Times A Changing

The last thirty six hours has thrown the British equine world into disarray. Covid-19 has been coming a while, infringing on all areas of our lives, but now we’ve moved into unchartered territory.

We’d discussed it at Pony Club and Riding Club – talking about reducing the risk of infection at events and providing hand washing facilities. But it was business as normal with just a couple of adjustments to our routines.

However, on Monday the PM released a statement bringing more stringent methods into daily life – minimising social contact, reducing unnecessary travel, self isolating. This was closely followed by statements from British Eventing and Pony Club stating that all competition and training has been suspended. On Tuesday, British Dressage, British Showjumping, and British Riding clubs followed suit.

It’s incredible to think that there will be no equine competitions for the majority of this year, and is very disappointing for those who rely on it professionally, and who plan their training with a particular competition goal in mind.

Disappointing as it is, at least we are still allowed to ride. Italy has banned riding and high risk sports to reduce the number of accidents needing treatment in their overstretched hospitals. Phoenix was going to have a go at her first novice test this weekend. No matter; we will keep up the training so that she will be working at elementary level by the summer, and I’m still able to take her out schooling to get some cross country practice in and keep up her jumping training. The important thing is to find some alternative goals and aims to keep us motivated and to keep spirits up.

I made the suggestion to my riding club committee, that we should run our spring dressage competitions online. It’s not the same as going out to a competition, but it’s better than nothing and I think there will be lots of interest. Of course clinics are also being cancelled, so I think we will have to put our heads together to come up with some challenges we can give to members to help everyone keep in touch and motivated. Perhaps get everyone to share a photo or talk about their riding that day. There’s no restrictions on hacking, so perhaps we should make a hacking challenge?

With the Pony Club, I already have some ideas for the kids. They’re going to have a lot of extra time on their hands, so it would be good to give them some ridden exercises – a bit like online lessons – or stable management quizzes to keep up their knowledge. I’m keen that those working towards an efficiency test don’t regress or lose motivation due to tests being delayed and training cancelled. But we’re going to let everyone acclimatise to this new, strange normal, and then get our thinking caps on.

I judge for Demi Dressage – an online dressage competition for under 16s – and I think that will become really popular in the coming months, as a way to focus children on developing their riding. Already I’ve seen more and more online competitions cropping up, including jumping competitions. They’ve been in the pipeline for a while I think, but this current climate has brought them to the fore.

Finding the fun that we can do safely, will help us survive the emotional challenges the coronavirus brings. We’re lucky that equestrianism is an outdoor activity as even if competition venues close, we still have our riding areas at home.

With everyone being encouraged to work from home, I was starting to dread enforced time with an energetic toddler in an enclosed space. But we’re lucky enough to have a garden at least, and I’ve drawn myself up a list of jobs to do. Regardless of any quarantining, we will be spending more time at home, so it’s an ideal time to do the jobs you never get around to doing. Maybe that room will get painted, and the garden will be perfectly manicured?! Or perhaps we’ll actually eat those emergency tins of soup at the back of the cupboard?

I was very relieved when the BHS released a statement saying that coaches should continue to work where possible. I only interact with fit and healthy people outdoors, not getting too close to them; and by following the suggested hygeine and social distancing guidelines, as well as both sides reacting to the first symptoms, the risk should be minimal.

I think it’s important to maintain as much of a normal life as possible for our own sanity, whilst being sensible and sensitive to the situation. Of course, my work may not be vital to the infrastructure of the country, but horses are many people’s saviours. Their down time in a busy world; the thing which turns their day from doom and gloom to sun and laughter. Their coping mechanism for the rest of their life. It’s easy to overlook the importance of a good riding session (or any exercise) to someone’s mental health.

Just like many hobbies; gym classes, book clubs, sports clubs, social clubs. Not only do the clients need these to balance out their lives, but those who run them need the financial reward in order to feed their families. So yes, let’s reduce close contact with others, but in a world where everything’s at a click of a button, let’s make sure we continue to stay in touch with ingenious ways. Summer is coming; move clubs outdoors if possible; use online videos, conference calls, and social media to keep this side of life going.

It’s the start of a new normal, which will take some adjusting to, but hopefully by everyone being sensible (you’ve bought all your toilet roll now, haven’t you?!) and by keeping an eye out for others (we don’t know many at risk people locally, but I’ve offered to organise online shopping for my Granny, and plan to send her bits and pieces in the post over the next few months as well as regular emails to stop her feeling so isolated), we will survive.

