Life Under Lock and Key

It’s been almost two weeks of lockdown in the UK. It’s a strange new normal that I’m starting to accept.

When lockdown was announced I wasn’t hugely surprised, and in many respects it made some decisions for me; there was increasing talk about whether it was ethical to ride horses or teach and risk needing the emergency services. Childcare had stopped and I hadn’t worked out that logistical problem yet.

The first week went quite well; it was like Christmas but with better weather. It was a novelty, and actually time to take a breather and do some life admin. I planned some big jobs to do, and settled myself for some family time.

By the end of the second week, however, it’s beginning to feel like Groundhog Day. Each day Mallory and I go to the yard, ride and do chores like feed the chickens. Seeing very few people, but at least getting our exercise, fresh air, and sense of normality. I’m not sure Phoenix is as pleased about this as me, but her flatwork is coming on in leaps and bounds! Then we go home mid morning; lunch is as 12, and the afternoon is divided between playing, being in the garden, drawing, helping with jobs before tea and bed by 7. Then I can get some other jobs done.

There’s no way of distinguishing between days and it’s so easy to fall into a slump of depression and lose all motivation. After all, what is there to aim for if there’s nowhere to go and no one to show it to?

It’s looking increasingly likely that lockdown will be extended next week, and as I highly doubt kick-starting the equestrian industry will be high on their list, so I won’t be going back to work anytime soon. There’s nothing I can do about it, so there’s no point getting stressed about the situation, so I’ve accepted it.

But I do need to make some changes to help me cope with this new normal. Firstly, I need to differentiate between the days more, to better document the transition of time. I’m using Phoenix’s work to help. Polework on Tuesday, lunging on Wednesday, for example. Then I’m going to go back to doing Pilates on Mondays via video link. And find some other activities to do at home on specific days. And create a list of jobs around the house – those which are usually overlooked, and deemed unessential to fulfill my need to be productive. Then I have a few ideas for Pony Club – of activities the kids can do at home, of stable management lectures we can do remotely, and am rolling those out steadily. I’m completing my quiz and puzzle books, sorting out photos on my laptop, and reading the pile of books by my bed. I’m going to use this time to organise myself, as well as enjoy the time spent dressing up as superheroes, building Duplo, listening to Mallory’s echolalia expand her vocabulary as we count snails and pick daisies in the lawn.

And most of all, appreciate the fact that I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m on lockdown with people I love and like spending time with, we have a garden to escape from the indoors, we’re financially stable for the time being.

Workwise, what’s the plan? Who knows. The BHS is permitting remote teaching if a strict set of criteria are met. Which means that only a handful of clients qualify for it. There are the BHS Challenge Awards which can be taught remotely. However, the vibes I’m getting from everyone is that no one knows what the short term future holds, so are reluctant to commit to anything. Plus there is the uncertainty of job stability and finances, and the questionable moral of riding at the moment. I’m at the end of the phone to all my clients though, and am happy to put together exercise plans.

However, I can’t not have an income long term, so I need to think of alternative ways to earn money while this new normal continues. If not, I might actually get to the bottom of my job list and clean my car!

Pole Triangle

I used this pole layout last week and found it very useful so thought I’d share it for anyone struggling for ideas at the moment. You could also long rein or lunge over it.

The layout is quite simple; create an equilateral triangle with three poles, and then lay a pole perpendicular to each apex.

The first exercise is to ride straight through the layout – over the base of the triangle and then out over the apex opposite. It’s an excellent test of straightness (pick a point in the distance to focus on, keep the reins even and steady, and squeeze your horse down the tunnel created by your reins with the our legs). The apex encourages horses to pick up their feet. Often they’ll look down as they step over the apex, which helps develop their topline.

The poles I used are 10′ long, which means that the distance between the base and apex is a canter stride for the average horse (I’ll let any bored A-level student work out the precise distance using trigonometry. Let me know if you take up the challenge!). You can ride the line in both trot and canter, in both directions. It is slightly harder to be accurate riding from the apex to the base pole.

