Sound as a pound?

Drifter seems to be doing well. I have to admit that I haven’t been seeing that much of him and haven’t ridden much in the last few weeks because my ever capricious health has been especially erratic. But helping me not feel guilty about this is the fact that Summer has officially reached the yard!

This means that Drifter is going out overnight, every night unless the weather gets suddenly unreasonable. He is tired and grass-bloated and totally chilled.

The last week before official summer came, I popped him on the lunge in a headcollar for a few minutes to see what he was moving like in the new shoeing (his hind shoes look like an ordinary shoe but the fit and shape look subtly off somehow). I hadn’t bothered to take a whip out with me partly because I was being lazy and partly because I wanted to see if he wanted to move of his own accord. Lunging for diagnosis, not for a workout.

We started on the left rein. He was … irritating. He had no interest in observing even the loosest geometric rules of circles. He had no interest in trotting. If I really asked he’d trot for a stride or two before quitting. Usually he tries but this day was an exception. I was aware it was about 5 minutes before his dinner time, but it seemed he was just going to mess around and do the bare minimum. Well, I thought, I guess he’s still stiff as well as in a bad mood. Hey ho, let’s flip him over and check the other direction.

I sent him off on the right rein. Pretty much as soon as he was on the circle he picked up gallop. Sorry, what?? The circle was round as could be and the horse that said had just said nope to doing anything but a sluggish walk at angles of his own choosing on the left rein, was now galloping perfect circles when he hadn’t even been asked to trot yet in this direction. Apparently he needed to be going this way, and going this way fast. I ignored him and let him get on with it, to be honest. He threw in transitions between gallop, canter and buck and got his steam out. Eventually I persuaded him to trot a little and cooled him off. The right rein canter, when it wasn’t a gallop or buck, was beautiful. Right canter has always been an issue for him, and I’d had no intention for asking for it, especially on the lunge, but it seems he’s fixed that. Even the bucks were pretty nice – much more hind action that he used to get which suggests it’s more comfortable for him to throw those legs out than it used to be.

It definitely suggests that he’s much more comfortable on the right rein than the left, and I know the left has always been his stiff side, so it’s probably got worse.

So when I returned from my sick bed this week, and hopped aboard, I was quite interested to see what I’d find. I wanted to see if he was now capable of working to a reasonable rein length in walk, and maybe in trot if walk went well. It’s one thing for his back legs to have recovered enough to step under him without my weight, but would he be able to do it with me on board?

Well yes, he could. It took some persuading, but I got a reasonable walk on a reasonable rein. He really, really wanted to rush into trot, because it would be so much easier to trot badly than walk properly, but I insisted. And once we got that good walk, then I could get a proper trot transition and have a proper trot, so we did that. We didn’t trot for long, but we did it. Again, in the trot he really didn’t want to work properly (well why should he after so long?) but I was insistent and he was capable. We got such a nice trot on the right rein that when he started offering canter I took him up on the offer. We only cantered for a few meters, because I didn’t want to do much, I wanted to reward the good transition and also because I didn’t want to canter around a corner just yet. I tried to replicate that on the left rein and we didn’t get a transition. On the second attempt we didn’t really get a canter. It might have been a tranter, or just some random legs trying something for a stride or two before trotting again. I didn’t try again, but thought I probably need to try that left canter on the lunge to see if he has the gear there or not.

But the next day came and it was a beautiful morning and I’d had such a pleasantly successful ride the day before so I wanted to get on. Of course it’s easy to be disappointed the ride after a particularly good one, and it took him longer than his impatient rider wanted to warm up to the good place, but he got there again. This time when he started offering right canter I didn’t hesitate to accept it and I managed to get the left canter on the first try, so we now have all gears under saddle in both directions. I was delighted to say the least. The stiffness to the left is quite bad, but he’s always had that, it’s just especially pronounced at the moment. The right canter, if I’m being critical, is overbent to the inside and a bit banana shaped, but I’m just delighted to have both canters. I wouldn’t have been surprised if we hadn’t. Now we have all the gears, all of them can be improved. It’s great to know that if I’m sick or can’t get there I can put a staff member on him for a hack without worrying if he’s up to it. I still won’t have him on the lunge for more than 10 min at a time, and wouldn’t ask for him to schooled above a trot just yet because I believe in being cautious.

Although this is already a long post, I’ll just mention that Amy Woodhead (dressage rider who rides/competes for Carl Hester) was teaching a clinic on our yard and I got to watch one of the lessons. She is amazing, and if you get the chance to learn from her you should definitely do it. She did a really good job of helping someone with their rein-feel, which is a really hard thing to teach or explain. She also gave suggestions on a different bit and bridle to try for the mare, who is always fighting the bit and crossing her jaw. I get the impression she’s hoping to increase the number of clinics she teaches later this year, so there should be plenty of opportunities.

Fun with cones

Last week I concentrated on making sure Drifter and I exercised 5 days out of 7 to a high standard. Great. Target achieved.

