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Friday, 1 May 2020

April Round Up

If thought March was a strange month, I didn't know what was about to hit me in April. Life has completely changed for so many of us, but one initial reflection I have is a gratitude for the natural slow down, reflect and refuel we are able to do right now. Of course, many of us are missing the everyday things we love about life, especially family and friends, but in our usual busy world, downtime can be difficult to find and enjoy guilt-free.

I've been very lucky to be able to continue to see Louie throughout the lockdown, mostly as I am on a DIY yard and so need to go to turn him out, muck out, feed and do yard jobs. I also made the decision to continue to ride Louie, as I explained in my opinion blog about equestrian life during Covid-19. I'm used to having my next training date or competition booked in to help keep me motivated and focused on working on various things, but with those now not taking place, the first thing I knew was important to do was to make a plan...

Continuing with Louie's fitness

I think I've mentioned it a few times recently that one of my primary goals (prior to Covid-19) was to get Louie into faster work, primarily to help us become fitter for our showjumping. So as I already had been, Louie and I had been enjoying two reasonably quick hacks a week. The ground started to harden up so we were able to make good use of the cross country course at our yard to do some good canter stretches and work on fitness with an interval type training approach.

By the first week or so into April, I could feel Louie was getting a lot fitter, and so I decided to step it up and using the interval approach whenever we hacked out, but in trot with walk downtime. He was starting to look in great shape!

Dressage training goals

My main homework from my March training session with Cathy was to bring Louie onto his hind more in the canter, using plenty of very small circles to start to collect him and make him carry the weight from behind. It's an exercise that Louie and I found really quite difficult. He clearly found it difficult to hold his weight and maintain the canter, and I found it difficult to co-ordinate myself, mentally and physically, to support the exercise from start to finish. I had a couple of practices of it at home, but it was too much for Louie and as soon as I started to close the canter in any way, he would hollow, push his weight to the outside and come against the hand, even on a straight line. 

I decided to give it a rest for a while, and think up another way that I could train him and help him gain the strength in his hind to make it a bit easier for him. Otherwise, I would become fixated on doing that one exercise, probably only be successful 10% of the time, and unsettled the whole schooling session to be able to half do it once...

Instead, I looked at exercises to help me move his hind end and that require him to take more weight, slowly and surely. I also really wanted to sit better so I was more balanced and supportive for him. While researching the various options that I could do, I came across Hayley Watson-Greaves' Facebook page and it is literally FULL of the kind of thing I was looking for! Not only that, but her style of video tutorial is also edited up into building blocks of how to improve the basic to make the movement come naturally when you piece everything together.

From Hayley's videos, I gave myself two exercises - one to help with my seat and one to help Louie. Both were so simple... The seat one for me was basically trotting a 20m circle and going into sitting trot for 4 steps, then back to rising, back to sitting. It sounds so simple and easy, but it makes it feel tangible and a very simple way to turn 4 steps to 8, to 12, to 16, etc... The video exercise I picked for Louie was working towards travers, and how to introduce that to Louie and practice giving the aid and getting a response, and then putting in the correct bend to create the traver. Two building blocks and it meant I could practice both separately and not just fix on nailing the whole movement.

She's got loads of others too, so make sure you check out her page if you haven't already!

I also found a great tutorial on YouTube to help the start work for flying changes - working on changing the pace of the canter, leg yielding in the canter, and working on simple changes through both trot and canter. I can do these, but would they an 8 or 9 in a test? Probably not, so why not every few sessions tune these up while we've no tests to worry about!? There was a great video also showing the correct way to use a pole to train the aid if that's the part you struggle with.

While doing these, I found I REALLY need to improve my counter canter as we lose balance as we go round the turn, resulting in breaking or run through it. A quick What's App to Cathy and there were several things I could try, but starting off with making sure I was straight... As soon as Cathy said it, I knew I had too much bend!

Keeping our showjumping in tune

If I left my showjumping until the lockdown was over, I'd be concerned that the last 6 months of exceptionally positive progress would have been back to square one. I'm confident enough to know that I don't need to be on it every week, but he needs to continue to see some basic showjumps every 2-3 weeks. However, it not all about leaving the ground, and pole work can be great to improve certain elements without putting jumps up.

I added one pole work session to our weekly schedule, making sure that I didn't set up the time exercise all the time. I'd already done a couple in March, so I set up one that we had done before - a square of poles. We put them so that we could come directly down the centre line over them or across it. I then just added two planks down the 1/4 line on a two stride distance. It had been a while since we'd seen anything other than plain poles, but Louie proved my thinking right, and despite giving them a glare every time he went past them, cantered lovely over them.

We worked over everything in canter only, and I found turning down the centre line to come over the square a great way to work also on my flatwork aims of helping Louie to get more weight into his hind. However, we struggled a few times going across the square, mostly with the line through them being curved so affected the striding, and we didn't really get even one stride of being straight before going through, but I put my pieces together - look up, hands down, leg on and let the pole come to us, and we nailed it! 

Good Friday gave me the chance to spend a little longer at the yard, but with our timetable in place, I waited for almost everyone else to leave so that Andrew could also come. It had been weeks since he had been and I'd decided to jump two basic uprights on each diagonal. 

I was really pleased with how Louie took on these jumps after not jumping for almost 4 weeks, even when Andrew added the planks in. The video gave me plenty to work on around my turns to avoid tipping, and I'd planned to repeat the exercise the following week with just poles on the ground so I could really concentrate on me and my position.

