Stagefright!

This summer I’ve been taking Phoenix out cross country training regularly, and she’s become much more confident and consistent; popping over 90cm and 1m fences, and taking combinations, steps, ditches and water in her stride. So it was time to take the next step in her training and take her to a hunter trial.

We went schooling to the venue a couple of weeks ago but disappointingly not many fences were out, but at least we got a feel for the venue.

I walked the course on Saturday morning, was happy that the jumps were well within Phoenix’s comfort zone. There was a step, a ditch, water. All of which she’s done numerous times in training, but she does sometimes take her time teetering at the edge of them. The rest of the jumps were mainly logs and houses. There was one jump, a parallel of two logs painted white which I fully expected Phoenix to do a Health and Safety assessment before jumping it. Everything else should be straightforward for her.

Phoenix was on her toes but warmed up calmly with plenty of petrol in the tank. She flew over the warm up fences, really taking me into them but with control afterwards. I didn’t do too much, but just before we went down to the start box we popped over the bigger warm up jump and then kept her “in the zone” as the countdown started. As it was her first experience of going out the start box I wasn’t sure how much warm up she’d need, how much of a breather she needed, and how best to keep her mentally ready for the start whistle.

The first jump was quite close to the start box, parallel to the warm up and number two was just beyond the warm up. There were a lot of refusals and dodgy cat leaps over the first couple of jumps. I think it was because they were close to the warm up, going away from home. Anyway, Phoenix backed right off both jumps, leaping them from a sticky trot. She did the same over the white rails at three (although this fence I was just pleased that she didn’t stop) and then over the log at four.

I felt like Phoenix wasn’t really looking at the jumps, but rather the horses walking to the warm up, the fence judges and their cars.

However, going towards the house at number five, Phoenix was clearly gawping at the decorative feature to the left of the jump, not clocking the jump until too late. She flew over it when I re-presented. After the steps she stopped at every fence until we were pulled up, eliminated. Typically, she actually jumped our final fence on the first attempt, even with a steward waving a red flag at us. We took the walk of shame back to the car park.

I spent our walk home trying to make sense of events, and decided that the best course of action would be to return the next day and school over the flagged course. I was concerned that we’d undone all our cross country training and she’d lost confidence. Then I started wondering if I’d over ridden in my attempt to ride positively, combined with nervous anticipation, and overcooked things. After all, she’s a very sensitive soul.

Ultimately, I felt that Phoenix had been overwhelmed by the competition environment – she was definitely paying a lot of attention to what was going on outside of the roped area, and looking at the jumps of every height. Which didn’t leave a lot of brain power to focus on the jumps.

Today, we returned and the course was like the Marie Celeste with not a single soul there. Eerily, I kept to the competition concept, popping two warm up fences and then going down to the start box.

Phoenix flew around the course! Confident over the first six, peering down the step before cautiously hopping off. She felt so much more focused on the course. She insisted on walking through the water, and I let her have a walk break before picking her back up for the rest of the course, which she hadn’t done yesterday. This was quite a good test because it was more of the unseen, competition environment. Which she passed easily. She stopped to look at the ditch momentarily, but skipped over comfortably once she’d assessed it. Phoenix did stop at the last fence, but it was a stop of tiredness rather than not wanting to do the jump. She did it on the second attempt and then we walked home. I think Saturday had taken more out of her physically and mentally.

I know it wasn’t a clear round, but she proved to me today that she is capable, and is back to being confident over solid fences. She just needs more experience in the competition environment so she learns to focus on the jumps, rather than the wider picture. We’ll continue with arena cross country through the winter and then try to get some competition experience under her belt.

Although this weekend was disappointing in the fact that she is more than capable of getting round, I am relieved that she suffered a minimal dent to her confidence in her own ability and in me on Saturday, and I have a clearer idea of the next stage in her training – performing to a crowd!

The Art of Rugging – a lost skill?

I’ve neglected my blog a bit but in my current state of permanently exhausted pigeon as parent to a toddler in the midst of the terrible twos I’ve only been getting as far as thinking that something would make a good subject for a blog. I’m like a writer with lots of titles at the top of empty pages in their book.

My musings over the weekend, after clipping Phoenix and overhearing numerous conversations about what rug to put on – a hot topic every autumn. I believe that the art of rugging a horse so that they are a happy individual is being lost in the details over rug thicknesses and the theoretical side. Rather like how old horsemen had the intuition and connection to horses, which has become lost in modern day horse ownership.

