Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Motivation madness

I recently stole an idea from a friend which answered a problem that I often have to address. It wasn't anything to do with health, or exercise, or energy, or anything really. Nope, it was, 'What do I do with this notebook that I've just bought that I couldn't resist because it was so lovely even though I really, totally don't need another notebook?' This is a problem which keeps me up at night. 😉
Who could resist?!
The solution? Make a little motivational notebook. On each page, write, draw, collage or otherwise record something that makes you smile or makes you fight. This is actually quite a nice idea so I'm going to do it - I'm a fan of a motivational statement as much as the next broken young adult - but there is one problem: sometimes, motiviational advice is bad advice.
The problem is not any specific piece of advice (with the possible exception of the above. The best medicines are the drugs prescribed by your doctor without which you wouldn't still be here). Lots of sayings are really helpful and make you feel good about dealing with failure, striving for success and generally becoming a 'better' person (the removal of those ' ' is a discussion for another time). Cumulatively, though, they can be harmful. Most of the advice is along the lines of...
And so on, ad nauseam. There are literally hundreds of ways of saying, 'don't be a child; nobody gets everything right the first time they try it; nobody wins all the time; if you want to be able to do something genuinely impressive then you'll have to work at it; if you give up you'll never manage it.' So why does it matter that there are so many ways?

It matters because they are rarely interspersed with another idea, which is vital: for 'real' athletes (not these superhero ones that fit the memes), rest is vital. I'm going to say that again and make it clearer:
REST IS VITAL!
Not mine!

For disabled athletes, it's even more so. Your body does most of its adaptation (i.e. getting fitter) after you have finished training, whilst you are resting. If you don't rest, you don't get full advantage from your training. Equally, if you don't rest, you will burn out like a sparkler and you won't be able to do good training sessions anyway. Being told that you should always be training, your competitors are always training, that there's no excuse for sitting around, that the only way to get better at something is to keep doing it - all of these things can be true BUT only to an extent. Without rest, it's pointless.
Rosie with my eyemask!
Sometimes there IS an excuse for sitting around - you've done a good session, and now you need to rest and adapt. Sometimes there IS an excuse for resting when your opponents are training - because you were training earlier, and they will need to rest soon too. Sometimes you get better at something not by repeatedly doing it but by thinking about it; evaluating it; assessing your current standard and using your noggin (brain, to you non-UK folk) to work out how to improve your performance.
Repetition is crucial for success, and there is no way around that. The more you repeat a skill, the better you become at it - this much is true. However, there is a point at which you get diminishing returns and eventually you will start to make yourself worse by doing too much. This is overtraining and it's a right pain in the bum. Yes, you need to train. Yes, you need to practise. Yes, you need to repeat what you do. Yes, you need to spend time going over the same little things all the time. BUT you don't need to do it every minute of every day!

Allowing yourself to rest is difficult. I find it really difficult but I'm getting better at it through necessity. Therefore, I'm also going to put some other things in my notebook; things you won't find all that many people saying. They're going to be things that remind me of the need to rest, not just for my immediate wellbeing and my mental health, but for my long term fitness goals. They're going to reassure me that good training must be balanced by good rest. They will be a reminder that I mustn't push my body further than necessary.
Yes, I think training is and should be - must be - hard. Yes, it can break you in the short term - but if it breaks you long term, what's the point? That's not the aim at all. The aim is to be as strong, fit and capable as possible right when you need it. By all means, push yourself like mad in individual sessions to get there - but don't push so hard in the long term that you sacrifice your long term goals.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Gymnastics training

In January I started going to disability gymnastics sessions, then in April I started attending a second class each week for women of all ages, where I'm the only one with a disability. It's brilliant to get the extra practice and I've definitely seen a marked improvement through learning new skills and the progressions towards them. Both the disability and women's only groups are full of lovely people so it's a really fun environment to train in. It's physically demanding but very enjoyable at the same time!
At first I was using the sessions mostly as physio and to complement my vaulting training, but now that I'm learning more and growing more confident I'm also enjoying it just for the fun of it and I like learning skills that wouldn't really be very practical on a horse. I might even be competing by the end of the year!
Putting some skills into practice at vaulting training
My favourite skill is, without doubt, the handstand flatback on vault. I love it because my worst thing is landing on my feet, and you don't need to do that with the flatback - you land, like it sounds, flat on your back on a nice big pile of crash mats! It's really a preliminary stage towards the handspring vault which would require me to land on my feet and not fall over, but I'm a bit of a way away from that just now... Over the last couple of weeks I've got enough confidence to flip myself over by myself when the vault is nice and low. I also learnt (in my very last attempt on Monday) that having your chest up as you go in, instead of reaching for the vault, makes the whole thing A LOT easier. Sadly by the time I realised this I was already knackered so I couldn't actually make a handstand over the vault but at least I now have a better idea of how to do it!
I've spent so much time on the handstand flatback that I've neglected other bits of apparatus a fair bit. Bars are still my least favourite because I find them really hard - when it goes right, it's amazing, but most of the time it doesn't! The other day as a 'rest' from flatbacks I did some stuff on the beam but my legs were definitely in a grump by that point and shaking far too much for me to do anything other than fall off... On floor I have almost nailed a handstand forward roll, but I do still sometimes fall on my head, or lose balance altogether, or not quite hit the vertical before rolling.
Oops!
I'm still using the trampoline for warming up and mostly that's working well. It is surprisingly hard work and gets me really out of puff! I haven't really mastered the swivel hips yet but I can do a passable back drop and front drop. I don't control myself very well on the trampoline so I'm not doing anything fancier or going very high because otherwise I just ping off the edge. The other day I did re-sprain my right ankle whilst doing little bounces which was a pain because I'd pushed my luck and gone with a not-quite-so-good ankle support - that'll teach me!
Going into a front drop (left) and back drop (right)
Anyway, so far it's all good fun and I'm loving the training. I can't wait to do more!

