Boredom in the Mundane

Is anyone else reaching their limit during this lockdown?

This last week I seem to have hit a wall. The weather definitely doesn’t help. It’s been dreich for weeks, but the Beast from the East is really the icing on the cake. I get the sniffings of spring; like snowdrops creeping through and daffodils about to bloom; some warmth in the sun, and Phoenix not wanting to come in at 4pm!

We’re on week five (read five hundred and sixty three) of this third lockdown and it’s all become a bit mundane. Days merge together, walks are limited by weather and ground conditions. Local hacks are repetitive, the jump paddock is boggy, the horses are in winter mode. I’m bored, Phoenix is bored. Household jobs have lost all appeal – I mean, I can’t spring clean the house more than once a year. There are DIY jobs to do around the house and garden but it’s cold and wet, and not very appealing!

I think I’ve lost my mojo. I guess it happens a bit to all equestrians after Christmas, but usually we pull ourselves through with some goals, competitions or days out with friends. But with nothing to distract me, I find myself feeling glumpy. That’s a combination of glum, gloomy and down in the dumps.

I’m not one for moping, so I need a plan of action.

With this week’s weather I’ve decided to back off riding Phoenix. The lane is too icy to hack, and she doesn’t go well in the wind or cold. Her made-to-measure quarter sheet should be delivered tomorrow, so why put myself through tense, argumentative rides in the meantime? I’m better off doing in-hand work and being her friend.

I’ve spent the last couple of weekends doing some little projects – weaving a rainbow, embroidering a cat, some jigsaws, hanging up photo frames. But it’s not satisfying me. I’m going through the motions, but I’m not inspired. There’s a punch needle kit downstairs, but that’s proving frustrating to say the least.

Next on my list is reweaving the seat of a small chair from Portugal with seagrass which was mine as a toddlers and now looks a little worse for wear. The seagrass has arrived, the needle is with Royal Mail, so all I need to do is watch some YouTube tutorials…

Anyway, suggestions on a postcard for ways to get my mojo back!

In the meantime, let’s keep hoping that spring is on it’s way, and restrictions are eased so we can have a change of scenery, offload children onto grandparents, and see friends again.

Keep listening out for Too Ticky’s barrel organ.

Online Learning

The idea of distance learning has been around for years. Whilst taking my A-levels I did an Open University short course as part of a project to help students choose a degree. It was fairly enjoyable, but I think I only managed it because I was already devoting my life to studying and didn’t have any other plates to spin. How adults return to learning with a job and family is beyond me.

Over the last year though, distance learning has made a huge leap forwards. Instead of it being for mature students, or the infirm; every school child has done it at some point or another. They will have done different amounts of online learning, but kids of all ages have had to learn to learn with less support from their teachers.

I would never have considered having to teach equitation online last year. The closest I’d ever gotten to distance teaching was giving a client guidance when they sent me their concerns between lessons. It may have been as simple as guiding them on adjusting their horse’s diet, or how to overcome a simple nap in the arena. But they were all short term plasters; damage limitation until I saw them in five days time.

The first lockdown in the spring saw me offering to teach the BHS Challenge Awards over Zoom. As well as giving feedback on riding videos or teaching a child wearing a backpack containing a Bluetooth speaker connected to their parent filming them in the middle of the arena – I tell you what, you get a lot less back chat when communication is one way! That was a challenge, and not ideal, but useful to keep them ticking over and refocus them on the basics.

Now of course, we’re still allowed to teach private lessons, but unfortunately Pony Club has had to halt all face to face activities. In the spring we did some photo comps, weekly riding exercises, achievement badge activities. But this time we’d already planned the efficiency test training up until the Easter holidays.

So I had my work cut out coming up with Plan B, but the result is that my branch is offering training from D test to B test. For my part, I’m training the younger members for their D and D+ tests, as well as offering achievement badges for the youngest members, and those not ready for their next efficiency test.

I’ll be honest, it’s unchartered territory for me. And the kids know how to use Zoom better than me – “you have to share sound separately, Susy” – but I’m enjoying the challenge of working out how to teach from a screen.

