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.

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…

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.

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…

The week the wheels came off… and went back on

I’m beginning to settle into my new working/horsey balance pattern.  There’s still going to be some adjusting along the way, but last week saw a bit of a golden opportunity: I would spend both Monday and Saturday at the yard, and I should’ve had enough time to work with and ride Prince on both days.  Should being the operative word.

As it happened, time wasn’t the issue: we spent most of Monday entertaining some guests – employees of the local council who make lots of referrals to us, and came to have a kind of experience day.  We showed them directly what the kids they refer to us get to do, by running some sessions for them.  There were also cookies and cups of tea and lots of questions, all of which was good practice for the coming week (our open days are finally happening!) as we had to be “on” all the time, fielding questions about what we do, how we do it and the impact it has.

Once the goodbyes had been said and the morning declared a success, it was time for Prince to do some real work (having spent an hour conning a group of people into picking him the juiciest grass from the other side of the fence and hand-feeding it to him).  By this point, there was a sideways wind and he wasn’t really in the mood to work, having been in the company for a very extroverted group all morning.  Nor was I, if I’m honest, with a couple of distractions playing on my mind.  But I set to it anyway, grooming him and tacking up to ride.

I realised not long into our ground work session that riding wasn’t a good idea.  Prince gave me a lot of attitude, wasn’t really concentrating and didn’t seem capable of achieving much.  So I got to a place where we’d done something good, then gave up for the day.  I was pretty despondent – handling my emotions is something I’m not great at, especially when I’ve got a goal which I don’t think is going to be reached.  As the play day gets closer, I’ve had far less saddle time than I’d like (I know that’s always the way, but I haven’t really ridden at all, rather than it being a case of getting only three hours of riding a week when my ideal would be six or eight).  When I went home on Monday, I felt pretty hopeless.

I had four days away to try and get myself together, but although Saturday dawned sunny and warm, I still wasn’t feeling any more positive.  But my day started with a surprise: I had to move Bella, alpha mare of the little herd, to another paddock.  Over the winter, she was easy to handle (because she was cold and knew that humans = helpers); throughout the spring, she has become progressively awkward to catch, as her owner’s pregnancy has advanced and she’s not receiving the attention that she thinks she should be.  As an extroverted horse, she’s basically a bit bored, so I played the catching game with her.

Bella and I did a dance around the field, but it wasn’t Bella leading me in a game of chase, it was me saying, “okay, let’s play”.  I had to go a little carefully, as she’s (we suspect) torn a muscle in a hind leg and has limited her mobility a little at the moment, but there was more than enough movement for a quick game.  As we made our way across the paddock, we reached Prince’s favourite spot – small tree stump, which Prince itches on but all of the horses can use as a podium.  Bella was on one side of it, I was on the other, so I backed away and beckoned her towards me.  It’s plenty small enough for her to step over, and she had the option to go safely around either side of it… but she chose to step up onto it with her front feet.  I almost fell over in shock.  I’ve done no real liberty work on my horsemanship journey so far, and here I was with an injured alpha mare offering me a big touchdown.  I stood and gawped for a few seconds, praising Bella verbally, before gently stepping into her space and scratching her neck as she stood on the log.  There was just enough time for me to step back and snap a couple of quick pictures before she got down, stood quietly behind the log and waited whilst I went and haltered her.

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One satisfied horse gave me a confidence boost, and when it came time to work with Prince a couple of hours later, the weather was calm and sunny, I was in a good mood and we were ready to go.  I plaited him up again (my skills in that area are definitely improving!) and away we went.  I played a quick variety of games, trying to get him focused, particularly on picking his front feet up and being aware of where they are – he trips a bit at the moment, even though he’s sound and his tack fits, it seems to be a concentration issue, so I tried my best to get him switched on.

Happy that he was ready to go, I swapped his halter for a bridle and hopped on.  My previous ride a few weeks earlier had involved him expressing some quite serious opinions on going round corners (we were only able to do so sideways at a walk – not ideal), but I focused on where we were at and moved off.  He was a bit wobbly in that he finds maintaining straightness hard (which is due to all sorts of things: not being ride-fit, being inexperienced under saddle, and being ridden in a different paddock to where he normally is), because again, it involves concentrating, but I decided to forgive him the wonky lines and focus on just getting forwards – we have the rest of our lives to ride spirit level lines if we want to, I just wanted to get closer to a point where we might be able to leave the yard and go on a hack one day!

