In The Box

I’ve been working on a new analogy recently, which has been positively received and greatly helped several riders. So here it is.

So often riders get overly focused on what’s going on at the front end of their horse, as it’s easier to see that rather than feel what’s going on behind them, that they become handy and forget to ride from leg to hand.

Some horses, when a contact is taken up, shrink in the neck and try to hide behind the bridle, either by hollowing or becoming overbent.

Putting the two together makes a difficult combination.

In walk, I get the rider to gather their reins – not too short, but not slack – and this is the rein length that they will maintain. I ask them to imagine that they have created a box with each rein being the long side of the box, and the short sides of the box are created by the bit and the space between the hands. The box is going to stay fairly square, and this size.

I ask my rider to push their horse forwards in the walk, focusing on the idea of filling the box in front of them with the head and neck. This encourages the rider to use their leg rather than their hand to improve the horse’s gait. It also discourages the rider from shortening the reins, and the horse shrinking behind the bridle.

Once this is established in walk, we move into trot. The aim is to keep the horse filling the box in front of the rider. This encourages the rider to keep using the leg and have a softer hand, which creates a more positive and consistent rein contact. The horse tends to stay longer in the neck, and the rider feels that they have more horse in front of them than they do behind.

I find that thinking of this box helps change the rider’s thought process and they start to apply the leg before the hand.

Of course, the size of the box can be changed as necessary – if the horse carries themselves in a shorter frame in one gait, or they are being asked to stretch longer and lower – but adjustments to the rein length should be planned and not fussy with micro adjustments. This also helps create a more stable connection between mouth and hand.

Once a rider understands and visualises the box, it becomes a useful reminder when the horse drops behind the leg, becomes over bent, or shortens the neck. I find it particularly useful to improve the canter, helping the rider to use their seat and leg to increase the energy in the canter.

No Foot, No Horse

Have you heard the old saying “no Foot, No horse”?

Where if comes from, nobody knows anymore. But it’s still as relevant today as it was a hundred years ago.

In a nutshell, it means that if your horse’s feet are in poor condition then they will not stay sound for very long. The length of soundness varies depending on how poor the feet are, and the workload expected of the horse, but it is limited.

So when looking to purchase a horse, you should always look at the conformation of the horse’s feet and the quality of the shoeing and trimming. As well as many other factors.

When you buy a horse, you should then recruit a registered, qualified farrier to maintain your horse’s foot quality, or indeed to improve them.

However, don’t just stop there. Every day pick out the feet, study them critically. Observe any changes. And talk to your farrier!

My farrier always asks “how’s she going?” when he arrives, and another farrier of several clients always asks how the horses are going when he sees me. It’s easy to say “oh fine thanks”. But make sure you’re honest, with both of you! Tell them if your horse has started stumbling, or you’ve noticed any changes to your horse’s feet, however trivial. A good farrier will take any information on board, no matter how small, and alter their work to improve matters.

Hoof walls take six to twelve months to grow from coronet band to ground, so it’s best to make corrections early so the hoof doesn’t become distorted and weakened, changing the weight distribution of the foot and possibly stressing an area of the limb and triggering an injury. A horse belonging to my friend, a thoroughbred with typical flat feet, repeatedly threw a shoe from one foot over the summer, and whilst the farrier did a reasonable job helping the hoof recover from multiple shoeings and the associated damage of throwing a shoe, the foot has changed shape to become weak and low at the heel. As a result, he is having to have six months off until new, stronger horn has grown, and the hoof improves in shape. This is to minimise the risk of injury to collateral ligaments if he stresses them by walking differently due to foot imbalance.

I’ve recently discovered that I’m very fussy about horses and their hooves. It’s one of the first things I look at when assessing new clients. And I find myself regularly commenting on their condition. I’m no farrier, but I can tell when a horse is well shod, or trimmed.

I tend to impart my observations, explaining my understanding of ideal foot balance, so that my clients learn what to look for in the future. With a newly shod foot, the shoe should look like an extension of the foot. Even when they are due to be shod, the toe should not be so long that the heels are collapsed.

I try to teach my clients about the hoof-pastern axis to help them assertain hoof balance for themselves. The wall of the hoof should be at the same angle to the floor as the pastern. If the HPA is broken back and the toes are long then more strain is put on the tendons down the back of the leg. A broken forward HPA axis stresses the tip of the coffin bone when the foot lands. So of course, neither side of ideal is great for the soundness of a horse.

