Otis Update

I thought you’d all like an update on Otis.

He’s come through the winter nicely, although dropped a little bit of weight in the last month since his rug has been off, but I’m happy with that as he needs to be a little slim in spring so I don’t have to reduce grazing or anything. It’s not like he can be exercised to remove excess weight!

He’s still hairy, although that’s rapidly falling out of him. He’s very happy, still a little limpy in trot, but it doesn’t stop him cantering over for breakfast!

What I have enjoyed seeing these last couple of months is his relationship developing with Mallory. We always knew he was a gentle, sensitive soul. One who just rests his head against you and absorbs all your problems. Who calms you with a blink of his large, brown eye. But recently it’s become even more evident.

I bring him out of the paddock to feed as his field mate practically inhales his food and Otis’s is yummier, so it’s easier to separate them. I leave Mallory sat in the barrow, on top of the hay while I put the buckets down. Usually singing “postman pat and his black and white cat… Just as day is dawning, he picks up all the postmen in his van” because she’s delivering the horse’s food.

Then we take the barrow into the field, lift her out, and empty the hay. As I’m doing this she usually runs back to Otis, hugs his head (which isn’t much smaller than her whole body), tells him she loves him, and then turns his bucket upside down before giving it back to me, whether it’s empty or not. He just stands there, lapping up the attention, and carefully moving towards the bucket when she’s out the way.

His gentleness is paying off though, as any banana skins or apple cores are specifically requested to go to Otis now. But I love how tolerant he is of her, and how he’s teaching her how to treat others, whilst letting her express her feelings and childlike tendencies – carefully laying her favourite comforter over him, clapping, giggling in joy as she sits on him bareback, usually backwards, spinning Around the World regularly to change her view.

Phoenix’s Hydrotherapy

I’ve recently been managing, well surviving, Phoenix in winter mode. She’s not as hyped as previous winters, and kept a lid on herself until February. Hopefully by the time she’s twenty she’ll be cool as a cucumber over winter!

Sure, she was a bit fizzy, but a good canter took the edge off. Then, a new horse went into the adjacent field, so Phoenix spent the next couple of days charging at the fence line defending her territory and herd. When I rode her she was super tense and tight over the lumbar area of her back.

So I booked her in with the chiropractor pronto, who found a slight misalignment but mostly tight muscles. About the same time, Phoenix had her first season of the year, and seemed even more sore in her lumbar, which I can only put down to period pains as it’s fairly close to her ovaries. She also had a massage the following week and definitely felt looser in that area afterwards.

Phoenix’s biggest issue when she gets a sore spot is that we then have a mental block about it. For example, this time the tension in her lumbar area caused her to almost wince when asked to bring her right hind slightly further under her body – travers, right canter, leg yield. Which then sends me down a rabbit hole as to whether there’s an underlying issue…

However, after some stretches which showed full range of movement, just moving with caution, and some lunging in just a cavesson proved that there’s nothing physically wrong, just her suspicions that it will hurt, combined with the need to canter in a straight line for several miles to burn off the excess energy. Similar to many kids coming out of lockdown!

Which means that I’m now schooling to loosen up her lumbar, getting it to work correctly, and making her realise that it doesn’t hurt and to relax into her work again. Which she’s starting to do after some canter work. The better weather is also helping and I’m pleased with her work at the end of the last few schooling sessions. They feel progressive again.

While all this has been going on, I had had thoughts about boxing her the five miles to use the water treadmill. Hydrotherapy is a very good workout for their core and my initial plan, to try and keep winter Phoenix in her box next year, is to take her weekly to the treadmill over the worse of the winter months. It’s another form of exercise; when the weather is bad riding is a calorie burning exercise rather than being particularly beneficial to her way of going, so this would take the pressure off me to ride her on wet and windy days, hopefully keep the energy levels in check, and help keep her topline (which unfortunately has deteriorated this last 6 weeks while she’s been tense and reluctant to use her back properly). I felt guilty at the thought of travelling her during lockdown as whilst travelling for hydrotherapy is permitted, Phoenix wasn’t exactly in dire need of it.

Phoenix took to the treadmill happily, walking straight on, although the look in her face when it started and she shot backwards was a picture! It was interesting watching Phoenix’s lumbar muscles begin to work over the course of the treadmill session, starting a little locked but by the end her whole back was swinging nicely.

