Containing The Excitement

I’m working separately with two teenagers at the moment to try to retrain their (funnily enough, both) mares so that their jumping isn’t so fast and furious. Both horses are experienced jumpers, but very quick in the air, and very fast on the approach.

Now, I don’t think you’re ever going to completely change a horse’s way of jumping, in that some have more scope than others, some prefer a slower, more collected canter approach, and others like the leg applied on take-off more than others, and so on. However, correct training can enhance a horse’s jumping technique, and there are lots of exercises to help correct undesirable jumping behaviours. I don’t expect either horse to stop being forwards to a fence, but I aim to have them politer and steadier on the approach so that it is safer and less hair-raising for their riders.

With one mare, I started off with a pole on the ground between two wings and incorporated it into their warm up. I had my rider walk and trot over the pole, using it within circles, and basically doing flatwork around the pole, going over it every so often calmly, and when it’s least expected. This takes away the novelty factor of jumping and poles, and reduces the amount of repetition and so stops her anticipating jumping.

Initially, she made quite a thing about the pole, jumping it and cantering off. So we repeated the calm and quiet approach, with my rider staying positive but neutral. She just went with the pony over the jump before calmly slowing her down. Then there was no negative connotation between the rider and the jump.

What I liked about this mare, and I don’t know her very well, was that she was very obedient to her rider’s downward aids. She was happy to let her rider influence her. I did think that her jumping was almost a bit panicked, so I hope that by slowing her down she learns to read and understand the question, so begin to enjoy jumping more. The important thing though, is that she was willing to work with her rider, and seems to become steadier each time.

I built the jump up slowly, and we focused on my rider aiming to trot the approach to the jump by half halting strongly until a couple of strides out when the hand is softened and the seat and leg tells the horse to go and jump. After the jump, my rider had to sit up quickly and ask the pony to come back to trot.

We varied this basic approach by using circles on the approach, transitions to walk (a good exercise was trotting towards the pole on the ground, walking over the pole, and trotting away), and varying the length of the approach. She started to listen to her rider and stayed in trot until a couple of strides off the jump, and was fairly quick to trot again after the jump. I emphasised to her rider that she shouldn’t interfere on the last couple of strides so that her pony could sort her legs out. The pony should be at the tempo and rhythm set by her rider on the approach and getaway, but ultimately they have to jump the jump so shouldn’t be hindered.

The other mare will jump an exercise very calmly the first time, but then she gets over excited and gets quicker and quicker. So I change the exercise promptly, only doing each level once or twice – making a cross an upright, or changing the rein, adding in another element etc. And my rider tries to keep the trot and rides a circle or two, or three, on the approach until the mare stops anticipating the jump. The circle shouldn’t be too close to the jump that the pony thinks she is being pulled out of the jump, and it should be planned by the rider. Using a combination of changing the exercise and using numerous circles on the approach we managed to get a steadier approach, but there was a fine balance between containing the excitement and not frustrating this mare as she then has the tendency to explode and go even faster to the jump!

With both mares, I’ve found that avoiding simple jumps helps slow them down and get them thinking about the obstacles. This week, I built a grid of one pole and a canter stride to a small upright, then one canter stride to a cross. I had my rider walk over the first pole, then ride forwards to the little upright. I was really pleased that the pony walked happily over the pole and my rider could then ride positively to the jumps, instead of having to restrain the mare. We only did this grid twice because she jumped it so calmly and quietly. I want to build up to trotting over the first pole and then calmly cantering the grid.

When working with a horse who tends to rush fences it’s important that the rider has an unflappable demeanour, and a strong core so that they can hold the horse together before and after jumps, yet calmly stay in balance over the fence and don’t pull the horse in the mouth or get left behind in the air.

It can be difficult to retrain a horse to jump, but with a consistent approach of calm, quiet riding and using a variety of approaches to keep the horse focused on their rider and not rushing to the jumps. I also find that not repeating exercises too often, and returning to flatwork for a few minutes between jumps to resettle the horse has beneficial effects. As a horse starts to slow down and keep a more rhythmical approach to a jump their bascule will improve as well, which will help improve their posture and muscle tone, so making their jumping easier and prolonging their working life.

