Horses and Heat

Horses and Heat don’t mix very well do they? Poo picking, stable chores and riding are sweaty work in average temperatures.

The trouble in the UK is that we aren’t geared up for hot weather. Our native breeds have dense coats all year round, and the temperatures tend to sky rocket for days at a time before dropping again, which makes it hard for everyone to acclimatise.

If we are due only a couple of days of hot weather then I think I sit with the majority of equestrians in either riding early in the morning or giving the horses a day off. It’s also then easy to rearrange my work onto cooler days.

However, if the heat is here to stay, then there’s a degree of acclimatising to do. Especially if you compete. It’s all very well avoiding the heat and riding early in the morning, but what if your class falls at midday? As painful as it is pulling jodhpurs on over slippery, sun creamed legs, you do need to ride during the day so you are both prepared to ride a dressage test in the scorching heat. If a horse is in rehab, or needs to be exercised in order to lose weight then long periods of down time aren’t conducive, so it’s better to do lower intensity work for a few days than nothing at all. For example, I’d say that this week it is acceptable for a pony on fat camp to do less work because he’s unfit and finding it difficult to work and plateau in terms of building fitness and losing weight. Weight is maintained rather than lost, or even worse put on! When it gets cooler, his workload and weight loss can increase again.

However, exercise does need to be adapted in this heat, taking into account humidity, horse and rider fitness, taking lots of breaks, seeking shade, avoiding fast work and jumping in the heat of the day. Some horses cope better with the heat – usually finer coated animals, and those with no excess fat. Older horses tend to struggle with the heat too.

My lessons this week, working around the heatwave, have involved;

  • Hacking with a young client and teaching her about the ground, where it is suitable to trot, how to ride up and down hills, and what to look out for when riding in woods and fields. All the time building her confidence to trot independently on hacks.
  • Long reining and in hand work.
  • Walk poles.
  • Teaching the different types of walk so that rider and pony don’t waste the elongated walk breaks, and to encourage them to have slow and steady schooling sessions for the rest of the week.
  • Taking a horse into the jump paddock and desensitising him to traffic on the other side of the hedge, and riding him around and between jump fillers.
  • Stable management.
  • No stirrup work, as riders are usually happier with shorter bursts of work.
  • Transitions, especially halt transitions.
  • Lateral work and rein back.
  • Bareback.

I like having lessons at an enforced steady pace. Walk is so often overlooked, and improving the walk makes dramatic improvements to the quality of the trot and the transitions. I was really pleased with how one lady started to get a longer striding, swinging walk and then floated along in the trot, truly using his back and looking very supple through his ribcage.

The important thing to remember is that everyone copes with the hot weather differently, and to remember frequent breaks, sun cream, modified riding attire (I’ve not used gloves all week), and to drink lots of water. Each lesson has begun with me asking my client where their water is, and to say if they feel unwell or need to stop for a break. Then I know the lesson will run more smoothly.

A Moment on the Lips, A Lifetime on the Hips

Grass growth in the UK has gone insane in the last month and there seems to be an unprecedented number of horses coming down with laminitis or being very much at risk of it.

The best tactic for weight management is to start early. But that’s easier said than done! Unfortunately I think until an owner has experienced Code Red; drastic weight loss or the dreaded laminitis itself, it’s all too easy to be complacent. Especially with our tendency to anthropomorphasise our horses. Plus, it only takes an unfortunate coincidence of a couple of equine rest days and warm, wet weather for grass to grow rapidly and obesity to occur.

About two months ago, a companion pony of one of my clients had his annual check up by the Blue Cross. They declared him to be obese and advised that he lost a significant amount of weight very quickly.

It was a case of being cruel to be kind. The Blue Cross representative recommended shutting the pony in the corral for half the day and using a track system. Initially, my clients were told to shut him in during the day, and out overnight, but after considering their current routine it was decided that it was easiest to have the pony in the corral overnight. Especially as their evening bucket feed could be used to tempt him into his prison.

