Sunday, 28 December 2014

Home alone for Christmas

Nosing through a recent copy of Good Housekeeping, an article by bestselling author Marian Keyes caught my eye. She was describing her Christmas Day and how she and her hubby have bucked the trend to have a big family event. Instead, they and a couple of close friends go for a long walk, enjoying a picnic of turkey sandwiches and mince pies along the way. There is a lot to be said for taking a new approach to the festive period given the pressure many people find themselves under because of 'society expectations' at this time of year.

Three years ago I felt I needed to 'opt out' of the Christmas Day tradition, looking forward instead to chilling out at home. Don't get me wrong, I don't have anything against the big family thing, but so many people I speak to seem to get together with family because they feel they 'ought to, should do' - few seem to enjoy it! Whilst I have had some wonderful Christmas experiences en famille, after 20 years of being elsewhere for the big day, I wanted to do my own thing in my own home and not dance to someone else's tune. No matter how fantastic and welcoming your hosts are, there is nothing quite like being in your own place to feel truly relaxed.  Plus I get full control of the TV remote!

One of the reasons many people go along with tradition is because they fear the reaction of their nearest and dearest if they did their own thing. Indeed, Marian Keyes experienced this from her own family. I, too, have been on the receiving end of various reactions varying from 'go girl, wish I could do that too!' to concern - although, on further scrutiny, some reactions of concern are perhaps more a reflection of guilt on behalf of the giver who doesn't feel comfortable at the thought of me being home alone. So, I am grateful to my gorgeous partner and my family for being so understanding and supportive of my decision.
My experiences of spending Christmas Day alone have been positive. While everyone else is caught up in the frenzy of packing and traveling to relatives, or shopping til they drop to ensure every base is covered if hosting the day themselves - I appreciate the peace and tranquility that is found outside this media-hyped vortex. It is one day of the year when I  feel completely at peace and relaxed at home. And I'm not entirely alone - I have realised my childhood dream of looking after my own pony on Christmas Day. I love going out for a ride with my friends at the stables in the morning without the pressure of having to be anywhere afterwards. Having caught up on reading matter, or other household stuff, I walk back to the yard to settle Wilbur down for the night before heading home to the warm hug of Myrtle Cottage, with her open fire. I cook a roast chicken dinner with all the trimmings, which of course has to be shared with my stripey feline friend, Haribo, and I speak with friends and family on the phone. I haven't ruled out ever having Christmas elsewhere or with others, but for the moment this works for me.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

A tribute

As in-laws go I fell on my feet. Most people moan about their mother-in-law, so I felt rather blessed with mine. Pam and I not only shared a love of her son Ian, but all things equestrian. And it was our passion for horses which brought us some of our best times - not to mention a few giggles. In memory of you, Pam, I share two of my favourite moments.

Speedy Gonzales
Pam and her beloved Guinea
Guinea was Pam's horse when I first met Ian. A beautiful chestnut gelding, he taught Ian to ride and gave Pam a lot of fun times. So, I was very privileged to be allowed to ride him from time to time. One weekend, Pam generously invited me to hack Guinea around the lanes. As I wasn't familiar with the area, she and Ian met me at various points en route to steer me in the right direction. At one particular place, we were able to ride along the wide grassy verge beside the A33 by-pass. "You can have a lovely canter here" advised Pam. Off we went in a wonderful steady canter - which got faster and faster - clearly Guinea had other ideas. It was at this moment that I wondered if my mother-in-law was a secret speed demon! The wind whistled past my ears as we swept along, chasing the cars beside us. I had no brakes, so all I could do was steer and pray. Up the steep bank by the bridge we scrambled with Guinea barely slowing down. As we reached the lane above, I inwardly groaned - a woman was enjoying a relaxing Sunday walk with her dog. Once more I tried to slow Guinea down but  Guinea was having far too much fun."Get out of the way!" I screamed to the startled lady. "I'm so sorry, I can't stop!" On we went until, by some miracle, Guinea stumbled on the uneven ground just as we neared a junction. It ceased the opportunity and jumped off, somehow keeping hold of the reins. As my heaving breath subsided I heard a voice, "she should be here by now". It was Pam who was stood beside Ian looking in the opposite direction to where I was. "Over here" I squeaked, as my knees knocked together (yes they really can do that!). After making sure we were both alright, the 'inner BHS instructor' emerged as I was told to "get back on and walk him home", which I did (I'd read the BHS manual too). That tale has been regaled many times and I swear I've never been that fast before or since!

