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“And now the magic will happen…”

It’s been a tough old winter one way or another, but thanks to flexible colleagues and a yard approach that’s kept horse and rider together as often as possible, Max and I have survived and are looking forward to making the most of the opportunities coming our way. We’ve made the best of it by working in-hand, riding, lungeing and doing stretches, and he looks well for it all, but I still haven’t learned to plait…

<p value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80">Eventing has just begun for this year, and we have some really exciting training booked for April; there's one more week before I have to decide which BE show to enter first; tonight I booked us into a local Pony Club Hunter Trial for the end of May, so there's something in the diary at last.Eventing has just begun for this year, and we have some really exciting training booked for April; there’s one more week before I have to decide which BE show to enter first; tonight I booked us into a local Pony Club Hunter Trial for the end of May, so there’s something in the diary at last.

I’ve enjoyed having frequent opportunities to ride and the short timeslot has meant that I’ve been focussing on some very basic things, keeping things as varied as possible; this week I really felt that we’ve started to trust one another and that it will be easier to train more effectively now that we’re clicking as a partnership. As Kira, one of our brilliant coaches put it: “now the magic will happen” – we all need a bit of that right now.

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Lockdown life – how are you coping?

Almost everything you read at the moment begins ‘in these unprecedented times…’ and they certainly are; everyone can remember a time when they couldn’t do what everyone was else was doing: FOMO (or Fear Of Missing Out) is what drives a lot of advertising now. In these unpr- frankly odd times, we’re all missing out: I’m not riding (but I know that Max is getting great care, lots of time in the field, and as much hay as he can eat), much less Eventing, and I’m not even allowed to go in to the Chelmsford Cathedral (where I work) to play the organ there.

It’s a good time to have a think about my basic priorities for riding and the drastically different year that Max and I will (eventually) have – perhaps our first Event will be Poplar Park after all! I’m enjoying Charlotte Dujardin’s autobiography – don’t get me wrong, I know just what the gulf between our riding is – and am going to read up on mindset improvement too; it’s all very inspiring stuff.

The chance to read and think, and listen to music more than usual has been good – as I’ve said before, don’t waste a crisis – and although I’m desperate to use this free time from work to get on and ride, I hope that the me that emerges at the end of this lockdown will be a more prepared, relaxed, and enthusiastic me. Do you think that this will change you? How are you coping day-to-day? I’d love to hear your thoughts and strategies for coping with all this time!

Stay safe.

James x

Confidence: trick or treat?

In my day job as a choir trainer I’m often trying to get people to unlock their talents with more confidence and self-belief: I know they can do it, so they should have the same level of confidence and so on. Of course it doesn’t work like that for everyone and when you’ve had something knock your confidence it can take a long time to regain it or even to trust the smallest instinct.

In November, Max and I were out hacking and he slipped and fell, ditching me on my right foot, causing some soft tissue damage that has very nearly cleared up thanks to an excellent physio. It really knocked my confidence and although Max seemed unhurt and has been happy enough to work since it was just something else to think about and undoubtedly caused a slow-down in our progress while I got back to comfort in the stirrups.

Some uninvited personal comments from a well-meaning [I think] individual only served to undermine the confidence that I was regaining and it has taken some time to put them behind me, but they are there now, firmly stowed away under ‘experience’. In February I took Max out for some schooling over showjumps and xc fences and while the first part was wild and frustrating, the latter was more encouraging: even objective low-key comments were of more help and use than the unpleasantness mentioned earlier and slowly we’ve started to find our feet again and despite feeling like our year has started in a downbeat way, just plugging away and taking time to note progress has made a huge difference.

So is there a trick to finding your confidence? Many people would say so but we’re all different and for me it’s been an opportunity to take stock and learn to receive encouraging words from instructors, the saddle fitter, the farrier, staff and fellow liveries and to take compliments for what they are; the online XC Academy run by Lucinda Green and Rachael Faulkner is the most superb environment to learn, discuss, gain inspiration from the guest speakers, and all in the most supportive environment. Thanks to everyone for their challenge and support – it’s made a big difference to my perception of how we’re doing. Not a quick cure, and no easy trick, but definitely a treat.