I’m not expecting a huge transformation in her physique as a result of going on the treadmill. This month of sessions is to help get her using her back again and feeling stronger. In the summer I can work her correctly easily and get her long and low (which is not natural or easy for her, like stretching out a strong spring which likes to be on alert) but now she’s experienced the treadmill she will be ready for the winter, when she comes weekly and hopefully we have a more constructive training programme. As well as the fact we will hopefully be allowed out competing and to blow off steam on the gallops.

Roll on spring!

A Journey

Buying a horse isn’t like buying a car. You may like the test drive, but unlike a car (unless it’s a second hand car sold by Harry Wormwood) you are only beginning the journey. A new horse will be affected by changes to his environment, diet, tack, routine, and needs to build a relationship with their new owner. The first few months are always a journey, and I get such satisfaction seeing a pair coming together and developing a relationship, especially if I’ve been involved in the purchasing process.

In October a friend and client bought a little cob. Emphasis on the little. He’s only about 13.2hh, but is wider than he is tall, so easily carries a small adult. He hadn’t done much in his previous home, but is a safe and sensible leg at each corner type.

We started by gentle schooling and hacking, to build his fitness. Poles and little jumps as necessary. He also had the usual checks and changes – saddle check, chiropractor, clip etc. In hindsight, we probably rushed this process, as he was quiet and accepting but in reality they were all new experiences for him. He had a new saddle within weeks, we changed the bit to discourage him from going behind the vertical, he was fully clipped.

Then he started broncing. Not the odd buck, but head between the knees, coiled like a spring, and not what he appeared to be when he arrived. We stripped everything back to how he came (with the exception of his clip), and came to the conclusion over Christmas that his cheeky behaviour was a combination of being stabled for the first time in his life, being a little too attached to his neighbour, and being clipped – his behaviour was better on calm, milder days. He also had his teeth rasped in January, which were definitely overdue so that was possibly a contributing factor.

Unfortunately, you can’t stick hair back on, so we’ve had to ride out the freshness, and let the clip regrow. He definitely doesn’t like being completely naked so in the autumn, he can just have a blanket clip, which I think will be better suited to his work load and living out.

The last three months have been a steady progression of building his confidence out hacking, having him shod because he got a little footsore, and encouraging him to lengthen his compact little frame.

I’ve been really pleased with his and his owners progress. They’re developing a strong relationship, he’s working nicely for both her and me. He feels stronger in the school. Right canter was non-existent and left very unbalanced, but now we get right canter more often than left and both are three time and rhythmical. Below are two photos to show the difference in the pony’s posture and condition. His neck has muscled up nicely and his short back has become strong, with toned hindquarters. He’s a curvaceous type so will never look like an event horse, but he’s definitely more muscle than fat now.

It’s not been the fastest or smoothest transformation, but the pair have a solid foundation for the next few months as we look at sponsored rides, more jumping, and maybe some online dressage tests…

The Future

I apologise if this becomes a bit morbid, but I think the last twelve months have made us all more aware of our mortality. I think most people have been affected by Covid-19. For some, it’s taken an ill or elderly relative sooner than anticipated. For others, there’s been the shock death of a seemingly healthy friend or relative.

When faced with a life deadline, illness or old age, you can get your affairs in order. Ensure family know your wishes with regards to horses and pets. But as a young, healthy person, it’s not the top of my mind, for sure. But perhaps we should all take five minutes to let our closest know how we want to care for our four legged friends. Just in case.

Someone once told me that their will stated that their horse should be euthanized upon their death, on the basis that no one else could keep him in the manner she did. I felt that was egotistical, as we all try to give our horses the best care possible. But begrudgingly, I feel there is a point to be made here.

It sounds callous, to have your horse put down when you die, when they may have plenty of life left in them. But horses are a luxury, an expense. And if the family you have left have neither the time nor money to care for your horse after you’ve gone, then it is better to have them euthanased than for them to suffer neglect, or to be sold to an unsuitable home, or to end up in a rescue centre. I recently saw a fiery debate on social media about two horses who’s owner had died and the family couldn’t afford to keep them, so we’re having them put down. Initially, it seemed that there should be an alternative for two apparently healthy horses. But upon closer inspection, both horses were in their mid twenties, very attached to each other, and had some management issues. Reading that, I soon changed my mind to agree with the family, and thought it more responsible of them to take this route rather than abandon the horses to a charity.