The Bells
Me, my mum and Pam at Charlton Park where I was grooming for Ian
hence the reference to Dobby the house elf from Harry Potter
It was Christmas time and Pam was taking her horse, Mulberry (who she bought following Guinea's sad demise) to the local riding club show. It was within hacking distance, and fancy dress. Ian and I stood by as Pam mounted - regaled in a festive red jumper bedecked with bells strung together by ribbon and wound loosely around her neck. No sooner had her bottom landed in the saddle than a startled Mulberry took off - up the orchard he went, bucking and bronc'ing at full pelt. Well, all we could hear was Pam shouting, "It's the bells! It's the bells!". Neither Ian nor I were of any use because we were both doubled up, with tears of laughter streaming down our faces. I don't know how she stayed on but, with a face now the colour of her jumper, Pam got Mulberry back under control, and that plucky lady resolutely took him off to the riding club show!

Pam, you were one very special lady to many people and you will be truly missed. Thank you for all the wonderful memories, and for the delicious picnics you made for Ian and I when we were eventing (your raspberry cream slices are legendary). I hope that you and Ian are now reunited and galloping side by side on your beloved chestnut horses.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Mindful hedge-cutting!

Work in progress
One Sunday morning I decided to put away the electric clippers and get out the hand shears to clip my hedge. This was partly out of respect for my neighbours (it was only 9am) but also because I quite fancied slowing the pace of life down after a busy week. Here are some advantages to 'mindful shearing':
  1. My stripey housemate stayed with me rather than dashing off in horror when the electric clippers fire up.
  2. It's safer particularly when balanced precariously on a step ladder - no electric lead to snip through (and yes, dear reader, I have done it!) or trip over.
  3. I didn't have to waste time trying to unravel said electric lead because we all know that however carefully you put it away, some nasty 'flex goblin' ties it in knots when you're not looking!
  4. You save money on electricity (you can take the girl out of the North.....).
  5. I could actually hear the birds chirping and even enjoyed the organ playing hymns in the baptist chapel across the road.
  6. I didn't spook any horses going past.
  7. It was better for my back as the hand shears are much lighter BUT it was still a good work out for the bingo wings, which, as I get older, are more determined than ever to help me become airborne!

Monday, 19 May 2014

Relationships on a long rein - part 2

My coaches

Following on from Relationships on a long rein, Part 1, how did what Pam and I discussed translate when we worked with the horses?

We worked with Kid, a mare I’ve worked with before. Pam asked me to go over to Kid and approach her like I had approached the spirit horse in my meditation. I approached her in the paddock, fully aware, thanks to our earlier coaching sessions, to respect her personal space and be vigilant for any signals to say she didn't want me close. I felt I could get close enough to her for her to sniff my held out hand in greeting and then she walked away to the far corner of the field. In earlier sessions I would have taken this as a rejection, but this time I felt she was saying ‘come over here with me’. As if, like the spirit horse, she had taken me up on my invitation to fly. So I did, and we stood apart but companionably as she grazed. Every now and again she would lift her head to acknowledge me. I smiled as I realised this situation was mirroring exactly what I had described to Pam earlier about the shift in my relationship with Henry and my friends! It felt as if the relationship between me and Kid in this session was playful – as if that need for company or to be liked, that I had felt in previous coaching, had melted away. This coaching never ceases to amaze me and there is certainly no hiding your emotions - however deep - when horses are around!

Monday, 12 May 2014

Spirit Horse Meditation

Here I describe the story that unfolded in my head during the guided meditation with Pam of Equest Ltd (see my blog, 'Relationships on a long rein?') based on the illustrated card I picked from a selection she offered. All were of an equine theme, and one stood out in particular which initiated the story behind the meditation.

I walked towards Moose who stood in the field in Tring where I felt he had been at his most happy and healthy. The Moose who stood before me wasn’t of solid flesh although his body wasn’t transparent either - it was made up of sweeping lines of different colours -  oranges and yellows and white. The lines seemed to be transient, moving and shimmering in the sunlight. This was the spirit of Moose, he had come to take me on a journey. I knew that. 

As I walked towards him, he  reached out to me with his nose and I felt the warmth of his breath on the palm of my hand which I held out to him. I stroked his long beautiful arched neck. His coat was soft beneath my fingers, his body warm and comforting. He lowered his head towards the grass and I was suddenly flipped onto his back so I was sitting in the natural dip between his withers and quarters. I held onto a wisp of mane, the strands silky but strong. He started to walk. Each footfall taking us further up the hill, rhythmical and steady. Then, he moved into canter, a controlled collected canter and we moved as one as he rose up into the air. It was the most fabulous feeling – we were flying and instinctively he knew where I wanted to go. The air was flowing past us, gently brushing against my face as we moved towards our destination…..the bluebell woods. 

