An Unlucky Pole

I took Phoenix showjumping today. She stormed round the 70cm clear, pushed into third place by some whizzy kids. In her first 80cm class, she had a pole down. But was still the fastest four faulter to be placed seventh.

On a side note, before I return to my main reel of thought, I’d like to well, boast really, about how amazing she is to take out. Loads herself, waits patiently and quietly for her class, warms up calmly, waits quietly, jumps her best, and then stands round while her little fan hugs and kisses her neck. She really makes the day enjoyable from that perspective.

Back to my original topic of conversation. That pole we had down. It reminded me of a conversation recently held between friends. One friend was suggesting that there is no such thing as an unlucky pole, and it is becoming an excuse for sloppy riding and a lack of clear rounds.

After every jumping round I do, I come away planning my improvements. Even the clear rounds. Last time we competed and had the last jump of last round – yes, annoying because we were a good ten seconds faster than our rivals – I knew exactly what had gone wrong. In trying not to upset Phoenix’s fairly fragile canter I hadn’t half halted between the last two fences and she needed it. So she had bounded on in a flat canter and basically went through the jump. I beat myself up then for letting her down more than anything, and went away to strengthen the canter and ride related distances properly. That wasn’t an unlucky pole.

Today; what went wrong? I’m yet to see the video, but it was a related distance on a slight left curve. We had the second element down. Phoenix’s canter felt much stronger throughout the day and she wasn’t towing me onto her forehand. She’d jumped big into the related distance because it was a loud filler and I’d really pressed the go button, and I think that this meant the distance between the fences along with the line I rode, and the stage she’s at in her training meant that she just got too close to the second element and brought down the front rail of the oxer.

Now was that unlucky? I think it could have gone either way today. We could have gotten away with it. Neither of us did anything wrong, she wasn’t tired, her technique was neat, and it’s perfectly within her capabilities, but the sequence of events just didn’t flow on the day. It was unlucky in the sense that she was jumping very well and confidently so didn’t really deserve to knock one with such a slight error.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t anything for me to learn from today. Her canter still needs improvement as if I had more scope to collect her I could have adjusted her enough to correct her bold jump into the related distance. I could’ve ridden a wider line, but it’s hard to change course once you’re on it. I also think I over-rode the first element, but I think the more competitive experience we both get together the better as I’ll know exactly how much leg to use and she’ll be less likely to have a second look at a fence. I also think she’ll benefit from a few jumping exercises I’ve got planned to help teach her not to bowl on quite so much through a related distance, as that is a common theme. But we’ll do our homework for next time.

So is there such a thing as an unlucky pole? I think you can be unlucky as a pair in that you deserved to go clear from the way you rode the rest of the round and the minor error which caused the pole to come down. You’ve tried your best with your ability on that day. But that doesn’t mean it’s an excuse. After all, a clear round is the goal and a pole down is a less than perfect result, so improvements can be made at home.

We riders need to walk away from a knock down and try to work out how we can improve on it. Be it riding better lines, improving the canter, practising on different surfaces and inclines, practising with fillers or water trays, changing tack, boots or studs if they’re becoming a hindrance or any other weakness you feel you and your horse have. Then, we will achieve perfection.

The video from the 80cm class has just come through, so I thought I’d share it so you can see our slight error. It was a straightforward course, but full of related distances, which is the area we have we working on most recently so it was a useful test.

Circles and Jumping

I’ve been focusing recently on jumping dog legs with a client since we discovered how difficult she and her pony found riding left dog legs were. They often drifted from their jumping line and lost the fluidity by chipping in a stride.We’ve worked hard at this and last week the dog legs were far more even between the reins.This week I decided they needed more of a challenge to make sure my rider was riding actively and accurately between jumps, using her lazy right leg (the cause of the left dog leg problems), and to improve their suppleness.

I love this exercise and providing you have enough space it’s so useful for getting riders to link fences together. I placed four cross poles on a 25m circle at 12,3,6 and 9 o’clock. Initially, I asked the pair to canter a circle over the jumps in both directions. They had to ride the circle until it felt consistent and flowing. They were supposed to get five canter strides between each jump. In order to ride this exercise well you have to be continuously riding towards the next jump. The outside aids need to push the horse round so that they stay balanced, and you want to be jumping the centre of each jump – hence why I used cross poles to help guide horse and rider. I was pleased that both reins were fairly consistent from the start, and my rider didn’t feel that one direction was significantly harder than the other. This proves they are becoming straighter and more symmetrical in their work.

