Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Memory Lane - Heat, Red Dust and Horses


For as long as I can remember, I was a horse-mad child. Despite living on a large rural property, I had parents with very little horse knowledge. We had sheep, cats and dogs, but sadly for me, no horses.

My mother kept my pre-school scrap books which feature many drawings of stick figure horses I drew. Every time I went on a school trip, I was the strange kid craning my neck towards the window to catch a glimpse of any horses we might pass. I read every practical horse book in the school library to learn more about horse care and riding. I then discovered British pony books. Pullein-Thompson, KM Peyton, Ruby Ferguson - I loved them all and desperately wanted to be the characters in those books.

An early horse drawing by me

I was told by my parents, "When you are 13, you can have a pony". 

This seemed like FOREVER away as a little kid and by the time I was nine, I wore my parents down and was allowed to take riding lessons.

The summer of 1989 is where it all began. I remember getting out of the car at "Biggin Hill" for the first time and seeing a pony mare saddled up ready for me to ride. She had a glossy, dark golden coat, yet a black mane, tail and legs. 

"What an unusual colour" my mother remarked. We were informed she was a buckskin and her name was Della. I immediately thought she was the most beautiful pony I'd ever seen. 

Mrs Manuel and her granddaughters, Simone and Justine taught me to ride. I remember being helped on board using a mounting block (I was not a very tall nine year old) and shown the basics of control in a small yard. I then proceeded to go out for a ride along the lanes and paddocks, with Mrs Manuel on her grey, Quest and another girl, Donna on Fred. 

And so went this glorious Summer. I spent many days of the school holidays, riding out with whoever was there. I happily recall mastering the rising trot in the "laneway" and on a particularly happy day, finally cracking a canter with Mrs Manuel riding beside me. I fondly remember the warm mornings spent with the horses, only to be reluctantly whisked home before the heat of the day. We'd often take a short cut, through Woolshed Lake, red dust of the dirt roads flying in our wake. With the car's air conditioner blaring and my sisters' Peter Coombes cassette playing, I would feel tired, yet contented. Around this time, I started collecting the "Horse Sense" magazine series. Afternoons were often spent brushing up on my equestrian knowledge. It was one of the happiest times of my life. 

One particular day, I was hacking out along the lanes with Donna and Justine. Donna and I begged to be allowed to canter towards home, but were (rightly) told we weren't quite ready for that! It was on this ride I said to Justine we were looking for a pony and she mentioned Della was for sale. The seed was planted. In truth, the whole family had quite fallen in love with the gentle little mare. We'd take her apples (the only treat she liked) and she placidly walked as my younger sisters took turns in having a ride.

Once it was decided Della would become ours, I then had to suffer (or so I thought!) the inconvenience of going to ballet camp. It was a torturous week for me. It was my first longer camp away from home and I was so desperately homesick, to the point of constantly crying. I don't ever remember wanting to go home so much! I also would have much preferred to be spending every waking minute with my pony, not dancing. It was then my love of ballet began to wane....

Although we were now owners of Della, she remained at Biggin Hill as we didn't yet have a paddock suitable. Now she was mine, it meant a glorious trip to the saddlery store with Mum to equip her. I was in seventh heaven, selecting a saddle and bridle, halter and lead, grooming kit and other supplies. As we ate lunch in the car, I recall thinking that the smell of new leather was one of the best scents in the world.

Once school resumed, on weekends we'd go out to see Della, ride her and smother her in affection. It was on one of these rides I fell off for the first time, when Della cantered towards the fence and suddenly stopped.

I believe that was the last time I rode her. Not long after, we had a phone call to say she'd had colic. The local vet had been and she seemed ok. I went off to school that   day thinking everything was all ok. When I got home that afternoon, my whole world changed.

I stepped off the school bus to see Mum's tear stained face. It could only mean one thing.

"Did Della die?" I whispered

Mum collapsed into tears. Tears of pain of knowing there was no way of easing my grief. It was my first big loss and left me shell shocked. One day, I had everything I'd ever wanted in life; the next, it was gone.

It transpired that Della's colic symptoms had returned that day. A twisted gut was suspected and my parents made the decision to have her operated on. In hindsight, a bold move. Unfortunately, when she was opened up, it was revealed she actually had a fatty tumour on the bowel. Blood supply had been cut off and although they removed what had been damaged, they were unable to re-join the bowel.