Gently we landed in a small clearing amongst tall trees which seemed to welcome us with their cloaks of waving green leaves. The vividness of the colours took my breath away – the striking bluebells amongst the green lush grass.  I slipped to the ground, landing on the springy woodland floor and then sat down. As I did so,  faces from my past, of people I knew both living and dead, encircled me as if I was in the middle of a large revolving cylinder. The faces changed and moved as the images flowed around me. They came in and out of focus, pure white lines, dancing and playing as if they were made out of smoke. My maternal grandma and granddad were amongst them,  long dead, but I have always felt their spirits with me. Other faces I didn’t recognise morphed into my vision, but I knew they were all there in this special place for me. Their love flowed over me as I sat there.  Emotions welled up inside and tears rolled slowly down my cheeks, but I felt calm, contented and loved. When it was time to leave, I put my arms around Moose's neck and inhaled the familiar, sweet smell of this darling horse. 'Thank you', I murmered into his long silken mane. As we flew back to his field, and the distance between us and that special place increased, I knew I would be back, that Moose would take me there whenever I felt the need for that love and support. 

Relationships on a long rein?

I am back in my favourite Wiltshire retreat and relaxing after a fabulous coaching session with Pam of Equest Ltd who, over the past year, has helped me explore my feelings and let go of some of the anguish I have stored about the events of 2008. This evening, despite the rain outside, my gin and tonic is poured and I am feeling warm and content. Today we did a guided meditation session based on an illustrated card I had picked from an equine-themed selection. The meditation was emotional and enjoyable and you can read more about it in my blog Spirit Horse Meditation which accompanies this.

 Spirit Horse card
Prior to the meditation, I explained how I felt I was in transition both in life generally and in my business. I felt I was moving forward into a new phase where I felt more settled as a person; more capable of dealing with life's challenges and less needy of other people's support or company. And, although I had experienced feelings of loneliness at times over the past month, which isn't unusual particularly when you work from home as a freelancer, I noted that the feelings weren't as painful as they had been previously. 

I recalled a conversation I’d had with my partner Henry, not long after we had first met.  I remember he jokingly said something about me needing him - it was said in jest as he'd been helping me warm-up my horse Wilbur prior to a dressage competition. I turned to face him, and said, perhaps a bit too forcefully, ‘I don’t need you’. Not meaning to hurt his feelings, I explained, ‘I’m not with you because I need you. I’m with you because I want to be with you. I love having you in my life.’  His comment, for some reason, had clearly touched a nerve and I felt compelled to reassure him that I wasn’t with him out of desperation - I have always felt happy in my own company. 

That was almost 5 years ago now and looking back today, perhaps I was trying to convince myself rather than him. And, maybe at that time, I did need him more than I had liked to admit (note from Henry - read that as 'being stubborn'!). Keeping with the equestrian theme, I explained to Pam how in my head I visualised this as holding my friends and Henry on a very short lunge rein; frightened to let them go because I was scared of being on my own having been in a relationship for 18 years prior; I needed their reassurance. I can honestly say that I wouldn't be where I am today if it wasn’t for Henry's patience, kindness and love and the support of my fabulous friends and colleagues. 
Photo courtesy of Fiona Scott-Maxwell Photography

Today, I feel much more confident about who I am and as a consequence I have let the lunge rein get  longer – not in the sense that I’m pushing people away, but in the sense that I am growing as a person and feel less needy. Of course, this change can impact the person on the other end of the rein too and either a relationship grows deeper as a consequence, which I feel is the case with Henry, or it may not survive the change.

Interestingly, when Pam and I went out to work with the horses as part of this coaching session, unwittingly, my actions reflected what we had spoken about. I'll explain more in the second installment coming soon.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Confidence powers lift off!

Wilbur and I feeling confident in 2010! Photo courtesy of John Britter.
Confidence is a funny ole thing. It seems to come and go as you pass through life. A recent conversation with a good friend of mine highlighted this. She has reached the dizzy heights of Advanced level eventing, a level new to her and her horse, who she has trained herself. This is on top of a full time, non-riding related job in which she's doing extremely well. Recently, however, she has felt a loss in confidence in her eventing, and wasn't enjoying the sport as much as she had been. As we were talking it came to light that she was experiencing pressure and stress elsewhere in her life, and perhaps this was impacting on her passion for eventing. I explained that one of the reasons I had given up eventing (for now!) was that I couldn't handle the the additional pressure given I was setting up and managing my own business at the same time. I realised that this provided sufficient adrenalin for me not to seek it by riding at 25 mph over solid fences! We can only deal with so much pressure and excitement at any one time, and if one area of our lives is challenging, something else has to give.

