Tuesday, 1 August 2017

RDA Nationals - Dressage

This year I sort of had two opportunities for dressage at the National Championships, because even though you are only allowed to compete in one Championship class (I had opted for the walk/trot test ridden side saddle on Rolo rather than the canter test that Boysie and I had also qualified in, on the basis that Rolo and I are going well at the moment and Boysie is VERY popular for everything and everyone else in the group) you can also do Dressage Anywhere. This was the first year that I'd had a go at Dressage Anywhere and it's something I'm going to be trying to get more riders doing in the East Region - and further afield, although I have even less jurisdiction outside the east of England!
Qualifying with Rolo at the regional competition
I've written about Dressage Anywhere here and here. If you're not aware of it, it's basically an opportunity to film yourself doing a dressage test at home, then to have that film judged and compared to other people in your class. If you're lucky, you get a rosette and even some prize money! Dressage Anywhere runs an RDA Online Championship each year. You qualify for this in the preceding rounds, which run from August to March, with the Championship taking place in April/May.
Results are here.
This year I had entered the Walk/Trot test on Rolo and for the Championship we went side saddle. This was only my second time riding side saddle so it was a bit of a gamble but it paid off when we won! The prizes for this were awarded on the Friday of Hartpury, and consisted of a lovely RDA rosette and, even snazzier, a Dressage Anywhere medal! Having a red rosette and a gold medal was a great way to start the weekend and it was a good omen as I dashed off to my first event (jumping) after the presentation ceremony. Clearly Ruth (who runs DA) is a good omen!
With our medal and rosette after the jumping - and Gillian (L) and Helen (R)

Anyway, my 'real' dressage test (performed live!) ended up being closer to the bottom of my list of priorities this year. This was a bit of a shame but I did put a lot of effort into the other disciplines and, having decided to ride side saddle, I also knew that there wasn't much I could do to practise as there was only the opportunity for one half-hour lesson, and it's so different to riding astride that normal riding wasn't really much help.
One of our RDA sessions before the Champs
Other than scrutinising my test sheets from the qualifier, 2016 Championships and my Dressage Anywhere side saddle test, the main practice I could do would be getting used to the saddle. In my lessons, I'd felt fine whilst on board (limited sensation helping me out!) but then dismounting and attempting to function afterwards was nigh-on impossible as my legs had just seized up so much that I couldn't move them or weight bear. I knew that I'd have to aim to be as comfortable as possible during the showing so that I was ready to go again the next day in the dressage. I also knew that I needed to recover from the dressage very quickly in order to be ready for vaulting!
Wobbly!
To this end, I tried to get used to the saddle as much as possible by setting it up on a makeshift saddle rack at home and then sitting in the position whilst watching television. Sounds silly and I didn't think it would help much but although I was very tired after the showing (which was about 4 times as long as any other time I've ever spent riding side saddle), I wasn't as bad as I expected. After the dressage, I was in a lot of pain but nowhere near as stiff and unsteady as I'd feared.
Looked a bit silly too!
So anyway, the test! I knew the test fairly well, but practising on a sofa really isn't the same... For a start, sofas don't leap around with excitement at being out and about on such a glorious summer morning. I really did wish I was astride when I first got on Rolo - he was full of the joys of spring and then some. This is classic for him and frankly I'd been astonished when he'd behaved so well the day before. We were quite early down to the tack check so weren't allowed into the collecting ring straight away. Rolo was absolutely not in a mood to stand still or even just to walk. He was jogging on the spot and from side to side and every time I released the rein a bit he'd just start mega fast trotting...

