January 2018

December 2017 was a month to forget in training terms, but fortunately January 2018 proved to be more successful! After completely resting a neck injury for six weeks I was raring to go, and although I’m having to take it a bit easy it feels great to be out and about and exercising again.

This month I have…

  • competed in the RDA Dressage Anywhere qualifiers – and successfully qualified for the Championship!
  • had a side saddle lesson in which we did more canter work and some lateral work
  • done some more coaching
  • carried on learning new skills (and desperately trying to consolidate old ones) at gymnastics, with a view to entering some competitions later in the year…
  • given a couple of talks on RDA and me in general!
  • had far too many appointments with various medical professionals
  • got back into my race chair!
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Having a little ride on Oliver – we went better once I ditched the stirrups!

RDA Dressage Anywhere Qualifier

This is an event I took part in last year (you can read a bit more about it here). Thanks to my injuries and general deterioration this year, I decided not to enter a canter test and opted instead for a walk and trot test. This was duly filmed – first on my friend Penny’s horse, Oliver (see photo above), and then on good old RDA horse Rolo. Oliver was a good boy but I ride Rolo better so that’s the version that was sent off in the end. We achieved a score of 70.56% which was enough to win our class – of only one entry this month! Even though we weren’t in direct competition it was good to see that this score is still very competitive with previous entrants who have also qualified for the final. Given that I rode the test in a neck brace and feeling pretty awful I hope I can improve on the score.

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Final halt with Rolo

Side saddle

I had another side saddle lesson on Rolo – the first time I’d ridden aside since we were Reserve Champions at the RDA SEIB Search for a Star final. We did some trotting but even with my neck brace on this was extremely painful for me, so after that we focussed on canter and getting some leg yield in walk. Rolo somehow read my mind to do some lovely ‘legless leg yield’ (i.e. moving forwards and sideways away from the side where you don’t have any legs). I don’t quite know what aids I gave him so it makes it hard to recreate it if I think too hard about it! I was pleased that, despite the pain in my neck, I hadn’t completely forgotten how to ride aside.

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Legless leg yield – concentration face!

Coaching

I’m soon to be the proud holder of a Log Book for RDA Coaching – the first official step on the path to becoming an RDA coach! I frequently run the warm-up sessions for the riders, which I really enjoy as it gives you a chance to get to know them all and to give them something just a bit different to do each time. I’m learning loads from being on the other end of riding coaching. It’s deceptively difficult!

I’m also hoping to train up as a vaulting coach, in particular to coach RDA vaulters. I’ve had some preliminary discussions about it so now it just needs to be a case of proving what I can do and learning the things I can’t do yet, then hopefully I’ll be qualified to take a more proactive role.

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Preparing for our riders

Gymnastics

The most important thing for me here was to get back on the bars and do that skill which went wrong, making me hurt my neck. I need to do it regularly and frequently so that I don’t get scared of it! On ‘vault’ (I’m not sure what I do could be described as a vault!) I’m working on getting plenty of bounce out of a springboard in order to be able to use that to propel my feet up into the air. Given that I don’t have the luxury of a 35m run up it’s vital to get the energy from elsewhere, and I’m only just getting the confidence (and technique) to do that properly. Doing lots of drills where you lean on a vault with your hands and keep ‘donkey kicking’ up from a trampette or springboard has helped – but I’m not always brilliantly in control, and trampettes and springboards are not soft things to land on! Still, I’m having fun and making gradual process so it’s all OK.

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A rare moment of not falling off!

Talks on RDA

I love talking, I love the RDA, and I love combining those things! I do quite a few talks now for all kinds of groups, from Brownie Guides and school children to businessmen and -women and the WI. I’m currently planning a talk to a group of girl guides with a rough age range of 10 years – we’re going to make it good and fun and get them doing some little contests for rosettes too!

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Everyone loves a rosette! Credit to Emily Cole

Hospital

I’m fed up of the hospital now, after spending way too much time there in January. On the plus side, I’ve had my steroid injection into my acromioclavicular joint (which was all fine) and I have met the orthotists a couple of times, who are hopefully going to provide me with a special suit to help with my lumbar scoliosis, and with some form of AFOs to help my legs. Deciding upon appropriate orthotics for my legs has proved a bit of a headache – not only do my nerves do the wrong thing compared to healthy people; they also do the wrong thing compared to most disabled people because of the interaction of lots of biomechanical issues in my joints.

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bored!

Wheelchair racing

Having met my shoulder surgeon, I decided it was the right time to get back into my race chair. He said that he probably won’t be able to do the surgery until the spring, which would mean I would be unable to train for regional and national competitions, but he also felt that we could afford to leave it until later in the year so that it doesn’t clash with training and competitions. I wasn’t prepared to spend more than a year out of my race chair so, with the support of medics and coaches, I’m gradually getting going again. It feels great for my brain but not so much for my body right now! Doing too much too soon is a bad habit of mine and I’m keen for this to work properly, so sessions are currently short and light. This feels OK at the time, but the last few I’ve had have felt horrendous afterwards pain-wise. I’ve got my sights set on a 10k at the beginning of May, so I just hope I can get going by then…

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It wasn’t exactly sunny, but at least there was daylight…

Joker

This month’s joker is a nice one. Boysie and I are famous – here we are on the front cover of Horsemanship magazine!

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December 2017

This month I’ve been…

  • coxing again – for one day only!
  • learning some new skills in the gym, and…
  • injured.

It’s safe to say that December has been a bit of a tough month for me. It started alright, though, so let’s focus on that first…

Coxing

On the 1st December I took part in a rowing event in Cambridge called The Fairbairn Cup. It’s primarily aimed at Oxbridge colleges and university crews but local clubs also take part, as do alumni crews. I was coxing one of my old college’s alumni boats. We weren’t treating it seriously at all and my crew was definitely ‘the old boys’, so it was a nice surprise to beat our other alumni crews and the current crews! In fairness, we did have the odd Olympian in there… More info here.