To this day, I am still haunted by such a tragic beginning to horse ownership. Of course, I have gone on to have many other wonderful ponies and horses in my life, but it was a rocky start. 

These days I am blessed to be able to help many people onto the start of their equestrian journey. Part of me will always be that horse-mad little girl, staring out the bus window for passing horses and cantering across paddocks, carefree, wind in my face with those buckskin ears in front of me.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

When Less Is More


At this time of year, there's lot's of "New Year, New Me" hype. I often have had big hopes and dreams for each new year, but this year I'm choosing not to. This year, my goal is to do less. Work smarter, not harder. To be kind to myself. After all, I'm the one who has to live with the consequences. It is also a time for gratitude - to appreciate my good fortune in having a loving supportive family, two beautiful kids and to be able to do things I love every day. It brings me lots of happiness to help others in their riding journey and to share in their love of horses. 

For too long though, I've been hanging in limbo. Ignoring my health issues and trying to be everything to everyone. I have Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome on top of a few other sleep disorders. I won't go into it (Google is your friend, it is a real "thing"). But it means I can't just sleep when most of the world is sleeping. It means all the usual helpful advice to "just go to bed earlier" doesn't work. I've modified my schedule to an extent, but decided now I just can't go on the way I'm going. My mental and physical health has taken a huge beating. I need to make self care and getting enough sleep my #1 priority, otherwise I'll get burnt out and end up with far more severe health problems long term. 


Unfortunately, it means less or no competitions anymore. I just can't do it. I am torn, because I love it, but the physical toll is just too great. I will continue to ride and train, but will have to look closely at what I do and know when to back off. Luckily, competing is not the be all and end all, so no need to panic, the horses stay!!! But it is a time for me to go back to exploring why I love horses and setting myself some different challenges, that can be achieved on my own time schedule :) 

In horsey news - the horses are back in work! Ted and Typo are back in light work, with aims to get them out to training days and lessons this year.  Snip has had some work with a new farrier to correct his feet. We had Hoof Scan xrays done, which showed negative/low plantar & palmar angles. He has upright pasterns and odd shaped feet naturally. This, combined with a lifetime of (less than optimal) shoeing has contributed to long toes/low contracted heels and very thin soles. He is now sporting some very flash "air pegasus" shoes - special aluminiums with leather pads in front. It will be 3 months before he is ready to do any eventing, but that's ok. At this stage in his career, his soundness is more important than any of my ambitions for him. No foot, no horse! He is in light work and we will be dressage queens for a while. Then it will be time to assess our next move....! 

      New Year, new wheels! 

Unfortunately, Illiana, my beautiful Andalusian x WB mare is not in foal. We've decided to hold off on any more AI with frozen and try fresh insemination to the same Lusitano stallion (Asceta d'Atela) early next season. In the meantime, she may find herself under this space! 

My exciting news is that I have some club bookings for lessons on my Equisimulator! I have had a number of regular clients use it as part of their lessons and all have found it a useful learning tool. I look forward to heading to Ararat in late January with "Bouncy Horse" (as Hamish calls him). The simulator is such a helpful tool in teaching riding - often I've had people who have never ridden before, master the rising trot on "Bouncy" and then able to replicate it straight away on a real horse. It is also so useful for established riders to practice on, to correct exisiting faults, or better understand how to absorb the horse's movement effectively. 

              The simulator set-up - can be for riders of all sizes and abilities - in all weathers! 

I've also pencilled in a hoof trimming course in March, so I can be more proactive about my horses' hoofcare and improve my knowledge. This is something I've wanted to do for a while, so I'm excited about improving my skills in another area and being passionate about another side of horse ownership. 

My study as an Enlightened Equitation Teacher Trainee continues, with the second half of my course in mid April. I look forward to learning more and being able to help many more riders in developing an effective seat and an elegant way of riding. 

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

My UK adventure! An Enlightening Experience...


After the bungle of my flight from Lisbon to London, it was a relief to finally make it to Totnes, Devon on Monday to start my Enlightened Equitation Teacher Training. I only ended up being an hour late - which under the circumstances, was not too bad! 

