Horses and Heat

Horses and Heat don’t mix very well do they? Poo picking, stable chores and riding are sweaty work in average temperatures.

The trouble in the UK is that we aren’t geared up for hot weather. Our native breeds have dense coats all year round, and the temperatures tend to sky rocket for days at a time before dropping again, which makes it hard for everyone to acclimatise.

If we are due only a couple of days of hot weather then I think I sit with the majority of equestrians in either riding early in the morning or giving the horses a day off. It’s also then easy to rearrange my work onto cooler days.

However, if the heat is here to stay, then there’s a degree of acclimatising to do. Especially if you compete. It’s all very well avoiding the heat and riding early in the morning, but what if your class falls at midday? As painful as it is pulling jodhpurs on over slippery, sun creamed legs, you do need to ride during the day so you are both prepared to ride a dressage test in the scorching heat. If a horse is in rehab, or needs to be exercised in order to lose weight then long periods of down time aren’t conducive, so it’s better to do lower intensity work for a few days than nothing at all. For example, I’d say that this week it is acceptable for a pony on fat camp to do less work because he’s unfit and finding it difficult to work and plateau in terms of building fitness and losing weight. Weight is maintained rather than lost, or even worse put on! When it gets cooler, his workload and weight loss can increase again.

However, exercise does need to be adapted in this heat, taking into account humidity, horse and rider fitness, taking lots of breaks, seeking shade, avoiding fast work and jumping in the heat of the day. Some horses cope better with the heat – usually finer coated animals, and those with no excess fat. Older horses tend to struggle with the heat too.

My lessons this week, working around the heatwave, have involved;

  • Hacking with a young client and teaching her about the ground, where it is suitable to trot, how to ride up and down hills, and what to look out for when riding in woods and fields. All the time building her confidence to trot independently on hacks.
  • Long reining and in hand work.
  • Walk poles.
  • Teaching the different types of walk so that rider and pony don’t waste the elongated walk breaks, and to encourage them to have slow and steady schooling sessions for the rest of the week.
  • Taking a horse into the jump paddock and desensitising him to traffic on the other side of the hedge, and riding him around and between jump fillers.
  • Stable management.
  • No stirrup work, as riders are usually happier with shorter bursts of work.
  • Transitions, especially halt transitions.
  • Lateral work and rein back.
  • Bareback.

I like having lessons at an enforced steady pace. Walk is so often overlooked, and improving the walk makes dramatic improvements to the quality of the trot and the transitions. I was really pleased with how one lady started to get a longer striding, swinging walk and then floated along in the trot, truly using his back and looking very supple through his ribcage.

The important thing to remember is that everyone copes with the hot weather differently, and to remember frequent breaks, sun cream, modified riding attire (I’ve not used gloves all week), and to drink lots of water. Each lesson has begun with me asking my client where their water is, and to say if they feel unwell or need to stop for a break. Then I know the lesson will run more smoothly.

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.

The Making of a Child’s Pony

I’ve got an interesting project at the moment, helping a lady back her miniature Shetland. I’ve had quite a lot of experience with young horses and ponies, but to be honest, they’ve all been of a size that a teenager or adult can ride. Preparing a small pony for a ridden career is a whole new thing.

Firstly, safety is paramount. Ponies need to be adaptable and accepting of their riders making noise, flapping, and bouncing around. Particularly the smaller ones as they are more likely to have the younger children who can be more erratic in behaviour and less aware of the consequences of their behaviour or a pony’s natural instincts. With this in mind, this poor Shetland pony has been subjected to flapping bags, loud noises, gymkhana equipment and anything you can think of that might spook a horse. We want him to be as bombproof and confident as he can be, before hem meets children.

The pony has done lots of long reining and lunging to get him used to the tack and voice aids, as well as being led in hand, around the arena and along the lane. It’s important that he has good manners when being led and lunged, as he will be predominantly ridden by beginners so needs to be used to working on the lead rein.

