Going With The Movement

I’ve done some work on seat aids with a client in the last few months, getting her more aware of using her seat to reinforce her leg and hand aids.

However, she’s fallen into the trap of a lot of riders as they learn about the seat. They overuse it. Which doesn’t always help when you have a backward thinking horse. Since Christmas, I’ve noticed there’s been a bit too much wiggling in the saddle, which has become ineffective and now inhibits her horse’s movement – think about trying to give a child a piggy back while they’re wriggling around!

Studying my rider at the beginning of her lesson I noticed that the crux of the problem is coming from her hips and inner thighs. Her thighs were close to her saddle, but at the expense of tight gluteals and a fixed point which caused her upper body to move with her seat, but her lower leg to counteract this movement and the leg aids to become wooly and less effective.

I brought her to the middle of the school and asked her to halt. We were going to do an exercise I spent many hours doing on the lunge at college, and similar to our hip opening warm up at Pilates. I got her to draw her knees up to the pommel of her saddle and then take them out to the sides before slowly lowering them into the usual position. This plonks you squarely onto your seatbones so helps identify them if they’re lost, but also stretches and loosens the thigh-hip joint. The thighs then relax and the legs drape around the horse’s barrel more comfortably (this has more of a noticeable effect on larger barrelled horses). Initially there may be daylight seen between the knee and saddle flap. It’s not ideal, but go with it for a minute or two.

Once we’d repeated this hip opening exercise, I got my rider to walk on. She could still use her seat aids, but I wanted her to reduce them, and to think about how her thighs and seat stay relaxed whilst using these aids. Then I asked her to try to use her seat to complement her horse’s gait, rather than to dominate it. It was like they were playing the same tune but at different speeds, so had moments of togetherness, but were mostly working against each other.

As soon as my rider reduced her movements and got in time with her horse, her seat and leg aids became more effective, so there was no need to over egg it. Her horse moved more freely and they looked more together. She still had daylight between her knees and knee rolls, and subsequently felt a bit loose in the saddle, so I told her to gently close her legs so they were close to the saddle but without tensing the thighs. Then she had more contact with her horse so could stay in sync more easily without tension.

We moved on to some trot and canter work, with my rider feeling more effective with her aids, was stiller in her lower leg, and her horse moving in a less inhibited way.

This rider has been on a Franklin Method Clinic, and specifically found sitting on the balls helped her relax her gluteal muscles and so sit deeper in the saddle. So we are going to use a combination of the Franklin balls and hip opening exercises to switch off her naturally tight thighs and gluteals so that she can really feel the way her horse moves and apply aids which are well timed and effective. As her body is more relaxed, when she is not actively applying aids she is not giving any conflicting or restrictive instructions so then her horse becomes more responsive and reactive to her aids.

Biosecurity

“Not again” is the thought going through my head this weekend as the equine world reacts to the news of an EHV outbreak at a competition venue. Last year, it was the flu outbreak, this year EHV. The reaction has been strange this time round. Last year I felt there was a very panicked, almost hysterical air. This year there has been a more prompt, and complete, response from training and competition venues in the area or with links to the infected venue, but the general equine population seems to be more confused – some are taking extreme precautions, others are continuing as normal.

Perhaps it’s because Equine Herpes Virus is less well known than Equine Flu, or perhaps it is the fact the flu epidemic was in random places, so very difficult to contain or predict it’s movement – an attack from all sides, so to speak. Perhaps it’s because everyone knows the drill for lockdowns. Or on the flip side, people are fed up of stringent checks.

EHV is always mentioned in stable management training, within the subjects of vaccinations and breeding, but I’ve only a sketchy knowledge of this often fatal virus, so I’ve found a much better article about it, which you can read here.

I’m not going to start telling everyone what you should be doing, in terms of hacking, travelling or yard lockdowns. After all, that depends on your location, proximity to the outbreak, disciplines, size of yard, facilities, and risk category of horse.

But I think it’s worth discussing biosecurity measures, which in all honesty, often become slack because they are quite laborious and time consuming.

Firstly, there is the basic yard hygiene of ensuring that each horse has their own grooming kit and feed and water buckets, and avoid sharing rugs, tack and protective equipment as much as possible. Wash out buckets daily, clean grooming kits regularly, wash saddle cloths regularly and don’t share them between horses. The same goes for rugs. Daily procedures like this take very little time and will stop any diseases passing between horses from indirect contact. In particular, not sharing grooming brushes or rugs or numnahs reduces the spread of skin infections, such as ringworm.

Of course horses on yards will have nose to nose contact with their field and stable companions and neighbours, but this can be minimised by putting inner electric fences round fields so that horses can’t reach each other (unless they are half giraffe!) and by not having grills between stables you can reduce direct contact between horses, which will reduce the spread of illnesses.

