equestrian · Thoughts · writing

Horse Show Diary #2: The Pleasure Show

Another week, another opportunity to take the horses on an outing. I am not entirely sure what possessed me and my friend Alice to decide to compete in ridden pleasure classes at the Whanganui A&P Fundraiser Show, except that it was fairly local, cheap to enter and there were classes for Best Walk and Best Trot, which I figured even Flea could cope with…

So we loaded the horses onto the float (something Flea is getting progressively better at) and headed 1 hour’s drive north to Whanganui Racecourse. (Not every show in NZ is held at a racecourse, I swear – just all the ones we go to, apparently.)

The horses both travelled well and tucked into their hay nets when we arrived. We paid our entries and gave them a bit of a brush, flicked on some hoof oil, had some lunch, and discovered that Ace loves falafel (as in, will stick his nose in your tupperware and try to push you aside to get to it, LOVES it). We tacked up, brushed ourselves off and headed over to the ring. Flea had been very good when we arrived, but once I was on board and we were riding across the field, he became a little overwhelmed by the sheer number of other horses (100 or so) milling around in the large area. Some were walking, some trotting, some cantering, some standing still, some being led, but they were all horses he didn’t know (except for Ace) and his brain started to short-circuit from the overstimulation. Ace became his security blanket and Flea was quite unable to function without Ace within his line of sight at all times. I walked and trotted Flea around, attempting to get him to at the very least pay a marginal amount of attention to me, but aside from walking and trotting as requested, he was far more interested in LOOKING at everything and trying to see where Ace was and threatening to have a small hissy fit if Ace disappeared from view. So that was…fun.

There were 12 (?) or so riders in our division, Recreational Pleasure 16 years & over, with a broad range of horses on show.

The first class was Best Presented, and given that Alice and I had read “Plaiting and Jackets optional” on the programme and had thereby opted not to plait our horses’ manes or wear show jackets, we were not placed in this.

We then moved on to Best Walk. I positioned Flea behind Ace, and he walked extremely briskly to keep up. Ace was doing his best Morgan Horse walk, energetic and forward and exuding charisma and presence, as always. Flea was still wound up and yawing at the bit from time to time. We changed direction, during which Flea took the opportunity to itch his head on his foreleg and almost fall on his face. Once we were going the other way, Ace was behind us and Flea’s speed halved from brisk to hesitant shuffle with eyes rolling back to try and find Ace. This, it turned out, wasn’t precisely what the judge was looking for. Ace, on the other hand, was exactly that, and was called in first. Alice was delighted to have achieved her goal of getting a ribbon, so her day was thus declared a success at this point and she didn’t much care what happened next.

The next class was Best Trot, and Flea again participated with some unnecessary extravagance and flair. Now that the other horses were moving around him at speed, and some of them started to pass him, he got more and more wound up to the point where I had very little control over his speed and direction. He was determined to follow Ace, and when he got passed by a third horse on the outside of the circle, he threw a small temper tantrum and burst into canter. Not ideal in a Best Trot class! I got him back to a trot and kept him moving but unsurprisingly he was, once again, not what the judge was looking for. Nor was Ace that time around, and we both stepped aside while the ribbons were presented.

Next was Best Mannered, which at this point clearly wasn’t going to be Flea’s strong suit. Also, we would now be expected to canter all together, and I just wasn’t sure whether he would cope. He was very tense as it was, so although we started the class, once everyone began trotting and he again got very wound up and anxious, I decided to remove us from the ring and see if I couldn’t get him to calm down so he could actually process what was going on. He thought that Ace trotting past him as he stood by the side of the ring was a bit alarming, and when everyone started cantering he became even more worried, so I decided to dismount and see if I could get him to stand still and relax. It took a while – two more classes, in fact, in which Ace was a good boy but didn’t earn himself any further ribbons – before Flea finally decided that he didn’t NEED to move his feet, or push me with his head, or whinny to his friend, and that he could in fact stand quietly, lower his head, half-close his eyes, and sigh.

Once he could stand like that for a couple of minutes, I remounted and sat on him, aiming to get the same relaxation from him with me in the saddle. I don’t usually like sitting on horses at shows and using them as a grandstand, but felt it was important that Flea learned that he could still relax even with me on him. He did tense up quite a bit once I was on board, shifting around a little and calling out to Ace again, but he eventually found a more relaxed headspace and managed to stand still and wait.

