Guinea-pig Riding

When I was at college and an apprentice I frequently had to ride for coaches training for their teaching exams, or at demos. I don’t like people watching me ride, or strangers critiquing me, so it’s not something I particularly enjoy.

I also happen to be quite difficult to teach. I don’t like being shouted at, and as I’m a trier and detest doing something wrong, if I’m shouted at by an instructor when I’m trying my best I get sulky and close down. I can’t help it, but I appreciate it makes difficult teaching so if someone’s being assessed it’s not an ideal situation.

However, just down the road from Phoenix’s yard is a British Dressage venue, which were looking for guinea-pig riders at novice and elementary level for coaches training for their next exam. Feeling more confident in ourselves, wanting to get Phoenix out to other venues, and wanting more feedback from BD judges, I signed us up.

It’s a bit of a pot luck exercise, but as you don’t pay for your lesson and are only giving your time,it’s a risk you have to take.

I had a shared lesson, with a horse competing at novice level, who was the complete opposite to Phoenix! He was heavier in build, had a workmanlike way of going with a tendency to get behind the leg. In all fairness to the coach, providing a lesson to benefit both horses was a tall order.

We worked on transitions, which are always useful. For the other horse, it was useful for getting him in front of the leg and more active. For Phoenix, there was a bit of work on my aid timing to help her step through in the transitions and not brace in her neck.

I was pleased with Phoenix, who showed how much she’s matured mentally in that she settled to work immediately, wasn’t spooky, but could’ve relaxed a bit earlier into the session. At home I do lots of movements, lateral work and transitions to keep her brain active and attentive to me; but this lesson just used a 20m circle which while she didn’t connect like she does at home, she did settle into a consistent rhythm and remained accepting of the aids, with her transitions improving in softness and balance.

By taking out the complex school movements I could focus on the quality of our transitions. Something I don’t do enough of. But I came away realising that I can simplify my schooling in order to focus on one area without detriment to Phoenix’s way of going.

At the end of the lesson, the rider’s have to feedback to the coach and their assessor. Which is a test to your articulation as much as anything!

For me, I found the day’s exercise useful in that Phoenix worked calmly and focused in a new environment. I realised that she’s matured mentally and I can have productive sessions in a short amount of time. The trainee coach used a couple of explanations which will be useful in my teaching, as another explanation if my clients don’t comprehend my analogy. I didn’t have a ground breaking lesson, but that’s not really to be expected as they’re in training, don’t know me or Phoenix, and I didn’t pay for the lesson!

I think if you are confident at your level of training and understand the correct way of going and how to get the best out of your horse, then these guinea-pig riding sessions are a useful exercise. You only contribute your time and effort, the coaches are all BD trained, many of them judges, so it’s useful to get another point of view and feedback on your horse’s work, and of course you’re doing your bit to help the future of coaching. It’s also useful for young horses. However, if you’re going through a training blip, or aren’t technically secure then it could be detrimental to you and your horse’s state of mind if the trainee coach gives conflicting advice or explanations to your current trainer.

I think I will volunteer again, especially at such a local venue, because there’s very little to lose in the exercise, and the potential to get a few hints and tips.

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

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 not carrying as much weight as others. Older horses can often feel the cold more, and it’s important to remember their rugging history. A mature horse who has been over rugged in previous years will not cope well being under rugged. And of course, some horses just feel the cold more. Despite Phoenix’s breeding (a hardy Welsh) I have caught her in after a summer shower, with the thermometer still reading seventeen degrees Celsius, and she is shivering. She seems to cope fairly well with dry cold, but the wind and rain really give her a chill.

A horse’s diet will affect his ability to keep warm. Sugar beet is digested in the hindgut slowly, so has a heating effect. So a horse who is fed lots of forage, hay or haylage, will have their own heating system,as opposed to horses on a restricted diet. Yes, those on a restricted diet are presumably supposed to be losing weight, but it is worth remembering that with less forage they will feel the cold more.

The environment plays a huge impact on a horse’s ability to keep warm. Are their stables brick or wood; are they well insulated or is there a through draught? One of Otis’s stables was below a flat so it was beautifully warm in winter as the flat heated it from above.

