Getting Ready For Camp

I’ve spent the last week prepping for Pony Club camp: organising childcare, informing all clients and making sure their next lesson is booked in (it’s the one time of the year that my diary is organised for a whole fortnight!), choosing my musical ride music, and planning my lessons. But I’ve also been helping some clients prepare for their own Pony Club camp.

A kid’s first camp can be a nerve wracking experience, so I use the few weeks leading up to camp to prepare them as much as possible so that they don’t feel out of their depth and can enjoy camp to the maximum.

Firstly, they will be riding in a group, which some children with their own ponies aren’t used to, so I work with my little riders to make sure they know to keep a ponies distance away from the one in front, and that they know the basic etiquette of riding in a group. Last year I had a lovely little rider who I suspected would be used as lead file, so I taught her about checking that she was going the correct speed for everyone to keep up, and how to adjust her pony’s trot to accommodate everyone else.

I try to make sure my riders understand instructions that an unfamiliar instructor may use, and are familiar with the letters of the school and changes of rein or school movements. This is particularly important for my riders who only have fields to ride in. I want my riders to understand the basic commands and movements so that they don’t panic about riding it in a different environment.

I then run through exercises which I think the instructors may use to assess the children and ponies, such as sitting trot, taking away their stirrups, replacing their feet in their stirrups. Again, so that first day nerves don’t kick in too much. We do canter work, trot poles, and some jumps. With a young rider this week I’ve had her jumping over a small double as previously she’s lacked confidence over fences. I’ve lead her over some slightly bigger jumps, and then had her jumping smaller cross poles and uprights on her own. I don’t want her to have grandiose ideas about her ability, but I want her to be able to demonstrate a good approach and balanced jump position and not feel overwhelmed by any jumping exercises at camp. The pre-camp lesson needs to be a confidence building session so that they arrive feeling confident about their riding and can them cope better with the qualms which come with riding in company and in a new environment.

I also check that their tack is Pony Club legal; safety stirrups, grass reins etc. And that tack is in good condition for camp. A lot of parents use camp as a good opportunity to replace worn tack, but you want to have a test run before camp to make sure it all fits correctly and you don’t need extra holes punched in stirrup leathers! Sometimes I suggest changes to tack which may help my rider in a different environment. For example, one girl I teach holds her reins at different lengths, so her left hand sits further back than her right. In a one-to-one lesson I can monitor and correct this habit, but for camp I suggested using tape to show her where to hold her reins so that it doesn’t get overlooked and develop into a real problem.

While some of my clients don’t carry whips because it’s just one more thing for their little hands to carry, I do sometimes introduce them to one ready for camp. I explain how to use it correctly, how to hold it and how to change it from hand to hand. This is because their pony may be less forwards in a different setting, or when they’re tired towards the end of camp, and I would rather my little riders were told how to carry a whip with consideration to their pony than just given one in a hurry at camp. Plus, one of the ponies I teach has a phobia of lunge whips so I don’t want the unknown instructor to feel that they need to chivvy or chase the pony along with one as that will shatter my rider’s confidence.

I also try to make sure my rider knows what is expected of them at camp in terms of behaviour, and how they should ask for help if they need it. Sometimes children can be very shy about asking for assistance. Then finally, I try to make sure my riders are confident around their ponies. They will all have help, but by the very nature of the camp environment they will have less support than at home with either their parents or me supervising. It’s only little things such as knowing their girth needs to be checked before they mount, knowing how to dismount whilst holding onto their reins, and to run up their stirrups. Having children who are able to do this makes an instructor’s life much easier whilst keeping them all a little safer.

Of course, camp is all about learning and I look forward to getting my kids back with new found confidence and competence, but I find that the right preparation really helps them get the most out of their camping experience.

Working on an Empty Stomach 

As I write this, in the car, between two jobs eating my peanut butter sandwich, this subject seems very relevant.

In the rules of feeding, which we all learn diligently and follow religiously, it says that horses should never be worked for an hour after being fed.

This seems a simple rule, but as I’m sure many of you have discovered when you went into the big wide world, there are lots of grey areas and blurred lines.

For example, horses shouldn’t be starved because it’s bad for their digestive tract, yet this is what the rule suggests. So it’s finding the right balance.

