Stagefright!

This summer I’ve been taking Phoenix out cross country training regularly, and she’s become much more confident and consistent; popping over 90cm and 1m fences, and taking combinations, steps, ditches and water in her stride. So it was time to take the next step in her training and take her to a hunter trial.

We went schooling to the venue a couple of weeks ago but disappointingly not many fences were out, but at least we got a feel for the venue.

I walked the course on Saturday morning, was happy that the jumps were well within Phoenix’s comfort zone. There was a step, a ditch, water. All of which she’s done numerous times in training, but she does sometimes take her time teetering at the edge of them. The rest of the jumps were mainly logs and houses. There was one jump, a parallel of two logs painted white which I fully expected Phoenix to do a Health and Safety assessment before jumping it. Everything else should be straightforward for her.

Phoenix was on her toes but warmed up calmly with plenty of petrol in the tank. She flew over the warm up fences, really taking me into them but with control afterwards. I didn’t do too much, but just before we went down to the start box we popped over the bigger warm up jump and then kept her “in the zone” as the countdown started. As it was her first experience of going out the start box I wasn’t sure how much warm up she’d need, how much of a breather she needed, and how best to keep her mentally ready for the start whistle.

The first jump was quite close to the start box, parallel to the warm up and number two was just beyond the warm up. There were a lot of refusals and dodgy cat leaps over the first couple of jumps. I think it was because they were close to the warm up, going away from home. Anyway, Phoenix backed right off both jumps, leaping them from a sticky trot. She did the same over the white rails at three (although this fence I was just pleased that she didn’t stop) and then over the log at four.

I felt like Phoenix wasn’t really looking at the jumps, but rather the horses walking to the warm up, the fence judges and their cars.

However, going towards the house at number five, Phoenix was clearly gawping at the decorative feature to the left of the jump, not clocking the jump until too late. She flew over it when I re-presented. After the steps she stopped at every fence until we were pulled up, eliminated. Typically, she actually jumped our final fence on the first attempt, even with a steward waving a red flag at us. We took the walk of shame back to the car park.

I spent our walk home trying to make sense of events, and decided that the best course of action would be to return the next day and school over the flagged course. I was concerned that we’d undone all our cross country training and she’d lost confidence. Then I started wondering if I’d over ridden in my attempt to ride positively, combined with nervous anticipation, and overcooked things. After all, she’s a very sensitive soul.

Ultimately, I felt that Phoenix had been overwhelmed by the competition environment – she was definitely paying a lot of attention to what was going on outside of the roped area, and looking at the jumps of every height. Which didn’t leave a lot of brain power to focus on the jumps.

Today, we returned and the course was like the Marie Celeste with not a single soul there. Eerily, I kept to the competition concept, popping two warm up fences and then going down to the start box.

Phoenix flew around the course! Confident over the first six, peering down the step before cautiously hopping off. She felt so much more focused on the course. She insisted on walking through the water, and I let her have a walk break before picking her back up for the rest of the course, which she hadn’t done yesterday. This was quite a good test because it was more of the unseen, competition environment. Which she passed easily. She stopped to look at the ditch momentarily, but skipped over comfortably once she’d assessed it. Phoenix did stop at the last fence, but it was a stop of tiredness rather than not wanting to do the jump. She did it on the second attempt and then we walked home. I think Saturday had taken more out of her physically and mentally.

I know it wasn’t a clear round, but she proved to me today that she is capable, and is back to being confident over solid fences. She just needs more experience in the competition environment so she learns to focus on the jumps, rather than the wider picture. We’ll continue with arena cross country through the winter and then try to get some competition experience under her belt.

Although this weekend was disappointing in the fact that she is more than capable of getting round, I am relieved that she suffered a minimal dent to her confidence in her own ability and in me on Saturday, and I have a clearer idea of the next stage in her training – performing to a crowd!

Is The Canter 3 beats or 4?

It’s a tricky one. Because it’s both three beat or four beat depending on your level of training; and tricky in that it is also both correct and incorrect with four beats.

Confused? Yep, a lot of people are from my observations.

Let’s start with average Jo Bloggs, working up to elementary level with an average all rounder horse. You know the type. Which I think encompasses the majority of leisure riders. A correct canter for you is a three beat canter; the outside hind coming forwards followed by the inside hind and outside fore together, then the inside fore and the moment of suspension.

