Walk to Canter Transitions

I did this exercise a couple of weeks ago in my lesson to help Phoenix get the hang of walk to canter transitions, and have found it really useful, so thought I’d share it here.

Down the long side, ride shoulder out. That is, reverse shoulder in. The horse is bent to the outside with the outside (in relation to the arena) hind leg in line with the inside front leg. I find it easiest to start on the inner track so you have space to move the shoulders towards the fence. Once you’ve perfected shoulder out in walk, move up to trot. Pay particular attention to feeling the outside hindleg coming under your horse’s body, and not letting him give too much bend in his neck to the outside as that allows him to fall onto the inside shoulder. Already, you should feel an improvement along the short sides as it helps your horse create a uniform bend on the turns.

Once you can trot shoulder out down the full length of the long side, put a ten metre circle in at the end. The circle requires your horse to flip from one bend to the other, so is a good test of balance and suppleness. Don’t rush to blend the two movements: straighten up out of the shoulder out and ride a couple of strides before the circle. As you both improve, you can reduce the number of strides between the shoulder out and the circle. A bit like how you reduce the number of straight strides in your changes of bend as your horse becomes more balanced. I found the circles felt very balanced and I didn’t find that Phoenix bent excessively with her neck to try and drift through her outside shoulder, which she sometimes does on the left rein.

Now comes the fun part. Halfway around the ten metre circle, ride forwards to walk. Then as you reach the track and the corner of the school, ask for canter. Because of the shoulder out, the outside hind is engaged ready to push into canter, but the circle sets up the correct bend so you will get the correct canter lead.

The short period of walk stops the horse switching off from work, and the small circle helps keep the walk active and together.

Previously, Phoenix had been running and scrambling into canter from walk, but this exercise really helped her jump up into canter – quite literally jump as the first time she leapt straight up in the air while she tried to use her body differently. She soon cracked it, learning to push from behind more. Riding the canter transition from trot still helps improve your transition.

Unfortunately, I can’t repeat exercises too often with Phoenix as she starts to anticipate, so I’ve mixed things up a bit by taking out the circle; riding a demi volte then shoulder in as I incline towards the track and then the circle (if needed) before the transition into walk and then canter. I’m just doing the same movements in the same order, but in different areas of the arena. Have a go at this exercise and mix it up as much as you want.

Pole Triangle

I used this pole layout last week and found it very useful so thought I’d share it for anyone struggling for ideas at the moment. You could also long rein or lunge over it.

The layout is quite simple; create an equilateral triangle with three poles, and then lay a pole perpendicular to each apex.

The first exercise is to ride straight through the layout – over the base of the triangle and then out over the apex opposite. It’s an excellent test of straightness (pick a point in the distance to focus on, keep the reins even and steady, and squeeze your horse down the tunnel created by your reins with the our legs). The apex encourages horses to pick up their feet. Often they’ll look down as they step over the apex, which helps develop their topline.

The poles I used are 10′ long, which means that the distance between the base and apex is a canter stride for the average horse (I’ll let any bored A-level student work out the precise distance using trigonometry. Let me know if you take up the challenge!). You can ride the line in both trot and canter, in both directions. It is slightly harder to be accurate riding from the apex to the base pole.

A harder exercise, which focuses on riding a smooth turn between two poles, encourages the horse to increase the cadence of their inside hind which improves their strength and suppleness. Ride, in trot, from the base pole to either of the other sides of the triangle, aiming to ride over the centre of each pole. Make sure you ride straight over each pole, so ensuring you ride a definite curve through the triangle. I had a few clients ride a straight line between the poles, so going over each one at an angle. I then stood in their way and made them trot around me, which soon helped.

You can then think of riding a circle around each point of the triangle, the external pole helps prevent the circle becoming too small. You could also try cantering the circle, but you would need to increase the size of your circle and so the curve within the triangle.

Finally, I concocted a twisty exercise for my more advanced riders, to really test their horse’s balance and suppleness.

Trotting (or walking until you get your head around the sequence) straight over the baseline pole, then curve right. Over the second pole then ride a big curve left. Trot over the next side of the triangle you reach (the side you’re yet to go over) and then curve right. As you exit the triangle curve left again. Eventually, you end up at the beginning.

The key is to not override the turns, and to maintain an even rein contact. Too much inside rein and the horse will fall onto their inside shoulder and struggle round the next turn. Additionally, you should keep the curves outside the triangle fairly big so you can prepare for the next chicane. Make sure you cross each pole in the centre, and perpendicularly. The external poles help prevent drifting as you leave the triangle. It’s not easy, but you can really see the improvement in the horse’s way of going afterwards.