Years ago, about fifteen I’d say, you’d buy a lightweight rug, which is from zero fill to about 150g filling; a medium weight rug which goes up to about 300 g filling; or a heavyweight rug which has in excess of 300g filling. You didn’t know the exact weight of the rug, but could get a good idea based on it’s feel. You’d then put said rug on depending on the weather, if your horse was clipped, if they were stabled and so on. It was simple and ultimately you stuck your hand inside, just by the shoulder, and could feel if the horse was too hot, too cold, or just right. Then you made adjustments accordingly.

Nowadays (I feel so old saying that!) every rug has the filling weight listed on the label. Which is useful in deciding if this lightweight is heavier than that lightweight. But the whole rugging system has become so mathematical.

All I hear people say now is “I’m putting on a Xg rug tonight… You’re only putting on a (X-50)g rug?… But so and so is putting on a (X+50)g rug.” yes, I do realise my use of X harks back to my A-level maths days. But you get the idea. Everyone now compares their rugging decision to their stable neighbour; and looks at the precise weight of the rug, perhaps tweaking layers on an hourly basis, but less attention is taken to the weather and environment – is it wet cold or dry cold? Is the wind easterly? Will the shelter in the field protect them from the wind coming from that direction? And does the horse actually feel warm or cold?

I worry that everyone is getting bogged down in the numbers of rugging, and not listening to their horse, or judging the actual weather conditions. And of course, knowing the precise weight of rug which is on each horse means direct comparisons are forever being made. Without consideration for the horse’s individual tolerance for the environment.

For example, Phoenix needs more rugs than she should theoretically given her condition score and breeding. But she shivers on the damp, cool nights, is tight over her back the following morning, and generally not as pleasant to ride. I’m taking the layering approach this year so I can remove the top rug in the morning and replace it at night with ease; last week I was using a couple of lightweights (50g each to be precise) as she hadn’t been clipped. She needs slightly more protection on wet days due to her personal preference and lack of shelter in her field. But that’s just her. I was irked to discover that someone had been interfering; horrified that she had two rugs on, on an evening when heavy rain forecast. Believe it or not, she was comfortably warm when that someone checked under her rugs. And the next morning she was a dry, warm, very happy horse. Besides, those two 50g rugs only equal a 100g rug, which is still classified as a lightweight rug, if you want to be pedantic. It’s just easier to remove one rug rather than remove a thicker rug and replace it with a thinner one. And I’m all about an easy life!

I think the moral of the story, is to stop getting waylaid by the numbers on rugs and what your stable neighbours are doing, but focus on responding to your horse’s feedback and reading the weather forecast. Every horse is an individual and tolerates different temperatures differently – some don’t like being too hot in rugs and actually run a bit hot. Others don’t mind being slightly warmer in a rug and struggle with the cold, particularly when it’s also wet and windy. It’s down to us as owners to read the signs from our individual horse, rather than focusing on the numbers or making comparisons. You know you’ve got it right when your horse is dry, not changing weight in a negative way (they’ll drop weight if they’re cold, and put it on if they’re hot); aren’t tucked in, shivering or holding themselves protectively; and not grumpy!

Is The Canter 3 beats or 4?

It’s a tricky one. Because it’s both three beat or four beat depending on your level of training; and tricky in that it is also both correct and incorrect with four beats.

Confused? Yep, a lot of people are from my observations.

Let’s start with average Jo Bloggs, working up to elementary level with an average all rounder horse. You know the type. Which I think encompasses the majority of leisure riders. A correct canter for you is a three beat canter; the outside hind coming forwards followed by the inside hind and outside fore together, then the inside fore and the moment of suspension.

You might have heard coaches talking about the fact your canter is four beat, or talking about improving the quality of the canter so it is more of a three beat canter. A lot of leisure horses can have a four beat canter, when the diagonal pair becomes broken and those feet don’t touch the ground simultaneously. But in a negative way. The sequence of legs is the outside hind, outside fore, inside hind, inside fore. It’s almost a lateral canter, and results from a number of issues. A horse who is too much on the forehand, lacking impulsion or activity in the hindquarters, has an interfering rider, has poor conformation or stiffness in their hindlimbs, is likely to develop this lateral, four beat rhythm. Sometimes when a horse loses balance they will revert to the four beat, lateral canter, when otherwise they have a three beat canter.