Washing hands when you leave the yard is a basic hygeine procedure from a human point of view, but it will also stop the indirect spread of disease when visiting other horses. I keep hand sanitiser in my car for this very purpose.

What other basic biosecurity measures can you take without disturbing your daily equine routine? When we’re all out at competitions and clinics as normal, do you let your horse sniff unknown horses? Personally I don’t. I keep a slight distance and avoid letting Phoenix touch noses with any horse from a different yard, even if I know their owner. Of course, it’s not going to stop the airborne spread of illnesses, but stopping direct contact will reduce the risk. And of course, using your own equipment and providing your own water will reduce the risk further.

Finally, you should take your horse’s temperature on a regular basis to establish what is normal for your horse so that you can quickly identify when they develop a fever. I remember when we had strangles on the yard when I was young one of the riding school ponies had strangles but his temperature was the normal 100F. But his baseline temperature was 98F, which meant he could easily be overlooked as healthy when he was actually very ill.

Big biosecurity steps to take is disinfection, which should happen all the time, but often people get complacent. For example, when a horse leaves the yard their stable should be disinfected before another horse moves in, in case the previous horse was a carrier of a disease and passes it onto the new occupant. When a new horse arrives on a yard they should be isolated for two weeks. Proper and correct isolation means a separate stable block, handlers washing and changing clothes between caring for the new horse and the rest of the yard, separate mucking out equipment, separate brushes, rugs etc. You should even burn the muck and bedding, keeping it separate from the main muck heap.

If you hire a horse box it should be disinfected before and after use, so check with the company you are using that this is their procedure.

Now that there’s a higher risk of disease, it’s time to step up the biosecurity measures you take on a daily basis. Change clothes and disinfect footwear when leaving the yard, reduce the number of different yards you visit – a farrier may want to reschedule his clients so he minimises the number of yards he visits in a day, and if you’re going to see a friend and their new horse it might be worth postponing a week or two. I will be having numerous changes of clothes each day for each yard and having a portable boot wash so I can dip my boots in disinfectant when I leave a yard.

Like with anything, it’s important not to panic, but to be sensible; don’t go anywhere unnecessarily, or to heavy traffic areas, and maintain daily hygeine procedures.

I found this useful website about equine biosecurity from the British Equine Federation.

The Franklin Method

I think I’ve mentioned before, that I go to Equestrian Pilates every week. Earlier this year my Pilates teacher went on an intensive course to learn about the Franklin Method, and has since applied it to our classes.

Intrigued, and curious to know more about the logic of hitting yourself with an orange ball, I decided to organise a clinic at my yard.

In Pilates, we’ve tapped any tight muscles with balls to stimulate nerves and increase our range of movement during the warm up. But other than that, the Franklin Method was a completely new concept to me.

The clinic started with an off horse session where we learnt that the Franklin Method focuses on reconditioning the body and movement to improve function. Using props and imagery it helps improve your proprioception and posture by activating unused muscles. We learnt a little bit about anatomy, with the help of a spine, then we were introduced to the props. There were a variety of sized balls, spiky and smooth, and peanut shaped balls, as well as some resistance bands. We discussed the ideal riding position and talked about how using our core, having our pelvis level, the correct lower leg position and arm position can improve our stability in the saddle. Some of this I’ve seen before, in demos, teaching books, and used it myself when teaching, but using resistance bands to help with the explanations was really useful too. Finally, I sat on a saddle and we were shown the different way we’d use the props once aboard our horses.

I really wasn’t sure how sensitive little Phoenix would cope with me riding with balls, but I’d ridden her for an hour the day before with plenty of canter work and luck was on my side as she seemed to have her brain firmly wedged between her ears as I warmed her up in the arena, and was remarkably relaxed.

After settling the horses and warming ourselves up, we walked a straight line away from the camera to assess our straightness and symmetry before getting started with the props. The first prop that we used was a squishy peanut shaped ball, and we sat on it so it was evenly sat underneath our seat bones. Then we walked round. Sitting on a wobbly seat makes you use your core muscles, which is useful if any of yours have switched off; it also makes you very aware of each seat bone, and if you are wobbling more onto one side than the other.

There was no pressure to do anything outside your comfort zone with any of the props. If you wanted to trot or canter then do so, but if not just walking was equally beneficial.

We then sat on just one round, smooth ball, putting it under first one seat bone, and then the other. This is particularly useful if you sit crookedly in the saddle. I like to think that I’ve got a good sense of where my body is in space, and am fairly symmetrical as a rider, but I didn’t find a huge difference between seat bones when I sat on just one ball. Which is good, but I could see how it would be useful for anyone unaware that they are sitting to one side.

