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Equestrian Advice & Guides Beginners Advice
Are you thinking of going it alone for the first time ever? This might seem overwhelming and completely daunting if you’ve always had friends or a support crew to go with you, to help at lessons or shows. But with the “new normal” resulting from COVID meaning limited numbers gathering together and "bubbles" being formed, more and more of us might be thinking of trying to take our horse or pony out for lessons or to shows “solo” for the first time.
Currently (Sept 2020), British Eventing allow one rider and one support person per horse, as do British Dressage and British Showjumping, and generally, local, unaffiliated venues have followed suit. But what if the friend who usually helps you out is nervous about going out and about again, or they live with someone on the vulnerable list and you don’t want to ask them? What if they’re currently self-isolating or, quite the opposite, they’re out doing other lessons and shows to try and make up for lost time, and the thought of asking your non-horsey other half seems worse than going it alone? Whatever the reason, it might be handy to gain some confidence in “going solo” to see you through the foreseeable future.
I’d been really lucky in the past and had always had friends who were going places, so I just hitched a ride with them. But as we all grew up and moved away and our horses retired and some gave up riding, I realised that if I wanted to get out and about and do things with my pony, I was going to have put on my brave pants and tow myself! My other half is completely non-horsey and really busy, so was never really an option as a helper. Now, out of choice – and in pre-COVID times (can you even remember that?!) – I will always go to dressage by myself, as I just really don’t want anyone else to suffer that (we’re not that worthy of watching, yet!), but I take someone with me for cross country and eventing.
If you’re thinking about – but dreading the prospect of – solo outings, hopefully, some of the things I’ve learned over the years might help.
Get comfortable with the vehicle
It might seem obvious, but firstly – and well in advance of your maiden solo voyage –make sure the seat and mirrors are set for you (easy enough if it's your normal, everyday vehicle). Ensure you’ve got things in the cab or towing vehicle that make you feel more at home, such as sunglasses, music, a mask, phone charger, lip balm, sat nav etc. If you’re going to be driving a lorry, make sure you check what side the fuel cap is on – is it petrol or diesel? Do you know how to work the automatic ramp or can you push up the ramp manually yourself if you need to? Is there a leisure battery you need to know about?
If you have a trailer and someone else always used to hitch up for you, you need to learn how to do this well in advance of the day. Make sure you have time to master reversing, and remember to attach the breakaway cable and electrics and check that the lights are all working.
Practice driving/towing with and without the horse
This is the step I found most vital to building my solo journey confidence. Don’t underestimate how stressful this can be at first, when your precious cargo is on board. If you’ve got a trailer, it’s really useful to practice things like turning and reversing over short test run journeys, to help you feel more confident and relaxed. Trust me, there are few things more nerve-wracking than trying to do a multiple point turn with your horse in the trailer if you’ve not being towing long. If you have a lorry, however, it can be really helpful to get used to the higher driving position and larger vehicle to manoeuvre, without your horse on board.
The next step is to load the horse and go round the block a couple of times or on short journeys, just to get used to the difference in weight, speed, acceleration, stopping distance and adjust to the noises, which you’ll suddenly become acutely aware of. This also helps to ensure that you can load and unload by yourself, without your horse suddenly realising “Ah ha! She’s on her own, this could be fun!” If you are able to have a few practice runs like this, when there is no other agenda and you’ve got plenty of time, it all seems a lot less scary.
This really is the name of the game for solo ventures: fail to prepare and prepare to fail, as the old saying goes. As the big day arrives, the more organised you are, the less anxious you’ll be. As my show jacket and stock stay at home, I hang them in the car the day before, so when I leave home on the day, I just grab a bottle of water and an apple, along with my phone, purse and keys (trailer/lorry keys too; make sure you know where they are in advance) and head to the yard.
At the yard, try and pack as much as you can the day/night before. I like to put my hat, hairnet, gloves, stick, spurs, number bib/bridle numbers, hoof pick, grooming brush, passport and boots etc, all into one bag. That way it’s easy just to grab the one bag/holdall, along with the saddle and bridle on the day itself, and it means only one journey to the tack room.
