An Unlucky Pole

I took Phoenix showjumping today. She stormed round the 70cm clear, pushed into third place by some whizzy kids. In her first 80cm class, she had a pole down. But was still the fastest four faulter to be placed seventh.

On a side note, before I return to my main reel of thought, I’d like to well, boast really, about how amazing she is to take out. Loads herself, waits patiently and quietly for her class, warms up calmly, waits quietly, jumps her best, and then stands round while her little fan hugs and kisses her neck. She really makes the day enjoyable from that perspective.

Back to my original topic of conversation. That pole we had down. It reminded me of a conversation recently held between friends. One friend was suggesting that there is no such thing as an unlucky pole, and it is becoming an excuse for sloppy riding and a lack of clear rounds.

After every jumping round I do, I come away planning my improvements. Even the clear rounds. Last time we competed and had the last jump of last round – yes, annoying because we were a good ten seconds faster than our rivals – I knew exactly what had gone wrong. In trying not to upset Phoenix’s fairly fragile canter I hadn’t half halted between the last two fences and she needed it. So she had bounded on in a flat canter and basically went through the jump. I beat myself up then for letting her down more than anything, and went away to strengthen the canter and ride related distances properly. That wasn’t an unlucky pole.

Today; what went wrong? I’m yet to see the video, but it was a related distance on a slight left curve. We had the second element down. Phoenix’s canter felt much stronger throughout the day and she wasn’t towing me onto her forehand. She’d jumped big into the related distance because it was a loud filler and I’d really pressed the go button, and I think that this meant the distance between the fences along with the line I rode, and the stage she’s at in her training meant that she just got too close to the second element and brought down the front rail of the oxer.

Now was that unlucky? I think it could have gone either way today. We could have gotten away with it. Neither of us did anything wrong, she wasn’t tired, her technique was neat, and it’s perfectly within her capabilities, but the sequence of events just didn’t flow on the day. It was unlucky in the sense that she was jumping very well and confidently so didn’t really deserve to knock one with such a slight error.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t anything for me to learn from today. Her canter still needs improvement as if I had more scope to collect her I could have adjusted her enough to correct her bold jump into the related distance. I could’ve ridden a wider line, but it’s hard to change course once you’re on it. I also think I over-rode the first element, but I think the more competitive experience we both get together the better as I’ll know exactly how much leg to use and she’ll be less likely to have a second look at a fence. I also think she’ll benefit from a few jumping exercises I’ve got planned to help teach her not to bowl on quite so much through a related distance, as that is a common theme. But we’ll do our homework for next time.

So is there such a thing as an unlucky pole? I think you can be unlucky as a pair in that you deserved to go clear from the way you rode the rest of the round and the minor error which caused the pole to come down. You’ve tried your best with your ability on that day. But that doesn’t mean it’s an excuse. After all, a clear round is the goal and a pole down is a less than perfect result, so improvements can be made at home.

We riders need to walk away from a knock down and try to work out how we can improve on it. Be it riding better lines, improving the canter, practising on different surfaces and inclines, practising with fillers or water trays, changing tack, boots or studs if they’re becoming a hindrance or any other weakness you feel you and your horse have. Then, we will achieve perfection.

The video from the 80cm class has just come through, so I thought I’d share it so you can see our slight error. It was a straightforward course, but full of related distances, which is the area we have we working on most recently so it was a useful test.

Improving Symmetry

I hacked a client’s horse earlier this week while she was on holiday. I often lunge her, but never school for a couple of reasons. The mare has several weaknesses – stiff hocks, previous suspensory injuries, and a weak back – so I’d rather train her rider to improve the mare’s strength, muscle tone and way of going from the ground because I’d be worried that I’d ask too much too quickly from her and cause an old injury to flare up. I’m pleased to hear that the physio reports back up my observations in that the mare’s muscle is becoming more even and healthier, which is down to her rider being consistent and improving them both steadily.

Anyway, I hacked the mare out to exercise her this week, and whilst I focused on her working in a long and low frame, pushing with her hindquarters, I knew the lack of circles was a benefit in this situation as I could concentrate on working her topline in one direction so there was less risk of me overworking her.

