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Wednesday, 6 April 2011

One Step Closer

My training regime on Winston continued in the same way but it was the only thing that was the same.  I think I instinctively knew from the first moment I sat on Prico that he was the next step.  He would be able to get me closer to my dressage dream.

I was torn.  What could I do?  I was convinced that if I told Adam and Matt how I felt they would think I was stupid and would be cross because of all the time and effort they had put in to helping me with Winnie.  I talked it through with another client who encouraged me to talk to them.

I set up a meeting with both of them and was very apprehensive about what I had to say.  I was even more shocked at their response.  Adam told me that Winnie was just a horse.  A very nice horse but still just a horse.  It was what I wanted that was important and they completely understood how I was feeling.  They said that my riding had changed so much since I had first come to them for help and they understood my desire to move on. Phew!!!!!

Adam said he would talk to Prico's owner and see if he could make things work for all of us.  He though it would be very difficult to find another Prico as a lot of schoolmasters come with hang ups.  Adam had known Prico since he was a 4 year old.  Matt rode and competed him as a 6/7 year old and when he was sold to his current owner she continued to have lessons with both of them.  Basically, they had known Prico most of his life.  They knew what he could and couldn't and would and wouldn't do!

What followeed was a tense few days of negotiations.  I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to have several lessons on Prico to make sure he was right for me.  I also continued to ride Winston and in the last lesson I had on him Adam told me he had gone the best he'd ever seen him go.  This made me feel better about giving up on him.  As though at least I'd seen it through without throwing the towel in completely when things felt pretty dire.

The eventual outcome was that I bought Prico, Winston was sold to another regular client and Prico's old Mummy was free to search for her next superstar.  So I found myself with a horse that could do all the Prix St Georges movements and I was a rider who could do a bit of leg yield and shoulder in!

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Unexpected Developments


I knew Adam and Matt were worried when they closed the doors to the indoor school.  It hardly ever happens.  And Winnie was the only horse in there.  This was my first ride on him since before Christmas and the boys were obviously eager for nothing to go wrong.  And it didn't.  I can't say that I wasn't apprenhensive but I knew I had to see it through.  This was a part of my journey.

Again we settled in to a routine.  I would have a lesson on Indi - to kind of warm me up - and then move on to a lesson on Winnie straight after.  It was a big deal for me the first time I had to do the canter transition but I could also feel that Winnie was more balanced and we had practised being able to sit for a few strides as part of the trotwork.  I wouldn't say the first transition was smooth but neither was it as bad as it had been before.

We practised a lot on a 20 meter circle. I would ask for canter across the open side of the circle just as we approached the track.  This slowed Winston down and backed him off which meant that he was less likely to rush forward.  My confidence increased.  It was always better on the right rein than the left but after a few weeks I was no longer filled with terror at the thought of a canter transition.

Indi was once again dispensed with and my lessons continued with Winston.  I was making progress but it was slow progress.  There was so much to learn.  I had to get him soft and round - which wasn't easy.  I had to get him to bend on both reins and then to go straight.  I had to get more engagement.  I had to make sure he was on the aids and off the leg.  And even with all this I was still only doing the things I'd always done - the basics - but on a much classier, better moving, more well bred horse.

I'm not the bravest person, as you have probably realised, and Winnie was also a worrier.  He didn't like other horses coming towards him.  He was ok if we were walking but if we were trotting or cantering and a horse came towards him he would spin round and canter off.  Nothing evil but it was unsettling for me when the school was busy.

I used to watch everyone ride, particularly the young working pupils, and they would be half passing, doing tempi changes and canter pirouettes and the most I was doing was leg yield.  I felt destined to spend my whole life leg yielding!

I know I must sound impatient and I am!  But I'd bought this horse, spending more than I'd ever spent on a horse in my life and I still felt a very long way off my dressage dream!  I'm a perfectionist.  I hate getting things wrong.  For me it was really hard to go back day after day knowing I wasn't very good and to be surrounded by people who all looked really accomplished.  I desperately wanted to be as good as them.  I wanted to do half pass and tempi changes. 

I kept on flogging away at it.  Poor Adam must have wondered if I would ever get there.  I did!  But slowly things improved and although I didn't feel good, I didn't feel completely bad either.  But then something huge happened which changed the path I was going to take dramatically.

During the past months I had become friendly with one of the other girls on the yard.  We used to talk about her dressage dream and the horse she wanted to find and we would discuss our struggle to achieve our dream.  She was intending to buy a better horse and she wondered if I would be interested in sharing her current horse when she found her new horse.

