Body Posture

I’ve become more aware recently of horse’s posture and what clues this gives to how they’re feeling and their way of going.

Stand back and take a good, critical look at your horse as they stand quietly on the yard. Do they stand square? Do they look like their weight is evenly distributed?

A horse with a good posture will stand fairly square, weight balanced evenly on all four feet, and look comfortable. It sounds silly, but it should look like they’re holding this stance easily. Their head and neck shouldn’t be held too high or tense, and you shouldn’t see tension along the back. It depends on conformation, but the back wants to be basically horizontal. The top of the horse, from their poll to their dock, wants to look longer than from their neck to their tail. Below is a photo of Phoenix showing a good posture: she’s standing evenly, albeit not square, and whilst she needs to work on relaxing her brachiocephalic muscle, you can see she has a good length of topline.

So what posture problems are there?

An inverted posture, a term I learnt recently, is when the back and top line muscles are tight and tensed. This causes the neck to draw back and up, the back to hollow. It’s a bit like looking at a “u” shape. This could be caused by a problem in the back, such as kissing spines, or purely sore back muscles and a badly fitting saddle. Some horses who are weak over the back, perhaps due to age or level of training, may adopt this posture after being ridden if their muscles have become overtired. A horse lacking topline muscles may appear to have an inverted posture, and they can look to have a pot belly. Which will disappear as they start to use their abdominals properly as it will lift and shrink. Phoenix developed this posture just before she had her first physio session and it was due to tight muscles in her back. However, the change in her posture afterwards was instantaneous. For those horses who have adopted this position for a long time, to compensate or protect other areas of their body, it can take a long time to improve their stance.

Another horse I work with, who I actually suggested saw a physio, had a posture which always concerned me, he always rested his left fore and right hind, and held his nose pointing out, as if sore in the atlas area of his neck. He tended to hold his legs slightly out from under his body – hind legs camped out, and forelegs almost pointing. He just generally looked uncomfortable. I was really pleased this week when I rode him after two physio sessions; partly because he felt so much looser and more comfortable under saddle, as well as able to adopt the long and low posture, but he was also standing much more squarely, with his legs under him, and his head isn’t stuck out quite so much. Of course, he still needs some work from both the physio and his riders, to undo all the tightness and to rebuild the correct muscles, but I felt that we were heading in the right direction with him.

Another horse I’ve been working with, who is long and lanky in build, and always struggles to have a topline, has really improved since Christmas. He was working well for me, but wasn’t working consistently through the week and his posture was still very much inverted and I was really starting to get concerned that we’d have massive problems in the future, but thankfully after boot camp, and his owner increasing his workload, as well as his routine changing for the better, he’s starting to work more consistently for both of us. We’ve introduced a Pessoa session once a week to encourage him to work long and low without a rider’s weight, and over the last couple of weeks I’ve notice him standing more square both before and after exercise. His farrier noticed that he was much straighter since his last visit, and you can see the muscle in the top of his neck improving. After exercise he is also letting his fifth leg hang out, which whilst it grosses many people out, is a gospel sign that he’s used his abdominals. And as his abdominals tone up, his back will lift, and his topline will become engaged and improve. I’m really pleased with his progress and the improvement to his posture and muscle tone.

Each week I’m now trying to critique all the horses I work with, to assess their posture to see if they’re holding a limb awkwardly, or look uncomfortable in any area of their body, and we can then get them treated if necessary. I’m also becoming more aware of the small changes in their muscle development. Once you train your eye you can hone in on all the small details, such as the hindlegs being too far under their body or left out behind in the halt which suggests tightness in either the flexor or extensor set of muscles.

It’s worth trying to take a step back each week and assess your own horse’s posture as well as their body condition, and you’ll hopefully pick up on any problems nice and early and can get treatment or adjust your training plan accordingly.

Foal Time

Despite the lack of spring weather, foals have started to make an appearance – how cute!

Here are ten facts about foals for you to get your teeth into.