You might have heard coaches talking about the fact your canter is four beat, or talking about improving the quality of the canter so it is more of a three beat canter. A lot of leisure horses can have a four beat canter, when the diagonal pair becomes broken and those feet don’t touch the ground simultaneously. But in a negative way. The sequence of legs is the outside hind, outside fore, inside hind, inside fore. It’s almost a lateral canter, and results from a number of issues. A horse who is too much on the forehand, lacking impulsion or activity in the hindquarters, has an interfering rider, has poor conformation or stiffness in their hindlimbs, is likely to develop this lateral, four beat rhythm. Sometimes when a horse loses balance they will revert to the four beat, lateral canter, when otherwise they have a three beat canter.

So this laterally four beat canter is not good from a training perspective because it’s very difficult to create the elevation needed for collection and lateral work. You can improve it by the use of polework, using more seat and leg to create impulsion, using hillwork and medium canter to create a more active hindleg, but ultimately it is performance limiting, so you’d struggle with advanced level work. This type of four beat canter is called negative diagonal advance placement (DAP).

That’s the negative four beat canter out the way, now let’s look at the positive four beat canter. Have you ever seen photos of elite horses, youngsters or under saddle, and noticed how uphill their canter is? And how there is no way the diagonal pair hit the ground simultaneously because the forelegs are so elevated? Well you’d be right. The inside hind does land fractionally before the outside fore. This is called positive diagonal advance placement.

So why is a sequence of footfall outside hind, inside hind, outside fore, inside fore, seen as a positive four beat canter? Well firstly, a horse who can engage their hindquarters that much will be more powerful and find collection easy. If you watch a horse doing a canter pirouette you will see that it is a definite 4 beat canter, which it has to be in order for them to be able to rotate almost on the spot. A horse who is unable to canter with a positive DAP will find this level of work nigh on impossible.

This means that when you are looking for the next future dressage champion, you are looking for a four beat canter, a positive DAP, as that suggests that they will be able to perform at the higher levels. A good example is below.

I had a look through my photos and found one of Phoenix at her first prelim. She had an unbalanced canter at the time, and you can see that although it looks lovely at first sight, she is showing slight negative DAP. I’m struggling to find proof of her recent canter work (apparently babysitting duties trumps cameraman duties?!) but just by her becoming stronger and more balanced she shows strides of positive DAP, particularly when she relaxes into collected canter work.

I then also found this image of Matt, showing slight positive DAP. Of course, not on par with the elite dressage stars, but a useful example.

This image of Matt brings me onto my final point, or musing. At what point does a positive DAP become a gallop? After all, the sequence of footfalls is the same on paper – outside hind, inside hind, outside fore, inside fore. I asked my trainer for her opinion, and she thought the gallop was differentiated because of it’s speed and the horse’s carriage whilst galloping – long and flat rather than uphill. She also helped explain that in a three beat canter the footfalls are regular, in a four beat canter the diagonal pair aren’t landing together, but they aren’t a whole beat apart. It’s like they’re slightly off beat. In musical terms: crotchet, quaver, quaver, crotchet.

There is loads of information about diagonal advanced placement, and it happens in the trot too, so go and have a look on Google. And when you come out the other end of the rabbit hole, let me know what you think of the subject!

The Ridden Horse Pain Ethogram

I attended (from the comfort of my sofa) a webinar during lockdown by Dr Sue Dyson about her Ridden Horse Pain Ethogram.

What’s that I hear you say. Well, I’d vaguely heard of it, but wasn’t sure what it was all about.

How many times do you hear people saying that their horse isn’t right? They can’t put their finger on it, but they aren’t their normal self. Then they ask their chiropractor, physiotherapist, or vet to have a look. But these professionals don’t know the horse as well as their owner does so miss the subtlest signals of pain and discomfort.

Having felt horses having an “off day” I know how difficult it is to put your finger on it, but then also how to ascertain that they are feeling better or recovering.

Alternatively, you have the leisure horse owners who struggle to feel a subtle lameness – when a horse is perhaps 3/10 lame, or just slightly short in stride on a circle. In that case, they need more symptoms to look for.

This is where the Ethogram comes into play. The Ethogram lists 24 defined behaviours which are associated with discomfort: for example, teeth grinding, tail swishing, ears back. In the research carried out by Dr Dyson, horses were recorded doing a ridden set of exercises which were analysed. Those who exhibited eight or more behaviours had a degree of lameness, which was then diagnosed using nerve blocks.