Walking The Course

This has come up a couple of times this season, but unfortunately it keeps going to the bottom of my blog list.

So often when riders walk a course, especially eventing when there’s two courses to remember on top of a dressage test, they focus on remembering the order of the jumps and where they’re going. Sound familiar?

Inexperienced riders rarely pay enough attention to the tactical aspects of riding a course. Yes, they’ll think about which fences their horse may dislike, or the gear that they need to approach a jump in, but what about the factors on course which you can’t influence so easily?

Firstly, the ground and way of going. Yes, you can’t change the fact it’s rained and the ground is soft, almost deep. But when walking the course you want to take the ground conditions into account. It may mean you ride a wider turn so your horse is less likely to slip, or if you know your horse finds one type of going easier than others you adjust your riding to best suit them. For example, accept some time penalties and take a steadier canter to help your horse out. You also want to consider the running order. If you are running towards the end of the day you should be aware that the course could become churned up and deep in places. So adjust your lines to take this into account.

Terrain. Some events have more undulating terrain than others, but as you walk the course you should be looking at all the twists and turns of the ground, and plan your ride so that you take the route which will enable your horse to stay most balanced and rhythmical. For example, a jump may be positioned at the edge of a hollow, so depending on how your horse copes with downhill, you may want to ride a longer line to the jump to give them more time to rebalance the canter after the downhill slope. Whether you are jumping uphill or downhill will also affect how you ride the fence. Going uphill you may need to put your foot on the accelerator a bit more, particularly if it’s towards the end of the course. Going downhill, you’ll need to ride a smaller canter to help keep your horse balanced and off the forehand, which will affect their take off point. Incorporating the terrain into your tactics for riding the course can make all the difference to going clear or picking up penalties as your horse will be better placed to jump confidently and successfully.

The weather conditions. One of my lasting memories of eventing Otis is when we were going cross country at 4.30pm in September. Invariably we’d been delayed, so it was after 5pm, and I was galloping up the hill directly into the evening sun, with a large table at the top. God knows how I managed to get over it as I was very disorientated and nearly steered into the hedge, but Otis got me out of trouble, as always. I hadn’t clocked the impact of the setting sun on my ride, and after that event I was always much more considerate of where the sun would be when I would be jumping, rather than where it was when I walked the course. It’s the same with shadows; if a jump is under some trees, check where the shadows are going to be. It takes horses eyes longer than ours to adjust from light to dark, so again you’ll need to adjust your riding line or gear in order to give your horse the best chance of seeing and judging the question. Equally, if it’s raining or windy, you’ll firstly be questioning your sanity, and secondly, need to adjust your riding whether you’re cantering into the rain or wind, or away from it, as your horse will find it harder when against the weather so will need more positive riding from you.

My challenge to you is the next time you are at a competition, or cross country schooling, to start to take into account the weather conditions, terrain, ground, and shadows, as well as trying to remember the order of the jumps. You should start to feel that although you are making more micro adjustments to your canter, and riding less direct lines, your round will flow more and the jumping efforts seem easier.

Road Rage

Firstly, I will apologise now. For this is going to be a rant, but please continue to read and share, so that we can hope some non-horsey road users will read it and begin to understand the plight of horse riders on the road.

I do a lot of hacking. Today alone, I went on four hacks. On a weekly basis I spend about ten hours a week hacking. I don`t hack on the roads by choice; I am either using the roads because of vet recommendations, or in order to access the bridleways. The majority of the time hacking is a very pleasurable way to earn a living, but then other times it`s just awful. Many people I meet, in cars on or foot, smile and wave. Perhaps we exchange words on how lovely the day is. However, in the last week alone I have met several idiotic drivers who have almost caused me and the horses I have been riding to come to some serious harm.

They were lucky.

I was lucky.

Let me tell you about some of them. Yes, they are biased as they are from my point of view, but I don`t think many non-horsey drivers know how a horse rider is perceiving a situation, so it is important to improve their understanding so that they can make better judgements in future.

Last Thursday my friend and I were riding along a country lane; quite a wide, straight bit of road, when we met a man with a shotgun. He was walking towards us on our side of the road, so we moved out into the middle as we approached because there were no cars coming and it`s only courteous not to force 3/4 ton of horse too close to a strangers feet. The horses were wary of his gun, but he was very friendly and admired them both. We paused momentarily so I could ask him if he had finished shooting (I had others to ride out so wanted to avoid his party) when a car came out of nowhere and undertook us – driving between the horses and this nice gentleman. There was hardly room to breathe! I`m not sure who was more stunned, the horses or the man. Could that car not have slowed down, or waited for us to tuck ourselves in to the hedge, which we were about to do?