  1. The gestation period of a horse is eleven months, but they can be born up to four weeks late. Most breeders aim for foals to be born in the spring so that they benefit from the spring grass via the mare’s milk and can grow during the better weather and are strong enough to withstand the demands of winter.
  2. Foals stand, walk and trot very quickly after birth – ideally within two hours. This is because they’re prey animals so need to be able to flee predators from the beginning. Predators are attracted to the smell of the placenta so moving away from the birth site is important. Foals can gallop after twenty four hours.
  3. Foals with floppy ear tips are premature because the cartilage has not yet fully developed.
  4. Many foals are born with bowed legs, called “windswept”, particularly large foals born to smaller mares. Immature tendons and ligaments can also cause a foal’s fetlocks to touch the ground as they walk. The legs will straighten out over the first few days as they strengthen.
  5. Foals are often born at night, or in the early hours of the morning, and the birth is a quick process. Both of these factors help protect them from predators.
  6. After a week, a foal will try grass, starting to eat a little bit of hay and grass because by the time they are two months old their nutritional needs exceed the milk requirements from the mare.
  7. A foal’s legs are 90% of their final adult length when they’re born. This gives them an advantage as a prey animal, and also explains why they look so wobbly and leggy as newborns.
  8. If a foal grows to quickly, or is overweight then their joints swell with a condition called osteochondrosis. In osteochondrosis the boney foundation of joints doesn’t develop properly so the joint surface is rough and can deteriorate, causing arthritis and lameness in later life.
  9. Foals have certain juvenile characteristics which, in a similar way to human babies, elicits caregiving. The eyes are large, face is short and forehead is high.
  10. Foals are born with a deciduous hoof capsule, which is soft and rubbery to protect the birth canal from the sharp, hard hooves. The capsule wears down within minutes, enabling the foal to stand and move.

Breastplate Research

Recently some scientific studies have been published which discuss the negative impact on a horse’s jump.

Fairfax, who are famous for their pioneering girths which gave British riders an advantage at the 2012 Olympics, have published the research describing how a breastplate shortens the shape a horse makes over the fence, so that they land more steeply thus putting more stress on their joints. You can read about it in more detail Here.

Obviously Fairfax have developed a breastplate which is far superior to all others on the market. At a price, of course. Now, unless you are planning on remortgaging your house to purchase this ultimate breastplate, let’s have a look at what other options there are.

Breastplates are used to help stabilise the saddle and stop it slipping back. They’re most commonly seen on eventers, who due to their high level of fitness are rather streamlined, almost herring gutted, which encourages the saddle to slide towards the croup.

If your saddle slips backwards the first port of call is to get it checked. It may be that the make of the saddle isn’t best suited to your horse’s conformation, but equally changing the girth may have an impact on the movement of the saddle. You can also use gel pads or non slip pads under the saddle which can help stabilise the saddle. Phoenix came with such a pad, so when I get the saddler out I’ll make sure I take that with me so the saddler can assess if I’ll need it with my saddles and take it into account when he fits the saddle.

I think with any piece of tack, you only want to use what you need. So if your saddle stays still when you’re jumping or going cross country then don’t weigh yourselves down with a breastplate. The same goes for martingales for that matter.

There are a few options with regard to designs of breastplates and breastgirths, and I think it’s so important to consider the horse’s conformation when choosing one.

I tend to feel that if your horse needs a martingale then it’s a good idea to combine that with a breastplate in order to reduce clutter, but otherwise I’d look at breastgirths.

Horses with large shoulders tend to have trouble with saddles sliding back, but the ironic thing is that large shoulders tend to make fitting breastplates difficult. Which was exactly the problem I had with Otis. Initially, I had a hunting breastplate which worked well when he was a youngster, but as we started jumping bigger and getting more serious, I found that the hunting breastplate wasn’t so effective at preventing his saddle from sliding backwards and it encouraged the saddle to sit a bit low at the front.

From there, I tried the V-check breastplate, hoping that the elastic would provide more freedom through his shoulders, but the angle that the straps came up from the centre of his body caused the saddle to drop at the front again, which I think made it harder for him to use his shoulders over jumps and when galloping.

As I needed the breastplate to have a more gentle angle, I looked at a five point breastplate. This one I was most happy with. The sheepskin pads and girth attachments helped reduce the downwards pressure at the pommel, so I felt there was less pressure near his sternum and point of shoulders.

As well as the research done by Fairfax about breastplates affecting jumping, I think it would be more interesting to use the biomechanics technology to see the effect that different styles of breastplates and breastgirths on horses of a variety of stamps – for example, warmbloods, thoroughbreds, and cobs – has on their jumping and where the pressure points are. After all, it would be lovely to be able to had a breastplate which only puts pressure on the horse when needed, but we can’t all justify the price tag, and indeed not all horses are super fit eventers. However it would be great to educate the average horse owner in the pros and cons of different style pieces of tack so that we can do best by our horses.

Choosing a Farrier

My lovely farrier, who is too popular for his own good, couldn’t trim Phoenix because she’s the wrong side of the road, and is slightly out of his area. Which is a shame but I understand that it’s important for him to try to keep his work in one area. Of course, I asked him to recommend a suitable farrier.

A young, newly qualified lad was recommended. I have mixed feelings about newly qualified farriers. Or newly qualified professionals of any sort. Yes, they’ve had the most recent training so have the most up to date information, but they’ve also the least experience. Phoenix is a straightforward trim though, so it’s worth giving this new farrier the opportunity. If I had a horse with more complex shoeing needs I’d probably find a farrier with more experience in that particular area.

