Buzzword: Positivity – Great Witchingham 1

I’ve been away for a while, so this report is slightly late! I’ll not dwell on it for long, but the long and short of it is that I decided I’d give up being negative about my riding and myself generally for Lent, and I realised that most of what I was doing on here was pointing out all the negatives in what I was doing, just so that no one else could. I think the thinking was if I put myself down first, then there’s no room for anyone else to. Which is a really awful way to live. So I’ve taken a break, and come back resolute in that I’m not going to be down on myself.

So let’s go!

Great Witchingham – 24/3/19

The story of our second event of the season starts the day before, when I looked at the course pictures on Twitter Eventing. I thought I saw a Trakehner. That was that. I was on the floor.

I couldn’t eat, I felt wobbly, I was stammering. And I was furious at myself. Socks and I can take on Trakehners. We’re fine. So why was it getting to me so badly?

I got down the yard, and whipped out my phone to show Mia why I was in such a state. Then I looked at the pictures again. Not only was the fence I was panicking about not a Trakehner at all, it was an alternative for if I didn’t want to jump a corner.

For God’s sake, Heath. Get a grip!

After that, I felt much happier.

The next day, we arrived at Great Witchingham on a lovely sunny day, met up with a couple of friends, had a lovely chat with my old Pony Club DC who is over the moon that we’re finally jumping again (which was a lovely boost!) and walked the course. There were plenty of questions, but I like a technical course because it means I’ve got more to think about rather than just “oh please I hope Socks doesn’t stop”.

We went down to dressage in good spirits. That was, until I got there and realised I’d learnt the wrong test. Arse.

Luckily, my years of being a full time dressage diva had prepared me well for this moment, and I learnt the new test in twenty minutes and rode through it without any mistakes, coming out with a 35. Not too shabby!

Things only got better when we then showjumped clear.

Phoebe’s advice for the cross country was short and simple: “Heather, you kick like <guess the word> round that cross country.”


Heather and Socks jumping a chair fence on the cross country course
Photo courtesy of Real Time Imaging

I even managed to smile in the start box. Somehow. Off we went, and I was determined. She was not stopping at the first fence like last time. And she didn’t.

Fence four I thought she’d look at – nope, flew over it – fence five was a corner off an odd line and she has been known to decide at the last minute that she isn’t a fan of corners, but not this time! Straight over it. It was fast, it was flowing, and I was having a great time. Such a great time that I completely stuffed up my line to fence seven, a wall into trees, and we picked up some stupid penalties.

But we put it behind us almost as soon as it had happened, and off we were again – two ditches, a steep quarry and the water later and I realised we were nearly done.

Then, this happened:

Good save

Not really how I wanted to finish the round!

Coming out of the quarry over a rail, Socks saw something. I still to this day have no idea what. She went from three quarter canter to halt in no seconds flat and I ended up hanging off her side.

I was bloody well not falling off that horse.

After I finally managed to get myself back into the saddle, I got Socks over to the fence, made the correction and we popped over it on a representation. Although the fence judge hadn’t said anything, I knew we must have racked up at least two refusals but I wasn’t stopped, so on I went.

We finished, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Event two, done and dusted.

Mum jogged up to us looking grim. We’d been given three refusals at fence sixteen and we’d been eliminated.

Again, I was FURIOUS at myself. Why didn’t I think better? That was easily avoidable! I am so lucky to have everyone in TWF behind me, because without their encouragement and kind words afterwards I’d have been looking at another week of being miserable and feeling like I’d failed. Not too long after, I realised that actually, the positives far outweighed the one negative. I’d got a decent dressage score, even though I learnt the wrong test. I’d showjumped clear. We’d jumped through all the difficult parts of the cross country phase no problem, and my friends who were fence judging said that the other judges were really complimentary about our round.

All that remains now is to get that elusive double clear. Our next event is the Riding Clubs qualifier at Keysoe, also known as our second home, so I’ll be gunning for a double clear there. Let’s go!

And, just to prove a point:

Here I am, jumping Trakehners not just on Socks but Gem too. THEY. ARE. FINE!

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Event season: go!!