A harder exercise, which focuses on riding a smooth turn between two poles, encourages the horse to increase the cadence of their inside hind which improves their strength and suppleness. Ride, in trot, from the base pole to either of the other sides of the triangle, aiming to ride over the centre of each pole. Make sure you ride straight over each pole, so ensuring you ride a definite curve through the triangle. I had a few clients ride a straight line between the poles, so going over each one at an angle. I then stood in their way and made them trot around me, which soon helped.

You can then think of riding a circle around each point of the triangle, the external pole helps prevent the circle becoming too small. You could also try cantering the circle, but you would need to increase the size of your circle and so the curve within the triangle.

Finally, I concocted a twisty exercise for my more advanced riders, to really test their horse’s balance and suppleness.

Trotting (or walking until you get your head around the sequence) straight over the baseline pole, then curve right. Over the second pole then ride a big curve left. Trot over the next side of the triangle you reach (the side you’re yet to go over) and then curve right. As you exit the triangle curve left again. Eventually, you end up at the beginning.

The key is to not override the turns, and to maintain an even rein contact. Too much inside rein and the horse will fall onto their inside shoulder and struggle round the next turn. Additionally, you should keep the curves outside the triangle fairly big so you can prepare for the next chicane. Make sure you cross each pole in the centre, and perpendicularly. The external poles help prevent drifting as you leave the triangle. It’s not easy, but you can really see the improvement in the horse’s way of going afterwards.

Feeling Trot Diagonals and Canter Leads

Now, be honest, who can feel their trot diagonal?

Did you even know it was possible to know without looking down at your horse’s shoulder?

This last couple of weeks I’ve been focusing on feeling the trot diagonals with several clients. What are the benefits? Well, firstly, you don’t waste time and accuracy in your changes of rein looking down; secondly, it improves your feel and awareness of your horse’s strides, keeping your head up doesn’t unbalance your horse, and finally, it becomes autonomic. You check your diagonal as you go into trot without thinking, so leaving more brain space to prepare and ride your next movement, or to correct your horse’s way of going.

When I ask riders if they can feel their trot diagonal I often get a surprised and confused look. Almost as if I’d asked them if they could hear the smell of bacon. But when we get down to it, it doesn’t take them long to pick it up.

When I learnt to ride, in our group lessons on the lead rein, we had to go into trot, counting “one elephant, two elephant, three elephant, rise”. We had to do sitting trot until the word “rise”, when we commenced rising trot. No one ever explained the reasons behind this, so as a shy child I hated having to shout about elephants. But the reason behind it is that nine times out of ten, you end up on the correct diagonal. Don’t ask me how!

It also taught us our sitting trot early in our ridden education, and by remaining sitting for a few strides after the transition you can adjust and establish the trot. How often does a horse become unbalanced by their rider standing up on the first trot stride?

Anyway, this is an aside and certainly something I try to teach beginner riders to do. And when I’m nit-picking more established rider’s transitions it invariably comes up.

To teach a rider to feel their trot diagonal I get them to stay on a 20m circle. They go sitting and I ask them to think about how it feels, and see if they can identify different legs moving forwards. Then I get them to go into rising trot, and without looking, tell me if they are on the correct (this is where left and right, and right or wrong get confusing) diagonal or not. A circle or turn is easier to feel the diagonal on because the outside limbs move further forward so there is a difference between sides. sometimes they get it, sometimes they don’t. But it is a 50:50 question, so we repeat it a few times so that I know it’s not a fluke and they start to feel more confident in what they’re feeling.

