The Art of Rugging – a lost skill?

I’ve neglected my blog a bit but in my current state of permanently exhausted pigeon as parent to a toddler in the midst of the terrible twos I’ve only been getting as far as thinking that something would make a good subject for a blog. I’m like a writer with lots of titles at the top of empty pages in their book.

My musings over the weekend, after clipping Phoenix and overhearing numerous conversations about what rug to put on – a hot topic every autumn. I believe that the art of rugging a horse so that they are a happy individual is being lost in the details over rug thicknesses and the theoretical side. Rather like how old horsemen had the intuition and connection to horses, which has become lost in modern day horse ownership.

Years ago, about fifteen I’d say, you’d buy a lightweight rug, which is from zero fill to about 150g filling; a medium weight rug which goes up to about 300 g filling; or a heavyweight rug which has in excess of 300g filling. You didn’t know the exact weight of the rug, but could get a good idea based on it’s feel. You’d then put said rug on depending on the weather, if your horse was clipped, if they were stabled and so on. It was simple and ultimately you stuck your hand inside, just by the shoulder, and could feel if the horse was too hot, too cold, or just right. Then you made adjustments accordingly.

Nowadays (I feel so old saying that!) every rug has the filling weight listed on the label. Which is useful in deciding if this lightweight is heavier than that lightweight. But the whole rugging system has become so mathematical.

All I hear people say now is “I’m putting on a Xg rug tonight… You’re only putting on a (X-50)g rug?… But so and so is putting on a (X+50)g rug.” yes, I do realise my use of X harks back to my A-level maths days. But you get the idea. Everyone now compares their rugging decision to their stable neighbour; and looks at the precise weight of the rug, perhaps tweaking layers on an hourly basis, but less attention is taken to the weather and environment – is it wet cold or dry cold? Is the wind easterly? Will the shelter in the field protect them from the wind coming from that direction? And does the horse actually feel warm or cold?

I worry that everyone is getting bogged down in the numbers of rugging, and not listening to their horse, or judging the actual weather conditions. And of course, knowing the precise weight of rug which is on each horse means direct comparisons are forever being made. Without consideration for the horse’s individual tolerance for the environment.

For example, Phoenix needs more rugs than she should theoretically given her condition score and breeding. But she shivers on the damp, cool nights, is tight over her back the following morning, and generally not as pleasant to ride. I’m taking the layering approach this year so I can remove the top rug in the morning and replace it at night with ease; last week I was using a couple of lightweights (50g each to be precise) as she hadn’t been clipped. She needs slightly more protection on wet days due to her personal preference and lack of shelter in her field. But that’s just her. I was irked to discover that someone had been interfering; horrified that she had two rugs on, on an evening when heavy rain forecast. Believe it or not, she was comfortably warm when that someone checked under her rugs. And the next morning she was a dry, warm, very happy horse. Besides, those two 50g rugs only equal a 100g rug, which is still classified as a lightweight rug, if you want to be pedantic. It’s just easier to remove one rug rather than remove a thicker rug and replace it with a thinner one. And I’m all about an easy life!

I think the moral of the story, is to stop getting waylaid by the numbers on rugs and what your stable neighbours are doing, but focus on responding to your horse’s feedback and reading the weather forecast. Every horse is an individual and tolerates different temperatures differently – some don’t like being too hot in rugs and actually run a bit hot. Others don’t mind being slightly warmer in a rug and struggle with the cold, particularly when it’s also wet and windy. It’s down to us as owners to read the signs from our individual horse, rather than focusing on the numbers or making comparisons. You know you’ve got it right when your horse is dry, not changing weight in a negative way (they’ll drop weight if they’re cold, and put it on if they’re hot); aren’t tucked in, shivering or holding themselves protectively; and not grumpy!

Is The Canter 3 beats or 4?

It’s a tricky one. Because it’s both three beat or four beat depending on your level of training; and tricky in that it is also both correct and incorrect with four beats.

Confused? Yep, a lot of people are from my observations.

Let’s start with average Jo Bloggs, working up to elementary level with an average all rounder horse. You know the type. Which I think encompasses the majority of leisure riders. A correct canter for you is a three beat canter; the outside hind coming forwards followed by the inside hind and outside fore together, then the inside fore and the moment of suspension.