So this laterally four beat canter is not good from a training perspective because it’s very difficult to create the elevation needed for collection and lateral work. You can improve it by the use of polework, using more seat and leg to create impulsion, using hillwork and medium canter to create a more active hindleg, but ultimately it is performance limiting, so you’d struggle with advanced level work. This type of four beat canter is called negative diagonal advance placement (DAP).

That’s the negative four beat canter out the way, now let’s look at the positive four beat canter. Have you ever seen photos of elite horses, youngsters or under saddle, and noticed how uphill their canter is? And how there is no way the diagonal pair hit the ground simultaneously because the forelegs are so elevated? Well you’d be right. The inside hind does land fractionally before the outside fore. This is called positive diagonal advance placement.

So why is a sequence of footfall outside hind, inside hind, outside fore, inside fore, seen as a positive four beat canter? Well firstly, a horse who can engage their hindquarters that much will be more powerful and find collection easy. If you watch a horse doing a canter pirouette you will see that it is a definite 4 beat canter, which it has to be in order for them to be able to rotate almost on the spot. A horse who is unable to canter with a positive DAP will find this level of work nigh on impossible.

This means that when you are looking for the next future dressage champion, you are looking for a four beat canter, a positive DAP, as that suggests that they will be able to perform at the higher levels. A good example is below.

I had a look through my photos and found one of Phoenix at her first prelim. She had an unbalanced canter at the time, and you can see that although it looks lovely at first sight, she is showing slight negative DAP. I’m struggling to find proof of her recent canter work (apparently babysitting duties trumps cameraman duties?!) but just by her becoming stronger and more balanced she shows strides of positive DAP, particularly when she relaxes into collected canter work.

I then also found this image of Matt, showing slight positive DAP. Of course, not on par with the elite dressage stars, but a useful example.

This image of Matt brings me onto my final point, or musing. At what point does a positive DAP become a gallop? After all, the sequence of footfalls is the same on paper – outside hind, inside hind, outside fore, inside fore. I asked my trainer for her opinion, and she thought the gallop was differentiated because of it’s speed and the horse’s carriage whilst galloping – long and flat rather than uphill. She also helped explain that in a three beat canter the footfalls are regular, in a four beat canter the diagonal pair aren’t landing together, but they aren’t a whole beat apart. It’s like they’re slightly off beat. In musical terms: crotchet, quaver, quaver, crotchet.

There is loads of information about diagonal advanced placement, and it happens in the trot too, so go and have a look on Google. And when you come out the other end of the rabbit hole, let me know what you think of the subject!

The Ridden Horse Pain Ethogram

I attended (from the comfort of my sofa) a webinar during lockdown by Dr Sue Dyson about her Ridden Horse Pain Ethogram.

What’s that I hear you say. Well, I’d vaguely heard of it, but wasn’t sure what it was all about.

How many times do you hear people saying that their horse isn’t right? They can’t put their finger on it, but they aren’t their normal self. Then they ask their chiropractor, physiotherapist, or vet to have a look. But these professionals don’t know the horse as well as their owner does so miss the subtlest signals of pain and discomfort.

Having felt horses having an “off day” I know how difficult it is to put your finger on it, but then also how to ascertain that they are feeling better or recovering.

Alternatively, you have the leisure horse owners who struggle to feel a subtle lameness – when a horse is perhaps 3/10 lame, or just slightly short in stride on a circle. In that case, they need more symptoms to look for.

This is where the Ethogram comes into play. The Ethogram lists 24 defined behaviours which are associated with discomfort: for example, teeth grinding, tail swishing, ears back. In the research carried out by Dr Dyson, horses were recorded doing a ridden set of exercises which were analysed. Those who exhibited eight or more behaviours had a degree of lameness, which was then diagnosed using nerve blocks.

How does this affect the average horse owner? Well, if you think your horse isn’t going as well as normal and can’t put your finger on it, then look out for the 24 behaviours. If they show more than eight, then start investigating. If, for example, once your saddle has been adjusted the behaviours they are displaying will either reduce (because of the effect of pain memory) or be eliminated. A reduction in the behaviour is it being displayed for less time, or to a smaller degree.

From the professionals perspective, studying the wider picture, can help diagnose the issue because the professional will dig deeper and investigate further even if there doesn’t seem to be an obvious issue. I’ve increased my awareness of the symptoms recently, looking at the body language and other behaviours which tell me a horse isn’t comfortable, and have definitely seen a correlation between “they’re not feeling normal” and the position of their ears, amount of tail swishing, head position, facial expression, etc.