I find that different riders find it easier to feel different limbs, and different horses make it easier or harder to feel a hindlimb stepping under. Instead of telling them which limb they should be feeling for, I ask if they can feel the outside shoulder moving forwards, or the inside hind coming under, giving the options to focus on. I used to feel my diagonal from the outside shoulder, but then that was on high stepping Welsh ponies! Nowadays I feel the diagonal pair working together, but my awareness and feel for the hindquarters has grown exponentially since I was eleven. I don’t really mind how my rider’s identify their trot diagonal, as long as they can tell me what they’re feeling and how that tells them which diagonal they are on.

If a rider cannot identify their trot diagonal on a circle I often ask them to change their diagonal and compare the two. Riding a turn on the wrong diagonal feels, well, wrong! Usually this helps them identify the correct diagonal, and is a useful step to take so that they don’t resort to looking down and checking immediately.

Often I find that just by identifying the fact that it is possible to feel trot diagonals, a rider becomes more aware of their subconscious feel for the trot. Once they can identify the correct diagonal the majority of the time on the circle, we try it on straight lines. Sitting trot for a minute or two and then rising and checking their diagonal by feel in straight lines.

Finally, I move on to transitions, asking my riders to ride up into trot from walk, sit for a few strides and start rising on the correct diagonal. This is more efficient than blindly going rising, checking and changing, and causes less unbalance to the horse. All that’s left then is for them to practice and for me to do spot checks to reinforce the lesson.

Closely linked to this subject, is feeling the canter leads. I think most people find it easier to feel than trot diagonals, but it’s easy to fall into the trap of the instructor informing the rider of a wrong lead before they’ve had a chance to figure it out for themselves. I know this because I see the incorrect strike off before the first canter stride is done and am always biting my tongue to give my riders chance to work it out.

I start by establishing what my riders know already of the canter gait; sequence of footfalls and if they are aware of the inside shoulder seemingly moving further forwards. That was where we were always taught to look as kids. I send them off into canter on a circle, getting them to feel and think about their horse underneath them. Then we work large, picking up the canter in the corner before the long side, and identifying as quickly as possible if they’re on the correct lead. Most of the time they will be, so I move the transition to E or B. The rider still has their influence of asking for the correct lead in the transition, but the horse is more likely to throw in an incorrect canter lead. We ride these exercises on both reins, so that my rider starts to build up an understanding for their horse’s preferential leading leg, and any asymmetries to the two canter leads.

I like to get my riders thinking more about the hindquarters in the canter as eventually I’d like them to feel the outside hindleg propelling the horse into the first canter stride and so correct their horse during a transition, which helps a horse keep their balance and means you can prevent a wrong leg catastrophe in a dressage test!

Improving a rider’s awareness during and immediately after a canter transition means that they can correct the lead nice and early – think about the benefit of correcting a canter lead before a turn on a showjumping round rather than losing balance round the turn, scrabbling back into canter and a couple of strides later jumping a fence. Eventually, they’ll correct a canter lead before the transition is finished.

The big test now for my riders, is to ride the centre line, asking for alternate canter leads and identifying which lead they are on. Putting in multiple transitions within a fixed distance encourages the rider to think and assess their canter leads quicker, and react faster to correct themselves.

It’s a useful tool to have; to automatically and subconsciously feel for your trot diagonal or canter lead; you can get away with visual checking at the lower levels, but it makes it much easier to ride a higher level dressage test or unrelenting jumping course successfully.

A Sustainable Gait

Once you’ve mastered control of the basic gaits, things get harder and you have to master a range of gears in each gait. Furthermore, your horse has to develop the strength, balance and stamina to work in each gear. This was illustrated perfectly at the Pony Club Conference a couple of weeks ago.

The demo riders were riding a simulated cross country exercise; jumping a triple bar at speed to imitate jumping a simple cross country fence, before making a turn and jumping two bounce fences from a slower canter.

The first rider galloped at the triple bar, popping it easily, and slowed down a bit for the bounce, but jumped it a bit too fast really and it was only her pony’s deftness which got them over the two elements. She rode the exercise again, this time circling between the two questions until she’d collected the canter sufficiently. It took her a few circles but she really collected the canter up. She approached the bounce, but her pony refused.