One of the advantages of going by train from London to Totnes in daylight was seeing more of the beautiful English countryside - even if a peak fare rail ticket cost me £125! (gulp!). I'd never been that far west, so exploring new places is always fascinating (note to self - glad I did not hire a car as I would have freaked out about those narrow sunken Devon lanes....oh my!). 

Many people would probably think it strange that as a hot blooded eventer I've kind of "gone alternative" (for want of a better term). After all, I've missed the last three events of the season! However, my time training in Portugal in January and then subsequently training with a classical dressage coach on my horse this year has opened my eyes to just how much rider position affects the horse's way of going. It's taken me months to have a more symmetrical position, independent control of my body and to stop being so "busy" with my hands and legs (and there's still work to be done!). 

Out competing, yes there are many riders who are successful, even with a less than ideal position. But how much better would they be if they sat straight and quietly, moved with the horse without blocking him and didn't have distracting waggling legs, busy hands and a nodding head?! My goal is to ride with barely perceptible aids and a quiet, elegant seat...and to teach others to do the same. I'm also inspired to train my school horses to a much higher level, in order to teach correct "feel" and show how correct training can improve any horse - whether competing is the goal or not. 

It is difficult to put into a few words what I have learned in the first module of my course. The core work for the week consisted of observing numerous "guinea pig" riders of various abilities have a lesson with Heather Moffett. I found her teaching and training methods are simple and easy to follow, making the basic aids very clear, yet without force. Position is obviously the key theme - however it is being able to maintain a good position whilst correctly applying the aids and making transitions where many come unstuck! I like the fact Heather has the ability to train horses as well as riders - meaning horse and rided together make considerable improvements. 

                                      Observing Heather Moffett teaching 

                                    The Irish wool blanket my sister gifted me - very useful!! 
Saddle fit was another major issue. It is astounding how much correct saddle fit and balance affects a rider's position. I know a lot of emphasis is now placed on making sure the saddle fits the horse, but if the seat size is too small for the rider, or the saddle doesn't sit the rider centrally, it is extremely hard for a rider to achieve the correct shoulder, hip, heel alignment in flatwork. In GP saddles, the problem is compounded by stirrup bars being set too far forward and knee blocks in the wrong place, so they are continually forced into a chair seat. We learned some simple remedies for some of these issues - not always requiring a new saddle! 

                                       Saddle fit and balance was a key theme 

As well as discussions on the various schools of classical training, we spent afternoons on the Equisimulators, which are machines that (with assistance of a coach) teach riders how to correctly absorb movement - particularly in sitting trot and canter - often what riders find most difficult. The electronic machines are good for developing feel in walk/trot, whereas the rider powered mechanical simulators enabled us to practice walk, rising/sitting trot and canter, plus transitions - an invaluable tool whether for a beginner or an experienced rider needing remedial work (let's face it - none of us are perfect!!). The rider powered machine is great in that if you follow the movement incorrectly, it will stop - much like the effect of blocking the horse.  The beauty of teaching this way is that corrections to position can be made whilst a rider is in motion - not even possible when teaching on the lunge. 

                                          Feeling the "flex" in rider's back on the Equisimulator

So...I'm now a trainee EET and will return to the UK in 6 months to complete my training (with a number of assignments inbetween). I look forward to meeting up again with a lovely bunch of like minded individuals - we all had a wonderful time and many laughs! 

                  The group of 2017 EE Teacher Trainees - what a great bunch! 

My most exciting news is.....Gretgrix Equestrian will soon be home to the only rider powered Equisimulator in Victoria (there are currently only two in Australia, in New South Wales). This means I will be able to offer lessons on the simulator alone, or in conjunction with a lesson on a horse to transfer skills across. All of my beginner clients will soon have the opportunity to use the simulator to get the basics right from the start - speeding up the process considerably. It will be an invaluable tool for those returning to riding and/or lacking confidence - once their seat is more secure, the transition to a real horse will be much easier and less scary! It is also a great way to improve rider fitness and core strength. 

                                    Work on the Equi

Next year, once I have transport for the Equisimulator sorted, I hope to be able to offer demonstrations and lessons at Riding Clubs, Pony Clubs and other groups. Unlike the much more sophisticated computerised machines, the Equisimulator is transportable. Lessons can take place regardless of the weather or time of day (as long as shelter/shade is available) and unmounted workshops are another possibility. 