To begin with, I made a PowerPoint for the two efficiency tests. I made one PowerPoint as the D+ test has a very similar syllabus to the D test, just more in depth, so one PowerPoint, with special D+ slides covers everything.

Everyone learns in different ways, so I felt it was important to try and bring in several different learning styles. I found some videos to supplement where I would demonstrate if we were in person; such as putting a headcollar on; then put a combination of notes and pictures on the slides, which together with me talking and posing questions, ticked most learning styles. Screen sharing has proved to be a very useful tool!

I also find that kids, especially younger ones, can find it difficult to verbalise a process, or describe something using words. So for our points of the horse session, I told all of them to bring a toy pony along (or photo for the older ones) and as we went through the different points, they could point to the appropriate place on their pony. I also used my, I mean Mallory’s, rocking horse to stick labels onto. When I did the pony behaviour badge with the younger children they had to show me using their model pony and rider how to approach a pony, where to stand to lead it, how to turn them out, etc.

I’ve also added activities into the training, which they can do with me, or afterwards, as revision. For the youngest kids, we had a matching exercise (draw a line from the horses face to the matching emoji, to the word) and some colouring. This meant that the pre schoolers could do the colouring while I talked to the older members at a slightly higher level.

I think for the topic of tack for the D and D+ training I will recruit the rocking horse, as the tack is removable. And for the colours and markings badge I want to do in a couple of weeks time, I’ve got a painting exercise for us to all do together. But I’ll continue to think outside the box for ways to engage the children, who usually have the attention span of a gnat on a hotplate!

Please send any other ideas on a postcard!

First Aid Kits

Do you have a first aid kit at the yard? Human or equine? Or both?

I have a human one in my car, but thinking about it, it probably needs updating. I only use it for plasters. I also have a Pony Club one, which is definitely up to date, for when I’m teaching rallies. Horse wise, I have one at the yard. But thinking about it, it should also be updated…

A couple of weeks ago, I had a freak accident with a client’s horse, which reminded me to update my first aid kits!

My client was running late so tied her pony up in the usual spot along the fence outside her stable. I offered to tack up while she got ready. I put the saddle on; girth on the bottom hole, and then reached through from the off side to do it up. As I was putting the strap through the buckle the mare swung round towards my right leg, to try and bite me. I twitched my leg away, still holding the girth. After all, it’s not a new behaviour when the girth is being done.

Anyway, when my leg moved, the mare tossed her head away, you know how horses do in anticipation of being hit? Well she did that. And in doing so, scraped her forehead on the gate hinge.

“Oh, she’s cut her head.” says my client, bringing the bridle over.

I look. “Oh s***” I think, as I see that the small drop of blood is actually linked to a triangle of flapping skin, which is slowly starting to peel away from her forehead.

My client rang the vet, while I hunted around the yard, asking other liveries, for first aid equipment. If the vet was coming I didn’t want to mess with the wound, but I could remember that flaps of skin need to be put back in place to maximise the likelihood of it… Sticking. Is that the right word? Cotton wool leaves fibres in the wound, which I didn’t want. Eventually, I found a non-adhesive, Melolin dressing and I covered the wound and then bandaged her nose with vet wrap so that we didn’t have to hold it while waiting for the vet. I didn’t tell my client that the smooth white thing we could see was bone…

When the vet arrived he sedated her, although I think she was already semi-comatosed from the bash. He snipped away the hair, gave her a local anaesthetic and then flushed out the wound before stitching her up.

The wound looked very dramatic, especially with the diluted blood dripping everywhere. And I felt awful. Even though the logical side of me reminds me that I didn’t actually do anything aside from remove my leg from her jaws. We can learn from it; tie her tighter, use a different tie spot, but ultimately it was a freak accident. And a timely reminder to check the first aid kit regularly!

Within a couple of days the wound was healing nicely, and as the noseband didn’t interfere with it, she could be ridden lightly. The stitches were removed after ten days, and two weeks on the only sign remaining is the short hair on her forehead. I did notice the next time I rode her, that she thought twice about biting as the girth was done up.