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Gymnastics

I also had some fun at gymnastics working on a couple of new skills. The main one I’ve been practising is a squat onto the low bar, then jumping to catch the high bar. I had expected this to be almost impossible because the only time I’d tried it before (a couple of months ago) I’d completely failed to be able to balance properly on the low bar. I’m still at such a basic level that I don’t swing to squat on the bar, but step there from a big block under the bar. Even with that, it’s tricky!

Anyway, I decided that it was time to learn. The balancing was the really difficult bit, because I’m so shaky and there is very little room for error. I started trying out on bars that were just a couple of inches off the ground, and faceplanted soooo many times! Gradually I got a bit better and, after hundreds of attempts, I was ready to try it out on the real thing. I needed lots of support to begin with but eventually I managed it on my own. That felt amazing!

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Unfortunately, I then got a bit over-excited and tried a bit too hard. Because of the grip problems with my left hand, I can only ever keep a very loose grip with that hand so if my right hand hasn’t gripped something properly then there’s no way I can hang my weight off it. The result of this was pinging myself to the ground and landing on my neck, causing whiplash. I already have a lot of neck problems so this wasn’t a great addition but at least I already had lots of appointments booked in for it!

Injury and illness

Whiplash is a funny thing that I’ve never had before. You expect pain, stiffness, headaches and stuff – but I hadn’t expected cognitive symptoms too. For the first few weeks I really struggled with finding the right words, and I found it really hard to concentrate on anything. Going to choir and singing was almost a relief because, although it was hard to breathe and sing properly, it was nice to have the words provided for me!

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Fortunately because it’s blurry you can’t quite tell how unflattering the cassock really is…

Healthwise, I have also been struggling generally in a variety of ways. I’m not able to train much at the moment which isn’t good for my mood or my sleep but I’m doing what I can. I don’t want to come here and whinge so instead you can read about it by clicking here and reading my Your Horse blog!

Joker

I haven’t been short of jokers this month even though I only trained for about a week, but sadly many of them aren’t from a great angle. To make up for the slightly lesser quality of joker, there are two of them! They’re both from me trying to learn to balance on a bar. In the first, I had just managed to whack my shin and was trying to keep the colourful language as quiet as possible. The second is a straightforward falling off!

See you next month. Hopefully I’ll be a bit more interesting in January!

November 2017

This month I’ve been working on…

  • expanding my equestrian knowledge and skills through a BHS (British Horse Society) course
  • competing in dressage on a new steed!
  • coaching wheelchair racing (i.e. not actually wheelchair racing myself)
  • gymnastics, vaulting and RDA training as usual
  • two pieces of exciting RDA news which I will put first!

RDA news

On the 10th November I travelled to Saddlers’ Hall in London to deliver a talk at the RDA AGM. This was attended by various notable figures including HRH Princess Anne! I’ve written a bit about this occasion (including a copy, as near as possible, of my speech) here.

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Even more excitingly I am now volunteering at an RDA group near me! I’ve only been three times so far but I’m really enjoying the experience and already learning lots about coaching. It’s interesting to see how other RDA groups run things and I’ve loved meeting everybody and all the horses. I’m excited for what lies ahead as I train towards being an RDA coach!

BHS course

For a while, I’ve been wanting to get some BHS qualifications so that I can consolidate the knowledge I do have, build up new skills and gain more experience, and start working towards more professional qualifications. I’ve started with the PRT course on the basis that it was available and can be used as an equivalent to Stage 1, so hopefully at some point I can go on and try for my Stage 2!

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Nerd alert!

I was really pleased that it was being taught by my favourite instructor, Lyndsey Adamson, and a bit daunted but also excited that I was the only one. The opportunity to have private tuition from her in both riding and horse care was just fantastic and I had a great time. The riding elements weren’t too difficult – the hardest things were trotting over poles in jumping position and working in walk, trot and canter without stirrups. At this time of year I actually prefer to ride without stirrups because it helps to control spasm in my legs, and we ride over poles all the time at RDA.

Because we were able to tick off all the PRT work early on, we had plenty of time to work on other things too. You have to ride at least two different horses for the course so I had one lesson on Tudor. I’d never ridden him before and he had clearly never encountered one-handed reins! He was thoroughly confused by my aids for most of the session, and seemed to be using that as an excuse to nap towards his mates in the field… anyway, it was such a useful session for me because it made me think really hard about giving him the clearest instructions I could. We stayed almost entirely in walk but I worked incredibly hard and was exhausted afterwards!

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Some crossed wires moments with Tudor

For our last lesson, I worked on a dressage test on Rolo. It was the hardest test I’ve ever attempted and it was a bit of gamble to see how we’d get on. We were working on developing medium paces in trot and canter. The medium trot wasn’t particularly great but I had a lot of fun trying the medium canter even if I couldn’t actually make Rolo stop when I was meant to! It felt really good to stretch myself and to see how close I could get to that level with all the coaching from Lyndsey. Apart from our Red Rum moments, it actually went OK and we had fun anyway!

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“I can’t stop!”

There’s a lot of horse care knowledge packed into the PRT course. Fortunately I was familiar with quite a bit of it before I started, but it was really good to consolidate knowledge and to clarify things that I’d always sort-of known but never fully understood. Of course there was plenty of new information too! I was a bit worried that I might not be able to do some of the practical elements of the course (such as some of the fiddly bits with tack, or trotting up in hand) but with a bit of imagination and grit I did manage it. My favourite moment was probably trotting up in hand, which I achieved thanks to the willingness of Erin, a tiny friendly pony at the yard. With her tiny legs I could just about keep up with her trot!

