In The Box

I’ve been working on a new analogy recently, which has been positively received and greatly helped several riders. So here it is.

So often riders get overly focused on what’s going on at the front end of their horse, as it’s easier to see that rather than feel what’s going on behind them, that they become handy and forget to ride from leg to hand.

Some horses, when a contact is taken up, shrink in the neck and try to hide behind the bridle, either by hollowing or becoming overbent.

Putting the two together makes a difficult combination.

In walk, I get the rider to gather their reins – not too short, but not slack – and this is the rein length that they will maintain. I ask them to imagine that they have created a box with each rein being the long side of the box, and the short sides of the box are created by the bit and the space between the hands. The box is going to stay fairly square, and this size.

I ask my rider to push their horse forwards in the walk, focusing on the idea of filling the box in front of them with the head and neck. This encourages the rider to use their leg rather than their hand to improve the horse’s gait. It also discourages the rider from shortening the reins, and the horse shrinking behind the bridle.

Once this is established in walk, we move into trot. The aim is to keep the horse filling the box in front of the rider. This encourages the rider to keep using the leg and have a softer hand, which creates a more positive and consistent rein contact. The horse tends to stay longer in the neck, and the rider feels that they have more horse in front of them than they do behind.

I find that thinking of this box helps change the rider’s thought process and they start to apply the leg before the hand.

Of course, the size of the box can be changed as necessary – if the horse carries themselves in a shorter frame in one gait, or they are being asked to stretch longer and lower – but adjustments to the rein length should be planned and not fussy with micro adjustments. This also helps create a more stable connection between mouth and hand.

Once a rider understands and visualises the box, it becomes a useful reminder when the horse drops behind the leg, becomes over bent, or shortens the neck. I find it particularly useful to improve the canter, helping the rider to use their seat and leg to increase the energy in the canter.

No Foot, No Horse

Have you heard the old saying “no Foot, No horse”?

Where if comes from, nobody knows anymore. But it’s still as relevant today as it was a hundred years ago.

In a nutshell, it means that if your horse’s feet are in poor condition then they will not stay sound for very long. The length of soundness varies depending on how poor the feet are, and the workload expected of the horse, but it is limited.

So when looking to purchase a horse, you should always look at the conformation of the horse’s feet and the quality of the shoeing and trimming. As well as many other factors.

When you buy a horse, you should then recruit a registered, qualified farrier to maintain your horse’s foot quality, or indeed to improve them.

However, don’t just stop there. Every day pick out the feet, study them critically. Observe any changes. And talk to your farrier!

My farrier always asks “how’s she going?” when he arrives, and another farrier of several clients always asks how the horses are going when he sees me. It’s easy to say “oh fine thanks”. But make sure you’re honest, with both of you! Tell them if your horse has started stumbling, or you’ve noticed any changes to your horse’s feet, however trivial. A good farrier will take any information on board, no matter how small, and alter their work to improve matters.

Hoof walls take six to twelve months to grow from coronet band to ground, so it’s best to make corrections early so the hoof doesn’t become distorted and weakened, changing the weight distribution of the foot and possibly stressing an area of the limb and triggering an injury. A horse belonging to my friend, a thoroughbred with typical flat feet, repeatedly threw a shoe from one foot over the summer, and whilst the farrier did a reasonable job helping the hoof recover from multiple shoeings and the associated damage of throwing a shoe, the foot has changed shape to become weak and low at the heel. As a result, he is having to have six months off until new, stronger horn has grown, and the hoof improves in shape. This is to minimise the risk of injury to collateral ligaments if he stresses them by walking differently due to foot imbalance.

I’ve recently discovered that I’m very fussy about horses and their hooves. It’s one of the first things I look at when assessing new clients. And I find myself regularly commenting on their condition. I’m no farrier, but I can tell when a horse is well shod, or trimmed.

I tend to impart my observations, explaining my understanding of ideal foot balance, so that my clients learn what to look for in the future. With a newly shod foot, the shoe should look like an extension of the foot. Even when they are due to be shod, the toe should not be so long that the heels are collapsed.