How does this affect the average horse owner? Well, if you think your horse isn’t going as well as normal and can’t put your finger on it, then look out for the 24 behaviours. If they show more than eight, then start investigating. If, for example, once your saddle has been adjusted the behaviours they are displaying will either reduce (because of the effect of pain memory) or be eliminated. A reduction in the behaviour is it being displayed for less time, or to a smaller degree.

From the professionals perspective, studying the wider picture, can help diagnose the issue because the professional will dig deeper and investigate further even if there doesn’t seem to be an obvious issue. I’ve increased my awareness of the symptoms recently, looking at the body language and other behaviours which tell me a horse isn’t comfortable, and have definitely seen a correlation between “they’re not feeling normal” and the position of their ears, amount of tail swishing, head position, facial expression, etc.

Of course, you don’t want to become an equine hypochondriac, but there’s a lot of merit in paying more attention to the subtleties of your horse’s behaviour and how they are communicating with you. It might just mean you get your saddle adjusted a month sooner, which prevents muscle soreness or atrophy. Or you will catch a niggle and have it treated by your physio or chiro before a major problem occurs which will need a rehab programme.

A visual guide to the pain ethogram.

Walk Poles

One of the lessons I did at camp was using walk poles to improve the quality of the walk and the upward transitions afterwards.

It was a useful exercise, so I used it with some clients the following week.

I laid five poles out at 3 feet apart and had my client walk actively over the poles. Depending on the length of their stride, I may roll the poles out closer to 4 foot apart. I’m aiming to improve the quality of the walk, which often benefits from lengthening the stride slightly. Once a horse has been over the poles a couple of times they usually step out with more impulsion anyway. The poles encourage the horse to increase their cadence, which helps generate impulsion and activates the hindquarters.

Then I raise the poles at alternate ends, which makes the horse really think about their foot placement; lower their head and use their back muscles as they exaggerate lifting each hind leg. Often a horse slows down through poles, so it’s useful to remind the rider to keep using their leg and seat, as well as looking up!

Once the horse is confident over the poles and the walk is more active, engaged, and the horse working over their back, it’s time to add in transitions.

I get the horse and rider to walk over the poles and two or three strides after the last pole ride an upwards transition into trot. The transition shouldn’t be rushed and too soon, so the hindquarters have finished stepping over the last pole, but don’t leave it so many steps that the benefit of the raised poles is lost.

The upward transitions should feel more powerful, more uphill and balanced. Once trotting, I get my rider to ride a circle, or leg yield, or whatever they’ve been working on so they can feel the improvement in the movement as a result of a better quality trot. Then they ride a transition to walk a few strides before doing the poles again.

I’ve used these raised walk poles on the lunge, and you could also long rein a horse over them, asking for an upwards transition afterwards. With some clients I’ve got them to ride direct transitions into canter after the last pole. Again the improved wall improved the quality of the canter.

Walk poles are definitely something to use during rehab, fittening work, or if you just want to improve their walk.

Perfecting the Jump Position

I spend a lot of time tweaking my rider’s jumping position. Sometimes we have lessons using a simple exercise where I draw their attention to a body part, which may not be wrong, but could be repositioned slightly to improve their security and stability. Sometimes I get them to hover in their jumping position for several strides on the flat to ensure that they have the muscle strength and balance to stay secure over jumps. After all, it’s harder to hold yourself in a static plank than to do one which involves leg lifts. Even with experienced jumpers, it’s worth revising their position regularly to ensure they don’t slip into bad habits.

So what is the perfect jumping position?

In an ideal world, your jumping position will be such that if the horse were to be taken away from underneath you, you wouldn’t fall over. But let’s break it down to the different areas of the body.

The stirrups need to be shorter for jumping than when riding on the flat. For novice riders it may only be a couple of holes, but more advanced riders can have half a dozen holes difference or more. There shouldn’t be a change in the position of the lower leg when going from the three point position on the approach to the jump to two point position over the fence. It’s very common for the lower leg to swing backwards. I often find that getting the rider to soften the knee and allowing the weight to drop into the heel will correct this. Sometimes I’ll get them to go into their jump position in halt and I hold their ankles to prevent them swinging backwards. Often, the pressure of my hand is enough for my rider to be aware of their lower leg and to adjust the balance of their foot as they fold into their jump position so that their lower leg remains immobile.

