Using All Senses

One of my young clients has dyspraxia. I won’t say suffers from, because it doesn’t hold him back. It just means I peep through my fingers as he canters around in a very loose position.

But because he finds it difficult to balance I try to do lots of little exercises each week to keep working on improving his proprioception and balance because he needs more time to develop the coordination and strength in his little body.

From very early on we’ve done bits without stirrups and are currently doing sitting trot without stirrups for five minutes each lesson (those of you who had 40 minutes without stirrups this week will be cursing me as you read this. But you’re old enough and ugly enough to survive!).

I’ve done quite a lot of no rein work, as has his Mum with him on the lunge, developing core stability and balance. Hands out to the side like an aeroplane now comes easily in rising trot, and you can see a steady improvement because his arms do not wobble around as much as they did.

I want to push boundaries though, and help him reach his current limits in the relative safety of a lesson, so that he’s in a better position to recover from anything his whizzy pony throws at him.

To improve his balance further, a few weeks ago I had him trotting around the indoor school in rising trot. With his eyes closed. Taking away a sense heightens other senses, so I hoped to improve his feel and balance with his pony by temporarily blinding him. Of course if he needed to, he could open his eyes immediately to help stay in the saddle. But he didn’t need to.

I also used this time with his eyes closed to draw his attention to the 1-2 rhythm of the trot because, somehow he has random days when he’s rising at a different tempo to his pony. So I’m trying to improve his awareness of and feel for rhythm and tempo, despite his young age. With his eyes closed he can also listen more carefully to the footfalls of his pony, which will help teach him rhythm too.

A couple of lessons ago I introduced cantering with one arm out to the side. His seat is very nearly established in canter, but considering how bouncy his pony’s strides are he does very well. We did do one canter with both arms out like an aeroplane. But it was a bit faster than I liked and my heart could only take one viewing.

Last lesson, I had a request to do no arms in canter and trotting with no eyes.

We duly did this. Trotting without stirrups for a bit, then taking the stirrups back and doing rising trot with his eyes closed. He was more secure in his pony’s tempo today and it was interesting that when his eyes were closed his core muscles kicked in because his elbows stayed closer to his sides and his rising trot was less “loose”.

We moved onto cantering, and after making a couple of positional corrections, I tied a knot in his reins. We skipped stage one of just one hand out, and held both arms out to the side, confidently. The next canter I called, “one arm out, then the other… Eyes closed!”

I was impressed. He stayed in a good balance and the pony fell into trot after the long side. Then I realised I had to tell him to open his eyes again!

We spent a while doing this exercise, with my rider starting to sit into the saddle for longer between bounces. He spent the entire time grinning and laughing loudly.

He’s not ready for no stirrups whilst cantering, but my plan over the next couple of lessons is to do some trotting on the lunge without reins or stirrups, and possibly with his eyes closed. I’d also like to try bareback riding with him to improve his feel and balance, which I think will really improve his coordination and muscle strength as his stronger side won’t be able to compensate for his weaker, less coordinated side, which will then become stronger and he’ll be more balanced and have greater stability in the saddle.

Track System Turnout

I was first introduced to the idea of track systems ten years ago, as a method of encouraging horses to move around their paddocks more. It was predominantly aimed at companions, the laminitis prone, and obese. The friend who first set it up definitely noticed an improvement in the waistlines of her unridden equines. She sets up a track around the edge of her hay field, and cuts hay from the centre of the field, while the ponies graze the edges which are harder to cut with the tractor.

But they’ve evolved. Track systems are now hugely complicated, focus on enrichment and often have different “areas”. There are social media groups for the obsessed. It’s almost a culture, like those who have barefoot horses.

As with anything, I sit firmly in no man’s land. Barefoot is great if your horse is happy without shoes. But if they’re not, then give their hooves some form of protection. The majority of horses will benefit from a track system, and if you can provide one with different zones then great. But if you can’t provide the full works then just take away the basic concept and don’t stress.

Which is?

To encourage a horse to walk around their turn out area more, to mimic the natural nomadic lifestyle of wild horses.

Now, if you have your own land, plenty of it, plus plenty of resources to build miles of fencing, then yes, go all out and build the most fantastical track system for your horse to enjoy. Providing different surfaces underfoot, hedgerow and browsing plants, shelter and everything else you’ve ever wanted your horse to have.

