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.

A Group Exercise

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.

Riding Camp

In recent years horse-loving adults have been taking a leaf out of their kid’s books, and started going camping. It’s like Pony Club camp, with as much fun, and more alcohol.

My riding club runs a summer camp as well as dressage and showjumping mini camps during the year, but this year was the first that I managed to go. I wasn’t sure about going until after Easter, when I’d got on top of Phoenix’s tension issues, but I decided it would benefit both of us.

Camp started for us on the Friday morning, with a jump lesson. We were with the green horses, and Phoenix was one of the most experienced horses, but this suited us both as I was definitely uptight and unsure of how she’d behave at a busy venue. I wanted a quiet, calm lesson to settle us both. The lesson focused on quietly approaching small fences in a steady rhythm, and calmly riding away. Phoenix was great, and it did the job of setting us up for the weekend.

I spent a lot of time in the run up to camp worrying about how Phoenix would cope with being stabled and ensuring she ate sufficient forage. I was really pleased that she seemed to settle immediately into the stable, and started munching on her haylage. I planned to hand graze her as much as possible, but the fact that Phoenix was so chilled definitely helped me relax.

Our second lesson, on Friday afternoon, was flatwork. We worked on shoulder fore in trot and canter, and I felt that Phoenix had an epiphany on the right rein: riding right shoulder fore really helped her uncurl her body and improved her balance on right turns. She had previously been resisting my attempts at creating right bend and scooting forwards in panic as she lost her balance, but she seemed to thrive off the challenge of shoulder fore, even managing it in canter to my surprise.

I was up at the crack of dawn on Saturday morning so had the pleasure of waking up the horses. It was cross country day, and I was thrilled with how Phoenix took on each challenge. Considering that she’s only been cross country schooling twice and seen some rustic fences on sponsored rides. We had a few stops, but it was as though she needed to study the question as when I re-presented she locked on and flew it confidently. We focused on Phoenix not rushing or panicking over the jumps to build her confidence. I wanted her to have a positive experience, and then I can develop her confidence over steps and through water over the summer. Phoenix was the bravest of our group too, getting up close and personal with the life size model elephant!

I spent most of Saturday afternoon hand grazing Phoenix and chatting to friends. The part of camp that I was most enjoying was the uninterrupted time I had with Phoenix. I wasn’t against the clock, or distracted by my little helper. I felt it really helped us bond. She’s still very aloof, which made the little nicker she gave every time I came into sight much more rewarding.

Our camp also had the weighbridge come, which I found useful for getting an accurate weight for Phoenix for worming and travelling. She weighs 495kgs, which I’m happy with. There were also off-horse Pilates sessions we could join in. Under the impression that it would be a light workout to take into consideration how much riding we were doing over the weekend, I signed up for two sessions. A minute into the plank I was regretting this decision …

On Sunday morning we could choose our lesson format. I opted for another showjumping lesson as I felt that was most beneficial to us. After all, I have regular flat lessons and have a progression plan in that area, and with a showjumping competition on the horizon, my choice was obvious really. Phoenix jumped the course confidently and boldly over all the fillers. It was the biggest course I’d jumped her over without building it up gradually in height and “scare-factor” so I felt it was a good test for her, and a positive note to end camp on.

It’s easy to see why adult camps are growing in popularity; I felt I came away from camp feeling like I had a better relationship with my horse, with a few new exercises to work on, and some new training goals. It was great being surrounded by friends, getting support, encouraging others, and putting the world to rights over our banquets (that’s the only way to describe the quality of the catering!).

I’d better start negotiating childcare for next year’s camp!

Phoenix`s Progress

Last weekend we took Phoenix on another adventure, but I thought it was time to give everyone an update on her progress.

I’ve still not got Otis’s saddles fitted to her – it’s keeping temptation at bay – so we’ve been continuing with the lunging and ground work.