The reason? Her new collected canter wasn’t sustainable. He could collect that much on the flat, but he didn’t have the impulsion and strength to jump from this canter. She rode the exercise again, and circled until she got the collection. Then she opened up the canter slightly, relaxing so that she moved up half a gear. The pony jumped the bounce beautifully. Because the canter was sustainable and the balance between collection and impulsion was right for jumping.

I thought it was a brilliant example of how the gears to your canter will vary as to whether you’re on the flat or jumping, and in relation to your horse’s level of training. For example, a horse who works at prelim level may be able to collect their canter slightly, but will struggle to have the energy and balance to jump from that slightly collected canter, whereas an elementary level horse will be able to sustain that slightly collected canter for longer and with less effort, so will be able to jump easily out of it.

I’ve already mentioned the word “sustainable” to some clients, but I think it’s a worthwhile term to bring into every day conversation. It can be a measure of development too because a canter gear will feel more sustainable as the horse improves their balance, suppleness and impulsion. We can talk about shortening or lengthening strides; feeling if the horse stays in balance, and also how long they can remain in this balance. A horse learning how to collect may only sustain collection for a couple of strides whereas a more established horse will maintain the collection for a full circuit of the arena. So add “sustainable” to your equine dictionary, and start taking it into consideration when you reflect on your horse’s work.

The Art of Repetition

I’m working with a client who’s teaching a green horse to jump. The mare is quite happy over simple crosses and uprights, so we’re at the stage that she needs to learn to read the question with simple exercises and start knowing where she’s putting her feet before we progress to more complicated shaped jumps or grids or distances. I want her to be cleverer about getting to the jump, going over, and getting away from the jump so that we create an intelligent jumper, rather one that is over reliant on her rider or one who wings it each time.

Last lesson I set up two jumps, three strides apart. Starting with poles on the floor, I had them trot then canter over the poles from each direction. I’m looking for the horse to maintain her rhythm, forwardsness and confidence towards the poles. Most green horses will alter their gait as they look cautiously and assess the question. We want a horse to be able to quickly and correctly assess the jump in question so they are best able to clear it comfortably. As she is inexperienced with poles, I’d expect her to back off the poles slightly.

This is when there’s an art to knowing how many times to repeat an exercise. I want an exercise repeated enough times that the horse and rider are confident and competent through it, but I don’t want to repeat it so that they become complacent. It’s exactly the same with flat exercises as jump exercises. I also want to repeat the exercise enough times that it proves it’s not a fluke. I went to a demo with Paul Tapner this week and his rule is that he wants an exercise performed “twice, nice” to prove the first wasn’t a fluke, and to ensure the lesson stays progressive. To an extent, I agree, but I often find a third repetition really useful for cementing the learning.

Anyway, with this mare, I wanted to repeat each stage just enough times that she proved she was happy with the question. She only needed to trot over the poles twice in each direction to become consistent from A to B. Cantering over the poles, she did it perhaps three times in total on each rein. The first time she wobbled and fell into a bit of a heap, and then she sorted her legs out.

Once I was happy with her at this stage I made the second element a cross pole. A height within her comfort zone, but the question had changed. I wasn’t looking to challenge her jumping ability, but rather her ability to judge the jump and get it right first time. I think it was a bit of a mess first time round, as she slowed to look at it, wobbled and the launched over it. The second time was better, and she got it the third.

So I changed the question, putting the first cross up. This time, her first attempt was better and she didn’t back off to study the jumps. Rinse and repeat until she understood.

Then I changed direction, and I was pleased that she reached stage two quicker and seemingly more confident.

I was rattling through the stages but without rushing the mare. Previously, we’ve repeated the exercise more times than necessary to build muscle memory, confidence and practice. Now, I wanted her to complete a task well a couple of times and then move on. But I needed her to achieve the previous stage and be confident about it before moving on otherwise she will lose confidence later on.