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from the way this was captured, in my head this looks like we’re doing a piaffe… maybe one day!

Having walked around for a while, checking steering and brakes, I nudged Prince into a trot and found him much more willing than before.  I continued to focus on transitions, forwards and gentle steering and, eventually, we cornered at a trot!  See below for triumphant video:

Please excuse my hideously out of practice riding, and Prince’s aforementioned wobbly form.  It’s a work in progress, but that’s now the key word: progress was again made.  I’ve got everything crossed that I’ll ride at the play day in a month, but I’m trying not to hold my breath…

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look at his beautiful swishy feathers!

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and we can do backup too!

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Oh, and the other thing?  I realised whilst I was riding that when I checked my Timehop app on Saturday morning, a photo had appeared from a year ago of me riding another 15hh black horse… on a different continent, in a different type of saddle and of a completely different build, but either way – two years, two 15hh Black Beauties.  It’s funny how life works out!

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on the left: Murray in the US, 2014; on the right: Prince in the UK, 2015. Spot the difference!

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…

Interview with Champion – equestrian equipment manufacturer

A few weeks ago during Blog Hour, I mentioned some brands that I’d like to engage with more directly.  The manufacturer of my own choice of horsey headgear responded, and their PR rep – Jenny at Halcyon Days – organised for them to answer some burning questions I had.  My questions were passed to Managing Director Sarah-Jane Fedarb, and her answers are below.  Many thanks to Jenny (and, again, the world of Twitter!) for setting this up and liaising, and thanks to Champion for answering my probing queries.

What triggered the development of contemporary vented helmets at Champion, and how long did it take from the decision to design them to helmets being available on the market?
Champion recognised that some riders found their head reaching uncomfortable temperatures many years ago, even in the usually cool British weather!  Champion first offered a ventilated hat back in 1999 which was the Champion Universal.  This design was a great success and laid the foundations for the many ventilated designs we now have on the market today.

A new hat design will on average take 12-18 months from the signed off concept to the hat being available in store, however this can increase greatly with more complex styles.  

How long does it take to manufacture a helmet?
Here at Champion, we source components as close to our factories in Cardiff as possible, so if we had all the components for a particular style in hand, a hat can easily be made in less than one day.  All of our hats and helmets are batch tested by British Standards Institute to PAS 015 2011.  A benefit of the PAS015 standard over some other standards is that it insists/stipulates that a style of hats be manufactured and type tested, and then batch tested regularly.

Many bra manufacturers have been publicly criticised for charging a higher price for larger sizes – what is the reason for the greater cost of larger riding helmets?  Clearly, the price difference for adult and junior sizes is due to VAT, which is EU legislation rather than company policy, but why charge customers with larger heads more money?
Champion offer a range of hats that can be worn by both adults and children, and the only difference in the price on the larger sizes is where we are legally obliged to charge VAT.  We do not charge more for larger sizes and cannot comment on the policy of other industries.  There is only a small difference in the product costs for different sized hats and we are happy to help make retailers and consumers lives easier by keeping the price the same for all sizes.

At Champion we also offer a range of ‘Junior’ hats which are designed for children and are VAT exempt in the whole range of sizes, as some children have larger head sizes than adults.  Again we do not charge more for the different sizes in these ranges.

What inspired the development of female-specific body protectors, such as your Freedom design?  As you have probably guessed it was the female form that inspired our new range of ‘ladies only’ body protectors, as in general men and women have very different body shapes.  Our designers and engineers ably undertook a lot of investigative work into the female form and the best designs to ensure maximum comfort and protection and our Female form body protectors are the result.  The response has been excellent, with many women now much happier and more comfortable in their body protector, so are more willing to wear it on a regular basis, which can only be a positive thing from a safety point of view.

But as before – why the increased cost for a larger size?  Might this encourage customers to try and save money by buying the smaller sizes?
We would hope that no-one tries to purchase an ill-fitting hat or body protector for themselves or their children as this could compromise their safety, and we go to great lengths to train all of our retailers in how to correctly fit both hats and body protectors.  An ill-fitting hat can be dangerous.  When some children are new to riding there can be an understandable temptation for their parents to want to buy some products with ‘growing room’, however this is not possible with hats or body protectors as a close fit is essential and when you consider the excellent protection that these products offer it is worth investing in correctly fitting safety products.