She had a schoolmaster.  A schoolmaster who knew how to do all the tricks!  And he was safe.  But we couldn't afford to pay out for another horse to be kept on the yard.  But what an opportunity.  I was completely torn.  What should I do????

One day, I was offered a ride on this schoolmaster.  It was just me and the horse and the owner in the small school.  I had no clue on how to ride a schooled horse.  I just remember an instructor telling me years ago that it was harder to ride a more schooled horse.  Your average horse had the A B C of aids in place, whereas an advanced horse had the whole alphabet A to Z in place and you had to be really precise about what you asked for.  It really didn't matter though.  From that day I was hooked and my life was about to change dramatically!

Monday, 4 April 2011

Got the trainer, got the horse, so why aren't I a dressage diva?

We had to wait for several weeks for Winston to be shipped over to the UK as so many horses had been sold through the two auctions that had to be shipped all over the World.  Whilst Winnie was waiting to begin his life in the UK he wasn't being ridden.  He had only been broken in for a few months so this wasn't good.

He finally arrived one dark Thursday evening in November.  Adam, Rich and I were there to greet him.  He looked a pretty sorry state - so thin - even Adam wondered what we'd bought!  We settled him in, feeling both nervous and excited about the future.

Next morning I went back to the yard thinking I was just going to bond with him but Adam announced that Matt was going to ride him.  Winston went really nicely for Matt so Adam said that his new owner should climb on board.  I was a bit apprehensive but I had no need to worry, Winston was an angel.  I went home happy.

The next day I went back to the yard - an hours drive away - and once again Matt rode him first then I got on.  Obviously he had been tired from the journey the day before because today he was so much livelier and spookier.  Still, it was to be expected I reasoned.  He needed time to settle in and get to know us.  He'd just made a huge move from his life in Holland to the UK.  It must be scary for a young horse.

The thing was though, that I felt like I couldn't ride any more.  Winston had such a lot of movement and because he hadn't been worked for several weeks he felt really unbalanced.  I had been used to a short coupled horse with no movement and now I had this big gangly Dutch horse that seemed to move in every direction underneath me.  He seemed to catapult me out of the saddle in trot.  I couldn't imagine EVER being able to sit to the trot!  And because I couldn't sit - even for a few strides - it made the canter transition very difficult.  I would try to sit, would bounce, which as I banged down on his back would catapult him into canter and he would give a startled leap and career off round the school, trying to get away from this crazy woman banging around on his back!!!!!

Still, I told myself, it's early days, just keep practising.  So for the next few weeks we established a routine.  I would drive to the yard each weekday morning.  This was the old yard at Billow not the current yard.  Life was much quieter down there.  Most days Adam would be away teaching.  So, Matt and I would get Winston ready.  Matt would ride him first and then I would ride him.  Then once a week Adam would give me a lesson.

It wasn't getting any easier.  I used to dread my lessons with Adam because he insisted on addressing my problem with the canter transition so he would make me do transition after transition and I would brace myself for the explosion into canter that Winnie would inevitably make.  It became a real issue for me and as you can imagine it then became a real issue for Winston.  I would get tense so he would get tense and the transitions would get worse.

I persevered until just before Christmas then one morning I said to Matt that it wasn't working.  I don't think Matt knew quite what to say or do!  If you know Matt you will know how incredible that is!  Anyway, I think there were some hasty phone calls between Matt, Adam and Rich and a plan was hatched!

It was decided that Matt should ride Winston every day to make him easier for me to ride and that I should continue to have lessons with Adam on good old Indi to prepare me to ride Winston.  To be honest it felt like a backward step and I was totally deflated but things just weren't working.  Would I ever be able to ride dressage????

Straight after Christmas Adam and Matt moved to their current yard and our new regime started.  I would have three lessons a week on Indi and Matt rode Winston. It was fine, I was back in my comfort zone, but it was also really hard.  At Wyncolls - as you will know if you have been there - there are always people watching you.  All the previous dressage yards I'd been on were really snooty and everyone talked about and slagged off everyone.  So, I worried about what people were saying or thinking about me.  Everyone else, in my eyes, was better than me and I would never be good enough.  Not only that, I couldn't even ride my sparkly new dressge horse and I was back on my coloured mare trotting round doing a bit of leg yeild whilst everyone else was prancing around doing piaffe and passage!

Of course, they weren't really but that's how it felt to me.  I was totally wrong about what everyone was thinking too.  The staff and clients at Wyncolls are the most supportive you will find anywhere and they were and continue to be very encouraging and I love to get their feedback, be it good or bad, or just share with them how difficult this dressage game is.  It's fabulous to find out that even those people that you look up to and aspire to be like have the same insecurities that you have.

