A Moment on the Lips, A Lifetime on the Hips

Grass growth in the UK has gone insane in the last month and there seems to be an unprecedented number of horses coming down with laminitis or being very much at risk of it.

The best tactic for weight management is to start early. But that’s easier said than done! Unfortunately I think until an owner has experienced Code Red; drastic weight loss or the dreaded laminitis itself, it’s all too easy to be complacent. Especially with our tendency to anthropomorphasise our horses. Plus, it only takes an unfortunate coincidence of a couple of equine rest days and warm, wet weather for grass to grow rapidly and obesity to occur.

About two months ago, a companion pony of one of my clients had his annual check up by the Blue Cross. They declared him to be obese and advised that he lost a significant amount of weight very quickly.

It was a case of being cruel to be kind. The Blue Cross representative recommended shutting the pony in the corral for half the day and using a track system. Initially, my clients were told to shut him in during the day, and out overnight, but after considering their current routine it was decided that it was easiest to have the pony in the corral overnight. Especially as their evening bucket feed could be used to tempt him into his prison.

It goes against what we all know about feeding horses little and often, but drastic steps were needed. Besides, there are a few tufts of grass or weeds for him to pick at overnight. I set up the track system, and I’m pleased with the routine that’s now in place.

Every couple of days, once fat pony is safely locked away in the evening, the Shire cross who, by no means thin, but happy to eat the new grass, gets given a foot or two more of long grass on the track. He eats that overnight and in the morning, fat pony is let out of the corral and he gallops around the track, throwing in some bucks for good measure, to inspect the new section. Of course he does get to eat a little bit of it, but give that he’s put some effort into going around the track and there’s only a little bit to nibble at around the rest of the track, he’s fine.

I’ve noticed a lot move movement from both horses whilst grazing just in the time I’ve been there, which can only be good for both of their overall fitness.

Another bonus is that the grass is plentiful and should last well into the autumn at the rate it’s being grazed down, which will give the winter paddock ample time to recover.

We’ve had to get creative recently with another pony and his forage management after the farrier notices some bruising on his toes. Whilst not laminitic, he also felt a bit “off” to ride so his haynets are double holed, being weighed so he doesn’t get any more than 1% of his body weight, being long reined for miles (and I mean miles as I’ve done a lot of it!), and then we’ve set up a track system on the barest section of the paddock. As this pony lives on his own he has a tendency to stand still, with minimal walking around. He’s currently shut in a corral overnight with small nets in different places to encourage him to wander around the area. Then I’ve told his owners to take his breakfast bucket to the far end of the L shape before letting him out of the corral in the morning. Then he will hopefully start trotting along the track to get breakfast. It’s not much but a bit more exercise than feeding him by the gate. Then he can have any hay put at feeding stations along the track during the day. When he’s not at quite such high risk of laminitis and is in more work then he can have the track lengthened by a couple of inches a day, and hopefully not need to be shut in the corral overnight.

It’s tough, and most owners don’t like the idea of starving their horse, but it is a case of the lesser of two evils – starvation or laminitis – and once you’re on top of their weight and diet it is easier to find a happy medium of a level of feeding which you as an owner feel comfortable with (using muzzles, track systems, soaked hay as preference to grass, a bucket feed) which doesn’t cause weight gain, alongside an exercise regime and daily routine which complements this so that your horse is happy, and in the right condition.

How The Horses Have Wintered

After a couple of false starts, spring feels like it’s properly arrived. I’ve seen baby lambs and daffodils, mown the lawn, and the horses are moulting!

It’s the perfect time to assess how your horse is coming out of the winter. I’m really pleased with how Otis is looking; he wore a lightweight rug from Christmas until the beginning of March, when the storms stopped beating Britain. I took it off promptly so I could maximise his time naked before his sweet itch rug goes on. He still has a daily hard feed of chaff and they’re in their winter field currently. The summer field is ready for them, but we’re waiting for the ground to dry up so they don’t poach the ground too much. Then all hard feed will stop, they can eat the grass that is already there then eat the new grass as it comes up.

Condition wise, Otis is looking slightly ribby. I can just about see his ribs, but given that he is coming into spring,a native breed, and unable to be ridden, this is how I want him to be. He will put weight on as soon as they go into their summer paddock and I’ve limited the risk of laminitis as much as possible.

