Thursday, 23 February 2017

Thinking about failure

A recent article I wrote for the Blue Bird News looked at how we use failure: I consider it to be a crucial component of training. You can read it here
I love this!

I suggest you read the article first but here are some more thoughts on how to handle and approach failure:
  1. Unexpected failure - when a performance isn't as good as you'd hoped for. The big question is, why? The second big question is, what can I do differently next time? Example: a dodgy dressage test; because I didn't focus enough in the first half and was a bit tense throughout; keep a sharper mental focus and use the warm-up to build confidence.
    Jumping the other day and finally remembering to look around the curve to the next fence...
  2. Anticipated failure - when you perform at a level that you know is a stretch for you. Of course, for this one you really need to sort your definition of 'failure'. In my view, coming 6th in a contest in which you are unlikely to come any higher is a success - you learn to up your game, to hold your head up, to allow others to be better than you, and to push yourself further than normal. The fact that five people beat you doesn't mean you've failed, just that you were successful without winning (a concept which is alien to many of us, I know!). In this way, anticipated 'failure' isn't really a failure at all; it is only the anticipation of being beaten.
    The Who - never had a UK #1!
  3. Anticipated success - this feels like a weird term given that I've already stated that being beaten in a class of people better than you ('anticipated failure') is actually a form of success. However, there's also an argument for going into competitions that you expect to do well in, and to see this as a form of handling failure. We enter things we think we can win because we think we will win. This is sensible, because it's always nice to win and it's all good experience. However, it can become very toxic to your development if you only enter competitions in this way. It's easy to enter something you think you'll be good at. It's easy to be pleased with yourself when it's all gone well. The problem is that continually going for anticipated success means that you stagnate; your progress just stalls. There is nothing wrong with entering competitions which you feel you should do well in - but this should be supplemented by entering competitions that are tougher. With a balance of the two, much can be learned; with only 'anticipated success', you will learn little.
    A bit more dramatic and a lot less elegant than it was meant to be!
  4. Unexpected success - probably the sweetest of all! However, whilst resting on your laurels is a comfortable place to be, it's also important to think about why something went well - just as you would consider why something went badly. Did you just have a lucky day? Did you do anything differently in your preparation? How did you feel during the event? Was your competition just not very good?! If you don't take advantage of unexpected success, then it's basically wasted. Results don't exist in a vaccuum. Results form the backbone of your training and your profile as an athlete. You need to evaluate every set of results and work from them. Failing to do this would be a grave error!
But do enjoy the success too :)

Monday, 20 February 2017

The Para Vaulter (days 1-4)

In a bid to raise awareness of paravaulting and, more selfishly, to raise awareness of what I'm trying to do with it, I've set up a new twitter account. I'm still using my old one for fun stuff, and still running some RDA stuff, but now I also have an account devoted to vaulting. If you're on twitter, feel free to look up @TheParaVaulter and click 'follow'!

One of the things I want to do is pop a photo up most days to show what we get up to at vaulting. Of course, you can just go to twitter, but for those of you who don't want to get dragged into all that can just have a look on here!

Day 1:
The quickest way to see para-equestrian vaulting? This video!

Day 2:
- where it all began! First session on Milton the mechanical horse.
Day 3:
Team work makes the dream work & mounting is the hardest bit!
Day 4:
POTD: shoulder separation + 6 months = !