Ace, meanwhile, had decided that it had been too long between winning ribbons, and picked up another win in the Best Learner’s Mount (Novice 0-3 wins) class. He was also getting a bit over it by this point, but Alice coaxed one more class out of him to place 3rd in Best Rider. He was then called forward for consideration for Champion and Reserve, and was just pipped at the post for Reserve by another horse that had been a little more consistent across all classes. But he seemed quite pleased with himself and Alice was thrilled with him.

We then rode the horses back down to the other end of the field and Alice dismounted to let Ace have a well-earned graze on some clover while I spent about 10 minutes schooling Flea. Once he’d stopped spooking at the practice steeplechase fences (and the tape reel, and that oddly shaped patch of lawn clippings), he produced some pretty nice work. His left rein canter transition was a little dodgy, but we got it after a couple of attempts. Back onto the right rein, and he cantered nicely, then back to the left and asked again. He was getting tired, more mentally than physically I think, and really struggled to pick up the lead. I let him go back to trot and decided to get some relaxation in trot before asking again, and he actually trotted so nicely, taking the rein forward and down and staying soft on the contact while being relaxed and rideable, that I decided to finish on that good note.

Although the day wasn’t a success as far as ribbons won (for Flea, anyway), it was still a good learning experience for him. By not pushing him to perform when he was already so tense and distracted, he had the time and space to calm down and actually process what was going on. I’ve been told by a lot of people that Spanish-bred horses are slow to mature, and he is just SO busy in his little brain that it’s hard for him to process a lot of new things at once. He’s also pretty herd-bound to Ace, which is not ideal, but they’ve been partners in crime for six months now without any other friends so it’s not exactly surprising.

Before we left for the show, Alice and I both filled in a page of a new project that I’m working on, a ‘Horse Show Diary’ where you fill in your goals and focus for the show before you go, then add in your successes and ‘homework’ afterwards. My goals were for it to be a positive experience for Flea, and for me to get him relaxed and attentive, and we achieved those goals, even though we didn’t participate in much of the actual showing part of the day.  (Alice’s goals were not to fall off, to win a ribbon and to have fun, all of which she also achieved. Good job team!)

I have always found that it’s really helpful to write down your goals, especially with young or green horses, because success isn’t always measured in ribbons and prize money. Since I had decided beforehand what I wanted to focus on and what I wanted to achieve, I was able to think logically when Flea’s level of tension and adrenalin early on at the competition started causing problems. Although I was tempted to just grit my teeth and keep going, I was aware that the goal I’d set was to help him find relaxation when he was out in a group. So I had to think about how I COULD achieve that goal, and work towards that. So often when we come home from shows without ribbons, we think that means we haven’t gained anything from the experience. But hopefully the show today will have taught Flea that he doesn’t have to freak out when he’s overstimulated, that he can be out in a situation with lots of horses all doing different things and still be able to focus and stay calm. It won’t happen overnight, but it’s a small building block towards having a more relaxed, rideable horse.

Pictured: Alice and the incomparable Moon’s Ace with their ribbons at the end of the day.

equestrian · writing

Horse Show Diary #1: The Gymkhana

It’s probably obvious that I’ve been struggling a little bit with writer’s block lately, considering I released my last book almost a whole YEAR ago. (It’s true. IRISH LUCK came out in June 2018. That’s…confronting.) There have been quite a few changes in my life since that book came out, not least of which was the purchase of a new house and farm, where I have been joined by two horses, a very loyal dog and a very naughty kitten! (Regular updates on my Instagram @kate_lattey if you’re interested.)

I am still working on book 11 in the PONY JUMPERS series, and I do have large portions of it written, but it hasn’t quite gelled together yet. I find myself caught between the desire to write and release the best book possible, and the awareness that it’s been Almost. A. Year. since I wrote my last book. But I don’t want to just churn it out for the sake of it. I have been looking forward to writing this story for some time, and it is slowly coming together. It’s just taking time…and if I’m honest, I’ve been pretty slack about working on it!

So why are you writing a blog about a horse show that you attended two days ago, instead of writing book 11, I hear you ask? Good question. Because I keep getting stuck when I sit down to write. Because I keep talking myself out of just sitting down and doing it, which is the only way to actually get through writer’s block. So I thought I’d start by writing about something I know, something I can write about easily, where I won’t find myself agonising over each word or each character’s motivation.

So…here goes.

