Dingo is a little 13.2hh chestnut pony. He is reasonably stocky, and hence my 169cm frame
looks surprisingly fitting on him - until you see how far my legs hang down. Over the years
I have had numerous judges come up to me and ask me about his exact height, while they
marvelled how "good" I looked on him (meaning - I didn't look too big).
Nevertheless, his potential as either a serious dressage, or showjumping, or eventing horse
appears rather limiting at first sight. And it might well be limiting. That's not the
point. Dingo, while he has no buck or pigroot or rear in him, is quite a tricky little pony
to ride, and he is here to teach me lessons. I don't say that lightly. When I was at a
spiritual retreat (following my cancer diagnosis) I had a vision of training a chestnut pony
with a blaze and a white sock. Six months later, Dingo came into my life. It's not a
However, when I bring Dingo into a lesson with a new instructor, I get this very strong
feeling that the instructor thinks "Really? Come on, bring your real horse." or "Why are you
riding such a small pony?". The instructor goes ahead with the lesson, but I really get the
feeling that there is not much they can do with Dingo. He is tricky. The contrast is when I
bring Lil for a lesson with the same instructor - the instructor appears to take the lesson
much more seriously, and teaches me in a manner that is aimed to get me somewhere. (I will
add that some instructors have really put in a great effort trying to teach me on Dingo, but
that feeling that he is not my real horse always remains.)
Having been jaded many times in this way, I was scared to bring Dingo to a Ron Patterson
lesson. I take Ron very seriously, and I didn't want him to think that I was an idiot by
bringing Dingo to a lesson. My intuition was screaming at me to take Dingo to Ron for years,
but my fear of what Ron might think held me back. Read that again ... my fear of what
someone else might think prevented me from following my intuition. Stupid!
Finally, I bit the bullet though and took Dingo to a lesson with Ron. I figured that I have
had enough lessons with Ron now, that even if I did bring Dingo to a lesson, Ron would see
the value of learning on yet another horse. Plus, to be honest, I was at wicks end with
Dingo. I *know* that he is a brilliant pony, but my recent dressage and showjumping results
leave a lot to be desired.
I rode into the lesson immediately clarifying my position - "Hi Ron, this is Dingo, I know he
is small, but he really is very capable. But he is tricky, and I need your help to figure
him out." Ron looked at him and didn't bat an eyelid - "Ah, a little pocket rocket? Ok,
Ron straight away treated Dingo like any other horse - no matter his size or potential. And
within 10 minutes I had Dingo going like a regular dressage pony, with rhythm and relaxation
matching that of Echo. I got the most marvellous canters - on a long rein!!! But there was
an even better edge to this. Ron suddenly got to see how much I had retained from all my
lessons - that everything Ron had taught me was now becoming a habit. That I have a "Ron
toolbox" in my riding skillset and that I am immediately able to transfer it from horse to
horse. Ron suddenly saw that I have actually learnt something from him - and for an
instructor, that is one of the most inspiring things in a student. Win-win!
Riding cross country in a horse trials event is serious business. Even at the lower grades. The obstacles are solid with a capital S, the ground can be slippery, and the horse has a thousand things to spook at, starting with the jumps judges. Every rider about to go out on cross country gets some level of nerves, and rightfully so. A history of events prove that sheer luck might play an important part in a successful completion of this exciting phase.
So, when the starter counts down each competitor, his final words are "3, 2, 1, Go! Good luck!"
At this point, I always thought that there exists a certain understanding between horse and
rider. A partnership based on mutual trust, developed over months and years of training
together. You (the horse) take care of me, and I (the rider) will take care of you. I have
seen countless situations where this is so true, where the horse loses balance and a
steadying rein from the rider helps the horse to recover before the next jump. Situations
where the rider loses balance on the first obstacle in a combination, and the horse completes
the combination perfectly despite flapping reins and a lack of direction from the rider.
I long for that sort of partnership, that sort of understanding, that sort of trust with my
horse. But recently, I have decided that between myself and Dingo it's not necessarily so.
When that starter says "Good Luck", Dingo grows little devil ears, he rubs his little hooves
together, his spirit does a little mini rear of defiance, and the pony whispers "Yeah Mummy ...
Good luck, ha ha ha!" as he gallops wildly off towards the first jump with no regard for the
feeling on the reins.
Well, for years I have lived in my little world of believing in trust and understanding,
while Dingo was rubbing his little hooves together and zooming off on every occasion. But,
recently, I've finally wisened up. I've realised that our partnership has to be based more
on mutual boisterousness, than mutual love. A kind of respect for each others physical
strength and mental power.
So now, our starting line conversation goes something like this: Starter: "3, 2, 1, Go! Good luck!"
Dingo: "Yeah Mummy ... Good luck, ha ha ha!"
Me: "Yeah Dingo ... Good luck." (Followed by a solid check on the reins.)
Dingo's last competition was two years ago when I got eliminated on him during the Dunolly
Horse Trails cross country for jumping a grade 3 jump. Then I got eliminated again in the
showjumping when I fell off before the double. At the time, I decided it wasn't really
working and relegated Dingo to trail riding duties.
However, a sequence of events - Lil getting stringhalt, Echo getting an abscess - put Dingo
back in work, and back on the critical path for another crack at horse trials. So we ended
up in Elcho Park, warming up for the dressage phase of the Westcoast ARC Horse Trials.
The judge was running late, and the dressage went to pieces. Dingo was overbent, flicking
his tongue over the bit, and freaking out at the weeds surrounding the arena. Really Dingo?
Since the dressage judge was running late, we were running late for our showjumping round.
Already coming back from gear check Dingo felt tired. He jumped well in the warm-up - very
well in fact. The warm-up was on grass with a sandy soil base. The competition ring was
sand. The minute he put hoof in that sand arena, things didn't feel right - he felt out of
control. I put on the breaks. We got two refusals at jump one, clear over two, then a
refusal at jump three and that was the end of our round.
I left the showjumping ring gutted, and did a few more warm-up jumps to mull it over. He
jumped very well. Damn that sand.
I gave Dingo a well earned rest and some lunch, and I mulled over the situation some more.
Technically I was eliminated, but could still ride the cross country if I wanted to. Did I
want to? Should I? My reflection process was long and boring, but in the end I decided to
ride cross country.
After a quick warm-up (which was on sand, and Dingo jumped the warm-up jumps well), we were
in the start box, and the starter was saying: "3, 2, 1, go! Good luck!". And Dingo
responded "Yeah Mummy ... Good luck in trying to hold me back! Ha ha ha!". And I gritted my
teeth with "Yeah Dingo ... Good luck in trying to get away from me!". And we were off.
Dingo was off. Holding him back was tricky ... almost impossible.
Jump three was out of control and we were barrelling through the middle of the course when I
caught sight of jump four on my left. We doubled back. I had to almost stop him to do that
switch back to four. But I did it the right way - I kept his head up. I didn't let his chin
go to his chest. Over four, and then we got this amazing bouncy canter - forward, yet on his
hocks. I felt I could jump over the moon from that canter. And from then on, all the other
jumps became mere obstacles. It was no longer a question of whether he will jump them, it
was only a question how fast I will allow him to jump, and how elegant I can make it look.
There was no longer a question of control, there was only a question of using my reins and my
heels to communicate with him. It was amazing. I have never ridden this pony so fast over
cross country and yet felt so much in control, felt so sure he would jump everything, felt so
in awe of how much power was propelling him forward. I could now see that this pony easily
had more scope. It was incredible.
In the end, the result - me being eliminated - was immaterial. I was the real winner. That
cross country ride just changed the way I jump - for ever. That cross country ride made me
realise that the next rung of my horse riding journey was within reach. That cross country
ride was like a thousand clinics rolled into one.
I jumped off my tired pony - and I have never ever seen Dingo that tired - and jumped up and
down with joy!
My equestrian life (and in fact my whole life) is driven by one big major equestrian goal. It's to do with Eventing. At a high level. A very high level. (There's more detail to it, but I'm not quite willing to share that with the world just yet.) Everything I do I try to align towards that goal.
For a while now, I have been asking the question "to get to my goal, do I need to coach?" Do I need to teach other riders? Will that get me towards my goal? Or will it be something that distracts me from my own riding journey? Am I better off just focusing on my riding, my competing, my lessons? Or will coaching other riders give me more flexibility? Will it teach me something that lessons on my own horse cannot? Will it equip me better to compete? Will it give me another perspective? An extra dimension?