If you pack in advance, you’ll also be much less likely to forget something. I also fill the water containers and a hay net and put them in the trailer the day before, along with a bucket of washing off things. Making a list can be really useful too, and can help to set your mind at ease.
Any little jobs you can do in advance – like rolling a tail bandage the correct way, making sure you’ve got a phone charger in the vehicle or filling up with fuel the day before – will all help to make your prep on the day go more smoothly and keep your anxiety levels low. I prep everything I possibly can the day before, so that on the day I just hitch up, do one run to the tack room, groom my horse, put my travelling gear on and go.
If it’s somewhere I’ve never been before, I might also drive there in advance (provided it’s not too far away) so I know where I’m going and know there is somewhere to turn the trailer etc.
Try to pack your car/trailer/lorry in a ‘last in, first out’ sort of way, meaning anything you’ll need access to first is to hand and can be grabbed easily. You don’t want to be rummaging about looking for a glove minutes before you’re due on.
If you know your horse is a bit of a fidget – or not great at being tied up – and you usually have someone to hold them, you could travel them with brushing/tendon boots under or instead of their travel boots. It’s one less thing to contend with when you arrive and can be a great time-saver. If it’s a local journey, you might also want to travel with your saddle on. I don’t tend to travel Rock with his saddle on, as he’s great to take out alone, but when I arrive, I put Rock’s bridle on in the trailer (it might be possible to do this with your saddle too depending on the configuration so you don’t need to tie up outside at all) then tie him up to pop his saddle on. Then just pop your boots and hat on and you’re ready.
Time is critical to managing your anxiety when you first go out alone. Too little and your rushing and worried. Too much and you have time to over-think things and become nervous.
However, on the day itself, it’s worth allowing yourself more time than you think you might need, as tack room journeys, hitching up, grooming etc, all take longer on your own. You don’t want to feel pushed for time before you even leave the yard or suddenly realise that your planning wasn’t quite as good as you’d thought and you still need to [insert last-minute job here]...
The journey may take longer too, as you’re likely to drive slower on your first few solo outings with your prized cargo, or take a less direct route which is easier to drive but works out a bit longer.
Also, think about when you arrive at the venue. Do you need to register and pay a start fee, as well as tack up, put your numbers on and get yourself ready? All these things take more time than you’ll imagine on your own, and you don’t want to start your lesson or show exhausted and sweaty from rushing and stressing.
If you arrive a bit earlier, you can also choose the most suitable place to park. Finding a place where you won’t need to manoeuvre too much or reverse out can really help make the whole thing seem more do-able. However, it’s worth checking with the venue beforehand, as many places are currently advising people to arrive only 30 minutes in advance of the event. This should be plenty of time if you’re organised and will become easier once you’ve done a few solo journeys.
Divide and conquer
When it comes to anxiety, the main thing causing concern and holding you back is your mind. Thinking about the day in small controllable chunks, rather than as one whole, overwhelming event can be really helpful. For example, several individual stages can mentally seem a lot more feasible than “Oh! I’m going to a lesson/show on my own”.
I used to – and probably still do, subconsciously – break it down into 8 logical stages and create a timeline for each which gets me on board for when I need to be:
You can mentally tick each one off as it’s completed and before you know it, you’re there and ready to ride. A huge, intimidating day becomes 8 manageable tasks and once you’re riding, you only have 3 left to do, which is strangely reassuring.
Outings are generally always going to better with friends, for the chat, laughs and support, but going it alone does give you so much freedom to just load up and attend whatever you choose, without it having to suit someone else’s schedule. Solo outings are like anything else; the more you do them, the more comfortable and confident you’ll be, as you’ll get into a routine and find what works for you. If solo ventures are all 2020 is going to allow you, get organized and go for it! Don’t let COVID-19 ruin any more of your fun this year.
Caroline and her over-height grey Connemara, Rock, compete in most unaffiliated disciplines and are working their way up to tackling a BE event. You can keep up to date with all their adventures by following them on Facebook or Instagram @grey_connieadventures.