This week I realised that I wasn’t really looking forwards to riding. My first thought was that I’d overdone it and I was tired. I ran an internal query and the results returned suggested that was an invalid hypothesis – I was not tired. Now I came to think about it, it didn’t seem like Drifter was that excited about things either. I worked out that the level of exercise was just fine, but the level of fun was sorely lacking. Why would either of us want a humourless battering around the arena every day?

So we needed to have some fun.

Yes we will have fun. I will plan fun and timetable it and then at the allotted time we will have fun.

Oh wait, how?

I couldn’t remember what would be fun for us yet still ensure I had him working properly to build the weak muscles, while not overdoing it for him or for me. Also it needed to work around other arena users, etc.

Pole-work. We will do pole-work. There will be four poles set at compass points so we can do circles over them and/or a line of trotting poles. We have not done ridden trotting poles for ages. It will be good.

But when I got there someone was selling showjumpers in the big school and the little school had 2 other riders in already who I didn’t fancy disturbing with my random pole distribution. (And I wasn’t going to carry poles down to the indoor school – I’m stronger now but I still have reduced limits). So fun was cancelled.

The next day, a pre-ride upset + conflict (which I will not go into) meant I was very much of a mood to ride and get off the premises. No time for pole faffing and seriously no chance of me having fun. Were it not for the push on our exercise I wouldn’t have ridden at all, because in an ideal world I wouldn’t get on my horse when I know my mood is poor, but as Drifter knows, this is not an ideal world, so we had to do our exercise regardless of the emotional state of the rider. (Don’t worry, I didn’t take anything out on him.)

The ride after that I had forgotten about having fun, I have to say. There was zero fun planning. I was tired and uninspired. I led him outside but when we got around to the school I realised it was really windy and I just wasn’t in the mood to play “Is there a monster in the tree?” So we turned around and went to the indoor school. I led him in and shut the door and my eye fell on the cones, which are usually outside in the jump store.

Ooh look, fun in a stack!

I started distributing my cones in a gentle curve in the general vicinity of the centre line, so they were like weave cones, but along a slight curve rather than a straight, to make them more interesting. Actually I initially intended them to be in a straight line, but when I looked back along them there was a pretty nice curve, so I just emphasised the accident into something more deliberate. While I was distributing cones I had Drifter follow me at liberty. While no one’s ever told me we’re not allowed to work at liberty, I think it’s probably an unwritten rule, so I only do it in the indoor school when we’re alone, so no one can see or be offended by it. So we’re not one of those horse-owner couples who can do everything at liberty. But he did pretty well at sticking with me when I asked and staying put (mostly) when asked to park and I thought it was a good way to start our non-boring session. I also put a couple of cones out to each side so, together with some of the middle ones, we could do circles or small clover leaf patterns. I set everything without any consideration for regularity or planning. If they were too tight to go one way round, we’d go another way or miss them. That would all be part of the fun.

I got on. After our usual debate about whether he was supposed to walk off immediately or wait, I laid the reins on his neck and we warmed up without them. We did a few laps of the school ignoring the cones. We did circles (still in walk and without me touching the reins) at the top end of the school where I hadn’t put any cones and everytime it looked like we might naturally be heading towards the cones I turned him away again until I thought I might have piqued his curiosity. Then we attempted weaving down the wonky curve of cones without reins. He was suprised but so tuned in to me. Because of the irregular set up it was hard for him to anticipate which side of a particular cone I was going to ask him to go, which was great because he loves to anticipate but this made him focus on me. We reached the other end and made strange and irregular loops around the side cones and went back up the weave line. We probably never made the same path through the cones twice, and I was making it all up as we went along. Then we left the cones and went back on the track while I picked up my reins and suggested a contact before heading back into the cone maze. I shortened my reins gradually and eventually we moved up to the trot.

Suddenly I had a flash of inspiration about the feel needed for a good contact and luckily it happened just as I was looking in the mirror and saw the positive effect on his way of going. Awesome. I tried to keep this while we did some more strange cone patterns. While it wasn’t something I could maintain at all times, it was clear I was doing a better job for him than I usually do. I’ve been thinking a lot about my reins lately but not to any productive end until this moment.

We didn’t do very much more with the cones before I felt his trot was in the sweet spot for asking for a canter. Weak and unbalanced as he is at the moment cones at the canter were not a safe or suitable ask, so we went back onto the track. The canter transition felt effortless because it had been such a great trot. The trot afterwards was even more amazing – the biggest trot I’ve ever had from him. We cantered a few times on each rein and they were all really good in terms of his shape and how he was working. The corners on the right rein were a bit hairy, and motorbike-like as a result of the weak right hind, and in general that rein was less stable and balanced, but for the horse he is at the moment that was amazing work. It was easily the best canter work we’ve had for months, and in some ways probably our best ever.

We cooled down and ended the session on that high. We’d only worked for about 20 minutes, but it had been focussed and active and to a high standard.

The aim of the session was to have fun. But we got better “correct work” that we have on the rides that focussed on correct work and we had fun as well. If I’d been entirely focussed on my hands would I have managed the breakthrough that improved my contact or did it come about because I wasn’t focussing on it? Would he have responded to my improved contact so well if he’d been mentally numb or was it because he was tuned in to whatever crazy change of direction I was going to ask for next?