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!’ Robert Burns

Get up there!

Showing up is a big part of success, apparently, and I have found it difficult to find my motivation over the last month. However, today was a good day: Max and I had a good play over some small jumps to get our eyes back in before we go off for training in a week or so’s time; he seems not to have lost his love of jumping, nor his ability to fling off his ear guard from under the bridle.

Max surveying the view towards Tilbury

I have to admit to finding it difficult to be my own teacher – even more so being my own pupil: always overthinking and having three answers where one is what’s needed. Being without regular lessons has forced me, though, to think about what progress I feel we’re making: is something easier than it was before? Can I now understand what Max is telling me if I ask him to do something he finds harder on one rein than another? We certainly don’t have all the answers but I’m starting to get the hang of the questions.

Whether you prefer to stay on the ground or leap up in the air, showing up really does make the difference between wondering and finding out.

One foot in front of another (and no mention of the bad drivers)

Max dressed for battle (road ready)

I enjoyed a good afternoon with Max today – I needed to remove the pressure of a timetable and ended up having a few laughs with people on the yard and then a good hack. After a quiet and slightly frustrated feeling at the start of the year, I got some energy back with an informal LGXC Zoom on Monday and feel all the better for reconnecting with Max in a more relaxed way today, following some quiet inhand work on Monday. Although the initial British Eventing schedule isn’t looking very promising for us, I’m keeping an eye on the more exciting things that we might do this year and look forward sharing them through this blog and social media!

Serious sunshine today!

The road is there for us to share and I hope that the introduction of some new parts to the Highway Code might help raise awareness of riders and horses on our country roads – after a particularly sad incident in West Essex at the weekend it’s to be hoped. Today’s hack featured some very considerate drivers, most of all the driver of a grabber truck who not only cleared our road but switched on his lights and kept the way clear for us from other traffic. Here’s to more like him and fewer like the ones we won’t mention!

Ring out the old, ring in the new

What a year… I’ve been a bit quiet on the blogging front and it’s certainly something I intend to attend to in the new year, but it’s quite representative of the year as a whole!

After a slow reopening to Eventing in 2020, 2021 had some of the same issues and also the added complication for me of fixtures previously held on Saturdays being moved to Sundays in term time, putting them out of our reach; this put all our efforts into the summer holiday and it didn’t prove a very satisfying year – finally towards the end of the season Max went lame and that ruled us out of training and further competition. At the very least we’ve still managed clear round showjumping so the summer wasn’t totally without fun and success.

Where I have found fun and satisfaction has been in the Eventing world: getting involved with the Lucinda Green XC Academy and spending two glorious* days training with Lucinda in April really put some steel in my spine and gave me a lot of inspiration (* the training was glorious and fun, the weather was foul!); fence judging at Little Downham and watching our best riders go past was its own special and inspiriting experience; enjoying the Olympics, the GBR medals & all the light that brought to the world was something we could all share; a visit to Andrew Hoy’s yard in October helped me face down an unsatisfying season in terrific company (two- and four-legged) and the sense of community around the table with Andrew, his family and friends underlined why we do what we do and how we can enjoy it even when it’s not all roses (or rosettes or whatever).

On the organist front it’s been an extraordinarily busy year, picking things up after lockdowns and online training with singers and gradual reintroduction of live performance; the tapering of a higher workload and end of the Eventing season proved a bit of a pinch point, finally culminating in the rampant march of Covid through the Cathedral choirs, taking me off work the day before Christmas Eve – no Eventing, no organist!

Looking back there have been wonderful things: beginning to learn Swedish has put me in the learner’s chair in another discipline and that has also opened up a world of cultural things that I was beginning to explore – as with most things in life it’s the knock-on event that can be so valuable: the conversation on culture and life with a Swedish woman at a Christmas market, meeting high-ups in the equestrian world and feeling as though you’re reconnecting with old friends, learning to make the most of having only four singers all of a sudden, making new friends and business relationships: it certainly hasn’t been a dull year and I’m enormously grateful to everyone who has supported, cajoled, encouraged and prompted me, or just refused to let me sit still. For all the social media conversations, the pub chats, the post-Zoom meetings – thank you. Let’s see what 2022 has in store, but we’ll face it together and may you have some calm and comfort if you need it, excitement and anything else you might want.