Looking online, there are various equine first aid kits available, so it’s worth checking those out, but remember the contents aren’t exclusive, so if you can think of something else to put in the first aid kit then, perhaps specific to your horse or their usual ailments.

Snow Day!

Most of the UK had a snow day today. Made better than normal because it was a Sunday so it didn’t cause the country to grind to a halt, or confusion to reign over cancelled school and the guilt that you should be working, not enjoying the white stuff.

We had a lovely day, one of the best snow days. We went as a family to the yard as the snow began to fall, and Mallory got more and more excited. It’s the first snow she can remember, and she’s been hoping for some since Christmas. When she woke up on Christmas Day and learnt that Santa had visited, she immediately looked out the window to see if it had snowed.

Anyway, I wanted to fulfil a bucket list activity and ride in the snow. Luckily for me, Phoenix is barefoot so I didn’t have to worry about snow balling in her feet. Unluckily for me, she hadn’t worked for 48 hours so was rather fresh! We have fields to ride around, which was perfect for this morning’s task. I tacked up as the snow fell thickly, and to Phoenix’s surprise, she didn’t go straight to the field.

She danced down the track to the fields before getting used to the feel beneath her hooves. We had a lovely walk round the fields, checking the ground, before having a canter. Not as fast as Phoenix would have liked, but plenty fast enough considering the weather conditions.

Phoenix and I returned to the yard, in a cloud of large,swirling flakes, finding a snowman on our way, with a very excited toddler and husband.

I think riding in the snow definitely takes some getting used to. In countries that have more than 12 hours of snow, you have chance to adapt and prepare for snow. Most people in the UK don’t ride on a snow day because of the problem of snow balling in shod hooves, and the fact it’s a novelty. Yard jobs take longer, and the horses tend to be on their toes. I found it most disconcerting that I couldn’t see the ground properly, and had to trust Phoenix to pick her way around dips and puddles. I never expected Phoenix would be the one I ticked this activity off on.

After riding, it was time to turn out with plenty of hay in the field. Luckily I had my yard staff so jobs didn’t take too long and Phoenix was quite happy in her snowy field. Some people leave their horses in when it’s snowing, and to be honest, it depends on how easily you can get to the field – is it safe? If it’s a treacherous journey then it’s better to stay in. Equally, if your horse is likely to be unsettled in the snowy field it might be safer to leave him in.

Once Phoenix was sorted, Otis needed looking after. I gave him and his field friend a slightly larger than normal bucket feed, and then doubled their hay ration. Because of the snow, they were going to have a second hard feed this afternoon, and most probably extra hay, depending on how much they ate during the day.

I did discover the most perfect combination of sounds whilst with Otis. As all equestrians know, the sound of a horse munching on hay is one of the most relaxing sounds ever! However, the crunch of fresh snow is also a lovely sound. Put the two together and it’s an auditory utopia. In my opinion anyway. What do you think?

Rehab – a Secret Blessing?

Your horse picking up an injury and needing long term rest and rehabilitation is everyone’s worst nightmare, but sometimes it can be a blessing in disguise.

Looking after a horse on box rest is exhausting, but you do get a much stronger bond from so much time spent on the ground. Useful if you’re a new partnership.

But the bit about rehab that I find so interesting is when you’re bringing a horse back into work. Yes, it’s tedious. Yes, it’s time consuming. Yes, it’s a fantastic opportunity to really correct and improve the way your horse works.

Sometimes a horse may be tight in their neck and struggle, for example, to work long and low. Well being out of work atrophies those muscles, and weeks of walking is the perfect opportunity to establish long and low, and develop their topline.

It might be something you want to work on with your own riding, and putting some focus on you can often take the pressure off your horse, which slows your rate of rehab (it stops you rushing into canter work, for example) and gives your horse more time to strengthen up. There’s nothing to stop you having lessons whilst still in rehab; just be sure your instructor knows and understands your present limitations.

