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January 

I think January is always an 'interesting' month; leaving Christmas behind and (hopefully) some time off before having to get back to work and embrace a new year, often in some of the worst winter weather. Joy! I write this hiding from the snow… I know lots of people love the snow but I genuinely can't find a single positive, the fact it looks pretty lasts about 5 seconds. The night before the snow came we had -7 so that was also fun. Bring on Spring!!

It's been a busy month and apart from the last few days we've taken advantage of a particularly dry and mild winter. A few days in to the year we took a couple of horses to Summerhouse for their Eventer Challenge arena hire. The main point was taking Jamie's youngster Fozzy for his first outing but it was too good an opportunity not to have a bit of jumping fun myself at the same time! You're probably starting to see a trend here for me…why stand and teach when I can ride as well and do it from horseback?! So I took my mum's horse Truffles who it is fair to say had a ball. Then with the lorry out and Truffles all booted up it was, again, too good an opportunity not to practice travelling the babies! Since loading practice was going beautifully it was time for Friday to have her first little trip, just around the block, with Truffles as babysitter. Friday was an absolute superstar and so settled, I was tickled pink, she can be a panicky little orange pony so I didn't know what to expect. I bought her indirectly from the breeder so she'd only been in the horsebox twice in her life. Truffles was ace, of course, for her second journey of the day. Next it was Sidney's turn...he has a liking for drama but survived a trip around the block as well, again with Truffles beside him, for her third journey of the afternoon. I think in total she was either on or in the vicinity of the horsebox for about 5 hours…she really is worth her wait in Gold! Having picked up gold stars for their mini travelling trips we have got some dates in the diary for both Friday and Sid for their first ridden outings in February, just arena hires for a low-key play. Can't wait! I love this part of working with babies, when everything is their 'first' and it's all about low expectation and high praise.


After seeing several other horses go on the horsebox and out to parties Ruin was literally furious, so it was a good thing that he didn't have to wait long for his own party - a lesson with my trainer Gareth (Hughes). It was a great session; we got some really good bouncy collected canter without the ignition stalling, and he was so soft over his back that his sitting trot was ALMOST comfortable and didn't leave me with an inability to empty my bladder. Result! We're definitely getting there. The focus now is on the Regional Championships in February where we will contest the Advanced Medium. I really can't wait! I'm not putting huge amounts of pressure on us though, my main focus is to get through the test without needing an oxygen break or collapsing midway through due to a heart attack. You see for Regionals you are not allowed to carry a whip…yep this could be a challenge because Ruin's two favourite speeds are halt and slow walk. So if we genuinely get through the test and come out not looking like I need an inhaler pronto then I will be thrilled! Ultimately he's started his BD competition career not even a year ago and this will be his first big competition so there's no expectation, it's just a great experience for him and he will learn a lot just being there.


The others have been going well and our weekly yard jumping sessions continue, with the horses all progressing beautifully. I'm particularly thrilled with foal-face Friday. I can't believe we've had her for 7 months! She's a slow project because (a) she was unbacked and pretty feral when she arrived, (b) she's only little and delicate (so I don't want to snap her), and (c) she's going to be awesome so I want to take my time to ensure she reaches her max potential. She may be small but she has masses of attitude and sass! She's definitely been (and continues to be) challenging but I just love every fibre of her. Huge thanks to Lisa Lessels, whose support has enabled me to have another eventer. So exciting.

 

February 

Everything in the lead up to the Regionals went pretty smoothly, not something to take for granted as this is rarely the case for me! Ruin had his routine physio appointment with Hannah Complin from Vet Physio UK. I really appreciate Hannah’s support with all of my horses, she is simply amazing, and she worked her magic with Ruin as always, managing not to kill him as she has to dodge teeth and legs the whole time! His favourite trick is a side sweeping front leg paw with the pure intention of knocking her off her step… Helpful Ruin, we want to keep in with Hannah, not send her running (or to hospital). My fantastic farrier, Joel Roberts, also came as planned for Ruin’s five-weekly appointment. However this time he went the extra mile with added diamanté on Ruin’s toe clips! We were determined to make a (good) impression at the Regionals. 

A week before the show we took Ruin to the venue’s arena hire. Even though he isn't a spooky boy he can put his handbrake on in unfamiliar venues. As he hadn't been to Summerhouse for a while we thought it was a worth a refresher. This was definitely wise! There were good points…he didn't spook and all his flying changes were spot-on. Plus we did a mean centre line in our test run-through and finished with a lovely square halt. Again, rare. There were bad points though…basically I still had a lot of work to do before the Regionals! My mum videoed the test run-through and let’s just say I definitely needed to focus on keeping my Quasimodo impression at bay; I’m too young to be a hunchback, I must channel the 'swan effect' - legs working overkill while body is still n serene… So with one week to go before the show it was back to work with intense focus.