Well, the answer came rather unexpectedly, and rather like a steam train.
One beautiful sunny day last year, we had organised two instructors to teach at a pony club rally. One was our usual instructor, and the other was a well respected dressage instructor. On the day our usual instructor rang in sick, while it turns out that there had a been a communication error with the other instructor and she actually wasn't coming.
So there we were, a beautiful day, eight kids mounted on ponies, and no one to teach them. I mulled over the issue in my mind. We must give these kids an instructor. No one was taking a step forward. There was no backup plan for this situation. I wondered how the insurance side of it worked. I wondered about this and that, and in the end I suggested that if everyone is happy, then I will teach the kids. There was a resounding "YES PLEASE!" from all the parents.
Eight kids from total beginner and wavering between on the lead/off the lead, to 14-year olds, capable of jumping grade 3, and everything in between. Talk about being thrown in at the deep end. Well, as they say "throw me to the wolves, and I will come back leading the pack". And that is exactly what happened! (Not that our kids are like "wolves", but you get the drift.)
We started off with flatwork. I ran the kids through a set of exercises that I do myself to establish a correct position on the pony, and to establish that the pony is travelling correctly. Within two strides the ponies all improved, relaxed and moved better. Within two strides!!! My jaw dropped! Then we did some other work that was basic enough for the beginners, but still beneficial for the intermediate and advanced riders.
In the second session we did poles and jumping. Well, at the start of this class two were keen to jump, and the remainder were only going to do poles on the ground. By the end of the session everyone bar two riders (one was a youngster and a beginner, the other was on an elderly pony that shouldn't jump) was jumping. Everyone! In fact, as the jumps went up, I had to step in and tell some riders to stop jumping because it was getting too high for them.
After lunch we played some games. It was just a fun relaxing session. Oh, but so many smiles. So much team work. Such great friendship.
All the kids had a really good time that rally. All the parents were very happy, because they could see amazing improvements in the way the kids were riding. But most important of all, I had a really good time! It was kind of like being at a party and doing lots of talking and having lots of fun. I just loved it.
I get coached by a range of people and what I have noticed is that different coaches have different styles.
A very common style of coaching is the "shaping" style, where the coach asks you to do something, and then as you are doing it, they constantly comment and correct you - in a sense "shaping" you as you go.
The other style is the "passive" style. This is where the coach sets a certain exercise and they allow you to do it without adding much comment (unless things are going drastically wrong). Once you have done the exercise the coach gives you a debrief, and then you might repeat the exercise applying the lessons you have learnt.
Both styles have their pros and cons, and some people find one style suits them more than the other. The two coaching styles are also not set in stone, but are more like a sliding scale, with the "shaping-only" coach at one end, and the "passive-only" coach at the other end. But, most coaches will sit somewhere between the two extremes and provide their own balance of the two styles.
Shaping Style - Pros
The pros of the shaping coaching style is that you get immediate feedback about what you are doing wrong. You are forced to correct it right there and then, and therefore the way your horse is moving should be immediately affected, hopefully giving you a better experience. If you can then remember what that felt like, you will search for this "better" feeling when riding on your own.
The shaping style also gives you a quicker sense of achievement. The horse can sometimes improve in a few strides, and you feel like you are really getting good value out of your lesson.
Your coach can sometimes get you to achieve movements that you thought were beyond you, and thus work outside of your comfort zone more - which, of course, is where the "magic" happens.
Shaping Syle - Cons
In the shaping style the coach does a lot of talking while you are riding and modifies the way you ride while you are riding, and this means that unless you remember what you were doing wrong in the first place, and what the coach said to correct it, you will not actually be able to replicate it at home. So you will need to come back for another lesson in order to get the same quality of work. Eventually, the way the coach shapes you will become a habit, and you will do it automatically, but a lot of lessons will go under the bridge before that happens. So, it can be expensive in the long run.
Even when your riding improves, you may not actually understand what you did to improve it. So when you get another horse, or if you are intending to be a coach yourself, you may get stuck with certain problems and not know what to do to solve them.
When you are riding in a competition, your coach is not there to shape you. So this sort of coaching does not provide you with good preparation for competing.
In the shaping style, while the coach may have a certain plan for your lesson, you often do not see this plan because you are too busy taking in all the shaping comments. So when it comes to riding at home, you don't really build a plan for your own riding sessions.
Passive Style - Pros
The pros of the passive coaching style is that you are given an exercise, and while you are doing that exercise you are left on your own to actually think about what you are doing. You have time to notice your own mistakes. Because you notice your own mistakes, you can ask the coach how to fix them. Then when you actually ride at home, without the coach, you are better equipped to apply your learnings. This means you can spend more time practicing between lessons, which means less lessons and therefore cheaper.
If you don't notice your own mistakes, the coach will. The coach will notice a 1000 things going wrong, but they will make an assessment of two or three that need to be fixed first. They will communicate this to you after the exercise, and tell you what you were doing wrong, and how to fix it. Once again, this equips you better for training at home without the coach.
The passive style of coaching is much more similar to a competition when you have to ride a dressage test or a showjumping round. So mentally, you are getting much better competition training - you have to learn to remember the exercise. You have to think while you're doing the exercise. And you have to take your own steps to assess where things are at, and what you need to do to improve it, while you're riding.
The "plan" for the lesson is usually obvious as you progress from one exercise to the next. You do each exercise in each direction. So when it comes to training at home, it is easier to repeat a similar plan.
In the passive style of coaching, the coach will discuss your riding issues with you and suggest improvements generally while you're standing still and can really pay attention. This means that when you get another horse, or if you are intending to teach, you are much better equipped to know what are the common riding problems and how to fix them.
Passive Style - Cons
The passive style requires you think for yourself a lot more, so people who prefer someone else to do the thinking for them will feel like they are not getting good value for money.
This style requires you to be a disciplined rider who will take away the exercises and the learnings from the lesson, and then practice them at home till they become a habit.
A passive style lesson can give you a feeling that you haven't achieved much. This is because the coach can only focus on three or four of your mistakes at a time.
Coaching Styles - other notes
The shaping style can be pretty intense as the coach does a lot of talking. For some people this will feel like a lot is happening in their lesson, and so they will be happy that they are getting their money's worth. For people who are looking to relax with their horse, the shaping style of coaching may prove to be too much like hard work.
The passive style can be pretty calm and relaxed. Some people will find this a great form of therapy, while others will feel like they are not getting anywhere.
These are neither pros nor cons, as they depend on the type of rider.
Coaching Styles - Summary
A really good coach will use a combination of the two styles so that the rider can feel immediate improvements (shaping style), but still learn to think and work on their own (passive style).
Most coaches probably lean towards one end of the scale - either shaping, or passive. It's not necessarily a conscious decision, but more to do with their character.
Riders need to look for a coaching style that suits them, depending on their own character as well as their goals. It's not so much about what a given coach knows, or what level they ride at, but more about the rider being able to learn, progress and get their desired results. So just because your friend is getting amazing results with a certain coach doesn't mean you will. But, it's certainly worth trying the friend's coach to see if their coaching style suits you.
"Throughness" is something that is discussed in various Dressage articles, alongside the German training scale. I'd heard the word many times, but never truly grasped it's meaning.
The other day I went to a clinic. We were trotting along, just warming up our horses. The coach looked at my lower leg and said "Your lower leg is moving, you're not balanced." The coach pointed to another rider in the class "Look at her lower leg, it's not moving because she is balanced." I looked at the other rider and sure enough, her lower leg was sitting as still as a wooden board in a door.
Then I looked down at my inside leg - yes it was moving. Not a lot, but it was moving a bit. Damn. Then I looked at my outside leg - it was moving, but only a little bit. "Winner, I thought, when we change rein the coach will see that I'm balanced". But then we changed rein, and once again, my inside leg is moving, and my outside one is pretty much still. Damn. The coach never gets to see the outside leg.
I didn't argue with the coach at the time, but my intuition was screaming at me that after 30+ years of riding how can I possibly not be balanced in the trot. I'm not the most talented rider, but I'm not the least talented either.
Over the next few rides I payed close attention to the movements of my lower leg. One time, I was riding Dingo, and we were galloping up a track in the state forest. I looked at my lower leg - dead still. Still in the gallop, I inspected my lower leg more closely - definitely dead still.
