Changing the Approach

A quality of a good jumping horse is having an adjustable canter. So they can adjust the length of their stride in order to fit in a whole number of strides between two jumping elements so that they can jump comfortably. This may mean shortening the canter, or lengthening it.

So when you’re walking courses, and planning your lines to jumps, you want to bear in mind your horse’s length of canter stride. But when you’re working through an exercise at home, do you ever find that no matter what you do you just can’t meet the first element well?

Of course, you can look at adjusting the canter. But we are working with our all-rounder leisure horses, who may or may not be jumping supremos. So we have limitations as to how adjustable their canter is.

Let me put it another way; a top class showjumper has numerous gears to their canter. Let’s say working canter is gear five, and they have a range of canters between one and nine. They can jump out of each gear. Our average horse has a working canter of five too, but only a range between four and seven, per se, that they can comfortably jump out of.

When you consider your approach to an exercise, think about the quality and the gear to your canter, but also consider the distance of your approach. If you have adjusted your canter on the approach, but you still meet the first element half a stride too far or too close to it, then start playing around with the distance of your approach.

You don’t want to push the horse out of their jumping canter, but by riding a slightly inner line than previously, you may well find you meet the exercise in a better place. It may be that you need to ride a wider line, so giving your horse an extra three foot of room to play with as they approach the jump.

You need to be careful at this point, that you don’t just let your horse fall in on turns or cut corners. You are still riding your set line and balanced turns and canter. You are still approaching the fences in the middle and straight, not jumping off a curve or at an angle.

Quite a lot recently I’ve discussed with clients the benefits of changing the distance of their turn onto a line of jumps or poles rather than trying to adjust the canter outside of the horse’s comfort zone.

Left Anchors

I’ve done a few lessons this last week, strangely enough, correcting various riders on their hand position. And particularly, their left hand.

I’m not sure why it seems that so many riders are fixing their left hands down; I can only suggest that society’s bias towards right handedness causes people to use their left hand to stabilise themselves whilst their right hand does the dexterity work.

Anyway, I’ve had several riders this week who ride with their left hand held further back than the right, and low to the wither, like an anchor. This positioning has more impact on a horse’s way of going than many people realise, which is why I’ve been drumming on about it so much.

Let’s take a closer look at the effect of anchoring your left hand down.

On the left rein, you usually find the horse bends more easily and you find it easier to ride round the turns. Having the left rein fixed onto the wither creates left bend in the horse’s neck, which is why it can seem like they are going better in this direction, but when you pay attention to the hindquarters they usually are not following left curves. Riders who fix their left hand usually use this rein to steer, and so their right leg is less effective at pushing the horse left.

This becomes a cycle in that the horse doesn’t respond to the right leg so the rider is more inclined to rescue the situation by pulling their left rein, which means the horse becomes less responsive or understanding of the outside aids.

The left rein needs to be improved by reducing the amount of left bend. I usually ask the rider to take up more contact with the right rein and to raise their left and carry it further forwards. So it feels like it’s much further forwards than the right rein (then they become level) and then to focus on the right leg turning the horse round each turn and the left rein merely indicating.

I quite often ride squares or diamonds with riders who fix their inside rein as it focuses them on their outside aids and encourages them to ride their horse with a straighter neck. I also experiment with counter flexion to increase their awareness of how their horse tends to give too much inside bend in the neck.

On the right rein, an anchored left hand gives a more stable outside rein which I find the horse tends to prefer and they definitely look more settled, but if there is too much anchorage in the left rein it will encourage the horse to look to the outside and to fall onto the inside shoulder and so fall in. They will find it harder to produce right bend, purely because they are restricted. When working on the right rein I encourage my riders to soften the left arm to allow the horse to look right. Then I get them to focus on using the right leg to keep their horse out round the track, on circles etc. Most riders in this scenario fall into the trap of pulling even more with the left rein to try and pull their horse back out to the track. So I do some leg yielding exercises to improve the horse’s response to the right leg and to change my rider’s thinking so they are riding from inside leg into outside rein, rather than using their hand first. This usually triggers an epiphany moment, when they feel the horse begin to give right bend because the right hind is coming under their body more and to feel more balanced.