It was a successful visit last Friday. My brief to the farrier was that I wasn’t 100% sure when Phoenix was last done but I suspect November time, and that she doesn’t kick but is a bit of a scaredy cat with new people and things. It was just about tidying up her hooves and giving her a positive experience.

I have to say that I was very impressed with the quiet, patient way this farrier introduced himself to her and took his time trimming her. When she fidgeted he just calmly picked her foot up again and carried on, giving her a pat after each foot was done. While he worked, we chatted about his business. He’s setting up on his own, but does a couple of days a week with some more established farriers, which means he’s got a good network of support and is continuing to expand his knowledge. I liked the sound of this. I told him about Otis’s problems to hear his opinion, and was pleased to hear that he had similar thoughts to Otis’s farrier. Phoenix’s feet were long, but he complimented her on her good quality, and natural shape and balance of her feet, and we made a plan to trim her again in ten weeks time.

Anyway, what makes a good farrier?

  • They need to be good with horses, so be quiet and calming around the nervous horses yet be firmer with the unruly horses.
  • They need to be on time, and work at a steady pace. Often owners have to take time off work or rearrange shifts to fit in the farrier so it’s never helpful to have a farrier who turns up late, or even significantly early. Neither do you want one who rushes the job so doesn’t notice any small changes nor one who takes forever to shoe.
  • They need to be reliable. So you know they’re going to turn up, and equally reliable in that you can leave your horse in his stable (as long as all three parties are happy, of course) and your farrier can begin if he arrives before you. Or he will finish off if you have to shoot off to work.
  • Tidy. No, they aren’t expected to sweep the yard afterwards, but picking up any droppings and not leaving old nails scattered around is a positive!
  • Personally I like my farrier to ask how the horse is going. It prompts the owner to mention any tripping, forging or overreaching. It could be a positive remark too, such as the fact they are tracking up much better or are coping with the ground on hacks. It’s also useful for the farrier to know your plans for riding, whether you’ll be doing more hacking, or need studs for eventing.
  • I also quite like it when farriers give a little tweak to the shoes. This sometimes depends on the owner’s feedback, but if they see a change in the wear of the horse’s foot or shoe and adapt the new set to accommodate this. For example, feathering the inside of a shoe or increasing the heel support by widening the back of the shoe. Adjustments like this can help prevent problems developing and improve a horse’s athletic performance.
  • Having a farrier at your beck and call is perfect if you are super important like William Fox-Pitt, but we aren’t all that lucky. It is nice though to be able to text your farrier when your horse comes in without a shoe and know that within a few days it will be sorted. And if your horse is lame without his shoe, or it’s the day before a competition, then it’s nice to know your farrier will be with you as soon as possible.
  • All horses feet are unique, so a farrier needs to adapt his shoeing technique, and be open to using different types of shoes according to the foot conformation or history of lameness. Again, a sign of a good farrier is one treats ever horse as an individual, and has a wide repertoire of shoes, techniques, and management suggestions.
  • This is especially important with younger farriers, who have qualified fairly recently. It’s good for them to be looking at furthering their knowledge and expertise. Either by regular training, taking more exams, or taking day courses. Having a good relationship with the farrier who trained them is also useful as they then have someone with more knowledge to seek advice from, and they shouldn’t be afraid of admitting that they need help or advice from others in order to best help their client’s horse.

Getting Their Tongue Over The Bit

I remember it happening a few times when we were younger, but I’m not sure if it’s the fact that we know how to fit bridles better or if it’s the fact that bits are more ergonomically shaped and with different types of joints, so it’s actually harder for tongues to get over the mouthpiece.

However, it did happen a few weeks ago while I was lunging, which led me to wondering how many people would recognise the signs of a horse getting their tongue over the bit and how to prevent it happening on a regular basis.

The horse I was working with was trotting around sweetly in side reins when he started fidgeting with his head, not really shaking it but it became more mobile. Then his tongue came out the side of his mouth a couple of times as he contorted it and he lost all impulsion as he hollowed. A bit of white lipstick appeared suddenly and by that time I was bringing him back to a walk to sort him out.

I unclipped the side reins and gave him a moment. After all, if he got his tongue over the bit, he may be able to wiggle it back under. Which he did. I had a close look at the bridle he was wearing and decided that the bit could potentially be sitting slightly low. So I put one cheek piece up a hole and then straightened the bit in his mouth. It looked to be sitting slightly better, with a fraction more of a smile at his lips, and as I didn’t want a repeat performance I left it like this. We set off, and he continued as if nothing had happened.

From the ground, it’s quite easy to see a horse in discomfort in his mouth because you can see the tongue moving around, and the head shaking. What are the symptoms though, when you’re riding?

Firstly, it feels like the horse comes behind the bit and very light in the hand. Their neck may feel tense and contract towards their body. You should also feel a lot of movement in the mouth – almost like chomping at the bit – and possibly some head shaking. They’ll lose focus on the exercise and hollow.