It goes against what we all know about feeding horses little and often, but drastic steps were needed. Besides, there are a few tufts of grass or weeds for him to pick at overnight. I set up the track system, and I’m pleased with the routine that’s now in place.

Every couple of days, once fat pony is safely locked away in the evening, the Shire cross who, by no means thin, but happy to eat the new grass, gets given a foot or two more of long grass on the track. He eats that overnight and in the morning, fat pony is let out of the corral and he gallops around the track, throwing in some bucks for good measure, to inspect the new section. Of course he does get to eat a little bit of it, but give that he’s put some effort into going around the track and there’s only a little bit to nibble at around the rest of the track, he’s fine.

I’ve noticed a lot move movement from both horses whilst grazing just in the time I’ve been there, which can only be good for both of their overall fitness.

Another bonus is that the grass is plentiful and should last well into the autumn at the rate it’s being grazed down, which will give the winter paddock ample time to recover.

We’ve had to get creative recently with another pony and his forage management after the farrier notices some bruising on his toes. Whilst not laminitic, he also felt a bit “off” to ride so his haynets are double holed, being weighed so he doesn’t get any more than 1% of his body weight, being long reined for miles (and I mean miles as I’ve done a lot of it!), and then we’ve set up a track system on the barest section of the paddock. As this pony lives on his own he has a tendency to stand still, with minimal walking around. He’s currently shut in a corral overnight with small nets in different places to encourage him to wander around the area. Then I’ve told his owners to take his breakfast bucket to the far end of the L shape before letting him out of the corral in the morning. Then he will hopefully start trotting along the track to get breakfast. It’s not much but a bit more exercise than feeding him by the gate. Then he can have any hay put at feeding stations along the track during the day. When he’s not at quite such high risk of laminitis and is in more work then he can have the track lengthened by a couple of inches a day, and hopefully not need to be shut in the corral overnight.

It’s tough, and most owners don’t like the idea of starving their horse, but it is a case of the lesser of two evils – starvation or laminitis – and once you’re on top of their weight and diet it is easier to find a happy medium of a level of feeding which you as an owner feel comfortable with (using muzzles, track systems, soaked hay as preference to grass, a bucket feed) which doesn’t cause weight gain, alongside an exercise regime and daily routine which complements this so that your horse is happy, and in the right condition.

Prix Caprilli

You know I always like a challenge, and this spring I’ve had the challenge of training a dozen keen Pony Clubbers for the Area Prix Caprilli competition.

For anyone who doesn’t know, Prix Caprilli is a riding test, akin to a dressage test, with two jumps in. It’s a dying competition which I think is a shame because having two jumps helps disguise the fact they’re doing dressage, and the fact it’s a ridden test means it is welcoming to everyone; young horses, hairy natives, the elderly schoolmasters, and riders of all ages. It doesn’t matter your mount, it’s how you ride them.

As you can see, it’s a challenging test. Especially when my youngest rider is only six years old. So my first challenge was to work out how to teach the different elements of the test to a group of primary school age children in a group setting whilst keeping them engaged and interested.

I decided that props were the best way to go, and to split each lesson up so that the last twenty minutes was spent jumping – even though I knew they were all capable of jumping the small height of the prix caprilli jumps. It would reward them for their hard work on the flat. I ensured they approached the jumps straight and in a rhythm, practising establishing the correct canter quickly after the jump. In one lesson we had a bit of fun doing a Chase Me Charlie.

For the flatwork, I chose a couple of different elements of the test to work on in each lesson.