New Passport Regulations

The Welsh Pony and Cob Society have been ahead of the game for years in terms of having a record of equines. Years ago you used to get stud books published every few years which were an index of all registered animals. I remember the glee of us girls when we found a horse we knew if the stud books. Now of course, it’s all online. I’ve also always like the fact the genealogy is usually fairly complete. Together with the stud prefixes you could easily identify your pony’s relations. Which is very exciting!

Of course years ago, the WPCS relied on owners registering their animal for the status it brought, the ability to show at county level, and the advertising it did for their breeding. Then, from 2004 all owned horses were required to have a passport, which resulted in many older horses receiving blue passports from The Donkey Sanctuary – which was a bit of a knock to their ego, I’m sure.

However, many breeders who (and I’m going to make a sweeping statement here) bred from mares with questionable breeding/temperament/soundness because they had no other use for the mare did not bother to passport foals until they were sold as yearlings, two, three or four year olds (I can only assume that is because there is a risk of a horse dying before it reaching adulthood and if that happens then time and money has not been wasted on passporting them). So the concept of all equines having passports and reducing the overbreeding of horses didn’t really work, and was difficult to monitor.

Then in 2009 this law was strengthened in that all foals born after 1st July 2009 had to have a microchip and passport within 6 months of birth or by 31st December of that year, whichever was soonest. Any horses applying for new passports (those who had slipped through the previous net) had to be given a microchip too.

This makes passporting horses more expensive, which I think deters responsible horse owners from breeding with their mare, but it still didn’t stop those who breed casually. Even the £1000 fine per unpassported animal didn’t deter many, as the UK still has a massive overpopulation of equines.

Now, as a proud owner of a mare, I find myself wondering would I ever breed from Phoenix. I highly doubt it, although I don’t think she’d make a bad brood mare as her conformation, movement and manners are all great. I just don’t think I’d want to risk putting her through it (because there’s always a risk) for an unknown result. When I could just go to the Brightwells sale in October at Builth Wells and view hundreds of weanlings and take my pick there. If I so desired to have one so young. Anyway, for now she has to concentrate on her ridden career.

As the passport and microchipping laws haven’t really had the desired effect, and with all the different passport issuing bodies (each breed society issues passports for their breed, plus the cross breed passports you also have) it’s very difficult to regulate. At competitions you can monitor passports, but given the number of equines stood in fields, you are only seeing a small, and very biased, sample of the equine population.

From 1st October 2018, it has become compulsory for all equines to have a microchip, as well as a passport. Owners have until October 2020 to ensure this is done. In addition to the microchip, all equine details will be stored on the Central Equine Database (CED).

Luckily for most of us, the passport issuing bodies are still the main point of contact for change in ownership, change or address, or death. They will update the CED.

We can only hope that having all equine details in one area will mean that disease outbreaks can be controlled and reduced, and stolen animals found and identified quicker as hopefully the middle man has been sacked.

Thankfully, DEFRA does admit that in order for this new law to be effective, it does require owners to be responsible and play their part.

Unfortunately though, I think there are too many numerous-horse owners (even at riding schools) where the paperwork and cost involved in microchipping all their older animals makes it very unlikely that they will follow through with it unless necessity requires it. Perhaps there is a window here for passport issuing bodies and vets to provide discounted microchipping and passporting rates to encourage multiple horse owners to step into line.

I’m still not sure how it’s going to be regulated, because so many horses stay in their field or are only ridden at home. Competition horses, particularly affiliated ones, will be fine, but the geriatric companions will go under the radar.

It is a positive that vets can check the microchip and positively identify a horse and treat accordingly, even if the passport isn’t present. Where do you keep yours? Technically, it should be at the yard but I for one am not keen on giving the yard owner my actual physical passport. I’d prefer to give them a photocopy. I don’t take my passports to the yard daily either, so getting there and having to call the vet for an emergency means that either I’ve got to leave my horse and go and get the passport, or send someone to dig around the office to find where I’ve secreted them away. The CED is a definite positive from this angle.

I like to think that being able to trace horses to owners makes them accountable for welfare issues or abandonment, but in order for that to happen they need to have chipped their horse in the first place. And if you’re a candidate for neglecting your animal, are you going to bother getting them chipped, and updating existing passports? I’m yet to be convinced.