It took a superhuman effort for me to relax enough all over and trust that he'd calm down if I led the way. I consciously tried to loosen as many muscles as are under control and to keep the contact really light. I looked up more and just kept him moving until he was ready to do some transitions and start settling down. To be honest, the fact that we were fairly calm by the time we went in is one of my biggest achievements of the weekend: it'd been quite a while since I'd felt that unsettled on a horse and, combined with my annoyance at myself for feeling wobbly, it was a mental challenge to get a grip and get on with it.
The other thing that sofas don't tend to do is poo. I was all too aware that Rolo had gone the entirety of our 'warm up' (which was mostly cooling down!) without having had a poo. The fact that he chose to do it as we came down the centre line for the first time and before we even hit X was really rather infuriating. I nudged him enough to keep him going in walk (in fact, I didn't know my left heel moved that much!) but unfortunately this meant that once he'd finished pooing he broke into an exuberant little trot, so we lost a mark there.
This photo features the offending poo on the right!
The rest of the test passed without major incident but to be honest I didn't ride it as well as I could have. I think a lot of it is my inexperience riding side saddle, because my steering and seat/position definitely had space to improve. On the other hand, the one thing that we'd hoped would be better side saddle - the halts - were some of the best he's done with me. This isn't exactly saying much, but it was gratifying nonetheless that the halt did actually include 'immobility'!
Anyway, the dressage test was over and I had managed to ride it side saddle in front of an audience without falling off! We didn't get a great score (62%) which was a bit disappointing but in a large class we still came in 7th (just out of the rosettes - even more annoying!). It was a bit of a drop after winning the class last year but managing it side saddle was a proud achievement and managing my anxiety before going in was even more of one: it's nice that I don't really get too nervous about competing, but it does mean that when things go a bit pear-shaped and I have a confidence wobble it's that much harder to manage. Whatever the result on Saturday, Rolo had done me proud on the Friday and I'd had very limited practice time so I couldn't be too upset about the dressage result. There's just plenty to keep working on!
Dressage Anywhere goodies!

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

RDA Nationals - Showjumping

This year I had entered the Level 3 jumping competition with Rolo and I was looking forward just to having a bit of fun - Rolo is great fun to ride and even more fun to jump! We had plenty of time to warm up in the collecting ring, although it was a bit irritating that both jumps that were up had to be tackled from the right rein. Rolo was feeling unusually calm so we just had plenty of time to feel loose and free but also sharp and on the ball. Those things sound mutually exclusive but aren't - it's vital to be a bundle of potential energy not just nervous energy!
Walking into the indoor school with Rolo brought back memories of doing the same thing two years before, when a lovely but overzealous official leapt up from a chair on the inside of the (very dark) barn just as we came in from the (very bright) outside world. Rolo nearly had a fit and it wasn't a calm way to enter our dressage test! This year, fortunately, there was no such surprise and Rolo seemed to have forgotten all about it. There was no jump in the indoor collecting ring so instead we just did a few transitions between trot and halt and generally worked on keeping him loose and elastic. Then it was our turn to go!
Riding into the big international arena at Hartpury is quite an experience (the picture above - not of me - goes some way to illustrating it). The building is vast and echoey, like an aircraft hangar. The judge seems to be a very long way away but the spectators seem awfully close. Even the steadiest horses can feel a bit unnerved by the unusual atmosphere but Rolo seemed to be on best behaviour! We walked down to the end, chatted briefly to the steward then saluted the judge and began our trot around. I took a good look at the line to the third jump as we went around, then the bell rang and we picked up canter before heading for the first jump.
Well, Rolo jumped very nicely. He rapped the second jump but it didn't fall (phew!) and he popped over the spread neatly.
At the change of rein we had been instructed to return to trot rather than attempt a flying change, which was just as well as we can't actually do a reliable flying change yet! We then had to pick up canter again for the final line and even though Rolo worried me a bit by leaving the upward transition really rather late we did manage it and popped over the final jumps quite happily.
We cantered through the finish then slowed to a trot before turning down the centre line, halting, and saluting the judge. Job done!
I felt that we'd done fairly well - no jumps down or refusals, a few moments that could have been neater for the style mark, but generally not a bad job. Gratifyingly, the judges thought so too and awarded us 87%, which was enough to win the Senior section and the class overall! It was a lovely way to start the weekend and I'm very proud of Rolo. What a super little horse!

Saturday, 22 July 2017

RDA Nationals - Showing

It's not a secret that I really didn't feel very prepared for the showing class at the RDA National Championships. Along with Eleanor and Olivia from my RDA group, I'd been put forward to it on the basis that we'd be there anyway so we may as well give it a go. I didn't really think it was my thing but I never say no to having a ride so we went for it!

We had a practice session at RDA where the three of us and Chris went in the outdoor arena and Gillian did her best to explain what was likely to happen and what we would be required to do. Suffice to say we had a lot to learn about showing etiquette!
I was able to borrow a side saddle from the super-duper Philippa Kemp-Welch, who is my side saddle instructor. I tried to research what should be worn with said saddle but found this to be something of a rabbit hole...there are just so many variables and I was very confused about what would be correct for riding Rolo as an RDA rider.
Presumably not this attire though.
Fortunately it was around this point that I was contacted by Katy Downing, who was Stable Manager for the Championships and also happens to be a very experienced side saddle rider. Salvation! She gave me so much advice and reassurance and also lent me her fabulous tweed habit - and a waistcoat to match, a shirt, tie, helmet, gloves, jods and boots...it meant that I ended up going into the ring with a horse who wasn't mine, on a saddle I'd borrowed, with clothes that weren't mine - all I had that was my own was the show cane my brother gave me for my birthday and my underwear!