Of course, you don’t want to become an equine hypochondriac, but there’s a lot of merit in paying more attention to the subtleties of your horse’s behaviour and how they are communicating with you. It might just mean you get your saddle adjusted a month sooner, which prevents muscle soreness or atrophy. Or you will catch a niggle and have it treated by your physio or chiro before a major problem occurs which will need a rehab programme.

A visual guide to the pain ethogram.

Walk Poles

One of the lessons I did at camp was using walk poles to improve the quality of the walk and the upward transitions afterwards.

It was a useful exercise, so I used it with some clients the following week.

I laid five poles out at 3 feet apart and had my client walk actively over the poles. Depending on the length of their stride, I may roll the poles out closer to 4 foot apart. I’m aiming to improve the quality of the walk, which often benefits from lengthening the stride slightly. Once a horse has been over the poles a couple of times they usually step out with more impulsion anyway. The poles encourage the horse to increase their cadence, which helps generate impulsion and activates the hindquarters.

Then I raise the poles at alternate ends, which makes the horse really think about their foot placement; lower their head and use their back muscles as they exaggerate lifting each hind leg. Often a horse slows down through poles, so it’s useful to remind the rider to keep using their leg and seat, as well as looking up!

Once the horse is confident over the poles and the walk is more active, engaged, and the horse working over their back, it’s time to add in transitions.

I get the horse and rider to walk over the poles and two or three strides after the last pole ride an upwards transition into trot. The transition shouldn’t be rushed and too soon, so the hindquarters have finished stepping over the last pole, but don’t leave it so many steps that the benefit of the raised poles is lost.

The upward transitions should feel more powerful, more uphill and balanced. Once trotting, I get my rider to ride a circle, or leg yield, or whatever they’ve been working on so they can feel the improvement in the movement as a result of a better quality trot. Then they ride a transition to walk a few strides before doing the poles again.

I’ve used these raised walk poles on the lunge, and you could also long rein a horse over them, asking for an upwards transition afterwards. With some clients I’ve got them to ride direct transitions into canter after the last pole. Again the improved wall improved the quality of the canter.

Walk poles are definitely something to use during rehab, fittening work, or if you just want to improve their walk.

Keeping the Momentum Going

This year has been very stop start for a number of reasons, mimicking the stop-start of Phoenix’s cross country training the last couple of years.

I was determined this spring to improve Phoenix’s cross country CV with regular training outings and her competitive debut. Covid had other ideas, but since being released from lockdown I’ve made a concertive effort to get her out and about.

We went to an arena cross country lesson in June, which was full of suspicious health and safety checks at each fence before flying them the second time. She wants to do it for me; but equally wants to make sure she’s read the question thoroughly and risk assessed. Then I took her to a local schooling venue with a friend and had fewer stops, but upon reflection, I realised that I was starting to expect the first stop, and at times froze and became passive on the approach. No wonder she was suspicious of the jumps!

I gave myself a kick up the bum and went to another venue a few weeks later with another friend. Again, better. I actually rode positively to the fences and Phoenix took more of it in her stride. Interestingly, ditches and steps were becoming easy and Phoenix was no longer spending minutes tottering on the edge before committing to navigating the obstacle. Water was also becoming less of an issue, with her trotting through happily. Canter was still out of her comfort zone, but I wasn’t overly concerned about this as she just hadn’t quite worked out how to move through water. Towards the end of this session I felt like I was starting to jump out of a cross country canter rather than showjumping into each fence.

We were making steady progress, but when you’re on your own it’s very easy to sit within your comfort zone, and work your way up to doing a jump. Which of course you can’t do at a competition. Realistically, I needed to start looking at going to a competition. But I’m reluctant when there’s such a high risk of either a cricket score or being disqualified.

Next up, was riding club camp. Where we had a good cross country session, where Phoenix had jumped some meaty fences and grew in confidence. I of course had some tips to take away – mainly that I shouldn’t hesitate with the leg or hold back with the hands. Even if my brain was reluctant to commit until Phoenix did! Keeping my upper body back would save me.

What I actually realised this summer is that the motivation to go cross country schooling comes from making it a social event. Yes of course, we aren’t supposed to socialise currently but there’s less than 6 of us and we can’t get much closer than two metres whilst mounted, so we’re as low risk as you come. Going schooling with someone, who doesn’t have to be working on the same trajectory as you, gives you some support. And encouragement to challenge yourself with a slightly bigger obstacle, or trickier line. They can provide a lead if needed, or you can discuss and feedback on performance and how to improve. I think ultimately, that the attraction of going out with friends is the ulterior motive for getting out and about.

