Certified

A month after completing my EAGALA part one and two courses, I am finally ready to recount the experience.  There was a huge amount to take in, both in terms of how to practice equine assisted activities (EAA – other terms commonly used are equine assisted psychotherapy/learning [EAP/EAL], but I’ll stick with the broader term here), and about myself as a person, so it’s taken me a while to unpackage it all and begin to properly process it.  The experience was completely transformative, and unlike anything I’ve been through before, so it’s been a bit of a shock to the system!

I’d had the courses booked since April, thanks to funding through the charity I volunteer with, and in the build up, all I felt was excitement.  This is a little unusual for me, because although most people who know me would define me as an extrovert, I’m not all that confident among a large number of strangers, and I hate networking with a passion.  I think the excitement came for two reasons – I was going to be meeting “my” people, others who wanted to practice EAA, so we’d have that in common; I would be able to enjoy an entire week of what I really wanted to do, rather than a day squidged between the standard runs of my day job, which I’m not relishing.

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, and although I felt naive for walking in with my eyes shut to what might happen, it probably meant that I experienced things in the truest sense.  You can qualify for EAGALA certification as either a mental health specialist or an equine specialist – due to my lack of mental health or counselling qualifications, I come under the latter, which is fine – and their model states that each session must be conducted with a mental health and an equine practitioner present.  The training is in the model, not the skills themselves (there’s nothing about caring for horses or horsemanship, for example, as well as there being nothing on how to be a counsellor), so practitioners from both parts of the team attended both courses.

The training is designed to be experiential, but there were some dissatisfied people during the first course – as experienced mental health practitioners who have undertaken a lot of training previously, they found the experiential element to be lacking and thought that the course was more about observing.  I was glad that I volunteered to be part of a dummy group, as I got more of an experience in the first course than some people did, and I was surprised that I didn’t react all that much (there was a point during the activity where I felt triggered, but I was able to deal with the feeling and move on at that point).

Part two was where I came unstuck!  I felt a real low, that I was being judged by some of the other participants as not being good enough (there was some good learning about self-awareness and taking things personally!), and I found it a very draining emotional experience.  There was one incident in particular which I felt we really weren’t given an opportunity to process, and one of the big takeaways for me was how important it is to get on with and trust the team you choose to work with.

But I worked my way through the entire course.  I went alone, I left having made some fantastic new friends.  I learned a huge amount, both about myself and what it is to be a practitioner and how to practice.  EAGALA’s recommendation is that you attend part one individually, but that you attend part two as part of your treatment team, and having seen what the activities are like, I’m keen to do so.  My co-facilitators are hoping to go next year, and I’d like to repeat part two with them: it’s a chance for us to practice in a “safe” environment both in terms of the “clients” (pretend ones!) and being supervised by the course facilitators and our peers.  We might even get experimental with our ideas and try a few new things out!  Either way, I think it’d be a fantastic experience and one which would boost my confidence further and see me take another leap in terms of my skills.

Back at home, I’ve already seen a huge positive difference in my skills as a facilitator – I’m using “clean language” skills I learned on the course, making more astute and informed observations, and picking up on what our clients and team need.  It’s helped to galvanise the team and bring a sense of unity.  And some of the positive impacts have extended into my non-EAGALA life.  The biggest difference has been to my confidence as a facilitator – thanks to the certificate and my team, I now believe that I really can do this, and that over time I’ll only get better.  I’m looking forward to seeing what the rest of the journey brings, particularly when I’m able to make the leap to practicing full time.  For now, I look forward to my days off with a new assurance that I can, do and will continue to make a difference.

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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

Horse play

Back in the spring, when it was still raining buckets and summer seemed a distant dream, we decided that in addition to the open days, we’d run two play days at the stables.  These kind of events are pretty unique to the natural community, and definitely sound strange when I explain them to non-horse people, but to others they hopefully make a little more sense!

Essentially, they’re like playdates, but without babies and toddlers (children are welcome!) and with horses.  A host will volunteer themselves, round up their toys, create an obstacle course, perhaps throw in a small jumping arena, prepare a few cakes and invite humans and horses over to play.  As with all things natural horsemanship, the only limit is your imagination.  There may be friendly competitive elements, and people and horses of all abilities are welcome.  It’s a chance to meet like-minded people, get new ideas and hang out with some horses.

When we set the dates, Jo decided that she wanted me to feel comfortable to ride Prince if I wanted to.  I had 11 weeks to get ready, at which point I’d sat on him once.  It seemed a tall order.

Once I started working again, the time flew by and the date had suddenly arrived.  I’d ridden Prince only a handful of times with varying degrees of success.  I wasn’t too bothered, as the day after the play day, we had an instructor scheduled to come over and help us out with some lessons (brilliantly, she also came to the play day, off-duty and accompanied by her own green horse, which was great to watch).  So I walked into the play day with little expectation from Prince.  In fact, I thought I’d spend most of the day working or stewarding, rather than playing.

We helped our visitors to settle in, showed them around and left them to play, assisting when they wanted the clear round course changed or offering a score when they wanted to be judged on their abilities with the obstacle course.  We’d managed to come up with some inventive things: we’d built a small ball/sand pit for the horses to explore, created a “log walk” (designed to mimic the conditions you might meet out on a forest trail) and rigged up one of my favourite holiday souvenirs (a sheep bell from Greece) for people to park their horse next to and ring.  It’s all about figuring out what you and your horse can do, whether you do it online, at liberty or ridden.

