Micromanaging

When was the last time you got on a horse and simply asked for forwards?  No direction, no goal, other than that your horse must keep moving?  Probably back when you were a beginner rider, unaware that you could also be in charge of speed, direction and way of going.  As more experienced riders, whether we get on to actively school our horses in an arena, participate in a competition or head out on a ride purely for pleasure, we’re doing something.  I learned this earlier in the summer when I did a passenger ride on Prince.

To help improve Prince’s confidence (in himself and me!), our instructor had me ask just for forwards – no other commands, Prince was to choose the direction he went in, I was to just sit and, if necessary, put my leg on.  I quickly learned that not only is this harder than it sounds, but that as a rider I communicate without thinking in a variety of ways.  I found it easy to not put any pressure on the reins, and to not direct Prince with my legs, but keeping my balance still and not using my head and shoulders to influence his choice of direction was very difficult.  This also made it quite hard sometimes to stay on and in balance with the horse!

I fixed my eyes on a point just in front of his poll, and Prince decided to turn in small circles initially, which soon made me dizzy!  The solution to get out of this without telling him where to go?  Ask him to go faster – small circles are impossible at speed.  What sounded like a fun experience quickly turned into an exercise of great concentration, and proved the fact that riders do not just sit there!  Rather than thinking about where I wanted Prince to go next, I had to think about where he might take me and how quickly, so that I could stay balanced and not get in his way.

I repeated this exercise and the next one when I next rode, and this time it was the other exercise which got me thinking.  The next step on from being a passenger was that we followed the rail.  I was told to stay as close to the arena fence as physically possible without kneecapping myself, and that I was to imagine Prince’s two tracks to be a green zone.  Anything to the inside of those two tracks (if Prince tried to move on three tracks, or flexed too far to the inside) was considered the red zone, and I was to correct his position.

Again, I learned how much I fiddle and nag as a rider – when Prince was doing the right thing, I was to leave him alone, but I found this very difficult.  I was paying close attention to his shoulders and how he was moving generally, and constantly felt myself twitching to try and tweak and correct where there weren’t really corrections to be made.  Because he was, after all, in the green zone, moving forwards.  But there I was, trying to get a little more movement this way or that, so I was fighting all the time to stay still.

What I learned from these exercises is that less is more, and the less you do, the less you need to do, as you and the horse become more attuned to each other.  Micromanaging your horse creates a need for him to be micromanaged, whereas if you leave him alone, teach him to do his job and then trust him to do it, you create a more sensitive horse and a more compassionate rider.  While I’m not resolving to sit and do nothing – because I do have responsibilities as a rider – I will try to do less.

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Finishing touches

With half an eye on the future, and potentially wanting to do some cross country riding again one day, I got a new jockey skull earlier this year.  Safety regulations currently state that riders are not allowed to wear helmets with fixed peaks when riding cross country (seems sensible to me), meaning my existing helmet wouldn’t be deemed roadworthy for that activity.

Although I don’t typically ride around looking at myself (I hate arena mirrors!), I’m quite vain when it comes to helmets, and fully believe that safety can also be stylish!  So I’ve been hunting high and low for the perfect cover for my skull cap.  When I was a child, I always wanted a traditional “proper” velvet hunting-style cap, so I wore my skull helmet with a black velvet cover on it and pretended I was a show jumping hero.  I kind of wanted a silk as a child too, but could never settle on a colour which I liked and matched myself and my trusty steed, so I stuck with the velvet.

I’m still in the position where I don’t have a horse of my own.  Prince’s halter is red, and he’s got a Western saddle which has a green pad with it (pretty mismatched, I know!).  We’ve pretty much settled on blue as the charity’s colours, and the bridle I bought a few years ago has blue crystals and a bit of blue leather piping (it’s mostly black leather), which made me think that blue could be the way forwards.  But I of course wanted a particular blue…

I trawled the trade stands at Hickstead, but could only find what I termed as “boring” blue silks (the very darkest navy, with the alternative being a Team GB one, though I haven’t earned the right in my eyes to even wear a replica one of those!), or ones which were a mixture of colours.  I’ve got a think about wearing too many colours: unless it’s a patterned fabric, you won’t see me wearing more than three colours at once and, in fact, I’ll normally wear a mix of two colours with perhaps different shades of each.  I don’t want to look like a children’s TV presenter!

I rejected everything I saw, and could feel my sister getting bored by my browsing, “In this day and age,” she moaned, “there must be somewhere you can get glittery ones.  That’s right up your street.”  My eyes lit up and my heart leapt at the thought.  My sister quickly regretted opening her mouth.