The pony was powering along like a little red steam train, but eventually he slowed down to a trot. A powerful trot. A ground covering trot. A trot with forward and purpose. I looked at my leg - it was still. I was jubilant. I *knew* that I was balanced!!!
I rode on.
In that case, if I am balanced in the trot, then why was my leg moving while trotting Echo in the clinic. I looked up and ahead of me and felt Dingo's trot. I held my hands just above the wither, thumbs on top. And I rode that trot, rising to every second beat. I barely had to make an effort. Dingo felt like a powerful engine, that was about to go "through" me, but he never actually did. That "through" feeling was there with every stride. And then the penny dropped ... that is why it's called "throughness". Wow!
Did Echo feel like that in the clinic? No. Echo had felt like a flat tyre in the clinic. Echo felt like I had to give him a little nudge every stride just to keep him going. There was none of the energy, none of the forwardness, none of the engine. No so called "throughness".
Recently I went to a clinic with David Middleton. Now, I have known David since he was a wee tacker playing cushion polo on Rampage. Despite this, and maybe because of it, I don't think I've ever had a lesson with David.
In the clinic David made two things very clear - Dressage starts with the long rein walk. I've always wondered where Dressage starts. The simplest of Dressage tests already contain a large number of movements. But which one should you train first. The long rein walk, apparently.
The other thing that David made very clear, is how to train the long rein walk. You ask the horse to walk. To maintain contact. You ask the horse to come onto the bit by flexing the inside rein, and then, when you feel the horse's mouth, you release the reins and see how low the horse will go before you lose contact.
Practice this a few times - say five or six - and your horse will start getting the idea that he can actually stretch forwards and down. You want to be careful that you don't lose the roundness - they should remain "on the bit". They also need to remain in an active walk. But, beyond that, the ground is the limit. Presto, that simple.
Once you have mastered this in walk, then try it in trot. Then canter. It is so hideously simple, yet it forms the foundation of all of your horse training. When your horse can stretch down and forwards, yet remain round and forwards, then he will also be able to, one day, collect.
I entered Lil in a Preliminary and a Novice dressage test at an unofficial competition at the local riding school. This would be Lil's and mine first crack at Novice. Universal Guidance made me do it.
Well the day was an absolute disaster, with Lil coming an absolute last in everything. So why in the world did the Universe make me do Novice? I mean, the day was so bad, that I should really see myself and my horse as a total failure, and give up. But, you see, the Universe knows me better than I know myself. So the effect of this experience has been total focus and determination to succeed. The experience made me in tune with every minute detail of my horse, my gear, my competition arena, and my fellow competitors. I have learnt so much!
So, what exactly happened, and what have I learnt.
1. Magnesium. For a long time Lil has been exhibiting some symptoms of a magnesium deficiency. When the Chiropractor came out, he suggested magnesium oxide. We got it, and I started supplementing her with it. Immediately I noticed an improvement. The day before the competition I doubled her dose thinking that it might help her cope better with the stress the next day. The problem with magnesium is that a deficiency presents the same signs as an overdose. On competition day Lil was showing signs of a magnesium overdose - I think I gave her too much. Her symptoms on the day were slightly sloppy poo (which can also be stress), and a sensitivity to sounds. The latter is the worry. When we were warming up, every time someone coughed, or banged a door, she would leap like a cat.
2. New saddle blanket. I had just bought a new saddle blanket. I had never ever tried it on Lil before. It was one of those beautiful white dressage saddle blankets, with a sheepskin lining. Well, it's hard to determine if the saddle blanket was an issue or not, but, because it was a new, untried piece of equipment, it worried me. And there is no time for worry on a horse that's leaping around. Period.
3. Overfeeding. It had recently turned from total winter, to total summer. In a matter of about 4 weeks. The horses cannot shed their fur fast enough, and the grass is galloping with growth. I fed Lil her normal feed. But during brushing I noticed a slight soreness in her back. So, after I worked her, I thought "if I feed her a bit of extra protein, that stiffness should recover faster". Well, my thinking is correct, but on this particular occasion I think I overfed her. When I hopped on her at the competition, it really felt like a horse ready to gallop cross country. Not one that is ready to relax in a dressage ring. It would have been better to leave the soreness as it is - after all, she was working just fine with it when I rode her on the day before competition.
4. Back soreness. It begs the question "why was Lil sore in the back a mere ten days after the chiro had been?". The soreness was right where the saddle ends. In fact, perhaps a little bit further - where the saddle blanket ends. Now Lil has a short back, and large hind quarters. And the hind quarters are probably a bit higher than perfect conformation would allow. For a long time now I have been thinking that Lil would be better off in a 16.5 inch saddle, rather than the 17 inch I currently ride in. Plus, I ride her in an all purpose and it really puts me too far back in the saddle. I should get a dressage saddle for her. I recently rode in my instructor's Equipe saddle - I loved that saddle and where it put my seat. But ... oh the expense of a new saddle. But, what if that saddle made a difference between me getting a placing in the dressage comp, and me coming last? What's that worth?
5. Mindset. On the day before the competition I was brushing my horse and looking at this sore spot and thinking "oh poor horse". So I fed her extra. Then I put her in a paddock with her best mate, because I was thinking "oh poor horse". So, of course, when I hopped on her in the warm-up arena and she started leaping around like a cat, I was still thinking "oh poor horse" and looking for something to blame, like the other horses, the saddle blanket, the sore spot. When you have decided that your horse is fit enough to ride, there is no room for thinking "oh poor horse". After sufficient leaping around, and thinking the situation through, I finally realised that most of this is just bad behaviour that I am allowing the horse to get away with. So then I actually started riding properly, and asking her to work for me, and it all improved.
6. The sand arena. You've heard this all before with Dingo. The indoor is great for a warm-up, and then you're out in the sand arena for the test. The sand flicks up against the arena edges, and the horses feel like there's someone with a machine gun on their heels. Due to the magnesium thing Lil was more sensitive to this on the day. But nevertheless I must invest the time to get out there between competitions and practice in the dressage arena until she is desensitised. I've got to put in the work!
7. Dressage is slow. My bad results really made me take a second look at what the other riders are doing differently to me. I was lucky enough to be watching the lady who ended up winning my Novice test. She also happens to be an instructor I learn from occasionally. Her horse was slow. There was no rush. She wasn't in a hurry to go anywhere. That test could have lasted all day for all she cared. I am not good at being slow. This is probably why I'm an eventer. This is probably why I choose to zoom around on a trail ride, wind in my hair, joy in my heart. Going slow is really difficult for me. Not just in horse riding. In everything. I want to do everything in a hurry, then sit back for half an hour and have a coffee. Then zoom again. That is not what dressage is about and if I am to become any good at it then I must take up this challenge. I must learn to go slow. Slow doesn't mean lazy. There can be a lot of power in "slow". There must be impulsion. But it must be slow. It might not feel slow to everyone. But it will feel slow to me - if it feels slow, then I'm probably doing a pretty good job.
8. Forward. While dressage is slow, there must be forward. In the warm-up before the second test I felt Lil hanging on the bit. I flicked the whip and she didn't go faster, she went more forward - I felt her hold her head higher, and step under more. So while Lil can be a hot horse, she can also be rather lazy - because she does this hanging on the bit a lot. She is not super heavy on the bit so it's easy to just ignore it. But ultimately, I must ask her to be more forward.
In summary, the overfeeding brought out the flighty horse in Lil, which in turn highlighted training issues: not coping in the sand arena, problems with transitions, going too fast and not enough forward. What I am still wondering is whether I actually overfed her? Perhaps I don't feed her enough normally, and she actually doesn't have enough energy?
On a parting note - this is probably my favourite dressage competition to date because I have walked away with so many strong and clear lessons. I feel so inspired now that I want to put it all into practice ... right now!!! Oh wait ... I have to learn to be slow ...
The Universe delivers, as long as we are willing to listen.
A bit of background. A few years ago I decided that I should get the chiropractor out to all of my riding horses at least once a year for a general checkup. That visit has now been delayed by at least 2 years, as I always weigh up how much it will cost.
Also. My work has been really busy this year, with me working 4 days per week (but quite often, handling a full time load). Keeping two horses in work, Lil & Echo, has been hard work, as well as helping my daughter train her pony. So, I have been looking at ways to make everything easier.
Now, the Universe story.
Sabina and I decided to attend an unofficial dressage day at a local riding school. The competition offers preparatory walk/trot tests, and I thought it would be a good opportunity to introduce Echo to competition. Naturally Sabina was taking her pony, Black Velvet, we have a two horse float, which meant that Lil was not coming. Had there been more room on the float, I would have taken Lil and got her to do a Novice test.
