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.

A Moment on the Lips, A Lifetime on the Hips

Grass growth in the UK has gone insane in the last month and there seems to be an unprecedented number of horses coming down with laminitis or being very much at risk of it.

The best tactic for weight management is to start early. But that’s easier said than done! Unfortunately I think until an owner has experienced Code Red; drastic weight loss or the dreaded laminitis itself, it’s all too easy to be complacent. Especially with our tendency to anthropomorphasise our horses. Plus, it only takes an unfortunate coincidence of a couple of equine rest days and warm, wet weather for grass to grow rapidly and obesity to occur.

About two months ago, a companion pony of one of my clients had his annual check up by the Blue Cross. They declared him to be obese and advised that he lost a significant amount of weight very quickly.

It was a case of being cruel to be kind. The Blue Cross representative recommended shutting the pony in the corral for half the day and using a track system. Initially, my clients were told to shut him in during the day, and out overnight, but after considering their current routine it was decided that it was easiest to have the pony in the corral overnight. Especially as their evening bucket feed could be used to tempt him into his prison.

It goes against what we all know about feeding horses little and often, but drastic steps were needed. Besides, there are a few tufts of grass or weeds for him to pick at overnight. I set up the track system, and I’m pleased with the routine that’s now in place.

Every couple of days, once fat pony is safely locked away in the evening, the Shire cross who, by no means thin, but happy to eat the new grass, gets given a foot or two more of long grass on the track. He eats that overnight and in the morning, fat pony is let out of the corral and he gallops around the track, throwing in some bucks for good measure, to inspect the new section. Of course he does get to eat a little bit of it, but give that he’s put some effort into going around the track and there’s only a little bit to nibble at around the rest of the track, he’s fine.

I’ve noticed a lot move movement from both horses whilst grazing just in the time I’ve been there, which can only be good for both of their overall fitness.

Another bonus is that the grass is plentiful and should last well into the autumn at the rate it’s being grazed down, which will give the winter paddock ample time to recover.

We’ve had to get creative recently with another pony and his forage management after the farrier notices some bruising on his toes. Whilst not laminitic, he also felt a bit “off” to ride so his haynets are double holed, being weighed so he doesn’t get any more than 1% of his body weight, being long reined for miles (and I mean miles as I’ve done a lot of it!), and then we’ve set up a track system on the barest section of the paddock. As this pony lives on his own he has a tendency to stand still, with minimal walking around. He’s currently shut in a corral overnight with small nets in different places to encourage him to wander around the area. Then I’ve told his owners to take his breakfast bucket to the far end of the L shape before letting him out of the corral in the morning. Then he will hopefully start trotting along the track to get breakfast. It’s not much but a bit more exercise than feeding him by the gate. Then he can have any hay put at feeding stations along the track during the day. When he’s not at quite such high risk of laminitis and is in more work then he can have the track lengthened by a couple of inches a day, and hopefully not need to be shut in the corral overnight.

It’s tough, and most owners don’t like the idea of starving their horse, but it is a case of the lesser of two evils – starvation or laminitis – and once you’re on top of their weight and diet it is easier to find a happy medium of a level of feeding which you as an owner feel comfortable with (using muzzles, track systems, soaked hay as preference to grass, a bucket feed) which doesn’t cause weight gain, alongside an exercise regime and daily routine which complements this so that your horse is happy, and in the right condition.

Track System Turnout

I was first introduced to the idea of track systems ten years ago, as a method of encouraging horses to move around their paddocks more. It was predominantly aimed at companions, the laminitis prone, and obese. The friend who first set it up definitely noticed an improvement in the waistlines of her unridden equines. She sets up a track around the edge of her hay field, and cuts hay from the centre of the field, while the ponies graze the edges which are harder to cut with the tractor.

But they’ve evolved. Track systems are now hugely complicated, focus on enrichment and often have different “areas”. There are social media groups for the obsessed. It’s almost a culture, like those who have barefoot horses.

As with anything, I sit firmly in no man’s land. Barefoot is great if your horse is happy without shoes. But if they’re not, then give their hooves some form of protection. The majority of horses will benefit from a track system, and if you can provide one with different zones then great. But if you can’t provide the full works then just take away the basic concept and don’t stress.

