Friday, June 29, 2012

Tweedy Weekends

 It’s been a whirlwind weekend, and finally someone caught me out. All the chatter of making dressage more integrated and more accessible has come around and bitten me in the ass. At our September festival we thought it might be fitting to offer some prizes to reward the people who have bred horses on the island and stuck by them even when others like myself are bringing in some great big fancy-schmancy warmbloods. This resulted in me consenting to act as a judge for a potential dressage pony/horse class at the Ellan Vannin Native Pony Association Summer Show.
With the date upon me before I even knew what was happening, I had set out on a quest to replace my tweed jacket, the last one having been hastily donated for fear of having to do a show hunter class ever again. Some of you will remember the excursion to the Iverk Show on Don Rosario, my 18 3, much to everyone’s amusement. My merriment too, until I discovered there were about twenty-five horses in the class and it was going to take most of the day for the ride judge to get through them all. Luckily my horse decided against having a complete fit and bucking the judge off despite her legs barely coming past the saddle flaps.
Tweed jacket found, it only took one pleading conversation with the nicest lady at a local bridal shop to have the sleeves graciously let down so you couldn’t see my elbows. Unfortunately, not a hope existed of finding a bowler hat for my massive cranium. On the morning, I donned my beagler that had been retired for my approved riding helmet ever since common sense took over at dressage shows. All this palaver almost went to waste as grey grumbling skies and drizzly mist covered not only the mountainside but everything else in sight. The pragmatic steward resisted the urge to tell me off as I arrived driving a clapped-out 1993 Subaru.  He suggested I park on the roadside rather than the sloshy field.

Despite my reservations, I had a marvelous bunch of entrants, with all ponies round and forward (although sometimes a bit too much). Showing kids are more sharp witted than I ever was. Some of them almost rode me over, doggedly determined to display their ponies leggy movement. There were super animals, and all quite well ridden. If even only one of those canny riders comes over to the darker side of dressage, it’s a job well done.

By midday the sun had won the battle for the skies and we were all thoroughly melted in our layers of rain gear and woolies. Regardless of groggy weather it was refreshing to see so many young riders confident and competent around their charges. Tiny kids hauled resplendent and uncomplaining ponies across an enormous open field without a care or a worry, then hopped on board and got to work. In dressage these days we almost seem to be developing less horse-sense. Even I find myself getting rather precious about what shows to ride at and what footing is deemed superior enough. I often overlook the days when I rode my first little Irish dressage horse Nabucco outdoors, rain, hail or shine, emboldened by tales from my trainer on how she had schooled one of her first competition horses to Prix St George on the roads and lane-ways around the village. By the end of the day I vowed to myself to get out and school in the field again and maybe even have a look at classes for the Royal Manx Agricultural Show later this summer. I don’t think show riders need worry. Rex is going well, but he’s so full of spit and vinegar that sometimes just going into the spooky corner by the door is too much, let alone having a gallop across the show ring.

 Maybe it’s just me, getting older and creaky. I am a less likely these days to run around like a loon. And it takes an age for me to recover from a boozy night. At a recent physical the doctor asked me how many units of alcohol I was having each week, and without thinking I said, “Doctor I’m trying and trying, but I can’t manage anymore than a couple of glasses of pinot before I conk out.”  And in the gym I find myself in the middle of something excruciating before I realize that I’ve only started it to compete with the bloody youngsters on the gym floor, determined not to be my age and even sometimes fooling myself.

The single minded narrow approach to lifting is getting me into a bit of trouble, and a blocky lower back has me paying closer attention to what I’m doing when I’m on my own without someone to watch for habits creeping in. Rex’s physio is also making a visit this week to inspect that all is going to plan since her last stopover. I glibly mentioned how developed my back muscles were getting and I could see her eyebrow twitch with disapproval. She suggested I have a check myself. There was a fleeting moment where I thought proudly how she’d like to check out my growing latissimus, until I realized she wanted to see how much damage I’ve done in my effort to be statuesque. I bet you Michelangelo’s David spent a fortune on physical therapy.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Midnight Musings

Lying quietly, still and serene, staring at the square of light outlined across the room. The midnight
gloom penetrating the still dark hours of the morning. Awake and mind tilting, sliding from one
worry to the next, from one wish to another. Suddenly regretting that nose-dive crash-landing at
lunch time, when I dozed off into oblivion and found peace. Escaping from the day’s noises, but
leaving me soaring high in the cloudless sky tonight.