Some horses try to rush off when the left anchor is released, which is understandable as effectively the handbrake is being taken off. I often suggest the rider half halts with the right rein, even though it is the inside one, because it stops them anchoring the left rein back down, and also encourages the right hand to be a stabilising rein which has huge benefits on the left rein.

After working each rein independently, I then incorporate serpentines and figures of eight to help the rider feel the improved straightness and symmetry in their horse, and for them to tune in to the actions of their hands, when they are the outside and the inside rein.

By now, most riders are beginning to understand the consequences of fixing their left rein down, and with a few gentle reminders here and there, they are beginning to carry their hands and are more even in the contact. Sometimes it’s a matter of practice to retrain their muscle memory.

Correcting the left hand position improves the horse’s way of going, and usually the effect is instantaneous, but as an instructor I then need to work out why the left hand feels the need to fix down so much. Is it related to their confidence? Their balance?

The majority of the time, riders who anchor their left rein sit to the left. Which of course means they’re encouraging their horse to give left bend and will find it harder to apply their right leg. Both of which are symptoms of the situation I described earlier.

Chicken or Egg?

This leads me nicely onto my next teaching subject: working without stirrups and focusing the rider on sitting evenly on their seat bones and the correct aids. Hopefully in a couple of lessons both rider and horse will be working straighter, more correctly, and more symmetrically, which means the rest of their ridden work will improve.

Our Journey

I thought I should give you a little update on how Phoenix and I have been getting on.

Phoenix has settled into her summer routine and is definitely happier living out all the time. Her body language is much more relaxed. She did spend the first week up to her knees in grass and in full season, flirting with the boys next door which didn’t give me full confidence that her summer routine would sort her out.

Out hacking, she seems to have regained her previous confidence and feels much happier exploring the woods. I’ve been playing around with leg yield and shoulder in whilst out because she’s so much more accepting of my aids to change her balance and body position. I’ve been using our hacks to relax Phoenix and to strengthen our relationship. I was very pleased with her earlier this week when out on a hack we met a large articulated lorry. We were at the front of our little group and the lorry was very intimidating; I could feel Phoenix trying really hard to be brave, resisting her instinct to turn tail and flee, barely flinching as the lorry roared past. Meanwhile our equine friend behind us jumped sideways into a ditch!

Schooling has still been a bit of a challenge. I tried a different tack for my last lesson, by taking Phoenix for an hours hack before our lesson. My aim was to relax her and to warm her up outside the arena, perhaps taking the edge off her too in the process. She is a naturally fit horse and runs off adrenaline so there’s no way I can tire her out physically. We did seem to have a bit of a breakthrough then, with her starting off working in a much more relaxed fashion on the left rein, only getting uptight when we began working on the right rein. Small steps.

I feel that Phoenix is challenging my leadership in the initial trot transition of any session; trying to scoot off and get tense when I apply the aids. As soon as I get the first trot she becomes more amenable. Since having the conversation with her that she will trot, and I am still on top giving the aids, she has been less challenging in each schooling session. I think it’s just a test that I need to be aware of, and ensure she doesn’t get ideas above her station in that area.

I also think that she isn’t happy when her body is manipulated into a position that she’s not comfortable with. For example, when she sets herself into left bend (akin to our foetal position) and I try to straighten her or ask for right bend, she tries to scoot off in a little panic. It’s like she’s afraid of moving outside her comfort zone. During our last two lessons, and subsequent schooling sessions she has stopped trying to run away so much from my questions so much, now tensing and stopping to think, before trying to answer my question. So in that respect I am pleased, although I still feel we have a long way to go.

Each schooling session I start in walk on both reins; circles, leg yield, shoulder in. Then begin trotting on the left rein, establishing the rhythm and balance, and waiting for her to relax a bit. Then I change the rein in a “whoops, oh dear we’re on the right rein” sort of way. Ride some circles and movements to eek her out of her left bend and into right bend (or at least straight!). When she gives I ride for a couple more strides before rewarding her by going back onto the left rein. My aim is to spend more time on the right rein, get less of a panic over the change of bend, and less time on the left rein. I do think this behaviour stems from the winter when she was sore and right bend was difficult.