Still focusing on our seats, we sat on a heavier, water filled peanut ball. Again, only in walk as I felt that was the limit to Phoenix’s acceptance of it, I found my hips really loosening up. The water ball exaggerated Phoenix’s movement, causing me to move my seat more. Afterwards I really felt like I was sitting inside my saddle, not sitting on top. I then worked in sitting trot, and was astounded in the improvement. I sat deeper, absorbed Phoenix’s movements more, and consequently she relaxed and stepped out more and I felt her really swinging over her back.

We moved on to working on our legs with small softly spiky balls. One was placed on the inside of the top of the thigh, so it sat between the saddle and my leg. A second ball was placed closer to the knee on the opposite leg. For me, this was particularly painful as I got cramp on the outside of my thigh, but tapping it with a ball helped dissipate it. I did some work in walk, before swapping the balls round. They had the effect of loosening my hips and helping lengthen my leg and let it wrap around Phoenix.

Finally, we moved on to the arms. I didn’t have a go with a resistance band wrapped round my shoulders, running to the hands, which is useful for encouraging riders to carry their hands more correctly, and to connect their shoulders to the reins, which improves the subtlety of their half halts and stabilises the hands. We felt this would be a step too far for Phoenix, so I used a circular resistance band round my wrists, which helps keep the hands as a pair and gives instant visual feedback if one hand goes for a little wander. I really liked this exercise, and could see how the visual cue and the pressure of the band would really help some of my clients who struggle with their outside rein, or have a wandering hand.

To encourage elbows to hang closer to our sides, we rode for a few minutes with a ball in each armpit. Upon taking the balls away, your elbows return to your torso like iron filings to a magnet. Again, useful for anyone with sticky out elbows!

The Franklin Method had an immediate effect in correcting positions, and making you as a rider aware of different, switched off, areas of your body. You could see the horses responding to the changes in position, releasing of tight knees and hips, and the reduction in crookedness. The other thing that I liked about the Franklin Method is that it complemented my teaching methods and biomechanical explanations, so I will definitely be encouraging all my clients to have a go at riding with balls.

For more information, check out the website www.ridewithballs.com.

Finding the Problem

When you have an undesirable behaviour in the horse, such as refusing jumps, napping etc it can be so difficult to find the cause.

Once a horse has had their saddles, feet, legs, backs, teeth checked for ill fit or injury, very often the unwanted behaviour is labelled as a ‘behavioural problem’ and has very negative connotations. All to often I see aggressive reactions to the unwanted behaviour, which often compounds the problem.

Once you’ve identified that there’s no physical cause for a behaviour then it’s a matter of understanding the horse’s mental state. Horses react to the current situation, they don’t plan in advance to cause trouble or refuse to comply with their rider. An interesting article went round social media last week which explained this well – take a look here.

So if you have a behaviour, such as napping or rearing, and you’ve found the underlying cause to be an injury or poorly fitting saddle; you’ve fixed the physical cause, but your horse still naps, then it is caused by their mental state and in order to correct the behaviour you need to get inside their head and do it slowly.

I’ve just started working with a horse who started refusing or grinding to a halt before a fence and cat leaping it. After some weeks of troublesome jumping, a small injury was diagnosed and he was subsequently rested and then brought back into work. However, his behaviour whilst jumping continued.

Unfortunately, he can’t speak English and tell us the problem, but we can listen and respond to his body language. I believe that the horse had pain association with jumping, because of the injury, and then because he was cat leaping he wasn’t comfortable jumping, regardless of the fact his injury had healed. Whilst he had his injury, he’d have had a physical limitation when jumping, and if faced with jumps beyond this ability (even if they were within his usual ability) he would have lost confidence in both himself and his rider. This creates a vicious cycle of him not wanting to jump, despite the fact he has been given a clean bill of health.

Because he hasn’t wanted to jump, he’s become rather backwards thinking on the flat, so the first thing I did when I rode him was get him thinking forwards. I’ve given him very light hands, to support him as necessary, but in no way acting as a handbrake. Every transition has prioritised over him responding to the aids, and going forwards, even if his head isn’t in the ideal position. I want him to move his body as required in order to do the requested movement so that he realises that it doesn’t hurt and that he can do it. We can tweak movements in the future to improve his way of going.

This week, to help his jumping, we used canter poles to encourage the canter to stay forwards, and then once he was taking me into the poles, we added a jump to the end of the poles. The jump wasn’t too small that he would trip over it, nor was it too big to be outside his comfort zone. The poles kept the canter forwards, regulated his stride and positioned the horse in the correct place to take off. This would give the horse some positive experiences over the jump, so rebuilding his confidence and ensuring he didn’t have any twinges from jumping awkwardly. As the horse became bolder, I lengthened the poles so that he wasn’t quite so close to the jump on take off. Starting with the poles closer than ideal and lengthening the distances slowly stopped the horse even thinking about chipping in before the jump.