Having watched our visitors get going, I was starting to itch for a play, so I retrieved Prince.  We got off to a terrible start: I had to walk him through the “warm up” field where some obstacles were laid out, and he took particular exception to an umbrella.  I honestly didn’t think I’d get him past it at first, and once I did, my game plan changed.  I spent some time grooming Prince and plaiting him up (even though I had no intention of riding) before taking him back to avenge the ghost that was the umbrella.

Some snorting ensued, and I almost had a 15hh, 550kg cob jump on top of me (not cool, I told him, as I promptly sent him back out into his own space, to prevent myself from being crushed).  It was Prince’s first experience of a play day too, and I was glad it was on his home turf, though it meant that home had changed significantly with the addition of lots of obstacles and some strange horses.  Fortunately, with a few clever games played, he settled quickly and soon touched the umbrella with his nose!  After he marched confidently through our “car wash” obstacle (which he’s seen and completed before – it’s a plastic frame with strips of fine plastic hanging from it which were blowing in the breeze), I knew he was ready to take on the new obstacles, so off we went to play.

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sand pit: no drama

Prince began to really impress me by staying relaxed and connected – nothing fazed him.  He happily tackled the sand pit (we think most of the horses were fooled into thinking that the balls were apples), successfully negotiated the log walk, weaved in and out of the straw bale squeeze with me stood on top of one (he wiggled all around in every direction I requested), and rang the bell using his nose!

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chilling in the hay

As we were working our way around, my brain was ticking over, and I wondered what would happen if I changed the game slightly… I tacked him up.  We tackled the obstacles from the ground: complete relaxation, no change in approach, no big deal for Prince.  So I fetched my helmet and climbed on.

Under saddle, I met more resistance, but only with open spaces.  If Prince had an obstacle in front of him, we were absolutely fine, and he did me proud.  Walking to and from the arena was different – all jolty stop-start gaits that I’ve experienced my last few rides, and I was glad our instructor was there to see what I meant!

The final challenge I gave Prince was a bit of a laugh – we tackled the clear round.  All of it was small enough to step over, or hop from a standstill.  I wasn’t expecting even a trot out of him, and sure enough he demolished most of it.  However, I did manage to get a trot going at one point, and the little horse surprised me yet again by rewarding me with two proper jumps!  Our friends who were watching cheered as if we’d slid down the Derby Bank and successfully cleared the rails at the bottom, and I suspect the grin on my face told the same story.  Prince and I received a rosette for our efforts, my first since I was a teenager!

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winning!

The day was an enormous boost to my confidence in terms of my relationship with Prince and what we might achieve.  No, we still haven’t been out on a hack (a lack of companion is partly what’s slowing us down there), but he remained calm and did everything I asked of him last weekend.  I really couldn’t have asked for more.  It felt like the holy grail of my horse saying, “the answer is ‘yes’, what was the question?”.

Six weeks until the next play day, and this time, I’ve got aspirations for an actual clear round…

Buck Brannaman demonstration review

Back in January, when I was deliberating over where to spend 2015, some news came my way which immediately added an item to the “Pro UK” list: Buck Brannaman would be coming to the UK to give his first ever clinic here in June.  I mourned for the fact that I wouldn’t be able to participate as a rider (Prince and I aren’t ready… and when I first heard about Buck’s visit, only one clinic had been announced, and it was too far away for me to borrow Prince and get him there – notice that the cost didn’t put me off, I’d sever a limb to ride at this man’s clinic), but I knew I would be able to at least go along and watch.  And, last Saturday, having decided to remain in the UK and following the scheduling of an event nearer to my home, I went to watch an evening demonstration which had been added to Buck’s three-day clinic with US Olympic showjumper Melanie Smith Taylor.

Part of me would have loved to have spectated at a day of the clinic itself, but not only was I worried about not getting the same out of watching other people ride as I would from participating, but the cost was also what I considered to be over the odds.

Back when my wildest dreams caused me to dare to enquire about rider places, I’d discovered that, unlike his normal clinics, Buck’s second UK clinic would be delivered in conjunction with a lady called Melanie Smith Taylor.  I’d never heard of her (any of my US readers know more about her?  She gave a brief and appropriate introduction before doing her demo, but I’m not sure how well-known she is), but the format sounded interesting: the students would be split in half, spending one half of the day with Buck, the other with Melanie, working on the basis of learning horsemanship skills and putting them into practice.  The cost of being a participant didn’t shock me, and given that it included stabling for three nights, I also thought it was in the ballpark of average for a well-renowned trainer who was travelling from the US – £750 per person.

Even when I checked Buck’s website and compared the UK price to the US one ($700, which is about £450), I didn’t balk.  As a retired event manager, I mentally balanced the books, factoring in fees for flights and accommodation, which Buck doesn’t normally have to pay (anyone who’s watched his movie knows he spends most of his time on the road, towing his horses around and sleeping in his caravan or in the homes of people who host his clinics).  The US clinics are also set up a little differently, with clinics normally being hosted on farms owned by friends of Buck, meaning little or no venue costs (in the UK, they were held at two equestrian centres).  The crunch came for me when I saw the spectator costs: £45 per day for the Liverpool clinic, £50 per day for the Guildford one.  Unreal, I thought, given that nothing special is included in this price.  A copy of Buck’s book?  No.  A DVD?  Definitely not.  A tea or coffee?  Not even.  The cost of spectating in the US?  $30 per day (approximately £20).

