Feeling our way along…

A few of my regular readers pricked up their virtual ears when I said “Competing.  With Aero” in my last post.  For those who are relatively new to Tails From Provence, or those of you who are unhorsey, I’ll explain why this is noteworthy!


Aero and Flurry and both lovely horses, with good temperaments, but if they were cars, Flurry would be a Toyota Landcruiser – robust, steady, reliable and comfortable – while Aero would be a Ferrari Enzo – nippy, responsive and with a whole pile of gears I’ll never need.  Aero was a brilliant competition horse with my youngest daughter and spent several years competing almost every weekend during the summer months, but it’s been almost three years since he went out and competed anywhere and it’s exactly a year and a half since he left the horse farm at Nanse.  I had no idea how excited he would become, if and when I ever took him anywhere, and an excited Aero is not much fun for a Ould Wan like me to be riding around.  So, yeah, I’d be pretty nervous (or you might even say, a complete wimp) at the notion of riding him in competition.

I’ve been working away with both horses quite consistently for the past couple of months.  I have a lesson once a week with Alexandrine.  Some weeks we do Equitation Ethologique (Natural Horsemanship) groundwork and some weeks we do dressage.  Some weeks I use Flurry in my lessons, some weeks I use Aero.  It took Aero a little while to tune into the Equitation Ethologique.  Some of the things he’s expected to do go totally against what he’s been taught all his life.  For example, he was always expected to halt on the track while lunging and then stand there while his handler approached, coiling up the lunge line (very British Horse Society!)  Now, he is expected to turn in and approach me (if I ask him), with or without a halt on the track beforehand.  That seems like a small detail, but it’s taking a while… There’s a few other things like that but, overall, he’s learning well and seems to be enjoying our sessions.  Carrot Stuffing sessions, I call them, because he gets loads of treats when ever he’s good!

Anyway, I had an EE lesson with Aero a couple of weeks ago.  There were a few things set up in the round pen for Alexandrine and her other pupils to practise with, so we ended up asking Aero to do them.  He was great, attentive and calm, and we even tried a little bit of work with him off the lead.

“There’s an Equifeel competition in Mane (about 15km away) on the 13th April if you want to go,” said Alexandrine.  (You’ll know all about Equifeel by the time you reach the end of this post, I promise)

Hmm, ok… something to think about.  It would be a nice way of taking Aero out somewhere and seeing how he behaved, but I didn’t need to decide just yet.

I had one really good EE session on my own with Aero later that week, and I thought YEAH! I’ll definitely go.  Then on the Monday before the competition, I had a really bad session with him, where he just wasn’t paying attention to me at all.  No, I thought, I’ll make a complete fool out of myself if I go, we’re not ready to be seen in public yet.  I said as much to Alexandrine and she said ok.

Two days later, the main arena was set up with all sorts of things that you’d find in an Equifeel competition.  I happened to arrive at the farm just as MC was getting Quieto ready to practise.  The two young kids that Alex teaches arrived as well, with their ponies.  They were all entered for Sunday, as was Alexandrine and Max, her OTTB with whom she placed 6th at the Equifeel National Championships last year.

“Come along and play with us,” said MC.

Well, ok, I’ll bring Aero along and watch, I decided.  We can see exactly what they have to do to perform each task.  And maybe I’ll have a go at some of the things I know Aero is good at, like moving sideways and backing up.

To make a long story short, it turned out that me and Aero weren’t so bad.  We struggled with a couple of things, but so did everyone else.  After a lesson with Alex on Friday, I decided that if I could find someone to mind the dogs for the afternoon, I would go.  Cue a phone call to Sprocket, who readily offered to look after them.  Hopefully, I’d even be home before the LSH and Rosie arrived back from Ireland (I wasn’t.  Oops.  I’m a bad wife).

Early on Sunday afternoon, we all arrived at the Ecuries de Mane – Quieto and Néros the pony in the trailer; Spirit the pony (he’s the one who’s like a mini-Flurry), Valentine (Max was lame so Alex brought Valentine her dressage horse instead) and Aero in the truck.  Aero loaded and unloaded like a pro, and was relaxed and calm as we settled them in and tied them onto the truck and the trailer to munch on their hay nets.


Then we went off to walk the course – my first time seeing what an Equifeel competition is all about!

I’ll tell you all about the course and how we coped in a moment, but first I need to explain the scoring system.  There are three ways of performing each task :

10 points – horse is wearing rope halter, with lead rope attached
15 points – horse is wearing rope halter, with lead rope attached via a light elastic which will break very easily
20 points – horse is at liberty

Before you commence each exercise, you specify which option you’re going for – they call it a contract.  In some cases, the exercise becomes more difficult depending on the contract you choose – you’ll understand as I go through the course.  I definitely was not going to try anything fancy – we were going to stick to the 10 point option each time.

We started off with the Embûche (literally, ‘Pitfall’ or ‘Trap’, but this word is also used to refer to an exam paper full of trick questions).  This was set up in a round pen (see diag 1).  We had 2 minutes to perform everything.
I was all thumbs – not nervous, just unsure of what I was doing – but once we started, Aero did everything perfectly.  The hardest part was getting him to stop and stay immobile for 5 seconds when he had finished.  I think he was enjoying himself and wanted to go around and around and around.  Once we get the immobility sorted out, I reckon he could easily do this at liberty, for the 20 point contract.