In the meantime, go to The Equine Register and enter your horse’s microchip number to check that they are on the CED. Phoenix’s is as she was born after 2009, but Otis’s isn’t on there. He had a microchip inserted five years ago, and was registered with an animal microchip database as recommended by the vet, but the CED only takes information from passport issuing bodies, and Otis’s chip has not been linked to his passport. I’m sure this has happened to numerous others who tried to get ahead of the game years ago. So it’s definitely worth checking out. You can guess what my job tomorrow morning is!

Chestnut Mares – Fact or Fiction?

Everyone groans when you mention chestnut mares. I saw someone I hadn’t seen for a couple of years today and we were updating each other on our equines. When I mentioned that Phoenix was a mare, she groaned. And when I mentioned that she was chestnut, she groaned again.

It really does seem like chestnut mares are all tarnished with the same brush, and widely regarded as melodramatic, emotional, high maintenance sociopaths.

So tonight, I thought I’d look into it.

Firstly, I guess is the fact that mares are considered harder to handle than geldings. You know the saying …

Tell a gelding. Ask a stallion. Discuss it with a mare.

Geldings are usually the most docile to handle because they have the least hormones affecting their mood. Mares have their ovulation cycle which causes a fluctuation in hormone levels, which can cause them to become more emotional and affect their behaviour. Exactly the same as with humans females! And just like with humans, some mares are more affected by their oestrus cycle than others.

So mares can be more sensitive and delicate to handle than geldings, but this applies to all shades of mare, but to what extent depends on the individual and their hormone levels.

Next up, is the chestnut aspect. I did have to look this up. One gene, the extension locus, determines whether a horse is chestnut, black or bay by altering the production of black versus red pigment. The gene has no influence on temperament at all.

There are a number of other coat colours that are a modified version of chestnut which we don’t associate with quirkiness – strawberry roan, palomino, cremello, skewbalds. These colours are all identical at a genetic level, at the extension locus to chestnut horses. And the extension locus is the only thing which makes a solid chestnut horse different to a black or bay in the first place.

This means that there is no genetic reason for a chestnut horse to be more sensitive than other colours. I read a saying in my research, which seemed very apt.

A good horse has no colour,

Perhaps it is our prejudice of redheads being volatile that is projected onto chestnut horse, which causes us to behave differently towards them and to expect then to be more flighty?

Then I remembered an article I read a couple of years ago about skin colour and sensitivity. It is said, although I can’t find any scientific research, that chestnut horses have thinner skin so are more prone to tack sores and more affected by flies and skin problems, such as rain scald. I’d like to see more convincing evidence rather than just observations before making a conclusion.

In my experience with Phoenix, the chestnut mare adage doesn’t hold true. She doesn’t seem to suffer mood fluctuations due to her hormones, nor do I feel that I have to negotiate work with her any more than other horses. I don’t think she’d like to be told what to do like a gelding, but that’s not really the approach I take to riding anyway. I would say that she does seem to have sensitive skin, much preferring the soft body brush rather than a dandy brush, even on her woolly hindquarters. Her summer coat is far thinner and finer than Otis’s, which could be colour-related genetics, or just her individuality. Either way, I don’t think she, or any chestnut mare, deserves the reputation that equestrians give them. Prejudiced handlers have a set of expectations from chestnut mares which can cause them to be put in situations where they will behave unfavourably, and shape their behaviour to meet their expectations which creates a self fulfilling prophecy. Unfortunately I think it is a case of a couple of hormonal, temperamental mares, perhaps with very sensitive skin which causes tension or pain, who just happened to be chestnut, creating a bad name of chestnut mares everywhere. So yes, buy a chestnut mare, but remember to have your eyes open to their sensibilities,


Last week I brought Phoenix in after her fortnight of running feral. She was good overall, but I noticed that she was in season. She trotted over to me in the field and was a bit possessive when the other mares wandered over. Then on the yard and to lunge she just got a bit distracted by any gelding that passed – turning and pricking her ears at them. Nothing bad when you consider how hormones can affect some mares, but today (now we’re out of season) I realised that I know very little about a mare’s oestrus cycle and I’ve never blogged about it.

Of course I learnt about breeding at college – we had a lovely male lecturer who was quite effeminate (he’d call out whilst teaching us “*our name* angel, darling, petal, poppet. Will you NOT do that?” Which elicited lots of giggles from us teenage girls and vows to not repeat said behaviour) who taught us about breeding. It was so memorable because there were lots of squeals, shudders and yucky faces made at the technical terms – and for my BHS Stage IV.