Once in the woods I had a few short trots, which was very enlightening. The mare threw me up so I was rising when the left fore and right hind stepped forward. I changed my trot diagonal, and it felt completely different; weaker and less coordinated. This isn’t noticeable from the floor, highlighting how useful it is for an instructor to occasionally sit on client’s horses.

We’ve been working on the mare’s straightness, and her default position is taking her hindquarters to the left. Although she doesn’t do it as frequently or to such an extent now, I did wonder if the assymetry in her trot diagonals is related to this crookedness.

The stronger hind leg is the right hind, as that’s the stronger diagonal. If the right hind naturally sits closer to the centre of her body when she’s in her comfort zone of left bend.

I mentioned this to my client when she got home, and she was aware that the two diagonals felt different and regularly swapped between her trot diagonals when hacking to make sure she built both diagonal pairs up evenly. Which I always advocate to prevent asymmetry arising. However, in this case, I wonder if we can improve the mare’s straightness and symmetry by favouring the weaker trot diagonal whilst hacking to build the strength in the left hind and to encourage it to come under the body more to propel her forwards.

My client agreed, and is going to do more rising on the weaker trot diagonal in her next few hacks, and hopefully we’ll start to see the mare getting straighter in her school work, which can only be of benefit to her.

Fitting a Martingale

I’m watching the cross country action from Burghley today. I tried yesterday but our internet kept dropping out, so I’m a bit behind the times.

It’s a tough course though, isn’t it? Don’t worry Phoenix, we won’t be aiming there next year! I’ll be quite happy to have a few positive runs at 80.

I digress. There were some crashing falls at Burghley, but also an unlucky accident. One of the horses picked his feet up very neatly over one of the fences. So neatly that one of his studs got caught in his martingale so he stumbled on landing, being on three legs and the pair fell.

You can rest assured the martingale had been fitted correctly, but it did remind me how frequently I see badly fitting martingales. This pair were really lucky, but if a foot gets stuck in the martingale strap by the girth and the horse can’t wriggle free and the leather doesn’t break then you’re looking at a rotational fall with potentially catastrophic consequences. Scary.

So how should a martingale be fitted? I think confusion arises because there are so many variations of martingales and breastplates. But they all have a central strap between the horse’s front legs so let’s start there.

You should be able to fit a flat hand between the horse’s chest and the strap. I think these are being left looser because we now have girths which have buckles or clips for martingales. Obviously if you buckle the martingale to the girth less leather is used up going around the body of the girth so the strap needs to be shortened. This sometimes means that more holes need to be punched into the leather. I think sometimes people lack the confidence to add extra holes into new tack. Everyone who rides or tacks up the horse needs to know if the martingale attaches to the buckle or the girth goes through it so that it is fitted correctly. Breastplates usually have a fixed joint which sits at the base of the neck, but martingales have a continuous strap from girth to reins or noseband. So when fitting the top half of the martingale you need to be aware of the lower half, and vice versa.

A running and standing martingale have the same neck strap, which is fitted correctly when you can put a hand between the top of the neck and the strap. That’s about four inches.

This is where things get more complicated. The rings of the running martingale straps should reach up the the withers; too short and they’ll apply downward pressure when it’s not needed. A standing martingale is fitted so that when it is lifted to align with the gullet you can still fit a hands width between the strap and the horse’s throatlash.

Onto breastplates. I find breastplates much trickier to fit as they shouldn’t restrict the horse’s shoulder movement, but as they stop the saddle slipping back you don’t want them loosely fitted. The running martingale and central straps should still be fitted with the above measurements in mind.

The hunting breastplate is the simplest of breastplates, and should be fitted so that your fist can be fitted between the strap and horse at the centre of the chest so movement isn’t impeded or too much pressure put on the tree of the saddle. You could also lift the top of the neck strap, which should give four inches clearance from the wither at the correct fitting.

Fitting a five point, V-check breastplate, and all other variations are more complicated, but it’s best to consider that you should be able to fit a fist in at the point of chest, and anything that goes over the withers should have four inches clearance. I would then advise that you are observed and videoed when you first ride in the breastplate so that you can analyse if the breastplate is interfering with your horse’s movement, or is being effective at keeping your saddle in place.