We made a dummy rider, dressed in bright clothes, and attached it to the saddle and led the pony round so he got used to having this “thing” on his back, just on the peripheral of his vision. After a few goes with that, weight was introduced in the form of a bag of feed. As he took all of this in his stride, we then needed to source a jockey.

The rider I was looking for needed to be small and light enough for a miniature Shetland, yet old enough to be competent and confident off the lead rein, take instructions, and be calm and relaxed whilst on board. Oh, and to take things in their stride, such as the pony quickening when he doesn’t understand, or not obeying the aids immediately as he learns the ropes.

Amazingly, I found said child. She belonged to a friend of mine, and both were happy to give it a go. So we planned a bootcamp for the Shetland to get him started.

On day one, he was long reined and then lunged quickly to ensure he wasn’t feeling fresh, and then we started leaning over him. I took the time to explain to his rider exactly how and why we were doing each step, and what I wanted her to do. Backing a horse is a good learning curve for a child, but many won’t have seen the process before so they need clear explanations.

Firstly, I got her to lean over the little pony so he felt her weight and saw her jumping up and down next to him. Apart from taking a step to balance, he stood stationary, so after a couple of lean overs, we walked him a few steps with her leaning over. Again, totally unfazed, so we repeated once more before mounting her.

I decided against stirrups as they’d have been level with his knees and I felt it would be easier to drag his rider off if she didn’t have stirrups. After explaining how I wanted her to lean over and then swing her right leg over his back whilst keeping her upper body close to his neck until she was sat in the saddle and could slowly sit up, she got on.

We spent the rest of the session walking the Shetland round, with his rider just sitting and holding the grab strap, legs long, nice and relaxed, as he found his balance with a rider. The leader controlled him as he was used to those aids; just starting and stopping him, whilst one of us walked on each side of him, just in case we needed to grab our little rider.

The next day, we repeated the procedure except that we only leant over once before mounting, as he accepted it all happily. After a walk, I unknotted the reins and explained to his rider how she should hold a light rein contact so that he could get used to the feeling in his mouth, and then we began to add in the aids. He already responds to the voice, so we used these to help him understand the introduction of the leg and hand with some turns across the arena. I had his rider apply a light aid, and then if he didn’t react, apply it slightly more strongly, so that we didn’t scare him, but her aids were effective. It took a few tries for her to build the confidence to give a firm squeeze of her leg to get him responding to her, but I’d much rather start with less and build it up than her give a classic pony club kick and the Shetland leap forwards.

At the end of this session we did the shortest of trots, for both horse and rider to take away and reflect on. The pony was very willing, but wobbled in the way that all babies do.

The Shetland had the following day off, as we don’t want him to get used to being worked daily, or for him to get stale and tired. The fourth day of bootcamp, we mounted with just one lean over, but I don’t think this step is necessary from now on as he seems very quiet. And we had stirrups! After walking round, doing some stopping and starting, and turns around poles and changes of rein, we had a bash at the trot. We started with only a few steps, but built it up as the pony began to feel more confident with his balance. I’m conscious that the Shetland isn’t particularly strong in his back, so three trots was sufficient for them both. We finished the session by walking along the lane.

Bootcamp over, I was really pleased with how adaptable the pony was as he took everything in his stride. His rider did a fab job of doing nothing initially, and then slowly introducing each step. The plan for the next few weeks is for him to be ridden twice a week, and lunged or long reined between, building the riding up so that he feels stronger, straighter, and more balanced in trot, and his rider is controlling him rather than the leader. We’ll take them off the lead when they’re ready, even if it’s just a o get the pony used to walking without an adult by his head. Bearing in mind that he will be a children’s pony, we won’t be focusing on speed or the finer arts of riding, but continue to get him bombproof by his rider shifting her weight, leaning forwards, backwards, sidewards, and doing games such as bending, dropping beanbags; whatever silly things they can think of to do. Getting him used to Pony Club-esque activities will give him a good grounding in preparation for younger, more inexperienced riders. The trot and circles will come in time, as will riding him off the lead, but at the moment it needs to be fun for everyone.