You might have heard coaches talking about the fact your canter is four beat, or talking about improving the quality of the canter so it is more of a three beat canter. A lot of leisure horses can have a four beat canter, when the diagonal pair becomes broken and those feet don’t touch the ground simultaneously. But in a negative way. The sequence of legs is the outside hind, outside fore, inside hind, inside fore. It’s almost a lateral canter, and results from a number of issues. A horse who is too much on the forehand, lacking impulsion or activity in the hindquarters, has an interfering rider, has poor conformation or stiffness in their hindlimbs, is likely to develop this lateral, four beat rhythm. Sometimes when a horse loses balance they will revert to the four beat, lateral canter, when otherwise they have a three beat canter.

So this laterally four beat canter is not good from a training perspective because it’s very difficult to create the elevation needed for collection and lateral work. You can improve it by the use of polework, using more seat and leg to create impulsion, using hillwork and medium canter to create a more active hindleg, but ultimately it is performance limiting, so you’d struggle with advanced level work. This type of four beat canter is called negative diagonal advance placement (DAP).

That’s the negative four beat canter out the way, now let’s look at the positive four beat canter. Have you ever seen photos of elite horses, youngsters or under saddle, and noticed how uphill their canter is? And how there is no way the diagonal pair hit the ground simultaneously because the forelegs are so elevated? Well you’d be right. The inside hind does land fractionally before the outside fore. This is called positive diagonal advance placement.

So why is a sequence of footfall outside hind, inside hind, outside fore, inside fore, seen as a positive four beat canter? Well firstly, a horse who can engage their hindquarters that much will be more powerful and find collection easy. If you watch a horse doing a canter pirouette you will see that it is a definite 4 beat canter, which it has to be in order for them to be able to rotate almost on the spot. A horse who is unable to canter with a positive DAP will find this level of work nigh on impossible.

This means that when you are looking for the next future dressage champion, you are looking for a four beat canter, a positive DAP, as that suggests that they will be able to perform at the higher levels. A good example is below.

I had a look through my photos and found one of Phoenix at her first prelim. She had an unbalanced canter at the time, and you can see that although it looks lovely at first sight, she is showing slight negative DAP. I’m struggling to find proof of her recent canter work (apparently babysitting duties trumps cameraman duties?!) but just by her becoming stronger and more balanced she shows strides of positive DAP, particularly when she relaxes into collected canter work.

I then also found this image of Matt, showing slight positive DAP. Of course, not on par with the elite dressage stars, but a useful example.

This image of Matt brings me onto my final point, or musing. At what point does a positive DAP become a gallop? After all, the sequence of footfalls is the same on paper – outside hind, inside hind, outside fore, inside fore. I asked my trainer for her opinion, and she thought the gallop was differentiated because of it’s speed and the horse’s carriage whilst galloping – long and flat rather than uphill. She also helped explain that in a three beat canter the footfalls are regular, in a four beat canter the diagonal pair aren’t landing together, but they aren’t a whole beat apart. It’s like they’re slightly off beat. In musical terms: crotchet, quaver, quaver, crotchet.

There is loads of information about diagonal advanced placement, and it happens in the trot too, so go and have a look on Google. And when you come out the other end of the rabbit hole, let me know what you think of the subject!

The Ridden Horse Pain Ethogram

I attended (from the comfort of my sofa) a webinar during lockdown by Dr Sue Dyson about her Ridden Horse Pain Ethogram.

What’s that I hear you say. Well, I’d vaguely heard of it, but wasn’t sure what it was all about.

How many times do you hear people saying that their horse isn’t right? They can’t put their finger on it, but they aren’t their normal self. Then they ask their chiropractor, physiotherapist, or vet to have a look. But these professionals don’t know the horse as well as their owner does so miss the subtlest signals of pain and discomfort.

Having felt horses having an “off day” I know how difficult it is to put your finger on it, but then also how to ascertain that they are feeling better or recovering.

Alternatively, you have the leisure horse owners who struggle to feel a subtle lameness – when a horse is perhaps 3/10 lame, or just slightly short in stride on a circle. In that case, they need more symptoms to look for.

This is where the Ethogram comes into play. The Ethogram lists 24 defined behaviours which are associated with discomfort: for example, teeth grinding, tail swishing, ears back. In the research carried out by Dr Dyson, horses were recorded doing a ridden set of exercises which were analysed. Those who exhibited eight or more behaviours had a degree of lameness, which was then diagnosed using nerve blocks.

How does this affect the average horse owner? Well, if you think your horse isn’t going as well as normal and can’t put your finger on it, then look out for the 24 behaviours. If they show more than eight, then start investigating. If, for example, once your saddle has been adjusted the behaviours they are displaying will either reduce (because of the effect of pain memory) or be eliminated. A reduction in the behaviour is it being displayed for less time, or to a smaller degree.

