Lightening the Forehand

Feedback I’ve had when jumping Phoenix, and what I know to be true, is that I need to get her stronger in canter and get her nose off her chest. This isn’t because I put her in an overbent frame, but more to do with the fact her confirmation allows her to do this easily and when she’s finding the canter work harder she leans on my hands and gets a bit on the forehand.

On the flat we’ve been focusing on relaxation and self carriage, ignoring the canter unless she’s in the right frame of mind because she can get uptight and a bit panicky if you do too much correcting to her way of going. She doesn’t like to be interfered with.

I’ve kept the idea of her taking her nose out in any canter work we’ve done on hacks and any other time, but I decided this week to give her more of a challenge.

I laid out three canter poles, then one canter stride to a final pole. Phoenix is getting much more confident in her footwork through pole exercises so I wanted the three poles to help establish her rhythm and discourage her from rushing. As she can sometimes drift through grids I laid two poles as an arrow with the tip touching the final pole. I wanted to jump an A-frame but wanted to introduce the question early so that Phoenix could process it and be confident.

After trotting and cantering the poles from each rein I put the final fence up, leaning the diagonal poles in the middle. I approached in canter, and whilst Phoenix was spot on over the jump, really lifting her shoulders and staying straight, she kept giving a hop, skip and a jump over the canter poles.

I felt like she was getting herself in a bit of a stew on the approach because she was a bit too fast and unbalanced in canter. So I trotted into the exercise, letting her pick up canter over the first pole. Then, she was foot perfect and wasn’t as quick. Which felt better as it felt more controlled, like she understood the exercise more.

I continued to approach in trot, and gradually raised the second and third canter poles to little bounces. Now I actually wanted her to give a little skip over the poles, so that she lifted her shoulders, engaged her hindquarters and lifted her nose so that she was looking where she was going.

The final jump immediately felt better, as she pinged over them, really coming up in front.

I raised the A-frame fence gradually, but Phoenix took each height in her stride, feeling very correct in her bascule and technique. I loved the feel of the canter now – the balance and power that I had – and it was only when the jump reached 1.05m did she feel like she was having to work over it. I only did it once before leaving our session on a very positive note. She had jumped her biggest to date comfortably, and was confident in her approach. I felt there was an improvement to the canter, which she will hopefully take forward to the flatwork and allow me to adjust her to re-create that canter next time I ride.

My plans now are to do more of the bounce work, perhaps a line of six or so, to strengthen Phoenix’s hindquarters and improve her canter, as she seems to respond better to the poles dictating her canter rather than me interfering. She’s already schooling over 90cm courses, so I won’t push it any higher without getting her some more competition experience and getting her stronger. But hopefully the combination of the bounce work and more canter work on the flat will improve her performance around courses.

Cones and Circles

Mum asked for my expertise over the weekend as she’d been struggling with an exercise she’d been given last week.

I quite like the exercise though, so thought I’d share it with you.

Place three cones along the centre line, one at X and the other two ten metres either side.

From the right rein, turn down the centre line in trot and ride a ten metre circle around the first cone. You want to aim to stay equidistant from the cone the whole way round the circle. Continue round the circle until you’ve ridden a complete circle and the next time you cross the centre line change the rein and circle around the second cone in the opposite direction. One and a half circles later, move on to riding a circle in the original direction around the third cone. It’s a really good suppling sequence to ride.

Initially, you’re aiming for the three circles to be similar in size, and for it to flow between circles. Hopefully you’ll notice if one rein is harder than the other and you can spend some time improving the circles on that rein before coming back to the exercise.

You’ll remember a few weeks ago I blogged about how to ride a change of bend? If you feel that the circle sequence is going wrong at the change of rein, break down the change of bend and ensure you are switching from position left to position right (or vice versa) to allow your horse to change their bend and are supporting them as they do.

Now that the circles are hopefully feeling similar in shape and fairly round, we can step it up a notch. Try counting the number of strides you get on each half circle in the exercise. You want to get the same number. This means that your circles are round and not egg-shaped, and that your right and left circles are the same size. You’ll also discover if the change of rein between the circles affects the size and shape of your circles.

It sounds like a simple exercise, but the fact you’re working away from the fence means you as a rider, need to support your horse more as they will more often than not drift towards the fence. Which should mean that you notice any weakness in your aids. It also serves to improve your horse’s symmetry and suppleness hugely.

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?

Pole Triangles

This is a pole layout I did a few weeks ago now with clients, which had numerous exercises within it to benefit a wide range of horses and riders. Lay out a triangle of poles, then place a pole four foot away from each pole. Then build another triangle with outer poles next to it, so that there are three trotting poles in the centre.

The first exercise I used with my riders was in their warm up, getting them to trot and canter between a pair of poles. This really helped identify any crookedness in the horse, and encouraged the riders to minimise their inside rein aids. Initially, I only had them riding through one pair of poles but towards the end of the warm up I got some riders to ride an arc through the two tramlines on one side of the formation, a bit like a shallow loop. This started to get the horses stepping under with the inside hind and using it correctly because they couldn’t drift through their outside shoulder due to the second pair of poles.