Sure enough, when we returned home, the internet quickly delivered.  But, again, I was dissatisfied.  Everything I found wasn’t quite right.  Until I found CustomXC, fiddled with their design tool and came out with my ultimate hat silk ordered.  It arrived whilst I was away, and upon my return I wriggled it onto my skull cap.  It’s just what I wanted, and I’m already dreaming of ordering a base layer and a soft shell jacket to complete the look, and give me all of the glittery matchy-matchy equipment I could dream of for my next trip thundering through a field of fences.  Whether I’m aboard Prince or another horse, I know I’ll be pleased with my look.

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I haven’t forgotten my promise to blog about my exploits on my recent equine assisted psychotherapy (EAP) training course, it’s just not ready yet!  The EAGALA training was fantastic, but finished less than a week ago and was pretty intense.  I’m still processing the experience, and will bring you a full update on it ASAP.  Stay tuned…

Shopping and a show

For the first time in a very long time (so long that I can’t bear to work it out), I went to the Royal International Horse Show at Hickstead.  When I was little and we first moved to Sussex, our parents took their horse-mad girls for the day out a few years in a row – we had moved to an area which involved an international showjumping venue being on our doorstep, and I’m very lucky that our parents took advantage and, in addition to ferrying us to and from the stables year-round so that we could ride, they also endured blazing sun and sideways summer rain so that we could fill our boots with live, professional action once a year.  If medals were handed out for parenting…

Hickstead has hosted two international showjumping meetings since the dawn of time: the Royal International Horse Show (RIHS) and the Derby.  Traditionally, the Derby was held in August, and RIHS in July, until about 15 years ago when the Derby got unceremoniously shunted to August thanks to broadcasting conflicts.  The Hickstead Derby is infamous – to me, it’s the summer version of Olympia’s Puissance.  As a child, I dreamed of sliding down the Derby bank atop a powerful horse, landing perfectly, seeing the ideal stride and sailing over the impossibly-close fence at the bottom, then completing a dream-like run through the venue’s other permanent bogey fence, Devil’s Dyke.  Of course, the reality is that I have neither the guts nor talent, but I did walk the course as a child, completely in awe of the fences.

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The Derby Bank – this is the “easy” side. It’s enormous. Perhaps one day I’ll do a post telling the full story!

So the Derby is The One.  It is on my doorstep.  And I was working on the day it was held this year.  So I settled for using one of my days off to attend the RIHS instead.  I missed my favourite day of this show, the one which hosts what used to be called the Eventing Grand Prix (a class which was invented during my childhood and had its glory days then).  Instead, I attended on a day when the Nations Cup class was being held.

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we were treated to this band too! Believe it or not, they played Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”

My sister and I went together, both armed with shopping lists (hers in preparation for her upcoming year-long trip to New Zealand; mine in anticipation of a British winter spent facilitating equine learning sessions and running my seasonal version of Prince’s Boot Camp), food and a thirst for horse power.  The event manager in me is proud of the changes which have occurred at Hickstead since I last attended (it WAS this century, but only just!): a new grandstand has gone up this year (but, in kind of a cute way, the old covered one still stands… with rows and rows of plastic chairs painstakingly lined up and cable-tied together for the occasion) – there are lots of fancy bars now, plus another entrance has been created to ease queuing congestion.  The catering offerings have also joined the 21st Century, with options far beyond the standard horse show burger bar – there are fashionable food trucks offering cuisines from far-flung places such as Thailand, Mexico… and Greece and Italy (wood-fired pizzas they are, though).

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Hickstead’s quaint seating

Hickstead’s enormous shopping village defies the recession, and I certainly contributed to the economic upswing – I have prepared myself for our infamous weather by purchasing not one but two coats!  One of them makes me feel like a proper horse person – it’s a long windbreaker-style, and has more leg straps than horses’ rugs do.  Hopefully it’ll do the trick!  I also gained some much-needed new breeches, and a book I’ve been after for a while (no spoilers in case I decide to do a review).  Oh and I replaced Prince’s feed bowl, because he stood in his and destroyed it.  If that horse wore shoes he’d be truly dangerous.

It sadly wasn’t Team GB’s day at the Nation’s Cup (proving my theory that, unless the Olympics are on, we can only be good at one sport on any given day, and Friday 31 July belonged to the England cricket team) – they came sixth out of eight teams.  Ben Maher’s round was superb, the Italians had an even worse day than we did, and Switzerland only sent three riders in for the first round because they were all Just That Good.

