Feeling Trot Diagonals and Canter Leads

Now, be honest, who can feel their trot diagonal?

Did you even know it was possible to know without looking down at your horse’s shoulder?

This last couple of weeks I’ve been focusing on feeling the trot diagonals with several clients. What are the benefits? Well, firstly, you don’t waste time and accuracy in your changes of rein looking down; secondly, it improves your feel and awareness of your horse’s strides, keeping your head up doesn’t unbalance your horse, and finally, it becomes autonomic. You check your diagonal as you go into trot without thinking, so leaving more brain space to prepare and ride your next movement, or to correct your horse’s way of going.

When I ask riders if they can feel their trot diagonal I often get a surprised and confused look. Almost as if I’d asked them if they could hear the smell of bacon. But when we get down to it, it doesn’t take them long to pick it up.

When I learnt to ride, in our group lessons on the lead rein, we had to go into trot, counting “one elephant, two elephant, three elephant, rise”. We had to do sitting trot until the word “rise”, when we commenced rising trot. No one ever explained the reasons behind this, so as a shy child I hated having to shout about elephants. But the reason behind it is that nine times out of ten, you end up on the correct diagonal. Don’t ask me how!

It also taught us our sitting trot early in our ridden education, and by remaining sitting for a few strides after the transition you can adjust and establish the trot. How often does a horse become unbalanced by their rider standing up on the first trot stride?

Anyway, this is an aside and certainly something I try to teach beginner riders to do. And when I’m nit-picking more established rider’s transitions it invariably comes up.

To teach a rider to feel their trot diagonal I get them to stay on a 20m circle. They go sitting and I ask them to think about how it feels, and see if they can identify different legs moving forwards. Then I get them to go into rising trot, and without looking, tell me if they are on the correct (this is where left and right, and right or wrong get confusing) diagonal or not. A circle or turn is easier to feel the diagonal on because the outside limbs move further forward so there is a difference between sides. sometimes they get it, sometimes they don’t. But it is a 50:50 question, so we repeat it a few times so that I know it’s not a fluke and they start to feel more confident in what they’re feeling.

I find that different riders find it easier to feel different limbs, and different horses make it easier or harder to feel a hindlimb stepping under. Instead of telling them which limb they should be feeling for, I ask if they can feel the outside shoulder moving forwards, or the inside hind coming under, giving the options to focus on. I used to feel my diagonal from the outside shoulder, but then that was on high stepping Welsh ponies! Nowadays I feel the diagonal pair working together, but my awareness and feel for the hindquarters has grown exponentially since I was eleven. I don’t really mind how my rider’s identify their trot diagonal, as long as they can tell me what they’re feeling and how that tells them which diagonal they are on.

If a rider cannot identify their trot diagonal on a circle I often ask them to change their diagonal and compare the two. Riding a turn on the wrong diagonal feels, well, wrong! Usually this helps them identify the correct diagonal, and is a useful step to take so that they don’t resort to looking down and checking immediately.

Often I find that just by identifying the fact that it is possible to feel trot diagonals, a rider becomes more aware of their subconscious feel for the trot. Once they can identify the correct diagonal the majority of the time on the circle, we try it on straight lines. Sitting trot for a minute or two and then rising and checking their diagonal by feel in straight lines.

Finally, I move on to transitions, asking my riders to ride up into trot from walk, sit for a few strides and start rising on the correct diagonal. This is more efficient than blindly going rising, checking and changing, and causes less unbalance to the horse. All that’s left then is for them to practice and for me to do spot checks to reinforce the lesson.

Closely linked to this subject, is feeling the canter leads. I think most people find it easier to feel than trot diagonals, but it’s easy to fall into the trap of the instructor informing the rider of a wrong lead before they’ve had a chance to figure it out for themselves. I know this because I see the incorrect strike off before the first canter stride is done and am always biting my tongue to give my riders chance to work it out.

I start by establishing what my riders know already of the canter gait; sequence of footfalls and if they are aware of the inside shoulder seemingly moving further forwards. That was where we were always taught to look as kids. I send them off into canter on a circle, getting them to feel and think about their horse underneath them. Then we work large, picking up the canter in the corner before the long side, and identifying as quickly as possible if they’re on the correct lead. Most of the time they will be, so I move the transition to E or B. The rider still has their influence of asking for the correct lead in the transition, but the horse is more likely to throw in an incorrect canter lead. We ride these exercises on both reins, so that my rider starts to build up an understanding for their horse’s preferential leading leg, and any asymmetries to the two canter leads.