One of the girls at the yard commented on how much improved her neck is, which caused me to stand back and critique her. Excuse the fact she’s tied (with string) to a gate, it was the only place without shadows where I could get far enough away from her without her following me to get a couple of photos. I think she’s changed a lot, even in the week since I took these. Her neck is muscling up nicely, especially when you look back at when she first arrived. Her barrel seems more toned, perhaps she’s lost a bit of weight, but I feel that she’s carrying herself with better posture. There is also a bit more muscle tone over her hindquarters, although she is definitely still in quite a soft condition. Below is a photo from when she arrived, compared to a fortnight ago.

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In terms of handling her, the yellow snake that sprays water on her legs is no longer scary, she hurries over to me in the field, she seems generally more settled. Whilst she was never difficult to handle, when the yard was busy she used to have her eyes on stalks and be quite wary of other people and horses. On Saturday, I had her in with all the others and she was far more relaxed in her demeanour – after telling the cocky 12hh gelding that he could look but he couldn’t touch, of course! When I did lunge her, she focused much more on her work, despite the distractions. Again, she’s never been silly in the arena due to distractions, but she has definitely lost her focus. So I’m really pleased with how she’s coming along in this respect.

I’m still alternating our lunging sessions, with the Pessoa to help teach her to stretch towards the contact as I feel she will be one to try to tuck behind it, and she’s accepting this really well now, showing a good stretch from the beginning. Other days she’s lunged naked, and I’m finding that she’s in a much better balance in the trot, and has a fabulous, unchanging rhythm to it now. To me, she looks more uphill and the hindquarters are getting more engaged. In the canter transitions, she’s running less and the canter is getting more three beat, and less hurried as she’s developing her balance. Hopefully my friend will get some videos of this over the weekend.

I’ve also been doing poles on a weekly basis with her, which she really enjoys. Friday she kept taking the circle out to the trotting poles that someone had left out! She also did a double on the lunge, which she seemed to really enjoy. I want to try an oxer with her on the weekend, to show her a different shaped fence, and perhaps try some fillers, but only if I feel she won’t back off them because it’s far harder to prevent a run out on the lunge than in the saddle and I don’t want her to get that idea into her head. I also want to introduce some poles on a curve.

Anyway, at home I think she’s doing really well, and I’m very excited to start riding her.

Sunday, we loaded her up and took her to a friend’s yard for a groundwork lesson. She walked straight onto the trailer ramp, which is better than last time, but then she got distracted trying to look at everything on the yard. The Chauffeur ended up giving a little push on her bum and a bossy “walk on” and she loaded. Once there, she stood quietly on the trailer for a few minutes then I led her through the barn of horses, to the arena. We had plenty of time before the lesson, so I walked her around the arena. She took it all in her stride, and just watched the neighbouring horses careering around the field.

The instructor, who was the same as when I went to dressage camp last July, watched me do the yielding on a circle which we’d learnt a few weeks ago. We discussed how the groundwork at the moment is all about getting her moving away calmly from the whip (which either mimics the leg at her girth or is an extension of my arm near her hindquarters) and improving her suppleness. This trainer wasn’t overly worried about her slight asymmetry at the moment; he seemed to think it will even out as I work her evenly on both reins and develop the muscle. I feel she’s more symmetrical than a month ago anyway.

Next, we moved on to walking a square. I’ve done this exercise from the saddle, but it’s trickier on foot! On the straight sides of the square Phoenix had to walk in shoulder in, and at the corners yield her hindquarters around on a larger turn, so a little like turn around the forehand, before walking in shoulder in again. It’s all about getting her to step under with the inside hindleg and learn to balance whilst working laterally. After a couple of attempts on the left rein, the exercise seemed to click, and she mastered it first time on the right rein.

This trainer described her as suspicious, but not in a negative way. She views a question, or new situation, from a back seat position, before processing it and then having a go. So any time that she stops during an exercise it’s because she’s thinking about what to do next, and the best thing is for me to do exactly what I’m doing, and give her a moment to pause, before reassuring her and asking again. He agreed with me that it’s probably the effect of having quite a sheltered life, and as she is exposed to more new environments she’ll become more confident.

Next, we moved onto the beginnings of turn around the haunches, which will help engage her hindquarters and lighten her forehand.