A few days later I received my test time…nice and early! Our horses are stabled during the day and turned out in the fields overnight and I wasn’t going to change their routine (and risk their sanity) because of a competition. So the day before Ruin had his plaits sewn in and tail washed, then went out to the field in the bug rug (for complete plait protection), with a tail bag on and his shoe secures to guarantee no lost shoe surprises. I’m fairly sure the experience did nothing for his street cred as none of the other horses knew who/what this weird animal was and kept snorting in his direction!


The next day was the big day and we passed the first hurdle as Ruin came in with most of his plaits still in tact (how he managed to dislodge three in the strait jacket I just don’t know), a clean tail and all his shoes still on. So of to the ball we went! When we first qualified for the Regionals I felt we had a really great shot at potentially qualifying for the Nationals - the advanced medium classes are often really small! So as soon as I saw the times and that there were 25 in my class my spirits plummeted. Suddenly my aim became to simply get a top 10 placing and that would be an achievement. As a result we went with no real pressure, just to do as good job as we could and give Ruin a great experience at his first big show. He definitely had his eyes on stalks when we first arrived - he’s never been in such a busy buzzy atmosphere before! Ruin warmed up really well in a very chaotic warm-up and then went in to the arena…and did a lovey test! It wasn't perfect and we had a few errors but I’m lucky that errors with Ruin don’t tend to be massively expensive. For example, he will do a flying change a stride after I ask for it because he’s busy watching the butterflies (even when there aren’t any, and that’s basically always the case because there are never any butterflies Ruin!!) so the change isn’t at the designated marker and a good Judge can see I asked a stride earlier anyway so he clearly isn’t on my aids. However he still does a smooth and correct change so the mark deduction is minimal, luckily for us! Overall it went really smoothly and he tried really hard, plus we didn't grind to a halt through lack of having a whip! Result. I have to admit the tack check straight after the test was a god-send as it gave me 5 minutes to replenish my oxygen supply. I felt really pleased with Ruin. There were lots of classy horses there so a top 10 finish was still very much the aim, knowing full well that qualifying for the Nationals wouldn't be an option as only the top 3 qualify.


Well I cannot believe this - we came 3rd and qualified directly for the Winter National Championships! I am literally blown away. I was early on and the class went on for another 3 hours so we went home and carried on with the yard, aiming to pop back later to collect my sheet. We kept an eye on the livestream scoring but I refused to get my hopes up. My mum saw that it had me in 3rd, even when the class finished, but I refused to believe it until I saw it written down. We arrived and went to the pavilion and saw it said I had finished 3rd, but again I wouldn’t believe it just yet. I picked up my sheet and saw an envelope with a ‘BD Winter Championships’ sticker on the front…I held my breath and ripped it open as quietly but quickly as I could. Pulling out the paper inside the first thing I saw was ‘Congratulations for qualifying for the BD Winter Championships…’ and that was it - the flood gates opened and I immediately burst into tears! I've always been tough on Ruin; it's been a lot of blood, sweat n tears (actually just lots of sweat) but wow he has rewarded all my faith and hard work in the best way imaginable. I owe him so much. Of course now the hard work really starts (continues) as we aim for the Championships at Hartpury in April. I still can't believe it! Exciting when Ruin only did his first BD show one year ago and this was only his 6th Advanced Medium. He’s just 8 years old so hopefully this is the start. It was definitely my best Valentine's Day.


Entries for the Championships opened last Friday and so I entered last Friday! March is going to be busy. I have an arena hire booked for an unfamiliar venue for Ruin to help with his confidence and do some test practice. I also have two lessons with my trainer Gareth (Hughes) in the diary. I am on a mission already and practice elements of the test almost every schooling session. My hope is that Ruin takes confidence from it being very familiar and knowing where he’s going, plus he may even anticipate the odd thing (don’t hold your breath on that one) which could only be a good thing! I am beyond excited. The ‘negative’ with qualifying for the Championships and doing so at a higher level is that I am now in the Gold section for all the lower levels. Seeing as this means competing again International Championship riders like Charlotte Dujardin I’m realistic about my chances of qualifying again. Therefore we are just going to go and enjoy it, lap up every minute and do the best job we can possibly do.