Mares come into season every 19-22 days from early spring until autumn. The longer daylight hours triggers the first season and the shorter days cause their seasons to cease. In winter, they don’t have seasons (although it’s been known in mild winters for mares to have a random season), which is called an anoestrus period. This is to stop a mare foaling the following winter – the gestation period of a horse is 11 months – when it’s coldest and hardest to survive.

However, in competitive circles horses are aged from the 1st of January (1st August in the Southern Hemisphere). This means that a horse’s passport may have their birth date as 12th May 2016. But from the 1st January 2018 they will be considered a two year old. Consequently, breeders often put mares under lights to trick their bodies into thinking that the days have gotten longer so they come into season earlier in the year, which will give their offspring a competitive edge because they are born closer to the official birth date so are physically more mature than foals conceived naturally and born in May.

Fillies are sexually mature by the age of two, but they shouldn’t be bred from until the age of five or six when they are physically mature. Mares can produce foals annually until they’re in their twenties, providing that they’re healthy and well cared for, but most breeders leave them barren every few years.

Some people continue to keep pregnant mares in work, particularly in the early stages, and into the latter stages when new owners don’t realise their mare is pregnant. From my own experience, I’d have thought a mare would cope better with pregnancy if they are of a healthy weight initially and have an active life. So often brood mares, particularly natives, are overweight and I suspect that reduces fertility, which means fewer foals and more time, effort and money invested into covering the mare. However, I think it can be difficult to strike the balance between lightly exercising a pregnant mare and overworking her, especially when you consider that they are carrying the extra weight of a foal as well as the tack and rider. In my humble opinion I’d have thought light hacking in the initial couple of months if they are used to that work load before a combination of long reining, lunging and ground work to keep the pregnant mare fit. I’d also ensure they are on good grazing, but over extensive land, perhaps with an incline, which will help maintain their general fitness and prevent sudden and rapid weight gain when there’s a flush of rich grass.

So how do seasons affect the behaviour of mares? It depends entirely on the mare themselves – just like some women suffer more from PMT than others. But often a mare can become cranky – sensitive when grooming, or reluctant when being exercised. Sometimes they just have more sass. Like Phoenix tossing her head and cantering on the lunge when I sent her away from me instead of her usual walk. They tend to notice geldings more, but some will just sniff or snort at them in passing whilst others will reverse up to some poor unsuspecting gelding and lift their tail flirtatiously.

Some people use herbal supplements or hormone drugs to minimise the hormone fluctuations and seasonal behaviour. I’ve had friends who favour mares over geldings because when they’re on form their performance is superior to that of the non-hormone driven geldings. I like to know what I’m getting each day so like the even keel of geldings and the less mareish mares. I’m also of the belief that ensuring your mare knows where she stands in the human-horse relationship is important in managing her hormones as she will be less likely to behave badly with you, which makes her safer to handle. This comes from consistent expectations, routine and training.

Phoenix`s Progress

Last weekend we took Phoenix on another adventure, but I thought it was time to give everyone an update on her progress.

I’ve still not got Otis’s saddles fitted to her – it’s keeping temptation at bay – so we’ve been continuing with the lunging and ground work.

One of the girls at the yard commented on how much improved her neck is, which caused me to stand back and critique her. Excuse the fact she’s tied (with string) to a gate, it was the only place without shadows where I could get far enough away from her without her following me to get a couple of photos. I think she’s changed a lot, even in the week since I took these. Her neck is muscling up nicely, especially when you look back at when she first arrived. Her barrel seems more toned, perhaps she’s lost a bit of weight, but I feel that she’s carrying herself with better posture. There is also a bit more muscle tone over her hindquarters, although she is definitely still in quite a soft condition. Below is a photo from when she arrived, compared to a fortnight ago.


In terms of handling her, the yellow snake that sprays water on her legs is no longer scary, she hurries over to me in the field, she seems generally more settled. Whilst she was never difficult to handle, when the yard was busy she used to have her eyes on stalks and be quite wary of other people and horses. On Saturday, I had her in with all the others and she was far more relaxed in her demeanour – after telling the cocky 12hh gelding that he could look but he couldn’t touch, of course! When I did lunge her, she focused much more on her work, despite the distractions. Again, she’s never been silly in the arena due to distractions, but she has definitely lost her focus. So I’m really pleased with how she’s coming along in this respect.