Which is?

To encourage a horse to walk around their turn out area more, to mimic the natural nomadic lifestyle of wild horses.

Now, if you have your own land, plenty of it, plus plenty of resources to build miles of fencing, then yes, go all out and build the most fantastical track system for your horse to enjoy. Providing different surfaces underfoot, hedgerow and browsing plants, shelter and everything else you’ve ever wanted your horse to have.

But that is the ideal situation.

The majority of us have rented fields with livery yard restrictions, which renders an all singing, all dancing and track system inconceivable. However, like I said, just keeping the core concept of increasing their step count, can really help you manage the weight and general fitness of your horse.

Most paddocks at livery yards are rectangular, and the usual way that people strip graze, or rest half, is to create a “front half” and a “back half” which are effectively squares. Now, what about if you were to turn that around? Instead of putting up temporary fencing across the field, parallel to the short side, what about putting the fence at ninety degrees, parallel to the long side? You then have two rectangles of turnout. The physical area of your horse’s space is the same, but the layout means there’s more walking involved whilst grazing. You can also encourage further movement by putting any hay at the far end of field to the gate and water.

I used this set up for Otis when he was in work, and when I wanted to introduce the rested area, I opened up the fencing at the far end of the field and gave it to him in small chunks. So he’d have to walk the full length of his field, go around the corner and back on himself to get fresh grazing. To rest the first half of the field, I’d just shut the fencing at the far end, and make a gateway near the metal gate. I never had a problem controlling Otis’s weight, but I’m sure it helped keep his baseline fitness up.

Now, with Otis in retirement, we often extend the boys’ paddock into the track, so they get more access to the hedgerow for browsing and have to do a bit more walking to counteract the plentiful grass as exercising him isn’t an option.

When clients talk to me about managing their paddock with the spring grass and tubby pony, I always suggest making the strips of grazing as long and thin (within reason) as possible. If a paddock is rather square, then creating an L shape is a useful way of maximising footfall. Fresh grass can then be given at the far end, eventually creating a C shape. It’s by no means a track system, but it is glorified strip grazing, working within the confines of a standard livery yard set up, and relatively quick and easy to set up and maintain each spring, and hopefully helps reduce the weight gain of the good doers.

Has anyone else found a difference in their horse’s baseline fitness and waistline by changing the configuration of their paddocks?

Leaving Lockdown

It’s been a while since I blogged. Life has been a bit crazy as lockdown has eased and the odd moment that I’ve had to myself I’ve needed to stare vacantly at an insipid TV programme. But there’s no hot water for my bath, so I thought I’d address my oversight whilst waiting for the boiler to do it’s job.

Not that I’m sure what to talk about, so let’s see where this meandering road will take me!

Has anyone else found the idea of coming out of lockdown slightly daunting? Well, very daunting to be honest.

I feel that we’ve slimmed down our diaries to the bare minimum. Essential jobs, outings etc. And realistically are only socialising with who we need to see. Yet we’ve filled our time so that we’re busy every day. How on earth will we fit in anything extra curricular?

Since Easter, I’ve been trying to get a handle on the elusive work-life balance, which has spiralled a bit out of control. We’re back up to three full days of childcare, and I’ve streamlined work into 3.5 weekdays, with Pony Club alternate weekends. Which, once the madness of going on long overdue day trips to visit family calms down, I’m hoping will feel like we have a reset day, and at least a day to do something different; be it a day at the zoo or a walk in the woods.

But then there comes the question as to what we actually want to do with this newfound freedom. I mean, what do we actually want to do? I’ve never been a fan of big crowds, and not having been in one for over a year definitely makes me wary of going out again. I think I’m also concerned about how activities and experiences will change as a result of new regulations and social distancing. I mean, I love going to the West End. But, there’s a lot of people in those narrow passageways, especially during the interval. I feel claustrophobic at the mere thought. And, will the social distancing and mask wearing affect the experience? There’s definitely an element of reluctance to dive straight in. Perhaps I’ll wait until a friend has been so they can feed back to me.