Dressage competition

I also took part in a dressage competition at the end of the month, run by Cambridge University Riding Club at Springhill Stables, owned by Fiona Peck. I’d entered a Prelim test and was riding a horse I’d only ridden once before (and then it was over a year ago) called Bayley. I was first to go so most of the warm-up was just spent learning how to ride him – it’s even harder just to hop on an unfamiliar horse when you can’t use your legs properly and only steer with one hand! Most horses take a bit of time to get used to one-handed reins; very few can cope straight away.

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Fighting for some control!

Fortunately Bayley, like all of Fiona’s horses, is well-trained so although it wasn’t pretty and we were lacking in inside bend, we did at least cope! I especially found it easier once I was given a short whip to carry – no need to use it, but before I was handed it Bayley was exhibiting a disconcerting habit of beautiful but unexpected square halts from trot, followed by refusing to budge, because the cheeky monkey had worked out that my legs couldn’t actually get him going! Anyway, with a crop in hand he was happily forward-going without being silly (apparently a long one might have sent him over the edge…) and although his canter felt quite choppy and ‘pony-ish’ I felt confident that we’d at least survive the experience.

We moved to the competition arena which had been laid out beautifully by Fiona – complete with mini trees in pots at the corners! – and began to walk around. There were some jump blocks to the side of the arena which were clearly terrifying but after seven or eight spooks he eventually decided that they weren’t going to attack – just in time because our little confidence lesson was taking a while and the judge was waiting! The test wasn’t the neatest I’ve ever done and I quickly wished I’d adjusted the bars on my reins so they were a bit shorter (the scary jump blocks had raised his head quite a bit, and he never did fully stretch out to the carriage he’d had in the warm-up). I wasn’t getting good bend but we were at least fairly accurate and there were no actual mistakes.

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Not square, but at least still!

I then hung around for a bit reading tests for the other Prelim competitors (who are friends so it was fun and jolly!) and then reading for the Intro competitors, many of whom were competing for the first time and some of whom have only had a few lessons so far! They all rode well and seemed happy and confident even if some of the horses were a bit reluctant to waltz around the arena in the freezing rain…

We won our class which was a surprise, because the other riders are able-bodied and I know that they ride really well. Having watched their tests when calling them, I really didn’t know how mine would fit in but I didn’t expect to win. It just goes to show that what you feel on the horse doesn’t necessarily translate to what people see. Watching my video back, it looked better than how I had remembered too, which I don’t think has ever happened before!

Vaulting

In vaulting I have been working on more new skills in walk and canter. Because of the PRT course my vaulting training has felt a bit disjointed, but we now have an RDA video competition to be working towards which is exciting and I think it will help to focus me a bit more. I’m spending hours listening to music and thinking up ideas – still plenty of time at the moment but January always goes very quickly. I haven’t got any real news in vaulting at the moment even though I’m working very hard!

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Kisses from Dax!

Wheelchair racing

Wheelchair racing is not going well for me – after my one attempt recently I realised that it’s completely unreasonable on my body at the moment, so I’m back to waiting more-or-less patiently for surgery on my shoulder. I’m still doing some coaching which I enjoy. My friend is using my chair (which is much lighter and quicker than the one she had been using) and is doing really well, which is great to see.

Gymnastics

In gymnastics I’m working on some new skills even though I have by no means perfected everything else I’ve been working on. I feel myself getting fitter and stronger which feels fantastic. It’s especially good when someone new joins and I can see that I’m fitter and stronger than them in some ways (usually they’re able-bodied so it doesn’t always happen!) because then I really feel that all the hard work is making a difference.

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Handstand and over into the pit

Next month…

I’m writing this on 1st December and it’s already been an exhausting time! This month is mostly about training but I’ll also be doing at least one competition (Dressage Anywhere) and hopefully there will be plenty of hard work going in. Cheerio for now!

Joker…

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It’s not easy being small… this is one of the ponies who lives at the RDA yard where I volunteer. He’s not actually an RDA pony but who could resist that cheeky little face?!

October 2017

October has been relatively relaxed – only one major championship! This post covers:

  • the British Equestrian Vaulting Championships
  • doing some stuff that isn’t vaulting
  • and that’s about it!

British Equestrian Vaulting Championships

On Friday 6th we flew out to Glasgow then drove to Kilmarnock, where we were staying for the British Equestrian Vaulting Championships. I travelled and stayed with the Jackson family (two small vaulters plus their lovely mum) whilst Sandie made the long trip up in the horsebox with Nett driving. The venue was the Morris Equestrian Centre, and we decided to have a look around on the Friday so that, come Saturday morning, we’d vaguely know what we were doing.

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Where there are vaulters, there will be acrobatics

The venue was really exciting – a huge indoor arena, with various other arenas and stables areas scattered about. There was a good tack shop as well as a bar/restaurant with views onto the arenas. The main arena felt light and airy which I like. On the Saturday, we arrived early as one of the Jackson vaulters was on first thing in compulsories. I’m quite sure that it doesn’t matter how early you arrive at a vaulting competition: everything always seems to be a rush! Hair has to be done neatly (and then sprayed with silver glitter), faces need appropriate make up, catsuits have to be wriggled into, muscles need to be warmed up and stretched, and the horse has to be warmed up.

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Three Cambridge vaulters watching compulsories

Sandie had had a good journey and seemed in a good mood as the six little ones went through their compulsories. All but one of us (the other Jackson sister!) were competing at Pre-Novice level, meaning that our compulsories, performed in canter, were: basic seat (arms by sides), bench (kneeling and holding on in a box shape) and leg changes (lifting each leg over in turn to join the other so that you sit to the inside, then to the outside). I’d been quite poorly in the two weeks running up to the event (including being very sick the previous morning). I was feeling a bit wobbly and I wasn’t surprised when Alexis, one of our coaches, pointed out that my left leg was moving about a lot in canter.

