I gave a pair their first jumping lesson this week. The rider has jumped before, but is bringing on her ex-broodmare slowly. We loose jumped her a couple of months ago to see if she actually knew what to do, but otherwise have focused on her flatwork to build her muscle and strength. Canter is coming along slowly with the help of poles to help her find the rhythm.Anyway, they had a go jumping over the weekend and felt it was a bit chaotic, so I decided to give them a better experience of leaving the ground.After focusing on transitions within the gaits whilst warming up, and getting the mare bending and thinking about her rider’s aids. I laid out three canter poles between K and E on the track. I used the track to maximise the arena so that the mare was most able to stay in balance on the turns. Her right canter is her weakest so I positioned the poles just off the corner to help them keep the canter rhythm until the poles. They could have a longer straight approach on the left canter because the mare can keep left canter together in straight lines.As is with horses, I rapidly had to move onto Plan B, when the mare decided that right canter was out of the question today. She often strikes off incorrectly, but can be helped out by a trot 10m circle before the canter transition. Not today though! There was no point banging our heads against a brick wall, getting frustrated. We’d jump out of left canter and try right another day. If she continues to struggle with it we’ll investigate further.So after trotting over the poles on the right rein, and then once on the left rein, I had them canter over the poles. The mare’s canter is currently very flat and verges on the point of four beat, so I kept the poles wide to improve her rhythm, and once her canter rhythm is established we can begin to balance it so that her haunches are under her body and she’s working her body correctly.Now it was time to leave the ground. I rolled the two poles closest to K together to make a teeny tiny cross pole. Then I rolled the third pole out so that it was a whole canter stride away from the fence. I wanted them to canter over the pole, have a whole canter stride and then pop the jump. This setup wouldn’t phase an inexperienced horse, but would put her in the right take off spot.They did it once, and met the first pole badly. With the mare only having one canter gear we have to adjust the distance of the approach so that she can fit several whole canter strides in. Which will help her jump confidently and neatly. A horse who has several gears to the canter can be adjusted to accommodate a set distance. I got my rider to ride deeper into the corner, which meant that they met the pole well the second time. I built the jump up to a bigger cross once we knew the striding and their line was right, and they flew over a couple of times, growing in confidence each time.To finish, I converted the cross pole into an upright. The biggest they’d jumped to date, but as the mare was already jumping that big over the cross pole, it was a mind over matter element for her rider. To know that they could jump it.And they did!
I’ve planned a series of polework and gridwork clinics over the winter, approximately one a month, at a beautiful local showjumping venue. They’re designed to run independently, so people don’t feel they have to attend all six, and I’ve given each date a theme. This helps me plan, and also helps riders chose which clinics to come to as they have a rough idea of what we’ll be working on.For my first clinic, I chose straightness as the theme.I wanted to work evenly off both reins as symmetry improves straightness, and often riders find it harder to ride straight when turning off one rein more than the other, so in order to ensure everyone had a chance to improve their stiffer rein, I used the centre line.I laid two tramlines just onto the centre line, to focus the riders on their turn so they didn’t drift, and were set up straight for the grid. With a fairly short approach I laid out a jump, followed by another one canter stride away. The third jump was two canter strides away, with a pair of tramlines in the middle to correct horse and rider if they’d drifted. Then there was a fourth and fifth fence one canter stride apart. The fifth fence was an oxer, and there were tramlines on the landing side and the then just before the turn at the track.The tramlines ensured they started and finished straight, and stopped any cutting of corners after the grid, so improving the getaway.I warmed up all the riders by getting them to trot through the grid with the poles on the ground, alternating the reins they’re coming off. Initially, all the horses had a good look at the arrangement of poles, but after a couple of goes, they started going straighter, my riders were channelling them forwards because they’d stopped looking down, and the horse’s stride length opened and rhythm became consistent. The riders could also start to think about whether it was easier to turn off the left rein or the right rein and make corrections.We then cantered through the poles from both reins. All horses will struggle to get the distances while there are no jumps, but as they got straighter and more forwards they started to work out how best to place their feet. So long as the horses are going through in a positive, rhythmical canter, I’m happy at this stage.I built the grid up slowly, starting with a cross as the first jump. The centre of the cross meant we knew if there was any drifting on the approach. The second fence was also a cross to help straightness, and then the tramlines corrected any drifting on the getaway and over the rest of the poles.The third jump was an upright, and once they’d jumped it confidently once, I made it into an A-frame. The apex emphasised the centre of the jump, and encouraged the horses to be neater over the jump. Of course, the horses and riders back off this slightly intimidating set-up, so I encouraged the riders to sit up after the second cross and ride positively in order to get the two strides. Once the horses have jumped it a couple of times it doesn’t cause any problems. The fourth jump also became an upright. With some groups I also made this into an A-frame, but if I felt that the first A-frame improved the horse’s technique over subsequent jumps I didn’t bother. And finally, we built the fifth fence into an oxer.Everyone found that the tramlines were incredibly helpful at helping both horse and rider stay straight, and the crosses highlighted any drifting so the riders’ knew how and when to correct over the last three elements. They could all feel the difference in their horses as their straightness improved because the distances were easier and the hindquarters more efficient at pushing the horse over the fence. They also landed in a more balanced way, ready for the next obstacle. When the horses were going straighter the riders could feel the effects of any twisting by themselves through the grid, which helped them fine tune their position.All in all, it was a great, rewarding morning, with lots of progress from each partnership. Now I need to plan next month’s “Gears to the Gaits” clinic!