  1. In the first session I laid out a 20m circle using little sports cones at A. Throughout the warm up, they practised trotting the 20m circle. With the cones they semi taught themselves, as they could see for themselves when their pony deviated from the circle. This meant we could keep the lesson moving. We also practised the change of rein across the diagonal and then cantering the circle individually.
  2. The next session we practised the centre lines. I used a tramline of poles at X and then cones at A and C. They did numerous changes of rein up and down the centre line. We added in halts at X, using the poles to stay straight. I think I also worked them in sitting trot and without stirrups, and nit picked how they rode their corners.
  3. The trickiest part to this test, and the hardest for children to understand, is the two shallow loops up the centre line, so I used two cones at X for them to ride through, and then used a jump pole to mark each shallow loop. The warm up was based around changing the rein with the loops, as well as revising other movements in the test. Then I used a handful of cones to mark out the two half ten metre circles and had them all trotting and walking it to learn the size and shape of the half circles.
  4. The penultimate training session focused on the canter sequence. It’s quite a fast paced section of the test and the movements come up quickly so I wanted my riders to know this part of the test really well, and then start riding tactically. For example, riding from left canter to trot close to B to give them as much time as possible to prepare for the “wiggle” as we nicknamed the double shallow loop. This exercise also allowed me to link the jumps into their flatwork for the first time.
  5. Then, just before the competition we had a dry run. They made a warm up plan with me, then warmed up as they would at the competition and they all rode through the whole test individually a couple of times to fine tune it. Then they went away to practise at home!

I enjoyed the challenge of finding exercises which kept the children engaged whilst helping them learn the test movements, which were simple enough for them to replicate at home.

But what I think I enjoyed the most about training the Prix Caprilli teams was competition day. The straightening of ties; warming them up; quelling any nerves; calling their tests; bacon butties afterwards, and most importantly watching them all pull off smart tests! I felt very proud of the young riders and their ponies.

One child asked me to read for him, sacking his Mum as he did. As we walked towards his ring he said “I’m feeling a bit nervous.” and privately, I had to agree! I definitely had butterflies in my stomach for all my riders!

Another thing for the CV, and whilst I was some what reluctant to take on yet another project, it was certainly enjoyable and I guess I’ll be doing it again next year!

But I am wondering, why can’t adults have Prix Caprilli competitions too?

Using All Senses

One of my young clients has dyspraxia. I won’t say suffers from, because it doesn’t hold him back. It just means I peep through my fingers as he canters around in a very loose position.

But because he finds it difficult to balance I try to do lots of little exercises each week to keep working on improving his proprioception and balance because he needs more time to develop the coordination and strength in his little body.

From very early on we’ve done bits without stirrups and are currently doing sitting trot without stirrups for five minutes each lesson (those of you who had 40 minutes without stirrups this week will be cursing me as you read this. But you’re old enough and ugly enough to survive!).

I’ve done quite a lot of no rein work, as has his Mum with him on the lunge, developing core stability and balance. Hands out to the side like an aeroplane now comes easily in rising trot, and you can see a steady improvement because his arms do not wobble around as much as they did.

I want to push boundaries though, and help him reach his current limits in the relative safety of a lesson, so that he’s in a better position to recover from anything his whizzy pony throws at him.

To improve his balance further, a few weeks ago I had him trotting around the indoor school in rising trot. With his eyes closed. Taking away a sense heightens other senses, so I hoped to improve his feel and balance with his pony by temporarily blinding him. Of course if he needed to, he could open his eyes immediately to help stay in the saddle. But he didn’t need to.

I also used this time with his eyes closed to draw his attention to the 1-2 rhythm of the trot because, somehow he has random days when he’s rising at a different tempo to his pony. So I’m trying to improve his awareness of and feel for rhythm and tempo, despite his young age. With his eyes closed he can also listen more carefully to the footfalls of his pony, which will help teach him rhythm too.

A couple of lessons ago I introduced cantering with one arm out to the side. His seat is very nearly established in canter, but considering how bouncy his pony’s strides are he does very well. We did do one canter with both arms out like an aeroplane. But it was a bit faster than I liked and my heart could only take one viewing.

Last lesson, I had a request to do no arms in canter and trotting with no eyes.

We duly did this. Trotting without stirrups for a bit, then taking the stirrups back and doing rising trot with his eyes closed. He was more secure in his pony’s tempo today and it was interesting that when his eyes were closed his core muscles kicked in because his elbows stayed closer to his sides and his rising trot was less “loose”.

