No Escape Routes

I taught a guinea pig rider over the weekend, a completely unknown combination to test my ability to assess and teach new people with no preparation, and we definitely had a breakthrough. With new, or unknown combinations, you often make tweaks and see the beginning of improvements, but rarely do you have a game changer of a lesson. That comes later when several tweaks come together in a dot-to-dot fashion.

My rider was a young teenager on her almost outgrown Welsh section B. The pony apparently had a phobia of fillers and didn’t jump more that 2’6″ at most.

After watching them warm up on the flat I felt that the pony was doing an excellent impression of a llama – nose up and out as he pranced along. But his rider had poker straight arms, which wasn’t helping the situation. Almost as soon as we’d corrected the hand carriage the pony relaxed his neck and became a bit softer in his frame. 

We moved into jumping, and the pony looked fairly scopey to me, albeit a bit erratic on the approach. So I focused my rider’s attention on the quality of the canter and not letting the pony back off towards fences. We worked on still softening the hands and arms on the approach, with quiet, positive legs.

Once they’d jumped a few and it was flowing well, I brought in the fillers. The two fillers were just at the side of the fence, with space to jump in the centre. Then I asked my rider how she was going to ride towards the filler jump. She said a few taps with the stick and fast. I asked her to demonstrate, so I could prove my point later.

After a refusal (a dive out to the right), they popped it easily and I brought them in to discuss how we could progress.

I felt that the pony was more than capable but was a typical pony and would take the easy route if possible. Which meant that it was down to his rider to ride him so that the only, and easiest, route was over the jump. Firstly, approaching a bit slower would give her more control and hopefully more time to prevent a run out. In order to give the pony just one direction to go in, the leg needs to be hugging him ready to apply pressure if he backs off the fence. The reins need to channel him straight without discouraging him from going forwards. I got my rider to imagine the reins were train tracks, hands quite close together and carried above the wither. The legs can help tunnel the pony along the tracks; e.g. If he drifts left, close the left leg and left rein to the shoulder. Basically the legs and hands had to block the alternative, sideways, routes. Finally, the seat needed to support the legs in driving the pony forwards. 

Put all together, the rider is quietly and positively giving the pony no alternative but to jump over the fence. We put the theory into practice, and they flew! Every single jump, regardless of filler or not, had a more positive and rhythmical approach and a better take off point and bascule. The whole course flowed nicely.

To test them thoroughly, I asked them to jump the narrow, white gate fence in the arena. It was full up 2’6″ and spooky, but my rider applied the aids and the pony refused by stopping on the final stride. This was fine; I explained to my rider that he was no longer running around the jump as his previous refusals had been, because her legs and reins were more effective. He had, however, exploited a weakness. She had just been a little lax with the seat, as she anticipated the take off. On the second attempt, they flew it easily!

They made a huge improvement through the lesson, and I think the rider understood the content and felt more confident in her pony’s ability. Hopefully they can apply this technique of shutting all exit routes in a quiet way, whilst clearly offering going forwards over the jump as the only option, the pony will stop thinking about how to evade the jump and just get on with it! It’s just a shame now that I can’t help them continue their journey, because they look like they’re going to have a lot of fun! 

Spring Fever

It might’ve been frosty this morning with a feeling of snow in the air but spring is definitely on it’s way.

How do I know? For starters the daffodils are out. Otis gazed longingly at the rested section of his field which he’s never done before. Unclipped horses are moulting like it’s going out of fashion.

But most significant, is the fact that I can’t catch the horses to ride them!

Yesterday a coloured cob wandered away from me for quarter of an hour until I purloined a lump of sugar (not a cube, but the lumps which form when damp sugar dries!) from the tea room and bribed him. 

Today I opened the gate to one gelding’s field, where he was lying down. He promptly got up and galloped laps of the field for ten minutes. I had even gone prepared with a mint treat, but couldn’t get close enough to show him. At least he’d worn himself out so he wouldn’t be as spooky on our hack…

After him I headed to the next field, where the large herd were cantering around. Next door was a geriatric cavorting around excitedly. I have to admit, there is something very uplifting when you see the veterans, or sensible horses, have a play in the field. Thankfully my next horse saw me coming and stopped playing so I could put his headcollar on.