But that is the ideal situation.

The majority of us have rented fields with livery yard restrictions, which renders an all singing, all dancing and track system inconceivable. However, like I said, just keeping the core concept of increasing their step count, can really help you manage the weight and general fitness of your horse.

Most paddocks at livery yards are rectangular, and the usual way that people strip graze, or rest half, is to create a “front half” and a “back half” which are effectively squares. Now, what about if you were to turn that around? Instead of putting up temporary fencing across the field, parallel to the short side, what about putting the fence at ninety degrees, parallel to the long side? You then have two rectangles of turnout. The physical area of your horse’s space is the same, but the layout means there’s more walking involved whilst grazing. You can also encourage further movement by putting any hay at the far end of field to the gate and water.

I used this set up for Otis when he was in work, and when I wanted to introduce the rested area, I opened up the fencing at the far end of the field and gave it to him in small chunks. So he’d have to walk the full length of his field, go around the corner and back on himself to get fresh grazing. To rest the first half of the field, I’d just shut the fencing at the far end, and make a gateway near the metal gate. I never had a problem controlling Otis’s weight, but I’m sure it helped keep his baseline fitness up.

Now, with Otis in retirement, we often extend the boys’ paddock into the track, so they get more access to the hedgerow for browsing and have to do a bit more walking to counteract the plentiful grass as exercising him isn’t an option.

When clients talk to me about managing their paddock with the spring grass and tubby pony, I always suggest making the strips of grazing as long and thin (within reason) as possible. If a paddock is rather square, then creating an L shape is a useful way of maximising footfall. Fresh grass can then be given at the far end, eventually creating a C shape. It’s by no means a track system, but it is glorified strip grazing, working within the confines of a standard livery yard set up, and relatively quick and easy to set up and maintain each spring, and hopefully helps reduce the weight gain of the good doers.

Has anyone else found a difference in their horse’s baseline fitness and waistline by changing the configuration of their paddocks?

Running Livery Yards

On the grapevine a few weeks ago I heard that I was in the market for my own livery yard. This was news to me, so I think the grapevine may have been a rose bush in disguise.

A couple of years ago I did dream of having my own yard, being my own boss, and potentially having my own riding school. Well, I now work for myself, so that is one box ticked. However, I`ve discovered that I prefer teaching for the long term, rather than the riding school one hour hello-goodbye sessions. I love seeing the progression of a relationship between horse and rider, as they work on the foundations which build into a great tower of success. This means I can cross “owning a riding school” off my bucket list. 

The last one, of owning a riding school, is I believe a pie in a sky dream. I`ve seen recently the politics, heavy workload, loneliness, responsibility, and paperwork involved in running a livery yard. Now, whilst I wouldn`t dismiss having my own house with three stables annd paddocks in the garden – I think I need to win the lottery first, though – I have decided that I am thoroughly happy with assisting the running of a yard, working on a yard and teaching. I have the best of all worlds!

One of my recent observations I`ve made is about the decision a yard owner has to make about whether they offer DIY, part of full livery. 

I`ve always been a firm supporter of the DIY route, with assistance from yard staff on an ad-hoc basis. My main reason for this is that I don`t see the point in having a horse unless you look after it yourself. As an adult, I now realise that part livery is actually a very good option to consider. Each yard has different elements in their part livery package – five days or a staggered week, am and pm, bedding included or additional – so it is worth speaking to yards individually. Anyway, as an adult, weigh up your petrol costs driving to and from the yard twice a day, the time involved versus your home life, and your working day and work load. The petrol cost alone usually balances out most of the additional part livery cost. Something I only realised recently is that as an adult you juggle so many balls, often it makes life easier if you know that someone is caring for your horse on a daily basis so you do not need to get up an extra hour earlier, or sacrifice valuable family time mucking out. After all, aren`t you better off spending the only hour you have for your horse riding or grooming, rather than mucking him out? I think part livery allows owners to focus on the better part of  horse ownership, rather than the menial task of mucking out or turning out. Another aspect of part livery that I like is that the yard staff know your horse well, because they look after him every day, not on an ad-hoc basis, as in the the assisted DIY situation, which means they are likely to pick up on behavioural or physical changes. If a yard is run from your home then part and full livery means that you, as an owner, have more control and knnowledge over who is there at odd times of the day. I mean, do you really want to be awakened at 5am every morning by the DIY livery who is turning their horse out before catching the train to London for work?

