Is The Canter 3 beats or 4?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clues From Rugs

Have you ever had a horse who’s rug constantly slips to one side?

Have you ever stopped to wonder why?

Just like shoulder straps constantly fall off a woman’s dropped shoulder, a rug which constantly slides off one hindquarter suggests that all is not well in that area.

If a horse’s pelvis has dropped or rotated on one side then that will cause a rug to slip to that side, and likewise if they have muscle wastage on one side, the rug will slip that way.

Horses who are evenly balanced in terms of posture and musculature, rarely have a rug shifting to one side (especially with today’s rug technology), even if they have a preferred hindleg to rest. Therefore, if you notice that you are always correcting your horse’s rug it might be wise to cast a critical eye over his muscle development and get him checked by a chiropractor or physiotherapist.

I made some interesting observations with a horse being ridden in an exercise sheet this week.

As she warmed up the sheet slipped drastically to the right. Now, I know the mare is weaker in her right hind and holds herself crookedly when she can, so it was interesting to see the exercise sheet reflecting this. After straightening the sheet, we did some work on leg yield, turn on the forehand, and other straightening exercises to correct her crookedness and to even up the rein contact. Firstly, we worked on the right rein, so activating the weaker right hind, and as soon as the mare engaged that leg her exercise sheet did not move an inch! It stayed level working in trot on both reins, and then in right canter, but it slipped again in the left canter. The right hind is the propulsion leg in left canter, which would explain why the sheet slipped more in left canter, as well as the fact the mare found it harder to bend to the left so motorbikes around turns on her left shoulder.

It was interesting that I already knew the issues this mare had, so could make the link between the exercise sheet moving and her way of going. I explained my observations to her rider, and it’s going to be something she takes into consideration in future, rather than just moaning about the sheet slipping as she straightens it. It can also help her evaluate how well the mare worked, the change in her posture and straightness after any treatment, and her muscle development.

Body Posture

I’ve become more aware recently of horse’s posture and what clues this gives to how they’re feeling and their way of going.

Stand back and take a good, critical look at your horse as they stand quietly on the yard. Do they stand square? Do they look like their weight is evenly distributed?

A horse with a good posture will stand fairly square, weight balanced evenly on all four feet, and look comfortable. It sounds silly, but it should look like they’re holding this stance easily. Their head and neck shouldn’t be held too high or tense, and you shouldn’t see tension along the back. It depends on conformation, but the back wants to be basically horizontal. The top of the horse, from their poll to their dock, wants to look longer than from their neck to their tail. Below is a photo of Phoenix showing a good posture: she’s standing evenly, albeit not square, and whilst she needs to work on relaxing her brachiocephalic muscle, you can see she has a good length of topline.

So what posture problems are there?

An inverted posture, a term I learnt recently, is when the back and top line muscles are tight and tensed. This causes the neck to draw back and up, the back to hollow. It’s a bit like looking at a “u” shape. This could be caused by a problem in the back, such as kissing spines, or purely sore back muscles and a badly fitting saddle. Some horses who are weak over the back, perhaps due to age or level of training, may adopt this posture after being ridden if their muscles have become overtired. A horse lacking topline muscles may appear to have an inverted posture, and they can look to have a pot belly. Which will disappear as they start to use their abdominals properly as it will lift and shrink. Phoenix developed this posture just before she had her first physio session and it was due to tight muscles in her back. However, the change in her posture afterwards was instantaneous. For those horses who have adopted this position for a long time, to compensate or protect other areas of their body, it can take a long time to improve their stance.

Another horse I work with, who I actually suggested saw a physio, had a posture which always concerned me, he always rested his left fore and right hind, and held his nose pointing out, as if sore in the atlas area of his neck. He tended to hold his legs slightly out from under his body – hind legs camped out, and forelegs almost pointing. He just generally looked uncomfortable. I was really pleased this week when I rode him after two physio sessions; partly because he felt so much looser and more comfortable under saddle, as well as able to adopt the long and low posture, but he was also standing much more squarely, with his legs under him, and his head isn’t stuck out quite so much. Of course, he still needs some work from both the physio and his riders, to undo all the tightness and to rebuild the correct muscles, but I felt that we were heading in the right direction with him.