The next challenge was to improve the quality of the canter and their suppleness. They had to ride the large circle of jumps and after jumping every second fence they had to ride and 10m circle within the big circle before re-jumping the fence and continuing around the circle. The smaller circle gets the horse’s hocks underneath them and improves their suppleness, as well as making them neater over the next jump. The rider has to turn more, opening the inside rein more and using more outside leg to get the turn, so it will highlight any weakness on the rider’s part. We put two small circles within the big circle, but you could do a small circle at every jump to increase the difficulty. I find it useful to have a jump to aim for, especially a cross, because it’s very easy for riders to accept a wider turn on the flat as there’s no marker to cross, whereas a jump will encourage them to be more active and determined in their riding.

With the smaller circles my rider started to plan ahead more, turning whilst in the air, and her pony started to bring his hocks underneath him more, improving his canter.

Challenge number three was a bit harder. Instead of riding a small circle towards the middle of the big circle, on every other cross pole, my rider had to ride a small circle outwards. This required a change of canter lead over the jump. Something they are perfectly capable of, but sometimes it takes a minute or two for the switch to click. I got my rider to exaggerate her turns, really pushing the weight into her new inside leg and opening the rein so that her pony changed over the jump. We had a few attempts with no change of lead and so am unbalanced small circle, but they started to get it together and when it worked, the sequence flowed seamlessly with no loss of balance or rhythm.

We spent more time on this challenge, bringing the different aspects together, and then finally they progressed to the ultimate challenge!Alternating between internal and external small circles on the big circle. Below is a rough diagram of their route on the left rein. For this, my rider had to be on the ball; riding each stride with purpose and positivity because her pony didn’t know where he was going! It was a good test of how rideable the pony is, his suppleness and their ability to ride rhythmically and fluidly between fences.

I was really pleased that the circles were all fairly even in terms of size, shape and balance. Although they didn’t manage to change canter leads each time, all the elements started to come together and it was only tiredness and minor miscommunication holding them back, which will improve with practice. Hopefully after riding this quick thinking exercise the pair will find it easier to ride flowing courses of jumps.

Improving Symmetry

I hacked a client’s horse earlier this week while she was on holiday. I often lunge her, but never school for a couple of reasons. The mare has several weaknesses – stiff hocks, previous suspensory injuries, and a weak back – so I’d rather train her rider to improve the mare’s strength, muscle tone and way of going from the ground because I’d be worried that I’d ask too much too quickly from her and cause an old injury to flare up. I’m pleased to hear that the physio reports back up my observations in that the mare’s muscle is becoming more even and healthier, which is down to her rider being consistent and improving them both steadily.

Anyway, I hacked the mare out to exercise her this week, and whilst I focused on her working in a long and low frame, pushing with her hindquarters, I knew the lack of circles was a benefit in this situation as I could concentrate on working her topline in one direction so there was less risk of me overworking her.

Once in the woods I had a few short trots, which was very enlightening. The mare threw me up so I was rising when the left fore and right hind stepped forward. I changed my trot diagonal, and it felt completely different; weaker and less coordinated. This isn’t noticeable from the floor, highlighting how useful it is for an instructor to occasionally sit on client’s horses.

We’ve been working on the mare’s straightness, and her default position is taking her hindquarters to the left. Although she doesn’t do it as frequently or to such an extent now, I did wonder if the assymetry in her trot diagonals is related to this crookedness.

The stronger hind leg is the right hind, as that’s the stronger diagonal. If the right hind naturally sits closer to the centre of her body when she’s in her comfort zone of left bend.

I mentioned this to my client when she got home, and she was aware that the two diagonals felt different and regularly swapped between her trot diagonals when hacking to make sure she built both diagonal pairs up evenly. Which I always advocate to prevent asymmetry arising. However, in this case, I wonder if we can improve the mare’s straightness and symmetry by favouring the weaker trot diagonal whilst hacking to build the strength in the left hind and to encourage it to come under the body more to propel her forwards.

My client agreed, and is going to do more rising on the weaker trot diagonal in her next few hacks, and hopefully we’ll start to see the mare getting straighter in her school work, which can only be of benefit to her.

Fitting a Martingale

I’m watching the cross country action from Burghley today. I tried yesterday but our internet kept dropping out, so I’m a bit behind the times.