Watch this space!! 

                                     Heather's amazing book

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Farewell Portugal....!


Sunday started off ok, with a beautiful sunny morning and a ride on Hostil. After warming up, he gave me some nice work, getting softer with a good rhythm. One of the things we worked on was flying changes, which I find a bit tricky and want to do too much! Single changes across the diagonal went ok, then we started to attempt 2 and 3 changes across the diagonal of a 20 x 40 arena...which is where things fell apart a bit! I forgot about sitting still and maintaining quality of the canter....and Hostil started anticipating and getting a bit strong and quick. We then broke the exercise down into two changes across two short diagonals....then got 3 changes across the diagonal....finally! It was a good lesson for me as I have been starting changes with my horses at home - with mixed success. Frederico gave me some good exercises to try, so will be putting these into place when I get home.

    Ulisses and Vingador in the background doing kids' lessons :) 

Trains, planes and automobiles

After farewelling Julia (who was off to spend the afternoon in Sintra) I began the journey to London. I arrived at Lisbon airport, with plenty of time. Checked in, all good. Got to boarding gate before 12:45 only to be told...."oh, we don't have a seat for you" 

Say Whaaaaaaaat? *insert long line of expletives*

I have to admit, I was flabbergasted - I've never had this happen. 

It turns out that TAP Air Portugal regularly overbooks flights. I was an unlucky one to be "kicked off". The (not very friendly) boarding gate lady told me to go organise a 4pm flight, but to do so, I had to get all the way back through the airport backwards....not easy when you've already been through security and passport control. I had to find ground staff on a few occasions to let me through staff doors, passport control (again!) and finally a tearful stressed out me found my way to the TAP desk back near check be met with a huge line up. It took close to 2 hours wait in line, where I discovered many others had the same issue with other flights...some poor travellers were kicked off a flight to Rio they'd paid for in June! I also wasn't sure what had happened to my suitcase I checked in that morning....another worry! 

Anyway, I finally got a boarding pass issued for the 4pm flight, given a card for 400 Euro and was assured my bag would be on the flight.... then had to go through security screening againnnnnnnn (time was getting tight by then)....get to passport control and I think, because I had already "departed" it would not accept my passport in the Australian/NZ etc e-gate. I then had to join a huge line up and started panicking. Very kindly, people on later flights let myself and others on the London flight jump the cue. There was NO way I was missing that flight. 

I arrived in London, got my bag (hurrah!) and then took the easy option of the airport desk organising a hotel and transfers. By that stage, it was after 8:30pm and getting a late train wasn't an option (I actually think I missed the last train option). I was tired anyway, after such a long day stuck in an airport. I finally had dinner at 10pm (after having nothing to eat since breakfast) and went to bed, and slept well, but was up again before 5 am. 

And to today....I checked out of the hotel at 5:20am to catch the bus to the airport station....plenty of time to get to Paddington for me train to Totnes, right? Wrong! One of the tube lines was down causing delays on other lines. I got to Paddington at 7.03, when my train was scheduled for time to buy tickets here I am on the next train and will arrive an hour later...but I'll be happy to arrive at all. 

Let's hope the week improves.....! 

Sunday, 5 November 2017

The Lusitano Diaries - Revisited, Part Two

Today has been a fantastic day. This morning I had the opportunity to ride another amazing schoolmaster, Ulysses. He is quite different to ride, but was an excellent teacher, particularly with the piaffe, passage and spanish walk. 

I have ridden piaffe and passage as single movements before, but not put them together, so it was great to experience this. It was also a good test of my reaction time and making my aids clear to the horse - if I didn't get it right, he told me! It made me much more aware of what my body is doing....and also aware of just how much more there is for me to learn!! 

Another fantastic part of today was seeing my youngest sister, Julia, who flew over from Ireland to join me for the weekend. We spent today in Cascais, down by the marina, shopping and tasting the local pastries ;) There was a market in the centre of town with a beautiful carousel - my kids would have loved it! 

Tonight we'll go out for a traditional dinner. Tomorrow, after another ride I'm off to the UK and Julia will stay on to explore Sintra ;)