It looks like spontaneous fun is actually pretty productive. I must schedule it in again ;P

My horse it has three gaits, three gaits has my horse!*

I’ve gone and given it all away in the title again. Yes, we cantered, but to rewind and tell things in order…

When I last posted about his progress we had the trot back, with some roundness and a right bend but an absence of left bend in trot. Shortly after that post I started getting that left bend back too. Overall he didn’t feel straight, but he felt like he could move better than he had. We didn’t increase the time of the workouts much – we’d been doing 20 min. of walk with a tiny bit of trotting, and we moved that up gradually to spending the majority of the time in a good trot with lots going on, and improving the quality of the walk too. I think it was Wednesday of last week, for the first time, I thought, “This is a trot I could think about cantering from. I wonder how far away we are from that?” On Thursday in a corner with a good trot, Drifter gave a little lift to say “How about a canter?” I declined, because we were seeing the physio again on Friday and I wanted to get the green light from her first, but it felt great that he was offering it.

When the physio came she was delighted with his progress. The trot up looked much better (and it’s so much easier to trot him up now we’ve done all this in-hand trotting and he’s used to the idea and how I ask and what I expect) and during the hands-on portion she was similarly pleased. She was happy for us to start introducing a little canter again and to start increasing the length of the rides. She also reduced the pole work to twice a week, which was very welcome.

I was a bit apprehensive about cantering again, our canter history being a bit chequered, and our last canter together ending in him falling over. He had the Saturday off to let his back settle from the treatment and then on Sunday I went out thinking, “If he feels good, we’ll try that canter. If not, it will wait.” He was full of beans and he felt great under me. He felt much straighter and he was clearly happy to move. So we had the canter. Only about 5-10 meters in each direction and back to trot, but on both sides we had a nice transition up, the correct leg and a rather smooth little canter. Awesome!

Since then we’ve had two more rides. In the first we cantered about 30 m. in each direction, had a rest in trot and walk and then did that again. The second, this morning, we did quite a lot more because he was so full of energy he would not come back to trot! He was a lot of horse today. The wind was whipping around, the mares in the field (one of whom is in season) were all calling constantly and he was calling back and he had so much energy. We had a 25 min. ride, as I had planned, I got off and did the trotting poles (in a fan, for a change), during which I tripped over a pole and he spooked at that and pulled out of my hands and ran off to the far end of the school, luckily not breaking the new reins although he did tread on them. He freaks a little when he trips over a pole but apparently if I get my striding wrong that’s a much more scary thing for him! Once he’d realised there was actually nothing scary he responded to my voice and stopped for me to get him and sort him out. He still seemed to have so much energy that I got on again for another 10 min. Energy-wise I think I could have finished off with 20 min. lunging and he’d not have been worn out, but rehab.-wise I didn’t want to have him doing any more. He was swapped onto a field with marginally longer grass this week so perhaps that, together with the wind and the mares, has him buzzing. If it lasts I’ll be cutting his hard feed for a bit, but he’ll get a chance to prove he can calm down before I do that.

I mentioned the new reins… I love them. They’re more solid than my old ones; less floppy. I feel much more definite with them about whether I’ve got him in my hand or not. I love the way they feel in my hand; the way they help me be firm on what rein length I want to give. I think they look better than the old ones and, the icing on the cake, they’re even easier/quicker to clean. I could not be more pleased with them, so I’m really thankful that D didn’t destroy them this morning!Twcrosse, Shepworth & show clothes 139

It’s already hard not to give in to D and go straight into cantering everywhere like a crazy beast, but at least for a few more rides I want to show some restraint with the canter. I’m really pleased with the way the trot’s coming along now. I think we could rock a walk/trot dressage test tomorrow, assuming we warmed up carefully, and no one would know from watching that only a few weeks ago we couldn’t trot for more than a few strides. Hopefully before long we’ll be able to start really working all three gaits again, but for now, I’m just happy to have them!


*And had he not three gaits, well he’d still be my horse.

Update on the week: jumping & flatwork




Things have been going very well under saddle. Apart, that is, from the saddle itself, which is almost certainly now too snug for the horse who has muscled up so well since he was fitted for that saddle. We have a saddle fitter booked who is coming to see us in about 3 weeks, with a van full of saddles and the smile that comes from knowing there’s very little chance the existing saddle can be made to fit, so it’s probably going to have to be another saddle rather than a little re-flock. Slipping my fingers under the pommel when I’m onboard, I’m pretty sure it’s digging in, and pretty sure that’s the un-adjustable tree of the saddle that I can feel. I have asked them to bring out any second-hand saddles that would do for us as well as the new ones, but I won’t count my chickens that any of the second-hand ones will fit.

I also have the unease that comes of riding him in a saddle I know doesn’t fit as well as it should. He’s not showing any negative signs from it though, so it obviously doesn’t feel as bad as when the flocking compacted this time last year, when he would only move in straight lines because it dug in if he bent to go around a corner.