It makes me think that really, because there are so many variations of breastplates and martingales (some have elasticated inserts), and there are always new designs, that companies should provide fitting instructions to help your average horse owner get it right and avoid any accidents, either from the tack being dangerously loose or from it being too tight and inhibiting the horse.

Recommendations

In my line of work I’m always being asked for recommendations for equine dentists, farriers, chiropractors, saddlers.

I work on the basis that I can and will recommend those who I use for my horses. But sometimes I know that a client may be out of that professional’s area, so I have to have some alternative names up my sleeve.

I like to know who my clients use, for shoeing or saddle checks or massages. Because over time I can see the effect of their work, and get feedback from my clients if they are happy with the service they’ve had. Which means that when I’m asked for a recommendation I can say, “I have seen and heard good things about so-and-so who covers your area”, or “so-and-so has done a great job with a client’s horse who had a similar issue. Might be worth contacting them?”

Regardless of recommendations clients have though, I always suggest that they do their own research and make sure the name they’ve been given is a member of the society of their profession. For example, qualified saddlers should be members of the Society of Master Saddlers. According to the website, “The Society of Master Saddlers aims to ensure and achieve a high quality of workmanship through setting standards and overseeing the training of the membership’s workforce to give their customers a professional and quantified service. It continues its work to carry these standards through build, repair & fit, and to work towards the complete comfort and safety of horse and rider.In layman’s terms, a master saddler attends regular training days and has certain standards to adhere to, which means you know you are going to get good service.

Equine dentists should be members of the British Association of Equine Dental Technicians; a list of members is found on the website, just as master saddlers are on their website. Again, you know that they are attending training days, have undergone numerous exams, and have a network of support from other professionals. This means that you could ring up one member, and whilst they may be too busy or not come out as far as your yard, they will be able to put you in contact with a qualified dentist who can help you.

Farriers have a more complicated set up as they invite vets to be part of their club too. But the Worshipful Company of Farriers is a good place to start your research, as it lists the various qualifications farriers can achieve, but doesn’t have a concise list of professionals that you can search from. In which case individually research the farrier you’ve been recommended to see that they’ve passed their qualifications and if they’re training towards further exams. A lot of farriers have independent businesses, even when fresh from an apprenticeship, which I see no reason to avoid. Being fresh out of college means that they will have had access to the latest technology and knowledge. However, experience is important and can only be gained with time, so I would want my fresh faced farrier to have a supervisor. Perhaps a more experienced farrier whom they work with once a week/month and who they can ask for advice should they come across a problem they haven’t encountered before. You can only find this out by talking to individual farriers though, and making your own assessment as to whether they are able to shoe your horse well. This is more of a consideration if your horse has special foot care requirements, such as being laminitic or having a conformational defect.

Physiotherapists, chiropractors, and equine masseuses all have their own governing bodies, so it is worth spending some time looking individuals up to see their credentials, be it examinations or experiences.

Of course, instructors have the BHS to govern us; provide training days, insurance, and support the exam system. There are also databases for Pony Club, British Dressage, British Eventing, British Showjumping etc trainers, who are also required to stay up to date with their first aid, child protection, and professional training. Regular training days ensures that we stay abreast of any training developments, new equipment to aid performance, and any rule changes to disciplines. The same goes for saddlers attending seminars where they will see new designs of tack, or witness new materials which are being developed. Dentists or physiotherapists will be introduced to new techniques or tools to help them do their job.

I would also say that it is important to chat to the professional you are considering using and see if you like them; get good vibes and find them personable. Qualifications count for a lot I feel, not only because they have the correct foundations to work from, but because they will have a network of support, both of which will help them get a vast range of experience to enhance their qualifications.

So my advice to anyone looking for a professional for any aspect of your horse’s care, is to ask a couple of friends or mentors, who’s opinion you trust and who knows your horse, and then do your own research to ensure that they are qualified, experienced enough to work with your horse, and part of a society or association which ensures they will continue to provide the best service that they can.