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?

Quarantine Preparations

Following on from my last post about how I think it’s important that we all remain calm, behave sensibly, and remember to look after our emotional health – which invariably means lots of pony time. We still need to prepare for the worst case scenario – you going into quarantine and not being able to care for your horse.

The quarantine period is for fourteen days, so you want to stock the feed room for that duration. Be sensible, if you aren’t riding then your horse will be out of work, or in a reduced workload, so would benefit from a reduction in their hard feed. Especially with spring around the corner and many still living in at night.

Order enough feed to last for two or three weeks and keep on top of it. There’s no need to panic buy, but you don’t want to run low on stores. In a worst case scenario, a friend can pick up a bag of feed should your horse run out while you’re in quarantine. The same goes for forage and bedding. Don’t panic buy, but stock up.

It’s a good idea for every owner to write down their horse’s needs – contact phone numbers, feed quantities, rug requirements, daily routine – and share it with those who will look after your horse should you go into quarantine. Some small yards will share these details throughout; other yards might prefer small groups of friends or field friends to sort themselves out. Ultimately it’s what works best for your horse – some horses can’t be caught by everyone for example. In which case, it would be better for one person to take over the care rather than everyone muck in quasi-randomly.

Make sure you’re ready for spring – are the lightweight and fly rugs at the yard and ready for use? If most of the yard goes down, will the horses be turned out 24/7? Or have a more relaxed routine? In which case, will they need different rugs?

If you have a private yard, or there’s only a couple of owners there it is worth speaking to a freelance groom. Brief them and have them on standby should you need to be isolated.

It’s worth having a chat to your farrier, vet, chiropractor, and anyone else who might be visiting your yard. Check that they’re happy to come still, and what precautions they are taking and those they require you to make. I’ve seen some farriers request that owners don’t hold their horse’s unless necessary, or even aren’t present, and many are asking that you pay online rather than in cash. These people are usually self-employed so need to work as much as possible to protect their livelihood. Which means they will take the necessary precautions to protect themselves, but we should also take responsibility and not expose them unnecessarily by respecting their wishes and not being present if you suspect you have the symptoms.

With those simple procedures in place your horse will barely notice your absence! And, to be honest, it didn’t take much effort did it?

Times A Changing

The last thirty six hours has thrown the British equine world into disarray. Covid-19 has been coming a while, infringing on all areas of our lives, but now we’ve moved into unchartered territory.

We’d discussed it at Pony Club and Riding Club – talking about reducing the risk of infection at events and providing hand washing facilities. But it was business as normal with just a couple of adjustments to our routines.

However, on Monday the PM released a statement bringing more stringent methods into daily life – minimising social contact, reducing unnecessary travel, self isolating. This was closely followed by statements from British Eventing and Pony Club stating that all competition and training has been suspended. On Tuesday, British Dressage, British Showjumping, and British Riding clubs followed suit.

It’s incredible to think that there will be no equine competitions for the majority of this year, and is very disappointing for those who rely on it professionally, and who plan their training with a particular competition goal in mind.

Disappointing as it is, at least we are still allowed to ride. Italy has banned riding and high risk sports to reduce the number of accidents needing treatment in their overstretched hospitals. Phoenix was going to have a go at her first novice test this weekend. No matter; we will keep up the training so that she will be working at elementary level by the summer, and I’m still able to take her out schooling to get some cross country practice in and keep up her jumping training. The important thing is to find some alternative goals and aims to keep us motivated and to keep spirits up.

I made the suggestion to my riding club committee, that we should run our spring dressage competitions online. It’s not the same as going out to a competition, but it’s better than nothing and I think there will be lots of interest. Of course clinics are also being cancelled, so I think we will have to put our heads together to come up with some challenges we can give to members to help everyone keep in touch and motivated. Perhaps get everyone to share a photo or talk about their riding that day. There’s no restrictions on hacking, so perhaps we should make a hacking challenge?

With the Pony Club, I already have some ideas for the kids. They’re going to have a lot of extra time on their hands, so it would be good to give them some ridden exercises – a bit like online lessons – or stable management quizzes to keep up their knowledge. I’m keen that those working towards an efficiency test don’t regress or lose motivation due to tests being delayed and training cancelled. But we’re going to let everyone acclimatise to this new, strange normal, and then get our thinking caps on.