Anyway, although I am concerned about the saddle and the expense of a replacement, the balance is that other things are going very well for Drifter and I. In terms of my riding and his way of going, we continue to make great progress. When I saw Lee Pearson, which I think was only last week (can that be right?) I rode in a running martingale. While it’s not dressage legal, so I wasn’t sure what he’d think, I wanted to present us as we train, which lately has been with the martingale. Lee had no problem with that, and said that if it worked for us as a training aid, by all means ride with it. I said I felt I couldn’t get him on the bit consistently without the martingale yet and I felt it was better to get him working well and developing his muscles in it, and then take it off in the future. He agreed with that, but he also said I should make sure that from time to time I  take it off and see what we can manage without it. He said he thought I’d be able to do without it sooner than I might think.

I had a couple of flatwork sessions alone in the days after the session with Lee, and felt like I worked well on the pointers he’d given us. For the first time I realised that I had a soft, elastic contact; a supple yielding frame. Drifter went to lean through my left hand and as I corrected him for it I realised what I was experiencing prior to that attempt to lean. Rather than the constant tug of war at the front end we had achieved the goal. He was on the bit without tension, moving well from behind, into my hand, but not against my hand. This is new for us. In fact it’s new for me. I’ve never felt this on any horse before. Aside from the occasional blip, and the erratic variables that our canters are made from, we managed to keep that feeling a constant presence until our private jump lesson on Thursday.

On Thursday the tug of war was back, but he does get very excited jumping, and to be soft in the hand for jumping would be a lot to ask just yet. And so we jumped. It was excellent. We had no disagreements and no hairy moments, although there was one massive leap which shook me forward over his neck and caused the instructor to dryly comment, “This one can really jump!” Apparently he thought he needed to take off very early, necessitating the huge jump to be sure to clear the tiny cross-pole. As we were in trot at the time I’m not sure quite why, but maybe if I could have seen what he did it would have made more sense.

One of the new things that we did was to have two cross pole jumps with two strides between them; jump the first from trot and then pick up the canter on landing so we would jump the second from canter.

I found the concept of picking up canter without a corner rather a novel idea, and being naturally suspicious of novelty, I asked if I could try getting a canter on the straight without a jump first. The instructor agreed, and had me try picking up the canter on the long sides of the school rather than in the corners or on a circle (which were the only places I’d picked up canter in the past). Once I’d had a go at that we tried it with the jumps in and it went well. I did it on the first attempt but couldn’t manage it again until the fourth attempt. Nevertheless I was very pleased. She left me with a homework flatwork exercise: Trot down the centre line and decide whether you’re going to pick up left or right canter. Over X, canter on the lead you decided, continuing on the centre line and tracking right or left depending on which canter you chose. She told me it would be hard but it would be a really useful exercise.

The next time I rode, unfortunately, although we were alone we were in a school full of jumps, and the centre-line was entirely blocked. So we weren’t able to try out our new idea. Because the school was full of jumps, Drifter had his excited jumping head on, so I decided to make the best of what I had to work with. We had a workout weaving in and out between the jumps, picking up canter in random places, trying to steady the canter despite his excitement. About half way through we had some unexpected lateral work, when some lightweight plastic numbers, which had been used to number the jumps and then left on the fence, blew straight at us as we cantered past. It was the largest spook I’ve experienced from him, but it didn’t unbalance me and I brought him back to them to show him they weren’t scary. Which would have gone better if another gust hadn’t thrown another 3 straight at him. Oops, bad human. But this time he wasn’t nearly as worried or surprised and I hopped off, gathered them up and weighted them down and we continued. I was pleased with the way it all turned out, because it hadn’t been an ideal situation but nothing bad had happened and I hadn’t been worried or shaken by it. 

When I rode this morning we did not have to dodge jumps, but we did have a relatively short time and we were sharing a school, so I had limited opportunity to try the new “canter at X and go straight” idea. I did have a few goes though. I had expected to find it easier on the his easy left rein and harder on the traditionally weak right rein, but he surprised me. On the right rein I asked for the bend, asked for the canter, got it pretty much on X, kept straight-ish and turned right at the end of the school. All good. On the left rein though, it was another story. It was hard for me to get the bend right before asking for the canter. He is stiffer that way and it really exposed it. He even went on the wrong leg, i.e. he took the difficult right lead, upon which he is still unbalanced, presumably because I couldn’t get the bend right. Eventually we did get the correct left lead just after X but I could not keep him anywhere near the centre line and we veered off to the left cutting off about a third of the length of the school. Still, that was an improvement on the previous attempts and I had to leave it there.

Aside from when he got a bit over excited from the cantering, throughout today’s ride we had softness in the contact and he was carrying himself well. In all of the walk and trot work I felt he was in a nice outline. At no point did he try to lift his head, but stayed seeking the bit. Very nice. What I haven’t told you yet is that we weren’t using the martingale. I thought I’d take Lee’s advice and try without it, even though I thought we still needed it, just to get a ground-line on where we were. But apparently I can do without it! I’ll still use it for jumping, because when there are jumps there is every chance that he’ll get over excited, throw his head up and go like a giraffe every now and then, but when it comes to dressage, we can get that outline without the forbidden martingale. Hurray!


