If in doubt – add more leg.

Friday morning, 6am. I drag myself out of bed and look out the window to see, yet again, more torrential rain. It’s been like this for days now. I get dressed, wrap up, and say goodbye to my boyfriend who looks blissfully cosy under those blankets, still asleep.

I suppose its at this point that I should mention that today is my day off. Actually, even on a work day I wouldn’t be up this early – I usually get up at 7.30am. However, my boyfriend and I have a very non-horsey weekend away at a spa hotel arranged, and bum time in the saddle was desperately needed as I hadn’t done much riding all week (see above RE: torrential rain. Also, work and generally being an adult took over for a while), so I arranged a lesson with a friend for 9am. As I drove to the yard, I began to question whether my behaviour was dedication, or in fact madness – even more so when my friend text to say she was having car trouble and couldn’t make the lesson, and I STILL chose to go ahead, in the rain. Definitely madness.

So pony loaded, coffee stuck to left hand, and off we went to the wonderful Redhills Stud, and the wonderful George Russell. The weather wasn’t too bad at this stage to be fair, and I was looking forward to having individual attention to fine-tune our jumping.

We got straight into warming up, and immediately George was on my case about the quality of our warm up – I would agree that I am a bit aimless in my warmups – go large left a few times in trot, OK go the other way now, right we’ve done it both ways so lets do the faster bit now and then go the other way doing the faster bit then. George had me do lots of transitions, both between and within paces, to get Paddy listening to me and more light in front. He also reminded me not to accept sloppy transitions – too late, wrong contact, not sharp or smooth enough, and I was to go back and start again. I kept doing transitions, circles, squares and loops until eventually I felt Paddy lightening in front and carrying us both, instead of me doing all the work.

Then onto poles. George’s favourite exercise – two poles raised at one side on the 3 and 9 arms of a clock face (or 12 and 6, depending on which way you look at it), and come at them in canter on both reins. WHY IS THIS SO HARD?! It’s a circle!! The focus here was to get a punchy adjustable canter – it needed to be collected enough that I could canter on a 20m circle, but powerful enough that I could get over the cavaletti. George had me do a 15m circle and (in his words) ‘dare’ the canter – when I think it’s good, push a little bit more to see what I get – and then come at my cavaletti. I did this a few times on the left rein and it was A1 – onto the right rein and I might as well have been trying to half pass across the arena, I had no steering and couldn’t hold the left shoulder. George had me flex Paddy to the outside on my 15m circle, ‘dare’ the canter with my outside leg this time, and approach the cavaletti on a square shape instead of a circle, to minimise the loss of that left shoulder. Magic! It worked!

Poles mastered, it was time to pop round a course. The first few fences popped around easy – we worked on landing on the right canter lead by having me come at a single fence on a circle and practice landing and turning straight away, then emulating that position in my body over the fence but going straight instead. Looking UP is critical as I look down a lot and this impacts the (wrong) canter lead. Everything was going lovely until I struggled with a short distance to a big meaty oxer and Paddy had to bunny hop out over it. I came again, and the same thing happened. And again. And so George had us start again, and somehow the same fences we’d jumped perfectly previously, all of a sudden we were scrambling over these too. That bad distance and fence had gotten in my head, and I could feel myself getting flustered and a bit worked up. George spotted this too, and was able to jump in and regain my focus – he reminded me where my focus was supposed to be:

  • ‘Daring’ the canter to be bigger
  • Think ‘pirhouette’ when turning to retain control of the shoulder
  • Look up over the fence and for your next fence
  • Land and go after every fence

And not on:

  • The fence itself
  • The ground
  • The fact that I might die
  • That I might make a mistake

So off we went again, and this time George asked me to go for a longer distance (less strides in the related) to the oxer. PING! We flew round, he soared over them, I got my changes (almost) every time, and finished beaming. I have found over time that I ride better when I’m slightly terrified, and therefore have to ride more forward.

It’s phenomenal how our thought processes can affect how we ride to such an extent, and it is for this reason that I am so interested in sports psychology, as it does impact me significantly. A change in how I think can make a huge difference to how I ride, both positively and negatively. Having something to focus on is critical for me to ‘get out of my head’, and this is why I like working with George as he gives me ‘keywords’ to think of as I go around my course – dare my canter, think  pirouette on the turn, keep him up to the fence.

A very positive lesson, and we didn’t feel the rain at all by the end. Only when I got off shivering, and saw my breeches, did I realise just how wet we’d gotten! Worth it in the end as we were home, dry and enjoying the rest of our free day by lunchtime.

Natalie xo

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