I’ve been working with a young horse all summer, who has really tested the patience and determination of his owner and rider, but thankfully she’s starting to reap the benefits.
He came to her as lightly backed, but we soon discovered that he’d been missing a key element in his training: consistency.
So we took him right back to square one, and the first couple of weeks were spent with them building a relationship and him learning the routine in his new home. He’s a tense, nervous little guy, and it comes out in bolshy behaviour, so his owner had to establish ground manners and wait until he started to feel confident before starting to work him.
Now because he had already been introduced to tack, lunging and long reining, not a huge amount of time needed to be spent notching up the girth hole by hole as he got used to the feel of the saddle on his back, but we soon found out that he had some undesirable behaviours when being worked in hand, such as napping, twisting his body, bunny hopping, and charging at you. The same when he was ridden.
When I first met them they’d had some positive in hand sessions, but not so positive ridden sessions and his owner had realised she’d bitten off more than she could chew and needed help.
We decided to step back and focus on their long reining. They’d done some long reining around the farm tracks, which were going well, but weren’t doing any long reining in the arena, only riding, which wasn’t going so well. I completely agree that young horses should be educated outside the arena as much as possible, but this little horse didn’t have good associations with the arena. I believe this was because he was upset and confused about the ridden process and it was in a less familiar environment.
I think it stemmed from the lack of consistency in his backing process, as well as his individual personality, but as soon as the youngster was out of his comfort zone he displayed his “naughty behaviours” of napping and not going forwards. Starting to understand his personality and behaviour, we began to formulate a plan.
The horse wasn’t comfortable or confident in the indoor arena. Neither was he confident about being ridden. So putting the two together was a recipe for disaster. I sent my client home with the homework of long-reining in the indoor arena, doing basic circles, changes of reins and serpentines to build her horse’s confidence of being in that space. By doing some basic ridden movements from the ground they will become familiar, so hopefully when his owner rides him and rides these movements they will be more familiar and hopefully less stressful so he doesn’t exhibit any of his insecurity behaviours.
They continued to long rein out of the arena too, and the next lesson we began in his comfort zone with long-reining. They did ten minutes of this until he settled. Then his rider mounted, and we did exactly the same from the saddle as from the ground. So what he was being asked to do was familiar, but with the ridden part being unfamiliar. He was dipping his toe out of his comfort zone.
You can almost think of the comfort zone as an island, and the aim is for the sea to recede, so the island becomes bigger as the horse grows in confidence and experience.
Anyway, they had a positive ridden session, with him starting to relax. They didn’t need to trot until walking under saddle was within his comfort zone. The next few rides involved less long-reining and more in the saddle time, adding in short trots when the conditions were right.
They got to the point in the next few weeks that his owner could get on at the yard, enjoyed their rides round the farm, and were having positive sessions in the school. I think it was to their benefit not to increase the ridden work until the consistency was established. The horse began to relax into his work: he knew what to expect, was familiar with his surroundings and handlers, so stopped napping and responded correctly to the aids.
Once the consistency was established, we started to develop the ridden work. We introduced trots for longer and longer periods, transitions, circles and changes of rein. I was pleased that he was taking it all in his stride because he was growing in confidence.