Phoenix, on the other hand, has a little too much weight. But given that she is stabled overnight I’d expect her to carry more weight than Otis. She is still having hay in the field, but that will hopefully be reduced in coming weeks as the grass starts to come through. She’s pretty fit though, so I’m not overly concerned as I will just ensure that her workload continues. Her hard feed can be cut back soon, and she won’t go into her summer field for a few weeks anyway, so I have time to trim her tummy a bit more. I do feel she’s bulked out over the winter, as her neck has really muscles up recently, and she’s much stronger in her hindquarters.

She’s had her first season of the year, which like last year was a bit more emotional than her summer seasons, but because she’s more established I have so many more buttons to play around with, which helps settle her and makes her more rideable, I only had a couple of bad rides. She’s also fitter, stronger, has a better relationship with me, and is happier in her routine, which all helps.

How has everyone else’s horses come out of the winter?

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?

The Number One Rule of Feeding

What's the number one rule of feeding? Which one do you place the most importance on?

For me, it has to be that horses should be fed little and often. It applies to horses of all sizes and workload, and can lead to a whole host of health issues if they do not have food moving through their digestive tract.

Horses have evolved to graze for a minimum of sixteen hours a day, therefore they are trickle eaters. Having small amounts of fibre at each stage of their gut helps regulate peristalsis which reduces the likelihood of colic, prevents stomach acid splashing up the lining of their stomach acid, causing ulcers, and means that they are most efficient at digesting their food and extracting the nutrients.

Even obese or laminitis horses require almost constant access to fibre. However, they should have fibre with very little nutritional value, such as soaked hay or straw. Unfortunately, too many people starve laminitis horses, which can lead to them developing stomach ulcers.

I also feel that there is a psychological benefit to a horse or pony having a semi-full tummy all the time. You know how ratty you and I get when we're late home and dinner is subsequently late. And we can reason why we're hungry, and when our next meal will be. Horses can't, so it stands to reason that when they are hungry they are more likely to bicker between themselves, and to be less tolerant of us – nipping whilst being tacked up, fidgeting whilst being groomed, for example. I think a lot of bad behaviour on the ground stems from horses being uncomfortable in their digestive system. Sometimes they're a bit gassy and bloated, but more often than not they're hungry. If they were to develop stomach ulcers, this also leads to negative reactions when their girth area is touched, which some people believe is naughtiness.

Horses and ponies who are starved for periods of time, or had their grazing restricted with a grazing muzzle for example, have been shown to gorge themselves, managing to take in as much grass in the short time they are unrestricted than the longer period that their intake is limited. Which is why it is recommended that ponies who need a muzzle wear it in the paddock during the day, but are stabled with a quota of soaked hay overnight, to prevent the gorging behaviour.

My reason for bringing up this subject is that last week I was involved in taking a young client to Pony Club Camp, which gave me a parental insight into the week.

I was disappointed to learn that the ponies did not need a haynet during the day. They were to be tied up in the barn; ridden for a couple of hours in the morning and afternoon, with a two hour lunch break in between. During this week the ponies would be working far harder than in their usual day to day lives, but their anatomy is not designed for them to go without food from 9am until 4.30pm. Yes, there is a risk of bickering in the pony lines with food, but surely if every pony had a small haynet and were tied at a correct length of lead rein, far enough apart, there would be less of a problem than when they're hungry and irritable. I would have also thought that they would perform better in the afternoon session because they were happier and had more energy.

Each evening, the pony I was involved with went out into his paddock and gorged, so he was bloated the next morning. This can't be good for his digestive system!

I felt it to be quite ironic that the children are taught correct pony management, and there is both a mini and a big badge all about the rules of feeding. At some point the children are going to realise that they aren't following the rules of feeding, and will question it. This leads to a mental internal battle, and unfortunately a lack of respect for their instructors and mentors. Which is a shame.

I think it's a case of "do as I say, and not as I do", which I don't think is the right attitude for any educational environment, and one that I certainly didn't appreciate when growing up.

Spring Pasture Management 

Hopefully by now you’ve all had a hint of spring… some warm days, a bit of sunshine on your back, the daffodils and crocuses are decorating the verges, and the grass is growing.

So it’s time to turn our attention to looking after the paddocks. 