Another horse I’ve been working with, who is long and lanky in build, and always struggles to have a topline, has really improved since Christmas. He was working well for me, but wasn’t working consistently through the week and his posture was still very much inverted and I was really starting to get concerned that we’d have massive problems in the future, but thankfully after boot camp, and his owner increasing his workload, as well as his routine changing for the better, he’s starting to work more consistently for both of us. We’ve introduced a Pessoa session once a week to encourage him to work long and low without a rider’s weight, and over the last couple of weeks I’ve notice him standing more square both before and after exercise. His farrier noticed that he was much straighter since his last visit, and you can see the muscle in the top of his neck improving. After exercise he is also letting his fifth leg hang out, which whilst it grosses many people out, is a gospel sign that he’s used his abdominals. And as his abdominals tone up, his back will lift, and his topline will become engaged and improve. I’m really pleased with his progress and the improvement to his posture and muscle tone.

Each week I’m now trying to critique all the horses I work with, to assess their posture to see if they’re holding a limb awkwardly, or look uncomfortable in any area of their body, and we can then get them treated if necessary. I’m also becoming more aware of the small changes in their muscle development. Once you train your eye you can hone in on all the small details, such as the hindlegs being too far under their body or left out behind in the halt which suggests tightness in either the flexor or extensor set of muscles.

It’s worth trying to take a step back each week and assess your own horse’s posture as well as their body condition, and you’ll hopefully pick up on any problems nice and early and can get treatment or adjust your training plan accordingly.

Self Trimming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Foal Time

Despite the lack of spring weather, foals have started to make an appearance – how cute!

Here are ten facts about foals for you to get your teeth into.

  1. The gestation period of a horse is eleven months, but they can be born up to four weeks late. Most breeders aim for foals to be born in the spring so that they benefit from the spring grass via the mare’s milk and can grow during the better weather and are strong enough to withstand the demands of winter.
  2. Foals stand, walk and trot very quickly after birth – ideally within two hours. This is because they’re prey animals so need to be able to flee predators from the beginning. Predators are attracted to the smell of the placenta so moving away from the birth site is important. Foals can gallop after twenty four hours.
  3. Foals with floppy ear tips are premature because the cartilage has not yet fully developed.
  4. Many foals are born with bowed legs, called “windswept”, particularly large foals born to smaller mares. Immature tendons and ligaments can also cause a foal’s fetlocks to touch the ground as they walk. The legs will straighten out over the first few days as they strengthen.
  5. Foals are often born at night, or in the early hours of the morning, and the birth is a quick process. Both of these factors help protect them from predators.
  6. After a week, a foal will try grass, starting to eat a little bit of hay and grass because by the time they are two months old their nutritional needs exceed the milk requirements from the mare.
  7. A foal’s legs are 90% of their final adult length when they’re born. This gives them an advantage as a prey animal, and also explains why they look so wobbly and leggy as newborns.
  8. If a foal grows to quickly, or is overweight then their joints swell with a condition called osteochondrosis. In osteochondrosis the boney foundation of joints doesn’t develop properly so the joint surface is rough and can deteriorate, causing arthritis and lameness in later life.
  9. Foals have certain juvenile characteristics which, in a similar way to human babies, elicits caregiving. The eyes are large, face is short and forehead is high.
  10. Foals are born with a deciduous hoof capsule, which is soft and rubbery to protect the birth canal from the sharp, hard hooves. The capsule wears down within minutes, enabling the foal to stand and move.

White Line Disease

One of my client’s poor pony is suffering from white line disease. We think it’s been a long time brewing because each time the pony has been trimmed by the farrier he’s been footsore for a few days. Anyway, what seemed to be an abscess a couple of months ago didn’t clear up and then the vet diagnosed white line disease. A new farrier later, and he’s making progress. Unfortunately, due to the rate of growth in the hoof, any problems with the hoof wall takes months to recover.