There are several options when planning your horse’s next stage of life. Horses are financially taxing, so perhaps leave some money to help support them. Or ensure the person you’ve entrusted their care to is financially stable and able to afford to feed an extra mouth. Be realistic about your horse’s future. If they’re old, or retired with injury then they have very little resale value. A friend or family may want a companion, but otherwise my gut feeling is that it is better for everyone, if you leave clear end of life instructions. Those left behind don’t feel obligated to struggle to care for the horse, or have to morally wrestle with themselves to make a decision for you.

I do think that a young, healthy, fit horse, who still has much to give, should be given the chance to adopt a new family after you’ve gone, but again it’s worth ensuring family know your wishes in selling – whether you want them to sell via a dealer, or have a type of home in mind, etc.

A few years ago my parents told me they were leaving Matt to me in their will, but had decided that it was a back handed gift because of the costs and time involved. Which means my brother doesn’t get an equivalent “gift”. Unless he gets the family tortoise, who has so far been passed from my Uncle, to my Grandad, to my brother, to my parents…

It’s hard putting decisions like this in writing (I can’t even write my decision on here!), but verbalising your thoughts is easier, and it’s something that needs to be discussed with loved ones so they know what to do in the worst case scenario; to safeguard their future as well as your horse’s.

So apologies for the slightly depressing subject, but the last few weeks I’ve felt that it’s a topic that needs addressing, particularly with all the uncertainty in the world right now. To lighten the mood, enjoy these photos of Otis being his usual lovable, cuddly self, and long-suffering Phoenix allowing a toy to ride her.

Snaking Leg Yield

I’ve been using a tricky little exercise recently with several clients recently. It’s all about balance, straightness, and understanding of the aids. Plus the fact that less is more.

Starting on the left rein in walk, because it’s more complicated than first appears, turn onto the centre line at C. Leg yield to the right for about three strides. Ride straight and then leg yield to the left for about six strides. Then leg yield back to the right onto the centre line. Turning right at A to change the rein.

When coming off the right rein, leg yield to the left first.

The secret to this exercise, and I usually let my rider have a couple of goes before letting them in on the secret, is that less is more.

If you’re too ambitious and ask for too much leg yield, the horse invariably loses balance and has too much bend in their body. Which makes it harder for them to straighten, change their bend and start to leg yield in the opposite direction. Then it takes longer to change direction and you run out of centre line.

Once my rider starts to be more conservative with their leg yield there is usually just the small task of tidying up the transitions between the leg yields and then they’ll crack the exercise.

If leg yielding from right leg to left hand, the rider needs to use the left rein to balance the horse and use their left leg to stop the leg yield and ride straight. Then they need to change their position into position left (left seat bone slightly deeper, left leg on the girth, right leg behind; right rein becomes the outside rein) before asking for very slight left flexion and then the leg yield back to the right.

The straighter the horse stays in leg yield the easier it is to change direction. Less is more.

Holding Rubber

I’ve done this exercise a few times recently with various clients, for various reasons, and it’s had some good results. In itself, it’s quite an easy thing to do while working on other parts of their riding.

Some riders ride with their hands curled lightly around the reins. Of course we don’t want to be holding the reins particularly tightly, but if we aren’t holding the reins firmly enough they have a tendency to slip through. For some people, one rein tends to slip through. For others, both. And for some it is the horse (or pony) who discreetly sneaks the rein through the rider’s hand.

Some riders interpret the “squeeze and release” of a half halt or a flexion aid, as squeezing the rein and then letting go. Perhaps the words need to change to “squeeze and relax”…

In either situation, the rein contact becomes inconsistent.

My analogy for this situation, because I like analogies, is to imagine walking down a busy street with a toddler, holding hands.

Hold the hand too tightly and the guy toddler shouts and digs their heels in. They won’t move forwards happily.

Hold their hand, letting go at random intervals and dropping them. They become disconcerted with the insecurity of your guidance.

Now imagine you are holding their hand slightly more firmly, and give the odd reassuring squeeze. You’ve not dropped them or left them hanging, but you have changed the pressure of the hand holding and exchanged a secret message.