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Ben Maher jumping for Team GB

It was great to be back among my people, it’s a very long time since I’ve been at a competitive horsey event (er, that’d be the Paralympics!), and the weather was kind.  Fingers crossed I can make a return to the Derby next year.  May be time to start looking at booking a day off work…

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apologies if you bought this saddle – I may have drooled on it

Learning together

I had a few firsts in one hit a couple of weeks ago, when our Parelli professional came to visit for a day of lessons.  I haven’t had a lesson with a Parelli instructor before, everything I’ve learned coming from friends, DVDs and the Internet.  It’s also the first time I’ve had a two-hour lesson, and it’s been a long time since I’ve had a lesson on “my” horse, rather than a riding school one (in my pre-teen years, I had regular lessons on my loaned pony, or one of the other ponies at the small livery yard we were based at, but the majority of my life has involved riding school ponies and horses).

I spent a few weeks changing my mind about my goal for the lesson, and ultimately reacted to what happened the day previously during the play day, plus what Prince gave me on the day.  Fortunately, he co-operated beautifully and demonstrated a few small issues I’d been struggling to crack, which was very kind of him!  I find that horses often behave well when an instructor is looking, so I was pleased that he obliged in Tracey’s presence, allowing her to see and understand what was happening, and offer a solution.  Becky, 1; Prince, 0.

It was quite a long wait until my lesson – the day was split so that the first two hours were for Prince and his owner to have a lesson along with one of our friends and her young horse.  As Jo is now heavily pregnant, her lesson was split into two hour-long slots with lunch in the middle, and my lesson (with another of our volunteers) was last.  Due to the weather not being brilliant, I unfortunately didn’t get to watch the other lessons quite as intently as I’d have liked, but I also wasn’t too disappointed, as what the others ended up working on turned out to be quite far removed from my own subject matter!

When it was my turn, I had Prince plaited up and ready to go, and we began warming up on the ground.  I’d already given our instructor, Tracey, a quick brief on the issues I was having, and she’d seen Prince perform the day before, so we both knew what we were in for.  I told her that he’d been demonstrating some anxiety about working under saddle recently, and that my biggest struggle when riding is that I can’t get consistency when asking him to move forwards – he’ll do two, three or even four strides of any given gait, then seem to forget what he’s doing or lose confidence and stop or try to turn around.  In addition to all of that, he’s resisting my hand on the ground, tensing through his poll and setting his head against me, which makes everything harder!  Ultimate relaxation is what we want, so we decided we’d see what happened.

Tracey was happy with my usual warm up plan, so I proceeded with my ground work much as normal.  She prescribed a course of “Touch It”, asking me to dot my tack around the paddock and incorporate having Prince touch each item as part of my warm up.  This worked nicely, getting him more relaxed and intrigued by the experience, rather than putting on his, “oh no, here comes the saddle” face.

When it came to my circling game, Prince duly set his poll and began his favourite game of deciding to change the rein all by himself.  Tracey laughed, because Prince was being cheeky, and gave me an idea I kicked myself for not coming up with: make the wrong thing hard.  She said that if Prince wants to go the other way, he can, but he must do so at the next gait up (he normally decides when trotting that he’s had enough of one rein, so if he changes the rein without me asking, I’m to tell him that he can go the other way, but at a canter).  The premise is that the right thing is easy, and that now he’s doing it out of cheekiness rather than lack of confidence, it’s time for me to be more prescriptive and a bit more demanding of him.  So I sent him cantering off, slowed him down again, switched him back to the other rein and let him think about it.  He’s learning that my way is the easy way and his way is the hard way!

I tacked him up, ran through my pre-flight checks and again hit a bump in the road which I was glad Tracey witnessed: when asking Prince to flex laterally from the ground whilst tacked up, he either does it instantly or again sets his poll and jaw – you can see it in the muscles!  I got praise from Tracey for a really nice bit of lateral flexion, but when I released the pressure and asked again, he set his head.  At that point, her advice was not to wait all day – I was to up the phases, and if he really wasn’t listening, ask him to yield his hindquarters too, in order to get him to turn his head.  Once again, making the wrong thing hard.  Another great piece of advice.

Once I mounted up, the real work inevitably began!  Something which I was pleased would be relevant to where Prince and I are at was to undertake a “passenger ride” – the rider puts their reins down and simply asks the horse to keep moving, it’s the horse’s choice where you go.  The aim is to get the horse thinking forwards, rather than waiting for every direction from the rider.  The most difficult thing as an experienced rider is to avoid influencing the horse with shifts in weight, and looking where you’re probably going.  I made the mistake of fixing my gaze on Prince’s poll – I soon got dizzy and learned to look through his ears without directing him.

