A Sustainable Gait

Once you’ve mastered control of the basic gaits, things get harder and you have to master a range of gears in each gait. Furthermore, your horse has to develop the strength, balance and stamina to work in each gear. This was illustrated perfectly at the Pony Club Conference a couple of weeks ago.

The demo riders were riding a simulated cross country exercise; jumping a triple bar at speed to imitate jumping a simple cross country fence, before making a turn and jumping two bounce fences from a slower canter.

The first rider galloped at the triple bar, popping it easily, and slowed down a bit for the bounce, but jumped it a bit too fast really and it was only her pony’s deftness which got them over the two elements. She rode the exercise again, this time circling between the two questions until she’d collected the canter sufficiently. It took her a few circles but she really collected the canter up. She approached the bounce, but her pony refused.

The reason? Her new collected canter wasn’t sustainable. He could collect that much on the flat, but he didn’t have the impulsion and strength to jump from this canter. She rode the exercise again, and circled until she got the collection. Then she opened up the canter slightly, relaxing so that she moved up half a gear. The pony jumped the bounce beautifully. Because the canter was sustainable and the balance between collection and impulsion was right for jumping.

I thought it was a brilliant example of how the gears to your canter will vary as to whether you’re on the flat or jumping, and in relation to your horse’s level of training. For example, a horse who works at prelim level may be able to collect their canter slightly, but will struggle to have the energy and balance to jump from that slightly collected canter, whereas an elementary level horse will be able to sustain that slightly collected canter for longer and with less effort, so will be able to jump easily out of it.

I’ve already mentioned the word “sustainable” to some clients, but I think it’s a worthwhile term to bring into every day conversation. It can be a measure of development too because a canter gear will feel more sustainable as the horse improves their balance, suppleness and impulsion. We can talk about shortening or lengthening strides; feeling if the horse stays in balance, and also how long they can remain in this balance. A horse learning how to collect may only sustain collection for a couple of strides whereas a more established horse will maintain the collection for a full circuit of the arena. So add “sustainable” to your equine dictionary, and start taking it into consideration when you reflect on your horse’s work.

Everything in Moderation

There’s been a few articles circulating recently about the detrimental effects of lunging. But before we condemn lunging forever more, let’s look at it from both sides.

Lunging is coming under criticism because studies are finding a positive correlation between horses working on circles and joint injuries. So perhaps lunging isn’t the problem here, it’s the number of circles a horse does?

I’m a great believer in doing everything in moderation; the horses I know with the longest active lives and fewest injuries are those who have a varied work load. They lunge, they hack, they do flatwork, they do polework, they jump.

From what I can see, if you do a lot of flatwork and lunge a couple of times a week then this combination puts your horse at risk of joint injuries because of the number of circles the horse does. But if you predominantly hack or jump so ride fewer circles, then lunging a similar amount has less cumulative stress on the joints.

Then of course, there is your lunging technique. There’s the old adage that lunging for twenty minutes is the equivalent of riding for an hour. I think this is an important guideline to bear in mind so your horse isn’t trotting in endless circles for an hour.

Also, do you lunge continuously on the same size circle, or do you vary the size and walk around the school in order to incorporate straight lines? Do you use transitions and variations to the gait, or just keep the horse moving in their comfort zone? Do you divide your lunging session up into periods of walk, in-hand work, such a lateral work or rein back? Trotting for twenty minutes on a fifteen metre circle stresses the joints much more than a varied lunge session.

Think about why you want to lunge? For a tense horse like Phoenix, I find lunging once a week is beneficial as she is more likely to relax and stretch over her back, which is then taken forward to her ridden work. She can do this naked, and not having my weight or the saddle on her back helps her stretch her back muscles. Some people love gadgets, others detest them; I think they are useful in the short term when used correctly to help direct the horse into working in the right frame. This is something an experienced rider may be able to do from the saddle, but a novice rider can’t, and in order to improve their horse’s way of going and increase their working lifespan, they need help to develop the correct musculature.

For some horses lunging can be useful for warming them up before you ride. They may be cold backed, or a bit sharp. But this type of lunge shouldn’t be much more than five minutes. Equally, if you think your horse is feeling fresh one day, it’s safer to lunge and get rid of their excess energy rather than have an accident riding.

Lunging is useful for assessing lameness as it is usually more pronounced on a circle or turn. Also, without the rider you can see more clearly if it is a bridle lameness or not.

So there are valid reasons for lunging, and I think we can reduce the risk of joint injuries by not lunging for too long or too often, and improving our lunge technique.

We’ve already said that it’s the number of circles a horse does which damages their legs, so let’s change our approach to a lunging session to reduce the number of circles.