So when a friend spoke about forming a WhatsApp group of those who want to keep up the momentum of cross country schooling during winter, I realised that whilst I rarely feel a desire to go cross country in the winter, it’s exactly what Phoenix and I need. I need to keep the ball rolling with her cross country so we don’t go back to square one next spring. And there’s no reason to regress with so many arena cross country venues available to hire.

Today we had our first cross country club lesson. We’re all at different levels, but as I joked with our instructor “a good coach can manage several different levels of abilities within the same lesson”. Which doesn’t make it any easier! Phoenix was awesome. She took on the various step and jump combinations; skipped over the ditches; took on some trickier lines and flew over the couple of BE100 fences I aimed her for. I need to push with the height as it’s nearing the edge of my comfort zone as well as Phoenix’s. But equally I don’t want to just face Phoenix at huge meaty jumps as she could easily tire, make a mistake and lose confidence. But adding in the odd fence challenges us both. I felt she tackled these more easily than only a fortnight ago at camp. My job, when approaching these, is to keep riding forwards, straight, and keep my body balanced so I don’t inhibit Phoenix at all. She can get a little deep if necessary, but ultimately she is able to work the question out herself.

In the last third of the lesson we treated it as a competition by stringing some fences that we hadn’t yet jumped, including the water complex, so mimicking the competition environment. Overall, I was pleased. We stopped at the second fence, but I was slightly worried about it and I didn’t feel that Phoenix had quite gotten into her stride, still with her mind on her group of friends behind us. But she did it the second time and then flew over the next few questions, albeit feeling slightly tired by now. However, she stopped at the simple tyres just before the water. Once over it, she cantered boldly through the water. The next fences were great, but she stopped at the other jump going into the water, and then she ran out of steam at the final one before jumping it second time around.

On paper, it doesn’t sound great, but I think it was tiredness kicking in for the last fence, partly my fault for the first one, and the distraction of the water just behind the jump which caused her to have a closer inspection of them prior to jumping the other two. So after a long breather, I finished our session by jumping both jumps into water and the final hanging log. She cleared them all easily this time, so I felt we’d consolidated the subject of jumping towards water.

Overall, however, I was really pleased with Phoenix’s development across country, feeling that the stops we have are fewer, and more excusable. Plus, once she’s assessed, she is very willing to take on the challenge, and has learnt the lesson.

We’re going to try to have monthly outings to practice our cross country, either in an arena or out in the open when possible, using our group to encourage and support each other, as well as motivating us in the depths of winter. It has definitely motivated me to look at some hunter trials this autumn, and hopeful for our one day event debut next year.

I think it’s easy to underestimate the benefits of a supportive social circle, even if you are focused and ambitious, with our hectic lives, but actually it’s your horsey friends who help you achieve your dreams, no matter how diverse the dreams are within a friendship.

So if you’re struggling to find the motivation to develop your riding definitely find some friends with similar ambitions to egg each other on. We’re all on different journeys, but we can all help each other reach our destinations.

Perfecting the Jump Position

I spend a lot of time tweaking my rider’s jumping position. Sometimes we have lessons using a simple exercise where I draw their attention to a body part, which may not be wrong, but could be repositioned slightly to improve their security and stability. Sometimes I get them to hover in their jumping position for several strides on the flat to ensure that they have the muscle strength and balance to stay secure over jumps. After all, it’s harder to hold yourself in a static plank than to do one which involves leg lifts. Even with experienced jumpers, it’s worth revising their position regularly to ensure they don’t slip into bad habits.

So what is the perfect jumping position?

In an ideal world, your jumping position will be such that if the horse were to be taken away from underneath you, you wouldn’t fall over. But let’s break it down to the different areas of the body.

The stirrups need to be shorter for jumping than when riding on the flat. For novice riders it may only be a couple of holes, but more advanced riders can have half a dozen holes difference or more. There shouldn’t be a change in the position of the lower leg when going from the three point position on the approach to the jump to two point position over the fence. It’s very common for the lower leg to swing backwards. I often find that getting the rider to soften the knee and allowing the weight to drop into the heel will correct this. Sometimes I’ll get them to go into their jump position in halt and I hold their ankles to prevent them swinging backwards. Often, the pressure of my hand is enough for my rider to be aware of their lower leg and to adjust the balance of their foot as they fold into their jump position so that their lower leg remains immobile.

