It may still be winter, but spring - and the eventing season - is just round the corner, which means only one thing... Time to get fit!
Getting horses fit for spring events when everywhere is knee deep in sloppy mud, or frozen solid with ice, is one of the least fun parts of eventing.
I am currently having a dilemma as to HOW I shall get my two mares ready for Advanced/3* by March/April… Everyone has different ways and means, but fundamentally facilities and time play a big factor in the methods we choose to use.
For me fittening work begins on the first of December. I usually let them down in October (as I don’t like to just drop fit horses, they need to wind down mentally and physically before a holiday), then November is chill time. If the weather is good and the ground is still dry enough, as it was this year, they go out together for as long as possible every day.
Then the tough work begins, luckily for me only giving them a few weeks' holiday doesn’t mean they lose all fitness and makes bringing them back in slightly less tiresome.
I start with a couple of weeks of hacking to harden them back up and wake up the muscles again without overdoing it. This is usually for 20/30 minutes a time, slowly introducing the trot and building up from there. This is usually the least safe time with mine as its often cold, windy and wet by now, they are back inside and they are all a bit bonkers as they want to go competing again!
Then it’s on with the schooling work and introducing jumps up to about week 4-6. At week six, fast work needs to begin - which is where it gets a little more tricky.
The lovely grass gallops I was kindly lent last year by a friend in return for wine – (a blooming great deal) have been dug up for local housing – which I feel is very selfish of North Yorkshire County Council! So now I face the difficult decision of where to go/what to do.
There are several ways to help with getting horses fit in the middle of winter:
Treadmills – Fantastic, but very expensive. If money was no object I would install a water treadmill in the barn and use it daily for all the horses as part of their program, problem solved.
Horse walkers: Really good for hardening the legs, warming up/cooling down. I don’t think (on a large enough walker) they can do too much of this work. I have had my reservations in the past - I still think that deep surfaces and too much with youngsters can be detrimental - but you never see a horse napping going to the walker, they seem to enjoy going around and around in circles, looking at the same things, sniffing the one in front's bum! This is also mimicking in a lot of ways what nature intended for horses, which was that they are always on the move! I am currently working on my dad and hopefully with a bit more nagging we should be able to justify getting a horse walker – but for next winter, which doesn’t help with this season's dilemma!
The beach – A fantastic way of hardening legs, getting their stamina up, giving them a pipe opener and letting them have some fun! I adore cantering along (only ever on the harder sand) just on the water’s edge, as long as there isn’t too much splash back. Also you can’t beat salt water on lower limbs for healing properties. I usually try go to Redcar at least once in the spring, the horses love it, but it is a good 2hr drive to get there and so it takes up a whole day once you’ve galloped/cooled off/washed off and of course cleaned tack afterwards!
Swimming: Again a fabulous way of improving cardiovascular and muscular development, but doesn’t help with hardening the legs so it’s important not to relay on this solely. I have used swimming quite a lot with one of my mares, who needed to maintain work last season without hammering her legs, she loves it and I have noticed for her it works. My other horse went in a pool once and is certain she won’t do anything so stupid ever again, it wasn’t for her and so I am not going to make her do something she doesn’t feel comfortable doing, it’s not really natural and it’s not worth frightening her. However unhelpful this may be!
Gallops – Every event rider's dream is surely to have a mile or so loop (with a slight hill) covered in a beautiful rubber surface, which doesn’t get deep or frozen. You can go round and round to you and your ponies' heart's content! In reality they are all miles away (90min minimum from me) and are not cheap when you add up how much for 3 horses once or twice a week for 6 weeks. The money I can about justify, but taking a full day to do it is neither practical or realistic when you work full time. So again – unless there is a lottery win involved this option is also flawed.
I use a combination of the above, I try hack two times a week minimum, school twice a week, jump once and do some fast work once/twice a week, and they all have one day a week off, the younger horses have 2 or 3 depending on what suits them best. Some days, if I can, I will mix it up, school and then go for a hack, or jump then do some fast work (depending where I am) to keep the work varied and interesting. I try get them out at least once a week and when our arena is unusable (which is a lot in winter with it freezing so easily) I have to travel to borrow an indoor school just so they get worked.
But right now I am trying to work my diary out so that I can find the time to drive to use some decent gallops (during daylight hours as I don’t fancy it in a head torch) whilst praying for a lottery win or some lovely person to buy me a water treadmill or rubber gallops at least!
It’s never going to be easy getting horses fit for early season runs, but everyone is in the same boat (literally - our fields are like a lake). It’s part of the game and it’s what I call character building!"