It was a tiny bit stressful getting down there because I hadn't really banked on them running early, and had gone to watch Chris do his showjumping. However, we still had some warming up time before the event started properly. The showing class was a qualifier for the SEIB Search for a Star final in September so it was pretty popular, meaning it had been split into three sections. I was in the second section with Olivia. There was one pretty naughty horse in the class that Olivia and I both had to circle away from - he was winding Rolo up and I was having enough trouble keeping a nice trot as it was!
You can tell by the face I'm pulling!
We spent a while walking and trotting on both reins. The trot went on for ages and I think it was probably the longest single period of time I've ever spent in trot on a side saddle. BOY was it uncomfortable! Every time we looped past the grooms I tried to remember to smile properly instead of the grimace that was creeping onto my face. I began to feel a bit sick and my back was spasming badly. I was seriously thinking that I might need to start walking - I wasn't sure if that was allowed and I really didn't want to throw in the towel but I didn't feel great at all. Fortunately, they called us to walk and then line up and I managed to be nearly at the very end of the line, so I had plenty of time to rest and recover.
The giddy grin of relief!
At this point the grooms were allowed to come in and tidy us up. Katy and Gillian arrived armed with baby wipes to spot-clean Rolo and instruct me to smile more and hold my bloomin' right shoulder further back (in my defence it's hard with right-hand bar reins!). Katy also accused me of trump-face (i.e. it looked like I was trying not to fart), which I misunderstood as Trump-face. My outrage left her somewhat nonplussed until I realised the next day that she hadn't intended to be quite so mean!
With Gillian (navy top) and Katy (red top)
Rolo was a really good boy in the line and stood reasonably patiently, even though there were lots of horses to go before him and he had to wait longer than he would normally tolerate. When it was our turn, we walked around to meet the judges and had a lovely chat. I confessed that it was only my fourth time riding side saddle and, far from being horrified as I'd feared, they were very kind and said I was doing a good job! Their first question was how old Rolo was, which I answered easily, then later they asked me how old I was and I couldn't remember!
Chatting to the judges
After our little chat we showed some more walk and trot on both reins with a trot serpentine. At home in Cambridge we'd practised some canter but that was when I was riding astride. I hadn't cantered side saddle since my first lesson and didn't feel ready to give it a go in such a high-pressure environment. Fortunately canter wasn't compulsory!

After our little show we had another quick chat with the judges, before returning to the line up and waiting for the decisions. I was very pleased when we were called forward to go towards the final judging. There were three others chosen from my group - a beautiful roan pony, an amazingly cute little Welsh pony with a tiny but brilliant rider, and another coloured horse.
Chatting to the judges at the line-up after the first round. They were so friendly!
We then had a bit of time to go and have a rest whilst Eleanor's section did their bit. Kathryn looked after Rolo and Helen fetched lots of drinks for me whilst I sat on a mounting block as I was very, very hot and thirsty in all that tweed! It was good to get out of the saddle too - I do like riding side saddle but it's not the comfiest thing in the world. After about half an hour I hopped back on and over the next five minutes I learnt that sitting astride, stirrup-less, on a side saddle on a fidgety, grumpy horse isn't very secure! Soon enough, though, I had enough helpers to get me all sorted out again and we were back into the collecting ring.
Posing for a photo before heading back in.
From where we were we could just about see into the show ring but from our perspective it was difficult to see if Eleanor and Boysie had been called forwards or not. It looked like they were forwards and, hooray, they were! It felt nice to go back into the ring with a friend there too. We walked and trotted again but fortunately not for as long this time. We didn't have to do our individual show again but all stood in line waiting nervously for the judges to make their decision. I was absolutely amazed when Rolo and I were called in second! After the shock of that I was utterly delighted when Eleanor and Boysie came in 6th for the final 'placing' [in most equestrian events, rosettes or 'placings' are awarded down to 6th place]. Two Cambs College combinations in the top 6!
Boysie asking Rolo if he did good.
I was a bit scared that we might get bumped down the placings at this point because Rolo was getting a bit grumpy, having just about hit his limit of how long he felt was appropriate for standing still. Fortunately he had a sash around his neck and I had a rosette looped through my number before they could change their minds!
Another one with Eleanor :)

We were also given a round plaque thing which I'm sure would make more sense to me if I'd done this kind of thing before...
With Lottie Dronfield from RDA National.
After lots of photos had been taken it was time for a lap of honour in which I did have a canter, which was fine - so maybe I will canter next time!
A hug from Helen for me, a pat from my mum for Rolo, and generally just a rather happy scene!