As with the hats, for body protectors we are legally obliged to charge VAT once products hit a given size.  However there is also a different price for each size of body protector as the components, and fabrics are very expensive and they make up the bulk of the price.  A large adults size body protector has virtually double the fabrics and expensive high tech foam of, for example, a small child size, therefore pro-rata the bigger sizes warrant the increased price.

We do a range of Champion clothing and do not charge more for the larger sizes in our waterproof and breathable, rip stop blousons, fleece hoodie, base layers, polo shirts etc as the extra price of these fabrics on the larger sizes can more easily be absorbed across the range.  

The use of helmet cameras caused uproar at the end of the 2014 eventing season, and things remain unresolved – would Champion potentially work with governing bodies, riders and camera manufacturers to resolve this and further innovate equestrian products?
As a concept we love the idea of helmets cams, and have enjoyed watching videos taken by riders when galloping around a track or course.  However we do not have any experience of helmet cams or the potential for repercussions of wearing one in the event of an accident.

Because cameras are mounted on the outer surface of helmets they add extra risks, such as being caught up in branches when riding through a forestry bridle path or increasing the chance of rotational injury if the camera snags when impacted.  For these reasons it is important that the cameras mounting systems are able to break away easily during an impact so as to not act as a lever trying to turn your head during an accident.  There are other concerns with the mounting systems where the adhesives and screws could affect the impact properties of the shell, which is more relevant for helmets built with plastic injection moulded shells.  Some cameras are very small and do seem to be easily detached, but at this moment additional testing to investigate the above risks has not been developed.

Do Champion help customers to be “green” in any way?  Although helmets in their original form can’t be recycled (especially if in an accident) is there any component which can be recycled, or any incentives offered to customers, such as an amnesty when replacing their old products?
Due to the very nature and intention design of a riding hat, when it absorbs the energy of an impact it becomes damaged and needs to be safely disposed of.  We are not aware of any facility to recycle either the outer shells or the internal liners. We are not aware of any British manufacturers who offer such incentives.

What can equestrians expect to see next from Champion, what should we be getting excited about?
Champion is continually developing new products and looking for innovations to existing products.  We continually improved our BSEN1384 hats, which were all exceeding this rigorous test by around 30% when the standard was unfortunately withdrawn in late 2015.  We have recently launched a number of exciting new products to the market, which are already receiving a fantastic response from retailers and consumers alike.  These include the unisex Evo-Flex body protector, which is extremely lightweight and brings body protector style and comfort to a whole new level. We have also recently launched a total of 11 new styles of Champion riding hats, bringing a total of 26 new variations to market for improved customer choice in 2015.  While all these new helmets are selling extremely well, the front runners in our Junior range are our new X-Air Plus Helmet and the sparkling new X-Air Dazzle.  Even riders who aren’t such a big fan of ‘bling’ are really taking to the Dazzle!  Within our adult range, the new top of the range ‘Evolution Pro’ riding hat has also been extremely well received, thanks to its striking, modern and high-tech design.  We also have the new X-Air Plus, the Euro Deluxe Plus and the Air-Tech Plus, all of which are kitemarked to PAS015 and so are all suitable for use in competition in 2015 and beyond.

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What did you think of Champion’s responses to my questions?  I was interested to hear that helmets can be made in a day, and that companies like Champion consider additional technology such as cameras with relation to how it impacts the efficacy of the original product.  I’m slightly disappointed regarding the sizing issue, as I know of shops which charge increased prices for larger helmet sizes within the adult range, though it’s good to hear that this isn’t something that the manufacturer endorses.  It’s also exciting to hear about the constant innovation that our changing horsey world has on product development.

If you’d like to know more about the products mentioned above (I still highly recommend the Ventair, which has changed my life!), you can check out the Champion catalogue online.

Do you have any burning questions for suppliers to the equestrian industry?  Twitter could be our forum, who shall we put under the microscope next?

What’s next?

The American adventure of 2014 is over, and it’s time to take stock.  Through the course of 2014 as a whole so far, I feel as though I have begun to refine my place in the horse world, and where I might like to take my career.  I’m still hesitant to say it aloud or commit to it in writing, because I’ve changed my mind before and may do so again.  Part of this is also down to the fact that my outlook has gone through some big changes this year, and I’m still getting used to them.