It’s a tough course though, isn’t it? Don’t worry Phoenix, we won’t be aiming there next year! I’ll be quite happy to have a few positive runs at 80.

I digress. There were some crashing falls at Burghley, but also an unlucky accident. One of the horses picked his feet up very neatly over one of the fences. So neatly that one of his studs got caught in his martingale so he stumbled on landing, being on three legs and the pair fell.

You can rest assured the martingale had been fitted correctly, but it did remind me how frequently I see badly fitting martingales. This pair were really lucky, but if a foot gets stuck in the martingale strap by the girth and the horse can’t wriggle free and the leather doesn’t break then you’re looking at a rotational fall with potentially catastrophic consequences. Scary.

So how should a martingale be fitted? I think confusion arises because there are so many variations of martingales and breastplates. But they all have a central strap between the horse’s front legs so let’s start there.

You should be able to fit a flat hand between the horse’s chest and the strap. I think these are being left looser because we now have girths which have buckles or clips for martingales. Obviously if you buckle the martingale to the girth less leather is used up going around the body of the girth so the strap needs to be shortened. This sometimes means that more holes need to be punched into the leather. I think sometimes people lack the confidence to add extra holes into new tack. Everyone who rides or tacks up the horse needs to know if the martingale attaches to the buckle or the girth goes through it so that it is fitted correctly. Breastplates usually have a fixed joint which sits at the base of the neck, but martingales have a continuous strap from girth to reins or noseband. So when fitting the top half of the martingale you need to be aware of the lower half, and vice versa.

A running and standing martingale have the same neck strap, which is fitted correctly when you can put a hand between the top of the neck and the strap. That’s about four inches.

This is where things get more complicated. The rings of the running martingale straps should reach up the the withers; too short and they’ll apply downward pressure when it’s not needed. A standing martingale is fitted so that when it is lifted to align with the gullet you can still fit a hands width between the strap and the horse’s throatlash.

Onto breastplates. I find breastplates much trickier to fit as they shouldn’t restrict the horse’s shoulder movement, but as they stop the saddle slipping back you don’t want them loosely fitted. The running martingale and central straps should still be fitted with the above measurements in mind.

The hunting breastplate is the simplest of breastplates, and should be fitted so that your fist can be fitted between the strap and horse at the centre of the chest so movement isn’t impeded or too much pressure put on the tree of the saddle. You could also lift the top of the neck strap, which should give four inches clearance from the wither at the correct fitting.

Fitting a five point, V-check breastplate, and all other variations are more complicated, but it’s best to consider that you should be able to fit a fist in at the point of chest, and anything that goes over the withers should have four inches clearance. I would then advise that you are observed and videoed when you first ride in the breastplate so that you can analyse if the breastplate is interfering with your horse’s movement, or is being effective at keeping your saddle in place.

It makes me think that really, because there are so many variations of breastplates and martingales (some have elasticated inserts), and there are always new designs, that companies should provide fitting instructions to help your average horse owner get it right and avoid any accidents, either from the tack being dangerously loose or from it being too tight and inhibiting the horse.

Working a Young Horse

There’s such extreme opinions and attitudes towards working young horses; when they should be backed, first jumped etc. Racehorses are still on the track as two year olds, and some people leave a horse feral until they’re five.

Despite scientific evidence about when a horse’s skeleton is matured, there is still a lot of pressure for talented, well bred sports horses to be produced for four year old classes. Which causes all sorts of problems later in life for them. It’s a society of instantaneous gratification; in which horses who are capable of performing today do, rather than waiting until they are mature enough to in five years time.

In this sense, lesser quality horses – perhaps with less talent or with a less favourable conformation – actually fare better because they are produced at a slower rate and usually later in their lives.

Anyway, I’ve come to my own conclusion about how I feel an intelligent, talented young horse with a trainable temperament and good work ethic should be nurtured. It’s important to introduce brain work early in their lives, without doing too much physical work.

Mental stimulation can involve introducing a young horse to different environments, showing them poles, fillers, tarpaulins etc, in hand work to establish good manners, taking them to in hand shows, leading them out along quiet lanes, and meeting cars and bicycles. This sort of enrichment builds a bond with their handler, which should make the backing process less stressful for the horse, and builds the horse’s confidence when out and about.

I’ve got a new client, with her new four year old. The mare was produced in Ireland before being sold at a sales, and has a very clever mind as well as talent to boot. Whilst she needs to mature and increase condition, she also needs work to keep her busy brain occupied so that she stops jumping out her field or box walking.

