Self Carriage Success

Self carriage is the ultimate aim for all of us horse riders, but in trying to get there many of us are guilty of micromanaging our horses and their way of going.

You know the sort of thing: you’re working on your horse giving some inside flexion and before you know it you’re holding them in place. Then they begin to rely on you nagging and you become a noisy rider.

I frequently remind my riders to go quiet and still when their horse is softening and doing as they should. They don’t need to drop the contact or take the leg and seat off completely, just soften and reduce the strength of the aids.

With one of my clients I’ve been paying special attention to getting her to hand over the reins, literally, and putting the onus onto her horse to carry himself as she can become too busy and he gets a bit reliant on her putting him in the right place. It goes against my client’s nature, but she’s starting to hand over control.

We warm them both up using circles and school movements to develop vertical balance, whilst reminding my client to give moments of peace. Then when her horse is working in good balance and is supple and rhythmical, I get them to ride large with the odd large circle. Simple school movements than what we have done in the previous fifteen minutes, but with the aim of my rider doing less and her horse carrying himself.

It struck me a couple of weeks ago, when hiking across frozen, poached fields with a two year old, that teaching self carriage is similar to teaching independence to a toddler.

“Don’t hold my hand, I don’t need help!” she says stepping into a frozen mud valley of the field. The divots are big enough for me to feel precarious whilst crossing, let alone when the valleys are knee height. I let go of her hand, but it hovers just behind, ready to catch. She’s every chance of success by the way I’ve prepared her, but I’m ready to catch her before she falls.

With a horse, you use the aids to guide them into the right frame and balance. Then you take away the scaffolding as they perform a task well within their abilities. But you’re still there, ready to step in the moment they flounder. Initially it may be a reduction of the frequency of the aids, or it may be a lighter aid, but all of your reductions are focused on making your horse more independent and less reliant on you holding them onto the springy, engaged trot or canter.

When your horse, just like a toddler, succeeds in a simple task they grow in confidence in their own abilities, they relax and develop self carriage. It may only be a couple of strides before you take back their hand, but eventually they’ll be that balanced (emotionally and physically), fully fledged young adult, we aim our toddlers to become.

But we have to trust ourselves enough that our preparations will let them fly off with success when we let go.

One After The Other…

I’ve decided that I’m not a huge fan of running clinics because of number of potential unknowns in a group. And what if my lesson plan is totally unsuitable for a rider and horse?

What I have discovered that I like doing though, is doing a series of consecutive private lessons at one venue. With the same theme, but it means that I can tweak the exercise to best suit that client. It leads to quite an intense, but very satisfying day.

I regularly go to a yard where several Pony Club members livery, and teach consecutive 30 minute lessons all morning, using this format.

Last time I went I laid out a straight forward exercise of a placing pole to a jump, then three canter strides away a second fence. Before the placing pole and between the two jumps I laid tramlines.

With my first little jockey I warmed her up focusing on not flapping like a windmill when trying to keep her pony in trot, by having her carry a horizontal whip. I think kids can get so carried away by wanting to jump and go fast they often don’t connect how improving the little things helps the big things. With quieter hands the pony seemed happier and more forwards, so I drove the message home by focusing on this with the poles. I had her planning a better turn towards the exercise so that she started straight, and then channeling her pony with still hands, using the leg to keep him travelling forwards. We worked in trot in both directions, really focusing on her preparation and then just applying the accelerator. As we built the exercise up to jumps my rider started to see the benefits of quieter hands in that her pony almost picked up canter and gave enthusiastic pops over the jump. The feeling of easier jumps will hopefully motivate her to practice keeping her hands still on the flat.

My next rider and pony were a comfortable pair. Neither are hugely ambitious and enjoy being in the comfort zones. Which means the pony often jumps from an idle canter which feels jarring, upright and uncomfortable, as well as being height limited. I had them cantering around the arena finding the “Friday Afternoon” canter such as on the way home from school. Concentrating on riding forwards before and after jumps will help the bascule flow and feel easier. Then my rider could fold into a more balanced jumping position. The tramlines weren’t hugely relevant to this lesson, but just their presence helped keep the pair on their jumping line. For these two I converted the placing pole into a low upright to make a bounce to improve the suppleness of my rider as she had to rapidly switch between her two point and three point position.