In trying not to get bogged down in our schooling woes, last week we went on a sponsored ride to Windsor. We rode around the Queen’s back garden and had a great day. Phoenix’s behaviour was great, she wasn’t sure what to make of the hundreds of deer who decided to cross our path, but took everything in her stride. She jumped well, and didn’t gallop off when a trio in front of us did. And I hate to say it, but she still had plenty of energy at the end of ten miles! As always, she loaded and travelled like a dream.

Next weekend we’re going showjump schooling, and I’ve signed us up for a showjumping competition in July, as well as riding club camp in a couple of weeks time.

There is a livery space at our yard for a mare, who would join Phoenix’s field to make a herd of three. I’m hoping we get one soon as whilst she’s very happy with her field companion, I do wonder if she needs bossing around in the field, or the dynamics diluting. She’s not a particularly dominant mare, last year she was number two out of six, so I do wonder if her leadership duties are causing a distraction – either by making her less submissive to being ridden, or by causing her to focus less or to be anxious about leaving her domain.

Who knows. All I know is that Phoenix is an enigma.

A Lot of Poles

I went to a gridwork clinic last week with a client’s horse. It was great fun, and as ever there were some exercises I could borrow and adapt when teaching myself. This week I’ve had great fun using a long line of poles with some clients.

You need a long arena for this, I was lucky to have access to a 50m and 60m long one when teaching. Begin by laying out as many canter poles as you can fit along the length of the arena. I used about 12. Ensure there is enough space at each end for the horse to turn.

I warmed all my riders up over the poles on the flat for quite a long time. We started off in trot, aiming to get two trot stride between each pole, and the important thing was that the trot stayed rhythmical. This work improved the activity of the trot and helped my riders tune into the feel of improved power to the gait and how to maintain it. Then we did the same for canter. The poles dictated the stride length, so a lazy wakes up, puts some effort in and the canter becomes much more energetic and jumpable. A horse who tends to rush, is encouraged to slow down so the energy is maintained. With all the horses I worked with, I felt that cantering over the poles improved the cadence and impulsion to the canter. The horses were forwards without rushing, and all the riders could feel how much rounder and bouncier the canter was. When I say rounder, I’m not talking about the horse’s frame, but rather the movement seemed rounder. The hindquarters were more active which will improve the horse’s bascule and jump. Using the poles to create this canter helped my riders learn the feel for it, and also helped the horses learn to maintain this canter.

From here, you can adapt the lesson to meet the individual requirements of the horse and rider in relation to their training.

For the horse I took on the clinic, using the poles with a simple jump at each end helped encourage him to look between the wings and take me into a fence. He’s recently lost his confidence jumping, so it was a real confidence building exercise.

The first client I taught with this exercise needed help seeing her stride. Her horse can do a kangaroo impression on the approach to fences, partly because he loses his balance on the turn and he finds it difficult to maintain sufficient impulsion in the canter to jump. The poles established the jumping canter for both horse and rider. I the made the second canter pole into a fairly small cross pole. So they had a placing pole, jump and then canter poles on the getaway. This meant that they were guaranteed to meet the cross on a good stride, which would help my rider develop her feel for a good jump, and she could get more in sync with her horse, and then they were both encouraged to ride positively away from the jump.

Once they had mastered maintaining the canter rhythm throughout the exercise, I put the penultimate canter pole up as a cross, and had the pair ride the exercise on both reins. The second jump was always better than the first because the canter was so much better because of the poles, but the exercise really benefitted my rider in that she started riding positively between the jumps so linking them together nicely. We analysed the differences between the two canter leads, discussed which was the easier rein, and generally improved my rider’s awareness and understanding of the way her horse jumps.

I repeated the exercise on both reins until the duo were consistent throughout the exercise. Knowing how this rider can back off an upright jump, I put the second fence as an upright and we repeated the exercise until it flowed nicely. I finished the exercise here with them as I felt they were benefiting most from the poles creating their jumping canter.

The next couple of lessons I used this set-up with was with more established jumpers. With one, she tends to rush albeit she finds it difficult to stop her canter getting flat and long striding, and the other needed to improve his consistency to the canter as he can suddenly lack energy.