I try to teach my clients about the hoof-pastern axis to help them assertain hoof balance for themselves. The wall of the hoof should be at the same angle to the floor as the pastern. If the HPA is broken back and the toes are long then more strain is put on the tendons down the back of the leg. A broken forward HPA axis stresses the tip of the coffin bone when the foot lands. So of course, neither side of ideal is great for the soundness of a horse.

If you identify a less than ideal HPA axis, or that your horse’s HPA has changed, you should raise the subject with your farrier. A good farrier will explain why the changes are happening, and how they are correcting it. If you are still not happy with their responses, then I always advise a second opinion.

If a horse has a broken back or broken forward HPA axis, then the farrier needs to make small, steady changes to improve the balance without removing so much hoof the horse goes lame. I was disappointed to hear last week that a farrier, when asked by my client, about her horse’s long toes, said that he couldn’t change the HPA of a mature horse without laming it. It’s very important to make small corrections from excess hoof growth to avoid soundness problems in the future.

My advice to horse owners is to study and understand the basic observations surrounding good hoof balance, and to discuss it with your farrier. A good farrier will further your knowledge with explanations, and take your observations on board. If they don’t, then it’s time to get a second opinion.

An interesting article for further reading:;;; https://www.geniusequestrian.com/the-importance-of-hoof-pastern-axis-and-working-together-to-achieve-good-hpa/

A Trachea Scope

During August I had a slightly concerning time with Phoenix. She was doing well under saddle, but something wasn’t quite right and I couldn’t put my finger on it, but the result was that I was riding cautiously, and I felt that Phoenix was quite flat when I rode her. I was carrying her around the second test at competitions, and after jumps she readily fell to walk unless I actively rode her away.

There was nothing to see, she moved well. Then I wondered if she wasn’t fit enough, so I upped her canter work. One day in mid August I took her for a canter around the fields, which she was most definitely up for, pulling my arms out my sockets on the way home. But she was puffing away for significantly longer afterwards than normal. Then a few days later she was breathing very heavily during a dressage lesson and I could only do short bursts of work before letting her rest, nostrils flaring.

I monitored her closely for a few days; there weren’t any clinical signs at rest, no coughing, breathing rate was normal, and she recovered quickly after exercise, but she was definitely “puffy” and flat in her work.

So I called the vet, who came a week later to check her over. In the very least, Phoenix would get an MOT and my mind laid to rest. The vet listened to her heart and lungs in the stable, declaring them problem free. Then I lunged her.

As is typical when you have the vet, Phoenix looked slightly off on the left fore when I lunged her. Not hugely concerning to the vet, but it was flagged up. However, Phoenix did show an “intolerance to exercise” which concerned the vet.

We decided to rest Phoenix for a week to hopefully resolve the mild lameness, and see if a rest caused her respiration to sort itself out. A week passed and Phoenix was sound, but I still wasn’t happy with her breathing, so I booked the vet to scope her trachea so we could see if there were any issues, and take a sample of the cells to test for abnormalities.

I found the experience fascinating and really educational. Phoenix was sedated, and then a thin tube with a camera was pushed up one nostril. At the end of the tube was a box, held by the vet. This had a screen, showing an image of her trachea from the camera, and some knobs to control the angle of the camera.

The vet showed me Phoenix’s larynx, and explained that she was looking at the movement of the arytenoid tendons to see that they’re both opening and closing evenly and fully. It is fairly common for horses to have a mildly paralysed left arytenoid cartilage, causing them to “roar”. You may have heard of the “tie-back operation” which is often done to improve the performance of sufferers. Thankfully, Phoenix’s larynx looked very healthy and fully functional.

I then got to slowly push the tube further down Phoenix’s trachea, while the vet controlled the camera, studying the screen intently. Again, her trachea looked healthy. There was no obvious mucus, no inflammation.

The next job was to take a fluid sample from her trachea. This was really interesting! The vet syringed some water down the tube so that it formed a puddle in her trachea. Then the syringe was used to suck the liquid back up.

The liquid which came back from Phoenix’s windpipe was unexpectedly dirty given her mild symptoms, so the vet sent the sample to the lab to be analysed for signs of infection and abnormalities.