We moved onto cantering, and after making a couple of positional corrections, I tied a knot in his reins. We skipped stage one of just one hand out, and held both arms out to the side, confidently. The next canter I called, “one arm out, then the other… Eyes closed!”

I was impressed. He stayed in a good balance and the pony fell into trot after the long side. Then I realised I had to tell him to open his eyes again!

We spent a while doing this exercise, with my rider starting to sit into the saddle for longer between bounces. He spent the entire time grinning and laughing loudly.

He’s not ready for no stirrups whilst cantering, but my plan over the next couple of lessons is to do some trotting on the lunge without reins or stirrups, and possibly with his eyes closed. I’d also like to try bareback riding with him to improve his feel and balance, which I think will really improve his coordination and muscle strength as his stronger side won’t be able to compensate for his weaker, less coordinated side, which will then become stronger and he’ll be more balanced and have greater stability in the saddle.

Jumping Circles

I’ve recently used quite a simple layout of jumps which has been quite enlightening for those riders who have problems landing on one canter lead, or riding tight turns to a fence, akin to a jump off.

Up the centre line I laid three jumps. One at X, facing E, and the other two on the inner track by A and C, parallel to the one at X.

Starting with poles on the ground, I started with my rider trotting then cantering a circle over two jumps. It’s about a 17 metre circle, and initially I’m aiming to establish rhythm, a round circle, and for my rider to do a position check for themselves.

Then we change the rein, doing the circle at the other end of the arena. Often there is very little difference to be felt between the two reins at this stage. Sometimes a rider will already identify that one circle is sausage-like, or it’s harder for them to turn on one rein than the other. Or that the horse keeps changing canter lead.

The next step is putting the fences up as cross poles. They need to be sufficiently big that the horse jumps them, but this lesson is all about repetition so not too big the horse will fatigue. The cross helps to keep the rider central.

The horse and rider I did this with last year have been focusing on biomechanics and straightness over the last few months. The rider sits twisted to the left, and the horse struggles to bend right. Chicken and egg as to who caused who to become wonky, but that doesn’t matter at the moment.

Firstly, they cantered some circles on the right rein, popping over the two jumps as they came to them. The circle was reasonably round, the horse stayed on the right canter lead (he often lands left lead if given the opportunity) and the rider was looking in the direction of the next circle. However, when I stood so I could see straight on to one of the fences I could see that the horse was actually jumping the fence at an angle; in order to ride a curve on the approach to the fence the horse jumped straight, at a 45 degree angle. He landed with his body on a tangent to the circle. Which meant my rider had to over correct to return to the line of the circle.

Then we changed the rein, and my rider realised how clunky the right rein circle felt as the left circle flowed in a consistent rhythm, the jumps felt effortless and the circle round. From my vantage point I could see the horse jumping on the line of the circle, so on landing they were already heading in the right direction which made it easier to turn.

We spent more time on the right rein circle, making small corrections to help both horse and rider jump straighter, and begin to improve their right bend before and after fences, even starting to get them both looking slightly right over the jump. To do this, we made the circle slightly more oval so that my rider had a couple of straight strides on the approach and getawa before arcing round. It’s better to have the straight stretch in order for the horse to jump straighter than for him to come off the circle, find it difficult, and then jump diagonally off on a tangent. As his suppleness improves less time will be needed on the straight.

In this session we mainly focused on their rhythm and balance on the circles. It was nice to see the jumps becoming more regular – no half strides taken out or extra ones added in – and the horse staying consistently on the correct canter lead. With this extended knowledge of her horse’s suppleness and the way he jumps, my rider can better plan any jumping courses, knowing that she needs to spend more time on the approach preparing her horse if they are to turn right after a fence.

A further exercise, which I did later in the week, was to have my rider ride a figure of eight over the three jumps, so changing their canter lead over the fence. This requires a greater degree of suppleness and balance in order to ride fluidly and rhythmically over the central fence. It is also a useful exercise to improve the rider’s ability to plan their route, and the horse’s response to their rider’s position over jumps, which helps them ride a smoother, more accurate jumping round.