If the horse is going around a cross country course then a full stomach of hay will not be comfortable, neither will half most probably. However, if they’re going on a slow and steady hack then a tummy full of hay is quite comfortable. 

The same goes for bucket feeds. Most people feed a predominantly fibre based bucket feed nowadays, and if you’re horse only has half a scoop of dampened chaff then it’s similar to having access to a haynet, and the horse would most likely be fine for a steady ride out.

That’s not to say you should feed breakfast as the saddle is going on, but the hour wait can be relaxed a bit. However at the other end of the scale, a horse with a predominantly carbohydrate bucket feed (that is, oats or barley for example) should be allowed an hour to digest their feed regardless of the size of the feed or the workload as there is a higher risk of colic because carbohydrates are all digested in the stomach which has a reduced working capacity when a horse is exercising, so undigested food matter is likely to be passed into the intestines, where it cannot be made smaller so is more likely to get stuck and cause colic. Fibre is broken down in the hind gut so it is not as important if it passes quickly through the stomach as it will be broken down later on in the digestive tract.

Recently there has been a study into the problems caused by riding a horse on an empty stomach; most noticeably gastric ulcers, under performance, and poor behaviour resulting from abdominal pain – I know I don’t ride or teach at my best when the hunger pangs kick in!

So owners with horses on restricted diets are now being told to give a small haynet or a scoop of chaff half an hour before exercising their horse to ensure stomach acid is not sloshing around and causing all sorts of problems.

But can it work the other way? So if you have a horse who needs ad lib forage and tends to scoff it, should you be removing the source of food half an hour before you ride so that they aren’t bloated or over full and uncomfortable when working? Because surely, in a similar way that we lack lustre when replete, a horse’s performance or work ethic can be affected?

There’s some food for thought for a Friday. Perhaps feeding in relation to work is more complicated that we think! 

Exercising Ponies

I’ve recently had a fun job of exercising a little pony for her owner. She’s ridden by the owner’s young son and had a share rider over the summer, where she unfortunately learnt a few bad habits.

It’s inevitable unfortunately. Ponies are highly intelligent and rapidly learn how to take advantage of small jockeys and their lack of strength.

One of my favourite things when I was growing up was getting to ride the naughty ponies. They weren’t necessarily that naughty, but as soon as they started pushing the boundaries, cutting corners, stopping at jumps, one of us teenagers got to ride them in a lesson. 

Our job was to push the pony back into their box; stay around the outside, canter when asked, jump the jump correctly. Not only did it remind the pony of the correct expected behaviour but it also gave them a good experience as they had a balanced rider on for a while, and often got to do a few more jumps, possibly bigger than with the little jockeys, and other exciting things.

When the young kids at the yard got their ponies us older helpers rode them a couple of times a week for the first month or so to establish and improve their level of schooling so that their little rider could manage them. Then we were weaned off them, and only remounted when the ponies got above their station and started being cheeky.

If anyone I knew was looking to buy a pony for their child I would always recommend enlisting the help of a small teenager or adult to school the pony regularly. This doesn’t mean having a canter around the school or a blast on a hack, as you always need to bear in mind that the pony is to be ridden by a smaller person. Schooling should correct bad habits and any hacks should have controlled “blasts” to carefully let off steam and not let the pony anticipate the canter. Even if there’s no one to ride the pony weekly it’s worth lunging them a couple of times a week, or leading them out when you hack your horse, to give the pony a break from trudging around the school or to take the edge off them if they not been ridden for a couple of days.

One lady I know used to lead her son’s 11hh pony down to the gallops  from her 16hh mare and have a good canter on the mare with the pony galloping beside – an excellent way of wearing out a stable kept pony!

Exercising ponies is fun for kids, and me too – you have to think on your feet and be quick to correct any wavering from the straight and narrow. It also, in a weird way, lets you revert to childhood cowboy riding. For kids leg means go, they often don’t even comprehend that lateral work exist, and hand means stop. Obviously instructors want to make sure there’s no yanking of the mouth, but when you ride a kid’s pony  you have to switch back on to the pull-kick method otherwise the pony gets confused and won’t behave any better for the child as they aren’t understanding the child’s aids. You have to improve the discretion of the child’s aids, but then use slightly cruder aids as an adult in order to keep the riding consistent for the pony.