A Group Exercise

I did this exercise with my Pony Clubbers last week; we used to to it a lot when I was learning to ride as a child, but I don’t see it utilised very often now, nor unfortunately do I use it much myself as I don’t teach many groups.

It’s a very good layering exercise which introduces independent riding, and ensures the horse or pony is listening to their rider’s aids.

Starting with the ride in closed order on the track in walk. The first rider moves up into trot, trots around the arena until they reach the rear of the ride. Then, they should take the inner track and trot past the ride before trotting back to the rear. With more experienced riders, you can have the ride trotting, and the individual cantering around and past them.

This exercise is useful in the following ways:

  • It allows every rider in the ride to experience being lead file.
  • It teaches awareness of the change in a horse when they move from following the tail in front of them, to going off the rider’s aids.
  • It teaches the rider how to pass other horses at the correct distance.
  • Riders need to use their outside aids to stop their horse rejoining the ride instead of passing them, otherwise the horse just falls out and slows down to slot in behind the ride.
  • The horse is encouraged to work independently and the rider taught to plan their route in advance, otherwise their horse tucks in behind the ride.
  • Riders have to plan their transitions so that they don’t crash into the ride.
  • It’s a useful precursor to riding in open order. Once a group are familiar with the exercise the lead file can be sent off before the previous horse has reached the back of the ride.

A different exercise, which I find quite useful for testing horses who are a little bit herd-bound, is to have the ride trotting around and the rear file ride a transition to either walk or halt. When the ride catches up, they ride forwards to trot and become the leader. Some horses can be reluctant to be left behind, so it’s a useful education for them, which pays off in other areas, such as hacking or cross country. It also teaches patience, as horse and rider have to wait calmly for the rest of the ride. The rider also has to plan their upward transition so that the rhythm of the ride is not disrupted, and they also experience lead file. I find you can allow the new lead file to do a few movements, such as circles, serpentines or changes of rein, which develops their independence and confidence.

If the weather’s cold, or it’s wet, and you don’t want a group of riders standing still for too long, these exercises are useful for keeping everyone moving and keeping them warm. I’d like to see instructors incorporating these exercises into their group sessions because they are definitely underappreciated.

Everything in Moderation

There’s been a few articles circulating recently about the detrimental effects of lunging. But before we condemn lunging forever more, let’s look at it from both sides.

Lunging is coming under criticism because studies are finding a positive correlation between horses working on circles and joint injuries. So perhaps lunging isn’t the problem here, it’s the number of circles a horse does?

I’m a great believer in doing everything in moderation; the horses I know with the longest active lives and fewest injuries are those who have a varied work load. They lunge, they hack, they do flatwork, they do polework, they jump.

From what I can see, if you do a lot of flatwork and lunge a couple of times a week then this combination puts your horse at risk of joint injuries because of the number of circles the horse does. But if you predominantly hack or jump so ride fewer circles, then lunging a similar amount has less cumulative stress on the joints.

Then of course, there is your lunging technique. There’s the old adage that lunging for twenty minutes is the equivalent of riding for an hour. I think this is an important guideline to bear in mind so your horse isn’t trotting in endless circles for an hour.

Also, do you lunge continuously on the same size circle, or do you vary the size and walk around the school in order to incorporate straight lines? Do you use transitions and variations to the gait, or just keep the horse moving in their comfort zone? Do you divide your lunging session up into periods of walk, in-hand work, such a lateral work or rein back? Trotting for twenty minutes on a fifteen metre circle stresses the joints much more than a varied lunge session.

Think about why you want to lunge? For a tense horse like Phoenix, I find lunging once a week is beneficial as she is more likely to relax and stretch over her back, which is then taken forward to her ridden work. She can do this naked, and not having my weight or the saddle on her back helps her stretch her back muscles. Some people love gadgets, others detest them; I think they are useful in the short term when used correctly to help direct the horse into working in the right frame. This is something an experienced rider may be able to do from the saddle, but a novice rider can’t, and in order to improve their horse’s way of going and increase their working lifespan, they need help to develop the correct musculature.

For some horses lunging can be useful for warming them up before you ride. They may be cold backed, or a bit sharp. But this type of lunge shouldn’t be much more than five minutes. Equally, if you think your horse is feeling fresh one day, it’s safer to lunge and get rid of their excess energy rather than have an accident riding.

Lunging is useful for assessing lameness as it is usually more pronounced on a circle or turn. Also, without the rider you can see more clearly if it is a bridle lameness or not.

So there are valid reasons for lunging, and I think we can reduce the risk of joint injuries by not lunging for too long or too often, and improving our lunge technique.

We’ve already said that it’s the number of circles a horse does which damages their legs, so let’s change our approach to a lunging session to reduce the number of circles.

Start in walk on a large circle, walking yourself so that the circle becomes less round and has a few straight lines on it. Then go into trot and work on the same principle; some circles where you stand still, mixed with some wanderings. Use transitions and spiraling in and out to give variety to the circle. Use poles on a straight line to add to the variety. The only time I don’t do a huge variety in terms of transitions is when a horse is learning to carry himself differently (for example taking his nose down and out) or needs to improve his rhythm. But then I use wanderings to break up the circles. Think of doing short bursts of canter, and focus on improving the quality of the transitions rather than having a stamina workout.