Next, is the foot and ankle. The ankle needs to be springy; it is a shock absorber. If it is braced and rigid then the heel cannot stay lower than the toe and points down, often in conjunction with the lower leg swinging backwards in the two point position. To solve this, I like to spend a lot of time trotting and cantering in jumping position to develop a more secure lower leg and flexible ankle. A useful off horse exercise for developing ankle flexibility is standing with the balls of you feet on a step and dropping the heels, stretching the calves and achilles tendons.

With the weight into the lower leg a rider is infinitely more secure should they have a dodgy jump – either a chip in on take off, or if a stride is taken out. Next up in the security stakes, is the upper body.

In the ideal jump position, the rider should fold from the hips, with their bottom near the cantle. A lot of riders learning to jump will struggle to fold sufficiently from their hips, either curling their shoulders and hunching instead of folding, or keeping the upper body fairly upright. Over smaller jumps you don’t need to fold as much as larger jumps, but it’s still important to practise the fold from the hips to improve flexibility.

If a rider doesn’t take their bottom to the cantle they are usually tight in the knee, with the toes down and lower leg swinging backwards. This means that their centre of gravity is over the withers so if the horse puts the brakes on, or chips in a stride the rider is vulnerable. Going repeatedly into jump position on the flat helps build muscle memory and improve flexibility. Even if a rider finds it hard to fold the upper body, it’s important they still feel like they’re taking their bottom backwards into a squatting position. In fact, doing some off horse squats can help a rider identify the correct muscles. They will also realise how the foot and ankle need to work in order to stay balanced.

One of the biggest traits I see with established jump riders is a stiff back. They’re secure in the lower leg and weight is over the knee, but in a bid to fold from the hips they are holding tension in the small of their back, sometimes even arching it slightly. This actually encourages the horse to stiffen through their back and means the rider can’t absorb movement as easily so may well be jarred on an awkward landing. This comes back to having a straight upper body on the flat with poise yet no tension – sitting trot can help develop the core so the back muscles are not recruited in sitting upright.

Once the legs and upper body are in position, it’s time to correct the arms and head. A rider should be looking straight forwards over a jump, ready for the next one on the course, and not changing their weight distribution (remember, our heads are very heavy!) over the horse’s back, so making their job harder. The hands should be following the movement of the horse’s head so they are neither restricted or left with no contact.

I was always taught to hold the mane halfway up my pony’s neck, which stopped me pinning my hands on the withers and restricting them over a jump, but also taught me to keep elbows flexible and become more in tune with the neck movement over a jump. Holding the mane also gave some support as I learnt my jumping position. Nowadays, I find people quite reluctant to hold the mane, opting for the neckstrap instead. However, the neckstrap sits at the base of the neck so only encourages a rider to fold and lean on their hands for support and stability.

Ultimately, the only way to overcome this trait is to jump without reins. Which can only effectively be done if the lower leg and upper body are fairly established and balanced. I love sending my riders down a little grid with their reins tied in a knot; it makes such dramatic improvements! If a rider is not balanced enough for this I may do some jumping position on the flat or over poles with one arm out to the side, or just encourage my rider to correct the position of their hands and lift them up from the horse’s neck. At the other extreme, is the rider who throws their hands forward in a bid to ensure they don’t jab their horse in the mouth. I often see riders going from one extreme to the other before finding a happy medium. With those with overzealous hands, I find it helpful to put a band in the mane for then to grab to aim for. The band being just below the half way point to try and train the hands to “follow the movement of the head, not overtake it”. As with the upper body folding, less give with the hands is needed over smaller jumps, but I feel it still paramount to ensure novice riders understand the correct hand position so that they do not jab the horse in the mouth as the jump height increase. Finally, along with ensuring the hands follow the horse’s movement, is checking that the rider is not sticking their elbows out – pushing the hands up the mane usually prevents these chicken wings!

Of course, no one’s perfect, and our individual conformation can make the ideal jump position hard to perfect, but if we know what we are aiming for then we will be as stable and secure as possible over jumps, which helps our horses jump in a balanced and unhindered way.

Jumping is Dressage with Speed Bumps

I’ve been working with a new combination over the summer; an eleven year old girl and her new 15hh horse, with a history of showing and showjumping.

They have been the perfect example of how improving the flatwork improves the jumping. Initially, they could barely get over a line of trot or canter poles. Not because the horse was green, but because he needs to be ridden correctly. Which is a big learning curve for any child moving up from kick and point ponies.

We started the summer improving their relationship on the flat; exploring the concept of rhythm, improving rider position, developing the idea of riding leg to hand. These all began to improve their straightness and balance.