I’m still alternating our lunging sessions, with the Pessoa to help teach her to stretch towards the contact as I feel she will be one to try to tuck behind it, and she’s accepting this really well now, showing a good stretch from the beginning. Other days she’s lunged naked, and I’m finding that she’s in a much better balance in the trot, and has a fabulous, unchanging rhythm to it now. To me, she looks more uphill and the hindquarters are getting more engaged. In the canter transitions, she’s running less and the canter is getting more three beat, and less hurried as she’s developing her balance. Hopefully my friend will get some videos of this over the weekend.

I’ve also been doing poles on a weekly basis with her, which she really enjoys. Friday she kept taking the circle out to the trotting poles that someone had left out! She also did a double on the lunge, which she seemed to really enjoy. I want to try an oxer with her on the weekend, to show her a different shaped fence, and perhaps try some fillers, but only if I feel she won’t back off them because it’s far harder to prevent a run out on the lunge than in the saddle and I don’t want her to get that idea into her head. I also want to introduce some poles on a curve.

Anyway, at home I think she’s doing really well, and I’m very excited to start riding her.

Sunday, we loaded her up and took her to a friend’s yard for a groundwork lesson. She walked straight onto the trailer ramp, which is better than last time, but then she got distracted trying to look at everything on the yard. The Chauffeur ended up giving a little push on her bum and a bossy “walk on” and she loaded. Once there, she stood quietly on the trailer for a few minutes then I led her through the barn of horses, to the arena. We had plenty of time before the lesson, so I walked her around the arena. She took it all in her stride, and just watched the neighbouring horses careering around the field.

The instructor, who was the same as when I went to dressage camp last July, watched me do the yielding on a circle which we’d learnt a few weeks ago. We discussed how the groundwork at the moment is all about getting her moving away calmly from the whip (which either mimics the leg at her girth or is an extension of my arm near her hindquarters) and improving her suppleness. This trainer wasn’t overly worried about her slight asymmetry at the moment; he seemed to think it will even out as I work her evenly on both reins and develop the muscle. I feel she’s more symmetrical than a month ago anyway.

Next, we moved on to walking a square. I’ve done this exercise from the saddle, but it’s trickier on foot! On the straight sides of the square Phoenix had to walk in shoulder in, and at the corners yield her hindquarters around on a larger turn, so a little like turn around the forehand, before walking in shoulder in again. It’s all about getting her to step under with the inside hindleg and learn to balance whilst working laterally. After a couple of attempts on the left rein, the exercise seemed to click, and she mastered it first time on the right rein.

This trainer described her as suspicious, but not in a negative way. She views a question, or new situation, from a back seat position, before processing it and then having a go. So any time that she stops during an exercise it’s because she’s thinking about what to do next, and the best thing is for me to do exactly what I’m doing, and give her a moment to pause, before reassuring her and asking again. He agreed with me that it’s probably the effect of having quite a sheltered life, and as she is exposed to more new environments she’ll become more confident.

Next, we moved onto the beginnings of turn around the haunches, which will help engage her hindquarters and lighten her forehand.

Standing on her right, with her on the right rein, I walked her up the fence line in shoulder in, before walking a half 10m circle and inclining back to the track. We were now on the left rein, with me between Phoenix and the fence, walking in a leg yield position. After a few strides I asked her to take her shoulders around on a left 10m circle, so that her hindquarters were scribing a smaller circle. The bend wasn’t correct, but she was getting the idea of moving her feet correctly. We did this three times on each rein, each time I knew where I needed to be and was quicker at positioning her, and she seemed to understand the exercise more.

Although not an aerobic workout, I think Phoenix was working her little brain cells hard. So we finished the session with some rein back, getting her to step back in more diagonal pairs and to lead more with the hindleg so that she didn’t hollow. She tends to get carried away in rein back, and the strides get bigger, which is when she loses her balance slightly and the diagonal pairing is lost, so it was all about keeping the movement slow. Finally, we asked her for a couple of square halts, before she was showered with polos from the trainer, and got lots of fuss from me!