Saturday, 18 February 2017

An owie and a SuperDog

This week is a brilliant week for Cambridge vaulters. On top of our normal sessions, we had a whole day of vaulting on Tuesday (yay half term!) and we have a longer session tomorrow (Sunday) because there is a BEV coaching conference going on, so some of us are going to go and be guinea pigs. The only minor problem I've had with this is that on Tuesday, right at the start of the session, I busted my ankle.
so I've been re-acquainting myself with this diagram!
The vaulters all warm up each time by running around and playing games like bulldog/It/stuck in the mud and so on before we do stretches. Obviously running around isn't my strong suit so I have taken to bouncing on a mini trampoline (we have one for each barrel to help with solo mounting). This is more tiring than it sounds but I can lean on a barrel and push off it a bit to stop myself falling over, so it's a relatively safe way for me to warm up. This is what I was doing on Tuesday - my normal bouncing, nothing exciting - when suddenly my right ankle went out from underneath me and I heard 'crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch' in rapid successsion as the ligaments and tendons snapped around. I clung onto the barrel, waiting for the pain to kick in - which it did! - whilst suppressing the obscenities I wanted to scream.
The next few moments in an ankle injury like this are always interesting. Before you put your foot back on the ground, you have no idea if it's going to be able to support your weight or not - it could go either way. Sometimes, it makes a horrid noise and looks dreadful but actually feels OK. Other times, it just collapses straight away and you know it's a bad one. On this occasion, it was somewhere in between - I didn't want to put any weight on it, but it wasn't so bad that it instantly folded under my weight. I gave myself a few moments to gather myself, then limped off to the gallery to get some more tape to strap it up.
I have to say that although I wasn't able to put lots of weight on that foot (and certainly no hopping to mount with it!) it didn't really hurt that much. I kept putting ice on it and it was tightly strapped and, of course, I had my chair and crutch to help me out, but I was surprised by how little it hurt. I haven't done my ankle quite badly in a while (probably because I spend most of my time in a chair now) so it was interesting for me to discover that the spreading lack of sensation in my legs and feet actually has a positive side. In fact, there are two: this winter I've become aware that my feet don't feel cold anymore (even though, if you touch them, they really are), and now it turns out that when I do some moderately serious damage to a joint it doesn't really hurt much beyond the initial trauma.
On Thursday, it felt OK enough to go to the gym. I did just over half an hour on the erg and although it was a bit awkward with so much vet wrap on my leg it didn't feel especially sore. I then focussed on stretching around my hips for another 45 minutes or so, so by the time I'd finished the session my ankle felt pretty much fine. I got home, had a shower, and was just poddling back to my bedroom to get dressed when suddenly - kaboom! - my ankle went from under me again, aggravating the initial injury.
This is me glowering at my reflection mid-splits at the gym. I spent a lot of time in the splits...
At this point we realised what a little superstar Rosie is! I fall over quite a lot at home, and I also knock things over a lot, and normally she doesn't bat an eyelid because she knows I'm fine. This time, though, as soon as I fell she seemed to know something was up. There's a door at the bottom of the stairs, and I'd fallen over just at the top. As soon as I hit the ground, I heard her leap at the door and start scrabbling and whining. My mum opened it and Rosie rushed upstairs to where I was lying in a heap on the landing and immediately started nudging and licking me - until my mum made it up too and pointed out to Rosie that that might not be the most helpful course of action right now! After a few moments of feeling a bit pissed off (I'd been trying to go really carefully!) and waiting for the nausea to subside my mum helped me to my knees so I could crawl and carry on, with a much more painful ankle than before. Bummer.
Blue and bruised and puffy!
I was really impressed by how Rosie instinctively knew that I was hurt and that this time I needed some help. This fall would have sounded no different to her than all the others, so how did she know? I know there's research that supports the idea that your body language, behaviour and tone of voice can all help a dog to understand how you're feeling. When Rosie's looking glum, all we have to do is wave our hands in the air and say, 'Yayyyyyy!!!', and she instantly wags her tail and perks up. But how did she know, without seeing me, and without me saying anything, that I was hurt? Did I instantly release 'RESCUE ME!' hormones?! I'm sure that one day science will have the answer but for now I'm just going to say she's a SuperDog.
You wouldn't necessarily know it to look at her, of course.
So, now the ankle is again in the stage of not really hurting that much unless I do something stupid like twist it again. It's been iced and strapped and gently wiggled, and it's still attached! With four and a half hours of vaulting to go tomorrow, let's hope it stays this way...
My ankle on Tuesday - with purple vet wrap and an ice pack held on by an ankle weight. I am nothing if not resourceful!

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Did it again and did it better

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about entering another dressage competition. You can read that article here, and the report of the previous competition (which didn't go so well!) here.