If you identify a less than ideal HPA axis, or that your horse’s HPA has changed, you should raise the subject with your farrier. A good farrier will explain why the changes are happening, and how they are correcting it. If you are still not happy with their responses, then I always advise a second opinion.

If a horse has a broken back or broken forward HPA axis, then the farrier needs to make small, steady changes to improve the balance without removing so much hoof the horse goes lame. I was disappointed to hear last week that a farrier, when asked by my client, about her horse’s long toes, said that he couldn’t change the HPA of a mature horse without laming it. It’s very important to make small corrections from excess hoof growth to avoid soundness problems in the future.

My advice to horse owners is to study and understand the basic observations surrounding good hoof balance, and to discuss it with your farrier. A good farrier will further your knowledge with explanations, and take your observations on board. If they don’t, then it’s time to get a second opinion.

An interesting article for further reading:;;; https://www.geniusequestrian.com/the-importance-of-hoof-pastern-axis-and-working-together-to-achieve-good-hpa/

A Trachea Scope

During August I had a slightly concerning time with Phoenix. She was doing well under saddle, but something wasn’t quite right and I couldn’t put my finger on it, but the result was that I was riding cautiously, and I felt that Phoenix was quite flat when I rode her. I was carrying her around the second test at competitions, and after jumps she readily fell to walk unless I actively rode her away.

There was nothing to see, she moved well. Then I wondered if she wasn’t fit enough, so I upped her canter work. One day in mid August I took her for a canter around the fields, which she was most definitely up for, pulling my arms out my sockets on the way home. But she was puffing away for significantly longer afterwards than normal. Then a few days later she was breathing very heavily during a dressage lesson and I could only do short bursts of work before letting her rest, nostrils flaring.

I monitored her closely for a few days; there weren’t any clinical signs at rest, no coughing, breathing rate was normal, and she recovered quickly after exercise, but she was definitely “puffy” and flat in her work.

So I called the vet, who came a week later to check her over. In the very least, Phoenix would get an MOT and my mind laid to rest. The vet listened to her heart and lungs in the stable, declaring them problem free. Then I lunged her.

As is typical when you have the vet, Phoenix looked slightly off on the left fore when I lunged her. Not hugely concerning to the vet, but it was flagged up. However, Phoenix did show an “intolerance to exercise” which concerned the vet.

We decided to rest Phoenix for a week to hopefully resolve the mild lameness, and see if a rest caused her respiration to sort itself out. A week passed and Phoenix was sound, but I still wasn’t happy with her breathing, so I booked the vet to scope her trachea so we could see if there were any issues, and take a sample of the cells to test for abnormalities.

I found the experience fascinating and really educational. Phoenix was sedated, and then a thin tube with a camera was pushed up one nostril. At the end of the tube was a box, held by the vet. This had a screen, showing an image of her trachea from the camera, and some knobs to control the angle of the camera.

The vet showed me Phoenix’s larynx, and explained that she was looking at the movement of the arytenoid tendons to see that they’re both opening and closing evenly and fully. It is fairly common for horses to have a mildly paralysed left arytenoid cartilage, causing them to “roar”. You may have heard of the “tie-back operation” which is often done to improve the performance of sufferers. Thankfully, Phoenix’s larynx looked very healthy and fully functional.

I then got to slowly push the tube further down Phoenix’s trachea, while the vet controlled the camera, studying the screen intently. Again, her trachea looked healthy. There was no obvious mucus, no inflammation.

The next job was to take a fluid sample from her trachea. This was really interesting! The vet syringed some water down the tube so that it formed a puddle in her trachea. Then the syringe was used to suck the liquid back up.

The liquid which came back from Phoenix’s windpipe was unexpectedly dirty given her mild symptoms, so the vet sent the sample to the lab to be analysed for signs of infection and abnormalities.

In the meantime, we discussed potential management techniques to help improve Phoenix’s respiratory health. Things like soaking hay, dust free bedding, maximise turnout, different drug options including Ventapulmin and steroids.

Two days later I spoke to the vet. To her surprise, the samples had come back clear. Which didn’t really solve the mystery of why she was puffing when being ridden. Apart from the fact that she had lost fitness with me riding more cautiously and backing off her exercise. But at least I now know that there isn’t anything seriously wrong with Phoenix.