In the meantime, we discussed potential management techniques to help improve Phoenix’s respiratory health. Things like soaking hay, dust free bedding, maximise turnout, different drug options including Ventapulmin and steroids.

Two days later I spoke to the vet. To her surprise, the samples had come back clear. Which didn’t really solve the mystery of why she was puffing when being ridden. Apart from the fact that she had lost fitness with me riding more cautiously and backing off her exercise. But at least I now know that there isn’t anything seriously wrong with Phoenix.

The scoping gave me the confidence to start pushing Phoenix’s fitness and work intensity, because her respiratory system is healthy. I’m still concerned that she had some form of reaction mid August, perhaps a low level virus or to a type of pollen, but as there are no long term symptoms I’ll just have to keep a close eye on her at that time next year to see if she has a similar flat, puffy phase. Then I can liaise directly with the vet, picking up where we left off this autumn.

Whether it’s the change in weather – wetter, less humid, less pollen – or the fact that with better ground I’ve taken her for a couple of pipe openers around the fields and cleared her lungs of any muck, but Phoenix has been coping better with exercise, and although not her usual sharp self (perhaps she’s grown up?) she’s still forwards in her work and not trying to fall into walk after a couple of jumps.

To some, I may have overreacted to Phoenix’s mild symptoms and overthought things, but getting her an MOT has allowed me to push aside doubts and ride more positively, which has broken the cycle of doubt where I don’t ride positively so Phoenix doesn’t go positively… And now we’re back on track!

One Step Ahead

It’s a tricky process when teaching a child rider and a pony when the pony is clever. And keen to work.

Recently I’ve been helping one of the Pony Club members who is in this situation. Her lovely pony has the expected attitude of a Welsh chestnut mare, and is easily offended if the rider is heavy handed. And likes to work. They’ve had a couple of bad experiences in their short relationship, which has made her rider nervous, which is how I ended up being involved.

The crux of their problems, I believe, is that the mare anticipates what they’re going to do next, gets faster or turns sharply, and worries her rider who puts the handbrake on. Which then makes the exercise awkward and the mare likely to put in a frustrated buck.

I warmed them up in walk and trot, using circles, changes of rein, and other school movements as well as transitions to get my rider relaxing and the pony listening to her rider. My rider was happy in the trot, so I explained how we should ask her pony lots of questions to keep her focused on her rider. The questions didn’t need to be difficult, but should be varied and in different places around the arena. This is a steep learning curve for most kids as they have to use a bit of initiative, start to think outside the box, and generally put some thought into their riding. Once my rider got into this mindset, we moved onto canter.

The first transition is usually fine, but after that the mare anticipates, quickens in the trot, and my rider starts to tense up and over think the transition. We made a plan.

They rode a canter transition in the corner before the short side. First transition, so easy peasy. When they rode into trot, I got my rider to immediately ride a circle. Then they changed the rein. Then we cantered again. Upon trotting, they started a serpentine. Then the mare tried to quicken into the corner in anticipation of canter. So they walked. Then trotted another circle. Then cantered. Then trotted, turned across the arena to change the rein, walked in the next corner and then rode a 20m circle at A in trot. As they crossed the centre line, they cantered.

You get the picture. My rider felt more in control, her pony was listening to her so wasn’t rushing. My rider relaxed, the pony relaxed. We repeated the transitions so she stopped over thinking them. The transitions became more consistent and everyone was generally much happier.

The next problem was jumping. Again, the first jump was usually trouble free, but the mare likes jumping so can land a bit fast and if half halted too sharply will spin her tail like a wind turbine and generally be upset. She also anticipates any exercises.

I placed a pole on the floor between two wings on the three quarter line, and we started by riding school movements which accidentally-on-purpose went over the pole. We also trotted a normal approach on the three quarter line, but kept varying things to help make going over poles uneventful and keep my rider in control and relaxed. I also had them ride a serpentine, with the central loop going over the pole.

Again, as my rider relaxed, they both improved. We made the pole into a little jump and continued in this theme of varying the approach and mixing in different questions to prevent any anticipation.

This works really well with small jumps or trotting poles, but as the jumps increase in size, you can’t approach with only two straight strides!