The fourth jump lesson

It was very pleasant to be looking forward to a jump lesson rather than dreading it. Whichever instructor it turned out to be and however many horses were in it, I was pretty sure I’d be fine … until I found the lesson had been moved inside as the outdoor schools are so boggy today.  That meant we were moving from a 60 x 30 m school to one 40 x 20 m and there would be 6 horses in the group. This did not feel good to me,  but at least we were having the owner teach the class, so I was hopeful that she would organise the available space as well as possible.

From the beginning she made it clear that at any point everyone except the one person jumping should be on the outside track, i.e. against the wall. The open order warmup was not to include canter – there would be an opportunity to canter individually after the initial warmup was done. This did wonders for my concerns.

During our individual canter we got the correct canter lead on the right rein first time. Woo!

In the indoor school it was more obvious just how many spectators watch the jump lessons, but I wasn’t too conscious of them.

We began with a pole on the ground some distance before a little cross pole.  We had to count the canter strides between the two.  When I was watching the others I couldn’t get the hang of it,  but when it was my turn it made more sense, and handily it was on our good canter rein.  Drifter got praise for his perfect neat 3 canter strides, which I managed to count on the second approach,  as on the first I was so focused on counting that I forgot to steer and we missed the jump.

Then we linked two jumps together that were not in a straight line and needed us to take a gentle reverse s shape to link them. To me this sent alarm bells ringing regarding canter leads,  so we did it in trot, and it went very nicely.  One of the others, a large horse inexperienced at jumping, did it in canter. I don’t know if the canter lead was the problem as I wasn’t watching his legs, but balance and steering were an issue as they came off the second jump and they pretty much crashed into the pony at the front of the ride, head to head. But nothing bad happened. This was the first time I’d seen a horse and rider actually get right inside the personal space of another horse and rider – it is something I worry about in these group lessons if I lose steering and Drifter loses his balance, but judging by the lessons so far, it seems we’re not as much in danger of doing it as I feared, because he understands how to jump. I also think that Drifter is quite submissive to other horses and so even if he is off-balance I think he would do his very best not to get in another horse’s face. But also I’m relieved to see that even when this crash that I had feared did happen, everyone was fine. Obviously the horses and riders involved were a bit ruffled, but the horses kept quite calm and gave their riders no trouble over it. So that’s another thing that I probably don’t need to worry about as much as I have been.

After that we tacked a third jump on the end of those two, but this was quite a straightforward line afterwards so we trotted over the first two, picked up canter and popped over the third, in a very satisfying way.

The next challenge added two more jumps to the beginning and one to the end. While part of me was insisting I couldn’t remember where to go over 6 jumps, other parts of me managed OK. So far I’d jumped everything on the right rein from trot and everything to the left in canter. This time I had a go at the first two, which were to the right, in canter. We got the right canter lead but as we jumped the first my foot and stirrup almost parted company, leaving the stirrup under the wrong part of my foot, so I steered away from the next as I didn’t feel secure to jump until I’d adjusted that. We went around to try again, this time struggling with the canter lead and going over in trot anyway. Ah well. I remembered the course and we got stronger as we went on, finishing with me feeling quite proud. The merit of jumping 6 things in a row is that if the start is not what you planned there’s still time to do better!

To finish off, we ended with two jumps in a straight line and a return to the ‘counting the strides between’ task. Unfortunately for us this was on our unbalanced right rein. The instructor suggested I approach in trot and just canter between the jumps. I’m sure this was a sensible suggestion but it confused me mightily and we did not manage a canter between the jumps. Then we were told to cool down. I was really sorry that the lesson, which I’d felt really good about until then, was going to end with me being all confused like that so I asked if I could just jump one more thing so I didn’t finish on a bad one. After being told that the instructor will decide when it’s a bad one, not me 😉 , she told me to do the same again. It went worse, to the outside observer, but mentally it went much better for me so I didn’t care. But as it looked worse she sent me to do it one more time. I’m not sure if that was any better, but I’m glad I had those extra goes.

It’s difficult because I want to get my confidence up by jumping from his balanced trot, not his unbalanced canter (whether right or wrong lead he’s always unbalanced on the right rein) but on the other hand if I don’t try then it will turn into a big deal and that will make it more difficult.

On the subject of the canter lead, I managed to lunge him one night this week (owing to the waterlogging issues lately it’s been really hard to get a chance to lunge unless you’re there at seriously antisocial hours, so I haven’t managed it for about a month) and it was very productive. I started with him in the pessoa to get him working, but after 10 minutes I took it off to work on the canter without it. I wanted him to be free to move how he chose so that he would better learn which canter lead was balanced and which unbalanced. Using Lee Pearson’s advice, when he was on the wrong leg I brought the circle smaller so he could feel why it was wrong. Once he got it right I let go out on a bigger circle and let him “have a coffee break” in walk. It worked really well and he got the correct leg maybe 80% of the time, which is real progress. There was one moment where I rolled my eyes at him for getting the right lead, then doing a flying change to the wrong one, but by and large he really seemed to be learning. I hope I’ll be able to repeat that, but the school situation is still problematic.