7 Years

It has been seven years of Starks Equitation this month, so I’ve been doing some reflecting.

They talk about a seven year itch, but it’s not something I’m feeling. I think that’s because I have so much variety to my job.

Starks Equitation has changed significantly over the last seven years. I’ve changed significantly. I’ve more experience, more qualifications. I’m older. My values and opinions have shifted slightly. And Starks Equitation doesn’t just offer schooling and lessons now. There’s Demi Dressage, Pony Club, BHS stages training; let alone the other roles of confidant, advice guru, Prix Caprilli trainer, and anything else that’s asked of me.

I think it’s the ever changing challenges that keep me fresh. Sure if I were in any one role I’d rapidly get bored or stale in my job, but the fact that I teach all different ages and abilities, and across a range of activities definitely keeps me on my toes.

Although the ever changing nature of being self employed always makes me nervous. What if I lose all my clients? Well in the early days that was definitely a risk – a combination of fewer clients and the risks of injury, lameness, financial changes etc could potentially leave me with an empty diary. But now I have a finger in a few pies and lots of contacts I feel more secure in this area. In fact, now if I happen to have a couple of cancellations, or someone is away one week, I breathe a sigh of relief and use that free time to catch up on the rest of life’s admin.

One thing I don’t think I’ll ever get used to though, is the emotional involvement of teaching. I see all of my private clients at least once a fortnight, and see many Pony Clubbers regularly. I am on their riding journey with them. Whether it’s buying their first horse, or taking them from lead rein through to a one day event, or building their confidence from a nervous wreck to a shining star. I am there each step of the way. I like getting messages about their amazing hack when they felt confident enough to go solo. Or their competition results, or a super schooling session between lessons.

I don’t think clients always realise this emotional involvement. Perhaps it’s a fault of mine and I should be more business-like and leave each client in a box between their lessons. Social media doesn’t help this, as they pop up. But equally, I think it makes me a better teacher for being personally involved.

Possibly one of the hardest parts of this job is losing clients. Often it’s by no fault of anyone – they outgrow the pony, retire the horse, move away, either party gets injured. But sometimes you get dropped as an instructor. They want to try a different direction, they’ve jumped on the yard band wagon with a different instructor. Or sometimes, it’s just unexplained. That’s a tough pill to swallow. Sure, if you’ve taken a rider to the highest heights of your teaching skills and they are ambitious then often they move from towards a specialist coach; then so long as you all part with a “thank you” and “keep in touch” everything is funky dory. The tough bit is seeing, physically or on social media, them falling into bad habits or not progressing as you imagined their trajectory to be. It can be gut wrenching. And I know it’s not just me, but other instructors have this level of emotional involvement with their riders. I think more so at grassroots level, when you are involved weekly and get asked advice on a host of other management questions, as well as celebrating their milestones.

This emotion is what gives us the drive to stand outside in all weathers shouting “heels down” until we’re hoarse, and enables us to give 110% to every lesson. It makes freelancing a roller-coaster of emotions for which the highs (thankfully) usually outweigh the lows. But it’s nice to feel appreciated every now and again as we shadow you along your yellow brick road to success.

That’s not to say I feel under-appreciated. In fact I usually feel I’m being given too much credit by most of my clients! It’s just something that I’m very aware of, and know how detrimental it can have on your confidence as a coach.

Tramlines of Poles

I’m quite aware of the lack of teaching related posts recently on here. I’ve been as busy as ever with teaching, but just haven’t been inspired to relive exercises or lesson subjects here. Perhaps I’m getting boring in my old age.

I’ve done quite a lot of experimenting with props in my teaching recently, especially with Pony Club. I’ve been training the Prix Caprilli team over the spring and have found the easiest method to teach a group of children and get them riding accurately is to use props to direct them. Then I can focus on the big corrections, rather than having to talk at length to each child. For example, I used cones to make a round circle, which meant we could then ride circles as a ride on both reins easily and everyone could improve their circle shape and size over a short period of time. To learn the half ten metre circles across the arena, we used tramlines at X and cones to get the circles round. For the centre lines, we used cones and poles to guide them all straight.