The scoping gave me the confidence to start pushing Phoenix’s fitness and work intensity, because her respiratory system is healthy. I’m still concerned that she had some form of reaction mid August, perhaps a low level virus or to a type of pollen, but as there are no long term symptoms I’ll just have to keep a close eye on her at that time next year to see if she has a similar flat, puffy phase. Then I can liaise directly with the vet, picking up where we left off this autumn.

Whether it’s the change in weather – wetter, less humid, less pollen – or the fact that with better ground I’ve taken her for a couple of pipe openers around the fields and cleared her lungs of any muck, but Phoenix has been coping better with exercise, and although not her usual sharp self (perhaps she’s grown up?) she’s still forwards in her work and not trying to fall into walk after a couple of jumps.

To some, I may have overreacted to Phoenix’s mild symptoms and overthought things, but getting her an MOT has allowed me to push aside doubts and ride more positively, which has broken the cycle of doubt where I don’t ride positively so Phoenix doesn’t go positively… And now we’re back on track!

One Step Ahead

It’s a tricky process when teaching a child rider and a pony when the pony is clever. And keen to work.

Recently I’ve been helping one of the Pony Club members who is in this situation. Her lovely pony has the expected attitude of a Welsh chestnut mare, and is easily offended if the rider is heavy handed. And likes to work. They’ve had a couple of bad experiences in their short relationship, which has made her rider nervous, which is how I ended up being involved.

The crux of their problems, I believe, is that the mare anticipates what they’re going to do next, gets faster or turns sharply, and worries her rider who puts the handbrake on. Which then makes the exercise awkward and the mare likely to put in a frustrated buck.

I warmed them up in walk and trot, using circles, changes of rein, and other school movements as well as transitions to get my rider relaxing and the pony listening to her rider. My rider was happy in the trot, so I explained how we should ask her pony lots of questions to keep her focused on her rider. The questions didn’t need to be difficult, but should be varied and in different places around the arena. This is a steep learning curve for most kids as they have to use a bit of initiative, start to think outside the box, and generally put some thought into their riding. Once my rider got into this mindset, we moved onto canter.

The first transition is usually fine, but after that the mare anticipates, quickens in the trot, and my rider starts to tense up and over think the transition. We made a plan.

They rode a canter transition in the corner before the short side. First transition, so easy peasy. When they rode into trot, I got my rider to immediately ride a circle. Then they changed the rein. Then we cantered again. Upon trotting, they started a serpentine. Then the mare tried to quicken into the corner in anticipation of canter. So they walked. Then trotted another circle. Then cantered. Then trotted, turned across the arena to change the rein, walked in the next corner and then rode a 20m circle at A in trot. As they crossed the centre line, they cantered.

You get the picture. My rider felt more in control, her pony was listening to her so wasn’t rushing. My rider relaxed, the pony relaxed. We repeated the transitions so she stopped over thinking them. The transitions became more consistent and everyone was generally much happier.

The next problem was jumping. Again, the first jump was usually trouble free, but the mare likes jumping so can land a bit fast and if half halted too sharply will spin her tail like a wind turbine and generally be upset. She also anticipates any exercises.

I placed a pole on the floor between two wings on the three quarter line, and we started by riding school movements which accidentally-on-purpose went over the pole. We also trotted a normal approach on the three quarter line, but kept varying things to help make going over poles uneventful and keep my rider in control and relaxed. I also had them ride a serpentine, with the central loop going over the pole.

Again, as my rider relaxed, they both improved. We made the pole into a little jump and continued in this theme of varying the approach and mixing in different questions to prevent any anticipation.

This works really well with small jumps or trotting poles, but as the jumps increase in size, you can’t approach with only two straight strides!

I raised the jump slightly, and we stuck to the three-quarter line approach, but started to use more questions to keep the attention of the pony, and ultimately, stay in control. On the approach to the jump, my rider rode a fifteen metre circle. This stopped the pony locking onto the jump and accelerating. After the jump, my rider asked another question – a transition or a circle. Then we varied the approach to have two circles, or a transition, or to ride onto the three-quarter line but after three strides, ride to the left or right of the jump. This is a tricky tactic because we don’t want to encourage the pony to learn to run out. Which is why my rider had to turn away from the jump before the pony had locked on, make it a definite movement with intention, keep riding positively, and to not repeat it too frequently. It’s just another tactic which can be a useful alternative to circles.