The following day I was hacking a mare around the village. On physio`s orders, we were in walk on the roads. As I came down a hill I could hear the sound of a mower in one of the oncoming gardens. Knowing this mare, I knew that she would not walk close to that garden with a funny noise behind the hedge, so after checking that the coast was clear I moved out towards the middle of the road. I didn’t want her to jump right into the road, and being a bit further away from the noisy monster I could ride her straight and felt better in control. I also wanted to discourage cars from passing me because I didn`t want to risk her jumping sideways onto the car. A car did come up behind me, as we were level with the noisy garden. But he overtook anyway, passing inches away from my right stirrup iron. Thankfully, she didn’t react, but it could have been so dangerous. Part of learning to drive is learning to read the road; if you see a horse positioned in the middle of the road the rider usually has good reason to be there, so take a moment, slow down and wait until they are safely out of the way.

An hour later. Well, less than that as it was the beginning of my next hack, I was crossing the main road with a friend. It`s a fast road, but straight so it has good visibility, and we have to ride about 50 yards along it before going up one of the lanes. However, a construction company have put up a little white sign, which all the horses peer around, checking for monsters. The horse I was on started to edge sideways around the sign, so I stopped before he edged too far into the road because a car was approaching. My friend`s horse was more reactive and started dancing sideways, additionally upset by the rapidly approaching 4×4. The car didn’t slow down until it had to in order to avoid my friend`s horse`s hindquarters, which were crossing the white line, despite her best efforts. My friend had signalled frantically to the female driver to slow down, which had been ignored, and when my friend asked her to wait a moment, the only response she got was a rude gesture as the woman sped off. What on earth could she have been in such a hurry to get to that she didn`t have time to slow down? Approaching more slowly wouldn’t have panicked the horse more, and would have meant that my friend could have kept him still while the car passed, and then when the road was clear we could skirt around the sign.

Thankfully I had the weekend off from hacking, but on Tuesday I was back at it once the fog had lifted. This time I was on a fizzy ex-racer, walking along the road when a teenager came into sight on their moped. I signalled them to slow down, but to no avail. They pop-popped past us at around 30mph, causing my horse to panic, spin and try to bolt with me – not fun! The act of slowing down, not changing gear as they passed me, would have made this situation so much safer. As well as respecting my hand signals.

An hour later, along the same stretch of road, a pick up raced up behind, slowed down marginally, and then it and it`s metal trailer rattled past us. Thankfully this horse just stood as the calves inside the trailer rolled around, bellowing loudly. The worst part here, was that even though the pick up was passing me FAR too fast, they still had the cheek to wave their hand at me. No – don’t have the arrogance to wave to me when you are going so fast I have to keep two hands on the reins and focus on controlling a potential explosion because you have terrified my horse! Think about the vehicle you are driving and if it may cause a problem because it rattles, or smells, or is a funny shape.

Today`s incident though, really takes the biscuit. I was crossing the road this morning. Again, a fairly fast road, but quite straight and I had good visibility. Two cars passed me while I waited on the verge, and then all was quiet so I started crossing. Suddenly a car came around the bend, very fast. And I mean fast. At least 60mph. Which is a bit silly anyway because he was approaching a double junction and an uphill bend. I waved at him to slow down as I was over the centre line, hurrying towards the woods. I didn’t want that racing past in this horse`s blindspot once I`d gotten off the road. To my horror, the car actually started to get faster. Yes, he was ACCELERATING TOWARDS ME! I kept waving my hand whilst kicking frantically for my horse to hurry up and get out of the way. As he passed me, he swore violently at me.

Absolutely horrendous behaviour. I was horrified. Scared. It`s the sort of inconsiderate, rude, dangerous, I would expect of … well I wouldn`t expect it from anyone. Slowing down when he first saw me would have meant I would have gotten out of his way in plenty of time and he wouldn’t have needed to slow down that much. Perhaps he would have been a minute late to whatever life-changing event he was racing to. But I highly doubt a minute would have been the difference between life or death.

I think some of the other motorists I`ve seen over the last week have been ignorant, but today`s man was a jerk. A first degree jerk. He didn`t care. I felt he actually would have hit us, he wouldn’t have tried to avoid an accident.