Standing on her right, with her on the right rein, I walked her up the fence line in shoulder in, before walking a half 10m circle and inclining back to the track. We were now on the left rein, with me between Phoenix and the fence, walking in a leg yield position. After a few strides I asked her to take her shoulders around on a left 10m circle, so that her hindquarters were scribing a smaller circle. The bend wasn’t correct, but she was getting the idea of moving her feet correctly. We did this three times on each rein, each time I knew where I needed to be and was quicker at positioning her, and she seemed to understand the exercise more.

Although not an aerobic workout, I think Phoenix was working her little brain cells hard. So we finished the session with some rein back, getting her to step back in more diagonal pairs and to lead more with the hindleg so that she didn’t hollow. She tends to get carried away in rein back, and the strides get bigger, which is when she loses her balance slightly and the diagonal pairing is lost, so it was all about keeping the movement slow. Finally, we asked her for a couple of square halts, before she was showered with polos from the trainer, and got lots of fuss from me!

I felt it was another successful trip out for her, and a couple more tools of the trade for me to practice, as well as giving us something else to play with in the school. I was really impressed with her impeccable behaviour and her attitude towards the exercises. She wasn’t even fazed by the cat sitting in the middle of the arena while we worked!

Realignment

As much as I like seeing my clients go out competing and succeeding, I also love helping horses and riders overcome physical problems and improve their posture, or way of going, so that they get more pleasure from their work and have a longer active life.

I've been working with a new client and her horse, who has a series of back and hock problems. The first couple of lessons were about rebalancing the trot, slowing it down and creating a consistent rhythm. We've started a little bit of suppling work, and established a quiet, still hand. The mare has shown glimpses of starting to work over her back, which is great because it's not manufactured in any way.

However, the mare is crooked through her body which I think will prevent us from improving her suppleness and getting her to release over her back. So a couple of weeks ago I gave my client some homework; to think about and try to develop an awareness of where the hindquarters were in relation to the rest of her body.

The next time I saw my client she had watched her horse under saddle, and clocked the fact her hindquarters were always slightly to the right. When she rode though, it felt normal and it took a while for her to identify the crookedness. Which is understandable; when you only ride one horse you get used to them as being normal, whether it be a crookedness, an unbalanced saddle, or one sided contact. My job is to reeducate both of them so that straight becomes the new normal.

On the left rein, where the quarters sit to the outside, we spent a bit of time feeling how her body moved on straight lines and around corners. On a straight line the hindquarters were slightly to the right, and the head and neck were also turned so they were looking out too – in a classic banana shape.

Dividing the body into two halves, we focused on straightening the hindquarters first. My rider brought her outside leg back behind the girth, keeping her inside leg on the girth, she tried pushing the mare's hindquarters in, so the they followed the tracks of the forelegs. Initially I wanted the reins to support the shoulders and neck, stopping them from wiggling out of their natural position. If the mare tried to fall in, the inside leg prevented this. The mare was very obliging, and soon the majority of the long sides were ridden with her body straight. You could see if was difficult for her, hence why we kept it in walk. Now my rider could feel this straightness, which all helps to improve the mare because she will be able to more quickly correct and straighten her.

Once the straightness on straight lines was achieved, we had a look at how the corners felt. With the mare in right banana, her hindquarters tend to swing out around corners and she doesn't look around the corner with her forehand. Now ideally, we'd get her bent around the left, inside, leg. But Rome wasn't built in a day and because of her previous medical history I want to take it slowly with her. So I just asked my rider to exaggerate her outside leg behind the girth around the corners to hopefully prevent the hindquarters swinging out. We did this a few times and it started to fall into place, so we changed the rein.

On the right rein, the mare has her quarters in, and they almost lead around the corners, so we started off having the inside leg slightly further back on straight lines to align her spine. I was really pleased to see that the straightness work on the other rein was already having an effect because my rider didn't have to correct the hindquarters as much. Just by having the horse straight before a corner, improved her balance around the turn, but now it was time to look at the straightness of the forehand.