We talked about how to take this forward to linking jumps together. I told my rider to not be afraid to ride transitions between jumps, or circle once, twice or thrice if needed. Of course, this wouldn’t be a clear round, but if the pony expects a question between jumps then when they attempt a course a half halt will be sufficient to keep the pony focused. And she will be steadier because she’ll be anticipating a circle or transition.

They finished the lesson on a positive note, knowing how to take these tactics forward so that this rider could stay one step ahead of her pony.

A week later, we took them for their first experience cross country. The aim was to be in control on the flat in an open field, pop over a couple of jumps in a calm fashion. And finish with a smile!

I only did a couple of canters in our warm up, but we used the same approach of asking lots of little questions, and varying the space we used to ensure the pony stayed focused on her rider.

The first couple of jumps went smoothly, but then the mare got a bit quicker, and my rider started to over think things. So we used the circle on the approach tactic to limit the speed of their approach, and when we linked a couple of logs together, there were a couple of circles in between.

Then my rider started to over think things, and get anxious towards the fence which frustrated the pony so she leapt a couple of jumps awkwardly because the trot lacked impulsion. I took them away from the jumps and had them trot a circle around me, slowly increasing the size of the circle and the tempo of the trot so that it was suitable to jump out of. Then we migrated the circle so that they were circling around the log jump. There were a few circles here as the ever hopeful mare pricked her ears going towards the jump, and my rider wasn’t in the right place mentally. But then they did it!

We repeated these circles as required around the jumps to settle my rider as much as anything.

We took a break from jumping, to have a go at the mini steps up and down, and the water. All these were taken in their stride, especially as they could be approached in walk initially, and trot as they grew in confidence.

We finished this successful introduction to cross country by jumping a log (circling beforehand to quell nerves and to get the balance in the trot), then the steps up and down (walking as required), into the water, trotting out and over another little log. I was pleased that we’d started to link things together, but I think it will take a couple more cross country experiences for them to be happy linking jumps together. However, I will continue to use obstacles like water in the interim so that my rider doesn’t feel that every jump needs several circles beforehand to prepare. When we have a few more options of obstacles (because they’ve jumped other jumps that we didn’t do this time) it will be easier to change approaches and courses so that the pony doesn’t anticipate and worry her rider by her eagerness.

Confident Cross Country

Last weekend I had a very enjoyable and satisfying cross country lesson. We were focusing on developing the partnership, building their confidence and ultimately overcoming the inevitable refusal on the first attempt to every jump.

Their last session with me hadn’t gone particularly well. The last time I’d seen her cross country she’d been flying round, but unbeknown to me she had had a blip and we had a miscommunication. So once warmed up over some logs, I sent her towards a house. Where they had a problem.

So, knowing the full story, we met up again. After she warmed up, and had a look at the jumps to see what intimidated her, and what looked to be within her comfort zone, I sent them to trot over a plain, natural pheasant feeder style fence. It was inviting, well within their comfort zone. The pony refused.

They approached again in trot, with my rider being a bit more positive, and the pony stopped again. Ultimately, I realised that the pony had lost faith in his rider, who was now losing faith in both herself and him.

I explained that if he refuses, he can’t run away from the jump. He has to stop and breathe before being re-presented. Then I reminded her how her hands and reins channel him straight, preventing him opening a side door and dodging around the jump. But the hand shouldn’t discourage him from going forwards, through the front door. Her legs supported the reins in keeping the side doors firmly shut, but along with the seat they also keep the back door shut too, so he can’t slow down.

With this in mind, and taking sitting trot just before the jump, they were successful. I had them repeat the same jump until they were both approaching it happily, in a positive rhythm, and enjoying it.

The pony loves to jump, but he does need his rider to tell him to jump; you can’t be a total passenger. But equally, he doesn’t like it if you ride too strongly or aggressively to a fence, pushing him out of his rhythm. My rider knows this, but when coupled with cross country nerves, she has the tendency to “panic-smack” him on the shoulder with the whip. I made light of the panic-smack so that it raised a smile when I warned her off doing it, or told her off if she did it. She soon realised the difference between gently supporting him throughout the approach to a fence, compared to being a passenger and then suddenly interfering on the penultimate stride.

So we’d established how she needed to ride towards a jump, and her go-to’s when she got worried. Which means she can plan her approach to fences, remind herself of what not to do, and hopefully then be successful.