I like to get my riders thinking more about the hindquarters in the canter as eventually I’d like them to feel the outside hindleg propelling the horse into the first canter stride and so correct their horse during a transition, which helps a horse keep their balance and means you can prevent a wrong leg catastrophe in a dressage test!

Improving a rider’s awareness during and immediately after a canter transition means that they can correct the lead nice and early – think about the benefit of correcting a canter lead before a turn on a showjumping round rather than losing balance round the turn, scrabbling back into canter and a couple of strides later jumping a fence. Eventually, they’ll correct a canter lead before the transition is finished.

The big test now for my riders, is to ride the centre line, asking for alternate canter leads and identifying which lead they are on. Putting in multiple transitions within a fixed distance encourages the rider to think and assess their canter leads quicker, and react faster to correct themselves.

It’s a useful tool to have; to automatically and subconsciously feel for your trot diagonal or canter lead; you can get away with visual checking at the lower levels, but it makes it much easier to ride a higher level dressage test or unrelenting jumping course successfully.

The Island of Comfort

I have this theory, or metaphor, about comfort zones which I use a lot when working with riders and horses who are not the most confident.

I tend to think of someone’s comfort zone as an island. It may be round, elongated, any shape really, because we know our confidences are not always logical or predictable. At the beginning of a lesson or relationship with a rider or horse of low esteem I aim to get them confident and happy on their island. I explore the perimeter of their island, by chatting about goals, previous experiences, and using exercises to gauge their attitude, actual ability and perceived ability.

Once I begin to get a grasp on what makes them tick, I start to expand this island. Depending on the rider’s personality, learning style, level of nerves or confidence, I lead them to the perimeter, or shore line on the island, and get them to dip their toes in. I aim for them to get their feet wet and slowly the tide goes out, so the island gets bigger as their comfort zone increases.

Often, I set up an exercise which is fairly straightforward initially, and well within their comfort zone. Once horse and rider know where they are going and are riding it well, I start to layer the exercise. Depending on the difference between their perceived ability and actual ability, I will make the exercise appropriately harder. That may be introducing a transition, adding in lateral movements, increasing the gait, increasing the frequency of movements. Because we develop the exercise slowly and steadily, I usually find that my rider achieves much more than they expect they will and finishes their session on a confidence high.

Whilst my aim when working with nervous riders is to push them outside their comfort zones and to improve their confidence levels; I think it’s so important to respect when the rider says “no” or “that’s enough for today”. After all, everyone is different and if they feel they have achieved sufficient for that session, or want to go away, bottling their current feeling of elation and reflect on what they’ve achieved then so be it. After all, often it is better to take two small steps into the shallows and stand there enjoying the view, then take a further step and hit sinking sand.

Besides, I’m nudging my riders out of their comfort zones with my support, not throwing them in the deep end and hoping that they will swim and not sink. Half of the secret in developing someone’s confidence and increasing their island is giving them respect and increasing their self-esteem.

A Change of Lifestyle

One of my client’s ponies has always struggled with her weight. She has too much of it!

They were doing everything right; soaking her hay, minimal hard feed, exercise, restricted grazing, but after an injury and enforced rest over the summer this plump pony was even plumper!

We started her rehab, and although she started to lose a bit of weight but then she plateaued and as winter approached it was a stalemate. Something had to change before spring, when she might actually explode on the sugary grass!

The mare needed more exercise; canter work specifically but in order to do that post injury she needed a different arena surface to work on, and it being winter they needed more dark evening friendly facilities. So they found another yard, with an arena that wasn’t as deep as her current one, and with very good floodlighting, which meant she could be ridden every evening, and the work could be faster and more intensive. More polework and jumping could then be reintroduced. With faster workouts, and more frequent ones, she will increase in muscle tone, posture, and burn off fat.

Her routine was also changed as they went onto a DIY yard, so she was turned out earlier in the morning and caught in later. This totals an extra three hours out in the field. This might not be so great in spring or summer, but on a winter paddock it’s three hours more of wandering around, nibbling at grass, rather than those three hours spent stationary, demolishing a haynet. This means she requires less soaked hay as her nights are shorter, and I think it’s had a surprisingly strong effect on her losing weight.

With the change of yard there is of course a change in the hay and type of grass in the paddocks. The grazing is slightly poorer, but this suits a good doer, and has a higher percentage of grass in it rather than her previous field, which had a lot of clover in. Clover is rich in nitrogen and very fattening. I think this will have more of an impact in the spring and summer. I think the hay the little mare is now fed is of a similar nutritional value to before, and it is still soaked overnight so I don’t think the forage has affected her weight.