Once he was confident in cantering three poles to a jump with no strides between, I removed the third pole, so that the two poles set up his canter, and he just had to keep the momentum going for one stride before the jump. We repeated this work off both reins, until I felt he’d done enough. He needed a certain amount of repetition to build good associations with jumping, but not so many that he became tired and be more likely to falter.

Next time, the plan is to build a simple related distance. There will be two poles on the approach to the first jump, as we’ve already done, which will put him in a good canter and give him a good jump over the first element. Then he has to maintain that canter for two strides before the second jump. Then we’ll increase it to three strides between the two jumps, then four and so on. The purpose of this is so that he learns to jump the single fence without poles to help, but by setting him up at the beginning with poles we can ensure he isn’t likely to fail or back off the jump. Again, the jumps won’t be big, but I may make them uprights instead of cross poles to give him something else to think about. Not having them high means that as well as not having any pain association from jumping awkwardly, his injured leg will get stronger and hopefully he’ll stop anticipating any pain from that site. Then we’ll continue along this theme with other grid work type exercises until he doesn’t have negative associations with jumping, and is confident in his own ability again.

With any “behavioural” problem I think it’s best to identify the triggers for the behaviour and then work on calmly and quietly giving your horse a few positive experiences so that the habit is broken, and they begin to build trust in their rider and themselves in that situation, then you can adjust the situation; for example if your horse naps at a particular spot out hacking on their own, ride, long line or lead past the spot in company until they have had some good experiences there, before perhaps riding first past that spot in a group instead of following their friend, and then venture there on your own. Strip back the environment/activity and provide emotional support from your horse from others, people on the ground, anything, and then as the event becomes calmer and stress-free, take away their support slowly as they become more confident and less reactive to that set of triggers.

Poles and Transitions

I adapted this exercise last week for my clients to improve their canter transitions.

When you aren’t working to a dressage test, or set of quick directions, it can be easy to spend too long preparing for a canter transition, aborting at the first corner, and then in the downward transition it’s easy to spend half a dozen strides recovering and finding their balance.

I wanted my riders to be in the position that they could strike off into canter with instant preparation, and can ride into a balanced trot immediately. After all, once you get to elementary level, the movements start coming up very quickly!

I laid out five trotting poles on the track on the long side; with a fairly short distance between each one. I wanted the horses to be on the verge of collecting over the trot poles. With the mare who struggles to get the correct canter lead I placed the poles so that the last pole was at the quarter marker and she could use the corner to get the correct strike off. The other, more established horses, had the poles in the middle of the long side so that the canter transitions were in a straight line.

I worked each combination through the poles until they were balanced, and the trot had become more together and uphill, with increased cadence. Then we added in the canter.

After riding the trotting poles, I asked them to ride forwards to canter before the corner (or at the corner for the less established mare). Then they had to ride forwards to trot at the corner before the poles.

We repeated the exercise a few times, moving the transitions so that they were closer to the poles.

The result was that my riders started riding more quickly, and I don’t mean rushing; the time between preparing and riding the transitions, and then reacting to the outcome, decreased. The horses became more responsive to the aids and then more active in the transitions.

The trotting poles engaged the hindquarters, which helped the horse push upwards into canter, so it felt like a pop into a steadier, more powerful canter. The mare who tends to run into canter suddenly began to almost jump into it, which resulted in a less harum-scarum canter.

Having the trotting poles in the near distance when riding into trot encouraged the riders to sit tall and hold in their core so that the horse sat on his hocks and didn’t fall onto the forehand after a couple of strides, unable to contain all this energy. Often a horse and rider will go into a powerful, energetic trot, pushing nicely from behind, but after a few strides they both seem to collapse and lose energy, so losing the quality of the trot as they bowl onto their forehand. However, the poles require the horse to maintain the initial trot for longer so builds up their strength and balance. Again, the horse and rider have to be thinking and react quickly to correct any loss of rhythm or balance.

Having to ride a downwards transition before some poles doesn’t give a rider the opportunity to accept a sloppy, unbalanced transition, nor does it mean they can do it “when the time is right”. The time is now, and they have to make it right. If they do get an unbalanced transition, for whatever reason, the looming poles encourages them to react and correct it; which is very important around showjumping courses, and so that the next dressage movement is not impeded.

I was really impressed with the improvement to both the horse’s transitions, the quality of the canter and trot, and of the positive, quick thinking way that my riders were now riding.

Rugs. Too hot? Too cold? Or just right?

About three years ago a few articles went viral about the problems of over rugging horses, along with charts telling us what rug weights are appropriate at what temperature.

A lot of it makes sense, and yes many people were over rugging horses. But recently, I’ve become concerned that this approach is actually causing owners to leave horses under rugged and cold. Which has it’s own set of problems such as weight loss, stiff joints, unhappiness.