I raised the jump slightly, and we stuck to the three-quarter line approach, but started to use more questions to keep the attention of the pony, and ultimately, stay in control. On the approach to the jump, my rider rode a fifteen metre circle. This stopped the pony locking onto the jump and accelerating. After the jump, my rider asked another question – a transition or a circle. Then we varied the approach to have two circles, or a transition, or to ride onto the three-quarter line but after three strides, ride to the left or right of the jump. This is a tricky tactic because we don’t want to encourage the pony to learn to run out. Which is why my rider had to turn away from the jump before the pony had locked on, make it a definite movement with intention, keep riding positively, and to not repeat it too frequently. It’s just another tactic which can be a useful alternative to circles.

We talked about how to take this forward to linking jumps together. I told my rider to not be afraid to ride transitions between jumps, or circle once, twice or thrice if needed. Of course, this wouldn’t be a clear round, but if the pony expects a question between jumps then when they attempt a course a half halt will be sufficient to keep the pony focused. And she will be steadier because she’ll be anticipating a circle or transition.

They finished the lesson on a positive note, knowing how to take these tactics forward so that this rider could stay one step ahead of her pony.

A week later, we took them for their first experience cross country. The aim was to be in control on the flat in an open field, pop over a couple of jumps in a calm fashion. And finish with a smile!

I only did a couple of canters in our warm up, but we used the same approach of asking lots of little questions, and varying the space we used to ensure the pony stayed focused on her rider.

The first couple of jumps went smoothly, but then the mare got a bit quicker, and my rider started to over think things. So we used the circle on the approach tactic to limit the speed of their approach, and when we linked a couple of logs together, there were a couple of circles in between.

Then my rider started to over think things, and get anxious towards the fence which frustrated the pony so she leapt a couple of jumps awkwardly because the trot lacked impulsion. I took them away from the jumps and had them trot a circle around me, slowly increasing the size of the circle and the tempo of the trot so that it was suitable to jump out of. Then we migrated the circle so that they were circling around the log jump. There were a few circles here as the ever hopeful mare pricked her ears going towards the jump, and my rider wasn’t in the right place mentally. But then they did it!

We repeated these circles as required around the jumps to settle my rider as much as anything.

We took a break from jumping, to have a go at the mini steps up and down, and the water. All these were taken in their stride, especially as they could be approached in walk initially, and trot as they grew in confidence.

We finished this successful introduction to cross country by jumping a log (circling beforehand to quell nerves and to get the balance in the trot), then the steps up and down (walking as required), into the water, trotting out and over another little log. I was pleased that we’d started to link things together, but I think it will take a couple more cross country experiences for them to be happy linking jumps together. However, I will continue to use obstacles like water in the interim so that my rider doesn’t feel that every jump needs several circles beforehand to prepare. When we have a few more options of obstacles (because they’ve jumped other jumps that we didn’t do this time) it will be easier to change approaches and courses so that the pony doesn’t anticipate and worry her rider by her eagerness.

Confident Cross Country

Last weekend I had a very enjoyable and satisfying cross country lesson. We were focusing on developing the partnership, building their confidence and ultimately overcoming the inevitable refusal on the first attempt to every jump.

Their last session with me hadn’t gone particularly well. The last time I’d seen her cross country she’d been flying round, but unbeknown to me she had had a blip and we had a miscommunication. So once warmed up over some logs, I sent her towards a house. Where they had a problem.

So, knowing the full story, we met up again. After she warmed up, and had a look at the jumps to see what intimidated her, and what looked to be within her comfort zone, I sent them to trot over a plain, natural pheasant feeder style fence. It was inviting, well within their comfort zone. The pony refused.

They approached again in trot, with my rider being a bit more positive, and the pony stopped again. Ultimately, I realised that the pony had lost faith in his rider, who was now losing faith in both herself and him.

I explained that if he refuses, he can’t run away from the jump. He has to stop and breathe before being re-presented. Then I reminded her how her hands and reins channel him straight, preventing him opening a side door and dodging around the jump. But the hand shouldn’t discourage him from going forwards, through the front door. Her legs supported the reins in keeping the side doors firmly shut, but along with the seat they also keep the back door shut too, so he can’t slow down.