I’m aware that we mere spectators are piggybacking on the learning of those riding in the clinic, but it feels like, as they are getting the most out of it and are paying for the privilege, that they should also be covering the bulk of the costs.  Spectator fees – as they are in the US – should be a nominal bonus for hosts/organisers, rather than a nice fat profit margin.  Guildford earned themselves some extra money by charging £32 per ticket for the demonstration (£35 on the door).  I considered this a more reasonable fee, but it was almost a full house, and the show was directly for our benefit, rather than us essentially watching a group of other people have a riding lesson.

There are some fantastic equestrian events in the UK and Europe, and we are very lucky that we are visited by many people, have brilliant facilities and host lots of events in a small distance, which the US doesn’t benefit from.  But I do feel that we are hit in the pocket – something that I’ve pointed out previously, and something which I still object to.  Organisers: please don’t insult us.  If we want our sport to be innovative and accessible, we need to talk about prices.  I’ll let you lick and chew on that one, and get back to the original point.

Having seen Monty Roberts do a demo last year, I was even more intrigued to see Buck.  I missed the Parellis doing their first UK demo in years back in March (guess what put me off attending?  Yep, that’d be the £100 price tag on the ticket), and I’d have loved to have compared it to horsemanship’s biggest marketing machine, but I am sadly unable to.  I knew Buck would be a very different experience: he’s far less commercial than Monty and the Parellis, and keeps things rather simpler and less flashy.

True to form, having watched two horses be warmed up from the ground and saddle when we arrived, Buck appeared in the arena at the appointed start time, settled himself down into a chair and gave his demonstration with very little fanfare.  Whether or not he had begun to take on students was something I had been wondering (although regarded as a contemporary of Pat Parelli and Mark Rashid, I suspect Buck is younger than both of them, and all three are younger than Monty Roberts) – Roberts and Parelli have run training schemes and essentially franchised out their programmes for a long time, but Buck and Rashid remain more independent.  It’s nice to know that Buck has taken on a few students quietly – one of them rode under his instruction for the demo, and what happened was very little.

Buck opened by stating that during his 30+ years as a clinician, the issue he’s seen every single time is herd-bound horses; that is, those who are difficult to separate from their friends for whatever reason, even for a matter of minutes.  He puts the humans at fault here, for making allowances and persistently giving the fussy horses what they want, and proceeded to show an exercise he uses to separate the horse from their “sweetie pie”.

The demonstration horse wasn’t on the clinic, but had kicked up a fuss when other horses on the yard had been prepared to take to the clinic, so the owner had been allowed to bring him along for the demo.  So: not a horse Buck had worked with previously, and not one he had promised to fix for the purpose of the show, but one he would work with.  It was completely different to watching Monty Roberts and Kelly Marks take the reins of a willing owner’s horse and show us how it’s done.  Buck and his student worked the horse steadily, playing a game known as a passenger ride, whereby the rider is aiming to get the horse to a certain point in the arena, but without directing him.  All the rider would do would be to ask the horse to keep moving if he stopped, or to stop or slow down if he was pleased with where the horse had gone.  The idea was to make it uncomfortable for the horse to be where he wanted, and comfortable for him to be where the rider wanted – implementing two horsemanship ideals I’ve heard before: make your idea the horse’s idea; make the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard.

The process took about two hours (Pat Parelli has a similar theory, one which Prince and I have tested, that something never takes longer than two days!) – there were ups and downs, moments where Buck went full-on riding instructor and shouted at his student, and interesting anecdotes.  Buck took the opportunity at one moment to point out that the horse had regressed a little, and reassured the audience that this is okay, it’s part of learning for the horse.  Sometimes, confidence wavers and they are unsure, but persistence and consistency are the key to success, and sure enough, the horse came through the regression and went on to succeed.  Many of the audience gasped when Buck got tough on his student, but I didn’t find his shouting overly harsh – it’s an exercise they’ve clearly done before, the instruction had already been issued calmly, and I’ve heard instructors blow up worse!  In fact, I’m sure Buck himself has been shouted at far louder than he shouted at his student.

Interestingly, Buck quickly made a damning comment about lungeing – something that Monty Roberts had also done – which made me smile: it’s funny to see horsemen with quite different approaches be the same at their core, sharing fundamental values and seeing certain things in the same way.  One of my favourite quotes of the night was one which clearly wasn’t contrived, it came about when the horse began to show some independence: “To me, there’s nothing more beautiful than seeing a horse think, and someone allowing a horse to think.”

Unlike at Monty’s demo, there was no rush to achieve.  There was an aim, sure, but there was a point at which it felt time really would run out, and I knew that Buck wasn’t going to push the horse, but would instead settle for less.  Fortunately, the horse leapt on and progressed (and the session was allowed to run over), meaning the goal was reached.  Buck reiterated that consistency would be key, and that a few habits needed to be trained out of the horse in order to prevent the herd-bound behaviour from returning, and to stop the gelding from failing to think for himself.  There was no panic, no force, and no gimmicks, just a simple lesson taught in a straightforward way.

The idea of attending a three-day clinic as a rider intimidates me – I’m not enough of a horsewoman, the horse I have to ride would be nowhere near ready (even if I were allowed to borrow him!), and I worry that it would be a huge amount to take in.  But even if I thought at the beginning that I were the worst rider and horseperson present, I’d still give a lot in order to take up the opportunity: it’d be worth the sacrifice in my own pride in order to improve, and that £750 of knowledge would stay with me forever.

