Monday, 13 July 2015

I'm Not Dead! Life Updates

Wow I've not blogged for a long time.

A little while ago, I mentioned I was applying to do a PhD. Well, I had the interview a couple of weeks ago and was unsuccessful. Immediately after, I was upset about it (who likes rejection?) but then I started to feel really set up. The proposal was never going to go through, so why waste everybody's time? I certainly felt the person who encouraged me to pursue doing a PhD should have said, look, the idea's too big, it's unlikely to pass an interview. It was an unpleasant experience all round, but since being unsuccessful I feel relaxed and much happier. I think I'd been carried along by everyone's enthusiasm (this is not to place blame on anyone except the aforementioned who could have stepped in but didn't) that I didn't stop to consider whether I was actually ready to undertake such a big project. That I feel so much better and less stressed makes me think that failing the interview was a blessing.

In that time, I've also finished the PGCert course I was doing and two of my private students took their FCE exam, so my evenings have been free. It's certainly been enjoyable coming home from work and riding / work and the gym and just doing whatever I feel like! I need to think about what I'm going to do next, but instead of feeling uptight about it I actually feel freer. Lots of things haven't worked out how I planned in my academic and work life, but it's not been the end of the world.

Another complete failure has been my fitness. I started the 30 Day Abs challenge and was bored two weeks in, so stopped. However, I had quite a shock two weeks ago when I had my body fat checked. 26.84%. That's nearly a 7% increase in 3 months. Who ate all the pies? I did! Understandably that upset me a lot and could have set me back to bad habits, but after a sulk and a cry I took responsibility for my poor choices. Nearly 27% is definitely not where I want to be, so I've started training using a four-day split: chest and triceps, back and biceps, shoulders and legs. I've also been schooling Ernest more, which is mutually beneficial (more on Mr Biff in the next post). The Smiling Assassin is checking my plumpness again at the end of August, so I'm hoping to have dropped it all off again by then.

It's strange that in the face of these failures I feel lighter - ironic, right?! - than I have for a while. I realise how tiring it is trying to control everything.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Dressage Championships: 07.06.15

As I've mentioned recently, Ernest and I have been having lessons again and changing quite a few things. We were seeing some good results already, such as Ernest rounding better and being more supple, as well as reacting to my aids.

I was looking forward to the Championships to try and put into practice our new riding skills. Our championship class was Prelim 17, but I'd also entered a Grass Roots Badminton qualifier - for people with no British Eventing or British Dressage points and who haven't competed above Novice. The two who came 1st or 2nd in the class would qualify for Badminton in July. I've never entered a class like this before, but I thought why not? If we qualify, it would be amazing, but even so it would be great practice. The test for this class was Prelim 13.

The warm up for Prelim 17 was promising. I tried to ride exactly as I had in our lesson the day before, working on his flexibility, suppleness and listening to my leg. Ernest is still a little resistant in the canter so I knew that would lose us marks, and as he didn't buck I knew perhaps I wasn't being assertive enough! As Nadine said, though, having a fight with him in a competition warm up arena is not the place to do it. 

We came 5th in the Championship (P17) with 64.23%. I was pleased because he was much rounder and I didn't feel like I was fighting to keep him round, either. We lost a little impulsion (which is energy and not speed) and our final centre line was... interesting, but that just gave me something to work on for the next test! He always pulls me down the final centre line, so I was fighting him quite a lot. His head went wonky! 

The judge's comments for P17 were: 'Sweet pony, attentive & regular in pace but needs to be much softer through the neck to an elastic contact'. Judges always comment on how wonderful Ernest is! The comment didn't surprise me, either, as there were times - particularly in the canter - where he braced himself against my hand. 

A serious case of final-centre-line-excitement

There was a four-and-a-half hour wait between my first and second tests. Luckily we came prepared with a big picnic, so we relaxed in the sun (and burnt) while eating sandwiches, cakes and penguin bars. Yum! Ernest had his haynet to keep him content.

When the wait was finally over, I realised I may have made an error in entering the Badminton qualifier: there were a lot of bouncy beasts in the warm up arena! Thankfully most of them weren't in the same class, but a few were left and I realised that this wasn't for people like me, who actually rode at Prelim / Novice level. It was for those taking their dressage horses out for the first time, horses who would move up the ranks to much bigger, affiliated competitions. There were also two judges!