Left Anchors

I’ve done a few lessons this last week, strangely enough, correcting various riders on their hand position. And particularly, their left hand.

I’m not sure why it seems that so many riders are fixing their left hands down; I can only suggest that society’s bias towards right handedness causes people to use their left hand to stabilise themselves whilst their right hand does the dexterity work.

Anyway, I’ve had several riders this week who ride with their left hand held further back than the right, and low to the wither, like an anchor. This positioning has more impact on a horse’s way of going than many people realise, which is why I’ve been drumming on about it so much.

Let’s take a closer look at the effect of anchoring your left hand down.

On the left rein, you usually find the horse bends more easily and you find it easier to ride round the turns. Having the left rein fixed onto the wither creates left bend in the horse’s neck, which is why it can seem like they are going better in this direction, but when you pay attention to the hindquarters they usually are not following left curves. Riders who fix their left hand usually use this rein to steer, and so their right leg is less effective at pushing the horse left.

This becomes a cycle in that the horse doesn’t respond to the right leg so the rider is more inclined to rescue the situation by pulling their left rein, which means the horse becomes less responsive or understanding of the outside aids.

The left rein needs to be improved by reducing the amount of left bend. I usually ask the rider to take up more contact with the right rein and to raise their left and carry it further forwards. So it feels like it’s much further forwards than the right rein (then they become level) and then to focus on the right leg turning the horse round each turn and the left rein merely indicating.

I quite often ride squares or diamonds with riders who fix their inside rein as it focuses them on their outside aids and encourages them to ride their horse with a straighter neck. I also experiment with counter flexion to increase their awareness of how their horse tends to give too much inside bend in the neck.

On the right rein, an anchored left hand gives a more stable outside rein which I find the horse tends to prefer and they definitely look more settled, but if there is too much anchorage in the left rein it will encourage the horse to look to the outside and to fall onto the inside shoulder and so fall in. They will find it harder to produce right bend, purely because they are restricted. When working on the right rein I encourage my riders to soften the left arm to allow the horse to look right. Then I get them to focus on using the right leg to keep their horse out round the track, on circles etc. Most riders in this scenario fall into the trap of pulling even more with the left rein to try and pull their horse back out to the track. So I do some leg yielding exercises to improve the horse’s response to the right leg and to change my rider’s thinking so they are riding from inside leg into outside rein, rather than using their hand first. This usually triggers an epiphany moment, when they feel the horse begin to give right bend because the right hind is coming under their body more and to feel more balanced.

Some horses try to rush off when the left anchor is released, which is understandable as effectively the handbrake is being taken off. I often suggest the rider half halts with the right rein, even though it is the inside one, because it stops them anchoring the left rein back down, and also encourages the right hand to be a stabilising rein which has huge benefits on the left rein.

After working each rein independently, I then incorporate serpentines and figures of eight to help the rider feel the improved straightness and symmetry in their horse, and for them to tune in to the actions of their hands, when they are the outside and the inside rein.

By now, most riders are beginning to understand the consequences of fixing their left rein down, and with a few gentle reminders here and there, they are beginning to carry their hands and are more even in the contact. Sometimes it’s a matter of practice to retrain their muscle memory.

Correcting the left hand position improves the horse’s way of going, and usually the effect is instantaneous, but as an instructor I then need to work out why the left hand feels the need to fix down so much. Is it related to their confidence? Their balance?

The majority of the time, riders who anchor their left rein sit to the left. Which of course means they’re encouraging their horse to give left bend and will find it harder to apply their right leg. Both of which are symptoms of the situation I described earlier.

Chicken or Egg?

This leads me nicely onto my next teaching subject: working without stirrups and focusing the rider on sitting evenly on their seat bones and the correct aids. Hopefully in a couple of lessons both rider and horse will be working straighter, more correctly, and more symmetrically, which means the rest of their ridden work will improve.