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!

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).

Getting To Know Phoenix

This morning was rather windy, but the promised rain hadn’t arrived, so I thought that it would be a good time to get to know Phoenix a bit better.

I find windy weather really tests a horse’s relationship with their human. Do they seek reassurance from their human? What worries them most? How does their human pre-empt and subsequently avoid meeting a monster.

A couple of weeks ago Phoenix had bravely walked past a flapping tarpaulin, so I thought she’d be fairly reliable in the wind, but it’s a good opportunity for me to gauge her insecurities. Last week she impressed me when I lunged her and three deer cantered up to the arena fence, closely followed by two galloping horses, she just stopped and stared at them. I’d say she’s fairly brave, despite being quite a shy character, because she doesn’t tend to flee in these sorts of situations but rather stands and observes.

Anyway, she was aware of her rug flapping on the nearby gate as I groomed her, but wasn’t jumpy with the gusts of wind, which is great to see. As she wasn’t fazed by the weather I went ahead with lunging her. A large metal gate was banging away as the wind got up, which distracted Phoenix but she continued trotting, just had her ears focused on it.

It’s reassuring to see that Phoenix took the gusty weather in her stride, and wasn’t silly in her behaviour. She wasn’t keen on noises and flapping objects directly behind her, but who can blame her?! Her response was to turn and face them. I did find that a quiet word and pat on the neck took any tension out of her, so I think she definitely looks to me for reassurance and takes comfort in the fact that I’m ignoring any monsters.

Last week my friend helped me do some poles and jumping on the lunge, and I found that Phoenix is keen to please and quick to assess the question and took it in her stride. Which is an excellent, trainable trait to have, but I think it’s important to continue introducing things steadily and build her confidence rather than exploit her willingness to please and outfacing her, thus losing her faith in me and what I’ve asked of her, as well as her confidence in her own abilities.

Phoenix is coming along with her cantering on the lunge, and today with her being slightly fresh I took advantage of this and we had a couple of circuits on each rein with her looking more balanced.

In her trot she moves very nicely, but lacks focus (which isn’t that surprising given her age and experience) and I’d like her to stretch a bit more over her back. So I introduced the Pessoa. I also wanted to know how she’d react to different equipment and pressure on different areas of her body. It all helps me to know how she ticks.

Nicely warmed up in the lunge roller, I put the Pessoa on and fitted the sheepskin round her haunches. Then I let her walk round and get used to the feeling. Initially, she wasn’t impressed and tucked her bum up. She gave it a go though, and had a trot, slowly relaxing. Interestingly, when she found it weird, she stopped and turned in to me. Obviously looking for reassurance from me, and when I talked to her she had another try and trotting. I’m really hoping that this means when we’re riding and competing that Phoenix will look for me to say go and give her confidence, and try her hardest to perform and understand the question.

Once she seemed happier with the Pessoa around her hindquarters I attached the front clips. Loose enough that she didn’t feel restricted and it didn’t put too much pressure on her, but not so loose she could get tangled up. Again, she started off a bit tense but did give a couple of strides where she really stretched her head long and low.

Below are some photos of when she first had the Pessoa on, and then when she started to get the idea of stretching.

I’ll be doing a variety of techniques with the lunging now; using the Pessoa to encourage more stretching in the trot, and to increase her consistency by keeping her focused. Canter, I’ll keep working her “naked” so that she finds her own balance. Then I’ll introduce some raised poles when the arena has dried up a bit to help engage her abdominal muscles.

The last couple of days has shown me that Phoenix isn’t particularly unnerved by windy weather, but probably feeds off me. When she’s introduced to new equipment or exercises she tries to please, but when she’s worried by it she tends to tense and then look to me for reassurance. From this I know that it’s up to me to make Phoenix feel safe in new situations, as she trusts me and takes her confidence from me.

Settling In Phoenix

When you buy a horse you often get a honeymoon period. Those few days where they are a bit shell shocked and quiet, taking in their new surroundings, routine, friends (equine and human).

Well, touch wood, Phoenix seems to have taken it all in her stride. We couldn’t have bought her on a worse weekend in terms of weather, but the frozen conditions did mean that she had longer to settle into her little herd.

I was told that she was initially difficult to catch when her old owner bought her, but with a treat she could always be caught. Well I’m pleased to say that within a couple of days (I suspect the miserable weather helped) she recognised me and came over to be caught. She’s found her place in the pecking order, and whilst fairly low down she doesn’t get intimidated by others coming over to me. She knows I only want to catch her!

We’ve got into a routine of coming in every couple of days, and being groomed. She doesn’t seem to have any ticklish spots and stands beautifully, picking up her feet when asked. On reflection, with both Otis and Phoenix, I bought them from an intermediary owner, who unlike breeders spend the time establishing ground manners. Which is actually lovely because I get a blank canvas to work with under saddle but don’t have to worry about teaching them to tie up, or lift feet up.

I think smell is very important to Phoenix because she likes to sniff my hand, didn’t like it when I wore gloves, and shied away from the detangler. However, once she’s smelt something she’s quite happy about it and I can spray the detangler all over without her batting an eye. I think that’s just her nature, so if she’s ever unsure about something I’ll make sure she can smell it first.

I’ve lunged her three times now, only for a short period. She can be a little inattentive, watching horses being brought in or people throwing rugs on, but this is totally normal for a youngster and as she’s used to a quiet yard I’d expect her to look at everything. After Christmas I’d like to introduce the Pessoa to encourage her to stretch over her back a bit more but at the moment we’ve got the canter to introduce.

I first asked for canter on Friday, and it was fairly unsuccessful. She powered into this Welsh show ring trot, looking a bit worried about it all. Sunday was more successful and we had half a lap of canter on each rein. I’m sure it won’t take long, but it’s nice to have something to work on for the next couple of months.

Another area I want to work on over the next couple of months is desensitising Phoenix to the whip. I was told that she was very scared of them, for an unknown reason. However, I’m keen to teach her that she has nothing to fear from a whip. Even if I never need one to ride or lunge her, I’d hate it if someone approached her whilst carrying one (perhaps at a competition or if I’ve asked a friend to hold her) and she got upset. Today, after our groom, we went to the arena with a pocketful of treats and I picked up a small jumping whip and just held it out to Phoenix. She’s definitely wary, her ears and eyes told me that, but the whip stayed still while I talked to and fussed with her. After a couple of moments she was sniffing the whip, putting her lips around the handle, and let me place the whip against her shoulder. With the reward of a few treats, she was soon relaxed while I rubbed the whip all over her shoulder and neck on each side. I’m pleased she trusts me enough that I’m not going to hurt her. I’ll keep showing her it until she accepts that it is not a threat in any form.

I think we’re building a good relationship, and I’m finding her personality very relaxing to be around. I’m trying not to draw too many comparisons to Otis, but anyone who knows Otis knows what a calming aura he has. He doesn’t demand attention, but enjoys it. And Phoenix seems to be of a similar mould. She thoroughly enjoys the attention, but if I’m talking or doing something else she just waits quietly. They also both have a way of taking things in their stride: looking around at flapping tarpaulins, focusing their ears on it and then walking calmly past. I really hope Phoenix does continue in this vein because it’s so therapeutic for me, and means I enjoy every minute of my equine time.