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Shanghai Swans

September 25, 2016 5 min read

Okay, so one of the things I love most about equestrian sport is that on top of a horse, men and women are equal. I read press about how women in tennis fight for equal prize money, because apparently we would all rather watch the men play? Unheard of in equestrian sport. Women’s sporting teams flying economy whilst the men’s sporting teams fly business? Can ANYONE imagine the Shanghai Swans in cattle class? I mean, like completely, LOL, enough said. Anyway, gender in equestrian sport is such a non-issue that I have never known it to be discussed on social media, not even ONCE.

However, because life is not entirely fair, I can tell you when our glorious sport doesn’t feel so egalitarian and it’s after you have a BABY. Like everything after you have a baby, it’s actually a little bit hard. If you’re reading this and thinking, OMG, PRINCESS can’t ride her DRESSAGE HORSE, TOTES SYMPATHY NOT, shouldn’t we be reading about this on GOOP, maybe that’s fair enough. However, if you are a rider or just really into another sport of your choice, you might understand where I am coming from. For me riding isn’t just fun and social connection (as important as both of those things are), riding is also learning, training and improvement. Goal setting gives me something to look forward to, and every step in the right direction infuses me with a feeling of pleasure and a sense of achievement. A great lesson sends a little shockwave through the mundanity of my everyday life. Let me tell you, it’s addictive and it’s hard to live without. Even Michael A Tweedie finds it hard to live without. Apparently, when I’m riding a lot, I’m much easier to live with. Poor guy.  

These days, it’s not as though I don’t get to ride at all, in fact I do. The challenge is being consistent and making those step by step improvements. I feel like I’m in a holding pattern, circling round and round, up in the sky above the airport, never quite coming in for landing. Let me digress for a moment by saying, that if you had to ask me what my take home would be after 19 months of parenthood, I would say “Oh that’s an easy one, children are vectors of disease.” Once upon a time, Michael A Tweedie and I could cruise through life complaining of nothing but a hangover. REALITY CHECK. Those days are over. Now we will vomit and sniffle and cough. All of us. Approximately every two weeks. The end.

I emerged from our most recent bout of illness and rang my friend Cassia Montgomery whose own household had been sucked into a similar vortex of vomit and snot. “How are you Cass?” I asked. “I’m dying” was her response. However, because Cassia is still 25% eventer and 0% diva, and if you want to do something, you should just get out there and do it, it was decided that YES, I could borrow International Tail for the Wednesday lesson with our fancy German dressage coach on the proviso that I had better give her a lunge before getting on.  

So, I did something I NEVER would have done in my pre-toddler life, I turned up for a lesson and I really hadn’t ridden since um, my last lesson. For a type A, triple Virgo like me, being unprepared is basically my worst nightmare. I cast my mind back to University and truth be told, I wasn’t one of those easy going, brilliant people who could turn up to the exam having barely studied and smash out a great result with a pen in one hand and a beer in the other. I sweated and swatted, colour coded my notes and my honours degree wasn’t accidental, it happened because I worked like a DROVERS DOG. My dressage career is very much the same kind of story, my improvements happen inch by painstaking inch so my current challenge, is that right now, I can’t achieve things the way I have always achieved them, because, you know, I have a toddler so sometimes long story (illness, naps, childcare or lack thereof), I just can’t.  

My lesson went something like this. Fancy German dressage coach “So, Lara, how has she been going since the last lesson?”. In response to this very simple question, I mustered some courage and babbled the following “Um, Peter, look, I haven’t ridden. Oh God, I’m not going to make excuses but I am going to ask you something. You know how it took a year to find me a horse? And how you had to bear with me during that time? Well, I need you to bear with me now, probably for another year. Oliver will be older and I’ll be more consistent. So, you know, don’t give up on me, um please.” I trailed off, reasonably sure I hadn’t made any sense whatsoever. Mercifully, my fancy German dressage coach gave me a forgiving look and said “I understand, I will bear with you.” Then, forgiveness utterly forgotten, we began the lesson.

“Lara, sit on your seat bones. Sit in the middle of the horse. Why are you arching your back? Use your core!” I glanced in the mirror and caught a glimpse of my slightly arched back (along with a little bit of muffin top), I spent a moment feeling mildly horrified about the fact that Oliver was 20 months old and, Oh God, I haven’t completely got my core back, I lost concentration, International Tail dropped behind my leg and I rode a not very good downwards transition. Peter told me, without words (I heard him groan into my ear piece) that it was a not very good downwards transition. Then, because no-one likes to hear the contestants on Australian Idol make excuses, I pulled myself together and rode on.

We kept going, it took the better part of 45 minutes, but by the end, we had International Tail humming like a cruise missile. “Lara, close your leg, sit up, halt!” I felt International Tail shift down a gear. I glanced in the mirror, a perfect square halt, like an Elephant on a drum. YESSSSS, IMAGINARY AIR PUNCHES. “Lara, swing her into trot.” By this time, International Tail was on my aids, connected, the transition felt like she was coming to life. Repeat the above three times to prove it wasn’t a fluke. Then we were finished, sweaty, steamy and happy.

I’m not entirely sure that there is a point to this story beyond well, just don’t give up. Even if you don’t feel good or you think you don’t look good, just keep going, it will get easier, it always does. The hard times always pass, life regains its momentum and all of a sudden you will spend a glorious, sunny day at the Boneo Park Spring CDI.

Saturday morning, I arrived at Mitchell Park, unaccompanied by a minor, a handbag on one arm and a bottle of G.H. MUMM under the other. “Cass, we are going to have a great day today because, well, the following, a. I have great plonk and b. not to be a BRAGOSAURUS but when it comes to grooming, I’m the next best thing to Alan Davies.”

We did have a great day, Cass competed her wonderful Rebel M, we watched some fancy horses, some lovely riders, I felt buoyed by the atmosphere. Late in the afternoon I turned to Cassia, “Darl, I’ve had a couple of champers and maybe I’m feeling a bit jolly, but I think I’m looking forward to getting back out there again.”

You see, my friends, competition is not entirely outside the realm of possibility because I am now the proud owner, of a chestnut mare called FLAME. I looked out across the warm up, busy with riders piaffing and passaging. My thoughts turned to another chestnut horse called Valegro and I wondered. How to train your Dragon?