Next, is the foot and ankle. The ankle needs to be springy; it is a shock absorber. If it is braced and rigid then the heel cannot stay lower than the toe and points down, often in conjunction with the lower leg swinging backwards in the two point position. To solve this, I like to spend a lot of time trotting and cantering in jumping position to develop a more secure lower leg and flexible ankle. A useful off horse exercise for developing ankle flexibility is standing with the balls of you feet on a step and dropping the heels, stretching the calves and achilles tendons.

With the weight into the lower leg a rider is infinitely more secure should they have a dodgy jump – either a chip in on take off, or if a stride is taken out. Next up in the security stakes, is the upper body.

In the ideal jump position, the rider should fold from the hips, with their bottom near the cantle. A lot of riders learning to jump will struggle to fold sufficiently from their hips, either curling their shoulders and hunching instead of folding, or keeping the upper body fairly upright. Over smaller jumps you don’t need to fold as much as larger jumps, but it’s still important to practise the fold from the hips to improve flexibility.

If a rider doesn’t take their bottom to the cantle they are usually tight in the knee, with the toes down and lower leg swinging backwards. This means that their centre of gravity is over the withers so if the horse puts the brakes on, or chips in a stride the rider is vulnerable. Going repeatedly into jump position on the flat helps build muscle memory and improve flexibility. Even if a rider finds it hard to fold the upper body, it’s important they still feel like they’re taking their bottom backwards into a squatting position. In fact, doing some off horse squats can help a rider identify the correct muscles. They will also realise how the foot and ankle need to work in order to stay balanced.

One of the biggest traits I see with established jump riders is a stiff back. They’re secure in the lower leg and weight is over the knee, but in a bid to fold from the hips they are holding tension in the small of their back, sometimes even arching it slightly. This actually encourages the horse to stiffen through their back and means the rider can’t absorb movement as easily so may well be jarred on an awkward landing. This comes back to having a straight upper body on the flat with poise yet no tension – sitting trot can help develop the core so the back muscles are not recruited in sitting upright.

Once the legs and upper body are in position, it’s time to correct the arms and head. A rider should be looking straight forwards over a jump, ready for the next one on the course, and not changing their weight distribution (remember, our heads are very heavy!) over the horse’s back, so making their job harder. The hands should be following the movement of the horse’s head so they are neither restricted or left with no contact.

I was always taught to hold the mane halfway up my pony’s neck, which stopped me pinning my hands on the withers and restricting them over a jump, but also taught me to keep elbows flexible and become more in tune with the neck movement over a jump. Holding the mane also gave some support as I learnt my jumping position. Nowadays, I find people quite reluctant to hold the mane, opting for the neckstrap instead. However, the neckstrap sits at the base of the neck so only encourages a rider to fold and lean on their hands for support and stability.

Ultimately, the only way to overcome this trait is to jump without reins. Which can only effectively be done if the lower leg and upper body are fairly established and balanced. I love sending my riders down a little grid with their reins tied in a knot; it makes such dramatic improvements! If a rider is not balanced enough for this I may do some jumping position on the flat or over poles with one arm out to the side, or just encourage my rider to correct the position of their hands and lift them up from the horse’s neck. At the other extreme, is the rider who throws their hands forward in a bid to ensure they don’t jab their horse in the mouth. I often see riders going from one extreme to the other before finding a happy medium. With those with overzealous hands, I find it helpful to put a band in the mane for then to grab to aim for. The band being just below the half way point to try and train the hands to “follow the movement of the head, not overtake it”. As with the upper body folding, less give with the hands is needed over smaller jumps, but I feel it still paramount to ensure novice riders understand the correct hand position so that they do not jab the horse in the mouth as the jump height increase. Finally, along with ensuring the hands follow the horse’s movement, is checking that the rider is not sticking their elbows out – pushing the hands up the mane usually prevents these chicken wings!

Of course, no one’s perfect, and our individual conformation can make the ideal jump position hard to perfect, but if we know what we are aiming for then we will be as stable and secure as possible over jumps, which helps our horses jump in a balanced and unhindered way.

Jumping is Dressage with Speed Bumps

I’ve been working with a new combination over the summer; an eleven year old girl and her new 15hh horse, with a history of showing and showjumping.

They have been the perfect example of how improving the flatwork improves the jumping. Initially, they could barely get over a line of trot or canter poles. Not because the horse was green, but because he needs to be ridden correctly. Which is a big learning curve for any child moving up from kick and point ponies.