I judge for Demi Dressage – an online dressage competition for under 16s – and I think that will become really popular in the coming months, as a way to focus children on developing their riding. Already I’ve seen more and more online competitions cropping up, including jumping competitions. They’ve been in the pipeline for a while I think, but this current climate has brought them to the fore.

Finding the fun that we can do safely, will help us survive the emotional challenges the coronavirus brings. We’re lucky that equestrianism is an outdoor activity as even if competition venues close, we still have our riding areas at home.

With everyone being encouraged to work from home, I was starting to dread enforced time with an energetic toddler in an enclosed space. But we’re lucky enough to have a garden at least, and I’ve drawn myself up a list of jobs to do. Regardless of any quarantining, we will be spending more time at home, so it’s an ideal time to do the jobs you never get around to doing. Maybe that room will get painted, and the garden will be perfectly manicured?! Or perhaps we’ll actually eat those emergency tins of soup at the back of the cupboard?

I was very relieved when the BHS released a statement saying that coaches should continue to work where possible. I only interact with fit and healthy people outdoors, not getting too close to them; and by following the suggested hygeine and social distancing guidelines, as well as both sides reacting to the first symptoms, the risk should be minimal.

I think it’s important to maintain as much of a normal life as possible for our own sanity, whilst being sensible and sensitive to the situation. Of course, my work may not be vital to the infrastructure of the country, but horses are many people’s saviours. Their down time in a busy world; the thing which turns their day from doom and gloom to sun and laughter. Their coping mechanism for the rest of their life. It’s easy to overlook the importance of a good riding session (or any exercise) to someone’s mental health.

Just like many hobbies; gym classes, book clubs, sports clubs, social clubs. Not only do the clients need these to balance out their lives, but those who run them need the financial reward in order to feed their families. So yes, let’s reduce close contact with others, but in a world where everything’s at a click of a button, let’s make sure we continue to stay in touch with ingenious ways. Summer is coming; move clubs outdoors if possible; use online videos, conference calls, and social media to keep this side of life going.

It’s the start of a new normal, which will take some adjusting to, but hopefully by everyone being sensible (you’ve bought all your toilet roll now, haven’t you?!) and by keeping an eye out for others (we don’t know many at risk people locally, but I’ve offered to organise online shopping for my Granny, and plan to send her bits and pieces in the post over the next few months as well as regular emails to stop her feeling so isolated), we will survive.

Feeling Trot Diagonals and Canter Leads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Control

At the Pony Club conference I attended in February I picked up lots of useful hints and tips. One useful thing that Paul Tapner said, was that when he was young and went off to be taught by top level instructors for months at a time he would put aside everything that he knew and unquestioningly lap up everything he was told. He wouldn’t forget his previous knowledge, but it was filed away until after the training when he would piece together all of his knowledge. When teaching, you want your students to do exactly what you say, not harp back to what a previous adult has told them because it may not be an appropriate tactic or exercise for that day. I took that approach with the conference, writing down everything that was said, regardless of my initial reaction. Later, I could reflect on my notes and use my previous knowledge and experience to develop my own opinion and approach. For example, I liked the fact that when the demo riders (all Pony Clubbers) were told to halt they did immediately. This has safety benefits and shows respect for their instructor, but I didn’t like how it caused them to pull hard on the reins in an attempt to get a direct transition. So I will try a modified approach when I next teach a group of children.

Anyway, one quote which I’ve taken from the beginning of the day is:

It is the coach’s job to control the rider and the rider’s job to control the pony.

Basically, when you learn to ride you learn to control your horse or pony, be it at the lowest level of steering around the edge of an arena, keeping in trot, or at the highest level of controlling the size of circles, pirouettes, degree of lateral movements, and the precise speed of the gaits. At whatever level I’m teaching at, if the rider can perform an exercise or movement competently, they have mastered control at that level.

I taught a new rider this week, only a little girl, with her own pony. She’s had trouble learning to canter, is now feeling nervous and has had a couple of gentle tumbles to boot.

I started her off in walk and trot, assessing her steering and knowledge of school movements, trot diagonals, changesof rein etc, and her pony was very sweet. Forwards but without being sharp, but as we went through the warm up the pony started getting faster and doing a turbo trot. It wasn’t an accelerating movement, just a huge striding gait with a set neck. Then of course, her rider began to get worried. She told me that the reason she didn’t like cantering was because of the speed.

It struck me that the crux of their problem is that the rider doesn’t feel in control of her pony, and therefore lacks confidence and doesn’t feel safe, and the pony (whilst not being naughty) was taking the opportunity to take control of the speed.

