Fun in the sun at Hippikos

When I nominated for the final 10 in the Best Use Of Social Media category of the 2013 PagePlay Equestrian Social Media Awards I was so happy, to make the final 10 was something I never imagined could happen to me. So imagine how I was totally blown away when I got the news that I had won! I came to riding in my 30s and I have always written about my experiences, initially for my own interest, then later I found that others were interested too. I hope what I write inspires others to join me on a journey in to the equestrian world. And so, it is only fitting that I write about the amazing prize I received for winning in 2013 – a trip to Portugal to ride at Hippikos training yard for a week.

The week before I left for Portugal was a very busy and it felt like I’d never get there, but looking at the Hippikos website I knew it was going to be an amazing trip, the location and the horses looked incredible. So at 3AM on Sunday morning I drove to the airport to start my trip.

I arrived to torrential rain and as I sat in the taxi half asleep from my early start I hoped that this was not going to be the weather for the week. On arrival I was shown to my very nice room and they had lunch waiting ready. After eating I had a quick tour to meet the horses. Sunday is the horse’s day off so it gave me the chance to settle in too and also give the swimming pool a quick try.

The indoor school at Hippikos looks amazing, so big and a great surface, and although the forecast was for sun from the next day, any rain will not stop my lessons. The food was great, all cooked on site and sourced locally, although must remember to not eat too much, don't want to squish the ponies, but it will be hard not to over indulge.

Day two and the morning broke with a welcome blue sky, the rain had gone and I had three riding lessons to look forward too. Over breakfast (which included freshly squeezed orange juice from oranges picked that morning – cant get fresher than that).

My first lesson of the day was dressage at 10 am, followed by flat work at 4pm and jumping at 6pm. My horse for the dressage lesson was an incredibly good looking bay Lusitano stallion called Trifolio. Back home if I was told I was to ride a stallion I would have been worried, but here the stallions live on the same stable block as the geldings and mares with no problems. He was such a chilled out stallion to handle and to ride.

The lesson started with us getting used to our horses, there were four riders in the lesson, but in groups of two, between two instructors. We worked a lot on getting a good active pace in walk and trot before we moved on to working on trot to canter and walk to canter transitions. This is something I know I need to improve so it was a very good lesson to have.

Lunch was more great home cooked food, and I had a couple of hours before my next lesson, which was a flatwork lesson. Flatwork is not dressage, it is more about preparation for jumping. I rode a Belgium Warmblood called Celtic Worrier. In this lesson we did a lot of pole work which had show jumping very much in mind. We worked on getting good turns to the poles and then being very straight to, over and after the pole and keeping an even pace throughout. The quote of the day, about riding over a pole in a straight and correct way was “You either ride over the pole in the correct way or no way at all.” And this did very much convey the importance of having an absolutely correct approach to a jump. I found this lesson quite hard work, keeping the horse moving forwards and correctly when it's a horse you have never ridden before and who was not like my own horse meant I had to put in quite an effort to do all that was asked.

The final lesson of the day was jumping lesson, which I rode another warmblood called Quenzo Blue. The first half hour we worked on getting full control of our horses in trot and canter, moving between collected and working paces, also cantering in a seated and in a jumping position. In the second half of the lesson we jumped a single jump, starting as a cross pole and working up to a spread. We would start our approach on the opposite side of the school to the jump, moving to to a forwards seat and getting an excited canter before the turn so there would be plenty of energy for us to use, then sitting up and collecting as we turned to ride to the jump keeping as even pace as we could. If the horse was set up correctly on the corner then the theory was that on the final approach you could let things be and let the horse meet the fence in the best way. In my first few attempts I failed to ride correctly as asked, but with the feedback from the instructor things improved and we did manage to clear the jump each time.

All too soon the last lesson of the day ended. And getting off the horse my legs began to feel well-used. Luckily there is a swimming pool here so I was able to relax in the warm water before heading for the evening meal.