Likewise, if a horse’s field has lots of shelter, natural or man made, they can escape the wind or driving rain. A north facing field is colder than a south facing one, and fields in a valley are less exposed than those on the coast or mountain side. If they are only turned out in the day so have limited forage other than grass, then they will not be able to keep as warm as a horse living out all the time with as lib hay.

So a horse in a north facing field with very little shelter will need extra protection from the elements than the same horse in a field with a palatial field shelter.

The important thing, I believe, is to get to know your horse as an individual, monitor how warm or cool they are without obsessing over it because they will adjust. If they’re a bit warm in the field, they can move to stand in the breeze; if they’re a bit cool they can move around to warm up, or stand out of the wind. There’s a lot more scope to self regulate their temperature in the open space.

The other thing to consider is that when we are doing our horses in winter we are rarely doing them at the warmest or coldest part of a twenty four hour cycle. When we turn out in the morning, we need to consider the fact that the day will warm up. However, it will also cool down, possibly before we catch in. I tend to work on the basis that the warmth of the day is usually counterbalanced by being exposed to the elements (autumn and spring are the danger days when the sun is stronger). When we tuck our horses up in the evening, we need to be aware that the temperature drops in the early hours. So you don’t want to put your horse to bed only just be warm enough, because they will undoubtedly be cold in the middle of the night.

I think the key to rugging a horse for weight loss, which is surely where this trend has come from, is to delay rugging them in the autumn, and to remove rugs early in the spring. One of my clients has a companion pony who is too fat, but living with a horse who needs plenty of grass, makes it difficult for him to lose weight. So I insisted that he stayed naked until November at the earliest, horrendous storms excluded, as he has a lovely field shelter, to encourage the weight to drop off. Now, he is in a lightweight rug and will stay that way for as long as possible, before having his rug removed, weather depending, in February.

Otis has been unrugged the last couple of years except for snowstorms, as he was fat, hairy, perfectly warm enough, with a lot of natural shelter in his field. This summer and autumn he has lost weight (a planned diet), and their field had been divided to help rest it, but that means that there is less natural shelter for them. He’s not had his rug on yet, except for the heavy rainstorms in the last few weeks, but I think it will go on soon. However, I am weighing out the pros of him being able to raise the hairs over his body to trap air to keep warm, versus having the windbreak of a lightweight rug. I think my final decision as to when I put his rug on will be whether the weather is cold and wet (rug on) or cold and dry (no rug).

So yes, I think it’s important not to over rug horses, but it is equally important not to withhold rugs. Treat each horse as an individual, consider environmental factors, and make your own mind up based on your instinct rather than the latest trends or what your stable neighbour is doing. And react to your horse: if they seem to be hungrier yet not putting on any weight they may be too cold. If they’re clammy under their rugs then they’re over rugged.

Trying Bits

Last time I was showjumping Phoenix I wasn’t 100% happy with the bit and our approaches to jumps. She wasn’t overly strong, but the canter got a bit flat as she got confident and bold, so we almost ran downhill into the jumps. Which either meant her taking a flyer, or taking the front rail down with her knees. Or having a lucky escape! Before I start jumping her much bigger, I wanted to sort this out.

I felt there was a schooling or strength issue; if I could improve her balance in the canter then she’d find it easier to remain uphill on the approach to jumps. She’s an independent lady though, and doesn’t accept help easily. It has to be subtly offered otherwise she panics. Yes, special, I know!

I felt I needed some help with the contact to help me help her. Nothing too strong, but just different to her loose ring, double jointed lozenge snaffle.

I decided to kill two birds with one stone and take a trip to a local showjumping venue, which has an extensive bit bank. I’d have a lesson and try alternative mouthpieces.

I explained my predicament, and was given a loose ring snaffle, with two joints. But with slightly thinner, more contoured bars, and a full moon centrepiece. So what’s the difference, I hear you say? Well, to Phoenix, it’s a slightly less friendly bit of metal in her mouth, which will discourage her from leaning on my hand, and mean I can give lighter aids. Which should help me create the more uphill canter and help her to maintain it.