My horsey future is actually currently remarkably uncertain: I’ve returned home with nothing but an empty bank account, so the priority has been to find a source of income, and I decided not to be fussy about the job in question.  What actually happened is that I got offered my previous winter job back, and decided to take it – it suits my current purpose of earning money, it’s something that I enjoyed, and it’s fixed-term (I’ll be working in a pop-up shop until Christmas).  As it’s just for the festive season, I know that I won’t get stuck in the trap of being content to earn money in a straightforward job – I’ll be forced to find something else in the new year, which gives me time to find something more focused towards the long term… if that’s what I decide I want.

Because the other option is to spend another summer at camp.  The offer’s there already, I just have to  accept it.  But at the moment, I’m not sure whether or not that’s the right thing to do.  I’ve got some thinking to do!

So my life for the next few months is dedicated towards a little shop: as always with my jobs, it’s goodbye to weekends and, as I don’t have my own car but live in the countryside, evenings are going to involve nothing more than sitting at home.  Where does this leave my riding?  Well, the run into Christmas is probably going to be horse-less for me.  I’m not returning to the riding school I was visiting earlier this year – it was a miserable experience that I have no desire to repeat.  The friend whose horse I was riding prior to camp has moved to a different part of the country – it’s been a great move for her, her husband and their animals, and I’m incredibly fortunate to be able to go and visit for a couple of days before I start work.

When I looked back on my wishlist from 11 months ago regarding what I’d like to achieve in terms of my own riding, I’m happy to say that there have already been some successes, and I’m unsurprised that there are also already some deviations.

The biggest win for me is that I think (I say this a little hesitantly) I’ve got there with my confidence issues.  When I look back on this one, a lot of it was tied to my riding situation at the time – the place I was riding at really wasn’t helping me, which is a huge shame.  Fortunately, the problem has, I think, resolved itself.  I needed time, I needed to rediscover my belief in my own ability, and I needed a reminder that I could fall in love with a horse again.  I still wouldn’t get on a strange horse and happily pop it over a series of fences, but I’ve forgiven myself for that because, realistically, how many people would?  Yes, you do that sort of thing if you’re a true, gung-ho jumping professional.  Or if you’re an adrenaline-junkie 12-year old.  Or if you’re an adult who suddenly gets excited and feels like they’re 12.  But nobody’s forcing me to do that.  I’m not on a deadline, I can go at whichever pace I choose.  The itch to jump is well and truly back and, having done this before, that’s far more than half the battle.

I’ve made huge progress this year with the idea of working with my own horses, though not in the way I anticipated.  It hasn’t been so much about schooling a horse and achieving something which is correct and looks pretty, but it’s been more about improving relationships and behaviour.  I was given almost carte blanche with the horsemanship programme at camp, and largely left to my own devices if I didn’t have any students.  It was a daunting task, as my experience is still so limited, but I just had to get on with it.  I quickly developed a coaching pedagogy for myself, the horses and the kids.  With or without realising it, I was assessing and adjusting as I went along, and taught myself a lot about patience and progression.  Whilst there’s still a lot for me to learn about producing horses, I’ve made a self-guided sort-of start.

The idea I was probably least certain about is the one I’m still most reluctant about – undertaking qualifications.  A very wise person advised me that the best way to change something is from within it: I agree with this sentiment, but I’m not sure that I’m in a position to overcome some of my feelings towards this system at the moment.  There are a lot of positives to being part of a secure system and a large organisation, but I struggle to see beyond some of the bigger negatives at the moment.  I haven’t abandoned the idea completely, it’s more that I’m trying to figure out which part of it will work best for me and my future.

I guess the biggest thing is that I’m kind of in limbo – I’m between what happened this summer and whatever is next.  I can go back around in a circle and essentially spend another year delaying the inevitability of committing to a long term decision.  I know it would be fun, and it would be another fairly relaxed year.  But it also wouldn’t be much of a step forward at this point.  I just have to figure out what I want…

Teacher or student

It’s a debate I’ve been having for a while, as I think more and more about when I might be able to take on my first horse: is it better to learn from a schoolmaster or to take on the unknown of an animal who is as green as you are?

