Is The Canter 3 beats or 4?

It’s a tricky one. Because it’s both three beat or four beat depending on your level of training; and tricky in that it is also both correct and incorrect with four beats.

Confused? Yep, a lot of people are from my observations.

Let’s start with average Jo Bloggs, working up to elementary level with an average all rounder horse. You know the type. Which I think encompasses the majority of leisure riders. A correct canter for you is a three beat canter; the outside hind coming forwards followed by the inside hind and outside fore together, then the inside fore and the moment of suspension.

You might have heard coaches talking about the fact your canter is four beat, or talking about improving the quality of the canter so it is more of a three beat canter. A lot of leisure horses can have a four beat canter, when the diagonal pair becomes broken and those feet don’t touch the ground simultaneously. But in a negative way. The sequence of legs is the outside hind, outside fore, inside hind, inside fore. It’s almost a lateral canter, and results from a number of issues. A horse who is too much on the forehand, lacking impulsion or activity in the hindquarters, has an interfering rider, has poor conformation or stiffness in their hindlimbs, is likely to develop this lateral, four beat rhythm. Sometimes when a horse loses balance they will revert to the four beat, lateral canter, when otherwise they have a three beat canter.

So this laterally four beat canter is not good from a training perspective because it’s very difficult to create the elevation needed for collection and lateral work. You can improve it by the use of polework, using more seat and leg to create impulsion, using hillwork and medium canter to create a more active hindleg, but ultimately it is performance limiting, so you’d struggle with advanced level work. This type of four beat canter is called negative diagonal advance placement (DAP).

That’s the negative four beat canter out the way, now let’s look at the positive four beat canter. Have you ever seen photos of elite horses, youngsters or under saddle, and noticed how uphill their canter is? And how there is no way the diagonal pair hit the ground simultaneously because the forelegs are so elevated? Well you’d be right. The inside hind does land fractionally before the outside fore. This is called positive diagonal advance placement.

So why is a sequence of footfall outside hind, inside hind, outside fore, inside fore, seen as a positive four beat canter? Well firstly, a horse who can engage their hindquarters that much will be more powerful and find collection easy. If you watch a horse doing a canter pirouette you will see that it is a definite 4 beat canter, which it has to be in order for them to be able to rotate almost on the spot. A horse who is unable to canter with a positive DAP will find this level of work nigh on impossible.

This means that when you are looking for the next future dressage champion, you are looking for a four beat canter, a positive DAP, as that suggests that they will be able to perform at the higher levels. A good example is below.

I had a look through my photos and found one of Phoenix at her first prelim. She had an unbalanced canter at the time, and you can see that although it looks lovely at first sight, she is showing slight negative DAP. I’m struggling to find proof of her recent canter work (apparently babysitting duties trumps cameraman duties?!) but just by her becoming stronger and more balanced she shows strides of positive DAP, particularly when she relaxes into collected canter work.

I then also found this image of Matt, showing slight positive DAP. Of course, not on par with the elite dressage stars, but a useful example.

This image of Matt brings me onto my final point, or musing. At what point does a positive DAP become a gallop? After all, the sequence of footfalls is the same on paper – outside hind, inside hind, outside fore, inside fore. I asked my trainer for her opinion, and she thought the gallop was differentiated because of it’s speed and the horse’s carriage whilst galloping – long and flat rather than uphill. She also helped explain that in a three beat canter the footfalls are regular, in a four beat canter the diagonal pair aren’t landing together, but they aren’t a whole beat apart. It’s like they’re slightly off beat. In musical terms: crotchet, quaver, quaver, crotchet.

There is loads of information about diagonal advanced placement, and it happens in the trot too, so go and have a look on Google. And when you come out the other end of the rabbit hole, let me know what you think of the subject!

Something a Bit Different

My normal work finished for Christmas last week, and I’ve got a nice long week to try to tick off some of my to-do list without adding to the bottom of it. However, today was the final Pony Club rally of the year.

Having only just taken over the role of chief instructor for this branch of the Pony Club, I’m still working out what members want in terms of rallies, as well as how I can improve their knowledge and ability within the equestrian world.

I had thought early on that I would like to see more stable management rallies, and to improve the children’s off horse knowledge. The obvious place to start is with the achievement badge scheme, run by the Pony Club. Fabric badges are available for a huge variety of subjects – points of the horse, poisonous plants, first aid, to name a few. They’re aimed at primary school aged children, and as they love receiving souvenirs, we decided to begin doing more badge rallies. I’ve also designed a rewards system for when the children achieve five, ten, fifteen, twenty and so on badges. A little prize or gift will be a great motivator for them, and hopefully by learning through the badge rallies their efficiency tests will seem easier.