So, we did it. First event of the season completed, over the finish line and I only threw up once. Result!

I spent the week running up to it quite surprised at myself – I was actually more excited than I was nervous. Here I was going into an event the most well prepared I’d ever been, and I was going to give it my best shot and NOT hold myself to any ridiculous standards or compare myself to anyone else. Consequently, I didn’t look at Facebook for a week beforehand!

We’d been to Poplar Park once before, at the end of 2017 when Rachel was helping us like jumping again. We did a pairs hunter trial at 80, and then Socks and I went on our own. That was our first cross country completion, and not only that, we were clear! So, going back felt almost like homecoming.

It was such a windy day that Mum was more worried about driving the lorry than she was about us competing. Socks, on the other hand (thankfully) had taken a leaf out of Gem’s book and was profoundly not bovved.

We got there early, walked the course, and by then I was keen to get started. The nerves were creeping in.

Dressage is always our chill time before the adrenaline kicks in. Socks warmed up really nicely in the wind – I couldn’t have asked any more from her at all. By the side of our arena was an upturned wheelbarrow. And, it was pink. I saw a wheelbarrow, and, as expected, Socks saw a dragon. But we had a discussion about it, decided it wasn’t going to eat anybody, and to my surprise, Socks actually believed me for once. We did a solid test, even if we did get the dreaded bell for walking a marker too early. Oops. And then the judge decided to change three of our 7s to 6.5s after the test had finished, I saw on the sheet. Since it still came out at 33.5, I couldn’t really complain.

Heather and Socks in trot in their dressage test

Onto showjumping, and yet again we had to have a discussion about the flags and banners outside the shops alongside the arena. And yet again, once we got jumping, Socks believed me when I told her they were pinned down and couldn’t get to her to eat her. She warmed up well, I remembered to kick, and in we went.

I don’t know what happened approaching the first fence. I froze, fixated on the bottom of the fence, and of course Socks ground to a halt.

That woke me up, I can tell you.

Round again, all the kicks, and off we went. Since I was going for forward and positive we took the front pole of fence six with us, but that was a sacrifice I was willing to take.

Heather and Socks jumping an upright fence during their showjumping round.

Eight faults was better than elimination!

From then it was a race against time to get on the cross country course before the adrenaline drained away and the nerves started to kick in. By now my calves were starting to ache, and I knew there was more kicking on to come. Get a grip, Heath, I told myself. It’s only five more minutes!

Under starters orders, while I was doing my best to gee Socks up so we could leave the box with some oomph, I hear a voice above the wind:

Heather! BREAAATHE!

It was Rachel, who’d popped down after her round to make sure I didn’t lose the plot. Not only did I breathe, I grinned as well.

“And KICK!!” Finished Mum from behind me.

3, 2, 1, and off we went. I fumbled with my whip and yet again, Socks slid to a stop in front of the first fence.

I was FURIOUS with myself.

Yet again, it was the kick up the arse I needed and we then bopped round clear. Socks did make me work for it – after having one stop she was a bit unsure of herself, so I had to be confident for both of us. See, we can do it when I kick on and breathe!

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Of course, me being me, I couldn’t just be happy that we’d completed our second ever BE event. Or that I’d overcome my nerves and ridden Socks round clear (barring the false start). I can’t put into words how much just a few voice messages with Phoebe helped. She has a special talent for bringing out the best in people and I couldn’t be more grateful. She pointed out to me that just six months ago, I fell to pieces after making a mistake, and riding as positively as I did would have been completely unheard of. And she was right.

As a result, I’ve made a pact to be nicer to myself. How can I expect to improve and enjoy my horse if I never accept anything I do as good enough? There are always going to be people doing better than me, and that’s OK. I’ll always want to achieve the next level, because that’s just who I am, but I’m never going to get there if I don’t stop to celebrate our successes.

So, a bit of a late decision, but I’m giving up negativity for Lent. And after Lent, too.

The 10 minute wobble

This weekend we went away for our pre-season boot camp, two days of showjumping with Simon Grieve and cross country with Phoebe. I. Am. So. Sore.

DOMS and tiredness aside, I’m feeling in the best position yet for our upcoming season.