Just by using these poles in the warm up I found both horse and rider were more focused and their way of going improved by making them straighter.

The next exercise I utilised was getting my combinations to trot over the tramlines and then over the apex of the triangle. The tramlines were set as trot poles, and both horse and rider had to be accurate to the apex. I had my riders ride across the pole layout from various points, integrating the poles into their flatwork circles and shapes. This means the horses are less likely to anticipate the exercise and the rider can then take the benefit of the polework onto their flatwork and feel the improvement immediately.

If a horse persistently drifts one way or the other over the poles it tells you which hind leg is stronger, which leads me to developing some exercises to improve them. Likewise, it can help to identify any asymmetry in the rider’s seat or aids.

You can also ride from the apex to the trot poles, which is a harder accuracy question because the poles draw the horse away from the point, rather then funnelling them towards the apex.

With my more balanced horses and riders I rolled the tramlines out so they were nine foot apart, which meant they could canter over the poles and apexes.

To add a layer of difficulty to this route, some riders rode curves through the triangles, entering over the trot poles of one triangle, trotting the three trot poles in the centre before either trotting out over the apex, or left or right over another pair of poles.

The final route I had my riders take was along the length of the pole formation; trotting over an apex, over three trot poles and then over the other apex. This was a good test of their straightness, and by removing the middle pole of the trio it could be cantered.

Basically, have a play around with these pole triangles, taking as many different routes as you can, focusing on riding rhythmically, accurately, aiming to the centre of each pole, and straight. You should feel your horse’s cadence and balance improve as they start to lift their feet higher over the poles, lift through their abdominals, lighten the forehand, improve their proprioception and become more interested in their work.

Jumping Fillers

One of my clients has a lovely pony who has a great, scopey jump. At only 14hh he easily pops 105cm, and we’ve been doing a lot of work improving his bascule, confidence and building muscle. They’re ready to go out and have fun at competitions… except for his diva-esque reaction to fillers.

After seeing his overly dramatic reaction to a little filler one lesson I’ve made it my goal to get them jumping fillers confidently.

The next lesson I got out a couple of props and laid out a combination in the school. I left the poles on the floor, and asked my rider to contemplate how she rode fillers. Was it different to how she approached plain jumps?

The answer was yes, she knew her pony would refuse and throw his toys out the pram so rode defensively and nervously. This means we have a vicious cycle: the pony lacks confidence with the fillers, his rider rides defensively but doesn’t fill the pony with confidence, so he stops, and then she expects him to stop next time.

We need to stop thinking of fillers as special, or different, and learn to ride them in exactly the same way as we ride plain fences. Which is easier said than done when you know there’s a high chance of your horse refusing them. I know, because Matt was exactly the same. He’d jump beautifully until there was a filler, and then I couldn’t get him less than ten foot to the fence.

I had this enlightening lesson on him at college, and realised that my approach was half the problem. So I repeated this lesson with my client and pony.

Throughout their warm up I had them trot and canter over the poles, with the fillers at either wing. I moved them progressively closer as both pony and rider started to ignore the fillers and relax so that they was just enough room for the pony to pass between.

Then I built the jumps up slowly, one by one, only changing one thing at a time, and focusing my rider on her riding positively and calmly to each fence as if the fillers weren’t there.

Soon they were jumping the fences confidently and in a flowing way, with no backing off or chipping in on take off. And they didn’t falter when I rearranged my props to make the jumps seem different.

The next few lessons I plan on getting different fillers out and building them up to jumping the fillers quicker and quicker until my rider doesn’t tense up with the thought of fillers, and the pony is more confident, and unfazed by their presence. Then we’ll have a trip to a schooling venue to practice jumping new fillers away from home and then they’re ready for competition.

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.

Lameness Diagnosis?

It’s incredibly frustrating when your horse “isn’t quite right”, which is what one of my clients is going through at the moment. There are a couple of avenues that we are exploring, but this takes time.

You end up talking about this mystery not-quite-rightness to anyone who will listen, and invariably you run of the mill suggestions, which of course you considered on Day One. But hopefully one day, someone will make a suggestion that you haven’t thought of and you can investigate its potential.

This happened to me last November. I was tacking up a client’s horse when another livery whom I knew from sight was riding in the arena next to me. I wasn’t paying particular attention except for the fact she seemed to be faffing. Trotting, then walking, then changing the rein and trotting again. So I asked if she was okay.

The rider launched into this story about how her horse had been slightly lame on and off all summer and she’d had the vet, physio, saddler, dentist and no one could shed any light on the problem.

The horse was fractionally lame, and the rider really noticed it as a reluctance to go downhill with pottery steps. After four or five days, the horse was fine for another few weeks.

I asked when was she shod. I wasn’t about to slate her farrier; as far as I could tell the mare was shod well. She had been shod the week before, and had been slightly lame last weekend.

With a bit of deduction, we worked out that the farrier had been on Wednesday, and the mare had next been ridden on the Saturday. Which suggested to me that the lameness could be due to the farrier or her feet.