If you think your horse has their tongue over the bit then it’s important to dismount in case they start to panic. Immediately give them a loose rein and find somewhere safe to jump off. Once on the ground you can see if their tongue is above or below the bit, and if they’re able to resolve the problem. Undoing the noseband, especially if it’s a flash or grackle, is sometimes enough to enable the horse to correct the tongue. I’ve known people to put their fingers in the corner of the horse’s mouth and push the tongue down. Obviously the horse needs to be fairly calm for this otherwise you could get injured. Alternatively, and this relies on you being in a safe place (I.e. not on the side of the road) you can take the bridle off and then replace it. Undoing one cheek piece and letting the bit drop carefully in the horse’s mouth is also helpful in allowing the horse more space to sort their tongue out.

Putting the tongue over the bit is an evasion tactic, and often occurs in youngsters who are playing with the bit whilst being backed. It can also happen because the horse is physically uncomfortable, either because of the type of bit or because of pain in their mouth.

If a horse repeatedly gets their tongue over the bit or seems generally uncomfortable with the bit and bridle, it is worth getting an equine dentist to thoroughly examine the mouth. The molars may be sharp, or the cheeks, gums or tongue irritated by the sharp edges.

Unfortunately however, getting the tongue over the bit releases endorphins so a horse is tempted to recreate the situation and give him a buzz. Which can make it a difficult habit to break.

Then you need to assess the bridle and it’s fit. Is the bit in good condition – plastic coated bits often develop rough edges over time which can cause callouses on the tongue and cheeks. The type of mouthpiece is important to consider as horses with different mouth conformations will find different shaped bits more comfortable and a horse who is comfortable in the mouth will move their jaw and tongue less so will be less likely to get their tongue over the bit. Horses with fleshy lips and tongues will find thinner mouthpieces much more comfortable, whilst some horses dislike pressure on the tongue so prefer a ported mouthpiece or multi jointed mouthpiece. You could even consider bitless bridles.

A bit that is fitted too low in the mouth commonly causes the tongue to go over the bit because there is physically more space above the mouthpiece and the bit is more mobile so there is more scope for the tongue to move around as the horse tries to stabilise the bit why get can cause it to get into trouble.

A correctly adjusted bit should sit so that there are two wrinkles at each corner of the lips. I miss the traditional bridles where the cheek pieces can be adjusted independently and the headpiece can sit slightly off centre. For example, the bit can be at the perfect height for the horse with one cheek piece on the third hole and the other on the fourth hole. The plain leather headpiece can sit slightly asymmetrically but the horse is very comfortable. However, with padded and shaped headpieces the bit has to be adjusted evenly on both sides to maintain symmetry in the mouth. Which sometimes I feel affects your ability to find the perfect fit.

I think in years gone by one answer to horses getting their tongue over the bit was to tighten the noseband or apply a flash or grackle. However, now education has increased and we are more aware of facial nerves and the effect of overtight nosebands people are moving away from this answer, and trying to find the root cause as opposed to fixing the symptom.

Long in the Back

Kids can often ask the most random questions, or come up with the oddest statements. There’s actually been a lot of thought behind them, but the logic can take you by surprise. Which is partly why I like teaching kids and teenagers. It keeps me on my toes.

A few weeks ago one of my young clients stated, halfway through her lesson, “that horse has got a really long back”. She pointed to another livery working at the other end of the school.

Now, it’s very easy to quote your own opinion and air your views, but I don’t think that’s the right approach to encourage intelligent learning or the ability to analyse and develop own ideas and beliefs.

Also, I don’t want the horse’s owner to feel that I’m insulting their horse in any shape or form!

So I tried to provide a balanced argument for whether long backs are good or bad, and then I left it to my rider to decide whether the horse in question actually does have a long back or whether it’s a bit of an illusion with the tack.

  • Mares usually have longer backs than stallions or geldings, to better enable them to bear foals.
  • Horses with longer backs are often seen as being weaker because the muscles supporting the vertebrae are longer. Horses with long backs are associated with having weak loins.
  • More time is needed to be spent developing and maintaining the topline of a horse with a long back.
  • Horses with longer backs can find it hard to engage their hind legs and collect because the hindquarters is further away from the forehand and so the back muscles and abdominals need to be stronger.
  • Horses with shorter backs can often be more agile and change direction quickly and easily, for example on the polo field or when barrel racing.
  • A longer back is more flexible than a shorter back.
  • Shorter backed horses can develop spinal arthritis if their back becomes too stiff and rigid, which will affect their performance by their stride being shortened and becoming inelastic.
  • A horse who is shorter in the back will struggle to flex their spine over jumps and so will jump with a flat technique rather than a rounded bascule.
  • Horses with short backs can be more liable to overreaching or forging because the hind legs are closer to the forelegs so are more likely to over step. On the other hand, long backed horses can be speedy cutters when working at speed.
  • Horses with long backs usually find it easier to perform flying changes, and give a more comfortable ride because there is less movement in the back.

