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.

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.

Dreaming

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

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

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

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

Then Jo sealed the deal by showing me this:

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

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

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

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

Product review – Berlei riding bra

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

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

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

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

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

Old ground

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

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

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

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

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

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.

***

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?

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.

clare balding_tv_television_studio_stage_show_racing_equestrian_dressage_dujardin_mccoy_jockey

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!

Pedal power

For Christmas (2013, I should note), I bought my Dad a track cycling experience at London’s velodrome.  Yes, that velodrome, the one where Team GB’s cycling contingent ensured that the cycling team as a whole would have come tenth in the Games medal table by themselves if they were competing as a country (bumping Australia down to eleventh).  As part of London 2012’s legacy programme (which we all know I love), the velodrome was built as a permanent facility, and slated to re-open in Spring 2014 as part of the Olympic Park’s redevelopment.  The velodrome and aquatics centre did indeed open on time, and as well as playing host to the regular training of elite athletes such as Tom Daley, members of the public can book sessions for their own moment of glory.

Predictably, velodrome sessions are very popular – many clubs book sessions and attend as groups – so Dad struggled (also because he can be indecisive) to get his day booked.  After prodding him into it on a few occasions, he finally managed to find time in his hectic schedule, and off he went to live out his Chris Hoy fantasies.

As just a little more background, I bought this gift as cycling is one of Dad’s favourite Olympic sports: he, like many other Brits in recent years, has become fascinated with both track and road cycling, and enjoys watching the annual events which take place between Games.  In terms of his own level of activity, Dad’s in his 50s and, during the summer months, plays tennis at least once (if not twice) per week, cycling to and from the courts in our village as his warm up.  He’s never cycled indoors on a track before, so the whole experience was completely new.  As I sadly wasn’t available to tag along and watch on the day, I posed him a few questions regarding his session…

What were your expectations of the day?
My expectations were to have a bit of a trundle around the very boards and circuit that were graced by all of the Olympians in 2012.  There are not very many venues where this can be done!  I was reminded of a friend who, many years ago, was trying to persuade me about the virtues of golf by telling me it is one of the few sports were you can literally follow in the footsteps of the top players.  I will never play football at Old Trafford or tennis at Wimbledon but I have cycled on the same track as the heroes and heroines of London 2012

london_olympics_velodrome_cycling_venue_exterior_building

approaching the venue: a little quieter than during Games time!

 

What was the coaching like as a participant?  Did the coaches help you to get what you wanted out of the experience?
The coaching and direction was very clear and straightforward.  It was kept to simple basics (which was good for a novice like me but I don’t know how it was for more experienced riders).  It was indoor track cycling 101 which I thought was effective and the right level to pitch it.  I got the impression that after watching us for a couple of laps the coach figured out the level of my ability (and, presumably everybody else’s) and tailored his instructions accordingly as I went past him

london 2012_london_olympics_velodrome_cycling_track_indoor_venue

watching from the stands

 

What was the highlight?
The highlight was achieving the little personal goal that I set for myself of doing a lap on the blue line and then managing to keep going until the end of the session!  It was also great to be in the centre of the velodrome and to experience it from that perspective as well as just being able to cycle on the track

How was the atmosphere of the venue?
It was fairly low-key and came across as a regular working day at the velodrome for the employees.  In that sense, it was all quite functional
[note from Becky: I suspect this will be pretty different when the World Championships are held next year!]

london 2012_london_olympics_velodrome_cycling_track_indoor_venue_interior_competition

being in the middle of the track: one of Dad’s highlights

 

As a British taxpayer, do you think that this venue adds value to our country’s experience of hosting an Olympic Games?
Yes I do.  It is the legacy in action and, when I was there, the velodrome was publicising what is available to cyclists indoors and outdoors
[as well as track cycling experiences, the facility offers visitors sessions on the outdoor mountain biking track] as well as forthcoming events such as the World Indoors Track Championships next year.  This is only happening because London hosted the Games.  The cycling facilities are available to everyone who can pedal a bike so I think it is a great asset

london 2012_london_olympics_velodrome_cycling_track_indoor_venue_bank_cyclist

Dad was in awe of these guys, this shows the real angle of the track (also pictured, the blue line he conquered)

 

Thinking back to Berlin… do you think people will be following in your tyre tracks 75 years from now?
This is a very good question.  I find it hard to imagine unless there is a commitment to investment and up-keep over the next 75 years because improvements in technology and materials will inevitably happen which means that a sporting venue cannot stand still.  As we saw in Berlin, the running track is not the same as the one that Jesse Owens ran on in 1936 and I am sure that the other facilities have been improved over the years (with the exception of the outdoor swimming pools!)