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Coming down from bench (Equiscot)

For the actual routine, I think my leg was reasonably good and still. My leg changes weren’t great and I nearly fell off the side – I was relieved to cling on and also to realise, from watching the video, that it wasn’t too obvious! I had a new catsuit on which I’d intended to wear at one training session to take some of the ‘shine’ off it (which makes them very slippy) but then I’d been too poorly to go to the training session. It was a good lesson to learn: even if you can’t go training, do something to make it less hair-raising in competition!

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Slipping around in leg changes! (Equiscot)

On the first day we also did our freestyle routine. This wasn’t very easy because they only had a small CD player in the arena we used, and – especially with my poor hearing – I couldn’t really hear the music. Fortunately I could make out snatches to know I was still acting to the correct bits and, more importantly, sticking to time. I quite enjoyed the routine – it was better than I felt at the English! – but I was looking forward to doing it again the next day in the bigger arena, with the music a bit more audible…

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Prince seat on neck Equiscot

My score at the end of the first day was fairly good. I was pleased with my compulsories score although, in fairness, it had definitely benefited from the excellent horse score that Sandie got, under Nett’s command. The freestyle marks were also quite good so, in general, I was feeling positive.

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Day 2 was an even earlier start and I felt pretty exhausted when I got up! We went through the same ‘hair-make up-costume-warm up’ ritual as on the Saturday, although this time it was easier because we only had to do our freestyles. Somewhat unusually for me, I’d actually gone to a bit of effort with the make up for this, and had found gold eye shadow and a lip gloss that was the same kind of red for my catsuit (generally I haven’t the patience nor the steady hand required for anything more than foundation!). As a result I look reasonably alive in some of the pictures, which is quite a refreshing change. It did of course mean that I spent about twenty minutes daubing gold liquid all over my face then wiping it off before making a mess all over again…

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With Sandie and Nett

Before my routine on the Sunday I felt really, really unwell. For some time I was convinced I was going to be sick, but I’d had the forethought to pack my sleeves and socks with medication should I be away from my bag for too long. I ran through my routine once and felt horrendous, so just had a relaxing sit on Sandie for a while!

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Warming up and feeling decidedly green.

Fortunately the medication kicked in just before we went in, so I was able to enjoy the routine. It’s such a fun routine and such perky music that I basically grin all the way through and people always say afterwards how it looked like I was genuinely enjoying myself. Of course I was!

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Look, no legs! (Equiscot)

It was a relief to enjoy the routine and to feel well enough to perform it properly instead of worrying about being sick. For the rest of the day, I was able to kick back and relax properly and although I did still feel a bit grim it was nice to have the pressure of performing to an audience taken away. Again, I enjoyed watching the super-duper experienced vaulters doing their thing.

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And pampering this frilly lady too, of course.

I also had fun looking through the photos taken by event photographers, Equiscot. They had some lovely shots and I bought several, arguing that I had been very restrained in not buying half the tack shop so it was entirely reasonable to buy more than one photo. Their photos have been shown here because they send digital copies for online use as well as printed copies.

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Y-stand (Equiscot)

It was disappointing that there weren’t any other para vaulters because being best out of one isn’t very satisfying. I know it doesn’t take anything away from the fact that I made the trip and earned what I did, and I know that I wasn’t the only person to win in a field of one, but I do still wish that it had been a bigger thing this year – there were five of us last year, and even more than that at the English Championships last year. The closest I can get to comparing is looking at the Scottish Championships, which took place a couple of weeks before. Of the two competing in the ‘canter-walk’ class, the better mark was 4.856, compared to my final overall score of 6.729 – so that’s something!

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Not doing vaulting!

After the British we had two weeks off, in which time I mostly tried to catch up with the rest of my life. This wasn’t entirely successful but I’m hopeful of managing it at Christmas! Meanwhile I was still riding and doing gymnastics. I’m working on some new skills which I’m finding tough but I just keep reminding myself that I need to be patient and spend my time putting the work in instead of fretting about not being able to do it yet.

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Injuries-wise I’m not having the greatest time and from the coaching and video evidence is very obvious that my body is really struggling with balance, symmetry and strength, particularly in my shoulders and ankles. There’s not a huge amount I can do about it except stay aware and try to keep myself moving as much as possible – so that’s the plan for the time being!

Joker

This month’s Joker – it’s hard to beat a horsey selfie.

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September 2017

  • RDA SEIB Search for a Star final
  • English Vaulting Championships
  • Health

RDA SEIB Search for a Star final

September began with a bang! I got back from holiday on the 2nd and immediately set about packing everything I would need for the RDA SEIB Search for a Star final, which took place at Addington Equestrian Centre on the 7th. Firstly, I needed to collect the side saddle (which had been in the safe keeping of a very kind RDA family). With that done, I spent a good deal of time making sure my saddle and reins would be as immaculate as possible (the bridle was being taken by our RDA instructor, Gillian, and I knew she’d do a good job with that!). Fortunately, a lot of what I would be wearing was either new or being borrowed on the day, so the only preparation I had to do in that regard was flattening the keeper under some heavy books, fitting my dummy spur onto my left (long) boot, finding a matching jodhpur boot for my right foot, and ensuring I had enough hair spray, grips and bun nets to hold each individual hair in place (well, nearly…).

