Control

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mud! Mud! Glorious Mud!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dogs and Me

One of the things I hate most when hacking is meeting dogs. Which is really annoying because they are one of the most commonly encountered things whilst riding out.

I`m sure many of you are wondering what has happened in the past, and there have been a couple of incidents, that Matt kindly reminded me of. Just for the record, he didn’t do anything, his presence reminded me!

We used to hack through a village, which was a lovely single track, straight hill. We`d encounter various spooky things, and it was always a good spook-busting hack. At the top the lane turned into a green lane, ironically with National Speed Limit signs at the grassy cusp of the lane which bordered the local golf course. We`d walk down and through the twisty wooded track before turning on our heels and bombing along, ducking branches, skipping over the stream that ran in winter. At the end we had to slow down, turn a sharp right and gallop back up the hill to the National Speed Limit signs, dodging stray golf balls as they flew over.

The last house in the village had a stone wall around the garden, which was at the side of the house. Every time a horse (and probably a walker) passed, the resident dog, a large black Labrador, would bound out over the wall and bark loudly at us while the middle aged owner mildly called it to heel. And every single time without fail, Matt would jump a mile.

I remember I used to anticipate the dog as much as he did. Then one day, the dog went too far. He bounded over the garden wall, barking loudly, and ran straight over to Matt. Who kicked him pretty sharpish. The owner looked quite upset, so I just shrugged at him. He hadn`t bothered to train the dog properly! After that, the dog didn’t go further than the wall when horses passed, so it obviously learnt it`s lesson!

Another Matt story, which involves a dog, was one Christmas. I had cycled to the yard so it must have been the holidays and a weekday because Mum was visiting Granddad and Dad was working. My friends and I decided to go on a pre Christmas hack, one of the longer routes, but still a favourite because it included the Green Lane and the hair-raising track to the village on the way home. There hadn`t been any snow yet, so the world was muddy and dreary.

We blasted along the green lane, spraying mud at the one behind us, and then calmly walked past the little house (which we were always convinced some sort of hermit lived in) before turning right. We walked up the lane, then down the lane, past some sheep peeking through the fence, around the corner and …

As we passed a stone wall and gated drive a sheepdog suddenly started barking, nose sticking under the gate. We all jumped. Matt especially, and as he landed he slipped on the mud at the side of the lane and down we both went, my leg squashed between road and pony. He got up, unhurt, but my leg was pretty painful and numb. So we had to try to get some phone signal to ring for help, and I got a lift back to the yard, while another friend rode Matt back. After the bag of peas treatment and rest, my leg was fine.

However, my stirrup iron was bent! The bottom of it was almost at forty five degrees from where it had been squashed, protecting my foot. I only realised how much protection the stirrup had given my foot when I was working without stirrups in the indoor arena a couple of months later and a dog emerged from the shadows. We were on a corner, so obviously Matt slipped as he shied, and this time I had a very squashed foot! Sidelined from games for a few days, much to my netball coach`s disgust if I remember correctly.

So yeah. Dogs and I don`t really go well together. I feel better when I see owners holding them, getting them to sit, or putting them on leads, but I still have to make an effort to squash any anxiety so that the horse I am riding stays unperturbed.

Only a couple of weeks ago I met someone walking five dogs in the woods, and she clipped all but one onto a lead, holding the other one. Once I`d gotten around the corner and down the hill a bit I heard hysterical screaming. The dog was only chasing me and my horse! Thankfully, the process of me turning the horse to face the sprinting dog was enough for it to stop, cower, and turn tail.

This is by no means me having a go at dog walkers, it is just a trip down memory lane, and an explanation as to why I will always pull up and wait for dogs to be controlled before I get too close.

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Girth Galls

For those of you who aren’t sure what the alliterative girth galls are, they are rubs around the girth area, usually caused by the tack.

This time of year is the prime time for horses to develop them; I’m forever noticing them when I clip horses. Horses which are clipped have no hair to protect them should a bit of skin get trapped in the girth and rub, and those who aren’t clipped get them because grains of dirt get embedded close to the skin and rub away. Also, these horses tend to have dried sweat there which can rub too.

As I said, girth galls can be caused by the delicate skin being pinched by the girth, or dirt rubbing between the girth and skin. This dirt can either be from the girth itself or stil on the horse as it hasn’t been brushed off.