There are pros and cons to excessively long or short backs, but ultimately some disciplines will favour backs that sit towards one end of the scale or the other, and when a rider, owner, or trainer studies a horse they should take into account the back conformation and adjust their training time frame and exercises to make the most of the horse’s body, and reduce the risk of injury. For example, if someone came to me with a long backed horse who they wanted to do general riding club activities with, then I would tailor lessons and help the owner to work on developing and then maintains core strength through lunging, polework and other school exercises so that both horse and rider can enjoy a long, active partnership.

Low, Deep and Round

It was good to see this statement from the BHS bigwigs about the importance of seeing the full picture before castigating riders.

Yes I know, rolkur is an issue and should not be permitted or encouraged in anyway. But so often you see photos of professionals, dressage riders in particular, being slated because the horse is behind the vertical or tight in the neck.

We’ve all had those horrendous photos taken, where you’re making a face, or look fat because it’s the wrong angle or whatever other sensitive issue you may have. A photo is a moment in time and can just as easily show off a horse at their worst, than at their best. I just wish the keyboard warriors would firstly accept that professionals competing at a high standard, such as Olympia, deserve some respect and are probably significantly better horsemen than the said warriors. Also, keyboard warriors should look at the whole situation and use their own brain to analyse whether the horse is being incorrectly ridden, or if the photo captured them at the wrong moment.

The media can also be to blame. A negative photo that is sensationalised sells magazines far more than a standard photo of good riding.

I remember being told that the head and neck are the last thing to fall into place when training a horse. I think I blogged recently about it … Not so much about the subject itself, but rather how the frame of a horse will alter through training.

Anyway, I always teach my clients about riding to the steady contact and working on what the hind legs and body are doing, rather than the head. Then the head takes care of itself. Sometimes I’ll say that the horse is dropping behind the vertical, or their poll is getting too low, but we then correct them by putting in some impulsion, or correcting the hand carriage. Whatever needs to be done to help the horse regain self carriage.

I have a couple of clients who, with a photo taken at the wrong moment would have a horse behind the vertical. And it’s most definitely not from them being restrictive with their hands and riding badly. One pony gets tense and finds it hard to maintain a consistent contact, so tucks his nose back, looking behind the bit and tight in the neck. Once he’s found the contact, his rider just squeezes the legs to encourage him to step out towards the contact and then he lengthens his neck and corrects his head.

Another horse often goes poll low, and that’s where she lacks impulsion and is conformationally built a bit on the forehand. As soon as she starts to drop down and onto the forehand we ride some transitions and input impulsion to activate her hindquarters so she comes up off the forehand, creating a much prettier and more correct picture.

The youngster I’m working with at the moment spends most of his time above the bridle, but we are focusing on rhythm to the trot, steering and suppling him, and ensuring he holds a steady and even rein contact. His head carriage, whilst more accepted than being behind the vertical, will improve as he establishes his balance and learns to maintain it.

The weak horse in the blog I’ve linked to, is now much stronger, and is starting to carry herself better, and is learning to stretch in the trot, and free walk on a long rein, so presents a far more correct frame, but when she gets tired, or loses her balance she still has moments of dropping behind the vertical as she momentarily balances on her rider’s hand before carrying herself again.

I think it’s so important for coaches to understand, and to explain to riders the importance or the studying the whole package of riding, and how the horse’s stage of training and physical appearance will affect their ability to carry their nose on the vertical with their poll at the highest point, before judging others and when planning their own training and improvement.

The End of an Era

It’s been creeping up on me for a while; I’ve caught myself thinking “I want to do that with my next horse” or “I’d like a horse good at that”.

But about a month ago I watched Otis in the field and resigned myself to the fact that he won’t come sound. Maybe he’ll be a happy hacker, but really I needed to face facts. The main thing though, is that he’s happy in his field with his buddies and I can afford to keep him there indefinitely. He’s not suffering, just a bit limpy, and otherwise in good health. I then broached the subject that next year I would like to get another horse. It’s all very well riding other people’s horses, but when you’ve experienced the bond with your own, and enjoy the satisfaction of training and competing, it’s not the same. I know I’ve lost some motivation through not having my own horse or reason to improve my ability. Yes, next year we’ll have our own two-legged project, but I like to keep busy and I know that not having my own horse will cause me to go insane. Thankfully, my lovely husband readily agreed to my light at the end of the tunnel.

I allowed myself a couple of hacks to think about what I want and need from a horse. I was quite specific.