Which brings me to the exercise I thought worth sharing because I’ve used it for many riders of varying abilities.

Depending on the width of the arena, lay a tramline of poles on the centre or three quarter line. Ideally the rider won’t be coming off a ten metre half circle as that makes the exercise much harder.

If a rider turns using their inside rein only, they are turning the horse from the nose, leaving the rest of the body wiggling along like a snake. When they turn in this way towards the tramlines they will “bounce” from side to side, much like a bowling ball bounces against the bumpers as it zig zags down the lane.

With any rider who struggles to understand the concept of turning with the outside aids, or over uses their inside rein, riding through the tramlines is invaluable in helping them understand the difference in balance and straightness of a horse being turned from the inside rein. Often I will get a rider to turn down the tramlines using just the inside rein to experience the bowling ball bounce, and then to turn using the outside aids so that they can compare the two extremes. This usually helps them better understand balance and the aids; and to maintain an outside rein contact throughout a turn, which improves their general outside rein contact.

Once my rider comprehends turning correctly, we compare turning from each direction to see if the horse is stiffer, or even if the rider is stiffer, in one direction. This exercise subconsciously improves the rider’s accuracy of turns, particularly the centre line turn, but they start to prepare better, feel a loss of balance earlier, and to steer the body of the horse rather than the head.

For some, the tramlines are enough of a learning curve at this point. But I like to take the poles forward from this point to help teach a rider to ride straight transitions, and to help them learn and understand any asymmetry in their horse.

Initially, I use a variety of progressive transitions – walk to halt, walk to trot – with only one transition within the tramlines so my rider can really concentrate and not rush. First, they ride the transition as normal and we notice. Does the pony drift, do they collapse one side. Then we start checking that they are applying even aids and are of course staying sat centrally in the saddle. If the horse still loses straightness through the transition, we then look at how my rider can prevent any drifting by altering their preparation and execution of the aids.

Once single, progressive transitions are mastered, I put multiple transitions in as then the rider has to prepare each one more quickly and if the horse loses straightness and balance in the first they have to work hard to correct them both for the second. Which may very well happen in a dressage test.

Usually a horse starts to travel straighter with just the guidance of the poles, which helps the rider learn the feel of straightness and to improve their own symmetry. However, if the horse consistently drifts it is probably because he is crooked in some way; perhaps one diagonal pair is stronger than the other, perhaps there’s assymetry in their pelvis, perhaps there’s an underlying issue in a limb. Then I suggest a check over by the physio or chiropractor to eliminate any actual issues, and then hopefully training will resolve the crookedness.

My next challenge is for my rider to ride canter transitions in a straight line. If a horse has a preferred canter lead then they will pick that one up more often than not. Again, it’s a really useful exercise to get to know your horse a bit better as often a rider is unaware of the extent of their horse’s canter lead preference. Horses are far more likely to drift in the canter transition, and when they stay straight they utilise their hindquarters better and the transition becomes much more uphill.

Then finally, we test the rein back. Most horses will drift slightly, and using the tramlines will improve the quality of the rein back and their overall strength.

The tramlines are so useful in improving centre lines, teaching a rider the feel of being straight, and reducing the asymmetry of the horse, in a far better way than I can with just words. Definitely a useful set up to repeat regularly with riders and horses at all stages of training.

Teaching Small People

I’m embarking on my biggest challenge to date – teaching an independent, strong minded three year old to ride. So far I’ve had mixed success.

I’ve been fending off questions for months about when we’re getting a pony; learning to ride; joining Pony Club. But I’ve had my reservations. I don’t want to push equestrianism onto her. I want her to choose to love horses. Which I think she does at the moment. I’m also very aware of pressure. Pressure from outsiders for her to ride, and for her to be accomplished. Unbeknown pressure from me because of my profession.

