position had moved significantly.

I’ve not used the bands since before Christmas, but I think it’s time to get it out again for warm ups in the next few weeks … So watch out clients!

A New Year, A New Decade

As we move into 2020 there’s a lot of talk about the last ten years, the tenties, the twenty tens and how everything has changed in the last decade. I’m not even going to start reflecting on the change. It was the decade I grew up. Of course things have changed, I’ve changed. In 2010 I was nineteen years old with no real life plan apart from a vague vow with a cousin that by the time we were forty we needed to be married, have a career, and start a family. Tick. Now, I’m looking reluctantly towards my thirtieth birthday, but with a house, a husband, a career, two horses, two cats, and one toddler to my name. Yep, things have changed!

Instead of looking back, I’m going to look forwards. Which does include an element of self-reflection. But that’s important for life’s lessons.

My main new year’s resolution is to fall back in love with myself. That sounds egotistical, but I’ve realised recently that I don’t like myself at the moment very much. I’m not happy. It’s not that I’m depressed, have suicidal thoughts or anything serious like that, it’s just my life balance is out of whack.

One of my favourite songs of all time is called Heavy by Delta Goodrem.

There’s only so much I can carry
Before I fall
They tell me “girl you’re so lucky”
“You’ve got the world in your hands”
But you know the world gets so heavy
You don’t understand.

The lyrics ring true to me because I’m not hard done by; for the points listed above as well as others, but sometimes life whirls round faster and faster like a merry-go-round and I need to get off. I need a break. I need to stop adding to my to-do list and to tick some things off.

But because I’m floating serenely like a swan through life, no one sees my feet frantically paddling beneath the surface. Everyone things you’re managing to juggle all the plates, so when you ask for help because you’re about to drop one, no one steps forward. And then the plates fall.

What are my woes? Some people call it “Mum guilt”: constantly berating yourself because the house is untidy, you’ve cooked the same thing three days in a row for dinner, you don’t have the pre-pregnancy body, the pre-pregnancy confidence is shattered, the washing pile is multiplying quicker than a colony of rabbits, the washing up isn’t done, the kitchen needs renovating, the horses haven’t been groomed for a week, the feed hasn’t been ordered, I haven’t replied to so-and-so or so-and-so…

The list is endless and covers everything you can think of. But naming the list doesn’t solve the problems! I think I’ve been struggling with the Mum guilt for almost two years, but recent months have piled on even more pressure.

In September my Mother-in-law was taken ill, and then later died in October. Yes, I’m lucky it wasn’t my mother, and I’m grateful for that but no one ever warned me how hard it would be to support someone close to you going through a bereavement. They’re away caring or visiting that family member, so you have to keep the household together. Pay the bills, feed everyone, go to work. And doing all of it on your own is lonely. Then you have to suppress your own sadness, guilt – the whole cacophony of emotions – whilst being the shoulder that is cried onto. Who do you talk to about that?

At a similar time work became busier, and I became more involved in the Pony Club. Which is something I want to do, don’t get me wrong, but like starting any job, there are teething issues and you aren’t efficient with your time as you scramble pieces of knowledge together. Everything seems to take up more time and brain power than it should. And the two life changes happened simultaneously; pulling me in all directions.

I got tired. I definitely maxed out in December; physically, socially, mentally. I shouldn’t have agreed to go to so many Christmas parties or meetings. I should have taken a long weekend. Maybe I should’ve turned Phoenix away to take the pressure off me physically and emotionally (more guilt about not fulfilling her potential or getting her out competing as much as I should).

I got fed up. Not just of living as a social whirlwind, but of being the one keeping friendships going: sending messages which weren’t replied to for weeks (being busy doesn’t cut it as an excuse!). Of feeling that I had to meet up with friends when I was too tired to have anything interesting to say. Of making polite conversation when I have a gazillion things to do before nightfall. Of being threatened by ex-clients. Of having business competition of unqualified coaches. Of holding myself together when all I wanted to do was prick my finger like Sleeping Beauty and sleep for a hundred years.

It’s all come to a head now that I’ve had my Christmas holiday and can reflect on life with fewer pressures and less exhaustion. Time to stop and think isn’t something I like to do (when in doubt, keep busy and don’t think about the shadows) but it’s necessary to make changes and to make you realise you need to change the situation. Now I can plan what to do for myself in 2020.

Between Christmas and New Year I boxed Phoenix out and went for a lovely, long hack with plenty of gallops on the good ground with a friend. I need to do that more. That is what makes me happy. Stuff competing; do no pressure activities which put a smile on my face. Go to riding club camp. Sure I’d like to get Phoenix to her first one day event, but she doesn’t know what she’s missing out on!

I need to believe in my professional self again: I have so many lovely, loyal clients and work with some great horses. Recently I’ve parted company with some clients who have left a bitter taste in the mouth, but I need to get over myself. Move on and forget about them. Focus on my current clients and appreciate their journeys. My Pony Club role will get easier as I become proficient with all the ropes, but I need to stop pressurising myself to be perfect and not to hyper-criticise my performance. Easier said than done, for someone who’s never satisfied with less than 100%.