Unfortunately, they had a blip and the youngster started napping again. Instead of persevering from the saddle, I suggested they returned to long-reining for a few days. I’m not sure what caused the blip, but the horse strikes me as a worrier, so it’s best to reaffirm his comfort zone and then start to ask the questions again, and be on the lookout for the first signs that he isn’t understanding, before his behaviour escalates.
It didn’t take long to get them back on track, and this will be the first thing we do if he has a sudden lack of confidence again.
Bearing in mind that this horse doesn’t have the best mindset to new experiences, and isn’t overly confident, we need to teach him to open his mind to new experiences. So we need to reduce the stress involved. I suggested that his owner introduced the outdoor arena by long-reining in there first, and then to ride in there after doing most of their work in the indoor until the horse relaxes in that environment. Then she can begin to work him properly in that arena. Hopefully by not throwing him in the deep end and asking him to swim, he will benefit in the long term because the relationship between him and his rider will strengthen as he gets more confident, and then we can ask him to step into deeper water more quickly and he won’t sink.
Next up is to continue establishing the basics, improving his rhythm and suppleness, adding in more school movements and getting the correct response from her aids. Being naturally tense, I want to see him starting to relax his topline and become more free in his body before we move on from each stage as that change in his body language tells us that he is more confident and understands his work.
I took Phoenix showjumping today. She stormed round the 70cm clear, pushed into third place by some whizzy kids. In her first 80cm class, she had a pole down. But was still the fastest four faulter to be placed seventh.
On a side note, before I return to my main reel of thought, I’d like to well, boast really, about how amazing she is to take out. Loads herself, waits patiently and quietly for her class, warms up calmly, waits quietly, jumps her best, and then stands round while her little fan hugs and kisses her neck. She really makes the day enjoyable from that perspective.
Back to my original topic of conversation. That pole we had down. It reminded me of a conversation recently held between friends. One friend was suggesting that there is no such thing as an unlucky pole, and it is becoming an excuse for sloppy riding and a lack of clear rounds.
After every jumping round I do, I come away planning my improvements. Even the clear rounds. Last time we competed and had the last jump of last round – yes, annoying because we were a good ten seconds faster than our rivals – I knew exactly what had gone wrong. In trying not to upset Phoenix’s fairly fragile canter I hadn’t half halted between the last two fences and she needed it. So she had bounded on in a flat canter and basically went through the jump. I beat myself up then for letting her down more than anything, and went away to strengthen the canter and ride related distances properly. That wasn’t an unlucky pole.
Today; what went wrong? I’m yet to see the video, but it was a related distance on a slight left curve. We had the second element down. Phoenix’s canter felt much stronger throughout the day and she wasn’t towing me onto her forehand. She’d jumped big into the related distance because it was a loud filler and I’d really pressed the go button, and I think that this meant the distance between the fences along with the line I rode, and the stage she’s at in her training meant that she just got too close to the second element and brought down the front rail of the oxer.
Now was that unlucky? I think it could have gone either way today. We could have gotten away with it. Neither of us did anything wrong, she wasn’t tired, her technique was neat, and it’s perfectly within her capabilities, but the sequence of events just didn’t flow on the day. It was unlucky in the sense that she was jumping very well and confidently so didn’t really deserve to knock one with such a slight error.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t anything for me to learn from today. Her canter still needs improvement as if I had more scope to collect her I could have adjusted her enough to correct her bold jump into the related distance. I could’ve ridden a wider line, but it’s hard to change course once you’re on it. I also think I over-rode the first element, but I think the more competitive experience we both get together the better as I’ll know exactly how much leg to use and she’ll be less likely to have a second look at a fence. I also think she’ll benefit from a few jumping exercises I’ve got planned to help teach her not to bowl on quite so much through a related distance, as that is a common theme. But we’ll do our homework for next time.
So is there such a thing as an unlucky pole? I think you can be unlucky as a pair in that you deserved to go clear from the way you rode the rest of the round and the minor error which caused the pole to come down. You’ve tried your best with your ability on that day. But that doesn’t mean it’s an excuse. After all, a clear round is the goal and a pole down is a less than perfect result, so improvements can be made at home.