As soon as the fields are dry enough to get a tractor or ATV (all terrain vehicle) on then it’s time to help the fields recover.

Fields, no matter how much grazing is restricted over winter, become poached so they need to be rolled. Rollers are heavy so there’s a fine line between the ground being too wet that the ground is compacted, and for it to be too dry that the poached areas aren’t flattened. 

The other big job to do is harrowing. The harrow, which is like a large rake, aerates the soil, pulls up any dead grass and weeds, and encourages a thicker sward to grow. 

 Often, fields are harrowed and then rolled on the same day.

As the grass starts to grow, so do the weeds. From now on, you need to keep an eye out for ragwort. Dock leaves will also start growing and it’s important to treat docks before they go to seed otherwise the seeds will be scattered during treatment. Either top the docks or spray them with weedkiller (and rest the paddock afterwards). 

If paddocks have become badly poached then now is the time to reseed. Reseeded areas need to be rested for six weeks and then lightly grazed. 

The Weight Cycle of a Horse

Let’s take a look at how a wild horse’s weight naturally fluctuates through the seasons because the spring grass is starting to come through and then we all have to be vigilant for the dreaded L-word.


This is when horses should be in their peak condition. Grass is growing steadily, it’s warm, the grass has a fairly good level of nutrition but there might be slight variations if there’s a hot spell.


There is a flush of rich, highly nutritious grass in the autumn, and the horses put on a bit of weight in preparation for the coming months. After the flush of grass, the temperature cools down and the grass grows more slowly and with less nutritional value. 

Wild horses may look on the rotund side in autumn, but their bodies are stock piling energy reserves for the colder months.


Grass stops growing at six degrees Celsius, and what does grow isn’t very nutritious. Wild horses forage to fill their belly, but rely on their fat stocks for the majority of their energy requirements.

Towards the end of the winter, the horses start to look a bit ribby and thin as they use up their fat resources.


Wild horses are looking thin, but the spring grass grows rapidly, is lush and full of sugars. The horses put on weight and no longer look half starved. They can end up looking too fat, but once the grass growth levels off for summer then the horse’s weight will plateau.

So how do we, as horse owners, affect this natural fluctuation and what problems does this cause?

By domesticating horses we put them at risk of obesity. For starters, we limit their habitat. This means that they do not need to scavenge for food over miles, thus limiting their exercise. Partnered with the fact our paddocks are specifically grown with horses in mind. That means it’s good quality, plentiful and encourages horses to put on weight easily. After all, in the wild, how often do you see large areas of good quality grazing? You don’t. It’s either small patches of good grazing or larger areas of poorer grazing.

So our horses don’t have to work as hard to fulfill their energy requirements.

Next up, is how we dress our horses. Some of us clip, most of us rug. Clipping removes the thick winter coat, and doesn’t really cause a weight problem in itself. The problem comes in how we rug the horses. Putting a rug on horse means their bodies don’t have to work as hard to keep warm. Which means their energy requirements are less. An unrugged horse will raise their long winter coat, trapping pockets of air to insulate themselves. They will also be using up energy to keep warm. Now, I’m not saying either side is right, but I am saying that there is a balance: an over rugged native pony won’t lose valuable pounds over winter which means that they are already obese coming into spring and are at high risk from laminitis. A clipped horse in too few a rugs will shiver and lose condition because they don’t have their long winter coat to trap air pockets. We have to find the personal balance between clipping and rugging to keep our horses at the optimum temperature.

Stabling horses, and supplementing forage in winter is vital for horse owners because we require horses to work for us and in order to perform for us they need more energy than a wild horse does through winter. Additionally, we have limited land available to us so need to rest our paddocks. Wild horses would roam across vast areas, avoiding the exposed, bare areas in winter thus letting the ground rest and spring grass to flourish before returning there in better weather. 

There isn’t much we can do in terms of not stabling unless we are lucky enough to live on our own large private estate (in my dreams!) but we can be aware of the changing daylight hours, changing temperatures, and make sure forage levels are adjusted in line with grass availability. For example, as the spring grass starts to grow it’s wise to slowly reduce hay put in the field for horses so they don’t have too much intake of food and put on weight too quickly. Often we don’t see the spring grass in our paddocks, but that’s because the horses are eating it as soon as it grows! To monitor grass growth, watch empty paddocks, or grass outside the fields and that will give you a good indication.

