Finally my children’s novel, Little Viking Horse, is done – nearly! Writing ‘The End’ when I finished my first draft (the one that didn’t have huge plot holes in it) felt like such a huge achievement, and of course it was. I had actually written a book! But it was still hard to answer the perpetual question from family and friends…
“Have you finished your book yet?”
Well, ‘finished’ can mean lots of things, right? ‘I’ve finished the first draft’ – so the story is down on paper. Or, ‘I’ve finished the first edit’ – improving the flow, correcting obvious mistakes, finding gaps and inconsistencies, deleting repetition. Or, ‘I’ve finished the structural edit’ – after editorial feedback (from Imogen Cooper at the Golden Egg Academy), and many other edits along the way. Until finally, it’s ready for submission to agents and publishers – the story arc works, the characters are rounded, the stakes are raised… So, off it goes, and then the rejections come.
I’m disappointed, but not downhearted. The feedback is good, just ‘a bit too niche’ for this publisher, not quite right for this agent. I prepare a few more submissions, while exploring the possibility of self-publishing. Then one publisher says, ‘This book has something!’ I try to contain my excitement while I wait for them to take it though their internal process…and the rejection follows.
“You are sending it to publishers, so it’s finished?”
Well, it is ‘finished’, but if a publisher decides to take it, they might want me to make changes. Actually, if I get an agent first, they might suggest changes too…so it’s finished, but probably not quite. And even if I get a publisher, it can take 12 to 18 months for the book to be published…so, it’s finished, but no, you can’t buy it yet.
Early 2020 and the London Book Fair looms. The Golden Egg Academy want to profile my book – maybe the right agent and the ideal publisher will see it there! I prepare the ‘blurb’, one line pitch, author bio…then, Covid lockdown begins and the Book Fair is cancelled. Publishing slows down, to a crawl. I carry on with a few agent submissions, but finally two thoughts crystallise for me.
Firstly, it’s more important for me to get my story out there than it is for me to be a traditionally published author. I want Little Viking Horse being read by the people that I wrote it for. It’s a special story for me, not just because it’s my first book, and I have a niggling worry that I will be pressed to change the story in ways I don’t want to, to make it more ‘commercial’. And even if I secure a publishing deal, with the impact of Covid, publication timescales are getting longer and longer. Do I want to wait? No.
Secondly, a significant reason for having a publisher is to help the author find a market – and I have one already, through the Little Viking Horse Facebook Page and in the Icelandic horse community, both in the UK and internationally…from which I can reach out to a wider market. I have had enough feedback on my book to keep my ‘imposter syndrome’ fears in-check, so I am satisfied that what I have written is good enough to publish. Followers of Little Viking Horse have been waiting a long time already. I make a firm decision to self-publish.
You are publishing it yourself? So it’s finished?
Well, nearly. I just have to get it copy edited, have a cover designed, internal design and layout, a couple of illustrations (not essential but I hanker after a classic Black Beauty feel), arrange printing, distribution and marketing…
Then an agent asks to see the full manuscript! I send it, along with details of my next project, because my plan to self-publish Little Viking Horse in the UK is set. The finish line is getting closer and I launch the book cover at the British Icelandic Horse Championships in June, in front of about fifty members of the Icelandic Horse Society of GB, and the Icelandic Ambassador to the UK!
Self-publishing is not an easy route – a publisher would be taking care of many of the processes that I am currently wrapping my head around. But people who have done it before me have been generous with their time and advice, and I am roping in friends and family to help me with the things that feel beyond my skill set. I’m very nearly ready to order my first printed copies for a final check, and I am in the process of setting up my website to be able to take pre-orders for signed copies, hopefully from September, with an official publication set for October.
It’s a long time since I blogged on this page, in fact it was last April! Where did the time go? The title of that blog was Back in the Saddle (Again!) I wrote about how I had recovered my confidence in riding Svipur (Blondie on Facebook), and today, as I read it through again I knew it was all true. But more than that, during 2018 I made another leap forward for me. I am now also riding Fleygur, often and with confidence. In fact, when I want a hassle free ride I choose him! This is HUGE. Roger’s clever, feisty horse was always a challenge for me. He’s high energy and can be tricky to ride. Not the sort of horse I would buy for myself. But of course I love him, and after my husband Roger died suddenly in 2016 I couldn’t bare to part with Fleygur.
Gradually I plugged away at it, and finally, last summer, on a ride with friends on Gower in South Wales, as Fleygur did his best impression of a fire-breathing dragon all the way back to the yard from our lunch stop, I found I was laughing. No longer holding my breath, imagining him taking off with me, or getting off and walking home (it was too far!) Laughing, and therefore, relaxing. The spell was broken.