We started the summer improving their relationship on the flat; exploring the concept of rhythm, improving rider position, developing the idea of riding leg to hand. These all began to improve their straightness and balance.

As this improved, the jumping and polework became easier; they had fewer run outs, maintained a rhythm to and from a fence and were more balanced. We did gridwork which helped the transition from polework to jumping, and helped my rider adjust from a pony’s pop to a horse’s bascule.

I then turned my attention to the quality of the gaits, and improving my rider’s feel for a poor trot or canter and her ability to improve them. I mainly did this on the flat, but then I started to notice (which is very common) that my rider was improving on the flat, but not making the connection to that work with her jumping. She got more confident, wanted to jump bigger, and then little problems started to creep in.

With the typical “urgh flatwork” reaction that a lot of kids give, I decided to do a jump lesson without focusing on the jumps. Of course, she went over the jumps, but all my critiquing was on the flat, to hopefully help my rider understand the importance of her flatwork.

I erected the jumps to a reasonable size – big enough that if she didn’t ride the approach correctly then her horse would politely duck out, yet small enough that she wasn’t concerned about the height. As she warmed up we discussed rhythm, impulsion, how reactive he was to the aids, riding from leg to hand, balance on the turns etc.

She warmed up over a simple cross pole on a diagonal line across the school; the first time off the left rein the canter was a bit flat but she got away with it. The second time she held a better rhythm and kept the canter together and rounder so that the jump was more of an extreme canter stride with a better bascule. I focused her on the quality of the canter and let the feel over the jump do the teaching.

We changed the rein, so she was coming off a right turn. Now, I’ve been drumming into her all summer about her pony drifting through the left shoulder, improving her left contact and use of the left leg. Which is improving on the flat but goes out the window once jumps come on the scene.

As expected, they drifted left, her pony loaded his left shoulder and they had a clunky jump. I put myself on the outside of the turn the next time and had her ride a squarer turn without using her right rein. This kept her horse in slight outside bend, controlled the shoulder, and improved their vertical balance and accuracy to the fence. Which led to a much better jump.

We repeated this a few times, made the fence an upright, and it started to come together nicely.

Next, was a double off the dreaded right rein. They jumped it fine when it wasn’t particularly big, and could get away with a crooked, flat canter approach, but once the fence increased to 80cm, when my rider drifted around her right turn and let the canter fall apart her pony either skirted left around it, or got in very deep. Again, I focused on the flatwork and as soon as my rider was riding from leg to hand, riding squarer corners, and kept the impulsion and rhythm balance to the take off point, they flew the fences nicely, making the horse striding easily. He’s only a little horse so easily falls into pony strides if he gets deep to the first fence but the jumps are awkward and he risks knocking the front rail.

I turned my rider’s attention briefly to her recovery after the fence; sitting up quicker and assessing the quality of the canter. It was more to increase her awareness and give her something to mull over in the next couple of weeks rather than a big teaching subject for the day.

Next, we started to link the course together, discussing the time and space between the fences rather than the time in the air. As my rider rode around the course I talked her through the balance of the canter, the outside aids, the straightness of their approach. When she got it, they flew!

However, when she let the canter get sloppy, for want of a better term, they got in deep to the jump and scrambled over it. When she stopped riding around the turn and presumed her pony would take her over the jump, he drifted left around it. There were good parts to the course, and this really emphasised the importance of her approach and canter, and equally she could really see the contrast between the great parts and the “get over by the skin of your teeth” jumps.

We then rode the elements she’d found hardest, talking through the changes she needed to make before going, and there was a definite improvement by the end.

I’m hoping that the takeaway message from today’s jumping lesson was not jump orientated, but more of an awareness of the quality of her canter and her horse’s balance on turns.. She can practice this on the flat and as part of her warm up, and it will in turn benefit her dressage. Which I think she’ll focus more on it when she understands how much it helps her ride a smooth, flowing, balanced course clear.

After all, showjumping is just dressage with speed bumps. Get the bits on the flat right, and the jumping is easy. Sneaking flatwork into a jump lesson is often the only way to get young riders to see purpose to their flatwork and motivate them to improve it for the sake or their jumping.

Buying Horses

One of my clients is currently on the search for her first horse, moving up from her share pony.