With this in mind, we planned a stable management rally for the Christmas holidays. I suggested that because the weather was risky, the evenings dark, and parents so busy in the run up to Christmas, that we combined the lecture with an off horse, indoor activity. Then it doesn’t matter on the weather, parents can use those couple of hours for some last minute shopping or wrapping, and the children can have some fun.

So I sweet talked my farrier into providing me with some pony sized horse shoes. He cleaned them up for me and I had them sprayed silver so they won’t rust. Then I bought some ribbon, beads, glue and a lot of glitter!

I decided to teach the kids about the native breeds of the United Kingdom, so they could go home with that badge. Of course I had to revise my own knowledge, but I didn’t want to bore them to tears by just talking at them. I decided to ask them questions to engage them, to bring along one or my breed books which has photographs of all the native breeds, and to show them when the different breeds originated on a map.

As we discussed each breed, a child came and put the label on the correct area on the map.

To finish the lecture, I decided on a group exercise. I printed out a photo of each breed with six statements – the name of the breed, their height, two statements of distinguishing features (usually colour and something about their body shape), their original job, and what they are used for nowadays. Within each statement I tried to provide clues (e.g.”this Scottish breed of horse stands 13.2-14.2hh, slightly bigger than it’s cousin the Eriskay”). I laminated everything and cut the statements out into small strips.

Then of course I couldn’t match the statements to the picture myself, so I had to make the exercise easier! In the end I split the children into three groups and gave each group five sets of cards, all muddled up. Within each group I put one draught horse, and divided the other breeds up so that the similar ones weren’t in the same group. For example, I separated Fells and Dales, and Exmoor and Dartmoors.

I was really pleased with the children’s attempts at this exercise. There was some level of deduction, some debating about the meanings of the phrases, and some even remembered the facts I’d just told them!

Each group had an older helper to assist them, and read out the sentences if necessary, and I circulated, checking how they were getting on, and giving hints and encouragement to the sometimes lively debates. They soon matched all of the cards to the correct breed and then we did the fun bit!

Let’s just say that glitter went everywhere! But the shoes looked brilliant and the children had great fun.

Feedback was very positive, with happy parents, and the children proudly showed off their badges and horse shoes.

Today was a different rally, but really fun to do. I don’t think we’ll do crafts at every badge rally, but it’s certainly one to remember for next winter. I thought I might do a colouring competition, or design a poster, at a future badge rally where they can put their new found knowledge to good use. Then when the weather is warmer we can do the outdoor stable management, such as the grooming badge, and tie it in with a lesson.

New Passport Regulations

The Welsh Pony and Cob Society have been ahead of the game for years in terms of having a record of equines. Years ago you used to get stud books published every few years which were an index of all registered animals. I remember the glee of us girls when we found a horse we knew if the stud books. Now of course, it’s all online. I’ve also always like the fact the genealogy is usually fairly complete. Together with the stud prefixes you could easily identify your pony’s relations. Which is very exciting!

Of course years ago, the WPCS relied on owners registering their animal for the status it brought, the ability to show at county level, and the advertising it did for their breeding. Then, from 2004 all owned horses were required to have a passport, which resulted in many older horses receiving blue passports from The Donkey Sanctuary – which was a bit of a knock to their ego, I’m sure.

However, many breeders who (and I’m going to make a sweeping statement here) bred from mares with questionable breeding/temperament/soundness because they had no other use for the mare did not bother to passport foals until they were sold as yearlings, two, three or four year olds (I can only assume that is because there is a risk of a horse dying before it reaching adulthood and if that happens then time and money has not been wasted on passporting them). So the concept of all equines having passports and reducing the overbreeding of horses didn’t really work, and was difficult to monitor.

Then in 2009 this law was strengthened in that all foals born after 1st July 2009 had to have a microchip and passport within 6 months of birth or by 31st December of that year, whichever was soonest. Any horses applying for new passports (those who had slipped through the previous net) had to be given a microchip too.

This makes passporting horses more expensive, which I think deters responsible horse owners from breeding with their mare, but it still didn’t stop those who breed casually. Even the £1000 fine per unpassported animal didn’t deter many, as the UK still has a massive overpopulation of equines.