Self Selection

I’ve been home this weekend, for a busman’s holiday, and one of the jobs my Mum gave me was to handgraze her friend’s horse who is recovering from colic surgery. It’s a great arrangement on the yard, as the mare needs holding out four times a day. There’s a timesheet, and whenever anyone has a spare fifteen minutes or so (while their horse is eating their bucket feed or they’re chinwagging over a cup of tea) they will hold her out for grass. Then they pop their name on the timesheet and her owner knows what she’s had each day and by who. It’s such a great example of teamwork and a supportive yard in what would otherwise be a full time job.

Anyway, I digress. Mum’s instructions to me were to walk past the lush green grass on the side of the track, and head for the weedy area as this mare turns her nose up at the grass, preferring to devour the variety of weeds instead.

Mum and I have talked about how horses often opt for the unexpected plants in hedgerows, and how there’s been a lot of research in the properties of different plants. For example, cleavers has a beneficial effect on the skin and lymphatic system. This was Matt’s plant of choice when he was on box rest.

Mum spent a lot of time when he was on box rest cutting down a variety of grass, plants, herbs and hedgerow while Matt was confined to his stable to provide a variety of forage to stimulate him and to enable him to self select what his body needed. What he ate, he was given more of the following day, and when he moved onto a different flavour, his bucket reflected this. Once he could start going for walks she handgrazed him on the verge and hedgerow during his walk outs.

This is why I like it when the fields have a native hedge, and aren’t just seeded grass, as it provides some enrichment for the horses. Recently, once the grass in Phoenix’s summer field had been eaten, she showed more of an interest in grazing the sides of the track as we walked to and from the field. I tend to go with the flow, letting her choose where to stop. It was always interesting that she opted to munch on the tall thistles.

I could remember that milk thistle is good for cleansing the liver, but I didn’t think these were them so I had a look on my plant identification app (this is the ignorant gardening geek inside of me raising its ugly head), and Phoenix was definitely eating plain, bog-standard field thistles. Very carefully I might add, as she cleverly wrapped her tongue around the spikes and devoured it, stem and flower.

For anyone wondering, milk thistles have round, purple flowers with pale green leaves with white veins, giving a mottled effect. This thistles Phoenix was so delighted by have narrower, taller purple flowers, and leaves of a uniform green. I’m going to keep an eye out for any milk thistle and she if she’s as taken by that as the usual subspecies.

Then I began to wonder why the thistles were such an attraction, despite the dangers involved in eating them. Once source I read said that thistles have deeper roots than grass so are more nutritious. This aligns with my observations in the garden, where all the weeds have far deeper and longer roots that the grass, which is why they’re so difficult to eradicate and why my lawn will never resemble a bowling green. It’s a sensible theory. My Dad’s theory is that thistles probably have a higher water content than grass, especially during the hot months we’ve just experienced, so are more attractive to horses.

Dried thistles are very palatable too, and less spiky so even the fussiest horses will eat the leaves and stems. I’m building up the courage, and trying to remember my gardening gloves, to cut down an armful of thistles to put in the field for Phoenix and her friends to pick at if they wanted. In the meantime, I’m sure she gets enough enrichment from the hedge at the back of the field and the variety of grasses and weeds in the paddock.

It’s always interesting watching your horse’s choice in forage whilst grazing, and definitely worth identifying the plant so that you can supplement it if necessary, or take them to areas when it grows in plentiful supply for them to nibble at.

Has anyone’s horse got a favourite non-grass plant which they always search out? And have you looked it up to see the benefits of that plant?

Changing The Bend

I do a lot of exercises with riders changing the bend, such as the bow tie sequence and serpentines as it improves a horse’s balance and suppleness, as well as improving the rider’s feel and symmetry.

So let’s talk about how to change the bend.

With green, inexperienced or stiff horses, I aim to have the change of bend take four or five strides, but as horse and rider improve, it should only take a stride.

Changing the bend is the process of switching from position left in the rider, and left bend in the horse, to position right and right bend. Or vice versa.

Let’s say you’re on the left rein. For the rider, they’ll have slightly more weight in their left seat bone; the left leg is on the girth encouraging the inside hind leg to come under to propel the horse forward; the left rein asking for left flexion; the right rein supports the outside shoulder and the right leg directs the horse.

The horse uses their inside hind leg to propel themselves forward in trot, and the act of bringing that limb under their body causes them to lift through the abdominal muscles and use their back correctly. On the left rein they will have the left hind engaging and be slightly bend to the left throughout their whole body. On the right rein, it is the right hind leg coming under, and right bend throughout their body.