Prince turned in tight circles at a brisk trot, so I did have to encourage him away from that pattern and ask him for a wider direction.  Then he trotted up and down the fence, trying to be near the spectators, who made it an uncomfortable place for him to be.  Then the most interesting thing happened – he made himself a one-horse demolition derby: there were lots of jump blocks and poles in the middle of the arena, and he went crashing through all of them, trying to ask if I wanted him to somehow attempt the obstacles.  Again, we spent too long here without him getting the point, so I eventually asked him to move away and carry on.  He finally put himself on some larger circles, and I took up the reins to move on to my next exercise.

Tracey asked me to have Prince follow the rail.  I was told that for him to be on two tracks, with his nose in the middle of his chest was the “green zone”, and if his nose wandered or any of his legs dipped inwards, he was in the red zone and I had to correct him, asking him to continue travelling forwards close to the rail.  Off we went at a walk, me correcting his nose occasionally.  Once he appeared relaxed, we moved up to a trot, and after a couple of laps, he blew out, relaxing properly.  At that point, I stopped and praised him, earning me praise from Tracey too.

I changed the rein and repeated the exercise in the opposite direction.  Prince took longer to blow out this time, but once he did, I stopped and praised him again, and that’s where the lesson ended.  The prescription is lots more following of the rail to build his confidence and keep him moving forwards.

As we chatted at the end of the lesson, I admitted to Tracey that with the way Prince behaved in the warm up, setting his jaw and turning around and generally being a pain in the backside, I wouldn’t have got into the saddle if she hadn’t been there – he’s been behaving like this on and off, and has probably learned that this behaviour means I won’t ride.  I never feel that he’s dangerous, but the brief that I’ve always been given by his owner is to put the relationship first, and I still find it hard to judge where the line should be drawn.

Tracey was very positive and encouraging, saying that she thought I was doing a great job and that I’ve done him no harm, that things are happening with him, but he’s a horse who takes a long time to warm up to you.  Her final takeaway for me was to tell me to believe in myself more!  I didn’t realise until she said it how little I do believe, how I keep saying that I’m still new at this stuff and my experience with “young” (Prince is 11, but in ridden terms, he’s only about five) horses is non-existent.  But the reality is that I’ve come a long way, and Prince is progressing (I think I’m learning more than he is at the moment!).

It was a fantastic lesson, and I’m hoping to book a follow-up for the end of the summer.  As we don’t have an arena, I can’t ride over the winter, so it’ll be back to ground work, and limited work at that, as I only have a very small indoor space to work in (I can only have Prince on a 12-foot line, and trot work is minimal due to the surface), so in my next lesson I would like to ride, to see where we’ve got to, but I will also be asking for some ground work ideas for the winter, to keep us entertained!  I can’t quite believe that the summer is disappearing so quickly, but I’m fairly pleased with how it’s going, and am glad to have had this particular experience.

Product review – Glamourati horse glitter kit

My reviews have been getting great feedback, and some exciting search engine results, so I’m pleased to present the latest product I’ve been privileged to test: Glamourati horse glitter kits!  Here’s the upfront disclaimer: I approached Glamourati in the run up to the Equine Partners open days, asking whether they’d be willing to donate anything to our cause, in return for a review and some cross-promotion.  I was delighted when they kindly sent me a glitter kit (and a custom stencil is also en-route!) – this is the first time I’ve accepted a product for free in return for a review, but all opinions are my own honest findings, so read on to get the details.

I was hoping to get my hands on a glitter kit for three reasons: firstly, as I think it’s a great way of attracting attention for a brand if you’re taking your horse out and about (which we do, occasionally, for play days or promotional events); secondly, I knew it’d be something some of our visiting kids would love to use, as grooming horses is a big part of what they do – most of them love plaiting and bathing, so I thought glitter would also be popular; thirdly… well, I’m a girl who loves a bit of sparkle, so I’ll be honest and state that I wanted the chance to bedazzle a horse too!

The glitter kit I received contains three pots of Stardust glitter (pink, gold and silver), three sponges (one for each glitter pot), an instruction card, a bottle of Glamourati’s Shortstay adhesive, and two packs of stencils.  All of Glamourati’s products have been safety tested for use on horses, and the glitters themselves are high-grade with no sharp edges or spurs.

The instructions were nice and clear, so with my wonderful assistant and photographer (my sister), and my semi-reluctant guinea pig/model (Prince), I set to work…

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step one: groom your model!