Another lesson with a more novice rider, had trot poles instead of jumps, and used transitions between the tramlines to improve control and accuracy. Switching between light seat over the poles and rising trot improves the rider’s balance and familiarity with the jumping position in preparation for jumping. It could be developed into just the one jump at the end of the exercise, or cantering through the exercise as required.

One of the other riders tends to over think pole arrangements, riding to each pole individually instead of the exercise as a whole. I was fully prepared to simplify the layout if her brain threatened to implode, but started her off trotting and cantering through the exercise with the poles on the floor. My main focus was on my rider looking ahead, not at each pole, and understanding that if she rode a good turn and aimed for the end of the exercise, she didn’t have to worry about the tramlines (yes, her tubby pony did fit easily between them!). We built up the jumps using crosses to help focus her straight ahead, emphasising that my rider looks at the second jump just before she jumps the first, and so on. The pony stopped chipping in and getting too deep to the jump, and my rider didn’t get in front of the pony, loading the shoulders. Again, I made the placing pole into a small bounce to further develop the feel for an uphill jump, and to help my rider start to feel that she was behind the pony over fences instead of in front. I didn’t end up simplifying the exercise as my rider comprehended it well; it was a really good session to help her learn to filter out the less important parts of an exercise or course, and to ride to the end of a line. I was really pleased with how things slotted into place for these two.

My last client has a pony who tends to drift and go crooked, so the tramlines were ideal to improve the rider’s awareness of drifting, and to help her correct it. Using cross poles to further help them stay straight I soon discovered that my rider didn’t ride after the jump. So instead of riding the five stages of a jump – approach, take off, bascule, landing, get away – she forgot to do anything on landing! The tramlines between the jumps then had a second use. I had my rider approach the exercise in a steady trot, quietly pop over the first fence, land in canter and then sit up and ride into trot between the poles so that they had a steady approach to the second jump, and were more likely to stay on the jumping line. Having a physical marker to ride to helps make a rider commit to a transition, or movement as it’s easier to judge their accuracy. After focusing on riding after a jump, they began to stay straighter and steadier, which will really help them as they progress to riding a course.

This set up gave me hundreds of different options for teaching, and could be easily adjusted between clients as needed. Possibly my new favourite sort of day – one exercise, lots of different private lessons so I can hone into each individual’s requirements.

Boredom in the Mundane

Is anyone else reaching their limit during this lockdown?

This last week I seem to have hit a wall. The weather definitely doesn’t help. It’s been dreich for weeks, but the Beast from the East is really the icing on the cake. I get the sniffings of spring; like snowdrops creeping through and daffodils about to bloom; some warmth in the sun, and Phoenix not wanting to come in at 4pm!

We’re on week five (read five hundred and sixty three) of this third lockdown and it’s all become a bit mundane. Days merge together, walks are limited by weather and ground conditions. Local hacks are repetitive, the jump paddock is boggy, the horses are in winter mode. I’m bored, Phoenix is bored. Household jobs have lost all appeal – I mean, I can’t spring clean the house more than once a year. There are DIY jobs to do around the house and garden but it’s cold and wet, and not very appealing!

I think I’ve lost my mojo. I guess it happens a bit to all equestrians after Christmas, but usually we pull ourselves through with some goals, competitions or days out with friends. But with nothing to distract me, I find myself feeling glumpy. That’s a combination of glum, gloomy and down in the dumps.

I’m not one for moping, so I need a plan of action.

With this week’s weather I’ve decided to back off riding Phoenix. The lane is too icy to hack, and she doesn’t go well in the wind or cold. Her made-to-measure quarter sheet should be delivered tomorrow, so why put myself through tense, argumentative rides in the meantime? I’m better off doing in-hand work and being her friend.

I’ve spent the last couple of weekends doing some little projects – weaving a rainbow, embroidering a cat, some jigsaws, hanging up photo frames. But it’s not satisfying me. I’m going through the motions, but I’m not inspired. There’s a punch needle kit downstairs, but that’s proving frustrating to say the least.

Next on my list is reweaving the seat of a small chair from Portugal with seagrass which was mine as a toddlers and now looks a little worse for wear. The seagrass has arrived, the needle is with Royal Mail, so all I need to do is watch some YouTube tutorials…

Anyway, suggestions on a postcard for ways to get my mojo back!

