Right Horse, Wrong Job

Sometimes you meet a horse, and it’s immediately obvious that they’re in the wrong job. Or have been, and you just feel for them. Well I do, and I feel sorry for them that they’ve been so misunderstood and unhappy.

I met a new client recently with her new loan horse. He’s owned by a lady who hires horses out for hunting, but is now spending the summer (and longer if I have any say in the matter) in a one to one loan home. I really like this horse, but I feel he is so much more suited to a private home. This isn’t to say I don’t agree with hiring out hunters, it’s just to say that I don’t think it suits this little horse.

Let me tell you a bit about him. He’s a Welsh cross… possibly with a bit of Shire in him as he’s a bit heavier than a pure Welsh Cob and has a common head. But he’s sensitive. And tense. We spent the first lesson getting him used to the idea than life doesn’t go at one hundred miles an hour, and that the leg can be applied without him tensing and accelerating. He’s a quick learner, and keen to please because by the end of that session his trot had slowed, the stride was longer, and his neck had lengthened as he became less tense. Transitions between walk and trot were really useful for getting him less reactive to the leg, and for his new rider to find the right buttons. The aim was for him to move up into a steady trot rather than race for half a dozen strides. Then we wanted the downward transitions to come more from the seat so he didn’t tense his neck and lift his head up.

We worked on the same principles in the canter, and now it’s just down to repetition and practice. He’ll always be a bit of a pocket rocket, but I can’t help but feel that being hired out to strangers must have been very stressful for him as he’s so sensitive to the aids and having riders of different shapes, sizes and abilities will have confused and worried him.

As a hireling, he can jump. But again, it’s a bit panicked and rushed.  He seems very worried by poles, and his instinctive response is to rush and overjump them – in case there are crocodiles waiting to leap out at him obviously. This causes it’s own problems because the rider gets unbalanced and left behind over the poles, thus scaring the horse even more. 

When we’ve jumped in lessons we’ve just begun by walking and trotting over the poles very quietly and calmly, repeating it with praise after until he stops rushing. Then we’ve built it up to a small cross pole, and repeated the exercise. We’ve kept it very calm, with positivity, and repetition so the horse understands the question, starts to trust his rider, and slows down. Last lesson he started by over jumping, leaping like a deer, and not basculing at all, but gradually as he slowed down a bend started to come over his back. Once he stops rushing after the fence we’ll link it to another one, and so build him up slowly.

Unfortunately I think it’s going to be a long, slow process of this horse learning that his rider is his and his alone, and that she can be trusted not to pull him in the mouth or crash down in the saddle – which now fits him so should help. Once he learns to trust her I think he will relax and be less tense in his response to the aids, which will enable us to work on getting him to stretch over his back on the flat, thus releasing the right muscles and endorphins, which will further reduce his levels of tension. Then hopefully, with a less tense body, he will be able to move and jump more correctly and thus find it more comfortable.

After I’ve taught this pair I always seem to go away wondering what this horse would have been like if he’d only had a private home. He’s quite bold, honest and willing to please, but easily upset (he often has a bit of a worried look in his eye) and I think if he’d had positive experiences with just one rider he would be more confident tackling the unknown, and far less inclined to rush – personally I think a few too many riders have socked him in the mouth, or been left behind over fences so now he runs away from potential physical pain as much as anything. Part of me thinks that hiring him can’t have been hugely enjoyable because although I think you’d have jumped everything with the pack, you would have felt slightly out of control the whole time. But then, I’ve always been a rider who likes to have a bond with the horse I’m riding. 

I love working with these quirky sorts of horses; getting to know them, working out what makes them tick and how to get the best out of them. And then seeing them improve. I really hope that the one on one effect starts to help this horse, so he can let go of his worries and go out and have fun with his loaner. It will be interesting to see how he develops over the summer, and I hope he doesn’t go back to be a hireling over the winter because it’s a job he’s just not suited to, and I think he’d be happier staying where he is.

Next lesson I want to see if we can build on his suppleness on the flat, whilst encouraging him to stretch his neck forwards and down an inch or so, to start lengthening the muscles of his topline and releasing over his sacro-iliac. I’d like to link two fences together, but there will be no pressure to do so before he slows and relaxes into the jumping. 

Hunting 

As I’m sure many of you know, the hunting season is in full swing at the moment and my social media is full of hunting photos every weekend.

Last week a farrier asked me if I was going hunting on the weekend. I replied “no” and he looked shocked. It’s not the first time people have looked at me as though I’m crazy for not going hunting.

It’s not that I’m against hunting as a sport; now it is all about chasing pre-laid scents or runners, over land that has been checked by the hunt master it is far more comparable to a large, fast sponsored ride. Years ago there was the anti-hunt movement, and yes both sides had valid points, but discussing them isn’t the object of my post. Every Boxing Day we used to hack into town for the meet – a great hack with my friends, and the contagious excitement of the little kids when they were allowed to go for the first time.

I have to say that hunting doesn’t appeal to me. Yes, I love going cross country and tackling big fences, but I think I am more of a calculating rider. On the cross country course my favourite fences are the questioning combinations. I like to walk the course, study the fences, find my lines, see what’s behind a jump (so I don’t get any nasty drop surprises). Perhaps I’m not brave or zealous enough to ride at a hedge, with no idea what the other side holds, whilst jostling for space and hoping the horse in front doesn’t stop. Of course, if you or your horse benefit from a lead over a fence, or are more likely to push outside your comfort zone jumping en masse then hunting is a great opportunity to do so.

I have another reason to not go hunting. Otis. Firstly, he is a total idiot in groups of more than three so I would spend the entire meet caprioling around, in desperate need of Velcro jodhpurs and a parachute. Secondly, I would worry  about the risk of him injuring himself in deep going. I’m a bit of a worry wort about riding in deep mud or heavy going, which means my winter hacks are rather sedate and steady. Typically, his current injury occurred on hard ground …

I think a lot of the appeal of hunting is the social aspect. Which is probably why I’m not interested – we all know how antisocial I am. Just like the popular clique at school, I’m not part of the hunting brigade. Also, my idea of fun is a catch up in a small group over a cup of tea (preferably with cake) as opposed to a big party. Maybe hunting is for the extroverts?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to be disparaging about hunting. It has it’s perks, and as you can see if you attend any meet, it is as popular as ever. I guess I’m just trying to say that it’s not for everyone and those of us who don’t partake usually have valid reasons and should be respected and not judged for them.

You`re Not a Rider

When I was six and started learning to ride my Dad was tolerant but not exactly very encouraging. As I grew up, learnt more, started jumping, loaned a couple of ponies, I felt I was getting pretty good. I could do cross country now! But my Dad still claimed I wasn`t a real rider because I hadn`t jumped a five bar gate.

He on the other hand, who has no interest in horses and has never had a riding lesson, is however a rider. This is because he went to see a girlfriend at her house when he was about fourteen and she offered to “show him their land” and suggested that he sat on her Father`s hunter while she rode her horse. Which he did. But then they reached one of the fields. And off Dad went at a flat out gallop! Upon reaching the top of the field (I suspect at this point Dad was hanging round his horse`s neck, not that he would admit it!) the horse jumped a five bar gate. Dad hung on and was still on board upon landing, which is why he claims to be a real horse rider.

As I wasn`t into hunting and used to do a lot of showing five bar gates were in short supply. It was only when I was 20 and doing a sponsored ride that I came across a five bar gate and popped my Mum`s 14.2hh pony over it to fulfil this childhood ambition.