They had their first lesson this week. The mare is fussy to mount, quite anxious and tense. This behaviour stems from anxiety so we have formulated a plan to overcome this. As it’s not rudeness, I don’t think the mare will benefit from a confrontational approach, but we do need to encourage her to stand more quietly to mount. It’s a long term approach, of mounting and allowing the horse to walk until she relaxes slightly and then asking her to halt momentarily. Hopefully each time she’s mounted the walk period gets shorter and halt gets longer. Time can also be spent standing by the mounting block with nothing further happening. We don’t want to add to the tension, but we need to introduce the concept of better mounting manners. Hopefully within two months she is less anxious about the mounting procedure and only needs walk a couple of steps before halting for as long as her rider needs her to. Racehorses have a similar problem with mounting because they’re used to being legged up and hurried into work.

The mare, as with all youngsters, walked into the arena and immediately started calling and looking for her friends, drifting back towards the gate. She’d left her brain in the stable. Add this to her tense, quick walk, and there’s nothing to work with. So we began the lesson by my rider just walking around the arena, circling around every jump she passed. I told her not to worry about the quality of the walk, or the bend. We just wanted to use the circles to draw the mare’s focus to her rider, forgetting about her friends in the stable. My rider could start to think about her aids and assess the mare’s understanding and response, but we didn’t want to start changing the mare until her brain was on side and she had begun to relax. It took a good few minutes of walking for the mare to take her mind off the gate and stables, and to relax into a longer striding walk. You could see she was starting to concentrate on what was going on in the arena.

Now that the mare was starting to relax we could introduce halt transitions. Reluctant to stop, she opens her mouth and tries to barge through the hand. She’s in a Micklem bridle, with a Neue schule eggbutt snaffle with bit stabilisers, which means she isn’t fussing as much with her tongue or gaping her mouth as wide as she did when viewed, so I’m hoping this habit reduces more when she settles fully into her new home. Anyway, I asked my rider to vibrate the rein as the mare set against her hand so that we diffused the tug of war situation. After a couple of halts, the vibrations were less because the mare was starting to understand the question and responded to my riders’ initial aids.

With this starting to fall into place, and the mare focused on her work, we could then take a five minute break. They halted and stood still for almost five minutes, taking in the scenery, and most importantly, relaxing. This halt is the type I’d like them to get upon mounting, so it’s good to see the concept is there. We repeated the halt frequently throughout the rest of the lesson to give the mare time to assimilate each exercise.

Staying in walk, as I now wanted to ask the mare a couple of questions to see how trainable she is, we began to introduce the idea of straightness. Now I know it’s halfway up the Scales of Training, but the mare was showing preference for left bend and unless we iron out her banana-ness, we won’t be able to start at the bottom of the Scale.

On the right rein, the one which the mare bent outwards, we started riding a square. Again, we weren’t making a huge change to the mare’s way of going, but rather showing her that there was a different way of moving. Riding straight lines emcourages the mare to straighten out of her left bend, and start to think about bending to the right. Her rider could also check she was sitting straight and giving even aids.

As with all youngsters, the mare wobbled along the sides of our square, so we made sure the reins and hands were channeling the mare straight without being claustrophobic, and the legs hung round her barrel to guide her between the reins. Just with a little more support from her rider and the mare started to move straighter, stride out and relax.

We repeated the square on the left rein to show the mare that she didn’t have to curl up to the left. Then we did some more circles around jumps and my rider felt the mare was better balanced and she had more influence over their direction. I was pleased with the improvement in the mare’s walk. As she relaxed she was exhaling in big snorts, lengthening her stride, lowering her neck and generally looking happier.

We finished by trotting a gentle square on both reins, aiming for a consistent rhythm and the mare relaxing into trot, stretching herself into a longer frame as she and her rider found their balance together.

Despite spending most of the lesson in walk the mare was mentally drained. She stood with her head low, ears floppy. You could see that she was tired. Her working routine will be two schooling sessions a week; one a lesson similar to this one and the other a shorter revision session with her owner. The rest of the week will be spent either in hand walks, some in hand work, such as pole mazes, or short ridden hacks. She’s a very clever horse so we need to keep her brain ticking over in order for her to be more manageable in the field and stable, but we do need to be careful not to stress her body physically, but I think this arrangement should benefit her best.

The Perfect Salute

All dressage tests finish with a salute on the centre line, and from Elementary level and above there’s a salute at the beginning too.