What is it about this view + showjumps that makes my mind go totally blank?
Web editor Victoria knows what she needs to do to produce a good jumping round, but when it comes to the crunch her mind goes blank...
"Why is it I’m fine at learning the theory of riding – but terrible at putting it into practise? I have all these things that I need to remember, but it all goes out my brain at the worst possible times.
This only applies to jumping. In flatwork, whether I’m schooling alone, having a lesson, or doing a dressage test, I find it much easier to think straight and the work through any issues in a logical fashion. But as soon as those poles and wings appear, I have what can only be described as total brain freeze.
Take this recent example. Yesterday lunchtime I popped along to a local arena eventing clear round. And from the minute I got to the yard and dug out my mare’s travel gear, I started the usual internal battle.
What I needed to do: Leave plenty of time. Don’t get stressed. Remember that a bit of nerves is normal, but also I was doing this for fun and that I ALWAYS feel great afterwards.
What I did: Cut things fine. Ran around like the proverbial decapitated poultry. Felt dreadful and spent the journey there questioning WHY I wanted to jump solid fences when I could just trot round in ever decreasing circles instead.
What I needed to do: Allow my mare some time to walk round and settle. Make sure she was paying attention to me by doing lots of transitions. Get her soft and concentrating before jumping. Then start with some small cross-poles and work up to an upright and oxer, jumping each several times. Prepare at the right time so she’s still focused when it’s my turn to jump.
What I did: Pranced aimlessly around the arena on my extremely fresh mare. Questioned why she was attempting to do passage when she’s a seven-year-old Thoroughbred and hasn’t even heard of the movement, let alone performed it. Bounced with excitement every time another horse came close or went over the practise fence. Decided to start jumping despite knowing she wasn’t concentrating, purely to get it over and done with. Approached first jump with her paying zero attention and looking everywhere except at the fence ahead and then stopping in alarm when we arrived at it – something she almost never does, therefore blatantly my fault.
Learning the course
What I needed to do: Watch a few other riders go and memorise the course, working out my route and considering how to make smooth turns between the fences.
What I did: Stared in panic at the other riders, forgetting the course after the first three fences, and focusing more of my attention on which jumps I was dreading the most.
Time to jump
What I needed to do: Go into the arena, get her cantering in a forward, rhythmical manner before attempting to jump. Maintain that canter throughout, ensuring she stays in front of the leg. Don’t worry too much about spotting strides but just get her cantering forward and trust her to get it right. Land in a balanced fashion and make a controlled turn towards the next jump. Sit up, shoulders back, and don’t get in front of the movement.
What I did: Made a beeline for the first fence and duly knock it down. Tear round the rest in a blur, forgetting to breathe. Vary between gallop and collected canter, and therefore meet every other jump on a slightly awkward stride. Forget the course somewhere in the middle. Reach the end with oxygen deprivation and feel immediate relief that we survived. Then the dawning realisation that I did none of the things I should have done (see above) and all the things I shouldn’t.
So I regrouped, tried to catch up with my 02 deficit, and had another go - and it was a bit better. I didn’t manage to do all of the things I knew I should, but nor was it a total blur. So who knows? Maybe next time I won’t adopt the headless chicken approach. I live in hope."
Scurry driver Chris Orchard is doing her pre-season MOTs, and that applies to herself, her ponies, her carriage and her paperwork!
"With all the excitement of winning at HOYS, Christmas and New Year celebrations all now just memories, it's time to start preparations for the 2016 season in earnest.
Surrey County Show, the first HOYS qualifier for us, has just opened its entries so it's time for getting my head round the paperwork and to start the roll of clerical 'stuff' that's needed over the next few weeks to get us up and running on the county show circuit - that's the boring bit!
My 'holiday' from the gym is now over too and it's back to five days a week training to get that pesky hip back to competition strength again, and also get rid of some of that excess Christmas pudding! Mental preparation is also a consideration so I plan to reread the book I got last Christmas called Perfect Mind Perfect Ride. It's very good and the theory does seem to help, even if only as little as to make you think about it.
Carriage maintenance is on my list too, I mostly act in a purely advisory capacity on this, thankfully my husband Paul is good at the technical stuff. He checks for any stresses in the metal frame of the carriage and all the welds. If there's any doubt I think this is the time to get it all in tip top order, as half way through the season, or worse still half way round a course, is not a good time to find a problem.