We spent a lot of time on the flat – more about this subject on another blog – allowing me to get the feel for the bit, and for her to accept its feel. To be honest, I didn’t feel a huge difference initially, she was fairly relaxed and accepting of the contact, but I did feel that she was more up in front of me, and less inclined to lean on the bit when I half halted. Which she sometimes does to evade sitting on her hocks and containing that powerful engine.

In the trot and canter work we played around with transitions within the gait. I needed to feel that I could adjust Phoenix easily, without her stressing, and that she used her hindquarters throughout. Particularly when she lengthens, she tends to go onto the forehand and leave her back end out behind her. Which is exactly what happens before jumps. By teaching her to shorten and lengthen in an uphill fashion, her hindquarters stay engaged and she’s lighter in my hand and in a better position to jump cleanly.

We then put this into practice with single fences and related distances, which highlight this weakness well. We jumped focusing on me helping her keep the balance of her canter throughout the approach, and after a couple of failed attempts when I held more than I needed to, and she panicked, we got it together, and she jumped beautifully out of a much better canter.

Moving onto related distances, I found that Phoenix was meeting the second element in a more uphill canter, which meant she pinged over them. Then I found that I could close my leg and ride her forwards if necessary to make the striding, without her nose diving or losing power.

It was a great session, really showing that you don’t want to be too quick to change tack, as often improvements on the flatwork will improve the jumping performance, but also that tiny changes to a bit can enhance communication between horse and rider.

Going to a bit specialist and trialling bits is definitely they way forward as more and more variations of bits come onto the market. It’s mind boggling, and can take a lot of time and money finding the perfect bit for your horse. Perhaps we’ll start to see some more bitting clinics in the calendar; where you go to a venue and have a meeting with a bit specialist, perhaps followed by a lesson to try it out?

Buying A Horse

It`s that time of year when horses start to flood the market, parents realise they`d better start looking for their child`s next mount, and those who have retired their horses over the winter feel inspired to take up the reins again. But buying a horse is not so simple.

The first place I always think people should start, is by getting an idea of what horse they want; critically examine all different shapes and sizes, perhaps try out some friends` horses and get a feel for what is right for you; be it height, width, forwardsness, responsiveness, etc. Start to make a list of what you want from a horse; what traits are a must and what traits are a bonus.

Then you want to start reading some adverts; learn the lingo and how to interpret each advert. Contact owners and ask questions if necessary; ask a couple of close friends or your instructor for advice. You don`t want everyone giving their input because we all have our own personal likes and dislikes. Just choose some trusted people who know you and your riding well. It`s also helpful to have some eyes peeled for any word-of-mouth sales. Making a list of questions to ask owners is really helpful.

Draw up a short list of horses to view; take a knowledgeable friend, and don`t be afraid to ask questions, go for a second viewing, or do whatever you need to, to find out if the horse is suitable for you.

Now that you have an idea of your ideal horse, and what sacrifices you will make in buying a horse, it`s time to work on the budget.