By putting our own demands onto horses and domesticating them, we don’t want our horses’ weight to fluctuate, we want them in prime condition all year around. Which is fine, but it’s wise to remember that we have to work with the land, so having your horse come out of winter a little on the lean side is no bad thing because they will soon pick up as the spring grass grows. Likewise, having a horse who will winter out being a bit tubby in autumn is a good thing as he’ll soon lose that keeping himself warm and then be of a good weight ready for the spring.

It’s hard to balance both the natural pressures of the environment and the artificial pressures that we apply to our horse’s lives, but I don’t think we should worry about them being a little lean coming out of winter.

How Big Should Paddocks Be?

At the moment everyone is monitoring their horse`s weight, and looking at the spring grass (especially after today`s downpour!), but how do you find the balance between quantity of grass and paddock size?

The first thing that people think about when looking at restricting the horse or pony`s diet is strip grazing. This works by every couple of days giving the animal another strip of grass. The width given depends on the horse, quantity and quality of the grass, and time of year. However, it is important to ensure that the initial area that the horse has is big enough for him. It can be easy to break a paddock down into strips, and initially give the horse just one strip. In terms of quantity of grass, this is sufficient, but in terms of space, it is insufficient. Once strip grazing has been set up, it is usually a very economic way of ensuring your horse utilises all of his grass, and that his intake is limited.

Horses need space to cavort and let off steam, so you should ensure that the piece of land to be grazed allows the horse to have a good canter or buck without hitting the fence. Someone I know had problems with her mare in the winter as the mare was full of high spirits and kept having fun in the field, but her paddock wasn`t big enough. The mare was able to gallop half a dozen strides, before slamming on the handbrake and spinning around to gallop back. I`m sure you can imagine the twisting and turning effect on her body, and she was always injuring herself, be it a knock from a leg, or a slightly strained muscle. This made me think about the fields we had when we were young. The yard was on the side of the mountain, and we turned the horse`s out behind the yard and they would gallop up the hill, bucking in high spirits. However, we rarely had any injuries and I`ve recently realised why. The hill wore the horse`s out quickly, and the fact they were going in a straight line meant there were fewer twisting or turning injuries. So perhaps it`s worth thinking about the terrain your field is on, when considering how to divide it, as it will impact the space needed for your horse to let off steam.

If your allocated paddock at the livery yard is not big enough to divide, then it is worth limiting turnout time as opposed to restricting the grazing area, but then you have the problem of keeping the energy levels at a controllable level.

A friend of mine uses the Paradise Paddock setup for her fat ponies – here – and finds it provides enough space for her ponies to cavort and burn off energy, whilst encouraging them to move around naturally, thus mimicking their grazing style in the wild.

I guess that finding the balance between the quantity of grass available to your horse and their paddock size is an individual decision; dependent on the time of year, horse`s weight, type of grass, exercise routine and fitness. Even if your horse is on a strict diet he should still have some forage available to him so that his digestive system continues to function and he is not at risk of colic or stomach ulcers. In order to maintain the horse`s current weight you should aim to feed him between 2 and 2.5% of his body weight, and if you are trying to get him to lose weight it should be between 1.5 and 2% of his bodyweight. It is hard to estimate how much grass he has ingested during his turnout period, but I guess you need to extrapolate from the quantity of grass and the length of turn out.

I always feel that if you are concerned that your horse doesn`t have enough forage to keep him occupied overnight then soaking hay is a useful alternative as it washes away most of the nutrients, so you can afford to feed an extra kilo or so. Making the hay difficult to eat, by putting it in small holed haynets or even one haynet inside another, and in several different places around the stable or field, can help slow down his munching.

You often see ponies who are being strip grazed, and in a bare paddock, being supplemented by hay. This is because it has a lower nutritional level, as well as fewer carbohydrates, than fresh spring grass so is preferable by many owners, as the pony will be less at risk of laminitis.




Laminitis. It`s that time of year that all pony and cob owners dread, when the sweet grass grows quickly, ponies get fat overnight and are at risk of laminitis.

For those who don`t know laminitis is the inflammation of the laminae in the hoof. It is caused for numerous reasons, but the most common cause is a carbohydrate overload in overweight horses. Other causes include sepsis, retained placenta, endotoxemia, steroid injections, a side effect of Cushings disease, and trauma. Laminits ranges from mild inflammation of the laminae to sever founder and rotation of the pedal bone within the hoof capsule.