The ponies all need a once over by the vet, which they will be getting in a few weeks time and have all had the dentist already, they all hate having their teeth done (as much as I do) but they were all very good for him and no major problems appeared. The dentist we use, Richard Morris, is very patient, gentle but firm with them, that's how I treat them myself so they respond to that well and not a sedative in sight.
Over the next few weeks (weather permitting) I will be driving the ponies at home, then the last phase of preparation will be clipping them all so by the time we get to March for the Scurry display at the Carriage Driving Fair they should all be fit, healthy, and look sparkling white again raring to go for our 2016 Osborne Refrigerators Double Harness Scurry season to qualify for HOYS again this year. Bring it on!"
Steph Croxford has a fabulous result in the Grand Prix at Addington, but decides she's got 69-itis - a terrible condition caused by 'silly errors'...
"I’m still in shock that we came second in the Grand Prix at Addington! The build up was terrible as we had a flooded arena one day and then it was frozen. So we only went in the school once and I ended up practicing my one-time changes out hacking and passaging down the road.
I said to Mr Hyde when we got there, ‘Just think of getting round mate!’.
When I saw the startlist were sandwiched between the UK’s top riders, which didn’t help matters. Charlotte was in after me, Spencer Wilton was right before me and then I had Carl three riders before that. Oh God! I actually feel calmer when I’m the underdog. If someone says, ‘you've got this in the bag’, I’m much worse. I can’t cope when I’m the favourite. But if no-one expects me to do well, there is no pressure, so I stay nice and relaxed and enjoy it.
My aim was to do what Richard [Davison] tells me when I’m schooling. Mr Hyde was a bit wild in the warm-up, bless him, but when we went in he said, ‘I’m with you mum’ and really tried for me. In the end not all of the big names came forward, but we got 69% even with a few mistakes – and had an awful halt to rein back! I think we’ve got 69-itis, as we keep on getting that score. It would be nice to get in the 70s, but we keep making silly errors. If get it right we could be quite good, so it’s a bit frustrating.
We got back home at 2am and only just made it up the hill in the snow. I thought we would have to walk up with Mr Hyde and the kids, but luckily Simon put his foot down and we made it.
We had to take Ben and Annabel with us well as there is no-one to look after them at home. We had a Burger King as a treat on the way down (the fuel of athletic champions...not!) and they were bathed and in the wagon by 5pm. Then they slept in the fold down bed on the way home.
Clooney did his first affiliated show. He got 67-something in the medium, and qualified for the Regionals. It's pretty good considering he’s not been out since the summer and it was his first time at a new venue. It wasn’t the most relaxed test, but he tried very hard. We are going out this Sunday to do two more medium tests and we’ll be aiming him at advanced medium, soon.
Annabel’s riding is still going well. She is jumping 53cm – we know that because she measures everything she jumps! Ben is still practicing going ‘up down, up down, up down’ but he prefers football really. He’ll only ride if it’s not too cold or raining. Which is most of the time at the moment.
Annabel is well into it, although it’s hard to fit in with swimming and tennis. She got the record for the fastest backstroke for under eights at her club championship – so is doing really well. We won’t get into the whole Pony Club thing as that’s just another commitment and life is hectic enough as it is!
Speaking of which, I’ve got five minutes to load up Mr Hyde before my lesson with Richard.
There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man, said Winston Churchill - and event rider Hazel Towers agrees. Are horses the best form of therapy there is?
"People say dog is man’s best friend but I beg to differ… For starters, you can’t ride a dog! If it was the end of the world or zombie apocalypse you would want a horse over a dog any day, or at least I know I would!
Horses are essentially like big dogs; they have similar personalities, they follow you around the stables when you’re mucking out nuzzling the back of your neck, whinny every time they see you, and I have no doubt that they would sit on our laps on the sofa on an evening if they could.
For most horse owners and riders, equines are a form of therapy. A mental escape from the rat race of life and a distraction from people who you maybe would rather not have to interact with. They make you feel good even when that seems impossible. They never answer back. They always listen and, I would like to think, most of the time they understand.
How many of us have had bad news and instantly ran and flung our arms around our equine friend’s neck, blubbing and sobbing into their manes, consoling ourselves on the fact that they at least love us (even if that love is only of the cupboard variety), and life suddenly doesn't seem so horrendous. They never judge your choice of attire and don’t mind the just got out of bed look either.
Horses are such magnificent creatures, so strong and powerful, yet so majestic in their mannerisms. They ooze character and show a real depth of emotional understanding in their eyes. People either love or fear horses, two very powerful emotions and horses are herd animals so they sense these emotions. How often have you seen a horse avoiding its obviously angry owner because it knows they are in a bad mood? Likewise, how often do we see them follow people that they trust?