I brought them into the middle of the school and put her stirrups up a hole to give her leg a bit more security and so she had something to brace her feet against when we did step two. I then explained to her how to squeeze and release the reins rather than take a static pull so her pony didn’t lean on her hands. Finally, I showed her how to bend her elbows and use her shoulders and upper body to half halt down the reins, and to stabilise her upper body. As with a lot of people, when a pony pulls down the arms go forward, elbows straighten, and upper body tips forward. This is not a strong position, and the pony has the upper hand. By using her upper body to support her rein aids the pony cannot pull her forwards and put her position into jeopardy. Because the pony is not going to like this new, stronger approach from her rider, she will argue for a few strides, which is where the slightly shorter stirrups will help keep her rider in place. I put in some trigger words; “strong tummy”, “squeeze, release” and “elbows” so that I could quickly correct my rider and help her regain control because each phrase meant an action to her.

My rider asked to go on the lunge, so I obliged, if only that knowing I was at the end of the lunge line gave her the confidence to stand her ground with her slowing aids. We talked about how their normal trot was a level five, and a slow trot was a level four, whilst turbo trot was a six. We wanted a five trot, or sometimes a four, the majority of the time.

She set off in trot, and in all fairness to her, the lunge line was slack as I didn’t really need to do anything. The pony went off into a five trot, so we practiced her strong tummy and squeezing rein aids to slow to a four trot. The pony tried to set against her rider but once she realised she wasn’t going to budge, the pony came back nicely to her. We did this transition a couple of times and then the pony decided to turbo trot. But my rider reacted quicker to the acceleration, so nipping it in the bud, and become she gave firmer, more decisive aids, after a few her pony came back nicely. We repeated this on the lunge in both directions and once my rider had earnt her pony’s respect, she got a reaction from her first, milder aid.

As my rider started to feel in control, she grew in confidence and happily agreed to canter on the lunge. Although the pony doesn’t tank off in the canter, she has a big stride and it can feel uncontrolled to someone not yet in sync with her, so I needed to know that my rider felt she could stop her pony at any time. Without hanging off her mouth of course! I ran through the downwards aids and then they cantered. I didn’t have to do anything in the middle, and after a few transitions back to trot my rider began to feel more comfortable about cantering and could start to relax.

To finish the lesson, they went off the lunge and practiced riding with a strong tummy and firm, clear rein aids, using her upper body to support. The pony anticipated cantering, tried to turbo trot, but my rider applied her aids and sat perfectly upright and balanced until her pony came back to her in a few strides. We used transitions within trot to improve control, and within minutes her pony had stopped testing her, instead responding to her first aid.

This meant that my rider could ride a more energetic trot without the speed, and relaxed into her riding. She felt in control.

Of course, they’re going to have to repeat this conversation a few times for the pony to really accept her newly bossy rider, and for this little girl to learn to correct their speed before it reaches turbo level. And for it to become second nature. Having a contingency plan as well as buzz words really help build confidence and make a proactive rider. We might not have got her cantering independently, but I’m sure she will once she feels that she’s in full control.

Mud! Mud! Glorious Mud!

With yet another storm about to hit Britain, we have had the wettest winter since, well, forever! But what does all this rain mean for our horses?

I feel very lucky in that Otis’s field has minimal mud, so he and his friends have been happy all winter, with no concern about mud fever, tendon injury etc. Phoenix’s field isn’t so good, but even so it’s only pastern deep at the gateway. Some fields are knee deep in mud, and only last week I saw horses being evacuated from their field which was so submerged that only the top rail of fencing was visible!

So what problems are you likely to encounter with muddy fields? Firstly, the obvious problem of mud fever. Some horses are more susceptible to it than others, and once a horse has had mud fever they are more likely to get it again. How can you prevent mud fever? How long is a piece of string?

The bacteria involved in mud fever thrive on damp, warm conditions. For example, a muddy field! The best preventative is to avoid the muddy field, but this winter it is nigh on impossible. So drying the legs regularly, giving time off the mud is important. I don’t think horses with heavy feathering should have their legs clipped as it gives some protection, however if they develop mud fever it can be hard to treat with all the hair.