As this improved, the jumping and polework became easier; they had fewer run outs, maintained a rhythm to and from a fence and were more balanced. We did gridwork which helped the transition from polework to jumping, and helped my rider adjust from a pony’s pop to a horse’s bascule.

I then turned my attention to the quality of the gaits, and improving my rider’s feel for a poor trot or canter and her ability to improve them. I mainly did this on the flat, but then I started to notice (which is very common) that my rider was improving on the flat, but not making the connection to that work with her jumping. She got more confident, wanted to jump bigger, and then little problems started to creep in.

With the typical “urgh flatwork” reaction that a lot of kids give, I decided to do a jump lesson without focusing on the jumps. Of course, she went over the jumps, but all my critiquing was on the flat, to hopefully help my rider understand the importance of her flatwork.

I erected the jumps to a reasonable size – big enough that if she didn’t ride the approach correctly then her horse would politely duck out, yet small enough that she wasn’t concerned about the height. As she warmed up we discussed rhythm, impulsion, how reactive he was to the aids, riding from leg to hand, balance on the turns etc.

She warmed up over a simple cross pole on a diagonal line across the school; the first time off the left rein the canter was a bit flat but she got away with it. The second time she held a better rhythm and kept the canter together and rounder so that the jump was more of an extreme canter stride with a better bascule. I focused her on the quality of the canter and let the feel over the jump do the teaching.

We changed the rein, so she was coming off a right turn. Now, I’ve been drumming into her all summer about her pony drifting through the left shoulder, improving her left contact and use of the left leg. Which is improving on the flat but goes out the window once jumps come on the scene.

As expected, they drifted left, her pony loaded his left shoulder and they had a clunky jump. I put myself on the outside of the turn the next time and had her ride a squarer turn without using her right rein. This kept her horse in slight outside bend, controlled the shoulder, and improved their vertical balance and accuracy to the fence. Which led to a much better jump.

We repeated this a few times, made the fence an upright, and it started to come together nicely.

Next, was a double off the dreaded right rein. They jumped it fine when it wasn’t particularly big, and could get away with a crooked, flat canter approach, but once the fence increased to 80cm, when my rider drifted around her right turn and let the canter fall apart her pony either skirted left around it, or got in very deep. Again, I focused on the flatwork and as soon as my rider was riding from leg to hand, riding squarer corners, and kept the impulsion and rhythm balance to the take off point, they flew the fences nicely, making the horse striding easily. He’s only a little horse so easily falls into pony strides if he gets deep to the first fence but the jumps are awkward and he risks knocking the front rail.

I turned my rider’s attention briefly to her recovery after the fence; sitting up quicker and assessing the quality of the canter. It was more to increase her awareness and give her something to mull over in the next couple of weeks rather than a big teaching subject for the day.

Next, we started to link the course together, discussing the time and space between the fences rather than the time in the air. As my rider rode around the course I talked her through the balance of the canter, the outside aids, the straightness of their approach. When she got it, they flew!

However, when she let the canter get sloppy, for want of a better term, they got in deep to the jump and scrambled over it. When she stopped riding around the turn and presumed her pony would take her over the jump, he drifted left around it. There were good parts to the course, and this really emphasised the importance of her approach and canter, and equally she could really see the contrast between the great parts and the “get over by the skin of your teeth” jumps.

We then rode the elements she’d found hardest, talking through the changes she needed to make before going, and there was a definite improvement by the end.

I’m hoping that the takeaway message from today’s jumping lesson was not jump orientated, but more of an awareness of the quality of her canter and her horse’s balance on turns.. She can practice this on the flat and as part of her warm up, and it will in turn benefit her dressage. Which I think she’ll focus more on it when she understands how much it helps her ride a smooth, flowing, balanced course clear.

After all, showjumping is just dressage with speed bumps. Get the bits on the flat right, and the jumping is easy. Sneaking flatwork into a jump lesson is often the only way to get young riders to see purpose to their flatwork and motivate them to improve it for the sake or their jumping.

Buying Horses

One of my clients is currently on the search for her first horse, moving up from her share pony.

I forget how much of a minefield buying horses is. I’m very lucky that all of ours has just happened. Mum asked my instructor to keep an eye out for a youngster I could bring on and she had a friend who had bred Matt. Not going to lie, seeing a feral 2 year old colt on the side of the Welsh mountains one blustery day didn’t strike me as a perfect pony! But he’s turned out pretty good. Otis was also from another friend of hers. Phoenix, I’d decided we’d look in the spring and her advert appeared on my social media a couple of days later. Fate? Perhaps it struck three times for me.