From then on this was image I kept in my mind. Me riding Fleygur, at his most feisty, laughing. Yes, he can be strong. Yes, if he gets upset I can have my fire-breathing dragon back, and sure he has the fastest going home walk of any horse I know. But actually, he’s a very compliant horse, and once you and he are connected he responds almost at the mere thought of what you want him to do.
So in 2018 I didn’t blog about my journey, though the Little Viking Horse Facebook page continued most days. I have neglected this website, though in my head I had big plans that I kept meaning to put into action. Two and half years into being a widow – and it took a long time for me to own that word as part of who I am – I have made a new life for myself. The hole remains, but it is easier to live with. I have spoken at a number of conferences and seminars about personal resilience, resilience and authenticity in leadership, drawing on my personal experience. I have a plan to write more about it too, but first I have some other things to do!
Over the next couple of months I will be refreshing this website, so that those who wish to find out more about the Little Viking Horse herd, and Icelandic horses in general can do so easily, and, when it goes live, I plan to have a few Little Viking Horse products for you die-hard fans who keep asking me for them!
But the most exciting thing for me is that 2019 is when I am going to finally finish THE book!
Some time ago, encouraged by Roger, I started writing The Little Viking Horse, a fictionalised account of Fleygur’s life, based on the character of our feisty friend. Last year I finally started to work on it in earnest, with the support of The Golden Egg Academy, and now the story has come together. Learning the craft of writing children’s fiction has been a steep learning curve but I as I move into the next phase of editing and refining I am really excited. I know now I will get this done. I hope to publish traditionally, by persuading a publisher that the world needs to hear about this feisty little horse, but one way or another the book will get done…..
Descended from Viking horses, Fleygur is a little horse with big ideas, but abandoned, alone and injured, he believes his dreams of winning the Championships are over. Then he meets 11 year old Roger, the boy who will change his life forever!
There, now I’ve said it, it must be done!
A Happy New Year to you all, and from LVH’s new year blessing “May all your rambles bring you safely home to your friends.”
It dawned on me recently that I have rediscovered my confidence and joy in horse riding, and I am not really sure precisely when it happened. Just one day I returned from a ride and realised that I had thoroughly enjoyed myself. This has happened before, last summer I began to recover some of my confidence, but it was on the odd ride where the horse had been particularly calm, or nothing untoward had happened. I was riding more, but remained very anxious and I know I was not riding as often as I use to, even though I actually had more time to do so.
This was different. This time I knew I had turned a corner. I was curious about what had changed. There were five signs that I had finally conquered my excessive nerves when riding:-
1. I was riding out on my own often, and enjoying it.
2. On one ride recently Svipur, my lovely gaited Icelandic horse started to canter before I had my reins fully gathered (after taking this photo), I pushed him on with my seat (to make sure I didn’t get Pace) and gathered the reins as I went…and didn’t even think about it until afterwards. I made a mental note to myself: do not ask for canter in your seat and head before you mean to! Horses pick up the smallest of signs, more of this in a moment.
3. Another day that week I chose a ride I hadn’t done for a year specifically for the canter across an open field.
4. On the way home were passing a wind-turbine and there were eight balloons twisting and flapping in a tree on the right, and big scary horse eating rocks on the left. Instead of thinking ‘OMG’ and getting anxious Svipur and I just rode on by.
5. I can’t wait to go out again, and am thinking about all the other neglected rides I have been avoiding.
Some steps I took were big, some steps were very small but one of the key things was simply to keep riding, keep getting in the saddle. I was trying to do this anyway, but one thing that helped me keep on track was listening to Karl Greenwood from Centre for Horseback Combat , he talks about being part of the “In the Saddle Division” and this prompted me to tackle my many excuses for ‘not riding today’ – the rain, the wind, feeling a bit tired.I kept taking myself to the edge of my comfort zone, and just beyond. I entered the Shows and went to the training clinics, though to be honest my Icelandic horse friends would have probably come and got me anyway if I had said I was not going to a show! I continued to work on my skills and confidence with lessons and rides with my friend and trainer Fi, but I did all this at my pace. I pushed myself to be in the saddle but I was clear with those I rode with what I was comfortable to do and what I was not. I rode familiar rides, and aimed for short and often. In the end it was keeping riding that got me over the edge. I just kept getting on the horse. Eventually I became bored with my same old ‘safe’ ride around the block and this pushed me to venture out and rediscover some of my favourite rides.