Once the mare had negotiated the cross poles I changed the shapes of the jumps. Making one jump an upright, then once this successfully negotiated, the other one too. Then we changed the rein and had the upright first and cross pole second. And then changed it round.

I was pleased that the mare began confidently taking her rider into each set-up, unfazed when the jumps changed. Of course, she was still green and put in the odd wobble and didn’t always get a good take off spot. But that will come as her canter develops and with future sessions to improve her straightness and rhythm. The important thing was that she wasn’t backing off the jumps when they changed.

To finish the session, I steadily built the second jump into an oxer; by putting an upright behind the cross, so that it was inviting and my rider could continue aiming for the centre easily.

I feel it’s important to teach horses to read and process simple jump exercises quickly when training them so that they learn to think for themselves and adjust their canter and bascule as appropriate. I think a horse’s ability to adapt to new jump exercises is related to their confidence, which is why I wouldn’t move onto the next phase before the horse is competent at the previous one. One horse which I ride always backs off an exercise the first time, even when the jump has only changed by a small amount. We’ve worked a lot on progressing exercises steadily and repeating the exercise twice from the off and he is less sticky the first time now, but his general confidence over jumps is also improving.

Building a horse’s confidence when jumping is related to the number of times they have repeated am exercise – it’s a big circle! And I stick to the theory that a horse needs to repeat the exercise until they have done it well two or three times, but have not started to become complacent or anticipate the exercise with detrimental effects. There’s no point mindlessly repeating an exercise with no improvement. Changing it, however slight, will keep both horse and rider thinking about the job in hand.

The Island of Comfort

I have this theory, or metaphor, about comfort zones which I use a lot when working with riders and horses who are not the most confident.

I tend to think of someone’s comfort zone as an island. It may be round, elongated, any shape really, because we know our confidences are not always logical or predictable. At the beginning of a lesson or relationship with a rider or horse of low esteem I aim to get them confident and happy on their island. I explore the perimeter of their island, by chatting about goals, previous experiences, and using exercises to gauge their attitude, actual ability and perceived ability.

Once I begin to get a grasp on what makes them tick, I start to expand this island. Depending on the rider’s personality, learning style, level of nerves or confidence, I lead them to the perimeter, or shore line on the island, and get them to dip their toes in. I aim for them to get their feet wet and slowly the tide goes out, so the island gets bigger as their comfort zone increases.

Often, I set up an exercise which is fairly straightforward initially, and well within their comfort zone. Once horse and rider know where they are going and are riding it well, I start to layer the exercise. Depending on the difference between their perceived ability and actual ability, I will make the exercise appropriately harder. That may be introducing a transition, adding in lateral movements, increasing the gait, increasing the frequency of movements. Because we develop the exercise slowly and steadily, I usually find that my rider achieves much more than they expect they will and finishes their session on a confidence high.

Whilst my aim when working with nervous riders is to push them outside their comfort zones and to improve their confidence levels; I think it’s so important to respect when the rider says “no” or “that’s enough for today”. After all, everyone is different and if they feel they have achieved sufficient for that session, or want to go away, bottling their current feeling of elation and reflect on what they’ve achieved then so be it. After all, often it is better to take two small steps into the shallows and stand there enjoying the view, then take a further step and hit sinking sand.

Besides, I’m nudging my riders out of their comfort zones with my support, not throwing them in the deep end and hoping that they will swim and not sink. Half of the secret in developing someone’s confidence and increasing their island is giving them respect and increasing their self-esteem.

The Wise Man

The Wise Man Built His House Upon The Rock was playing in the car last week. Although this time at least I had the toddler with me! There’s nothing worse than realising you’re listening to nursery rhymes when alone in the car …

I digress. It struck me that the Wise Man is very relevant to the approach to training a horse and rider. The rocks are the foundations of the house, and in the same way that you choose to build a house on firm standing, it’s important to build your ridden skills on firm foundations. Establish the basics, reinforce them as necessary, and don’t try to run before you can walk.