I tried to download the entry form for the said competition, but to no avail. No matter what I tried, I could not get the entry form. Then I went to see my horses, and Echo came in lame. It soon became obvious that the lameness was not going to go away in a day or two, and that the chiropractor might be required. Disaster right? All my plans have gone up in a puff of smoke right?
Wrong. Change of plan. Leave Echo at home, and do a Prelim and a Novice test with Lil instead. Call out the Chiropractor to all the riding horses as they are all well overdue.
The minute I made this change of plan, the entry form for the competition downloaded without a hitch. Fill out the form, pay, send it, and we were in.
Called the chiropractor and he was able to come out pretty much immediately, on a day and at a time that suited me. When he came out, he found something wrong with each and every riding horse. We have five. The one most dear to my heart was my daughter's pony. My daughter had been struggling with canter transitions, and a bit of pigrooting. After the chiropractor's visit it all went away.
As far as Echo was concerned, he had strained a ligament over the stifle. That means 4 weeks of rest, then lots of slow work (walk and trot mainly) in a straight line to strengthen it. That means mainly trail riding. Did I say something about easing my load?
As for Lil doing a Prelim and Novice test. Well, this was obviously the Universe's way of telling me to get out there and do a Novice test - ready or not.
When we bought Morgan he appeared to be a totally chilled out character. My daughter could catch him in the paddock, bring him in and groom him. All 16hh of him. But it took me about 3 months of schooling at home to take him to a lesson, and even then, I don't think he was really ready.
When we arrived at my instructor's place he was suddenly rather distracted, and difficult to handle. Where had the quiet horse gone? There were some horses in a paddock next door and he was really keen to join them.
I lunged him in the arena first, but he kept being distracted. I should have probably kept lungeing him until he finally paid attention, but my instructor had arrived and we needed to get on with it. At the end of the day - I don't have all day.
He was still distracted when I saddled him up and when I mounted. As I was mounting, the school bus was coming past, a mere 5 metres away or so. But, if Morgan had a different temperament, he would have been happy to trust me and pay attention to me. Instead, he bucked until I fell off, hitting the barbed wire fence on the way. I was ok, but it wasn't pretty.
In comparison, Echo had been schooled by his previous owners for about 4 months when I bought him. He had only been on their property, and trail riding in the bush. He was with us for a mere 2 weeks when I decided to take him for a lesson. Having learnt from the Morgan experience, I was savvy enough to take Echo together with my pony, Dingo. I needn't have bothered, he would have been fine regardless.
Once again, the same paddock with horses. Yes, Echo looked at them, he even neighed to them, but he also quite happily stayed tied to the fence. The same road along the arena, with buses, utes with trailers, cars and even a couple of motorbikes. It was all fine. His biggest problem was with the Fresian cow in a paddock - a mere speck in the haze.
Echo's biggest issue was probably me paying attention to Dingo. The minute I started paying attention to Echo he stopped his neighing and stood totally still. Likewise when I mounted. And momentarily ... likewise during the lesson.
I had a wonderful lesson and learnt heaps. It definitely wasn't a matter of just staying on and hankering for control. I can't wait to practice it all at home, and then come back for more lessons. I can't wait to take him out to adult riding club and to competitions. This horse will go such a long way - not because he is a super star, not because he looks magnificent, but because he has a good temperament.
I waltzed into my dressage lesson on Echo and my instructor immediately said "Stop! We've got to fix those legs of yours." Really? What is wrong with my legs? I've got my heel down, my heels are in line with my hip, and I feel super secure. What's there to fix?
"Your toes are turned out, and the back of your calf is on. I want you to turn your toe in so that it is pointing to the front, your foot is parallel with your horse, and if you need to use your calf, you use the inside part of your calf." Ok.
No, not ok, my horse is not responding to my inner calf.
"Aha ... remember your horse can feel a fly sit on him. So your horse is not responsive enough. Use your whip until your horse learns to respond to the feel of your inner calf." And here, ladies and gentlemen, is the solution to about 80% of all your riding problems.
When the horse doesn't respond to the "feel of the inner calf" us riders resort to using the back of our calf. Then we draw up our heel and use our heel. When that doesn't work well enough we resort to using our hands to compensate. Yes! Using our hands. Except that this actually tucks the horse's head in, and puts him on the forehand. Then, some horses pigroot and we complain. Or get scared. Or both.
What really came home to me during this lesson is that we don't ride with our hands. Our hands just mostly sit there. Allow me to rephrase that. The rider's hands are held upright, as though they are holding one glass of champagne each, slightly in front of the pommel of the saddle. That is pretty much all.
It is the legs - and the lightest touch of the inner calf - that drive the horse forwards and sideways.
Crownie was a very special horse in our lives. When she was in full health I used to explore all the plantations and state forest near our farm. I used to ride for hours no matter what the weather, exploring new tracks, nooks and crannies. Galloping wildly. Walking on a loose rein. Sometimes I would cover 30km in 3 hours. We were a team, Crownie and I.
When she started showing signs of wear and tear I semi-retired her. I didn't ride her any more, but I would listen to squeals of delight as friends rode her on trail rides, and I would smile to myself. But, eventually, Crownie was gone, and we kept reminiscing how nice it would be to own another horse like Crownie.
When Echo arrived - being the same colour and height (although he wasn't quite as long - thank goodness) - we unintentionally started making comparisons. I like to take each horse on it's own merits, but the similarities were just too frequent and too many and we couldn't help ourselves.
He could spend hours at the hitching rail being brushed and patted - just like Crownie. He is easy going and understanding, just like Crownie. He seems to prefer people company to horse company. If Echo has been put in the yard and you can't see him, then he's bound to be in the stable - just like Crownie. And when a boot drops down too far over his coronet, he will try to kick the boot off, just like Crownie.
And so, I like to think that our wish for "another horse like Crownie" has come true.
I took Dingo to a dressage competition - an unofficial EA event. It was one of those magical moments, when the score didn't matter at all. It was all about making amazing discoveries, and those alone making the effort more than worthwhile.
So what did I learn?
1. The competition arena can be a whole new ball game. The competition venue had a huge sand arena with the competition arenas setup with plastic borders. As a horse went trotting next to the plastic border, the sand would get picked up by the horse's shoes and flung at the plastic, making a sound a bit similar to someone shooting (although not as loud). The minute Dingo heard this shooting, all relaxation and swing left him. So, our work on the circle wasn't too bad, but our work on the track was a waste of everyone's time. The lesson? While you can't actually warm up inside the arena, you can warm up sufficiently close to it that you can get your horse used to the sound and relaxed with the concept. At least "relaxed enough" to get a good test. I did this in my second test, and it worked.
2. There are a lot of distractions outdoors. At this particualar competition, there was an indoor arena for the majority of the warm-up. Dingo went brilliantly in there! Then we went oustide for the final part of the warm-up and all of a sudden his attention went everywhere. Everything was worth looking at. Normally, I work Dingo outside. But I never realised that I am competing for his attention with so many distractions. It was a real eye opener for me because it made me realise that I need to work harder to keep his focus on me.
3. Smile. We all kind of know this, but we don't really understand it deep down. For my last dressage test I rode up to the judge with a huge smile, because she had been really nice and friendly towards my daughter earlier on. The judge loved my smile, and said "If you ride with a smile like that you can be sure to have a great test". I took it on board as the judge's advice for the day, and got on with my test. I will add here that I spent around 15 years on stage as an amateur singer and dancer, and at the beginning of a performance you plastered a smile on your face, and you kept that smile there until well after the curtain closed for the last time. So, I'm practiced at performing with a smile. As I rode my test Dingo and I had the odd tussle, but the minute I felt things were back in check I would ask myself "and how is that smile?" and I would take the smile that was still firmly on my lips, and take it right down into my innermost feelings. And when that smile hit my belly I could feel the pony relax. That smile really made a difference.
The bonus? Dingo came 6th in a quality field. Go the little red pony!
For a while now I have been looking for a horse for my husband. My husband doesn't need anything fancy - just something he can jump on every 2 or 3 months and go trail riding on. Something with a bit of go, but something you can trust. Last year we purchased an off the track thoroughbred called Morgan.