But when you’re actively looking for horses, there’s a lot of dross to sift through.

I’ve often helped clients look for horses, or been to view them, or been sent videos for feedback. It’s not my favourite job because I feel quite a lot of pressure to get it right. I also feel that entering the world of horse ownership is often underestimated, and not without potholes, so it’s not only important to find the right horse, but also nurture the relationship as it develops. I’ve had several experiences of people asking my advice, bought a horse, then neglected regular lessons or supervision from a professional before getting into a pickle and losing confidence in each other.

How best to start the search for a new horse? I tend to have the conversation about what the rider is realistically looking for. Sometimes this involves some home truths in that the horse a rider is dreaming of is not what their abilities and ambitions needs. I’ve seen a purchase go wrong because the rider has insisted on overhorsing themselves, so I am not afraid to try to talk sense into prospective purchasers. However, I do usually let the purchaser lead the search. They can send me the adverts for feedback. This allows me to get a feel for their likes in a horse too.

I will also ask my contacts, to see if I can find a suitable horse through word of mouth as we go along, and keep my ears to the ground if anyone tells me about a horse.

In the initial browsing of adverts, I tend to encourage purchasers to look beyond their budget and outside the travel zone. This allows them to gauge the market, get a better understanding of adverts and the points to look for.

Once adverts start coming to me, I’ll feedback as to whether more info is needed, and if not, what I don’t like about the advert. After all, I don’t want to turn down a dozen adverts which all say “sharp” for a novice rider. Better to explain the meaning of the word and let them filter other sharp horses out. It’s an educational process as well. For example, my client sent me an advert for a 16hh Clydesdale cross. 15-16hh is our height criteria, but a chunky horse at the top end of the height will be too much horse for my rider. Therefore when she’s looking at horses she needs to consider breed/type as well as height.

The next learning curve for prospective purchasers is speaking to the owners of the advertised horse, asking the relevant questions and interpreting the answers. We also look at the videos. When I feedback on adverts I’ll often suggest questions to ask and what information is missing or incomplete.

It’s amazing how quickly you learn to read an advert and write off a horse due to vague blurb, missing information, photos only of the horse’s head or when stationary, or poor videos. By the time you’ve whittled down the unsuitable ones, the ones too far away, and the ones with unsaid problems, then unfortunately you aren’t left with many to choose from!

Next up, is viewing a horse. It’s always recommended that you take someone knowledgeable with you, and for those not used to viewings or riding different horses then I think the most useful person to take is your instructor. They can ride the horse as well, and they can effectively give you a lesson. I find that just me standing in the middle of the arena will quell any nerves from the rider, and I can talk through the horse’s behaviour, subtle signs I’ve spotted, explain what assessments the rider needs to make, and get them talking about what they’re feeling underneath them. I can also tweak my rider so that hopefully they get a better tune out of the horse, which is realistically more like what they will be working on at home. Then I also get a feel for the horse’s trainability. It doesn’t matter if they encounter a problem, such as refusing a jump, but rather how they both deal with it afterwards. Often the first jumps aren’t the best as they’re getting used to each other. The prospective horse should be ridden in the arena first, from a safety point of view, and then if it passes this test, out in the open and on a hack. I also like my client to have some time on the ground with the horse, to get a feel for them as a person.

Once the viewing is over, I remind my client that they don’t have to like this horse. There’s no pressure for it to be “the one”. No time wasted, nothing lost but an experience gained. I then try and get them to evaluate and analyse the horse, giving their likes and questions or worries. We talk about what the horse needs – for example, if the jumping didn’t go as planned, would the horse benefit from gridwork, or polework? What can the prospective owner expect from the first couple of months of ownership? I also want to know the rider’s gut feeling, and if they “clicked” with the horse. After getting the purchasers views I’ll add mine, and then we follow up with any new questions, possibly arrange a second viewing and make a decision before organising vettings and other new horse preparations.

As with any major, life changing decisions, it is worth investing the time and effort into doing the research, asking all the questions, necessary or unnecessary. Asking for help and guidance, and then being prepared to ask for help over the next few months as your new horse settles in and you settle into horse ownership.

Guinea-pig Riding

When I was at college and an apprentice I frequently had to ride for coaches training for their teaching exams, or at demos. I don’t like people watching me ride, or strangers critiquing me, so it’s not something I particularly enjoy.