Now, as a proud owner of a mare, I find myself wondering would I ever breed from Phoenix. I highly doubt it, although I don’t think she’d make a bad brood mare as her conformation, movement and manners are all great. I just don’t think I’d want to risk putting her through it (because there’s always a risk) for an unknown result. When I could just go to the Brightwells sale in October at Builth Wells and view hundreds of weanlings and take my pick there. If I so desired to have one so young. Anyway, for now she has to concentrate on her ridden career.

As the passport and microchipping laws haven’t really had the desired effect, and with all the different passport issuing bodies (each breed society issues passports for their breed, plus the cross breed passports you also have) it’s very difficult to regulate. At competitions you can monitor passports, but given the number of equines stood in fields, you are only seeing a small, and very biased, sample of the equine population.

From 1st October 2018, it has become compulsory for all equines to have a microchip, as well as a passport. Owners have until October 2020 to ensure this is done. In addition to the microchip, all equine details will be stored on the Central Equine Database (CED).

Luckily for most of us, the passport issuing bodies are still the main point of contact for change in ownership, change or address, or death. They will update the CED.

We can only hope that having all equine details in one area will mean that disease outbreaks can be controlled and reduced, and stolen animals found and identified quicker as hopefully the middle man has been sacked.

Thankfully, DEFRA does admit that in order for this new law to be effective, it does require owners to be responsible and play their part.

Unfortunately though, I think there are too many numerous-horse owners (even at riding schools) where the paperwork and cost involved in microchipping all their older animals makes it very unlikely that they will follow through with it unless necessity requires it. Perhaps there is a window here for passport issuing bodies and vets to provide discounted microchipping and passporting rates to encourage multiple horse owners to step into line.

I’m still not sure how it’s going to be regulated, because so many horses stay in their field or are only ridden at home. Competition horses, particularly affiliated ones, will be fine, but the geriatric companions will go under the radar.

It is a positive that vets can check the microchip and positively identify a horse and treat accordingly, even if the passport isn’t present. Where do you keep yours? Technically, it should be at the yard but I for one am not keen on giving the yard owner my actual physical passport. I’d prefer to give them a photocopy. I don’t take my passports to the yard daily either, so getting there and having to call the vet for an emergency means that either I’ve got to leave my horse and go and get the passport, or send someone to dig around the office to find where I’ve secreted them away. The CED is a definite positive from this angle.

I like to think that being able to trace horses to owners makes them accountable for welfare issues or abandonment, but in order for that to happen they need to have chipped their horse in the first place. And if you’re a candidate for neglecting your animal, are you going to bother getting them chipped, and updating existing passports? I’m yet to be convinced.

In the meantime, go to The Equine Register and enter your horse’s microchip number to check that they are on the CED. Phoenix’s is as she was born after 2009, but Otis’s isn’t on there. He had a microchip inserted five years ago, and was registered with an animal microchip database as recommended by the vet, but the CED only takes information from passport issuing bodies, and Otis’s chip has not been linked to his passport. I’m sure this has happened to numerous others who tried to get ahead of the game years ago. So it’s definitely worth checking out. You can guess what my job tomorrow morning is!

Self Trimming

A while ago now I went with a friend to view a horse. While we were doing the initial overview, prodding and poking, I asked the seller when the (barefoot) horse had last seen the farrier. I was told that she preferred to let her horses self trim. This rang alarm bells for me when I considered the size of the medial flare of the horse’s hoof. It could easily cause a brushing injury to the opposite limb. Were there issues in that opposite limb? Was the horse a nightmare for the farrier so it was easier to let her “self trim”? Yes I know, I’m playing devils advocate, but that’s sometimes needed when viewing horses.

Since then I’ve heard the term self trimming with increasing frequency. So I resolved to ask my farriers.

Horses have worn shoes for thousands of years, from leather pads used by the Romans to today’s iron shoes, but increasingly there is a movement saying that shoes are unnatural and we shouldn’t use them because of the damage they cause to the growth and strength of the hoof capsule whilst protecting the sole of the foot. I don’t disagree; shoes can cause damage but ultimately we have created an artificial environment for horses which means we may have to artificially intervene in order for the horse to be comfortable and to function to the best of their ability.

For example, humans now keep horses in smaller paddocks, ask them to trot and canter increasingly smaller circles, and jump higher and wider. In the wild horses roam over many miles of varying terrain, trot and canter in straight lines and only jump when necessary to avoid danger. Factor in our breeding which focuses on certain traits (for example speed in thoroughbreds) at the cost of other traits (again, in thoroughbreds, the quality of their feet) and humans are causing many of the problems we see today, be they conformational or due to injury. Which means that it’s our responsibility to do what we can to help our horses.