I’ve also been thinking carefully about what options life opening up will give us. And choosing one thing at a time to reintroduce. Even the simple things such as taking Phoenix out. You get out of the rhythm of it, can’t remember what equipment you need, can’t remember how to juggle child and pony. Then factor in the post-lockdown regulations I need to remember. But a few treadmill trips, hacks out with friends and clinics and I’ve refamiliarised myself with Pony adventures. However, the desire to compete hasn’t really returned yet!

Then at the same time I am really conscious of making sure we provide Mallory with stimulation, opportunities, and an education. But without creating a whirlwind lifestyle. This week, we started officially sharing a lovely Welsh section A pony. We’ll only go once a week, and I’ll follow her lead as to whether we hack (current favourite), trot around the arena (“don’t hold me Mum. I don’t need you to hold her!”), or meander over poles. Then we’re also eagerly awaiting for swimming pools to be opened for public swimming so we can make the water baby happy again and get her confident in the water again.

I’ve booked a slot to go trampolining next week; an activity that we loved before lockdown, but decided that we won’t return to her singing and dancing class until things get back to normal in terms of interaction because neither of us enjoyed the individual island like experience of before Christmas and I spent the entire time telling her not to interact with the other children. And otherwise, we’ll just hand pick activities on a weekly basis until we find the right balance for us.

I think emerging from this hibernation steadily will give us all chance to adapt, yet also make the decision as to what we actually want to do rather than being swept along with the crowd and overburdened with a hectic schedule, leaving us no time for the quiet, quality moments we’ve learnt to appreciate over the last fourteen months.

Sacroiliac Injuries

For some reason, I have three horses on my books currently rehabbing from sacroiliac injuries. One fell over in the field being moronic. Another, actually another did his in the field when he arrived at a new yard. And another has come to me for help after a year of battling with SI problems.

Not that I’ve become an expert, but I’ve definitely picked up a few nuggets of information about sacroiliac injuries and rehabilitation.

Symptoms of a sacroiliac injury aren’t particularly obvious – there’s no limpy leg. There is often a positive reaction to palpitation of the SI area (and by positive, I mean that the horse reacts to pressure, even in an ears back, angry way). Although some horses can be incredibly stoic and barely flinch when palpated. There’s slight shortening of the hindlimb stride, usually both, but many riders won’t notice it. I’d almost describe it as a “flat” movement. They’re going through the motions of moving their legs, but are saving themselves and not using their back muscles. Mostly, horses show unhappiness in the canter – bucking, going disunited, falling out of canter and general reluctance. A horse may find jumping harder, put in the odd refusal, or not bascule as well as normal. I think often sacroiliac injuries are noticed after a period of time, when the horse’s posture and muscle definition have deteriorated so that the saddle doesn’t fit, or the physiotherapist notices a change in posture.

The usual treatment for a sacroiliac injury is to medicate the joint, and then a rehabilitation programme to stabilise and strengthen the area. The medication lasts for six months, so there’s a good stretch of time to build up the work and improve their way of going without the horse being in pain, and then hopefully once the six months is over the SI area is strong, stable and pain free.

Vets usually recommend two weeks of box rest and then a six week rehab programme working up to introducing canter in the last fortnight. I always find that the typical vet’s programme is quite ambitious and based on the perfect scenario of seven days a week and a perfectly behaved pony in the field! If you can only work the horse five days a week, stretch out the rehab programme to factor this in. If the weather’s awful or you’ve been ill and haven’t progressed through the week, then just repeat that week of the rehab programme. My vet friend told me that the worst thing you can do when rehabbing a sacroiliac injury is to work a horse more than their fitness. So I work on the basis that if in doubt, plateau the work load for a few days and take more time. Besides, the owner usually knows their horse very well so can tell if their horse is ready for the next step of the rehabilitation programme, or if they need more time at their current stage to build their strength.

The first couple of weeks of the rehab programme is walk only. Long reining is often recommended, and hugely beneficial as the horse starts to work in a long and low frame without the weight of the rider. The horses that I’ve worked with this year have both done at least a week of pure long reining; in the arena and out on little hacks. Then we’ve introduced walk poles on the long reins and then riding. Initially, it’s been a ride every three days, and then after another week or so, alternating riding and long reining. The poles start off as only one or two every other day, to more poles, then more frequently, and then raising the poles. We make the workload harder by one factor at a time so as to develop the horse’s strength steadily. Again, if the horse seems to find it difficult then they can have an easier following couple of days, perhaps going back to just walking with no polework. We also introduced hillwork on hacks, again with small hills, and then steeper hills and more frequently in each week.