I focussed on the positives. Horse riding is not the most dangerous hobby you can do. It really is not. In fact the worst fall I ever had, by a very long way was from my bicycle. Social media can have a powerful influence on our emotional states. It’s wise to consciously decide how you interact with it. Thinking about all the things that could go wrong was crippling my confidence so I stopped reading stories about people having accidents on horses, incidents between horses and cars, and even stories about horses being neglected or abused. I did not what these negative thoughts in my head. I ‘hid’ those stories on my timeline, and for some friends who seemed to repost a lot of such stories – I unfollowed them for a while (so now you know!) I tired to post on Facebook positive stories about my little victories in dealing with incidents while riding – and being okay!
That’s not to pretend that bad things can’t happen, or to be cavalier about potential risks, but the best way to be prepared for these is the be the best rider I can be, and to put the work in with my horse so that he is more confident and looks to me for help when we are faced by something challenging.
I did question if I wanted to keep doing this. What about just giving up the horses? I made it a question I could ask myself and faced it head on instead of pushing it away.I imagined what I might do instead, what I would lose but also what I might gain (time, money, flexibility, space for other things). I thought about how I would re-home the horses, and this made me cry! So sentimentality did play a part in my decision to keep going (heart) but also a careful evaluation (head) of what I would gain and lose practically, financially, socially, emotionally and psychologically.
I decided I would lose too much. My childhood dream – a place to live close to nature, chickens, cats, a dog, a horse (I was never bold enough to think of having more than one!). A hobby that connects with me with others, that is just a little ‘different’. Icelandic horses are quirky – described in one article as the ‘hippies’ of the equine world. Hippies on speed maybe!
I have hobby that constantly challenges me to be a better person – kinder, more mindful, more self aware. I have to notice my own energy and mood, and pay careful attention to the smallest of signs in my horse’s behaviour to be the best handler I can. Recently on a Richard Maxwell course on Ground Work I learnt to lunge Svipur with a halter and a rope. After only a few minutes he was changing direction when he noticed me quietly passing the rope from one hand to the other, getting ready to ask him for the change. That’s some responsibility!
What became almost too much of a challenge has become a joy. What I had to psych myself up to do has become my relaxation from other tasks. What seemed frightening becomes entertaining, or a challenge to be worked out. It’s a virtuous circle – the more relaxed and certain I become the better my horse feels – the more confidence he has in me – the more relaxed he is the more confident I feel. But I was the one who had to interrupt the negative spiral. I could only change me, my behaviour and feelings. I could not ‘make him change’ He changes because he wants to, because I am offering him easier options and confidence to do what I ask of him.
And isn’t much of this the same with people? You can not force other people to change, but you can change how you respond to other people. You can not change what has already happened, but you can change how you respond to it. It’s about taking control of your life and believing in yourself. It begins with connecting with yourself, facing the challenging questions, having a purpose or goal and going for it….getting back in the saddle.
I am sure there will be set backs, I may have to face this journey again, but for now I am back in the saddle and loving it.
I can do absolutely nothing for hours and hours but unfortunately doing nothing is not an option as Spring approaches. This is not, I have to point out because I am “full of Spring grass” or My Mare Gydja is “in season” or any other equine related biological explanation. No, the excessive level of activity in the Spring months is all created by a devious human invention. Boot Camp.
My Mate Roger tells me it’s preparation for the Shows and calls them ‘clinics’ but whatever cuddly supportive name he wants to give them it basically means being dragged all over the country in the Stable on Wheels and then having to go round and round in circles while various humans comment on the finer points or otherwise of my gaits. My gaits are fine just the way they are Thank You!
Various tricks can be used to deter the humans from taking you Boot Camp. There are obvious annoyances like losing a shoe just before said event or going ‘a bit lame’, though it has to be said that these are more a case of happen-stance than careful planning on my part. More often than not I have to accept that the Boot Camp experience has to be endured but no one said I had to endure it quietly. I make it my habit to shout, often and loudly to my mates. As a result of this behaviour My Mate Roger decided on one occasion that it was a good idea to take me to Boot Camp on my own, I was not impressed. I shouted all though the night even though there were other horses nearby and My Mate Roger was camped right next to me. By the morning I was a bit tired and My Mate Roger hadn’t got much sleep either. I don’t think My Mate Roger was happy with my performance on the track that day as this silly plan has never been repeated and one of my herd always accompanies me now when I go away.