This is the sort of rein contact we’re aiming for. Consistent, clear communication, and even.

For my riders who hold the reins tightly I remind them to relax their arms and fingers, and will do no rein exercises to ensure they aren’t using their hands subconsciously to balance.

For my riders who have loose fingers, especially the children, I will take two pieces of flat arena rubber (if they have a sand arena I try to find a small flat pebble. One father uses a penny with his daughter when practising this) and get my rider to hold it in their hands as well as the reins. It’s small enough that it doesn’t fill their hands up and make holding the reins and whip difficult, but they will become acutely aware of when they loosen their fingers and drop it!

We then have ten minutes of laughter as they invariably drop the rubber and I have to replace it. Depending on the rider, their age and approach to riding, this can become as fun and as silly as required. I remember with one young client there was lots of “uh-ohing” and me flouncing around looking for replacement rubber to keep the exercise like a game.

Within minutes, I find that my riders are usually holding the reins in a more consistent way; either both hands are now holding with the same amount of hold, or the reins have stopped creeping through their hands. Once they’ve stopped dropping the rubber, I do some work on circles, transitions, changes of rein, or whatever movement usually causes them to loosen their fingers. With older riders they start to see the positive effects and can begin to ride between leg and hand more easily, and they can improve the bend of their horse as they can ride inside leg to outside rein, and control the outside shoulder.

Once my rider has found the correct rein contact they don’t drop the rubber as frequently, so I usually move on with my lesson plan, accidentally-on-purpose forgetting to remove the rubber from their hands to see how far we get before they drop it, or realise they’ve dropped it.

I often find that holding the rubber only needs to be done once or twice to teach a rider the right amount of feel, and to help them understand the concept and effect of a consistent rein contact, which for kids improves their overall control over their pony’s speed and steering, and for adults helps them improve their horse’s rhythm, balance and create impulsion.

Self Carriage Success

Self carriage is the ultimate aim for all of us horse riders, but in trying to get there many of us are guilty of micromanaging our horses and their way of going.

You know the sort of thing: you’re working on your horse giving some inside flexion and before you know it you’re holding them in place. Then they begin to rely on you nagging and you become a noisy rider.

I frequently remind my riders to go quiet and still when their horse is softening and doing as they should. They don’t need to drop the contact or take the leg and seat off completely, just soften and reduce the strength of the aids.

With one of my clients I’ve been paying special attention to getting her to hand over the reins, literally, and putting the onus onto her horse to carry himself as she can become too busy and he gets a bit reliant on her putting him in the right place. It goes against my client’s nature, but she’s starting to hand over control.

We warm them both up using circles and school movements to develop vertical balance, whilst reminding my client to give moments of peace. Then when her horse is working in good balance and is supple and rhythmical, I get them to ride large with the odd large circle. Simple school movements than what we have done in the previous fifteen minutes, but with the aim of my rider doing less and her horse carrying himself.

It struck me a couple of weeks ago, when hiking across frozen, poached fields with a two year old, that teaching self carriage is similar to teaching independence to a toddler.

“Don’t hold my hand, I don’t need help!” she says stepping into a frozen mud valley of the field. The divots are big enough for me to feel precarious whilst crossing, let alone when the valleys are knee height. I let go of her hand, but it hovers just behind, ready to catch. She’s every chance of success by the way I’ve prepared her, but I’m ready to catch her before she falls.

With a horse, you use the aids to guide them into the right frame and balance. Then you take away the scaffolding as they perform a task well within their abilities. But you’re still there, ready to step in the moment they flounder. Initially it may be a reduction of the frequency of the aids, or it may be a lighter aid, but all of your reductions are focused on making your horse more independent and less reliant on you holding them onto the springy, engaged trot or canter.

When your horse, just like a toddler, succeeds in a simple task they grow in confidence in their own abilities, they relax and develop self carriage. It may only be a couple of strides before you take back their hand, but eventually they’ll be that balanced (emotionally and physically), fully fledged young adult, we aim our toddlers to become.

But we have to trust ourselves enough that our preparations will let them fly off with success when we let go.

One After The Other…

I’ve decided that I’m not a huge fan of running clinics because of number of potential unknowns in a group. And what if my lesson plan is totally unsuitable for a rider and horse?