Full livery still eludes me, as I`m not sure I would ever be able to justify paying someone to completely care for my horse, while I did not even have the privilege of being responsible for him on weekends. Perhaps time will change my feelings towards this.

Another element of running a yard which must be considered is the subject of instruction. If you are an instructor than it is logical to promote yourself and put a ban on external instructors teaching liveries. However, this is quite egotistical  and would only work with small yards, as a bigger yard will have diverse learners and riders, so needs more than one instructor (perhaps one who focuses on flat, or jump, or one who teaches visually, or another kinaestheitcally) to satisfy all the clients. So perhaps a livery yard should offer a variety of clinics – where an instructor of a specific discipline and of a high standard comes in and teaches for the day once a month. But then this self-limiting as owners cannot always book time off work, and may prefer to have more frequent lessons.

As a riding school you should have enough of your own instructors to satisfy the liveries, so they can book lessons through the riding school and so increase the riding school`s revenue. This sort of situation is very appealing to first time horse owners, as they have good continuation from their riding school era, and a good network of support. 

If you do decide to allow external instructors to teach your liveries, how do you police it? Should arena`s be booked off, and an arena hire fee paid? Or should the instructors have to lump it and share with other liveries? Should there be an arena hire fee, or does the arena hire come from the liverie`s monthly fee? Who should be responsible for booking an arena?

I work at one yard who bills liveries separately for arena usage – this accomodates the happy hackers, who want to save fifty pounds a pony, or the retired horses, yet for those who use the school it is not an astronomical cost, and there is no limit on usage for the arena. Those people do not have to pay arena hire if they are taught by an external instructor. But this yard does not provide an instructor, so an external one is not taking income away. Another yard I go to charges arena hire for external instructors, which is payable whether the arena is shared or not. This gets into difficult waters because I know that if I was paying to have a lesson and had to pay to hire the arena as well I would not want to share my space with others, or have jumps erected in the middle. In that case it is also necessary to have a good method of policing arena bookings. I`ve seen large white boards at some yards, where liveries write in the time slot. But then in petty environments names can be rubbed off and double bookings made.

When looking at the responsibility of booking an arena I can only say that from my point of view as an instructor who visits four different yards a week I do not want to be ringing each yard manager to book each arena. I juggle enough balls teaching at three different locations in three hours! If I were at a yard that I had to book the arena for my dressage lesson, it would be very easy to pop in and book one day when I was already there with my horse.

I think this area of running a yard is very difficult, and I am yet to see a suitable, universal method, which keeps everyone happy. 

Another aspect of running a yard is, of course, the dreaded politics. Unfortunately horse ownership brings out the worst in people but there is nothing worse than when a yard manager gets involved. They should remain impartial, rise above any bickering, yet at the same time be quick enough to bang everyones heads together. This makes me realise just how lonely running a yard can be. No one talks to you unless they have a complaint, and you have to keep everyone at arm`s length so you are not accused of being biased. I guess this, along with the paperwork, can lead to a yard manaager isolating themselves in the office under a mountain of paper. Which creates it`s own problems, as the yard manager is not out on the yard interacting with the horses and liveries, so is not seen as being approachable and they do not nip problems in the bud because they don`t hear of them until the molehills become mountains.

All in all, the last couple of weeks pondering has led me to decide that I`m perfectly happy being involved with the running of a yard – giving my input and suggestions to improving and helping in the day-to-day running, but I am just as happy to go home at night and not worry about who hasn`t paid their bill, or who isn`t talking to who. Meanwhile, I am left alone in my evenings to plan the next day`s lessons, riding, and itinery in peace. Although, sometimes this juggling act can be as much of a headache!

The Rules of Feeding

If you are training towards your BHS exams then you should be able to recite the Rules of Feeding by heart. If you are a recreational horse owner then some of the rules of feeding you will know, and others are common sense.

But have you ever paused to consider the reasons for these rules and how they can affect a horse`s health.