We were on the rein that the mare naturally bends to, but where she is a little bit tight through her rib cage her outside shoulder was pointing slightly towards the fence. This is hard to explain. The hindquarters were towards the middle, but the barrel straight, causing the outside shoulder to point towards the fence and then the neck to turn in, towards the direction of movement. The easiest way to improve the suppleness of the barrel, after all the neck is already bending the correct way, is to focus on riding the outside shoulder around the turns. The outside rein works against the neck, and prevents the neck flexing too much, and the outside leg is closer to the girth to influence the shoulder more than the haunches. The inside leg is ready to support the hindquarters if they fall in, and the inside rein indicates the direction of turn, but is a very positive aid to discourage too much flexion in the neck.

After a couple of turns like this, the mare was managing to be better balanced and stayed much straighter on the long sides. My rider could also feel the improvements through her body.

We returned to the left rein, the stiffer one, and this time monitored the effect that straightening the hindquarters had on the forehand. Due to the stiffness through the barrel, as the haunches went straight the left shoulder drifted in. So we forgot about the hindquarters for a moment, and flexed the mare's neck so that she was no longer looking to the outside, and was straighter through her shoulders and neck. Once my rider had learnt to feel and correct this, we started correcting the hindquarters again. For a few minutes we had to straighten the hindquarters, and then correct the forehand as it tried to compensate. Then check the straightness behind the saddle, and then in front again. And so on, until the mare found it easier to work with her spine, from poll to dock, straight.

All of this work was done in walk, and it's something that my client needs to be aware of and quietly correct when hacking and working in the school. Then the trot will start to automatically improve.

We finished the lesson with some trot work. I explained to my rider that I just wanted her to think about and feel the straightness, or lack of, in the trot and that we wouldn't do too much correcting today. However, I think because of this new awareness, my rider automatically corrected, or at least used her aids in a more straightening way, and we ended up trotting some balanced, round circles with the mare bending through her whole body. The straight lines and corners were much improved, and my rider could feel that when she changed the rein there was very little change to her mare's balance. Because she was more symmetrical, she didn't make big changes to her body to go from a left turn to a right turn. We even had a couple of strides where the mare suddenly felt a release of energy and surged forwards with a longer stride and more impulsion, and she also softened and rounded her neck and back for a couple of strides.

I was really pleased with their progress in just half an hour, and although we will need to keep building their muscle memory and strength to work in this straight way, I'm looking forwards to developing their circles and suppleness, as well as seeing the mare learn how easy it is to propel herself forwards when the hindquarters are straight and so the legs can push the body forwards effortlessly. Then I think she will work in self carriage nicely and they'll be able to achieve their aim of going to a local dressage competition.

Breaking The Cycle

Recently I`ve seen a couple of horse and rider combinations get a little bit stuck with life. You get into a vicious cycle, unsure of what the problem is and how to get out of this mess.

One client I met last week felt that her horse “hadn`t been quite right” for a few days and was now backing off jumps and not giving her a very nice ride. As I hadn’t met them before I asked the usual questions – back, teeth, saddle, general history. Then I observed them warming up. The horse seemed fine on the flat, and moved forwards in the canter quite happily. Over the poles he just seemed a bit stuffy, and didn`t find it very easy to adjust to accommodate the grid poles on the floor. But his rider told me he always prefers to chip in rather than take a long stride.

When we moved onto jumping the grid, I found the horse backed off the cross pole, and cat leapt over the fences, seeming to lack confidence. His rider then started to get a bit worried by the wonky jumping, so I suggested her friend, who seemed very confident and quite capable, sat on the horse. This rider put her leg on more effectively on the approach to the jumps, and whilst the horse still backed off the first one, he soon took the second fence in his stride. Once they`d jumped three jumps in the grid a couple of times and the horse had his ears forwards towards the fence.

By now I’d explained to the original rider how I thought her horse had felt a bit off, or had one mishap and where she was concerned there might be a problem, she wasn’t riding as positively as normal and so her horse was feeding off this and then losing confidence in his work. She agreed, especially as she could see how changing the rider had broken the cycle of negativity. For the rest of the lesson, she worked over a single fence adjacent to the grid that everyone else was using, and just focused on riding positively towards the fence, supporting her horse if he backed off, and encouraging him to jump from a bigger canter stride. She finished over an upright, far happier with herself and how her horse had felt, and he seemed much happier over the fence and was taking her into the fence as he normally does.