Dogs are commonly used in the care of the disabled or vulnerable, but this apparent empathy has allowed horses to succeed in several rehabilitative fields too (more recently autism, behavioural, depression and addictions). People can talk to a therapist but they can forget or misunderstand the words that are used, but we don’t forget as quickly how something has made us feel, or if an emotional connection has been made.
Using horses as therapy has been documented from as early as 600BC by the Ancient Greeks. More recently we have a number of charities utilising horses for the treatment of traumatised/injured members of the armed forces, and the well-known Priory Clinic are one of many private healthcare organisations to use also uses equine-assisted therapies.
Humans need and benefit from the feeling of unconditional love and understanding that a horse can provide. No words can describe the sense of contentment they offer; no amount of gym visits, yoga, Pilates, therapy sessions or medication can match the incredible warmth you feel from your horse.
Sod the expense, they give most of us a dose of fulfilment which is very difficult to attain in other areas of our lives, total justification for your partner to stop moaning about the fact you spend so long (and so much money) at the stables."
In the latest of our archive video series from British Pathe, we bring you this brilliant clip from Burghley Horse Trials in 1967, which was won by Lorna Sutherland on Popadom. Isn't it strange to see no body protectors, and bizarrely the riders all got weighed at the end... Not sure how the H&C team would feel about that!
Para-dressage star Erin Orford sees out the year with some strong performances and a tumble on foot - and looks ahead to her goal of Paralympic selection...
"Happy New Year everyone – 2016 has officially arrived!
Last year finished with a new International show for us at Bury Farm, a convenient 20 minutes away from where I am based. I was looking forward to taking Pimms out again, following her performance at the Nationals the month before, and she was definitely excited to be back out again!
Feeling fresh, she put in three strong performances to win the Team and the Freestyle classes, and despite coming second in the Individual by the smallest of margins to Dutch rider Demi, we won the overall Grade 2 title. She gave me such a fantastic feeling and has grown so much both in strength and confidence over the year so I really couldn’t be more proud of her. It’s always a good opportunity to catch up with the other riders too and a particular conversation about the benefits of Derriere Equestrian underwear in the local pub over dinner ensured our arrival was acknowledged!
As a result of our performances, we finished the year ranked 26th in the World (across all grades) and 6th highest Brit behind the five European team members, so it was a great way to end the season. Sadly my improved core stability didn’t quite extend to outside the arena as I spectacularly stacked it on my way to the prizegiving, getting stuck on my back in the mud like a beetle, wearing full competition attire – RIP white breeches, you were always my favourite.
December saw our last Team GBR Squad session of 2015 and the emphasis for me was on ‘marginal gains.’ Over the years S&C (strength and conditioning) has had a huge impact on my core and position and it’s always good to keep monitoring any changes or any areas that could be improved. We looked at some position analysis during the walk pirouette and noticed a slight asymmetry, so new exercises have been devised in the gym, all of which leave me with the shakes, which I’m told is a good sign!
That evening we had a mock press conference, where questions ranged from standard ones about the squad and why you ride, to the allocation of lottery funding. A great practise exercise, I spent the 10 minutes before helping one of the younger riders rehearse her answers, and so was totally unprepared for the question “Why should you receive funding over the NHS” to be directed straight to me!
So after the festivities of Christmas and New Year (yes, I did train on Christmas Day but I expect I was just on autopilot) all talk is on Rio. I remember four years ago, being shortlisted for London 2012, where I was lucky enough to have behind the scenes access to the Athlete’s village and other venues, a scheme to try and prepare future Paralympians. An amazing experience, I couldn’t help but wish that I was competing alongside my friends and competitors and I’ve been working hard ever since to try to ensure that this time I’m there to compete too.
So this is it, my competition plan for the year is complete, training has commenced and I will be doing everything in my power to try and make the necessary improvement that will help me to gain selection. A HUGE thank you to my sponsors and support team and everyone following my journey - 2016 has arrived…whether I’m ready for it or not!"
Mud, puddles and fading light - the joys of winter
If you're struggling with the winter conditions, you're not alone - as amateur event rider Hazel Towers explains...
For some equine owners, winter means increased use of their indoor schools, horse walkers and horsey swimming pools/treadmills/solariums. Perhaps plenty of cosying up on the sofa in front of a fire, watching some hilarious festive rom com, or playing back and analysing horsey videos from the previous season. Then it’s all thermal heated coats, a few days hunting (with a hip flask full of the finest sherry), indoor show jumping/dressage training, and maybe a few days to the Caribbean or skiing, leaving the grooms in charge.