This conversation reminded me of another friend of mine who I met just after I got Wilbur.  I watched her jump round a cross country course and she was a total inspiration to me. I remember thinking that if I could jump anywhere near as good as that with Wilbur then I'd be over the moon. The next year we met up at a riding summer camp. That Spring she had experienced the death of a foal, which she had bred, just 24 hours after it had been born. She explained how this tragedy had brought back memories of other losses she had experienced in the past, including the death of her sister. What was most profound to me was the impact this had clearly had on her confidence over jumps given how she had ridden the year before. We shared a jumping lesson and she suffered really badly from  nerves (as did I at that time). We both forgot the course and had refusals. At the end of the lesson, she burst into tears. It was a real eye-opener to me as to how events can impact your confidence in other, seemingly unrelated, areas of our lives. A couple of years on, after a small break from riding, my friend has experienced another twist in her life, this time a positive one, and she's out riding and jumping again.
Photo courtesy of SBM Photographic

Her story has been with me over the last year as I've slowly regained my confidence to jump and compete again after breaking my back in a riding accident. Reflecting on the day of the incident, I should never have gone to the competition. I had had a stressful autumn dealing with difficult personalities on our previous yard, business was, well, busy and I was shattered. I wasn't enjoying my riding as much as I had done, eventing didn't seem to be an option anymore, Wilbur was wound up the morning of the competition and it was wet and cold outside. I really didn't want to go to the competition, but, my stubborn self overrode my gut instinct, and well....we all know what happened next. .

So what has changed over the past year and how have I started to overcome these challenges? Well, I now approach dressage competitions differently to how I used to, and  don't even think about the outcome. The main objective is to enjoy riding Wilbur, and if we do well, then that's a bonus. The result? Great marks, and some top 3 placings!

As time progresses I am gaining more experience and confidence as a business owner, which means I can increase the challenges I face in my equestrian pursuits. Indeed, in the past two weeks I've had two breakthroughs. The first was going crosscountry schooling after a gap of 2 years, which I absolutely loved (as did Wilbur). A big thank you to Jo Burchell  for that one! This also helped me to achieve the second breakthrough which was jumping a 1 metre fence in the school. As my partner and instructor Henry Symington will testify, I was being rather argumentative and at first I refused to jump the fence, demanding that it was lowered. "Less of the lip and more leg" was his response to which I'm ashamed my retort was, "well, I hope you enjoy visiting me in Stoke Mandeville!" before I kicked on and my beautiful pony flew over the fence. I knew I wanted to do it and I would have been really disappointed in myself if I hadn't risen to the challenge. It's all about being in the right frame of mind, and listening to your gut instinct. It's still early days, but the most important thing is that I'm thoroughly enjoying all aspects of my riding again.
Not sure who looks more smug - Wilbs and that 1 m fence

So, to my friend who rang me last week: be kind to yourself and take the pressure off other areas of life, where possible, to give yourself a rest. Your mind and body can only deal with so much excitement, so give yourself some space, re-group and you'll  have the confidence to enjoy your eventing and competing again.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

'This woman is completely bonkers, I need your help Kid!' - coaching with Kid and Velvet

I've just returned from another fabulous coaching/counselling session with Pam Billinge (Equest Ltd) and a stay at my Wiltshire Retreat, Suddene Park Farm. Here's how I got on.

The sunshine matched my positive mood as I drove to Wiltshire on Monday morning. Following the sad demise of Ian's horse Moose in January, 'Moosie power' had clearly kicked in and I was keen to update Pam about the ideas and opportunities I had experienced since we last spoke. Pam picked up on my 'tiggeriness'. She suggested that we interacted with Kid and Velvet, who are integral members of the Equest counselling team, in the schooling arena. Pam set me a task - to design a maximum of 4 'obstacles' in the sand school, using the props available to me, that described, conceptually, what I had learned from our chat beforehand. In particular about opportunities, challenges, and self-censorship, something I'm guilty of when writing creatively or in life generally. Self-censorship is the act of censoring your own expression, be it through writing or other forms of communication, due to fear (perhaps of other people's opinions) or lack of confidence or through taking life too seriously.