I need to sort out my social life. Perhaps I need to have the conversation with some that I’m fed up of feeling like an after thought, instead of resenting them. Equally, I need to set aside more time to check in with others, and arrange for catch ups doing a more suitable activity with a toddler in tow, and be more dogmatic about what I need to do. Gone are the days of sitting for hours in a coffee shop. I need to set time aside for more regular date nights, instead of giving empty promises.

I need to plan the household better. And delegate more. And ignore any accompanying groans. We’re planning our extension at the moment, which I think will make huge improvements to the house and take the stress out of cooking in a dilapidated kitchen, or squashing an office into a bedroom into a playroom into a drying room. There will be more short term stress, but I’m excited that the house will finally be fully decorated and modernised after five years.

I need to take time out for myself. For having a long, hot bath accompanied by wine, chocolate and a book. For having a manicure or a haircut. For spending time on me. For looking after myself better; eating more healthily, and doing more non-horsey exercise to claw back the body of my mid-twenties. Having an early night. Doing all the things that get pushed off the to-do list.

It seems like a lot to do. Some of it already seems easier with a few days rest under my belt. Others will require more planning and timetabling. Others will take time to heal. Some just need me to be honest; with myself and with everyone. The rest, I just need to ask for help with and to stop being a swan about it.

It won’t be easy, to fall back in love with myself, but if I don’t like myself then how can I expect others to?

My Phoenix-versary

Last week marked two years since we brought Phoenix home so I took a moment to reflect upon that time.

It’s been an eventful journey, but certainly since the spring it has been a predominantly positive one. When I got her she was physically six, but mentally four years old. Now, she’s eight years physically and probably closer to seven years old in her head.

She had done very little apart from being backed, lightly hacked under saddle or led from another horse, had no concept of canter, and was very suspicious of life.

This year, she has been perfectly behaved on sponsored rides, jumped cross country fences confidently, competed showjumping and represented the riding club (I’m still not over having the final fence of the second round down and losing the ticket to the champs!). She’s confident, powerful, has a great, springy jump, and is a lot of fun to jump.

Dressage wise, we still aren’t really where I anticipated us to be after two years. She’s so sensitive, and has bad days when she’s more tense than a bow just before the arrow is released. She also needs to be shown an idea or concept and allowed to think about it until it becomes her own idea, which slows down the teaching process. Although she’s a quick learner. However, unlike last winter, I can use the canter work to relax her, loosen her up, and fatigue her. Which is a definite improvement!

Phoenix is still great to hack, although on windy days I tend to err on the cautious side as she can be silly, especially on her own.

I’m still working this enigma of a horse out, in terms of how to reduce her tension. She’s living in overnight at the moment and is far happier than last year. She isn’t racing round the stable waiting to be turned out, and has even been spotted lying down asleep in there! However, some days I mount and she’s like a ticking bomb who’s brain has fallen out of her ear, and I have to spend twenty minutes replacing the brain and defusing the bomb. Cantering her helps, but you have to get her in the right frame of mind to canter for it to be beneficial. Lunging doesn’t diffuse the situation as she’s beautifully relaxed then.

Initially, I thought that when she’d had two days off she was tense and buzzy to ride, but this theory was disproved when she was scooting from my leg and blocking over her back when I’d worked her eight days in a row! And this week she had the weekend off yet was lovely and settled to ride on Monday.

Now, I’m beginning to think it’s the weather. She’s more uptight when it’s wet and rainy, blowing around her hindquarters. She accepted the exercise sheet for a couple of weeks but then decided any rustling on her back was terrifying and she must run away from it. Only giving her a blanket clip has definitely helped matters here. In Princess Phoenix’s world, she’d have an elaborate indoor arena for the winter.

I think I can guarantee to have a calm, sensible ride with Phoenix’s brain firmly stuck between her ears on a mild, still winter’s day when she’s been worked regularly in the days leading up to it. Wet, cold and windy days are just a survival challenge!

I think Phoenix has now got herself an all round CV. She’s had positive experiences of most things, and is definitely improving in terms of her acceptance of the aids and I feel I have a stronger relationship with her. It may have taken longer than I expected, but I think she’s got a solid foundation to build upon now. We’ve come further in our journey than we think we have.

What are my goals for the next year? Without putting too much pressure on either of us, I want to consolidate the novice dressage movements – we’re at the showing her and letting her think it’s her idea stage – and get out and do more dressage. I wanted to affiliate her originally, so that may be on the cards. I’d like to do a one day event with her, but she still needs a bit more experience cross country. Otherwise, it’s just continuing to give her a good education, and for me to continue to enjoy her, as she is my downtime and I need to make the most of it before she’s borrowed by the next generation (you wouldn’t believe how soft, gentle and tolerant of a certain little person Phoenix is).