I’ve started helping some clients bringing their mare back into work after an extended time off with foot problems. Before I got physically involved, they did a month of walk hacking before a couple of weeks of short trots. The mare had been signed off from the vets, but her owners didn’t know how to bring her back into work so sensibly asked for advice. I suggested a prolonged walk only period because the mare is a bit older, and I think it’s always better to spend an extra week at stage one if in doubt. Plus it was the middle of winter so why not take it steady and not put pressure on yourself to do that daily walk when it’s dark, wet and windy.

Anyway, we started at the beginning of January with me riding twice a week, and her owners riding her in between. Prior to her injury, we had started working on relaxation, and encouraging the mare to lower her neck and stop being so hollow. I also wanted to encourage her to use her hindquarters, and take a longer stride, as she was a long way from tracking up in trot. This was the ideal time to focus on that because the bad muscles had reduced, and we could take the time in the slower gaits. Of course, she may have been compensating for any pain and not using herself as well as she could. In which case now, in theoretically no pain, she should be able to use herself correctly.

We started with short trots around the outside of the arena, and I was pleased to feel that the mare felt really sound, and was starting to take her head lower, but long and low was still a long way off. We walked over poles, which are always exciting for her, but she rapidly got the idea, and slowed down, lowering her head and stretching her legs. Afterwards, both her walk and trot felt looser.

It’s only been three weeks, but already I can see the difference in the mare’s posture on the yard, and she’s carrying herself in a longer frame – head lower and neck longer. The trots have gotten longer, still predominantly straight lines but now the odd 20m circle to help her rebalance. We’ve done raised walk poles, which are quite tricky for her and the distance between walk poles is getting longer as she’s getting stronger. Five walk poles is about her maximum at the moment, otherwise she tenses and tries to rush the last one instead of stretching a little bit more – as you can see in the video below. After doing this set of poles a couple more times she figured out how to stretch over all five poles and didn’t rush.

The plan for the next few weeks is to plateau really; no canter yet, but longer trots, more big circles, more walk poles of increasing difficulty, and a longer and lower frame. I also want her owners to get more involved so they start to do more of the work, and they develop the skills to help the mare into the longer, lower frame. We don’t need to push on with the intensity of work, and I really feel both sides of the partnership will benefit from time spent building this skill set and topline muscles. The canter also fizzes this mare up, so I’m concerned the canter may temporarily undo our trot work so I want the trot to be very established before taking this step.

Although a long rehab is not what anyone wants, I really believe this mare will come out stronger than before, with a much better posture, way of going, and musculature. It will be interesting to follow.

Find the silver lining of an injury and rehabilitation programme. Find the weakest areas for both of you, and use the loss of condition as a blank canvas for you to have another go, particularly as you’ll have learnt more about your horse, more about soundness, and more how a horse should work to prolong their working life. It’s tough, but so many horses and their riders come out of rehab better and stronger.

Learning to Canter

I had a few of my young riders have their first canter just before Christmas, and I’ve decided that the first canter stage is the most nerve wracking thing to teach.

There’s so much groundwork and preparation to do, and if you get the timing wrong it can have catastrophic results.

Before I even think of a rider having their first canter, they need to be confident in sitting trot, have experienced working without stirrups – how much no stirrup work they do depends on how big the child and how bouncy the pony is. I like them to be very confident in trot, and to happily ride a “fast trot” in a balanced way.

In a riding school there are usually two or three ponies with perfect learn-to-canter canters. Economical in stride length and cadence, steady, and voice controlled. So I would familiarise the rider with this pony in a couple of lessons beforehand, and then they would ride this pony for a few weeks to establish their canter seat and confidence.

With privately owned ponies, I like to do some research. Either I’ll lunge them without a rider, or I’ll observe an older rider cantering them. Sometimes, ground work needs to be done with the pony, so that they canter next to a leader (from either side), or canter quietly and are balanced on the lunge. Often I will set the parents some homework to do with the pony before the child has their first canter so the environment can be as controlled as possible.