In a way, it took the pressure off, and a couple of us in the warm up had the same feeling. So I went into the test just hoping to improve on my last one.

We came 3rd with 69.58%, missing out on qualifying by 0.42%. I couldn't believe it - there I was, talking myself down when actually we were up there with the big guns! One of the judges gave us a very big smile at the end, which was encouraging. I know that if we carry on training how we have been, we'll be scoring some pretty high marks soon.

The first judge's comments said: 'A super pony and very well presented test. Need to be more supple through the back for more fluency and more acceptance of the contact in the transitions and your marks will go up. Accurately ridden.' She gave us 68.54% and a 7.5 for my riding!

The second judge's comments said: 'Horse has 3 correct paces just needs to be more supple to help outline and bend. Well done.' He gave us 70.63% and a 7 for my riding.

So, I know there's still a way to go in the areas I've already talked about. We've got three weeks until the Festival of Dressage, where I'm hoping to do a Prelim and Novice, so hopefully we'll continue improving in that time. I'm so proud of little Biffy - he worked his beautiful big butt off and was well-behaved all day, even during that long gap between tests.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Lara's Two-Month Anniversary

Lara Bingle

Today is Lara’s two-month anniversary with us. She’s gone from quiet skinny mouse to playful, affectionate, slightly less skinny mouse. She’s gone from Lara, to Lara Bingle, to Bingus, to Stinky Binky.

Lara has charmed everyone she’s met through her snuggly nature and quirky habits. Here are 10 things which really characterise our funny little snout:
  1. She is a man’s dog; her favourite people are my brother and granddad.

  2. But she also really loves my female cousin; Bingle followed her to the toilet the first time they met. It’s been a love affair ever since – and my cousin isn’t normally a dog person due to severe allergies.

  3. She is a hardcore snuggler.

  4. Bingle is a very windy hound. Every time she stretches she parps – loudly.

  5. Her favourite defensive move is ‘the sag of uselessness’. If you want her to get down off the sofa or off my bed, she goes all floppy; I’ve had to pick her up several times.

  6. She’s the messiest eater we’ve ever seen. I honestly think she only eats about 20% of each biscuit she takes from the bowl.

  7. If Bingle wants to play or wants attention, she will poke you with her snout. Usually in the bottom.

  8. When she gets overexcited, she spins in a really tight circle, like a mini Twister.

  9. She loves raiding the toy box, and has taken a shine to my old hedgehog slipper and Claus’ red bird (the squeaker is long gone!).

  10. When the phone rings, she howls! Not just a little, either; the entire time the phone is ringing. Then Claus and Princess join in! It’s a cacophony of noise.
Lara and her daddy

Monday, 1 June 2015

Pony Tales: A Very Horsy Weekend

I've not written a Pony Tales for so long! Which is ridiculous, as Ernest is my life (for lack of a less irritating cliche).

Since moving to my wonderful 'new' yard in February - technically not new anymore, and I used to have a Saturday job there - I've been hacking out round some beautiful places. But the other benefit is that one of my closest horsy friends keeps her horse around the corner, and she's been kicking me up the butt to take Ernest out more.

On Saturday we had a cross country (XC) lesson together. I haven't done an XC competition since 2009, and haven't taken him XC schooling for.... maybe 3 years? I can't really remember. To say I was nervous is an understatement, as I knew he'd be excited and would throw in a few bucks. 

It was surprisingly fun! I rode quite well, handled his wilder moments calmly, and felt very positive about the whole experience at the end. The instructor, Julia, was patient and encouraging, and I liked that she always told us to give our horses a pat after each fence. Ernest loved every second, especially cantering through the water! 

pony rolling
Ernest enjoying a roll after his busy weekend of lessons

There was one drop fence which was very scary. I was halfheartedly nudging Ernest to jump down, but he wouldn't move because he knew I was terrified. Julia didn't force us to do it, but I said I'd like to try it at the end. Jaime led us over it after we'd finished jumping some of the other fences and had done a round of the whole course. It felt like free-falling; I can honestly say I felt sick! Julia asked if I wanted to do it again afterwards, but I thought once was quite enough... until the next time, when I might be a bit braver!

pony On Sunday I had a dressage lesson booked with Nadine, as it's Sparsholt Dressage Championships on the 7th. I was looking forward to my lesson as I have a lot of improvements to make, and knew that Nadine would set me on the right track.