For now, I’ll settle for ordering myself a new book come payday, and keep dreaming of the day I get to tick riding at a clinic off my bucket list.

Masterclass

I’m very lucky that, despite my poor financial situation, I am still finding ways to enjoy myself, ably assisted by my family.  One of the things I’ve done recently was attend a recording of The Clare Balding Show with my Mum.  As with all TV audience things, the tickets were free, and unlike most other shows, these ones were guaranteed (with UK shows, production companies tend to over-book ticketed events which are free, because the audience aren’t financially invested so they get a percentage of no-shows, but need a full studio) – usually you have to queue up fairly early in order to ensure that you get in.  The very big down side to this particular show is that the audience have to stand – more on that later.

I adore Clare Balding, and have for years.  Since 2012, her star has risen to unimaginable heights, leading to some people thinking that they’re actually a bit sick of her but, in my eyes, Clare can do no wrong.  For the uninitiated – because, incredibly, it has come to my attention recently that there are even people in the UK who haven’t heard of her – Clare was born to do something sporty.  Her father is a retired racehorse trainer.  He, in fact, trained the Queen’s racehorses.  It wasn’t unusual for the Queen to have breakfast at Clare’s family home when she was growing up, as the Queen popped in a couple of times each year to see her horses.  Clare had a brief stint as a jockey before going to university, and her younger brother has ultimately taken over the racehorse training business.

Clare, meanwhile, went into broadcasting.  Racing being her specialist subject is where she started in sporting terms, but she’s also fronted televised rugby, equestrian and Olympic and Paralympic sport.  Oh and she has two radio shows, which aren’t related to sport.  In recent years, she’s developed a reputation for being a champion of the people (approximately one in every four sentences she delivered on air during the London Games was about how great the Games Makers were) and for being impeccably prepared, no matter what the subject (she’s become something of an expert in swimming and winter sports, as well as racing).  She’s brilliant at just getting hold of people: Olympian Chad Le Clos’s Dad is famous because of her, and if she’s at the races, she’s whizzing around the paddock with a microphone picking out the most random trainers, owners and jockeys in order to get their thoughts on forthcoming events.

Her current TV show is kind of a sporting chat show – she has three sporting guests on and interviews them, taking questions from the audience and from Twitter (Clare’s a massive tweeter, running her own account and engaging enthusiastically with her followers).  I was expecting to be impressed when we went to the show, because I’m such a fan, but I didn’t think I’d be blown away.  The show is recorded in a back-alley hangar on the Olympic Park – it’s far less impressive than it sounds, sadly, but I guess you’re not really meant to be impressed by the building and set.

The recording we went to was quite uniquely horsey – the guests were former-cyclist Victoria Pendleton, now-retired jockey AP McCoy and fresh-from-Vegas dressage rider Charlotte DuJardin.  I can’t think of the last time I saw so many horsey faces on one show.  It may actually never have happened.  That is the Power of Clare.  When she came out to start the show, you could tell she was more excited than she usually is – and her standard excitement level is roughly ten out of ten – and that she was looking forward to the show, and pleased at the amount of clearly-horsey people in the audience.  She was friendly, polite and well-prepared.  We were in for a treat.

AP McCoy was first onto the sofa.  The interview was filmed five days prior to his retirement.  Five days before he would be crowned champion jockey for the twenty-first season in a row (this was already a done deal, he is the Roger Federer of National Hunt racing).  But McCoy is famously… coy.  Withdrawn.  Private.  Dedicated and probably a little bit mad (what I didn’t know prior to the interview is that, like me, he has a spinal fusion… and that, like me, he was back on a horse two months later.  Difference between me and him is that he was racing competitively, I was cantering a riding school horse around an arena.  His fusion is also three vertebrae shorter than mine… but let’s not split hairs).  We had a feeling the interview would be good… because Clare.  She knows AP well, and she’s good at getting things out of even the quietest subject.  But she barely had to.  He came out with some brilliant anecdotes all by himself, as well as responding fantastically to her questions.  It was a bit emotional, as his impending retirement was addressed, but it was fantastic.

After almost an hour, Victoria and Charlotte were brought out to join AP, and some of my favourite horsey topics were covered: Charlotte is a huge champion for helmets in dressage, and this was discussed along with the accident which is the reason behind her stance.  Pendleton is currently training to gain a jockey’s licence, switching from cycling to horse racing, and noted that she hadn’t considered how much your relationship with the horse can impact what you’re doing, with this not having been a factor in her previous sport.  Part of me would urge her to switch out of racing as soon as possible (she’s contracted to her current challenged as it’s being funded by a sponsor), as she seemed to really like building this relationship, and I know that she’d get more of it in probably any equestrian sport other than racing or maybe polo.  That said, even AP spoke about having a relationship with his mounts – jockeys are famed for leaping from one horse to another without truly getting involved, but McCoy openly stated that he cried when one of his most famous rides died a few years ago (unfortunately, the horse sustained an injury during a race, which I’d certainly be crying about had I been on it).

We were stood for about three hours in total – not great for an audience who participate in sports which involve sitting down! – but we both agreed we’d go again.  The engaging guests helped no end, and I wouldn’t go for just anyone, but it’s always fun to watch these things from the inside.  Clare led her guests in a brief photo op at the end, where they sat together and slowly shifted to face each section of the audience, so that we could get our phones out and take pictures of them on the stage.  I wasn’t at the best angle, but my greatest shot is below.