Our first day was fantastic – I got some really good ideas for exercises to try at home from Simon and I’m finally starting to feel the balance between forwardness and energy in our showjumping canter. Out on the cross country course, I was warming up and couldn’t stop grinning – I was having fun.

“Heather, I’m going to put a tin lid on you, because I think you’re getting a bit overexcited.”

– Phoebe, after Socks and I warmed up. She wasn’t wrong!

We did calm down, and I really felt the benefit of slowing down, taking a breath and giving the both of us more time to plan and think about what we were doing. We jumped two Trakehners, first time, no stops. Socks was happy, I was happy, it was a good day!

I first went on the cross country course at Milton Keynes four years ago, when I was twenty and fully in the grip of being a nervous wreck. I looked up at the giant picture frame fence and turned green. I didn’t even dare to hope that one day I’d jump it, purely because the very idea made me want to turn around and gallop in the other direction.

Heather and Socks jumping the picture frame fence

What a difference the last year has made!

The shortest wobble

Showjumping the next day went just as well, but even so, walking down onto the cross country course, I felt the pit of my stomach go. I didn’t get it – I’d had such a good day, and ten minutes ago I’d felt so confident. I had absolutely no reason to feel nervous, yet there I was, breathing my way through it.

We warmed up the same as the day before. We had a slight misunderstanding on strides where I saw a long one, but thought Socks would probably go for the short one. Socks also saw the long stride and took it. It didn’t help.

Before long, Socks had started to stop, I’d started to freeze, and breathing was a whole other issue. “I need to get a bloody grip!” I said to Phoebe and Rachel, furious at myself. Phoebe told me to jump the fences again, take a breath, and kick.

And, I did.

Every time I had an anxious thought, I told Socks to go forward. I kicked on, I breathed, and I got through it. As quickly as my nerves had set in, I’d told them to sod off. I couldn’t believe it. I hadn’t fallen off, and more importantly Socks was still happy to jump things for me.

Heather and Socks jumping a table with a V-shaped top out on a cross country course

The second time I came on the cross country course at Milton Keynes, two years ago when I was twenty-two, and going for my first go over solid fences for eighteen months, I looked at that fence and hoped one day I’d have my life together enough to jump it.

So although before I went, I wanted to have a confident weekend where I didn’t make any mistakes, I was actually happier I’d had a wobble. I feel stronger now I know I can get over them myself, and they don’t mean game over. I can ride through my nerves!

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Riding club dressage areas – highs and lows!

After last weekend, I’m all a bit confused. Back when we weren’t jumping, we used to do so much pure dressage – it was like our big, warm, comfort blanket. This year, possibly for the first time ever, I’ve spent most of the winter jumping and it feels like I’ve come back to my old friend only to find that they’ve found a new one.

I should start by saying that Mum and Gem had a fab day – Mum set herself the goal of doing areas when she first got Gem last July and even though there have been times when we thought it might not happen, she’s shoved her nerves aside and made it happen, improving on her last score by 5%. Go on Mum!!

Preparation: better late than never

With all the nervousness around the equine flu outbreak, up until the week before areas, it wasn’t looking like we were going to go at all, but when racing started up again our travel ban was lifted, and I had three days to sort my tests out. I mean, I’ve had less time to learn tests in my life, and they’re both tests I’ve ridden before, but as we all know, I don’t like rushing myself, much less Socks.

Luckily the night before areas, both Mum and I had lessons with Phil Wells, who often comes to our yard to do clinics. And I had a lightbulb moment. Unfortunately, as is often the case with my riding, lightbulb moments often entail an entire overhaul of my position, technique and entire thought process. In a nutshell, I wasn’t going to master it overnight. I realised that I needed to sit still, do less, and generally let Socks get on with it.

As it turns out, being a control freak doesn’t always help.

Off to areas

All winter, we’ve been practising taking Socks and Gem off the yard together and riding them separately without them losing the plot. We thought we’d made some progress.

For the first time, though, Gem got to go out and play first.

Socks was NOT happy.