Thanks for reading! James, Max, & Tess xxx

So much to do

So little done? It certainly seems that way in some respects: it’s May already and the Eventing season is now underway. Max and I are booked in to a local Hunter Trial at the end of this month and aim to be at our first BE event in June. How have we been filling the time up until now?

It’s been one of immense learning and getting out of my comfort zone, including two superb days under the legendary eye of Lucinda Green, from whom there is more to be learned than a lifetime allows but her online XC academy has been a godsend, offering video learning, advice and inspirational chats with eventing legends, which have been relevant to work-related things too.

Getting ready to head up to Berwick Farm for XC training with Lucinda Green

I’ve spent some time thinking about my mindset and how that can be developed to enhance my confidence onboard and out there, and just by doing more I’m gaining more confidence and building that all-important relationship with Max. We’re enjoying the fun of trying new bits of kit as well (but only as the riding is improving – I know *that* rhyme and won’t fall for it!)

We took part in an UA dressage competition at the yard, our first riding a BD test, and came away with a creditable 70% for 4th place – high-scoring class!!

This all comes against the background of the pandemic in its latest stages and all the gradual reopening that that has allowed and of course it’s meant that there’s more work to balance around riding (watch this space for an exciting feature about how it all fits together) and then there’s been the awful weather… That said, I’ve wanted this for so long I’m prepared to do what it takes to succeed; even if we’ve not achieved a vast amount yet this year, as a good and influential equestrian influencer – the term really applies to this person – told me, “at least you’re showing up”. There’s so much to do; I’m excited to have it in prospect and to be sharing the next stage of our journey with you: stay posted!

Reflecting: Max in the horsebox

Getting to 40

It’s a year from my first post, which means that I’m about to hit 40 and the end of my #80by40 challenge to myself to get out Eventing before my 40th birthday, starting out at British Eventing’s training level. My new-found horse Max had been out on the Eventing field before, but for me it was a long-held dream! We did it – we went to three horse trials in all, two BE and an unaffiliated training Event, and despite somewhat mixed results, we made a fairly positive start, and that for me was the main point – not getting it done and dusted and moving on, but proving to myself that this dream was achievable; the goal of doing it by now was based on the idea of a normal Eventing season, and we’d have kicked off in July having done lots of training.

Training at Poplar Park, July 2020

And then – well, you know. There were the added complications of minor injury and gastric issues for Max, so a good part of the first five months of this year were spent bringing him back into work, especially in a more considered way after my lockdown and his recuperation. I’m so grateful to everyone who helped me to draw up a programme of in-hand walking and a slow return to ridden work – Max has been as fit as ever through the rest of this year, and I’ve gained a lot of satisfaction from seeing that programme come together, so that we could embark on training once it was permitted before finally reaching the first dressage test at Little Downham in September.

Max doing his favourite thing – eating!

The last six years have contained some extreme challenges for me on a personal level, and throughout them all I’ve known that I wanted to make something positive from it all and to pursue my riding aspirations. More than just getting out of the house, there was a new community of friends and people who took my dreams seriously, and offered opportunities to help me advance, from friends offering their horses for hacking and hacking friends, some extremely patient riding instructors(!) and new friends made at Events and via social media channels and gave a hand up and welcomed me into this new world.

My favourite view from the yard, towards the Thames

There are so many people it wouldn’t be fair to name some (and I’d be bound to forget someone) but a huge amount of credit must go to all of the people at Runningwell Equestrian Centre where I got back on board about four years ago, and who have given me so much to think about, practical experience (I’m not too proud to attack a much heap!) and who now provide an excellent home for Max. I can honestly say that it’s a very happy place for me, and even when things have been difficult elsewhere – and boy, it’s a long list! – I’ve found so much to keep me going and I’m immensely grateful. I think that they’ve done pretty well out of it on the cake front, too…

Dressage in the rain – after our test, October 2020

I’d meant to get a review of our last (soggy) run at Little Downham out before this post, but life has been a bit busier than expected with work and trying to fit in things around that. It’s been an odd first Eventing season, but I’m really looking forward to the next one. Thanks for joining us on the #80by40 journey; perhaps in a different year it would have been more exciting, but I’ve enjoyed every minute. It’s a shame that it’s been nigh-on impossible to share the experiences with people in real time, but there’ll be other times for that, and the main thing has been the thrill and challenge of getting to know Max better, so here’s to what lies ahead and I hope you’ll come along for the ride.