With this in mind, and taking sitting trot just before the jump, they were successful. I had them repeat the same jump until they were both approaching it happily, in a positive rhythm, and enjoying it.

The pony loves to jump, but he does need his rider to tell him to jump; you can’t be a total passenger. But equally, he doesn’t like it if you ride too strongly or aggressively to a fence, pushing him out of his rhythm. My rider knows this, but when coupled with cross country nerves, she has the tendency to “panic-smack” him on the shoulder with the whip. I made light of the panic-smack so that it raised a smile when I warned her off doing it, or told her off if she did it. She soon realised the difference between gently supporting him throughout the approach to a fence, compared to being a passenger and then suddenly interfering on the penultimate stride.

So we’d established how she needed to ride towards a jump, and her go-to’s when she got worried. Which means she can plan her approach to fences, remind herself of what not to do, and hopefully then be successful.

Next up, we had to restore her pony’s faith in her as a rider and leader. We moved around the course, jumping new jumps, still within their comfort zone. Initially, we had that first refusal at a new jump, but within a couple of goes my rider was consistent to the fence and responded quicker to her pony’s second thoughts. Which meant that he backed off the fences less and began to trust her.

Then they were flying together, and we linked the jumps together, used some steps, traversed the water, jumped out of, and in the water. The jumps stayed quite straightforward, but they had to link combinations together. I was pleased that the pair were starting to work in synchronisation with each other. This meant that even if my rider got her line slightly wrong, the pony was still committed to jumping, and not thinking how he could slip past the obstacle.

Every so often, they did have a run out. But we knew the reason – poor presentation to the fence, or my rider having a moment and regressing to panic-smacking. But on the whole, there was real improvement. My rider knew how to approach the fence, rode quietly yet positively, and her pony believed in her leadership in choosing a jump, and his ability to clear it.

It was a very rewarding lesson to teach because you could see things clicking into place for each half of the partnership, and how much happier they were at the end. It was progressive, confidence building, and the fact they made my final questions look very straightforward showed just how much progress had been made. Next up is to consolidate this work at another venue, and progress to asking slightly trickier questions, which will leave them in good stead to practice on their own.

Biting Off More Than You Can Chew

A couple of weeks ago I booked a cross country venue for the afternoon, for a variety of clients to come for private, semi private and group lessons. Mostly, it was successful. But one session in particular really challenged me, taking all my teaching skills as well as human and equine skills, to make a success of it.

Unfortunately, I think there was a bit of bad timing involved. This horse can get a bit, err, over excited in company, and a little clingy to other horses. He has a solitary life – more on that another day – because he’s such a playful acrobat in the field that no one wants to risk their horse being injured (understandably). Which means that he gets a bit silly when in the company of others. I put him at the beginning of my day so that we’d only have horses arriving towards the end. We had just started calmly walking him around the field, letting his eyes pop back into his head, when a horse trotted up the road adjacent to the far side of the field. This acrobat immediately started turning himself inside out in an attempt to look at, and go over to the happy hacker. I really think the lesson would have gone totally differently if this horse hadn’t trotted past at the beginning. Lesson learnt for next time – use acoustic ears, even if they don’t match the cross country outfit.

As you can see, it was an explosive start. We managed to get a bit of trotting done on a circle, but his rider soon felt he was unpredictable and she wasn’t happy. Neither was I. I know this horse well, but it did seem like his brain had well and truly fallen out from between his ears, and if we had any chance of recovering the situation, we needed to change tactic.

We got his rider off and lunged the horse. He had a couple of bucks, but actually settled on the lunge. So my rider remounted and we started on the lunge. I reminded her how his insecurities come out in bolshy, thuggish behaviour, and that he’s actually needing lots of reassurance at the moment.

We created a comfort zone on the lunge, where both horse and rider were close to me, their comfort blanket, and felt safe. We moved the circle out a bit, pushing the boundaries of their comfort zone, and moved around the field a bit.