I don’t know much about white line disease, so I’ve done some reading up on it. When you pick up the foot, you can see the white line where there sole meets the outer hoof wall. Damage to this area allows fungus and bacteria to get between the sole and hoof wall, which causes them to separate. Infection then spreads up the hoof towards the coronet band, destroying the hoof wall and making the horse very lame. White line disease usually affects the toe and quarters of the hoof. As the hoof deteriorates it takes on a chalky, crumbly, soft, white texture.

There are numerous different types of fungi which can be involved in white line disease, which makes treatment harder, especially as some spores cannot be eradicated, which means that some types of white line disease cannot he treated, only managed.

Because the hoof wall is made of dead cells, like our finger nails, the damaged area cannot regrow as skin would around a wound. Instead new, healthy hoof has to grow down from the coronet band which can take up to six months. Which is why you can see ridges on hoof walls following a change in diet or health.

White line disease sets in if the hoof wall is weakened, or if the hoof wall starts to separate from the laminae due to poor trimming and balancing of the foot. It begins with small cavities in the hoof wall, or seedy toe, which a good farrier should pick up on and take appropriate steps to prevent the disease spreading.

Farriers will shoe horses with white line disease with bevelled shoes to bring the breakover point further under the foot which takes the pressure off the toe area, and supports the compromised area. Shod horses are more likely to develop white line disease because of the mechanical pressure of the metal shoe against the hoof wall can literally tear the hoof wall away from the foot.

Treatment of white line disease involves removing the infected hoof wall, and then keeping the area as clean as possible. Horses usually need box rest, especially if lame, and to keep the foot as clean as possible, using an iodine or alternative solution. Once healing is established and the ground conditions are favourable – dry and mud free – the horse can begin light work because movement improves circulation and increase hoof growth.

There is a risk of laminitis developing as a secondary infection if a lot of the hoof wall is debrided and the bones of the hoof are less supposed so the laminae becomes detached. By supporting the bars and frog of the shoe you can reduce the risk of laminitis developing.

Caught early, white line disease is easily managed, but in more severe cases special shoes, boots or cast are needed for several months in order to provide enough support to the structure of the hoof while the healthy hoof grows down. Farriers measure the lesion upon treatment so that the next time they trim the foot they can establish if the rate of hoof growth is exceeding the tearing of the hoof wall. If this is the case then the hoof will recover as long as it’s kept free from further infection by keeping it disinfected, dry and open to the air to discourage the fungi from thriving.

You can try to prevent the onset of white line disease by feeding biotin containing supplements to improve the quality of the hoof wall, and having the hooves trimmed and well-balanced regularly. The farrier should keep an eye on old nail holes, old abscess sites and quarter cracks. Other than that, good hoof hygiene and care is paramount at preventing white line disease, and catching it early. Horses kept in a more artificial environment – stabled with less turnout – and those in extreme conditions (very wet or very arid) are often more prone to developing white line disease.

Breastplate Research

Recently some scientific studies have been published which discuss the negative impact on a horse’s jump.

Fairfax, who are famous for their pioneering girths which gave British riders an advantage at the 2012 Olympics, have published the research describing how a breastplate shortens the shape a horse makes over the fence, so that they land more steeply thus putting more stress on their joints. You can read about it in more detail Here.

Obviously Fairfax have developed a breastplate which is far superior to all others on the market. At a price, of course. Now, unless you are planning on remortgaging your house to purchase this ultimate breastplate, let’s have a look at what other options there are.

Breastplates are used to help stabilise the saddle and stop it slipping back. They’re most commonly seen on eventers, who due to their high level of fitness are rather streamlined, almost herring gutted, which encourages the saddle to slide towards the croup.