Well, I'm pleased to report that the re-run of the bad competition turned out much better. I entered two classes: Intro C - a new one for me - and Prelim 7, which I've done quite often but never on Boysie. I focussed on keeping Boysie relaxed in the warm-up. In December we spent a fair bit of time trying to make him go into a contact, but this just wound him up and left him really tense and uneasy. This time I didn't worry too much about the contact and just concentrated on rhythm and fluidity and the contact came, most of the time, all by itself.

I also remembered to:
  • concentrate on what I was doing from the outset rather than waiting until the middle of the test to think about paying attention
  • turn my shoulders better (not perfect, but better)
  • give a lot more support in canter
  • be more relaxed in the walk
  • sit a bit straighter
I also went for some shorter stirrups as I've been having lots of trouble keeping my feet in them.
Looking at my list of things I needed to remember to attempt, the only things that I feel I didn't really have a decent bash at were looking up (not because I remember looking down, but because I remember focussing on lots of other things) and using my right arm from the shoulder more.
In general, the walk and trot work were both far more pleasing. The canter was better than last time, but I still need to work more on balancing him through an even connection so that he can reach a better outline (there was a fair bit of nose poking!). It's tough with bar reins, because you can't make subtle adjustments to the length of your rein. If I don't give him any support he just falls apart as the strides get longer and longer, but too much 'support' and it just becomes a check which makes him fall into trot. With two hands you can control your contact to the bit much more easily.
Plenty to work on here!
This isn't just in terms of steering, but everything. One arm is much harder to control even if you have good function in that arm, because you can't use your body as easily to help you stay balanced. A single arm will be more prone to moving around than two arms because of the asymmetry through your own body and because you have to work so much harder just to keep your body still when it naturally wants to twist in the saddle as the horse moves. I think a lot of people wonder how we steer with one hand, but actually the steering is easy - it's every other bit of communication that you have through the bit which is difficult. One day maybe I'll write a post on this!
Marginally better...
Anyway, I'm happy riding with one hand and I'm happy making it work. It always feels quite nice to enter able-bodied competitions like these and beat other people with their 'normal', functioning bodies!
Both the Intro test and the Prelim test felt far neater than last time, which I'm mostly going to put down to how relaxed we were and how focussed I was. Never again will I let anyone make me try to teach a horse something we haven't managed before during a warm-up for a competition! It was striking how more enjoyable the whole experience was and how pleased I was with our performances. I rode so much better, Boysie walked, trotted, cantered and halted so much better, and I feel far more positive about next time now.
Walking off after the second test with a happy horsey.
So, the results - first in Intro, second in Prelim (quite a big class for the Prelim!). I'm very happy with that. It was also a really friendly event for me - first I called a test for 8-year-old Chloe (who came 3rd!), then her mum, Chrissy, called my Intro test, and then Cathie (RDA volunteer) called my Prelim test. They also both helped me out with tacking up/untacking, grooming and getting me ready (I can't do up my own boots!).
with Cathie
Meghan was in charge of videoing (most of these photos are stills from the video - they don't make such good photos but the video is more use to me).
with Meghan
In between classes, I chatted to a variety of people (some of whom I've met before) who were also competing and were friendly and chatty. It was a good day!
sleepy, clever horse!

Native breeds - extra info!

I chatted to some people at the stables about the difference between New Forests and Connemaras. Apparently, a New Forest pony has a 'boxier' head than a Connemara, which has a pretty head a bit more like a Welsh pony. So, if I see something that looks like either a New Forest or a Connemara, I have to decide how pretty it is to tell the difference!
New Forest pony
Connemara pony

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Native breeds of pony

At the moment I'm preparing for my RDA Bronze test. The riding element is really quite basic, but the 'Horse care' section is a bit more complicated! Since I need to revise this stuff (and try to remember it) I thought I'd write it up here - this should also fill a gap in the online literature for others preparing for this test. There are all sorts of sections, so I'll concentrate on one thing each time. Today, it's British native breeds!
Here's what it says on the syllabus: Candidates should be able to "describe the characteristics of five of these native breeds: EXMOOR, DARTMOOR, SHETLAND, NEW FOREST, CONNEMARA and WELSH." So! Here goes.