The other thing I know about this horse is that he’s clever. And gets bored easily. And when he’s bored he misbehaves. When we were rehabbing him last winter he was a nightmare during the long reining and walk with short trots ridden work. We introduced poles fairly early to provide a focus, but as soon as we did proper polework, canter and raised poles his behaviour improved dramatically. After all, he had to concentrate on his work.

So we headed towards the smallest steps in the field and I lead them up it. We repeated this a few times, with the pair of them relaxing and getting more confident each time.

We expanded their comfort zone by me holding the lunge rein further away, before unclipping the lunge line and pretend leading them up the step. Slowly I drifted away and they did it a couple of times on their own. The horse was settling because he had something to think about, and as he relaxed so did his rider.

Before they got bored, we went over to the small jumps. I explained that yes, we hadn’t cantered or fully warmed up, but it was a warm day and the jumps titchy so they’d be fine. We started by trotting “on the lunge” then increasingly expanding the circle, moving around the small jumps, changing the rein and asking the horse lots on directional questions.

When my rider felt he was focused on her, and a small jump was nearby, she should trot calmly over it. Ride quietly away and resume circling in trot. The horse can jump, so our attention was on the quality of his behaviour before and after jumps. I talked continuously to my rider to help them both maintain a relaxed air. They popped over a teeny log happily, but when she came back round to do it again he had a moment of mischievousness. So I had her trot past the jump and move slightly away so that he was less sure of our intentions, and she calmly popped him over a different log.

We continued in this vein for the rest of the session. Quiet flat work, circling and figure of eighting before a jump, and then resuming calm flatwork afterwards. They expanded their comfort zone to most of the area around the cluster of small jumps. We had another blip, when he heard a walker passing the other side of the hedge, but because we were doing a more interesting subject, he soon refocused. Which I don’t think we can ask any more with this particular horse.

I was really pleased with how they finished the session; stringing a few jumps together, approaching in canter, and the jumps being the focus of their ride rather than subtly throwing them into the mix.

Unfortunately we ran out of time, as I think if we’d had another half an hour, they’d have progressed to bigger jumps, and linking combinations together, moving around the field. However, I was still very pleased and proud with how they both overcame their start and nerves to have a positive experience, finishing off in a really good mindset to pick up from next time.

Changing the Rein

At what point do you introduce the complications of trot diagonals in a child’s riding journey?

For me, the right time is when a child can maintain rising trot for a decent period. That is, they’re sufficiently balanced they don’t regularly double bounce, and the pony is sufficiently forwards that it doesn’t break into walk and the rider doesn’t have to give huge pony club kicks to keep the pony going (which causes double bouncing) Then of course, you factor in the child’s cognitive level and if they are able to understand the concept of trot diagonals, and will be able to think about navigating their pony as well as checking their trot diagonal regularly.

I have a rule that my riders should know their trot diagonals before learning to jump. They may need plenty of reminding to check them, but they should be balanced enough to sit for two beats. Over the years I’ve had the odd exception; if the pony is particularly lazy or the child has the attention span of a gnat and wouldn’t be able to think of trot diagonals as well as everything else. But I try to keep an eye on the pony’s strength and if they continually push their rider only the same diagonal I’ll introduce the idea of trot diagonals for the pony’s benefit, emphasing that being on the correct trot diagonal makes it easier for their pony.

Once a child has learnt about their trot diagonals the next learning curve is teaching them to remember to change their trot diagonal with each change of rein. Initially, and with younger children, I instruct them to change the rein, let them concentrate on steering, and once they are on the new rein and established – going into their corners and the pony is trotting with sufficient energy – I remind them to check their diagonal and change it if necessary.

As they develop their proficiency, I bring the diagonal change earlier into the change of rein. So I remind them as soon as they go onto the new rein, to change their diagonal. It will then start to become autonomic, and I find I need to remind my rider less frequently to “sit for two beats”. At some point, usually when my riders are a bit older and will understand more about their horse’s balance I will explain the subtle differences between their position on the left and right reins, and encourage them to think about changing from position left to position right and vice versa on their changes of rein. Then they can tie in changing their trot diagonal with changing their position and changing the bend of the horse when we get to that stage.