 

March 

As you’ll know it was ultimately so unexpected to qualify for the Nationals - that really was the biggest achievement. It took a while for it to sink in and to change our focus to the National Championships and start preparations for that. I’m not deluded - I was very aware that at the Nationals we would be up against the winners from every Regional Championship throughout the whole country, so my main aim was simply not to come last!  Placing in the top half of the class would be a dream but I’m very honest about Ruin’s capabilities and knew that he wouldn’t be in the same league as a lot of the flashy horses we’d be competing against. As a result I felt zero pressure because there was zero expectation - it was phenomenal just to qualify and be there so we wanted to have fun and enjoy the whole experience. 


As soon as I knew we were going to Hartpury I contacted my trainer, Gareth Hughes, to cram in some lessons. Our first was great and really productive. Lots of homework for me to do, which I love. I got home and made notes on everything I needed to work on and felt really motivated to get cracking! Our next outing planned was an arena hire at Hunters Equestrian. They have gorgeous arenas and some with scary dressage boards so I felt that would be ideal to practice my test with Ruin, particularly as he had never been to Hunters before so it would be a good challenge for him to relax in unfamiliar surroundings. Unfortunately this was timed with the gale force winds we had and so Hunters sensibly cancelled that day’s sessions. This was really disappointing as, although I agreed with their decision, there were no other similar arena hires with white boards for me to organise before Hartpury! Fortunately it wasn’t long until our next Gareth lesson and our final one before the Championships. I was pleased that a lot of the things I had on my ‘to sort’ list from our previous lesson could now be moved to the ‘achieved’ list! We ran through most of the test in separate parts and I was pleased that we had test riding strategies in place to get the best performance we could at Hartpury. As well as the riding side of things it’s also incredibly important to make sure Ruin is physically feeling good so he has his pre-Nationals physio session a week before. We use the phenomenal Hannah Complin from Vet Physio UK, who not only does the best of jobs, but also amazingly puts up with my ridiculously irritating Ruin!!


Next stop…the NAF Five Star Winter Dressage Championships! I'm not going to lie; it was basically a disaster. I was third last to go in the class (a big class of 30) and in the afternoon, so we had lots of time to clean Ruin and plait him, arrive and give him time to settle. We wandered around to suss it all out and check which arena we would be in. At the Championships there are two ‘series’ - the Petplan Championships, aimed at the amateur riders, and the Winter Championships, predominately professional riders. The Petplan classes are outdoor in two arenas and the Winters are in the indoor arena, however you simply cannot fit all of the Winter classes in the single indoor every day, so each day one of the Winter classes goes in to one of the Petplan outdoor arenas. Typically on the Thursday it was my class… I wouldn’t normally have a particular issue with this, however the weather forecast definitely meant I wished we were in the indoor! We had the worst of the weather; we got completely soaked within minutes of being in the warmup. I felt awful for everyone who came to support me; it was freezing, drenching and really miserable. Despite this Ruin warmed up really well and I went in to the test feeling positive. However on our first centre line where we are supposed to just canter in and halt at X - Ruin did four flying changes before the halt, where he slammed on the brakes and near landed on his head!! Bear in mind that zero flying changes are required or were asked for before the halt. That dramatic start pretty much set the tone for the rest of the test! Starting on a 3.5 is never great…There were some nice bits, lots of good trot and the serpentine of changes was great and his medium and extended trots and canters. But we had lots of issues; in our collected walk the rain was so heavy Ruin just went sideways and did a bit of a swing-around instead of one of the walk pirouettes - normally a good scorer for us. At least one judge sympathised and commented on the sheet that it was a rain reaction. Ruin also thought one of my canter half passes was a line of tempi flying changes and as soon as I came out of the corner he began the changes! He then just just couldn't understand why I was trying to move him sideways...got completely stuck and practically stopped - he literally cantered on the spot and I had to do a fair few pony club kicks to get him actually moving forward. So that was also very expensive - I even scored a lovely 1 from one judge! Overall it was a bit of a shambles. The warm up was definitely a reality check because most of my fellow competitors were passaging and piaffing on very fancy horses. However none of that really matters; Ruin tried his heart out (in a way...) and qualifying in the first place WAS the achievement. Plus we didn’t come last so there’s that! It was gutting not to produce our best work in the arena and our 63% was actually our worst score yet - what a time to get it! At least next time I go it can only be better…


So that was our experience at the Championships; not what we hoped for but a great experience nevertheless. Now normality resumes! Ruin will have a little holiday for a few weeks then we begin our next mission…PSG! My aim is to get him out at PSG in the next few months and qualify him for the Midway Championships at the end of August.