To reduce the risk of girth galls developing for the former reason, many people stretch their horse’s forelegs forward once the girth is tightened and before mounting. This is also useful if your horse is quite wrinkly in the elbow area, or has a particularly fine coat. Smoothing out the skin under the girth reduces the chance of pinching. I have some clients who do this religiously before riding, so I assume that their horse is prone to developing galls. When Otis is freshly clipped I pull his legs forward for a few weeks as that’s the only time he’s ever shown signs or rubbing.

To prevent girth galls developing from dirt or sweat irritating the skin the only answer is cleanliness! Brush the girth area thoroughly, I like my plastic curry comb for getting the mud off, and remember to wash off any sweat around the girth area after. Cleaning the girth is also another useful task; since its been so muddy and wet I’ve been removing my girth after riding, then before I next ride I brush off the sand and grit. I prefer doing it when it’s dry as more is likely to come off.

Some people advocate girth sleeves, which can be beneficial for delicate skinned horses as they are softer than girths. However there are so many new materials for girths, compared to the traditional leather, string or cotton, that girths are more comfortable for the horse. Girth sleeves can be just as difficult to keep clean because grit and sweat gets buried in the sheepskin or fleece. 

For horses prone to girth galls, an old remedy is to rub the area (obviously when there’s no broken skin) with surgical spirit, to harden the skin so it is less likely to get damaged.

Hopefully everyone keeps a close eye on their horse’s girth area when they groom anyway so will notice the beginnings of a gall and treat it before the skin becomes raw or open. 

On a lighter note, I was scratching Otis’s girth and belly earlier and found his itchy spot – enjoy the video – Otis enjoying a scratch!

Mud! Mud! Glorious Mud!

I hadn`t realised until last week, but I have to admit. I am a mud snob.

Until now I hadn`t really thought about it – I don`t agree with rugging horses unnecessarily so don`t count myself amongst the OCD owners who wrap their horses in pyjamas from fetlock to poll. However, Otis does suffer with sweet itch so wears a fly rug unless it`s raining, in which case I usually put the lightweight turnout on so that he isn`t wet should I be riding that afternoon. Llani has just followed suit, albeit in Otis`s hand-me-downs.

One non-fly days I often take rugs off, and after last week, I discovered that I am very lucky in that neither of them get down immediately to roll. Neither do they find the muddiest patch of paddock to roll. And even if they do roll, they don`t actually rub the mud in – it`s very superficial and usually comes off when they shake after. Although the boys get groomed daily it never usually takes more than ten minutes for them to be immaculate.

So imagine my horror when I went to ride the BFG a couple of weeks ago. He`s 17.2hh grey gelding – heart of gold, but absolutely no idea of his size … or how dirty he gets!

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It took me quarter of an hour just to get the saddle area clean! Someone called to me, as I led him to the mounting block (which by the way is the biggest I`ve ever used and I still have to climb up to mount the BFG). Where was I? Oh yes, someone called to me: “Didn`t you have your stepladder to do his bum?”

I shook my head – the saddle doesn`t go there!

Grooming the caked mud off the BFG brought childhood memories flooding back; of scratching a plastic curry comb to break up caked on mud on our ponies` thick winter coats. Of the dust that gets under your finger nails, and in your mouth, turning your clothes brown. I could go on!

Anyway, I had my ride, and seriously considered requesting the BFG wore a rug when I was due to ride…

The week flew by with no more mud incidents … and then this happened!

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And that was when I realised.

I am a mud snob!

Mud Monster

I ride this horse once a week and he’s a bit sensitive when you groom him, particularly in the barrel. It took me a few sessions to get to know him and his idiosyncrasies, but the best method is a cactus cloth and the softest body brush on the planet. Ignore him peering round to look at you because he isn’t going to nip you, he just looks like it.

A fortnight ago I commented to another livery, “I don’t know how he stays so clean when you can’t use a dandy brush”.

This livery then informed me that my ride rarely rolled, unlike her mud monster. So I bathed in luxury that whilst everyone else was scrubbing away I could lightly flick off this horse and crack on with riding.

That is, until this week.

I was horrified! Great clumps of mud clung to his neck, mane and forelock. Out came my cactus cloth and I rubbed his body in large circles, loosening the mud. That cactus cloth had never worked so hard in it’s life! I had to resort to picking out smaller clumps around his ears.

Eventually he was presentable and I could enjoy the ride, but it did make me glad that Otis is not adverse to the plastic curry comb on his quarters after he’s had a spa in the muddy field!

I was impressed with the effectiveness of the cactus cloth though so may look into getting one to help de-mud his ears and around his eyes.

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