  • A native or hardy breed, or part bred.
  • Height wasn’t really an issue; I’m lucky enough that I can ride anything between 14.2hh and 16.2hh, but I’d prefer to stay below 16hh.
  • I enjoy training a horse, so I wanted something I could take further. But not a real youngster as I wouldn’t have the time to devote to backing a baby. It would also be nice to have a horse who has already been shown the basics, perhaps five or six, that I could quite quickly start taking out to clinics or little competitions.
  • They needed to be trainable. I enjoy learning and training, so need a horse who does likewise. Whether their forte is jumping or dressage, I didn’t mind.
  • Temperament is paramount now. I want something which can have a week off yet still behave. One that I can tie up on the yard, leave to check on the baby, and not worry they will cause havoc. Likewise, in the future the horse needs to be sensible so I can juggle a child with them. I know full well that horses can be unpredictable but certain temperaments are more reliable than others.
  • I want them to be reliable. My free time will be limited and I want to know I can ride and enjoy my ride, not battle hormones or a bad mood.
  • I’d like them to be sensible to hack because when we get a pony I’m going to want to ride and lead: whether my child is riding or I’m exercising the pony.

Even as I thought of my list, I knew I was setting a rather stringent criteria and would be lucky to find anything which remotely fitted the bill.

Anyway, we weren’t looking yet so I filed my list away at the back of my brain.

Only a couple of days later I came across this advert on Facebook. Let me tell you the vital stats:

  • 6 years old.
  • Chestnut.
  • Mare.
  • Welsh Section D – more to the point, a half sister to Otis.
  • 15.2hh
  • Backed as a five year old and sold to a lady who had a friend ride her lightly – mainly hacking – from June 2016 to May 2017. Since then she’s been lunged and led out on hacks a couple of times a week.
  • Being sold because of owner’s ill health, and the fact she’s currently wasted.

On face value, most of my boxes were ticked. Just six months too early. I was really intrigued, but had an argument with myself as to whether I was being sentimental with the Otis link, or whether it was worth investigating further because of the other factors. My Mum told me that I should look, because otherwise I’d always wonder “what if” and upon seeing her she may be immediately unsuitable. I did a bit of research on the internet and social media, and actually found the original advert from April 2016, which I remembered seeing at the time and commenting “oh she looks nice”.

With the one condition that I don’t ride her (the whole six nearly seven months pregnant thing) I went with a friend to see her.

The mare was nicely put together with clean, straight limbs (although the photos below make her look splay legged!), a more traditional stamp of Welsh than my Welsh Warmblood Otis, and stood quietly while I examined her. I was told that she could be quite nervous, and when her owner bought her she was difficult to catch. I wouldn’t say she was really nervous from what I saw, but she was definitely cautious of new people. She wasn’t jumpy, just intrigued by things. I was also told that she wasn’t mareish – my first important question.

We watched her being lunged. She can be a bit fresh initially, but it was nothing compared to what I’m used to. She had a lovely movement, and after ten minutes she looked very relaxed and calm, so I asked my friend if she fancied sitting on.

This was my big question. Because if I’m not allowed to ride until the spring then if she was sensible after eight months of not being ridden then there wouldn’t be a problem in April. The owner thought the mare would be fine, and my friend is more than capable.

Starting off on the lunge, my friend had a walk and trot, went over some trotting poles. The mare hasn’t really done any jumping but poles don’t cause a problem. She looked very balanced in trot, and hasn’t done much canter work. Then we took her out around the village on her own. She was perfect with the cars and cyclists, more interested in what was going on in the driveways, and she looked very relaxed. Really, we couldn’t have asked any more of her.

Over the next week I battled with myself as to whether this mare really ticked all the boxes, if I trusted my friend’s judgement of her under saddle. Was I being sentimental because she was related to Otis, or did I believe his lovely temperament ran in the paternal side of his family? Was the price right, and worth me keeping her over the winter. Could I justify paying more livery fees when I was about to go on maternity leave? What would I do with her over the winter – would getting to know her, doing some lunging to introduce jumping and cantering keep us both occupied? She was a mare, a chestnut one no less. My last mare was a grey called Filly when I was ten! This was unknown territory.

After doing some budgeting and working out finances, I decided to go for it. I needed a basic livery yard which ultimately provided grass livery, ad lib hay in the field, and would be able to check her when I’m otherwise occupied in March. Timing is never right in life, and it did seem like it was meant to be – as far as I can tell, she meets my criteria; the price was within budget and she was local.

Yesterday, we went to pick her up. She had never travelled in a trailer, but loaded slowly but surely, and remained very calm all the journey. We turned her out into the small herd of mares, and within ten minutes she was grazing happily.

You can see the introduction here.

Today, she was very content in the field and let me catch her after sniffing me thoroughly.