Next up, we had to restore her pony’s faith in her as a rider and leader. We moved around the course, jumping new jumps, still within their comfort zone. Initially, we had that first refusal at a new jump, but within a couple of goes my rider was consistent to the fence and responded quicker to her pony’s second thoughts. Which meant that he backed off the fences less and began to trust her.

Then they were flying together, and we linked the jumps together, used some steps, traversed the water, jumped out of, and in the water. The jumps stayed quite straightforward, but they had to link combinations together. I was pleased that the pair were starting to work in synchronisation with each other. This meant that even if my rider got her line slightly wrong, the pony was still committed to jumping, and not thinking how he could slip past the obstacle.

Every so often, they did have a run out. But we knew the reason – poor presentation to the fence, or my rider having a moment and regressing to panic-smacking. But on the whole, there was real improvement. My rider knew how to approach the fence, rode quietly yet positively, and her pony believed in her leadership in choosing a jump, and his ability to clear it.

It was a very rewarding lesson to teach because you could see things clicking into place for each half of the partnership, and how much happier they were at the end. It was progressive, confidence building, and the fact they made my final questions look very straightforward showed just how much progress had been made. Next up is to consolidate this work at another venue, and progress to asking slightly trickier questions, which will leave them in good stead to practice on their own.

Biting Off More Than You Can Chew

A couple of weeks ago I booked a cross country venue for the afternoon, for a variety of clients to come for private, semi private and group lessons. Mostly, it was successful. But one session in particular really challenged me, taking all my teaching skills as well as human and equine skills, to make a success of it.

Unfortunately, I think there was a bit of bad timing involved. This horse can get a bit, err, over excited in company, and a little clingy to other horses. He has a solitary life – more on that another day – because he’s such a playful acrobat in the field that no one wants to risk their horse being injured (understandably). Which means that he gets a bit silly when in the company of others. I put him at the beginning of my day so that we’d only have horses arriving towards the end. We had just started calmly walking him around the field, letting his eyes pop back into his head, when a horse trotted up the road adjacent to the far side of the field. This acrobat immediately started turning himself inside out in an attempt to look at, and go over to the happy hacker. I really think the lesson would have gone totally differently if this horse hadn’t trotted past at the beginning. Lesson learnt for next time – use acoustic ears, even if they don’t match the cross country outfit.

As you can see, it was an explosive start. We managed to get a bit of trotting done on a circle, but his rider soon felt he was unpredictable and she wasn’t happy. Neither was I. I know this horse well, but it did seem like his brain had well and truly fallen out from between his ears, and if we had any chance of recovering the situation, we needed to change tactic.

We got his rider off and lunged the horse. He had a couple of bucks, but actually settled on the lunge. So my rider remounted and we started on the lunge. I reminded her how his insecurities come out in bolshy, thuggish behaviour, and that he’s actually needing lots of reassurance at the moment.

We created a comfort zone on the lunge, where both horse and rider were close to me, their comfort blanket, and felt safe. We moved the circle out a bit, pushing the boundaries of their comfort zone, and moved around the field a bit.

The other thing I know about this horse is that he’s clever. And gets bored easily. And when he’s bored he misbehaves. When we were rehabbing him last winter he was a nightmare during the long reining and walk with short trots ridden work. We introduced poles fairly early to provide a focus, but as soon as we did proper polework, canter and raised poles his behaviour improved dramatically. After all, he had to concentrate on his work.

So we headed towards the smallest steps in the field and I lead them up it. We repeated this a few times, with the pair of them relaxing and getting more confident each time.

We expanded their comfort zone by me holding the lunge rein further away, before unclipping the lunge line and pretend leading them up the step. Slowly I drifted away and they did it a couple of times on their own. The horse was settling because he had something to think about, and as he relaxed so did his rider.

Before they got bored, we went over to the small jumps. I explained that yes, we hadn’t cantered or fully warmed up, but it was a warm day and the jumps titchy so they’d be fine. We started by trotting “on the lunge” then increasingly expanding the circle, moving around the small jumps, changing the rein and asking the horse lots on directional questions.

When my rider felt he was focused on her, and a small jump was nearby, she should trot calmly over it. Ride quietly away and resume circling in trot. The horse can jump, so our attention was on the quality of his behaviour before and after jumps. I talked continuously to my rider to help them both maintain a relaxed air. They popped over a teeny log happily, but when she came back round to do it again he had a moment of mischievousness. So I had her trot past the jump and move slightly away so that he was less sure of our intentions, and she calmly popped him over a different log.