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Apart from that, my preparation for the show was pretty limited. I spent time at home sitting on the saddle to try and work on my position, but I wasn’t able to practise on Rolo. I swotted up on showing as much as possible online and from an introductory book I’d bought at Hartpury. I also made – after a great deal of umming and ahhing – the decision to buy a new back brace to help me with posture. It’s not brilliantly comfortable for long periods of time but it does help me not to collapse sideways through my thoracic spine, provides good support to my lumbar spine, and helps me to straighten my shoulders and neck. All of these things helped a lot on the horse – I had a much better position and wasn’t in as much pain.

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On the day of the competition I went into work in the morning, before my mum drove me the two hours or so to Addington, with me tucking into lunch on the way. We arrived in good time so before finding Rolo and the RDA volunteers I was able to have a little nose around, including getting a glimpse of the arena we’d be in, lusting over the beautiful but expensive garments for sale and watching an enormous class with about thirty beautifully-turned-out horses. The RDA event was part of the British Show Horse Association Hunter Championship Show (bit of a mouthfull!) and it was by far the biggest equestrian event I have ever been to. I thought Hartpury was big, but this was like a city of horseboxes, some of which were probably more valuable than the house I live in… There were stunning horses aplenty, all in peak condition and groomed to perfection. It was lovely to see if a bit daunting!

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Anyway, our class went quite nicely. I had a little canter before we went in to check whether or not I was happy to do it in the ring (my third canter aside!). Rolo responded really nicely up and down so I decided to go for it. This time we did far less trotting as a group in the ring, which I was quite relieved about as it isn’t the most comfortable thing to trot side saddle on Rolo! We lined up in no particular order and Rolo and I were one of the last pairs to go. He mostly behaved well whilst he was waiting, only getting a bit restless after a little while – but then he had a great big wee which might have been part of the problem…

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When it was our turn to do our show we walked forwards and had a brief chat with the judges, who were very nice but more scary than the ones at Hartpury! We then did our little show, which was mostly fine. We had a nice canter and he came back down to trot smoothly, but the trot felt very fast. After whacking my initial response on the head (He’s never going to stop trotting! We will be trotting like this for all eternity!) I went for the mother of all half halts and he responded beautifully to come back into a much more controlled trot. I was so proud of him in that moment!

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Credit: Equinational

After we’d all done our shows we had a bit more trotting round before heading back to the horseboxes for a quick rest, then we returned for the ‘Evening Performance’, in which we did a small amount of walking and trotting again before being lined up and hearing the results. I was utterly over the moon (and very shocked) that Rolo and I came second! I was so proud that such an ‘ordinary’ horse (a chunky cob, without an especially pretty face, owned by the RDA, and used as a generally great all-rounder) could do so well.

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The girl who came third was also on a lovely coloured cob and we had a nice chat whilst the organisers came round with rosettes and sashes. With our winnings proudly displayed, we set off on a lap of honour and I thought I might burst. As we came round to the exit of the arena I could see Gillian jumping up and down with excitement which is probably the best accolade I’ve ever had in my three years at the RDA! There were many cuddles for Rolo that night.

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English Vaulting Championships

There was no time to rest after Addington, because on the 10th we had the English Vaulting Championships at Stow-on-the-Wold. This is a really lovely venue – the arena is large and feels warm and light, and the surrounding countryside is very pretty. This year I was competing in the Pre-Novice class (canter compulsories and walk freestyle) on Sandie, with Jade lungeing. We got there good and early the day before so I had plenty of time to practise my routine on the barrel before heading to bed, which was helpful.

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My compulsories went OK – about as well as they ever do. Sandie didn’t put a foot wrong and I just tried to be as neat as possible, whilst remembering all the tiny details of things that I can improve on to improve my scores by 0.1 of a mark at a time – the principle of marginal gains (or losses) is very relevant! I have a lot of work to do on my compulsories before I can gain higher marks but I also have to be patient and work within my physical limitations as they are at the moment. Obviously I hope that those limitations will shift as I get more experience. In competitions I have to be disciplined and ‘stay in the moment’ and remember that even though I find one movement harder I mustn’t let it affect the next movement.

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I don’t have a photo from compulsories so here’s one of me doing the splits!

Next we did our freestyles. I had made the decision to bring out the ‘mermaid’ catsuit again, along with the music, ‘Amhrán Na Farraige’. To be honest, I was pretty disappointed with my freestyle. My right ankle went out at the mount (despite being taped up) and it went downhill from there! In my pain and confusion I messed up the first move, then the tremors were much worse as I tried to ignore the pain. It wasn’t all bad – I generally managed what I wanted to do, and in particular I was pleased to bring out a shoulder hang for the first time, having only learned it at the end of July.

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Annoyingly I don’t have the shoulder hang either!

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately!) I was the only entrant in the Para Pre-Novice class, although there were Para entries in the Walk Individual class, which is one level down. This meant that I won my class by default but, given that I was in a harder category than those in the walk class, the victory felt a bit less hollow. It was good to come away with the experience and although I was disappointed by my freestyle I still got a reasonable score and most people said they hadn’t even noticed that something was up. I’ve adjusted my plans for the British Champs at the beginning of October to put together a performance that I’ll feel more proud of – hopefully!

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Health

Aside from these two competitions, September has felt tough. I’ve been really struggling with energy levels, general sickness and various injuries and unexplained aches and pains. I currently feel as if I’m just managing to keep my head above water but I won’t be able to keep going much longer. Fortunately by the end of next weekend I will be able to have the main competitive pressures out of the way until next year. I like competing so it’s not as if it’s something that makes me anxious but it is undeniably tiring and stressful on the body – and the need (that I perceive) for perfection and maximum effort in training is particularly strong and challenging right now.