From a jumping point of view, I think it’s now feeling much more “ordinary” to leave the ground on the back of a horse. From an all round point of view I wish that the jump group was once a fortnight and I could have  a flat lesson in between. Working on the canter alone is going well, but I could really use eyes on the ground more often to let me know if I’m correct when I feel like the lead is wrong or right. I had thought I was making progress on feeling the lead, but today it felt wrong to me when it was actually right, so I still have work to  do there that I can’t really do alone. I could decide to go to the jump group only on alternate weeks, but I would miss out. If I hadn’t gone today I would have missed the work on counting a stride, and then when the group built on that  in future that I would have been at sea. At the moment I don’t feel that I have the stamina for a jump lesson and a flat lesson in the same week, and of course like everyone we have January finances to consider!

Richard from Centaur Biomechanics is coming back later this month but I don’t know if I want a session with him or not. On the one hand I think highly of him and you get lovely videos out of it, but on the other I have so many new ideas and new opinions on my riding in my head at the moment and not enough time for it to all settle out and sink it. It’s not long since we saw the-dressage-judge-that-upset-me and Lee Pearson, and since then I’ve had two different instructors for the jump lessons. Do I really want to add another set of opinions right now? Especially as we’ll be seeing Lee again in February. But Richard doesn’t have an intrusive style of coaching, so he probably wouldn’t add too much to my overfull brain…

I may find that by the time I make up my mind there aren’t any slots left and this will all be academic. Hmm.

Time to tie up this waffle, I think, and wish you all a very happy 2014. Let’s make it a good one.

The beginner jump group – lesson 1

It was always going to be a busy weekend, with the first lesson of the jump group on Saturday and the Christmas show on Sunday, so I was not best pleased on Friday night to realise that I had a cold. But I decided to try to go ahead with everything and then pull out half way through if needs be, so I turned up for the first beginner jump lesson as planned, but not feeling that I was on my “A” game.

The lesson was not taken by the yard owner, as had been planned, but by one of the instructors. I’ve had lessons with her before, but not recently. There were also considerably more horses in the school than the 3 others we’d been expecting … there were 7 of us in total, which when you consider that D and I usually work alone or with one other, that was enough to get the pair of us worked up before we’d even started the lesson proper!

After the somewhat concerning warmup in open order (the first time I’d ever experienced a walk, trot and canter open order warm up) and no one had crashed into each other, we formed a ride and  proceeded to practice our jump position in walk and trot. Then we did some trotting poles. This was all much more in my comfort zone than the warmup had been.

I pretty much knew that the assurance from the owner that there’d be no actual jumps in the first session meant nothing now she wasn’t teaching it, so I wasn’t that surprised when the instructor set up a tiny cross pole.

At this point I’d realised that every other rider there had considerably more jump experience than me with my 1 jump lesson 18 months ago. I was certainly the only one there on a horse I’d never jumped before. Although it had been advertised as a beginner group it had turned into a back-to-basics group as a result of the people who booked in.

Someone fell off during the jump position work, which did no favours for my nerves.

So when it was our turn we aimed at the tiny cross pole in trot… and he took it in his trot stride. It was put up a bit and he, again, decided with a little effort a trot stride would do the job. As we were approaching on the right rein I’d been hoping to get a jump from trot so I didn’t have to approach my first jump on the wrong canter lead, but instead everyone changed the rein so we approached on our easy left canter.

I had a reasonably straight line in and got to the fence, where I felt a considerable lift and heard an “ooh” from the instructor. We landed. I thought I was falling off, but suspect that might just have been what landing feels like, as then I was up and braking to avoid crashing into the back of the ride. Apparently he’d jumped very big. I’m told this is because we came in too fast, but if he has a steadier canter I’m not sure where to find it.

I have a half memory of being sent round to do it again, and I imagine that was a more modest sized jump, but I can’t say more about it than that.

Then as if I wasn’t far enough out of my comfort zone, the instructor announced a course of 3 jumps, starting with the approach on the tricky right rein. At this point I panicked and could not take in the course, no matter how many times it was explained to me and how many other riders I watched. Eventually the instructor suggested just doing the first jump and I asked if I could approach in trot.

This went well and we cantered away, D in charge of steering, while I got over the shock of having jumped again, and as he happened to have turned towards the next jump, we did that too. We came round to the third one but, it being the first thing put in front of me that wasn’t a cross pole, I didn’t like the look of it. So I stopped him about 10 meters away from it. The instructor dropped one end of it to the floor, we went over that, and the lesson was done.

The verdict from all and sundry was that Drifter really likes jumping, which I had suspected, and that he’s really bloody fast in canter. Considering that I know he didn’t show anything like his fastest canter, and I thought he was quite steady, for him, this surprised me a little.