Anyway, January came and went and then it was February and I knew that Adam was going to tell me it was time for the regime to change.  I was dreading it . . .

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Progress . . .

Finally . . . I had found someone who may be able to help me to achieve my dressage dream - Adam Kemp.  He invited me to go watch him teach and then to meet with him to discuss what I wanted.  So that's what I did.  I was impressed straight away from watching him and the even more impressed when we got together afterwards to talk.  He wanted to know what I wanted to achieve and what kind of horse I wanted.  I remember telling Adam that if I could compete at elementary I would be over the moon.  He listened, he didn't just tell me what he thought I should do.

He suggested that I should take Indi for lessons with him so that he could see me ride and prepare me for my new horse.  He suggested we go over to Holland with him to look for a 5 year old elegant horse.  He estimated this would cost near to £20,000.  That sounded like an absolute fortune at the time.

So that's what we did.  It was extremely intimidating taking my black and white mare down to Adam for a lesson when everyone else had sparkly dressage horses with extravagent movement and all the tricks.  From the very first lesson Adam changed the way I rode Indi and therefore, the way she went, drastically.  I'd never had a lesson that made so much difference to my riding.

Then the time came for us to go out to Holland.  It was terrifying!  Not only had I got to go to this posh dressage yard in Holland I had to ride these quality dressage horses - the like of which I'd never sat on.  On the first morning Adam quickly got me onboard realising I was nervous and the longer I waited to ride the more nervous I would get.  He put his partner, Matt Frost, on board first to show me that the horse was safe and then I rode it.  It wasn't THE ONE but it was a sweet mare who I liked, but she was quite a nervous type and I didn't think I needed the added complication of a nervous horse. 

I ended up on a gorgeous horse that I loved and was also, in my eyes, gorgeous to look at.  Adam taught me on him and I felt really confident.  We talked about him at length and decided he was THE ONE.  But we had to go back and bid for him in the auction about ten days later.

So, we all returned to Holland for the auction.  It's such a beautiful and amazing event - nothing like any auction in the UK.  But it was so nerve wracking because I desperately wanted this horse.  We talked about the maximum that it was sensible to pay for him and then added a bit on top because we liked him so much and it would save us coming back to Holland again and agreed on the top price we would pay.

Adam did the bidding and it quickly became apparant that he was going to go way over what we were prepared to pay.  I went home very disappointed.  Yet again my dressage dream was thwarted!

The following Wednesday I received a phone call from Adam asking what I was doing the following day.  When I told him nothing special he told me I was going back to Holland with Matt.

So in the early hours of the morning I drove to Adam's house, transferred to Matt's car, we drove to Stanstead, flew to Holland and arrived at the Auction Centre at 9am Thursday morning.  There was another smaller auction taking place on Saturday and we were going to try any horses that might be suitable for me.

I tried three horses.  One was too young and green.  There was a mare which I absolutely loved.  She was my favourite.  She found collection easy and was, therefore, very easy to sit on.  And there was a gelding, who I also enjoyed riding.  He was much looser and big moving.  He was Matt's favourite.

Matt videoed me on all three horses and we flew back to the UK and then drove back to show Adam the videos - now well after midnight.  Adam agreed with Matt that the gelding was the nicer horse. 

On the Saturday we found out that the mare - my favourite - was going through the auction first.  Adam had arranged for someone to bid for us.  Again it was a nerve wracking evening but this time waiting for the phone to ring.  The mare went for more than we were prepared to pay but we bought the gelding.

Finally I had my dressage horse - Winston, a black, 5 year old KWPN!!!!

Thursday, 24 March 2011

The beginning of the dream . . .

This blog is my day to day quest to be a Dressage Diva.  My passion for dressage started more than twenty years ago when I lived in Tenereife and used to watch a brilliant rider, called Axel Ballinger, school his dressage horses.  This led to me helping out on the yard and being allowed to ride one of his older mares.

One evening there was a big competition and I went to watch.  The arena was immaculate.  It was a warm evening and we were sat outside in the grandstand seating watching Axel.  It was late in the evening and very dark and Axel was on his beautiful black horse performing a serpentine in passage with piaffe each time he hit the centre line.  Suddenly the lights went out - a power cut which was a regular occurence in Tenereife.  There was a lot of panic and activity in the background but I sat still my eyes on the shadowy image of Axel and his horse.  They had halted mid piaffe and remained stock still.  After what seemed like an eternity but in reality was probably only a couple of minutes, the lights came back on.  Axel went straight back into piaffe and continued with the test.  I was amazed.  It was just so beautiful to watch them completely in tune with each other.  It sent shivers down my spine.  I was hooked!  I wanted to be able to do that.