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step two: place stencil on horse

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step three: apply glitter to horse’s hair

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more glueing… and a slightly-unimpressed Prince

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step four: glitter time!

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Prince was very patient as I experimented

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step five: the stars are revealed!

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the stencil post-use. If you peel off carefully and re-apply the backing, it’s possible to re-use

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a treat for the model!

The benefit of Glamourati’s stencils versus traditional quartermarking stencils, is that they’re adhesive – they stick to your horse whilst you glitter him or her up, meaning you’re not trying to use hands/arms/elbows/other people in order to hold the stencil on.  As you can see from the pictures, I did undertake my test on a lovely sunny day, but I know that these stencils would stick comfortably to your horse in a gale-force wind.  I peeled it off Prince carefully, so as not to hurt or startle him, and so that I could hopefully re-use the stencil, and it worked a treat.

My suggestion to those wanting to use these products with children, as I do, is that an adult/responsible person is the one holding the glue brush – it’s got a consistency similar to nail polish, so it’s very runny and would be easy to overdo it.  I’ve got no concerns about it getting on skin (it’s water-based, so is very easy to clean up), but you wouldn’t want to waste it, or get it on areas outside of the stencil.  Children would have no problem dabbing the glitter on – I worked with the idea that you can always add more, so I went quite carefully at first before I got the hang of it and figured out how much was needed.

The adhesive stencil allowed for a very crisp and accurate finish, giving an impressive design.  If I’d had time, I would have done more stars all over Prince, but I wanted to reward him for his modelling efforts and ask him to stand still only for the minimum time required (I did make good use of a bucket of hay whilst bedazzling him!).

I’ll definitely be getting more Glamourati products in future, as I loved using them and think they look fantastic (I’m now desperate to go to a fancy dress competition!).  Our kids will enjoy the process too, and it’ll help those who want to do something creative but aren’t sure where to start, as well as developing fine motor skills and a bit of good old-fashioned self-control!

As a bonus, here’s a video I took of Prince using his favourite toy – Prince loves having his ankles scratched and will walk up to you and dangle a leg if he wants to be itched!  If no willing humans or ponies are available, he’ll make good use of this stump instead:

A big thank you to Glamourati for supporting Equine Partners CIC by sending us a kit – much enjoyment provided for adults and kids alike, though the jury’s out on what our gelding thinks of having a sparkly bum!

If you’ve been inspired to bedazzle your horse or pony, I’d love to see the results!  Let me know in the comments or, better still, tweet me a photo via @_kickingon

Dreaming

The wait for my first horse continues.  I still haven’t even started saving yet, but the conversation over what kind I want is a frequent one between myself and a particular friend.  As I grew up staring goggle-eyed at my favourite event riders, my heart is still somewhat set on a big, shiny sport horse (Thoroughbred, Warmblood, Hanoverian, Trakehner… something with that kind of stamp to it has always been my fantasy).  They can be impractical, delicate creatures, because I would also like a horse who can be a horse: one who can cope with living out at least part-time year-round, who hopefully doesn’t need five rugs, and I’m quite keen on the idea of him being barefoot (curiously, the gender of my horse is the thing I get teased for the most – I’m absolutely determined not to have a mare, and my friend is now convinced that’s what I’ll get).

Rather than setting my heart on a colour, breed or age, I’m trying to consider what I’d like to do with my mythical horse.  Though “like” and “achieve” are clearly different things here.  I still quite like the idea of sailing around Badminton, but I have neither the talent nor guts, so I needed some other ideas.

“You know,” Jo said to me one day, “one of my friends describes her horse as a ‘performance trail horse’ – she can take him down any track and get through anything.  He’s just a really great horse for riding out.  There’s no shame in that.  There doesn’t have to be a goal.”

And I was sold.  Because, although horses are my future career, does it really have to be super-technical all the time?  Is it not supposed to be about what I enjoy the most?  And if that is simply to be able to see over hedges and not have my horse fly sideways if a bird pops out at him, is there a problem?

Then Jo sealed the deal by showing me this:

Done.  Sign me up.  But, oh, the internet is a dangerous thing, because another friend showed me this:

At this point, I’ll throw in that I don’t condone the helmetlessness of these riders, and that I fully intend to continue wearing my helmet (I see no problem with dressing up and putting a wig on top of my helmet to complete any appropriate look!).  But Western riding is so much more than I ever gave it credit for.  Laura Sumrall’s ride has gone somewhat viral.  The thing I took away from watching further videos of that particular competition was the parallels to freestyle dressage, but the huge differences – how great is it that the crowd get to cheer, and show their appreciation during the performance?!  You can see horse and rider lift themselves when they get that feedback, and they look so excited, rather than stiffly focused as riders often do during a Kur.  Riding is fun!  If we look like we’re enjoying ourselves, how many more people might we inspire to take up the reins?