The other complication when changing the rein with young riders is changing their whip over. When first introducing a whip I don’t worry too much about my young rider changing it over. After all, they usually drop the reins and chaos ensues! I do try to make sure they hold the whip in alternate hands each lesson so that they become ambidextrous and as competent holding and using a whip in their dominant and non dominant hands.

I once taught a boy who only held his whip in his right hand. His pony used to run out to the left. I remember one particular instance when his pony ran out to the left so I told him to change his whip over so he could place it against the left shoulder and keep his pony straight. He did so, but as he was turning around to re-present to the jump, he changed the whip back into his right hand! The pony ran out to the left again!

Anyway. Once coordination has improved and their hands are big enough to make changing the whip over, I teach them the correct way to switch it from side to side. I then start reminding them on all changes of rein. The Pony Club Manual of Horsemanship states that the whip should be swapped to the inside hand on the first long side after a change of rein. I tend to agree with this for young children. Get one thing done at a time. Change the rein, change the trot diagonal, change the whip over. As with checking their trot diagonals, they can start to change their whip over during the change of rein as they get more proficient.

One of my frustrations when I see parents helping their child ride, whether it be helpful reminders from the sidelines, or directing them from the middle of the arena, is the overloading of instructions. “change the rein, don’t forget your diagonal. Why haven’t you changed your whip?” The child ends up flustered and doesn’t do any task well. Let them concentrate on an accurate change of rein before the next two steps. They’re more likely to successfully sit for two beats to change diagonal first time without the pony falling into walk, and then they’re less likely to drop their reins and lose rhythm and balance when changing their whip over. These will happen simultaneously soon enough.

Working the Older Horses

I have a few clients with older horses; the older horse has many advantages of experience, reliability, patience and steadfastness to teach and build confidences. But with that comes an aging body and the associated problems that come with old age. They are usually still enthusiastic to work, but can be slightly stiff.

Every older horse, I believe, deserves someone (like one or two of my clients) who will dote on them. Give them everything they need; treat any ailment; have tack adjusted to compensate for an aging body; groom and fuss them to within an inch of their life; and lightly ride them to maintain fitness and mobility. Nothing makes me happier than seeing a riding school horse retired to this life of Riley.

Teaching with the older horse is different too. For instance, they often need a longer warm up, or a light seat canter early on to loosen them up. It’s also about recognising their limitations and working within them. We always strive to improve a horse’s way of going, but with an older horse you have to be aware of pushing too hard and triggering a problem, and be ready to accept their limitations.

A classic example of this is polework. Trotting poles aim to improve rhythm, cadence and length of stride. With a young horse or one in their prime, you can use the distance between the poles to encourage them to stride out. When I set the distance between poles for an older horse I adjust it based on how they’re looking that day, and aim to encourage good strides over the poles, rather than pushing them to lengthen. If they’re finding it a stretch today, I roll the poles in. It’s about maintaining their range of movement rather than improving it. Usually by encouraging several consistent good strides of trot, they will improve their range of movement slightly.

As older horses are more experienced and established I find it useful to focus on the rider position, which puts them in good stead when they ride a younger horse. So apologies clients with veterans; expect lots of no stirrup work!

We also still work on improving the horse. Older horses can vary in their performance depending on the day – some days they’re a little stiffer, other days they’re like a spring chicken! It depends on the temperature, if they’ve been stood in, or what they did the previous days. So the first part of my lessons are always spent assessing the veteran and deciding if they’re okay to do Plan A, or if Plan B would be better. I also think it’s really important for the rider to be able to evaluate their horse’s way of going each day so that they work them appropriately and pick up on any changes quickly. We talk about the Scales of Training, and how to improve the horse relative to their abilities. For example, we compare their suppleness between left and right, and to their work last week. We can them improve their symmetry a bit, and ensure they aren’t becoming stiffer than previous weeks without a good reason. Knowing the theory of equitation, even if it’s not always possible to practise it all, creates a good foundation for riding future horses.