James (aged 39 yrs and 364 days) x

Another superb view from the yard, and Max.

E is for…

Eventing – of course! That’s what we’re here for… and Eventually writing up my blog post! I really will try harder to get the posts up sooner, but at the moment work and life take up the non-Eventing time and I forget.

This is really a late reflection on our experience at Munstead on Saturday 19 September – our first British Eventing 80(T) Event, and the point where I finally reached my goal of eventing before my 40th birthday. It was a genuine experience with highs and lows ultimately culminating in another ‘E’, more of which later.

E is for Experience – we aimed at this competiton, we went and did our best for a first, slightly nervy, outing. Despite the restrictions due the pandemic it was fun, although like conducting at a concert I rarely enjoy the experience at the time, reliving the best bits afterwards. It wasn’t a surprise to be slightly nervous and tense in the Dressage with less time to warm up than I would have liked, but we scored 37.8 – a little way behind the leaders but not a total disgrace. (Remembering the tests is a bit of a challenge for me, especially as the main points run from A followed by E, then C, and B after that, which makes visualising the order of the movements occasionally difficult.) The rest of the day went as I’d planned for: course walk of the XC, planning routes and spotting possible challenges, checking out the showjumping course and finding out where people were running into trouble. The warm up wasn’t ideal for Max – with five jumps and 10 riders in, it was tricky to approach every jump on a decent turn to prevent him just running at each one but learning how to deal with him in the warm up, ‘awake but not tired’ as another competitor’s Mum put it was part of another aspect of the Event: E for Education. We were there to compete and I was there to learn: Max is an old hand at this after all.

The final phase was what I was most looking forward to, despite some challenges that I felt we’d meet out on the course, including a daunting-looking owl hole and a confusing route through several different jumps from the other classes. Sadly, we only made it a fifth of the way around: having had a good run out of the start box and good jumps over the first two, Max refused at the third fence – a big-looking chair in dark wood. The light was starting to go, so perhaps he struggled to read it, and after a discretionary third attempt and an encouraging ‘You can do it!’ from the fence judge, we were over. We didn’t quite have a good feeling towards the fourth and although I thought Max would find it no more challenging than an identical fence in the warm up we had two refusals. The fence judge checked to see if we could carry on but that was that under the rules so we reached another E – one that now sits on my BE record: Eliminated. If nothing else, we had a representative day out on the field – it wasn’t a magic clear with a flukey easy ride. We didn’t fall so it felt disappointing more than anything – at least we were spared a long walk home, and we were both fit and good to go another day.

And that takes us neatly to another E – for Ely, when we’ll have another crack at a ODE at Little Downham on Saturday (3 October). I’ll try to get writing up sooner next time – watch this space for news of how we get on at our last Event of the season; it must mean that there’s a birthday looming…

Getting set for Munstead

We’re almost there – this week has seen the usual round of horse laundry, getting kit together, writing lists, and planning timings. It’s all good and makes the coming Event more real, especially when you get the email with your number and you start to become part of the whole thing.

Arranging all this around work, plus riding, and one or two extras like Max getting his back done has taken more planning than usual and I’m hugely grateful to a whole host of people who are lending help or bits of kit, driving me to collect the horse box, and all the things that will leave me with the ultimate task of piloting Max around the Dressage and SJ arenas, and the XC course which looks fun from the course map.

It’s all a little daunting, but we’re going to get out there and make the best of it, have fun, and hopefully bring back some great memories and details to write up here.

Thanks for reading – please share this with others who might be interested!