If your saddle slips backwards the first port of call is to get it checked. It may be that the make of the saddle isn’t best suited to your horse’s conformation, but equally changing the girth may have an impact on the movement of the saddle. You can also use gel pads or non slip pads under the saddle which can help stabilise the saddle. Phoenix came with such a pad, so when I get the saddler out I’ll make sure I take that with me so the saddler can assess if I’ll need it with my saddles and take it into account when he fits the saddle.

I think with any piece of tack, you only want to use what you need. So if your saddle stays still when you’re jumping or going cross country then don’t weigh yourselves down with a breastplate. The same goes for martingales for that matter.

There are a few options with regard to designs of breastplates and breastgirths, and I think it’s so important to consider the horse’s conformation when choosing one.

I tend to feel that if your horse needs a martingale then it’s a good idea to combine that with a breastplate in order to reduce clutter, but otherwise I’d look at breastgirths.

Horses with large shoulders tend to have trouble with saddles sliding back, but the ironic thing is that large shoulders tend to make fitting breastplates difficult. Which was exactly the problem I had with Otis. Initially, I had a hunting breastplate which worked well when he was a youngster, but as we started jumping bigger and getting more serious, I found that the hunting breastplate wasn’t so effective at preventing his saddle from sliding backwards and it encouraged the saddle to sit a bit low at the front.

From there, I tried the V-check breastplate, hoping that the elastic would provide more freedom through his shoulders, but the angle that the straps came up from the centre of his body caused the saddle to drop at the front again, which I think made it harder for him to use his shoulders over jumps and when galloping.

As I needed the breastplate to have a more gentle angle, I looked at a five point breastplate. This one I was most happy with. The sheepskin pads and girth attachments helped reduce the downwards pressure at the pommel, so I felt there was less pressure near his sternum and point of shoulders.

As well as the research done by Fairfax about breastplates affecting jumping, I think it would be more interesting to use the biomechanics technology to see the effect that different styles of breastplates and breastgirths on horses of a variety of stamps – for example, warmbloods, thoroughbreds, and cobs – has on their jumping and where the pressure points are. After all, it would be lovely to be able to had a breastplate which only puts pressure on the horse when needed, but we can’t all justify the price tag, and indeed not all horses are super fit eventers. However it would be great to educate the average horse owner in the pros and cons of different style pieces of tack so that we can do best by our horses.

To Boot Or Not To Boot?

Another subject request from a client was on the topic of booting. Should you put boots on or not?

To me, boots have done a bit of a full circle. At least twice. Years ago, nobody would have used any form of leg protection at all. Didn’t Black Beauty scar his knees in a fall? Then bandages were introduced, but they’d only have been used by the elite – they’re tricky to put on correctly and are dangerous if they come undone. Especially on the hunt field or cross country course.

Then the basic brushing boot came onto the market, which soon became popular amongst all as it was affordable and easy to use. These became more elaborate with sheepskin and various fancy fastenings. And we all became a little obsessed with protecting our horses against any knock or cut, and boots were used to turn out competition horses in the field as well as when ridden.

Then along came the scientists, who found that boots heat the leg up, which makes the tendons more liable to injury – Here’s a really interesting article about the pros and cons of boots from a scientific perspective.

So then owners started to move away slightly from boots. But we still have that urge to protect our horse’s legs. Which has left us in a bit of a quandary and susceptible to the marketing ploys of all the scientifically researched boots which require you to take out a second mortgage to purchase them.

I joke, but after perusing the Premier Equine spring catalogue and dreaming of winning the lottery, protective boots have become very complicated areas.

Back to my client’s original question. To boot or not to boot?

I think ultimately it requires you to be sensible. Take precautions, use good quality equipment, but also allow horses to be horses.

Firstly, have a look at your horse’s conformation and way of going. Are they at risk of overreaching because they’re short-coupled? Are they young and unbalanced? Do they move straight, or is there a swing to their limbs? Are they “out of one hole” and narrow chested? All of which increases their risk of inflicting damage upon themselves, by one limb knocking the other. Do they have shoes? A shod foot will do more injury than a barefoot. And studs will do more damage than a plain shoe.