So much like the eyebrows which go up when you see a coloured horse or pony glide into the dressage arena in a perfect extended trot, I may well garner some surprised looks if freestyle reining makes it to the UK and I perform a sliding stop on either my current ride (a 15hh Irish cob who looks like he’s the horse from Disney’s Brave) or my hypothetical future ride (a 17hh European sport horse), that’s something that I think would be a lot of fun.  As well as being to ride him out with the peace of mind that, if something does surprise us, we’ll cope and carry on.  Or that we’ll go backwards across a wobbly bridge without a bridle.  Or that, like the man in the video below, I won’t need a step ladder (because I’m horrible at taking leg ups) to mount my horse bareback:

For now, it’s time to step away from the internet before I get too many ideas…

Product review – Berlei riding bra

Being quite famously attached to my Panache sports bras, I was sceptical about trying the Berlei one, but I needed a nude-coloured bra for the summer, and the Panache doesn’t come in nude. Time to push my comfort zone (quite literally!) and give Berlei a whirl.
In addition to being brand-loyal, the other reason I was suspicious of the Berlei is because it doesn’t look much like a sports bra. It looks very much like an everyday t-shirt bra, particularly in the nude version. I visited the Less Bounce stand at Total Confidence Live to try a bra on, and was perfectly advised by the staff (although I am a slightly confusing case, as I wear the same size in sports and everyday bras – most women are different): the advice was to go up a cup size, as the Berlei comes up small in the cup, and the advisor was spot on. The bra fit like an absolute glove, but I was still suspicious that it wouldn’t offer a sport-level of support. But, a nude sports bra was what I needed, so I decided to buy it and give it a fair trial – my logic was that, if it didn’t work out exactly, I’d save it and purely wear it on the occasions where it was absolutely necessary (I mostly wear dark clothes around horses, which means the vivid Panache colours aren’t a problem).

Well, I’m delighted to say that I’m having to eat my words! I worse the Berlei the following weekend, ran around doing ground work and therapy sessions, had a ride (albeit only in walk) and was shocked – the bra doesn’t look like much, but performs brilliantly. Having a great fit helps, but this seemingly-flimsy sports bra does actually give great support (my bust is a not-insignificantly sized 36D).

My tests continued recently with some more dynamic riding (trotting! For the first time since October!), and some very energetic ground work (having the horse I was working with canter on a circle – horsemanship-style, rather than lunging, which can involve quite a lot of leaping and running). I may be converted! I won’t be ditching the Panache, because I still love it and, although nobody knows, the fun colours are great, in addition to the fit and function. But the Berlei is surprisingly brilliant. Supportive, comfortable, easy to wear… what’s not to love? I’m yet to be swayed by riding underwear – I think they’re a total swizz and am more than happy to wear everyday underwear for riding (also because I have quite a selection, catering for any occasion or outfit, and have yet to find a set I wouldn’t ride in), but the necessity for sports bras is clear.

Life has again demonstrated that we shouldn’t disregard things without trying them. Lesson – comfortably – learned!

For the sake of clarity, this review hasn’t been sponsored in any way – I paid for my bra and am happy to declare it worth every penny.

Old ground

We’ve been here before.  A year ago, I blogged on the flaws in the BBC’s coverage of Badminton Horse Trials, one of the highlights of the equestrian calendar.  Unbelievably, the coverage in 2015 was worse than before.  Admittedly, I missed the coverage on cross country day because – guess what? – I was out with my friends’ horses, but I was kept up to date by my sister, and cross country day isn’t what I’m taking issue with.

Although the BBC didn’t take my most basic advice on board – that, if they can’t give eventing top-billing on main channels, that there should at least be consistency, and any coverage of the event should be via the Red Button channel OR BBC 2, not straddling the two – they do seem to have communicated their message better: in 2014, I was fielding many Tweets from confused fans who were watching on the wrong channel.  This year, the Twitter backlash was regarding something very different.  In 2014, cross country day was little better than decimation – only 28 horses and riders made it to the final day of competition.  A year later, there were many riders remaining, and the competition was in an exciting state – the top of the leader board was packed with big, talented names, with very few points between them, demanding stellar performances.  It would’ve been very watchable… had the cameras been rolling.

