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The diary of the home-made livery yard: ‘I went through the five classic stages of grief’

A few weeks ago, I took my BHS Stage 4 dressage exam.

Very helpfully, a few days before the exam, my children gave me the Bubonic Plague.

It was a vicious and highly contagious stomach bug that began with our youngest son, one-year-old Monty, vomiting in his car seat on the way to Lidl, resulting in the most uninspiring supermarket shopping trip ever. The Plague left me exhausted and unable to eat for 48 hours before the exam day.

I run my 11 horse livery yard on my own (aside from the lovely, Jen, who assures me of a day off once a week), so any illness and injury simply equates to Lucozade and/or painkillers by day and extra quantities/strength of alcohol by night. I am generally of the belief that if I am not bed ridden, I can probably get the day’s work done. Albeit at half speed.

With Hilde

Equally helpfully, I had not seen any of my riding coaches in weeks or months. So with energy levels at rock bottom, I woke up at 4am to make the three hour journey up to The Talland School of Equitation to sit an exam I had no chance of passing.

It’s a funny thing, desperation. Knowing I had not appropriately prepared for the exam, I started to place disproportionate importance on trivial matters, such as what I wore. I painstakingly chose grey jodhpurs and a sporty base layer top over the traditional exam/show attire (which you now can, as the BHS has relaxed dress rules) in a tragic attempt to show that I was a day to day dressage rider who could pass this exam in their sleep.

I pondered far too long over whether to wear my very blingy Gatehouse Chelsea Air Flow Crystal hat and portray the image of a devout dressage diva, or whether that could be seen as too ostentatious and should I opt for my more sporty and sleek Gatehouse Conquest MKII? What a lucky girl to have a sponsor and options!

Despite all the odds against me, I didn’t want to throw the exam away. My plan was to give it absolutely everything I had, ride my best and desperately try to pass.

Waiting for my turn to ride, I could feel the magical effects of the Lucozade leaving my body. As my energy levels plummeted, I started to feel light headed, I was seeing stars and I knew I would faint soon if I couldn’t sit down. The sheer relief when I was called over to get on board my first horse was enormous, as the saddle provided the much needed seat I required.

I was really pleased with my two rides. In my mind, the first horse had very obvious stiffness issues that I had correctly diagnosed and used appropriate exercises to improve, creating a much more supple horse at the end.

My second horse, I was less confident about because I had started riding counter canter around the corner of the arena (mostly because I had been trying to avoid another candidate on the centre line, the corner came up very fast upon returning to the track and the horse hadn’t fallen over as of yet, so I thought we might just as well continue), which is above and beyond of the remit of the exam. I also discovered some problems in the canter work, which meant I finished my second ride on a bad note, when we were called in due to time.

I came away thinking that my result hung in the balance of how the examiners interpreted my choice of exercises with my second horse.

I was hugely wrong. After a full, torturous 10 working day wait for the results, I received a small, white fail letter in the post (not a big, brown, A4 certificate-containing envelope).

To my surprise, the examiners comments said nothing about ‘what’ I did with the horses, it was ‘how’. The comments were that my riding position was really quite bad.

If you are a rider, being told your position is bad is pretty much as harsh as a kid in the school playground telling you that you are really ugly. Ouch.

I went through the five classic stages of grief, sorry… of exam failure:

1. Denial — ‘What? A Fail? No! The bas***ds!’
2. Anger — ‘Fail…? Excuse me! You try riding on zero calories and three hours sleep!’
3. Bargaining — ‘If only I had sat up straight and kept my seat central, I would have had a chance.’
4. Depression — ‘What’s the sodding point? I’m rubbish and I was never going to pass it anyway. I’ll give my C.V. in to Tesco in the morning.’
5. Acceptance — ‘Okay, I failed. So, I failed. I have to make my peace with this, form a plan for the future and move on.’

I would like to add my own stage, here. Stage 2(b): Confusion.

While I will always accept that the examiners are right, that they want to pass candidates and they will have had good reason to fail me, sometimes the grounds that are given for failing an exam come as a complete surprise.

The last couple of lessons I had before my exam (with three different, very high level, BHS qualified coaches, I might add), each trainer had pointed out that my upper body was good and my hands were good, but my lower leg needed some work. So when my exam comments read: ‘Collapsed upper body position and a fixed rein contact, at times,’ with not a single mention about my leg, I was understandably baffled.

Not only did I feel that we were not all singing from the same song sheet, but I was peeved that the fact that I spent the entirety of the ride on my first horse using give and retake of the reins (inside/outside and both together) on 10m circles and leg yield, and trotted round at the end of the session on the buckle (to demonstrate that I had improved the suppleness of the horse, as he stretched downwards and forwards without breaking the rhythm or balance) had been completely lost on the examiners. As you can probably tell, I am not bitter about this at all.

Hilde and I

In all seriousness, though, I can only hope that I don’t usually ride that badly and that my upper body position was an effect of short term malnutrition from the stomach bug. It makes sense that I would be more collapsed than usual and that I might hang on to the reins if my core wasn’t doing its bit.

Either way, the positive outcome is that I am being very careful about my posture in the saddle and I will go away and work hard on my position ahead of a retake next year.

Now I have finished whingeing and moaning, I would like to introduce you to a gorgeous mare I have recently been given the ride on.

Hilde is a beautiful 16-year-old Friesian mare owned by Lynn Wingard. A bit of a late starter, Hilde has only been in the dressage game for two years. I am lucky enough to be riding Hilde after her previous riders have put in all the hard work and schooling.

Lynn can only be described as an absolute character. Lynn used to ride to British Dressage medium level on her gifted horse, Greystone, and has a wicked sense of humour, so every session together is really good fun.

Lynn trains Hilde with local international and grand prix dressage rider, John Chubb, so I have been enjoying some fantastic coaching ahead of our first competitive adventures.

Most recently, Lynn took Hilde and I to a clinic John was holding at Tall Trees Arena this week and I swear to God, the words, ‘You are a good rider,’ came out of John’s mouth. Directed at me!

It meant a lot after the confidence knock of failing my exam and I don’t think anyone has ever said that to me before.

Now, yes, I am aware the good man is being paid to say nice things to us. But, believe me, I have paid small fortunes in the past to receive actual verbal abuse from some instructors, so I am going to take this kind compliment, no matter how in/sincere, and hold it close to my heart.

Continued below…

As we left the clinic, I joked with Lynn how I had ‘glammed up’ to ride Hilde. An hour previously, I had been schooling Chunky wearing paint-splattered black men’s jogging bottoms, an over-sized frumpy grey puffa coat and a tatty old hat. I told Lynn how I had quickly thrown on clean, smart(ish) clothes, a blingy riding hat and even a slick of mascara before driving to the clinic.

I think Lynn misinterpreted my motives as she exclaimed, ‘You are barking up the wrong tree there, my dear!’

I simply hadn’t wanted to be an embarrassment to Lynn. As a happily married mother of three, I now very occasionally wear make up, not to impress men, but merely to avoid people confusing me with a corpse that has escaped from the morgue.

Katy x

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