Factors to consider when purchasing your horse

  • Livery yard – you may be better having more support or facilities from a yard while you are getting to know your new horse, but these come at a cost so you need to consider this.
  • Tack – some horses come with tack, but you want to ensure you have funds to get the saddle checked in the near future as it may not be the best fitting of saddles or the leatherwork in the best of conditions. Likewise, you may need to change the bit, or buy different stirrup irons. You should also be aware that saddles are fitted to both the horse and rider, so it is quite possible that the saddle that comes with your horse isn`t the best suited to you, anatomically.
  • Riding lessons – yes, you`ve purchased your own horse, but that doesn’t mean you can give up on the lessons just yet. An eye on the ground can give you hints and tips as you get to know your horse and build a relationship. After all, you`re better off nipping any issues in the bud than letting them evolve from a molehill into a mountain.
  • Vetting – whether you choose to have a five stage or a two stage vetting, there is still a cost implication to consider when calculating your budget.
  • Insurance – You need to consider whether you are going to self insure your horse for vet bills, or take out vet insurance. Then there is also public liability and third party insurance, which are often required by yards.
  • Horse – what is the lump sum you can afford to pay for your horses? Does this include tack or rugs?
  • Rugs – Although you don`t need to buy all your rugs at once, take into account the time of year you are purchasing the horse and budget your horse allowance over the next few months to take rug purchasing into account. Of course, some horses come with an extensive wardrobe, in which case it`s worth considering if your horse budget needs adjusting to take this into account.
  • Transport – You may have a generous friend who will collect your new horse for you, but if you are buying long distance, then you will need to consider how to bring your new purchase home.
  • Bits and bobs – you may already have some of these, but your horse will need a headcollar, leadrope, haynet, feed buckets, water buckets, grooming kit, and a whole host of paraphernalia. You want to focus on getting the essentials, and there are plenty of tack sales where you can get many things second hand, or even unused second hand items.
  • Feed – not only will you need to purchase feed for your horse, but you will also need to ensure you have vermin proof bins, and feed scoop and mixer. It`s worth speaking to the previous owner to find out what feed the horse is currently on, and continuing that for a few weeks before making any adjustments you feel necessary.
  • Dental, Farrier and Physio – whilst you don`t necessarily need to have your horse checked out immediately, depending on when their last appointment was, but you need to factor them into your budget.

There`s a lot to think about when purchasing a new horse, but by breaking down your budget and by taking your time to build a clear picture of what you want from a horse you should find the process simpler and stress-free.

Time Heals

Last weekend I ran a gridwork clinic for my riding club. Members had been requesting them, and I`m trying to get practice with assessing and teaching unknown combinations ready for my ITT exam.

Several of the riders said they were looking for a confidence giving ride. Which is fine with me, and I built the grid to improve the confidence of horses and riders.

Today I was thinking back to the clinic on one of my hacks, and also thinking ahead to the next one which already has a lot of interest, and these are my thoughts on regaining confidence.

If you lose your confidence it can be really difficult to regain it. Especially if you don`t have the support network that you need. It can be hard enough asking for help from friends, let alone strangers. This is where having regular lessons can help because you have a rapport with your instructor, who also knows how to play your strengths and weaknesses so that a lesson will go well. Last week I also taught someone who had fallen off and hurt herself badly and ridden another horse infrequently since, and not gone out of walk. It`s tough, starting at rock bottom with an unknown horse and rider, but we had a look at the walk, chatting to help relax my rider, circling, starting and stopping. It was all about making her feel that she was in control. She soon found how she was over correcting the walk, and creating too much noise so her horse wiggled along, making my rider feel less in control and nervous. Then I suggested a trot. The rest of the lesson was spent doing short, straight lines of a slow trot. I couldn`t, or didn’t, do much teaching as such, but rather supported my rider as she overcame her fears.

At the end of the lesson I felt I hadn`t done a huge amount, and hadn’t made the progress I`d anticipated – I had aspirations of sitting trot, circles etc. However, when she emailed me the next day to book another lesson she was ecstatic about what she had achieved and is looking forwards to doing it again.

Another factor in regaining confidence, and I think this is always underestimated, is time. If you physically hurt yourself you need time to recover both physically and mentally. The physical healing is obvious – there`s no longer a plaster cast, or pain when you move. The mental healing is when your body stops tensing in anticipation of pain. It`s entirely natural, self defence. But only time will help this. Say, if you’ve had back pain whilst doing sitting trot then every time you take sitting your back muscles tighten and you go rigid as a learned response, exacerbating the situation, but it is only by repeatedly doing the sitting trot that your body learns that it will not be harmed and therefore should relax. After some time, you will be able to transition into sitting trot without a second thought.

Another big factor in helping you recover your confidence is repetition. The exercise doesn`t have to be hard, it just needs repeating so that it is autonomic and doesn’t generate the fear response. What I found with my grid work sessions was that the riders didn`t want a complicated exercise, followed by another different exercise. They wanted, and needed, a straightforward exercise that was built up steadily, and to ride through it again and again. It didn’t have to be big or wide, they just needed to repeat it. Then when it was autonomic we could make it bigger. If someone had fallen off on a hack whilst cantering then cantering in the arena until they were 150% confident and then take them on a hack to a different canter spot. Repeat that until they are no longer worried, and then take them to another canter track, and then the same track they fell off on so that they don`t have a phobia of hacking.