In the meantime, let’s keep hoping that spring is on it’s way, and restrictions are eased so we can have a change of scenery, offload children onto grandparents, and see friends again.

Keep listening out for Too Ticky’s barrel organ.

Online Learning

The idea of distance learning has been around for years. Whilst taking my A-levels I did an Open University short course as part of a project to help students choose a degree. It was fairly enjoyable, but I think I only managed it because I was already devoting my life to studying and didn’t have any other plates to spin. How adults return to learning with a job and family is beyond me.

Over the last year though, distance learning has made a huge leap forwards. Instead of it being for mature students, or the infirm; every school child has done it at some point or another. They will have done different amounts of online learning, but kids of all ages have had to learn to learn with less support from their teachers.

I would never have considered having to teach equitation online last year. The closest I’d ever gotten to distance teaching was giving a client guidance when they sent me their concerns between lessons. It may have been as simple as guiding them on adjusting their horse’s diet, or how to overcome a simple nap in the arena. But they were all short term plasters; damage limitation until I saw them in five days time.

The first lockdown in the spring saw me offering to teach the BHS Challenge Awards over Zoom. As well as giving feedback on riding videos or teaching a child wearing a backpack containing a Bluetooth speaker connected to their parent filming them in the middle of the arena – I tell you what, you get a lot less back chat when communication is one way! That was a challenge, and not ideal, but useful to keep them ticking over and refocus them on the basics.

Now of course, we’re still allowed to teach private lessons, but unfortunately Pony Club has had to halt all face to face activities. In the spring we did some photo comps, weekly riding exercises, achievement badge activities. But this time we’d already planned the efficiency test training up until the Easter holidays.

So I had my work cut out coming up with Plan B, but the result is that my branch is offering training from D test to B test. For my part, I’m training the younger members for their D and D+ tests, as well as offering achievement badges for the youngest members, and those not ready for their next efficiency test.

I’ll be honest, it’s unchartered territory for me. And the kids know how to use Zoom better than me – “you have to share sound separately, Susy” – but I’m enjoying the challenge of working out how to teach from a screen.

To begin with, I made a PowerPoint for the two efficiency tests. I made one PowerPoint as the D+ test has a very similar syllabus to the D test, just more in depth, so one PowerPoint, with special D+ slides covers everything.

Everyone learns in different ways, so I felt it was important to try and bring in several different learning styles. I found some videos to supplement where I would demonstrate if we were in person; such as putting a headcollar on; then put a combination of notes and pictures on the slides, which together with me talking and posing questions, ticked most learning styles. Screen sharing has proved to be a very useful tool!

I also find that kids, especially younger ones, can find it difficult to verbalise a process, or describe something using words. So for our points of the horse session, I told all of them to bring a toy pony along (or photo for the older ones) and as we went through the different points, they could point to the appropriate place on their pony. I also used my, I mean Mallory’s, rocking horse to stick labels onto. When I did the pony behaviour badge with the younger children they had to show me using their model pony and rider how to approach a pony, where to stand to lead it, how to turn them out, etc.

I’ve also added activities into the training, which they can do with me, or afterwards, as revision. For the youngest kids, we had a matching exercise (draw a line from the horses face to the matching emoji, to the word) and some colouring. This meant that the pre schoolers could do the colouring while I talked to the older members at a slightly higher level.

I think for the topic of tack for the D and D+ training I will recruit the rocking horse, as the tack is removable. And for the colours and markings badge I want to do in a couple of weeks time, I’ve got a painting exercise for us to all do together. But I’ll continue to think outside the box for ways to engage the children, who usually have the attention span of a gnat on a hotplate!

Please send any other ideas on a postcard!

First Aid Kits

Do you have a first aid kit at the yard? Human or equine? Or both?

I have a human one in my car, but thinking about it, it probably needs updating. I only use it for plasters. I also have a Pony Club one, which is definitely up to date, for when I’m teaching rallies. Horse wise, I have one at the yard. But thinking about it, it should also be updated…

A couple of weeks ago, I had a freak accident with a client’s horse, which reminded me to update my first aid kits!

My client was running late so tied her pony up in the usual spot along the fence outside her stable. I offered to tack up while she got ready. I put the saddle on; girth on the bottom hole, and then reached through from the off side to do it up. As I was putting the strap through the buckle the mare swung round towards my right leg, to try and bite me. I twitched my leg away, still holding the girth. After all, it’s not a new behaviour when the girth is being done.