It’s important to choose the right day for the first canters, and equally feel that the rider doesn’t need to canter everytime they ride; base the decision on the child’s state of mind that day, as well as the pony’s way of going, and any environmental factors.

I’m probably a bit too cautious, with my riders spending a long time on the lead rein or lunge in canter; until they stay balanced without holding in to the pommel. I like to think all the running is good for me, but in reality it’s very easy to send them solo before they are ready and they have the skill set to steer and stop. Then they get a problem – usually a bit too fast, or not stopping on cue – and take a few steps back in the confidence stakes. Which overall makes their learning to canter journey more challenging. I predominantly canter them on the lead rein because the straight lines are easier for the rider, and very few ponies are balanced enough to canter circles on the lunge. However, it’s a very useful tool for particularly nervous riders or sharp ponies. Plus I like to revisit cantering on the lunge once they’re fairly established to refine position and work without reins or stirrups.

I don’t think a rider needs to have many canters each time they ride. Again, I base it on their energy levels, and how the pony is responding to the lesson. They might only do two canters, or half a dozen on each rein. Regularly cantering keeps the feeling fresh in their minds so keeps confidence levels up, but not overdoing it when they’d actually benefit from more focus on their trot work is important to remember too.

The first few canters I do with a rider, I get them to have longer reins and hold the pommel. Once they’ve found the rhythm and are fairly in sync with the pony, I get them to take the outside hand off the pommel but still hold the rein loosely. Then they work on keeping the hand still in canter. Then they can start to use the outside rein to help keep pony on the track, and to make the downwards transition. At this stage, I start to lead without a lead rope, just resting a hand on the rein and letting go for a few strides to introduce the concept of going solo. It’s also a good opportunity to check the rider can bring the pony back to trot easily. Because we’ve worked off both reins, the rider should be happy letting go with either hand, so a natural progression is to let go of the pommel with the outside hand and then follow with the inside hand. This may only be for a stride before they cling on again, but I make it progressive. Let go for the count of three, then four, then seven. Get them to let go earlier. Let go during the transition. All these baby steps will gradually build confidence until they are cantering without holding on without realising.

Only then do I seriously start letting them canter independently. The last couple of strides initially, then just leading for the transition and first couple of strides. Then just running alongside. And without realising, they’re off!

I think the reason I find it so nerve wracking is that it’s so easy to get carried away and move through the stages too quickly, not allowing the foundations to set fully. Plus, kids bounce out the saddle so much in canter I’m always holding my breath hoping that the homing device is fully functional!

On The Lead Rein

From which side should you lead a child riding a pony?

The traditionalist in me says from the near side, and that’s always the side we led from when helping out at the local riding school as teenagers. In the showing world lead rein ponies are led from the near side.

Ultimately, a pony needs to be happy being led from either side, as it is correct to lead from the off side on a road, and a child may need more assistance on one side than the other. Perhaps a leg which draws up so they tend to lose that stirrup more.

Equally, the leader needs to be proficient at leading from both sides; there’s definitely some skill in running slightly sideways with one hand on the lead rope and the other on the rider’s leg!

When you turn a horse around, you turn them away from you to avoid being stood on, so for me it is logical to lead on the outside of the pony. That is, from the near side on the right rein, and off side on the left. Particularly when cantering as you’re sprinting and want to minimise the risk of legs entangling.

This all means that there is a degree of leading from both sides. But I have to say that my bug bear is when leaders switch sides on every change of rein, interfering with the rider’s steering or the pony’s balance. I cringe every time I see a leader run quicker than the pony, go round the head, and resume leading from the new side. It’s distracting to the observer and distracting to the pony and child. Often you seem them actually move off their flight path as the leader darts about.

When leading a pony and beginner child the purpose is to be totally in control initially, and then reduce your influence over the pony as the rider develops their skill set. So initially a leader needs to direct every stride, but they should become more laissez-faire as the rider starts to be able to steer, start and stop independently. But it’s at this point where the leader switching sides can cause the most disruption because the rider’s aids are quite fragile and their concentration at it’s highest. They’re also learning the cause and effect – how much rein is needed to turn or how much leg is needed to go at that speed – so a leader walking in front of the pony affects this learning process.

