Event location: Berkshire College of Agriculture (BCA), Maidenhead, Berkshire
The 2 weeks prior
Two weeks before BCA Shabby’s ran at an unaffiliated Novice (1.10m) event at Hambleden. He excelled at his dressage and got 34 in it but then proceeded to knock most show jumps and was not allowed XC to `Emma’s despair since the XC was the main reason she wanted the run anyway.
It was the final nail so to speak and we decided to turn more attention to the show jumping phase in our sessions. I knew there was a little chance we could make much of a change before the June event at BCA but we had a go anyway.
There are several main issues that we need to work on – both long and short term:
1. Nerves – Shabby easily goes rigid and panics under pressure. It can happen at home to some degree but is hugely amplified at the events. Emma has now had Shabby for over 5 years so she knows the second he goes into his panic mode and has similar reaction herself. So nerves are something that needs work in both of them. We discussed some sports psychology techniques options after Aston where he did dreadfully tense test but didn’t follow the thoughts with any actions as yet.
2. Quality of the canter – there is a weakness in Shabby’s canter that needs addressing. He gallops well but cantering to the jumps in a rhythm and through tight turns is a different matter. The right lead canter is not only weak but panic inducing for some reason.
3. Connection and thoroughness – in a calm state, Shabby works very nicely now staying in front of the leg and on the bridle with his back relaxed but his connection and thoroughness and very volatile and depend largely on his mental state. He is not the horse you can bully into cooperation and get good results and even if he was, Emma would have to change her trainer to go for that as I am not prepared to go back to the “hold him and push him into the bit/contact” methods for the sake of short term results.
4. Balance on undulated terrain – he is unsure of himself on grass especially when it’s slippery or on a slope and especially in trot and canter. His movement can be soft and fluid on surface and go into rigid and wooden on the grass – almost like when you walk on ice and you worry you might fall over and you then anticipate slipping with each step. The problem is, the more rigid your joints and limbs go, the more difficult the balancing act is.
Then there is one element that is very positive and could be improved on: Shabby’s heart and willingness to “do”.
Even though he goes overexcited and is consumed with nerves in the arena and the jumping ring, you can tell he looks to Emma for reassurance and that’s something we could build on further.
This is what we did before BCA…
PLAYING WITH SHABBY
I want to use Shabby’s trust in Emma so I get them to play to see how deep rooted his nerves are. He is great on foot. Relaxed. Bored almost. Happy to pop over little jumps with Emma running with him. His coordination isn’t great to start with, his jumping awkward. But is as cool as a cucumber and is not hot at all.
She mounts and I take Shabby’s bridle off and give her a neck strap. He doesn’t react to her seat or legs correctly when in his panic mode so I want to see how he reacts. It’s amusing and he is not very responsive at first but we get to the point when she can walk and stop with just a little cue from a neck strap.
I suggests she does this a couple of times a week but I am not sure how realistic this is with her schedule.
It might seem crazy but I am thinking, we might as well try to utilise what he is good at (connecting with Emma) and improve that further rather than focus only on the things he really drives us bonkers at 😉
Few days later, we take him to the field and start the boring process of trying to stop and stay halted in front of the jump. Shabby does various things NOT to stand in front of it. He piaffes, twists sideways, tries not to look at it. Eventually, he sighs and stands still for a few seconds. Then for several. Then for long enough that I can take a sharp picture 😉
He jumps the jump very well, calmly, waits and doesn’t become creative with his stride. We call it a day and he even eats his dinner and breakfast the following morning (he has been on an on/off food strike for the last few weeks).
There are small changes Emma notices in his behaviour. He starts grooming her back when she brushes him (he generally detests being groomed. patted etc). He lies down in his stable and has a proper snooze.
We add some work on changing bend in trot and canter on large circles in the field to make him realise his posture doesn’t always have to correspond directly with direction. It’s a good preparation for counter-canter which I know will strengthen his canter overall.
He becomes panicky at first but settles well enough and lets Emma ride him. Again we finish with pole work and little jump which he deals with calmly.
On Wednesday before the event we practice the dressage test on grass and he is tricky – unsettled and rigid like he can be at events. I take it as a good sign – if he doesn’t do something we just can’t work on it so I am almost pleased that he is all over the place. We go through the test and amend it, put medium walk for a few strides longer than in the test as he likes to jog, educate the corners through hind quarter yields and put in circles when he goes tense to help him release.
Eventually we get a decent work and call it a day.
On Thursday he is so incredibly relaxed we are wondering what’s going on. He warms up spectacularly, all his muscles like a fluid jelly, soft. His canter looks so relaxed we are laughing.