But perhaps that is what motorists are after. For there to be a severe accident; for a horse to lose it`s life; for a rider to sacrifice themselves? I don’t know. But for those un -horsey,  imagine you are walking along a country lane. Now imagine the feeling as a car roars past you at 60mph. Then again at 50mph. And 40. And 30. Even 20.

Now imagine that you are sat on a prey animal. One with a natural instinct to flee. Now do you have some idea, an inkling, of how we feel as you roar past; too fast and too close. This is why the British Horse Society is constantly campaigning for drivers to pass horse riders at 15 miles per hour – Dead, or Dead Slow? – it is not because we feel it is our right to have everyone bow to our needs. It is because we have the right to have respect, as road users, on the highway. It is a safety point, someone could be seriously injured if you scare the horse by driving dangerously. It doesn`t have to be the horse or horse rider, it could be another vehicle, or a walker, or anyone unlucky enough to be in the vicinity. Furthermore, you can be prosecuted by the police, be fined and receive points on your license.

Like I said at the beginning, horse riders don’t want to spend time on the roads, it is a necessity to access the off road tracks and trails, so please take a moment to stand in our shoes, and think about how we might be feeling as you screech past us on your way to your oh-so-important destination, not caring if we or the horse are physically or mentally damaged.



Putting Bridles Back Together

On Thursday I went into the BHS tent at Windsor Show to find out about their replacement Register of Instructors, which I`ve typically just renewed but that’s another story. Anyway, I saw an interesting competition they were running.

Akin to Top Gear`s celebrity racers, there was a tall board with names and times written on. Who could put the bridle together the quickest?

Tonight I was cleaning my tack. One of my favourite evening pastimes. I strip cleaned the bridle and oiled it, and then I had a lightbulb moment! Why don`t we have some fun, and see how quickly everyone can put their bridle together?

I had cleaned my jump tack, so I put the breastplate aside as many people won`t have one. The rest of the bridle consists of a snaffle and a grackle noseband, but I don’t think nosebands influence putting it together that much. Don`t forget the reins too. Oh, and it`s also a traditional style bridle with the noseband running underneath the headpiece, rather than buckling up on both sides of the headpiece.

So there I sat, on the floor with the leatherwork out in front of my on a saddlecloth, and asked the non-horsey other half to time me.

My time, wait for it, was 2 minutes 4.32 seconds. Not overly fast, as I don`t think oiling my tack helped my cause, but I challenge you to beat me – comment with your time below. The bridle needs to be put together correctly; no twisted leather or backwards bits, and buckles on the correct hole in all the keepers – otherwise start again!

Oh, and you may as well clean your bridle while you`re at it!


Bits, nosebands, treeless saddles and many other things

The November/December issue of the BHS magazine had some very interesting articles; I enjoyed Patrick the Pony`s witticisms, and on the final page the quote by a long suffering husband that horse shows “are like standing fully-clothed in a shower for hours putting twenty pound notes down the drain”. He obviously hasn`t been to many successful competitions with his wife!

Interestingly enough there was an article about irresponsible breeding (see my previous post about Princess Anne) and the steps charities are taking to combat this. I look forward to a time when all horses have to be approved before being bred from (on the following page there was an article about a Freisian Stud, and all Freisian stallions have to be approved, otherwise they`re gelded).

Moving on was a smaller debate, stemming from a previous issue, was the recent ruling by competition organisers that in some disciplines you cannot compete barefoot, or bitless. Now I`m not going to go in depth into the whole barefoot versus shoeing as that is a whole new can of worms! But I am going to highlight a few views on tack.

We`re all taught that, particularly in dressage, the less contraptions you have on your horse the better; i.e. snaffles and cavesson nosebands. Snaffles are the ideal bit, and traditionally most horses wore them, but then probably about 20-30 years ago there was a rise in new bits. People moved away from traditional training methods, and wanted brakes. Particularly on the hunting field. This is where my memory kicks in; most of the riding school ponies I learnt on wore kimblewicks and had running martingales. And I remember one of the bigger horses wearing a Cheltenham gag, and then a driving bit with a very long shank. We also had a series of whizzy ponies, who were a chicken nugget short of a happy meal, and had every bit under the sun put into their mouths. This worked for a couple of months, and then a new bit had to be found. Ideally, they would all have been re-schooled, but impatient teenagers and stubborn ponies don`t always make a good mix in that department.
dutch gag