So there you have it: legacy in action for the everyperson.  Almost three years post-Games and venues are open, busy, providing people with gainful employment.  Visitors can enjoy being part of something they helped to fund, we haven’t been left with enormous facilities that there’s no use for.  LOCOG’s aim for London 2012 was to, “Inspire a generation”.  If this doesn’t meet and possibly even go one better than that, I don’t know what would.

Important kit

This post probably could’ve gone in my other category, but it’s more sporty than “general other”, so here we are.  We’ve got past the “new year, new me” stage for most people now (anyone got a gym membership which is gathering dust now that Dry January is over?), and with the cold and wet weather continuing in the UK (newsflash: it’s like this all year round), enthusiasm for exercise is definitely waning.  Then along came #thisgirlcan to try and get us all out of our comfy PJs and off our sofas (WHY?!), and a few people probably groaned and did as they were told.  And then here comes another problem: we’re doing it wrong.  The media tells us and our bodies tell us, and it puts us off again.  But today’s issue is really easy to get right, and far more important than many women assume.

I’m talking about sports bras.  Whether you’re the proud owner of fried eggs or melons (as an aerobics teacher we had at school put it), you really and truly should be wearing one for anything remotely resembling exercise.  The more-endowed are generally fairly naturally aware of this, as we occasionally bruise ourselves when stumbling down the stairs in a hurry to answer the door early in the morning, yet some still don’t do much about it.  I’m not even sure why, to be honest, because I for one find exercise painful enough without adding ruining my bust to the drama.

Here’s the thing, girls: unfortunately, breasts aren’t made of muscle (life could be fun – if maybe a little awkward – if they were), which means that there’s absolutely no hope for redemption once you do too much damage.  And something I only learned this weekend, is that their motion pattern isn’t a straightforward vertical or horizontal when you break out of anything other than a dawdle: oh no, breasts move in a figure of eight pattern when they jiggle (I was very conscious of this for the first few minutes after I learned it – I began to understand what the fascination is for certain people…).  With those facts in mind, you may want to care for your assets a bit more, but guess what?  You’ll probably get it wrong again.

Many people are aware that “statistically”, most women wear the wrong size bra.  Beware – these statistics even more than usual ones are highly flawed, because they’re generally taken from those who actually know this already, rather than measuring a random sample of women.  However, the point is valid: it can be due to poor measuring, change in size, bad fit or age of bra, but either way, most of us are in the wrong size, which decreases the helpfulness of said garment.  But it’s okay, help is at hand!  Here are my top tips for kitting yourself out:

  1. Admit you need help – congratulations! You have realised that you need to take care of your body.  I would strongly recommend going to a specialist retailer if you can (I don’t mean high street department stores – many of these get it wrong too).  I bought my first “real” sports bras from Less Bounce and haven’t looked back.  If you’re at a show where they happen to be, go and see them!  There are many other good online sports retailers with great advice, but beware the internet…
  2. Be careful – I love the internet, it’s very useful. But it sometimes has too much advice, and with things like clothes and cooking, it can be very confusing.  Because guess what?  A 36D isn’t always a 36D!  Make sure you find a measuring guide which uses your own country’s sizing method, and even then be prepared to be patient in your search…
  3. Get more than you need – check the returns policy of the site you’re ordering from first, but if you’re able to return items, then buy lots of sizes, try them on and send back the ones you don’t need. You probably won’t be able to actually exercise in them, but you should be able to at least figure out what fits.  Sports bras are an investment, and can be pricey, so it’s worth getting it right.  Make sure you do your trying on and returning within the window of opportunity, so that you don’t get charged unnecessarily
  4. Make the right choice – if you regularly do a low-impact exercise and fit into a smaller cup size, you’re not going to need a lot of scaffolding. If, however, your sport of choice is high-impact and you have a larger bust, make sure you don’t just get a glorified crop top.  For several years now, various companies have produced sports bras with underwires, which were a total revelation – they offer greater support and, in my experience, the wires have yet to escape and cause any nasty injuries, yay!  Sports bras have also come a long way in terms of attractiveness (not that this typically matters, but it does make them a more fun purchase these days)
  5. Look after your kit – Less Bounce recommend sports bras shouldn’t have a birthday! Just like helmets and other sports equipment, these things have an expiry, particularly if you’re wearing them daily and washing them in a machine.  Even if (like yours truly) you don’t replace them strictly on time, do make sure you adjust your bra after washing and vigorous activity – bras are not fixed pieces of armour!  They are designed so that they are adjustable, and they therefore tend to do this of their own accord.  If you really can’t be bothered with fixing them all the time, perhaps take a Sharpie to your straps and make a mark where yours are typically adjusted to, but remember that you will change size and shape too, so it’s worth taking the few seconds to make sure it fits every time
  6. Sports bras aren’t just for exercise – I wear mine whenever I visit the yard, even if I know I’m not riding. Inevitably, you end up chasing after some kind of animal, or a stray feed bag, or a child.  And as someone who has taught many beginners over the last couple of years, well that involves some sprinting if you’ve got mischievous horses, excited riders or ones who are just learning to go faster.  Think about what you’re likely to do and dress appropriately.  You wouldn’t go to do turnout in flip flops, would you?

Next time you spot me in the saddle or leading a horse, you’ll know that I’m in my favourite Panache (it’ll take a lot to persuade me into something else) – what will you be wearing?

The monster returns

It’s taken me a few days to get my thoughts straight on this one, but I think I’m finally there.  The issue is this: yet again, UK equestrianism has been hit by the health and safety debate.  With this topic, one issue tends to bring another, then a third follows, and before you know it, opinions are like… well, you know the phrase.

There’s a chicken and an egg to this story: the tabloids over here picked up on two stories in quick succession – one was the resolution of an inquest into an incident which occurred about a year ago, whereby a rider died after her horse bolted; the other was something which actually happened recently, when an owner and reportedly highly-experienced horsewoman died following injuries sustained whilst clipping a young horse.  Following the reporting of these cases, my favourite bastion of tradition and outcry, Horse and Hound, published a feature on how terrified riding schools are to teach the way they’d wish to.  And then British Eventing came out with their hammer and nails to finish the coffin off and decided that they can’t afford to properly investigate the safety or lack thereof regarding helmet cameras (this despite deciding that they would do so back in October in time for the 2015 season, and the USEF deciding in the meantime that they would allow riders to take responsibility for their own decisions).

So now I’m frustrated.  I’ve mentioned previously that I think health and safety gets an unnecessarily bad reputation – rules are there for a reason (protecting often-unsuspecting humans), and should be followed – and I maintain my stance that many rules are in place because people lack basic common sense.  It sounds pretentious, but I see my responsibility as an instructor – whether it’s ground work or ridden – is to teach my clients to think as much as it is to teach them to ride or handle a horse.  Because we do work with sentient beings, so I can’t possibly mitigate for every scenario.  It’s not like teaching someone to ride a bike – push one pedal forwards and down and around you go, check for other traffic, look where you’re going – things will change on a moment by moment basis, and whoever I work with has to be aware of that.  It’s critical to me that they are able to quickly and calmly assess any situation and figure out the best course of action in order to preserve their safety, because that’s what a horse does!  Horses are prey animals, which means that they react to the slightest sign of danger and do everything within their power to get away from it.  As we aren’t physically a match for them, we must do the same.

It’s for this reason that I can’t ever see myself wishing to teach someone to leap from a galloping horse in order to “stay safe” and “bail out” because they’re out of control.  My opinion regarding that particular skill is that it’s a fallacy – that and I’ve witnessed a friend get injured doing this (our experiences inform our opinions somewhat…).  There is something I’d teach regarding that scenario, though, and I don’t think that it’s something which pushes the boundaries of health and safety – there are ways and means to bring a horse back to you and ask him to stop which don’t involve you leaping headfirst into the nearest tree… but nothing will always work.  The bottom line is that there are no guarantees with horses.