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My hospital time has been a bit topsy-turvy. I met a new physiotherapist who has given me some new things to work on for my neck that have really helped so far. On the other hand, my appointment with the neurologist is now pushed back to February, and I’ve had to cancel two appointments with the orthopaedic surgeon because I still haven’t heard anything about the procedure I’m meant to have a month before seeing the surgeon! It’s a bit frustrating…

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Injuries-wise, September has been quite an expensive month! The torn hamstring is a little bit better, at last, which is very exciting even if I feel as if it’s taking an age. My left shoulder is far worse, my right ankle is OK when in splinted constantly, my arms, wrists and hands have both been much worse, my back is worse, and – to top it all! – I bashed my left foot at gymnastics the other day when I tried to do a cartwheel on beam and instead brought my foot down on the sharp edge of a window sill. Doing this two weeks before the British Vaulting Championships was incredibly frustrating but fortunately (crossing fingers, touching wood) it doesn’t seem to affect weight bearing too much. I’m really hoping that every part of me will just hang on in there until we get back from the British – not long now… In fairness to my silly body, I am pushing hard in training at the moment so I suppose a higher injury/illness rate is inevitable. I reserve the right to complain, though!

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The Many Shades of Bruise!

Anyway, on that not-particularly-encouraging note I think I will sign off. Despite worse health and some infuriating incidents this has still been a successful month and I’ve enjoyed the training and most of (!) the competing. I’m lining up some fun horsey things for after the British Champs so that I will still have plenty to sink my teeth into over the winter. Exciting times!

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Dax love.

Just time for the joker… after his excellent work at Addington, Rolo decided that it was time for a quick wee before heading home. Unfortunately, horse willies aren’t particularly photogenic so I had to do a mid-shutter-press lunge (taking care not to fall over) to disguise it!

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August 2017

  • Vaulting camp
  • Holiday training in France

This is a little bit late because I spent a lot of August away on holiday. August therefore became the first month since last August that I didn’t have any competitions at all! That said, I was still pretty busy and training hard.

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…and posing for selfies with Dax!

Vaulting Camp

The month began with vaulting camp: four days of vaulting, riding, general training, mucking out, grooming, tack cleaning and any other kind of stable management work. It was good fun but rather tiring!

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Holiday training in France

The day after camp finished I headed off to France with my mum and Rosie (the pup!). Whilst I was away I was able to go riding twice at a stables called ‘Ranch des Baous’. They had lovely Pyreneean horses who were very responsive. The first time I went I had a lesson with a coach called Jacques, riding Saga. The style of riding required was very different to what we do at home – I was constantly reminded to hold my hands higher, higher, higher! I’m not sure how well Rolo would respond but it certainly worked well with Saga, despite my lack of control over my arms. Since my bar reins were at home in England, I attempted riding with two hands, but I found it really hard and I didn’t feel I could trust my left hand. I ended up holding both reins in the right hand but just having my left hand hooked in to try and make it feel easier for Saga. This wasn’t a good thing for my left shoulder so I’m not keen to try it again just yet.

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The second time I visited the stables I went for a lovely two-hour hack, riding a horse called Source (sp?!). We weaved our way to the top of the mountain and admired the view down to the Mediterranean. We had a few fun canters but since it was pretty hot even early in the morning, and since most of the time the terrain wasn’t easy, we spent most of the time in walk. Source had a bizarre habit of finding the scratchiest shrubs to scratch herself on, which meant that I came home covered in scratches and with various thorns sticking into my legs – it’s a good job I couldn’t feel it! It was a good opportunity for me to practise some lateral work, but for some reason the most attractive shrubs were always on the left, and my weaker leg struggled with that!

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As well as riding I went swimming every day and had fun working out some pool-based core exercises (I know, I have a strange definition of fun) as well as perfecting somersaults, handstands and backflips (all of which are much easier in water than on land!). I also followed a gruelling conditioning schedule which comprised various daily planks, tons of sit-ups and press-ups and other strength-building exercises – all made all the more challenging by the presence of my little niece who, at 20 months, is just about as heavy as I can cope with sitting on my back during planks and press-ups!

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I also did plenty of stretching for front splits and box splits. Having torn my right hamstring before vaulting camp I really wanted to keep on top of my right leg splits, and found a good-sized glass bottle to use as a roller. My ‘bad’ leg splits (with the left leg forwards) are still better than the right, but at least it hasn’t got worse.

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Finally, I discovered that, with a bit of imagination and a lot of care, a good heavy sun lounger works as a barrel – although my mum was less impressed than I thought she might have been!

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The reason it has taken a while for me to get round to writing this is that the first week or so of September has been incredibly busy – but you’ll hear all about that next month!

Joker: on vaulting camp we made an obstacle course based around some cross-country fences. I couldn’t do much of it (although I was pretty good at pole-vaulting, aka using a crutch to propel myself over a jump) so when the others had finished charging around I dressed up as a caterpillar – as you do.

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July 2017

  • RDA National Championships
    • Dressage Anywhere
    • Showjumping
    • Showing
    • Dressage (live!)
    • Vaulting
    • Results
  • Other


RDA National Championships

July is a very busy month for RDA riders as it’s when we have our National Championships, held at Hartpury College in Gloucestershire. In July I definitely prioritised the Championships but I wasn’t in the best of health so this meant having to cut down on training – something I hate doing but it was necessary. The RDA Champs take place over three days, but this year I was only riding on the Friday and Saturday.

Dressage Anywhere

My weekend kicked off with watching some of my friends riding before picking up my rosette and gold medal for winning the Dressage Anywhere RDA Online Championships. This was before I’d actually sat on a horse so it felt like a nice way to start the weekend!