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On top of this, I got a tap on my shoulder during one of the breaks and Mr EquineHour himself introduced himself.  I found out later that other Twitter pals were in attendance – it’s a small horsey world!

It’s great to watch first-hand as people do what they’re best at, and I’d encourage anyone to get there if they can.

The Clare Balding Show is broadcast in the UK on BT Sport on Thursday nights, with a shortened version on BBC2 on Friday nights.  The show is currently filmed on Tuesdays, and tickets can be applied for here.  Let me know if you end up going!

Open for… everyone!

I mentioned previously that we’re having some open days at the charity I’m working with, Equine Partners CIC (new website still in the works!), so I thought I’d share some more details!  Behold, our lovely flyer:

EP open days flyer

If ponies and cake aren’t enough to entice those from far and wide, how about this: we’ll be running demonstration sessions, open to anyone who shows up – once we have enough people, we’ll head into the paddock with one of the horses or ponies and play, so that you can see what would happen were you or someone you know require our services.  These sessions always start with you grooming the pony, so there’s plenty of hands-on horse time and a chance to make a new furry friend.

During the breaks in mock sessions, we’ll be doing some horsemanship demonstrations, a kind of “here’s what’s possible” deal… this is the part where I’m supposed to show off a bit, though what I’ll be able to show on the day is anyone’s guess!  Prince currently quite likes going sideways, so perhaps we’ll do some pretty leg yielding from the ground, who knows?!

On top of that, we’ll have a tack sale, some competitions (my ideas are currently: guess how many horse treats in the jar and guess the weight of the horse – sadly, you won’t be winning the horse as is traditional with cakes, but we will have a cuddly toy to win!) and, most importantly, the chance to talk to the team about what we do, why we do it and why people should be involved.  We’re predominantly currently raising funds for a new extra large field shelter to keep our herd cosy over the winter (I know, summer hasn’t even begun, but you have to think ahead!) and ensure that their field stays in good condition.

If you’d like more information, contact details are on the flyer above, but anyone is welcome to attend, just show up between the above times and say hi.  We can’t wait to meet you!

Here and there

When Susan got in touch and asked me to write a guest blog on UK versus American English, I was reminded that it isn’t just basic language which has separated us occasionally.  Local traditions are so ingrained that we forget sometimes that others don’t share the same experiences.  When it comes down to it, some of the stories behind our long history of traditions are pretty interesting, particularly for those who haven’t heard them before.  Here are some of the things (and maybe a few extras) that I’ve had to explain…

Bonfire Night
This is the one which sticks in my mind most.  When Guy Fawkes and his pals cooked up a plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament and thus assassinate the incumbent monarch 410 years ago, I wonder whether they realised how notorious they would become (whatever the outcome of that event, you can bet we’d still be talking about it).  They failed, and were ultimately convicted of high treason.  Fawkes was hung, drawn and quartered, a spectacularly grisly affair for what at the time was deemed the ultimate crime.  So, we set off fireworks (because gunpowder plot) and burn effigies of Mr Fawkes (because why not) and the whole thing these days can go on for almost two weeks: like everything else, it’s increasingly commercialised, and particularly if 5 November isn’t a Friday or Saturday, many councils will arrange bonfires on the nearest convenient day.  Schools typically have the last week of October off as a holiday (referred to as “half term”, there are three in every school year – October, February and May, to split the semesters up a little), so bonfires have kind of become a half term kickoff event, which ruins the history lessons we’ve tried to teach kids and causes no end of confusion.

Remembrance Day
You may have heard that we have a spectacular lack of public holidays in the UK (fact: there are none in September, October or November – we get the last Monday of August, then the next one is Christmas day!).  Remembrance Day also isn’t a public holiday (we call them bank holidays), but it is when we observe the sacrifices of all armed forces throughout history.  Latterly, it’s been mainly about remembering the World Wars, and the current fight against terrorism, but it’s meant to be a catch all.  Remembrance Day is annually on 11 November, with churches holding special services on the nearest Sunday.  There’s a national moment of silence (shops make announcements, and everyone stops in their tracks and thinks for a minute) at 11am on 11 November, and at 11am on the nearest Sunday (last year, I was at a horse show, and everyone stopped when the bell sounded at 11am, the Last Post was played and all those seated in the arena stood – it was quite something).  Not a holiday, really, but a mark of respect.

Boxing Day
I feel like Boxing Day isn’t a thing in the US.  For us, 26 December is a bank holiday, but the significance of it has changed during my lifetime (a little more on that later!).  It used to be pretty much exactly like Christmas Day, when the entire country shut down for the day, but now shops are open and the world turns.  It’s a weird one, because as it’s a bank holiday, people typically aren’t at work… and yet these days there is an expectation that shops will open.  Weird.  In my family, it remains sacred – it’s my Grandma’s birthday, so our Christmas routine has always been Christmas Eve (not a holiday) with my Dad’s family, Christmas Day shut in the house by ourselves, and Boxing Day with Mum’s family.  Traditionally, Boxing Day was celebrated throughout the Commonwealth, and was a day for employers handing out Christmas Boxes to tradespeople and servants.  This is probably a good time to mention that non-moveable feasts (so days like Christmas and Boxing Day which are fixed dates) which are deemed bank holidays mean we get the next weekday off for free if those days fall on a weekend.  This year, for example, Boxing Day is a Saturday, so we’ll get 28 December (the nearest Monday) off as a bank holiday as well – yay!  The best times are when Christmas Day and Boxing Day are a Saturday and Sunday (which also means that 1 January is a Saturday, and that’s a bank holiday too), which means we get maximum free days off.  That would’ve been due to happen in 2016, but it’s a leap year, so we get screwed by the calendar.

