Getting To Know Phoenix

This morning was rather windy, but the promised rain hadn’t arrived, so I thought that it would be a good time to get to know Phoenix a bit better.

I find windy weather really tests a horse’s relationship with their human. Do they seek reassurance from their human? What worries them most? How does their human pre-empt and subsequently avoid meeting a monster.

A couple of weeks ago Phoenix had bravely walked past a flapping tarpaulin, so I thought she’d be fairly reliable in the wind, but it’s a good opportunity for me to gauge her insecurities. Last week she impressed me when I lunged her and three deer cantered up to the arena fence, closely followed by two galloping horses, she just stopped and stared at them. I’d say she’s fairly brave, despite being quite a shy character, because she doesn’t tend to flee in these sorts of situations but rather stands and observes.

Anyway, she was aware of her rug flapping on the nearby gate as I groomed her, but wasn’t jumpy with the gusts of wind, which is great to see. As she wasn’t fazed by the weather I went ahead with lunging her. A large metal gate was banging away as the wind got up, which distracted Phoenix but she continued trotting, just had her ears focused on it.

It’s reassuring to see that Phoenix took the gusty weather in her stride, and wasn’t silly in her behaviour. She wasn’t keen on noises and flapping objects directly behind her, but who can blame her?! Her response was to turn and face them. I did find that a quiet word and pat on the neck took any tension out of her, so I think she definitely looks to me for reassurance and takes comfort in the fact that I’m ignoring any monsters.

Last week my friend helped me do some poles and jumping on the lunge, and I found that Phoenix is keen to please and quick to assess the question and took it in her stride. Which is an excellent, trainable trait to have, but I think it’s important to continue introducing things steadily and build her confidence rather than exploit her willingness to please and outfacing her, thus losing her faith in me and what I’ve asked of her, as well as her confidence in her own abilities.

Phoenix is coming along with her cantering on the lunge, and today with her being slightly fresh I took advantage of this and we had a couple of circuits on each rein with her looking more balanced.

In her trot she moves very nicely, but lacks focus (which isn’t that surprising given her age and experience) and I’d like her to stretch a bit more over her back. So I introduced the Pessoa. I also wanted to know how she’d react to different equipment and pressure on different areas of her body. It all helps me to know how she ticks.

Nicely warmed up in the lunge roller, I put the Pessoa on and fitted the sheepskin round her haunches. Then I let her walk round and get used to the feeling. Initially, she wasn’t impressed and tucked her bum up. She gave it a go though, and had a trot, slowly relaxing. Interestingly, when she found it weird, she stopped and turned in to me. Obviously looking for reassurance from me, and when I talked to her she had another try and trotting. I’m really hoping that this means when we’re riding and competing that Phoenix will look for me to say go and give her confidence, and try her hardest to perform and understand the question.

Once she seemed happier with the Pessoa around her hindquarters I attached the front clips. Loose enough that she didn’t feel restricted and it didn’t put too much pressure on her, but not so loose she could get tangled up. Again, she started off a bit tense but did give a couple of strides where she really stretched her head long and low.

Below are some photos of when she first had the Pessoa on, and then when she started to get the idea of stretching.

I’ll be doing a variety of techniques with the lunging now; using the Pessoa to encourage more stretching in the trot, and to increase her consistency by keeping her focused. Canter, I’ll keep working her “naked” so that she finds her own balance. Then I’ll introduce some raised poles when the arena has dried up a bit to help engage her abdominal muscles.

The last couple of days has shown me that Phoenix isn’t particularly unnerved by windy weather, but probably feeds off me. When she’s introduced to new equipment or exercises she tries to please, but when she’s worried by it she tends to tense and then look to me for reassurance. From this I know that it’s up to me to make Phoenix feel safe in new situations, as she trusts me and takes her confidence from me.

Gadgets and Gizmos

Twenty years ago draw reins, market harboroughs, and other gadgets were all the rage, causing uneducated riders to tie their horse’s heads to their chests. Now word is slowly spreading that horses need to be worked from the hindquarters forwards, and need freedom in the head and neck, with the nose on the vertical. And a new type of gadget has evolved.

There are hundreds of lunging gadgets on the market today – the Pessoa, the Whittaker training aid, the equi-ami, to name a few. All of them have a strap that goes from the roller around the hindquarters, encouraging them to step under and push themselves forwards. Then there is some gizmo that runs from the roller, to the bit and then back to the roller in various positions according to the horse’s level of training. 

Now I’ve used both the Pessoa and the equi-ami with success on horses, but I do worry that in the wrong hands horses are still being tied down, but instead of head to chest it is now chest to bum.

Let’s look at how these gadgets work, because they are all very similar. The horse is encouraged to push from behind, step under with the hind leg, lift their abdominal muscles, lift their back and wither,  and the under neck muscles relaxed. It’s that upside down bowl, or a strung bow that we all strive for.

However, problems can occur if these gadgets are too tight for the horse. The horse feels the pressure from the back strap, but if their tummy and topline aren’t developed enough they can’t engage sufficiently and as they lift their head to find their balance the gadget puts pressure on their mouth. Often causing horses to lift their head even higher, or stop travelling forwards. Some will stop and rear.

In this situation, the best thing is to back off. Loosen all straps so the horse has more leeway to find their balance and they are encouraged to work correctly, rather than being forced to. When the pressure is reduced the horse will be happier and more relaxed, so is more likely to learn from the gadget. Once the horse has muscled up and developed the correct muscles it may be that the gadget needs adjusting because the horse is moving away from the long and low frame and towards a more collected frame, however it is so detrimental to their bodies to try and run before they can walk and expect them to move in a collected outline.

This happened to me this week. I lunged a horse, who has used the equi-ami before, and he started off nicely, stretching his topline and swinging over his back. But then I don’t know what happened, maybe he had a mis-step, but he lifted his head to balance himself. The equi-aid put pressure on his mouth and he felt trapped. He stopped, lifted his head and all in all looked uncomfortable. So I loosened the gadget until it was too loose, and then took him back a step and just walked until he’d relaxed. Then he trotted for the rest of the session happily, working really well. I don’t think I had the gadget too tight, but I think his tolerance of pressure is low. Perhaps to do with something in his history? I cantered him without the gadget, even though last time he’d accepted the gadget in trot and canter, there’s no point this time because he’s obviously not quite as comfortable with it.

I dare say a lesser knowledgable or experienced rider or owner would have kept on lunging, creating a tense horse who accommodated the gadget by holding tension and not coming through from behind. Said horse could become shut down, learned helplessness I think it’s called, and allow themselves to be tied in from nose to tail.

When I use the Pessoa on any horse I am always on the lookout for them becoming overbent, and cheating the gadget. If they do then I’ll change the setting, lengthen the ropes, or take it away for a bit.

I like using the gadgets when needed to help guide the horse into the correct frame, but as soon as they start getting over bent or going behind the vertical I change it. But it’s important to remember that gadgets are for pointing the horse in the right direct, not fixing them in place, and when instructors or trainers recommend their use they should make sure the owner understands how these gadgets work otherwise we could recreate the problem we had two decades of horses being over bent and working incorrectly.

A good test of whether a horse knows and understands how to carry themselves is to lunge them “naked” and see if they find their own balance and self carriage.