Handing Over the Reins

Recently, for the first time in around two years I let someone else ride my horse. I have been avoiding it for a number of reasons:

Firstly, there was the safety concern: when I first met Ginge asking him for anything more than walk in the school came with the risk of a bucking spree down the side of the arena. It is a risk you chose to take when they are yours and you know that *touch wood* you normally manage to stay on, but a different matter when you are asking someone else to take that risk. He was “that horse” who caused trainers to say “I am not getting on that” and once “I am way too valuable to have that horse cause me an injury” (I think he was at least half joking). Thankfully, this more dangerous phase of our partnership is now over!

Secondly, once progress began, there was the common worry that someone else could undo all the hard work and set you back by weeks or months by confusing or upsetting him in some way (easily done when you have a ginger on your hands).

Finally, there was the slightly selfish concern that we had reached a point where my own limitations as a rider were holding him back and that if someone else got on he would magically look incredible and be able to do everything.

The decision to cast aside these doubts turned out to be a great one. I had found myself in a position where Ginge was starting to really focus and turn a corner on the schooling front, but I was about to be away for more of the next 5 weeks than I would be around. Ordinarily, Ginge would just have the time off, but I really did not want him to have 5 weeks off when he was finally starting to work so well. I bit the bullet and a cast of 3 friends and trainers stepped in to keep him ticking over while I was away. The result was a confidence boost for me, a mini boot camp for him and massively improved lessons with both our trainers since we have returned.

The confidence boost came in a number of ways: the proud mum feeling from other people actually enjoying riding him; the knowledge that our ongoing struggles are not purely my fault; and the subsequent feeling that I have actually done a pretty good job producing him and should be less hard on myself. Not that long ago people used to refuse to ride him and now we get compliments for his willing and positive attitude. Everyone marvelled at his giant trot and my friend was thrilled to be on a horse who actually understood leg yield, definitely feeling like a proud mum.

The mini boot camp also really helped us both. I love my pony, but we both know sometimes he can decide for us both that he has worked hard enough and I will let him get away with it. I make a lot of excuses for him, when really we are at a point where he is ready to answer some real questions. My trainers are both of an understanding nature and know there are things he genuinely finds hard, but they are also not as soft as I am so he had a real work out and had his boundaries tested. As a result he felt amazing when I finally got back on and showed us both what he is capable of – definitely the push I need to start asking a bit more from him! This has been particularly useful over poles as learning together is not always the best for our team confidence, so an experienced and confident eventer riding him has really helped him approach fences with a positive feeling.

Since I returned from my trips we have had lessons with both trainers and the quality of them (whilst they were always great before) has really improved. Now they have both ridden him they have more insight into how he feels and what makes him tick, so it is easier for them to give advice and tips that are really tailored to him. There have been a few sentences beginning “when I was riding him…”; although luckily for my ego they have also both confirmed he is not an easy ride!

I am still very careful about who I let ride my horse – he is the most important thing in my world after all – but I can definitely see the benefits of handing the reins to the right person every now and then. I am even considering an actual trip to boot camp for him when I get married and head off on honeymoon later this year.

Ginge, of course, still thinks he should just have a holiday though.

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Insider: Withington Manor Horse Trials

On the first May Bank Holiday weekend every year, a sleepy Cotswold village plays host to scores of International Event Riders and their rising stars for one of the highest profile One Day Events around (us locals think so anyway)! Two weeks before Badminton, it is a great opportunity for the big names to test their fitness and local fans to “celeb spot” without the big event price tag. This year, I happen to be working at the livery yard attached to the ODE ground, so I was there for the insider’s view of all the hard work and preparation that goes into an event like this and to spot the opportunities available for local equestrians to get involved.

In the lead up to the big weekend, the staff at Withington Manor work flat out on the preparations. Tractors charging to and fro are preparing the ground and delivering giant cross country fences, tents and decorations. Course designer, Eric Winter, also designed the course it Badminton, this year, so standards have to be high. Obviously, the resident horses find all the activity a combination of exciting and terrifying that makes turning out a more hair-raising experience than usual in the mornings! “Exit” signs, fir trees and even new gravel appearing has all needed a thorough investigation in case of horse-eating-monsters by the 20+ residents of the Manor. For us grooms, the deliveries instil a sense of excitement, buzzing about the soon-to-be influx of “celebs” (confirmation that Mary King seems just as lovely in person as you’d hope) and excited plans about when is best to sneak up and watch the event in action between jobs.

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The buzz of a busy lorry park!

When the big day arrives, the excitement begins with the arrival of the competitors and a spot of celeb lorry spotting. Every one arrives full of anticipation and the atmosphere is electric with last minute plaiting and preparations. For your more amateur rider, the first opportunity to be find at a local event of this scale is seeing how others warm up and get started on event day. Some people start with a hack around the grounds to help their horses relax and get used to the atmosphere; others can be seen lunging to get their horse focused and loosened up ready to go.

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Vittoria Panizzon & Chequers Play The Game in the Advanced

The dressage phase brings the next series of opportunities. Writing for the judge is a commonly cited option for the amateur rider. Of course, the quality of this opportunity varies depending on the judge. The best judges to write for are the friendly and are happy to chat through what they are looking for and give hints and pointers, there are others who are not as keen on coaching the amateur rider at the same time as focusing on judging. Obviously, try not to be too demanding of their time – judging requires focus and concentration, so you won’t be thanked for constantly interrupting with comments and questions! Another, perhaps lesser known, opportunity for the skilled amateur is the opportunity to be the guinea pig rider for the dressage phase, in order to set the judges up for the competitors. One of the liveries at our yard had the chance to take this opportunity for the 1* and jumped at the chance! After all, when else do you get the chance to ride for international standard judges and get feedback – all for free!

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Justine & Alfie guinea pig ride the 1*

Next up is the showjumping, where there’s less opportunity to get involved – unless you fancy a work out restoring fallen poles between competitors! There is always a learning opportunity though. At your local show, you are much more likely to get up close and personal with the ring and be able to analyse the different riders styles and lines. After all, where else are you likely to be almost within touching distance of the legendary Mark Todd as he handles a tricky combination!

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Mark Todd flying around the showjumping phase

Last, but definitely not least: the challenge of the cross country course. The course at Withington is challenging to say the least! Eric Winter certainly knows how to design a bold and testing course. For your local rider, there are two main opportunities: fence judging and riding the course. Fence judging is potentially a great opportunity, hopefully you get an interesting fence and you get to watch, in detail, how every single rider approaches it. You can analyse for yourself the successes and pitfalls of these approaches and maybe apply some lessons to your own riding. It is a long day and full concentration is required, so maybe not for the fainthearted!

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A section of Eric Winter’s course

A number of local events hire the course out for local people to ride for a few days after the event. A few of us took the opportunity, so I can now say I’ve ridden on an Eric Winter course! Did I jump anything? Absolutely not! This dressage diva does not have the brave pants required for that level of course. We did trot through the water, pop up and down the much shorter sides of the bank and have a good blast around the field without spooking at any of the giant fences though. For Ginge and I, it was a great chance to ride around and have a look at a world class cross country course and face his worries about water. I feel like we succeeded. For those competing at a much higher level, it is an even greater opportunity to pop a few choice fences and practice the tricky ones without the pressure of competition and a ticking clock.

So what is stopping you? Get out there and get involved at your local event!