My only real suggestion was that the farrier was taking the mare’s hooves a little too short for her liking so the shoes felt uncomfortable for a few days. Looking at the feet, the toes didn’t look too short, or that they’d been dumped, but I know that some horses have more sensitive feet – thinner hoof wall, sensitive laminae closer to the edge of the hoof, etc. Tight shoes could cause short strides and a reluctance to go forwards. I wasn’t sure if it would cause a reluctance down hills.

The lady went off with this suggestion and looked in her diary. Each lameness period coincided with new shoes. So she rang her farrier and talked to him.

The next time I saw her she updated me on her investigations, and said the farrier had taken on board her thoughts about the shoes and they were going to put the mare onto a seven weekly shoe cycle, and leave her with slightly longer toes.

Since then, the mare has been sound: full of energy, jumping confidently, and winning competitions.

Now I don’t claim to be an expert in horse lameness or farriery. I based my suggestion on the fact that I’ve previously seen a horse shod badly (the toes were dumped and the shoe was too small for the foot) who became reluctant to go forwards and became pottery in her stride. This is why it can be so useful to talk to others about your horse’s not-quite-rightness. They may have seen a similar situation and be able to point you in the right direction so that with the help of the right professional your horse becomes sound.

Getting Her On Side

I’ve been working with a rider and her new mare over the winter, and we’ve had to adapt our approach several times as she is quite opinionated and nappy. She was very weak upon arrival, having been a broodmare for years, so it’s been a slow journey of hacking, lunging, and working over poles from the ground. Now however, we’re at the point where we’re asking slightly more of her under saddle and she’s taking umbridge at having to work her muscles a little bit harder.

This has been our approach in recent weeks. Begin by just walking her on both reins with a light, loose contact so she is unhindered and doesn’t have an excuse to start napping to the gate. Then we progress this up into trot; a forwards thinking trot with large circles and changes of rein until she commits to work and settles into her own rhythm. At one point we were lunging her with her rider as she was far more receptive to my directives from the centre of the circle, and then we transitioned to her rider predominantly giving the aids and I backed her up if the mare baulked. Then we had an imaginary lunge line, before slowly taking the mare off the circle where she had to submit to her rider’s aids.

She behaves perfectly for the warm up part now, but as soon as you start asking questions and putting on a bit of pressure the tail swishes, the hindlegs kick out and the bunny hopping begins. So I’ve adopted the approach that we ask her questions so subtly she doesn’t even realise she’s being asked anything.

For example, the mare has a very quick, tense trot which is very much on the forehand. We want to slow the tempo, shift her weight backwards and get her pushing forwards from her hindquarters. It’s not just a simple matter of half halting with this mare as she’ll take any rein aid as an excuse to stop and mini-rear, especially if the alternative is hard. I told my rider to think of her trot being on a sliding scale, of one to ten. Currently it was a six. Quietly, whilst trotting round on both reins and using circles, I asked her to experiment with the tiniest of aids to bring the trot back to a steadier five, then back to six, then back to five. She only needed to spend a couple of strides in the five trot, but the idea was that we made these micro adjustments so that her horse didn’t notice that we were adjusting her gait and balance. The aim was to move towards a four trot, which we did after a few minutes, so that when we opened the trot back up into a five trot it was better balanced than the initial trot, but the mare would find it easier than the four trot and so be compliant.

It worked. The tempo became steadier and the mare relaxed so that her frame softened. The best part was that she stayed with her rider and continued with a good work ethic.

The next lesson, I wanted to work on improving the mare’s suppleness as she was much more balanced in her trot. She didn’t take well to the exercise I gave, which incorporated ten metre circles and stopped playing ball. Not wanting to lose the work ethic we’d created last week, I adopted Plan B. We reverted to riding large circles and when the mare felt particularly forward thinking and focused, I got my rider to ride an eighteen metre circle. Then back to the bigger circles. We repeated this, throwing in smaller circles more frequently and then the larger (normal) circles became eighteen metres and the smaller circles were fifteen metres. Eventually, the mare was happily riding ten metre circles without a second thought. She just hadn’t realised that we were asking her harder questions.

I’ve come to the conclusion that whilst you always have to “ask a mare”, with this one in particular you have to skirt around the subject, make suggestions and then let her take the idea and think that it’s her own so that she willingly performs the exercise!

I used the bow tie exercise (blogged earlier in the week) last lesson with them but we had to slowly build up to the rapid changes of bend and small circles in order to keep the mare on side. By the end my rider felt she was a lot more adjustable and accepting of her aids. You could start to see where she is working more correctly because the hind leg action is improving, her neck is lengthening and lowering, and she has some cadence to her stride.

Hopefully we can build on the mare’s new work ethic and begin to ask questions slightly more directly as she develops muscle and finds work easier. Then hopefully she’ll become more open to corrections to her way of going from her rider. She may always be one who has to have an indirect approach, but I feel that now we’ve grasped the smooth handle (a What Katy Did reference for other bookworms) we will see lots of good work from this mare in the future. It’s always a good challenge deciphering the workings of a horse’s mind and how best to befriend them.

Everything in the world has two handles. Didn’t you know that? One is a smooth handle. If you take hold of it, the thing comes up lightly and easily, but if you seize the rough handle, it hurts your hand and the thing is hard to lift.