I gave her a quick groom, getting to know her and checked for any injuries from her field initiation. She was alert to the surroundings, but stood fairly still. Then I put the bridle on and took her to the arena. The surface was a bit crusty with frost but I wanted a “before video” and to introduce her to the arena. She was very good – the video for your perusal is Here – and you can see that she moves very nicely, although my lunging leaves a bit to be desired. We’ll have a look at canter next week when the ground is better and she’s more settled. You’ll see in the video on the right rein, that she stops and turns in to be. Behind, just out of shot, someone had come round the corner with a saddle which she stopped to look at. Overall, she was a bit tense and lacked focus, but given the fact she’s at a new yard and with a new owner, I don’t think she did anything wrong, and if that’s going to be the extent of her behaviour at new places then I’m more than happy.

From what I can tell so far, I think we’ll be slow to build a relationship because I still feel like I’m cheating on Otis, and she is an introvert. But I also think we’ll get on well and have lots of fun together.

Oh yes, I haven’t told you her name. She came with the name Dolly, but I’ve known lots of Dolly’s, and I didn’t really feel that it suited her. After some thought, I came up with Phoenix. For her fiery colour, and for new beginnings.

After all, it is the end of an era and the beginning of another.

Changing the Bascule

Every horse and pony is put together differently, which results in a different technique when jumping. For example, some have a very uphill canter and engaged hindleg which allows them to jump with quite a steep bascule – like a pogo stick. Others, who have more of a horizontal gait, will prefer to take off a bit further away from the jump so their bascule is longer and flatter.

I don't think you should try to change a horse's jump technique too drastically, because you're then working against their physical capacity. However, it is always worth trying to enhance their ability and develop the muscles that will allow them to jump more effortlessly.

One of my clients has a pony who tends to get long in the canter on the approach to jumps and so has a very long, flat bascule. He is tidy with his legs, so the shape his body makes isn't a problem, but when he jumps off a long stride he lands long and flat, so it is tricky for my rider to rebalance themselves, or even turn for the next fence! My aim was to improve my rider's feel for a better balanced canter and teach him to hold the canter together on the approach to fences, which will help their landing and getaway.

The last couple of lessons we've used our warm up time to get a feel for lengthening and shortening the trot and canter. The purpose of working on lengthened strides was to teach my rider the difference between balanced, lengthened gaits and rushing or running onto the forehand. After all, they will need to lengthen the canter in jump offs and on the cross country course. We focused on my rider using his seat to encourage the bigger strides, and feeling that he still had a rein contact throughout.

Next, we turned to shortening the strides, or squashing the pony together to give it a non-technical term. It wasn't all about pulling the reins, but rather a series of half halts with the outside rein and a stiller seat. Oh, and lots of tummy muscles! Over the last few weeks, my rider has really started to get a feel for a smaller striding, bouncier trot and canter.

Now we have to link the flatwork to the jumping. Half of the issue comes from my rider not holding the canter together on the approach, and half of the issue comes from the pony preferring to jump long and flat. So I built a series of three bounce fences, which will encourage the pony to jump in a steeper bascule, and to get a little closer to the fence, as well as to be a little more careful and calculating about his jumping.

We used cross poles initially, and my rider held the canter together in a much more balanced fashion until a couple of strides away from the fence, and even then he didn't fire his pony to the jump. Where the jump wasn't that big, I think my rider felt happier keeping the steadier, smaller canter until the jump.

After they'd jumped a few times we discussed how the grid felt. One time, as my rider correctly identified, they met the first fence on a long stride so had a flat jump then the pony had to really adjust his body in order to negotiate the second and third element correctly. When they had a closer take off point, the grid flowed much better and each bascule was more even.

Their getaway from the jumps was improving because my rider could just sit up and rebalance the canter, instead of having a flat, fast canter and the pony on the forehand, which is far harder to correct. The pony was also more willing to come back to his rider. We also put in a 15m circle after the grid to ensure my rider carried on riding after the jumps, and didn't collapse in a heap after. This also helped the pony rebalance and refocus.

We progressed to uprights, which are more demanding for the pony because he has to pick up his forelegs quicker, and make an even steeper bascule. The first time, they tapped each fence as the pony was a little slow in tucking up, but the second time my rider could feel his pony rounding his back more, and they jumped through soundlessly as the pony was quicker with his legs.

My next challenge is to get my rider riding courses in a steadier fashion (I am of course battling against that boy, gung-ho mentality), taking his time to rebalance his canter between jumps so that his pony approaches in a more uphill canter, which will enable them to jump bigger more successfully and effortlessly. By being more consistent in their canter on the flat and when jumping will also help the pony strengthen these muscles, which will further improve his bascule and technique.

I am really pleased with how this young rider is taking on board all the technical information I'm giving him about how horses jump, and I hope that his understanding of our reasons for doing these exercises will mean he does his homework and will be consistent in how he rides, and what he expects from his pony.