1. Feed according to size, age, body weight, type, temperament, time of year, type of work to be done and the level of rider that will be riding him.
This sounds obvious really, but it is incredibly common for people to overfeed their horse. I think it comes from two reasons. Firstly, we feel better giving our horse a nice big dinner. And at the other end of the spectrum we feel cruel giving the chubby pony just a handful of chaff while the rest of the barn of Thoroughbreds munch through their buckets of oats. The other reason is that owners grossly overestimate the level of work their horse is in. Just because you hack him five days a week doesn`t mean that he should be fed competition mix, as he is still only in the “Light Work” category.

2. Feed little and often.
Horses have a small stomach, approximately the size of a rugby ball, which is quite rigid. Therefore there is a risk of colic by overfilling the stomach as undigested food is pushed through into the intestines, where it is more likely to get blocked as it isn`t digested. Furthermore, in the wild horses are designed to eat little and often so by providing them with small, regular feeds you are mimicking their natural lifestyle.

3. Always feed good quality food.
Let`s bring it back to basics. Would you like to eat mouldy or dusty food? Firstly, it`s bad for the respiratory and digestive systems. Secondly, so many people fall into the trap of buying in bulk to save precious pennies, but their feed goes out of date long before they use it. Why don`t yards get together and put in a bulk order so that everyone still benefits from buying in bulk? Another little tip is to ensure that feed bins are completely empty before refilling them. This may mean having a bag of feed sat in the feed room for a couple of days, but this bag won`t become contaminated by any bad feed at the bottom of the bin. Furthermore, you won`t end up with four scoops of dusty, bad feed sitting at the bottom of the feed bin.

4. Feed plenty of bulk.
The horses digestive system is designed to breakdown grass, or it`s replacements. The fibre helps the digestive system work efficiently as it ensures peristalsis can occur and the intestines are less likely to tie themselves in knots.

5. Do not make any sudden changes to the type of food being fed.
I remember this rule being drilled into me whenever I was told to feed my pony oats. It wasn`t explained to me at the time, but the horses stomach contains bacteria which are specific to the food type they break down. For example, a horse fed a lot of barley has a lot of barley bacteria in their stomach, whilst one who isn`t fed any barley doesn`t have any barley bacteria in theirs. If their feeds were to be accidentally swapped the horse with barley bacteria wouldn`t come to much harm, he would just give his barley bacteria a day off. The horse without the barley bacteria though, could have serious problems. Because his stomach cannot break down barley, the barley will pass undigested through his stomach and into the intestines, where it risks getting blocked and causing colic.

6. Always use clean utensils and bowls.
This sounds obvious again, as we wouldn`t eat off a dirty plate, but in many yards this a job left at the bottom of the list. If you fed your horse from a bucket on the yard that had just been swept, and picked up the bucket as soon as he was finished, the bucket is still probably fairly clean. Or at least, it looks clean. You want to be careful though as germs are invisible and a horse could be suffering from a slight infection and these germs could be passed from horse to horse should another horse eat from that feed bucket.However, if your horse has their feed bucket in their stable all night it gets squelched around and the bottom covered in muck – both visible and invisible. One of the morning jobs at most yards is to remove all feed buckets and stack them up in the feed room. When you stack the buckets you put mucky bases into the cleaner insides and so provide a filthy bowl for your horse to eat from the following day. For this reason I always wash both sides of a bucket, and then I know I can stack in peace.

7. Feed a hard feed at least an hour before exercise, and longer for demanding work.
This is another rule that was drummed into me as a child, but I didn`t realise until I was training on a yard, that you shouldn`t feed before travelling or doing anything stressful, as a stressed horse will divert his blood supply to the muscles and away from the digestive system, which means that food takes longer to be digested and risks being pushed into the intestine and becoming jammed.

8. Feed at regular times daily.
Horses like routine, and yes I don`t like them to become too fixed into a routine, in case you have a problem or just need a lie in. A benefit of feeding at regular times on a busy yard is that everyone knows what is going on. For example, you could turn up at the yard in the morning ready to ride your horse, knowing that the yard staff will have fed all the horses between 7.30 and 8.00. I know I would hate it if I turned up to ride my horse and he had only just been fed. It wastes precious hours in the day. My usual routine for Otis and Llani is to split them in the field and feed them between 7.30 and 8.00, but for the last week I`ve been house-bound with the world`s worst Christmas Chest Infection (Yes, I do need sympathy!) and my friend has been feeding the boys. Obviously this means they had breakfast a bit later in the day, and at slightly different times. The result? Llani canters around the field and throws a shoe! Otis on the other hand, just isn`t talking to me.

