Making an Event Uneventful

I spend a lot of time working with riders and horses who have angst over a certain area in their riding. So whilst building their confidence in that area I also need to help them set themselves up for success when they do broach their weak area when riding.

For example, I was helping a girl with her horse who had lost her confidence in canter. There were a couple of issues in that the horse lacked straightness in trot which was exacerbated in canter. The horse also played off her nerves, rushing in the canter and then anticipated the second and third canters so became a bit strong and fast, which then worried my rider so she felt out of control.

We built the foundations in trot over the course of a few lessons and then they had a short canter in a tactical place (short side of the arena) which was successful and then I discussed with my rider how it felt and what she should try to do the next time. Then we worked on the trot to reestablish their balance and control. Once settled and not expecting another canter transition, we did one.

Over the next few lessons we worked on making canter uneventful; so it became normal and just part of their schooling sessions. By incorporating it into a sequence of movements, working on the trot until there was no anticipation and choosing different places to ride the transition will all help my rider to feel most in control and give her a positive canter experience.

Then the canter work becomes less eventful and with it less anxiety or nerves, and then a positive experience for both parties and good habits are created.

It’s the same if a horse anticipates an exercise. One girl I teach has a new horse who gets very excited about poles and jumping. We’re still building their relationship on the flat and over poles, but the second time they ride through an exercise the mare gets very quick in anticipation. So we’ve made the polework boring. They ride over the poles and then do some flatwork – circles, transitions etc – and when the mare isn’t expecting to go over the poles they go again. They’re also changing the approach; turning later or earlier and coming in different gaits. So the focus is shifted from the poles, and they become boring as they’re part of the course, and she doesn’t know when or how they are going to do it. It’s uneventful. But my rider remains in full control so we are not creating a situation where the horse knows they can take control after a line of poles.

One horse I ride can be very opinionated about returning to her stable afterwards. So instead of putting myself in a confrontational situation, which is potentially quite dangerous, I’ve been skirting around the subject. Initially, what the mare did was march back to her stable, and have a tantrum when asked to halt, tossing her head around and dancing about, threatening to rear.

So each time I returned from hacks I’d get off halfway along the drive and walk her in hand back to the yard. I halted her before she was expecting it, and before she began to get antsy. I’d have a calm dismount, run the stirrups up and walk calmly back to her stable. Once this was a calm scenario, I’d add in some halts on the way to the stable. Then I’d dismount closer to the stable, but each time before she started her quick march back.

I also started doing a a similar thing on the way back from the arena; getting a calm dismount closer and closer to the stable yard. I feel we’ve broken the cycle of anxious rushing back to the stable without making a big issue out of it and today she walked calmly all the way to the stable yard. Stood patiently while I dismounted and faffed around, before returning to her stable.

It may have taken longer with this approach but I feel it’s a much calmer environment and will have a lasting positive result than engaging in an argument at the point the horse wants to rush back to her stable. Hopefully new habits are created and the memory of the bad ones erased.

My approach to any issues with both horse or rider is to take a periphery tactic. Look at other behaviours and have physical checks to ensure that they aren’t contributing to the issue, then circumnavigate the problem until you find the best tactic and then make your move. Taking the event out of the, well, event I guess, so it’s as stress free as possible for everyone is vital. After all, if the rider or handler becomes stressed it will feed down to the horse, and if the horse becomes stressed they will worry their owner. Additionally, if any problems do arise it’s very simple to take a step back to redress the horse-rider relationship or to reestablish confidence levels in other areas before trying again.

I Blame the Mud

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding the Problem

When you have an undesirable behaviour in the horse, such as refusing jumps, napping etc it can be so difficult to find the cause.

Once a horse has had their saddles, feet, legs, backs, teeth checked for ill fit or injury, very often the unwanted behaviour is labelled as a ‘behavioural problem’ and has very negative connotations. All to often I see aggressive reactions to the unwanted behaviour, which often compounds the problem.

Once you’ve identified that there’s no physical cause for a behaviour then it’s a matter of understanding the horse’s mental state. Horses react to the current situation, they don’t plan in advance to cause trouble or refuse to comply with their rider. An interesting article went round social media last week which explained this well – take a look here.

So if you have a behaviour, such as napping or rearing, and you’ve found the underlying cause to be an injury or poorly fitting saddle; you’ve fixed the physical cause, but your horse still naps, then it is caused by their mental state and in order to correct the behaviour you need to get inside their head and do it slowly.

I’ve just started working with a horse who started refusing or grinding to a halt before a fence and cat leaping it. After some weeks of troublesome jumping, a small injury was diagnosed and he was subsequently rested and then brought back into work. However, his behaviour whilst jumping continued.