I felt it was another successful trip out for her, and a couple more tools of the trade for me to practice, as well as giving us something else to play with in the school. I was really impressed with her impeccable behaviour and her attitude towards the exercises. She wasn’t even fazed by the cat sitting in the middle of the arena while we worked!


As much as I like seeing my clients go out competing and succeeding, I also love helping horses and riders overcome physical problems and improve their posture, or way of going, so that they get more pleasure from their work and have a longer active life.

I've been working with a new client and her horse, who has a series of back and hock problems. The first couple of lessons were about rebalancing the trot, slowing it down and creating a consistent rhythm. We've started a little bit of suppling work, and established a quiet, still hand. The mare has shown glimpses of starting to work over her back, which is great because it's not manufactured in any way.

However, the mare is crooked through her body which I think will prevent us from improving her suppleness and getting her to release over her back. So a couple of weeks ago I gave my client some homework; to think about and try to develop an awareness of where the hindquarters were in relation to the rest of her body.

The next time I saw my client she had watched her horse under saddle, and clocked the fact her hindquarters were always slightly to the right. When she rode though, it felt normal and it took a while for her to identify the crookedness. Which is understandable; when you only ride one horse you get used to them as being normal, whether it be a crookedness, an unbalanced saddle, or one sided contact. My job is to reeducate both of them so that straight becomes the new normal.

On the left rein, where the quarters sit to the outside, we spent a bit of time feeling how her body moved on straight lines and around corners. On a straight line the hindquarters were slightly to the right, and the head and neck were also turned so they were looking out too – in a classic banana shape.

Dividing the body into two halves, we focused on straightening the hindquarters first. My rider brought her outside leg back behind the girth, keeping her inside leg on the girth, she tried pushing the mare's hindquarters in, so the they followed the tracks of the forelegs. Initially I wanted the reins to support the shoulders and neck, stopping them from wiggling out of their natural position. If the mare tried to fall in, the inside leg prevented this. The mare was very obliging, and soon the majority of the long sides were ridden with her body straight. You could see if was difficult for her, hence why we kept it in walk. Now my rider could feel this straightness, which all helps to improve the mare because she will be able to more quickly correct and straighten her.

Once the straightness on straight lines was achieved, we had a look at how the corners felt. With the mare in right banana, her hindquarters tend to swing out around corners and she doesn't look around the corner with her forehand. Now ideally, we'd get her bent around the left, inside, leg. But Rome wasn't built in a day and because of her previous medical history I want to take it slowly with her. So I just asked my rider to exaggerate her outside leg behind the girth around the corners to hopefully prevent the hindquarters swinging out. We did this a few times and it started to fall into place, so we changed the rein.

On the right rein, the mare has her quarters in, and they almost lead around the corners, so we started off having the inside leg slightly further back on straight lines to align her spine. I was really pleased to see that the straightness work on the other rein was already having an effect because my rider didn't have to correct the hindquarters as much. Just by having the horse straight before a corner, improved her balance around the turn, but now it was time to look at the straightness of the forehand.

We were on the rein that the mare naturally bends to, but where she is a little bit tight through her rib cage her outside shoulder was pointing slightly towards the fence. This is hard to explain. The hindquarters were towards the middle, but the barrel straight, causing the outside shoulder to point towards the fence and then the neck to turn in, towards the direction of movement. The easiest way to improve the suppleness of the barrel, after all the neck is already bending the correct way, is to focus on riding the outside shoulder around the turns. The outside rein works against the neck, and prevents the neck flexing too much, and the outside leg is closer to the girth to influence the shoulder more than the haunches. The inside leg is ready to support the hindquarters if they fall in, and the inside rein indicates the direction of turn, but is a very positive aid to discourage too much flexion in the neck.

After a couple of turns like this, the mare was managing to be better balanced and stayed much straighter on the long sides. My rider could also feel the improvements through her body.

We returned to the left rein, the stiffer one, and this time monitored the effect that straightening the hindquarters had on the forehand. Due to the stiffness through the barrel, as the haunches went straight the left shoulder drifted in. So we forgot about the hindquarters for a moment, and flexed the mare's neck so that she was no longer looking to the outside, and was straighter through her shoulders and neck. Once my rider had learnt to feel and correct this, we started correcting the hindquarters again. For a few minutes we had to straighten the hindquarters, and then correct the forehand as it tried to compensate. Then check the straightness behind the saddle, and then in front again. And so on, until the mare found it easier to work with her spine, from poll to dock, straight.