In this situation, worry about there potentially being a problem with her horse caused more of a problem because the horse lost confidence in his rider, and actually needed a different rider to boost his confidence again, and to prove to his original rider that he was okay, for them to overcome this obstacle, and I look forward to seeing them in the future, working well together.

Another situation I came across recently was a friend who was struggling with schooling her mare because the mare was rushing, over reacting to the aids, and generally being difficult. This rider had a go on another friend’s steady cob and really enjoyed the experience. She felt she could relax and enjoy the ride. This gave her a bit of a confidence boost about her own riding capabilities, again breaking the vicious cycle she was in.

The next time this friend rode her mare, I suggested she just pretended to be on the cob and see what happened. They had a much more successful schooling session because the rider was more relaxed and confident in what she was doing, which fed through to the mare, and the rider stopped overthinking everything, which caused her aids to be less forced and minutely calculated. 

So again, breaking the cycle helped this combination get out of their rut, because the rider had stopped over analysing their problems and taken the pressure off.

You can break these cycles in other ways too, not just by breaking up the team. Perhaps school in a field instead of an arena; box somewhere else for a lesson; change the lesson format (e.g. have a private lesson if the other horse causes yours to nap) or by adjusting the horse’s exercise regime to help improve specific areas in his work. 

I always think that it’s worth exploring other avenues when you find you and your horse getting stuck in a rut, so that providing there’s nothing physically wrong (lameness, tack) you can overcome the psychological barriers easily. 

Time Heals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building Confidences

Today I took a horse out for a hack who was very nappy when his owner first got him, rearing and spinning round to head home, but she`s done a lot of hacking in company (sometimes with me) and he has settled and been much better recently, taking the lead and not being silly once.

Now I have taken this horse on to hack on a weekly basis, and couldn`t find myself a hacking partner today, so decided to just see how we got on going solo!

I`ll be honest, I was feeling like a limp lettuce after riding six horses beforehand, and still nursing aching muscles and ligaments from my flying lesson a couple of weeks ago, so was hoping for an easy ride. We set off along the drive, I tried to sit with a “don’t care” attitude and light rein contact because the horse seems to relax when we take this approach.

We didn`t get very far along the drive before he stopped and tried to nap. I sat very still, didn`t let him turn to home, and waited until he stood still. He didn`t rear, just threw his head around a bit. When he was standing I stroked his neck, and told him he was a good boy. Then, with my voice and leg, asked him to walk on.

He was still reluctant to go along the drive, so I pushed him towards the woods instead and we left the yard along the wooded track. He was quite happy with this, and even walked along the lane with only a glance towards the drive as we passed the gates. He was thinking about home, but it was no more than a passing thought. However, about halfway along this lane he suddenly realised he`d had enough. There was no reason for it, nothing spooked him; the lane was quiet.

While an oncoming car waited patiently, I sat quietly until my horse had stopped faffing. Then he happily walked on from my voice. I carried on talking to him as we passed the car, thanking the driver. And I carried on my one-sided conversation along the lane.

We had two more moments, where he stopped for seemingly no reason, reversed a little,  shook his head, and bounced on his forefeet, trying to turn for home. Each time I waited for him to stop, gave him a moment to think, and then asked him to walk on.

It seemed to me that whilst this horse isn`t the spooky type, and not that reactive to his surroundings, he lacks confidence, especially whilst hacking alone. His little tantrums are moments when he feels out of his depth, loses confidence in the hack, and needs some guidance.

The worst thing I could do would be to get angry or reactive. That will only panic him and cause him to lose faith in me, his rider. My voice was probably my strongest tool, and chatting to him helped relax him and improve my bond with him.

For him to improve and become good at hacking alone he needs to bond with his rider and learn to trust them implicitly. Then when he had his moments of self doubt he can overcome it easily and continue his job. Which should also help his cross country rounds. 