From the professionals perspective, studying the wider picture, can help diagnose the issue because the professional will dig deeper and investigate further even if there doesn’t seem to be an obvious issue. I’ve increased my awareness of the symptoms recently, looking at the body language and other behaviours which tell me a horse isn’t comfortable, and have definitely seen a correlation between “they’re not feeling normal” and the position of their ears, amount of tail swishing, head position, facial expression, etc.

Of course, you don’t want to become an equine hypochondriac, but there’s a lot of merit in paying more attention to the subtleties of your horse’s behaviour and how they are communicating with you. It might just mean you get your saddle adjusted a month sooner, which prevents muscle soreness or atrophy. Or you will catch a niggle and have it treated by your physio or chiro before a major problem occurs which will need a rehab programme.

A visual guide to the pain ethogram.

Rugs. Too hot? Too cold? Or just right?

As I said to friends at camp a couple of weeks ago as we put night rugs on at 10pm, it’s the time of year that you’d like your horse to be in your back garden so you can adjust rugs late in the evening and early in the morning. It’s so hot during the day, but cold at night that you constantly bounce between over rugging and under rugging.
I think it’s important to know your horse, and act on their body language; if they’re tucked up in the mornings, hair standing on end, or starting to drop off weight then they’re cold and need rugging up more.
I feel this autumn I’ve got the balance right with Phoenix. Despite her native breeding she really feels the cold until her winter coat comes through. She is actually happier with something over her back as soon as the nighttime temperature drops. Besides, she’s much more relaxed when I ride her in the mornings if she’s had a rug on overnight. With a 100g and a no fill rug this year I feel I’ve finally found the balance which is right for her.

The Rubber Curry Comb

About three years ago a few articles went viral about the problems of over rugging horses, along with charts telling us what rug weights are appropriate at what temperature.

A lot of it makes sense, and yes many people were over rugging horses. But recently, I’ve become concerned that this approach is actually causing owners to leave horses under rugged and cold. Which has it’s own set of problems such as weight loss, stiff joints, unhappiness.

The result is that owners now second guess themselves, and no one is confident in their logic. Which is detrimental to horse’s welfare.

Whilst there are problems associated with over rugging, most notably obesity and colic like symptoms, it is important to look at each horse and their environment as an individual.

Some horses feel the cold more than others. They may have finer hair and thinner skin, may be clipped, or they are…

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Buying Horses

One of my clients is currently on the search for her first horse, moving up from her share pony.

I forget how much of a minefield buying horses is. I’m very lucky that all of ours has just happened. Mum asked my instructor to keep an eye out for a youngster I could bring on and she had a friend who had bred Matt. Not going to lie, seeing a feral 2 year old colt on the side of the Welsh mountains one blustery day didn’t strike me as a perfect pony! But he’s turned out pretty good. Otis was also from another friend of hers. Phoenix, I’d decided we’d look in the spring and her advert appeared on my social media a couple of days later. Fate? Perhaps it struck three times for me.

But when you’re actively looking for horses, there’s a lot of dross to sift through.

I’ve often helped clients look for horses, or been to view them, or been sent videos for feedback. It’s not my favourite job because I feel quite a lot of pressure to get it right. I also feel that entering the world of horse ownership is often underestimated, and not without potholes, so it’s not only important to find the right horse, but also nurture the relationship as it develops. I’ve had several experiences of people asking my advice, bought a horse, then neglected regular lessons or supervision from a professional before getting into a pickle and losing confidence in each other.

How best to start the search for a new horse? I tend to have the conversation about what the rider is realistically looking for. Sometimes this involves some home truths in that the horse a rider is dreaming of is not what their abilities and ambitions needs. I’ve seen a purchase go wrong because the rider has insisted on overhorsing themselves, so I am not afraid to try to talk sense into prospective purchasers. However, I do usually let the purchaser lead the search. They can send me the adverts for feedback. This allows me to get a feel for their likes in a horse too.

I will also ask my contacts, to see if I can find a suitable horse through word of mouth as we go along, and keep my ears to the ground if anyone tells me about a horse.

In the initial browsing of adverts, I tend to encourage purchasers to look beyond their budget and outside the travel zone. This allows them to gauge the market, get a better understanding of adverts and the points to look for.

Once adverts start coming to me, I’ll feedback as to whether more info is needed, and if not, what I don’t like about the advert. After all, I don’t want to turn down a dozen adverts which all say “sharp” for a novice rider. Better to explain the meaning of the word and let them filter other sharp horses out. It’s an educational process as well. For example, my client sent me an advert for a 16hh Clydesdale cross. 15-16hh is our height criteria, but a chunky horse at the top end of the height will be too much horse for my rider. Therefore when she’s looking at horses she needs to consider breed/type as well as height.