I’m working a lot with a client on straightness with her older horse in preparation for her new horse. The veteran is crooked, because he has lots of niggles and the result is that his rider is a bit crooked and most importantly, unaware of the crookedness. It’s a tricky situation because I think if we straighten the horse like I would approach a six year old, we’ll open a can of worms and his niggles will become issues. But equally, we don’t want him to become more and more wonky. So I’ve mainly highlighted to my rider the assymetry in his way of going and the differences between the two canter leads and his lateral work on each rein. Then we’ve worked on reducing his assymetry by improving his rider’s straightness. By getting her to sit straighter, be more even in the saddle and with the leg and rein aids her horse will start to adjust his body. By doing these adjustments indirectly, we won’t achieve perfect straightness. But I don’t want perfect straightness with a horse carrying niggles. But we will hopefully lengthen his working life as he will straighten his body by degrees.

By improving my rider’s awareness of asymmetry and straightness, she will be in a better position to school her new horse. I’ve done lots of grid work jumping and pole exercises on this subject of straightness. Improving her awareness, minimising any drifting over jumps, and encouraging even muscle development. Whilst accepting a certain level of crookedness. For example, when jumping from the right canter, the horse can stay on a straight line and balanced, until the jump is a little big or the takeoff a little long. Whereby he changes to the left lead and drifts left. At the edge of his comfort zone, he’s showing that he favours his left canter. If he were a five or six year old we’d develop and strengthen the right canter. But to be honest, I find this totally acceptable in an older horse and am quite happy if he shifts to his preference in these circumstances. If he stopped staying straight and balanced in the right canter over small jumps or poles I’d be concerned, but he’s managing the top end of his work load in this way, so as long as my rider is aware for her future then we’ll go with the flow.

Keeping an older horse in work is all about making small improvements to their way of going and focusing on the longevity of their working life rather than upping the workload and putting demands on a body which is perhaps carrying old age ailments and previous injuries. And of course making sure they are comfortable with their workload – medicating hocks if necessary and weighing up the pros and cons of feeding daily bute. By developing a relationship and seeing the horse regularly, and working them consistently to a level, it is easier to spot any deterioration, which then allows them to be checked out and cared for as quickly as possible.

A Shallow Loop Over Trotting Poles

I’ve enjoyed playing around with a tricky exercise over trotting poles with several clients recently. No longer are they going in a straight line perpendicular over the poles, but rather riding a shallow loop over them.

I laid out about nine poles with a conservative distance and had my rider begin by trotting straight over the poles, centrally at first and then if I wanted to check their adaptability or accuracy, I had them trot over the left then right end of the poles. This is where coloured poles come in useful as they can aim for a specific band of colour.

Then I mark out a shallow loop over the poles using cones, or even potties. The markers need to be clearly seen above the poles. The diagram below shows the placing of the poles.

So that they don’t run before they can walk, I begin this next phase by asking them to trot from between the first set of markers to between the second set, and then straight over the second half of the poles. This is usually fairly straightforward, especially if we’ve started on their easy rein. The distance between the poles is now marginally longer because they’re riding the hypotenuse of a triangle, so stuffy horses sometimes need a wake up call and to be ridden with more leg to encourage the longer stride that is required. There’s an adaptability and balance question as they go through the second set of markers because they are changing their bend and line slightly, which is trickier for the horse and requires more rider balance when they have an increased cadence over the poles.

Once the first half of the loop is established, I ask the rider’s to ride from first set of cones to the second, then back to the third. This is when the horse’s balance and suppleness is really questioned. It usually takes a couple of goes to get the exercise correct. If a horse were to really struggle I’d add a couple of extra trot poles and another set of markers so that the change of bend happened over three poles rather than one, as show below.

To make it easier initially, the markers can be quite wide apart, and the loop more shallow. As they understand the exercise and improve the timing of their aids and accuracy, the shallow loop can become deeper with greater accuracy needed between the markers.

After riding the shallow loop over the poles on both reins it becomes apparent which is their more supple rein, as the increased cadence shows up any weaknesses in both their balance and range of movement.

The rider usually notices an improvement in the horse’s general way of going after this gymnastic exercise. I usually finish by trotting straight over the poles to rediscover straightness of both horse and rider, especially if they’ve found the exercise quite challenging. And then we play around with normal shallow loops, and my horses and riders are usually lighter and using their back muscles better.

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.