Symptoms of laminitis are foot tenderness, elevated or bounding digital pulse, hot hooves, inability to walk and put weight on the foot. A horse suffering from laminits will typically adopt the laminitic stance, where the fore feet “point” out so the horse has taken the weight off the forefeet.


Unfortunately, once a horse has laminits they will always be prone to the disease, so owners must be vigilant and take preventative measures.

Laminitis is most commonly found in native ponies, but other horses are susceptible to it, and care should be taken if they become overweight. The best approach to laminitis is prevention. Don`t let your animal get overweight in the first place! 

This is surprisingly hard as ponies can double in weight overnight, particularly with the sudden flush of spring grass. At least once a week you want to critically assess your ponies weight to see if they gain any weight, and if it is tricky for you to see, ask a friend to look or use a weightape as a guide (not that I think a weigh tape is very accurate as it told me last week that Otis was 480kgs, when I know for a fact that he is at least 600kgs! But you can still gauge a change in weight from it). Even if they have gained a little weight, you still want to cut back on their diet and increase their exercise so that they do not gain anymore.

A client of mine has a pony who has suddenly ballooned, so she will need to start bringing him in for a couple of hours a day and putting a grazing muzzle on. She could restrict his grazing by strip grazing the paddock, but she needs to mske sure he doesn`t become moody with hunger as he could become difficult for kids to handle. Perhaps lunging him most days and getting the kids to ride him a bit more will help. Another friend I have uses the Paradise Paddocks management system with her laminitic ponies with great success. Of course, making sure he doesn`t have any treats like carrots or polos will help reduce the sugar in his diet, and giving him only a handful of unmollassed chaff when he has been ridden to reward him.

The problem with limiting turnout is that horses will gorge in the time that they are in the field, so you are not actually reducing their diet, which is why a grazing mussle may be a better approach. You could rotate the paddocks so the thoroughbreds, or thinner horses, eat the rested paddocks down first and the overweight horses go into the paddock that has already been grazed down, and then that paddock can be rested afterwards. If they need hay supplementing then it should be soaked to reduce it`s nutritional content, so it is literally a “filler” food.

When a horse or pony is suspected of having laminitis it is important to act quickly. They should be removed from the food source, usually put onto box rest, where they can be fed soaked hay in small portions but regularly through the day so they digestive system is not upset and they colic. The bed should support the affected feet, so put the bedding right up to the door, and in severe cases sand is a good option. Bute is useful intially to reduce inflammation, but if you are getting the vet or farrier you may want to check with them that the horse can have bute before being checked over, so that the anti-inflammatory does not mask the symptoms. Once the horse`s symptoms have eased, usually in a couple of days, walking exercise can be introduced. This improves circulation without causing more damage to the hoof. Exercise should be increased over a couple of weeks, with veterinary advice of course, and together with the restricted diet, which usually includes turnout in a starvation paddock, should reduce the weight and suubsequent risk of laminitis reoccurring. Vets usually want to run a blood test to ensure that the laminitis has not been caused by Cushings, as the Cushings would need to be treated to help prevent laminitis reoccurring.

Laminitis is most often associated with spring, but those prone to it are at risk all summer, especially after a shower of rain, and in autumn when there is another flush of growth. In winter, frosty grass has very high carbohydrate levels, so owners should be vigilant then too.

How Institutionalised Are We?

This summer I started teaching at Pony Clubs and it was the first time I`d really taught outside of an arena. Well, we used dressage letters, but it was in a big open field. I was quite impressed with how good the ponies were. I guess, they are used to the procedure and are in a big group, so will be more settled. Most of these kids would also compete, so the ponies would go out to shows and be used to working on grass.

When you think about it really, how many times as an aspiring rider, particularly in a riding school, do we ride outside the four fences of an arena. You may go on hacks regularly. But lets face it these are quite regimented – we canter up this hill … we trot along this path. Yes, it`s all weather dependent, but the horses know which gait is required on each route, particularly if you have limited hacking.