Unsurprisingly, the Exmoor pony comes from the Exmoor moorlands of southwest England. It roams across Devon and Somerset, and the herds you can see there are still semi-wild. They're quite a primitive breed - fossil records date back 50,000 years - and they nearly became extinct in the mid-twentieth century. After the war, Exmoor locals pulled out all the stops to rescue the breed, and whilst the breed is still considered endangered there are at least many more than the 50 mares and 4 stallions who were alive in 1952!

Exmoor ponies have a distinctive 'mealy' muzzle, and, like the Mongolian Przewalski horse, this is considered to be indicative of their relatively primitive genetic makeup. Another word used for this sand colour is 'pangaré', and this colour can also be found around the eyes, flanks and belly. The mealy patches against their bay coat give Exmoor ponies a very distinctive and attractive appearance.
In height, they are quite small. In the breed's stud book, the recommended heigh range is 11.1hh to 12.3hh, but some ponies reach 13.2hh. Whilst not as stocky as a Shetland, they are still a solid, chunky breed, with relatively short legs. The head is often quite large and the ears quite small. Unique to the breed is the 'toad eye' - increased fleshiness in the eyelids which helps to protect them from the wind and rain. The winter conditions on the moors are very challenging, so Exmoor ponies grow a warm, shaggy coat for the winter and have a dense mane and tail to keep as much warmth in as possible.
Exmoors used to be used as pit ponies (going down into mines), but now flourish in a variety of sporting disciplines, such as showing, endurance riding and horse agility.
I love this!
The Dartmoor pony lives on the moors of southern Devon. Owing to this and some similarities in appearance, it was thought that they are related to Exmoor ponies, although this has now been disproven. Like the Exmoor, they have been used as pit ponies in the past, and are now popular as riding ponies in a variety of disciplines, and as both ridden and in-hand show ponies.
In appearance, they have a relatively small head with large eyes. There is a greater variety of colours than with Exmoors (who are all bay) - Dartmoors may be bay, brown, black, grey, chestnut or roan. Like Exmoors, they should be pretty chunky in the body. The distinctive Exmoor mealy muzzle is absent in the Dartmoor pony. In height, they shouldn't exceed 12.2hh.
This unusual 'marking' isn't natural - it's there to make the ponies more visible to drivers!
RDA notes - the Dartmoor is pretty similar in size and shape to the Exmoor, so look for different coat colours (which would indicate Dartmoor) or a mealy muzzle (which would indicate Exmoor).
Mare and foal - no mealy muzzles in sight!
Probably one of the world's most famous and most recognisable ponies, the Shetland pony comes from - you guessed it - the Shetland Isles. These islands are the most northerly part of Great Britain, and the climate is cold! As a result, the Shetland pony is built to withstand freezing winds and lashing storms. The ponies are short, stocky and have a thick coat, with an impressively thick mane and tail to keep the wind and rain out.
Vital statistics: the official maximum height (for show ponies) is 10.2hh - substantially smaller than the other native breeds. They start at just 7hh! Despite their small size, they are extremely strong. They have short legs and a big, round belly which has helped them carry heavy weights on their back (such as baskets of seaweed along the Shetland beaches). Because of their size, they were popular as pit ponies and many were shipped across to mainland Britain for this purpose during the Industrial Revolution. They can come in pretty much any colour, including black, bay, chestnut, grey, dun, palomino, skewbald, piebald and roan.
Skewbald Shetland (dorsal dogs optional)
Despite/because of their sometimes cheeky nature, Shetlands are very endearing and popular. They are now used as riding ponies for children, and also turn a hoof to carriage driving, horse racing, and being a 'therapeutic animal' for disabled riders and hospital patients - and they can even be trained as a 'guide horse' to help blind people!
How cool is this?!

RDA notes: well, they're pretty unmistakeable. Look for the size, solidity to the frame, and thick coat/tail/mane.
As a kid, I always wanted to do this. One day, maybe - on a bigger steed...

New Forest
Back down into slightly warmer climes, we have the New Forest pony from, well, the New Forest (Hampshire, southern England). New Forest ponies are the biggest on the list so far, standing at anything from about 12hh to 14.2hh (so almost horse-sized!). Like most of our native breeds, they are prized for their sure-footedness and hardiness. This is one of the few native breeds that can comfortably carry a small-to-medium-sized adult.