The BBC chose to show just six show jumping rounds live in 2015.  On a day when 57 combinations remained in the competition.  I’m not advocating they show all of them, that would be tedious, but those livetweeting the event vouched for the fact that the show jumping course was riding badly, meaning that the competition was hotter than hot.  Instead, the BBC showed a lot of cross country highlights: great for those who missed the cross country coverage or have never watched the sport before, again terrible for the hardcore fans.

We all know I’m a big fan, but objectively speaking, Clare Balding did again do a great job: she worked hard, running around the collecting ring and speaking to riders as soon as they came out of the show jumping ring.  This made great use of the seconds between rounds, and she gained some good insights from riders such as Mark Todd, as well as following first-timer Rose Carnegie diligently all the way through the event.  Clare further proved her credentials in the pre-recorded footage, talking viewers through different shapes and sizes of horses, and capably picking up a horse’s enormous hoof – the woman knows her way around a horse, and has a great passion for them, you can tell she loves covering equestrian events, and I hope that broadcasters continue to put someone who enjoys a sport in front of the camera, because it adds something special to the coverage.

At this point I despair, really.  Two years in a row the BBC have demonstrated that they have a great deal of talent at their fingertips – the technicality of the broadcast is great; Balding and the commentary team of Ian Stark and Mike Tucker remain on point – but it’s wasted with poor production and scheduling.  There’s precious little equestrianism – which has three Olympic sports and a huge amount of talented Brits – on free to air television annually, but at this point, I’d almost rather there were none at all.  I remain disappointed and deprived of my favourite sport.  Where do we go from here, and how do we ensure that people are able to view equestrian sport and be excited by it as I once was?

Phase four

“It’s okay,” they said, “we understand that sometimes you have to go to phase four.”  Prince and I got a workout in last week, and I had some questions.  Namely: “has it got to the point where he’s now taking the mickey out of me?” and “am I reading this correctly?” (the answer to both was yes).

The session led me to notice a few things: Prince has got to the stage where he’s confident enough to push me – he learns quicker than I do, and figured out that if he does a certain thing, I interpret it in a certain way and go easy on him.  So that has to stop, and the new habits start this week – he’s become bolder, so I have to change my behaviour too.  I’m guilty of being told something and holding onto that knowledge, rather than watching things change and coming up with a new strategy.  I also need to try more things: I sort of learned this a few weeks ago when it became apparent that we were both a bit bored, but it’s also the case with developing our language, the way we communicate with each other.  I have my own natural gestures and body language, but sometimes he doesn’t get it.  So it’s time to invent more words.

The good news is that he’s become much more connected to me, and that’s partly down to the fact that he has to be, because I’m mixing it up more.  We most commonly play the circling game, because it’s what he needs to improve his confidence (and, these days, take responsibility for himself), but I’ve recently added a lot more yo-yo… as the send part of circling game is the same as the beginning of a yo-yo game, he has to pay more attention, rather than assuming I’m going to put him on a circle.  Last week, it got to the point where I was using tiny gestures to get what I wanted, and had his ear the entire time.  He looked more genuinely curious and engaged, which was a relief to me – I don’t think he considers me to be a fun partner most of the time, so it’s nice to see those moments.

And all of this got me thinking about what it’s like to work with someone else’s horse.  It’s not the first time I’ve done it, through one scenario or another, but I don’t consider myself qualified to really do so.  I don’t, after all, have any equestrian qualifications to my name, all I have is the fact that I can (mostly) stay on a horse.  That said, there’s a difference between being a paid professional and being a friend who helps out or is offered the gift of free rides.  I’ve always fallen into the latter category – I’ve never undertaken or sought paid roles in terms of exercising or training horses, so does that mean I am entitled to feel less duty-bound?  I don’t think it does.

Any horse person will tell you that horses are precious.  We spend a lot of time and money on them, they are meant to bring us happiness and fulfilment.  Handing over your horse’s lead rope or reins to someone else is like asking someone to help you raise your children – it takes a phenomenal amount of trust and there can be a lot of pressure to do things exactly as the owner would like to do it themselves, and not to outdo the owner.

My first experience with riding someone else’s horse came when I was about 14: the owner had recently had a baby and kept her horse at home.  Her friend, who lived along the same rode had bought a pony for her own daughter, who was only little and so the pony needed more exercise – enter my sister to hack out the pony, and me to ride the horse.  My sister and I hacked out together regularly for a summer, with the two women riding out occasionally on weekdays when both had horses available.  When I arrived to hack out one morning, the mare’s owner commented that she’d hopped on for a toddle out with her friend that week to find her horse really striding out and marching along, when the mare was normally a little lazy and she and her friend usually just ambled around the lanes a bit aimlessly.