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With Ruth from Dressage Anywhere

Showjumping

Straight after that I headed to the mounting area to find Rolo so that we could warm up for the jumping. On the Friday Rolo was much more chilled out than he normally is when he goes to a big event, which meant we had a really hassle-free warm up with plenty of time to focus on getting him limbered up and into a nice bouncy canter rhythm. Going into the big indoor arena at Hartpury can feel a bit daunting – in 2016, I could feel Boysie recoil in horror as we went in, and in 2015 (the last time I rode Rolo at Hartpury) Rolo decided that one particular corner of it was simply terrifying. There was none of that this year – I couldn’t have asked for better behaviour!

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A cob on a mission

The RDA Level 3 Showjumping course is pretty basic compared to some of the jumping we’ve done. The problem is that you not only have to leave the jumps up, but you are also judged on style as if it were a dressage test. Overall, I was pleased with how it all went. Rolo tapped one of them but the jumps all stayed up, and the only other moment which gave me cause for concern was coming into the final line where we’d had to trot to change leg, and he wasn’t immediately keen for canter again – fortunately as soon as he realised that there were more jumps to come he got going again! (Results for all the weekend’s events are further down the page.)

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Showing

After the jumping I had a bit of a rest before getting togged up for showing – the first time I’d ever tried showing in my life. I felt a bit of a fraud in that none of the equipment I had (bar my show cane and my underwear!) was mine: Rolo belongs to the RDA, the side saddle was borrowed from Philippa Kemp Welch, and all of my fancy kit including gloves and hat had been lent to me by the astounding Katy Downing. It felt really amazing to be riding in front of a crowd in a really smart side saddle habit and with such a gorgeous little horse – I really enjoyed dressing up!

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The class itself was interesting for me to see how it all works. The steward and the three judges were all incredibly friendly and encouraging – chatting to them was probably the best bit because they were just so enthusiastic. Rolo behaved reasonably well, and we were put through from our preliminary round (of which there were three) to the final line-up. By that point he’d started to get a bit grumpy but just about managed to stay still!

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Dressage

The next day I had my dressage test in the morning, for which I wore my own grey side saddle habit. Rolo was back to form and leaping about with excitement but we had plenty of time and by the time we’d finished in the collecting ring he was listening again. Unfortunately an irritating poo from him in the first ten seconds of the test and then me just not riding it as well as I could have done meant that we didn’t perform as well as we could have. Given my inexperience riding side saddle (including the showing the night before, this was only my fifth time) I still felt we did well, and we certainly had better halts than I can achieve astride with him.

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Vaulting

After dressage I got changed as quickly as possible into my vaulting outfit. Putting on my vaulting shoes felt amazing – I felt excitement and a distinct sense of comfortable confidence which I hadn’t felt at any other point of the weekend! It wasn’t anything like, ‘I’m the best in the world!’, just, ‘I can do this!’, and it felt good. For me the vaulting was extra special this year. I was vaulting on Boris, who is the first horse I ever vaulted on back in April last year. Lungeing was Nett, who has lunged me for all but one of my competitions and who is simply fabulous and had made the long journey down to Hartpury from Cambridge just to lunge me – what a star! The final part of our team was Isabelle, one of the Cambridge able-bodied vaulters competing internationally. She’s also an RDA volunteer and an amazing person, with a family who are hugely supportive of me and all RDA riders. Isabelle was there to bunk and generally assist as well as to help with the other riders from my group (it was a VERY busy day for the group!). Meanwhile her dad took loads of pictures!

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Team Cambridge! L-R: Nett, Boris (obviously…), me and Isabelle

Anyway, the vaulting went really well. First I did compulsories in walk, and was able to do a decent swing up to bench which I’d been working hard on. Boris was keen to be back in the limelight so he had a few steps of trot but nothing major! After hopping off from the compulsories we went straight into the freestyle. My freestyle routine was the result of many hours spent on the costume, many hours spent on the music, and goodness knows how long on the routine itself!

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I’d chosen music from, ‘The Princess and the Frog’, (Disney) to vault to, and had adapted the song, ‘On my way’, so that a full story fitted into the minute we had. A few days earlier we’d changed the mount and first move but this went fine. The shoulder stand was the bit I had been most nervous about – it’s not brilliantly comfortable in a helmet, and the only other time I’d done it in competition I’d lost control at the end – but fortunately it went very smoothly.

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Generally I had so much fun doing my freestyle! There was a really supportive crowd and it felt so good to be doing it with the music properly for the first time – just listening to tinny music on a mobile phone isn’t the same at all. When I got off I was initially pretty tired but then exhilarated and wanted to go again!

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My favourite photo from the vaulting – good boy Boris!

****Results****

Right, time for results:
Dressage Anywhere (Intro test) – 1st place
Showjumping (RDA Level 3) – 1st place Senior and overall Class Champion
Showing – 2nd place and qualified for SEIB Search for a Star final
Dressage (Champs test) – 7th place
Vaulting – 1st place in age group and overall Class Champion

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Stunned celebrations after the showing!

Other

Aside from this I’ve spent July having my shoulder looked at (there is now a plan which hopefully will mean I don’t need surgery, but surgery is there as a back-up plan) and learning new skills in vaulting and gymnastics. I even did my first tuck back on the trampoline, although it was very heavily assisted! I’m having a lot of fun at the moment just trying things out. I’m covered in cuts and bruises but it’s worth it because every new thing I achieve is really exciting!

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Joker

A nice one this time. This is me and Rolo with Eleanor and Boysie (also of Cambs College RDA) at the end of the showing: two Cambs College cob combinations in the top six. I was so pleased that Eleanor did so well, and the horses were pretty pleased with themselves too!

