May 2017

I’ve spent most of May thinking it can’t possibly be May yet, but here we are at the end of the month! I’ve worked hard on a number of skills and activities this month but things are looking really positive going into the summer so I’m glad that putting the hours in is having an effect.

This month:

  • East Region Disability Athletics Championships
  • RDA Showjumping Regional Qualifiers
  • RDA Dressage Anywhere
  • RDA Dressage Regional Qualifiers
  • Gymnastics
  • Vaulting
  • Health


East Region Disability Athletics Championships

This is an annual event with track and field events for athletes with all kinds of disabilities – physical, sensory and learning. Like last year, I had entered the 100m, 200m, 400m, 1500m and 3000m races, meaning I was in both the first and last races of the day! I didn’t really have much direct opposition in my category so I focussed on trying to beat everyone in all my races. This year I was still the fastest female wheelie but annoyingly there was one chap faster than me! Most of my times were a bit slower than last year, which I’d anticipated because of injury and illness disrupting training. However, I did manage to crack out a rare PB in the 100m which was unexpected but rather nice!

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RDA Showjumping

Early in the month I headed to RDA a bit early to film my showjumping entry to the regional qualifiers for the National Championships. We film it because it’s not really practical to hold a showjumping competition alongside dressage and countryside challenge (which take place at the main qualifier show) and it’s difficult to find a second date when everyone across the region who wants to jump can get together. It also means that we don’t have to try and find a time when a judge is free because they can judge our entries from the comfort of their own home!

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At my level (Level 3) the jumps are around 60cm. Rolo was in a good mood for jumping and did me proud with a neat and tidy clear round. I also watched my friend Eleanor compete in her first jumping event (Level 2) on Boysie, which she did beautifully. Along with our friend Olivia, who rode the next day in Level 3, we have all qualified for the National Championships at Hartpury! RDA jumping is judged on style as well as leaving the poles up – a bit like a dressage test – so I was pleased but mostly astonished when Rolo and I won with a score of 99%…quite a lot to live up to!

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RDA Dressage Anywhere

In dressage, I’ve been working towards getting a decent video of my Dressage Anywhere test with Rolo. Concentrating solely on walk is ridiculously difficult – it just feels like there’s so much more time for things to go wrong! However, it’s been really good for me to challenge my brain more when riding, and to work hard on my position. My physio is working hard on my hips and back to try and make me less wonky, and in the meantime having one stirrup longer than the other helps quite a lot to get me to sit more evenly. I’ve had some private lessons to work on this and we’ve also looked at how I can get a cleaner downward transition on a horse who would rather gallop everywhere! We’ve made some good progress on that which is really heartening as it was a major sticking point before.

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Tidying up that halt a little – worry about the feet first and his head later!

I managed to get a couple of videos of us doing a passable test before having my second side saddle lesson, where we filmed it again and Rolo looked even better. Something about riding side saddle makes him much easier to stop! Before my first time I thought I’d find it a really precarious position and quite scary, but actually it feels fine. It’s a bit weird to be using my weight in a different way and I haven’t quite nailed a consistently clean upward transition, but then I’ve only had two half-hour lessons so far so I’m trying to be patient with myself! I’ve sent off the side saddle video to Dressage Anywhere for the RDA Online Championship class so we shall have to wait and see how we do…

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RDA Dressage

There’s also been some ‘real life’ dressage going on. Last weekend we had the RDA East Regional Show, which included dressage classes (some of which are qualifiers for the National Championships) and countryside challenge. This year I had entered two tests – Grade 6 Championship test (walk, trot and canter) and Grade 6 Walk and Trot (what it sounds like!). After confirming that I couldn’t bring Rolo’s post-canter super-speedy trot under control before needing to walk for the next movement we decided that I’d ride Boysie in the canter test and Rolo in the trot one.

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Cantering action shot!