Obviously I'm a very slow learner because more than twenty years later I still haven't ridden piaffe!  But I live in hope.  As anyone who rides will know - it's not an easy thing to achieve.  Dressage is hard.  It looks easy but it's very hard to ride well.

Anyway, I had three children, got very involved in Pony Club - instructing and with all three of my children as members.  It was their riding that was a priority and I only rode to accompany them on hacks or fun rides or hunting.

As my children got older I began to rekindle that desire to ride dressage.  Richard - who is now my partner but wasn't then -  had several horses which I used to ride, but they were either hunters or ex race horses or both.  He had a horse called Garrison Savannah who won the Cheltenham Gold Cup but who was now retired and I had some lessons on him.  I also began to have lessons on his hunter but his hocks didn't really like doing dressage and he became broken.

When Richard and I got together he offered to buy me a dressage horse.  We went to look at quite a few, taking videos which we could take back and show my instructor.  Finally I found one - when I sat on her I felt like I could ride!  Only problem was she was a chestnut mare by Weltmeyer.  We showed the video to my instructor and she liked her and came back with us for a second viewing.  We both rode her and the deal was done, we bought her for £5000.

The minute she came off the horse box I had my reservations.  She was very unsettled and spooky.  We let her settle in and then I had my first lesson on her after she had been lunged.  She spooked at everything.  If I changed the rein across the diagonal, as I approached the other side of the arena she would spook at the boards.  She would spook at shadows, noises and things that weren't there.

I persevered with lessons for several weeks but it didn't get any better and I became despondant.  She began to get worse.  I bought her home and at the time we didn't have an arena so I had to school her in the field.  It was better so long as it was quiet but still not good and I certainly didn't enjoy riding her.

My neighbour - who had more dressage experience than me - offered to ride her.  She tried hacking her following me on her beautifully mannered horse.  But she was incredibly nappy and dangerous.  My neighbour persevered with her but it became obvious she was not the horse for me so finally we managed to sell her.

This had knocked my confidence and made me feel I was even further from my dressage dream.  I ended up replacing her with a smart confidence giver, Tom, who loved jumping, hacking and hunting but didn't really enjoy dressage!!!  Clever hey?  But he was beautiful and coloured and uncomplicated.

I continued to have weekly lessons but didn't make any significant progress.  It was a constant struggle to get him on the bit and to get straightness and bend let alone anything else.  My daughter sold her 14.2hh to move onto a horse and I bought a 5 year old coloured mare for her who had been broken and ridden away.  However, my daughter wanted to gallop and jump and hunt and Indi wasn't ready for that so we swapped horses!  Tom and Tasha had a whale of a time out show jumping and I set to work on Indi.

Indi is a short striding horse with no real movement but a good temperament.  She couldn't even canter round the school (we had now had a school built) but I worked on her and we made lots of progress.  I found a new instructor who would teach me at home and felt that maybe I could pursue my dressage dream after all.

Weeks went into months and the weekly lessons continued.  I worked hard and always did the homework I was set in my lessons but after about a year and a half I still felt stuck at the same level.  I was bored of doing leg yield and turn on the forehand and my instructors constant mantra of "jiggle jiggle give" just didn't feel right either.

The turning point for me came at Addington Manor Dressage Sale.  I used to go to all the sales with my friend, Emma.  At one particular sale we fell in love with a gorgeous young horse.  I rang Rich to tell him about it and he told me to bid on it.  But I couldn't.  I knew that I hadn't got the knowledge to produce this horse myself and I knew I was still to find a really good instructor.

I went home determined to find the right instructor.  I did lots of on line research and asked around but still couldn't find what I was looking for.  I wanted to buy a horse and I wanted the support I needed to learn how to ride him and get the best out of him so I could start to pursue my dressage dream.  I wanted more than just a weekly lesson with someone who never really advanced my riding.  I wanted someone who cared and was passionate about teaching.

One of my neighbours heard about my quest and suggested I emailed Adam Kemp.  She had trained at Talland with Adam and said that he was not only a brilliant instructor but he was also very kind, which she thought was very important.  So I emailed Adam and explained what I was looking for and awaited his response.  The reply came - what I was looking for was exactly what they offered!  The dressage dream was about to move forward!!!