The main issue is when I close my fingers on the reins, there's no reaction. I need to encourage him to round over his back - one of the comments I often get from dressage judges is that he needs to be more supple over his back. There's also no reaction when I use my legs, so we worked on getting him more responsive to my hand and leg aids. We created 'gears' in his paces - walk, trot and canter - and tackled his strops when I ask him for more in his canter (he bucks). This weekend was pretty good for me getting to grips with him when he throws shapes, instead of backing off.

Overall, I think Ernest and I had a fabulous weekend. My head is buzzing with all the information from Julia and Nadine, so I can't wait to get on and practice tomorrow. Jaime and I are also hoping to go out again in a couple of weeks' time to the same XC course. Roll on the weekend!

Monday, 18 May 2015

30 Day Ab Challenge

NEWSFLASH: If you eat crepes and pastries and large chunks of white baguette every day, you gain weight. Fast, and in large quantities. 

After a glorious week in France with the Fantastic Four, I'm the heaviest I've ever been.

No bueno.

Last year there were loads of challenges going round, mostly to do with squats and crunches. So I'm jumping - very late - on to this band wagon, to see if it actually makes any difference to my sad excuse for a waistline. 

The first day was easy as I have good core strength, so I did a couple of extra exercises from Maxx's chest and ab challenge (from a different site). I might do it again later, too, and I think I'm going to get my exercise bike back out for the evenings when I just want to watch TV.

fitness challenge

I've been struggling to eat healthy for the last few weeks, and my exercise regime has been all or nothing, so I need to be more moderate. I find this difficult in everything I do, which leads to being burnt out and not wanting / having the energy to do anything.

There are a few events coming up over summer, so I'm using them as my targets - not necessarily to weigh a certain amount, but to look more toned and fabulous. I'm tired of talking about how I want to look. I now need to actually do something about it.

These are my targets:
18th June - 30 days away - brother's birthday
27th July - 69 days away - friend's birthday
14th August - 87 days away - my 25th birthday!

And these are my current stats:
Weight: ...... I'm actually too embarrassed to admit this right now.
Waist: 26 1/2 inches.
Hips: 37 inches.

As well as not eating like a 'fat pig' - an explanation will follow in my next post - I'll be working out 2-3 times a week, riding 4-5 times a week (especially training for dressage and showjumping competitions), and running (now I have new trainers).

Depending on how this challenge goes, I will post a before and after, then a before and after on /  around 14th August.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Culture: Salisbury Cathedral

Last Thursday, I went to Salisbury Cathedral with two students. I can’t remember if I’ve ever been there before, so I was really looking forward to exploring it, as well as visiting the Magna Carta exhibition (one of the remaining four parts is kept in Salisbury Cathedral).

From the station, it's a 15-minute scenic walk away; along the high street and next to a river. We walked under an ancient bridge, rounded the corner of some trees and there it was – absolutely magnificent. I was immediately struck by how forbidding it looked, towering above us and reaching straight into the sky.

After taking some pictures outside, we went in to collect our exhibition tickets. They were free, but because it can get busy, the website recommends booking a time slot in advance; however, we were able to go in before our time as it was quiet when we arrived.

What struck me as we went to the exhibition entrance was the large cloister with two enormous trees in the middle; I imagined monks wandering around it, studying and praying (it really drew my mind back to Ken Follet’s Pillar’s of the Earth). I love reading gravestones too, and there were plenty of them in the walls and floor; I think the oldest I saw in the cloister was about 300 years old.

The exhibition itself was fascinating – it explained exactly what the Magna Carta was, why it was significant 800 years ago and the effect it’s had on the law today. It also drew attention to the state of the legal system internationally, including the percentage of prisoners currently awaiting trial and the level of corruption in each country’s system.

The document itself is written in minute handwriting; as parchment was so expensive, the barons had to save as much space as possible. Sometimes it's hard to imagine just how signifcant things like the Magna Carta are, but looking at it and reading the translation really highlighted how influential this document was - or should that be is? The translation has emboldened the three clauses that are still in our laws today - most notably, that people cannot be imprisoned without reason and must be tried by their peers.