Boysie and I were one of the first pairs of the day. For the first time the competition was being held at the stables where our RDA group is based, but Boysie was still tremendously excited by all the new faces and the buzz of activity. I started out carrying a whip because he’s sometimes a bit lazy, but an exciting sequence of piaffe and canter pirouette in the warm-up proved that just holding it was unnecessary! Fortunately he managed to maintain his energy for most of the test, although we did break canter briefly at one point (my fault, I didn’t keep the leg on into the corner). I rode this test in 2015 and 2016 but never won it before – in 2015 Rolo and I had the joint top score but took second place on collectives, and in 2016 I did my best to persuade a rather reluctant Beethoven around the arena for third place. This year, we won!

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Good boy Boysie

I rode Rolo for my second test. In the warm up, we practised plenty of transitions and I really worked on trying to squeeze into the saddle in the halts. Back in the competition arena, I made use of the mirrors to check that I was starting out as level as possible. The walk/trot test involves 10m and 20m circles. We’d done a lot of work on 20m circles in lessons because I’m not very good at getting a decent shape – the circles often end up a bit too square. I’m sure they still weren’t perfect but they were a lot better than they have been in the past – and it’s the little marks that add up and make a difference to your placing.

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Good boy Rolo

The trot work wasn’t quite as nice as I wanted – Rolo leant on the bit quite a lot and it was hard to bring him back because I ran out of rein to release the contact a little bit – but it was still neat and regular. Most of the transitions worked nicely, although our first halt at X, facing E, was a bit naff – there was some unintentional reinback and we only scored a 4! The best part was our entry down the centre line which scored a 9. I was really pleased with that as it’s only the second ‘9’ I’ve achieved and I have worked SO hard on making the entry as straight and balanced as possible. In the end we won the class with a score of 70.8%, which also won us an extra trophy for the highest senior dressage score of the day. This means I have two tests to choose from for the National Championships, plus the showjumping and vaulting classes.

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VERY good boy Rolo!

Gymnastics

With all this RDA excitement, it’s hard to remember what I’ve been doing as a vaulter! Starting away from the horse, my gymnastics training has been going really well. I love going twice a week – my rate of progress has suddenly shot up and, although compared to an able-bodied gymnast I’m still doing really basic skills, I’m achieving things that go way beyond what I thought I could do even a month ago. I’ve lost a lot of the anxiety I had to begin with as I’ve realised that falling over on a sprung floor or bits of apparatus is not as painful as falling off a horse, so now I’m happier to fling myself into whatever the challenge is. I recently received ‘Most Improved Disability Gymnast’ at the club’s recent awards evening, which is a nice recognition of the hard work that’s going in (from the coaches too!).

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My favourite new skill at gymnastics is the handstand flatback on vault. We’ve been working on the progressions for months and it’s really exciting to be able to take off! This also means that, for the first time in years, I’ve been taking some reasonably fast steps unaided. I’d hesitate to call it running – it’s more of a semi-controlled stumble where each foot just manages to stop me from falling over until I reach the vault and have something to put my hands on again, and even then I still fall down a fair bit – but it’s so much more than I thought was possible. It’s fun because it feels amazing to launch myself over the vault but to have a really safe, comfy landing on a big pile of mats! Ultimately this would lead to a ‘proper’ handspring vault. Right now I don’t know how I could hope to land that properly on my feet but somehow these things just keep working out so maybe I need to stop worrying and go with the flow!

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Pushing off from a handstand on the vault to landing flat on the mats

Vaulting

Vaulting training has continued apace, and we are busily working towards our second competition of the season which will be in June. I’m going to be entering the Pre-Novice canter/walk class again, so I’ve been working hard on making my compulsories as slick and clean as possible. I’m toying with a new freestyle which will include the shoulder stand. For the RDA Championships in July I would like to use completely different music and a different outfit, but the moves will be pretty much the same. At the moment I’m working on making each and every move as solid and expressive as possible – like with the dressage, I want to gain extra fractions of a mark that will raise my final score. I’m also still having a lot of fun with it and I’m enjoying pushing myself to try new skills or to improve the ones I find difficult.

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Stand in trot on Sandie

Health

Finally I should probably mention how my health is doing! At the moment I’m having a lot of physio work to try and straighten up my posture. Currently, my left hip is lower than my right even though my left leg is longer, which causes my left knee to bend backwards more than the right. Because of years of injuries to my left shoulder, my left arm also hangs a lot lower. When I stand at what I think is straight, my left fingertips are nearly 6 inches lower than the right! Obviously this has some big ramifications for sitting well on a horse, as well as for general mobility and pain.