I’ve opted for a share agreement with a friend’s pony, Tangle, initially, of just once a week with the potential to increase to two in the future. It’s her pony time, and we can do whatever she wants to do, at her speed. It’s all about her.

We go on Tuesday mornings, after our Phoenix and Otis chores. We catch, she leads in at pace with the poor pony jogging along behind. Outside the stable, there’s a haynet waiting for Tangle who tucks in hungrily. Mallory goes straight to the treat bin – she knows how to get onto Tangle’s good books! I groom, Mallory selects her favourite brush, gives a couple of cursory strokes. She gets the hoof grease and insists on painting all four hooves. This usually takes less than ten minutes and I try to follow her lead at the speed we go. We can do more grooming afterwards if she wants.

While I tack up, I try to find out what riding we’re doing today.

The first option is going into the arena, walking over the rainbow poles, trotting a couple of laps, and then invariably losing interest and wanting to go for a walk around the fields.

The second option, which is usually the chosen one, is to hack to the duck pond, incorporating a few trots along the way. The odd dismount and walk; an ooh and ahh at a sleeping duck. And some waving at pedestrians and drivers.

She isn’t hugely receptive to the idea of being taught on Tangle. Just getting her to hold the reins is a challenge.

"Hold onto the green bit here."
"No, actually. I'll hold the orange bit."

She’s keen, and repeatedly asks to be taught on her rocking horse. Although equally she doesn’t take kindly to being told to do something she doesn’t want to do!

How much teaching should I be doing with her? How much success should I be having? Thinking of the young kids I taught in riding schools, I had mixed success with pre-schoolers. But then again, I know some Pony Club children of a similar age who have an established rising trot and are cantering.

I try not to compare. After all, each time her confidence improves, as does her balance in the saddle. She learns nuggets of information like the colours of the horses; to lean backwards when going down hill; where the withers are; and that ponies eat hay.

I guess following her lead will keep her most engaged with caring for a pony and riding. And one day, she’ll ask for a proper riding lesson… Whereby I will be asking a friend to teach her!

Track System Turnout

I was first introduced to the idea of track systems ten years ago, as a method of encouraging horses to move around their paddocks more. It was predominantly aimed at companions, the laminitis prone, and obese. The friend who first set it up definitely noticed an improvement in the waistlines of her unridden equines. She sets up a track around the edge of her hay field, and cuts hay from the centre of the field, while the ponies graze the edges which are harder to cut with the tractor.

But they’ve evolved. Track systems are now hugely complicated, focus on enrichment and often have different “areas”. There are social media groups for the obsessed. It’s almost a culture, like those who have barefoot horses.

As with anything, I sit firmly in no man’s land. Barefoot is great if your horse is happy without shoes. But if they’re not, then give their hooves some form of protection. The majority of horses will benefit from a track system, and if you can provide one with different zones then great. But if you can’t provide the full works then just take away the basic concept and don’t stress.

Which is?

To encourage a horse to walk around their turn out area more, to mimic the natural nomadic lifestyle of wild horses.

Now, if you have your own land, plenty of it, plus plenty of resources to build miles of fencing, then yes, go all out and build the most fantastical track system for your horse to enjoy. Providing different surfaces underfoot, hedgerow and browsing plants, shelter and everything else you’ve ever wanted your horse to have.

But that is the ideal situation.

The majority of us have rented fields with livery yard restrictions, which renders an all singing, all dancing and track system inconceivable. However, like I said, just keeping the core concept of increasing their step count, can really help you manage the weight and general fitness of your horse.

Most paddocks at livery yards are rectangular, and the usual way that people strip graze, or rest half, is to create a “front half” and a “back half” which are effectively squares. Now, what about if you were to turn that around? Instead of putting up temporary fencing across the field, parallel to the short side, what about putting the fence at ninety degrees, parallel to the long side? You then have two rectangles of turnout. The physical area of your horse’s space is the same, but the layout means there’s more walking involved whilst grazing. You can also encourage further movement by putting any hay at the far end of field to the gate and water.