Personally, I prefer to predominantly lead from the near side, so don’t switch sides at each change of rein. If I needed to switch sides, I’d wait until we were walking or halting. However, I always lead on the outside when cantering because I feel safer and less likely to get knocked by a stray leg.

I’m by no means correct, and I’m interested to know what experienced leaders tend to do. Especially as I’ve got a couple of years of lead rein coming up! But my observations from teaching are that it is best to pick one side and stick to it as much as possible so as not to distract the young jockey from their work.

Phoenix’s 2021 Plans

During the first lockdown in the spring I was really motivated and focused on Phoenix – she benefitted from six days a week of consistent work and really got to grips with half pass.

Then followed a summer of fun – long hacks, jump training, camp. I really felt that our relationship was strong and secure. She was jumping confidently up to 1m over coloured poles and cross country.

I affiliated her with British Dressage in the summer, and took her to a couple of competitions, where she placed each time at Novice, with scores over 65% each time. I have mixed reactions to competing her; the range of scores is frustrating – 8, 8, 8, 8, 4. I mean, was the spook at the shadow really necessary? I always feel that we haven’t performed at our best, and I feel the 70 scores are within grasping distance as soon as we get the consistency. She scores above average, but I know we can do better so I’m never satisfied. My plan was to do our first elementary test in the autumn.

However, lockdown in November cancelled that and since then I’ve felt a bit aimless. Is there any point in preparing for competitions that will probably be cancelled? What’s the point in training if there’s no where to go? Is she even improving? We accidentally qualified for the Novice Winter Area Festival, but I immediately decided not to go. I’d planned to aim for them at elementary level, so to qualify without trying to gives me hope that we can qualify if we put some effort in!

We’re in full on winter Phoenix mode, which whilst manageable now, often leads to frustrating rides when she’s tense and scooty. I’m having a quarter sheet made to measure as she’s between sizes and the bigger ones spook her when they touch below her stifle, whilst the smaller ones don’t sit comfortably over her quarters so restrict her movement. This should help as Phoenix is definitely happier with a warm bottom, protected from the wind and rain. She also has bags of energy which, I’ve recently discovered, can be controlled by being exercised twice a day, or by taking her for a hack followed by working her in the school. Of course, this risks getting stuck in a vicious cycle where she just gets fitter and fitter… So I’m keeping this trick up my sleeve for times when I need her a little tired.

Feeling aimless is not me. Not having a goal or focus doesn’t do well for my state of mind, and doesn’t do well for getting the best out of Phoenix. So over Christmas I’ve enjoyed lots of hacks, and then got a schooling session filmed so I could see how she’s going. It wasn’t the best day for filming – very cold and frosty – so she was a little tense, but I was pleased to see that she is looking strong and established in the trot, more uphill, but could cover the ground more. When she relaxes she opens up in her frame; I just need to get that relaxation quicker! With this elusive relaxation I can also refine her medium trot, which is very fragile and prone to going crooked when she gets tense. As she can fly along on the lunge in medium trot I have no concerns about her ability, she just needs to relax and embrace the bigger strides.

Phoenix’s canter work is looking better; more rhythmical and established. But she needs to learn to wait and not rush so much. I need to sit into her more, which I had been trying to do before Winter Phoenix arrived, and she needs to accept this change of position so I can use my seat more effectively. I was pleased that her canter half pass looks as good as it feels, and it helped to balance the canter whilst taking out the tension.

Phoenix seems happier when being asked something complicated; i.e. Cantering half pass instead of cantering in a straight line. Which means I need to ride through the silly moments and focus her mind on the harder stuff before addressing the quality of the easy movements. Being able to visually see her working, has given me a boost of motivation. I’ll keep plugging away at her lateral work, developing her consistency, and then aim for some elementary classes when restrictions are lifted with the aim of trying our hand at a medium test or two in 2021. Now to hope that we have some pony parties to go to!