Turning Horses Away

Today was a big day for Otis. He moved from his individual paddock, of medium size and of fairly flat ground, to a small herd of retired geldings in a large field on a gentle hill. As the vet recommended turning him away for a few months to allow the sidebone to completely settle down I made a big decision.

I didn`t think it was very fair on Otis to be turned away in his individual paddock. He`d be isolated and I would feel it necessary to bring him in and groom him a few times a week to break up his days and provide some stimulation for him. Which would mean that I would be more aware of his level of soundness and be more tempted to bring him back into work when he was sound. Furthermore in his individual paddock he’d need poo-picking, feed and hay every day. Which, as selfish as it sounds, is a chore when you get very little back in terms of riding. Plus my summer is looking pretty hectic so I needed to work out how to best balance things out.

Then I was talking to a friend who has his retired gelding (who used to be Otis’s field mate a couple of years ago) in a small herd and it came to me. If Otis was to spend a few months there it would be a far more natural environment with social stimulation for him. The field is more interesting and I hope the gentle slope will keep him fit and there’s high hedges for shelter, and plenty of grazing for him. The deal there is that the horses are checked twice a day and fed a small hard feed each morning by the yard, and they maintain the field. Which means that whilst I’m struggling with the feeling that I’ve abandoned Otis, this arrangement has taken the pressure off me for the summer and means I’m not tempted to bring him back into work for a while. Which is the best thing for both of us at the moment. Then I can just go and see Otis a couple of times a week, give him some attention and fuss, and enjoy being around him without the frustrations of him not being rideable. Then hopefully in the autumn he will be ready to come back into work. 

What are everyone’s thoughts on turning horses away? 



I’ve always thought that it can either be good or bad for horses. I don’t always like the sudden change for horses, particularly eventers, who go from a full on competition schedule to being left in the field twenty four-seven. It just strikes me as going from one extreme to the other. However, for some horses it can be very beneficial to their approach to work.

If you’ve struggled to establish a rapport or the ground rules with a horse, perhaps one who has had a bad start to life or is very nervous or boisterous, then turning them away may not be the best idea as you can take a few steps back in their training and confidence levels. In which case you’d be better off keeping their routine but reducing their workload: perhaps fewer sessions a week, more hacks than schooling, or some ground work/desensitisation work instead of physical exercise. So you are continuing their education lightly and maintaining your relationship with them. Then perhaps when they are a bit more mature mentally, they would benefit from a short, complete break.

I do think that it’s important to have the right facilities to turn a horse away, especially a youngster who needs to hierarchy of a herd to make them toe the line. Large fields with a variety of terrain, forages, well matched groups, which will provide the most natural environment for them and allow them to just be horses are very important. Some yards can’t cater for this, in which case it may be worth doing what I’ve done and moving him; or keeping the basic daily routine of coming in the same and reducing the workload so they don’t get too bored and get into mischief because of lack of stimulation.

Why do people turn horses away?

The traditional sense of turning horses away is during the winter they are three – so they’ve been backed, begun their education, and then are allowed to reflect on their learning whilst also maturing.

Alternatively, competition or hunt horses are roughed off in the off season so that they can physically and mentally recover from the season. 

For most amateur rider owners, their horses are in light work, so there isn’t necessarily the need to turn them away for long periods. If their workload is varied – hacking, dressage, jumping – then they are unlikely to become stale. In which case giving them easy weeks every so often, where they have the week off or just hack for a few days, can be just as beneficial for the horse, and means yours or their routine isn’t disrupted too much. 

Earlier I mentioned that hunters are often roughed off to allow them to recover physically from the season. Time does seem to be the best healer, and I’ve come to the conclusion that when vets are involved in treating a horse for an injury they often neglect to suggest field rest. They prescribe box rest and then introduction to gentle work, increasing the work load over a couple of months until the horse is back in full work. Obviously you can’t go straight from box rest to complete turn out, but it would be nice to hear vets prescribe a slow transition (depending on the time of year) from box rest to field rest and then a few months of total field rest to allow the horse to recover completely before bringing them back into work. If I could go back in time, after Otis’s box rest I would have increased his time in the field without walk work. As it was November I’d have kept him stabled at night until February or March, and then turned him out completely for a couple of months before bringing him back into work. But hindsight is a wonderful thing.

Regardless of your facilities and opinion on turning horses away, I think they can all have mini breaks – like a half term holiday – to let them recharge, and if you can provide a stimulating, natural environment for them to have a longer break then they can also benefit from this. The worst scenario I feel, is a horse being turned away and is out all the time but with no company or space to roam. I hope Otis settles into this new routine and enjoys his time in a herd. Certainly when I left him he was wrapped up in a mutual grooming session.