Mother’s Day
This is a controversial one, because firstly, the name is wrong.  It’s Mothering Sunday, and is actually a religious festival – Mothering Sunday is the fourth Sunday of Lent, so technically if you’re a Christian country/household and you don’t celebrate then… well, you’re doing it wrong.  It’s like having Christmas in September.  Mother’s Day is a commercial thing in the UK, and I like that each parent gets a day and we are able to appreciate and spoil them.  But the original significance of Mothering Sunday is about returning to your home parish and the semantics of spring, rather than thanking your Mum for being your Mum.  It’s not a bank holiday, but it is a moveable feast – like I said, fourth Sunday in Lent.  Being a March baby (and end of March, at that), my birthday has fallen on both Mother’s Day and Easter weekend, which is always awkward, because my Mum grumbles about my birthday overshadowing her day (it doesn’t help that my parents’ wedding anniversary is three days before my birthday – I point out that none of this is my fault on a regular basis!).  We do the same things in the UK as you do in the US – older kids/adult offspring tend to prevent their Mums from doing chores (a really easy Mother’s Day gift is to cook Sunday lunch and clear up!), buy a card and a gift or flowers and say thank you.  We just do it at the traditionally correct time of year!  With the world changing and the traditional family construct shifting, I’d like to see a switch to there being a Parents Day – a day when you thank those who have parented you in some way… and hopefully we could get it away from the calendar clash that is my birthday and their anniversary!

The imports
Halloween and – worse – Black Friday are making a charge on the UK and I don’t like it.  Halloween has happened steadily since my childhood, and the only day I find to be a bigger load of commercialised rubbish is 14 February (bah humbug).  But Black Friday coming over here just demonstrates a clear cultural misunderstanding on our… no, it isn’t, it’s retailer greed.  Christmas is a Big Deal over here, and the way I understand it, that’s lessened in the US due to Thanksgiving.  We don’t need a Christmas shopping kickoff event, because we go nuts for Christmas anyway.  It actually all got quite controversial in 2014, because there were full on riots – people got injured for the sake of TVs they didn’t actually need and only bought to sell on via eBay.  It was disgusting.  Some bodies are calling for retailers to agree to end the madness this year, but I sadly think it will only get worse.  Neither day is a holiday for us – Halloween is an excuse for kids to dress up and annoy their neighbours, and for students and younger adults to binge drink (I’m not so opposed to that, but we have two of those every week – they’re called Friday and Saturday); Black Friday is irrelevant – we don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, that’s your thing!

Bonus: Sunday trading laws
This is where it gets complicated… as a traditionally-Christian country, Sunday is supposed to be a day of rest in the UK.  When I was a kid, this meant that nothing was open.  Shops did not open on Sundays.  At all.  I know that’s blowing your minds.  Pubs and restaurants tended to open for lunch, but not a single shop was open – supermarkets, local newsagents, clothing stores… you couldn’t buy anything on a Sunday (because there was also no internet).  Then the law changed in 1994 and it was a slippery slope from there: the government decided that shops could trade for a certain number of hours based on their square footage – shops with an area smaller than a certain size (it’s… small.  It basically means local shops) can open whenever they like, they are able to trade 24/7 if they wish.  Shops larger than the stipulated size are only allowed to trade for six hours on Sundays.  The law also states that large shops are not allowed to open at all on Christmas Day or Easter Sunday.  There are other bits too, but those are the highlights!

Many large shops in big cities open half an hour early for “browsing”, but won’t actually sell you anything until their chosen time starts (retailers choose which six hours they want to trade: in my area, many people are early birds, so most shops are open 10am until 4pm, but there are cities which are a bit more relaxed or prefer later opening, so they go with 11am until 5pm or, what’s common in central London is midday until 6pm).  Most shops will restrict themselves to these hours on bank holidays too, partly because they generally have to pay their staff more in order to convince them to work those days.

The law was relaxed for eight joyous weeks during the summer of 2012, to allow retailers nationally to make the most of the fact that the world descended on us for the Olympics – retailers could open for as many hours as they liked, and it was largely perceived as a great success.  Of course, not so fun when, like I do, you work in retail (I didn’t at the time, it was brilliant).  There are other exemptions to the standard restrictions – shops in places like airports and on motorways are allowed to be open whenever.

The other side to this is the traditional post-Christmas sales: retailers slash prices after Christmas on absolutely everything to get rid of the stuff they didn’t sell beforehand and make way for new stock.  When I was little, there was a lovely calm period between Christmas and New Year, where everything was peaceful, and the “January sales” started on 1 January.  Now?  They start on Boxing Day.  My sacred family day!  Now, we shop right up until the last minute on Christmas Eve, buying stuff we don’t need rather than relaxing, and then the minute the sun comes up on Boxing Day, it’s absolute bedlam in shops because prices are sometimes more than halved.  Everyone spends one day yanking paper off gifts and eating turkey, then goes back to worship at the altar of retail.