The result is that owners now second guess themselves, and no one is confident in their logic. Which is detrimental to horse’s welfare.

Whilst there are problems associated with over rugging, most notably obesity and colic like symptoms, it is important to look at each horse and their environment as an individual.

Some horses feel the cold more than others. They may have finer hair and thinner skin, may be clipped, or they are not carrying as much weight as others. Older horses can often feel the cold more, and it’s important to remember their rugging history. A mature horse who has been over rugged in previous years will not cope well being under rugged. And of course, some horses just feel the cold more. Despite Phoenix’s breeding (a hardy Welsh) I have caught her in after a summer shower, with the thermometer still reading seventeen degrees Celsius, and she is shivering. She seems to cope fairly well with dry cold, but the wind and rain really give her a chill.

A horse’s diet will affect his ability to keep warm. Sugar beet is digested in the hindgut slowly, so has a heating effect. So a horse who is fed lots of forage, hay or haylage, will have their own heating system,as opposed to horses on a restricted diet. Yes, those on a restricted diet are presumably supposed to be losing weight, but it is worth remembering that with less forage they will feel the cold more.

The environment plays a huge impact on a horse’s ability to keep warm. Are their stables brick or wood; are they well insulated or is there a through draught? One of Otis’s stables was below a flat so it was beautifully warm in winter as the flat heated it from above.

Likewise, if a horse’s field has lots of shelter, natural or man made, they can escape the wind or driving rain. A north facing field is colder than a south facing one, and fields in a valley are less exposed than those on the coast or mountain side. If they are only turned out in the day so have limited forage other than grass, then they will not be able to keep as warm as a horse living out all the time with as lib hay.

So a horse in a north facing field with very little shelter will need extra protection from the elements than the same horse in a field with a palatial field shelter.

The important thing, I believe, is to get to know your horse as an individual, monitor how warm or cool they are without obsessing over it because they will adjust. If they’re a bit warm in the field, they can move to stand in the breeze; if they’re a bit cool they can move around to warm up, or stand out of the wind. There’s a lot more scope to self regulate their temperature in the open space.

The other thing to consider is that when we are doing our horses in winter we are rarely doing them at the warmest or coldest part of a twenty four hour cycle. When we turn out in the morning, we need to consider the fact that the day will warm up. However, it will also cool down, possibly before we catch in. I tend to work on the basis that the warmth of the day is usually counterbalanced by being exposed to the elements (autumn and spring are the danger days when the sun is stronger). When we tuck our horses up in the evening, we need to be aware that the temperature drops in the early hours. So you don’t want to put your horse to bed only just be warm enough, because they will undoubtedly be cold in the middle of the night.

I think the key to rugging a horse for weight loss, which is surely where this trend has come from, is to delay rugging them in the autumn, and to remove rugs early in the spring. One of my clients has a companion pony who is too fat, but living with a horse who needs plenty of grass, makes it difficult for him to lose weight. So I insisted that he stayed naked until November at the earliest, horrendous storms excluded, as he has a lovely field shelter, to encourage the weight to drop off. Now, he is in a lightweight rug and will stay that way for as long as possible, before having his rug removed, weather depending, in February.

Otis has been unrugged the last couple of years except for snowstorms, as he was fat, hairy, perfectly warm enough, with a lot of natural shelter in his field. This summer and autumn he has lost weight (a planned diet), and their field had been divided to help rest it, but that means that there is less natural shelter for them. He’s not had his rug on yet, except for the heavy rainstorms in the last few weeks, but I think it will go on soon. However, I am weighing out the pros of him being able to raise the hairs over his body to trap air to keep warm, versus having the windbreak of a lightweight rug. I think my final decision as to when I put his rug on will be whether the weather is cold and wet (rug on) or cold and dry (no rug).

So yes, I think it’s important not to over rug horses, but it is equally important not to withhold rugs. Treat each horse as an individual, consider environmental factors, and make your own mind up based on your instinct rather than the latest trends or what your stable neighbour is doing. And react to your horse: if they seem to be hungrier yet not putting on any weight they may be too cold. If they’re clammy under their rugs then they’re over rugged.

Spirals

It’s a classic exercise to introduce leg yield, and can help increase a horse’s bend, but I find that spiralling in and out on a circle can encourage bad rider habits to form and is so often detrimental to both horse and rider, rather than achieving the desired effect of increasing the engagement of the inside hind leg.

The basis of the exercise is that you establish a twenty metre circle before spiralling in towards the centre and then spiralling out again.