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Even with a 2-hole difference in stirrup leathers to lengthen the right leg down more, the left leg still droops – not helped by being on a right rein bend though!

The first line of attack is to try and rebalance my hips, which means I’ve endured several really quite painful half-hour sessions of the physio applying considerable pressure to trigger points around the joint. I’m working hard with exercises to keep the hips open but stable and I hope that, sooner or later, this will help not only my posture/balance but also my back pain.

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Currently it’s somehow even more painful than when my mum stands on my back for me…

One downside of the work is that it has caused some (referred) nerve pain in my left knee. Last week it was really quite severe and I was worried that I’d tweaked something, somehow, and that continuing to train was only going to make it worse. I was really relieved, therefore, when the physio declared my knee fit and agreed that stopping training would just make the hips worse, and by association the knee – green light to keep having fun! Knowing that, although it’s really painful, it’s not being damaged, is a great relief. At the moment I’m managing it by keeping the joint as warm as possible at all times with heated wheat bags or just a basic neoprene support. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it’ll clear up as my body and my left leg get used to carrying the rest of me properly. I’m also still working on neck physio at the hospital and, since my migraines have been quite bad lately, I’m hoping that we can make a bit of a breakthrough there. The Occupational Therapy team are planning a new night splint for my right arm, since my fingers have been so swollen and stiff, so maybe I’ll ask them to make a new neck one too!

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June should be an interesting month. There’s a vaulting competition, a vaulting demonstration day, hopefully some dressage/jumping, an RDA fundraiser lunch with Clare Balding, my friend’s first ever CVI (international vaulting competition), plus my brother’s wedding!
Joker

This month’s joker is this moment in my side saddle lesson, filming the Dressage Anywhere test, where I went to give Rolo a long rein and instead just dropped them…

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April 2017

April has been a relatively quiet month for competing, with no dressage or jumping competitions to take part in. It still feels as if a lot has been packed in, though!

  • Vaulting competition
  • RDA Big Ride
  • General training (inc. gymnastics)
  • Health
  • Wheelchair racing (GEAR 10k)
  • Dressage Anywhere
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Plenty of unconscious moments…upside down is dangerous for people with autonomic heart conditions!

Vaulting competition

The month began with the first vaulting competition of the year, held at our Cambridge yard on 1st April. It was quite a small event but there were competitors from all over England. This was my first time competing in the Pre-Novice category, meaning I performed the compulsory routine in canter as well as my freestyle in walk. The compulsories felt good: there was still plenty to improve, but feeling confident and relaxed is the biggest battle and I certainly felt very chilled up there! The walk freestyle also went smoothly; I tried hard to incorporate the changes that we’d worked on in our extra training sessions so that I could bring more artistry to the performance. My RDA friend Emily was also competing in her first competition, and was in the Walk Individual class. Her fantastic routine, including Makaton signing, was the best I’d ever seen her vault. She was completely in character and held everybody spellbound. Neither of us had competition in our para categories so we were both winners!

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Canter compulsories on Sandie

RDA Big Ride

Following the competition we had two weeks off school for the Easter holidays. In the middle, I took part in the first ride of the RDA Big Ride series. This was held at Woodhurst RDA (near Huntingdon) on a glorious day – I even got a bit sunburnt! There was a lovely big group of us including four riders from my RDA group and one younger RDA rider, several of our volunteers and parents, and Sam Orde, Chairman of RDA UK. We opted for the 6-mile ride and had a lovely time exploring the countryside on horseback. It was really lovely to go for a ride and just enjoy being on a horse without thinking too much about the quality of the walk, or riding into the corners, or getting the right line to a jump. Obviously I like riding well in the school but the freedom of a gentle hack in the sun seemed like a welcome reward for us and for our horses, who don’t often get the chance to have a fun trip out somewhere new.