So let’s return to the barefoot versus shoeing debate. Scientific advancements and a greater understanding of the equine body does mean that we should rethink shoeing – the materials, technique, frequency etc – and the development of hoof boots are providing us with excellent alternative options. Although hoof boots do make me think we are going a full circle and returning to the leather pads used by the Romans and ancient Asians, albeit a little less crudely. So with this move away from shoeing horses, we naturally gravitate towards the barefoot approach.

Yes, it seems like the easy option – no lost shoes on competition morning, smaller farrier bills – but I don’t think it is necessarily the easy way out. A barefoot horse still needs their feet checking on a daily basis and having the correct diet to help them grow strong hoof. I think that keeping a horse barefoot is great so long as they are comfortable and able to carry out their work. It’s awful seeing horses struggling to walk across gravel. But ultimately if they can’t manage then it’s our responsibility to do something about it, be it through a change in their diet or by shoeing.

Moving on to self trimming. What is it? Now, it has two interpretations. To the innocent bystander, it is not interfering with the natural growth and shape of the foot, and through work letting the horse wear their feet down naturally. Minimum intervention, if you like. Which is fine. But, just like any athlete looks after their legs and feet, we should still look after our horse’s. A foot expert will notice any changes in hoof quality, spot abscesses, and still with minimal intervention, help the horse’s hooves grow in the best direction for that horse. For example, removing excessive flairing and encouraging the hoof wall to grow downwards as opposed to out to the side. Or vice versa if the horse has boxy feet. In the same way that occupational therapists help correct human’s gait. They teach you correct foot placement, use insteps to stop you walking on the outsides of your feet, and especially with children aid skeletal growth so that they are stronger and less prone to wear and tear. I’m going to direct you to a Michael McIntyre joke about learning to walk correctly now. Go on, have a laugh while you watch it and come back after to finish reading.

Anyway, whilst keeping things as natural as possible, regularly having your horse checked or trimmed by a farrier will help prevent problems developing. Unfortunately, I think that a lot of people who go down the “self trimming” route see it as just letting a horse sort themselves out. Which would be fine if the horse had perfect conformation and lived over a variety of terrains, but as I said earlier, humans intervening with natural selection are responsible for less than good conformation in some horses so they need to help them where possible, so it’s important for barefoot horses to still see the farrier on a regular basis even if it’s just the condition of the feet that is checked, or as in Phoenix’s case a fortnight ago, only a tiny bit of shaping to rebalance them and encourage the hooves to grow in the preferred direction. I think also, that when a farrier is called out to a barefoot horse he feels obligated to trim so that the owner feels something has been done. But if the horse’s hooves have worn down through work then taking any more hoof off will only cause problems, so in that case maybe farriers should feel more able to say to an owner, “his feet look great, they’re in excellent condition but I won’t take any off because that may make him foot sore… shall we rebook for next month?”

Whilst talking to my farrier, he said that he views his job as assisting the horse. So he takes into account conformation, strength of the hoof horn, workload, management routine, and does as much or as little to the feet as each horse requires to make their job easier and them more comfortable.

The next interpretation of self trimming, is I guess, a more detailed and natural way of looking after horses feet, but is probably more time consuming and potentially more expensive than initially appears. The best place to read up about it is here – Rockley Farm website . Self trimming is still about minimal intervention and letting the horse’s hooves respond to their environment. Which means that a horse who has low mileage grows foot at a slower rate than one who does a lot of hacking and needs more hoof growth because they wear them down quicker. It’s also about providing a variety of surfaces for the horses. I get lost on the physiological benefits, but working on both hard and soft ground helps stimulate correct hoof density and growth. I think! It helps improve proprioception anyway, so horses will become sounder and have less variation in their stride length over different surfaces.

So self trimming is really about providing a variety of surfaces to best stimulate healthy hoof growth, either during turnout or by in hand exercise. Which again, is great. But you need the facilities! There are very few livery yards which even allow you to do a track system, let alone have different surfaces in their fields, and the surrounding area may not have suitable surfaces for encouraging self trimming. So this interpretation of self trimming may be leaving the hooves up to the horses, but it requires a lot of time invested by their handler in stimulating hoof growth, which just may not be possible for horse owners with full time jobs, family commitments, who also want to ride!