I begin teaching this exercise by standing at X, and asking my rider to ride a twenty metre circle from either E or B. We spend some time establishing the roundness, and identifying points where their horse is liable to drift out (usually at E and B), or fall in (usually as they cross the centre line). Then I ask them to slowly decrease the size of the circle by moving the horse’s outside shoulder in first. This reduces the rider using the inside rein to pull their horse onto a smaller circle, and encourages the use of the outside leg. Decreasing the circle slowly requires more balance and more subtle aids. The inside rein opens slightly to indicate moving across whilst the outside leg pushes the horse over, outside rein prevents the horse overturning with their head and supports the outside shoulder. The inside leg maintains the correct bend, and the rider turning their shoulders into the circle with their weight in their inside seat bone helps the horse stay in the correct bend.

By spiralling in slowly, and almost adopting a shoulder fore position the horse will bring his inside hind leg under his body, propel himself forwards more correctly and feel lighter and more engaged. The smaller circles require more suppleness and balance from the horse. I often tell my rider to stay on a certain sized circle, or not to spiral in any further because I can see that the horse has reached their limit in terms of suppleness so are better staying at this point instead of going smaller but losing the quality to their gait.

From the small circle, I ask the rider to sidestep out onto a bigger circle before riding a few strides on this circle and then sidestepping again. This makes a series of concentric circles, rather than a spiral. This helps control the movement and keep it correct. By only leg yielding a couple of strides at a time the rider doesn’t lose their horse’s outside shoulder, the inside hind continues to push the horse sideways so they stay engaged. The rider’s outside aids continue to be effective and the horse stays balanced.

Some horses are more likely to rush back to the track, so pulling themselves across in the leg yield from the outside shoulder. In this case, I get the rider to “ride smart”: as they start to ride towards E or B they have to apply the outside aids before their horse drifts and takes control of the movement, and then ask for the leg yield as they move towards the centre line, when the horse has no inclination to fall out. This ensures that the leg yield comes from the rider’s aids and is not the horse anticipating.

Ridden correctly, the horse becomes more supple and engaged, and it is an excellent warm up exercise for gently stretching them and unlocking and tight or resistant spots. I find it incredibly useful when Phoenix gets her knickers in a twist (when the wind blows or the something is out of place) as when I move her body around subtly she releases through her barrel and becomes more rideable. It’s also useful for identifying a stiffer side in rider or horse, as well as fine tuning the rider’s aids and control through a movement.

So often I see the spirals being ridden badly; the head and neck over bending as the horse spirals in, with too much inside rein, and them falling rapidly through the outside shoulder in a race to get back out to the bigger circle. Which doesn’t help engage the inside hind leg, or promote the rider using their outside aids correctly or effectively.

Next time you ride this exercise, try changing your approach to it, and critique yourself to make sure you aren’t letting either yourself or your horse cheat by drifting in and out on the circle. How many times do you pass B as you move in or out? Can you increase that number? Slowing down the movement requires more balance and more obedience from your horse.

“Maybe it’s Maybelline”

My friend’s horse has always had a mane to be proud of. It’s very long, full of volume and in great condition. Her owner is very proud of it.

Was very proud of it.

Above, is one of Rose Lewis’s fantastic black background shots of this pony and her mane, which hangs below her elbows. I’ll wait while you go and check where the elbow is on a horse.

If you already know this, then while we’re waiting, have a look at Rose’s website – www.daydreamequineart.co.uk/ – there are lots of famous faces in her portfolio, as well as yours truly. But I don’t think I qualify for the famous faces category.

Anyway, back to the purpose of my post.

This pony’s behaviour has changed recently and I became obvious that she was uncomfortable in her back. My friend started investigating the saddle and booked her in with the physio.

The physio found quite a lot of tender spots, so gave her a good massage and prescribed rest and light, unridden exercise. Last week was her second appointment, and the physio made a horrifying suggestion.

“Why don’t you pull her mane?”

Once my friend had picked herself up off the floor, the physio explained further. The little mare has a lot of tension in her epaxial muscles (the muscles that stabilise the neck), particularly on the right. The physio thought that whilst the quantity and weight of mane didn’t necessarily cause the hypertonicity, it will hinder her recovery.

If you think about when you have your hair cut significantly, like when I had eight inches off in the summer, you can feel the weight difference. If you also have thick hair and get it layered or thinned, then you feel inches taller without the weight of your hair. Likewise, if you have your long hair tied up in a high ponytail (think Ariana Grande) you invariably get a headache after a period of time.

After some counciling, my friend set to work. She started by thinning it before taking out the length, leaving a huge pile of hair on the ground. The mare looks like a completely different pony! The below photo is after the first session, it will be neatened over this week, but you can see the he difference!

Hopefully the physio finds less hypertonicity in the neck and front of shoulder muscles on her next visit. I found it fascinating, because a long, thick mane causing muscular problems, had never occurred to me. In the wild manes wouldn’t grow as long and thick as you often see because they’d be pulled out on brambles or rubbed off on gravelly ground when they roll.