We riders need to walk away from a knock down and try to work out how we can improve on it. Be it riding better lines, improving the canter, practising on different surfaces and inclines, practising with fillers or water trays, changing tack, boots or studs if they’re becoming a hindrance or any other weakness you feel you and your horse have. Then, we will achieve perfection.
The video from the 80cm class has just come through, so I thought I’d share it so you can see our slight error. It was a straightforward course, but full of related distances, which is the area we have we working on most recently so it was a useful test.
I hacked a client’s horse earlier this week while she was on holiday. I often lunge her, but never school for a couple of reasons. The mare has several weaknesses – stiff hocks, previous suspensory injuries, and a weak back – so I’d rather train her rider to improve the mare’s strength, muscle tone and way of going from the ground because I’d be worried that I’d ask too much too quickly from her and cause an old injury to flare up. I’m pleased to hear that the physio reports back up my observations in that the mare’s muscle is becoming more even and healthier, which is down to her rider being consistent and improving them both steadily.
Anyway, I hacked the mare out to exercise her this week, and whilst I focused on her working in a long and low frame, pushing with her hindquarters, I knew the lack of circles was a benefit in this situation as I could concentrate on working her topline in one direction so there was less risk of me overworking her.
Once in the woods I had a few short trots, which was very enlightening. The mare threw me up so I was rising when the left fore and right hind stepped forward. I changed my trot diagonal, and it felt completely different; weaker and less coordinated. This isn’t noticeable from the floor, highlighting how useful it is for an instructor to occasionally sit on client’s horses.
We’ve been working on the mare’s straightness, and her default position is taking her hindquarters to the left. Although she doesn’t do it as frequently or to such an extent now, I did wonder if the assymetry in her trot diagonals is related to this crookedness.
The stronger hind leg is the right hind, as that’s the stronger diagonal. If the right hind naturally sits closer to the centre of her body when she’s in her comfort zone of left bend.
I mentioned this to my client when she got home, and she was aware that the two diagonals felt different and regularly swapped between her trot diagonals when hacking to make sure she built both diagonal pairs up evenly. Which I always advocate to prevent asymmetry arising. However, in this case, I wonder if we can improve the mare’s straightness and symmetry by favouring the weaker trot diagonal whilst hacking to build the strength in the left hind and to encourage it to come under the body more to propel her forwards.
My client agreed, and is going to do more rising on the weaker trot diagonal in her next few hacks, and hopefully we’ll start to see the mare getting straighter in her school work, which can only be of benefit to her.
I did the keyhole jumping exercise with a client a couple of weeks ago, and we discovered that she and her pony found riding left dog legs significantly harder than riding right dog legs.The pony is a left banana, and will drift through his right shoulder at every opportunity, but we’ve been addressing both of their straightness and it’s improving all the time. However, jumping and turning left highlights the fact there’s still a weakness here.So this week I decided to tackle left dog legs. I warmed them up with the focus on riding squares, my rider using her outside aids to turn, and keeping the inside rein open without going back towards her, and the pony turning from the outside aids. I see this a lot and for whatever reason, a rider may apply the correct aids to turn, but the horse doesn’t obey immediately, and then in a panic that they aren’t going to make the turn, the rider resorts to pulling them round with the inside rein. They know they’re doing it, but you can’t help it if you’re going to miss the turn! This then creates a cycle that the horse doesn’t turn until the inside rein is utilised, which causes the outside aids to fall by the wayside.My rider has identified in previous lessons that she sometimes forgets to use her right leg to push her pony to the left, so a lot of our flatwork looks at switching that leg on. Furthermore, as she reverts to her left rein, her right hand disappears up her pony’s neck, thus allowing him to drift out of that shoulder. Now I’m not saying she’s to blame – it’s a chicken and egg scenario. But she’s the bigger person, the one I can explain things to, so we have to address her aids first. This is where the flatwork is so helpful; riding the squares and leg yielding, to identify her asymmetry in her aids, and to ensure her pony is responding to the right leg before we add in jumps.Once warmed up, I had them canter a three stride, left dog leg of poles, of which I’d laid dressage boards on the outside of the curve. The visual aid will encourage the pony to turn left, which breaks the cycle of her resorting to the inside rein. She could focus on applying the correct aids and get the correct response from him which would help his understanding.They cantered through the exercise a few times until the canter