Equestrian life in April

It was Louie's birthday on 15th April, and although we did nothing special, I shared all the usual loving photos of him across my social media accounts! We celebrated by having our first EVER canter on the beach together...and for those who follow closely, you'll know just getting Louie on th beach on his own is a challenge!

Usually, over the long weekend of Easter, I take Louie away for some cross country schooling, but with everywhere closed, we didn't get to do that this year. Instead, we went for a lovely long ride very early on Easter Sunday. 

The improvement in the ground not only meant Louie and I could enjoy more canter work, but it also meant I could FINALLY bust out my Mountain Horse trainer to go into the field, instead of swapping them for wellies! That's a real springtime win!

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I also dug out Louie's no fill summer sheet as the warmer weather meant his current rug was a bit warm.

I'd also set a goal of Louie becoming more active and strong in his core, so wanted to start to use poles in our lunging. The last time I tried this, it was chaos, to say the least. Louie jumped the poles, cantered through the trot poles, stood on the trot poles, stopped at the start of the poles, ran inside of the poles, it was a disaster! That was the beginning of June last year, and naughtily, I haven't been bothered to try again!

I tried a different approach this time and using my grippy tripod, I filmed the whole session. If you want to see a shorter version, it's sped up to five minutes, with commentary on why and what I'm doing, but the full version has no commentary.

Things were going so well, and I was feeling in a great place with Louie, and then we had a bit of a hiccup... On 18th April, we went for a hack, not too much fast work but with some long trots here and there. I trotted along the side of a field, and came out onto the track, the track we go along on most rides. I gave Louie the buckle end to stretch off, and he ambled along for a few minutes, very relaxed and feeling happy. The sun was shining and there was no wind.

Then Louie flipped himself inside out. He didn't spook and be silly, or do something wrong or stupid and panic, he literally lept into the air, came down, spun, reared, lept into the air, went backwards, went forward, sideways, ran face first into a tall hedge, shot backwards from that and spun. At that point, I lost my stirrups. He was leaping around, spinning in the air, and not knowing what to do with himself. He looked completely terrified. As he lept up again, he launched forward and bolted. Twenty five meters or so the track curves and I literally thought we were going to be over the hedge, or at least through it, and clung on hard. Louie swerved to follow the track, and I lost my balance. I hung on a good while, but eventually gravity won, and I disappeared under Louie's front legs. He ran off.

Wow, that really hurts. My left thigh was burning and stinging. My right knee very stiff instantly. I hobbled on and spotted Louie over the hedge diagonally opposite across the field. He was stood there. As I came near he walked off, towards home, which I knew was gated so was relieved. I couldn't walk quickly, but thanks to a dog walker, I caught up to Louie and walked the mile or so home. Andrew met me at the yard, and both yard owner walked to meet me. All I thought I had was a few gravel scrapes on my thigh, hence it was stinging and a bruised knee. It was sore, so I said we'd leave my car and get it when we came back in the afternoon to bring Louie in.

I got home and went in a hot bath to help soak and draw out any gravel. When taking my ripped riding tights down, it became clear why my leg was burning. I'd clearly been stood on and the force of it hadn't just bruised my thigh but had shredded the skin, luckily with only a small laceration near the bottom. Andrew was excellent in giving it a good clean, before bandaging it, but it wouldn't stop bleeding, so he assumed it would just need a small stitch. Thankfully we live two minutes from a minor care centre, where I knew they could look at it.

Andrew's shocked face when he first saw it was quite frightening, but when you see medical professionals gasping at it, you know it's not pretty. It took 24 hours for me to look at a photo of it and I'm not going to gross anyone out by putting them here! Anyway, I was sent for an X-ray to check my hips and femur. All fine, and nice to hear the radiographers thank me for something to do after doing nothing for 2 hours!!! The good news was no stitch needed, but it was very heavily dressed, with follow up appointments to have it changes every few days. Here we are almost two weeks on, and it's still dressed, I have a hematoma that takes up the size of Louie's foot and some protruding on the back of my thigh, and one heck of a bruise. My knee is still stiff but very slowly gets better each day and improves as I move about throughout the day.

I have been very lucky. If I had been run over my chest or stomach, that would have been a very different outcome, and for the first time ever, I loved having chunky thighs!! My legs from the hips down are pretty much purple and blue, with bad bruising on the front of my left thigh also and my right ankle although no pain in my ankle. I have knees that resemble a clumsy 6-year-old on a 1980s tennis court surface, and gravel scrape on my lower back and left hip. But I am OK. I didn't hit my head, I got up and I walked home.

It's been two weeks, and I've had good days, but bad ones too. Feeling like it will never get better and will be forever before I can pull a pair of breeches back on...Those days suck. But it will get better. I will get back into my breeches (if I fit after all this laying around!), and we'll carry on with all the hopes and dreams we had before. As to whether Louie was OK, he was sound as a pound, just a graze on his chest from the hedge. He's never displayed behaviour like that before, and I am convinced it didn't escalate from a spook. I spoke to my vet at length about teeth, back, hocks, neck, etc, but nothing correlates when we've done some basic checks he advised. We presume a strong string or bite or similar. If he presents it again, I will investigate but for now, it remains a sharp reminder of the freak accidents that can happen, even at the quietest moments.

Fingers crossed when I come to publish my May round-up blog, I'll be back in the saddle picking up from where we left off! For now, stay safe and stay well.

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