We’ve always known that she’s a diva, a princess, and a jealous only child, but I’ve never seen her throw a strop quite like this one. She was absolutely furious. Kicking, screaming, stamping, throwing her head around. I’m sure if she’d had the space she’d have got down and rolled on the floor, stamping her feet like a toddler. That was, until we took Gem away to do her test and then aside from a few disgruntled grunts, she settled down.

It’s a good thing she’s pretty.

The next issue came when it finally was her turn, and we came to tack her up.

Some of you may have noticed that Socks always wears ear covers when she’s ridden. This started off as a way of keeping the flies out of her ears in summer. Another thing you need to know about Socks is that she’s hysterically headshy, and trying to plait her forelock is a battle of Middle Earth proportions. Now, do you see why the ear cover is such a valuable piece of equipment when we’re out competing?

We couldn’t find it anywhere.

But…

Socks in her bridle with her forelock plaited.

Just call me Aragorn. I won.

After making out I was trying to brain her for ten minutes, she just stood still and let me do it. I’ll take what wins I can.

After all the excitement, the competing was fairly uneventful. Our first test I thought went quite nicely – Socks stopped calling for Gem long enough to concentrate, she was lovely and relaxed over her back, and I managed to sit still and not rely on my hands. Result! I was buzzing.

Heather and Socks riding Novice 24 in working trot. Socks looks relaxed but is a bit on the forehand.

A rare image of me actually sitting properly in a dressage test!

The second test was a bit more… hairy. This arena was closer to the lorry park, so Socks and Gem could now hear each other. So, Socks spent the majority of the test yelling. Even though she doesn’t throw her head in the air or anything like that, her focus wasn’t quite there and for me at the time the test just felt a bit hit and miss, with the good bits being really good and the rest being a bit meh.

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We couldn’t stick around for all of the results, but we were there long enough to see that the first test only got 62%. I’ll admit, I was pretty devastated. I was so pleased that I’d kept Socks calm and implemented everything I’d learnt the night before, and I just didn’t understand why it hadn’t paid off. Later that night, I found out that our second test had placed 8th! Where had my feel gone?

Looking at the videos and pictures now, I can see that the first test just needed more collection and hind leg engagement, and although the second test felt slightly hairy, the extra energy gave Socks another level of forwardness, engagement and general pizzazz. I was just focusing on the wrong things, and although I was pleased with myself for improving what I’d wanted to, I just needed to take it a step further.

I still haven’t seen the test sheets, or found out what the score was on the second test, but that’s probably a good thing because I’ll be able to read the comments with a bit less rage! As much as I’d have loved to have ridden an overnight fix, that just doesn’t happen and now, I’ve got a better idea of what to ride for next time. Bring it on!

A role reversal

In seven years of having Socks, one thing we’ve never done together is go competing on our own… until now.

We often take ourselves off training without a buddy, but all the extra nerves and hysteria that often goes along with competition never made me thought going on our own would be a good idea – especially not jumping! But, as it happened, both bear and I stayed zen.

We were off to Keysoe, (where else!) two days after mine and Mum’s joint dressage outing for the arena eventing organised by our riding club, sticking at 80. The threat of snow hadn’t completely gone away, we didn’t have a buddy, and Socks hadn’t seen a cross country fence since Horseheath in October. It was certainly a gag-on-your-breakfast sort of morning, but I was about to find out that my horse was going to sort my life out for me!

We know that the reason Socks and I had a lot of confidence issues while I was at university was because I was a bag of nerves, tied with a nice bow of stressiness. Now I’ve decided to take a bit more control of my life and remove as much stress as I can, Socks (and me!) are much, much happier. Up until now, it’s mostly been a case of me pretending I felt confident so Socks would pick up on it, and it seems that it’s really started to rub off.

I may have been slightly jittery, but Socks was as chilled as the gin and tonic I treated myself to later. I’d booked her a stable because I was volunteering, and even when I unloaded her and led her in a completely different direction with a giant plastic (normally terrifying) blue bag filled with a haynet in one hand and a water bucket in another, she was entirely not bovved.

Actually, that’s a lie – she didn’t stay calm when she realised we were jumping. She was bouncing with excitement, bounding forward, ears pricked, and it was joyous. I needn’t have worried about her not seeing a cross country fence for so long.