We continued in this vein for the rest of the session. Quiet flat work, circling and figure of eighting before a jump, and then resuming calm flatwork afterwards. They expanded their comfort zone to most of the area around the cluster of small jumps. We had another blip, when he heard a walker passing the other side of the hedge, but because we were doing a more interesting subject, he soon refocused. Which I don’t think we can ask any more with this particular horse.

I was really pleased with how they finished the session; stringing a few jumps together, approaching in canter, and the jumps being the focus of their ride rather than subtly throwing them into the mix.

Unfortunately we ran out of time, as I think if we’d had another half an hour, they’d have progressed to bigger jumps, and linking combinations together, moving around the field. However, I was still very pleased and proud with how they both overcame their start and nerves to have a positive experience, finishing off in a really good mindset to pick up from next time.

Changing the Rein

At what point do you introduce the complications of trot diagonals in a child’s riding journey?

For me, the right time is when a child can maintain rising trot for a decent period. That is, they’re sufficiently balanced they don’t regularly double bounce, and the pony is sufficiently forwards that it doesn’t break into walk and the rider doesn’t have to give huge pony club kicks to keep the pony going (which causes double bouncing) Then of course, you factor in the child’s cognitive level and if they are able to understand the concept of trot diagonals, and will be able to think about navigating their pony as well as checking their trot diagonal regularly.

I have a rule that my riders should know their trot diagonals before learning to jump. They may need plenty of reminding to check them, but they should be balanced enough to sit for two beats. Over the years I’ve had the odd exception; if the pony is particularly lazy or the child has the attention span of a gnat and wouldn’t be able to think of trot diagonals as well as everything else. But I try to keep an eye on the pony’s strength and if they continually push their rider only the same diagonal I’ll introduce the idea of trot diagonals for the pony’s benefit, emphasing that being on the correct trot diagonal makes it easier for their pony.

Once a child has learnt about their trot diagonals the next learning curve is teaching them to remember to change their trot diagonal with each change of rein. Initially, and with younger children, I instruct them to change the rein, let them concentrate on steering, and once they are on the new rein and established – going into their corners and the pony is trotting with sufficient energy – I remind them to check their diagonal and change it if necessary.

As they develop their proficiency, I bring the diagonal change earlier into the change of rein. So I remind them as soon as they go onto the new rein, to change their diagonal. It will then start to become autonomic, and I find I need to remind my rider less frequently to “sit for two beats”. At some point, usually when my riders are a bit older and will understand more about their horse’s balance I will explain the subtle differences between their position on the left and right reins, and encourage them to think about changing from position left to position right and vice versa on their changes of rein. Then they can tie in changing their trot diagonal with changing their position and changing the bend of the horse when we get to that stage.

The other complication when changing the rein with young riders is changing their whip over. When first introducing a whip I don’t worry too much about my young rider changing it over. After all, they usually drop the reins and chaos ensues! I do try to make sure they hold the whip in alternate hands each lesson so that they become ambidextrous and as competent holding and using a whip in their dominant and non dominant hands.

I once taught a boy who only held his whip in his right hand. His pony used to run out to the left. I remember one particular instance when his pony ran out to the left so I told him to change his whip over so he could place it against the left shoulder and keep his pony straight. He did so, but as he was turning around to re-present to the jump, he changed the whip back into his right hand! The pony ran out to the left again!

Anyway. Once coordination has improved and their hands are big enough to make changing the whip over, I teach them the correct way to switch it from side to side. I then start reminding them on all changes of rein. The Pony Club Manual of Horsemanship states that the whip should be swapped to the inside hand on the first long side after a change of rein. I tend to agree with this for young children. Get one thing done at a time. Change the rein, change the trot diagonal, change the whip over. As with checking their trot diagonals, they can start to change their whip over during the change of rein as they get more proficient.

One of my frustrations when I see parents helping their child ride, whether it be helpful reminders from the sidelines, or directing them from the middle of the arena, is the overloading of instructions. “change the rein, don’t forget your diagonal. Why haven’t you changed your whip?” The child ends up flustered and doesn’t do any task well. Let them concentrate on an accurate change of rein before the next two steps. They’re more likely to successfully sit for two beats to change diagonal first time without the pony falling into walk, and then they’re less likely to drop their reins and lose rhythm and balance when changing their whip over. These will happen simultaneously soon enough.