If you have a firm foundation when you encounter a problem – a fall whilst jumping for example – then it is easier to pick yourself up and there is less long term or catastrophic damage and the recovery period is quicker. It’s a bit of damage limitation; in the sense that when you have solid foundations beneath you, you will only wobble and fall a couple of rungs down the ladder, rather than if you were standing atop a sand dune when you will fall down many rungs.

My friend is looking to buy a new horse, and we’ve been discussing the merits of getting a schoolmaster versus a green horse. One she viewed last week has talent, can jump, but is obviously lacking the basics. Which isn’t a problem if you approach the horse with the knowledge that the first six months need to be spent establishing the jumping basics; improving the jumping canter, using canter poles and grids to improve her technique before progressing up the levels. To some, this can be frustrating, but in the long run, the horse is less likely to injure themselves because they are using their body more correctly and are physically stronger; they are more confident so are more likely to encounter little wobbles along their jumping journey rather than major blips which ultimately makes a smoother road to travel.

For this reason, every so often my clients revisit one of the more straightforward subjects of their riding, which once practiced usually vastly improves their performance in a trickier exercise.

It’s also a reason that I feel it’s so important for riders to have regular lessons and instructors. If an instructor regularly sees a pair then they can pick up on problems before they develop, nipping them in the bud, and can ensure that the foundations are firmly established. That’s always my worry with clinics and Pony Club rallies. If a rider goes to various clinics with different instructors they can end up with a bitty education and holes in their foundations. That’s not to say that clinics aren’t a positive thing, as they have their place in terms of a social environment, getting a horse and rider confident riding away from home, but they are best used to complement regular lessons.

Do you think your riding is built upon firm foundations? Or are they a little bit fragile?

Arc of Poles

I only ever blog about exercises or lesson subjects which I feel have gone particularly well, would benefit others, and require a more in-depth explanation. A few of my clients will recognise this exercise from the last couple of weeks.

Riding trot and canter poles in a straight line is fairly, well straightforward, but putting them onto a curve makes it trickier, and is useful for highlighting a horse’s strengths and weaknesses. Using a twenty metre circle, I laid three or five trot poles on the curve, with the middle of each pole the correct distance for that horse’s working trot.

Firstly, I like to work a horse on both reins over the curve of poles. Having to increase the cadence of the inside hind requires a greater degree of balance, and if a horse finds this difficult then they may well drift out on the curve. At this point, it is really useful to compare the two reins to see if one is significantly easier than the other. Riding the curves and exaggerating the stride and push from the inside hind starts to improve the quality of the trot around the rest of the arena, and circles feel easier and more balanced.

I like to use the poles to improve medium and collected trot, by riding a smaller and larger arc. The poles encourage the strides to be adjusted and consistent over the poles, whilst the engagement of the inside hind leg encourages a lightness of the forehand. I used this exercise to good result with a duo, which really helped the balance of their medium trot and for the first time my rider felt the lengthening of her mare’s stride without an increase in speed or loss of balance onto the forehand.

For those horses who tend to fall into their inside shoulder on circles raising the inner end of the pole can really help them. If they have to lift their inside foreleg higher over the raised pole then they are less likely to load that limb. It almost acts like a jack, propping up the inside shoulder. The horse will feel more level, with vertical balance, as a result, and is then able to give a more through bend around the rest of the arena.

Raising the poles helps strengthen and increase the suppleness of the inside hind leg. It is also very beneficial to improving the stability of the pelvis because of the increased range of movement in the hips, so is very useful for horses coming back into work, mares after a pregnancy, and those with hindquarter asymmetry and muscle atrophy.

Next up, is canter poles, which is very useful for reinforcing a three beat rhythm, increasing the cadence of the inside hind, and creating a more uphill canter. A lot of horses will jump the raised poles, or try to canter a straight line across the poles. However, once the horse relaxes through their rib cage, they will find it easier and be able to maintain their curving line over the poles.