If your horse answers yes to any of the above questions then I’d be more inclined to use protective boots.

Next, what are you doing with your horse? A gentle hack, or prelim/novice level flatwork has a lower risk of injuries than cross country or interval training. The BHS taught me to put brushing boots on to lunge because the risk of injury is higher when the horse is working on a circle. Whether they still advocate this, I’m not sure, but it’s a valid point. Equally. I would consider the horse’s energy levels – is he fresh and likely to throw in a couple of spooks or bucks which may cause injury?

Another point to consider is how hardy is your horse? A thin skinned, clipped Thoroughbred will knock themselves and blood will start gushing, whilst a well feathered cob has more natural protection. Of course there are exceptions to every rule, so get to know your horse.

Does your horse have a previous injury? For example, if they’ve previously done a tendon, or have an old scar on their leg, then you may want to consider booting them for supportive reasons as much as protective reasons.

Otis wore boots as a matter of course. I always put brushing boots on him; simple, basic ones. Mainly because I think I always did, so we were both used to it. Then he frequently pulled shoes off, so he wore overreach boots when ridden and when in a herd, he wore them in the field. On his own, he is fairly sensible about it all. His hind legs are quite close together, and when he was shod behind the inside of his shoe used to catch the inside of the other coronet band, so that he lost his feathers in that area. So I put sausage boots on his back legs, which I’m not one hundred percent convinced that they solved the problem, but they definitely reduced the effect. Upon reflection, I think overreach boots would have been a better alternative.

With Matt, I didn’t put brushing boots on him in everyday riding, and Mum doesn’t either. However, when I took him on some sponsored rides last year I did put brushing boots on him for protection over the solid fences.

With Phoenix I’ve not yet used boots on her. She’s barefoot and straight moving, so I’m not worried too much about overreaching or knocks, especially while she’s in such light work. Plus the fields are so muddy that I would struggle to get her legs clean enough to put boots on, so risking damage to her legs from abrasions due to pieces of grit being caught between the boot and her leg. Once I start jumping her properly I’ll definitely put boots on her, to protect her from knocks as she learns what to do with her body. But I think I may be more relaxed with her than with Otis, and just put boots on when I feel she needs protection. Once she’s learning lateral work then she’ll need protection as she gets used to crossing her legs over.

So to answer my client’s question, I think it’s important to take precaution with our horse’s legs to avoid injury from knocks, abrasions or cuts. But it’s equally important to try to prevent soft tissue injury by fittening your horse sufficiently because the jury is out as to how supportive boots actually are. And don’t feel that you have to use boots all the time: work out when you think your horse will most benefit from them and which types of boots (tendon boots, brushing boots, fetlock boots, etc) will best serve the purpose.

Then of course is the mind boggling question of which boots should you use. After all, they come in all shapes, sizes and materials. Basic boots are usually neoprene, which are lightweight so won’t have too much of a warming effect on the horse’s legs or weigh them down as they move. However, neoprene does soak up water so will become heavy and possibly hinder the horse after the water element on a cross country course.

Some boots have sheepskin inner, which were in fashion twenty years ago, but as the sheepskin warms the limbs up excessively they dropped out of fashion. Plus they’re so difficult to clean! However, sheepskin is better for sensitive skinned horses, and creates more even pressure around the leg so avoids rubs and pressure points. I saw some sheepskin boots in the Premier Equine catalogue which states that the sheepskin uses “airtechnology” to prevent the leg overheating. I’d like to see an independent study on the heat of legs and different materials of boots to see what materials are best.

Then there are more specialist boots, for example for fast work and cross country. These advocate their cooling technology. The ones I saw have vents which allow air to flow under the boot when the horse is moving. Together with technological advances, these boots have become very hard wearing and tough without getting heavy. Heavy boots will impede a horse’s movement and performance.