In the school riding school clients can be quite regimented, with their instructors telling them where to go and at what speed. I like to introduce independent riding fairly early – sometimes it`s a simple statement “change the rein however you like”, or “start riding some 20m circles at different points of the school”, but I like it to progress so that the riders are more aware of others in lessons or of how the movements help their horse warm up and improve their way of going. Last week I even used the long arena, which threw a few clients off balance as they had to work out how circles fitted into the longer arena.

When we were younger we used to have cross country lessons in the field and I can remember the first few cross country lessons I pretty much trotted around the edge of the warm up area, following the horse in front. As I grew in confidence I began to ride the odd circle, which progressed to more circles and even included the odd transition! It was good for us because we had to think for ourselves, and not rely on letters and fences to help. The horses were much more forward going in the cross country field, and it added a new dimension to riding – suddenly my kick along dobbin was a fire breathing dragon!

Now I enjoy riding in the school completely ignoring the letters and track – this is best done in our 60m x 40m arena as there is plenty of space, but it mimics riding in an open space when the ground isn`t suitable. Riding in a field, or warming up at competitions in a field, is also great because you engage the feeling part of your brain, to feel what is right rather than compare it to the track or letter or fence. I think it improves your awareness of your horse and how correctly they are moving.

At what point does riding in an open space become easy? I guess it depends on your terrain and horse, as well as your ability. As a rider you need to think about the effects of the terrain (don`t have that first canter on the downhill side!) or the location of a tree stump, which could be a useful focal point for spiralling circles, and which areas tend to stay the driest. The horse needs to not get overly excited when given a large field to work in, and the less spooky the better, as there is much more wildlife to jump out at you. They need to be sure footed, but that improves with practice. The rider needs to be careful that they still keep their horse focused, by riding various school movements and keeping the pony on their toes, particularly if the pony is thinking about their next canter opportunity. The biggest problem I find is that the first time people ride in a field the horse is overly excited, and the rider overly nervous, which is usually a recipe for disaster. Each time they leave the arena the rider should grow in confidence, and the horse learn what level of excitement is acceptable.

Even the most sedate riding school horse will find fifth gear when schooled in a field. The lack of boundaries and the excitement of a potential canter will put them on their toes and they will become more sensitive to the leg and less attentive. I do think it takes a special sort of horse or pony to be quietly schooled in a large open space.

Really, if you look back at the horse world, fifty years ago everyone had horses in the field behind their house and rode round one corner of it, rarely setting foot in a ménage. This was the norm, so horses tended to be quieter and more relaxed about the procedure, while riders were more used to using environmental markers to ride around and subsequently were more in control. Now horses, particularly riding school horses, go into the arena for an hour a day and drilled in school movements. They see a field and associate it with a good canter or a round of cross country, so become excitable.

It makes you wonder how much our dressage would improve if we schooled regularly on grass. The horses wouldn`t lean on the fence, they would be more sure footed, fresher when they go back into the arena, and more interested in their work, which subsequently produces better work and hopefully improving marks!

Does that mean that when looking at keeping a horse we shouldn`t worry about an arena? It would be a lot cheaper if we didn`t. But what happens if you lose your nerve? Or you are riding again after giving your horse a few weeks off? Or what about winter, when the ground is sodden. Years ago, there was ample land so you could pick a fresh, unpoached area every week, but now there is such pressure on land to be utilised this isn`t a viable option. For those happy hackers or fair weather riders who rarely ride in winter, facilities don`t need to be all-weather, twenty-four-seven. However, I still think it is a good idea to ask around and find out where the nearest arena is to your horse`s field, be it a livery yard or a rich neighbour, and make an arrangement that if necessary you can hire it. This then gives you and your horse the option of riding in a school for a change. You can then use the arena to fine tune your dressage test, or for a lesson or to lunge your horse.

Going back to the title of this blog. I think a lot of horse riders, particularly in the UK, are institutionalised. They are most confident riding in an arena, with a horse who knows their boundaries and doesn`t push their rider. With the recent focus on good bridleways, more people are hacking out and getting used to riding in the open, but there is very little time spent riding a horse in a proactive, focused way in the open. I think this means that riders are less confident in controlling their horse in an open space, which could be detrimental to the safety of both, or the enjoyment of the ride as a whole. I`m not saying let`s forget about arenas and let the foxes dig holes in them, but I think it would be nice if livery yards or riding schools had a grass arena or regularly took lessons outside of the ménage. Obviously this is weather dependent, and we all know how reliable the British summer is!