It seems I may need a stronger bit, but as so far this week he’s broken his flash and his water bucket, last week I paid out on clipping, a new cooler rug and an exercise sheet, as well as the Lee Pearson lesson, use of the wash box and show entry fees as well as the usual bills, I can’t do any more spending. Perhaps we can borrow one or perhaps I can be firmer in the bit we’ve got. We also need a martingale (luckily I do have one) and I need a body protector. I had been assured as we wouldn’t jump yet I didn’t need one yet, but that theory has been disproved. I’m not sure how I’m going to manage that one.

Generally I feel like the lesson was too much too quickly. I have to keep reminding myself I stayed on and I actually jumped things. On the one hand I’m not sure the group’s right for me, but on the other hand if I don’t do it there won’t be another opportunity to join a group like this. I’m already behind the standard of the group – if I don’t stick with it there will be no chance of joining them later.

I’ve toyed with the idea of dropping out of the group and continuing privately, but that has many disadvantages, among which is the fact that I’m more likely to do it if it’s a set class at a set time than if I have to arrange a jump lesson myself and can say “oh, I’m too tired this week, I won’t bother, we’ll jump next week.” Next week might never come.

I think I’m going to give it another week or two and see how it goes. Bearing in mind that I’ve done virtually no cantering all year until the last fortnight, this group is a bit of a tall order for me, but perhaps in another fortnight of cantering and these jump lessons it will be a better fit. It is disappointing that at present the group isn’t what was advertised and I don’t know what to expect from it, but I’ll give it a go.

After the lesson the school was free and myself and one of the other riders who I’ve made friends with since moving to a stable near her remained in the school. Her husband set up some canter poles for her and invited me to have a go as well. I hadn’t ever done canter poles (surely I should have had a chance to do those before having a jump put in front of me?) but had a go. I’m not sure what Drifter did with his legs exactly… he didn’t kick any poles but I think he was quite inventive about how he missed them because it was distinctly bouncy and un-rhythmic from my point of view – I’m pretty sure we had big strides and little ones and a little hop. We had a few goes in both directions, once even on the correct right canter lead, and he remained inventive throughout. I suspect slowing him down so he’ll do a normal length canter stride is going to be a challenge… and quite the opposite of how we have been working recently. I think we did the canter poles badly, but that was probably more useful for me than doing them well – I needed to see that nothing bad happens when you do canter poles badly.

They also gave me the chance to let off some steam with only one other horse and rider in the arena. I needed that too.

Overall I’m kind of annoyed with myself. I know Drifter and I did really well. Not only did I learn jump position, we got over jumps. We even strung two together. I didn’t fall off, and he didn’t stop listening to me. Yes, he got excited and I got scared, but that is to be expected. He’s not jumped for a year and likes jumping so he got excited. I’ve only tried jumping once before and narrowly missed hitting the floor so I got scared. He’s fast and lacks balance so we lack finesse.

The annoyance comes because somehow I can’t feel that we did well. I know it rationally, and half the yard has told me we did well, but I’m just not connecting with it. Maybe it’s because I’m exhausted and my sinuses are full of glue. Maybe it’s because I can’t stop measuring myself against others whose situation is not comparable. Maybe it’s because my expectations of myself are too high. Who knows. Anyway, the facts are that we jumped stuff, even though I wasn’t expecting to, and that I stayed on even when he jumped rather larger than was expected by anyone present. That can’t be bad.


A lesson with Lee Pearson

Following my last experience with having a lesson with “someone from outside,” I was somewhat worried about having a lesson with the holder of 10 gold Paralympic medals and a CBE, among other accoutrements. Had I not paid a deposit ahead of time I would not have gone through with it this close to the last one.

But I had paid, so we were doing it.

As quite a few people had had their lessons before me I was able to find out what to expect. Lee Pearson would be seated in his (beautifully shiny red 4×4) car in the corner of the school and would be speaking to me through a microphone/earpiece. I would wear the earpiece and battery pack. Everyone seemed to have enjoyed their lessons, but I wasn’t placing too much store in that as last time everyone but me enjoyed their lessons.

D being generally easy-going about such things I knew I wouldn’t have to worry too much about the car being in the school, so at least all I had to worry about in that regard was not crashing into it. That would be embarrassing, to say the least.

Owing to my little holiday, I hadn’t ridden for 3 days beforehand, which felt like a ridiculously long time, so I was keen to get on board for bit before the lesson. Luckily I managed a 15 min warm up before my slot and we pottered around. I’m glad I did as it helped me to go into the lesson more confident and I’m sure the warmup was good for woolly-boy.

The preceding rider was the eldest of the teens, with her immaculately groomed horse plaited and herself looking smart in white jodhs and a black jacket. She’s been riding her horse for 8 years so they’re a pretty “together” package. On the other hand my horse was a bit grubby, desperate for a mane pulling and I was head to toe in purple*, more by luck than judgement. Ah well. If I spent energy stressing about the way we looked I’d have little left for the lesson.

So my slot rolled around and we entered the school and introduced ourselves. I explained where we were with the canter (i.e. me barely cantering at all these days). If he’d have said he didn’t want us to canter I’d have been fine with that, but I was pleased to hear that he did want us to have a go.

And by Pegasus** we cantered!