Morgan appeared to be super quiet - my daughter could do anything with him on the ground, but there was something bubbling underneath that I didn't quite like. One time I tried to ride him up the hill in our haying paddock and he started rearing. Little rears, but there was a huge lack of trust. Then he started bullying his paddock mates - a few rugs have a rip or two. Finally, I took him to a lesson and he bucked me off. That was the end of the line. Morgan was moved on.
Then at Easter we tried my friend's horse - Red. He was just beautiful. He was also 16.3hh. While we were hoping for something around the 16hh, the extra 3 inches worried me. A lot! Finally my husband hopped on him and said "Nah, too much of a plodder". That sealed it. Red was not right for us.
After those experiences I counted up the amount of time and effort taken up by looking at both horses and decided that I didn't need another horse. I still wanted a horse for my husband, a horse that I could possibly train up and then pass on to my daughter as her legs grew longer, but I decided to give it a rest. Unless, of course, someone rang me and said that they were just around the corner, and they had a quiet horse that was 16hh, and preferably 5 years old, but the horse had a bit of go when you wanted, and ideally was black. And so, I put it out there to the universe to really decide whether I needed another horse.
And the universe responded. Within a week a lady made contact with me saying she might have the right horse for me. See that list I made up above ... this horse ticked every single one of those boxes! In addition the horse was located at a property, which was the very first property we looked at in the area; the property that brought us to where we are now. And ... his name was Echo. Echo is the name of the black horse, the man's horse, in the Silver Brumby movie. It was an omen. I went to see the horse.
Omen or no omen, I inspected Echo with a critical eye. He was a bit upright in the pastern, a little bit on the thin side, which means he could be a poor keeper. His head was a bit too big, and he was built a bit like a lama. But his hooves were good, his legs were straight and clean (I now take clean legs as a solid indicator of a horse's temperament), and his proportions were good. He was built a bit downhill overall, but his rump was not higher than the wither. He had a kind eye, and was certainly very quiet standing at the hitching rail.
His owner rode him first, and then I hopped on. I knew immediately that this was exactly the temperament I was looking for. This horse, lama neck or no lama neck, had a huge heart and was going to try for you no matter what. This is exactly what I needed for my husband, for my daughter, for my intermediate trail riding friends, and finally and perhaps most importantly, for myself.
Nevertheless, I put him through his paces and then we took him trail riding. He was everything you could wish for. You could ride him on the buckle, or you could spruce him up a bit. You could ride him second, or in front. When we went into canter, he didn't think it was a race, he just said "I like canter" and bowled along easily. I bought him right there and then.
Then I went home and negotiated with my husband.
And for all my intentions of getting a horse for my husband, I said to him "I've bought myself another horse and if you're really really nice you might just get to ride him".
Within three days Echo was paid for and brought over to our property, and was happily munching on grass in the haying paddock with Dingo.
I had just bought some new jump stands. A set of red, blue and yellow ones. This is the first set of professionally made jump stands I have ever purchased. Up until now I have used tyres, or aluminium brackets mounted on plastic drums at best.
My aluminium brackets have a maximum height of about 1.2m, so by the time you are jumping 80cm you feel like you are rapidly running out of room. In comparison my new jump stands are 1.6m tall. When we start running out of room I'll be very pleased indeed.
So I setup my new jump stands, put up a couple of cross rails in a grid, and a straight bar separately, and proceeded to jump Dingo. We played around with the grid for a while, and then I eyed off the straight bar. I had no idea what height it was set at, but I perceived it to be about grade 4 - 60cm or so. I jumped it. Dingo just touched it. I jumped it again. It felt good. It felt smooth. It felt "right".
When the jumping session was finished, I wandered out into the jumping paddock and admired my new stands again. Out of habit. I measured the straight bar. Whoa! It was set at about 75cm. I had been jumping grade 3, not grade 4. The higher jump stands made the jump look smaller.
Had I known that this jump was 75cm tall I would have been biting my lip on approach, overriding in a thousand ways, and gnawing at myself inside with trepidation at stepping into the unknown. But, because I perceived the jump to be 60cm tall, I rode it in the same way that I have ridden numerous courses, calm and confident that Dingo can easily nail this. And easily nail it he did.
Since returning from our summer holidays I have got Dingo back in work, and back into a routine. Lil got injured before we went away, and there were a few tentative steps after our vacation to assess if she is sound. She seemed sound and so she came back into work too, albeit a bit slower than Dingo. Once we moved Morgan on, earlier this year, my husband declared that he is game to try riding Teddy - the horse that is on friendly agistment at our place. So, I have started working Teddy as well. Then, of course, I have to supervise my daughter most of the time when she rides.
You would think that I've got my hands full, but I was still scanning the ads to see if I could find a suitable horse for my husband. Most of the ads were for horses that were 2 or more hours away, so really, I was just dreaming. Then I found an ad for a quiet horse, suitable for trail riding, and he was local. He was also 16.3hh, which should have been enough to set off warning bells. But, there are so many people claiming their horse is a certain height and when you measure them they come up half a hand short. Best to see for yourself.
My daughter and I told my husband we're going shopping and went to see said horse. Husband thought we were going food shopping, which we were, after we had seen the horse. The advertised horse was beautiful, quiet, and definitely 16.3hh. I rode him. My daughter rode him. And he never put a foot wrong. Then we arranged to have him on trial for 1 day. By this stage, we had revealed our secret shopping escapade to my husband, who oddly enough was happy to have to horse come for a trial.
The horse came to our place - we picked him up. Are you seeing were this is headed? I said he was local, but that means 1 hour drive to pick him up, 20 minutes to load, and 1 hour drive to get him home. The horse arrived. Still as quiet as ever, still beautiful - even my husband thought so. Still 16.3hh. I rode him to the state forest. I was so relaxed I didn't want to turn back. Neither did the horse. When we turned for home, he actually slowed down. Then my daughter rode him on the driveway. My daughter is 10. Then my husband rode him. His verdict "too quiet".
Then I lunged him and put him under a bit of pressure. He proved totally trainable. Just that 16.3hh bothered me. Oh, and there was something else. What exactly was I going to do with this horse? It sounded like it wasn't the right horse for my husband. If I evented him then would I still ride Lil? Would I still ride Dingo? Could I take friends trail riding on him? If he was 16hh I could, but 16.3hh was becoming a bit of a gamble. I agonised and discussed and agonised some more. If he was 16hh ...
Finally our day with the beautiful quiet horse ended and it was the whole 2.5 hour exercise of getting him back home again. I thanked the owners profusely, admitted that they were totally honest and that he was a real gem, but unfortunately he was just a bit big for our needs. For two days I toyed with the idea of buying this horse. I barely worked my horses, I skipped my farm chores, I didn't even really cook - we ate left overs.
As with anything though, it's the journey you take and the things you see and learn along the way that are important. Firstly ... believe it or not ... I don't need another horse. I've got Dingo and Lil, who are only now really starting to become good competition horses. My husband has declared that he is interested in giving Teddy a go - so I don't need to find him a horse right this minute. Working three horses is plenty.
Secondly, I've realised that it takes time - a lot of time - to find the right horse. The question you have to ask yourself is "do you want to be looking for a horse, or do you want to be working your own horses?" There is a right time for both. Right now, it's time for me to be working the horses I have.
We were able to take the horse on a one day trial. This was a perfect way to get to know a horse and assess a horse enough to form an opinion if he is right for you and if you can work with him. I think if you just have a trial ride in an arena you don't gather enough information to judge anything. You must have an environment when the owners just leave you with the horse and you get the chance to do everything and interact with the horse a lot.
Where we trialed the horse, the property next door had amazing apples. Amazing. Worth the 1 hour trip.
The conversations I had with my daughter in the car while ferrying this horse around were incredible. We didn't stop talking for a minute.
While dropping the horse off, we saw a carriage being pulled by two black matching standardbreds. On our way back, we saw the same horses and carriage heading back in the opposite direction. It was a magnificent sight, and brought to light the dream of one day driving our own carriage.
Now that I know that I'm just meant to be working the horses I have, I feel a strong sense of relief when I see those ads of horses for sale. They are no longer my problem. Phew!
Lil and I having an argument during a Dressage test. (This photo is actually from Dunolly HT.)
Recently my own riding club held a mid-week Dressage competition. I jumped at the opportunity and took Lil to it. Being mid-week it wasn't going to impact my family in any way, and so I wasn't about to get called "competes too much". Winner!
A day or two before the competition it poured. So on the day the arenas were wet - to put it mildly.