stayed forwards and the turn was balanced with the correct aids. Interestingly, when the pony was asked to turn left correctly, his evasion technique was to slow down, so my rider had to keep her foot on the accelerator whilst turning and ensure her hands were positive aids.The aids she was giving, or was aiming to give, was a bit of weight into the left stirrup to keep left canter, opening the left rein wide (but not backwards), using the right leg to turn him, whilst keeping her right hand near the base of his neck to provide a wall to support his right shoulder. The trick is for the outside rein to be reactive: not pulling back and causing him to slow, and not slipping forward as he starts to drift, but rather being “there” until he starts to lean on the right shoulder, and then firming the contact to prevent the drift. She’s reacting to his body rather than blocking him with an immobile rein.Next, I built the fences up to crosses. This was to guide both of them to the centre, and to ensure they were totally accurate. This was when the pony started putting in four strides. They were getting the line, but he was becoming sticky in the canter. A check that the reins weren’t restricting him, and then she could apply more leg to keep the power.Once they’d mastered the line, the aids, and planning the turn, I removed the white boards. This made it a bit trickier, as we realised how much the visual line was helping them. So I popped one board in the middle to help them, and once they’d negotiated it successfully then I removed it, and they managed to ride the dog leg line. There was an element of my rider needing to start riding her turn earlier in the exercise; because the pony found it harder that turning right, he needed more setting up and more time to find his line.We ended the session with two steep crosses, getting the dog leg line perfectly and maintaining the canter rhythm to get three strides between the jumps. Hopefully we can build on this in the next few weeks with different exercises.
I did this exercise with my Pony Clubbers last week; we used to to it a lot when I was learning to ride as a child, but I don’t see it utilised very often now, nor unfortunately do I use it much myself as I don’t teach many groups.
It’s a very good layering exercise which introduces independent riding, and ensures the horse or pony is listening to their rider’s aids.
Starting with the ride in closed order on the track in walk. The first rider moves up into trot, trots around the arena until they reach the rear of the ride. Then, they should take the inner track and trot past the ride before trotting back to the rear. With more experienced riders, you can have the ride trotting, and the individual cantering around and past them.
This exercise is useful in the following ways:
- It allows every rider in the ride to experience being lead file.
- It teaches awareness of the change in a horse when they move from following the tail in front of them, to going off the rider’s aids.
- It teaches the rider how to pass other horses at the correct distance.
- Riders need to use their outside aids to stop their horse rejoining the ride instead of passing them, otherwise the horse just falls out and slows down to slot in behind the ride.
- The horse is encouraged to work independently and the rider taught to plan their route in advance, otherwise their horse tucks in behind the ride.
- Riders have to plan their transitions so that they don’t crash into the ride.
- It’s a useful precursor to riding in open order. Once a group are familiar with the exercise the lead file can be sent off before the previous horse has reached the back of the ride.
A different exercise, which I find quite useful for testing horses who are a little bit herd-bound, is to have the ride trotting around and the rear file ride a transition to either walk or halt. When the ride catches up, they ride forwards to trot and become the leader. Some horses can be reluctant to be left behind, so it’s a useful education for them, which pays off in other areas, such as hacking or cross country. It also teaches patience, as horse and rider have to wait calmly for the rest of the ride. The rider also has to plan their upward transition so that the rhythm of the ride is not disrupted, and they also experience lead file. I find you can allow the new lead file to do a few movements, such as circles, serpentines or changes of rein, which develops their independence and confidence.
If the weather’s cold, or it’s wet, and you don’t want a group of riders standing still for too long, these exercises are useful for keeping everyone moving and keeping them warm. I’d like to see instructors incorporating these exercises into their group sessions because they are definitely underappreciated.
It seems to be an uphill battle to teach children that they don’t have to jump the highest or the fastest to be the best.
Last week I had to ask my Pony Clubbers how high they usually jump at the beginning of the week to assess them, and inevitably they all wanted to jump their maximum every day.
I like to know the height of the jumps that they have done, but that doesn’t mean we’ll jump that high, as I don’t want the weaker jumpers to feel inferior or worried about the lesson. And there are plenty of things we can work on without jumping big, such as their position, lines to the jump, quality of the canter before and after the jumps.