Ride out of the left turn, and straighten up. Balance the horse with the current outside rein (right in this scenario) and then use the new inside leg (right) to push the horse into the new outside rein (left) to create right bend. As you do so your weight should shift slightly into the new inside (right) seat bone and you need to balance your horse with the new outside (left) rein to stop them sidestepping. This is why I like my riders to change their diagonal as they cross the centre line as sitting helps shift their weight into the new inside seat bone.

Initially, you don’t want to rush the change of bend otherwise your horse will wobble and fall out through the new outside shoulder as they aren’t utilising their new inside hind correctly and are losing their balance.

As the rider becomes more adept at shifting their balance and refined their aids, and the horse develops their strength and balance the change of bend can be done in fewer strides, and from a greater degree of bend. For example, an easy change of bend is E to B, and a harder change of bend is between two half ten metre circles.

I recently talked about this with a client and her 18hh giant horse. As he’s big we’ve kept school movements large and simple, but now that he’s getting stronger and has much better balance I’m getting my rider to up the ante: ride the change of bend in fewer strides. I don’t want him to do too many small circles because of his size, but equally we’d like to improve his suppleness so by making the changes of rein across the short diagonals, and adding in the odd smaller circle. When my rider realised that she could change her horse’s bend in two strides rather than four, she could further his suppleness without too much stress on his joints.

Have fun focusing on your changes of bend you’ll be able to fine tune your horse’s positioning, and increase your awareness for how they’re carrying themselves, as well and improving their balance.

Everything in Moderation

There’s been a few articles circulating recently about the detrimental effects of lunging. But before we condemn lunging forever more, let’s look at it from both sides.

Lunging is coming under criticism because studies are finding a positive correlation between horses working on circles and joint injuries. So perhaps lunging isn’t the problem here, it’s the number of circles a horse does?

I’m a great believer in doing everything in moderation; the horses I know with the longest active lives and fewest injuries are those who have a varied work load. They lunge, they hack, they do flatwork, they do polework, they jump.

From what I can see, if you do a lot of flatwork and lunge a couple of times a week then this combination puts your horse at risk of joint injuries because of the number of circles the horse does. But if you predominantly hack or jump so ride fewer circles, then lunging a similar amount has less cumulative stress on the joints.

Then of course, there is your lunging technique. There’s the old adage that lunging for twenty minutes is the equivalent of riding for an hour. I think this is an important guideline to bear in mind so your horse isn’t trotting in endless circles for an hour.

Also, do you lunge continuously on the same size circle, or do you vary the size and walk around the school in order to incorporate straight lines? Do you use transitions and variations to the gait, or just keep the horse moving in their comfort zone? Do you divide your lunging session up into periods of walk, in-hand work, such a lateral work or rein back? Trotting for twenty minutes on a fifteen metre circle stresses the joints much more than a varied lunge session.

Think about why you want to lunge? For a tense horse like Phoenix, I find lunging once a week is beneficial as she is more likely to relax and stretch over her back, which is then taken forward to her ridden work. She can do this naked, and not having my weight or the saddle on her back helps her stretch her back muscles. Some people love gadgets, others detest them; I think they are useful in the short term when used correctly to help direct the horse into working in the right frame. This is something an experienced rider may be able to do from the saddle, but a novice rider can’t, and in order to improve their horse’s way of going and increase their working lifespan, they need help to develop the correct musculature.

For some horses lunging can be useful for warming them up before you ride. They may be cold backed, or a bit sharp. But this type of lunge shouldn’t be much more than five minutes. Equally, if you think your horse is feeling fresh one day, it’s safer to lunge and get rid of their excess energy rather than have an accident riding.

Lunging is useful for assessing lameness as it is usually more pronounced on a circle or turn. Also, without the rider you can see more clearly if it is a bridle lameness or not.

So there are valid reasons for lunging, and I think we can reduce the risk of joint injuries by not lunging for too long or too often, and improving our lunge technique.

We’ve already said that it’s the number of circles a horse does which damages their legs, so let’s change our approach to a lunging session to reduce the number of circles.