I also happen to be quite difficult to teach. I don’t like being shouted at, and as I’m a trier and detest doing something wrong, if I’m shouted at by an instructor when I’m trying my best I get sulky and close down. I can’t help it, but I appreciate it makes difficult teaching so if someone’s being assessed it’s not an ideal situation.

However, just down the road from Phoenix’s yard is a British Dressage venue, which were looking for guinea-pig riders at novice and elementary level for coaches training for their next exam. Feeling more confident in ourselves, wanting to get Phoenix out to other venues, and wanting more feedback from BD judges, I signed us up.

It’s a bit of a pot luck exercise, but as you don’t pay for your lesson and are only giving your time,it’s a risk you have to take.

I had a shared lesson, with a horse competing at novice level, who was the complete opposite to Phoenix! He was heavier in build, had a workmanlike way of going with a tendency to get behind the leg. In all fairness to the coach, providing a lesson to benefit both horses was a tall order.

We worked on transitions, which are always useful. For the other horse, it was useful for getting him in front of the leg and more active. For Phoenix, there was a bit of work on my aid timing to help her step through in the transitions and not brace in her neck.

I was pleased with Phoenix, who showed how much she’s matured mentally in that she settled to work immediately, wasn’t spooky, but could’ve relaxed a bit earlier into the session. At home I do lots of movements, lateral work and transitions to keep her brain active and attentive to me; but this lesson just used a 20m circle which while she didn’t connect like she does at home, she did settle into a consistent rhythm and remained accepting of the aids, with her transitions improving in softness and balance.

By taking out the complex school movements I could focus on the quality of our transitions. Something I don’t do enough of. But I came away realising that I can simplify my schooling in order to focus on one area without detriment to Phoenix’s way of going.

At the end of the lesson, the rider’s have to feedback to the coach and their assessor. Which is a test to your articulation as much as anything!

For me, I found the day’s exercise useful in that Phoenix worked calmly and focused in a new environment. I realised that she’s matured mentally and I can have productive sessions in a short amount of time. The trainee coach used a couple of explanations which will be useful in my teaching, as another explanation if my clients don’t comprehend my analogy. I didn’t have a ground breaking lesson, but that’s not really to be expected as they’re in training, don’t know me or Phoenix, and I didn’t pay for the lesson!

I think if you are confident at your level of training and understand the correct way of going and how to get the best out of your horse, then these guinea-pig riding sessions are a useful exercise. You only contribute your time and effort, the coaches are all BD trained, many of them judges, so it’s useful to get another point of view and feedback on your horse’s work, and of course you’re doing your bit to help the future of coaching. It’s also useful for young horses. However, if you’re going through a training blip, or aren’t technically secure then it could be detrimental to you and your horse’s state of mind if the trainee coach gives conflicting advice or explanations to your current trainer.

I think I will volunteer again, especially at such a local venue, because there’s very little to lose in the exercise, and the potential to get a few hints and tips.

A Busy Life!

The last few weeks have been so busy I’m afraid I’ve neglected my blog a bit. But I have been reflecting since restarting work, how lucky I am to enjoy such a varied working week.

Lockdown gave me the chance to rest, recharge, study, and reorganise things. And coming out of lockdown I’ve enjoyed picking up where we left off with existing private clients, getting some structure back into my week. I feel like I have some new exercises and better explanations from my own learning and reflecting in lockdown. It’s also been great to see an improved relationship and confidence between some clients and their horses purely as a result of having more hours in the saddle or cuddles in the stable.

But I’ve now got more variety into my work because, since lockdown, I’ve been teaching more Pony Club rallies, and helping members privately too. Teaching more children definitely gives me more to think about, and lots of anecdotes! With the regular rallies, and seeing the children and their ponies more frequently I’m getting an immense sense of satisfaction watching them forming new, strong partnerships and develop as riders. I’m also enjoying planning and delivering different types of group lessons. It’s all a challenge, but a very satisfying challenge! One little girl I almost burst with pride each time I watch her ride, no longer flaps her legs nineteen to the dozen and bounces in canter; she now has effective leg aids, better balance and it stuck like glue to her saddle in canter.

Here’s an anecdote while I remember. I was teaching a lead rein lesson and wanted the children to focus on keeping their thumbs on top, so I asked them to imagine that they’re carrying a mug of their favourite drink. Of course I asked what their favourite drink was … Apple juice, hot chocolate, and … Beer! I’m not sure what any passers-by thought when I shouted “don’t spill your beer” to a six year old boy as he trotted around the arena!