I went through my usual rituals – making sure I was definitely happy with the course, having a plan, warming up on my terms, and in a role reversal, Socks’ exuberance actually bolstered my confidence.

I can’t tell you how fab it is to have gone from sitting frozen, so nervous that she might stop that I couldn’t ride properly, to having to sit deep and use half-halts because Socks is now so keen and confident she gets too flat. As we turned for the cross country phase, I went to use my whip – only I didn’t need to.

Cross country fences!! Yeeeeahhh!!

– Socks, as soon as she realised we were jumping solid fences.

She stonked round the cross country phase, clear and unstoppable. I couldn’t stop grinning! We one down in the show-jumping, and then the joker as well, but that’s down to me needing to do more to balance her. Ending up with 1.6 too fast time faults, we placed 9th.

Heather and Socks cantering during their arena eventing round

Photo courtesy of Hoofprints – sadly one from last year as I didn’t have anyone to film for me!

I can certainly say I’m now well and truly looking forward to the event season! We’ve entered for the 80 at Poplar Park, so fingers crossed we get in…

Mother-daughter dressage!

Ever since Mum and I first became horse owners, a little over a decade ago, we’ve always wanted to go competing together with a best buddy each. This week, we finally achieved that dream!

Heather and Socks and her Mum and Gem standing together in the outdoor arena at Keysoe

It was a good day for accomplishing things: I needed to get started on my goal of qualifying for the Area Festivals, and, as Mum challenged herself to ride the riding club dressage areas, we were there for a dry run. Luckily, Keysoe ran the same test Mum will be riding at areas a couple of weeks before!

It was our first time taking Gem off the yard to compete but even though we knew she probably wouldn’t be bothered, Socks and Gem still haven’t quite got to grips with leaving the yard together and then separating. At home, they’ll bicker like proper sisters, but off the yard, they’re suddenly best friends…

Mine and Socks’ first test, Novice 39, just happened to be about twenty minutes before Mum’s, so we warmed up together. I was called in, but didn’t get a chance to tell Mum I was going, which was probably a good thing, because Gem didn’t notice that Socks had disappeared. At first.

Socks, of course, did notice that we’d left Mum and Gem behind, and sadly, the lovely supple, impulsive trot (with actual cadence!) melted away. It wasn’t until the second canter that Gem suddenly realised that we’d disappeared, and yelled across the indoor school. At least I learned something about Socks: she can neigh at the top of her voice, and still maintain a contact!

All things considered, I was actually quite pleased with the test – Socks did (sort of) calm down and did some nice work. Aside from the walk, where she suddenly saw a table and it was the MOST TERRIFYING THING. And then she was over it.

Oh, thoroughbreds.

Heather and Socks in collected trot in their elementary test

We got what we came for: the test came out at 64%, so we’re halfway there for our qualifying scores!

Our elementary came later, and although we managed to perform all the right moves, it all just needs a little bit more oomph and pizzazz. We’ll work on it! I was initially disappointed with our 61%, but I had to admit to myself that it was a bit flat. And we haven’t done pure dressage since last May. Call it consistency!

Next, and more importantly, it was Mum’s turn.

She was nervous, but she wasn’t letting it get to her. Gem thought the whole experience was the most exciting thing ever, like, ever, but she didn’t bounce or buck – even when a grumpy lady cut them up in canter and refused to even look at Mum when she apologised.

(I won’t get started on that. Everyone has to start somewhere. There’s no need to be rude.)

It was certainly an experience for me – I’ve helped people warm up before, but never whilst on my horse, dodging other horses. The key was helping Mum to relax her position, mainly in her hands and shoulders, to help Gem to relax and
work in a supple rhythm.

Mum and Gem cantering in their prelim test

As soon as they turned for the arena, they both visibly breathed out. I even saw Mum smile at the judge! They got through the test, made transitions in all the right places, and cantered on both reins without any mishaps or silliness. Goal: smashed!

And, Mum beat the lady who was rude to her. Result.

We’ve come a long way from having to all but bully Mum into cantering her horse. The difference in them as a partnership now they’ve passed this milestone is just fabulous, and so lovely to see. Here’s one very proud daughter!