Start in walk on a large circle, walking yourself so that the circle becomes less round and has a few straight lines on it. Then go into trot and work on the same principle; some circles where you stand still, mixed with some wanderings. Use transitions and spiraling in and out to give variety to the circle. Use poles on a straight line to add to the variety. The only time I don’t do a huge variety in terms of transitions is when a horse is learning to carry himself differently (for example taking his nose down and out) or needs to improve his rhythm. But then I use wanderings to break up the circles. Think of doing short bursts of canter, and focus on improving the quality of the transitions rather than having a stamina workout.

After a few minutes of trot or canter work have a walk break, getting your horse to relax out on a big circle. When you change the rein, take the opportunity to do some in hand work with them. It may be rein back, shoulder in or other lateral work. But equally it could be some general ground manners such as standing still as you move around them.

I think my pet hate, and what I think would be a large contributor to horses having joint issues and a routine of being lunged, is when a horse is literally allowed to gallop round, fly buck, and turn them inside out at the end of the lunge line. These short bursts of acceleration and deceleration on a turn are far more likely to cause injuries than when a calm, well-mannered horse being lunged. Apart from the fact it’s dangerous to the handler, it’s poor manners and in my opinion a recipe for disaster. They aren’t working correctly, and you can’t check for soundness or any other issue, so the lunging is of no benefit to anyone.

I’d be interested to read more about the studies into lunging and lameness to learn more about the quality of the lunging technique, as well as hearing more about the study horses conformation, age, workload and routine, to see what other factors could be contributing to any lameness. Then we know if lunging is as detrimental to our horse’s wellbeing as is being suggested. But otherwise I will continue to believe in everything in moderation, including moderation.

A Hacking Incident

I was hacking this week when we had a little accident which I thought was worth sharing in case anyone has a similar incident so that you know how to respond.

The two of us were hacking along a byway track, which is used regularly by cars and horses, when suddenly my friend’s pony staggered and started hopping along. The little mare tried to put her left fore to the floor, but couldn’t weightbear. As soon as she’d stopped trying to walk (I’d already stopped) my friend jumped off.

I could see her trembling with what I could only assume was pain. I genuinely thought she’d broken her leg or popped a tendon. My friend cradled the left fore and looked at the foot.

She told me there was a stick caught, so I hopped off too and had a look. It wasn’t a stick, it was a large nail. Embedded in the poor mare’s frog.

We decided to try and remove the nail as we needed to get her home, which was only five minutes away, and being a smooth nail we were likely to remove the whole thing.

I held the horses while my friend wiggled the nail out. Thankfully her pony knew we were helping and stood like an angel. The nail had blood on, and had penetrated the frog by about half a centimetre. You can see the darkened area at the tip of the nail on the photo below, which is dried blood.

Immediately the pony seemed more comfortable and was sound so we started walking home and discussed treating the wound.

As it was a puncture wound we want to keep it as clean as possible and avoid any infection, which can be very tricky to treat so I suggested flushing out the wound, applying some form of antiseptic – iodine spray for example – and dry poulticing the foot to keep it clean. We talked about turn out versus box rest and decided that whilst it was warm and dry it was much of a muchness as to which was more beneficial. Given that the mare doesn’t like staying in my friend preferred the idea of turning her out in a poultice.

Given that the foreign object was an old nail, I checked that the pony’s vaccinations were up to date, and I did suggest it would be worth ringing the vet for advice and to see what they recommend with regard to tetanus boosters. I know that with serious injuries they often give a booster as part of the course.

When we got back to the yard there was a farrier there, so my friend took her pony over for him to have a look at. After all, the foot is their area of expertise!

The farrier said that she was lucky; the nail had gone in at an angle so whilst it was still a puncture wound it hadn’t gone up into the foot. The lack of blood was a good thing as only the frog was damaged. And the nail had pierced the frog closer to the toe than the heel, which is preferable.

I think we had a lucky escape in that the mare is fully up to date with vaccinations, and with the location of the injury so hopefully after a few days rest and keeping the wound clean she’ll be back to her normal bouncy self!

I did send a few messages to local yards to warn them to be vigilant along that track in case there was more debris on the track to cause another injury as it had the potential to be so much worse.