The first long reining session, where stretching long and low is quite an alien concept.
Within the first long reining session, this horse started experimenting with moving his head into different positions. Within a fortnight he stretched for the majority of his time in a long and low frame.

After two or three weeks of walking, we introduce trot in straight lines. On the long reins and under saddle. With the same approach – introduce the trot without the weight of the rider, then under saddle, then increase the number of trots, the duration of the trots, adding in polework and then hillwork. If the horse ends up feeling particularly tired when a new level is introduced, such as trotting up a hill, then the next day they can do slightly less. I like to maintain long reining a couple of days a week, and vary the work so that the horse’s brain is engaged and they don’t become bored.

Once the horse is feeling strong enough – I go on the basis that they should find three or more raised trot poles straightforward, and have their neck low, back lifting throughout – then it’s time for canter.

The day of the first canters I’m not worried about the transitions, I’m just looking for the horse to feel comfortable in the canter; and for it to be fairly rhythmical and three time. One or two canters on each rein is sufficient the first time, and the following day have an easy ride or long rein session. Once canter has been introduced I don’t think it’s necessary to canter the horse daily over the first week or so. Canter is the hardest gait for horses with sacroiliac injuries, so introducing it very slowly and steadily minimises the horse regressing or overdoing it. In the canter the horse’s pelvis moves in more of a sideways motion, whilst in the trot it’s a forwards-backwards motion so there’s new muscles being recruited and needing to strengthen. The whole pelvic area should also become more supple after canter is introduced and the horse begin to feel much more comfortable trotting in a long and low frame, with the back swinging nicely.

At this stage, whether it’s taken six weeks or ten weeks, the basic rehab programme from the vets is essentially over. But that doesn’t mean it’s back to pre-injury work. Especially if the pre-injury workload caused the injury. Time needs to be spent on the canter, getting the horse to better use their back and develop the muscles over the sacroiliac area, using canter poles, both on the ground and raised, before recommencing jumping. Realistically, it’s another month before the horse is back at their usual level of work and able to stay sound.

I find it really satisfying rehabbing horses, and enjoy reflecting on the changes to their posture, muscle tone and way of going. Although I don’t think I’d have the patience I have with client’s horses with my own!

Otis Update

I thought you’d all like an update on Otis.

He’s come through the winter nicely, although dropped a little bit of weight in the last month since his rug has been off, but I’m happy with that as he needs to be a little slim in spring so I don’t have to reduce grazing or anything. It’s not like he can be exercised to remove excess weight!

He’s still hairy, although that’s rapidly falling out of him. He’s very happy, still a little limpy in trot, but it doesn’t stop him cantering over for breakfast!

What I have enjoyed seeing these last couple of months is his relationship developing with Mallory. We always knew he was a gentle, sensitive soul. One who just rests his head against you and absorbs all your problems. Who calms you with a blink of his large, brown eye. But recently it’s become even more evident.

I bring him out of the paddock to feed as his field mate practically inhales his food and Otis’s is yummier, so it’s easier to separate them. I leave Mallory sat in the barrow, on top of the hay while I put the buckets down. Usually singing “postman pat and his black and white cat… Just as day is dawning, he picks up all the postmen in his van” because she’s delivering the horse’s food.

Then we take the barrow into the field, lift her out, and empty the hay. As I’m doing this she usually runs back to Otis, hugs his head (which isn’t much smaller than her whole body), tells him she loves him, and then turns his bucket upside down before giving it back to me, whether it’s empty or not. He just stands there, lapping up the attention, and carefully moving towards the bucket when she’s out the way.

His gentleness is paying off though, as any banana skins or apple cores are specifically requested to go to Otis now. But I love how tolerant he is of her, and how he’s teaching her how to treat others, whilst letting her express her feelings and childlike tendencies – carefully laying her favourite comforter over him, clapping, giggling in joy as she sits on him bareback, usually backwards, spinning Around the World regularly to change her view.