A part of me hoped that as I grew older I’d become wiser and less worried about life. I’ve certainly
grown older, although I feel like I’m nineteen still (except for the wonky knee and the aching back).
Wiser is something you’d have to ask someone else about. I know that I have more opinions on
things. But I also know I have less of a need for anyone to agree with them. And the rest — the
worries — they’re still there. And new ones, new little yapping thoughts to haunt the night hours
when I’m determined to put them away till the breaking light of day, tell me it’s time to face them

These last few days however have seen the worry-load lightened by the fact that my main horse has
seen the physio. It’s her first visit for him, and not before time. The poor big bugger has been
holding it together so willingly. He truly is a star. After a couple of days off and a miserly handful
of walks around the property to check fencing, he’s finally back in actual work. The first day was
difficult to tell if there was a noticeable difference as I’d just bought a new pair of boots. They
swished and swashed as I rode and made it impossible to listen for a footfall. Today, despite the
squeaking of boot on saddle, he felt his old self. Powerful and full of energy, ringing out clear crisp
strides in the outdoor arena. His neck no longer full or tweaks and weakness, but reaching and
supple. His back lifting and strong, with the muscle of the hindquarter pushing through evenly
again. A credit to his new physio, who I discovered also treats humans — so I’ve booked myself in
for a once-over. Little does she know that I’ve been doing Olympic rows, single arm rows, lat
pulldowns, and all sorts of other back-blocking work in the gym. I’ve been working on developing
a decent musculature that can support an 18 3 and look like the picture I have in my head.

My little Dutch horse has decided not to be left behind either, and despite his smaller stature, has
been an absolute saint. He decided it’s all about traveling sideways now that he’s gotten this
‘travelling forward with impulsion’ thing down. We’ve been sweeping seamlessly across the
ground, much to the amusement of the guys putting up the new fencing who don’t seem to be able
to fathom why I can’t make my horse move forward in a straight line.

Some of you will be delighted to know that I did get off the farm this week and go for a proper hack.
Others among you will be equally delighted that my horse thought it appropriate to spin, buck,
spook, start, and propel backwards at high-speed. A thoroughly enjoyable experience, I don’t know
why I had left it for so long to do it.

So before the sun starts peeking under the blinds, I’m going to stop worrying and enjoy the bits in
between. The wonderful giving horses. That fleeting bit of sunshine that’s left my forearms, and
only my forearms, sunkissed. (I tell a lie. Not just my forearms. My mother always told me to put
sunscreen on my sticky-out ears, but do I ever listen? At least the ashen Irish pale is gone from
some of my skin.) And my new boots actually fit and don’t squish my toes!

That Guilty Feeling

I feel so guilty. After years of a thoroughly beautiful relationship, I’ve abandoned one of my best ever friends. Replaced in the mere wink of an eye all for the sake of vanity. I feel awful about it. Morning aren’t the same, afternoons are even worse, and evenings leave me so low and glum. “Coffee, I love you, come back, life isn’t the same without you.”

Why would I do this?  Well, over these last few months I’ve been preparing my old weary body for a new challenge which will be revealed later. Part of this change and challenge you may have gathered from my last few blogs. It is working with the superb Susan Mitchell of “Elite Fitness” on nutrition and training. First thing on the list, remove the coffee. It dehydrates, it’s diuretic, and it also increase your metabolism -- so naturally thin guys like me, breaking their hearts in the gym every day trying to add muscle, certainly should not be on it. Oh, but I only remember the good things.  The highs, the good times. Like looking back on your childhood fondly, I look back on my latte.

As you can imagine I’m loudly struggling along without my daily intake of caffeine and letting everyone know about it. Grumpy would be an ambitious term for how I’m behaving. It harkens me back to my childhood, to my pre coffee days, when my family nickname was “briar arse”. Enough said.

So bearing in mind how little coffee I’m having now and how horrible decaf coffee tastes, I’m amazed I get anything done out in the stable-yard, let alone what we’ve been getting done. This last month saw me talking to American clinicians for talks on future training seminars.

All of my horses would be only to delighted with a change-up of routine. Believe it or not I’ve even started hacking some of them again. It’s not quite what most people would consider hacking since it’s just around the bounds of the paddocks but for me it’s practically outer Borneo. There’s stacks of little shorts-cuts and maze-like tracks, and a great whopping hill in the middle that I was valiant enough to let Rex gallop up. It took us about four strides to make it to the top. That was plenty for me. The other boys are still getting used to the fact that there seems to be a waiting pheasant or lurking bunny on every corner, so it’s a quick trip after work in the arena when we’re not quite so volatile.

I’m also sorting a German trainer for coaching sessions. The hulking horse is wholly stepping up his game everyday, but we need some help making sure that I can control all that ricocheting energy and make it collect more, engage more from behind. We’re blending the days up with lunge work, pole work for all you jumping enthusiasts and light hacking before and after training sessions. It’s a endeavor keeping him improving and making sure he doesn’t ball up into a bunch of knots. It’s enough that his rider gets his knickers in a knot over training.