Saturday, 3 June 2017

A bit on the side

Back in March, I had my first try at riding side saddle and I absolutely loved it! I was expecting to feel really precarious, but actually it was surprisingly comfortable. I rode Rolo, and for the first time I felt that I was actually in pretty good control of when and where we stopped.
My first time!
Having watched the person before me doing some trotting and cantering, I thought these both looked horrific but Rolo's trot was much smaller than normal (just as well, because you sit to it without rising) and although the canter felt peculiar it didn't feel horrid! It probably helps that I've become vaguely accustomed to sitting sideways in canter through vaulting.
Trot
Earlier this week I went back and had my second lesson. This time we didn't do any cantering but we did film a dressage test for Dressage Anywhere. Philippa, who is the instructor, gave me loads of really useful advice and I'm really excited about what we can achieve in the future. The test has been marked and I achieved 72.19% - I don't know for sure how this will compare against everyone else (will confirm in a few days!) but it's higher than the score I got the first time, which is pretty gratifying after less than an hour of instruction.
So, what advice would I have for someone thinking of trying it for the first time, and what are the main things that struck me as unexpected, difficult or interesting?

The first thing to say is that if you want to give it a go then find an instructor and go for it! I'm very lucky that I had the opportunity to ride a familiar horse but there are quite a lot of instructors around who can help you out. I certainly wouldn't want to try a side saddle on a horse who was new to it without professional help: even just tacking up with a side saddle is a bit different, and obviously the riding technique is different. An additional problem for starting out entirely on your own is that the saddles are expensive and must fit the horse comfortably. The Side Saddle Association has a good website which should help you to find someone to teach you with their own equipment.
Being poked by Philippa!
What to wear: for the two lessons I've had I've just worn normal riding kit, but I now know that a lady's side saddle outfit is called a habit. It comprises a jacket and a matching skirt (called an apron) which isn't a real skirt but wraps around the rider when they're on the horse to look like one. Underneath, the lady's modesty is preserved by means of breeches in the same colour as the habit! For top level shows riders would wear a bowler or top hat with a veil covering the head. I'm quite glad I'm not at that level yet...
The apron!
The only difference in clothing for training compared to riding astride is that you shouldn't wear a half chap on your right leg, because the zip can rub the horse. I only found this out after I hopped off for the second time, though, which is why I'm flouting this rule in the photos!
At least the zip is quite soft and flat.
How to get going: your left foot is really clamped into the horse's side, so it's hard to give any change in pressure to give him a nudge. At the moment I'm riding without a crop in either hand so it's currently a situation of using my seat and voice to get an upward transition, along with whatever my left foot can manage!
My left foot probably isn't in quite the right position but you get the idea!
Steering: obviously my steering situation isn't the same as people who ride with two hands. When I ride astride, I use my seat (in particular my hips) and torso a lot for steering, and do what I can with my legs. Sitting in a side saddle makes it more difficult to open the hips one way or another, but I can still use my upper body and my seat bones to influence the horse. One of the things I find quite strange is that I have to hold my hand quite high so that my reins don't get caught on my left leg. Philippa has said that the reins should be held slightly to the right in a side saddle, which suits me because that's one of my bad habits when seated astride!
Or you can just carry your hand quite high, like this - not so comfy though.
Stopping: stopping is so much easier in a side saddle it's almost unreal. That being said, the only horse I've ridden side saddle is Rolo and I'm used to him being a bit of a nightmare to stop when riding astride. I don't know if every horse is suddenly more receptive to the bit and seat aids in a side saddle but I'm very glad that Rolo is! Apart from the normal means of stopping a horse, in side saddle you also squeeze your legs together - so you push your left leg up against the leaping head and your right head down against the fixed head. This slows or stops the horse and also has the pleasing effect of encouraging the horse to halt square.
Jargon-busting!
Sitting: this is still something I have to work on, certainly. The idea is that you sit as if you were riding astride, except you've just plopped your right leg over the top a bit. In other words, your bum should still be in the same place - weight evenly balanced over both seat bones, and sitting square to the horse's spine. You shouldn't be twisted or sitting sideways, or allowing your right seat bone to edge forwards. This is quite tricky to maintain, especially if you're doing some trotting where you might get jumbled around a bit more. Definitely work in progress for me!
Apparently this really was straight and in the middle. Rolo just has a big bum and was standing wonky...
Getting on and off: the way I've been taught to mount is generally seen to be the best way to ensure that the horse is safe and comfortable and that the rider isn't going to end up in a messy heap on the floor. The horse should walk to a high mounting block and the rider should first sit astride, without placing the left foot in the stirrup until sitting on the horse. This means that the saddle won't slide or hurt the horse (unlike regular saddles, there's no stirrup on the right hand side for someone on the ground to hang onto to even up the pressure). Putting the left foot in the stirrup is actually quite tricky - it's shorter than on a regular saddle, and you have to start with your left thigh under the leaping head, which means forcing the left ankle into a pretty uncomfortable angle. Once the left foot is in and secure, you can plop the right leg over. To dismount, you take your left foot from the stirrup, shuffle back a bit, bring your right leg over the two pommels (heads) and then just slide off forwards.
You could also just train your servants to throw you on board, of course.
RDA tack with a side saddle: I don't need my special stirrups to ride side saddle. Partly this is because the side saddle uses a completely different style of stirrup leather (which can release quickly if necessary in an emergency). It's also because I don't need the toe cap - once my leg is in place my foot is solidly jammed in position so there's no chance of it sliding through. As mentioned above, my reins are fine with the saddle but they do have to be held higher than normal reins would be. It's also harder to lean forwards and give a long rein because my leg is in the way - not a problem unless I just drop the reins!
Jumping: I haven't tried this yet.
I'll update with results for the Dressage Anywhere test once they're available. In the meantime, you can see my entry below or by clicking here to go to YouTube.