The ponies are generally bay, chestnut or grey. As with Exmoors and Dartmoors, coloured ponies (piebald and skewbald) are not allowed, and although some white markings are permitted on the face and legs there are some limitations to this in the breed standard.
New Forest ponies have a reputation for their intelligence and versatility. They make popular riding and driving ponies for children and adults. The history of their presence in the New Forest (so named way back in 1086!) is very interesting, but not really relevant right now. Maybe if I have time, and if I remember, I'll revisit it some day...

RDA notes: New Forest ponies are taller and quite a bit finer in build than Exmoor, Dartmoor and Shetland ponies. They tend to have a common coat colour, and may excel in traditional disciplines (dressage, showjumping, eventing, etc.) against bigger horses.

Another pony named after its origins, the Connemara pony hails from the Connemara region of County Galway, in the west of the Republic of Ireland. Going by political geography, this therefore means that it isn't technically a UK breed, but it is a breed of the British Isles, so it is certainly a native breed!
Connemaras make excellent show ponies and are adept at a range of different activities. Unlike the English and Scottish breeds, today's Connemaras are known to be the result of a rich pattern of breeding which includes Arabian, Thoroughbred and Hackney horses and possibly Scandinavian ponies, the now-extinct Irish Hobby, and Andalusian horses. Since 1923 a dedicated society has tightened the breeding practices to finetune the breed.
ooh I'm a sucker for a dapple grey...
Adult Connemaras typically stand between 12.2hh and 14.2hh. As with many native breeds, piebald or skewbald colouring is not allowed, but apart from that Connies can come in a range of colours: grey, black, brown, bay, roan, chestnut, palomino, cream and buckskin (similar to dun). In appearance, they are more similar to New Forest ponies than other breeds - they are similar in height, colours, and build. In fact, the breed standards are very similar - sloping shoulders, good heart room (width across the chest), small, round and strong feet, and good straight legs.
RDA notes: well, it's hard to tell the difference between Connemara and New Forest! Connemaras tend to have a bit more bulk to them, but there's a huge overlap between the slimmest Connemaras and the bulkiest New Forests. The problem is exacerbated by some shows running classes for the two breeds in together... My research on it has showed up that I'm not the only person stumped on this. I'll come back with more info when I have it!
Does this help? Thought not...
Well this is a bit of a trick question really, because there isn't just one Welsh breed. When we talk about Welsh ponies, there are four separate types, which are unimaginatively but memorably named Section A, Section B, Section C and Section D.

The main differences between them is in size and bulk. A Welsh Section A pony, for example, stands up to 12.2hh. It has a pretty, 'dished' face and a body which is noticeably finer than that of its English and Scottish cousins. The Welsh Section B stands up to 13.2hh, the Welsh Section C up to 14hh and the Welsh Section D up to, well, anything, as long as it's over 13.2hh.
Welsh Section A
Section As and Section Bs have quite fine conformation. They come in pretty much any colour except skewbald or piebald. The main difference between them is the height.
Welsh Section B
Section C and Section D ponies look quite substantially different to their smaller counterparts - far stockier. The Section C is of a pony size but a cob-like build, whilst the Section D is chunkier still and taller. Sometimes Section Ds (also known simply as 'Welsh cobs') are bred with finer horses such as Thoroughbreds to produce high-quality hunters. Welsh cobs come in any solid colour (i.e., not skewbald or piebald) but are less common in grey.
Welsh Section C
RDA notes: the smaller ponies (Section A or B) are pretty, finely built ponies, and less bulky than other native breeds. The bigger ponies (C or D) are the chunkiest of all the breeds listed here.
Welsh Section D

General characteristics of all the breeds
Whilst they may vary in appearance, most British native breeds are strong, versatile and intelligent. This isn't always a good thing! They may have strong opinions at odds with our own, and they all tend to be a bit cheekier than bigger horses. That said, they are often braver and, if they trust and respect you, they make fantastic riding ponies. It's also worth mentioning that some of them are highly endangered. Keep breeding these fantastic ponies please guys!