From a judge’s perspective, a nice salute and a smile leaves a positive, lasting impression on them. So if you finish with a smile and a smart salute the judge will appreciate it, and possibly write more positive comments and be more generous with the collective marks. Their final impression of you is a good one.

Someone told me years ago that you should always smile at the end of a dressage test because if it’s gone well you should show that you’re satisfied with your performance, and if it’s gone wrong then you aren’t berating yourself too much – I guess the phrase “smiling ruefully” springs to mind.

I also like to see horses and ponies getting a pat and neck scratch as a competitor leaves the arena on a long rein. Certainly it’s something I do each time I leave.

Anyway, I thought I’d share with you the tried and tested salute that I learnt as a child. It’s not flashy, being a workmanlike movement, but it means it is as at home in the show ring, dressage arena, or jumping ring.

Emphasis was put, when teaching us the salute, on not rushing it. So we had to count each step to slow us down.

Firstly, ride forwards to halt, as square as possible, but ensure you establish the halt before saluting. There’s nothing worse than a rider saluting as their horse stops. It looks impatient, suggesting you are an impatient rider.

On the count of one, place your whip and reins into one hand. In the show ring you salute with the hand nearest the judge, but in dressage most riders use their dominant hand, or the one without the whip in.

On two, drop your saluting hand down so that it is vertical, just behind your knee.

On three, give a clear nod down of the head. On four, raise the head again, smiling to the judge. Dividing the nod into two counts ensures it’s not a quick bob of the head, that could be missed by a judge blinking.

And on five, bring your hand back up and retake the reins. Then proceed in walk (or trot, or canter if your salute is not the final movement).

I’ve seen a lot of emphatic salutes recently, with great flourishes of the hand, or even naval style salutes. Neither of which appeal to me. But then again I’m a person who likes plain browbands, no frills or ruffles.

I would encourage anyone unsure of how to salute correctly to watch Charlotte Dujardin and other famous dressage riders to see the succinct, crisp, clear way that they salute the judge.

Recommendations

In my line of work I’m always being asked for recommendations for equine dentists, farriers, chiropractors, saddlers.

I work on the basis that I can and will recommend those who I use for my horses. But sometimes I know that a client may be out of that professional’s area, so I have to have some alternative names up my sleeve.

I like to know who my clients use, for shoeing or saddle checks or massages. Because over time I can see the effect of their work, and get feedback from my clients if they are happy with the service they’ve had. Which means that when I’m asked for a recommendation I can say, “I have seen and heard good things about so-and-so who covers your area”, or “so-and-so has done a great job with a client’s horse who had a similar issue. Might be worth contacting them?”

Regardless of recommendations clients have though, I always suggest that they do their own research and make sure the name they’ve been given is a member of the society of their profession. For example, qualified saddlers should be members of the Society of Master Saddlers. According to the website, “The Society of Master Saddlers aims to ensure and achieve a high quality of workmanship through setting standards and overseeing the training of the membership’s workforce to give their customers a professional and quantified service. It continues its work to carry these standards through build, repair & fit, and to work towards the complete comfort and safety of horse and rider.In layman’s terms, a master saddler attends regular training days and has certain standards to adhere to, which means you know you are going to get good service.

Equine dentists should be members of the British Association of Equine Dental Technicians; a list of members is found on the website, just as master saddlers are on their website. Again, you know that they are attending training days, have undergone numerous exams, and have a network of support from other professionals. This means that you could ring up one member, and whilst they may be too busy or not come out as far as your yard, they will be able to put you in contact with a qualified dentist who can help you.

Farriers have a more complicated set up as they invite vets to be part of their club too. But the Worshipful Company of Farriers is a good place to start your research, as it lists the various qualifications farriers can achieve, but doesn’t have a concise list of professionals that you can search from. In which case individually research the farrier you’ve been recommended to see that they’ve passed their qualifications and if they’re training towards further exams. A lot of farriers have independent businesses, even when fresh from an apprenticeship, which I see no reason to avoid. Being fresh out of college means that they will have had access to the latest technology and knowledge. However, experience is important and can only be gained with time, so I would want my fresh faced farrier to have a supervisor. Perhaps a more experienced farrier whom they work with once a week/month and who they can ask for advice should they come across a problem they haven’t encountered before. You can only find this out by talking to individual farriers though, and making your own assessment as to whether they are able to shoe your horse well. This is more of a consideration if your horse has special foot care requirements, such as being laminitic or having a conformational defect.