Anyway, when my leg moved, the mare tossed her head away, you know how horses do in anticipation of being hit? Well she did that. And in doing so, scraped her forehead on the gate hinge.

“Oh, she’s cut her head.” says my client, bringing the bridle over.

I look. “Oh s***” I think, as I see that the small drop of blood is actually linked to a triangle of flapping skin, which is slowly starting to peel away from her forehead.

My client rang the vet, while I hunted around the yard, asking other liveries, for first aid equipment. If the vet was coming I didn’t want to mess with the wound, but I could remember that flaps of skin need to be put back in place to maximise the likelihood of it… Sticking. Is that the right word? Cotton wool leaves fibres in the wound, which I didn’t want. Eventually, I found a non-adhesive, Melolin dressing and I covered the wound and then bandaged her nose with vet wrap so that we didn’t have to hold it while waiting for the vet. I didn’t tell my client that the smooth white thing we could see was bone…

When the vet arrived he sedated her, although I think she was already semi-comatosed from the bash. He snipped away the hair, gave her a local anaesthetic and then flushed out the wound before stitching her up.

The wound looked very dramatic, especially with the diluted blood dripping everywhere. And I felt awful. Even though the logical side of me reminds me that I didn’t actually do anything aside from remove my leg from her jaws. We can learn from it; tie her tighter, use a different tie spot, but ultimately it was a freak accident. And a timely reminder to check the first aid kit regularly!

Within a couple of days the wound was healing nicely, and as the noseband didn’t interfere with it, she could be ridden lightly. The stitches were removed after ten days, and two weeks on the only sign remaining is the short hair on her forehead. I did notice the next time I rode her, that she thought twice about biting as the girth was done up.

Looking online, there are various equine first aid kits available, so it’s worth checking those out, but remember the contents aren’t exclusive, so if you can think of something else to put in the first aid kit then, perhaps specific to your horse or their usual ailments.

Snow Day!

Most of the UK had a snow day today. Made better than normal because it was a Sunday so it didn’t cause the country to grind to a halt, or confusion to reign over cancelled school and the guilt that you should be working, not enjoying the white stuff.

We had a lovely day, one of the best snow days. We went as a family to the yard as the snow began to fall, and Mallory got more and more excited. It’s the first snow she can remember, and she’s been hoping for some since Christmas. When she woke up on Christmas Day and learnt that Santa had visited, she immediately looked out the window to see if it had snowed.

Anyway, I wanted to fulfil a bucket list activity and ride in the snow. Luckily for me, Phoenix is barefoot so I didn’t have to worry about snow balling in her feet. Unluckily for me, she hadn’t worked for 48 hours so was rather fresh! We have fields to ride around, which was perfect for this morning’s task. I tacked up as the snow fell thickly, and to Phoenix’s surprise, she didn’t go straight to the field.

She danced down the track to the fields before getting used to the feel beneath her hooves. We had a lovely walk round the fields, checking the ground, before having a canter. Not as fast as Phoenix would have liked, but plenty fast enough considering the weather conditions.

Phoenix and I returned to the yard, in a cloud of large,swirling flakes, finding a snowman on our way, with a very excited toddler and husband.

I think riding in the snow definitely takes some getting used to. In countries that have more than 12 hours of snow, you have chance to adapt and prepare for snow. Most people in the UK don’t ride on a snow day because of the problem of snow balling in shod hooves, and the fact it’s a novelty. Yard jobs take longer, and the horses tend to be on their toes. I found it most disconcerting that I couldn’t see the ground properly, and had to trust Phoenix to pick her way around dips and puddles. I never expected Phoenix would be the one I ticked this activity off on.

After riding, it was time to turn out with plenty of hay in the field. Luckily I had my yard staff so jobs didn’t take too long and Phoenix was quite happy in her snowy field. Some people leave their horses in when it’s snowing, and to be honest, it depends on how easily you can get to the field – is it safe? If it’s a treacherous journey then it’s better to stay in. Equally, if your horse is likely to be unsettled in the snowy field it might be safer to leave him in.