Kid and Velvet
At first, my 'lizard brain' kicked in - you know the one - the negative voice that insists on telling you you're no good, you're going to fail - another prime suspect in self-censorship. I gave myself a moment to quieten Lionel Lizard down, then let my gut instinct take charge.Three different obstacles were created by my own fair hands:
1. Opportunity funnel: two poles placed in a funnel shape. Moving from the narrow to wider opening represented how lots of opportunities and ideas can arise from a small beginning, while moving the other way represented something that Henry says to me - that as you get closer to a challenge, it may not be as big as it first appeared. Good, eh?!
2. Stumbling blocks: two parallel poles, with alternative ends raised on blocks, resembled the 'stumbling blocks' we may face in life so stepping over them reminded me that a) they can be overcome and b) we can learn from them. Now stay with me on this....
3. Weave cones: traffic cones placed at intervals in a straight line which we had to weave through like in dog agility courses, but not that fast! This exercise represented 'having fun' and not worrying so much about other people's thoughts and reactions.

Weave cones representing 'fun'
Velvet was more amenable to being brought in from the field so I led her around each obstacle. But as we moved further away from Kid, who remained in the field, she became less willing to follow me. Her expression said it all: 'This woman is completely bonkers, I need your help Kid!' Although Kid was still reluctant to be caught, she was clearly intrigued by our antics, so she joined us without the constraint of a headcollar. Velvet and I negotiated the obstacles once more, with Kid following closely behind. That is, until we reached the 'weave cones'. Then Kid decided that the other end of the school was far more interesting but she kept a close eye on proceedings!

Pam encouraged me to think outside the box for how I could encourage Kid to join in. I reduced the number of cones to make the exercise simpler and took Velvet through them again. Kid came up for a closer inspection  but it wasn't until I stopped trying so hard to get her to join in that - guess what -  Kid decided to walk in and out the cones herself - in her own style. She's clearly a woman who knows her own mind! It never ceases to amaze me how sensitive horses are to our subconscious thoughts and body language. By inadvertently taking the pressure of Kid, I enabled her to participate but how telling that it was the obstacle representing fun and letting go that caused the most 'issues'. So, what are my learnings from this session? Don't take life too seriously, write from the heart, don't worry what other people may think and lighten up - have fun! Thank you Pam, Kid and the ever-patient Velvet for your ongoing coaching.

Opportunity funnel and stumbling blocks!

Friday, 24 January 2014

The best holiday souvenir ever!

The boys together!
Dear Moosie: "I'm going to buy the chestnut horse  - Sligo Bells" explained Ian as we walked towards the barn where he was stabled. This was announced about 5 days into our holiday in Lochrea, County Galway. It was our first trip crosscountry riding in Ireland. I didn't expect us to be coming home with such a large, living and breathing souvenir. One month later, you arrived tired and exhausted after a long journey over the Irish Sea. You were placed in the isolation barn in a stall  next to the door so each time we opened it your pink velvety nose would appear around it first! 

I think it's fair to say you hated dressage - your ears visibly flopped whenever you entered those white boards. Ian's shoulders used to droop too! Then, Ian would shorten his stirrups, and your ears pricked up. Both of you would have grins on your faces as you galloped across country together. You and Ian were a fantastic team. Your finest hour came at Gatcombe 2006. Both our families were there to cheer you and Ian on. You were rewarded with a top 10 placing at Novice level and Princess Anne presented the rosettes. I'll never forget the chap sat on his shooting stick next to me on the cross country course as the pair of you hooned through the water complex. "That's the way you ride through water" was his remark. Ian was very proud of that rosette - he took it with him to the hospice and showed all the nurses, saying "this hand has touched royalty you know". He never did lose his sense of humour throughout his illness. Out hunting, you and Ian were always in the last group home, both shattered but very happy.
The Hambleden water posed no problems for the Irish Moose

Since Ian's death in 2008 you have looked after me, dear Moosie. You have enjoyed your retirement as the 'wild pony of Tring', finally living out your days with your friends in the field. You never did like being stabled. Now, my lovely pony, you are reunited with your bestfriend, where you belong. Thank you for making sure I was ok and back on my feet before we parted. I will always love you for the joy you brought me and Ian over the 12 years we had you and I will never forget you. I feel reassured knowing that you are back with Ian, galloping across the country together once more. Rest in peace my dearest friend, Moose xxxx
The big orange and gorgeous Moosie