Once we’d worked through the exercise with a jump at each end, I started to add in some questions. It was about getting the rushing horse to slow down and think about each pole, and the other horse to improve his gymnastic ability.

I raised the two canter poles before the upright fence so that the horses were encouraged to sit back on their haunches and lighten their forehand, which improved the bascule over the upright.

Next up, I made a low upright three canter poles after the cross. This really helped make the rushing horse slow down, and stopped her flattening her canter and playing Pick-Up-Sticks with the canter poles. The other horse used the little upright to give his canter a little boost, which helped him negotiate the rest of the grid.

The best thing I found with this exercise, apart from the fact I didn’t need to go to the gym after setting it out, was that there are so many levels to the exercise it is very adaptable to all riders and horses, and all will feel a benefit from using a line of poles to create and maintain a jumping canter.

A Hole In The Market

I think I’ve found a hole in the market. A gaping big hole filled with equine owners needing advice.

When I was doing GCSEs and had no idea what I wanted to do as a career my Dad organised me to have a day out with one of his customers, getting an insight to his job. I think Dad was hoping I’d be inspired to follow in his (Dad’s, not the unknown man) footsteps and do a degree in soil science.

I wasn’t. It was quite an interesting day, but I wasn’t inspired. I spent the day visiting farms, and having meetings with the farmers about their soil pH levels, appropriate fertilisers and what crops to grow where. I can’t really remember the job title of this man, but it was along the lines of soil analysis advisor.

Anyway, it’s come to my attention recently, probably stemming from my experience with the independent equine nutritionist, that a lot of horse owners need help with managing their land.

The trouble is, as I see it, that there is less rotation nowadays of horses, sheep and cattle, who all eat different types of grasses which results in stressed paddocks. The fields are usually not rested sufficiently, or people have limited acreage with relation to the number of horses.

Additionally, horse owners may take on land which hasn’t been used for horses before, or even take over very poor grazing, and without the right care these types of land never become suitable for horses.

How great would it be if you could approach a consultant of sorts. Who would run a soil analysis, look at the land, and advise how best to fertilise and care for the land?

Did you know that buttercups (which are poisonous to horses) grow in acidic soil. So if your pasture is full of buttercups you could spray them annually (and what of the environmental impact of this?) or you could slake the field, and apply limestone to raise the pH level and so deter the buttercups from growing next year. Or, if your field is full of clover and previously used as cattle grazing it will be high in nitrogen levels, so you want to apply a fertiliser which has lower levels of nitrogen.

Someone well versed in caring for soil, and have an interest and understanding of equine requirements could easily do a report for you, using the results of a soil test, photographs and maps of the land. They could tell you what to do this year, including harrowing, topping and reseeding (such as what grasses will grow best on your land and be most suited to your horse), and could tell you what action to take in the future for the long term health of your fields. Perhaps, they could also be involved in helping you ascertain how best to rotate your paddocks with regard to drainage and shelter. Or with limited acreage, help you design an effective pattern of electric fencing so that you can adequately rotate grazing. Not only would individuals with their couple of horses on their own land be interested (in my opinion), but livery yards may well be interested in having a plan drawn up for field management. After all, we work with, or own horses because we like riding and caring for the horse; caring for the land is an aside and often overlooked.

If I had my time again would I see this as an alternative career? Possibly, after all I come from a family who sit in a coffee shop and notice that the molecule of coffee painted on the wall is both incomplete and unstable, and then have a twenty minute conversation about it. But ultimately I think I’d have stuck with teaching. So maybe if you’re looking for a career, or niche in the market, you should be investigating this avenue.

Rule Of Three

At baby swimming last year I noticed that there was a theme of threes. Each exercise or song was repeated three times. Since then, it’s been in the back of my mind and I’ve noticed this occurring in other areas of learning, and even with my own teaching. I’ve found that whilst I don’t have to explain something three times, it usually takes clients three attempts to fully grasp an exercise, or I have to remind or make a correction three times in quick succession before they manage to make a long term adjustment to their riding.

I googled it to see if there is a learning theory for threes, and there doesn’t seem to be a widely accepted one, but I saw several articles citing that learners need to be given three opportunities to learn something.