The second half of the hack was absolutely foot-perfect. It was a hack he is familiar with so he should be confident in the surroundings which will increase his self confidence. 

Over the next few weeks I think the horse will benefit from slight variations on the hack that he knows, so that he doesn’t become too engraved in his route. Because he also has the tendency to nap towards home it’s also useful to reverse the route, and use different entrances and exits to the yard. I’m looking forward to seeing him progress and grow in confidence.

A Very Rewarding Day

This morning was an early start. Still the middle of the night really. I went to the yard and fed Otis, who looked warily at me from the end of the field before coming over for breakfast. I decided not to poo-pick …

Then it was over to another yard to get the Diva ready for his big day – the Riding Club Eventers Challenge at Blenheim Palace! Due to Otis’s extended vacation I was left horseless and the team incomplete, so I called in a couple of favours and was allowed to take him. He’s done some eventing in the past, but it would be his first competition for two years. That’s fine, I thought I knew him well enough and he wasn’t totally green, that we could give it a go. Besides, what’s life without a bit of excitement?!

When we went on our sponsored ride he was too excited to eat breakfast, but thankfully he did quite happily today. There was less activity on the yard too. Well, it’s not really surprising at 6am! We even had to wake him up in the field! So travel boots on and funny dance complete, we headed to the trailer.

It took about 20-25 minutes of quiet encouragement to load for the sponsored ride, but the yard was busy and the Diva bounded up the ramp and it made a bit of a noise so he retraced his steps rapidly! We had lunge lines to quietly tunnel him in and he made the decision to load on his own accord. This morning, it took about ten minutes. It was a very calm procedure, and he definitely made up his own mind to load.

We arrived and he stood happily on the trailer while I walked the twisty course  over very undulating ground. It wasn’t too big, but the questions were in the terrain and turns.

When I mounted he set off at a hurried walk, but by the time we reached the warm up he felt settled. So settled I could remove my visible piercings on board (to everyone’s surprise I still had all the pieces in my pocket at the end!). Warm up he felt great, I had to really concentrate because he has such a big stride compared to Otis and his bascule is different.

All too quickly it was our turn!

He went in happily, then baulked at the arena party under a tree, but I managed to get him past them and cantering before the bell rang. Number one was an oxer going downhill. We took off great, but I think we did a bit of sightseeing as we went over as he was a bit lazy with his legs. Not a great start. But up the incline and around the turn to number two, an upright with fillers. No problem. A sharp left turn back on ourselves for the oxer at three. No problems again. Onto number four, which he unfortunately got a little long on the approach and just brought down. But he picked himself up for the dog leg to the oxer at five and then the sharp right turn and short approach to the larger oxer at six. Number seven was the double near the arena party, but thankfully they were gone from his mind and he gave both fences plenty of room! The double was slightly downhill, but there was a left turn between two fences before the upright at eight. Another downhill to the first cross country fence – a log. We were a bit close but I had to hold him together down the slope and it wasn’t a problem. Then a right curve to a roll top for ten. Here there were two routes to take across the arena. Unfortunately I was looking at the wrong one and we had a close encounter with a tree branch – perhaps I thought I was riding a pony?! I ducked and we were safely through with plenty of time to reorganise before another roll top. From eleven it was a dog leg to number twelve, and I was a bit unsure that I’d got my line right. I know I can adjust Otis’s nimble strides between fences, but I wasn’t so confident this time. We were good though, and had to cross the arena again to number thirteen. Not quite so close to the tree this time, I approached this roll top on an okay angle. But it was another dog leg to another roll top and I was definitely pushing my luck. I think this showed the lack of depth to our partnership. I couldn’t correct my line well enough and didn’t read him quickly enough to prevent him drifting left. Upon representing we flew it, but it was the two skinnies next. They were the biggest fences, and what had caused us the most problems at home – the odd run out or cat leap. It was also off an acute turn and downhill. So I locked on and prayed. He jumped them perfectly!

Upon landing over number sixteen it was quite a tight right turn to the joker fence, up a slope. I was so surprised not to have squeezed between the skinny fence and tree I wasn’t quite quick enough to sit him on his hocks for a showjump and we just knocked it.