During lockdown I started doing some stable management lectures via Zoom. I’ve been teaching the BHS Challenge Award booklets. A lot of it can be done virtually, talking about the subject, and Google is ever helpful in finding videos to further my explanation, or demonstrate something. To test my clients, I’ve been getting them to video themselves doing tasks; such as tying up a haynet or tacking up. At the end of each booklet I’ve been putting together a pub quiz for them. Upon successful completion, they receive a certificate. We can now start doing the more practical awards, such as learning to lunge. Hopefully leisure riders keep up this interest in learning more about the non riding side of horse ownership as it only benefits their horse.

With normal competitions on hold, and future ones cancelled because they’re not logistically viable whilst maintaining social distancing, online competing has really taken off! My friend runs Demi Dressage, which is online dressage aimed at children. She writes her own tests so they all have a theme and really help children learn a school movement. Last month it was the ice cream test – I watched hundreds of demi voltes! It has been lovely to see so many children enjoying dressage, improving between the months and really progressing. I have a slightly different approach to judging these tests; I judge what I see, but try to make lots of constructive comments, and phrase things in a developmental way so that the children learn the error of their way, but also know how to improve this (for example, instead of “cut the corner” saying “try to ride into the corner to help you turn accurately at F”). The judges comment box also has a suggestion for improvement in, rather than just summising the test. I think that’s the teacher in me! When it’s Demi judging week it’s a lot of late nights, especially as I’m now working again and not helped a few weeks ago by split lip requiring surgery. I didn’t require the surgery, but Mum cuddles were high on the agenda! Demi Dressage definitely gives me some variety to my work.

Adding in my upcoming Pony Club camp in a couple of weeks, I feel like I have a lot of exciting projects keeping me thoroughly occupied. In fact, organising camp is the main reason my blog is taking a back seat for a few weeks as my brain if full to overflowing with thinking of groups, instructors and timetables.

It’s definitely a busy, yet varied job I have, but having an enforced break has made me appreciate how much I enjoy my work.

Continued Professional Development

As part of my accreditation as a BHS and PC coach I have to attend CPD days annually. They can often be a pain because of the effort involved in rescheduling my diary, travelling to the venue, and finding an appealing course at the right time in the right place which actually counts as a CPD course.

I was up to date with all my certificates, so thankfully won’t be affected by the cancellations surrounding lockdown, but I have seen a huge rise in webinars and online lectures this spring. With the extra time I have, I’ve been quite busy expanding my professional knowledge.

Ros Canter and Caroline Moore did a three session lecture over the course of a fortnight which was very reasonably priced and had the attraction that the lectures were recorded so I could “catch up” during the week. They were fascinating, and really useful – some clients have already started to see the exercises popping up in lessons. It was a combination of a PowerPoint, a series of YouTube video clips, and the experts discussing the subject. I’ve actually still got the last one to finish owing to a broken laptop, so I’m looking forwards to catching up on that soon. There is also a sports psychology talk for me to catch up on as well when I have a functioning laptop.

I’ve also just completed a mental health course, which was very straight forward to complete and meant I could pick it up and put it down easily around toddler challenges. This course was about helping coaches know how to help people with mental health problems, remove the stigma, and make our sport more accessible to them. As a coach, I often find the first few minutes of a lesson is a client unloading their woes so that they can forget about it for an hour and get the best out of their time with me. And now I have a few more tools in my toolkit to help if anything more serious than a “I got stuck behind a tractor which made me late so I haven’t groomed his tail” moan.

I’ve got a talk tomorrow night about arena surfaces which will be interesting, plus my riding club is organising an online rider biomechanics talk – a personal favourite subject of mine.

I don’t want to overload my brain with too many talks, but I really like how equestrians are embracing virtual education and are offering all these courses for horse owners and professionals. Whilst it means that not all subjects can be covered, it definitely opens up opportunities for us to learn whilst social restrictions are in place.

With the BHS requiring annual CPD days, a more flexible arrangement of alternating between courses which you attend in person, and online courses totalling sufficient hours, would definitely give coaches more ability to learn about the subjects which interest them as well as the ability to fit training around their busy working lives.

I hope that now we have the ball rolling with virtual lectures they continue to be offered after lockdown and social distancing is reduced. After all, more accessible education can only benefit our horses. It will also enable us to listen to a wider range of experts, perhaps who are out of our area or who do very exclusive talks.