Start in walk on a large circle, walking yourself so that the circle becomes less round and has a few straight lines on it. Then go into trot and work on the same principle; some circles where you stand still, mixed with some wanderings. Use transitions and spiraling in and out to give variety to the circle. Use poles on a straight line to add to the variety. The only time I don’t do a huge variety in terms of transitions is when a horse is learning to carry himself differently (for example taking his nose down and out) or needs to improve his rhythm. But then I use wanderings to break up the circles. Think of doing short bursts of canter, and focus on improving the quality of the transitions rather than having a stamina workout.

After a few minutes of trot or canter work have a walk break, getting your horse to relax out on a big circle. When you change the rein, take the opportunity to do some in hand work with them. It may be rein back, shoulder in or other lateral work. But equally it could be some general ground manners such as standing still as you move around them.

I think my pet hate, and what I think would be a large contributor to horses having joint issues and a routine of being lunged, is when a horse is literally allowed to gallop round, fly buck, and turn them inside out at the end of the lunge line. These short bursts of acceleration and deceleration on a turn are far more likely to cause injuries than when a calm, well-mannered horse being lunged. Apart from the fact it’s dangerous to the handler, it’s poor manners and in my opinion a recipe for disaster. They aren’t working correctly, and you can’t check for soundness or any other issue, so the lunging is of no benefit to anyone.

I’d be interested to read more about the studies into lunging and lameness to learn more about the quality of the lunging technique, as well as hearing more about the study horses conformation, age, workload and routine, to see what other factors could be contributing to any lameness. Then we know if lunging is as detrimental to our horse’s wellbeing as is being suggested. But otherwise I will continue to believe in everything in moderation, including moderation.

Walking The Course

This has come up a couple of times this season, but unfortunately it keeps going to the bottom of my blog list.

So often when riders walk a course, especially eventing when there’s two courses to remember on top of a dressage test, they focus on remembering the order of the jumps and where they’re going. Sound familiar?

Inexperienced riders rarely pay enough attention to the tactical aspects of riding a course. Yes, they’ll think about which fences their horse may dislike, or the gear that they need to approach a jump in, but what about the factors on course which you can’t influence so easily?

Firstly, the ground and way of going. Yes, you can’t change the fact it’s rained and the ground is soft, almost deep. But when walking the course you want to take the ground conditions into account. It may mean you ride a wider turn so your horse is less likely to slip, or if you know your horse finds one type of going easier than others you adjust your riding to best suit them. For example, accept some time penalties and take a steadier canter to help your horse out. You also want to consider the running order. If you are running towards the end of the day you should be aware that the course could become churned up and deep in places. So adjust your lines to take this into account.

Terrain. Some events have more undulating terrain than others, but as you walk the course you should be looking at all the twists and turns of the ground, and plan your ride so that you take the route which will enable your horse to stay most balanced and rhythmical. For example, a jump may be positioned at the edge of a hollow, so depending on how your horse copes with downhill, you may want to ride a longer line to the jump to give them more time to rebalance the canter after the downhill slope. Whether you are jumping uphill or downhill will also affect how you ride the fence. Going uphill you may need to put your foot on the accelerator a bit more, particularly if it’s towards the end of the course. Going downhill, you’ll need to ride a smaller canter to help keep your horse balanced and off the forehand, which will affect their take off point. Incorporating the terrain into your tactics for riding the course can make all the difference to going clear or picking up penalties as your horse will be better placed to jump confidently and successfully.

The weather conditions. One of my lasting memories of eventing Otis is when we were going cross country at 4.30pm in September. Invariably we’d been delayed, so it was after 5pm, and I was galloping up the hill directly into the evening sun, with a large table at the top. God knows how I managed to get over it as I was very disorientated and nearly steered into the hedge, but Otis got me out of trouble, as always. I hadn’t clocked the impact of the setting sun on my ride, and after that event I was always much more considerate of where the sun would be when I would be jumping, rather than where it was when I walked the course. It’s the same with shadows; if a jump is under some trees, check where the shadows are going to be. It takes horses eyes longer than ours to adjust from light to dark, so again you’ll need to adjust your riding line or gear in order to give your horse the best chance of seeing and judging the question. Equally, if it’s raining or windy, you’ll firstly be questioning your sanity, and secondly, need to adjust your riding whether you’re cantering into the rain or wind, or away from it, as your horse will find it harder when against the weather so will need more positive riding from you.

My challenge to you is the next time you are at a competition, or cross country schooling, to start to take into account the weather conditions, terrain, ground, and shadows, as well as trying to remember the order of the jumps. You should start to feel that although you are making more micro adjustments to your canter, and riding less direct lines, your round will flow more and the jumping efforts seem easier.