Physiotherapists, chiropractors, and equine masseuses all have their own governing bodies, so it is worth spending some time looking individuals up to see their credentials, be it examinations or experiences.

Of course, instructors have the BHS to govern us; provide training days, insurance, and support the exam system. There are also databases for Pony Club, British Dressage, British Eventing, British Showjumping etc trainers, who are also required to stay up to date with their first aid, child protection, and professional training. Regular training days ensures that we stay abreast of any training developments, new equipment to aid performance, and any rule changes to disciplines. The same goes for saddlers attending seminars where they will see new designs of tack, or witness new materials which are being developed. Dentists or physiotherapists will be introduced to new techniques or tools to help them do their job.

I would also say that it is important to chat to the professional you are considering using and see if you like them; get good vibes and find them personable. Qualifications count for a lot I feel, not only because they have the correct foundations to work from, but because they will have a network of support, both of which will help them get a vast range of experience to enhance their qualifications.

So my advice to anyone looking for a professional for any aspect of your horse’s care, is to ask a couple of friends or mentors, who’s opinion you trust and who knows your horse, and then do your own research to ensure that they are qualified, experienced enough to work with your horse, and part of a society or association which ensures they will continue to provide the best service that they can.

Self Selection

I’ve been home this weekend, for a busman’s holiday, and one of the jobs my Mum gave me was to handgraze her friend’s horse who is recovering from colic surgery. It’s a great arrangement on the yard, as the mare needs holding out four times a day. There’s a timesheet, and whenever anyone has a spare fifteen minutes or so (while their horse is eating their bucket feed or they’re chinwagging over a cup of tea) they will hold her out for grass. Then they pop their name on the timesheet and her owner knows what she’s had each day and by who. It’s such a great example of teamwork and a supportive yard in what would otherwise be a full time job.

Anyway, I digress. Mum’s instructions to me were to walk past the lush green grass on the side of the track, and head for the weedy area as this mare turns her nose up at the grass, preferring to devour the variety of weeds instead.

Mum and I have talked about how horses often opt for the unexpected plants in hedgerows, and how there’s been a lot of research in the properties of different plants. For example, cleavers has a beneficial effect on the skin and lymphatic system. This was Matt’s plant of choice when he was on box rest.

Mum spent a lot of time when he was on box rest cutting down a variety of grass, plants, herbs and hedgerow while Matt was confined to his stable to provide a variety of forage to stimulate him and to enable him to self select what his body needed. What he ate, he was given more of the following day, and when he moved onto a different flavour, his bucket reflected this. Once he could start going for walks she handgrazed him on the verge and hedgerow during his walk outs.

This is why I like it when the fields have a native hedge, and aren’t just seeded grass, as it provides some enrichment for the horses. Recently, once the grass in Phoenix’s summer field had been eaten, she showed more of an interest in grazing the sides of the track as we walked to and from the field. I tend to go with the flow, letting her choose where to stop. It was always interesting that she opted to munch on the tall thistles.

I could remember that milk thistle is good for cleansing the liver, but I didn’t think these were them so I had a look on my plant identification app (this is the ignorant gardening geek inside of me raising its ugly head), and Phoenix was definitely eating plain, bog-standard field thistles. Very carefully I might add, as she cleverly wrapped her tongue around the spikes and devoured it, stem and flower.

For anyone wondering, milk thistles have round, purple flowers with pale green leaves with white veins, giving a mottled effect. This thistles Phoenix was so delighted by have narrower, taller purple flowers, and leaves of a uniform green. I’m going to keep an eye out for any milk thistle and she if she’s as taken by that as the usual subspecies.

Then I began to wonder why the thistles were such an attraction, despite the dangers involved in eating them. Once source I read said that thistles have deeper roots than grass so are more nutritious. This aligns with my observations in the garden, where all the weeds have far deeper and longer roots that the grass, which is why they’re so difficult to eradicate and why my lawn will never resemble a bowling green. It’s a sensible theory. My Dad’s theory is that thistles probably have a higher water content than grass, especially during the hot months we’ve just experienced, so are more attractive to horses.

Dried thistles are very palatable too, and less spiky so even the fussiest horses will eat the leaves and stems. I’m building up the courage, and trying to remember my gardening gloves, to cut down an armful of thistles to put in the field for Phoenix and her friends to pick at if they wanted. In the meantime, I’m sure she gets enough enrichment from the hedge at the back of the field and the variety of grasses and weeds in the paddock.