Currently, I have two horses in the paddocks at home. Ace is a 17 year old dark bay partbred Morgan gelding, currently on lease from a friend. He came to live with me a day or two after I moved into my new place, just before Christmas, but has been out of work for most of that time after slicing his heel open on a wire fence (because he was pawing at it, demanding carrots). It wasn’t a major injury, but it still cost me $$$$ in vet bills, largely because Ace kept chewing off every bandage that I attempted to cover the wound with. He is not a horse that likes a fuss being made of him – he’s pretty staunch and very independent. He has his own opinions about things, and is steadfast in them. We got off to a slow start together, when I picked a battle (or two) that I shouldn’t have. (Who would’ve thought that asking an experienced trail horse to walk through a patch of sand would have led to an outright refusal and two weeks of sulking? Not I.) Anyway, I eventually had to leave the wound well enough alone to heal, which it has finally done. He’s now back in work and thoroughly enjoying the outings.

Ace’s paddock mate is Flea, a 7 year old bright bay Andalusian x Welsh gelding who came at the same time as Ace, right after I moved in. (Both horses are around 15.1hh). Flea is a chirpy, slightly peculiar, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed little horse, who enjoys an adventure but also uses Ace as something of a security blanket (although he’d utterly deny this if you confronted him about it). Flea isn’t super keen on going anywhere by himself, as he is scared of flapping things – balage wrap is a particular phobia – and finds schooling to be quite hard work and gets rather grumpy about it. (He does, however, try – unlike Ace, who will occasionally flat out refuse to participate in what he believes is pointless circling. Once you’ve been somewhere once, there’s no point in going around and around again, in his mind anyway.)

Ace and Flea are, despite their differences, great friends. Fortunately, my friend Alice is also a keen rider, and she has taken a real shine to Ace, often getting up at the crack of dawn to come and ride with me before work.

Recently, I saw an upcoming pony club gymkhana advertised on Facebook. Hosted by one of our local branches, it was open to riders of all ages, with just a blanket $10 entry fee (with free entry for all local Pony Club members). Although Flea had – to the best of my knowledge – never done mounted games in his life, and hadn’t been ridden more than a dozen times in the past couple of months, I thought it would be a great idea to take him along to compete. Alice was keen to bring Ace too, and we prepped for the show by debating the relative likelihood of Ace even agreeing to leave the start line (marginal), and whether Flea would buck me off as soon as the races began (given his recent propensity for the odd handstand, likely). But we thought we’d give it a go anyway, so on Saturday morning, having done absolutely zero preparation other than hacking a few times in the days prior, trimming their manes to a presentable length, and cleaning our tack, we loaded the horses onto my float and dragged them half an hour south to the Otaki racecourse, where the show was being held.

We weren’t the only adults competing – there was one other.  Also in our group were two sisters, senior riders from the local PC branch. The other adult elected to not participate in the first few races, possibly because her pony was acting up a bit, so initially we only had four of us in each race. With four ribbons to be handed out for each event, this would make us appear quite successful by the end of the day!

But I’m getting ahead of myself. We arrived at the show early (for once) and put our entries in, just as it started pouring with rain. After sheltering for a few minutes in a horse truck, the rain eased off, and we headed out to tack up. With 45 minutes to go before the show would begin, I got on Flea and started schooling him. Alice held Ace out to graze while I rode, and Flea, although distracted by looking at the scenery (and having a mild freak out about the number of Shetland ponies in the vicinity) was pretty well-behaved, leading Alice to state that “I think he’s going to be fine.” You know what they say about famous last words?

We went back to the float for a bite to eat and for Ace to get tacked up. Then we started warming up properly, with both of us riding, and several other ponies and horses trotting and cantering around as well. It was at this point that Flea became somewhat overwhelmed, especially when Ace attempted to leave his side and trot off in the opposite direction without warning. Flea had a couple of small tantrums that involved stopping, jumping in the air and then performing a controlled sort of levade that his sire (whose claim to fame was his starring role as Asfaloth in the Lord of the Rings movies) would have been proud of. I was not so pleased with these airs above ground, given that we were at pony club, not the Spanish Riding School, and did my best to dissuade him from continuing with the bad behaviour. I did this by raising my voice and growling at him, which had the effect of drawing attention to me while being utterly ignored by Flea. Good oh. I asked Alice to stick a little closer to me, feeling Flea winding up every time Ace went the other way, and being unwilling to get bucked off in front of all the children (and their parents). She conceded (I suspect in large part because she didn’t want me to end up injured, as she’d then have to tow the float home) and Flea settled down a bit.