I’d be really interested to know if anyone else has come across physiological problems associated with voluminous manes, or even with shorter manes that are regularly plaited for competitions. I’m not going to tell all my clients with long manes to chop them off, but I will definitely be more open to reducing it if we find soreness or asymmetry in their neck.

The Big Debate

There was a really energetic debate on the BHS coaches forum a couple of weeks ago about qualified coaches versus unqualified coaches.

There are a lot of BHS qualified coaches in this industry. But there’s also a lot of people teaching without BHS qualifications.

The BHS provides insurance to their coaches, but unqualified coaches can get their own independent insurance based on industry experience. I’m not sure how the two compare in terms of level of cover and cost, but I like the simplicity of having the BHS organise it for me!

So what are the pros and cons of each? Or rather, why is the debate raging hot?

A person who has trained their way up the BHS ladder has invested a lot of time and money into their career. I calculated that in exam fees alone, £2000 has been spent on my getting qualified, either by my college, employer or myself to a level 4 coach or BHS II in old terms. That doesn’t include any resits or training. Or even travel and accommodation in order to take the exam. The letters behind our names is proof of our dedication to our profession.

The BHS exams consist of several modules: ridden, lunging, stable management, coaching principles, theory of riding, and practical assessments. Which means that you know you are getting a well rounded teacher, who can advise on all areas.

Let’s turn our attention to the unqualified coaches. These are often high level professional competition riders, which means their ridden experience and knowledge of training horses far outweighs that of the majority of BHS coaches. However, you can be a good rider but unless you can impart your knowledge in a clear and concise manner you are not a good coach. For these people, the UKCC qualifications is where they can learn how to share their knowledge to students, and this can complement their ridden experience nicely.

There are also non-BHS coaches without the riding CV, which is the concerning area to the majority of the BHS coaches on this forum. A lot of the BHS qualified instructors felt that average horse-people teaching put our industry at risk of a bad reputation. Yes, they can get insurance, but have they been taught how to manage a ride of children, adults or horses so that everyone remains safe? This is an insurance risk which penalises the rest of us as premiums rise due to claims against such dangerous situations.

Another concern was that coaches not on the BHS register do not have the overheads of qualified ones: CPD days, DBS checks, first aid training, APC membership, and child protection training. This means that they can afford to undercut the qualified professionals. Which doesn’t sit well with people who have invested time and money into their training.

The general consensus, after a long debate, was that BHS coaches accept and like the training opportunities offered by the likes of Lucinda Fredericks and William Fox-Pitt, knowing that their riding experience far outweighs that of their own. Some coaches even train with them themselves to help improve their competitive performance. However, these people have a lot of industry experience to support themselves.

What didn’t go down so well was the unqualified coach with decidedly average knowledge and experience. In one of the most dangerous sports, they increase the risk further. They charge less, don’t provide quality knowledge or lesson content, and potentially put riders in dangerous situations.

The general consensus was that the BHS should help us promote the benefits of using qualified coaches, and to encourage riders and parents to do their research and ensure the coaches they use are qualified and insured. Otherwise, what’s the point in training for BHS exams?

Below is a succinct comment from one of the BHS coaches which sums up the debate well, and how we should move forwards with it.

Times are changing – it is a competitive world out there and people will compare costings.
There are some excellent non qualified yet insured coaches out there, but there are also some very poor ones, and some totally uninsured. There are some cracking ‘names’ coaching in our area who do a great job, but also some who, because they find it easy, have absolutely no idea how to coach and which tools to use to draw out the best from those who don’t. Their observations and corrections are distorted by their own ability.
There are Pony Club members who teach, with no training or experience whatsoever, who lobby and coach younger members privately and uninsured.
For me, the safety and welfare element is key. Stakeholders should be using their resources and expertise to lobby INSURANCE companies to tighten up. It would be interesting to know the statistics of claims comparatively, as all insurance is based on risk factor. There should be a minimum safety and risk awareness certification built into existing qualifications (it is) but possibly available as a stand alone in order to gain insurance, alongside safeguarding and first aid qualifications. Mandatory. Period.
I am actively involved in PC, and we circulate to our memberships the dangers of using uninsured, unqualified coaches, but it falls on deaf ears – surprisingly often with intelligent, affluent people, not those who want to save money!
If insurance is cheaper and more easily available elsewhere, as it is and without jumping through the hoops, then why wouldn’t people go down that route? All we can do is promote and practice with excellence, we do not have control of other people’s actions. We must also be open minded in some areas.
BHS are doing a great job, but need to escalate this in conjunction with other bodies…

All in all, my advice is to research your instructor to ensure they are insured, have sufficient industry experience, and the ability to impart their knowledge – proved by either the UKCC or BHS qualifications.