It’s always struck me as a little perverse that most riding schools will teach beginners to ride on older plods, choosing to allocate the clients mounts who are safe, but who must be ridden in such a way that all they are able to learn is how to stay on a horse who barely moves.  The clients are essentially taught many bad habits during this process, as the animals are often so introverted, catatonic and dulled to the aids of a human being, and as the clients progress they must learn to break these habits rather than refining the skills they have previously learned.  But I do understand the general logic of teaching people to ride on a horse who somewhat knows his job, rather than a scatterbrained youngster.

I began practicing natural horsemanship skills on a horse who’s mostly been there and done it in terms of the discipline – his owner knows he could still improve, but those improvements relate to more isolated situations or pushing on to a higher level.  The horse could read me like a book, knew I was a beginner at wielding ropes but not new to horses, so he went easy on me for a session and then proceeded to test me.  The experience mainly provided me with an idea of what is achievable, but it didn’t help me in terms of how to start from square one and what I should expect in terms of timescales.

When I arrived at camp, I was faced with a very mixed bag of 30 horses and an enormous challenge.  It seemed daunting enough when my task was to throw all of my spare time and energy at improving the difficult horses, then I was also faced with the idea of teaching kids how to do what I was still learning to do.  There was a lot of trial and even more error.  It’s taken me nine weeks and seven students to figure out what I currently think is the best approach, but things have begun to pay off.  There have been weeks of feeling like the blind leading the partially sighted and deaf – some of the horses may have done this before, but I have no way of telling, so I just encourage the kids to deal with what’s in front of them, rather than trying to guess where the horse has been before or who he had a fight with in the field last night.

Mostly, the kids have picked different horses to work with, but my musings on experience versus learning together have come from working with one horse and child partnership for six weeks and, when the initial child left for the horse to get a new partner for three weeks.  The new child and already-started horse then joined a class with a girl who’d been with me for three weeks: technically the partnerships were at different points, and so were the campers, but the horses were also very different.  It was a juggling act to say the least, and to the untrained observer, the newest student could possibly have looked far more proficient than the girl I’d already been teaching, because her horse had had more training.

In fact, the variety of partnerships I’ve been teaching all peaked at a similar time: each horse and human combination grasped the same exercises during the same week, irrespective of how long they’d been participating in the classes.  By the end of the third session of camp, I had six partnerships (seven if you count the original pair) completing the same level of exercises and more than ready to move on to the next step.  The final girl to join the programme had become more proficient in handling all of the equipment; the flightiest horse was happy not just to stand still for the basic exercises, but also to successfully complete the more complex ones which other horses had accomplished a few days sooner.

As we all progressed as a group, my teaching and organisation came on.  I developed new ways of explaining various elements of the tasks, as well as putting things into context in a different way for myself and my students.  I began to see how different things related to each other, spotting patterns thanks to the different personalities I was working with – both equine and human.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, when I figured out how to join a few dots, I saw a faster progression in my students.

Horsemanship is a strange thing to teach because, although there is a progressive nature to it, you can’t really put a deadline on things, or walk into the arena and say for certain that you will achieve something specific.  It depends on the horse.  It depends on the human.  Sometimes, it depends on which way the wind is blowing or who ate what for lunch.  All you can aim for is better.  This frustrates some kids and excites others: for the goal-orientated, it’s hard, as they like to have something to tick off their list; for those who are goal-phobic, it’s great, and the only limit is their imagination.  The more we achieve as a group, the more I have to have in mind – I have a vague and secret plan as the instructor but, like a magician, I don’t show the kids my cards, because I don’t want them to see it as a race.  It matters to me that they get everything absolutely right before moving on, and I find so far that this works better when the next step is concealed.

The – slightly scary – conclusion I’ve drawn is that my preference is to learn alongside my equine partner.  It’s perhaps harder, as if it’s your first attempt at learning something new, you’re teaching both yourself and the horse.  Mistakes will be made, and it’s taking things the long way around, but at least it gives you a model to work from (even if the model is imperfect, or a route you wouldn’t use again).  That said, I think it’s better to learn in this way whilst being supported by someone with experience.  It’s been a long-term dream of mine to have a very young horse and ultimately back it myself, rather than sending it to a trainer, so I think this has always been my philosophy, I just hadn’t fully realised it.  It’s certainly satisfying when you work and grow with the horse, learning together and eventually getting the result you want in the way you’ve chosen.  And it’s definitely gratifying to coach students through the same process, observing and helping as they figure out the way which works best for them and achieve something enormous with the partnership they’ve created.