Day three and the sky was pure blue without a cloud in site, after breakfast I wondered down to the stables to find my lesson horse, the same Lusitano stallion Trifolio. I was to have all the same horses I had on Monday for my lessons. I managed to get him going a lot better, mainly because I felt much more confident about how he would react when I asked him to do things. We progressed through walk, trot and canter, getting improvements in all the paces from yesterday, and then as I was cantering a circle the instructor told me to canter across the long diagonal, as I crossed the center line he told me to ask for canter on the opposite leg, and the horse just did a flying change, just like that! This was the first time I had ever done one, and with such a well schooled dressage horse for my first go I was able to just do it! This is the great thing about the dressage horses at Hippikos, there is no fuss about what they can and can't do, you ask in the right way and they will! This means in the lessons I was able to put much more attention into improving my riding, than on worrying about what the horse can and can't do.

After the lesson I went up to the viewing gallery to watch the next lesson, it's a great place to relax after the lesson – air conditioned with a range of drinks (water, coke, sprite, juice, wine, port, beer) and fresh fruit to eat and all free to help yourself to. Because the instructors all have microphones you can tune in to the lesson going on at the time and listen to what the rider is being asked to do.

The first lesson of the afternoon was flatwork, which here has jumps! I was to ride Celtic again for flatwork. Flatwork lessons are all about improving jumping and today's exercise was a related distance jump. The school was set up with a cross pole followed by an upright 17 meters after, all set up on the center line. We had to, on alternating reins, trot over the cross pole, canter on landing for five strides and jump the upright. The upright started at about 50cm and was slowly raised to about 90cm. As the second jump got higher having a good collected canter with lots of energy became really important.

Finally to the jumping lesson, as with the dressage lesson, I was able to get Quenzo Blue working with me much quicker since I had ridden him the previous day. Today's lesson concentrated on getting good turns, with a stress on using the space available, and meeting the jump square and in the middle. The jumps started quite low, but as with the flatwork lesson they soon got up to a fair size. The two jumps were placed one on each long diagonal near the center line and we rode them in a figure 8, in canter. The horse I rode was able to give me a nice jump from a slow, controlled and collected canter, initially it felt very unfamiliar to approach the jump at such a slow speed, especially to the larger spread. But it must have been the correct way as the instructor was good at quickly picking up on my faults and correcting them, and for my last few attempts I was told I had ridden the jump well.

Again the food was fantastic, 3 course lunch and 4 course evening meal, always with red and white wine – they have a collection of 40 kinds of red wine and the white wine comes from their own vineyard. And I must also mention that when you come back from your last lesson of the day there is a glass of port waiting for you!

The next day was the half way point, and already it felt too soon, I didn't want to leave.

Day four… Time really does fly when you are having fun! My legs, and body in general are holding up better than expected, and this is thanks in the most part to my Biomechanics coach Terrisa Dixon, who had set me up with several exorcises to do each day to keep my muscles happy.

The lessons were changed around a bit today, but I still had the same horses. My first lesson was riding Celtic for flatwork. The lesson was all about jumping on a circle. Two jumps were set up on a circle on the center line and we were asked to try jumping them. “No, no, no, stop, stop, stop, you can not turn beyond the line from the middle of the jump or the energy it goes woooosh, now try again…. okay that was good!” I didn't even think I had made that bad turn, but the instructor picks up on the small details of accuracy quickly so everything gets corrected efficiently. We jumped the circle quite a few times on each rein with the jumps getting higher all the time, but in away that is very comfortable and once the lesson ends and you get off the horse you look back at the school and think the jumps look a lot bigger than when I was on horseback!

Lesson two was a jumping lesson, on Quenzo, the jumps do seem to be bigger in a jumping lessons than in a flatwork lessons! We worked on related distance jumps in this lesson, and it was a harder work lesson than before, partly because it was a hotter day, but also now I have better control of Quenzo we are pushing harder and putting more energy in to the lesson. The two jumps were set with a 17 meter distance, as they were in our flatwork lesson yesterday, but they got higher and this time we had to jump the distance with both 5 and 4 strides. Again the instructor had an eye for detail, picking up instantly on when we should push for a longer stride or collect. But there was also more emphasis on the correct approach “Before the turn, you ride every step, this is important, you put the energy in, then on the turn the outside rein is so important, you go, you put energy in, you turn, you collect, you jump, was good okay?”

This was the first day where I had two lessons in the morning and I was very ready for lunch today!