It’s always interesting watching your horse’s choice in forage whilst grazing, and definitely worth identifying the plant so that you can supplement it if necessary, or take them to areas when it grows in plentiful supply for them to nibble at.

Has anyone’s horse got a favourite non-grass plant which they always search out? And have you looked it up to see the benefits of that plant?

A Group Exercise

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

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

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

This exercise is useful in the following ways:

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

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

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

The High Jump

It seems to be an uphill battle to teach children that they don’t have to jump the highest or the fastest to be the best.

Last week I had to ask my Pony Clubbers how high they usually jump at the beginning of the week to assess them, and inevitably they all wanted to jump their maximum every day.

I like to know the height of the jumps that they have done, but that doesn’t mean we’ll jump that high, as I don’t want the weaker jumpers to feel inferior or worried about the lesson. And there are plenty of things we can work on without jumping big, such as their position, lines to the jump, quality of the canter before and after the jumps.

At the end of camp they have a showjumping competition; the children in each ride compete against each other but they don’t all have to jump the same height. I ended up doing two heights. Doing the smaller height was my nervous rider as I wasn’t sure how her confidence level would be on the final morning and I wanted her to ride the course independently and finish camp on a high. One pony had had a confidence crisis at the beginning of the week so I’d really focused his rider on not restricting his head over jumps, so I had her doing small fences where the pony was less likely to need to “jump” and his rider could concentrate on her position, without risk of being left behind so that again, they finished camp on a positive note. This rider was disappointed with the height of the jumps, but did accept my explanation, and said the jumps felt smoother. The final pair doing the little jumps were capable of jumping bigger but the pony was looking tired, and as they’d had problems with her refusing jumps in the winter, I told my rider that I thought it best they did a smaller course clear, than get into problems due to the tired pony stopping at bigger jumps. She agreed with me, which was great to hear as she was sensitive to her pony’s needs.

The three which jumped the bigger course were all fairly confident; one of them was being pushed towards her limit over the oxers, but actually rode the best lines and approaches to each jump. One of them was capable of jumping bigger, but as she lacked control over the speed, I’d rather the fences weren’t too big so that the pony could get herself out of trouble until her rider had mastered the brakes. The other rider was probably the most competent out of all of my ride, but I actually felt that her pony had worked hard all week so didn’t need to prove herself over a 70cm course as opposed to a 60cm course. Also, I felt the focus needed to move away from the height and towards being able to create a jumping canter and maintain it all the way to a fence, rather than sloppily falling round corners and falling into trot.

My aim was to emphasise style, which they were judged on, with unexpected results I feel.

It’s a difficult concept for your children to grasp; the fact jumping should be stylish, but I think it’s the job of us as instructors and parents to stand firm in our belief that it’s better to jump a smaller course in style and safely, than to get round a bigger course by the skin of their teeth.

It’s not just the kids who want to jump high. At camp the senior kids do a one day event competition, and we set the maximum height at 90cm. Their instructors choose the height which each rider can do, but invariably we get some parents complaining that their children jump much higher at home. But that’s not on grass, which is invariably hard in August, or after five days of being ridden for a couple of hours each day. The aim of Friday’s competition is to round off the week with fun, and not create problems by facing a tired pony at a big jump and wonder why they refuse, or injure themselves from repetitive strain on their legs.

So what can we as teachers do to educate leisure riders that it is not all about jumping fast and high? Firstly, build tricky schooling exercises which takes the rider’s eye off the height and onto other aspects so that they negotiate the exercise successfully. We can talk about the the strains of jumping on a horse’s legs and why jumping bigger or jumping too frequently can be detrimental to them. We can discuss fittening a horse and implementing a work routine correctly so that they are able to jump sufficiently. We can emphasise how improving our flatwork helps improve our jumping. We can teach our riders that horses aren’t machines and can have confidence issues too.

Finally, I think there should be more jumping competitions that are judged on style and performance, rather than speed and height. At bigger competitions you don’t see so much bad riding in an attempt to get a fast clear, but you do at the lower levels. And I’m talking the local, unaffiliated showjumping competitions, not so much the grassroots level. This leads to poor riding, long-suffering horses and ponies, and to be frank, some dangerous situations. We want to make horse riding as safe and fun as can be, yet encourage riders to jump fast and big in order to be successful. Surely it’s a recipe for disaster?