I got there, saddled up Lil and rode into the warm-up arena. She was warming up well on the wet surface, but I knew I was going to have a bad day. It wasn't that I was scared, it wasn't that I was ill prepared, it wasn't that I didn't know my tests. I have very strong intuition, and it was simply that I was destined to have a bad run. Nevertheless, I warmed my horse up as best as I could, and I went over the dressage tests in my mind to make sure that I knew them inside out. Surely I can beat destiny?
I rode into the first test and it was going well. Lil was travelling brilliantly. And then it happened. On the second trot circle she got a bit unbalanced, we got into a bit of an argument, I tried to remedy the situation rather than focusing on the test, and all of a sudden we were in the corner where the canter started. Except that we were still trotting, and still arguing. Arghh! So I kicked her into canter, but it was a rushed transition, and we ended up on the wrong leg!!! And this on her better rein! I corrected the canter lead, and the canter wasn't too bad, but the marks were lost. We got 3 for that transition.
I rode back into the warm-up ring feeling rather sullen. What ever can I do in the second test to remedy the situation? The second test was in an arena that was water logged. Some horses seemed to cope with the going better than others. Lil was in the second group. She hated it! Somewhere during the second test I could feel God laughing. I tried my best, and admittedly I succeeded in completing the test - Lil had serious intentions on exiting at A every time we passed it.
So why did I "have to have" such a terrible run. Because, when you lose, you learn. When you lose you get disappointed, you get sad, and if you've got half a spine you get angry! It's ok to be "angry". Just don't take it out on your horse and on others. But "angry" is good. Because if you can control the angry energy it will take you to great heights in the future. Ha! "Take you". It won't just "take you". You'll get rocket propelled forwards! Sometimes, by falling flat on your face and losing, you learn much faster than by taking slow positive steps forward.
So what did I learn? Heaps. But I'll try to narrow it down. My dressage on Lil is, to summarise it bluntly, "crap". Look at Lil's last three horse trials results - 8th, 7th and 7th. Good results right? So what would it have taken to come 6th? Well, it would have taken a much better dressage score! Because she was already (mostly) clear in the cross country and in the showjumping. The points difference between her and the 6th placed horse at Dunolly was 2 dressage penalty points. Ok, so maybe that's not that much. What if we wanted to be 5th? 9 dressage penalty points. That's already a lot. But what if we wanted to be first? 18 dressage penalty points. Whoa! See what I mean?
But when you're just doing horse trials it doesn't show up so much, and so you cruise around getting ribbons for 7th and everyone thinks you are doing wonderfully. When you get out there and do just a dressage competition, and a couple of things go slightly wrong, then the weaknesses come out and bite you.
Ok, good. So our dressage is weak. Weaker than I thought. I need to improve it. How?
The Dunolly Horse Activity Club cross country course is flat, and Dunolly makes no apologies about this. And neither should it.
In this case I did Grade 4 - twice. First on my pony, then on my mare. The height of the jumps was very good, with a few slightly smaller ones, and plenty of jumps at maximum height.
I would rate the complexity as average for a Grade 4 course. Most of the jumps ask the horse to be bold. But there are very few technical challenges. So this course really allows you and your horse to gallop along, and assess every fence on its own merits. The variety of fences is also fantastic - probably the only things that were missing is a ditch and a brush.
The course rode really well. With the flatness, and simplicity, the only thing you need to worry about is that your horse is travelling well, and that you are providing enough drive so that the horse jumps when required. If your horse is reasonably bold, then this could make for a great first outing. If your horse is more experienced, then this course is a great run. If you have just moved up from Grade 5 and are a bit tentative, then this might prove a bit challenging. For my 9 year old daughter - this would be a nice third cross country at Grade 5.
The Cross Country course in detail
Jump 1 is a ski ramp with a roof and the option of adding logs for higher grades. I wouldn't call this the most inviting first jump, especially since logs are added in front of the jump, creating a gap. The jump is also a bit to the right of the starting gates - which means you need to veer towards the floats to get a good line. However, my horses didn't have an issue with the roof or the gap, and it rode really well.
Jump 2 is white shark teeth on a reddish background. This was in a straight line from jump 1, but both of my horses took a bit of a look at it. My pony actually had a run-out here - but I was also having control issues.
Then a sweeping right turn to jump 3 - the bow tie. Rides really well. Into the trees, and a sharp right turn to jump 4 - the seat. This comes up a bit suddenly and is a bit narrow, but if you slow down on the turn, then it rides well.
Through the compulsory flags, and left to jump 5 - the log pile. This is a bit hidden in the trees, and comes up quickly. I actually missed the turn on my pony, and ended up doing the grade 3 jump by accident.
Jump 5 lines you up beautifully for 6A and 6B (logs). You have about 6 or 7 strides from jump 5 to 6A, then about 3 strides to 6B. So this rides really well, the jumps are simple, although 6B is a little bit narrow, and if you slack off, you will get a run-out.
Jump 7 is a stack of rocks. Then you turn for home, go past the bank, switch back to the right and pop onto the bank (8A) one stride, then down the bank (8B). Then switch back to the left, over the tyres (jump 9) and over jump 10 - the trakener with water in the ditch. This jump worried me a lot, but the tyres lined you up perfectly, and neither of my horses even blinked an eyelid at it. The tyres were a portable jump.
Jump 11 is a mound of dirt covered by a blue tarp with silos on either side. The silos prevent a run-out, but the blue tarp causes some consternation for the less brave horses. My pony didn't bat an eyelid, but my mare did a massive leap over it.
Jump 12 is the water. A small drop in, the water is not deep, the footing is great, then a ramp out. If you've done your homework, then this should be a breeze.
Jump 13 are dog bones - a white and red jump. If this was a normal bush log, then it would be easy. But the colours certainly cause some horses to eye it off with suspicion.
Jump 14 is the gold mine - a wooden trough with rocks in it, some of them gold rocks. On a very sunny day, with sun glare on the gold rocks this could be quite a dazzling jump. However, it is very wide as it extends to higher and lower grades on either side so a run-out is unlikely. At this stage you are heading straight for home, so most horses should decide that going over is just the easiest option.
Jump 15 is the "Welcome Stranger" - a log with a massive gold nugget underneath, set amongst eucalypt branches. There is something about this jump that makes the horses have second thoughts, so don't take it for granted.
(This is a description of Dingo's Cross Country round at Dunolly Horse Trials).
I ride Dingo into the cross country warm-up and realise that I've got the wrong reins attached to his bridle. I've got the dressage reins, which are all smooth leather. I was intending to swap them for the webbed reins with the little regular stoppers - too late now.
The warm-up goes well and he is travelling very nicely between leg and hand, and being quite responsive to the bit. The warm-up jumps also go well, and I even do one of the bigger logs.
We face the course, the starter counts us down, and we're off. Dingo travels nicely to the first jump, and has no issues with the slightly tricky ramp under an arch. But as we land, the reins slip through my fingers and I suddenly regret my rein blunder. The breeze hits my face, my eyes water, my glasses slip down my nose as Dingo travels a lot more on the forehand than anything he did in the warm-up. I can barely see, when we have a run out at number two. We get over it easily on the second attempt, and I grip the reins tightly into the next jump.
Jumps three and four go well, but after four I again grapple for control, as Dingo leans on the bit and the reins just slip through my fingers. I see the jumps judge for jump 5, and wonder why they are sitting with their back to the jump. I get through the compulsory flags and look for my line.
(What happens in reality is that we are travelling so fast, that I totally miss the line for the level 4 jump. I in fact take the line for the level 2 jump, get put off by the height, and end up jumping the level 3 jump. But I have no idea about this, until I ride the course again on Lil.)
I see a jump up ahead, it's got number 5 on it, but it looks way too big for me. So I look to the left. There is also a jump with a number 5 on it, so I aim for that one. The colour of the number does not register at all. What does register is that we are now on the path for the grade 3 jumps. I have 7 fast strides, and very little rein control to correct our line, and do level 4 6A and 6B. And I am left a bit bewildered that when we walked the course, jumps 5 and 6 seemed to line up so well, yet when riding it, they were all out of whack. So weird.
But I have no time to give it another thought, as the reins slide through my fingers, Dingo hangs his head an inch above the ground (is he looking for gold?) and we gallop on towards number 7. I manage to shorten my reins, steady him and we're over. And I'm out of control again.