I don’t think you want to stick too closely to repeating an exercise three times, in case it goes wrong. You almost want three decent attempts at an exercise before increasing its difficulty or changing it. Ignore the duff ones when horse or rider lost concentration at the beginning. Likewise, if a rider has tried an exercise three times unsuccessfully, it might be wise to change your explanation or simplify things. If you’re just warming up, for example when moving from flat to jumping I usually trot or canter over some poles first, purely to change the horse’s focus. An established horse and rider only need do that once, especially when used to using poles as a subject transition.

Last week I was teaching a young girl who is growing in confidence in her riding, and I keep mentioning the C-word. Cantering, you rude readers!! Until now she’s baulked at the idea, but this time she said she was “nervous but not scared”.

Great. So I talked her through where we were going to trot, what she was going to hold on to, and what to do whilst cantering. I didn’t worry her five year old brain with the transition aids at this moment, after all, I was leading her.

We set off and the first attempt had one stride of canter. Maybe. But on the plus side, no shrieking and she seemed happy enough. Second time we had half a dozen canter strides and her au pair got it on video for her Mum. I announced we were going to do it one more time.

“Why? I don’t want to do it again.”

“Ah well, we have to do it three times because the first is really wobbly and not very good, the second one is better, and the third time even better!”

“Oh okay. Why don’t we do it five times?”

“Because I don’t have enough puff to run that fast five times.”

“Okay.”

The third canter was longer, and she was starting to find her seat. So I left it on a positive note. She can reflect on the canter when telling her parents over dinner.

We moved on to jumping. Well practising our jumping position over tiny cross poles, to finish the lesson. My rider told me she wanted to do level four jumping. That means a cross on the fourth from bottom hole. Which we haven’t done before. So I humoured her, saying we needed to start lower and build up to it. I put the cross on the second hole and we went over it a couple of times. Three probably, let’s face it. And she was staying balanced over the jump and quiet! When I put the cross pole up a hole, my rider said she didn’t want to do level four. So I said that was fine. We did it once, successfully, and called her au pair to watch the second go. Unfortunately she didn’t get it on video. This was the conversation we had:

“We need to do it again so she gets it on video. But. But, what if she doesn’t get it … will you have enough puff to do it again so I do get a video to show Mummy?”

“Yes, I’m sure I’ll have enough energy to do the jump twice more if we need to. Now, are you ready?”

How sweet is that?! I was then that I realised I tended to use the rule of three when teaching. Perhaps I should be developing the Learning Theory of Three. Publish a book and make my fortune …

Ticks

I’ve had to invest in a tick twister for my grooming box in recent weeks, as Phoenix and her stable mates have had a couple of unwanted freeloaders.

These freeloaders are brought into the horse’s paddocks by deer, of which we have plenty in the area. The ticks then attach onto the horses.

Before we look at the ins and outs of ticks, let’s see what tool I had to purchase. I bought a tick twister, which is a nifty little hook. You hook the split end under the tick, against the skin, and when the tick is “locked in” the twister you simply just twist the twister (the name gives it away, doesn’t it?) and the tick is removed whole, and the horse unharmed. Don’t forget to stamp on the tick for maximum satisfaction!

It’s very important that the whole of the tick is removed; if you use tweezers or any other tool the legs can easily be broken off and left in the skin, causing a risk of infection. Which is why I’d rather be prepared and have a tick twister to hand!

In this country, we only really see multi-host ticks, which happily live on deer or dogs, yet will catch a ride on horses too. If your fields are regularly used as deer highways then you want to keep an eye out for these bloodsuckers. They live in long grass and hedgerows, so within reason keep the grass short and hedges cut back. Horses often pick up ticks when being hacked, especially through woods. They also dislike sunlight so hopefully the upcoming summer will deter them!

Birds, especially guinea fowl, love eating ticks so they can be a helpful tick deterrent.

There’s only so much you can do to minimise ticks in your horse’s environment, especially as the ticks we see in the UK are predominately hosted by wild animals. If you have a horse particularly attractive to ticks, just like some children are prone to getting headlice, then you can use spot-on treatment or purchase fly sprays which also repel ticks.

Otherwise, just keeping an eye out for ticks when you are grooming them and remove them immediately.