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June 2017

  • Dressage Anywhere
  • Learning about showing and side saddle
  • Showjumping training
  • Vaulting competition and preparation for Hartpury
  • Gymnastics and other


Dressage Anywhere

In early June I received the news that the dressage test I’d filmed with Rolo had won the RDA Dressage Anywhere Championship! We scored 72.19% going side saddle compared to 71.88% astride – not an enormous difference but it still felt nice to be moving up especially as it was only my second time riding side saddle. Partly as a result of this I have also taken the plunge and will be riding side saddle at Hartpury for the RDA National Championships, for both dressage and showing.

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Woohoo!

Showing

Showing is an entirely new venture for me, but our RDA instructor felt that some of us should have a go at it and so we are! Last night we practised what is likely to be expected of us and had a go at riding our own little show. I have a better idea now of how the event will run but I think it’s time to head to YouTube to find some more examples! I’ll be riding Rolo and he’s a fairly good example of a cob, so hopefully we won’t look ridiculous even if I am completely confused by everything that’s going on.

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Right at the beginning of July I had another side saddle lesson which gave me the opportunity to learn how to tack up (there are three separate girths, for one) and how to arrange the apron part of a side saddle habit. The apron looks like a skirt when you’re on but actually it’s more of a wrap-around thing – more like a strangely shaped bath towel! I am now the proud owner of my own side saddle habit – a fortunate local find online – and thanks to the immense generosity of Philippa Kemp-Welch (my side saddle instructor) and Katy Downing (RDA Champs Stable Manager and side saddle pro) I’m really looking forward to the showing and dressage at Hartpury, where hopefully I will look the part and also act the part! Anyway, I had a ride in my new apron. Had I thought ahead I might have anticipated wearing the jacket too, and I might have decided against a baggy polo shirt and this rather jazzy hat cover…!

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Showjumping practice

I’ve done some jumping practice which was good confidence-building stuff because it’s harder than what we will have to do at Hartpury. My last proper jumping lesson involved going through a grid of uprights with one stride in between each fence, jumping two other fences on a curve, and then going across the school on a diagonal to jump one of the curve fences square-on before continuing to one of the uprights to jump at an angle.

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Action shot from training in February – feels a long time ago now!

This all went swimmingly except for one occasion… It was a hot day so we were resting the horses in the shade during other people’s turn through the jumps. Rolo had switched off a little bit and, foolishly, I didn’t really give him time to wake up properly before cantering into the first fence of the grid. The result was that we went in rather unbalanced, and although he is a hero and will always try his best this was only enough to get over the first two – by the third fence I was so unbalanced that the laws of physics dictated that I end up on the ground! Fortunately I wasn’t the slightest bit hurt so I got back on and tried again, rather more successfully this time. Since then we’ve had a couple of weeks at RDA where we’ve popped over some jumps and Rolo has been a star each time. Fingers crossed nothing will go wrong at Hartpury – there won’t be any three-fence combinations for a start! I really love jumping and find it so much fun, especially with Rolo, so I’m just aiming to enjoy it and do the best we can.

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The shoulder stand moments before it went wrong!

Vaulting (competition and preparation for Hartpury)

Preparing for a vaulting competition entails far more than just practising your routine. I spent a happy morning deciding what music to use for the run in and my compulsories. Normally your club or team will decide this, but as I’m the only one from Cambridge competing I thought I’d mix it up a bit. I’ve gone for ‘You can’t stop the beat’ for the run in and ‘The Swan’ (Saint-Säens) for compulsories. I finalised the edits to ‘Almost There’ for my freestyle and successfully saved all the files in the right format and sent them to the RDA without – I hope – a hitch! Sorting out my costume has taken rather longer, because a lot of it has involved fabric paint and you have to be patient enough to let it dry before moving on to the next stage. This year’s costume is more generic than last year’s which makes it a bit more difficult, because there are so many more options and the decisions are harder to make. I’ve had various hits and misses in the process and have had to rethink ideas several times over, but hopefully by the time it’s finished (less than a week to go!) I’ll have something which looks pretty good.

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Not very easy with silly shaky hands…

Gymnastics

Gymnastics training is continuing and I have spent most of my time working on my favourite piece of apparatus (vault) and my least favourite (bars). For the first time, I am finally in a position to say that my circle up onto the lower bar is fairly secure! This is a really basic move but for me it has taken months of hard and frustrating work to achieve. I think there must be a knack to it because I am suddenly able to do it even when the bar is quite high. At the moment it isn’t especially pretty but hopefully elegance will come once the move has become more engrained. I am now working on a back hip circle – another simple move but, so far, it’s been pretty elusive and even with support I haven’t achieved it many times. It’s a bit frustrating but at least I’ve learned from the circle up that persistence pays off!

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Pretty sure my legs should be straight but, for now, I don’t care!

Other

Wheelchair racing has, unfortunately, taken a back seat yet again. Despite just about managing to keep everything else ticking over, I’ve had to be really careful about pacing and managing pain and energy because, health-wise, I’ve been struggling a lot. Nothing is certain yet so for the time being I’m just keeping the faith, every time I crash, that I will bounce back. It’s so frustrating because they only way to reset myself at the moment is to take the medication then lie completely flat for some time. It’s made doing all the other training really difficult but I’ve had to prioritise horsey stuff over wheelchair racing because of all the horsey competitions going on at the moment. This is really frustrating which, on top of the pain and other physical symptoms, makes the whole situation pretty difficult – it just feels like a lot of setbacks. I’m trying to stay positive though and it hasn’t beaten me yet!

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I did have a lovely time at my brother’s wedding though, and my prettier neck collar (credit to my mum – in red!) made a big difference.

July is pretty much all about Hartpury (the RDA National Championships) – up until the event I’ll be working as hard as I can manage on perfecting my performance, and after it I fully expect to collapse in a messy heap! Well, we’ll see how it goes anyway…

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!