All of this work was done in walk, and it's something that my client needs to be aware of and quietly correct when hacking and working in the school. Then the trot will start to automatically improve.

We finished the lesson with some trot work. I explained to my rider that I just wanted her to think about and feel the straightness, or lack of, in the trot and that we wouldn't do too much correcting today. However, I think because of this new awareness, my rider automatically corrected, or at least used her aids in a more straightening way, and we ended up trotting some balanced, round circles with the mare bending through her whole body. The straight lines and corners were much improved, and my rider could feel that when she changed the rein there was very little change to her mare's balance. Because she was more symmetrical, she didn't make big changes to her body to go from a left turn to a right turn. We even had a couple of strides where the mare suddenly felt a release of energy and surged forwards with a longer stride and more impulsion, and she also softened and rounded her neck and back for a couple of strides.

I was really pleased with their progress in just half an hour, and although we will need to keep building their muscle memory and strength to work in this straight way, I'm looking forwards to developing their circles and suppleness, as well as seeing the mare learn how easy it is to propel herself forwards when the hindquarters are straight and so the legs can push the body forwards effortlessly. Then I think she will work in self carriage nicely and they'll be able to achieve their aim of going to a local dressage competition.


I drove through town on my way home today as I had various errands to run, and I was reminded of a surreal morning at my old stables.

The stables I used to work at are right on the edge of town, with most of the fields adjacent to houses on one side. For this reason we never used to catch the horses before nine, as we then avoided rush hour and school traffic.

It was a dreary February morning and the yard was in full swing; mucking out the numerous stabled horses and preparing the barn for the day`s catch. The office door swung open as one of the ladies unlocked at nine o`clock. A couple of minutes later she stumbled back out, tea in hand, to inform the nearest groom that there were several phone messages, claiming that a herd of horses were herd trotting around the housing estate at seven am that morning. More recent messages claimed that the horses had made it to the school playing fields. They failed, however, to mention which school it was…

In great haste, we grabbed an armful of headcollars and piled into the rickety landrover. Bearing in mind, there was a bit of ice and it was just before nine, so that landrover hadn`t warmed up yet and the ice was still on the inside of the windscreen. At least someone had closed the window, and the driver wasn`t left with a puddle of icy water to sit in.

Anyway, we were off! We headed down the road to the field where five opinionated mares had been turned out the day before, and left out so that they could kick up their heels for a couple of days – there must have been a problem with high spirits and clients! When we reached the field I jumped out the back and called the mares. There wasn`t a sign of them. Not a single horse was left! So I hopped back in and we carried on driving into town, with our phones on standby for an update on the nomads.

There were a couple of droppings in the middle of the road, pointing us in the right direction. Almost like the gypsies following their trails of patrins (thanks to Enid Blyton for teaching me this word in my younger years). We met many children and carers walking to school, and some of them offered helpful directions.

Eventually we found the five mares attacking the front hedge and garden of a home. They eyed us balefully, but I grabbed the elderly matriarch, holding her rug while someone else found a suitably sized headcollar. Soon we had captured the five horses, but were left with the problem that we only had four headcollars that would fit…

We also only had two members of staff to lead the mares back through town, as someone needed to drive the landrover home. So I ended up with three of the horses, all of whom decided that it was boring walking home, and life would be more interesting they jogged sideways along the pavement, scattering children as we went. My colleague had a homemade headcollar cross leadrope and the other two horses.

So we began our journey home. You would not believe how far we had to walk! Even with the shortcut, we still walked over three miles back to the yard. The mares were all unharmed after their little escapade, if a bit warm under their layers of rugs and possibly a little sore from all their trotting on hard ground. We found the fence in the field had been pushed over in the corner, and the horses had got out onto a long, twisting, tree-covered lane, so we were lucky none of them were involved in a car accident.

The moral of the story is to always check the fencing really, really well, and don`t leave a herd of mares who are used to living in out, even if they are misbehaving, as they may take it into their heads to take themselves for a walk!

Stallion, Mare of Gelding?

“You can tell a gelding, ask a mare, but you discuss it with a stallion.”