In the two months since moving to their new yard, the pony has become much fitter, improved muscle tone, and has improved in posture, which will hopefully mean that she is less likely to injure herself. Her good muscles have improved, so she has a topline. The weight has literally dropped off her; she’s gone from the bottom hole on each side of the girth to top hole and it still being loose!

Before Christmas…
… today.

I find it amazing the way a couple of changes – increased workload and reduced time chomping in the stable – have had such a huge impact on this mare’s weight. I feel much happier heading into spring with her and less concerned about laminitis, as I feel we will be able to control her weight more easily. I also think that she will be finding the ridden work far easier carrying less weight,which will only improve her performance.

It does make you realise that if you struggle to get the weight off your horse then increasing workload and increasing turnout on minimal grazing but plenty of space, is paramount to the weight loss journey.

The Wise Man

The Wise Man Built His House Upon The Rock was playing in the car last week. Although this time at least I had the toddler with me! There’s nothing worse than realising you’re listening to nursery rhymes when alone in the car …

I digress. It struck me that the Wise Man is very relevant to the approach to training a horse and rider. The rocks are the foundations of the house, and in the same way that you choose to build a house on firm standing, it’s important to build your ridden skills on firm foundations. Establish the basics, reinforce them as necessary, and don’t try to run before you can walk.

If you have a firm foundation when you encounter a problem – a fall whilst jumping for example – then it is easier to pick yourself up and there is less long term or catastrophic damage and the recovery period is quicker. It’s a bit of damage limitation; in the sense that when you have solid foundations beneath you, you will only wobble and fall a couple of rungs down the ladder, rather than if you were standing atop a sand dune when you will fall down many rungs.

My friend is looking to buy a new horse, and we’ve been discussing the merits of getting a schoolmaster versus a green horse. One she viewed last week has talent, can jump, but is obviously lacking the basics. Which isn’t a problem if you approach the horse with the knowledge that the first six months need to be spent establishing the jumping basics; improving the jumping canter, using canter poles and grids to improve her technique before progressing up the levels. To some, this can be frustrating, but in the long run, the horse is less likely to injure themselves because they are using their body more correctly and are physically stronger; they are more confident so are more likely to encounter little wobbles along their jumping journey rather than major blips which ultimately makes a smoother road to travel.

For this reason, every so often my clients revisit one of the more straightforward subjects of their riding, which once practiced usually vastly improves their performance in a trickier exercise.

It’s also a reason that I feel it’s so important for riders to have regular lessons and instructors. If an instructor regularly sees a pair then they can pick up on problems before they develop, nipping them in the bud, and can ensure that the foundations are firmly established. That’s always my worry with clinics and Pony Club rallies. If a rider goes to various clinics with different instructors they can end up with a bitty education and holes in their foundations. That’s not to say that clinics aren’t a positive thing, as they have their place in terms of a social environment, getting a horse and rider confident riding away from home, but they are best used to complement regular lessons.

Do you think your riding is built upon firm foundations? Or are they a little bit fragile?

I Blame the Mud

Personally, I lay all blame squarely on the mud for this subject, but I have to say that I’m so proud of my clients, and pleased to have such a good bunch who listen closely to what their horse is saying and so averts a potentially expensive and time consuming treatment and rehabilitation programme.

On an aside, I’ve have several clients who have been on long term rehabilitation programmes for their horse’s injury, which in some cases their horse came to them with, and they are coming through the other side. One lady proudly told me that the physio feels that her horse no longer needs treatment to mend her long term problems, but now needs treatment to maintain her excellent muscle tone. Just like a normal horse! Another lady was told that her horse is moving well, and has better muscle tone than previously so it’s time to crack on and work him that little bit harder so that he starts to develop this muscle. I’m so pleased when I hear this positive feedback from physios. My riders are doing the right thing!

Back to my initial subject of listening to your horse. In their first lesson back after Christmas, one of my riders had a problem jumping. Her pony jumped beautifully over some smaller jumps, especially as we were working on jumping a tarpaulin. He did give a couple of bucks on landing when he basculed particularly nicely, but this isn’t uncommon for him. However, he jumped very erratically over some 90cm fences, even stopping. This is well within his comfort zone so I felt it was odd. We discussed the oddness, but he felt fine to his rider so we decided to monitor it.

The following week, I built a simple grid. If he’d lost his confidence, although I couldn’t work out why, this would help. They flew the grid at 80cm, although he wasn’t happy turning left after the grid and was marginally better with a right canter lead approach. Again, this isn’t unusual with his way of going. But as soon as I put the jump up a notch he threw in the towel. We reverted to the lower grid and just popped him through to finish on a positive note. As I couldn’t see any lameness or sign of soreness, my only suggestion was that he saw a physio or chiropractor in case he’d tweaked something and flatwork and low jumping didn’t affect it, but the extra effort of a bigger jump caused a twinge.