With the spring grass coming through it’s important to make sure you aren’t over feeding; perhaps reduce the hay slightly and start to cut back on sugar beet or other hard feed. Increasing turnout helps get the wind out of their sails, and remembering to opt for lighter turn out rugs if possible so they don’t sweat if they do have a play. Then of course, actual exercise can be increased to help prevent energy levels building up, which is all the more pleasurable in the lighter evenings.

In Wales the horses usually stayed in at night until the Easter holidays, but invariably we would be told upon arrival on mild March days “so and so didn’t come down”. The culprit was usually cheeky Billy, and he ofte managed to persuade a friend to stay out with him. If the rebels followed our ponies down we had to let them in, but if not then it was tough teddies! They usually hurried in the next night!


Happy New Year!

Everyone knows that I’m one of the rare breeds who loves their job, but what is the best part about it?

As 2015 draws to a close, it’s a good time to reflect. I think the variety in my day makes mine such a great job. I see hundreds of people a week, certainly have my full of horses, and visit numerous yards.
For example, I enjoy clipping because I get a lot of satisfaction from the finished result. There’s nothing better than seeing straight lines on a velvety smooth, freshly clipped horse. Or those feather free, contoured legs, and smartly tidied mane and bridlepath. But I don’t enjoy clipping and trimming enough to focus on it every day. For starters, I’d soon get fed up of hair itching down my back!

Then of course there’s the teaching. Which I love, but when I do a full day of teaching I know I run out of power towards the end, so it’s nice to chop and change between teaching and clipping. I’ve got chance to regenerate, reflect and plan lessons so that I don’t feel like I’m on a production line – one client in, one client out … – I feel I know my clients well now, so can pick up where we left off each time and I can follow their journeys easily. Rapport is a great thing, and it means neither party is afraid to ask questions or make suggestions. It’s a team effort.

Finally, there is the exercising of horses that I do. It can be a more lonely job, just me and the horse, but as I’m not a social butterfly I enjoy this bit of downtime. Again, there’s some time to reflect and trial any new ideas I’ve had for future lessons. But it can be tiring riding all day, so slotting in a couple of lessons or clips is a good opportunity to rest my riding muscles.

I think I’ve got the right mix of work to keep me fresh and allow me to do my best and stay interested in my work and clients – human and equine.

But I think what makes my job incredibly satisfying and motivates me most is seeing the development in everyone. 

In the horses I school it’s the developing relationship and trust between me and them, and also the improvement in their way of going. For example, the mare I ride who had a serious bout of PMT about a month ago started randomly stopping, bucking and rearing, but I’ve managed to get inside her mind and get the attitude out of her system by working with her through it. Then there’s the Shire cross who I hack out, who can be nappy but he trusts me more now so that when something worries him he’ll listen to me first, rather than run away. It’s feeling the understanding in the pony I’ve been schooling recently so that he now starts in the school with a more active walk and using his hindquarters to propel himself along. It’s the horse I hack spotting me in the yard from the school and taking an opportunity to gravitate towards me. It’s the confidence in another pony over poles and jumps after a few days of working with me, of her relaxing and taking me towards the poles without fretting. It’s feeling the Anglo Arab understand the aids for shoulder in and try his hardest to produce it.

When I’m teaching the greatest satisfaction comes from the massive grin on a client’s face when they jump better than before. It’s their new found confidence on the ground and the relationship building between them and their horse. It’s the horse looking to them for guidance, and trying their heart out to please. It’s the understanding of a client to a technical term, or a correction, or the reason for the way their horse behaves, or why they didn’t succeed last time. It’s the pat and cuddle at the end of a lesson from a hot rider to their tired horse. It’s the new goals they set, such as starting to compete in a new discipline, or having the confidence to move up a level. It’s the smile as a client relives their success in a competition, or even just riding without me. 

I don’t think I could even begin to list the highlights of my 2015. I feel everyone has moved forwards along their yellow brick road, and are closer to achieving their goals, whatever they may be. The horses are all happy and healthy, with better fitness and muscle tone, whilst owners are more knowledgeable and confident in their abilities, and hopefully as happy and healthy as their horses!

So Happy New Year everybody, and good luck for 2016. I’m certainly looking forwards to moving along my yellow brick road and helping the people and equines in my life continue to grow.