“Sorry,” I winced, “force of habit, I like whatever I’m riding to be doing something, and working actively even if we are hacking.”

“Oh no, it’s absolutely fine,” the owner replied.  “I’d like her to be back in proper work, so thank you for getting her going, it was just a shock!”

I hadn’t realised I’d been quite so forceful with the horse, and I’d certainly never asked her to do anything she was incapable of.  But it was a lesson in the fact that I was perhaps more capable than I knew, and that I had to remember I wasn’t riding my own horse…

These days, I definitely worry about getting it wrong with someone else’s horse.  Which is funny, because it’s actually quite hard to do given that I’m mostly supervised and very well-supported.  But I’m acutely aware that it’s not my horse, and how much he means to the people who are responsible for him.  Getting to do the work that I do and aiming for the goal we have in mind is fantastic experience for me, and it all means that I don’t feel the need to be rushing out and buying a horse of my own – I’m in a very fortunate position that I have a horse who I’m not responsible for financially or on a day to day basis, but who I have access to and permission to work with.  And yet something still holds me back.  Would I still have these insecurities with my own horse?  Probably.  But if I got something wrong with my own, I think there’d be less guilt – I’d feel bad for the horse that I messed up, but I’d know that it just meant it were my responsibility to correct whatever I’d done, no matter how big or small.  When someone else is involved, it’s another person to have been let down.  And that’s another lesson to learn.

Riders, owners, trainers: how do you cope with both responsibility and relinquishing it?  Do you prefer to work in collaboration with the owner/rider or work alone in order to get things ready for them?

Testing the waters

It feels like spring is trying to mount a charge: the daylight hours are increasing, and I even spot a glowing orb in the sky on some days.  It’s definitely getting a little warmer (though I still choose skiwear for the yard), and rain is a slight surprise rather than an expected occurrence.  Having fed the horses this morning, we pulled our chairs out of the tack room and into a patch of sun to have a drink and a chat whilst planning our work for the day.  I almost felt my face change colour.  As we contemplated what to do, I felt myself itching to make the most of the day and get out of the barn – space is limited in there, and due to the underlying concrete, trot work is very limited.  I’ve been aching to get Prince onto a longer line to see if we’ve improved over the last three months, so we decided to brave the sticky field and work outside.

Previously on "Becky and Prince": working in the barn last week - Charlie can't resist sneaking into the picture

Previously on “Becky and Prince”: working in the barn last week – Charlie can’t resist sneaking into the picture

Off I went, hauling my feet through the clay-mud with a 22 foot line determinedly in hand (and plenty of treats in my pocket – I’m definitely going to need a bumbag this summer, I thought to myself, as I realised that the one benefit to winter is that coats mean pockets).  Prince seemed happy to be remaining outside rather than being taken to the barn for a workout – I’m getting just a little concerned as to what he might do when I finally get him under saddle… this horse is definitely ready for a good run!

I warmed him up for a few minutes on the normal 12 foot line, before switching to the 22 – it’s three months since I’ve used it, and my experience is still very limited, I find it hard to juggle the knitting and an unconfident horse who is easily confused by my body language, but we both have to learn somehow!  What disappointed me most is that I had to put my gloves on: I always worried about burns when I first started working with ropes, until I realised how much gloves negatively affect my feel, and that I’m generally working in a small space with a short line – the horse doesn’t have far to go, and ultimately if I have to drop the rope and let him, it’s no big deal… until you’re in a 10 acre field with a very strong and panicky cob on a 22 foot line.

Generally, we’ve definitely improved.  Relaxation is offered far easier than it was in the beginning, and that’s been our main aim.  Prince even offered some canter of his own accord, which always shocks me given that he normally only canters for food!  The one thing that’s become obvious we need to work on quickly is the speed with which he returns to me: he’s a 15 hand horse with 12 hand legs, but he’s a lot of horse widthways (hopefully not for long!) and once you call him in, he really barrels at you in relief.  So I have to get him to be more controlled with his return, and I have to stop jumping out of the way!

Things are going in the right direction though, and progress is being made.  I ended the session pretty tired from the mental and physical workout, and I’m sure Prince had a lot to think about too.  Here’s hoping the weather and fields continue to improve, so that we can really crack on.  It might even be time to get his trainer back to see what she can advise, now that Prince and I have a relationship and can work together in a reasonable fashion…