After lunch, we joined a tour of the Cathedral. Originally built in Sarum in the 12th century, it suffered during the Reformation in the 16th century when a man called James Wyatt took out the stained glass windows, among other things. I won't list everything I learnt, but I loved looking at the tombs and effigies and learning about the people buried in them. I'm fascinated by Lady Jane Grey (the girl who was Queen for 9 days), so was pleased to find her sister has a memorial in the Cathedral, put there by her son. There's also a font near the entrance, which reflects the ceiling and window at the opposite end of the Cathedral, which is stunning; I managed to get a picture of the reflection after multiple attempts to angle myself correctly but getting my sleeve wet instead.

Salisbury Cathedral was wonderful in so many ways - the recommended donation is £4.25 for students, which is definitely worth it, and the exhibition is free! I hope to go back in Summer with Maxx, and relax on the grass outside afterwards.

Pictures will be uploaded when I'm back in England.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Eventer's Challenge: 19.04.15

I can't remember the last showjumping competition I went to. It may have been over 2 years ago, possibly even more - I know I did a clear round in November, but it wasn't an actual competition.

Ernest is 19 this year, and while that's not old, I've been feeling that if I want to get back to our former glory - our highest was 3 ft 3 in 2010 - I really need to get on with it. How many more years can I say, "I really want to start jumping again" before it's too late?

A couple of Tuesdays ago (14th April) I took my adopted little sister (not actually adopted, you know what I mean) to meet Lara Bingle, where we once again got on to the topic of me going competing. I told her to kick me up the butt to get out and do things, and she immediately responded with:

"There's an Eventer's Challenge on Sunday. You should come with us. I'm doing the 2 ft 6 class - 8 show jumps, 8 cross country. Do it."

Well, why not. I'd just bemoaned not competing, so why not throw myself in at the deep end?

I entered the 2 ft 6 class and managed to book a lesson for Thursday 16th. It was such a good decision, as it gave me so much confidence. Having fallen off in February, when I last jumped, and in the warm up arena in November, I was anxious. Ernest gets really excited and leaps about during the warm up for any kind of jumping, which is why I usually fall off, but this lesson taught me what to do when he starts throwing shapes. Instead of backing off, I need to take control so that he listens to me instead of finding everything else more interesting. I also need to show him that he can't get away with being naughty, and that if I give a command he needs to respect it.

Sunday dawned and I felt a mixture of nerves, determination and excitement. The first thing I had to tackle was the warm-up arena; if I could get through that, I would be fine.

Ernest threw a few shapes, to which I responded: "You're not getting me off you little arsehole!". I genuinely felt a rising panic when I went in there, as if my stomach had dropped out and it was just hollow, so I really appreciated Jaime checking on me. After 30 minutes and a couple of warm-up fences, I went out to watch Jaime's round.

She rode well, but Fynn didn't like a couple of fences so they didn't go clear.

There was one rider in between our rounds. My body protector is so tight I can never tell if I can't breathe from nerves or just general constriction, but I certainly felt a bit... breathless.

Then it was my turn.

Coming round to the first fence, Ernest threw his head joyfully into the air. I remember thinking, "Here we go."

There's a saying in showjumping that there are two fences you don't want to knock down: the first and the last. I've knocked down the first fence at a huge championship before, and I still remember the frustration. So, even though I was trying to place, I really didn't want to mess up the first jump. I'd also never live it down as my instructor was there (she was the course designer and so was judging the fences).

We got over the first fence clear. Away we were. 

Ernest was in his element, popping the fences like they were poles on the ground. I was enjoying myself, but also concentrating on all the things I needed to do: sit up after the fences, leg on right up to take-off, straight approach, don't cut corners, slight outside bend, correct leg, sit up between fences... 

We went clear - easily, I might add, thanks to my brilliant steed.

I was completely elated with my round. I corrected him when he was on the wrong leg, was conscious of riding every fence and tried to fold over the fences instead of just sitting there and letting the reins slip out of my hands. Looking at the pictures afterwards, and speaking to my instructor, I think I really rode and wasn't just a passenger. 

We didn't place, as we weren't fast enough, but I don't mind. I'm already dreaming about jumping 3 ft again, maybe even 3 ft 3. I just want to go out again soon to keep building up my confidence.