Going back to my lesson last week with the very nervous lady rider, the trotting that we did was all the same – straight lines, slow – but that was all she needed. To trot without any pressure, and to repeat it and build the muscle memory.

As an instructor or coach, I think it is really easy to overlook the simplicity of a lesson that builds confidence after a major dent. Yes, nothing special has been achieved in the grand scheme of things, and the horse or rider may not have dramatically improved, or been tested; but to that one person the feeling of positivity, elation, and the urge to do it again is something that trumps all else. Getting positive feedback, both from last week and the clinic, made me realise the importance of these baby steps and the support network, as well as realising how much I had given these riders by doing what I thought was very little.

Giving Advice

Here’s a little riddle for you all to get your Friday brains ticking over.

Almost everyone needs it, asks for it, gives it, but almost nobody takes it. What is it?

The answer is, of course, advice.

It’s my biggest bug bear about the equestrian world. The fact that everyone has an opinion and insists on giving it to anyone who stands still long enough, whether they’ve asked for it or not.

There are numerous trains of thoughts about training or managing horses. Some of which works, some don’t, some horses thrive of a certain method, some don’t. For most pieces of equipment there are arguments to use it or not to use it.

I think it’s important that individuals, whether it’s your first horse or your fortieth, develop their own school of thought, training approach, stable routine. Whether they have one horse or several, if they develop their own opinions, which will be more rounded, researched and well-reasoned, it gives a better understanding to equines. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t ask for advice; rather ask advice from those you trust, or ask a couple of people, or read a couple of books, and draw your own conclusions.

Some professionals in the industry naturally attract advice-seekers – vets, farriers, instructors. Which is fine, and I for one am always being asked questions about different tack, health, behaviour. Unless there’s a safety factor, I try to keep my opinions to myself unless asked, and then try to give a balanced opinion – e.g. If asked whether a certain noseband should be used, then give the pros and cons of it and let the client make the final decision. Sometimes if I’m giving feedback after teaching or riding I will advise that the owner checks something (like teeth) or suggest reasons for a behaviour (like head shaking). It’s not to say I’m right, it’s just a suggestion to help improve the horse’s comfort. It might also be that an inexperienced owner hadn’t thought of it. 

But I think it’s important that those professionals only give advice in their area of expertise, and when asked. For example; if you ask an instructor if your saddle fits they may look at the basics, but then should say “get it checked by a saddle fitter”. After all, you don’t want to be liable if your client gets bucked off because you’ve told them the saddle fits!

To me, someone who gives advice willy-nilly, about subjects they aren’t qualified or that knowledgeable in, loses  my respect. It also creates tension on yards, especially if you have two conflicting advice-givers. I always want to be the quiet person in the room who doesn’t say much, but when they do it’s very profound, and everyone should take note.

That’s probably because I don’t like being given advice. If I want advice I will ask those I trust, and I also am knowledgeable and firm enough in my convictions that I know when someone is talking out of their depth! So yeah, giving me advice when it’s not asked for is a bad idea!

If you go back to the riddle, it says that “nobody takes it”. I think this is another hard part of my job; people ask your advice, you give it, and they don’t follow it. For example; someone asks advice about their first sponsored ride, and you say “Go with one or two sensible companions” and they go in a group of six and their horse gets overly excited and they fall off. Or you give feedback after a lesson about the fact the horse should wear a flash, for example, to help when jumping, and they ignore you and find themselves being tanked off with.

I think that’s one of the hardest parts of my job: I always give feedback to clients, and when I say something I’ve thought about it (I don’t spout fresh air) long and hard, so get quite frustrated when something (an accident or safety issue) happens that could have been avoided. Likewise, I also get frustrated when I hear advice and opinions being thrown around like loose change! 

I think the best way to succeed in the equestrian world is to give well thought out, reasoned opinions and pieces of advice when asked. Because then people will start to seek your advice because they know that you have the facts or experience to support it, and that you aren’t trying to brainwash them, just educate.