I find this exercise very useful for improving a horse’s vertical balance so that they feel more level, strengthening and suppling them, and getting them to work into a even contact with a bend throughout their whole body, which improves their general gait in terms of stride length, cadence, engagement of the haunches and lightens the forehand. Plus, it’s a fun exercise for both horse and rider!

I Blame the Mud

Personally, I lay all blame squarely on the mud for this subject, but I have to say that I’m so proud of my clients, and pleased to have such a good bunch who listen closely to what their horse is saying and so averts a potentially expensive and time consuming treatment and rehabilitation programme.

On an aside, I’ve have several clients who have been on long term rehabilitation programmes for their horse’s injury, which in some cases their horse came to them with, and they are coming through the other side. One lady proudly told me that the physio feels that her horse no longer needs treatment to mend her long term problems, but now needs treatment to maintain her excellent muscle tone. Just like a normal horse! Another lady was told that her horse is moving well, and has better muscle tone than previously so it’s time to crack on and work him that little bit harder so that he starts to develop this muscle. I’m so pleased when I hear this positive feedback from physios. My riders are doing the right thing!

Back to my initial subject of listening to your horse. In their first lesson back after Christmas, one of my riders had a problem jumping. Her pony jumped beautifully over some smaller jumps, especially as we were working on jumping a tarpaulin. He did give a couple of bucks on landing when he basculed particularly nicely, but this isn’t uncommon for him. However, he jumped very erratically over some 90cm fences, even stopping. This is well within his comfort zone so I felt it was odd. We discussed the oddness, but he felt fine to his rider so we decided to monitor it.

The following week, I built a simple grid. If he’d lost his confidence, although I couldn’t work out why, this would help. They flew the grid at 80cm, although he wasn’t happy turning left after the grid and was marginally better with a right canter lead approach. Again, this isn’t unusual with his way of going. But as soon as I put the jump up a notch he threw in the towel. We reverted to the lower grid and just popped him through to finish on a positive note. As I couldn’t see any lameness or sign of soreness, my only suggestion was that he saw a physio or chiropractor in case he’d tweaked something and flatwork and low jumping didn’t affect it, but the extra effort of a bigger jump caused a twinge.

Anyway, she booked the Mctimoney chiropractor and just lightly rode him in the interim. I had feedback from the treatment yesterday – a slightly tilted pelvis, but more interestingly, a pulled muscle between his ribs and pelvis. Possibly due to careering around a slippery field. Which would explain everything. Thankfully, this pony doesn’t need any more treatment, just an easy week building him back up. But his refusing and erratic jumps could so easily be misinterpreted as naughty behaviour and disciplined, or ignored for a few weeks. Whereas by paying close attention to what he was telling her, my rider averted any major incident, either by his behaviour escalating so that it was dangerous, or by his injury worsening or a subsequent injury occuring from him trying to protect the pulled muscle.

Another rider had something similar just after Christmas when I noticed her horse’s right hind being slightly short in stride length, and not picking it up as much as usual. I was riding him and wasn’t happy with the trot, although I hadn’t noticed it in his walk around the tracks to warm up. He wasn’t lame to the bystander, but it wasn’t normal for this horse. I text my client to tell her and she immediately contacted her chiropractor, who came out a couple of days later and found a very sore fetlock and tight muscles all over – again, she put it down to field antics, but this time suggested that it happened because the mud is so claggy, he literally left a leg behind whilst showing off and wrenched it. But because his owner acted swiftly he only needed one treatment, and was completely recovered within a week.