What are your experiences?  In an ideal world, would you attempt to break new ground with your horse alone, or would you rather learn from an old hand?

First and last

When I first knew last summer that my job at camp would involve escorting kids on ridden trails, I felt a huge sense of responsibility to both them and myself.  I saw it as a privilege – rather than a right – that my boss trusted me enough to take kids and horses out of her sight and control.  Those who don’t know horses might think that there’s only so much that you can do in 45 minutes… they’d be wrong.  Anything can – and does – happen when horses are involved, so I was acutely aware of the fact that these rides wouldn’t often be at my own pleasure.

I quickly learned that when you’re escorting a ride, you’re mentally riding each and every horse in your group.  You’re trying to anticipate their movements and help the riders out, whilst ensuring that everyone is safe and enjoying themselves.  It’s a juggling act and, until you know both the horses and the kids, it’s pretty nerve-wracking.  And even when you do know your equine and human companions, you can still only guess as to what’s going to happen.

There are strict rules for trails where I work, which my boss has developed during her 10 summers at our camp.  There are certain parts of the trail where the only gait you can travel at is a walk, and times when you must use your best judgement from day to day.  At the beginning of the session, trotting is forbidden, as the horses have had a few days off and are pretty lively.  Trotting is also off the table if the weather has been poor.  Cantering is only okayed once riders have successfully cantered in lessons – something which is just plain common sense.

Despite the rules, we had a few issues last summer, but I doubt there will be any surprise that I stuck to the rules religiously.  I wanted my kids to be safe and not scared.  But above that, I didn’t want to be the one who returned home with a horse who had left behind a shoe or sustained an injury.  The weather was incredibly hot for much of last summer, and our horses all work around four hours per day, so I was also reluctant to flog them.  I also didn’t want my privileges to be revoked, so I did my best to play by the rules.

It paid off, as I’ve been given a good number of trails this summer too.  My boss will supervise the departure of many trails, but leaves me and our other returnee to sort ourselves out, trusting our knowledge of the horses to allocate them appropriately to campers and decide on a suitable order for the ride.

I taught one of our frequent fliers for all six weeks of his stay this summer, meaning that he and I have wandered the trails with his class many times.  He’s always appreciative of our rides, and taking him out is a great experience.  When his final trail arrived, my boss decided to come with us, even though the numbers didn’t dictate it to be a necessity (her rules are one staff member to every two or three campers, depending on horses and rider ability – this class is my advanced one and, as I only had two students, I always took them out alone).

I knew from the beginning that it would be fun, partly because the responsibility was off me as I was happy for my boss to take charge.  She rode at the front on one of my favourite horses, and I was on her favourite horse at the back – a change from our usual situation.  This was actually our first ride out together with campers in our two summers working together – she prefers that one of us remains at the barn at all times, rather than escorting trails together, but this was an exception.

As both campers are capable riders, it was a speedy trail from the outset.  We waited and walked through the early rocky stages of the trail before taking a quick trot up a side road to the open field which serves as our usual cantering space.  Sure enough, there was a canter around the side of the field towards the woods beyond.  As it was the end of the day and we finish that class a little early to feed the horses, I knew we’d have to go some in order to get home, but my boss was determined and flexed her rules with good judgement.  I wasn’t surprised when we trotted a couple of the less muddy sections, but was a little shocked – though pleased – to get another brief canter.

The trail descends along an old riverbed before snaking up through the woods – it’s my favourite section of our trails, because when the light catches just so, the view through the trees is beautiful.  I didn’t get to see my favourite view this time: we trotted up the final steep section, and I saw my boss canter away once the path levelled out!  There are a few sharp turns, but the horses were more than capable and seemed excited to get the chance to blast around the woods.  My riders handled the ride brilliantly and I got to kick on and enjoy myself as my horse powered along the track.

When we emerged from the woods, my boss turned in her saddle and announced we’d have a final canter, and that this time she was going to let us go a little faster.  We surged through the tall grass along a track I could probably canter smoothly in my sleep, and pulled up grinning at the corner of the field to begin our amble home.

We made it back to the barn in good time to help with feeding, and I dismounted feeling exhilarated after my ride.  It had been a fun week on the trails for me, after the previous session had been a slight washout with the amount of rain we’d had, as well as being the perfect way to say goodbye to a treasured student.