9. Feed something succulent every day.
A stabled horse can be kept happy by apples and carrots being added to his diet. To many people, this means giving their horse treats from the hand. It doesn`t. I always stress to new owners that treats are given in a bucket, to avoid creating nippy ponies. I turn out so many livery horses who search my pockets from treats, nudging and trying to nip me, as we go to the field. It`s annoying and very rude as they don`t give you any personal space.

10. Water before feeding
This rule is from a time before horses had access to water at all times. Grooms used to lead them from their stall to the trough, and back. Incidentally, this is also where the saying “You can lead a horse to water but you can`t make him drink.” comes from. In the olden days horses used to take big gulps of water, which could wash undigested food through the digestive tract. Nowadays, it`s not such an issue, but I always like to offer water to the horses before feeding them, by putting them in their stable for a few minutes, or offering them a bucket when we`re at another venue.

A further rule I would like to add is Maintain the feed room in a clean and orderly fashion as it is my pet hate when I see buckets scattered around the yard. For one reason, Otis sees a bucket and assumes it is a) full of feed, and b) for him, which can lead to behavioural problems – he stands gazing at the bucket, completely ignoring the fact I`m trying to pick out his foot! Additionally, the sugar beet bucket should never be left out on the yard. It is dangerous if a child lost control of their pony, or a horse broke loose and the sugar beet isn`t soaked sufficiently. A clean feed room with airtight bins and no feed on the floor is less likely to attract vermin. One of my daily jobs is to sweep the feed room out, even if no food has spilt. Nowadays, so many livery yards have micro feed rooms, so that individuals keep track of their own food. Livery owners must be encouraged to keep their environment clean and tidy to reduce the risk of rats.

Tidy Muckheap Tidy Yard …

Yards are always proud of their muckheaps aren`t they? It`s the sign of a tidy yard apparently.

When I was younger “doing the muckheap” was an all day job, and God help you if you forgot to throw that dropping all the way up or sweep the dust against the muckheap wall. We did have rather a spectacular `heap though. It was in a shed, and began at the end of September. Dutifully we forked up everything and built a rectangular pile, with edges you could drop a plumb line down. Once this first layer got to about 8ft, and it was nigh on impossible to put any more up there, and we used a ladder to scramble up in order to level off the top and push back the muck, we were permitted to begin the second layer. And then the third. By about February there were three large layers, with the top one almost touching the roof, and only the smallest helpers could go up there and level it off. The rest of us would be on the other layers forking piles up. Usually a mother would be standing by the gate informing us where we had left lumps, or it wasn`t quite horizontal.
For some reason, I remember in a half term, we decided for some reason that the muckheap needed remodelling. So layer number two was split in half, and the majority of it forked upwards so that layer three reached the roof and we were bent double levelling it off. I think we were obsessed. But we were very fit and strong. And smelly, come to think of it.
Towards the end of March a local farmer, along with his muck spreader, would come and empty the contents of the shed. It would take him a day and a half, at least!

The next yard I went to had very small muckheaps, which required emptying once a fortnight. And there was a reluctance to do anything to them except dump wheelbarrows. Invariably leading to straw piles across the yard until whichever staff member was flavour of the month and had to “sort it out”. Towards the end of my time there a couple of us became quite accomplished at muckheap modelling; photographic evidence even reached Facebook! Our faces used to fall as the next livery owner pushed an overflowing barrow towards us …