I think it will be really interesting to see how the barefoot movement develops, as I certainly think it has benefits. Before embarking on that journey though, amateur horse owners need to be aware of the need to provide a balanced diet to encourage healthy hoof growth, the fact that we keep horses in unnatural environments so don’t allow them to roam for miles over varied terrain and surfaces which help them to regulate their hoof growth, and that we work them on artificial surfaces which can be very abrasive. The idea of self trimming is great, but the realities of being able to follow a program such as Rockley is more time consuming than many are led to believe, so I think you have to meet halfway. Go barefoot if your horse can tolerate it; use your farrier’s guidance and expertise especially if they don’t take much off when they trim; use different surfaces that you have available but don’t be surprised if small trims or tidy ups are needed because their conformation or living circumstances require it.

Spanish Horses

It was a couple of weeks ago now, but I haven`t gotten around to writing about it, that we had a visiting horse and her owner. The mare was Andalusian and on her way to Hartpury for the National Show of Spanish Horses.

Whilst she was at the yard she underwent drastic changes to her appearance, which made all the liveries curious.

Which is how we ended up discussing it in depth in the yard at seven a.m. one morning. Pooling our scraps of knowledge, we found out that stallions are presented in a very natural state with long flowing manes and tails, unclipped and majestic, whilst the mares should be presented in a workmanlike state (very sexist according to one lady) – with manes an inch long, clipped docks and tails cut at the hock and trimmed legs. This is also for hygeine reasons, according to a website I saw. The owner of the visiting horse then told us that she had spent the last couple of years growing out the mane and tail, so was finding the trimming process difficult – if it was me I don`t think I`d have bothered to go to the show, I couldn`t come close to hogging Otis! The tack used and the handler`s dress also had to be in line with traditional Spanish clothes.

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The show in Hartpury had a number of different classes for all the different Spanish breeds – the usual best of breed, best conformation, best mare, and also the opportunity for owners to have their horses graded. I think this means that a foal born to two parents who are graded 1 is automatically a grade 1 Spanish horse.

However, to throw a curved ball into the mix, I had heard that in order for a horse to be registered with the Spanish Studbook it`s birthplace must be Spain. However I`ve been trying to find out a bit more about this with little success, but I have gleaned that recently the rules have changed to allow horses to be bred outside of Spain, which has encouraged the popularity of the breed. However, if anyone can enlighten me further it would be great!

Spanish horses are most closely associated with dressage (the Spanish Riding School springs to mind), and are naturally good at it as they have uphill conformation and are short coupled, which makes collection and hind leg engagement easy, even though when you first look at them their heavy necks and shoulders suggest that lightness of the forehand is difficult to achieve. Their history is also intricately linked to the military, which in turn influenced classical dressage movements.

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Did you also know that most Spanish male horses are left ungelded, and only men ride the stallions and women ride the mares? A client once told me that after he`d holidayed in Spain.

The last we saw of this lady and horse was just before they left for the competition, so I wonder how they fared. I have a soft spot for Spanish horses so may well try and go to one of the breed shows next year to learn a bit more about them and their traditions. Hartpury also put on various parades at the show, which I think would be good fun to watch.

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Related Articles that I found interesting:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andalusian_horse

http://www.bapsh.co.uk/General/HomePage.html

http://ganymede.meccahosting.com/~a0003101/News.html

Fascinating

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I saw this photo on the Internet and whilst I don’t know a huge amount practically about breeding, caring for pregnant mares and so on, I thought this photo describes the position of the foal inside the mare just prior to birth very well. It certainly helps get your head around how those long limbs fold away inside the abdomen!

Word of The Day

Paso Fino Horse – Nearly 500 years ago, on his second voyage from Spain, Columbus brought a select group of mares and stallions from the provinces of Andalusia and Cordela, and settled them at Santa Domingo. These horses were a mixture of Barb, Andalusian and Spanish Jennet. The Spanish Jennet not only possessed an extremely comfortable saddle gait, but was able to pass the gait on to its offspring. The result of the blending of these horses was to become known as the Paso Fino breed – Los Caballos de Paso Fino (the horse with the fine step). The Paso Fino is born with a 4 beat gait unique to the breed. The gait, being totally natural, does not exhibit the catapulting or exaggerated leg action of man made gaits: rather the movements are smooth, rhythmic, purposeful, straight, balanced in flexion and synchronous front to rear, resulting in unequalled comfort and smoothness for the rider.