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. 

  

Finding the Fun

It’s hard being a teenager, I’ve decided. Everyone expects you to be grown up, yet still treat you like a child. You’re expected to know exactly how to spend your life, yet don’t have many chances to experience each avenue. You’re trying to find yourself as a person, and everyone pulls you in different directions so that you lose sight of who or what you are.

One of my clients is going through that awkward, stressful teenage phase when serious “life decisions” have to be made at school, exams have to be passed, friends have to be socialised with, and Saturday jobs have to be attended. All of these stressors make pony time much harder. 

I had noticed a change in her just before Christmas, but more recently her Mum and I have been worried about her confidence with her share horse, and her eagerness about riding in general.

So we came up with a plan! Her horse isn’t the easiest in that he can be fresh and quite strong and spooky, so the first port of call was to make sure he was getting enough work. Winter is always harder to motivate yourself to ride, and horses have more energy, so combine that with less time due to school exams and you’ve got a problem. My suggestion was that her Mum lunged him once a week, and that each time she rode she made sure he went back to his stable tired. So instead of a half hour flat work session, extend it to forty five minutes and put in a bit more canter work, or perhaps go for a longer hack on the weekends. This combination should help keep on top of his energy levels, which takes one stress factor out of the equation as a less fresh horse isn’t as strong or spooky.

The next part of the predicament was to sort out the confidence crisis and bring back the fun part of riding. Enjoying being with my horses was what motivated me to get through my exams when I was younger, but unfortunately I see so many kids selling their ponies and giving up because of school, and whilst I still think education is invaluable, I think it’s sad that horses are pushed away. Perhaps it’s the parental pressures, of wanting their child to compete and ride every day that does it, or the financial pressures of not wanting a field ornament for the fortnight of exams. But anyway, I think reducing the amount of time spent at the yard, by riding fewer times, or by parents helping out, means that revision can still be fitted in to the equation, but when needed, the pony is there for physical exercise, or getting fresh air, or having a reward for revising all morning. After all, adult life is all about balancing, so why not learn to balance from an early age! 

Not that this is the case for this client of mine, I’m just beginning to ramble!

Together, I came up with another plan with my clients mum. Hacking! This should help build the relationship between teenager and horse, work the horse adequately, and provide useful social time. However, when you’re feeling nervous a hack is one of your least favourite things! But pacified by the fact that I was riding a solid, reliable, calm little cob, my rider agreed to hack out. She led the way as I don’t know the area, and we chatted and I observed for the first half. Then I got to work.

We talked about managing her horse’s exercise regime and working out how to do it without causing her more stress with time and revision, and then I persuaded her to lengthen her reins. We’ve all been there; that anxious, foetal position or leaning forwards, shortening the reins and clamping on the legs like a limpet. By lengthening the reins by an inch or two she could sit up, with her shoulders back and parked squarely on her bum. Sat like this, her legs came off her horse and his walk and whole demeanour relaxed. She felt the swing in his back and could see him looking around with curiosity. She began to realise that he wasn’t interested in spooking, rather just being nosey! 

Does anyone know why the foetal position aggravates the vicious cycle of lost confidence? A horse is trained to move away from pressure, so you squeeze your legs and when they move you release. If you’ve clamped your legs around your horse they will want to move faster, which causes the rider more panic because they are losing control. Trust yourself to release your vice like grip. Leaning forwards gives your horse all the go faster cues with your upper body, so it’s not wonder they jig around underneath you. Try making the front half of your torso longer than the back half; even sitting in this way tells your horse you are in control and confident. So he relaxes and slows down. To counteract all these accelerating signals, we then hold the reins short and tight. Feeling restricted, like he has nowhere to go, causes a horse to jig around and become frustrated. Again, you need to be the grown up and trust your horse by giving him another inch of reins and let him stretch his head out a bit.

It’s hard, because the correct thing to do to diffuse stressful situations as a nervous rider are the exact opposite to our body’s automatic reaction.

We got back to the yard and I was pleased that our last trot was more relaxed, and less of an impression of a pogo stick, with no spooking. My rider was sat comfortably and relaxed, as she used to a few months ago and most importantly she could feel the increased relaxation in her horse.

I really hope that she and Mum can build on this hack over the weekend, and perhaps make it a regular thing, building up duration and speed if necessary, and then with this new found approach to riding, she can better balance life between revision and horses so that her down time really causes her to relax as opposed to adding stress to more stress, because I’m pretty sure that helps get good grades too.

I’m looking forwards to hearing about their progress next week, and seeing them both happy again!

Llani

I`ve been working hard with Llani at home, and he`s been for the odd trip out, but loading had become a slight issue. So, with the diary looking empty for this weekend I figured he needed a trip out.

After scouring local venues I found a small combined training competition nearby. I hadn`t been to the venue for years, so after a bit of deliberation opted for the smaller of the two classes. At previous showjumping competitions Llani has panicked a bit in the ring and forgotten himself so either raced around the course or refused the first jump. I needed him to have a fun, relaxed day to build his confidence. 

I gulped when I heard my dressage time for this morning – 8.56am! And I was the second class!

By the time we`d calculated warm up, journey duration, loading time, I needed to be at the yard at 6am – I wasn`t very happy!

Anyway, I think he was so surprised by my early arrival he didn`t take the scenic route towards me (recently he`s started walking away from me in a big circle before letting me catch him) and he was soon groomed ready to travel. 

Llani`s problem when loading is that any noise outside the trailer distracts him and he reverses out rapidly to gawp at it. We find lunge lines work best, but as it was so early there were no helping hands. We parked the trailer close to a lorry, to block one side, and then attached a lunge line to the other. We wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, so left it slack as I led Llani up the ramp. He paused … so my chauffeur picked up the lunge line, and he marched on! Then I let him have a handful of feed as a reward. It was a positive loading as he`s not practised for a few weeks and he didn`t dig his heels in and cause an argument.

Llani travels well, so the journey was smooth and didn`t take as long as anticipated. We had a good nose around the venue before unloading Llani to give him a long warm up.

I don`t need to wear Llani out in the warm up, but he needs a bit of time to take in his surroundings, especially a spooky indoor arena!

He looked at all the mirrors, and scary people standing in the corner, but worked in well.

The prelim test rode fine; I was happy with him. There was a doorway at B and mirrors, which Llani spooked at intially, and kept an eye on it throughout the test. I mean, after all, there are monsters hiding in mirrors and doorways! Despite having half an eye on the scary corners and losing attention, he felt better in the good bits than he did last test. Even when he looked at the doorway, he refocused quickly so I feel he`s getting more confident in new environments.

  
Llani even produced a reasonable free walk on a long rein. It`s a movement he struggles with as he gets tense easily, especially in new environments, and wants to have the rider`s support. Again, him stretching down means he`s confident.

  
After the dressage I changed the bridle to go jumping. It was a straightforward course, but there were some bright fillers and planks. Height was no issue, but I wanted a quiet, rhythmical canter throughout the course. The first fence was a inviting spread, which is great for getting the horses into their stride. Llani didn`t bat an eyelid at any of the fillers, and was confident in his approach so got a great clear round.

   
 

With no idea about the results, I didn`t mind where he was placed. He had done a personal best dressage test (final score was 67% which was a bit generous in my eyes) and had done a beautiful, stylish jumping round with no worries. And, he had been perfectly behaved loading back up and on the ground. So we hung around for a while to hear the results, and much to my surprise we were first! 

Next time he can go bigger and keep growing in confidence!