In all, despite the fact that we now know there are limitations and side effects of using protective boots for horses, technology has allowed boots to be developed which aim to enhance performance, prevent overheating, and provide protection to the limbs. So we shouldn’t be put off from using boots when necessary. However, I think I would choose when I used boots, and only use the level of protection that I required – so if a horse doesn’t need overreach boots then don’t use them, and don’t use specialist cross country boots for flatwork in the school – because the very nature of putting boots into limbs, or bandages for that matter, alters the way a horse uses their body. Then I would also minimise the length of time a horse spent wearing them.

On a side note, have you seen the research done on barefoot (human) runners and the difference in the way the foot absorbs impact when bare as opposed to when wearing trainers? It’s really interesting how the toes spread out and work independently to balance the body when unrestricted.

A Rhythmical Approach

There’s this horse that I was schooling for her owner who is best described as quirky. I’ve never really been aware, but she’s actually a very difficult horse to ride. Not because she’s particularly strong or nappy, or naughty or anything. But because you have to ride the whole spectrum with her. She can be really lazy and disengaged in the arena, then suddenly spook and do a snorting dragon impression whilst piaffing. She can be moving beautifully laterally and then change her mind and throw in a buck. So you have to have a huge range of tools and be quick to react to her behaviour at that particular moment in time. Because it will change in a flash.

This makes it hard to explain to someone else how to ride. You know, some horses you can sum up with “very quick off the leg but doesn’t spook” or “needs a lot of leg and seat to get canter”. But with this mare she can be everything within the same five minutes!

So I’ve enlisted a couple of friends to ride her under my supervision. I can tell them which buttons to press to get the best out of the mare on the day, and I can explain what exercises work best. There is a very fine balancing act too, between getting the mare working in a good rhythm with impulsion and straight, without her toys coming out the pram and her putting on the brakes, particularly in the canter.

I’ve had the girls jumping a lot because this mare really benefits from more complicated exercises, which to be frank can be a pain to set up on your own, and I like to get the mare thinking about the question rather than her usual cock-sure approach coloured poles.

One of last week’s exercises began as a series of canter poles. On the approach to fences it can be really tricky to find the right canter – three time, not too fast and flat, yet energetic. Then on the last few strides it can so easily go out the window. I felt that this exercise would help my rider get the feel of this delicate balance, whilst also making the mare stay in the correct canter rhythm.

After working over the poles in both directions I put up a cross pole. So there were three canter poles before a cross pole and then a landing pole to keep the mare’s focus after the fence.

It took a few goes in order to stop her rushing, or backing off, and to keep the rhythm in the canter throughout the exercises. My rider found that a walk to canter transition followed by a small circle and short approach helped create a lovely canter to the poles, and then the poles dictated the canter.

I built the cross higher and then turned it into an upright and then after removing the landing pole, an oxer. As the jump got bigger the mare had more of a tendency to change her canter on the approach – flattening, rushing and leaving her hindquarters behind her. Which made it harder for her to bascule correctly.

Its a very useful exercise to help riders learn to ride a rhythmical approach, and to be able to keep the canter together. Quite often, they’ll apply the leg to commit to the jump and a horse will be rushed out of their rhythm and lose the quality of the canter. When you have a horse as delicate to balance as this, the poles give a helping hand. Now this rider has got the feeling for approaching a jump with this mare which will help her get the best jump from her.

Getting Their Tongue Over The Bit

I remember it happening a few times when we were younger, but I’m not sure if it’s the fact that we know how to fit bridles better or if it’s the fact that bits are more ergonomically shaped and with different types of joints, so it’s actually harder for tongues to get over the mouthpiece.

However, it did happen a few weeks ago while I was lunging, which led me to wondering how many people would recognise the signs of a horse getting their tongue over the bit and how to prevent it happening on a regular basis.

The horse I was working with was trotting around sweetly in side reins when he started fidgeting with his head, not really shaking it but it became more mobile. Then his tongue came out the side of his mouth a couple of times as he contorted it and he lost all impulsion as he hollowed. A bit of white lipstick appeared suddenly and by that time I was bringing him back to a walk to sort him out.