At the end of camp they have a showjumping competition; the children in each ride compete against each other but they don’t all have to jump the same height. I ended up doing two heights. Doing the smaller height was my nervous rider as I wasn’t sure how her confidence level would be on the final morning and I wanted her to ride the course independently and finish camp on a high. One pony had had a confidence crisis at the beginning of the week so I’d really focused his rider on not restricting his head over jumps, so I had her doing small fences where the pony was less likely to need to “jump” and his rider could concentrate on her position, without risk of being left behind so that again, they finished camp on a positive note. This rider was disappointed with the height of the jumps, but did accept my explanation, and said the jumps felt smoother. The final pair doing the little jumps were capable of jumping bigger but the pony was looking tired, and as they’d had problems with her refusing jumps in the winter, I told my rider that I thought it best they did a smaller course clear, than get into problems due to the tired pony stopping at bigger jumps. She agreed with me, which was great to hear as she was sensitive to her pony’s needs.
The three which jumped the bigger course were all fairly confident; one of them was being pushed towards her limit over the oxers, but actually rode the best lines and approaches to each jump. One of them was capable of jumping bigger, but as she lacked control over the speed, I’d rather the fences weren’t too big so that the pony could get herself out of trouble until her rider had mastered the brakes. The other rider was probably the most competent out of all of my ride, but I actually felt that her pony had worked hard all week so didn’t need to prove herself over a 70cm course as opposed to a 60cm course. Also, I felt the focus needed to move away from the height and towards being able to create a jumping canter and maintain it all the way to a fence, rather than sloppily falling round corners and falling into trot.
My aim was to emphasise style, which they were judged on, with unexpected results I feel.
It’s a difficult concept for your children to grasp; the fact jumping should be stylish, but I think it’s the job of us as instructors and parents to stand firm in our belief that it’s better to jump a smaller course in style and safely, than to get round a bigger course by the skin of their teeth.
It’s not just the kids who want to jump high. At camp the senior kids do a one day event competition, and we set the maximum height at 90cm. Their instructors choose the height which each rider can do, but invariably we get some parents complaining that their children jump much higher at home. But that’s not on grass, which is invariably hard in August, or after five days of being ridden for a couple of hours each day. The aim of Friday’s competition is to round off the week with fun, and not create problems by facing a tired pony at a big jump and wonder why they refuse, or injure themselves from repetitive strain on their legs.
So what can we as teachers do to educate leisure riders that it is not all about jumping fast and high? Firstly, build tricky schooling exercises which takes the rider’s eye off the height and onto other aspects so that they negotiate the exercise successfully. We can talk about the the strains of jumping on a horse’s legs and why jumping bigger or jumping too frequently can be detrimental to them. We can discuss fittening a horse and implementing a work routine correctly so that they are able to jump sufficiently. We can emphasise how improving our flatwork helps improve our jumping. We can teach our riders that horses aren’t machines and can have confidence issues too.
Finally, I think there should be more jumping competitions that are judged on style and performance, rather than speed and height. At bigger competitions you don’t see so much bad riding in an attempt to get a fast clear, but you do at the lower levels. And I’m talking the local, unaffiliated showjumping competitions, not so much the grassroots level. This leads to poor riding, long-suffering horses and ponies, and to be frank, some dangerous situations. We want to make horse riding as safe and fun as can be, yet encourage riders to jump fast and big in order to be successful. Surely it’s a recipe for disaster?
White lips in the ridden horse has always been seen as a sign that the horse is working well and has submitted to their rider. However, recently I’ve seen a couple of articles which has found that stressed horses lick their lips and produce white froth, and it is not linked to submissive behaviours.
Here is an interesting article. Do a quick Google search for other articles and debates on the subject.
As ever, our norms and beliefs are challenged as our knowledge increases.
I’ve done a bit of observational research with the horses I work with. Just observing whether they have white lips in consideration to how they have worked.
My thoughts began at Christmas, when I stopped and thought about the fact that Phoenix had a fairly dry mouth when I schooled her. There was a bit of moisture, but very little white. In terms of how she was going, I felt she was 80% committed to me; she did everything I asked but was not quite coming through from behind. Almost, but not quite. I was five pieces away from completing the 1000 piece jigsaw.
Then in March, when she was very tense whilst being ridden she foamed at the mouth like a rabid dog. However I didn’t feel she had been particularly submissive during our session. She’d been good in the sense that we’d contained her flight instinct and she had started to relax, but she was still very anxious. And I could see this in her body language – her eyes looked worried, she had her head up, muscles tensed, and generally a very alert stance. To me, this was far more suggestive of the theory that a stressed horse foams white at the mouth.