My Mare Gydja has her own clever method for making the humans look silly. It basically involves performing perfectly the very thing your human has identified as ‘the issue’ on the first ask at Boot Camp. She went to Boot Camp a few years ago as a ‘four gaited horse who possibly due to an injury as a youngster didn’t like to tölt’. The Woman wanted her assessed to decide whether to accept that the tölt was lost or whether it could be trained back. ‘Let’s see you try the tölt’ said the trainer. She watched for a minute and then gave her verdict. ‘Nothing wrong with that tölt at all’. The Woman was dumbfounded. For an encore My Mare Gydia showed flying pace when asked to canter round the corner of the school which is not bad for a ‘four gaited’ horse! She’s a clever mare who likes to keep the humans guessing. I have my own version of this trick. I spent years pretending to My Mate Roger that I was such a tolt machine that I couldn’t trot.
There are some benefits of Boot Camps though. Fleygur Fans come to visit and give me treats, I get to stare meaningfully at the tent entrance so that the humans feel obligated to feed me hay as soon as they get up, still wearing their pyjamas
….and then there’s the horse whisperer. She dispenses wise words and wisdom to My Mate Roger but what she whispers to me is for my ears only and I’m not telling.
Roger has often said that ‘horses are a lesson in humility’ and on the journey to success it is helpful to remember that sometimes you will take two steps forward and one step back. In my last blog I wrote about how well Fleygur had done at the Spring Show, mainly because of how relaxed he was. Since the show he has improved even more, bringing his back legs under himself to power from behind and producing a much nicer and relaxed walk. Roger has been using a number of exercises to relax him, get him listening and into the the right shape. We had high hopes for the British Championships, though tinged with a little apprehension. The British Championships were being held in West Linton, Scotland, a place Fleygur had never been, and we suspected that part of his success at the Spring Show was his familiarity with Oakfield Farm.
During preparation for the show Roger was having problems with Fleygur’s floating panel saddle slipping forward. When it stays in the right place it’s great, but too far forward and the panels press into his shoulders. When we bought him he wore a crupper, but Roger was concerned about how this might effect his spine, and Fleygur didn’t seem to like it much. Two weeks before the Championships Fleygur’s new Top Reiter Start saddle arrived and he seemed to go well in it.
For my part preparation for the show was difficult. Work commitments took me away from home so I couldn’t ride much and I had developed a sore back which was taking time to heal. I could not get time off before the Show, so Roger took the horses to Scotland on his own on the Thursday, and I joined them on Friday night.
On the first day of the Show Roger had the opportunity to attend a short clinic with a top rider, Charlotte Cook. Fleygur went well and with Charlotte’s help Roger was able to improve his performance even more. The next few hours for Roger were spent organising and running the Track and Trail class ( a new innovation for the BCs). I would love to enter this myself sometime but even though I had designed it my work commitments meant I couldn’t even get there to supervise Roger! After running around all day later that evening Roger picked me up at Edinburgh station and we went to bed late and exhausted.
So Saturday morning found Team LVH all together and ready for our classes, or were we?
Fleygur was entered in two classes the first was Intermediate Four Gait, where he has to show walk, trot, canter (on the correct lead) and slow and fast tolt.The second class was Intermediate Tolt, requiring slow and fast tolt. Because this is the BCs I couldn’t help Flegur with his anxiety by having Svipur in hand near to the track, and the lay out of the event meant that the track was along way from where he really wanted to be, back with Svipur.
It was immediately apparent that Fleygur was not happy. For both events he was difficult to mount, when he doesn’t move a muscle usually and as soon as Roger was on board he was trying to take off. For the first time ever he was also napping and refusing to go forward. We had never experienced this with him before and Roger had to use all his strength and riding skill he had just to keep Fleygur going forward and to stop him from going up. Trying to use more subtle aids and small moves to improve listening and shape were abandoned in favour of just staying in control!
Roger struggled in the Four Gait to get four gaits and barely managed any trot at all! To get trot Fleygur has to relax and lower his head, and this just wasn’t happening. Canter wasn’t much better and I could see that Roger was struggling for control. However despite all this he did manage to scrape though into the final albeit in last place. His tolt class was much better and although I have seen better slow tolt, his fast tolt was good and he went through to the final in the leading position.
In between him fighting with Roger he did produce some nice gaits, and he wasn’t shouting so we hoped that by the finals day he would have settled and could be in with a chance.