The next big problem that I’ve seen a lot of these last few months are field injuries. Either pulled tendons from the deep going, or slip injuries where a horse loses their footing and jars themselves, or they slide over in the field, or they do the splits. The injuries associated with slippery ground can affect the muscles of the back, hindquarters, shoulders or legs. Basically all over! In particular, the sacroiliac area is often damaged by horses slipping around, and pulling themselves through deep, heavy mud. The only real preventative is to avoid the deep going in the first place, but if you can’t then sectioning off the deepest area of the field, for example the gateway, so that at least the horses aren’t trotting or cantering through the deep mud. Checking legs daily for any signs of heat or swelling, and if your horse starts to behave abnormally (such as today’s client who fidgeted and fussed when I put the saddle on, and we believe he’s tweaked his back) then rest them and call the physiotherapist, chiropractor or whoever usually manipulates your horse. They will identify sore spots and be able to ease it if it’s been caught early enough, or refer to the vet for further diagnosis.

Some yards have stopped turn out completely for the moment, and it’s a hard balance to find between looking after the land and not wrecking it for spring, and ensuring the horses stay emotionally happy and healthy. I think it’s a balance between exercising horses sufficiently that they do not feel the need to gallop around their fields, so doing more damage to the land, and if they are staying in that day they they get out for a leg stretch at least twice. And not having miserable horses standing all day in the mud because if they’re standing there miserably, they might as well be standing in their stable! I’ve found that letting your horse guide you is the best; yesterday I rode first thing in the sleet and Phoenix didn’t seem overly keen to go out, so I gave her some hay and left her munching for an hour while I rode another horse, and likewise if she’s standing at the gate at 2pm there’s no point leaving her there for another 3 hours.

What can we learn from this winter for the future, in terms of your routine, or field management? Firstly it’s important to be critical of yourself: is your winter grazing the driest bit of land? And if not, change it! Winter grazing needs to have good drainage; it could be your most uphill piece of land, or have empty ditches on the perimeter to aid drainage. The type of grass also is important too, but I’m no expert on field management so I’ll leave that subject before I get in too deep. Could your gateways be improved? By laying hardcore if possible, or those grass mats. Is the gate in the best place? Can you use two gateways to reduce footfall and damage to the gateway and to reduce the likelihood of horses standing at the gateway expecting their next feed.

Next, it’s important to consider which horses you have in the paddock. Big horses, or heavy horses do more damage to the land because they sink down into the mud, so destabilising the land. Small, finer ponies do less damage, so they might be better in your field which doesn’t drain as well. The number of horses is also important to consider. There’s the guideline of one acre per horse, but this acre must be very fertile, have good grass and sward, and only have a 14.2hh grazing it. Who probably lives in overnight. Bigger horses need more space, and when there’s less grazing because of the time of year and the mud horses in general need more space. So if you have five acres, you don’t really want any more that two big horses in, or four small ponies in winter. The ratio may need to change in the spring and summer as ponies notoriously need less grass to avoid laminitis, in which case you might put those four ponies onto three acres, and those two big horses onto four acres. Roughly speaking anyway. The moral of the story is to have the ratio right for winter and adjust it accordingly in the summer, rather than have too many equines for your space in the winter.

I think everyone has some lessons to learn from this winter about preparing and managing their fields ready for next year, and we’ll all be busy come the spring repairing the damage to our winter paddocks; be it blown over fencing from the high winds, or the fact that fields more closely resemble a ploughed field than a grazing area. It’s been a tough winter for all horse owners, but we should try to take the problems of this year on board so that we can make improvements for next year.

Ear Warmers

The last few weeks have been so windy I’ve been very grateful for a couple of little cloth triangles which I found at the back of one of my clothes drawers a few months ago.

A couple of Christmases ago I was given a pair of ear warmers from a friend. They are small tweed triangles with Velcro on. In all honesty, I dismissed them a bit when first given them, but when I rediscovered them I thought I’d give them a try.

The triangles attach to the harness of your helmet, covering your ears. However, they don’t cover your ears at the expense of your hearing. You can still hear clearly, do not feel claustrophobic, and haven’t got your vision limited. I’ve been wearing them all winter and have really noticed over the last couple of weeks whilst riding in the blasting, icy wind. My cheeks and ears aren’t at all wind burnt. They are quite discreet too, and being colourful tweed quite stylish too.

These ear warmers aren’t the cheapest of items, but as they fasten securely and will stay on all winter (although perhaps I should take them off when competing!) I imagine they’ll last for many years.

The ear warmers can be bought online from https://www.comfyhorse.co.uk/product/harris-tweed-riding-hat-ear-muffs/. I’ve been so impressed with my ear warmers that I bought some pairs for friends at Christmas.