Meanwhile, qualified instructors will continue to pressurise the BHS to do more to protect us and give more young people a reason sit exams and train. It’s a tough situation, but as a dangerous sport we need to tighten up on teaching standards so that we make it as safe as possible for all participants.

Working a Young Horse

I’ve been working with a young horse all summer, who has really tested the patience and determination of his owner and rider, but thankfully she’s starting to reap the benefits.

He came to her as lightly backed, but we soon discovered that he’d been missing a key element in his training: consistency.

So we took him right back to square one, and the first couple of weeks were spent with them building a relationship and him learning the routine in his new home. He’s a tense, nervous little guy, and it comes out in bolshy behaviour, so his owner had to establish ground manners and wait until he started to feel confident before starting to work him.

Now because he had already been introduced to tack, lunging and long reining, not a huge amount of time needed to be spent notching up the girth hole by hole as he got used to the feel of the saddle on his back, but we soon found out that he had some undesirable behaviours when being worked in hand, such as napping, twisting his body, bunny hopping, and charging at you. The same when he was ridden.

When I first met them they’d had some positive in hand sessions, but not so positive ridden sessions and his owner had realised she’d bitten off more than she could chew and needed help.

We decided to step back and focus on their long reining. They’d done some long reining around the farm tracks, which were going well, but weren’t doing any long reining in the arena, only riding, which wasn’t going so well. I completely agree that young horses should be educated outside the arena as much as possible, but this little horse didn’t have good associations with the arena. I believe this was because he was upset and confused about the ridden process and it was in a less familiar environment.

I think it stemmed from the lack of consistency in his backing process, as well as his individual personality, but as soon as the youngster was out of his comfort zone he displayed his “naughty behaviours” of napping and not going forwards. Starting to understand his personality and behaviour, we began to formulate a plan.

The horse wasn’t comfortable or confident in the indoor arena. Neither was he confident about being ridden. So putting the two together was a recipe for disaster. I sent my client home with the homework of long-reining in the indoor arena, doing basic circles, changes of reins and serpentines to build her horse’s confidence of being in that space. By doing some basic ridden movements from the ground they will become familiar, so hopefully when his owner rides him and rides these movements they will be more familiar and hopefully less stressful so he doesn’t exhibit any of his insecurity behaviours.

They continued to long rein out of the arena too, and the next lesson we began in his comfort zone with long-reining. They did ten minutes of this until he settled. Then his rider mounted, and we did exactly the same from the saddle as from the ground. So what he was being asked to do was familiar, but with the ridden part being unfamiliar. He was dipping his toe out of his comfort zone.

You can almost think of the comfort zone as an island, and the aim is for the sea to recede, so the island becomes bigger as the horse grows in confidence and experience.

Anyway, they had a positive ridden session, with him starting to relax. They didn’t need to trot until walking under saddle was within his comfort zone. The next few rides involved less long-reining and more in the saddle time, adding in short trots when the conditions were right.

They got to the point in the next few weeks that his owner could get on at the yard, enjoyed their rides round the farm, and were having positive sessions in the school. I think it was to their benefit not to increase the ridden work until the consistency was established. The horse began to relax into his work: he knew what to expect, was familiar with his surroundings and handlers, so stopped napping and responded correctly to the aids.

Once the consistency was established, we started to develop the ridden work. We introduced trots for longer and longer periods, transitions, circles and changes of rein. I was pleased that he was taking it all in his stride because he was growing in confidence.

Unfortunately, they had a blip and the youngster started napping again. Instead of persevering from the saddle, I suggested they returned to long-reining for a few days. I’m not sure what caused the blip, but the horse strikes me as a worrier, so it’s best to reaffirm his comfort zone and then start to ask the questions again, and be on the lookout for the first signs that he isn’t understanding, before his behaviour escalates.

It didn’t take long to get them back on track, and this will be the first thing we do if he has a sudden lack of confidence again.

Bearing in mind that this horse doesn’t have the best mindset to new experiences, and isn’t overly confident, we need to teach him to open his mind to new experiences. So we need to reduce the stress involved. I suggested that his owner introduced the outdoor arena by long-reining in there first, and then to ride in there after doing most of their work in the indoor until the horse relaxes in that environment. Then she can begin to work him properly in that arena. Hopefully by not throwing him in the deep end and asking him to swim, he will benefit in the long term because the relationship between him and his rider will strengthen as he gets more confident, and then we can ask him to step into deeper water more quickly and he won’t sink.

Next up is to continue establishing the basics, improving his rhythm and suppleness, adding in more school movements and getting the correct response from her aids. Being naturally tense, I want to see him starting to relax his topline and become more free in his body before we move on from each stage as that change in his body language tells us that he is more confident and understands his work.