Over the last couple of months Phoenix has become happier in herself, with a softer, more relaxed stance. When working she’s improved dramatically in that she allows me to position her, accepts the aids, and is more relaxed in her work. She’s coming through from behind better and using her back more, as well as happy to walk on a long rein at the end to cool off. When I dismount, her head stays low, her eyes soft, and a little bit of white lipstick. She’s worked with me, submitted to my requests, and tried her hardest.
I’ve been watching other horses, whether I ride them or teach their rider, and I’ve noticed that there is definitely individual differences between horses. Some horses will have very white lips whilst the rest of their body language suggests they are relaxed and happy; others will only have moist mouths when working well for their rider.
Horses who aren’t asked to work to a contact or with a softer frame always had dry mouths. When more of a contact is taken up with these horses and they’re asked to soften into a frame they all get moist mouths because they’ve been chewing the bit and using their mouth, tongue and jaw muscles. By the time these horses are working from behind and using themselves correctly they usually have a little bit of white lipstick. The rest of their body language is accepting, relaxed, and submissive.
Some horses, who have a drier mouth than others and do appear to be working well, seem to be the ones who are a little fixed in their frame. Not from anything in particular that the rider has done, but they accept the contact and keep their mouths and necks as still as possible, which means they don’t create much saliva. This is perhaps just the way they have been trained or ridden, or it is potentially a stiffness in a muscle area which stops them using themselves to the best of their ability so they are holding themselves in a way which doesn’t enable them to mouth the bit.
The horses I see, often just working in the school around me if I’m honest, who have a lot of white around their mouths, and flecks along their neck, look anxious and tense. I don’t know these horses and their characters, but I think it’s interesting to see that even though the horse is obeying their rider’s aids and in theory doing everything correctly, their body language is tense and they foam at the mouth. They’re submissive on paper, but not happy about the submission – like the unrest in a population before a revolt.
So what exactly are we looking for? As I said before, I think there’s a huge variation between individuals, so it’s worth having a quick look each time you ride so you get to know what’s normal for your horse. I think that you want to see some moisture on the lips, which suggests movement of the jaw which can only be done if the horse is accepting the hand (a horse not accepting the hand at all will not produce any moisture, whilst a horse who is anxiously accepting the contact will excessively chomp at the bit and produce too much foam) and working from behind. Whether it’s just a darkening of the lips or white foam is dependent on that particular horse. But also study the rest of the horse’s body language – do they look happy and accepting at the end of a ride? A horse with very alert, or flighty, body language has not worked well for you, regardless of how much white foam is pouring from their mouth. I think it’s a useful clue, and a good way of gauging how much your horse gave to a session, but only when taking the rest of their body language into account. And with everything in life, we want to see white foam in moderation.
It was one wet and miserable November evening. “Come on Mum, we need to go see her”
“But we won`t see anything now” It was true. It was 5pm and almost pitch black already. But I insisted, I wanted to show Mum a friends new pony. Who was adorable! So we drove up the road to the most distant field, parked in the layby and went into the field. It was fairly dry and we picked our way across the field fairly easily calling the pony.
It was then that I realised the shrill whinnying was not in fact the wanted pony, galloping over to greet us (it`s in everybody`s dream) but another pony from near the fence. We trudged back against the wind and found the grey pony stuck in the fence calling frantically. Trying to calm the pony I rang down to the yard and asked for some wire cutters to be brought up. Within five minutes some arrived with a headcollar. But by then we`d started moving the pony and realised that something was wrong. Severely wrong. She was sweating, trembling, and could barely stand up. Once again, we rang the yard, and a trailer was driven up. Somehow we loaded the pony in the trailer and got her back to the yard. Thankfully one of the stables on the driveway was empty so she didn`t have far to walk off the trailer. That was when the vet was rung and everyone was dismissed, except for the yard manager.
I had a phone call later that evening to tell me the pony had died.
The next day, my day off, I was casually minding my own business, pushing all thoughts of the pony to the back of my mind when I had a phone call. “We have to get all the horses in off the grass. Now!” My colleague was in a real panic. “OK, what`s up? Why?” I asked trying to calmly assess the situation whilst tugging on my jodhpurs. “I need everyones help. Everything has to stay in. The vet says”
So off I head to the stables, breaking many speed limits but dodging the cameras, and when I arrive the yard is deserted. “Right. What`s going on?”