I try to slow him to a trot coming into the bank, but the minute he sees the obstacle he is all go and action. This pony just has no respect that his rider may want to go a little bit slower - just for the fun of it! After the bank, and drop, I actually pull him up. Up until now I've kind of been able to clamp my fingers onto the rein and retain some semblance of something. But now it's all starting to fall apart.
I take a breather, then kick him on again. Over the tyres, then drive over the trakener. He doesn't even blink an eyelid, doesn't flick an ear. On the other side, however, he is so strong, that I actually do a circle to regain control. As long as I am not about to present to a jump, this is totally within the rules.
He clears the tarp mound (jump 11). I slow down to trot before the water and he boldly jumps in, wondering why in the world I would have wanted to slow him down. Then over the dog bones (jump 13) and the gold mine (jump 14). I grip the reins so hard my fingers are numb. I still have very little control. Perhaps I even don't have any control. Who knows. He takes a glance at the "Welcome Stranger" (jump 15), but one kick and he is over it, and across the finish line.
The second we cross that finish line I start looping back in a big arc. It's my only hope to stop. My fingers and my hands are totally numb. My shoulders are aching. I'll have the best triceps after this.
Finally, we come to the walk. The funny line at number 5 is long forgotten, and the only thing I can think about is what can I do to make my hands work again so I can ride Lil.
When I ride the course on Lil, and take the correct line for jump number 5, I realise that that is not the jump I did on Dingo. As I continue to ride the course on Lil I am so focused on riding her that I don't give it another thought. It is only when I finish the course on Lil that I suddenly think "if I didn't do the level 4 jump on Dingo, then I must have done the level 3 jump", and then "if I did the level 3 jump on Dingo, then Dingo has been eliminated".
Cross Country Post Mortem
I believe that everything happens for a reason. I forgot to change my reins - for a reason. I jumped that grade 3 jump - for a reason. That grade 3 jump felt easy - for a reason. And later, in the showjumping, the grade 4 jumps were hard, and Dingo was stopping, and I fell off - for a reason. It's in correctly understanding the reasons that we either make it, or break it for ourselves in the future. The elimination is immaterial.
So what's my take?
Remember to change your reins before cross country. And if you happen to have the wrong reins, then put a set of knots in them.
The wrong reins, forced me to ride Dingo on a much longer contact. At the time it felt scary because with every stride the reins grew longer and longer. But later I realised that this longer contact had no bearing whatsoever on his jumping. He jumped a grade 3 jump on that longer contact. What had a bearing on his jumping was how much leg I was using. The longer contact, also allowed him to use his back better - it's exactly what I've been trying to get him to do!
We jumped a grade 3 jump. We jumped it because I was using my leg, and allowing Dingo to have a longer contact. We jumped it because I was allowing him to travel. Perhaps it was faster than what I wanted, but it is what suited him. Perhaps there is a balance between the two?
I fell off in the showjumping, over a course that should have been easy for Dingo. If it was on grass it would have been easy. But it was in deep sand. And I should have not worried about the reins at all, just ridden it totally from the leg. In that deep sand, he was travelling exactly as he should be. I just need to add leg.
And so it all comes back to the same thing - less rein, more leg, more trust. Put that into my training with Dingo, and see where we come out at the end. Find a huge, flat paddock and go galloping on a loose rein - see what happens. Ride in a headstall (have the bridle on just in case), and see what happens. Play.
Dunolly is a small town in the middle of the Victorian Gold Fields. We first heard about it on Macca's (Ian Macnamara) set of CD's in a song "I'm the last man from Dunolly" about a soldier returning from the war - the only soldier from the Dunolly area to be returning. When I noticed the Dunolly Horse Trials on the eventing calendar, we didn't need any further prodding to make the 4 hour trip.
My husband, my daughter and I arrive on late Friday afternoon, and setup camp. By the time I get the stove out, its dark, and my husband makes some noises that sound like "pub" and "beer". We eat our camp meal, and then drive into Dunolly. On the way, we listen to "the song" that brought us here, then spend a somber moment at the war memorial.
We waltz merrily into the cheerful pub, and strip off our winter woolies as the warmth of the open fire hits us. We sit at the bar drinking our beer and fairy drinks; we glance around at the locals. There are three people next to me, and one of them pulls out a gold nugget about the size of a 50c coin. He shares its story with his friends while we stare shamelessly. He found it on his property with a metal detector. Had to dig for it. But he thinks there's more further down. His eyes sparkle with a strange kind of excitement ... gold fever.
Our shameless staring is hard to ignore, and he eventually turns to us and lets us hold the nugget. My daughter is spellbound as history unrolls itself right in front of her eyes. We pulled her out of school early today to come here - I think it's just paid dividends.
The freezing night air hits us as we leave the pub. The sleeping bags in our tent are nice and warm, and we get a good night's sleep.
The morning is overcast but mild, and I have a thousand chores to do around the horses, as well as plaiting up and getting them ready for dressage. My husband and daughter can afford to take it a bit more easy, and they pedal off on their bicycles to Dunolly.
I manage to get the plaiting done just in time, using up the very last bit of the black thread on Lil's mane. Dingo's warm up goes brilliantly. He is very relaxed and very happy, and produces a test to match which places him 7th. Lil on the other hand, is the total opposite. She is stepping under really well, but she is tense. She can see the cross country course, and she is far too excited to be paying attention. Nevertheless, the dressage is not bad and she ends up 14th.
We walk the cross country course - this is a newly built cross country course, with this competition being the official cross country course opening weekend. The course is beautiful - and I have added a full review of it to my cross country review series. All I will say is that I expect jump 10 - a trakener with water in the ditch - to be the show stopper. It certainly has me shaking in my boots every time I think about it.
We do another trip to the pub, and then attend the dinner hosted by the Dunolly Horse Activity Club. The food is fabulous, the atmosphere is warm, and the people are lovely.
There is a bit of wind during the night. It makes funny sounds, and wakes me up. Every time I wake up I go over the cross country course in my mind, getting a serious adrenaline rush at number 10. It's amazing that I go back to sleep.
In the morning, my husband is off to Ballarat for a bike ride with his mates. And then the comedy of errors begins. I get both horses ready, and ride off on Dingo into the Cross Country warm-up. I realise that I still have my dressage reins on Dingo's bridle - oh well, too late to change now. I am barely in trot, when I see a wild bay horse galloping loose up the home straight. I gaze at my float - Lil is no longer tied up. Ooops. I ride up to the edge of the bunting, and call out to her. The galloping horse comes to a standstill opposite Dingo. My daughter walks up, but she is not old enough to handle Lil - let alone an excited Lil. So we wait for an adult to walk up and ask for assistance. The lady assures me she will find a secure yard for Lil.
Dingo's warm up goes extremely well. He is light in the hand, and responsive to the bit. I might just be able to get away with these reins after all. We start off on Cross Country and everything changes. The reins immediately run through my fingers, and I lose most of my control. The ride is so eventful that it deserves a separate post. We have a run out at jump 2, but otherwise go clear. The pony doesn't even blink at jump number 10!
Then it's Lil's turn. We have a very short time to warm-up, which suits me fine. She knows what she needs to do, she's already had her warm-up gallop (ha ha ha!), and the sooner she gets going, the sooner she can get back to Dingo. We go clear over the first, and then establish who is going to do what as we approach jump 2. She gives it a quick second look, and from then on we're very clear. I'll just sit and ride, and she will gallop and jump. We get a good rhythm, she works well into the hand, and I just give a bit of encouragement before each jump. She swallows up the Cross Country course. I never doubt anything. The trakener is a piece of cake. At the water I slow her down to a walk. She takes a look, then pops in. Out of the water and we re-establish our rhythm. I watch the finish gates glide past us and then I punch my fist into the air. Yes! Yes! and YES!!! What an absolutely fantastic, awesome, unbelievable run!
I jump off and my daughter runs in and shares in the joy. I smile at her, and share a little home truth. "Lil's gone clear, but I've just realised that Dingo has been eliminated." She stares. "I did the wrong jump on Dingo - I did a grade 3 jump and I didn't even notice at the time. I've just realised now. But never mind. It's just another learning lesson."
Lil knows she's done the required job, and she now just wants to get back to Dingo. The vet comes over and she throws her head to the side in protest, hitting the vet. It hurts. We are asked to walk away, settle the horse, and come back in about 5 to 10 minutes. I sober up somewhat. "You know what", I say to my daughter "Lil might also get eliminated." "Why?", she stares in disbelief. "Well, she did run out on Cross Country course, she could get eliminated for that, and now she hit the vet so she might get eliminated for bad behaviour." "Can they do that?", she asks. I grow serious. "I presume they can. Horses should be well behaved." The next time the vet approaches we make sure that Lil is on her best behaviour. This time we pass.