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Catching some rays while Rolo refuels

General training

After the holidays (well, I had one vaulting session off for Easter Day) it was back into training with a bang. I had some wheelchair races to work towards, and had also managed to pick up some minor injuries in my left leg (hip flexors and glutes) which still need a fair bit of work to make them useful for vaulting again. I’ve spent a fair time in the gym using the rowing machine and weights, as well as doing plenty of stretching and core work. I also had a lovely trip to the National Stud at Newmarket and met lots of future winners!

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Proud mum, besotted Lizzie.

I’ve also been busy at the gymnastics club, having joined a new group so that I now have sessions on Mondays and Fridays. The coaches are incredibly thoughtful and work hard to ensure that I’m improving and having fun, whilst also staying as safe as possible! I love the fact that I’m still learning loads of new skills every time I go, and that it’s a safe environment for me to throw myself around a bit without worrying about what I’m going to land on. I have lots and lots and lots of falls but so far (fingers crossed!) no major injuries from them. I just want to keep going and achieve as much as I possibly can. I love the fact that you can learn to do these things simply by practising doggedly: having spent a couple of weeks doing 100 handstands a day (until my glutes packed in – not doing quite so many now!) I have confirmed that you don’t get better at something by wishing you could do it; but only by repeatedly attempting it.

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Just before rolling over. In January I couldn’t even get my left arm above my head let alone support weight on it!

Health

Medically, this month has been a bit topsy-turvy. I’ve finally been given my hearing aids and, although I’m still getting used to them, it is a revelation. I can’t believe how much I was missing! It doesn’t always work nicely – an instruction shouted at me the other day whilst riding was entirely lost within Rolo’s enthusiastic and amplified snorts – but I’m understanding far more than before so that’s a positive. I’ve been seeing the physio for some more work on my neck, which gets very sore very quickly. At the moment I still have to spend a significant chunk of the day with my head supported just so, and attempts to strengthen my neck haven’t been successful. We now have a new toy to play with in the form of a laser on my head which I then use to point at a target. It’s really quite difficult! The idea is to train the deep postural muscles in my neck which should help relieve some of the strain. Fatigue has been a big issue this month, which is a worry. I think I’m just about coping but it’s definitely affecting my performance in training and racing, and it affects my mood quite badly too. At the moment I’m just about keeping my head above water and hoping that May will be a bit better.

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Trying to find the fine line between enough and too much…

Wheelchair racing – 10k

The final event for me in April was the Grand East Anglian Run, which is a 10km road race held in King’s Lynn, Norfolk. It was the third time I’d entered this particular race, which was also my first ever wheelchair road race back in 2015. Last year I took part despite being discharged from hospital only three days earlier, and whereas this year I didn’t have quite the same record I had ended up doing a lot less training thanks to injuries, illness and other sporting commitments. I wasn’t expecting a fast time, but managed to come home first in 44:08 which was below my target of 45 minutes: by no means my fastest, but acceptable given the circumstances. I regurgitated, swallowed and regurgitated my breakfast several times over; my back was in agony; I dislocated a finger before starting; but apart from that it was just the normal toughness of wheelchair racing!

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Coming through the finish line

Dressage Anywhere

The final thing to report is the results of the RDA Dressage Anywhere competition I entered. Having not done a good job of it on Oscar, I tried again on Rolo and got a much better film to send off. We only really had one wobbly bit which was when we disagreed about whether or not to halt at the end (we stayed still eventually!) but otherwise he was very good. When the marks came through, we had a score of 71.88% which was good enough for first place in the March competition – and some prize money (!) which went on edible thank-yous for the RDA riders, parents and volunteers who were put out of their way by me monopolising the arena for a bit. We are now entered for the RDA Championships and will redo the same test. I’ve booked some private lessons so we can get it done and I might even try it side saddle too…but that’s tbc! I’d really recommend Dressage Anywhere to anyone – you can read more about my experience with it here.

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Celebrating with Rolo

Joker

There’s just time for the April joker. There are more potential candidates than ever, so here’s one of me not landing on my face but instead just pulling a silly, ‘I am concentrating SO hard right now‘ face. I was trying a new freestyle stand on Dax for the first time!

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The determination!