“Oh some people have gone up the road to catch the horses in the top field… I`ve drawn a map of which horse is going in which stall or stable. In the pony stalls we`ll need to make an extra section at the end. You know, using the slip rails … some will have to go in the indoor arena … but I don`t know who`s going to fight…”
So I pulled on my bossy boots.
“Lets get these beds put down then so the horses have somewhere to go. Otherwise it will be a nightmare trying to bed them down and not know have anywhere to tie them. The ponies are coming in first? Right you go and do the pony stalls. Beds and a haynet will be fine at the moment, we can worry about the waters when we have more people. I`ll start with the stalls in the barn.”
We all set to work, and were joined by more liveries, extra haynets were pulled out from somewhere, water buckets scrounged, and the barn was soon full of deep straw beds. The liveries and staff who had gone up the road brought in the first load of riding school ponies, who were given a stall and hay to keep them occupied. Then they went to the next field, and then the next, and then the next. Until every single horse was in off the fields and the barn was full of happy munching.
Then came the mammoth task of securing them all! I don`t know if you know how stalls work, but they`re designed for horses to be tied up during the day (or in the old days, at night) but in this barn the horses were backed in, to avoid the risk of being kicked when you walked down the barn at lunchtime. Instead you just risked being bitten. We didn`t want to leave the horses tied up all night. What if they wanted to lie down? Or more importantly, what if they couldn`t reach their water? It made sense for the haynet to go at one side of the stall and the water on the other so that it wasn`t filled with hay. Our ingenius solution was jump poles. A couple of strong men were dispatched to bring the long jump poles from the school, which were passed through loops of string at the front of the stalls. Sounds simple doesn’t it? But you may have forgotten the troublesome nature of ponies or bored horses. They will lean on the poles, or try and duck under. So we ended up with cross poles as well, to make climbing through even harder. Looking back the risks are awful; we would never have got them all out in a fire, and what if they`d got a leg caught and panicked? It doesn`t bear thinking about.
The next day was surreal. The vets were coming to take blood samples of all the horses to test for atypical myopathy. Not that they really knew what it was at that point. But at 8am we heard an odd noise from the indoor arena. So we investigated. Only to find our favourite and most popular pony gasping for breath, his whole body racking with the effort, covered in sweat and shaking. The vet was called and came almost instantly, but there wasn`t anything for us to do except watch this poor pony suffer and struggle to breathe. It was like he was being suffocated by his own body. The vet gave him an IV, took blood, and tried everything to save him. But in the end we had to put him out of his misery. It was awful. We were so useless.
The vet then suggested taking everything`s temperature, and during the next hour we found five more cases. They were pulled out the barn, taken to the indoor arena and hooked up to IVs there with several vets monitoring them (back up had been called at this point). We worked around the dead pony`s body, which was covered with rugs.
After a couple of hours the knackerman arrived to take the carcass away. The trouble was that he couldn`t get in. Particularly with the equine hospital at the near end. So the only option was for us to drag this pony`s body to the lorry. It was probably one of the weirdest experiences I have ever had. I completely dissociated so that I could hold myself together. Now the thought of it makes me squirm!
Lessons were abandoned, but a few clients turned up and we had to turn them away. One freelance instructor arrived, became angry that she`d driven all the way over to be told there weren`t any lessons. Then she saw the crying mess we were all in and immediately apologised. I kept busy, mucking out, giving hay, checking temperatures.
One casualty was taken to hospital, where she died three days later from kidney complications. The rest of them thankfully made a complete recovery, but the rest of the week was surreal and unlike nothing I`ve ever experienced before. I was impressed with how everyone pulled together and supported each other. Mucking out, taking temperatures, checking vital signs, became the norm and by the weekend we were semi functioning and starting to get back to normal.
Our plight was the first that our vets had experienced and through it a lot more research was done into Atypical Myopathy; we even got a mention in national newspapers! Most recently, sycamore seeds have been linked to Atypical Myopathy, or at least a fungus that grows near the seeds in certain weather conditions. I found the most useful site for this disease; http://www.myopathieatypique.fr/en/ which is done by the experts specifically aimed at improving and sharing knowledge and research.