Review: How to get your leg over (Diary of a Wimpy Eventer) by Victoria Brant

Over the last few months, I have been sporadically entering “retweet and follow” Twitter competitions. I never really expected to win anything, but it is worth a shot, right? Well, no one was more surprised than me that I ACTUALLY WON when Haynet offered the chance to win a copy of the Wimpy Eventer’s brand new book. Sometimes these things happen for a reason and I think this book found its way into my life at exactly the right time.

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Have you ever found yourself having a crisis of confidence? Doubted your abilities, even over something you used to be able to do with your eyes shut? The Wimpy Eventer has, and she has opened up about her decision to look fear right in the eye in honest, humorous and heartfelt fashion. It’s difficult not to fall a little bit in love with Vic, and her superstar pony Pat, after she lays her soul out on the table for her readers. The journey to regaining your confidence and trying to jump in with both feet when you’re paralysed with fear is not an easy one – and this book doesn’t pretend it is. You find yourself rooting for its author every step of the way, laughing along with her and celebrating her successes (both large and small).

Somehow, by the end, you find yourself believing in yourself a bit more. I have a number of books written by professional dressage riders that were supposed to motivate and inspire me. Sadly they have primarily left me feeling a bit inadequate and apologising to the ginger one for failing him as a trainer. This book is different. Its author is an every day rider who works several jobs to fund her expensive horse addiction, has zero transport to facilitate competition entry and is often convinced that she just is not good enough. Yet she is getting out there and smashing it. And she makes you believe that you probably can, too.

This book arrived in my life at just the right time. After 5 weeks off riding due to injury, I was definitely having my own crisis of confidence. What if all our hard work recently has been forgotten and we are back to square one? Post reading this book I have done two things that terrified me: interviewed for a part time groom job at a professional event yard (still convinced they’ll throw me off the yard as a fraud any moment) and got back on my horse. Do something you are afraid of every day. There will almost certainly be non-death to celebrate at the end of it and, you never know, you could come home with more success than you ever dreamed of. It works for the Wimpy Eventer after all!

Coping with rider injury

Three weeks has passed since I was cruelly banned from riding due to an unfortunate yard accident. To add insult to injury of course it wasn’t even a dramatic accident, so no exciting story to tell. I was turning my friend’s mare out for the night and she took offence at a child on a trampoline, spooked and landed unceremoniously on my foot. Four hours in A&E and a plaster cast later, I find myself confined to the sofa with no riding on the horizon. Just as the ginger beast is starting to go really nicely and I was filling the diary with plans for fun rides, jumping clinics, dressage tests and maybe a camp at Hartpury over my birthday weekend. Luckily fracture clinic were less doom and gloom than A&E, so the good news is I now have a protective boot instead of a cast and am hopefully only another two weeks away from being back in the saddle. Of course, I have my beloved, old-faithful Harry Hall jodhpur boots to thank for things not being worse. Always wear the right protective gear around the yard, accidents like these can happen in a heartbeat and we have all seen the photographs in Horse & Hound of what happens if you are wearing flip flops when they do!

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Nothing more flattering than hospital pjs!

The first tip I have for coping with injury is make sure the yard has a good human first aid kit! I was so unprepared for incident that I ended up borrowing from ginge. I’ve been treating myself to a My Horse Box subscription for the last few months, so luckily Stark has a well stocked first aid kit. I can officially confirm that the Equi-N-icE cooldown products really do the trick, as I found myself wearing his post workout socks to bring down the swelling en route to A&E.

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Once home, my first worry was boredom. Us equestrians are so used to being rushed off our feet with full time work plus taking care of our horses and somehow fitting in time to ride. The idea of being sat still for days on end is so alien! So I’ve kept busy – and would recommend it. I’ve brushed up on my horse care knowledge, dusted off the BHS stable management books and taken online courses on equine nutrition and bedding management. It’s important to stay up to date with best practice in the equine industry. We all want to know we are doing the best for our horses, so it is good to have the time to check in.

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The other obvious worry is this guy! He is obviously quite happy snuggled in his big straw bed or stuffing his face with grass and I am lucky enough to rely on great grooming staff to take care of him. However, it is peak grass growing season and while he is going so well and looking fit I don’t really want to come back to a barrel. My fantastic trainer has ridden him for me instead of our scheduled lessons. Watching her ride has been great, I am so proud of how good ginge is looking and how hard he tried. Definite proud mum moments when other liveries have come up to comment how good he is looking! Sadly having her ride him very regularly is not an affordable option. Lucky for me, a good friend is planning on horse shopping in a few months and has jumped at the chance to ride a new horse. The benefits work for both of us: my boy is kept ticking over and she gets to ride something completely different to the TBs she has got used to – a big help in deciding what she is looking for when she is ready to go ahead.

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Now I am looking ahead! My foot is healing rapidly. I’m almost ready to walk without crutches, so I’m hoping to at least start loose schooling and renewing our bond with groundwork within the next two weeks. I’m also starting to plan our schedule for the rest of the summer – fingers crossed we can get some of those clinics in after all!

Variety is the spice of life!