What I have discovered that I like doing though, is doing a series of consecutive private lessons at one venue. With the same theme, but it means that I can tweak the exercise to best suit that client. It leads to quite an intense, but very satisfying day.

I regularly go to a yard where several Pony Club members livery, and teach consecutive 30 minute lessons all morning, using this format.

Last time I went I laid out a straight forward exercise of a placing pole to a jump, then three canter strides away a second fence. Before the placing pole and between the two jumps I laid tramlines.

With my first little jockey I warmed her up focusing on not flapping like a windmill when trying to keep her pony in trot, by having her carry a horizontal whip. I think kids can get so carried away by wanting to jump and go fast they often don’t connect how improving the little things helps the big things. With quieter hands the pony seemed happier and more forwards, so I drove the message home by focusing on this with the poles. I had her planning a better turn towards the exercise so that she started straight, and then channeling her pony with still hands, using the leg to keep him travelling forwards. We worked in trot in both directions, really focusing on her preparation and then just applying the accelerator. As we built the exercise up to jumps my rider started to see the benefits of quieter hands in that her pony almost picked up canter and gave enthusiastic pops over the jump. The feeling of easier jumps will hopefully motivate her to practice keeping her hands still on the flat.

My next rider and pony were a comfortable pair. Neither are hugely ambitious and enjoy being in the comfort zones. Which means the pony often jumps from an idle canter which feels jarring, upright and uncomfortable, as well as being height limited. I had them cantering around the arena finding the “Friday Afternoon” canter such as on the way home from school. Concentrating on riding forwards before and after jumps will help the bascule flow and feel easier. Then my rider could fold into a more balanced jumping position. The tramlines weren’t hugely relevant to this lesson, but just their presence helped keep the pair on their jumping line. For these two I converted the placing pole into a low upright to make a bounce to improve the suppleness of my rider as she had to rapidly switch between her two point and three point position.

Another lesson with a more novice rider, had trot poles instead of jumps, and used transitions between the tramlines to improve control and accuracy. Switching between light seat over the poles and rising trot improves the rider’s balance and familiarity with the jumping position in preparation for jumping. It could be developed into just the one jump at the end of the exercise, or cantering through the exercise as required.

One of the other riders tends to over think pole arrangements, riding to each pole individually instead of the exercise as a whole. I was fully prepared to simplify the layout if her brain threatened to implode, but started her off trotting and cantering through the exercise with the poles on the floor. My main focus was on my rider looking ahead, not at each pole, and understanding that if she rode a good turn and aimed for the end of the exercise, she didn’t have to worry about the tramlines (yes, her tubby pony did fit easily between them!). We built up the jumps using crosses to help focus her straight ahead, emphasising that my rider looks at the second jump just before she jumps the first, and so on. The pony stopped chipping in and getting too deep to the jump, and my rider didn’t get in front of the pony, loading the shoulders. Again, I made the placing pole into a small bounce to further develop the feel for an uphill jump, and to help my rider start to feel that she was behind the pony over fences instead of in front. I didn’t end up simplifying the exercise as my rider comprehended it well; it was a really good session to help her learn to filter out the less important parts of an exercise or course, and to ride to the end of a line. I was really pleased with how things slotted into place for these two.

My last client has a pony who tends to drift and go crooked, so the tramlines were ideal to improve the rider’s awareness of drifting, and to help her correct it. Using cross poles to further help them stay straight I soon discovered that my rider didn’t ride after the jump. So instead of riding the five stages of a jump – approach, take off, bascule, landing, get away – she forgot to do anything on landing! The tramlines between the jumps then had a second use. I had my rider approach the exercise in a steady trot, quietly pop over the first fence, land in canter and then sit up and ride into trot between the poles so that they had a steady approach to the second jump, and were more likely to stay on the jumping line. Having a physical marker to ride to helps make a rider commit to a transition, or movement as it’s easier to judge their accuracy. After focusing on riding after a jump, they began to stay straighter and steadier, which will really help them as they progress to riding a course.

This set up gave me hundreds of different options for teaching, and could be easily adjusted between clients as needed. Possibly my new favourite sort of day – one exercise, lots of different private lessons so I can hone into each individual’s requirements.