We were then assigned to our groups and our judges, who decided to start the competition off with the Guts Gobbling race. (For the uninitiated, this involves riding up to a clothesline strung between two trees, dismounting and eating a jelly snake off a peg on the line without touching it with your hands, then running back through the flags leading your horse.) With only four of us electing to participate in this race – me, Alice, and the two pony clubbers – we all lined up together. I put Flea on the right hand end, so that if the other riders’ horses raced off the start line, I would at least have Ace as a steady buffer to dissuade Flea from leaping forward or bucking. Alice, for her part, was concerned that Ace might not stop at the clothesline but carry on beneath it, thus effectively clotheslining her, but it turned out that neither of us had anything to worry about, because when the judge cried “GO!” both of our horses left the start line at…a walk. In Flea’s case this was a rather anxious walk, and in Ace’s, a slightly confused one as he wondered what on earth he’d gotten himself in for. Happily, we made it the short distance to the clothesline without incident, and jumped off our horses. Alice’s first, failed attempt to eat her snake made the line spin around, and my snake snapped off its peg before I could even get my mouth near it. After checking with the judge that it was okay to pick it up off the ground (with my hands) and eat it, I did so. (Pony club hygiene for the win.) Now let me tell you, it is harder to eat a jelly snake quickly than you might think. Certainly, it was harder than I’d expected it to be! However I got it down and led Flea, who followed at a confused trot, back to the start line, beating Alice by a stride or two to finish in third place. And so it was that Flea won his first ever ribbon in competition for Guts Gobbling. (For anyone who knows Flea, honestly, this is entirely fitting, even though he wasn’t the one gobbling his guts.)

Our next game was the Bending race. To be more specific, American Bending, which in the parlance of New Zealand pony club mounted games means you race straight up to the top pole, weave back between the poles, weave up to the top again, then gallop home. In theory, anyway. While the two pony club sisters raced against each other, Alice and I ran a much more sedate race of our own. Again, I positioned Flea on the end row of poles next to Ace, so that he could be a steadying influence, as Alice was still under threat of having to drive home if she caused me to be bucked off. We trotted up to the far pole, turned around it, and started slowly weaving back down. The sisters, whose horses were equipped with studs in their shoes for grip on the slippery grass, were well ahead of us, even at this point. Flea was confused and excited, but obedient. We wove back up to the top pole, and had there been any bystanders, they would’ve heard me telling Alice that I would let her beat me so long as she agreed not to canter home! What a wimp. Kindly, Alice obliged, and Flea and I finished in fourth place, with Alice and Ace picking up the ribbon for third.

We rode on to the Barrel race, and I volunteered to go first. At this point, the light drizzle had turned into a much heavier shower, and we were all getting rather wet. I took Flea slowly around the barrels, going most of the way at sitting trot, but turning him slowly and carefully around each barrel as the rain came down. Alice followed me with a slightly faster run, and then the two pony clubbers ran a proper race. The ribbons were presented in effectively reverse order, with Flea easily being the slowest on the clock for another fourth placing.

We moved on to the Flag race. As, to the best of my knowledge, Flea had never been asked to carry a flag before, our judge kindly handed me one, allowing me to ride a few steps and put it back in the barrel before the game started, just to make sure that Flea had a basic understanding of what was expected of him. He was pretty quiet about it, although a bit anxious as the other horses were on the start line and he wasn’t sure what was going on. We lined up, with Flea once again on the end next to Ace, and were given the signal to start. Flea darted forward with his head in the air, feeling uncertain and a little overwhelmed, so I decided that instead of trying to grab a flag when he was in that unsettled frame of mind, I’d just trot him up to the top barrel empty handed, turn around it and trot back. We did this twice, while the rest of the field carried their flags, until Flea felt a bit more settled. Then we slowly and carefully transferred each flag into the top barrel and trotted quietly home. We finished in fourth place, but I think our exceptionally slow run had inspired the other adult rider at the gymkhana to join in with our group, clearly realising that she was well in with a chance at a ribbon if I was going to ride every race that slowly! Alice and Ace had again picked up third.

We went next to the Sack race. Yes, that’s exactly what it sounds like – start on the line, ride up to the other end, jump off your horse, get into a sack, and hop back. This is the kind of game that, as a kid, you enjoy. As an adult, it’s a form of cruel and unusual punishment, and that finish line looks a million miles away! This time, because our fifth rider had joined in by now, we ran the race in two heats. Flea and I were second in our heat, relegating Alice to the ribbon-less fifth position as Ace had decided that allowing his rider to hop along in a sack in an ungainly manner whilst trying to lead him was completely unacceptable. Rather than get into an argument with him, Alice elected to stop halfway, step out of her sack and lead him home in a much more normal manner, which I think Ace appreciated. We then had to do the Sack race again – of all the races to run twice, this was the worst – and by the time that Flea and I were back over the line, my legs were like jelly and my abs were on fire. I had, however, hopped fast enough to earn us third place. Woop!