There's been a succession of talks back and forth to Ireland to organize our next clinic, a judging seminar with Marion Greene. Marion is a dear friend from Ireland who has known me through my dressage career, right from my first horse to the full string of ponies that I ride today. Marion has on occasion helped me with one or two of the horses and she’s especially great at finding a more tactful way of keeping our old Grand Prix schoolmaster in order.

Our last clinician Sue Rotheram, the fabulous Alexander Technician is coming back, but this time I won’t be worked upon in front of an audience or curious onlookers all giggling as I try to find my seat bones! Hopefully, Sue will set me on the path toward proper alignment and more graceful riding. I’ll be blaming my tight muscles on Susan and the new gym routine, as I’m back lifting heavier weights again working on what they call bulking rather than definition. Now before anyone gets excited, my version of bulking up is far from whatever rotund image is springing to mind. I’m naturally very lean so bulking up just means I look a lot less like a thin 19th century immigrant these days.

Speaking of heavier weights. I always vowed not to be a meathead in the gym, grunting and groaning like I’m either passing a gall stone or a twelve pound baby. But as I was training legs, working on my “quad sweep”, I added some more weight as instructed.  Then some more.  And then some more again.  And much to my surprise, half way up through a squat, I let out the most audible, guttural grunt, making the poor woman opposite jump.  We both laughed and all was hilarious until I realized that I was so busy laughing that I couldn’t get the weights back up. Whatever shred of credibility as a serious gym rat was shot to hell in that one noisy moment.

All this lifting, carrying and throwing big heavy bits of iron around the gym did prepare me last week for the fastest dash I’ve had to make in a long time. Early morning to the airport, quick flight to Oxford, pop up on a horse, and flat-out like a lunatic back to the airport to make the return afternoon flight to the Isle of Man. I’d like to think I looked like an Olympic sprinter as I bounded through the check-in and across the tarmac. It’s more likely I looked like a runaway convict. But at least those thunderous squats are doing their job, and I was able to soar up the steps just in time before everyone on board got too disgruntled with the late passenger. You’d think they’d have a coffee and calm down.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

New blog, Stable To Stable Equestrian Magazine

I'm now blogging for the fabulous Stable to Stable Equestrian Magazine so between here, there, Facebook and Yahoo you have no excuse to not be able to keep up on whats happening in stable Ivan! Check me out at Stable to Stable here.

If you're like me and too lazy to follow the link (but please do at some point check them out, it's a great website), here's a copy of whats going into Stable To Stable.

I’ve been sitting and watching the edges of my life. Peering into the darkly lit corners to
see if shadows are moving or is it just a trick of the light. Looking for some sort of sign of
madness. I’ve been a card holding member of the lunacy club for quite a while. You get
your card stamped as soon as you enter the world of horses.
It’s been a superb first month here at the new yard. After a perilous journey which took four
days all in all, each horse has settled in happily to their new habitats without so much as a
grumble. I’ve settled in with only a few minor grumbles, but nothing my better half isn’t
used to. Neighbours are more than friendly and have already saved the day. The sun has
been shining almost every day. And yet I’m determined to find a way to slowly drive myself
bonkers and turn my hair even more grey. (Thanks to my young stylist for pointing out how
much more grey I have become at each appointment.)
On our official opening day, we had an informative afternoon with an Alexander Technician,
Sue Rotheram, who, in just one minute, politely managed to put her finger on the button
on my positional faults in front of sixty or so people. No pressure! So in my fuzzy brained
state, lunacy-card in hand, I’ve joined a new gym, starting my journey to the peak of physical fitness all over again.
Luckily “The Gym” (appropriately named) is less than ten minutes away, allowing me to
feed my madness with two hours of gym training every evening, a new yoga and pilates
class and my latest fad, wheatgrass shots. To further the lunacy, my trainer and nutritionist
back in Ireland, Susan Mitchell of Elite Fitness has me on a new routine and a new meal
plan. I asked her since I had been so good on the old one could I indulge in a big bag of
greasy chips from the local chipper that faces the gym and she said absolutely, absolutely not!
What’s all this mania about? An 18 3 dressage horse that more than inspires me to
greatness everyday. He’s the motivation to get my little (but now tightly muscled, thank
you) ass into the gym everyday. He’s more than the motivation, he’s the one that makes it
a habit, makes it a routine. At 18 3, and needing support, you suddenly discover the aches
and pains the Alexander woman pointed out are the bits that stunt a pirouette, get in the
way of a graceful half pass, or block that half halt.
So each crazy shift of weight, each insane lift of a dumbbell, each deranged yoga stretch
gets my crazy hours logged, but it also gets me closer to that one moment — the glorious
feeling of harmony and lightness with my horse. Of breathing and melding into a
movement without hesitation and without having to go for a nap afterwards. So punch my
card, have the men in white coats on standby. Because I can feel greatness within my
grasp in this partnership, and if it takes 265,453 sit ups to do it, I’m there.