Unfortunately, he can’t speak English and tell us the problem, but we can listen and respond to his body language. I believe that the horse had pain association with jumping, because of the injury, and then because he was cat leaping he wasn’t comfortable jumping, regardless of the fact his injury had healed. Whilst he had his injury, he’d have had a physical limitation when jumping, and if faced with jumps beyond this ability (even if they were within his usual ability) he would have lost confidence in both himself and his rider. This creates a vicious cycle of him not wanting to jump, despite the fact he has been given a clean bill of health.

Because he hasn’t wanted to jump, he’s become rather backwards thinking on the flat, so the first thing I did when I rode him was get him thinking forwards. I’ve given him very light hands, to support him as necessary, but in no way acting as a handbrake. Every transition has prioritised over him responding to the aids, and going forwards, even if his head isn’t in the ideal position. I want him to move his body as required in order to do the requested movement so that he realises that it doesn’t hurt and that he can do it. We can tweak movements in the future to improve his way of going.

This week, to help his jumping, we used canter poles to encourage the canter to stay forwards, and then once he was taking me into the poles, we added a jump to the end of the poles. The jump wasn’t too small that he would trip over it, nor was it too big to be outside his comfort zone. The poles kept the canter forwards, regulated his stride and positioned the horse in the correct place to take off. This would give the horse some positive experiences over the jump, so rebuilding his confidence and ensuring he didn’t have any twinges from jumping awkwardly. As the horse became bolder, I lengthened the poles so that he wasn’t quite so close to the jump on take off. Starting with the poles closer than ideal and lengthening the distances slowly stopped the horse even thinking about chipping in before the jump.

Once he was confident in cantering three poles to a jump with no strides between, I removed the third pole, so that the two poles set up his canter, and he just had to keep the momentum going for one stride before the jump. We repeated this work off both reins, until I felt he’d done enough. He needed a certain amount of repetition to build good associations with jumping, but not so many that he became tired and be more likely to falter.

Next time, the plan is to build a simple related distance. There will be two poles on the approach to the first jump, as we’ve already done, which will put him in a good canter and give him a good jump over the first element. Then he has to maintain that canter for two strides before the second jump. Then we’ll increase it to three strides between the two jumps, then four and so on. The purpose of this is so that he learns to jump the single fence without poles to help, but by setting him up at the beginning with poles we can ensure he isn’t likely to fail or back off the jump. Again, the jumps won’t be big, but I may make them uprights instead of cross poles to give him something else to think about. Not having them high means that as well as not having any pain association from jumping awkwardly, his injured leg will get stronger and hopefully he’ll stop anticipating any pain from that site. Then we’ll continue along this theme with other grid work type exercises until he doesn’t have negative associations with jumping, and is confident in his own ability again.

With any “behavioural” problem I think it’s best to identify the triggers for the behaviour and then work on calmly and quietly giving your horse a few positive experiences so that the habit is broken, and they begin to build trust in their rider and themselves in that situation, then you can adjust the situation; for example if your horse naps at a particular spot out hacking on their own, ride, long line or lead past the spot in company until they have had some good experiences there, before perhaps riding first past that spot in a group instead of following their friend, and then venture there on your own. Strip back the environment/activity and provide emotional support from your horse from others, people on the ground, anything, and then as the event becomes calmer and stress-free, take away their support slowly as they become more confident and less reactive to that set of triggers.

Napping, Separation Anxiety and Managing Them

Horses are all unique personalities and some of them are really sent to try us!

Let’s start with napping. Why do horses nap? I think understanding the root of the problem is key to overcoming it. Horses are herd animals, so when they are worried or scared, their natural instinct is to return to the herd. It’s our job as riders and carers to create an environment where the horse feels safe and confident, so doesn’t want to return to his herd. 

I do believe that some horses learn that napping is a good way of getting out of work, and is a vice rather than a wary horse.

Working out the reason for napping will help you deal with the situation correctly. If you think your horse is napping because he lacks confidence, then avoid putting him in that situation before you’ve built his confidence. If he naps when you hack alone; then hack out in small groups, buildup to leading the hack, get him familiar with the routes, and then choose a quiet day to go solo when your horse feels confident. When he then pauses on hacks, worried by something then a calm, reassuring voice will help boost his confidence.