I unclipped the side reins and gave him a moment. After all, if he got his tongue over the bit, he may be able to wiggle it back under. Which he did. I had a close look at the bridle he was wearing and decided that the bit could potentially be sitting slightly low. So I put one cheek piece up a hole and then straightened the bit in his mouth. It looked to be sitting slightly better, with a fraction more of a smile at his lips, and as I didn’t want a repeat performance I left it like this. We set off, and he continued as if nothing had happened.

From the ground, it’s quite easy to see a horse in discomfort in his mouth because you can see the tongue moving around, and the head shaking. What are the symptoms though, when you’re riding?

Firstly, it feels like the horse comes behind the bit and very light in the hand. Their neck may feel tense and contract towards their body. You should also feel a lot of movement in the mouth – almost like chomping at the bit – and possibly some head shaking. They’ll lose focus on the exercise and hollow.

If you think your horse has their tongue over the bit then it’s important to dismount in case they start to panic. Immediately give them a loose rein and find somewhere safe to jump off. Once on the ground you can see if their tongue is above or below the bit, and if they’re able to resolve the problem. Undoing the noseband, especially if it’s a flash or grackle, is sometimes enough to enable the horse to correct the tongue. I’ve known people to put their fingers in the corner of the horse’s mouth and push the tongue down. Obviously the horse needs to be fairly calm for this otherwise you could get injured. Alternatively, and this relies on you being in a safe place (I.e. not on the side of the road) you can take the bridle off and then replace it. Undoing one cheek piece and letting the bit drop carefully in the horse’s mouth is also helpful in allowing the horse more space to sort their tongue out.

Putting the tongue over the bit is an evasion tactic, and often occurs in youngsters who are playing with the bit whilst being backed. It can also happen because the horse is physically uncomfortable, either because of the type of bit or because of pain in their mouth.

If a horse repeatedly gets their tongue over the bit or seems generally uncomfortable with the bit and bridle, it is worth getting an equine dentist to thoroughly examine the mouth. The molars may be sharp, or the cheeks, gums or tongue irritated by the sharp edges.

Unfortunately however, getting the tongue over the bit releases endorphins so a horse is tempted to recreate the situation and give him a buzz. Which can make it a difficult habit to break.

Then you need to assess the bridle and it’s fit. Is the bit in good condition – plastic coated bits often develop rough edges over time which can cause callouses on the tongue and cheeks. The type of mouthpiece is important to consider as horses with different mouth conformations will find different shaped bits more comfortable and a horse who is comfortable in the mouth will move their jaw and tongue less so will be less likely to get their tongue over the bit. Horses with fleshy lips and tongues will find thinner mouthpieces much more comfortable, whilst some horses dislike pressure on the tongue so prefer a ported mouthpiece or multi jointed mouthpiece. You could even consider bitless bridles.

A bit that is fitted too low in the mouth commonly causes the tongue to go over the bit because there is physically more space above the mouthpiece and the bit is more mobile so there is more scope for the tongue to move around as the horse tries to stabilise the bit why get can cause it to get into trouble.

A correctly adjusted bit should sit so that there are two wrinkles at each corner of the lips. I miss the traditional bridles where the cheek pieces can be adjusted independently and the headpiece can sit slightly off centre. For example, the bit can be at the perfect height for the horse with one cheek piece on the third hole and the other on the fourth hole. The plain leather headpiece can sit slightly asymmetrically but the horse is very comfortable. However, with padded and shaped headpieces the bit has to be adjusted evenly on both sides to maintain symmetry in the mouth. Which sometimes I feel affects your ability to find the perfect fit.

I think in years gone by one answer to horses getting their tongue over the bit was to tighten the noseband or apply a flash or grackle. However, now education has increased and we are more aware of facial nerves and the effect of overtight nosebands people are moving away from this answer, and trying to find the root cause as opposed to fixing the symptom.