Shallow Loops

Every so often I remember an exercise and utilise it with various clients of all ages and abilities. Currently, it’s shallow loops.

Quite often they’re overlooked in favour of serpentines or figures of eights, but they have their own benefits as a movement which tests a horse’s balance.

First appearing at novice level, shallow loops are ridden down the long side of the arena, as perfectly illustrated by my friend’s sketch for Demi Dressage, below.

The criteria for a shallow loop is to ride a smooth, flowing line from F towards X and then return to the track at M. They become an easier movement if you only leave the track by five metres – that is, you cross the E-B line five metres from the track. Riding FXM makes the turns more acute so requires greater suppleness from your horse. As with everything, start easy and once you’ve mastered level one, up the ante.

So what are the benefits of riding shallow loops? Firstly, they stop horses getting too track bound, and ensure they are listening to the rider’s outside aids. They are good at teaching riders to be less reliant on the fence line, and they show up any erratic steering issues! If you don’t plan and ride subtly, you end up staggering across the arena. For the horse, you are changing their bend in quick succession so it is a test of their balance and suppleness as they shift from one hind leg to the other.

Riding trot shallow loops are really helpful for improving the trot-canter transitions as in the shallow loops the horse changes from the inside hind (in relation to the inside of the arena) to the outside hind (the one nearest the fenceline) as they return to the track. In the trot to canter transition the horse shifts from the inside hind leg in trot to the outside hind in canter.

Riding shallow loops in canter introduces counter canter, further testing a horse’s balance.

When introducing shallow loops I find the hardest aspect of the movement is getting the loop to flow smoothly with an even incline to and from the track, so the most useful thing is to provide visual cues for riders. By guiding their eyes they automatically begin to flow away and towards the track. I use cones or jump blocks to show riders where to go. I place one cone near the corner, where the rider needs to go round the outside of before they leave the track, then another on the E-B line which they need to pass on the inside, and the final cone in the next corner to encourage the rider to return to the track and ride into their corner. As we develop the movement we increase the shallow loop from five metres towards ten metres.

How do you ride shallow loops? Begin by riding into your corner to give yourself plenty of space, and then using the outside aids, ride off the track. Almost imagine you’re riding across the diagonal, so turn your body to look across the arena, sit into your inside seat bone as you open the inside rein and close your outside leg. As you approach the E-B line, and the innermost part of the shallow loop, start riding parallel to the long side. Aim for three or four strides, during which use the leg nearest the fence on the girth, and open that rein to change the horse’s bend and engage that hind leg. Then return to the track and upon reaching it change the bend back to the original direction with the leg nearest the centre of the school acting on the girth to engage that hind leg and opening that rein. Ride into your corner ensuring your horse stays balanced.

The biggest faux pas I see when riding shallow loops is riders having dramatic changes of bend, which unbalances their horse. Minimise the bend and take your time in the middle of the loop and the loops will begin to flow and feel balanced, with the horse able to maintain their rhythm. If a rider doesn’t spend sufficient time in the middle of the loop; riding straight lines to and from X, then it may be useful to replace the cone with a pole, which forces some straight strides.

I’ve been putting shallow loops into my warm ups to give variation, and to help riders move around the arena. Instead of trotting the long side, we’ve put in a shallow loop to keep the horse’s focus. Have fun incorporating them into your workouts!

Our Story

This isn’t easy to write, but it’s taken me long enough to stop being an ostrich and burying my head in the sand. This is the missing piece to Phoenix’s story of the last few months.

You may remember in January that she started shooting off in canter in the arena, which I discovered was caused by muscle adhesions and tightness in her left hind so she had a course of physio therapy. In April, this limb got a clean bill of health.

In February I was working on Phoenix’s walk and trot in the arena, and cantering in straight lines out on hacks. Until her left hind was sorted, I didn’t really want to canter her in the arena.

Phoenix’s uncontrolled right canters in the arena in January had unnerved me a bit. I’ll be honest. Whilst I could ride the eight laps of fast, uncontrolled canter calmly round the arena, I didn’t enjoy it. So I decided that I would ensure she wasn’t in any pain before readdressing the canter, and just focus on improving her trot, work the canter on the lunge so that she was calm and balanced throughout the transition. We were enjoying our hacks, and she was behaving perfectly.