I used this set up for Otis when he was in work, and when I wanted to introduce the rested area, I opened up the fencing at the far end of the field and gave it to him in small chunks. So he’d have to walk the full length of his field, go around the corner and back on himself to get fresh grazing. To rest the first half of the field, I’d just shut the fencing at the far end, and make a gateway near the metal gate. I never had a problem controlling Otis’s weight, but I’m sure it helped keep his baseline fitness up.

Now, with Otis in retirement, we often extend the boys’ paddock into the track, so they get more access to the hedgerow for browsing and have to do a bit more walking to counteract the plentiful grass as exercising him isn’t an option.

When clients talk to me about managing their paddock with the spring grass and tubby pony, I always suggest making the strips of grazing as long and thin (within reason) as possible. If a paddock is rather square, then creating an L shape is a useful way of maximising footfall. Fresh grass can then be given at the far end, eventually creating a C shape. It’s by no means a track system, but it is glorified strip grazing, working within the confines of a standard livery yard set up, and relatively quick and easy to set up and maintain each spring, and hopefully helps reduce the weight gain of the good doers.

Has anyone else found a difference in their horse’s baseline fitness and waistline by changing the configuration of their paddocks?

Floppy Thumbs

With a lot of my teaching I try to come up with catchphrases, so I can say a word to trigger my rider to make a certain correction or check. They often aren’t very technically correct, such as a “squashy trot” for collecting the trot.

This catchphrase has developed over this week due to some recent observations I’ve made, and I think it works quite well.

Most riders don’t carry their hands with the thumbnail pointing vertically up – even if you think you do your thumbs will still point slightly inwards. Now, don’t pretend to hold the reins and say they’re 100% correct, have a look next time you’re in the saddle.

With riders who have the classic “pram pushing” hands with knuckles facing skywards, they often have the elbows sticking out slightly. They may not be flapping like chicken wings, but they will be loose. With loose elbows, the core is weaker and less engaged.

In a nutshell, I find if I tell a rider to put their thumbs on top, I also have 5o tell them to keep the elbows snug to their sides. The two faults are linked.

When I tell a rider to put their thumbs on top there is usually an improvement, but only a 90% improvement at most, and they very quickly let the thumbs flop in slightly.

So I needed a phrase to correct both parts of a rider’s anatomy. The next time you are riding, rotate your hands outwards so that your fingernails point upwards. Can you feel your elbows squeezing against your rib cage? Can you feel your core slightly more engage? No huge clenching of muscles, but your posture and deportment improves.

Yes I agree, riding with your fingers up is a bit extreme, and not very correct, but if you over correct your hands in this way, as soon as your mind drifts to your next circle or change of rein, your hands start to revert. But because of the extreme positioning of the hands, the thumbs end up pointing to the sky, and the elbows snug by your ribs.

Now for the catchphrase. “Flop your thumbs out” seemed to work quite well for my clients this week. It’s short and sweet, draws a smile, no one feels like their being reprimanded, isn’t technical, and gets the desired result.

Now for the core effect. Once my riders have gotten the idea of flopping thumbs, I ask them how their seat and core feels. Often, they don’t notice a thing, so I get them to ride a normal trot-walk transition (with sitting trot beforehand). I haven’t corrected their position or aids for half a lap or so. I ask them how it feels. Then we repeat the transition, but this time I remind them to flop their thumbs out just before taking sitting trot, and then explain how different it feels.

With one rider this week, she noticed a huge change in her balance in the downward transitions, and could feel her core working harder to stabilise her when her elbows were by her side. We took it forwards to the canter transitions, and by the end of the lesson she could feel an ache in her abdomen, which showed she’d worked harder and differently that usual. Like I said earlier, there isn’t a huge visible change to a rider’s torso when flopping their thumbs, but they feel more stable and secure without being tense when the elbows are closed against the ribcage, and it is definitely more noticeable during transitions and sitting trot.

Try it; flop your thumbs out slightly every so often when you’re riding or are about to ride a movement or transition, and see the difference it makes to your balance, stability, and contact.