Now it was my turn with Svipur in the Elementary Tolt. At the lunch break, having not ridden Svipur for a week or had the chance to show him the oval track I led him in hand through the warm up area and up to the track. He was really on his toes and by the time I put him back in the paddock I was starting to feel nervous. When the time came however he calmed nicely with my usual pre-hack exercises which include ‘kissing the stirrup ‘, responding the pressure by flexing at the poll, a bit of rein-back, and generally moving his feet around. All the stuff that completely failed to work with Fleygur earlier. However I completely underestimated the time before the class and barely got any tolting in before I had to be in the collecting ring, where I found I had to lead the class in. This is a disadvantage on Svipur, as he will go better on the track with a lead. I was just getting into my rhythm when Svipur spotted a rake lying by the side of the track, a track he had never been on and he was out front, and obviously it was there to eat him! Despite not being a spooky horse he spooked sideways and stopped dead! He went on again almost straight away but by now I had lost my rhythm and was guarding my sore back and we never quite recovered. As a result his tolt was inconsistent and ‘rolling’. I was called for a tack check so didn’t hear my scores but I knew it hadn’t been a good performance and although we didn’t come last, we didn’t make the final.
Tack check is a standard part of Icelandic shows to ensure that tack is within the rules and correctly fitted and that the horse does not have any injuries. In the preliminary rounds this is done on a random sample, and in the finals all horses are checked.
I was really down about my performance and to be honest I had not been in a great mood since I had arrived. I was tired and felt under-prepared. I definitely was under-prepared. Note to self: I can not just swan up to a show at the last minute, having not ridden my horse much in the last few weeks, do barely any warm up and take him on a track he has never seen before and expect a good performance! The best advice for Roger and myself that afternoon came from Charlotte Cook. For Roger ‘focus on what went well’ and for me ‘get your horse on that track this evening’. So after the days events had finished I tacked up and did just that. Svipur behaved perfectly, no spooking and we did some nice tolting with a bit of coaching from Roger. I tried to get a little trot too, Svipur’s weakest gait, but despite me thinking I had trot Roger told me it was pace so I stopped. I don’t want to teach him ‘piggy pace’! I think I will need some help with knowing what my horses feet are doing, and can feel some more lessons are needed. Roger took Fleygur for one round of trot, just to prove he could and we called it a day.
The evening was spent with the other competitors and visitors, a meal, giving out some prizes, thanks to those organising the event and some silly games (for those that didn’t sneak away at this point!). The Icelandic Horse people are a friendly and supportive bunch.
Finals day arrived. As I didn’t qualify for a final had the option to ride in a ‘Three from Four’ class, but I declined. I already knew I couldn’t get trot and I didn’t want another poor experience on the track. I would rather keep in my mind the nice tolting I had done the evening before, besides the class started at 8am and I needed my rest! Instead I spent the day being groom for Roger.
Fleygur was not much better and was still difficult to mount and handle. Now we were questioning everything. Did the new saddle fit after all? Was he in pain? May be it was just that he didn’t know the place. Should he just do tolt classes, avoid group classes, should we show him at all? Roger tried to focus on the positives, Fleygur had shown a nice fast tolt, and his trot when he does it is good. He wasn’t shouting and anyway he was going into the final in his first class in last place so what did he have to lose? I advised Roger to treat it as a warm up for his Tolt final.
It worked! This time he got all the gaits and managed to move up two places winning a fourth place rosette. It had been a struggle though and even at the end Fleygur didn’t calm down and fizzed about on the track. I can’t help but wonder how well Fleygur could do if we can get his anxiety under control.
His last class was Intermediate Tolt final but Fleygur was still fighting, and he didn’t go as well as the day before. He dropped from first place to third and as if to underline his fall the skies opened and chucked down a load of hailstones. Welcome to midsummer in Scotland!
That evening over a glass of wine Roger and I conducted a post mortem and made a list of things to do and things to remember for the next show in September and all the others. Here it is:-
1. Always bring rain sheets (what ever the time of year). We did take them, but we didn’t for our first show in 2013.
2. Keep the weekend before the show free to practice and prepare
3. Get to the show early enough to get your horse on the Oval track, even if it is only once and practice your test
4. Always use the same warm up routine, different for each horse.
5. Work out a fixed warm up routine for each of them before the next show! (20 minutes for Svipur, 10 minutes for Fleygur)
6. Bring an alternative bridle and saddle (or don’t change your saddle two weeks before a show!)
7. If Fleygur is playing up get him going forward, rather than slow paced exercises at walk
8. While out hacking do timed tolts and trots to match the classes.
9. Consider teaching Fleygur one class, e.g T1 because the familiarity might help his anxiety
10. Have an honest debrief on what we have learned on the first night, and write it down.