EDIT - We won!

Thursday, 1 June 2017

RDA Regionals 2017

This year's regional show has now been and gone and it was a fantastic day. The sun shone brightly all day, everyone rode amazingly and it was a lovely friendly atmosphere. Plus, I got some good results!
The shield, blue qualifier rosette and one of the red rosettes are all for showjumping.
I'm writing a report on the whole event which will be available on the RDA East website as soon as possible (as soon as I'm sent all the results...) and I've already written about it on my more 'professional' website (https://lambequo.wordpress.com/2017/05/31/may-news-round-up/) so this version will be a bit briefer because there's only so much time I can spend writing about one event!
First off for me was the canter test on Boysie. He's sometimes a bit behind the leg so I carried my whip for about the first minute of the warm-up, but it soon became apparent that this wasn't necessary - he was very excited by the presence of all these new horses and people and lorries so he didn't need anything else to wind him up any further! After a few jumpy moments he settled into a nice warm-up with a lovely relaxed canter feel.
The test itself went OK, although the indoor arena was already incredibly hot even though it wasn't yet 10am. The only major mistake was that we broke canter on the right rein but we did get it back so it wasn't a disaster. Boysie was quite above the bit so we didn't get the nice relaxed posture that he is technically capable of, but I was happy just to join the dots and not make a hash of it! In the end we came first. It's the first time in three years of trying that I've won this class and I knew that this year was my best bet (a far more willing horse!) so I'm pleased we made it work.
After that I got on Rolo pretty much straight away for my trot test. He was feeling good in the warm-up - not silly, and he was really working hard to respond to me in the downward transitions and was moving away from the leg nicely in the corners and on the turns.
The first part of the test was an entry in walk down the centre line and I just stared at myself in the mirror above the judge's head making sure we were staying as straight as possible and that I was sitting as straight in the saddle as I could. It wasn't perfect but we got a 9/10 so I was pleased with that bit!
Our worst part was the halt near the beginning of the test, where Rolo clearly felt that he'd only just got going and wasn't interested in stopping. It included some unintentional reinback and we only got a 4. Apart from leaning on the bit somewhat during the trot, however, he was pretty good apart from that and we won that test too! Our score of 70.8% was enough to win the cup for the best senior dressage score of the day too.
 
Since my two tests were out of the way early I was able to spend the rest of the day watching and cheering on my friends. Absolutely everybody made me proud and I spent the whole day (even before discovering my results!) going around in a happy, contented frame of mind.
With Jodie :)
From Claire having her first ever canter (unintentional, and off the lead rein, AND she sat it like a pro) and Rebecca and Jodie doing their first unled tests to seeing the creativity displayed by Chris and Aynsley in freestyle dressage tests to music, it was just a lovely celebration of all that the RDA can do for people, and all that RDA riders can achieve.
Aynsley with Ruby - who is pulling a silly face!
Now I just need to work out which test to do at Hartpury - I can only choose one, but I'm pretty sure I'll do the trot one with Rolo - and start practising it! The accommodation is now booked and work has agreed to let me have the Thursday off so I can travel up in good time for the showjumping on Friday. I'm very excited and looking forward to what should be another memorable event, not least because there will be a huge contingent of qualified Cambs College RDA riders heading west!
I do love this little horse.