Then we went into the indoor arena.  The first thing was a tarpaulin on the ground.  There was a pole on the ground on one side, about 2 metres away and I had to stay behind that pole and direct Aero onto the tarp.  This was one of the cases where the task changes, depending on which contract you went for :


10 points – simply walk over it
15 points – walk onto it, stop for 5 seconds, walk off.
20 points – same as for 15 points, but with horse loose & handler may not touch the horse in any way.


We had 90 seconds to do this.  He approached, hesitated for maybe three seconds and then strolled over the tarp.  No biggie.  Lots of ‘Good Boy’ and carrots!


Then there was basically turn on the forehand.  See diag 2 below.
Again the task changed depending on the contract :


10 points – do a 1/4 turn
15 points – do a 1/2 turn
20 points – full 360 degrees turn


That was our worst thing because the circle that was marked out was too big and his hind feet kept entering the circle. We definitely got a few -2 penalties here.  blah.


Next was slalom, or bending.  I didn’t draw a diagram because I’m sure you all know what a slalom is!  Again I had to stay about 1.5 or 2 metres away from him while asking him to weave in and out of 5 blocks, going through a start & a finish at each end.  This was our worst thing at home but he did it perfectly this time!


Then there was the jump :
The first time I tried this at home he was all “YYYYYAAAAAYYYYY!!!!! JUMPING! WHEEEEE” but now he knows what he’s meant to do and he was PERFECT!  Go over the jump, stop, turn around and go back over the jump again, stop and finish facing me.


After that we moved into a different arena for the final three tasks.  The first thing we had to do here was the head collar test (see diag 4). The time allowed is two minutes.
You start by leading the horse from Zone A to Zone B.


For 10 points, you take off the head collar and pass it all over the horse (fait un tour de cheval avec le licol) while he stands still, then you put the head collar on again and return to A.
For 15 points, take off the head collar, pass it all over the horse, leave the horse loose and return to A with horse following, then put head collar back on WHILE KEEPING ONE KNEE ON THE GROUND!  (We have done this perfectly at home but I wasn’t prepared to risk having Aero go “Hooray! I’m free!” in a strange place.)
For 20 points, horse must stay at B while you move 4 metres away.  Then you call the horse, he comes to you and follows you back to A where you put head collar on with one knee on the ground.  Difficult…. sometimes Aero comes when I call, sometimes he doesn’t.


Next thing was going sideways over 3 poles placed in a line.  Again, no diagram – it’s just three 4 metre poles placed end to end and isn’t worth drawing out.  You park the horse with the front feet on one side of the poles and the back feet on the other and then ask him to go sideways.  Aero is brilliant at this, in either direction.  There’s a -2 penalty every time a foot crosses the poles but we had no worries.


Then there was reversing. See diag 5.
10 points – horse must back up 4 metres, handler is allowed to follow the horse
15 points – horse must back up 4 metres, handler must stay put
20 points – horse must back up 12 metres, over a pole on the ground as well, then wait and come forward again when asked


Mostly Aero is really good at this and can do it the 20 point way, but occasionally his brain gets fried and he thinks I’m trying to send him off on a circle.  Well, either his brain gets fried or I give mixed signals!  As with everything else, we kept it simple and, after an unusually sticky start, he did it perfectly.


That was everything we had to do for our level, Club.  The Elite Level had to go under a bar with dangly flappy things, they had dangly, flappy, jingly things hanging off poles beside the reversing bit in Diag 5 and they had to go in and out of a horse box as well.


Because we were a late entry (because I dithered over whether we’d go or not!), we were HC and I have no idea where we would have been placed.  No matter, I was still thrilled to be there with a calm, attentive Aero, and I’m sure we’ll do a few more of these before the year is out!  Aero even coped with meeting his first ever mules – remember his donkey aversion?  I saw the mules when I arrived and I wondered would he take any notice of them – they were huge (one of them was bigger than Aero) and basically they looked like slightly misshapen horses with long ears.  I think he did indeed think they were horses as I led him past… but then, while I was warming him up, one of them started braying in the distance.   This was his reaction…
…followed by a few minutes of charging around ignoring me.  He settled eventually, and the next time we were close to the mules, he was a funny mixture of curiosity and abject terror!


There’s dressage coming up at the start of May and I’m going to bring Flurry.  There’s still no way I can sit to Aero’s trot and all trot work must be done sitting, at all levels here.  Ugh.  Not nice for baby horses or old, stiff people with dodgy backs on super-bouncy horses!  I’m being quite philosophical about whether I ever compete on Aero or not.  I’ve learned so much from him, just riding him at home, and I’ve been able to improve Flurry asa result, so much so that he’s now doing leg yield, shoulder in and lengthened strides reasonably well.  We are going to do level 2 at our next outing.  For British and Irish readers, that’s somewhere between novice and elementary.  Gulp.





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