After a few minutes of trot or canter work have a walk break, getting your horse to relax out on a big circle. When you change the rein, take the opportunity to do some in hand work with them. It may be rein back, shoulder in or other lateral work. But equally it could be some general ground manners such as standing still as you move around them.

I think my pet hate, and what I think would be a large contributor to horses having joint issues and a routine of being lunged, is when a horse is literally allowed to gallop round, fly buck, and turn them inside out at the end of the lunge line. These short bursts of acceleration and deceleration on a turn are far more likely to cause injuries than when a calm, well-mannered horse being lunged. Apart from the fact it’s dangerous to the handler, it’s poor manners and in my opinion a recipe for disaster. They aren’t working correctly, and you can’t check for soundness or any other issue, so the lunging is of no benefit to anyone.

I’d be interested to read more about the studies into lunging and lameness to learn more about the quality of the lunging technique, as well as hearing more about the study horses conformation, age, workload and routine, to see what other factors could be contributing to any lameness. Then we know if lunging is as detrimental to our horse’s wellbeing as is being suggested. But otherwise I will continue to believe in everything in moderation, including moderation.

Continued Professional Development

In order to be part of the BHS coaches scheme, and have insurance, there are numerous hoops we have to jump through: such as child protection and first aid courses every couple of years. Which is why I was off relearning about CPR, defibrillators, and recovery positions today.

I’ve just seen an important announcement from the BHS this evening, saying that from January 2019 all accredited coaches must attend one CPD course a year. CPD stands for Continual Professional Development, and the idea of them is to encourage instructors to show an interest in expanding their knowledge, following advances within the industry, and to improve their skills. We used to have to do them every couple of years, and I think it is good to continue to expand your knowledge, even in your field of expertise. After all, you never stop learning.

Yet, I’m not sure that annual CPD courses will go down well with many coaches. For a number of reasons.

The BHS pays for our first aid and child protection courses, but we have to fund the CPD courses. These usually cost in the region of £60, but vary according to the type of training, and the trainer taking the course. Now most coaches are freelancers. Which mean that we don’t just take a day off to go to a CPD course; we have to rearrange our work onto different days (so long as the client can accommodate this) or lose out on that work. Which means that not only are we spending £60 on going on the course, we are also losing a day’s wages. Let’s say that you lose sux hours work in a riding school to go to the course. That’s a minimum of £60 wages you don’t receive. This is a minimum based on hourly rates which I’ve seen around the country. If you are self employed and lost a day’s work you are likely to be £100 out of pocket.

Additionally, a lot of the CPD courses aren’t local, and involve an hours commute. This brings in motor expenses of the best part of £10 each way.

It’s becoming expensive isn’t it? Not only are we spending in the region of £80 on attending the course, but we are losing out on wages in the region of £80.

I’m not saying that we don’t want to attend such courses, as we all like to learn, but I wonder if there’s a better way to do this. One that is more affordable, and more easier fitted into our busy working lives. For example, I go to relevant CPD days every couple of years, to tick the boxes for my APC (Accredited Professional Coaches) membership, but on a weekly basis I read articles, books, magazines, and talk to friends in the industry to share ideas and experiences. None of which technically counts as CPD, but all very much improve my knowledge and allow me to give the best lessons I can to my clients.

The variety of courses which count as BHS CPD days has increased over the last couple of years. Two years ago I struggled to find a course which was relevant to my level of training (as an AI looking to become an II) and less than two hours drive away. Now, courses like the Horses Inside Out day that I attended count. This means that we can expand our professional knowledge in a sideways fashion – looking at equine biomechanics, saddlery, and rider psychology for example, rather than purely coaching.

I’m not sure what the answer is, but perhaps CPD should be assessed with a variety of options, so that coaches are encouraged to develop their knowledge whilst being flexible to their busy working lives.

My thoughts are that over a calendar year a coach needs to amass a certain number of CPD credits. For example, a full day course could be worth 60 CPD credits, which is enough for each year. Then there could be a selection of shorter courses, or online webinars (perhaps similar to the evening talks by Gillian Higgins running in 2019 of which attending three talks counts as a CPD update) which could be worth 20 credits each. These evening talks would be on a variety of topics; lorinery, saddle fitting, dental health, vet talks, alternative therapies.

Having cheaper evening talks would be more doable for many coaches, as the cost of training is split over the year, and it’s flexible to their working week. With a variety of different subjects to choose from, you are more likely to inspire and motivate coaches to attend and learn. They will also not be losing so much work to attend an evening talk for a couple of hours so it is not as financially crippling.

I guess there would be a bit more paperwork in order to keep track of a coach’s CPD credits, but if the system is simple enough of three evening talks being the equivalent to one all day course, it shouldn’t be too difficult to keep track of it, and I think the majority of coaches would prefer shorter CPD sessions to the intensive full day courses.

Having looked quickly at the BHS website I couldn’t see a CPD day which is at an appropriate level to my qualifications, in the south of England, so I will just have to hope that something else is organised which is of interest to me and that my professional life will benefit from. I’ll keep looking, and hoping that the BHS works out how to implement this new ruling without upsetting too many coaches.