For the rest of us, winter means sideways sleet, chilblains, MUD, bullets of hay/straw flying into your eyeballs (rendering us blind for the next 12 hours), freshly clipped horse hair in your bra, more mud, frisky horses, soaking wet clothes, even more mud and too many numb body parts to list. Not to forget getting up in the dark, mucking out in the dark, riding in the dark, all while counting down the minutes until the clocks go forward again. At some point in December the antler headband will come out for your not-so-impressed steed (we have all done it), or perhaps the local Riding Club Christmas Tinsel Turnout dressage/jumping fancy dress competition!
I personally got through six coats one Saturday in December, six – in one day (and twice as many pairs of socks!) The tack room/kitchen were then covered in damp attire dripping for the following few days, much to my none-horsey father's disapproval! I haven't put on a dry riding hat for ages (for anyone who knows this is one of the most gross things any human can encounter).
We are very lucky to live in a stunning part of the UK in glorious North Yorkshire, just on the outskirts of the beautiful spa town Harrogate, right at the top of a gorgeous long valley, with rolling green hills and a view to die for. However, at this time of year, it is mainly views of the storms rolling in across the muddy fields, while the trees are nearly uprooted by the gusts of wind hurtling towards the puddle filled arena (the positive of this however is none of our horses mind water jumps!).
The horses themselves desperately want it to be spring and have little appetite for all this winter nonsense either - I'm convinced they dream of the rolling green fields and sun on their backs as much as we do. The fussy ones go off their food, and the lazy ones have to be dragged out of their stables with their ears flat back. You can’t use an exercise blanket to keep them warm (as naturally, it’s winter so we have shaved all their hair off!) because the gusts of wind are so strong it will act as canopy to lift them clean off their hooves and float off down the lane.
Then there is Christmas, the day everyone is merry with our loving family members. Instead, we manage to avoid wrapping presents, wrapping bandages instead, and our lists only consist of items for the nags (why would I want some nice bubble bath where there is a new equine shampoo which claims to remove even the toughest of stable stains?!)
BUT nothing beats a Christmas day hack dressed as an elf, singing Rudolf the red nose reindeer for 45 minutes non-stop. Or jumping that HUGE hedge out hunting that you would definitely not have even considered had you not had three swigs of whiskey. Or snuggling up inside after a hot bath, having braved the outdoors with your noble (slightly nuts) steed for the last time that day. So yes, winter can be tough, but I guess it’ll do for now, and let’s face it summer wouldn’t be half as sweet if we did have winter to compare it to!"
Showjumper Yazmin Pinchen saw in 2016 at the Equestrian.com Liverpool International Horse Show in Liverpool - and it sounds like the show was a lot of fun...
"Happy New Year everyone, I hope you all had an amazing time seeing in 2016.
I was lucky enough to celebrate with my close friends at the inaugural Liverpool International Horse Show. It was an incredible night. I don’t get to see my best friend Alice very often so getting to spend a weekend together was really special for us.
The show started on New Year's day in the evening. When I arrived at the venue I was speechless, which does not happen very often! It was out of this world, with so much going on. There was the Bootleg Beatles playing in the arena on a stage and they were amazing, I love The Beatles music anyway so that was really fun. Then there was the French Horsemen team, a French lady doing a beautiful display with such a stunning horse, girls with fire and the Shetland Pony Grand National racing around, obviously not all at the same time but it was great. Nina Barbour and her team pulled out all the stops and the show was incredible, so many people came to watch which is fantastic for our sport.
Nina also put so much effort into even the small details, I can’t praise her and her team enough it was seriously amazing. I had a good show, unfortunately I didn’t take first prize in the Grand Prix again, but my horses jumped well and I thoroughly enjoyed myself.
Now I am taking a month off shows, I am working towards the Sunshine Tour again where I plan to take 10 horses. I love doing the Tour because it’s a great place to start off again and take the young ones. After that I hope to do some Nations Cup shows. This year is an important year for us showjumpers and trying to make the short list for selection is what a lot of us hope for, I will certainly be trying to be consistent enough up to the Olympics, we will see what happens.
I would like to take this opportunity to send my condolences to Cameron Hanley and his team after they lost Antello Z in Liverpool. The horse was highly regarded in our industry and they were a great team. I wish Cameron all the luck for this year, he truly deserves it.
Good luck to everyone this year and hope to see you all soon!"