Imprint Horseshoes

The blog is rather neglected (still) at the moment. I’m finding either subjects I think of writing about have already been blogged previously. Or my brain is so busy thinking of hundreds of different things that have happened, or will happen, or are happening that I can’t clear the brain space to blog, or just need to vegetate in front of the TV. Writing a blog is cathartic, and I definitely found it helpful as I negotiated the ups and downs of my twenties. Perhaps I’m more settled, in a better brain space, with less frustrated opinions, and therefore don’t need to write?

But I have a short list of topics which need to be shared, so hopefully my blogs will become more frequent.

Let’s start with a new type of shoe that I came across a couple of months ago. A pony I ride was at fat camp. He was marginally lame and had the first signs of laminitis, so was on a heavily restricted diet, a track system and being long reined for hours around the arena. However, until he was sound and more comfortable, and some weight had shifted we couldn’t increase the workload by riding. It was a tedious process, walking laps of the arena!

Anyway, his farrier suggested a different type of shoe, which was good for laminitics, so duly came and put them on his front feet. I arrived an hour or so later to long rein and was intrigued by the shoes. When I picked his feet up in the field, I’ll be honest, they looked like some weird form of trainer! They were plastic, with horizontal grips like our shoes, and glued onto his hooves.

This farrier is a friend of mine, so I text him to ask more about the shoe. This is when you know you have a great professional on your horse’s side, as he rang me back almost immediately to give a thorough explanation about the type of shoe he’d used. He didn’t take it as a critique of his work, he knew I was trying to educate myself, and he was knowledgeable about the product and method, and shared his knowledge. So many professionals (saddlers, physios etc) get defensive when you question what they’re doing. They don’t seem to realise that questioning is a way of expanding your own knowledge and understanding!

Anyway, back to these Imprint shoes. I noticed an immediate difference in the pony – he looked sound on the hard, and much more comfortable. So with immediate effect we started adding in trots on the long reins before progressing to longer trots on the lunge and then after a week, riding him again.

So what are the Imprint shoes? Firstly. They’re made of plastic, and are fitted by putting them into warm water to make them malleable, then you can shape them to fit the hoof exactly, before gluing them into place. The plastic shoe is lighter, so can make a horse more comfortable. Think how you feel wearing heavy clumpy boots as opposed to Crocs. It can improve mild lameness. It doesn’t solve a problem, but it allows the horse to move more easily which can help improve the symptoms. And with laminitis a big part of recovery is making the horse sufficiently comfortable that they can exercise to increase their weight loss, to reduce the fat, which triggers the inflammation of the sensitive laminae.

The shoes are the same basic design as heart bar shoes, so support the pedal bone, which is vital in laminitic horses. Being of a softer material they will absorb more of the concussive forces that steel shoes, again helping to improve soundness in a horse with sensitive feet. Plastic is also more flexible, which allows the horse’s foot to expand and contract more naturally, like the barefoot foot does.

The downside of these shoes is that they’re very expensive! They are softer that steel shoes so don’t have the longevity factor. Fine for light work or rehab, but the grips would wear smooth if the horse did a lot of hacking or harder work. My farrier said that some people use Imprint shoes all the time, but I guess they’d be on a shorter shoeing cycle to compensate for the shoe wearing quicker.

One successful rehab later with the Imprint shoes on for eight weeks and he’s now in traditional heart bar shoes with no signs of laminitis, and a much slimmer physique. We’re now increasing canter work to improve his cardiovascular fitness.

Dressage Judging

I’ve been thinking a lot about judging dressage. It’s definitely something I’ve thought about doing in the future, but at the moment I’m quite happy dabbling in my Demi Dressage judging. Which has a scale of 1 to 10, but focusing much more on the teaching side of things – taking the time to comment on how the movement has gone well or how to improve. And the scale isn’t comparable to British Dressage. For example, there’s no way we’re going to be giving out 4.0s and 5.0 to the tiny tots doing their first test. So the marks used tend to be higher than you’d expect, with 9.0s dotted around. But we want to be encouraging, give them a good experience and help them improve both themselves and their pony.

It’s an approach to judging I think should be universal. Aim to give positive and constructive feedback, encourage riders of all ages to improve and have another try at a test. After all, the judge sitting as C doesn’t know their journey. Sure, they may be full of confidence and able to take a tough judge. But they may also be nervous and spent months building up to this moment. It may only be a prelim test, but to them it’s their Olympics.