All of this happened in a week when I was already pondering the possibility of equestrian centres and employers demanding that staff and clients handle all horses in a helmet (and, in my opinion, once we go down that road, where does it end?  Will we ultimately be in body protectors?  Or leading horses only on 20 metre lunge lines?).  I’m aware that some sectors of the industry – notably racing, from what I see a lot on TV – already have these kinds of rules in place, where grooms seem to spend much of their time wearing helmets when not mounted.  As I was writing this post, in fact, a “cautionary tale” popped up on my Facebook feed, and much as I am of course glad that the lady in question is okay (as is the horse), I decided to analyse it a little further – this task made much easier by the facts that I don’t know the lady, hindsight is a wonderful thing, and everyone’s a critic (story in italics, my commentary in bold… and I’ve corrected the grammar):

 “Now I’m not the most safety conscious person in the world. In fact I’m well known for being a bit haphazard. [Alarm bells ringing for anyone else yet?  This lady already comes across to me as accident potential…] I’m the first person to jump in to a situation whether I’m prepared or not. [Good, so like many other people in the horse world, you’re someone who is reactionary, rather than prepared…] On Wednesday however I got a bit of a wake up call. I don’t usually wear a crash hat to fetch any horse in from the field, even if it is a horse I don’t know. I happened to have my spare hat [You ride in a “spare” helmet?!  What is wrong with you?] on from riding and quickly nipped down the road to fetch a horse in. Well he was a bit of a sod and wouldn’t come through a patch of mud. [Why not?  What were you doing?  Oh, taking him away from his friends, probably in a hurry and with a poor attitude.  Are we shocked the horse doesn’t want to come with you by himself?] I tugged on the leadrope [Excellent idea – could he see you?  Did you offer any verbal encouragement?] and he decided to rear up and strike out with his front feet. [And you were stood – as a friend of mine puts it – where the tree falls] He caught my chin on the way up and whacked me round the top of the head on the way down… I bit my tongue as well and I have a lovely hole in it. Now no one knew where I was. [WHY ON EARTH NOT?!] If that had been my head and not my hat I don’t think I would have walked away with just a bruised chin and a holey tongue, [No kidding!] and I wouldn’t have been found for a good couple of hours at least. Just a thought then, perhaps that sweaty head look isn’t such a problem. It’s better than a dented head.”

I’m not perfect.  We’re all in a hurry, we all make mistakes which – hopefully – we don’t suffer too great a physical injury from and that we are able to learn from… but as I have pointed out, there are so many things about this scenario which could’ve been prevented.  Indeed, fortunately this woman was wearing a helmet.  But there are some real basics here which she could have stopped and considered in order to prevent this incident from happening: firstly, she should’ve told someone where she was going and/or not gone alone; secondly, it’s a foolish person who tries to take a horse away from his herd by himself, unless he and the others can see where he’s going; thirdly, it’s in the way you choose to go about this task, and where you physically put yourself in a scenario – why was she within striking distance of the horse?

This kind of thing, I feel, proves my point – that health and safety isn’t there to make lives harder and ruin our fun, but it is there to make us think.  Yet clearly, that message isn’t getting through.  In my opinion, there is absolutely no need to drastically change the activities we choose to teach, we just have to monitor the way they are taught, and regulate them in order to make them as sensible and safe as possible.  Would you teach bareback lessons with more than one client per instructor, or with a horse or horses who haven’t done it before in a bustling arena?  Would you allow a client to lead a horse anywhere in the stables without checking first that they know how to do so, where to put themselves, what to watch for?  Would a client be left responsible for tacking up their own horse and then be allowed to mount without an instructor watching or checking their equipment?

It seems to me that equestrians consider the term “health and safety” and think about the ultimate negative implications of an accident without truly considering what can be done in between, other than ceasing activities altogether.  To me, it’s just a puzzle: find a way or make one.