I forget how much of a minefield buying horses is. I’m very lucky that all of ours has just happened. Mum asked my instructor to keep an eye out for a youngster I could bring on and she had a friend who had bred Matt. Not going to lie, seeing a feral 2 year old colt on the side of the Welsh mountains one blustery day didn’t strike me as a perfect pony! But he’s turned out pretty good. Otis was also from another friend of hers. Phoenix, I’d decided we’d look in the spring and her advert appeared on my social media a couple of days later. Fate? Perhaps it struck three times for me.

But when you’re actively looking for horses, there’s a lot of dross to sift through.

I’ve often helped clients look for horses, or been to view them, or been sent videos for feedback. It’s not my favourite job because I feel quite a lot of pressure to get it right. I also feel that entering the world of horse ownership is often underestimated, and not without potholes, so it’s not only important to find the right horse, but also nurture the relationship as it develops. I’ve had several experiences of people asking my advice, bought a horse, then neglected regular lessons or supervision from a professional before getting into a pickle and losing confidence in each other.

How best to start the search for a new horse? I tend to have the conversation about what the rider is realistically looking for. Sometimes this involves some home truths in that the horse a rider is dreaming of is not what their abilities and ambitions needs. I’ve seen a purchase go wrong because the rider has insisted on overhorsing themselves, so I am not afraid to try to talk sense into prospective purchasers. However, I do usually let the purchaser lead the search. They can send me the adverts for feedback. This allows me to get a feel for their likes in a horse too.

I will also ask my contacts, to see if I can find a suitable horse through word of mouth as we go along, and keep my ears to the ground if anyone tells me about a horse.

In the initial browsing of adverts, I tend to encourage purchasers to look beyond their budget and outside the travel zone. This allows them to gauge the market, get a better understanding of adverts and the points to look for.

Once adverts start coming to me, I’ll feedback as to whether more info is needed, and if not, what I don’t like about the advert. After all, I don’t want to turn down a dozen adverts which all say “sharp” for a novice rider. Better to explain the meaning of the word and let them filter other sharp horses out. It’s an educational process as well. For example, my client sent me an advert for a 16hh Clydesdale cross. 15-16hh is our height criteria, but a chunky horse at the top end of the height will be too much horse for my rider. Therefore when she’s looking at horses she needs to consider breed/type as well as height.

The next learning curve for prospective purchasers is speaking to the owners of the advertised horse, asking the relevant questions and interpreting the answers. We also look at the videos. When I feedback on adverts I’ll often suggest questions to ask and what information is missing or incomplete.

It’s amazing how quickly you learn to read an advert and write off a horse due to vague blurb, missing information, photos only of the horse’s head or when stationary, or poor videos. By the time you’ve whittled down the unsuitable ones, the ones too far away, and the ones with unsaid problems, then unfortunately you aren’t left with many to choose from!

Next up, is viewing a horse. It’s always recommended that you take someone knowledgeable with you, and for those not used to viewings or riding different horses then I think the most useful person to take is your instructor. They can ride the horse as well, and they can effectively give you a lesson. I find that just me standing in the middle of the arena will quell any nerves from the rider, and I can talk through the horse’s behaviour, subtle signs I’ve spotted, explain what assessments the rider needs to make, and get them talking about what they’re feeling underneath them. I can also tweak my rider so that hopefully they get a better tune out of the horse, which is realistically more like what they will be working on at home. Then I also get a feel for the horse’s trainability. It doesn’t matter if they encounter a problem, such as refusing a jump, but rather how they both deal with it afterwards. Often the first jumps aren’t the best as they’re getting used to each other. The prospective horse should be ridden in the arena first, from a safety point of view, and then if it passes this test, out in the open and on a hack. I also like my client to have some time on the ground with the horse, to get a feel for them as a person.

Once the viewing is over, I remind my client that they don’t have to like this horse. There’s no pressure for it to be “the one”. No time wasted, nothing lost but an experience gained. I then try and get them to evaluate and analyse the horse, giving their likes and questions or worries. We talk about what the horse needs – for example, if the jumping didn’t go as planned, would the horse benefit from gridwork, or polework? What can the prospective owner expect from the first couple of months of ownership? I also want to know the rider’s gut feeling, and if they “clicked” with the horse. After getting the purchasers views I’ll add mine, and then we follow up with any new questions, possibly arrange a second viewing and make a decision before organising vettings and other new horse preparations.

As with any major, life changing decisions, it is worth investing the time and effort into doing the research, asking all the questions, necessary or unnecessary. Asking for help and guidance, and then being prepared to ask for help over the next few months as your new horse settles in and you settle into horse ownership.