Phoenix and I have been plugging away at affiliated dressage this summer; being very comfortable and bored in novice, we pushed up to elementary.

Our first elementary test wasn’t an easy one – typical – but we could ride each element and I felt that so long as she didn’t anticipate anything, or spook then we should make a respectable debut. The test itself, she rode everything as I asked. Conservative, and sometimes a little wobbly, but as well as she could. I was pleased.

However, when the scores came through I was really disappointed. Expecting 62% ish, with what I thought to be realistic expectations, we’d scored 57%.

Initially, I was gutted. The score was much lower than I felt we really deserved. Yes it hadn’t taken us out the placings, but it just felt very unfair. Phoenix has quality gaits and usual marks are 6.5 when she’s going in a very average way. Of course, if she jogs the walk or spooks she picks up a 4.0. But that’s fair.

Anyway, I looked at the score sheet for some feedback, and it was very disappointing. Little to no feedback or justification for the low scores. I looked at the rest of the class, and there were more scores than usual in the 50s, so it seemed to be a general theme of the day. I was very frustrated and disappointed, moping around for a couple of days feeling like I’d been wasting my time.

Then I saw a friend who had been volunteering and supporting her friends at the competition. We had a moan, but most importantly, she told me that those competing regularly at elementary had received a score approximately 5% lower than their normal. Which made me feel better, and that another judge would have put us in the low 60s that I’d anticipated for our first time, and it wasn’t a personal vendetta.

Before we go any further, let’s look at the repercussions of judging negatively. Yes, I respect that you need to use a range of marks, but no decent feedback and for the whole class to be scored low is not good for anyone.

It’s not good for the competitor. My first experience of an elementary test did not inspire me to continue trying. I wanted to give up. I lost my confidence and self belief. And I wouldn’t be the only competitor in this position. Leisure riders who spend hours of time and lots of money training towards a test, perhaps it’s at the top of their game, are in it for fun. Reading those score sheets are not fun. These riders, who go to British Dressage competitions regularly actually make up a large proportion of BD membership, and make these show days financially viable. Don’t put them off.

It isn’t a good advert for British Dressage – why would you opt to go to a BD show if you regularly received unfair judging when there are perfectly acceptable Riding Club options, which a more inviting and supportive atmosphere.

It’s not great for the judge. I looked her up and I won’t be going to the BD venue she’s associated with. Nor will I put her name forward to judge at any Riding Club or Pony Club competitions. If I learn she’s judging a class I’m entered in, I’m not sure I’d even bother going. I’d rather forfeit the entry fee. And I definitely will not be looking for lessons or clinics with her, or recommending her to anyone else.

The venue. It’s very local to me, and whilst the venue was great, it will be quite a risk returning there in case she judges again, so the venue has certainly lost out from that perspective.

No one benefits from this situation, and as I said before, it may be the first rung on the BD ladder, but to some this is a massive achievement – training, overcoming nerves, travelling, riding in a new environment, and then learning the test.

Depending on your point of view, fortunately or unfortunately I had already entered another elementary test at another show. Which meant I had to pick myself up and brush ourselves off.

I sent the test video and sheet to my coach, and then ripped up the score sheet. I’d rather put my trust in her to guide me in my next training steps, than dwell on those low numbers. I knew already what our weaker areas were, so started practising those before our next lesson. I also did some fun hacks and jumps to remember why I ride Phoenix.

It was definitely a test of resilience. I really didn’t want to go to our next competition, and had to dig deep to practice. It was also interesting to note that my general confidence with riding and work took a dip. I thought of attending some clinics, but didn’t want to ride in front of anyone unknown. The risk of taking another battering I guess.

But it was fine. We weren’t hugely well prepared, and the second test had some mistakes. But the scores were fair, and justified, and we came home with a first and second. This inspired me a bit more, so I entered another two tests to keep the ball rolling. Last weekend the scores increased further, although there were still some mistakes (like riding canter to halt instead of canter to walk in the simple changes, and me forgetting where the final halt transition was on the centre line and wobbling around), and we had another first and second.

I feel like we’ve established ourselves at elementary level, and it feels the right level of difficulty – not perfect, but challenging enough. So now I’m planning a few weeks of training to consolidate what we’ve learnt from the competitions. And really focus on our weaker points, such as finding and maintaining the balance in medium trot. Then we’ll get out between the white boards again and hopefully have some more successful outings.