The next learning curve for prospective purchasers is speaking to the owners of the advertised horse, asking the relevant questions and interpreting the answers. We also look at the videos. When I feedback on adverts I’ll often suggest questions to ask and what information is missing or incomplete.

It’s amazing how quickly you learn to read an advert and write off a horse due to vague blurb, missing information, photos only of the horse’s head or when stationary, or poor videos. By the time you’ve whittled down the unsuitable ones, the ones too far away, and the ones with unsaid problems, then unfortunately you aren’t left with many to choose from!

Next up, is viewing a horse. It’s always recommended that you take someone knowledgeable with you, and for those not used to viewings or riding different horses then I think the most useful person to take is your instructor. They can ride the horse as well, and they can effectively give you a lesson. I find that just me standing in the middle of the arena will quell any nerves from the rider, and I can talk through the horse’s behaviour, subtle signs I’ve spotted, explain what assessments the rider needs to make, and get them talking about what they’re feeling underneath them. I can also tweak my rider so that hopefully they get a better tune out of the horse, which is realistically more like what they will be working on at home. Then I also get a feel for the horse’s trainability. It doesn’t matter if they encounter a problem, such as refusing a jump, but rather how they both deal with it afterwards. Often the first jumps aren’t the best as they’re getting used to each other. The prospective horse should be ridden in the arena first, from a safety point of view, and then if it passes this test, out in the open and on a hack. I also like my client to have some time on the ground with the horse, to get a feel for them as a person.

Once the viewing is over, I remind my client that they don’t have to like this horse. There’s no pressure for it to be “the one”. No time wasted, nothing lost but an experience gained. I then try and get them to evaluate and analyse the horse, giving their likes and questions or worries. We talk about what the horse needs – for example, if the jumping didn’t go as planned, would the horse benefit from gridwork, or polework? What can the prospective owner expect from the first couple of months of ownership? I also want to know the rider’s gut feeling, and if they “clicked” with the horse. After getting the purchasers views I’ll add mine, and then we follow up with any new questions, possibly arrange a second viewing and make a decision before organising vettings and other new horse preparations.

As with any major, life changing decisions, it is worth investing the time and effort into doing the research, asking all the questions, necessary or unnecessary. Asking for help and guidance, and then being prepared to ask for help over the next few months as your new horse settles in and you settle into horse ownership.

A Family Pony

When 14 year old me was given Matt as a two year old, I never envisaged he would become such a family pony. He let teenage me career around the country, have a go at anything and everything, yet also allowed me to be slightly responsible. Like the time I escorted 3 under 10s on a sponsored ride – now I think I was mad! He wasn’t a guaranteed red ribbon winner, although he did win a few unexpected prizes against the odds. And I was always guaranteed that he’d stop at a filler jump!

We did shows, sponsored rides, my first dressage competition, galloped up the field bareback numerous times, went to the Boxing Day Meet, the annual Christmas gymkhana, and he let me learn so much with him. Looking back, there’s definitely things that I would have done differently when backing and riding him. But with age comes wisdom. And I hope he doesn’t think ill of me for my mistakes.

When I turned my attention to Otis, Mum started riding Matt more. She had to build her confidence up after years out the saddle, with mainly hacking and flat lessons. It was a rocky ride initially, especially when I moved away and Matt was in less work but still young enough to have silly moments, like charging off across the school, or excessively spooking at a trembling leaf. However, he did settle into a quieter way of life and they now enjoy lots of hacking and sponsored rides.

Then when he was 15 he got the shock of his life coming out of semi retirement, when I had him back for a few months. What started as something to occupy me while Otis was lame, Matt gave me some of my proudest equestrian moments. Flying round sponsored rides, doing more jumps in one ride than he’d done in 5 years, his first hunter trial, scoring 78% in a dressage test, qualifying for the BRC National Championships, winning his arena and overall competition… His bromance with Otis, riding and leading them both for miles for Otis’s rehab…

I was actually quite sad to give him back to Mum, and do miss his cute face and secretly miss his quirky ways – although his separation anxiety can be a real pain in the bum.

Only a couple of months after the pinnacle of his career, Matt fractured his stifle from a kick in the field, which led to six months of box rest, various secondary problems as a result of his confinement, a long rehabilitation programme by Mum, and he thankfully returned to normal work.