Next up was Run and Ride. In official mounted games, this is a pairs or team relay, where the first rider will run up to the top bending pole, leap on and ride back, then their next team member will ride up, dismount and run back, and so on. In the past, when participating in mounted games training, I had elected to do the leg that required you to ride and then run. However, this game was not in the schedule as Ride and Run, it was Run and Ride, so that was the order we were doing things. I did line up with a small advantage over both Alice and one of the other girls – I can get on Flea from the ground. Ace is so round that his saddle tends to slip when you get on from the ground, and Alice didn’t rate her chances at gaining the saddle, and the other rider’s horse was too tall. However, the judge and steward conferred and decided to assist those who needed a leg-up. My concern wasn’t getting on, it was Flea standing still while I did so.  I’m not as quick at mounting as I used to be, and Flea is pretty round himself. The only time I’ve fallen off him was when the saddle slipped sideways, and the last thing I wanted was a re-enactment of that. We set off from the start, with Alice and I again keeping our horses to a steady trot while the pony clubbers (and other adult) raced ahead. Then we dismounted, and I took a moment to steady and reassure Flea. There was a brief window of opportunity in which I could’ve mounted and ridden back to the start line before Alice had got on Ace, but it closed almost before I was aware of it. With Alice legged swiftly back onto Ace, she headed for the finish line and I waited for our kind judge to hold Flea while I remounted. To be fair to him, he did stand still while I got on, so perhaps I was being overly cautious, but at a young horse’s first gymkhana, the key is to keep it all as relaxed as possible for them, as we still had a couple of games to go. We finished the race, narrowly missing out on fourth place and ending up as the ribbon-less fifth. Meanwhile, Alice’s attempt at a dash to the finish line had resulted in Ace discovering that he actually quite liked this mounted games lark, and throwing in what was, from all eyewitness accounts, a rather large and dramatic buck! As Alice had not bothered to put her feet into the stirrups before racing for the line, she was very pleased that she stayed on, but was unfortunately nosed out at the flags to finish in third place yet again.

We moved on from there to the Postbox race, which we rechristened the ‘Soggy Newspaper’ race, on account of the extremely damp rolled up newspapers that we had to ‘post’ through the postboxes at the other end. Again, I elected to take Flea steadily in this race, and he was getting the idea of it all by that point and performed pretty well. We ran a heat, in which we found the nerve to canter home and beat Ace by a nose, and then a final, where again we went slowly and finished fourth.

With the day almost done, there was just one more race to go – the Lemon & Spoon race. This is exactly what it sounds like, and I selected my lemon carefully, then balanced it on my spoon and lined up, again on the end of the line next to Ace. “Go,” said the judge and off we went. Now Flea, being Spanish-bred, has a very smooth trot. So much so that it’s almost easier to ride him in sitting trot than rising trot, as it’s honestly more of a shuffle than a trot. This is not always desirable but is of vast benefit in a lemon & spoon race, as it allows you to trot up the line of poles without your lemon moving at all on the spoon! We turned around the top pole, and managed to trot smoothly back home to cross the line first! Alice, meanwhile, had dropped her lemon between the first and second poles, and after deciding not to dismount and pick it up, had finished the game with just a spoon. Needless to say, there were no ribbons for Ace that time, but Flea was very pleased to receive his first place ribbon, which was somewhat amusingly recycled from a national Miniature Horse event.

As it was a recycled ribbon day, Alice and I decided to donate our ribbons back to the pony club at the conclusion of the show, for them to use again at a future event. (We did make the horses pose for photos with them first, however. #forthegram.) For us, the important part was that we’d had a fun day out, and had given the horses a chance to do something a bit different than hacking out down the road. The event was well-run, our judges and other competitors were very kind and friendly, and all up we had a great time. The horses even won themselves a couple of sugar treats each, although neither of them were particularly impressed. Flea is a bit of a scraggly bearded hipster, and his organic, free range, crunchy granola upbringing has made him quite suspicious of anything that’s not on his nutrition plan. (Honestly, this is a horse that will eat around pony nuts and any processed feed and just pick out the chaff.) Ace was still feeling a bit vulnerable after our judge had made a comment about the size of his neck, so he also declined the sweet treats, convinced they’d go straight to his hips. But both horses were very pleased with the carrots that Alice had thoughtfully brought along. (Just don’t tell Flea that they weren’t organic…)

We were back home within a couple of hours, and with plenty of daylight left to take the dogs for a walk. I have since scoured the internet for any more local shows to take the horses to, and luckily for them, there’s not one but two coming up in the next few weeks. Neither of them involve any mounted games, however…so we’ll see how Ace feels about going around in (pointless) circles in two weeks’ time. It could be interesting!