Anyway, she booked the Mctimoney chiropractor and just lightly rode him in the interim. I had feedback from the treatment yesterday – a slightly tilted pelvis, but more interestingly, a pulled muscle between his ribs and pelvis. Possibly due to careering around a slippery field. Which would explain everything. Thankfully, this pony doesn’t need any more treatment, just an easy week building him back up. But his refusing and erratic jumps could so easily be misinterpreted as naughty behaviour and disciplined, or ignored for a few weeks. Whereas by paying close attention to what he was telling her, my rider averted any major incident, either by his behaviour escalating so that it was dangerous, or by his injury worsening or a subsequent injury occuring from him trying to protect the pulled muscle.

Another rider had something similar just after Christmas when I noticed her horse’s right hind being slightly short in stride length, and not picking it up as much as usual. I was riding him and wasn’t happy with the trot, although I hadn’t noticed it in his walk around the tracks to warm up. He wasn’t lame to the bystander, but it wasn’t normal for this horse. I text my client to tell her and she immediately contacted her chiropractor, who came out a couple of days later and found a very sore fetlock and tight muscles all over – again, she put it down to field antics, but this time suggested that it happened because the mud is so claggy, he literally left a leg behind whilst showing off and wrenched it. But because his owner acted swiftly he only needed one treatment, and was completely recovered within a week.

So you can see why I’m blaming the mud! My final casualty to it felt off in walk when I hacked him. Not lame, although he definitely wasn’t comfortable in trot, but wobbly and uncoordinated. I reduced his work to walk only on as flat a ground as I could provide until we waited for his chiropractic appointment. By walking him out in a long and low frame he started to feel much better, more together and stronger. I did find that he was leaning on the right leg though, so much so that his winter coat was rubbing off with friction. Initially I thought it was something I was doing (moving my leg excessively etc) but after paying close attention to the matter, I felt that he was pushing right as he walked, so pushing into my right leg. His treatment showed very tight, sore muscles over his hindquarters and lumbar area, which ties in with slipping in the field. Hopefully he won’t do anymore field acrobatics, and I can start to build him up again, although I’ll be limited with the lack of dry bridleways!

I actually feel very grateful to have clients who pay so much attention to changes in their horse’s behaviour and try to find out why before labelling the behaviour as naughty. I’m equally grateful that they respect my opinion, based on observations and feelings from the saddle. Of course, I’m not an expert in this area but I like to think that I know these horses well enough, and have a good relationship with their owners, that when they aren’t themselves yet look normal from a distance, we can have a conversation about the different possible causes (be it back, saddle, bridle, teeth, feet) and can investigate them. Then between us we can nip any issues in the bud, get them treated before secondary problems develop, and with the minimal disruption to their activity plan.

Pole Star

I did a fun polework lesson over the weekend, in the shape of a five pointed star.

It was harder than I anticipated to make star-shaped – I could’ve done with a drone to help me get it perfectly aligned! But once it was set up I could see the multitude of uses for it!

Once my two riders had warned up in trot and canter I had them working on opposite points of the star. They had to ride a 10-15m circle on the outside of the star, trotting over the two poles which formed the point of the star. I had my riders adjust their circle so that they found the perfect striding between the poles for their horse. The horse shouldn’t be skipping or stretching for the second pole, neither should they be chipping in and tripping over it. Riding the poles on a curve increases the step of the inside hind, so activating it so that it works harder on a normal circle. When the inside hind comes further under the body the abdominals work harder and thus the horse lifts their back.

My riders rode these circles on both reins, feeling the improvement, and also the difference between reins as by asking the horse to work harder it highlights any weakness or evasion tactic. They both felt that the trot was more co-ordinated and together after this exercise.

Examples of the circle exercise and straightness exercise lines ridden by my riders.

Next, we turned our attention to their accuracy and straightness by riding across the star, over the points. I had my riders find their line, focus on a point, channel the horse between the reins using the legs and seat. The aim is that the horse trots over the point of the poles. This tests their balance and straightness, as well as improving their cadence and suppleness.

These two exercises kept us busy for the level of horse that I had in this lesson, as we combined them into a little course at the end, but they could also be done in canter. Both horses improved dramatically in their way of going, looking much more balanced and active in their trot work.

Next time I do this exercise, I want to add in some trot and canter poles on a curve across the arena, so the star becomes a shooting star.

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.