So you can see why I’m blaming the mud! My final casualty to it felt off in walk when I hacked him. Not lame, although he definitely wasn’t comfortable in trot, but wobbly and uncoordinated. I reduced his work to walk only on as flat a ground as I could provide until we waited for his chiropractic appointment. By walking him out in a long and low frame he started to feel much better, more together and stronger. I did find that he was leaning on the right leg though, so much so that his winter coat was rubbing off with friction. Initially I thought it was something I was doing (moving my leg excessively etc) but after paying close attention to the matter, I felt that he was pushing right as he walked, so pushing into my right leg. His treatment showed very tight, sore muscles over his hindquarters and lumbar area, which ties in with slipping in the field. Hopefully he won’t do anymore field acrobatics, and I can start to build him up again, although I’ll be limited with the lack of dry bridleways!

I actually feel very grateful to have clients who pay so much attention to changes in their horse’s behaviour and try to find out why before labelling the behaviour as naughty. I’m equally grateful that they respect my opinion, based on observations and feelings from the saddle. Of course, I’m not an expert in this area but I like to think that I know these horses well enough, and have a good relationship with their owners, that when they aren’t themselves yet look normal from a distance, we can have a conversation about the different possible causes (be it back, saddle, bridle, teeth, feet) and can investigate them. Then between us we can nip any issues in the bud, get them treated before secondary problems develop, and with the minimal disruption to their activity plan.

Going With The Movement

I’ve done some work on seat aids with a client in the last few months, getting her more aware of using her seat to reinforce her leg and hand aids.

However, she’s fallen into the trap of a lot of riders as they learn about the seat. They overuse it. Which doesn’t always help when you have a backward thinking horse. Since Christmas, I’ve noticed there’s been a bit too much wiggling in the saddle, which has become ineffective and now inhibits her horse’s movement – think about trying to give a child a piggy back while they’re wriggling around!

Studying my rider at the beginning of her lesson I noticed that the crux of the problem is coming from her hips and inner thighs. Her thighs were close to her saddle, but at the expense of tight gluteals and a fixed point which caused her upper body to move with her seat, but her lower leg to counteract this movement and the leg aids to become wooly and less effective.

I brought her to the middle of the school and asked her to halt. We were going to do an exercise I spent many hours doing on the lunge at college, and similar to our hip opening warm up at Pilates. I got her to draw her knees up to the pommel of her saddle and then take them out to the sides before slowly lowering them into the usual position. This plonks you squarely onto your seatbones so helps identify them if they’re lost, but also stretches and loosens the thigh-hip joint. The thighs then relax and the legs drape around the horse’s barrel more comfortably (this has more of a noticeable effect on larger barrelled horses). Initially there may be daylight seen between the knee and saddle flap. It’s not ideal, but go with it for a minute or two.

Once we’d repeated this hip opening exercise, I got my rider to walk on. She could still use her seat aids, but I wanted her to reduce them, and to think about how her thighs and seat stay relaxed whilst using these aids. Then I asked her to try to use her seat to complement her horse’s gait, rather than to dominate it. It was like they were playing the same tune but at different speeds, so had moments of togetherness, but were mostly working against each other.

As soon as my rider reduced her movements and got in time with her horse, her seat and leg aids became more effective, so there was no need to over egg it. Her horse moved more freely and they looked more together. She still had daylight between her knees and knee rolls, and subsequently felt a bit loose in the saddle, so I told her to gently close her legs so they were close to the saddle but without tensing the thighs. Then she had more contact with her horse so could stay in sync more easily without tension.

We moved on to some trot and canter work, with my rider feeling more effective with her aids, was stiller in her lower leg, and her horse moving in a less inhibited way.

This rider has been on a Franklin Method Clinic, and specifically found sitting on the balls helped her relax her gluteal muscles and so sit deeper in the saddle. So we are going to use a combination of the Franklin balls and hip opening exercises to switch off her naturally tight thighs and gluteals so that she can really feel the way her horse moves and apply aids which are well timed and effective. As her body is more relaxed, when she is not actively applying aids she is not giving any conflicting or restrictive instructions so then her horse becomes more responsive and reactive to her aids.