But first a little trot work. In trot we did a delightfully fun exercise – within the trot we varied the speed to the min and the max. We tried to find (and sustain) the slowest trot he was capable of without it becoming a walk and the fastest trot without it becoming a canter. The slow trot fascinated me and focussed me; the fast delighted me.

Since I got this horse I have been told “steady the trot,” “slow the rhythm,” “stop him rushing,” “tick-tock, slow and steady.” A constant litany that I should be holding him back, slowing the rising, steady, steady, slower. And being obedient, so I have done. I have almost never urged him on in trot – always the constant insistence that he slows down. So to let him go and even ask for more speed was such a release. It was hard to find the balance of asking for more but staying in trot, but it was great fun trying.

The idea was then to ask for the canter from this trot, because horses, if left to their own devices, or on the lunge, run into canter. This was in complete contrast to anything that had been suggested before, but I’m always happy to try something new. The other big new concept for me was that if he went on the wrong leg we would keep cantering and come onto a circle. To let him feel that cantering that way on a circle is harder than doing it properly. To make the circle smaller if he didn’t seem to get it. To come back to trot for only a few strides, make sure I had inside bend and ask again for while the legs were really active under him, helping him to strike off right.

The first right canter was on the wrong leg, so we sailed around the school at great pace on the wrong leg. I won’t say I’ve never done this before, but it’s the first time I’ve done it without feeling bad about it! Yes we were unbalanced, but hey, we were both learning things!

The next time I asked for canter two amazing things happened.

1) He picked up the correct lead

2) It felt better than the wrong one

Point 1 proved that Lee’s method works for us. Point 2 probably also supports that, but also suggests that the weak leg is stronger than it was. Last time I cantered him on the right leg on that rein it felt just as wrong as being on the wrong leg. Progress has been made.

Of course all of this was a bit worrying for the woolly-boy. And when he worries he goes faster. Which is how we ended up flying round at great speed in little circles, not always on the right leg, with no brakes. Having a humorous and chilled out voice in my earpiece was rather helpful at these times and although there were hairy moments where I argued briefly with centrifugal and centripetal forces, there was only one moment where I felt the pull of gravity and knew all my weight was in one stirrup and wondered if it and the girth would hold me. There were also a few moments when we wondered if we would hit a wall (or worse – Lee’s beautiful shiny car), but every crisis was averted, one way or another.

So we didn’t have brakes or, at some points, steering. But we had speed, we had canter and we had fun. We also had a flying change at one point, apparently.

Was it a controlled, elegant ride? Nope!

Was it the first time I’ve ridden my horse like we’re both alive? Maybe.

Was it out of our comfort zones? Yes.

Are we going to ride like that again? Hell yes.

That was the canter exhilaration I’ve only had at Caeiago before. I didn’t know you could get that in a school. I didn’t know I could get that in a school. I didn’t know we could get that in a school. You may recall that in previous posts I’ve been pretty excited about cantering a single 20m circle? Well I had no idea I/we were capable of the canter circles we did with Lee.

We discussed lunging, briefly. Lee recommended, as under saddle, that if he goes on the wrong leg on the lunge, fine, let him canter on the wrong leg, but bring him into a smaller circle to help him learn that it would be easier to go correctly.

I feel that what I learnt from Lee (apart from that I can stick on better than I thought 😉 ) is a way of helping Drifter learn for himself rather than a way to teach him. This feels right to me. I can’t teach a horse how to canter. I am not a horse. I am not an experienced horse-woman. He is the horse, and the responsibility to learn is with him. Yes I will learn alongside him and give him all the support I can, but I can’t do his job as well as mine.

I realise that I have written little about Lee Pearson. This was not my intention, but on the other hand I don’t want to delete anything I have written and I don’t want this to turn into another epic post.

The most important thing I can write about Lee is that if you ever see an opportunity to have a lesson from him, seize it. Everyone I spoke to who had a lesson from him came out glowing and beaming and asking when we could get him back for another day of lessons (I believe February is a possibility). We were riders and horses of all different ability levels, personalities and experiences but every one of us had a positive experience.

What else should I say. That he was funny? Undoubtedly. That he kept me calm when others would have panicked me? Definitely. That he made me feel capable, positive and empowered*** regarding my riding and my horse? Certainly.

But these things do not capture the character of Lee Pearson, and he has a great deal of character. Instead I will try to quote a few of the things he said to me. It is inevitable that I will have remembered these in my own words, which is a shame, as I would rather offer you his, but I cannot do anything about that. I’ll do my best to capture the spirit. For the full experience read them to yourself with a grin.

“I want you to leave today as a canter-whore.”

“Your horse has energy a lot of warmbloods don’t have. It’s good to see in a native breed.”

“I don’t know you from Adam but I’m proud of you.”

“I’m so glad you didn’t end up hitting the wall because then you would have left with this being a negative experience.”

Readers, I think I might be a canter-whore.


Lee Pearson links:


*Well not actually head to toe – hat, boots and half-chaps were black(ish), so actually I was knee to neck in purple if you want to be exact.

**Insert deity of choice.

***I tend to avoid this word or use it ironically because it’s so overused in certain circles. But in this sentence it’s here to do a job without irony.