I was thrilled with how he had performed. Yes, I’d had to work hard balancing his long strides for the turns yet making sure he had the power to clear the fences, and keeping focused on the job and maintain our rhythm for it. I abandoned my two point seat for the cross country part though as I was working on keeping him together for the turns, his canter is big enough that he made the time easily though.

We untacked the diva and gave him his favourite thing – a bath! He really doesn’t like being washed off. Maybe I should bring some hot water next time?! He seemed happy to graze after, which shows how relaxed he was feeling, and once we had gotten  him ready to load, and put the lunge lines out, we headed for the ramp. And he walked straight on! Without a moments hesitation! We were so pleased! He then stood happily for a couple of hours while we went shopping, eating his hay.

No rosettes for the team today, but  both I and his owner were very happy and proud with the Diva’s behaviour and performance. Next time, it’s her turn to ride!

Hacking Confidences

I’ve recently started riding a fairly young horse, but he’s a bit of a diva and scared of his own shadow. He doesn’t seem to be a turn tail and flee horse, but more of a leap in the air and shoot to the side spooker.

  
Anyway, he works quite nicely on the flat, but hasn’t got much experience out hacking, which is what his owner wants him to do.

The first couple of times I rode him, I used the school. As a diva, he needs to know who I am and what I’m going to ask of him. Likewise, I want to know his buttons, get the feel for his large gaits, and build up a relationship with him. With a secure relationship he will be more confident venturing into the unknown, and be more likely to listen to my reassurances.

After working him in the school we went for a short walk on our own, down the woods and past the fields. He was fine; his eyes were on stalks, but after peering around all the bushes he took everything in. This is a baby step; he knows the area, he’s tired from the school, and he doesn’t know me very well. But I wanted to get a couple of straightforward experiences under his belt before making life more exciting.

Once this wood route was familiar in both directions, I took him in the opposite direction from the arena, and just walked along the lane a bit to see how he responded to traffic, and also to show that he could, and would, go on hacks in different directions. I like to keep familiarity to a hack with an inexperienced horse, but I don’t want them to get one route ingrained into their mind and then refuse to go another way.

This takes us up to last week, and I sweet talked a friend into escorting us on a ride off site. There were a couple of quiet lanes, a village, woods, and open fields, so plenty for this horse to take in. Apart from looking like I was sat on a ticking bomb, the hack was successful, and uneventful. He did his best llama impression as he tried to take everything in, but when we trotted he did settle into a rhythm and I had good control. We didn’t canter as I felt that he needed time to take things in, and approaching monsters, such as pheasant feeders, at speed was probably asking for trouble! When we got home he was really tired, but I think it was an emotionally tiring hack for him.

Yesterday I couldn’t find a friend to hack out with, but such is life and this horse needs to go out alone and in company happily. However, I think the off site hack we’d done last week was probably a bit too much of a big ask for him to go alone and come back confident. So I used the familiar route through the woods, where he felt really relaxed, but continued down the hill into unknown territory. He wasn’t fazed, and I felt comfortable with him, so I could begin to relax. Then we came out of the woods into the green valley. At this point I had the option of turning left and heading home, but as everything was going smoothly I turned right. We had a little trot along the field, with a slight wobble when he hovered between spooking at tyres on the left or spooking at the fence on the right, but overall he felt good. We carried on, down a slight slope then up a hill. He settled into a nice trot and took in the scenery. When we reached the end of the field I turned and let him canter up the hill. He loved it! When we reached the woods he had a little look for deer, but he was quite happy, so I took him through these woods and back to the lane. The nice thing about this route is that if anything had gone wrong or wasn’t going to plan then I could have taken a short cut back.

Over the next few weeks I want to establish this horse’s confidence around a couple of main hack routes, in company and solo, and then mix the routes up a bit so we slowly push the boundaries of his comfort zone and widens his horizons without him becoming too stuck in his routine and hack routes.

I think this horse will love hacking with his owner once he’s seen a few more things, and then maybe he’ll stop spooking at his shadow or a leaf, which will help him in the arena and out at competitions.