Monday, 17 July 2017

Left shoulder

Many of you will be aware that I have various problems going on with my left shoulder. These are longstanding and date back several years, although a few falls in the last two or three years have caused particular problems. The joint is very unstable and also pretty damn painful! It's caused and/or exacerbated weaknesses in my hand. Watching this video has been really weird - a lot of it was filmed on my webcam so it's a mirror image, which means I get to see what my left hand would look like if it worked properly (the fast forward speed neatly disguises my shaky hands!).

After two years of riding one-handed and letting the left arm flop about, we decided about a year ago that I needed to keep it as motionless as possible whilst riding, because having the arm yanking around was causing more and more damage to my shoulder. That's why I am now more diligent about holding the upper arm into my body with my shoulder support (which looks like this and is easily the most effective orthosis I own for any joint, although I do have to pull the white tape under my other arm to hold it tight enough) and why I also have a sling which holds my lower arm to my body. There's still a bit of room for the arm to jiggle about and because my back is twisted it can't make me completely straight, but it helps an awful lot!
First slung-up jumping competition last Christmas with Rolo
Anyway, the problems have stabilised a bit through limiting the movement when I'm riding. However, being a wheelchair user means that there isn't a realistic chance of it getting any better on its own and since I've now managed to injure multiple different parts of the whole shoulder area the instability has got even worse. This means that it is constantly really painful - which is fine, because it can be ignored - and also unable to take my weight. This is less fine because I need strong shoulders for vaulting, gymnastics and wheelchair racing, and for pushing my day chair along any surface that slopes down slightly to the left!
Another one cos he's so pretty!
I have seen a long string of medical professionals about this naughty shoulder over the past few years but it finally feels as if we may be getting somewhere. Most of the time people have been very unsure of what would be the best therapy for me. I've had endless physio and also some hydrotherapy. I've had occupational therapy to try and restore some function to the left arm and hand. I've had numerous surgical interventions rejected on the basis that the genetic defects in my tissue inhibit healing and any surgical changes would be less likely to last long. I thought we were getting somewhere when, at the beginning of this year, I was sent to somebody who would give me some steroid injections in the shoulder to try and ease the pain, but then this was contraindicated because of the steroids I take for my ticker!
Not what I'm aiming for...
Anyway, the most recent occasion of note has been my appointment last month with an orthopaedic surgeon. Nothing was decided, but I have an MRI booked and he has promised to try and think of something that can help. We had a nice chat about how the shoulder had come to be in its current state in which he informed me that, when he was little, he used to ride a pony called Bumble. How cute is that?!
Just as a quick heads-up to designers out there, nobody seems to have made a pony version of this yet...
The MRI was initially scheduled for a Thursday afternoon, but it just so happened that this was also the last RDA session of the year and therefore also the last session before going to Hartpury for Nationals (more on this another time!). Despite my mum's annoyance I refused to miss RDA so the scan is now later this week. I'm not a huge fan of MRIs as I'm pretty claustrophobic, but I've come a long way since my first scan as a kid when I cried all the way through it and my mum had to stick her arm in the end to tap my head so I knew she was there! Towards the end of next week I'll be seeing the surgeon again and I just really hope that he has something useful to suggest. Obviously I don't want him to do anything that would interrupt training/competing over the next few months (I have some big plans ahead) but with the speed of the NHS this probably won't be an issue!

Monday, 10 July 2017

Interview for 'Totally Horse and Pony'

A few weeks ago I was contacted by a lovely lady called Julia who asked to write a feature on me and para vaulting more widely in the magazine she edits, Totally Horse and Pony. The finished product is now live and can be read here!

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Getting used to sitting aside