The upshot is: we have just as many strange laws and procedures as anyone else.  Sometimes, we set off fireworks and celebrate a man who had a big dream and failed catastrophically.  On other days, we pin a poppy on our coats and bow our heads in the middle of the street at 11am to thank those who died for us.  And almost everyone, at some point in their life, will crawl out of bed on a Sunday, hungry and unprepared for the fact that they can’t get what they want because either the shops aren’t open yet or they’ve already shut.  And never again do you put yourself in that vulnerable position of having bare cupboards on a Sunday!

Memory lane

I found myself in a bit of a surreal place last week, as I attended an events industry conference primarily to be part of an alumni event.  It’s five years this summer since I graduated from university, and nine years in September since I began my degree course… I’m not sure where those years have gone!

I can’t remember the first time I attended Confex, which bills itself as the best events industry trade show in the UK, and I’m actually not sure how many times I’ve been… one trade show tends to blur into another, and there were times when I went to at least four in any calendar year!  Now, Confex and another have merged (whittling things down to three shows overall), and I’m told the best one to go to now is one which was still fairly new back when I was still in industry.

Confex has shrunk considerably as organisations choose to use their marketing budgets differently – once upon a time, it was two three-day shows and was absolutely enormous.  Companies pretty much threw free canapes and gifts at you (particularly cotton bags, at one point), and if you wanted to, you could get pretty tipsy without spending any money (even more so if you were in control of your organisation’s annual budget or venue sourcing…)  Now, it’s down to two days, and there was a lot of stand space (at what is comparably a small venue) which had gone unsold.  The show didn’t feel as vibrant and interactive as it used to, which I found strange, because the events industry isn’t exactly a sad place to be at the moment.

The experience served as a reminder that I did the right thing – events will continue to be a part of what I do, particularly if the summer goes according to plan, but it’s an industry that I can no longer see myself in full-time, or as the main thrust of what I do.  The skill of organising things and making stuff happen is innate for me, I don’t think I’ll ever fully leave that side of my personality behind, but I am relieved not to be doing it 24/7 anymore.  It is also nice to have transferrable skills which will be useful to the organisation that I currently work with, and ones which I may work for in the future, and that’s one of the best things about the apparent death of jobs for life: many of us will make career transitions, absorbing new skills and taking them with us through different paths in life, and allowing us to benefit different people in different ways.  Maybe it’s how I’ll help change the equestrian world for the better, by helping to galvanise and adjust the culture in order that equestrians can provide a higher quality of service and become more business-minded.

I doubt I’ll find myself booking venues, numbering poster boards or setting six-foot rounds for five course dinners (with seven pieces of glassware) again, but if those things do turn out to be necessary, I’m ready.  And I’m ready for all kinds of other things too…

Throwback Thursday – memorabilia

It’s almost two years since I left London behind and moved back in with my parents.  It’s my second “boomerang” (my first being when I left university and didn’t manage to get a job straight away, thus not having the funds to support independent living), and as I have lived away from home, I have far more stuff than is able to fit properly into my childhood bedroom.

Many of my things live in the garage, but that’s mostly large items like kitchen equipment, all awaiting their next starring moment when I manage to break away again, currently neglected like abandoned toys.  The remainder of my possessions are crammed into the bedroom which has been mine for 20 years this summer.  When I say “crammed”, I’m actually very lucky to have a pretty sizeable amount of storage: our house is what my Mum refers to as a “modern box”, and thus comes with fitted wardrobes.  Mine is the second of our four bedrooms and – a little perversely, I’ve always felt – somehow has the largest wardrobe (I managed to land the second bedroom because, in our previous house, I had the smallest room in the building, so it was my “turn” to have the larger room.  Sort of sucks for my sister that my tenure in the smallest room was two years, and my stretch in the bigger room is 20 and counting…).

My return to the nest in the spring of 2013 was less than two months prior to my departure for my first round at camp.  During that time, I spent a week in Greece, a weekend away with university friends and a lot of time stressing about my visa, packing and what the hell I was doing.  As a consequence, I spent zero time attending to my bulging wardrobe, straining under the weight of a set of clothes which had previously been housed across two abodes.

I failed to address the situation last winter when I was home, mainly because I was confused.  I had managed to slim my wardrobe down a little, partly because I’d slimmed down, and some of my clothes therefore no longer fitted (and I had no intention of allowing myself to get big enough for them again).  I had also cut back my business-wear section (as I had no intention of returning to a full-time office-based career ever again), but had been conservative in this cull, in case of an emergency.  Said emergency did occur last spring, and I was relieved that I had enough clothes to get me through a temporary stint in an office… though resolved that I wouldn’t even do a short-term run of that again.

I finally cracked for two reasons: I was struggling to both find and house clothes; I threw away a pair of jeans which had become too loose, and thought “Well, why not tackle the rest?”.  I approached the first section, and duly got a little emotional, and a lot amused.  It was one of those things which could easily be a chick flick movie montage, because I started with my dresses.  Some of them I’d owned for over six years, most of them purchased for nights out to celebrate friends’ birthdays at university.  I thought back to the person I was, tried each dress on and alternately laughed and cried.  There were some surprises amongst the dresses, but more surprises when I got to a couple of boxes of, well, junk, at the bottom of the wardrobe.