Then it happened. I took her for a hack one afternoon. We were on our own, and I decided to trot across the patch of grass which cuts off a junction. That trot turned into canter, which turned into a flat out gallop. She jumped the ditch onto the road, turned left. Slipped over, and we parted company.

Ok, so I wasn’t particularly hurt. A couple of grazes and bruises, but nothing a hot bath won’t cure. But I was gutted. I felt betrayed. A bit like if you overhear a friend talking behind your back. It hurts much more than a stranger saying the same words. I think Phoenix scared herself too. I wish I knew what had triggered her bolt. But she definitely changed towards me after that incident. I led her home, lunged her hard and then got back on.

The rest of that week I beat myself up. Why was I being so pathetic? We had a tumultuous week weatherwise, with constant gales, so each day I weighed up the pros and cons of riding. And inevitably chickened out each day. I was tense and worried, and she was equally stressed out.

When the weather settled, a whole week later, I got back on and hacked round the block with a friend. It took both me and Phoenix most of the hack to relax. The next day I went in the arena, but I was so worked up about it I ended up getting another friend to lunge me to get the first trot, and then just stand there talking about the weather to me as a distraction.

I felt so disappointed in myself. My riding of clients’ horses on the other hand was feeling better and I was getting good results. But I couldn’t ride my own horse without stressing out.

It was about this time I began investigating Phoenix’s nutrition, and the possibility of ulcers. And decided to come up with a rescue plan for myself.

Firstly, what I’d tell my clients, I took the pressure off myself.

Secondly, I came to the conclusion that it had to be me who solved this problem. There was no point getting someone else to ride her because that wouldn’t stop my qualms, and given Phoenix’s current mental state she wasn’t trusting of anyone. And as a friend said, she is actually very attached to me. You can see by the way she watches me and follows me round.

Someone described her as a cat pony. Which is totally true! Phoenix is affectionate, but on her terms and can be a bit aloof. Which I think makes it harder to build a relationship. You can’t kiss and make up, so to speak.

So I was sorting out Phoenix’s diet, she was having regular physio sessions, saddles had been checked, and I was focusing on spending more time grooming and just being with Phoenix so that we became friends again. I worked her on the lunge, and she was behaving perfectly here.

I decided to box over to my instructor to have some lessons to remove any environmental stimuli. I needed some advice to overcome Phoenix’s tension in the school, and to develop some tactics to stop her scooting off. After all, every time she scooted off I tensed, and that made her more jumpy. It was a vicious circle.

The hacks were getting back on track: we’ve been out alone again, and she’s been on her best behaviour ever since.

I hoped that a change of arena would help reset our flatwork. It seemed to work, and after two lessons we had a short canter on both reins. In the third lesson, the canter was beautifully calm and balanced, like it was at Christmas. I felt like we were back on track.

Just before the second lesson, Phoenix had had the all clear from the physio, and as I couldn’t find any physical excuses for her to be stressed about cantering I decided to take her on a sponsored ride. I hoped the long canters would build some muscle, and she had plenty of time to find her rhythm and balance. And of course she would realise that it didn’t hurt. She was phenomenal, and I was euphoric. We were friends again!

Since the sponsored ride I felt like we’ve been on an up; we had a great third lesson at my instructor’s. I still wasn’t getting the same level of relaxation at home, and was sticking to walk and trot. But then I think we are both aware that that particular arena is where she’s misbehaved.

This takes us up to last weekend. I was feeling happier, getting better work from Phoenix and we were making progress. I was schooling last Saturday and getting the best trot work I’ve had for a long time, just doing a last circle when Phoenix had what can only be described as a panic attack. Halfway round the circle she shot into canter, heading towards the corner of the arena. I pulled her round and we cantered a few panicked circles and she started putting her head down. But I pulled her up, then dismounted because she felt like she was about to explode. Her back was up, the saddle had shifted forwards. What caused what, who knows. Once deflated and with the saddle adjusted, I got back on and we had a tense trot. I was pretty disappointed, as I should’ve finished a circle before!