Mum continues to enjoy riding him, having lessons, venturing out to local dressage herself, and hacking for miles. And more recently, Matt has taken on an extra role with the third generation.

He quietly stands (so long as he can see other horses) to be groomed from atop the mounting block. He lets a certain little person sit on his back facing forwards, backwards, lying down, hugging his neck, kissing him, and generally be loved. Then he allows himself to become a lead rein pony, doing short, gentle trots, ignoring the giggles and shrieks of laughter. Oh and doesn’t bat an eyelid with the emergency dismounts when a wee is needed!

After last weekend all I’ve heard is “I ride Matt. Matt horse my best friend. I trot! You teach me.” It appears he has a fan!

I’m actually very proud with how adaptable and tolerant Matt has become in his old age (he’s 18 this year. Or possibly 19…), and how he has taken on every challenge we as a family have given him, and how much fun he has given us. To me, he has become the epitome of a family pony, and is firmly part of our family. Roll on the next few years, when I’m sure he’ll have all three generations trotting and cantering around on him!

A Busy Life!

The last few weeks have been so busy I’m afraid I’ve neglected my blog a bit. But I have been reflecting since restarting work, how lucky I am to enjoy such a varied working week.

Lockdown gave me the chance to rest, recharge, study, and reorganise things. And coming out of lockdown I’ve enjoyed picking up where we left off with existing private clients, getting some structure back into my week. I feel like I have some new exercises and better explanations from my own learning and reflecting in lockdown. It’s also been great to see an improved relationship and confidence between some clients and their horses purely as a result of having more hours in the saddle or cuddles in the stable.

But I’ve now got more variety into my work because, since lockdown, I’ve been teaching more Pony Club rallies, and helping members privately too. Teaching more children definitely gives me more to think about, and lots of anecdotes! With the regular rallies, and seeing the children and their ponies more frequently I’m getting an immense sense of satisfaction watching them forming new, strong partnerships and develop as riders. I’m also enjoying planning and delivering different types of group lessons. It’s all a challenge, but a very satisfying challenge! One little girl I almost burst with pride each time I watch her ride, no longer flaps her legs nineteen to the dozen and bounces in canter; she now has effective leg aids, better balance and it stuck like glue to her saddle in canter.

Here’s an anecdote while I remember. I was teaching a lead rein lesson and wanted the children to focus on keeping their thumbs on top, so I asked them to imagine that they’re carrying a mug of their favourite drink. Of course I asked what their favourite drink was … Apple juice, hot chocolate, and … Beer! I’m not sure what any passers-by thought when I shouted “don’t spill your beer” to a six year old boy as he trotted around the arena!

During lockdown I started doing some stable management lectures via Zoom. I’ve been teaching the BHS Challenge Award booklets. A lot of it can be done virtually, talking about the subject, and Google is ever helpful in finding videos to further my explanation, or demonstrate something. To test my clients, I’ve been getting them to video themselves doing tasks; such as tying up a haynet or tacking up. At the end of each booklet I’ve been putting together a pub quiz for them. Upon successful completion, they receive a certificate. We can now start doing the more practical awards, such as learning to lunge. Hopefully leisure riders keep up this interest in learning more about the non riding side of horse ownership as it only benefits their horse.

With normal competitions on hold, and future ones cancelled because they’re not logistically viable whilst maintaining social distancing, online competing has really taken off! My friend runs Demi Dressage, which is online dressage aimed at children. She writes her own tests so they all have a theme and really help children learn a school movement. Last month it was the ice cream test – I watched hundreds of demi voltes! It has been lovely to see so many children enjoying dressage, improving between the months and really progressing. I have a slightly different approach to judging these tests; I judge what I see, but try to make lots of constructive comments, and phrase things in a developmental way so that the children learn the error of their way, but also know how to improve this (for example, instead of “cut the corner” saying “try to ride into the corner to help you turn accurately at F”). The judges comment box also has a suggestion for improvement in, rather than just summising the test. I think that’s the teacher in me! When it’s Demi judging week it’s a lot of late nights, especially as I’m now working again and not helped a few weeks ago by split lip requiring surgery. I didn’t require the surgery, but Mum cuddles were high on the agenda! Demi Dressage definitely gives me some variety to my work.

Adding in my upcoming Pony Club camp in a couple of weeks, I feel like I have a lot of exciting projects keeping me thoroughly occupied. In fact, organising camp is the main reason my blog is taking a back seat for a few weeks as my brain if full to overflowing with thinking of groups, instructors and timetables.

It’s definitely a busy, yet varied job I have, but having an enforced break has made me appreciate how much I enjoy my work.