There’s a lot of old paperwork – former household bills, contracts and other bits – which I need to shred or burn, but there were also some gems.  Here’s what I found:

Olympia ticket and Puissance start list

olympia-london-horse show-puissance-1998-throwback-start sheet-ticket-memorabilia-memories

My sister and I were really geeky when we went to professional competitions.  We liked to make little notes about the combinations we saw.  Some of them were nothing more than “horse had swishy tail”, others related to jumping faults or what we thought of the rider.  Either way, I’m glad I kept these.  Sadly, I don’t remember much about the evening, other than being really excited to finally be attending this famous show.  It’s my only visit to date, but I’d love to go again.  In the meantime, I have these mementoes

Show numbers

horse show-numbers-competitor-memories-memorabilia-equine-equestrian-show jumping-showing-throwback

Competing wasn’t the main thrust of what we did when we were kids.  We were nowhere compared to the flashy Pony Club types, and I’m actually glad of that.  We just went to enjoy ourselves.  Our ponies normally had stable stains and green lips.  Most of the show jumps we attempted could be cleared from a backwards amble.  We were entered into classes such as “Prettiest Mare” and “Handsomest Gelding” (I know – cringe).  But we enjoyed ourselves.  On the back of each of these, I’ve written the date, venue, classes I entered and how we did (spot the Event Manager-in waiting), but I’d totally forgotten I kept them at all.

Dressage test sheets

dressage-score sheet-novice-unaffiliated-show-competition-throwback-memorabilia-memories

These are probably the most embarrassing items.  They’re the only two dressage tests I’ve ever ridden, on my shared ex-racehorse who thought he was a giraffe.  After the second one (the one with the lower score), my instructor’s comment was, “I think next time, you’ll ride in spurs.”  There was no next time, but I didn’t mind.  They’re definitely experiences which framed my opinion of dressage as a waste of time – I’ve progressed a little since then, but it’s still not my idea of fun.  Probably because I never removed myself from the memory of being towed around by a horse who was completely behind the bit and wouldn’t canter when asked (but would probably have quite happily galloped).

So there’s a glimpse into my past!  Which mementoes – besides photos and rosettes – have you kept from your early horse days?

Not over yet: how to be an event manager, part three

You’ve packed up the stand (and worked through the first and second parts of my guide), carefully kept all of your notes and data, taken care of your money, and said goodbye to your new friends (all the money I don’t have says it’ll be the people from the catering trucks – one of my favourite events was when I talked one company into giving me free tea on demand).  It’s time to head home and relax, right?  Wrong!  You’ve got work to do (top tip, courtesy of Mama H: if you want to relax, buy a foot spa and use it in your hotel room before bed on the nights mid-event.  I’ll expect a card in the post thanking us for that one).

The event’s over, and win, lose or draw, there’s stuff to be done.  Here’s what you have to do now:

  • Make good – whatever you promised someone one site, make sure it gets done. I like the phrase “under-promise, over-deliver”: when you’re out on site, make sure you only make promises that you can keep or better!  If you said you’ll call someone on a certain date, do it.  If you said you’d send an email, make sure it happens.  Fulfil your obligations, make use of the data you gathered, follow up on any social media (retweets are very quick to do!) and thank the organisers (offer constructive feedback if you have any), plus a huge pat on the back for your staff.  Then get the kettle on, put your feet up and have a very quick nap
  • Take stock – how was the show for you? Did you get what you wanted out of it, and if not, what stopped you?  Was footfall poor?  And was that due to positioning, staff, weather conditions, or something else entirely?  Were problems you had fixable in future, or is it time to move on entirely?  This is where your new friendships also come in handy: did other traders struggle, or did they have a good show?  Make sure you use all information available to you: delegate feedback, customer response, exhibitor friendships and support from the show, before you make any decisions
  • Get back on the horse – once you’ve analysed the effectiveness of the show, and whether improvements could be made (hint: the answer is ALWAYS “yes”), it’s time to re-book. Avoid hasty decisions, but don’t delay either.  The best deals are to be had early on: prime spots are snapped up quickly; shows often offer discounts the sooner you book (plus there are idiosyncrasies such as the fact that VAT could increase); go back to the beginning and book your accommodation and staff, then get plotting!  Could you be more creative?  Did you get any good ideas from other exhibitors?  Was there any inspiration from delegates?  Pay attention to new opportunities which crop up throughout the year: are the show introducing goodie bags?  Could you have a voucher or promotion in the show guide?  Are bigger, show-wide competitions being run?  Any opportunities for cross-promotion?  Whatever happens, move forward
  • Get ahead – packing away well makes life easier when you come to start again. Keep your event kit organised and stocked up, rather than pulling it all out of storage to pack up for the drive and setup only to find that a pen has leaked over valuable kit.  Stock up on consumables now: re-stock anything which won’t expire that you’ll need again, even if it seems like something silly such as bin bags.  Whilst it’s fresh in your mind, make notes of what you wish you’d done and put it in your diary, electronic calendar, or event box, so that you don’t kick yourself next time (one of my rules is that you can never have enough adhesive, cable ties or tape, but it depends on what you’re trading!)
  • Stay excited – make sure you have something positive to offer next time, and keep up the good work with your delivery to clients, social media and promotion. You have been warned: this stuff can get addictive…

The event guide concludes here!  I enjoyed putting it together, as it was a trip down memory lane for me and it’s nice to try and pay it forward to other people.  I hope you’ve benefited from my experience and, as ever, if you have any questions, please feel free to speak up!  And if this has got you terrified rather than excited… I’m someone who has no fear.