My final lesson of the day was dressage on Tifolio. Again, as with my other two lesson horses, I am getting to work with him so much better now. We warmed up, getting our horses responding well to us before progressing to doing more lateral work, today it was leg yealds and shoulder in. Then on to canter work. It got to the point when we were doing canter work when I change the rein I am always asked to do a flying change, and it always works! Does kind of feel like magic the way it just happens instantly every time! The canter work was all about collecting and extending canter. My third lesson of riding this horse, I was able to feel his movement much better, we managed to not loose canter when collecting and when extending I could feel so much more movement, as he opened up each stride.

Day 5, and another sunny day as I wandered over to the dressage stables. Trifolio was tacked up and ready to go. We were soon warmed up and ready for our lesson. After a quick recap of the lesson the day before, we moved on to riding half pass. First of all in trot to get the aids and movement correct and then moving on to it in canter. I found it initially hard to ride the horse forwards at the same time as moving across in the half pass. But I was soon doing circuits of the school, down the long side, turn left on to the center line, half pass to the left, perform a flying change as I met the track, continue down the other long side, turn right to the center line, half pass to the right, flying change at the track and repeat. I must have done this more than 10 times, all the time receiving feedback from the instructor who was correcting any mistakes I made. The hour's lesson really flew by.

After lunch, it was my flatwork lesson on Celtic. As usual we warmed the horses up, getting them in front of us and responding well. We worked on changing the canter lead over a jump, but on quite a tight turn, it was probably good training for a jump off! The instructor set up a cross pole in the middle of the school – so it was across the center line, then we had to canter round the school, turn to the right going over the centre line by 5 meters and then jump the cross pole at an angle asking for a little left bend over the jump so we picked up the left canter and turning as soon as we landed, cantering a curve out to the track and then turning back in, 5 meters across the center line, jump the cross on the opposite angel asking for a change of canter lead and canter on round to do the whole lot again. I found this to be the hardest thing I have been asked to in my lessons here so far. There was lots to think about and a need for riding with a lot of accuracy to get the lines right. The first few tries I failed to get the second change, going back to the right canter lead, but after several more tires I began to settle in to the pattern and perform the task I had been set correctly.

Final lesson of the day was the jumping lesson. And for the first time we got to jump a full course of jumps. I tried hard to apply everything I had leaned so far and I am very pleased to say I cleared all the jumps and picked up the correct canter leads after each jump so I was able to maintain a nice canter at all times. We jumped the course three times each, with the jumps getting higher each time. I know there were turns I should have ridden better and some of the strides in to the jumps were not perfect, but it was great to pull together everything we had been working on into a single course of jumps.

All too soon it's the final day of lessons. I woke up to more glorious sunshine and after breakfast headed down to the jumping arena for my flatwork lesson. After the usual warm up to get the horses going forwards and ready to work the instructor put together a course of small jumps which we were to jump like we were in a jump off, so riding strongly to the jumps and then making tight turns with short approaches to the jumps. Although we were to ride as quickly as we could round the course, we still had to consider each jump, and collect the horse before it, not rushing, and not putting the horse on to a long stride for take off. The lesson went well, five days of riding the same horse meant I was able to get him going well and although my first try at the course in a jump off style was a bit wayward, we soon improved.

After a break it was back for my last jumping lesson. There was a bigger course laid out than the previous day, and after warming up we just had fun taking it in turns jumping the course. It was a great way to end the week, being able to confidently jump a horse I sat on for the first time on Monday. I think this week has really helped my confidence in my jumping, not to mention all the technical work I have done, hopefully I will be able to apply some of it to my work with my horse Tommy when I return home.

After another three-course lunch it was my last dressage lesson. We ran thought all the things we had been working on during the week, giving me a chance to set everything firmly in my memory and to enjoy riding the Lusitano stallion for one last time.

My week at Hippikos has been an incredible one, everything has been so perfect – the food, the weather, the horses, the lessons and most of all the friendliness of the staff and my fellow riders. One rider who came for one week initially decided she might as well make it a round four weeks!

They really do cater for all levels of rider here, from beginners wanting to improve the basics to people wanting to do advanced dressage and to jump BIG jumps. All the horses behave so well too, the whole time I was here I didn't see one horse run out or refuse a jump, or do anything unpredictable. If the opportunity to return ever came up I'd certainly grab it with both hands!

And so finally I want to give huge thank you to Hippikos for sponsoring the Amateur Horseperson category of the PagePlay Equestrian Social Media Awards this year, I really did have a trip of a lifetime, I enjoyed myself so much and was so well looked after. I really hope that I will be able to return next year!