One horse I ride naps, but it’s a vice. I know it is because he is confident on hacks and very relaxed out and about. To avoid him rearing on the driveway I now lead him through the electric gates (how the other half live) and climb on the wall to mount, and walk off immediately. Touch wood, so far this approach is working. The horse doesn’t nap at all and is perfectly confident on hacks, until he thinks we’re going the wrong way. If he thinks that home is to the left then he’ll drift left and when ridden straight on he will try and have a little rear. I find a few stern words or a growl soon puts him in his place. Once he walks in my direction he gets a pat. To overcome this, I never take him on the same route twice and try to mash up the routes so that he can’t predict what’s coming next. When he doesn’t know where we’re going he’s a total gent. It’s so frustrating!

Some horses are quite clingy to their companions – human or equine. I’ve not worked out the root causes, but I believe that for some it is to do with their early life. Matt has terrible separation anxiety issues and he always has. Personally I think he had a stressful weaning. Not by fault of his breeders, but perhaps he just wasn’t mature enough to leave his dam just then. For some horses it could be a confidence issue, or perhaps they’ve been abandoned in the past. Or even purely their nature. Age can also have an impact on how clingy a horse is; after all if they’re being introduced to lots of new stimuli in a short space of time then they will seek reassurance from another equine.

With a horse who has separation anxiety it can be difficult to find the right management balance. You don’t want to pander to their needs, because one day you might be in a position when they have to leave their friend. Yet separation is stressful for them, so it’s not fair to unduly stress them out.

Living in a bigger herd can reduce specific attachments for horses, so that would be the first approach for me. Matt is definitely happier in Wales in a big herd than with just Otis for a field companion. Also, if the horses left in the field are happy they won’t call to the horse you’ve brought in, so he won’t get distracted and upset. 

When horses get attached to each other it’s really easy to fall into the easiest routine; that is, catch them together, ride within sight of each other, and have adjacent stables. This doesn’t solve the problem though. 

Going back to Matt; while he was in Reading he was quite attached to Otis so to prevent him getting too attached I would take Otis’s breakfast to the field. Catch Matt and leave Otis eating; this meant Otis was quiet so wouldn’t distract Matt by calling. On the yard, I had everything ready so I quickly groomed and tacked up, barely leaving him for more than a couple of minutes. After all, if he’s upset because he isn’t with his friend then having me there is some form of reassurance, and minimising the hanging around time keeps his mind on the job so it doesn’t wander back to the field. We would ride, and he was fine to ride because since a youngster he’s always hacked and schooled solo as well as in company so he understands he is working with his rider, not the nearest equine companion. Then I would take his breakfast to the field with him; swap with Otis and go and ride him. If Matt is fretting to get back to the field then he won’t eat his breakfast on the yard, and being in the field without Otis (but with neighbours) is a bit stressful for him, so having a hard feed is a useful distraction. That meant that Matt was usually quiet and fairly happy in the field on his own. I found this was the least stressful way of managing clingy behaviour because Matt soon learnt that when he was in on his own it was for me-time, and I would make sure he was alright. And he learnt that Otis wouldn’t be babysitting him all the time, which makes travelling and competitions easier. 

On a similar note, Matt gets a bit stressed hanging around at shows on his own, so we just unload him and he’s usually much happier tied to the trailer with a haynet or grazing. I don’t like leaving horses like this though, so someone always stays with him to supervise him. Again, this is a safety management technique and to keep him mentally happy. If he travels with another horse he’s quite happy standing on the trailer.

In terms of riding a clingy horse, I think it’s important to have very consistent boundaries. If you’re schooling with his field friend, practice riding past each other without reactions from either horse. Don’t bring your horse back to walk and halt near his friend, he should be focused on you and you alone. If they do drift towards their friend then quietly closing the leg, using a firm voice, and positively riding past before a small reward should soon teach them the correct behaviour. When you do want to stop riding an exercise, make a point of circling away from his friend and bringing back to walk and halt on his own before patting him. That should help stop the desire to race back to his friends and increase his respect for your aids. 

It’s not easy having a horse who is very attached to others, or who doesn’t like being left alone, but building a strong relationship with them and making sure that you are there to provide reassurance in the absence of equines should help reduce the stress in your horse and slowly he should become confident in being away from others, which will reflect in his behaviour when ridden and on the ground. Minimise the time spent alone initially until the horse becomes happy, and keep him in a familiar environment, with the same routine, and then slowly you can increase the demands on the horse and push his boundaries so that he remains confident without other horses, and has faith in your ability to keep him safe, will will stop any nappy behaviour under saddle. 


Carrots are popular treats for horses, and many owners purchase large nets of “horse carrots” which are perfectly edible, as Mum used to use them for dinner when the garden stopped providing them.

However, recently I’ve heard that carrots have been linked to behavioural problems in horses. Nuts, right? 