Now we have muck trailers, which are actually very useful and get emptied weekly by the tractor. Barrows are wheeled up a ramp (easier said than done), round a corner and into the trailer. Livery owners are usually pretty good at keeping it forked back, right up to the top of the sides. I have seen it being emptied when it`s half full because everyone`s dumped their muck. Today, however, the trailers hadn`t been emptied for about ten days and there was a queue of wheelbarrows down the ramp. We couldn`t muck out because they were all full! The trouble was that the guy who usually takes the trailer away is off this week celebrating his birthday (I mean, how dare he?!) so we called in the reserves. Affectionately known as Bill and Ben, I asked the two middle aged odd-jobbers if they could assist. Willingly they went to get the tractor and proceeded to tow away the first trailer … along with the fence post …
Whilst they were gone we took advantage of the prolonged absence of the trailer to have a good sweep underneath it. Usually it returns in the time it takes to blink so we don`t have time to pick what has missed the trailer. Bill and Ben return, crashing into the gate, and then have a prolonged discussion about how to reverse the trailer back safely, without crashing into the new livery`s shed. They call for back up in the shape of a builder (who built the stables over a decade ago and is still here titivating them). He performs a twenty three point turn and manages to back the trailer in to it`s parking space. “Make sure it`s against the ramp” I say, supervising this manoeuvre whilst holding up my broom. They nod in agreement, unhitch the trailer and disappear off.

One of the grooms starts the mammoth task of emptying the wheelbarrows… only to find that there`s a four inch gap between the ramp and trailer! So we have to ring up the men to come and sort us out before someone puts a leg down it.

Honestly, it was a comedy act. But now the muckheap and yard are tidy!!

Contingency Plans

So this morning, after a week of dragging myself out of bed to turn out or bring in the horses, and a friend doing the other end of the day while I fought off the latest winter bug from the confines of a warm house, I felt well enough to do more than the bare minimum. I`ll be honest, I contemplated riding, but then decided it would probably hinder my recovery process wearing myself out with a schooling session, and if I went for a hack I`d probably get iced over it was so chilly this morning. Lunging was the only option left.

I fed my other charge his breakfast and telling my boy that holidays were over, stripped him of his rugs, booted him up, and took him to the lunging arena. He was quiet enough on the way there, but as soon as I shut the gate he started twitching, shuffling forwards and backwards until I stepped away and let him go. I`ve seen worse, I`ve seen bucking explosions while the handler is trying to get themselves out of reach, so in all respects this was fairly tame. Three or four laps of canter with a couple of bucks, and then he settled himself into what I call his “Welsh trot”. Head up, back inflexible, high, driving action with the knees and shoulders, back legs powering along behind playing catch up. He settled eventually, dropped his nose and started stretching over his back, but by this time I was getting dizzy so wanted to change the rein. Do you think I could get him to stop? No. Not a chance. Everytime I half halted he would canter, everytime I tried to bring him in he would tug on the lunge line and just keep going at his speed! We came to a stop eventually, and repeated the procedure on the other rein before finishing off with a couple of jumps. By which point I was exhausted, and he was ready for breakfast.
lunging

Now, lunging wasn`t the purpose of my post, it is just an introduction. I was wondering what everyone contingency plans were. For when they`re ill or injured. It`s not so bad at a livery yard when you can ring the livery groom, or in the summer if you`re ill as the horse can be turned away and live out 24/7 and be checked by a passing friend. But typically, we`re not usually ill in the summer.
I have a couple of plans up my sleeve; I share duties with our neighbour (no pun intended) as the boys fields are next door and it seems silly walking to the same place and not bringing the other horse with you. It saves a lot of time for both parties, but it can be difficult to ensure that the arrangement is fair, ie one person doesn`t do every single early morning, even if they are a lark, not an owl. I think we`ve got it down to a tee though and everyone`s happy. So far!
I also have my uncle in reserve, who is quite capable of mucking out, catching and turning out. And the couple who own the other horse in my field are more than happy to assist me if ever I need to. But that`s when I feel like I`m taking advantage, even though they say there are two of them so they don`t mind it, and they like my horse so enjoy it. I look after their horse when they go on holiday too. Has anyone trained their partners to do stable duties? A couple of the liveries have very devoted husbands who come up three or four times during the week to give them a break. I`m impressed. And wonder how they managed to train them so well! I once asked one husband and he said “Go to stupid-ville, there`s a lot of us there”.

Even if sharing isn`t the option for you, it`s always good to keep on friendly terms with everyone at the yard as you never know when you need a helping hand! When I was a teenager I had a massive row with one of my friends which resulted in us not talking to each other for a few weeks. Then one day I found her pony cast in the stable, fetched her and helped pull him round, and suddenly we were best of friends again!