Putting our best feet forward

We’ve been Eventing! The training Event run at the superb Ely Eventing Centre at Little Downham was an excellent way to dip a hoof into the water and experience the pressure of riding in a show environment for the first time. Max is no stranger to Eventing, but as a combination it was our first go, and my first too. I’ve been to plenty of Dressage shows, attended One- and Three-Day Events, and I helped out at the last similar event at Ely, but this time it was me on board, and dealing with the extra things like judging how long to warm up for, whether we’d cope under scrutiny, and be able to focus in the test and jumping rounds.

The drive up was relatively stress-free, although a long stop at roadworks prompted impatient stamping from the horse area, with Max letting me know that if we were there he’d like the ramp down…! No such luck, but after a little longer we were there and the excitement of actually being at our first Event started to kick in.

I had expert help for the afternoon from Adrienne Devonish from Church House Farm Livery: she provided reassuring calm vibes, picked up some of the grooming jobs, and took lots of photo and video material. I love how the equestrian world is full of helpful people who go out of their way to offer advice, support, wish you luck, and make you feel part of a really encouraging community (even if in a competition they’re out to beat you!)

Our Dressage warm up was windy, and as it was my first ridden test ever, it was a little nervy and hurried, but the point of the day was for training, so we had a good debrief after the test (I managed to get all the movements in and in the right order, so that’s a start, no?!); with a little more control and confidence there are ‘higher marks to come’, which is encouraging – just need to make sure that I have a white tie in time for our first BE Event. After a walk of the surprisingly long course (given the relatively low height of the fences themselves), it was time for a change of outfits for us both, and we headed over to the Showjumping field.

The SJ warm up was – to put it politely – challenging: not so much the jumping around others and keeping out of their way, but more finding out which order we were going in, but it meant that there was the chance to watch a few people go ahead of me. In the warm up, Max was very strong and full of go – once we were in the arena itself things calmed down and despite one brief stop – I’m not sure that he’d spotted fence 3 – we cleared each fence and ridden a fairly efficient round without taking risks on the turns; the ducks on fence 2 didn’t cause any complaints, which was a relief, given what fusses the real things on the pond back home cause…

And then it was onto the part I’d been waiting 12 years for: a cross course as part of an Event. Again, Max started to get very excited about getting ready to go XC, but first there was a surprise encounter with his previous owner Claire, and her daughter. It was so lovely to see them and for them to see Max out and about a year since he came to me, and he was happy to see them too – I think he was probably still thinking about the course at the time though, as he established a solid reverse gear for the next few minutes!

A quick pop over some practice fences and into the start box we went – I’ve seen people go out before, but this was exciting to do for the first time, and we made a good start. A quick sort-out of long reins would have counted for a little loss of momentum, but we only had one real issue, at a long blue pipe in the middle of a field: a cheeky run-out got me out of the saddle, but as I was fine and kept hold of Max I remounted, as allowed by the Event rules, and we came to the fence again. We flew it, and moved on [having abandoned a fallen packet of polos] to more connected fences which he was much happier to see, and made fairly light work of the rest of the course – having taken care to work out as far as my novice eye could what we need to be aware of, and having taken decent lines to the fences; we wouldn’t have been hugely competitive as far as the time went, but I meant to get round and it was such a fantastic thing to experience something that I’ve wanted to do for so long. As quite a bit of my job, and my training with Max at home, is spent working in isolation, it came as a bit of a surprise just how isolated you can feel up on top of the horse, even when there are several hundred people in the same venue – without spectators or the tannoy rattling in the background, it is rather different.

And then it hit me – we’d actually put so much training together, a year of Max and me, so many lessons on different horses – so much still to learn of course – and we’d been out and done our ‘warm up’ Event, so the #80by40 challenge is still on: I turn 40 in November, and before then we will – all things being equal – be going Eventing under British Eventing rules, with our first BE outing being at Munstead on Saturday 19 September. Thank you for reading, and for your support so far – this is very much not the end of a journey, but the beginning. Who knows how far it will go, but I’m really excited to be able to be a part of a sport that I’ve loved – my school PE teachers would be shocked to hear those words coming from me – for just over a decade, and to actually be competing is (as cheesy as it sounds) a dream come true.