Thinking forward and planning for success

It was our first BRC area qualifier of the year, and going on how we’ve been jumping recently, I knew I had to challenge myself. However, sure-fire way of making myself too nervous to keep a hold of the plot is to put pressure on my performance! Keysoe is, for all intents and purposes, sort of like our home ground, so being somewhere comfortable was the perfect time to push myself. As it turned out, it wasn’t just our jump rounds that I was pleased with myself for!

We arrived with enough time to walk the course before the competition started – what a luxury! – especially as, as the organisers were worried about losing the light with one hundred and three riders in my arena, there were no course walks after the class started. Luckily, I was number 55 and not 103!

Maybe it was being among lots of familiar faces, maybe it was my decent planning for once, or maybe because I helped a friend with her warm up before my round, but my nerves felt really settled. Of course I still had pre-competing jitters, but once I learnt the course it stayed in my head, and after having the luxury of Phoebe warming me up quite a lot in the past, I had a plan in the warm up arena and followed it.

She clonked this upright with all her strength, but I’ve read far too many Jilly Cooper novels to look back or celebrate before we’ve crossed the finish line.

In the outdoor arena at Keysoe, I always know that there are two big points to get Socks to get a grip of before we start: the veranda in front of the cafe and any fences with the Keysoe logo. Of course, the fence with the Keysoe logo on happened to be a full-up spread alongside the veranda.

No problem – we got into the arena, trotted up the side of the veranda, crossed around the back of the Keysoe fence, had a quick spook at the flowers at fence 7, and off we went.

All in all, it was a nice round. We chipped in a couple of strides, and took one or two out, but the only time I held my breath was over the final fence, an upright out of a double. As Socks gets more confident, the big thing is to not let her get flat. She clonked this upright with all her strength, but I’ve read far too many Jilly Cooper novels to look back or celebrate before we’ve crossed the finish line.

Miraculously, the pole had bounced up and bounced straight back into the cup, and stayed there. We’d gone clear!

As pleased as I was to get our first clear of the year, I wanted a more flowing and rhythmic round.

Yes, I know, I’m never happy.

At least now I’d achieved what I set out to do, so the pressure was off. But you know me: now I had one clear, I wanted two. And there was no reason why I couldn’t ride one.

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When your horse is so confident, she jumps with her eyes closed!

Again, I rode through my warm up, everything on my own terms and with me in control. As we came in the second time, not taking any chances I took the same route as before, adding in a quick trip round the planks which everyone seemed to be having down. Same course as before, just now at 85, and off we went.

I can honestly say this is the first time I’ve truly and properly really enjoyed a jump round. I felt like we were a proper, in-sync partnership for the first time in a long time! Socks took me forward, we met everything on a good stride, and to top it off, the poles were staying up too.

Until fence six, where I merely heard the softest thump as we moved away. A quick check over my shoulder and yes, we’d had it down. Oh well. She jumped the rest of the course smoothly and clear, and overall it was a far better round!

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The pole doesn’t look like it’s going to fall, does it?

Looking at the video Mum took, Socks can’t have more than breathed on it, which is irritating! But that’s just how it happens sometimes. And after the final fence in the first round, we’d probably used up all our luck. After a round that felt as good as that, I couldn’t really begrudge ourselves anything!

Practice makes perfect

For me, it’s not just the riding itself which takes the practice. It’s the preparation, and the way I behave and plan on the day which is just as important. What really went well for me this weekend happened because I put myself in control. Instead of thinking: “if x happens, I’ll have to y” or “I hope z doesn’t happen, or I’ll be in a pickle”, I had a plan for every single stride of the round. I knew how I wanted Socks to feel before every fence, how I wanted to place myself, and how I was going to avoid even having to consider any pitfalls.

This is what I need to emulate every single time I compete. That feeling of calmness, because I had control and knew what was going on, was priceless, and it really showed in mine and Socks’ best round yet. (Barring that pesky pole, but like I said I’m chalking that down to bad luck. Or a particularly strong gust of wind. Maybe?)

Now I’m more confident riding in competition, it’s time to practice my preparation and give myself the best possible chance!

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