Once Phoenix was sorted, Otis needed looking after. I gave him and his field friend a slightly larger than normal bucket feed, and then doubled their hay ration. Because of the snow, they were going to have a second hard feed this afternoon, and most probably extra hay, depending on how much they ate during the day.

I did discover the most perfect combination of sounds whilst with Otis. As all equestrians know, the sound of a horse munching on hay is one of the most relaxing sounds ever! However, the crunch of fresh snow is also a lovely sound. Put the two together and it’s an auditory utopia. In my opinion anyway. What do you think?

Rehab – a Secret Blessing?

Your horse picking up an injury and needing long term rest and rehabilitation is everyone’s worst nightmare, but sometimes it can be a blessing in disguise.

Looking after a horse on box rest is exhausting, but you do get a much stronger bond from so much time spent on the ground. Useful if you’re a new partnership.

But the bit about rehab that I find so interesting is when you’re bringing a horse back into work. Yes, it’s tedious. Yes, it’s time consuming. Yes, it’s a fantastic opportunity to really correct and improve the way your horse works.

Sometimes a horse may be tight in their neck and struggle, for example, to work long and low. Well being out of work atrophies those muscles, and weeks of walking is the perfect opportunity to establish long and low, and develop their topline.

It might be something you want to work on with your own riding, and putting some focus on you can often take the pressure off your horse, which slows your rate of rehab (it stops you rushing into canter work, for example) and gives your horse more time to strengthen up. There’s nothing to stop you having lessons whilst still in rehab; just be sure your instructor knows and understands your present limitations.

I’ve started helping some clients bringing their mare back into work after an extended time off with foot problems. Before I got physically involved, they did a month of walk hacking before a couple of weeks of short trots. The mare had been signed off from the vets, but her owners didn’t know how to bring her back into work so sensibly asked for advice. I suggested a prolonged walk only period because the mare is a bit older, and I think it’s always better to spend an extra week at stage one if in doubt. Plus it was the middle of winter so why not take it steady and not put pressure on yourself to do that daily walk when it’s dark, wet and windy.

Anyway, we started at the beginning of January with me riding twice a week, and her owners riding her in between. Prior to her injury, we had started working on relaxation, and encouraging the mare to lower her neck and stop being so hollow. I also wanted to encourage her to use her hindquarters, and take a longer stride, as she was a long way from tracking up in trot. This was the ideal time to focus on that because the bad muscles had reduced, and we could take the time in the slower gaits. Of course, she may have been compensating for any pain and not using herself as well as she could. In which case now, in theoretically no pain, she should be able to use herself correctly.

We started with short trots around the outside of the arena, and I was pleased to feel that the mare felt really sound, and was starting to take her head lower, but long and low was still a long way off. We walked over poles, which are always exciting for her, but she rapidly got the idea, and slowed down, lowering her head and stretching her legs. Afterwards, both her walk and trot felt looser.

It’s only been three weeks, but already I can see the difference in the mare’s posture on the yard, and she’s carrying herself in a longer frame – head lower and neck longer. The trots have gotten longer, still predominantly straight lines but now the odd 20m circle to help her rebalance. We’ve done raised walk poles, which are quite tricky for her and the distance between walk poles is getting longer as she’s getting stronger. Five walk poles is about her maximum at the moment, otherwise she tenses and tries to rush the last one instead of stretching a little bit more – as you can see in the video below. After doing this set of poles a couple more times she figured out how to stretch over all five poles and didn’t rush.

The plan for the next few weeks is to plateau really; no canter yet, but longer trots, more big circles, more walk poles of increasing difficulty, and a longer and lower frame. I also want her owners to get more involved so they start to do more of the work, and they develop the skills to help the mare into the longer, lower frame. We don’t need to push on with the intensity of work, and I really feel both sides of the partnership will benefit from time spent building this skill set and topline muscles. The canter also fizzes this mare up, so I’m concerned the canter may temporarily undo our trot work so I want the trot to be very established before taking this step.

Although a long rehab is not what anyone wants, I really believe this mare will come out stronger than before, with a much better posture, way of going, and musculature. It will be interesting to follow.

Find the silver lining of an injury and rehabilitation programme. Find the weakest areas for both of you, and use the loss of condition as a blank canvas for you to have another go, particularly as you’ll have learnt more about your horse, more about soundness, and more how a horse should work to prolong their working life. It’s tough, but so many horses and their riders come out of rehab better and stronger.