I do remember when Otis saw a nutritionist she recommended his carrots be kept to a minimum to help reduce his sweet itch. He never really had many carrots, only on special occasions, so I didn’t pay that much attention to this fact. Apparently the sugar (level or type, I think it’s ambiguous as to which is to blame)  can increase the sweet itch. I was also told to use molasses free sugar beet and chaff, to keep his sugar content to a minimum.

So perhaps there is something in this rumour that carrots can affect the behaviour of some horses – a bit like kids on blue smarties!

So I’ve had a quick look online, and whilst the percentage of sugar in carrot is not actually that high – an average carrot contains 6g of sugar – and the carrot predominately consisting of water  with a low calorific value, many people have reported that reducing the carrot intake of their horse improves their behaviour. The horse is less nappy, less highly strung, less spooky, and more biddable.

There hasn’t been any scientific research into this theory yet, but perhaps it’s something to consider if you are having problems with your horse; particularly as hard feed increases going into winter and you add a couple of extra carrots to bulk it out. 

On one forum I saw a suggestion that perhaps the behaviour problems are caused by inorganic carrots being fed rather than organic carrots; which could explain why some horses react and not others, but also why horses fed buckets of carrots in the 1950s were seemingly unaffected by them.

Has anyone noticed a change in their horse’s behaviour when they’ve altered the quantity of carrots given? I think it would be a really interesting study to do. Even if it did mean I could never catch one mare ever again!


Does anyone’s horse have a particular quirk or ritual?

One little mare I teach is full of character, and has this routine within the first few minutes of being ridden.

She gives a diaphragm wrenching cough, throwing her head to the floor, and coughs a couple more times, before “blowing her nose” and exhaling noisily and then “wiping her nose” on her foreleg. Akin to a child rubbing their nose on their sleeve. 

The routine is so predictable her owner can direct the mare, in much the similar way as a parent with a full-of-cold child. 

Once her nose is wiped, the mare continues her job as though nothing has happened, but it ha hilarious to watch.

The Value of Books

I was in the tack shop over the weekend and found a handful of books that looked interesting.

I love books; I love the ability to reference things, the chance to gleam ideas and hints for lessons, different explanations which can fine tune your own knowledge and explanative skills.

One of the books which caught my eye is a behavioural book, but not in the usual way. It discusses problems owners and riders may encounter and lists potential reasons for it and how to overcome it. It is called “My Horse Rears”.

One of the chapters dealt with rearing; reasons, consequences, sitting a rear, and overcoming the behaviour. Another dealt with the ins and outs of catching horses.

We were talking at the yard about books and it`s quite interesting the difference of opinion. I like being able to get another view. If you`re having problems with your horse you can sometimes miss an explanation – you can`t see the wood for the trees. For example, you may struggle to catch him but when the book, or a knowledgeable bystander, tells you that it may be because you approach him in an aggressive manner – marching across the field, arms crossed – then the answer  is obvious. Yes, you have been stressed at work recently, and have been briskly hurrying across the field, anxious that your horse may not let you catch him. You`re radiating angst, so it`s not surprising he runs away!

To those brought up around horses, and those knowledgeable in their field, often the reason for bad behaviour on the horse`s part is obvious. But to those newly entered in the equestrian world, they may not have the knowledge or experience to link actions and behaviours. It`s hard to remember this – I try to keep telling myself that – and take time to explain what may seem obvious to a horsey person.

Sometimes it is easier to accept the hard, cold, truth from the pages of a book rather than from a friend, instructor or stranger.

One chapter that I thought was very blunt and forthright was the chapter that dealt with aggression. It began by explaining that biting and kicking are warning signs that the horse doesn`t like his situation, and how this aggression is shown in wild herds, and how older horses will put youngsters in their place. Then the book illustrates behaviour that is liked by horses – calm demeanour, gentle but competent handling, slow, easy movements, a firmly confident touch, friendliness, safety – and how an incompetent or inexperienced person may put them on edge.

That would be a hard pill to swallow – you may think your horse loves being kissed and cuddles in a loud manner, but actually his nipping is telling you to stop treating him like a cuddly child, shut up and groom him quickly so you can get on and ride!

Anyway, although books should not always be read blindly and taken for gospel, they provide useful pointers and opinions, as well as new information, which can then be talked about and considered to see if they apply to us. Horses are a practical area of expertise, and hands on experience is invaluable, but it is not always possible to physically observe all areas of the horse world, which means we should utilise written records and share our knowledge.

Tomorrow I`m going to start reading the book on laminitis – very topical for the time of year!