I change Dingo's reins and warm him up for showjumping. From the first jump I know that something is wrong. The pony is travelling in a totally different way than normal, and if I was a better, more experienced rider, I would be able to change my riding style to match. But I don't have that experience, yet. All I can do is sit and wonder - something is very different. It's the footing. The sand in the jumping arena is very deep. Perhaps too deep. Dingo doesn't cope. I manage to ride it out until he sees jump 6 - the double. It's too much, he stops and I fall off. He is now double eliminated. It's kind of funny, but I just hope they allow me to ride Lil.
I warm Lil up. She is the last to go, and as our round approaches there are less and less horses in the warm-up ring. Until there are none. And the cold front - rainless perhaps, but with eerie dark clouds and cold wind - buffets against us. I manage to hold it all together - just. We ride into the ring. Lil also struggles somewhat with the deep footing, but she copes. However, we can't get a really good flowing rhythm. As jump number 6 approaches, time seems to come to a standstill. Six strides to go. We will do this. Five. I apply leg. Four. I look at element B. Three. I apply leg. Two. I look up. One. We go through it. I breathe. After jump 9, Lil heads for the corner, and I hear a little voice from the sidelines "Forward Mama! Forward!". I ride forward, and we do jumps 10, and 11. Clear!
We look after the horses, then my daughter sits me down in a chair and looks after me. She gets me food from the food bag, and organises a drink. No - it's not a beer. Later we attend the presentations. Dingo, as expected, is eliminated. Lil comes 7th and I receive a beautiful pink ribbon.
Then it's time to pack up. My husband returns from his bike ride an hour later than expected. The competition also ran about an hour later than expected. So the light is fading as we finally drive off between the slightly undulating sweeping plains where kangaroos hop without a care in the world.
Two horses on the float, daughter still in her PJ's smiling through her sleep in the back seat, pitch black outside and we're off to Wandin ODE. We arrive without dramas, park, unload and register.
I get all dressed up in my jacket, then Dingo and I ride down to the dressage warm-up. Dingo's dressage is in Big Wandin. The warm-up goes well and probably my biggest issue is that he feels about ready after 10 minutes, yet we have another 30, especially since the tests are running late. I am a bit stuck at what to do. How do I ensure I don't "ruin" what we have. This is not helped by one rider, who always seems to be riding straight into us. Funny that we don't have that problem with the 10 other riders in the warm-up.
Our turn finally comes, and when the judge toots the horn she is in the shade and I can't see her wave. So I am not sure. Was that my judge? Or was it not? I look at the other arenas and by process of elimination decide that it was my judge. I ride in, still not quite sure whether I am about to get eliminated because I didn't ride into the arena on time, or because I rode into the arena uninvited.
I do my first halt and realise that the whole judge and horn issue has taken up so much of my mind, that I have forgotten the test. I quickly remember it, but any softness we may have had just vanishes as I tense in a sudden panic. The first half of the test is wasted. In the second half, I relax again and let it flow a bit more. By then, Dingo is tired. Uggh!
I grimace and put it behind me as we walk back towards the float. Then it's off to walk the cross country course. I look at it and decide that this just might sort a few horses out. It's all at the right level, nothing too hard, nothing too easy, a few nice give aways, and some challenges. Love it!
Then it's back into the dressage ring with Lil. Her dressage is at the top of the hill, and the sweeping views alone get her eyeballs rolling. Then there is the odd pram. I get her in control quick smart - something I wouldn't have been able to do a year or two ago - and the warm-up goes well.
When it comes to our turn I have another stuff up with the judge and horn, but I'm not eliminated. Then there is the issue of the view. Ever ytime Lil has to go towards the judge she is as smooth as butter. Every time she goes away from the judge she starts freaking out and loses all forward. Double uggh!
So it's another test to move on from as we quickly unsaddle Lil and get Dingo ready for cross country. As we approach the course I become acutely aware that I am quite hungry and very thirsty. I've only had an apple since breakfast in the car. Must remedy this after cross country.
The warm up goes well, and I get some really lovely jumps from Dingo. But the minute we start, he takes off like a mad thing, not listening and paying attention. And so when we get to jump two, the picket fence with all the colourful flowers in front of it, Dingo gets the shock of his life. Refusal one. We get over it, and have a few more arguments along the way. Another refusal at the table top, and one more at the double. Not our best performance.
I rush back, and get Lil. In the process I manage to scoff down a banana and drink some water. We only have 10 minutes to warm up, but it's enough. She also takes off a bit like a mad thing, but when I slow her down before the picket fence she starts paying attention. She doesn't really like the flowers, but is happy enough to put in a leap when asked. We're smoothly through next few, and then the eye glasses give her the fright of her life - she seriously thinks she's about to jump over the head of a tiger or dragon! We get a refusal at the double, but otherwise she jumps everything, although some of her leaps are so big, she may as well be doing 3*!
Back to the float. Get Lil unsaddled and comfortable. I give up on "the look", and stay in my cross country vest. Taking it off would mean taking off my helmet, putting the vest away, getting the jacket. I just can't be bothered.
We get Dingo ready for showjumping. Here we get a bit confused - where is the showjumping? I am grateful for my little strapper who holds my pony while I enquire about ring location. We still get there early, and I even have time to walk the course. Wow.
Now, the showjumping course. At most other HT competitions the grade four showjumping course is little more than grade five, with a couple of enticing cross rails and only a few jumps set at the maximum 60cm. And then the next level is Intro, and all of a sudden everything is at 80cm with an 80cm spread. I mean how are you supposed to do such a massive leap? Here, I must acknowledge the Wandin grade four showjumping course as being excellent. Every single jump is at 60cm, with a couple of enticing oxers. No inviting cross rails. Just a real course providing a good grade four test for horse and rider. Wandin - well done to you!
During the warm-up I keep our poor cross country performance in mind, and I keep thinking "light contact, and good drive". I jump one warm-up jump. Just one. It's enough. My pony is on the ball, and I don't need to stir him up any more. We ride our round. Dingo has a bit of a funny corner after jump six, which puts a rail on the ground of element 7A. Otherwise it's a textbook round.
We go back to the float and this time we actually have enough time to scratch ourselves, as well as unsaddle Dingo, give him a proper brush and a cuddle, and get him all ready for going home. We get Lil ready, and head back to the showjumping ring.
As we walk towards the ring, Lil is resisting. I'm starting to think that even at grade four, the showjumping round truly is a test of fitness. I coax Lil forward and we get to the warm up area. I coax her through the warm-up. A lot of walk, then a lot of trot. When I feel her loosen up, I pop her over the jump. Just one jump. She's on the ball. That's enough. Then I just keep her warm and ticking over until it's our turn.
We ride into the showjumping arena and Lil's ears prick up. I talk with the judge, the bell rings, I kick Lil into a trot. An energy surges up in her that I did not expect. "You point, and I'll shoot", she seems to say. I don't need to kick her into canter. I just point her at jump 1, jump 2, and so on till jump 9. She is amazing. She just flies. She just clears everything in her path. This is her forte. She goes clear. What can I say? This little horse, with her odd fitness niggles, with her nasty attitude, with her royal airs, has just made my day!
Back at the float we make Lil comfortable and ready to go home. I smile at my daughter. She smiles back. She's been a strapper all day long. Now her Mummy is back. She slips her little hand in mine and we go to get an ice cream. We check out the results. Dingo is about 18th, but Lil has managed to come 7th! Wow! After that awful dressage too. "Mamma, I think you'll get a ribbon for Lil", says my daughter. "Nah, I'm pretty sure it's just ribbons to 6th place. We've missed out", I laugh.
We gaze some more at the results - overall so many cross country faults, so many eliminations, a few rails down in showjumping. I knew that cross country was going to sort us out. Wandin delivered a fantastic competition.
This is the first time I've ridden two horses at a horse trials, and it was busy, but I loved it. I have found the real me. Now that it's time to go home, the idea of staying for the presentations doesn't even enter my mind. A pity - because it turns out that Lil just may have won a rosette after all. Come to think of it, I should probably attend the presentations regardless of my placing. And that's not the only lesson I walk away with.