With the arrival of some summer weather (finally), ginger pony and I have been very busy lately trying his hoof at any and every opportunity that has come our way. Dressage will always be my true equestrian love, but having a go at bits and pieces of other disciplines has great benefits for any partnership. In the same way as human athletes benefit from cross-training in other sports to train different muscle groups and increase flexibility, our horses benefit from a bit of variety in their lives.

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Flatwork schooling is our main focus, but if I try to school more than twice in a week Ginge is very quick to make his boredom clear. A bored ginger pony does not make for a productive session, so I’m keen to avoid this where possible. An easy way to engage his brain is to get out the coloured poles – a technique that our instructor often uses when it looks like he’s about to start throwing his toys out of the pram. Polework (even just with poles on the ground) has a number of benefits for us: firstly, it encourages Ginge to engage his brain and really think about where he puts his feet; slightly raising the poles gets him to pick up his feet, use his core and work properly over his back; and, on days when we have our brave pants on, the tiny fences we jump have helped muscle up his hindquarters. Specific to Ginge, being a trotter, is also the fact that polework has helped teach him to canter in an arena – the poles give him something else to focus on and he often naturally transitions to canter instead of getting worked up about it as he has in the past during a simple flatwork session. All these things help improve our dressage scores as they have helped develop muscle and balance (for both of us), which in turn improve straightness and accuracy, and help with transitions within the pace as we have improved our control over stride length.

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Another common boredom buster is hacking out. There’s nothing better than spending a couple of hours exploring the countryside with good friends. It is a great chance to relax (and catch up on a bit of yard gossip), but it definitely isn’t a day off! Hacking is a great way to build fitness, especially if you’ve got plenty of hills and off road stretches for a bit of speed work! It is also a great way to teach your horse to cope with the unexpected: walkers, dogs, cyclists, vehicles, all kinds of terrifying wildlife and horse eating inanimate objects (not to mention different coloured bits of road – the horror!) could pop up at any moment. Once your horse gets used to all these hazards, it can make attending competitions a bit less of a dramatic experience. Flower pots, white boards and arena mirrors are nothing when you’ve already handled inflatable Christmas decorations and summer fete bunting! It also teaches your horse to trust and look to you in scary situations, which can only improve their focus in the arena.

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Combining both of these: the fun ride – possibly one of the maddest events of the equestrian summer calendar, but also a lot of fun. Miles of off-road riding, in a location you may not usually have access to, with jumps and photographers everywhere. Fun rides are not for the fainthearted though! They can be very busy and unfortunately not everyone is particularly considerate when it comes to passing slower, young or more nervous horses out on the ride. We arrived early to get round before most of the crowds as we were accompanying a friend with a youngster. This paid off, but there were still plenty over-taking us at speed and we saw a few falls and one very dramatic loose horse, bridle free, galloping for home. Our boys were very sensible and we’ve returned home with rosettes, great photos (courtesy of XC Photos), happy memories and, let’s be honest, the confidence to handle any dressage warm-up arena with ease!

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Perhaps more unusually, Ginge recently tried his hoof at some Working Equitation obstacles. Originating from Portugal, WE is frequented by Lusitano and PRE owners, so I heard of it as our yard owner competes on her stunning stallion. The obstacles are a real test of horsemanship and team work. It means dealing with “scary” obstacles and tests control and accuracy of commands with tests of lateral work, control of paces, obedience and balance. I started by showing Ginge all the obstacles from the ground and explaining what was expected of us. Examples include: gymkhana style weaving, a rope “gate”, walking into a corridor to ring a bell before reversing out and crossing a “bridge” (which in our case was just a wooden board, but still makes the “scary” noises). We then tackled all these things mounted, varying the paces when he gained confidence. A great test of our partnership and my ability to explain how to tackle obstacles! I think Ginge even enjoyed himself.

I doubt we will be entering an showjumping, cross-country, endurance or working equitation competitions any time soon, but we will definitely keep trying other disciplines. Having all these experiences together stops us getting stale in the school and feeds back into our dressage sessions benefiting us enormously! Happy ponies = happy owners, so get on out there and so what you can learn from the rest of the equestrian world!

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!

And they’re off…

This is my (or our) “Hello World” blog. Since it’s traditional, we’ll begin with an introduction!

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This is the ginger pony, he’s a French Trotter who was imported to the UK as a two year old when it became clear he had not inherited his grandfather’s skills as a racer. In his first few years in the England he was lightly backed; broken to harness; accidentally became a dad; and then was mainly left to his own devices for a year or two except the occasional drive out with his carriage.

When I first arrived at his field it was to help school a 5 year old dressage potential, but a few twists of fate brought me together with the gangly 8 year old field ornament who has now definitively claimed a corner of my heart. Six months later, I had to move away and the ginger beast came with me to start a new life in the Cotswolds – luckily for me, his owner felt it would be cruel to separate us and that he “might as well have a job to do”.

That was two years ago, since then we’ve been battling with dressage and teaching each other to jump. After a recent lesson, my trainer commented on how far we’ve come in the last two years and that comment is what brings me here, to this blog. It can be tough to keep perspective on how far you have come when you are in the moment, so this blog is going to be a record of our successes, failures and, hopefully, gradual progression (undoubtedly with a few detours along the way). Join us for the ride, it’s always more pleasant to hack out in company after all!