The day after the RDA lunch I made an exciting new acquisition - my first ever side saddle habit! I managed to find a (relatively) inexpensive one online that was within driving distance so, on probably the wettest day in the year, I drove for an hour along tiny country roads to a little yard to try it on and (yay!) take it home.
About this wet, but not as cross!
I've had one side saddle lesson since then which was an opportunity not only to get some more practice in but also to learn how to tack up and how to arrange the apron (skirt bit). Putting on a side saddle is rather more complicated than putting on a regular saddle. The steps are:
  1. Carefully place the saddle (plus numnah) on the horse's back, a bit further back than you would place a regular saddle. 
  2. Take the main girth and attach it to the bottom holes of the second and fourth girth straps (counting from the front) on the near/left side of the saddle (underneath where your legs will be).
  3. Go round to the off side and attach the same girth to the bottom holes of the first and second girth straps (counting from the front again).
  4. Go back to the near side and tighten the first girth as much as possible - once you're on board it isn't possible to make any adjustments to this side so do them now while you can! 
  5. Take the balance strap (a long, thin girth) and attach the flattest end to the first girth strap on the near side.
  6. Pass the balance strap through a loop on the underside of the first girth, then bring it up to attach across the horse's flank to the fourth girth strap (from the horse's head) on the off side, across the horse's flank. Tighten it as far as possible on the near side.
  7. Now there's only one more girth to go! It is already attached on the near side (it's sewn in) so pass it through the loop on the first girth then go to the off side and fasten it to the remaining girth strap there - which should be the second one. 
All of this takes some time... (I hope I've got it all right; I have tried to recount this from memory!).
Philippa attaching girth 1 to the 1st and 3rd straps on the off side.
I had taken along my habit, thinking it would be handy to learn how to wear the apron. I hadn't thought about potentially wearing the jacket too, though, otherwise I might have worn something other than a baggy polo shirt. I might also have changed the hat cover...!
We had the chance to run through my test and practise a few important moments. I need to remember to sit up and use my core to stop him as well as squeezing my legs together as much as I can. Rolo felt quite lively and I had to do quite a few half halts, which was useful as he is much more responsive to them in a side saddle so I've learned now to be a bit more subtle!
I have no idea how the competition will go next week. I'm quite lucky that I've got something of a practice run before doing the dressage by doing the showing class on the Friday evening. It will only be my fourth time riding side saddle so hopefully there will be more improvements between Friday evening and Saturday morning! I've ridden Rolo a fair bit recently and I've also been able to spend some time just getting to know him better and I do feel that we understand each other pretty well.
I seem to grin a lot when I ride him, anyway!
I don't have nerves about riding side saddle per se but I do really want to do a good job of it. Philippa Kemp-Welch, my instructor, has been so incredibly kind in lending me the saddle and all its gubbins, as well as posting a good luck card and a dummy spur which arrived today, and of course for teaching me! I've also been contacted by the lovely RDA stables manager at Hartpury, Katy Downing. She is a side saddle pro and has offered loads of help and advice. The horsey world is so lovely! I really want to do people proud but this is definitely a step into the unknown. I've never ridden side saddle outdoors before so that will be another new thing to tick off the list!
Bring it on!

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Head above water

Over the last few weeks it feels as if I've just about been able to keep my head above the water just by thrashing wildly around and trying not to drown. I've had a lot of commitments to keep but problems with my neck have made everything about fifty times harder. It's made it difficult to keep up with updating this blog, so the next few posts will be fairly brief and just deal with one thing at a time.
Flowers for sale at the RDA lunch
First off, the RDA fundraiser lunch! This was a big event at the beginning of June in aid of RDA East region. I'd helped to plan the event and it was quite a big weight off my mind when it was over! It was a brilliant occasion, though, and we raised around £10,000 which was far beyond what I had expected.
The best bit was that Clare Balding came to give a speech and do book signings. She spoke about her own experiences in sport, and the challenges she's faced throughout her career. She also articulated something that I agree with very strongly: that one of the strengths of the RDA is that it allows people with a disability to do something risky. This is vital! We need to feel challenged as much as anyone else and sometimes it's nice to be challenged because you're working with an independent animal, rather than just because disability is challenging.
Clare Balding sharing the stage with RDA East mascot, Zebedee
She also spoke about how you can be as tough as you need to be if you just decide that something will happen, instead of wondering whether or not you can achieve it. This is something I've always felt: as soon as I've decided to do something, the rest is easy. Well, it isn't easy exactly, but once you've made a firm decision you don't need to worry about, 'Will I make it?' or 'Am I strong enough to finish?'. You've made the decision that you will do it, ergo you will!
Those darker meringues were absolutely delicious!
I know plenty of people go along with something without having made that commitment early on, but many fail to make the commitment and therefore fail to complete as well. I don't know how they can start something without knowing that they will finish. We all have things we've given up on because of factors beyond our control, but the only thing that allows me to achieve properly these days is knowing that, when I made the decision, I also sealed my fate!
It felt good to hear someone as inspiring as Clare Balding making this point. It's vital to me - without it, I'd struggle to achieve anything at all. When the decision is made, giving up is generally no longer an option. When giving up isn't an option, the only remaining option is success.