This phrase is becoming more common phrase when people are talking about their horses. But what does this all mean? And should people stand firmly on one side or the other?

Starting with the gelding, they are known to be less hormonal (Obviously, as they`ve had those bits cut off) and more placid, which suggests to many people that they are more suited for the autonomic rider, and in the teaching environment. With fewer hormones flying about geldings tend to perform more consistently and are amenable to your every whim.
That`s not to say geldings are boring though. I`ve known a couple of hormonal geldings – hence the product “stroppy gelding”, but part of me wonders if their “stroppiness” is due to low grade pain, or the fact that their rider keeps yanking up their girth and pinching their tummies. I guess just like people, some geldings have more to say about themselves.
Personally I like the consistency of the gelding; the fact I can practice a movement all week and know that we could pull it off on an important occasion. I myself am fairly level headed and don`t get riled easily, so like that to be reflected in my riding.
For someone new to horse care or ownership I can quite see that a gelding would make life a bit more straightforward; what you see is what you get. They would give you a bit more confidence when handling them because they are quieter and more laid back.

Moving on to the mare. Usually I find mares pretty amenable, but you do get the odd one who`s hormones bounce up and down. Most owners of mares find that if you ride autonomically then the mare will take offence and resist you, often making a mountain out of a molehill. I used to ride a mare who would spook and nap while hacking. If you stopped and let her look at the monster then ask her to go forwards, she would. If however, you told her to “shut up and get over herself” she would most likely try to buck you off. Once you know how to communicate with mares they are quite straightforward too.
The one difficulty that can present itself in mares is an element of inconsistency, which reflects upon their seasons. You could train for a dressage competition all month, but if it coincides with her season, you may as well have flushed your training down the toilet. Alternatively, had the competition been three days later, then you could have wiped the board your mare would be so on form.
Other difficulties which can arise with having a mare is that they can flirt with neighbours – be it gelding or mare. This can lead to behavioural problems on the ground, or injury to both horses. Mares need a slightly more knowledgeable and understanding approach. I`m not brilliant with mares in that sense because I have a bit of the “well I showed you the plastic bag yesterday and it wasn`t scary then” opinion. A friend of mine is much more in tune to mares – “she`s not really in the mood today” or “she`s trying really hard. But it`s difficult for her” or “the sign on the arena was much scarier today” are phrases I often hear bandied about to explain why the said mare underperformed.

Stallions. Now they are a world apart. In the UK stallions make up a very small part of the equine society, and are cared and kept by a select few. I don`t know the reason, possibly it`s our social history, or our environment, but stallions tend to have the most artificial environments. From this I mean that most are stabled all day, with limited turnout and very little social interaction. This can lead to excessively excited and stallion-like behaviour.
If you step back for a moment, and look at Spanish horses, and the Lippizaner’s, there are many more stallions in their society. In Spain all men ride stallions, and they are kept as a herd, very similar to how we treat geldings. The Lippizaner’s are all stallions and are housed together, ridden together, and travelled together. Again, kept in a very similar manner to our geldings. Is this tradition? I guess it must be, and in part related to the temperament of the stallions.
So is the temperament we see in stallions in the UK bred or created in their environment? Any horse lacking in social contact, with limited physical exercise , and excess energy, will struggle socially. They won`t understand the pecking order in society, and will try to be dominant over all beings they interact with. Hopefully breeders don`t take a mean stallion and breed from him, thus creating a new generation of dishonest horses.
Perhaps it is the fact that in the UK we don`t have unlimited grazing with high fences which would mean a stallion can live out in the field and not be within smelling distance of mares.
I personally don`t have a massive amount of experience with stallions, and when I was younger they were over fed and under exercised in order to be “fiery” in the show ring. To be honest, nothing about them really appealed; I guess due to my fairly placid nature and want for a quiet life.

My next question is; are people destined to be a “mare person” or a “gelding person”? Or should we all try and have a variety of different riding styles so that we end up getting the most out of our horse? No horse, regardless of their sex, is black or white so elements of “asking” and “discussing” need to come into riding a gelding, just like a mare can sometimes benefit from a bit of “telling” when she`s misbehaving. I don`t think when you are looking for a horse you can rule out a candidate purely based on whether it`s a mare or gelding.