Electricity

” I can’t really explain it, I haven’t got the words. It’s a feeling that you can’t control.”

With the soft thud of hooves we reach the edge of the field. A green carpet glistens in the morning spring sunshine in front of us, far more important than any red carpet in the world. I pat my bay companion, who swishes his tail in anticipation. His ears flick forwards and back, waiting for my signal. With a squeeze of my calves, he jumps forwards, long neck stretching out. I stand up in my stirrups and crouch forward, feeling his body bunch and stretch as he gallops powerfully out of the shadows.

“I suppose it’s like forgetting, losing who you are. And at the same time, something makes you whole.”

Wind whistles around my ears, whispering promises of summer. I blink back tears as the cool air buffets my face. With a whoop of glee, I crouch lower, urging him to go faster; scrubbing my hands up and down as the long black mane whips up to greet me. A spurt of speed and we start our ascent, the field rolling away neither side. The spring sun warms my back. A grin breaks over my face as my worries leave me, soaring high above me amongst the singing skylarks. I forget about yesterday. About today. Nothing seems to matter now.

“And then I feel a change, like a fire deep inside. Something bursting me wide open, impossible to hide.”

I blink. In front of me are a pair of white delicately fluted ears, curving inwards. The short strong neck of my first pony supports my upper body as I lean forwards. Out of the corner of my eye I see my friend, balanced expertly over her shining, mahogany gelding, opening . Suddenly my snowy white pony gathers himself and I feel the power of my first galloping strides. His neck stretches forwards, I thread my fingers around his long mane, as the ancient, impressive oak looms. I guide my plucky pony around the dust bowl below the heavy branches, neck and neck with our opponents, and look towards the finish line – the top corner of the field, shrouded by high, wild hedges.

“And suddenly I’m flying, flying like a bird. Like electricity, electricity. Sparks inside of me and I’m free. I am free!”

Back in the moment. Two fluffy bay ears, tipped in black, nod in front of me as my best friend gallops on. He snorts loudly, his breathing louder than before. I raise my upper body, steadying him. We’re nearing the end. The woods are in sight. The gallop turns to a canter, I sit back into the comfort of my leather saddle, sitting tall. Like a child flying a kite, I try to bring my spirits back down to the solid green earth. With a shake of his head, we trot. I exhale, trying to keep hold of that elation within me. A squeeze on the reins and we walk, his flanks heaving rapidly. He licks his lips, flicking saliva in the air; he wants to go again. So do I! With a laugh, I pat his shoulder and look over my shoulder. No one’s around. With a swing of his haunches, we set off again into the sun.

“Electricity sparks inside of me and I’m free! I’m free!”

“Oh, I’m  free!”


Merry Christmas!

A belated Merry Christmas to all my readers!

Hopefully you are enjoying a bit of extra daylight time with the horses during this weird week between Christmas and New Year, when no one really knows what`s going on and when, and The Sound of Music is on normal TV multiple times. Which reminds me to find out when and which colour bin will be collected …

This time of year is always a bit of a limbo for me; I like having time off and seeing family but I rapidly get bored of being inside! You may remember a month or so ago I said I would be giving Otis a fortnight off over Christmas. Well due to his excitable behaviour and exuberance the last couple of weeks I changed my mind! A couple of rides at the beginning of last week and a reduction in hard feed has kept the edge off him, but I thought I`d better ride him Boxing Day and today. Well, let`s face it, I needed an excuse to get out the house!

GOPR0010.jpg

Yesterday was a steady hack around the roads to allow his washed and scrubbed legs to dry thoroughly. I usually brush dried mud off, but every so often I like to get them nice and clean and inspected. So today he needed a bit more of a workout as we`re visiting family until next weekend. Which gave me the perfect excuse to try out my Christmas present – a GoPro.

Has anyone got one?

Have you worked out how to tell if you`ve got it switched on and recording when it`s on your head?

I didn`t want a really long video of my ride, as most of it would be pretty mind-numbing unless I spoke my thoughts allowed. But by the time I`d go to the bridlepath I couldn`t work out if the camera was on or off, recording or not, or on video or photo mode …

Then I had a stroke of genius. I didn`t need to take off my hat to look at the little screen. I took my phone out of my pocket, turned on the camera into selfie mode, and held it up to my face. Now I don`t do selfies, so it took me a while to find the right angle, but then I could see the screen of the camera on the screen of my phone. After a few presses of buttons I was ready!

And here is the footage of our gallop – Otis going for a gallop!

I know many clients and friends will be excited to see what videos emerge over the next couple of months, and I think it will be really useful to record whilst I`m schooling, jumping or hacking.

 

It`s the grey bin on Monday, for anyone who`s interested.