On Sunday I had a very disappointing ride. Phoenix was scooting off each time I asked for trot, and wouldn’t relax in walk. She behaved perfectly on the lunge, but her jumping and scooting made me jumpy so the vicious cycle was back (I did observe her to be in season too). I wrote it off, but wasn’t happy as I was going cross country schooling the following day!

I wasn’t really sure what I was going to get in the cross country field, but Phoenix was again, phenomenal. She jumped everything I asked her to, and felt incredibly bold and rideable!

It’s like a rollercoaster at the moment. Phoenix behaves so well out of the arena, but we’ve taken a few steps back again inside the boards. She’s living out now and whilst she has plenty of fresh grass, she seems happier so hopefully the nutrition and management side settles down now. I think that whilst she’s had some issues over the winter (left hind and not eating enough forage) Phoenix has started to try it on. Her scooting off was initially from discomfort, but she is now doing it to get out of work. So I’ve got my work cut out being consistent in the arena and teaching her that she’s not going to get away with not working. She’s trying to be in control in the arena. Out of her comfort zone on hacks or cross country, she’s happy for me to take control and is submissive.

This weekend is being spent repeating the lessons of last week and trotting with a softer neck, and relaxing through her body. Hopefully a few days of this and proud Phoenix will back down and submit to me in the arena. Then we can get our competing again!

I’ve signed us up for riding club camp in June too, so I’ve got a goal, a focus, and I shall keep plugging away; keeping consistent, putting the boundaries in place, and waiting for Phoenix to settle back down. I’m in a better place than I was a few weeks ago, the good days are fantastic, I just need to iron out the bad days, but hopefully now things will start to come together.

Tractors

I thought I’d share a desensitising experience I had last week. It made me very late for child pick up, but you can’t turn down these opportunities – or discourage others from helping horse riders in the future.

Phoenix is usually great with tractors, as they provided her with forage when she was a youngster, and she’s usually quite happy with them around the yard. However, when an elderly tractor rattled and rumbled up behind us on the lane on our way home the other day, she wasn’t impressed. She just got a little uptight with it behind us, and when we pulled it to let the tractor pass she fussed and fidgeted, and when I turned her round she wasn’t convinced about going past.

I was about to hurry along home with the tractor huffing and puffing behind, but the driver shouted, “she’ll have to get used to it… I’ve loads of time!”

He turned the engine off, and we walked back and forth past it until Phoenix deflated and breathed out. Lots of patting and verbal reward. Then the engine was turned on and we repeated the process.

Then we just stood alongside, while the engine grumbled away. She did relax a bit, and in her own way enjoyed the stroke she got from the driver when he got out to introduce himself to her.

Once Phoenix was happy in this situation we all moved forwards. And I mean all. We walked next to the tractor up the narrow lane for five minutes, with Phoenix eventually deciding that she could have a look across the fields without fear of the tractor pouncing on her. At this point, I let the tractor draw away so that she could completely relax before getting home.

Teaching a horse to accept a “monster” is all about finding their comfort zone, and making sure they are relaxed, before slowly pushing their boundaries, only taking another step when they accept the previous one. Body language is paramount here: a drop of the head often signifies when they move away from flight mode, and an exhalation huff can only be achieved when they’re relaxed, so watch out for these signs, as well as feeling your horse physically relax.

Let’s take a similar situation, of a plastic bag. If your horse spooks at it then find the distance from the bag that they will stand, watching it but without tension. Then just wait patiently, scratch their wither, chat to them, until they lose interest in it. They’re now in their comfort zone. Next, walk past the bag, at the same distance away as when they were stationary. Repeat until they have accepted level two. Now, move slightly closer to the bag and walk past. And wait. Then a bit closer. Wait and repeat. And then some more. With each extension of their boundary, the horse will feel anxious, adrenaline will kick in as the fight or flight response is initiated. Waiting for them to accept this situation makes it a less stressful process and means it is more likely to be successful in the long term.

Of course, you often need to repeat the exercise over a few days, starting hopefully from a comfort zone that it slightly closer to the “monster” and potentially getting closer and closer to said monster in each session. I always find that this slowly slowly approach results in a happier horse, who is less stressed in future similar situations, and is more confident. It takes time, but all good things do.