Then we repeat his halting in front of the jumps. He halts like a pro, and reins back beautifully. I can hardly believe it and start to think there is a trick somewhere.
We jump him on the left rein and he reacts very well to Emma’s half halt and makes a very good (for him) shape over the jump. I still wonder where the trick is.
Emma changes the rein and approaches on the right rein. All hell breaks lose and we see where the trick was. It takes 20 minutes for him to calm down and approach the jump without jumping invisible jumps on the way. We sigh.
Warm up & Dressage
He warms up quite sweetly, nothing amazing but all looks manageable. The only thing that rings alarm bells in my head is that Emma looks down more than usual and this tells me he probably isn’t feeling very connected and is volatile in the contact. She always sits proudly on him when he switches his little trot engine on but she looks like she is hiding somewhat.
We are quite happy with him upon his time coming up and off Emma goes. I watch them enter the area where the arenas are and I can see him tensing up. They get the bell almost immediately and he likes a few minutes to adjust to the change of space so that’s not a good sign.
The moment they enter down the centre line I know all is not good. He goes rigid and tense and although I know Emma hides it very well, it must feel awful. I almost stop filming after the first 10m loop because it’s just dreadful and I know Emma will be so disappointed (as you watch the video below you will see the cut in the test – nothing is edited out, that’s the moment I switched off the camera for a few seconds). i start filming again almost immediately because it might be good to re-watch it anyway.
He gets better in places, then worse again and I know Emma is hoping to be over and done with. He halts square at the end as if he wanted to add a joke 😉
We are so deflated by his performance that if Shabby has any sense of human emotions he must wonder who died! As Emma says, months ago there were no expectations and she would be ok with the test like this. Now, we know he can do so much better. They both can.
I decide to put them through their paces as he needs to release all that tension anyway so I ask Emma to stretch him in trot a little and then work on his right canter. She rides him the best I have ever seen her ride, partly angry at him partly surely relieved that she is out of the arena but I make a mental note to tap into whatever is possessing her now and put it to use…
I ask her to canter him all the way the imaginary centre line of the warm up field which is massive, maybe 2 football pitch length and off they go. He looks great, powerful and never once goes disunited. She stretches him in trot again and this time he really wants to reach the bit.
Warm up & Jumping
The set up at BCA is that there is a grass jumping warm up of sorts and the main warm up on surface. We make a pit stop on the grass warm up and do our halts in front of the jumps – first from walk, then from trot, then they jump it a couple of times. He looks good!
The main warm up is crowded but not as chaotic as some others we have seen recently and again they warm up well. He is backing off a little and Emma is riding a bit backward in anticipation of him running but all in all he looks calmer and fairly settled.
They enter the ring and are able to start on the left rein which is what Emma planned. I can see him starting to boil up and now I just hope he doesn’t drop 6 poles so she can go XC. He ploughs on attacking the jumps with all his might, jumping them by Braille and rolling 5. Initially we think it was 4 but 5 it was.
I wish I could say something good about an improvement in his jumping but I wouldn’t be honest. He gives the jumps some air but his pace is so frantic his legs just don’t come out of the way. The good thing I see is that Emma tries to stay more upright and keeps her upper body well out of his way more. It’s something we discussed after last event. She also says, he was more rideable than two weeks ago which is good but I know they can do much better.
The improvement in the warm ups is comforting and In fact, I am more than pleased with warm up in the jumping. The disappointment lingers because we still can’t confidently pin point his tension triggers. We explore some breathing techniques with a fellow rider and I make a note to look into this more seriously as Shabby is very responsive to Emma’s state.
Shabby is fabulous XC and Emma continues to experiment with time. He is so far either too fast or too slow. She ends up trying for the middle pace and gets 3 penalty points for too slow (6 for too fast at one of the previous events).
He likes fast pace but she needs to bring him back early to set for the jumps which costs valuable seconds. More experimenting needed with the speed.
Here is a video from the day. I thought it would be nice to invite some of the other Aspire riders to come along for a taste of eventing and we had a great time. Huge thank you to Tatiana and Gary for an awesome picnic!
POST EVENT PLANS
Shabby goes to Farley Hall BE100 nest weekend so he is resting now for a couple of days and we meet on Wednesday for the lesson.
I plan to show Emma the videos from her riding him after the dressage test and for her to figure out the difference in her riding so she can replicate it. We will continue with canter work and pole work as that’s a mission for good few months rather than days.
Breathing exercises and some sports psychology perhaps. Shabby just likes to make sure we explore all sort of training avenues. He is a thorough fellow like that 😉