I hated the Sandmarsh Pelham (second) with a passion, and refused to ride with it, but most others I`m afraid to say I have experienced. The upshot was that I knew every bit under the sun and exactly how they worked. My pony was ridden in the Dutch Gag, or Bubble Bit, but with only one ring below the large one, making it much less obtrusive and with less leverage, and it was only because cross country he got a bit strong. Although I understood the bits, and was fascinated by their working principles I was already, at the age of 12, developing a theory that they weren`t necessarily correct in where the bit put pressure on the horse and that some bits were confusing to the horse because they said “raise your head” and “put your head down” at the same time! For showing purposes I often used a Pelham, as my pony found a double bridle uncomfortable in his little mouth. He also responded quite well to poll pressure, which drew me to using a hanging cheek, or filet boucher. But I am digressing.

The magazine article was highlighting how some people think that riding without a bit shows a better degree of horsemanship, as they don`t need a piece of metal in their horses mouth. I beg to disagree; I`ve heard, read, and seen that a horse ridden by a talented rider with a simple snaffle bit, works in harmony and to the best of its ability because the bit is fitted correctly, the rider carries his hands, so there is no dead-weight in the horses mouth, and he has an independent seat so any movement on the rein, however slight, is an instruction to the horse, and the horse is predominantly listening the other body aids. In addition, a friend of mine recently attended a clinic by Dr Hilary Clayton, who has done research in the US about forces and pressure points on the horse, and had found the bitless bridles put the most pressure on one part of the horse`s body; it`s nose. So whilst people may be thinking that the nose is more tolerant to pressure than the mouth, therefore a bitless bridle is more humane, they would be wise to remember that the end of the nose has very fine, delicate, bones which are susceptible to breaking with an ill-fitting hackamore, or by a rider with clumsy, heavy hands. Now I`m not an expert, and I know some horses who go well in hackamores, and for medical reasons are the only way horses can be ridden, but I think it would do people good to think about past and current research, as well as the type of rider they are, what they do, how their horse responds, and which method creates the most harmonious working relationship. Just like, some horses, without rhyme or reason, prefer a bit with a single joint compared to a double link, which theoretically reduces the nutcracker action over the tongue and thus makes the bit “more humane”.

Either way, I don`t think it is in the governing body`s favour to rule out competing bitless.

Taking a sidestep, has anyone else noticed how new bridles seem to always come with a flash crank noseband? Now don`t get me wrong, I don`t mind the flash, in fact it can be useful when the horse opens his mouth and runs with the bit. But if you overtighten it then, just as we do with an overtight belt, the horse will strain against it. I find the BHS fitting, of one finger, too tight for my boy. He likes to lick his lips when he`s concentrating, and over tightening the flash makes this impossible for him, therefore he resists it more. But when trying to buy a new bridle a couple of years ago, I couldn`t get a nice, good quality one without a flash. My first bridles had cavesson nosebands, and if we needed we bought flash attachments and straps, a little known piece of equipment.
Crank nosebands are disgusting. They do exactly what they say on the tin; crank the horse`s mouth shut; sometimes putting so much pressure on the nasal bone it breaks, and then the horse is expected to work in harmony with us. That`s ignoring the matter that ignorant people can easily overtighten the noseband. I hate the fact all dressage bridles come with crank fittings, it is the trend, but hopefully it will be fazed out now with the return to more classical riding.

Don`t even get me started on the coloured leather piping on nosebands and browbands …

I`m not adverse to the other nosebands, grackle, drop or even kineton (not that I`ve ever seen a horse wearing one) so long as they do their job in a sympathetic manner, and riders know how to fit them and how they should adjust their riding to accommodate them.

Reverting back to Dr Hilary Clayton; I did a lot of reading about her and her work, and found that she has done similar research into treeless saddles. Again, I don`t have much experience in them, and to be honest, they don`t appeal greatly. But I was surprised to find that they don`t distribute the riders weight over the horses back, like traditional saddles, but rather focus is under the riders seatbones. Now I guess that this means the riders seat aids influence the horse a bit more, but on the flip side, a crooked rider, or an unbalanced rider, will put more stress and strain on the horses back. Obviously for every piece of research there is a counter argument or theory, but it is definitely worth taking a more in-depth look from all angles. As someone once told me, “don`t judge a man until you have put on his shoes and walked round in them”.

Further reading: